Eye peering menacingly through torn American flag

The bond that unites the states has always been a fragile one. Ever since the three-fifths compromise in our Constitution, our politics has gone in cycles, with democracy strong mostly when it was accepting of compromise but tilting away from democracy and union from time to time when opposing views could no longer be balanced. Tribalism, defined here as a rejection of the idea that all people have an equal right to freedom and the right to an equal voice in self-government, is the constant though sometimes unacknowledged threat to that delicate equilibrium.

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 – an era when conservative politics gained traction in Washington – it also marked the coalescing of forces that produced an assault on American democracy that was mostly treated by the news media as a captivating and deepening political division within the norms of our two-party system. And so, the threat posed by this assault remained mostly invisible to the general public. It wasn’t until the election of Donald Trump in 2016 that the news media and many Americans began waking up to the extent to which our democracy had been damaged.

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 by some in elective office have driven home the very real and present danger to our constitutionally-protected freedoms. What started as an effort by principled 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 respect for the political opposition, were ignored and policy positions taken whether or not they served the interests of the nation.

Even as many Americans, including some conservatives, are now openly resisting this insurgency, our challenge is to recognize that too many members of the GOP had embraced authoritarian tactics – or remained silent as it happened – to bring us to this point. The assault on our democracy did not begin and will not end with Trump.

The Reagan Alliance

Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 with the backing of three distinct groups: the Jim Crow-supporting southern Democrats who had become Republicans following passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Christian nationalists who were courted to the cause by the politically awakened Moral Majority, and a business community motivated solely by profit and feeling absolved of its social responsibility. It was an alliance brought together and led by a core of conservatives who had spent the prior two decades struggling to win votes for their candidates and attention for their message of limited, constitutional government.

With Reagan as its standard bearer, this newly constituted Republican Party had at last severed ties with the party’s good government policies that had first been rejected by Republican Barry Goldwater in his failed 1964 campaign for president. Those policies were encapsulated in this statement from the party’s 1956 platform:

“We are proud of and shall continue our far-reaching and sound advances in matters of basic human needs — expansion of social security — broadened coverage in unemployment insurance — improved housing — and better health protection for all our people.”

The 1980 platform set the party in the opposite direction. It called for for lower taxes mostly for the rich, spending cuts to social safety net programs, and deregulation – policies Reagan explained in one simple phrase during his inaugural address. His declaration that “government is the problem” made sense to those who had reason to fear federal spending habits in a changing world economy. It also appealed to businesses, whose executives and shareholders saw federal regulations as an impediment to market competitiveness and greater profits; to the former southern Democrats who fled to the GOP in search of a party friendlier to their argument for states’ rights as a defense of their Jim Crow policies; and to those on the Religious Right who opposed the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade and found the GOP aligned with their positions not only on abortion but on education issues and other aspects of the brewing “culture wars”.

What happened next was no accident but the result of an intentional effort by the business community and conservatives in the Republican Party to gain control of all three branches of government – and in doing so, remake the political and social culture of the nation.

The Powell Memo

The blueprint for what was to come had been drafted nine years before Reagan’s election in the summer of 1971. Just two months before his nomination to the Supreme Court, Virginia corporate lawyer Lewis F. Powell Jr. prepared a strategy memo for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that detailed how the business community should assert itself in the face of what he called an attack on the American free enterprise system. He described an assault on the business community from “varied and diffused” sources that included “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and politicians” – in other words, important centers of American culture.

What Powell proposed was an aggressive counter-assault that involved creation and nurturing of a parallel set of cultural centers that would support free market ideas and conservative principles of limited government. Circulated widely, the essence of the plan was reflected in the founding of several new organizations, including The Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Federalist Society, and a network of brash, right-wing college newspapers, with funding and collaboration from such prominent conservatives as Joseph Coors, Charles Koch, Robert Bork, and William F. Buckley. By the middle of Reagan’s first term, they had established the intellectual foundation needed to advocate through the Republican Party for the kind of culture change that Powell had in mind. By the late 1990s, the party and its supporters had built the messaging model and media platform needed to complete the mission.

Losing Control

The conservatives who engineered Reagan’s victory, however, had not understood the depth of antipathy for the federal government harbored by many of their allies. Nor had they foreseen the changes happening in the media industry that would help shift the levers of power within the GOP to a more single-minded, less principled wing of their party. The pivotal figure in this shift was Newt Gingrich, a junior congressman from Georgia. In the early 1980s, he used the relatively new C-SPAN cable network to introduce into the halls of government the kind of half-truths and misleading attacks that were common on the campaign trail but mostly absent from the actual process of governing. His TV grandstanding made headlines, found an audience, and served as an example to young Republicans, propelling Gingrich to leadership roles in the party and foreshadowing the forever campaign of conflict politics that has now divided the country and hobbled the work of Congress.

Over time, the messaging at the heart of this shift toward governing through high conflict divided the nation into two irreconcilable sides in our two-party system. Matters of policy became campaign platforms that defined your identity – what side you chose in debates over abortion and climate change determined which side you were on. The GOP would have us believe that on one side is the red team of patriots who believed in family values, the sanctity of life, and law and order. And on the other is the blue team of corrupt, amoral, disloyal socialists.

This point was driven home by the investigations in the 1990s into Bill and Hillary Clintons’ personal and financial affairs. The echoes of all the accusations and headlines – from the failed Whitewater land deal in Arkansas to the suicide of White House aide Vince Foster to Monica Lewinsky’s stained blue dress – may have contributed to Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2008 Democratic primary and most certainly were heard in the “lock her up” chant at the 2016 Republican National Convention.

