What Happened to my Parents’ Republican Party?
Let’s take a quick look back at the 1950s. I was watching Science Fiction Theater, Bonanza, the news show See it Now with Edward R. Murrow, and Perry Mason on my parents’ small 17-inch television. The cabinet that held it was quite large compared to the screen, and, of course, it was in black and white. My parents were also voting Republican for Dwight Eisenhower, and folks like Senators Jacob K. Javits, Margaret Chase Smith and Everett Dirksen—reasonable Republicans. In fact, even though I couldn’t vote in those days, I considered myself to be a Republican.
The process of change within the GOP started shortly after the defeat of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race. Prior to that time there were a variety of right wing groups and personalities on the scene, but none of them had managed to gain much popular appeal. Among them were, Father Charles Coughlin, The Ku Klux Clan, The John Birch Society and, of course, the infamous senator Joe McCarthy.
However, in reaction to Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat, an effort was initiated by various ultra conservative right wing individuals and groups, to change the dynamics of the dialog and influence the course of politics for many years to come. Their modus operandi took three basic forms which we can best describe as phases. Even though these “phases” occurred within the same basic time frame and on occasion overlapped one another in the process of execution, they are more easily analyzed as separate entities.
Phase 1: Establishment of Conservative Right Wing “Think Tanks”
The process mentioned above started with several activities by conservative activists, the most important of which to be highlighted here. A person later to become a Supreme Court Justice, and at the time a wealthy corporate lawyer, Lewis F. Powell, published a memo dated August 31, 1971. Printed in the US Chamber of Commerce periodical Washington Report, the memo argued that the American system of free enterprise was under attack by four institutions that shaped American public opinion: academia, the media, the political establishment, and the courts. Powell argued that business should spend money on propaganda (his word) to “inform and enlighten the American people” against those who would destroy the business establishment.
A second major document published by William E Simon, Nixon’s Treasury Secretary, “A Time for Truth” sounded the same alarm as Powell. The target of the consumer movement is business; likewise the target of the environmentalists is business. (Simon was an economic Darwinist who hated liberalism, democrats and traditional republicans. His GOP colleagues called him “William the Terrible”.)
Business, he argued, was losing because it had no intellectual firepower. Simon advocated a mobilization of resources to pro business scholars, writers, pundits and publicists. Their work would project an air of academic authority, but would not be subject to any review by third parties. Objective scholarship was of no interest. These so-called “experts” would parrot right wing ideology disguised as research and serve it up without question. Academic studies that were damaging to right wing ideology were to be countered immediately and at every opportunity.
A model of what was to be developed was the “American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research” (AEI). Founded previously in 1943 as an anti labor and anti-civil rights business lobby it was revised in the 60s as a conservative research institute. A second group was formed in 1972 when Colorado beer brewer Joseph Coors gave a $200,000 to the foundation that would soon be the premier right wing think tank The Heritage Foundation. (For an example of early Heritage Foundation propaganda go here.)
Now, for those of you who have read the example of early Heritage Foundation propaganda and feel that this item has some substance, let me inform you that nothing of this sort was being taught. Unless, of course, you interpret teaching students how to think, instead of what to think, as secular humanism. SAT scores dropped due to watered down curriculum that didn’t emphasize math and science.
Let’s add another quote from Edward Crane, president of the Cato Institute another important right-wing think tank founded in the 1970s. He described their goals this way: “As we grow, I don’t want us to shift toward the mainstream. I want the mainstream to shift toward us, and that is our challenge.”
Unfortunately that has happened, and is part of the substantiation for this article.
There were, and still are being formed, many such “Think Tanks” and other radical conservative organizations. Space in this article does not permit me to describe them all, but the following list includes most of the major ones in addition to those described above.
Many of these are affiliated with the religious right movement such as Focus on the Family, or are specifically designed to influence the legislative process such as the Counsel for National Policy (CNP), Hoover Institution, the American Legislative Exchange Counsel (ALEC), United in Purpose, the Cato Institute, Political Club for Growth, Manhattan Institute and Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC).
In addition to the Coors family mentioned above, another large contributor to these groups has been Koch Industries. Both of these deep-pocket groups (Coors & Koch) are what could best be described as laissez-faire capitalists who disdain unions and any form whatsoever of consumer protections.
It through the formation of these Think Tanks over several decades that America witnessed the laying of an intellectually-backed groundwork for the Republican Party moving forward.
Phase 2: Changing the Rhetoric of the Argument
With regard to this phase, the objective was to change the terminology, the political lexicon as it were, to something more inline with the business class’ long term agenda. Radical conservative ideology would now be dry-cleaned for mass media consumption and along with it came a neolexicon—a language invented by conservative practitioners trained in the use of manipulative rhetoric.
Items like gutting Social Security would be replaced with “privatization”; graduated income tax responsibility would be replaced by the “flat tax”. Poverty would be described as a “behavioral condition”. Draining resources from public schools with vouchers would be characterized as “school choice”.
