How Lee Atwater destroyed the Republican party

In my last post, I explained how Reagan destroyed America, by undermining the faith of the people in its greatest engine of change and progress:  The government.  It would be remiss to point out that along with this came a fundamental shift in the shape and focus of the Republican party.  For that, we can thank Lee Atwater.  No discussion of the decay and corruption–both philosophical and political–of the modern Republican party would be complete without examining the role of Harvey LeRoy Atwater and his ongoing legacy.

The modern Republican party is, for all intents and purposes, a religious party.  Social conservatism has become the dominant theme of most Republican candidates and officials, and fundamental Christianity plays a large part in shaping the party platform and direction.  It was not always this way.  For the large part of its history, the Republican party was conservative but moderate, a party that had room for respectable statesmen like Howard Baker, Lowell Weicker, Barry Goldwater and Dwight D. Eisenhower.  None of them would be able to survive in today’s Republican party, where hardcore conservatives like Dick Lugar and Orrin Hatch faced primary challenges this year for being, of all things, “too liberal” (In Lugar’s case, his challenger succeeded in unseating him).  Their real crimes were a willingness to compromise and find common ground with Democrats–heresy in the modern GOP.

Up until the late 70’s and for much of the twentieth century, Republicans were a reasonable party, though frequently in the minority.  They were a party that covered a wide spectrum of political beliefs, and the fervent, dogmatic conservatism that dominates the party today was barely existent–if at all.  All of that changed when Lee Atwater took over the Republican Party following his successful stewardship of George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign.  Atwater, recognizing the importance of the evangelical voters to the election of Ronald Reagan, continued courting them in an effort to elevate the GOP  from its historic, consistent minority position, and make it the dominant party in American politics.  In fact, Atwater was not particularly ideological; his decision to align himself with the Republican party instead of the Democrats was made early in his career specifically because their minority status made them the party where he was more likely to have a bigger impact.  For Atwater, it was all about victory, never principle.  Winning–by whatever means necessary–was it’s own justification.  In order to swell the ranks, the Republican party began specifically adopting planks to its platform that it had never before championed at the national level–among them abortion and the three G’s (God, guns and gays), issues that had appeared as issues in individual campaigns occasionally, but on which the party had not previously taken any specific position.

The idea was that by throwing some red meat, doomed-to-fail legislation up every so often and talking up these issues on the campaign trail, Republicans could attract a small but significant bloc of otherwise disenfranchised voters and get them voting consistently Republican.  It is important to note that, despite their dominance in today’s political climate, these issues were considered trivial and insignificant to the overall aim of the party when they were introduced; they were party positions taken for purely strategic reasons–there was absolutely no driving ideology behind them at the time except winning elections. Even so, their adoption at the time was controversial, if only because so many Republicans back then held opinions in direct opposition to the newly drafted resolutions.  Still, these were sideshow issues, and nobody ever expected them to take center ring.  The Republican party then was nowhere near as monolithic and rigid as it is today; the 1984 party platform didn’t mention abortion at all.

What nobody imagined at the time, the part that caught everyone–Republicans and Democrats alike–by surprise, was just how rapidly the evangelical, fringe wing of the party would metastasize into its dominant force.  Fast forward a couple of decades, and the lunatics are running the asylum.  The Northeastern Party Elites that once ran the show are finding themselves increasingly at odds with the zealous, religiously driven ideologues that now make up a dominant segment of the party–indeed, during this year’s primary the elites were barely able to stave off an uprising by Rick Santorum to give the nod to their chosen candidate, Mitt Romney.  It will be interesting to see what happens in 2016, when Santorum is the presumptive “next in line” candidate; he and his fundamentalist views will be no more attractive to the party’s power brokers in four years than they are today (I know Santorum is technically Catholic, but he’s been adopted as an “honorary evangelical” for his hard right positions, and it was no accident that he swept the bible belt decisively during the primaries–only a third of Republicans are even aware he’s Catholic, most assume he’s an evangelical).

It isn’t that the hardcore evangelicals form the majority of the party, so much as that they all vote exactly the same way, almost without exception.  This makes them an extremely powerful subset of the Republican party, enough so that they and their issues now dominate the agenda, and no candidate for president can pass muster without their approval.  Unfortunately, this enables them to select a majority of the party’s political candidates, with horrible consequences for both public policy in general and the political process specifically.  Politics is an exercise in compromise, and it’s very difficult to find common ground when the party across the aisle believes that they’re acting on behalf of God, and that compromise is the equivalent of surrendering to the forces of evil.

