Tea Party rebels are exposing the deep rifts between country-club elites and social-issue hard-liners.
By William Greider / The Nation / October 2015
Fresh chatter among Washington insiders is not about whether the Republican Party will win in 2016 but whether it will survive. Donald Trump—the fear that he might actually become the GOP nominee—is the ultimate nightmare. Some gleeful Democrats are rooting (sotto voce) for the Donald, though many expect he will self-destruct.
Nevertheless, Republicans face a larger problem. The GOP finds itself trapped in a marriage that has not only gone bad but is coming apart in full public view. After five decades of shrewd strategy, the Republican coalition Richard Nixon put together in 1968—welcoming the segregationist white South into the Party of Lincoln—is now devouring itself in ugly, spiteful recriminations.
The abrupt resignation of House Speaker John Boehner was his capitulation to this new reality. His downfall was loudly cheered by many of his own troops—the angry right-wingers in the House who have turned upon the party establishment. Chaos followed. The discontented accuse party leaders of weakness and betraying their promises to the loyal rank and file.
At the heart of this intramural conflict is the fact that society has changed dramatically in recent decades, but the GOP has refused to change with it. Americans are rapidly shifting toward more tolerant understandings of personal behavior and social values, but the Republican Party sticks with retrograde social taboos and hard-edged prejudices about race, gender, sexual freedom, immigration, and religion. Plus, it wants to do away with big government (or so it claims).
The party establishment, including business and financial leaders, seems to realize that Republicans need to moderate their outdated posture on social issues. But they can’t persuade their own base—especially Republicans in the white South—to change. The longer the GOP holds out, the more likely it is to be damaged by the nation’s changing demographics—the swelling impact of Latinos and foreign-born citizens, and the flowering influence of millennials, the 18-to-30-year-olds who are more liberal and tolerant than their elders.
Nixon’s “Southern strategy” was cynical, of course, but it was an effective electoral ploy. Now, however, it is beginning to look like a deal with the devil. For 2016, the GOP has to cope with very different challenges. The party has to find a broadly appealing nominee who won’t scare off party moderates and independent voters, but who at the same time can pacify rebellious right-wingers and prevent a party crackup.
Looking over the list of possible nominees doesn’t reveal an obvious solution. Trumpish extremism is entertaining, but it could simply boost voter turnout among Democratic constituencies. Hard-core Tea Party types threaten to play Samson and pull down the temple if they don’t get their way.
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To grasp the GOP’s dilemma, it helps to understand that the modern Republican Party was founded on some basic contradictions. It has been an odd-couple coalition that unites the East Coast Republican establishment with the hardscrabble segregationists of the white South. Richard Nixon brokered the deal with Dixiecrat leader Strom Thurmond at the ’68 convention in Miami, wherein states of the old slave-holding Confederacy would join the Party of Lincoln. It took two election cycles to convert the “Solid South,” but Nixon and GOP apparatchiks made it clear with private assurances that Republicans would discreetly retire their historic commitment to civil rights.
Scott Lilly, a liberal Democrat who for many years was the sagacious staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, explained the GOP’s intra-party fracas in that context. Boehner’s resignation, Lilly wrote in The Washington Spectator, “was, in fact, about the steady unraveling of a coalition that has allowed the Republican Party to hold the White House for 27 [sic: 28] of the past 47 years and maintain a seemingly solid base for continuing control of the U.S. House of Representatives.”
Nixon’s reconfiguration brought together “polar opposites among White Americans,” Lilly noted. The traditional wing of the party—“country club” Republicans, who include corporate leaders, financiers and investors—became partners with poor, rural, church-going voters, among them the Southern “segs” who had previously always voted for Democrats. Black Southerners didn’t count in the equation, since they were still mostly being blocked from voting.
After Congress enacted the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Lyndon Johnson confided to a White House aide, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.” Nixon’s new Republicans became a formidable national party, Lilly explained, but they always straddled the tension between rich and poor. “The problem,” Lilly said, “is that this latter group has almost nothing in common with the country club wing.… The country clubbers don’t care about prayer in the public schools, gun rights, stopping birth control, abortion and immigration.” On the other hand, common folks don’t worry over marginal tax rates, capital formation, or subsidies for major corporations. “If they ever fully understood that their more prosperous party brethren were contemplating deep cuts in Medicare and Medicaid to pay for those policies, they would be in open rebellion,” Lilly observed.
Nixon and his successors hid behind ideology and obscured the contradictions by pursuing a strategy I would call “no-fault bigotry.” Every now and then, especially in election seasons, the Republicans played the race card in dog-whistle fashion to smear Democrats, with savage effect. The GOP never attempted to repeal civil-rights legislation but sought cheap ways to undermine enforcement and remind whites, South and North, that the party was on “their” side.
In his first term, Nixon himself made a memorable gesture by supporting federal tax subsidies for the private “seg academies” springing up across the South. He didn’t prevail, but he won lots of political loyalty among Southern whites—a generation of voters who had been raised to vote Democratic, but who were beginning to switch parties.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan opened his presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi—a few miles from where three civil-rights workers had been murdered in the 1960s. Reagan announced his intention “to restore to the states and local communities functions which properly belong there.” That is Dixie’s euphemism for opposing racial integration. In 1988, George H.W. Bush smeared Michael Dukakis with his notoriously racist “Willie Horton” ads. In 1990 in North Carolina, Senator Jesse Helms ran for reelection against Harvey Gantt, a black former mayor of Charlotte, with a provocative ad attacking affirmative action.
