The myth of political purification through exile

Many conservatives are consoling themselves that a time of political exile will do them good, a chance to purify the Republican party for a later comeback. Michael Medved, a political conservative himself, says that just does not happen:

History shows conclusively that a bitter defeat never pushes a conservative party farther right, or pushes a liberal party further left. Instead, political organizations that experience harsh rejection from the electorate move instinctively, inevitably toward the center in quest of precisely those middle-of-the-road voters who abandoned them in the previous contest. After outspoken conservative Barry Goldwater led the GOP to an overwhelming defeat in 1964, the nominees that followed (Nixon twice and then Gerald Ford) clearly represented the more moderate wing of the party. When unapologetic liberal George McGovern brought the Democrats a ruinous 49-state drubbing in 1972, they followed with a long series of relatively centrist, purportedly non-ideological candidates (Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore), reliably shunning the strong leftist contingent within their coalition.

There is simply no historical model for the process of party defeat, purification and rejuvenation that some deluded conservatives recommend. Consider the sad state of the Republican Party during the 1930’s and ‘40’s. In 1928, Herbert Hoover represented the most moderate, or even progressive, nominee since Teddy Roosevelt in 1904. When Hoover got crushed by FDR in 1932, the Republicans didn’t turn back to solid conservatives in the Coolidge tradition. Instead they kept nominating moderates (Alf Landon, former Democrat Wendell Wilkie, New York progressive Tom Dewey twice, and then the non-ideological General Eisenhower) in the often forlorn hope that they could woo wavering independents or conservative Democrats away from the New Deal coalition. Not even five consecutive defeats on the Presidential level led the Republicans to shift to a more conservative, ideologically rigorous posture.

Today, Barack Obama is running an unusually explicit liberal campaign, and if he loses the presidency the Democrats will almost certainly adopt a more centrist, “New Democrat” image for the next campaign. If, on the other hand, McCain and Palin lose, political operatives will (for better or worse) steer the Republican Party even further toward the middle of the road, seeking a more moderate (or at least “inclusive”) image to attract the centrist, independent, undecided voters who decide almost all elections.

In other words, a McCain victory would force the Democrats to turn to the right, while a McCain defeat would almost certainly send Republicans scurrying toward the mushy center.

I suspect Medved is right in describing how political parties respond, even though the strategy of being moderate won the Republican few elections.

So how did Ronald Reagan start a conservative dynasty so soon after Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • FW

    first..

    Reagan won so soon after goldwater because Goldwater lost for all the right and righeous reasons. Goldwater was ideologically true to what he said and campaigned for. he lost because he was successfully characaturized by LBJ (remember the famous mushroom cloud commercial? It worked.) Nixon was alot more liberal in the traditional “movement conservatism” of his party. reagan finally was pure in his ideology but was willing to compromise ALOT as long as the center of debate shifted, even slightly, towards the right. Reagan, in other words, ruled by consensus. Bush/Rove felt that they could muscle their way with elections and the popular vote, and did not fear at ALL antagonizing the 45% who voted against them

    MOST IMPORTANTLY: in those elections the dem candidates were lackluster so often a democratic vote was a “lesser-of-two-evils” vote.

    In THIS election that is turned around isn´t it? Democrats are voting for Obama with passion. republicans are often holding their noses and voting much like democrats have been doing since clinton. and clinton was a dem mirror image of bush politically. rove politics of division and confrontation from the democratic side. muscling their way against a minority of voters with divisiveness.

    THE FUTURE….So what does the political world look like on Wednesday if the gurus at ABC News are right? They all announced their guesses Sunday morning, and the average of their projections is 352 electoral votes for Obama plus a pickup for the Democrats of 24 seats in the House and 7 or 8 seats in the Senate.

    If this happens, the upshot is that both parties get moved to the right. Most of the Democratic pickups will be in centrist states and districts, which will move the Democratic caucus moderately toward the center. At the same time, it will remove these centrist states and districts from the Republican side, which will make the GOP caucus not just smaller, but even more conservative than it is now. As a touchstone, the Republican Study Committee, the hardcore conservative wing of the House GOP contingent, currently represents a little over half of their total strength. After Tuesday they’re likely to represent nearly two-thirds, which means that the rump of the House Republican caucus remaining after Tuesday is likely to be almost entirely in the hands of the most faithful of the movement conservative faithful. These true believers are not likely to give in quickly to the notion that hardcore conservative ideology needs a bit of freshening up if the party wants to regain its competitive edge. On the contrary, they’ll probably double down, convinced that they lost only because John McCain and George Bush abandoned the true faith that America truly yearns for.

    Will these folks rally around Sarah Palin as their conservative savior? I continue to see that as unlikely, but who knows? Desperate people do desperate things, and there’s no telling if they’ll somehow convince themselves that she represents their future.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    I think Carter was the reason Reagan was able to do what he did.
    Medved is probably right. However, once in a while you do get quirks in politics. And there might just possibly be a slow birth for a third party to the main stage. I hold out hopes for the Libertarians, but I do think they will need to revisit their stance on foreign policy before they will be taken seriously on a presidential ticket.

