Why Today's Conservatives Are Republicans In Name Only

Conservatives are RINOs? That's a bit of a revisionist view, to put it mildly. Conservatives are the ones who habitually accuse any Republicans who don't subscribe to a lengthening list of right-wing positions of being "Republicans in Name Only." If a Republican doesn't sign Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge, or oppose abortion under all circumstances, or claim that evolution is a myth and global warming a hoax, he or she likely will be tagged as a RINO, or worse yet as a moderate.

But a different view of Republicanism emerges from my new book, "Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party" [Oxford University Press, $29.95]. From the time of its founding in 1854 and for most of its history, the Grand Old Party - GOP for short - was an ideologically diverse party, which included moderates and even some progressives. Though the Republican Party identified itself as the party of small government, it nonetheless laid the groundwork for modern society through such active-government achievements as abolishing slavery, opening up Western public lands for homesteaders, chartering the first transcontinental railroad, and passing the first conservation legislation. The Democratic Party, though it was usually considered the more "liberal" party, derived much of its political strength from its monopoly of the racially segregated South, and Southern Democrats were the most conservative element in Congress.

Starting in the 1960s, Southern populists and their conservative allies began to take over the Republican Party. But it was only in the last decade that conservatives finally succeeded in repelling or expelling moderates from the party they once dominated. In the past, ideological issues used to be debated within both parties as well as between them. Today, for the first time, the most "liberal" Republican in Congress is politically to the right of the most "conservative" Democrat, and the parties give every indication that they will draw even farther apart in the future. In the course of this transformation, the GOP has become a wholly ideological party unlike any that has ever existed in American history, and the country's political system is coming ever closer to a breakdown.

Conservatives now have little in common with the principles and attitudes that the Republican Party used to stand for, which explains why few Republicans express loyalty toward former GOP heroes such as Dwight Eisenhower, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Even Ronald Reagan would be unable to pass all of the litmus tests that conservatives lately have set up to determine who's a "real" Republican. This list of changes that have taken place in the GOP over the past few decades suggests that it may actually be today's conservatives who have diverged from the real meaning of Republicanism.

Rule and ruin