In 2008, when Americans elected our first black president, most of the heavy smears came after Barack Obama took office. Grassroots conservatives imagined bizarre fears: Obama wasn’t born in America; he was a secret Muslim. Donald Trump demanded to see the birth certificate. GOP leaders like Senator Mitch McConnell—who had been a civil-rights advocate in his youth—could have discouraged the demonizing slurs. Instead, McConnell launched his own take-no-prisoners strategy to obstruct anything important Obama hoped to accomplish.
At least until now, Republicans have gotten away with this bigotry. As a practical matter, there was no political price. Democrats often seemed reluctant to call them out, fearful that it might encourage even greater racial backlash. Indeed, the Dems developed their own modest Southern strategy—electing centrists Jimmy Carter of Georgia and later Bill Clinton of Arkansas to the White House. But the hope that Democrats could make peace with Dixie by moderating their liberalism was a fantasy. Conservatives upped the ante and embraced additional right-wing social causes.
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So what caused the current rebellion in the GOP ranks? It finally dawned on loyal foot soldiers in the odd-couple coalition that they were being taken for suckers. Their causes always seemed to get the short end of the stick. The GOP made multiple promises and fervent speeches on the social issues, but, for one reason or another, the party establishment always failed to deliver.
This belated realization stirred the anger that has flared across the ranks of the followers—and not just in the South. The financial crisis, the bailout of the banks, and collapsing prosperity intensified their sense of betrayal. People began mobilizing their own rump-group politics to push back. The Tea Party protests were aimed at President Obama, of course, but they were also an assault on Republican leaders who had misled and used the party base for so long. Tea Party revenge took down long-comfortable legislators and elected red-hot replacements who share the spirit of rebellion.
A Republican lobbyist of my acquaintance whose corporate client has been caught in the middle of the political disturbances shared a provocative insight. “I finally figured it out,” he told me. “Obama created the Tea Party.” I laughed at first, but he explained what he meant. “We told people that Obama was a dangerous socialist who was going to wreck America and he had to be stopped, when really we knew he was a moderate Democrat, not all that radical,” the lobbyist said. “But they believed us.”
In other words, the extremist assaults on the black president, combined with the economic failures, were deeply alarming for ordinary people and generated a sense of terminal crisis that was wildly exaggerated. But it generated popular expectations that Republicans must stand up to this threat with strong countermeasures—to win back political control and save the country. I suggested that racial overtones were also at work. “That’s your opinion,” the lobbyist said. “I don’t know about that.”
The point is, the grassroots anxieties were disappointed by the party establishment’s responses. The GOP kept denouncing Obamacare and predicting Obama’s failure, so it was a great shock to the rank and file when the president won reelection. He proceeded with executive action on immigration that further inflamed defeated conservatives.
Tea Party patriots observed that once again the GOP had failed to deliver on their social discontents: Abortion was still legal. Gays were getting married. Republicans won control of both the House and Senate, but the leaders declined to shut down government or force the president’s hand in other ways. America was burning, they believed, but Washington didn’t want to disrupt business as usual.
If my lobbyist friend is right, the Republican establishment brought this crisis on itself by cynically manipulating its own rank and file. The party can’t deal with the real economic distress threatening the nation as long as rebellion is still smoldering in the ranks. Of course, that suits the interests of the country-club and Fortune 500 wing of the party—the last thing they want is significant economic reform. Confusion and stalemate have their political uses. On the other hand, the GOP can’t give the Tea Party rebels what they want without darkening its electoral prospects for 2016. Chaos to be continued.
The potential crackup may actually open a brighter path for future politics, because the country is changing, including among white Southerners. The most resonant political moment in 2015 may have been what occurred in South Carolina after the church massacre in Charleston. Many politicians fumbled around, not sure what to say, but GOP Governor Nikki Haley stepped forward and took ownership of the shame. She burned the Confederate battle flag, so to speak, by acknowledging that it is a symbol of hate and calling for its removal from conspicuous display, which the state legislature agreed to do. Other Southern states swiftly followed with similar moves.
This seems like a small symbolic gesture alongside the squalid history of racial oppression. But I think it signals a yearning for greater possibilities—a “New South” wishing it could truly escape the claustrophobic society created by the legacy of racial apartheid and the punishing social edicts imposed by demagogic preachers.
As recent events have made clear, the corporate partners who dominate the GOP coalition have their own strong interest in promoting progressive social change—their customers demand it, and their employees and overseas markets expect it.
Deep political change cannot reverse history in a single election cycle—it will take many elections—but Democrats have a great opportunity to force the question on the nation in 2016. Instead of playing limp and vague, Dems can launch what Howard Dean called for in 2005: a 50-state strategy that runs on liberating issues. Instead of ignoring GOP bigotry, the Democratic ticket can promise to challenge it on every front and attack reactionary Republicans who try to impose the past on voters.
Above all, Democrats should demand that Tea Party rebels explain why they are in league with a party that intends to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security in order to finance more tax cuts for billionaires. As Scott Lilly suggested, if common folks ever understand the corrupt nature of the Republican coalition, we will see a popular rebellion that makes the present chaos look like, well, a tea party.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this piece quoted Scott Lilly as saying Republicans have held “the White House for 27 of the past 47 years” without noting that they have actually held the White House for 28 of the last 47 years. The text has been updated to correct the error.