Review: When the GOP Lost Control of ItselfHistorians in the News
tags: Republican Party, conservatism, political history
Claire Potter is professor of history at the New School for Social Research and author of Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy.
Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s
by Nicole Hemmer
Two days before the 2020 election, Daily Beast columnist Matt Lewis predicted the “nightmare scenario” that would produce the January 6 insurrection and, nearly two years later, 250 GOP general election candidates whose unifying characteristic is the falsehood that Donald Trump is the legitimate president of the United States. “There’s a real possibility,” Lewis wrote about the partisanship tearing the United States to pieces, “that we will end up in a sort of campaign season purgatory where it’s always winter but never Christmas.”
That purgatory has arrived. Although some of the most prominent Never Trump pundits—such as William Kristol, editor at large at The Bulwark, and New York Times columnist David Brooks—remain shocked by the obliteration of a more cerebral conservatism, the media-driven partisanship that dominates U.S. politics today is hardly new. Since advertising professionals entered the political consulting business in the 1950s, political messaging has been designed to translate ill-formed, often unconscious, ideological predilections into conservative voting majorities by ever more intense appeals to voters’ emotions and grievances.
Those appeals always circulated on the extremist right. For mainstream politicians who wanted to win these voters, the rule of the game—one that infuriated activists like Phyllis Schlafly—was to disavow the fringe, while signaling to its members. In 1964, even as Barry Goldwater denied that the John Birch Society was promoting his candidacy and deploying canvassers for him, his campaign slogan—“In your heart, you know he’s right”—was designed to reassure those activists that Goldwater embraced their values. The nature of campaigning in the 1950s and ’60s required hiding extremism’s dark side. Television and radio ad buys on channels governed by the Fairness Doctrine made it not just possible, but almost compulsory, to court voters outside the party: A successful campaign could not purposely make itself noxious, as campaigns do today. And although alternative political media provided platforms for extremism, mainstream news outlets did not.
Though Goldwater lost, the seed was planted: His promises reemerged five years later in Richard M. Nixon’s message to the “silent majority” of Americans that he understood their anger at the Democratic civil rights agenda and the New Left’s militant antiwar stance. Reagan and George H.W. Bush followed suit: They crafted coded slogans designed to bring those partisans to the polls and persuade them that the GOP cared about their grievances. During these decades, the Republican Party engaged in a dance with the devil, in which the GOP promoted its own electoral success through Goldwater’s populist descendants—Patrick J. Buchanan, Sarah Palin, libertarian Ron Paul, and the Tea Party—while believing that party leaders could contain the ambitions of the “pitchfork politics” voters they promoted.
Nicole Hemmer’s new book, Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s, is about the moment the Republican Party lost its ability—or desire—to keep its fringe at bay. At the end of the twentieth century, right-wing partisans came roaring onto the main stage, disgusted by the failure of their agenda in Ronald Reagan’s and George H.W. Bush’s White Houses. With appeals that grabbed and consolidated voters’ resentment about cultural and social issues, they successfully advanced extreme positions on domestic and foreign policy. By the end of the ’00s, right-wing partisans were crossing back and forth between formal politics and a range of proliferating, highly personal media platforms. The political culture they built was infused with a “more pessimistic, angrier, and even more revolutionary conservatism” than Barry Goldwater ever imagined.
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