Introduction

With conservative Republicans, Democrats of all persuasions, and many Independents united in their concern over the dangerous rise of authoritarians in the GOP, it’s important to understand how our nation arrived at this precipice in 2024. While former President and current candidate Donald Trump is the outspoken face of the party, his is not the only voice to be concerned about.

The bond that unites the states around the idea of democracy has always been a fragile one. Starting with the three-fifths compromise in our Constitution, tensions between states and parties holding different worldviews have lingered at or near the surface of our politics. To borrow a phrase from Judge Learned Hand, when democracy lies strong in the hearts of men and women, parties with opposing perspectives have usually found common ground and accepted compromise and the balance of shared power. When one party or the other feels they are losing influence, democracy and union take a back seat to party priorities.

Such was the case when Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) ran for president in 1964 on a platform that rejected the good government policies of Dwight D. Eisenhower, a two-term Republican president. Conservatives like Goldwater objected to the expansion of the federal government and instead favored smaller government, emphasizing states rights and the role of business in lifting American prosperity. Goldwater’s overwhelming loss and President Johnson’s Great Society initiatives only stimulated further anger and frustration among conservatives.

At the request of the US Chamber of Commerce, Lewis Powell, soon to be nominated to the Supreme Court, drafted a memo in 1971 that outlined a response to what he said was a broad attack on the American economic system. As a corporate lawyer familiar with the federal government’s efforts in the 1960s to implement new laws protecting the environment, workers, and consumers, he proposed an equally broad response that included but went far beyond marching an army of lobbyists into Washington. He recommended the establishment of counterparts to each facet of liberal culture – conservative think tanks, academic curriculum, and media that would propound ideas and perspectives more consistent with the desires of the business community. He also called for an aggressive effort to seize control of the judiciary.

Within 10 years, the business community had its conservative foundation in the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Collegiate Network of conservative college newspapers, and the crown jewel, the Federalist Society. It also had established the alliances needed to give the movement its political impetus.

The year 1980 marks a turning point in the short history of our country when our politics once more began to fall out of balance. Commonly considered the start of the Reagan Revolution, it was an era when the politics of fiscal conservatism, free markets, and small government gained traction in Washington. It also marked the coalescing of forces – extreme wealth represented by big business and those who profited from it, religious fervor supplied by Christian fundamentalists, and the Dixiecrats’ racist legacy of slavery – that produced a steadily mounting assault on American democracy.

Sometimes called the “culture war” and treated by the news media mostly as a captivating story of deepening political division within the norms of our two-party system, the threat posed by this assault remained mostly invisible to the general public, cloaked in the non-discriminatory language of conservative versus liberal politics. It wasn’t until the Tea Party victories in 2010, the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, and the establishment of the Freedom Caucus in Congress that the public began to take notice of a radical shift in the nation’s politics. Finally, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 woke the media and many Americans to the damage being done to the core principles of our democracy.

The January 6 insurrection, continued popularity of many election deniers, attacks by elected officials on the integrity of our democratic institutions, and the brazen advocacy of Christian nationalism  and authoritarianism by political leaders, including the former president, have driven home the very real and present danger to our constitutionally-protected freedoms. What started as a reasonable effort by democratically principled, business-friendly conservatives to gain a larger voice in national politics very quickly devolved into a relentless lust for political power in which the norms of good government, including service to the public and respect for the political opposition, were ignored for tactics that favored only party victory.

Even as many Americans, including many conservatives, are now openly resisting the authoritarians in our midst, our challenge is to recognize that over the last decades too many members of the GOP had embraced authoritarian tactics – or remained silent as their colleagues did so – to bring us to this point. The assault on our democracy did not begin and will not end with Trump.

Yet today, the Republican Party finds itself entertaining some of the same unsettling nativist and authoritarian impulses that characterized Europe throughout the 20th century. These ideals are antithetical to what it means to be a Republican, and what it means to be American.

— from Defending Democracy Together, which describes itself as an “advocacy organization created by lifelong conservatives and Republicans”

Timeline: The Rise of Authoritarians in the GOP

Lewis Powell wrote a memo for the US Chamber of Commerce in 1971 that he intended would set the country on a new path that favored big business and policies around fiscal conservatism. While there are no definitive linkages between his call for conservatives to infiltrate college campuses and the media, establish think tanks, and target the judiciary for placement of conservative judges, what followed release of his memo undeniably resembles all that he recommended.

Over the next 10 or so years, a network of wealthy businessmen and conservative thinkers created the first of many new organizations that would embody Powell’s most important ideas. The media machine that he understood was necessary to reach the public evolved soon after, but the messages it carried went far beyond the business-friendly brand of conservatism that he promoted and the standards of civil discourse and accuracy that he advocated. The cultural shift that Powell’s memo started on behalf of constitutionally-minded conservatives in the Republican Party eventually slipped from their control.

Still, for a brief time, his master class in capturing political power led conservatives to the White House in 1980 and control of Congress in 1994.

