alien & sedition.
Sunday, March 18, 2007
  Republican Futures Past: 1956

Among American political journals, Commentary Magazine has had one of the more intriguing histories. Founded by the American Jewish Committee in 1945, the publication's initial purpose was to help engage Jewish intellectuals in the nation's political and cultural conversations. Under founding editor Elliot Cohen - who brought on board writers like Nathan Glazer and Irving Howe - Commentary's editorial line was liberal anti-Communist. Following Norman Podhoretz's takeover in 1960, the magazine moved sharply to the left, only to begin a swing in the other direction by the end of the decade, as Podhoretz and his cohort turned against the so-called New Left (they also reacted against perceived anti-Israeli sentiment in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War). By the mid-70s, liberal/left intellectuals were referring to Commentary's contributors as "neoconservatives" - a somewhat pejorative term meant to denote former leftists who had since become, in Lewis Coser's words, "intellectuals in retreat." Before long, the Commentary circle had become an influential - if sometimes uneasy - part of the conservative movement.

All of this makes digging around in the magazine's archives a fascinating exercise. Having bought myself a subscription, I've been doing just that - and I've come across a trio of articles that provide very interesting insight into how the conservative movement has transformed the Republican party over the past half-century. Each piece - from 1956, 1983, and 2001 - attempts to make predictions about the future of the relationship between conservatives and the GOP, and how that relationship affects political prospects for both the movement and the party. Over the next three days or so, I'll do a post on each article.

The first, from the November 1956 issue (pp. 482-5), is a review, by the now-legendary historian Seymour Martin Lipset, of a book about the history of the Republican party by conservative professor Malcolm Moos. Bemoaning a dearth of academic interest in the major American political parties, Lipset praises Moos's engaged but evenhanded account of the GOP. Moos, an Eisenhower Republican, is apparently willing to document the party's failings as much as its triumphs. It comes a shock to the modern reader when, listing examples of such mistakes, Lipset includes "the antagonism to a strong Executive which has characterized the GOP for the past thirty-six years."

Equally striking is the tradition that the "conservative" Moos celebrates. Lipset summarizes:
Lincoln's leadership; Mark Hanna's far-sighted "progressive conservatism," which recognized in the late 19th century that a stable society would require strong trade unions and that reformist groups did not constitute a challenge to private capitalism; the Progressive Republicans in the early part of this century who fought the excesses of big business power; William Howard Taft, who prosecuted trusts and whose administration sponsored Constitutional amendments for the income tax and the direct election of Senators; and Taft's son Robert, who backed public housing for the poor, and who in 1953 was willing to defend the right of Communists to teach.
It was Robert Taft's death in 1954 - along with the end of Joe McCarthy's reign of demagoguery (which falls on the "failures" list) - that left a void on the Republican right for the nascent conservative movement to fill. November of 1956 was too early for Moos or Lipset to recognize the implications of this. The National Review was only a year old, Barry Goldwater just an unusually-energetic freshman Senator.

What's fascinating is how Lipset and Moos are interested in the historical arc of the Republican party as the story of the development of progressive, not movement, conservatism. Lipset provides a thumbnail sketch of the party's foundational coalition: an alliance of northeastern middle-class conservatives in the Federalist tradition, nativist, anti-Catholic Know-Nothings, and Free Soilers. He doesn't discuss the ideological and regional incoherence of the Whig coalition that preceded the Republicans, but he does point out that, with the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, the Republicans became the first American political party to secure a lasting marriage between northeastern conservatives and a mass agricultural base (in the Midwest). As Lipset recounts, the northeasterners would dictate the party's industrialist economic policy, while the Midwesterners, in response, would give birth to a reformist progressive tradition.

And yet, by the 1950s, it was the northeastern wing of the GOP that represented progressivism, while the Midwest had become the party's conservative heartland. Among the reasons Moos and Lipset cite for this development are the decline of the nation's rural population - which meant the rise of a conservative bourgeoisie in Midwestern towns (the "middle-sized conservative businessman who is opposed to trade unions, high taxes, and government regulation"), and the increasing internationalism of northeastern capitalism, which went along with a greater willingness to tolerate trade unionism and social welfare policies.

If you've read Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm, you'll recognize this alignment as the powder keg of the mid-50s, when the resentments harbored by "middle-sized" Midwestern businessmen - of unions, of communism, of taxes, of regulation, of foreign entanglements, and of the liberal northeastern Republicans who were accomodating it all - needed only a political spark to explode. Again, Lipset can't be blamed for failing to see this, nor for failing to predict the additional layer of extremism that would come as a result of the Republican strategy of tapping into the white Southern reaction to the civil rights movement after the 1960s. And his attempt to make a prediction about the future of the GOP is grounded in a reasonable analysis. But the historical irony is impossible to miss.

