Historian Geoffrey Kabaservice examined the Republican Party for his 2012 book “Rule and Ruin” and concluded it was headed for disaster.
“What I saw was a party that had lost a lot of its moderate heritage,” he said. “It was moving away from seeing value in bipartisanship and compromise. And everything I more or less predicted has happened.”
The eventual result, he said, was this year’s “hostile takeover” of the party by presidential candidate Donald Trump and his supporters.
Kabaservice will be at Indiana University Bloomington this Friday to present a talk and take part in a panel discussion as part of the university’s Tocqueville Lecture Series.
From noon to 1:30 p.m., he will speak on “Trump and the Republican Party Crackup — A Moderate Historical Perspective.” From 4 to 5:30 p.m., he will take part in a discussion of “Is There a Role for Moderation in America’s Polarized Politics?” with IU faculty members Lee H. Hamilton and Leslie Lenkowsky. IU political scientist Edward Carmines will moderate.
The lecture and panel discussion will take place at the Ostrom Workshop, 513 N. Park Ave. Both are free and open to the public and will be streamed online. They were organized by the Tocqueville Program, which was founded at IU Bloomington in 2009.
In the New York Times Notable Book “Rule and Ruin: the Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party,” Kabaservice traces how the Party of Lincoln transformed into what would become the Party of Trump.
Into the 1960s, he said, the Republican Party was a coalition of distinctive groups, including stalwarts who were loyal to the party, conservatives, moderates and progressives.
“It’s kind of shocking to think the GOP used to have a progressive wing, but it did,” he said. Republican moderates and progressives proved crucial to passing civil rights legislation in the 1960s, when conservative Southern Democrats tried to block reforms.
But that changed, starting with the Republican Party’s embrace of the conservative icon Barry Goldwater as its presidential nominee in 1964 and continuing with Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Ronald Reagan’s two terms as president and the anti-government activism of the tea party.
“The conservative wing grew to the point that it swallowed the rest of the party and threw everyone else out,” Kabaservice said. “It became an ideological party.”
And ideological parties are not in the American tradition, he said, because coalitions of different groups are needed for political stability. He noted that, while Republicans enjoy huge majorities in Congress, they have won a majority of votes for president only once since 1988. George W. Bush recently fretted that he could be the last Republican president.
Kabaservice said a collapse of the party would not only be bad for Republicans; it would be bad for American democracy.
“I would argue it’s in the interest of the United States to have two fully functioning parties that seek to govern and that can live with each other,” he said.
Like IU political scientist Aurelian Craiutu, director of the university’s Tocqueville Program and Lecture Series, Kabaservice is a historian of political moderation. He says the U.S. loses an essential perspective as its politics grow ever more polarized.
“Moderation is like the air we breathe,” he said. “We don’t appreciate it until it’s gone. And yet it’s moderation that allows our civilization to go on.”