How Did the GOP Become the Party of Ideas?Roundup
tags: Republican Party, conservatism, political history, liberalism, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, New Deal, Democratic Party
Lawrence B. Glickman is Stephen and Evalyn Milman Professor of American Studies in the Department of History at Cornell University. He is the author, most recently, of Free Enterprise: An American History and Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America.
For many conservative pundits, the election of Donald Trump marked the moment when the Republican Party abandoned its longstanding claim to being the “party of ideas.” For example, in June 2017 longtime Republican policy advisor Bruce Bartlett wrote, “Trump is what happens when a political party abandons ideas.” For Bartlett, though, it had been a long decline, dating back decades. Likewise, Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell argued that “somehow the Party of Ideas stopped coming up with them circa, oh, 1987.”
As both of these comments suggest, the belief that the Republican Party was losing its status as the “party of ideas” long predated the rise of Trump. It went back to the 1988 presidential campaign, when critics fretted that George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s successor, lacked what Bush called the “vision thing.” By the early 1990s, conservative columnists were already worrying that, as Cal Thomas wrote, the GOP is “no longer identified as the party of ideas”—that it had, within a decade, become, as another columnist claimed, “intellectually spent, aimless, and exhausted.” Ever since, observations that the “GOP is no longer the party of ideas” have been a hardy perennial of punditry.
Yet even as we recognize the dramatic contrasts between the Republicans in the 1980s and those of our present moment, there remain several reasons to reject the “party of ideas” narrative. First, many of the GOP’s celebrated “new ideas” of the 1970s and ’80s were not novel but standard elements of a previously unpopular, anti–New Deal ideology then in the process of becoming dominant. Second, the narrative of devolution elides continuity in GOP rhetoric. At his meandering campaign rallies, even Trump—the personification of the transformation of the GOP from “party of ideas” to cult—never failed to denounce his opponent, Joe Biden, as a “socialist” who “will raise your taxes,” familiar charges straight out of the anti–New Deal playbook. Finally, the designation of the GOP as a party of ideas was not even something Republicans came up with for themselves.
So then how did the GOP come to be known as the party of ideas in the first place? And what were those ideas?
It turns out that the term actually came not from inside the GOP but from a leading Democratic figure, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who, as part of an intraparty debate, invoked the nomenclature of the “party of ideas” as part of his negative reassessment of his own party’s continuing commitment to New Deal and Great Society liberalism. Therefore the history of the idea of the “party of ideas” offers us not only valuable insight into the twentieth-century history of the right, but also the intellectual crisis that has plagued liberalism since the 1970s.
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