“We’re the gas; they’re the brakes” — Ray Pekurney, EdTV

In the movie EdTV, the above quote was used by a character to explain away his indiscretion in stepping out on his girlfriend, but it’s a very apt description of the way politics is supposed to work, with liberal and conservative interests in conflict:  progressives formulate and propose new ideas, conservatives oppose them; in the ensuing debates, the resulting compromise doesn’t prevent change from occurring, but does slow it down and temper it.  In a functioning, health political body this exchange and conflict produces imperfect laws, but also prevents the radicalization of government.  It is a balance that has helped the republic survive for over two centuries, and for better or worse has been a stabilizing force.  What we’ve seen in the last couple of decades is a new, dangerous form of “winner take all” politics, specifically from one side of the aisle.  Modern Republicans run on platforms emphasizing their unwillingness to compromise on anything.  They abuse the filibuster and other instruments of parliamentary procedure with abandon.  They do everything in their power to ensure that no legislation gets passed that doesn’t conform to their own agenda, and they aren’t even subtle about it.  Any laws they can’t obstruct are seen and portrayed as oppression of their rights.  As a result, politics have become virtually unworkable, and gridlock is at an all time high.

The Democratic party is by no means perfect, but is at least still behaving like a viable, legitimate political party.  They attempt to reach out, to offer compromises, to resolved differences–to no avail.  The Republicans are no longer acting in good faith, and when one of them does manage to strike a conciliatory tone, like Tom Coburn did recently on taxes, he’s accused of treason and excoriated;  doing his job, representing his constituents, serving the country and doing the peoples’ work is considered treachery to modern Republicans.

Technically, it’s not too late for the Republican party to save itself, but I just don’t see that happening.  At this point, they’d need to explicitly reject most of the positions that currently define them, reach back to the party and platform from before Reagan, and reject all things associated with their mythical hero, Reagan™.  They would need to reject religious extremism, embrace science again, adopt the more moderate tone of the party back when it was a responsible, legitimate American political party and not just the political arm of the American evangelical movement.  It would mean risking the loss of some votes, but it would stand to regain its stature and integrity, something it began abandoning in the mid 80’s and outright rejected by the time George W. Bush was elected.  I don’t see it happening.

I suppose it could be argued that it was Reagan who first attracted the Christian Right into the Republican fold, but he merely reached out to them and found some common ground with issues they shared, such as drugs, national defense, and communism.  He spoke to them in evocative, mythical imagery (e.g. “shining city on a hill”) and exuded the sort of paternal confidence that is naturally attractive to people who subscribe to the notion of a “heavenly father”.  Still, I never got the impression (and still don’t, watching his speeches and reviewing his history today) that he ever fell sway to his own rhetoric; I don’t think Reagan believed his own bullshit, and he never pandered or submitted to the religious right.  He courted them, he didn’t marry them.  Remember that Reagan supported the separation of church and state, and was the last Republican president to explicitly say so.

Rather, it was Atwater who explicitly grafted the evangelical values into the party’s official platform, forever sealing them to the Republican party–but more importantly, inadvertently giving them control of the party’s agenda.  Coupled with Atwater’s take-no-prisoners, win-at-all-costs approach to politics, the change in tone and was severe and rapid, and marked a distinctly new and vicious turn in Republican politics that has only gotten worse with each passing year.  Relatively obscure ankle biters like Newt Gingrich, previously useful only for spreading nasty gossip and innuendo, rose to positions of prominence.  Retail politicians like Tom Delay became powerbrokers; the days of the old school wheelers and dealers entered their decline, and have never recovered.  Compromise, once the coin of the political realm, became worthless scrip.

Today’s Republican party is morally bankrupt, politically shrill, childishly selfish, and dangerously aggressive.  It favors religious orthodoxy and belief over objective reality, dominance over tolerance,  and hostility over cooperation.  It is a party that has detached itself from the greater good, seeing fealty to the party and victory in whatever election is pending as paramount over any other concern.  It sees compromise as capitulation, for whom dogmatic adherence party ideology is absolute and inflexible; it is vindictive, spiteful and mean.  Dissent is punished or purged.  The only Republican president in history who would have a shot at getting elected in today’s party is George W. Bush, as evidenced by their nomination of a fundamentally identical–if not as socially adept–ideological clone for the 2012 election.  Not even Reagan would pass muster in today’s GOP.

It’s hard to say whether or not Atwater would be pleased or dismayed to see the results of his handiwork; again, he wasn’t a particularly ideological or principled man himself. I suppose it’s possible that he’d look at today’s Republican party with horror and chagrin, mortified by the monster he created–but personally, I think he’d just be proud; they do win a lot of elections and, in the end, that was all he ever really wanted.  The how, why, and consequences didn’t matter.  To Atwater, as with the party he reshaped, those things were just details, nothing more.






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