The list goes on: feminism, a woman’s right to make her own choices, would be described as “an assault on family values.” In fact, most recently (and unfortunately, many liberals have also been hoodwinked into this) Social Security and Medicare are referred to as “Entitlement” programs when they are actually “Earned Benefits” programs. Some other widely used terms that grew out of this orchestrated reworking of the political jargon are “Junk Science” (an attempt to discredit valid scientific research, especially with reference to global warming), “Partial Birth Abortion” (no such medical procedure) and “Creation Science” (no such science).
Another item has been the attempt to demonize the word “Liberal”. We see this in such terms as “Tax and Spend Liberal” and “Liberal Bias”, and in books such as the one by Ann Coulter, How to Talk to A Liberal If You Must. In a previous article I wrote, “The Tax and Spend Liberal Myth,” references were made to studies done by prominent psychologists, which point out the different methods of thinking utilized by Liberals vs. Conservatives. Those studies concluded that liberals tend to use rational thinking and critical analysis to identify and solve problems while conservatives rely more heavily on ideology. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but they are not the predominant factor as explained in the previous article. An extensive list of bibliographical sources on this subject is available upon request. The terms mentioned above are only a sample of the ones being utilized by radical conservatives.
In conjunction with the subject of rhetoric there have been recent right wing complaints about comments made by liberal broadcasters with reference to conservative folks. The classic example was to Vice-President Joe Biden’s reference of teabaggers (oops, excuse me, I mean tea party participants) as resembling terrorists.
Let’s compare that to comments made about liberals by some right-wingers. Here is a quote from billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, as he fielded a female reporter’s question about his financial backing of conservative groups in 1981. Scaife stated: “You fucking communist cunt, get out of here,” which he peppered with a few other selected comments about the journalist’s mother. As the journalist thanked him for his time, he replied in closing, “Don’t look behind you,” ominously paraphrasing, “Watch Your Back.”
Phase 3: Attack on the Media as Being Biased
We all remember President Nixon’s assault on the media prior to and during his presidency (e.g. the Checkers Speech) but those were rather mild compared to what was to come. In 1971, a book written by the libertarian journalist Edith Efron entitled The News Twisters set the stage for what was to come. In fact, Nixon was so pleased with it that two years later in Senate Watergate testimony it was revealed that Nixon Special Counsel, Charles Colson, took $8,000 from Nixon’s re-election committee funds to purchase copies of the book to help it get on the best seller list.
Let me quote some of the reviews of the book. St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “The book is no genuine study of TV news performance, but a 1972 campaign document designed to twist coverage to the right.” The New York Post: “Right angled paranoia.” The Washington Post: “Dishonest, inaccurate, a demonstration on how to doctor evidence.”
Along with the above comments by other radical conservative journalists confirm that news objectivity was not of primary concern to them. A young writer for the American Spectator, Matt Labash, is quoted as follows from an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review: “The conservative media like to rap the liberal media on the knuckles for not being objective. We’ve created this cottage industry in which it pays to be un-objective. Criticize other people for not being objective. Be as subjective as you yourself want to be. It’s a great little racket.”
Included in this attack on the media were factions of the religious right whose wish, of course, was (and still is) to tear down the constitutional wall of church-state separation. A few of these ministers were ferociously ideological. One of them, the Reverend Billy James Hargis, used his Christian Crusade to denounce communists, liberals, homosexuals and the media. Heard on 270 radio stations nationwide, he proclaimed all of the above to be satanically inspired. (A sex scandal would cause Hargis to lose his ministry in 1976—go figure.) All of those mentioned above were laying the path for the invective from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Glen Beck, Laura Ingram and others.
The list of different attacks on the mainstream objective media could go on and on, and in fact some journalists have even been intimidated by it. Let’s hope that in the near future we get some Edward R. Murrows who are up to challenging these folks.
And So Went My Parents’ Republican Party
The above descriptions of organizations and methodologies these right wing ideologues utilized, at best marginalized, and at the worst co-opted my parents’ Republican Party, and has to a great extent been successful.
Reasonable voices within the honest conservative movement and Republican Party are becoming harder and harder to find. John Dean (a former Nixon aid) describes these right wing ideologues in his book of the same name as Conservatives Without Conscience. In his book, Dean sights overwhelming psychological evidence of what is described as the “Authoritarian Personality” present in the minds of these individuals. An extensive bibliographical list of sources on this particular subject and what comprises an “Authoritarian Personality” is available upon request from the author of this article.
The one book I highly recommend, from which many of the reference notes for this article are taken, is The Republican Noise Machine, Right-Wing Media and how it Corrupts Democracy, by David Brock.
In closing, I can only say that we can barely scratch the surface of this subject, but there is no argument that these activities actually did take place, and discussion and debate related to them are limited. As to whether or not one agrees with what’s been done to the Party of Lincoln and later the Party of Eisenhower, or feels that, in truth, it really does corrupt and compromise democracy and free thinking, the fact remains that it has and is still happening to this very day.
Gene Gerth is currently retired from Active Federal Service and is Chair of the Busan City Chapter and EXCOM member of Democrats Abroad ROK. He is the former 8th Army Moral Welfare and Recreation Division Entertainment Director and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland’s University College Asian Division. For more detailed information on obtaining references to some of the articles in this story, you can contact him by email.
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