To understand the literary elite's simplistic grasp of politics, look to whom they get their opinions from: Veteran political contributor Elizabeth Drew, a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books (with a rather goofy and entertaining Twitter account), explained the Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate for the Review's February issue under the headline: "The Republicans: Divided and Scary." And purist. And nativist. And racist....
The Republicans urgently needed to present a new and more positive face to the public. Their leadership believed that by the 2016 election they had to appear qualified to occupy the presidency. But this goal isn’t so important to a major faction on the far right of their party. Thus the Republicans are riven between pragmatists and purists. The purists are essentially the Tea Party members in Congress who were elected on the pledge that they would oppose any expansion of the federal government and wouldn’t go to Washington to compromise; to the purists compromise dilutes principle.
The forty-some Tea Party members in the House have a mighty force behind them: the large outside movement that buys ads and sends newsletters, plus the more militant talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck who rally the forces against those they deem insufficiently militant. Even Mitch McConnell, whose conservative bona fides were without question, had a Tea Party challenger in 2014.
Thus, the forces for purism are more powerful than their numbers in Congress and are nervously watched by the pragmatists. Ted Cruz has set himself up as the leader of the handful of Tea Party members in the Senate but he also brought pressure on House members last year to back the government shutdown. One of McConnell’s greatest challenges in this Congress is whether he can bring the obstreperous Cruz under control.
More fundamentally, the Republicans’ position also contains a trace of the old championing of “states’ rights” -- code for fending off federal efforts to impose equity in the treatment of the races. “Federal” is now virtually an epithet for Republicans. By contrast, the Republicans who worked with Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton didn’t have such an antipathy to anything called “federal,” and they weren’t under such pressure from outside forces (including big money) to do so.
Fortunately, according to Drew, some Republican governors realized how "radical" they were and backed off.
....Still, some Republican governors elected in 2010, such as John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, recognized after a while that they were too radical at the outset of their term and have tamed their approach. Kansas’s Sam Brownback, whose deep tax cuts broke the state and made the rest of the party nervous, has had to reverse course and call for a tax increase.
John Boehner continues to be challenged by the Tea Party – both within his caucus and outside. To the radical right, his unforgivable sins have been to try to avert (unsuccessfully in the fall of 2013) government shutdowns and his willingness to make a deal with Obama on the budget. In the last Congress his caucus forbade him to have any further negotiations on his own with Obama.
Drew fleshed out the "racist Republicans" charge about midway through the nearly 4,000-word piece.
Boehner has had to make hazardous deals in order to retain his enormous gavel. Thus, he chose the heretofore obscure Steve Scalise, of Louisiana, as House whip in order to pull into the leadership someone with close ties to members on the far right. The revelation that in 2002 Scalise had addressed a group headed by Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke set off the kind of kerfuffle Washington specializes in (lots of noise and coverage, usually but not always fleeting), until Boehner decided that it would be less dangerous to ride out the Scalise crisis than to dump him, gambling that there’d be no more revelations of indefensible behavior. The episode was an uncomfortable reminder to the Republicans of the risks they’ve taken by playing to anti-black and anti-minority sentiment in order to maintain their electoral strength.
The Republican Party hasn’t always been so entangled in the race issue; but in modern times it became dependent on winning the anti-black vote in order to win the Electoral College. This was carried out through some overt actions and policies and also ones couched in winks and nods and “dog whistles.” Part of the code was to be against “big government”: this can of course be a sincerely held philosophy, but it also overlaps with opposing programs that are aimed at helping blacks, or are seen that way, e.g., food stamps. Who can forget Rick Santorum’s line in Iowa in 2012: “I don’t want to make blaaaah people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.”
As Lyndon Johnson foresaw, his push for civil rights legislation drove southern Democrats into the Republican Party in large enough numbers to change the Electoral College map. But it took Richard Nixon to see and seize the opportunity to institutionalize an appeal to racial prejudice in the South and elsewhere, through the “Southern Strategy,” by among other things slowing down integration of schools. The strategy also appealed to blue-collar workers in the Northeast and Northwest who were opposed to “forced bussing.” This was expressed in code as favoring “law and order” and opposing “crime in the streets.”
Ronald Reagan continued the tradition of Republican nominees sending signals to the South when he opened his 1980 presidential campaign in Neshoba, Mississippi, close by the town of Philadelphia, the site of the murder of three civil rights workers, with the theme of “states’ rights.”
Reagan did visit the Neshoba County Fair, a common stomping ground for politicians, on August 3, 1980, but stuck mostly to talking about the failures of President Jimmy Carter, with one line about states rights. (Strangely, back in 1980 the Times covered Reagan's appearance without mentioning the three slain civil rights workers.) Reagan then went to New York and spoke to the National Urban League and dedicated much of his first campaign week to making appeals to blacks.
Next it was the Tea Party accused of being steeped in racism:
Though it was less successful electorally in 2014, the Tea Party is still in a position to cause big problems for the pragmatic congressional leaders, particularly in the House, not least because of its perfervid opposition to liberalization of immigration, combined with antipathy toward and fear of the growing numbers of minorities in this country. Not only racism but nativism is alive.
Then the boring liberal canard that President Ronald Reagan (loathed by liberals as a dangerous dunderhead while alive) was actually a moderate compared to today's batch of Republican far-right radicals.
A sign of what’s happened to the Republican Party is that while Bush is considered a mainstream candidate, according to Republican pragmatists who favor him -- he is not only more conservative than either his father or his brother, but more conservative within the spectrum of the current Republican Party than Ronald Reagan was within the party of his time. In fact, Scott Reed, a longtime Republican operative who was involved in Reagan’s reelection campaign in 1984, says, “I’m not sure that Ronald Reagan could be nominated today.”
How did such a nightmare transpire? The answer Drew provided her sophisticated NYRB readership after the big GOP victory last November: Big money and voter suppression by the Republican Party, plus some Obama blunders: "Since Obama is a very smart man, these blunders were bewildering."
.... little attention was paid to the too-ample evidence that our democratic election system is working less and less as it should....The influence of big money is ever greater and more cloaked in mystery -- thus more insidiously effective -- and the nationwide Republican effort to block the votes of Democrats’ supporters are increasingly numerous and stringent.....Any victory that was even partially based on an intentional plan to block the right of an opponent’s supporters to vote is dubious; our elections are increasingly becoming illegitimate.