Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann's formation of the congressional Tea Party caucus presents Republicans a challenge as they seek to rebuild. The Tea Party movement, language describing GOP members as RINOS (Republicans in Name Only), talk of a 2009 conservative litmus test, and complaints that even Senators Bob Bennett and John McCain are not pure enough all raise a simple question:. What is contemporary orthodox Republicanism?
Think of the GOP at its inception as the party of Lincoln committed to emancipation, civil rights, and economic freedom. Fast forward to Hoover and Landon, the party of small government, small business, and opposition to the New Deal. Jump to the 1950s and 60s. Eisenhower was president building the interstate highway system, signing a major civil rights bill, and denouncing the military-industrial complex. In New York Governor Rockefeller, Senator Javits, and Democrat Senator Bobby Kennedy battled amongst themselves for the crown of who was more liberal. Republicans orthodoxy believed in government and its capacity to help build a good society.
The contemporary battle for the Republican orthodoxy begins in 1964 when Barry Goldwater challenged the Rockefeller wing for dominance. Goldwater's "Extremism in defense of liberty" speech was a repudiation of New Deal accommodation that Eisenhower, Javits, and the Rockefeller wing had reached. Goldwater may have lost the election but he propelled the GOP in a direction that first triumphed with Reagan's victory in 1980 and his inaugural speech declaration that government is the problem, not the solution.
The Reagan coalition blended together often contradictory movements of economic liberty and social conservativism. The former requires a minimalist state protecting individual choice, the later an activist one second-guessing freedom. While ideological, it was still willing to compromise within its party and with Democrats, producing notable legislation such as the 1986 tax reform and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. From 1980 to 2008 the Reaganism defined the party. But beginning with the presidency of George Bush in 2001, and clearly by its end the Reagan brand had worn thin and when McCain ran and lost in 2008 it was clear that it was dead.
But the seeds of Reagan's demise in McCain's 2008 loss produced the heir of a new Republicanism in Sarah Palin. Palinism still seeks to balance the social conservatism and economic liberty of Reaganism, but it takes seriously the Goldwater extremism speech in its hyperactive purism and refusal to compromise.. Palinism takes aim at the New Deal, combining it with nativism and constitutionalism that came to a head in the formation of the Tea Party and its mantra "I want my country back."
The Palin makeover of the GOP combines Goldwaterism and Reaganism with a cult of personality, a multi-media advertising campaign, and a dose of Ayn Rand libertarianism. But Palinism is also built on what historian Richard Hofstadter labeled the paranoid style in American politics. It is an anti-intellectual world view nurtured in a fear that outside forces are threatening a way of life that includes faith in God, free enterprise, and democracy. This paranoid style, incubated in the Puritan theology of the seventeenth century as described by Perry Miller in his classic 1956 Errand into the Wilderness, was premised upon a theory of uncertainty of salvation, fear of evil, and the omnipresent threat of outsiders who were not part of the church and community. For Hofstadter and Miller, the paranoid style of fear and prejudice produced notable events such as the Salem Witch Hunts and McCarthyism.
Puritanism and the paranoid ethos both contain an orthodoxy and powerful internal contradictions. Both believe in the righteous and absolute certainty of their truths and in a demonification of challengers. Both eschew reason for fear, and both necessitate a strong state to suppress evil and preserve God and American values, even at the expense of freedom for some. Facts are not important; they stand in the way of truth. Liberals and MSNBC commentators such as Keith Olbermann fail to understand the Palin world view, perplexed by how she, Bachmann, and the Tea Party leaders can spew out their rhetoric, facts be damned. Yet the more they attack it, the more Palinism is reassured of its correctness.
Palinism, which includes the Tea Party and Bachmann, draws its roots from this Puritanism and paranoid style . But it is driven less so from the pulpit than by Fox news, conservative talk radio, and blogs in search of profits and ratings. Palinism is less a coherent ideology or world view than it has yielded a paranoid attitude mixed in with a branding effort to make money. It is a brand built on populist anger, anti-government feelings, opposition to immigration, gays, abortion, Democrats, and anything else that inspires fear, so long as it sells.