  • http://www.caryschwarz.com saddler

    Medved paints with a broad brush. But what seemed to happen with Reagan was his unique ability to appeal to a large base. The prevailing political winds are one thing, but the emergence of an individual with special qualities can tip the scales one direction or another inspite of whatever the current climate may be.

  • Anon

    Reagan was NOT the favored son of the GOP apparatus. He won by his appeal to the people, who were, after a couple tries at the white house, able to overcome the GOP apparatus, who wanted a RINO like Ford or Rockefeller.

  • utahrainbow

    Perhaps not good for the Republican party, but who cares? Maybe it’ll be good for Christianity? Perhaps a sobering experience after being intoxicated with a tad too much faith in political power would be very beneficial.

    Jesus was a political loser. Lest we forget, our hope lies not in princes or earthly power.

  • ELB

    ANON at #4 has it right. Reagan was NOT ushered in by the party operatives, but was brought in by outsiders in a fashion rendered impossible now because of McCain Feingold, as Ann Coulter effectively documented.

    It is also significant that he was a deep thinker and a student of history – for which he only occasionally gets credit. This is the big difference between him and Palin. Though Palin seems to have the right instincts, they need to be buttressed and refined by a broad understanding.

  • ELB

    I hope that FW is right and Medved is wrong, and that the Republicans try to be something other than “liberal light.”

    History shows you are wrong, Frank, about the Democrat party being moderated. Historically, the conservative democrats have given the party the majority that the party leaders have then exercised ruthlessly .

  • Joe

    Medved is wrong. Goldwater’s loss was the beginning of the modern conservative movement. Nixon was part of the process not the proof that the process doesn’t work. The GOP did not move to the middle after Goldwater – it was already at the middle. Goldwater’s nomination was out of step with the Rockefeller GOP that dominated that area (Ike was not a conservative), the larger GOP saw what a mistake going back to Rockefeller side was and nominated Regan. The reason for the delay was related to conservative movement needed to clean its own house. National Review, Rand, the Birchers were all angling for control of the movement. NR had to win the internal battle before it could win the party.

    Recently we saw it play out with the Democrats (much faster given the internet’s ability to build a movement with greater speed). Dean was the Goldwater, Kerry was the Nixon (here the tradition was the Clinton era more centrist Dems) and Obama is the Regan.

    I am not sure what will happen with the GOP now. Bush had the opportunity to be the next Regan but chose to be the next Nixon. McCain is also like a Nixon – perhaps he is Ford. I am not sure what would happen after a McCain loss, but I think it should yield a conservative. But only if someone is brave enough to point out that Bush was not a conservative.

  • allen

    Joe#8,

    Thank-you very much. Yes, Bush was Nixon.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Joe (@8), “only if someone is brave enough to point out that Bush was not a conservative”? Brave enough? With Bush’s popularity, who isn’t screaming that from the rooftops these days?

    I’m just surprised no one has yet bothered to claim that the Plutonium President isn’t even a real American. They certainly have no problem tossing out ridiculous proclamations like that for other people.

  • Gregory DeVore

    Bush was a great social conservative and for that I am thankful for his presidency. On economic policy and size of government he is a centrist not a conservative. On foreign policy he was a conservative before 9/11 and after 9/11 he became a neo-con. There are many conservatives both mainstream and paleo-conservatives who reject neocon ideology. So the answer to the question of George Bush’s conservatism depends on who owns the conservative label.

  • Gregory DeVore

    I think the question of the direction of the republican party is difficult because of McCain’s candidacy. McCain was never the favorite of the parties right wing. I don’t see how McCain’s loss (if he loses) will move that wing toward the mushy center. If it does many, many of us will abandon the GOP for third parties.

  • Anon

    Utah, I am not aware of any persecution of the Church that has resulted in a purity of life or doctrine. The Church did grow in ancient Rome, in the sporadic and (compared to the 20th century) relatively mild persecution it experienced, but in the Soviet Union, China 1200 years ago, or today, India for the last 2,000 years, Iraq, Iran, the whole half of the Christian Roman Empire that Islam conquered and oppressed, the Church has shrunken, in some cases disappeared, and heresies arose and ran free, due to the lack of an educated clergy that needs freedom to be educated.

  • Joe

    tODD – I meant within the party leadership. Very few party leaders are willing to call Bush what he was – Nixon Jr. They refuse to admit that No Child Left Behind is antithetical to conservatism, as is the prescription drug plan, and McCain-Feingold. Instead, they pretend that large gov’t solutions to problems are somehow conservative. You can make the case that the GOP has a history of turning to gov’t programs, but those would be Rockefeller types not conservatives.

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  • http://www.reformatus.us Reformatus

    Exile seemed to purify the Jews … they at least were not the same idolators after their exile to Babylon.

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