Reviving Liberal Republicanism in America

Restoring Balance to the Republican Party

Restoring Balance to the Republican Party


The third thing necessary‎ to bring back Liberal Republicanism is for people who believe in Liberal Republican principles and pragmatic, consensus-driven government to get involved in the political process. It is understandable that people on the Left and Right who are passionate about political and social issues are also passionate about taking the time and spending the resources to effectuate those passions. In contrast, people who are inherently moderate and pragmatic are more likely to be moderate and pragmatic in how they practice politics. Unfortunately this moderation destroyed Liberal Republicanism before. Liberal Republicanism will not re-emerge until people who believe in its values and policies are willing to get back into the political arena and duke it out (politically, not with their fists) with their more conservative Republican brethren.

A little more background on how all of this happened, and how it has changed all aspects of politics, including basic civility among our politicians, sheds some light on what needs to be done to reverse the tide:

Clifton White was an American Republican political activist who evolved from moderate mainstream Republicanism to become the conservative force behind the movement that secured the Republican Presidential nomination in 1964 for Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. The only time White ran for elective office himself was in 1946. Apparently his candidacy was sabotaged by Communists under orders from Moscow, who were attempting to infiltrate and take over liberal-leaning organizations. Although the Communists were greatly outnumbered, they were able to get their way through secrecy, rigid unity, manipulation of parliamentary procedure, and sheer ruthlessness.

According to Geoffrey Kabaservice in Rule and Ruin: The End of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party,[27] "Sometimes the Communists simply demonstrated a superior grasp of organization and tactics, for example by voting as a bloc for one candidate while their opponents spread their votes across multiple candidates. At other times they would run roughshod over the democratic process, employing stalling motions to keep a meeting going all night until enough of their opponents had left in disgust, then ramming home the vote. Or they would wait until a rival candidate had built up such a majority that most serious challengers had dropped out, then destroy the front-runner through foul-play and make their own candidate available as a last-minute substitute. That was the fate that befell Clifton White, as he was on his way to victory in the state chairman’s race, when at the eleventh hour the Communists spread a rumor that he had diverted funds to an adulterous tryst with his secretary. Most of the non-Communists who witnessed these abuses of democracy were horrified; some were moved to join the CIA in order to dedicate themselves to attacking the evils of Communism around the world. White, on the other hand, wanted to emulate the Communists. He saw in their example methods by which a small, disciplined minority uninhibited by bourgeois scruples of fair play or tradition or truth, could defeat a majority and bend an organization to its will."[28]

The 1964 Republican Convention that nominated the archconservative Senator Barry Goldwater put these strategies into action. Former Republican President Dwight Eisenhower (less than four years out of office) “felt it was unpardonable- and a complete negation of the spirit of democracy. I was bitterly ashamed.”[29]  Former baseball star Jackie Robinson, who was one of the most prominent African-Americans in the convention audience, felt that he was witnessing white supremacy in action. “I know now how it felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”[30]  Many African-American delegates and alternates walked out of the convention. Others stayed out of determination not to give into the thugs.

It is fascinating and ironic that this long-shot success of White and his colleagues in recasting the Republican Party as exclusively conservative was accomplished using tactics of the Communist Party, whose politics were diametrically opposed to the politics of White and his colleagues. Modern Liberal Republicans likewise must be equally tenacious in advocating and organizing for Liberal Republican candidates and policies if they hope to be as successful as White and his colleagues were‎ when they transformed the Republican Party to the exclusively conservative party it is today. Even though surveys show that moderate political principles are held by the plurality of Americans.[31] moderate political tactics will not suffice to rebalance the Republican Party.[32]

In contrast, while White and others were building their movement "Moderate Republicanism, considered as a long-range political movement, was ‘in terrible shape.’ It lacked articulate spokesmen, movement-conscious intelligentsia, action organizations, financial backers, and coordination. Critics of moderate Republicanism identified its crucial shortcoming as the lack of a national grassroots organization”, and an inability or unwillingness to commit funds and resources to building the moderate wing from the ground up. [33]  (This was a criticism leveled particularly at Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who arguably “failed to do for Republican moderates and progressives what a few wealthy individuals were doing at that time for the conservatives: building an enduring political infrastructure of opinion journals, think tanks, donor networks, and grassroots organizational support)”.[34]  And the fact that the major Liberal Republican newspaper, The New York Herald Tribune, went out of business in 1966 also was a serious blow to the liberal wing of the Republican Party.[35]

“The most detailed moderate battle plan for Liberal Republicans came in the mid-1960s from Doug Bailey, a Ripon Society founder and Rockefeller aide, and David Goldberg, a Boston attorney.[36] Both had attended the 1964 Republican Convention in San Francisco, and both were sufficiently horrified that they drew up an analysis of what would be required to reverse the conservative takeover.” 

