The End of a Political Era: Movement Conservatism Gets Real

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tags: conservatism, GOP, Trump



Heather Cox Richardson teaches 19th-century American history at Boston College. Her early work focused on the transformation of political ideology from the Civil War to the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. It examined issues of race, economics, westward expansion and the construction of the concept of an American middle class. Her history of the Republican Party, To Make Men Free, examines the fundamental tensions in American politics from the time of the Northwest Ordinance to the present. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.

The newly unemployed Reince Priebus recently said on Twitter that the Republican Party is in the best shape it’s been since 1928. 

And yet, a political circus daily assaults Americans. We have a demonstrably unfit Republican president, a Republican Congress unable to pass the measure on which its members campaigned for eight years, a revolt from military leaders against a presidential policy conveyed by tweet, and now an admission by Republican stalwarts former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake that Republican rhetoric was never more than a means to gain power. These things are not unrelated. We are witnessing the end of a political era, the era in which movement conservatism dominated America. We are seeing the nasty, snarling death of a political movement hatched in the 1950s to overturn the New Deal, fed on racism and sexism, fattened on hatred and lies, and now torn apart by its own acolytes.

That this political era would end badly has been clear since its beginning. Movement conservatism championed an ideology that was deliberately divorced from reality. Movement conservatives promised the impossible: to deliver prosperity to hardworking Americans by gutting the very programs that enabled them to prosper. Movement conservative leaders have managed to cover over the gulf between their promises and reality by promising the moon and then blaming Democrats for blocking their ability to deliver it. With President Trump now sharing power with a Republican Congress, Republican leaders are finally — and irrevocably — caught between their rhetoric and political reality.

As they promised, President Trump and today’s Republican Congress are dismantling the activist state that has protected economic and political stability since the 1930s. They are taking the American government back to the 1920s, to the days before the New Deal. They are the ultimate outcome of a political movement born in the 1950s, when business leaders set out to undercut FDR’s wildly popular New Deal, put in place by a Democratic Congress during the 1930s to stabilize the nation and enable Americans to climb out of the Great Depression. Democratic policies regulated business, provided a basic social safety net, and promoted infrastructure to help level the economic playing field that Republicans had in the 1920s tilted sharply toward business. Regular Americans loved the New Deal and, after Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower accepted the idea that the federal government must intervene in the economy to keep things fair, it seemed that both parties had achieved a consensus that would dominate the future.

But reactionary Republicans wanted to destroy this new activist state that regulated business and levied taxes, and to break America’s bipartisan consensus they turned to racism. In 1954, the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed racial segregation in public schools. Three years later President Eisenhower mobilized troops to desegregate Little Rock’s Central High School. Federal efforts to promote racial equality enabled reactionaries to argue that these policies harnessed the government to the poor at the expense of everyone else. Government bureaucrats and troops required to enforce desegregation cost tax dollars, and thus, they argued, redistributed wealth from hardworking white men to lazy black people. An activist government was essentially communistic. ...




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