Conservatives today deride moderate GOPers as “Republicans in Name Only.” But they used to matter—until the politics of passion overwhelmed them.
Kabaservice describes how the moderates failed to think politically. They would not stoop to grassroots organizing. Their money men pulled out when they stood to lose too much. Nelson Rockefeller, who could have funded a flotilla of think tanks, instead poured his ample resources into his own political cause. Most of all, the moderates simply did not care enough. Moderation, Kabaservice suggests, was necessarily hampered because a political creed that defines itself as pragmatic and intellectual will always be weaker than a politics of passion. In some ways, he views moderation as an attitude more than a particular set of positions—a skeptical, thoughtful, non-ideological politics, committed to governance and to using the state to deal with social problems. The titles of the book’s chapters are drawn from W.B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming,” with its description of the “rough beast” slouching toward Bethlehem: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The book has something of the tragic in it, telling the story of the undoing of gentle and intelligent men (and they were almost all men) whose very failure was that they clung to their moderation.
The moderate Republicans did accomplish much of which to be proud. Their support was—as Kabaservice argues—critical for the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Senators like Javits and John Sherman Cooper helped to end the Vietnam War by defunding it. The moderate force within the party did not decline easily or quickly, continuing for a long while to offer a real alternative to hard-line conservatism. Historians of the late twentieth century have at times treated the triumphs of conservatism as though these were foregone conclusions; Kabaservice shows how it was a fight all along the way, through the 1980s and beyond.
For all there is to admire about the moderates, though, it is not so easy to mourn their demise. The politics of passion that Kabaservice critiques was not driven by the romantic impulses of irresponsible youth; in reality, the consensus collapsed because it hid and protected much—segregation, poverty, the repression of the Cold War years—that was in fact not moderate at all.
Rule and Ruin also has little to say about the forces that have reshaped both political parties, such as the increasing political organization of business, the role of money in elections, the decline of unions, and, perhaps most important of all, the rise of an intellectual culture that has become increasingly skeptical of virtually any sort of collective action. Nor is there much discussion of the social world that spawned the mandarin-style politics of the liberal establishment Kabaservice chronicled in his previous book and of the liberal Republicans he writes about here. They all belonged to an elite that had been instructed in its obligations to rule—a profoundly different ethic from the hedge-fund gurus of today for whom there is no higher calling than self-interest, but a deeply problematic ethic in its own way.
Finally, despite its focus on the Republican Party’s hard-right turn, the underlying claim of Rule and Ruin is that political polarization, not the overall drift to the right of American politics, is the central problem that our country faces today. Surely the hard-right unity of the GOP is a critical part of this story. Yet one of the ironies of this rich and complex book is that, by its end, the Democrats under Bill Clinton helped speed the demise of the moderate Republicans, as the centrist Democratic Leadership Council began to advocate many of the pro-market ideas (such as welfare reform and charter schools) that GOP moderates had long championed. And it is those moderate ideas and that moderate politics that have helped to drive the widening inequality of the country by cutting taxes, deregulating finance, weakening unions, devolving federal authority to the local level, and endorsing the primacy of the market as a vehicle for righting social wrongs. For anything to change, the last thing we need is more of this. The real heroes of the civil rights movement and the movement against the Vietnam War were not, after all, the moderate Republicans, but the passionate advocates who fundamentally challenged the tenets of moderation by asking—indeed, demanding—that people take a stand.
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