Orthodox Republicanism after Eric Cantor


David Brat’s defeat of Eric Cantor should comfort neither establishment Republicans nor Democrats. His victory portends threats to both parties. For Republicans, it suggests a continued ideological divide, for Democrats, a vital threat in 2014 to the electoral prospects.

Until Brat’s victory, many declared dead the Tea Party insurgency within the Republican Party. But the Tea Party is more than simply a group of people or a fringe organization. It is an attitude and ideology. The Tea Party movement, with language describing some GOP members as RINOS (Republican in Name Only), questions the ideology and political views of party, raising the question: What is orthodox Republicanism today?

The contemporary battle for the Republican orthodoxy begins in 1964 when Barry Goldwater challenged the Rockefeller wing for dominance. Goldwater’s “Extremism in defense of liberty” speech was a repudiation of New Deal accommodation that Eisenhower, Jacob Javits, and the Nelson Rockefeller wing had reached. Goldwater may have lost the election but he propelled the GOP in a direction that first triumphed with Reagan’s victory in 1980 and his inaugural speech declaration that government is the problem, not the solution.

The Reagan coalition blended together often contradictory movements of economic liberty and social conservativism. The former requires a minimalist state protecting individual choice, the later an activist one second-guessing freedom. While ideological, it was still willing to compromise within its party and with Democrats, producing notable and important legislation such as the 1986 tax reform and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. From 1980 to 2008 the Reagan brand defined the party. But beginning with the presidency of George Bush in 2001, and clearly by its end the Reagan brand had worn thin and when McCain ran and lost in 2008 it was clear that Reaganism was dead. Obama’s victory, along with Democratic gains in 06-08, signaled that change, whatever it meant, was preferred to Reaganism.

But the seeds of Reagan’s demise in McCain’s 2008 loss produced the heir of a new Republicanism in Sarah Palin. Palinism seeks to balance the social conservatism and economic liberty of Reaganism, but it takes seriously the Goldwater extremism speech in its hyperactive purism and refusal to compromise.. Palinism takes aim at the New Deal, combining it with nativism and constitutionalism that came to a head in the formation of the Tea Party and its mantra “I want my country back.”

Palin is toast, but her spirit lives on. The Palin makeover of the GOP combines Goldwaterism and Reaganism with a cult of personality a multi-media advertising campaign, and a dose of Ayn Rand libertarianism. But Palinism is also built on what historian Richard Hofstadter labeled the paranoid style in American politics. It is a anti-intellectual world view nurtured in fear–a fear that outside forces are threatening a way of life that includes faith in Christianity, capitalism, and the Constitutionalism. This paranoid style, incubated in the Puritan theology of the seventeenth century as described by Perry Miller in his classic 1956 Errand into the Wilderness, was premised upon a theory of uncertainty of salvation, fear of evil, and the omnipresent threat of outsiders who were not part of the church and community. For Hofstadter and Miller, the paranoid style of fear and prejudice produced notable events such as the Salem Witch Hunts and McCarthyism.

Puritanism and the paranoid ethos both contain an orthodoxy and powerful internal contradictions. Both believe in the righteous and absolute certainty of their truths and in a demonification of challengers. Both eschew reason for fear, and both necessitate a strong state to suppress evil and preserve God and American values, even at the expense of freedom for some. Facts are not important–they stand in the way of truth. Liberals and MSNBC commentators fail to understand the Tea Party world view. It is a new orthodoxy that goes right to the heart of politics, asking and questioning the most basic question, “Why government?”

This new orthodoxy draws its roots from this Puritanism and paranoid style . But it is driven less so from the pulpit than by Fox news, conservative talk radio, and blogs in search of profits and ratings. Tea Partyism is less a coherent ideology or world view than it has yielded a paranoid attitude mixed in with a branding effort to make money. It is a brand built on populist anger, anti-government feelings, opposition to immigration, gays, abortion, Democrats, and anything else that inspires fear, so long as it sells.

The new orthodoxy has two wings–The libertarianism of Rand Paul committed to some type of libertarianism, and the Ted Cruz populist politics. While both revolve around less government and less taxes, they differ on civil liberties and the role of the US in the world. Whatever their anti-governmentism is, their views and that of many Tea Party members are hypocritical. Yes less government and taxes, but still I deserve my Social Security check and Medicare because I deserve it, others do not. There is also a hypocrisy in that the areas of the country that most strongly espouse anti-government views are the ones with the greatest poverty, uninsured, lower per capita incomes, and the greatest percentage of money coming to their states from the federal government. Less government for thee, not me.

So what orthodox Republicanism now? Tea Party GOP rebranding is a multi-media cult of personality that draws upon the anger and fear of many that their way of life is threatened and that someone else is to blame for it. If only government, gays, immigrants, abortionists, Democrats, and RINOS did not exist, we could take back our country and prosper again. This is what orthodox Republicanism is, the marketing of a politics of fear.

For all of the contradictions within the new Republican orthodoxy, Democrats should not take comfort. Yes such a new orthodoxy threats to split the Republican Party, sending them further to the right, putting them out of sync with the median voter, and thereby making it more difficult for them to win elections. But this might only matter with national presidential elections. As Democrats saw in 2010, turnout is lower in non-presidential elections years, benefitting Republicans. What the Tea Party brings to the Republicans is passion–passion is essential to electoral success. Passionate candidates and voter win. Democrats have little passion going for them in local races in non-presidential election years. Moreover, today as it was back in 2010, Democrats lack a narrative to counteract the Tea Party. Four years the Democrats ether lacked a narrative, or simply said the Tea Party was nuts, or they simply expected them to self-implode. They are taking the same road again this year, perhaps with equally disastrous results.

The new Republican orthodoxy is the child of Obama–has taken up the banner of “change” and it is using their narrative, also with fear, to advance an agenda that challenges the mainstream of both the Republican and Democratic parties.