A radical political party, the Republican Party, now enjoys more power in Washington than at any time since the 1920s. The GOP wants to eliminate not just Obamacare but most of the rest of the welfare state; to slash taxes to the point where the federal government has no alternative but to shrink into nothingness; to eliminate most restraints on capitalist activity pertaining to investment, the environment, and working conditions; to deny women their reproductive freedom and minorities voting rights equal to those of whites. In some quarters of the party, the mood has become apocalyptic. This militant GOP wing now resembles a club of Old Testament prophets, warning everyone to follow the path of the righteous or face hellfire and damnation. This end-of-times scenario has encouraged a refusal to compromise. Republican majorities in Congress denied Obama virtually every one of his legislative ambitions during his last six years in office. They even called for government shut downs and defaults on the payment of government debts as a price worth paying to get their way. They haven’t yet gotten their way and still may not. But in rendering Congress an ineffectual instrument of governance, they have accelerated decay in the world’s oldest and once most important democracy. Donald Trump has become president of a democratic polity long rotting from within.
Radicalism has been an element of the GOP (Grand Old Party) since its birth in the 1850s, though then its impetus came from the left rather than the right. It pledged to stop slavery’s advance, roll it back, and make the country safe for "free labor." Republican Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 was so shocking to southern slaveholders that they took the extraordinary step of seceding from the Union, bringing a terrible civil war on the United States. Lincoln destroyed slavery, and was killed for it. But a group in Congress calling themselves the Radical Republicans carried on his work, securing passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, then and now the most powerful instrument for remedying racial (and gender) discrimination in America.
By the 1880s, the influence of these Radical Republicans had waned. Abandoning its commitment to racial equality, the country now pursued reconciliation of the white South and white North and rapid economic growth instead. Republicans fashioned themselves into the party of economic expansion, building transcontinental railroads and telegraphs, spurring large scale manufacturing, setting high tariffs to protect the nation’s "infant industries," and insisting on rigid, deflationary adherence to the gold standard, which favored bankers (and other large creditors) over small debtors (farmers and consumers). By 1900, the GOP had abandoned the radical abolition of its birth and became the party of big business instead. It gathered up enough small businessmen, Protestants, and members of old immigrant groups from Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia to make itself into the majority party from 1890s to the 1920s. It stood for the American Establishment, and against those who felt excluded from its ranks: urban workers, Catholics and Jews, and the rural (and especially southern) poor.
The Great Depression (1929-1941) plunged this Republican Party into crisis. Voters now rejected a party whose Big Banker and Big Business economic policies had so manifestly failed and embraced instead the politics of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his reinvigorated Democratic Party, gathering under the banner of the New Deal. New Dealers established a social welfare state, regulated financial markets, created a more egalitarian playing field for workers and employers, taxed the wealthy, and redistributed wealth from the rich to the poor. Roosevelt’s party dominated American politics for more than thirty-five years, interrupted only by a Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961), who won two elections principally because he acquiesced to what New Dealers had wrought.
This long experience in the wilderness became the staging ground for a new period of Republican radicalism, this time from the right. Its pioneer was Barry Goldwater, a senator from Arizona and GOP nominee for president in 1964; its transcendent figure was Ronald Reagan, movie star, governor of California, and then president from 1981 to 1989. Its key issue was opposition to the "big government" that New Dealers had built, seen by the radical Republicans as a stepping stone to socialism, communism, and totalitarianism. But a second issue, race, was crucial to bringing these radical Republicans to power. If in the 1860s, Republican radicalism focused on the emancipation of African Americans and giving them rights, in the 1960s, it gained power by working in the opposite direction: slowing down, even reversing the civil rights revolution, which sought to bring blacks and other minorities into full and equal participation in American life.
America’s civil rights revolution was part of a global, post-1945, rising of people of color against apartheid, imperialism, and racialized discourses that for centuries had privileged whiteness and the West. In response to black protest in America, the Democrats, under President Lyndon Johnson, passed a potent package of civil rights laws. Severe penalties were imposed on workplaces, schools and universities, restaurants and hotels, and local and state governments that either promoted or condoned racial discrimination. Institutions with poor records of hiring and promoting racial minorities were ordered to undertake aggressive remedial programmes, known as affirmative action. At the same time, the Democratic Party expanded the federal government’s welfare apparatus, part of an effort to channel more resources to poor, minority populations. To get his "Great Society" programme through Congress, Johnson had to twist the arms of powerful Democratic senators and congressmen from southern states who, in their hearts, were not ready to render blacks equal to whites. Johnson, a master parliamentarian, got his votes, but he knew the price would be steep. Indeed it was. Between 1964 and 2004, the South went from being the most solidly Democratic region of the country to the most solidly Republican. Millions of whites who had long been Democrats now rallied around the Republican Party in order to oppose the full integration of blacks into American life.
Neither Goldwater nor Reagan was a hard-core racist. Each worried most about the threat of communism and the Soviet Union, whose principles they discerned in the New Deal and the Great Society. But they also believed that the steps that Democrats had taken in the 1960s to remedy racial discrimination amounted to another form of totalitarianism. Government, they declared, had no business telling corporations whom to hire, no right to tell restaurant owners whom to serve, and no right to interfere with the admission decisions of universities or the membership decisions of private clubs. Such interference would undermine individuality and personal freedom, America’s most precious birthright.
Not only would the Great Society’s project of social engineering interfere with the lives of liberty-loving white Americans; it would also, radical Republicans argued, ruin the lives of poor blacks receiving social benefits. Recipients of government largesse, Reagan alleged, would choose not to work; indulge in excessive drug use and sexuality; normalize out-of-wedlock births and families without fathers. Republicans thus sought to end welfare and other racial remedies and to "re-moralize" American life. Increasingly they drew into their tent white religious Americans who wanted to restore the sanctity of marriage, reinvigorate traditional gender roles for men and women, and outlaw those practices that were seen as encouraging irresponsibility and immorality: abortion, homosexuality, and pre-marital sex.