  • The Blueprint: Powell’s Memo

    Lewis Powell’s 1971memo, Attack on American Free Enterprise System, began as a response to the perceived overreach of federal regulations and “liberal society” and became a blueprint for culture change that favored resistance to the federal government and long term investment in changing the cultural and political direction of the country.
  • New Conservatism: The Heritage Foundation

    The Heritage Foundation is one of the central architects of Republican intellectual thought. Its website boasts that the Reagan administration implemented over 1200 of its 2000 policy recommendations and that the Trump administration embraced a similarly high percentage of its ideas. >>>>
  • Model Legislation for Faith and Profit: ALEC

    Founded in 1973 to promote conservative positions on social issues like abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, the American Legislative Exchange Council had by the early 1990s partnered with corporate America to become, in the words of Newt Gingrich, “the most effective organization” for promoting conservatism and federalism. It functions primarily as a source of model legislation promoting discriminatory social policies and corporate profits. >>>>
  • Libertarian Cornerstone: Cato Institute

    The Cato Institute was founded “to originate, disseminate, and advance solutions based on the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace.” For co-founder Charles Koch, Cato became a cornerstone in a network of think tanks and academic centers that he’s funded in the last four decades to promote those goals. >>>>
  • Training and Messaging: GOPAC

    Following the 1978 midterm elections, Governor Pete du Pont of Delaware led the establishment of GOPAC, a centerpiece of Republican efforts to win more seats and build a Republican majority in local, state, and national government. GOPAC built a farm system of aggressive campaign-savvy candidates accustomed to top-down messaging and became the premier training ground for the next generations of Republican candidates. >>>>
  • Reaching the Next Generation: Collegiate Network

    The Collegiate Network supported the establishment of conservative newspapers on college campuses through grant-making and mentoring. Its mission was to call attention through those newspapers to conservative views and to expose the liberal bias implicit in much of campus academic and political thought. >>>>
  • Targeting the Judiciary: The Federalist Society

    Founded to advance conservative ideas and legal theories among up-and-coming conservative and libertarian lawyers, the Federalist Society has grown to be the most dominant influence in the nominating process of Supreme Court justices as well as judges named to the federal appeals and district courts. >>>>
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Powell’s call to realign the centers of American culture around conservative ideas set off a change in the historical narrative of the country. What once was held as gospel – that the Constitution was adaptive to the evolutionary changes that happen to a society and that government had an important role in steering its path – became at best an indulgence the nation could no longer afford and at worst a traitorous foray into socialism that ran counter to the founders’ original intentions.

Ronald Reagan led the revolution, extolling the virtues of freedom and democracy while targeting the government that protected them with the arguments that the new think tanks were providing. The Reagan coalition of big business, white supremacists, and religious fundamentalists carried him to victory in the 1980 presidential election – helped by President Carter’s failure to secure the release of 53 hostages held in Iran that year. In what could be the first instance of the GOP putting party before country, long-held suspicions that the Reagan campaign interfered in the Carter administration’s negotiations were given more substance when former Texas politician and businessman Ben Barnes went public in 2023 with a story that Reagan’s campaign offered the Iranians a better deal than Carter. While difficult to corroborate, no one disputes that the hostages were released minutes after Reagan’s inauguration.

Behind the scenes of the Reagan Revolution, a much more dangerous threat began to percolate. A political flamethrower from Georgia, Newt Gingrich, began his rise in Congress and, in 1994, led the party to win the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. He was rewarded with the House speakership in 1995, but was forced out three years later after a dismal performance in the midterms. By then, however, he had started enough fires that in another 10 years began to burn beyond the party’s control.

More to come. Check back later or SUBSCRIBE for notification when this section is completed.

Gingrich’s war-like rhetoric struck a nerve outside of the country’s political and economic centers. With Republicans up and down the line following the talking points given them by Gingrich and other GOP leaders, talk radio and Fox News became the echo chambers that relayed the messages of war to an audience eager to feel heard. Combined with a growing disregard for the truth, these were the primary building blocks of the messaging machine that enabled extremists in the GOP to seize the party’s reins and sabotage our democracy.

More to come. Check back later or SUBSCRIBE for notification when this section is completed.

Sarah Palin’s nomination as John McCain’s vice presidential running mate in 2008 was a coming out party of sorts for the mostly white, racist, homophobic fringe that had been courted by the party since 1980 and were now the party’s passionate base. Two years later, Tea Party victories elevated them into the mainstream of the Republican Party and brought an explicit authoritarian identity to policy negotiations in Congress. Trump’s presidency helped clarify the threat to our democracy as he further emboldened the extremists and made the battle lines in the culture war impossible to ignore.

More to come. Check back later or SUBSCRIBE for notification when this section is completed.

Sources

The URLs included with the sources below were good links when we published. However, as third party websites are updated over time, some links may be broken. We do not update these broken links. If you are interested in the source, it may be possible to find it by copying and pasting the URL into a search on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. From the search results, be sure to choose a date from around the time our article was published.

Introduction

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Laying a Conservative Foundation

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Credits

Related Problems: Threats to Voting Rights

Author: George Linzer
Published: April 11, 2023
Updated: March 28, 2024

Feature image: The American Leader, based on images by Library of Congress on Unsplash and thomas-bethge

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