Looking back at the history of how the Republican Party has gained so much power over the past half-century and wielded it to move a deeply reactionary agenda, two conclusions leap to mind.
The first is that we’re in deep trouble, and the end game is coming into view. The ultimate Republican goal is to erase all the progressive gains of the 20th century from civil rights for historically oppressed groups to New Deal economic reforms. They would then make it impossible for the rule of concentrated wealth and white supremacy to be seriously challenged again for the foreseeable future.
The short-term fix is to work toward defeating as many Republicans as possible in the 2018 and 2020 elections. But that’s only a band-aid. Going back to the tepid centrism long favored by Democratic Party leaders is a dead-end. So how do we take the surge of protest and activism of the past couple of years and ensure that it isn’t a temporary spasm of outrage but the opening salvo in advancing a transformative agenda for an inclusive, multi-racial democracy where everyone can flourish?
The clues lie all around us in the lessons provided by the conservative movement’s success. Yes, it is lavishly funded and ruthless in its pursuit of power. At the same time, it has been persistent, strategically savvy, willing to do the nuts and bolts work of building power and undiscouraged by setbacks experienced along the way. In doing so, they have advanced their worldview and policies from the margins to the center of our political system.
For the left, time is of the essence. We can’t take 50 years to achieve the same impact but should draw whatever lessons we can from the past to help us envision how to win the future we want.
1971: Big Business Gets Organized
Corporate lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell writes a call-to-arms for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce urging big business to rally in defense of the “enterprise system” against liberal and left-wing critics. The Powell Memo, as it came to be known, provided a detailed blueprint for how corporate interests could engage in a long-term campaign to build public support for its both its worldview and desired policies. “Strength lies in organization,” Powell wrote, “in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”
1973: The Power of Ideas
Inspired by the Powell Memo, the Heritage Foundation opens its doors in Washington, D.C. as the first of many conservative think tanks that now exist at the national, state and local level. Backed by wealthy funders, conservative think tanks such as Heritage provide a veneer of scholarly credibility for right-wing ideology and policy preferences and then amplify those messages by skillfully packaging their “expert findings” for use by the media. The Heritage Foundation has also played a key role in advising and staffing Republican administrations from Reagan to Trump.
1979: A Faithful Marriage
Christian evangelicals have been averse to participating in the “fallen world” of politics for much of U.S. history. Rev. Jerry Falwell changed that. Channeling the post-’60s cultural grievances felt by many conservative churchgoers, the silver-tongued Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979. It played a key role in moving the Republicans to the right on social issues and in electing Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980 The group boasted four million members and two million donors at its height. It dissolved in 1989 due to financial woes but numerous right-wing preachers have followed in Falwell’s footsteps and evangelicals remain one of the Republican Party’s most loyal voting blocs.
1980: The Gipper Wins Big
Former Hollywood B movie actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan is elected president promising to cut taxes, roll back government social programs, deregulate business, pursue a massive military buildup and embrace causes espoused by newly politicized evangelicals, above all repeal of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. The coalition of pro-business tax cutters, military hawks and social conservatives that coalesced around Reagan will prove extremely durable in the coming decades.
1981: War on Unions
Today’s economic inequality began in the mid-1970s and was turbo-charged when Reagan came into office. After delivering generous tax cuts for the rich and budget cuts for the poor, Reagan declared open season on labor unions, one of the pillars of the Democratic Party. The big moment came when he fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers and had their leaders jailed. Replacing striking workers soon became the norm for corporate America. When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker sought to destroy his state’s public sector unions in 2011, he cited Reagan’s actions as his model. 20.1 percent of workers belonged to unions in 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2017 it was down to 10.7 percent.
1982: Capturing The Courts
Founded by conservative legal elites in the same year as young Brett Kavanaugh’s infamous calendar, the Federalist Society has grown into a powerful network of conservative lawyers that stretches from top law schools to white-shoe law firms to the highest levels of government and the judiciary. It groomed Supreme Court Justices Roberts, Alito, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh and is now the gatekeeper along with the Heritage Foundation for all of President Trump’s judicial selections.
1987: Not So Fair
Stocked with Reagan appointees, the Federal Communications Commission rescinds the Fairness Doctrine, a longstanding rule that required the holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was honest, equitable and balanced. With that pesky rule out of the way, right-wing talk radio takes off with Rush Limbaugh and legions of imitators delivering a daily dose of vitriol to millions of Americans.
