Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party, Geoffrey Kabaservice, Oxford University Press, 467 pages
There was once a time when giants roamed the land. They battled for something more than personal ambition and the spoils of electoral war. Their political philosophies were not monochromatic. These Republican warriors weren’t ciphers like George W. Bush. They weren’t hacks like Bob Dole and John McCain who gained the nomination long after they peaked and long before they deserved.
Three of these titans battled at the 1968 Republican convention in Miami Beach: Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, and Ronald Reagan. Each represented a force within the party. The pragmatic moderate for those who just wanted to win, the colorful liberal for those who cared about civil rights and imagined he might do something different about war, and the smooth conservative for those asking for a little more law and order in the streets and a lot less regulation from Washington. The party chose Nixon. The nation thereby gained a smart but crooked, visionary yet troubled chief executive.
Rule and Ruin is the story of these giants and their smaller associates during the 1960s, mostly in D.C. and on the presidential campaign trail. It is an exciting story, building on conflicts, grudges, and smoke-filled rooms that stretched back to the era of Thomas Dewey, Robert A. Taft, and Dwight Eisenhower. Kabaservice’s writing is excellent—graceful but punchy. His book joins Nicol Rae’s Decline and Fall of the Liberal Republicans as an indispensable volume for students of GOP ideology. Conservatives will be especially interested in the description of Ronald Reagan’s activities from the Goldwater campaign to his election as governor and first attempt at the presidency.
The writing is lively, the story compelling, and the attention to detail impressive. But the political activist in me is irritated by the author’s bias—his book both explains and exemplifies the progressive Republican perspective—and concerned that the resulting lopsidedness may mislead those less informed. From a scholarly point of view, I’m both excited and disappointed by Rule and Ruin.
Kabaservice gives us dismissive, personally unflattering portrayals of conservative activists F. Clifton White and Phyllis Schlafly. His attempt to eviscerate White is breathtaking. Kabaservice highlights White’s clandestine machinations and red-baits him by accusing White of patterning his actions after the Communists. The author uses words like “paranoia” and “repulsive” in connection with Schlafly’s thought. He even links her book A Choice Not an Echo to the notorious antisemitic fraud The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, though there’s nothing negative about Jews in Schlafly’s text—which was written in support of the half-Jewish Barry Goldwater.
In Ruin and Run, the Ripon Society embodies the good guys and the John Birch Society embodies the bad guys. The Riponers, in this telling, were young idealists. The Birchers are a boogeyman, a bunch of racist kooks. The nonviolent, non-race-baiting, educational approach of JBS founder Robert Welch does not earn any praise. At times, the reader can see that Kabaservice tries to restrain himself as he concedes a point to the opposition—the evil right wing—or attempts to understand those he typically demonizes. But these are exceptions. Far more often, he simply knocks down straw men or libels with a flourish of his stylish prose.
Kabaservice criticizes Goldwater’s 1964 primary campaign for relying on “a sort of class warfare strategy” against Rockefeller and other liberal, country-club Republicans. Yet he acknowledges that moderates and progressives were funded by “considerably deeper pockets than most of their conservative counterparts” and had “greater access to the media and influence within the academy and the establishment.” He calls the moderate Republican effort “an elite movement.”
The support progressive Republicans gave to the struggle for racial equality and civil rights during the 1960s is clearly one of the things that attracts Kabaservice to this group. This is commendable; it is to the discredit and shame of most the era’s conservatives that they were indifferent at best and hostile at worst to the ideals of ethnic inclusiveness and justice for all. Yet things are not as clear-cut as the book indicates. The role played by the liberal Eastern establishment in building and maintaining a social, political, and economic foundation that included institutionalized racism should not be overlooked. The Rockefellers, Senator Jacob Javits, the Ford Foundation, the New York Times, and the Washington Post all turned against Martin Luther King when he shifted focus from Southern bigotry to national economic fairness and international peace.
Civil rights is a major theme of the book, but the author seems little interested in war. He denounces Goldwater conservatives for being weak on civil rights but does not do the same for Rockefeller liberals when it comes to their support for bloodletting in foreign lands. There is a gentle finger wag here and there, but no excoriation for the Vietnam War or for propping up the military-industrial complex and the American empire in all its unjust glory. War is just not a big moral issue for Kabaservice in the way that civil rights is.
