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In the wood-paneled chamber that was the scene of Friday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, I listened to Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, the Republican ranking member, drone on in his soft drawl. John Yoo and Jay Bybee had done the nation a great service, he said, and their critics calling for accountability were all from the “far left.” Sessions went on to burnish the reputation of David Margolis, whom he remembered as a “long-haired youth” at the Justice Department three decades ago. Texas senator John Cornyn chimed in making almost identical remarks. The duo, the only Republicans who showed up that morning, well represent the core G.O.P. constituency, Evangelical white males over forty from the states of the old Confederacy. They were among the nine Republican senators who voted against John McCain’s bill that outlawed torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in 2005. They reflect a brand of reactionary Republicanism that stands far to the right of Reagan, and is a sharp repudiation of the legacy of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Eisenhower. Are they the party’s future?
Many of the G.O.P.’s best thinkers realize that, while the two-party system all but guarantees the Republicans more times at bat, this is not the best platform from which to win national elections in a nation that is increasingly diverse and less enamored of the religious right. If there is an exciting new development in the G.O.P., then it’s Sarah Palin—after all, she’s youthful, vigorous, and from far outside the South. But Jonathan Rauch, writing in the National Journal, has a different take on the situation.
The history of the modern Republican Party in one sentence: Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller got into an argument and George Wallace won.
Rauch then does some side-by-side comparisons of Palin’s message with Wallace’s from 1968:
Palin: “Voters are sending a message.” Wallace: “Send them a message!”
Palin: “The soul of this movement is the people, everyday Americans, who grow our food and run our small businesses, who teach our kids and fight our wars…. The elitists who denounce this movement, they just don’t want to hear the message.” Wallace: “They’ve looked down their noses at the average man on the street too long. They’ve looked [down] at the bus driver, the truck driver, the beautician, the fireman, the policeman, and the steelworker….”
Palin: “We need a commander-in-chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern.” Wallace: “We have a professor — I’m not talking about all professors, but here’s an issue in the campaign — we got these pseudo-theoreticians, and these pseudo-social engineers…. They want to tell you how to do.”
Palin: “What does he [Obama] actually seek to accomplish…? The answer is to make government bigger; take more of your money; give you more orders from Washington.” Wallace: “They say, ‘We’ve gotta write a guideline. We’ve gotta tell you when to get up in the morning. We’ve gotta tell you when to go to bed at night.’ “
I am not convinced that Rauch is really describing a new phenomenon, however. Lee Atwater sold Bush père on a Wallace-style appeal to populism in the 1988 campaign, and the same sort of outreach, focused specifically on the religious right, has been right at the center of Karl Rove’s strategy. It really didn’t take long after 1968 for the G.O.P. to see the George Wallace voter as its natural target, and the reorientation of the G.O.P. into an increasingly white, Evangelical, and Southern party followed.
Rauch says this is the road to ruin for the G.O.P. “By becoming George Wallace’s party, the GOP is abandoning rather than embracing conservatism, and it is thereby mortgaging both its integrity and its political future. Wallaceism was not sufficiently mainstream or coherent to sustain a national party in 1968, and the same is true today.” But the G.O.P. does seem committed to this course, and its highest profile spokesmen—the Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks–seem to be pressing it on.
It seems worth noting that Wallace himself was smart enough to recognize that the brand of populist politics he espoused in 1968 would lead straight into a political cul-de-sac. He spent the rest of his career broadening his appeal to blacks, the uneducated, and the disenfranchised, with the result that he became a thorn in the side of the G.O.P. and a new sort of populist. The question in my mind is not whether the G.O.P. is consciously evoking Wallace—Rauch is correct, they are—but whether they have studied Wallace closely enough to identify the aspects of his career that could help them. If they did this, they might quickly come to very different takes on healthcare reform and education, and the nation might move to a much more positive political dialogue in which a broad consensus could be reached on some populist issues.
More from Scott Horton:
Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
i. stand with israel
I listen to a lot of conservative talk radio. Confident masculine voices telling me the enemy is everywhere and victory is near — I often find it affirming: there’s a reason I don’t think that way. Last spring, many right-wing commentators made much of a Bloomberg poll that asked Americans, “Are you more sympathetic to Netanyahu or Obama?” Republicans picked the Israeli prime minister over their own president, 67 to 16 percent. There was a lot of affected shock that things had come to this. Rush Limbaugh said of Netanyahu that he wished “we had this kind of forceful moral, ethical clarity leading our own country”; Mark Levin described him as “the leader of the free world.” For a few days there I yelled quite a bit in my car.
The one conservative radio show I do find myself enjoying is hosted by Dennis Prager. At the Thanksgiving dinner of American radio personalities (Limbaugh is your jittery brother-in-law, Michael Savage is your racist uncle, Hugh Hewitt is Hugh Hewitt) Dennis Prager is the turkey-carving patriarch trying to keep the conversation moderately high-minded. While Prager obviously doesn’t like liberals — “The gaps between the left and right on almost every issue that matters are in fact unbridgeable,” he has said — he often invites them onto his show for debate, which is rare among right-wing hosts. Yet his gently exasperated take on the Obama–Netanyahu matchup was among the least charitable: “Those who do not confront evil resent those who do.”
Pairs of moose-dung earrings sold each year at Grizzly’s Gifts in Anchorage, Alaska:
An Alaskan brown bear was reported to have scratched its face with barnacled rocks, making it the first bear seen using tools since 1972, when a Svalbardian polar bear is alleged to have clubbed a seal in the head with a block of ice.
A former prison in Philadelphia that has served as a horror-movie set was being prepared as a detention center for protesters arrested at the upcoming Democratic National Convention, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump fired his campaign manager.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”