“The Bailey-Goldberg plan called for a widespread moderate effort to replicate F. Clifton White’s seizure of the party machinery at the grassroots level, building a moderate counterpart to the conservative political infrastructure that had sprung up in the previous decade. They also insisted that moderates would have to generate clearly defined policy proposals and an inspiring ideology that they had so far lacked."

"We sent the proposal far and wide,’ Bailey remembered ruefully, ‘and it was ignored far and wide… No moderates ever mounted that kind of grassroots effort, so far as I’m aware, despite the obvious need."[37]

The roots of the modern Republican Party are in Clfton White’s ”take no prisoner’s” politics. Viewed through the lens of the 1960's and 70's, it is no wonder that today's Republican Party is so uncompromising, and inter-party communication has become so uncivil.

That this would be the result of such political tactics was foreseeable at the time. For example, after the 1964 Republican Presidential Convention at which Goldwater was nominated, George Romney responded by writing a piece in which he pointed out that he and Goldwater differed on the desirability of realigning the Republican and Democratic parties into "conservative" and "liberal" parties along the European model.  Romney observed: "Dogmatic ideological parties tend to splinter the political and social fabric of a nation, lead to governmental crises and deadlocks, and stymie the compromises so often necessary to preserve freedom and achieve progress."[38] Romney sure had that right.

The New York Times editorialized that:

“Heterogeneous national parties are confusing and untidy but they lend stability to a diverse society which always needs a stabilizing influence." When the parties spanned a broad ideological spectrum, each was forced to appeal to independents and moderates in the opposing party, which softened the sharpness of partisan battles.”[39]

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The decline of moderate Republicanism continues to reverberate in our politics today.  Both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush’s political roots are in moderate Republicanism.  Jeb Bush’s father, President H.W. Bush, was a moderate Republican, as was his grandfather, Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush. (Senator Prescott Bush served as the treasurer of the first national campaign of Planned Parenthood and was an early supporter of the United Negro College Fund.) And as for Secretary Clinton, her politics actually evolved from a place further to the political Right of moderate Republicanism as a “Goldwater girl,” to moderate Republicanism, before she abandoned Republicanism entirely, preferring instead the emerging moderate wing of the Democratic Party.

This history is lost to most Americans, especially to young people who came of age politically after the Republican Party had become the predominantly conservative monolith it is today. For example, according to Geoffrey Kabaservice, “A symbolic indication of youthful disaffection with moderate Republicanism occurred when Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke [link] addressed the Wellesley College commencement in late May 1969. Brooke, one of the Senate’s most progressive Republicans as well as its lone African American, tried to persuade his restive audience that change within the system was still possible, as demonstrated by the poverty rate’s having fallen from 22 percent of Americans in 1959 to 13.3 percent in 1967. (That is an extraordinary reduction in such a short time.) Brooke was followed on the speaker’s platform by the student government president, Hillary Rodham, who was the first student ever permitted to address a Wellesley graduation ceremony. The future New York senator, then a slight blonde in Coke-bottle glasses, departed from her prepared text to tear into Brooke for his alleged indifference to poverty. “What does it mean that 13.3 percent of Americans are poor?” she demanded. “How about talking about the humans, not the statistics?”[40] Her classmates predictably gave her a standing ovation.[41]

Brooke was convinced that his young antagonist hijacked the occasion for her own purposes, and would have attacked any other commencement speaker: “I was there representing authority, and she was representing the frustrations of her own generation, which she did most effectively.” But Hillary Rodham’s political trajectory suggested a broader generational significance as well. A dedicated Illinois Republican for most of the 1960s, she had been a Goldwater Girl in 1964, interned for Melvin Laird (President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Defense), campaigned for Brooke in 1966, and assisted the Ripon Society with an antiwar symposium in 1967. By the spring of 1969, however, even a progressive Republican like Brooke appeared hopelessly reactionary to her, and she left the GOP to support the New Politics wing of the Democratic Party.”[42]

It is certainly easy for young people today to conclude that government is such a mess that their efforts and passions should be directed elsewhere. One only needs to look to Secretary Clinton’s evolving politics to understand the complexity of forming political opinions, especially in our fast-moving times. But abandoning politics will not help end the poisonous politics we face today. In the words of the late David Foster Wallace, in his essay “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and the Shrub: Seven Days in the Life of the Late, Great, John McCain”:

“There are, of course, some groups of Young Voters who are way, way into modern politics…  It is interesting, though, that what gives these small fringe blocs such disproportionate power is the simple failure of most mainstream Young Voters to get off their ass and vote... And it’s not just the fringes who benefit – the fact is that it is to some very powerful Establishments’ advantage that most younger people hate politics and don’t vote… If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible psychological reason to stay at home… By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting.  In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.”[43]