A younger friend recently posed a question to me: why are Republican politicians so damn evil? She asked this after a spate of news about Republicans introducing bills in Congress to abolish the EPA and gut the Affordable Care Act in a way that would strip health insurance from 24 million Americans. She asked this after it Republican Congressman Steve King took to Twitter to say “we can’t restore our civilization with other people’s babies.” It was a week that that same Congressman, together with Presidential Advisor Steve Bannon, recommended that Americans read an outrageously racist pulp novel in which Indians, the Chinese, and Africans invade Europe and demolish Christian culture there. It was a day in which the media reported that Republicans planned to eliminate a federal program designed to encourage schools to serve healthier lunches and to motivate students to exercise more to combat childhood obesity.
I responded with a history lesson.
Back in the middle of the 20th Century, the GOP was conservative in the best sense of the word. It stressed prudence, moderation, environmental conservation, caution before initiating change, solvency, and a careful eye on the public treasury. These used to be called Main Street Republican values. But in 1964, Barry Goldwater, a hard-right conservative (by the standards of the day), won the Presidential nomination. Johnson trounced him in the general election, but Republican politicians took note that the path to success within the party went through the resentful fever swamps of white nationalism. Nixon rode through those swamps to two electoral victories, using what became known as the Southern Strategy. He made coded racist appeals to white racists, who were ready to abandon the Democrats over their support of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.
When Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, the GOP realized that white racists and Main Street Republicans were not numerous enough to provide a stable electoral majority. So the GOP came up with the idea of politicizing abortion in the wake of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. At that time, opposition to abortion was primarily from Catholic voters; believe it or not, at that time the Baptists (!) supported abortion rights. But the bet on abortion as a wedge issue paid off and secured the evangelical protestant vote for the GOP.
The party added other, related issues to its platform in an attempt to keep the evangelicals in its fold and to expand its base still further, an effort which gave rise to the culture wars over gay rights, prayer in public schools, the mythical “war on Christmas” and other issues.
In the 90s, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and the Drudge Report hit cable, radio, and the internet, respectively. These represented a new kind of “news,” at least in living memory. They were explicitly ideological and had no interest in elevating their audience; rather, they deliberately set out to appeal to the lowest common denominator to get the largest possible audience share. This did attract some new Republican voters, but it was even more effective at energizing and pushing existing Republican voters even further to the right.
All of this began to affect the outcomes of Republican primaries across the country, with the candidates furthest to the right defeating incumbent moderate Republicans. “No enemies to the right” became the de facto mantra of the party. Gerrymandering of congressional districts, made possible by Democratic Party fecklessness at the state level, made it impossible for liberals and moderates to defeat whomever the Republicans nominated, no matter how radical their nominees were. Moderation became a dirty word in the Republican Party.
And so here is where we stand today. Republican candidates, terrified of being “primaried” by far-right candidates, simply co-opt the most extreme policy positions. They’ve got the white nationalists and the evangelicals as their base, and that base is being whipped up by an increasingly reactionary “right-wing noise machine,” which, like Republican officeholders, has to move further and further to the right to maintain its hold on its audience.
And so the GOP today is no longer a political party in the conventional sense; an insistence on ideological purity, harsh punishment for deviation from approved dogma, and a disconnection from the wider fact-based world, through the course of many decades, contemporary conservatism gradually radicalized into competing factions of extremists with cultist characteristics.
While the results of the metamorphosis of a once-great American political party may indeed seem evil, the strategies and tactics that put the party in the hands of the radical right were based on pure political calculation, not on Voldemortian malevolence. To put it another way, the GOP didn’t become a radical-right organization because its members were evil; it became that because Republican officeholders realized that adopting the agenda of the radical right was the only way to win. It was ambition, not evil, that brought us to this current pass.