Not long ago, another magazine asked me to recommend six books that explain something important about American politics. I chose six of my favorites that help elucidate the most important development of the last half-century in American politics: the Republican Party’s embrace of movement conservative ideology. No other major party in the advanced world rejects on principle any proposed tax-revenue increase, or denies the legitimacy of climate science, or opposes universal health care.
For reasons I’ll explain below, the magazine turned down this list after I submitted it. But first, here is what I sent them:
To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party, by Heather Cox Richardson.
To trace the story of how the Republican Party began as a progressive and even radical force for social and economic egalitarianism, and evolved into a reactionary faction advocating ideas it once loathed, start at the beginning, like Richardson does here. She tells the story from Lincoln to the party’s rightward turn, its halting moves back to the center under such figures as Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, and then its final reactionary lurch in the present era.
Social Darwinism in American Thought, by Richard Hofstadter.
Still the most astute critic of modern conservatism, Hofstadter’s 1944 classic identifies and scathingly dispatches a powerful right-wing idea that was destined to endure: the notion that the free market is a perfectly just mechanism for rewarding value and punishing failure.
Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal, by Kimberly Phillips-Fein.
The major accounts of the New Deal describe the winners, but Phillips-Fein tells the story of the opposition, because its ideas would live on, too. How the Social Darwinists fought back against Franklin Roosevelt would set the stage for the right’s comeback decades later.
The conservative movement, which rejected the New Deal and its seemingly permanent role in American life, set in motion ideological and political changes that led to the party as it exists today.
Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party, by Geoffrey Kabaservice.
A moderate Republican, unlike the other (more liberal) authors listed here, Kabaservice tells the same story as Dionne, from the opposite end: focusing on the long, tragic decline of the GOP’s once-powerful moderate tradition.
Peddling Prosperity: Economic Sense and Nonsense in an Age of Diminished Expectations, by Paul Krugman.
This book, intended as a kind of explainer, wound up producing a powerful critique of supply-side economics, the dominant theory of the GOP, which Krugman aptly dispatches as simply crankery lacking any grounding in serious economic theory.
I was told my list could not be published because it was too partisan — to be suitable for publication, I would have to swap out some of the books I chose, and substitute some that made the case that the Democratic Party had also gone off the rails, for the sake of balance. I replied that I could not make this change because I don’t believe that the Democratic Party, in its current historical period, has gone off the rails. That doesn’t mean I consider the Democrats flawless, just that they are a normal party with normal problems. It contains a broad range of interest groups and politicians. Sometimes one interest group or another gains too much influence over a particular policy, and sometimes its leading politicians get greedy or make bad political decisions.
The GOP right now is an abnormal party. It does not resemble the major right-of-center parties found in other industrialized democracies. The most glaring manifestation of this is Donald Trump, the flamboyantly ignorant, authoritarian Republican president-elect. But for all his gross unsuitability for public office, Trump also grows out of longstanding trends within his party, which has previously elevated such anti-intellectual figures as George W. Bush and Sarah Palin as plausible leaders of the free world not despite but because of their disdain for empiricism. And it had grown increasingly suspicious of democracy even before a reality television star with a longstanding admiration for strongmen from Russia to Tiananmen Square came upon the scene — which is why the “mainstream” Paul Ryan wing has so willingly suborned Trump’s ongoing violations of governing norms.
It is still fashionable to regard the two parties today as broadly symmetrical to each other — as, indeed, they once were for many decades. But that quaint notion has blinded many of us to the radical turn the Republican Party has taken, and which has brought the American political system to a dangerous point.