A grand old party

“The Republican Party must be known as a progressive organisation or it is sunk. I believe that so emphatically that I think far from appeasing or reasoning with the dyed-in-the-wool reactionary fringe we should completely ignore it and when necessary, repudiate it.”

 Clearly not the views of a Fox News commentator but an interesting view of the GOP even if it is now more than half a century old. The comments were by a Republican President, Dwight Eisenhower, who would no doubt be regarded as a RINO by the Tea Party. It sits well with his more famous comments about the ‘military-industrial complex’ although that comment was expressed in a speech while the view of the GOP was contained in his diaries and cited in Jean Edward Smith’s biography, Eisenhower in War and Peace.

 Eisenhower was not, as Montgomery said ‘a great soldier’, but he was a great Supreme Commander and probably a great President. Admittedly, his backing of the coup against the Iranian Prime Minister, Mossadegh, looks in retrospect to be a very unfortunate decision but then no candidate in the recent presidential election, except for Ron Paul, seemed to either know about the coup or its implications for why Iran today might feel the way it does about the US.

 Eisenhower balanced the budget; undermined McCarthy; authorised some other coups (as many other Presidents have); stopped Dulles and Nixon from dropping nuclear weapons on Vietnam and China; kept the lid on Republican extremists; rolled back the French, British Israeli Suez invasions; sent in troops to enforce school integration; and, tried to introduce a national health care system based on the single provider military one. He also had the good taste to never invite his VP, Nixon, to the White House family quarters although he did stay silent on the appalling smear campaigns against Adlai Stevenson and George Marshall which have to rank with some of the worst Nixon and Rove efforts. But, all in all a strong contrast with George W. Bush.

So why has the Republican Party, and indeed the Australian Liberal Party, moved so far from where it was? Both parties always had their rabid wings just as the UK Tory Party did. Like the working classes they were always in favour of some hanging, flogging and a bit of racism even as conservatives like Henry Bolte ran up debt totals which current Liberals would claim were outrageous.

 But what was once rabid is now normal – well not so much hanging and flogging –  even though there are some Tories (and not just those in favour of some S&M and auto-erotic stimulation)  who still yearn for it. In economic terms the Liberals and the Republicans are advocating policies just like those the IMF has recently confessed to getting all wrong. The ideology seems to even infect moderates. A friend, a moderate Liberal, tried to tell me the other day that Australia was doomed because it was paying $20 million a day servicing debt even though Australia’s debt is one of the lowest in the OECD. Both the Liberals and the Republicans have played around with refusing to raise debt ceilings. Even the hanging and flogging gets a mild variation with toughness on crime, although in Australia Bob Carr started that rot by refusing to be outflanked on the right on crime.

Some people blame the 1960s and the 1970s – the social revolutions against which people revolted  – although as the late Peter Kerr (an advisor to Jeff Kennett) said,  the counter-culture and the revolutionaries didn’t end up in politics they just took their language (and not much else) into the managerial classes. And those old enough to hate the hippies are now in nursing homes or dead.  Religious revival is another explanation although the hard data, rather than impressionistic journalistic opinion, shows that religion is still becoming less important among most Brits, Americans and Australians even if there is more of it among conservative political activists.

Whatever the reason, we now live in a topsy turvy world. The left was once the home of the messianic and the utopian dreams but social democrats in Europe, Australia and the UK have become more and more technocratic and more ‘liberal’ while messianic belief has become more and more pronounced among conservatives.

The most likely explanation, however, is probably prosaic. The Reagan wedge politics which sought to win blue collar white workers away from the Democratic Party was hugely successful and John Howard consciously copied it. Since then it has been ingrained among the Republicans and the Liberals which then leads to a lot of people, who actually believe all the stuff which underpins it, getting involved in politics. Thus, a few political apparatchiks tapped into the old style reaction for short-term tactical purposes and ended up creating new party ideologies. They also tapped into some phenomenally rich people like the Koch brothers to help them run political campaigns even more sophisticated than the first great modern media political campaign – the 1934 Hollywood campaign against Californian gubernatorial candidate, Upton Sinclair – many of whose strategists helped get Nixon started in politics.

 All this was made possible by an astonishingly ahistorical approach to national history. Howard glorified Alec Campbell, the last surviving ANZAC, and sanitised his life by omitting the radicalism and trade union commitment. Ditto that famous illegal immigrant, Simpson and his donkey, another socialist who became a sanitised Howard hero. Howard Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, flirted with introducing creationism into the curriculum although thankfully never went quite so far as the Texas School Board in entrenching educational ignorance. In the US the Founding Fathers suddenly became God-fearing proponents of free enterprise rather than sceptical Enlightenment figures although in some cases not so enlightened as to free their slaves. According to the US historian, Jill Lepore, the phrase the ‘Founding Fathers’ was coined by that notoriously corrupt US President, Warren Harding, in his 1916 keynote address to the Republican National Convention. Today the US Constitution should, according to the Tea Party, be regarded as a sacred immutable text something which Jefferson, Adams and Madison would be surprised to discover.

 But the most important thing about the topsy turvy shift and the new messianic fervour is that it has brought with it a viciousness, and a lack of civility, characteristic of such movements. Listening to modern day Liberal and Republican attacks on their opponents you can smell and hear that sulphurous whiff of medieval religion interwoven with Stalinist show trial rhetoric. But who’s ultimately to blame? I think part of it is with the PR people who ran the 1934 Californian campaign, got Nixon started and have since then just got better and better at it. A US export we probably didn’t need.