1991: Clarence Thomas
A conservative ideologue with little judicial experience, Clarence Thomas sees his already shaky Supreme Court nomination almost go down in flames when faced with a credible allegation of workplace sexual harassment by Anita Hill. Republicans, led by Orrin Hatch, rallied to Thomas’s cause, trashing Hill as delusional and suffering from “erotomania.” Thomas’s nomination was approved by a 52-48 vote with the help of “Yes” votes from 11 male Democratic senators.
1993-2001: The Stealth Republican
The Republican-led march to the right in this country has received plenty of help from Democratic Party enablers, none more so than Bill Clinton. Coming into office in 1993 following 12 years of Republican rule, Clinton working in cahoots with congressional Republicans oversaw the passage of trade deals that decimated the Rust Belt (which flipped to Trump a quarter century later), deregulated Wall Street setting the stage for the 2008 financial crash, implemented welfare reform which targeted poor families and their children and overhauled telecommunications laws which led within a decade to the consolidation of 90 percent of the media in the hands of six corporations
The conservative movement’s drive to build a media echo chamber for its followers accelerated with the founding of Fox News by media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Fox News was placed under the control of Roger Ailes, a Republican media operative going back to the Nixon years. Ailes reigned supreme for two decades before being felled by reports that he had sexually harassed more than a dozen female co-workers.
2000: A Stolen Election
George W. Bush becomes the first president in more than a century to win the electoral college while losing the popular vote. Bush was aided by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision that stopped a Florida vote recount that would have likely handed victory to Democrat Al Gore. All five justices voting to end the recount had been appointed by Republican presidents. Bush in turn would appoint conservative justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the court.
2001: Exploiting 9/11
The 9/11 attacks are used by the Bush administration to justify the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and the massive buildup of a homeland security industrial complex that has profited handsomely off the “War on Terror.” One of the new government agencies created at that time was Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), a deportation force which has played a key role in carrying out Donald Trump’s war on immigrants.
2005-2006: Temporarily Derailed
After Bush’s re-election in 2004, GOP dreams of establishing a permanent Republican majority are derailed by the unraveling of the war in Iraq, a botched response to Hurricane Katrina and multiple scandals. The Democrats regain control of the House and Senate in 2006 but do nothing to end the war.
2010: Money Equals Free Speech
By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court rules that laws regulating corporate campaign donations are illegal because they violate the free speech rights of said corporations. The ruling ushers in an unprecedented era of big money influence over elections.
2010: Mid-Term Disaster
With the generous backing of billionaires like Koch Brothers, a conservative rebellion against Obama and the evils of “big government” yields a massive win in the 2010 midterm elections for Republicans who regain control of the House of Representatives and numerous state legislatures. Republican-dominated state legislatures take the results of the 2010 Census and use it to blatantly gerrymander state and congressional districts in their favor ensuring that only a “blue wave” election could displace them from power.
2013: The End of Racism?
The Supreme Court strikes again gutting the key protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act with Chief Justice Roberts arguing that the law was no longer necessary because the historic racism that necessitated its existence was no longer with us. Soon after the Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, North Carolina and Texas enacted voter suppression measures that the Voting Rights Act previously prevented them from doing.
2014: Another Mid-Term Debacle
Voter turnout drops to the lowest level since 1942. Republicans regain control of the Senate and promptly use their majority to block all of Obama’s federal court nominations including his 2016 pick of Merrick Garland to succeed Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court after Scalia unexpectedly dies in February 2016.
2015-2016: The Rise Of Trump
After spending years promoting the “birther” conspiracy that President Obama was not a real American, Donald Trump runs an openly racist campaign for president and wins the White House despite losing the popular vote by almost 3 million votes.
2017-2018: Resisting Trump
Shattering political norms and leaping into the Washington swamp he had cynically promised to drain, Donald Trump goes about enriching himself and his wealthy backers while staffing his administration personnel provided by the Heritage Foundation and the Koch Brothers political network. Trump adds two more right-wing zealots to the Supreme Court while stoking hatred of immigrants, Muslims, sexual assault survivors and the media among others. His creeping authoritarianism tests the limits of an already deeply flawed democracy. At the same time, the 2016 election prompts a fierce backlash starting with millions turning out for Women’s Marches on the first full day of Trump’s presidency.
2018?: A Fork In The Road
Will the Trump era be remembered as a long slide into 21st Century fascism? Or will it be a turning point when millions of Americans were jarred into action and joined those already doing the long hard work of building a country that begins to live up to its promise of “liberty and justice for all?” That’s on all of us.
Illustration (top): Gary Martin.