Republicans’ aggressiveness, not only on policy disputes but also on matters of character, successfully moved what political scientists call the Overton Window steadily rightward, normalizing extreme and dangerous ideas about Democrats, our democratic institutions, and who should have a say in running the country. With the red-blue paradigm firmly established as the window through which the media and most Americans viewed events, Democrats and independents who spoke out against Republicans and their increasingly anti-democracy statements and tactics were too easily questioned and disregarded as partisan. Any Republicans who spoke out against their colleagues were dismissed as RINOs – Republicans In Name Only.

Eventually, Sarah Palin, then the Tea Party, and finally, Donald Trump made racism, nativism, and anti-democracy activism centerpieces of the party. Republicans in and out of government began to talk openly about America as a Christian nation, mostly of White men and women, and downplay the violence of the January 6 insurrection – or remain silent in the face of such talk.

While the Republican Party as a whole had for decades steadily sought to restrict voting rights and alter the makeup of the courts and interpretation of our laws, Trump’s election and presidency made clear how inadequately the media had covered the intentional erosion of democratic culture. It also revealed to the nation the threat of authoritarian, minority rule that had been brewing beneath the too-long-held illusion that our politics was all business as usual.

Washington was not broken, as some proclaimed. True, it wasn’t functioning as it once had, not because the mechanisms of government had faltered but because one party no longer adhered to the nation’s motto, “E pluribus unum” – “Out of many, one”.  The GOP had exposed the vulnerabilities of our constitutional government, took advantage of them, and weakened our democracy in the process. In doing so, they emboldened the fascists among them to step forward and reveal themselves. Many of them hold public office in Washington and in state and local governments and others continue to promote and spread lies and half-truths.

Facing the Threat

Fortunately, an America awakened by election denialism and the Supreme Court’s ruling against abortion has begun to push back. In November, voters surprised most prognosticators by reversing a long history of midterm elections and choosing to support the party that held the White House. And just recently, in a critical election in Wisconsin for a state supreme court justice, Wisconites chose the candidate who disavowed heavily gerrymandered political maps and promised to protect a woman’s right to chose.

Conservatives in the GOP were not always blind to the dangers that they were unleashing but most were willing to tolerate them – and many still are – so long as they advanced conservative goals. They had needed the passion and support of the racists and homophobes and Christian moralists and nativists to eliminate campaign finance limits, pass laws that compromise the integrity of our elections and the authority of voters, and change the makeup of the courts to get the decision on abortion that they desired – all issues that are opposed by a majority of Americans.

A minority of conservatives have found the courage to speak out against Trump and the other authoritarians in their midst, and some have organized to oppose their continued role in American politics. These are the Republicans who have campaigned against election deniers and for Joe Biden and other Democrats. Today, their message is about preserving our democracy and putting the interests of the nation ahead of party politics.

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

Timeline 1971 – present

The following threads of recent history explain how authoritarians came to dominate the Republican Party and threaten our democracy.

Scan of top half of first page of Lewis Powell memo

Lewis Powell intended his 1971 memo, Attack on American Free Enterprise System, to be a strategy for the business community to assert itself more in the country’s intellectual and political life. What began as a response to the perceived overreach of federal regulations became instead a blueprint for culture change that favored resistance to the federal government and long term investment in changing the cultural direction of the country.

Within a decade of the memo’s release, the number of companies with public affairs offices in Washington had increased from 100 to more than 500 while the number of companies with registered lobbyists had risen from 175 to almost 2500. While assembling this army of policy warriors gave the business community the means to respond to further progressive policy proposals, Powell did not believe that uncoordinated activities by individual corporations could affect the kind of change he sought.

He wrote, “Strength lies in organization, 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.”

In particular, he wanted to change the liberal underpinnings that permeated American academics, art, media, AND its politics – the cultural stew that produced the kinds of regulations being promulgated in defense of consumers, workers, and the environment. For Powell, it was not enough to simply argue against such progressive policies that in his view misleadingly pitted business against the people and rich against poor. He believed that a network of scholars and respected expert thinkers representing conservative views could and should redefine the common ground that those progressive policies aimed to protect.

He also believed it vital to target the judicial system for the appointment of justices and judges whose legal training was shaped by conservative views. As Powell wrote, “Under our constitutional system, especially with an activist-minded Supreme Court, the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic, and political change.” He cited the ACLU as a liberal entity that had experience in targeting the judiciary in this manner and wanted to see a similarly equipped conservative organization take up the cause on behalf of business.

Finally, he recognized that “the entire program”, as he phrased it, required an active and aggressive media presence and the utmost care in brand management. Powell understood that long-term, lasting change required appealing to the hearts and minds of the public at large. He advised that all channels of communication had “to meet the most exacting standards of accuracy and professional excellence” so that the views they advocated would be met with “respect for their level of public responsibility and scholarship”.

Over the next 10 or so years, a network of wealthy businessmen and conservative thinkers created the first of several 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 Powell promoted.

  • 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. >>>>

Starting in 1978 when Newt Gingrich informed an audience of college Republicans that politics is a war for power, Republicans have marched further to the right with each passing decade. Gingrich’s remark likely seemed innocuous at the time, coming from a man trying to get elected for the first time in his third attempt. By 2020, a Heritage Foundation report had declared that America is not a democracy, an idea that quickly found traction among election deniers on social media and in government.

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.

Although some Republicans recognized the threat growing within their party, few spoke out. Those who did attracted media attention from time to time, but their warnings had little impact on the red-blue paradigm through which our politics was viewed and the culture war normalized. Today, several groups founded in recent years by the party’s conservatives are opposing Trump and the other authoritarians who have overtaken the party. The red-blue paradigm isn’t entirely shattered yet, but the cracks are getting bigger.

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



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Related Problems: Threats to Voting Rights

Author: George Linzer
Contributing Editor: David Hawkings
Published: April 11, 2023

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

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