Lipset cites Moos's observation that, when the mid-20th century GOP was out of power, most of its Congressional delegation was drawn from safely conservative districts:
But a Republican running for governor in an industrial state that has a strong Democratic party, or running for the Presidency, must appeal to independent and Democratic voters who will not vote for a reactionary. And so one always finds Republican governors pitted against Republican Congressmen at national conventions, and since 1936 the former have almost invariably succeeded in pushing through a Presidential candidate of their own persuasion.
The result of all this was that Republicans tended to be conservative in the minority but moderate when in power. The Democrats, by contrast, tended to be more progressive in power than out of it. This was because their safest Congressional seats - the seats the party was most likely to hold in a time of weakness - were in the South!

Clearly, things have changed since 1956. The loss of the South - along with a number of other factors - has flipped the dynamic of the Democratic party so that it, like the postwar GOP, is more centrist after it has won than after it has lost. But the Republicans have changed, too. Lipset's model was, in fact, predictive in the near-term. He correctly forecast that the conservative Richard Nixon, if he made it to the White House, would govern from the center (dirty tricks notwithstanding):
One may safely hazard the guess that not even the succession of Nixon to the Presidency would affect this pattern, for Nixon and the party leaders know that a Republican President must be spokesman of the most liberal element in the party.
In fact, this prediction, made with the 1960 election in mind, held true even after two additional cycles had passed.

But the tectonic plates of American politics would shift in the meantime. The conservative movement that was born around the time of Lipset's writing would grow in influence, as it drew support from reactionary populism not only in the Midwest, but in the South and in the Sunbelt. Conservatives would note Nixon's role as spokesman for the liberal wing of the GOP, and resolve to bring an end to such political imperatives. Lipset's 1956 model of the American political landscape would become obsolete by the end of the 70s. Lipset himself was not willing to predict that the Republican party would become as progressive as Moos hoped, but, he said, "neither is it likely to become the tool of deep-dyed reactionaries." It was a reasonable deduction given the calculus of the time, but the calculations have changed.

The reactionaries have, by now, completely extinguished the progressive tradition in the Republican party. The GOP seems to be equally conservative in and out of power, though its varying confidence levels and the theoretical dilemmas within the conservative movement can provide something of an illusion of ideological diversity.

In the long run, American politics tends not to reward parties with narrow ideological range. Now that the postwar conservative movement has reached a rather vexing crossroads, and the GOP looks more vulnerable than it has in a long time, it's difficult to forecast where the party will go next (and it will partially depend, of course, on choices made by the Democrats). But the lesson of the Republican future of 1956 is that the party has found itself embarked upon a very different path than the one historians might have had reason to predict.

(Cross-posted at Progressive Historians.)

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Comments:
Very interesting. I would like to point out that the disjuncture between the Federalists, Whigs, and Republicans have been overdrawn, ideologically speaking anyway. If you read Elkins' "The Age of Federalism" and Holt's book on the Whig Party, the continuity becomes quite clear. In each case you have a party based in the Northeast dedicated to industrialization and conservative protestant morality. The challenge that both the Federalists and Whigs failed to meet was how to break out of their Northeastern base. The Federalists never figured anything out, and the Whigs made an awkward alliance with Southern slaveholders. The Civil War broke up the old Jefferson/Jackson coalition and allowed Lincoln to win western farmers over to the tradition to Hamilton and Clay.

But what's most fascinating is the continuity of leadership during the transitional periods. Webster and Adams form the bridge between the Federalists and Whigs, and Seward does the same between the Whigs and Republicans. In each case it also a Westerner who points the way forward to the new coalition - Clay in the 1830's, and Lincoln in the 1860's.

I think it's poignant that the state-building, pseudo-Tory tradition in American politics has simply died. Our politics in many respects now resembles a fight between the northern and southern/western wings of the Antebellum Democratic Party - the heirs of Van Buren and Jackson. There's something vitally important missing from our debate.
 
Great points - you're right about the continuity among conservative parties. They were fueled by the same constituencies with the same ends, but each party fell apart mainly because of particular political circumstances, not because the interests they represented changed significantly.

And your last point is an excellent one - with the rise of anti-government reactionary conservative (the "middle-sized midwestern" model), the nation-building progressive conservative tradition has been destroyed - which is a shame given that it could be a useful part of the national conversation is this age of globalization and confusion over social investment.
 
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