One theoretical defect of the book is its division of the non-conservatives within the ’60s GOP into two categories: “moderates” and “progressives.” The problem with creating two groups is that members of both held the same policy positions and supported the same standard-bearers. This muddied approach shows itself in the personification of non-conservatism, Nelson Rockefeller, who is sometimes labeled “moderate” and other times “progressive.” Kabaservice avoids the word “liberal.” But the artificial and inaccurate splitting of his Republican favorites into two categories is belied by evidence from the popular press of the time: Newsweek in the late 1950s routinely referred to these politicians and activists as “the liberal wing of the party.”
Another significant theoretical shortcoming of the book is the attempt to put to rest the “me-too” reputation of progressive Republicans. Conservatives charged that they were pale imitations of liberal Democrats. Kabaservice disagrees and proceeds to overstate the difference between liberal Democrats and liberal Republicans. He claims that moderate Republicans opposed bigness and bureaucracy in government and supported decentralization of power. Swelling government and rising deficits were major concerns of moderates, he contends. These assertions are not true. President Eisenhower did not cut spending or try to uproot the New Deal and Fair Deal programs. The end of the Korean War notwithstanding, Eisenhower continued the big-government approach abroad.
Who was voting to create federal program after federal program and supporting constant spending increases throughout the 1960s and 1970s? It was liberals of both parties that eventually gave liberalism such a bad name. As late as 1964, the word “liberal” was still riding high in popularity. By the 1980s, it signified bloated, intrusive, tax-borrow-and-spend government, and liberals were forced to adopt new, less unpopular names—“progressive” for Democrats, “conservative” for Republicans.
This leads us to the final and most serious flaw of the book. The thesis of Rule and Ruin is that conservative Republicans have both ruled and ruined the party since the 1970s. Neither of these assertions is correct. Kabaservice identifies 1967 as the zenith for moderates in the national party, says that the moderate movement was finished by 1970, and claims that its tradition is extinct today. Yet he recognizes that many of today’s Republican leaders were moderates or progressives in the 1960s and early 1970s. They were affiliated with Rockefeller’s campaigns and the Ripon Society—hence the book’s cameo appearances by Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Cheney, Newt Gingrich and Mitch McConnell.
How has the supposed rule of conservatives ruined the party? Kabaservice can point to a tone of incivility and partisanship that may be different from that of 1960s moderates. He can be offended by pandering to conservative Christians concerned about moral issues that were not big topics in the 1960s. Beyond that, however, little has changed.
Kabaservice hints at the truth in his preface, when he writes, “It is only in the last decade that movement conservatism finally succeeded in silencing, co-opting, repelling, or expelling nearly every competing strain of Republicanism from the party, to the extent that the terms ‘liberal Republican’ or ‘moderate Republican’ have practically become oxymorons.” Yes, the terms, but not the ideology, not the reality. Which is more important? That people proudly call themselves liberals or that people conduct themselves as liberals? We have seen a triumph of liberalism within the Republican Party under the name of conservatism. It is bona fide conservatives—sincere, traditional, small-government, Jeffersonian conservatives—who ought to weep, not liberals.
Counterintuitive though it may be, the past three decades have actually brought about the triumph of liberalism in the United States, liberalism of the big-government, policing-of-the-world, secular-values variety. The vision of Nelson Rockefeller, not Ronald Reagan, has attained supremacy within the GOP. Rockefeller and his Democratic counterpart, Hubert Humphrey, symbolized a bipartisan consensus in the 1960s and 1970s for monopoly capitalism tempered by a welfare state at home and a well-armed empire abroad. In the 2000s, the George W. Bush administration solidified a coalition between pragmatic heirs of Rockefeller such as Dick Cheney and neoconservative successors of Humphrey such as Paul Wolfowitz. Rhetorical crumbs notwithstanding, traditional conservatives and libertarians lack a seat at the table. Their support is desired—and needed—by party leaders, but they are excluded from power.
The standard of ideological measurement within the GOP has changed dramatically during the past half-century. By the criteria of the 1960s, the national leaders of the Republican Party today are all liberals. A generation of wolves (liberals) did not give birth to a generation of sheep (conservatives). Instead, partly out of personal convenience and partly for historical reasons, the Republican establishment donned fleece in the 1980s. Liberals in conservative clothing. Kabaservice doesn’t recognize a friend when he sees one. He continues to mourn the loss of moderates and progressives in the party, though they continue to thrive under a different guise.
Jeff Taylor is associate professor of political studies at Dordt College and author of Where Did the Party Go?: William Jennings Bryan, Hubert Humphrey, and the Jeffersonian Legacy.