The Right's Long History of Ignoring the Will of the People
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Amid obvious attempts to suppress the vote and then the president's legal efforts to get the vote counters to quit while he was ahead in those states and in Michigan, weirdly, where he wasn't, this week presents yet more evidence that the Conservative Party is not a political ideology enamored of free elections. A while back, Matthew Sitman, host of the New Year Enemy podcast, explained to us how and why in recent years, an expanding array of Republican politicians and thinkers have dropped the pretense of being concerned with democracy and how it has become unafraid to impose the will of the minority on the majority. For, what it deems, the greater good. Rick Perlstein, historian of American conservatism and author most recently of Reagan Land America's Right Turn, 1976 to 1980, has tracked this anti majoritarian current to the American right back centuries. Sure, he says, conservatives are happy to win and keep power by means of a majority coalition. But Perlstein says they've long sought to win and hold power even in its absence. It's a tradition that began pretty much with the birth of the nation.
RICK PERLSTEIN Well, of course, the invention of the Senate and the idea that slaves would be counted as three fifths of a person were not majoritarian ideas, right? I mean, even then, you had big states and small states.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But he says the modern minoritarian project of the American right really got going in the 1950’s.
RICK PERLSTEIN In the nineteen fifties, the conservative coalition, which included both reactionary Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans in the North, were very dismayed to learn that the first Republican president since the New Deal, Dwight D. Eisenhower, bought into the New Deal. And then, of course, you get Brown versus the Board of Education. Guys who eventually became the people who ended up drafting Barry Goldwater as the Republican nominee for president. Their first idea was to run a right wing former IRS commissioner named T. Coleman Andrews, who not only was a segregationist but believed that the federal income tax should be banned. And their idea was quite explicitly that if they can only get a few electoral votes safe from his own state of Virginia or from Mississippi or from Alabama or more of the above, and if they could deny the Democrats and the Republicans a majority in the Electoral College, they could basically throw the election into the House of Representatives, where there was, in fact, pretty much a liberal majority, but they could do so for concessions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Was it successful?
RICK PERLSTEIN Absolutely not. But they tried again. So going into 1960, they had the idea of putting up for president Southern segregationists in the South as a Democratic candidate in primaries, Orval Faubus, and to get a conservative in the north. And then when they lost at their respective party conventions, they would choose one of them to run for president and this kind of united conservative southern and northern ticket. And again, the idea was only to deny a majority of electoral votes and then they would negotiate for the kind of concessions they wanted to say. And Brown versus the Board of Education completely indifferent to the fact that these were completely minority positions. Then they fell in love with this guy, Barry Goldwater, and they realized he had a lot of the same ideas, but they could draft him as a Republican for president in 1960. You know, he didn't go for it, but the Republican Party itself was very weak. It's basically gliding along on Dwight D. Eisenhower's charisma. All these kind of precinct organizations in every county and every state could be taken over. And the guy who actually authored this strategy was a Republican operative named F. Clifton White. And he literally described his method as having been borrowed by the Stalinists that he had seen in the 1930s and 1940s who were able to take over liberal organizations by exploiting parliamentary procedure, keeping the meeting going until 2:00 a.m. and then call a vote when no one was there and they would have control and they were able to get Barry Goldwater the nomination in 1964.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Just by exhausting the people who were there?
RICK PERLSTEIN By exhausting this week organization. They said it was so easy, it was like pushing on an open door. So here they were with this nominee that according to one poll that came out during the Republican convention and seven out of eight issues, the majority of Republicans disagreed with Barry Goldwater. So this is a minoritarian coalition even within the Republican Party. But one of the things that really took off during the 1964 election at an organizational level was the sort of panic over supposed Democratic voter fraud.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Generated by the minoritarian Republican-supporting Barry Goldwater?
RICK PERLSTEIN Yes, they started something called Operation Eagleye. It came out of this folklore, the idea that the Democrats stole the election in 1960, supposedly by voting dead people in Chicago. Literally, they had a guy that explained that you should challenge anyone who doesn't look like a real voter. One of the people who was in charge of this very similar system of claiming Democratic voter fraud in order to intimidate voters so they don't go to the polls and can't cast their votes. Was a friend of Barry Goldwater from Arizona named William Rehnquist, went on to an illustrious career.
BROOKE GLADSTONE As a chief justice appointed by Reagan.
RICK PERLSTEIN Right, so both in his Senate hearings to become Supreme Court justice and then to be chief justice, it came up that he had intimidated voters in the polls in 1962, and 1964 by forcing Spanish speaking people to read the Constitution. That there were people posted at voting places with very scary looking uniforms. So again, this very continuous idea that if more people vote, Republicans are disadvantaged. One of the things that Jimmy Carter realized when he became president was that it was very hard to register to vote. A lot of people who want to vote had a hard time voting. The same kind of stuff we see now. So one of the first major initiatives he undertook as president in the spring of 1977 was to come up with a comprehensive voting reform plan that he presented to Congress, proposing to have a constitutional amendment to end the Electoral College and to have same day registration. When he announced this, there was overwhelming support from both parties. The head of the Republican National Committee, a guy named William Brock, said that it was a quote unquote, Republican idea. But lo and behold, the right wing of the party cried foul. The right wing magazine Human Events called it euthanasia for the GOP. Another figure enters the story: Reagan, the former governor of California who is making a tidy living, writing newspaper columns and giving radio addresses every day. He calls this a horrifying prospect, and he revives that story of civil servants voting because their bosses tell them to of dead people voting. One of Reagan's arguments was that Jimmy Carter won in Minnesota because of same day registration and that this proved that he wanted to use this kind of same day registration scheme to assure Democrats won every election. And once again, the argument is Republicans are harmed when more people vote. In 1980, the Christian Right held a massive rally for ministers in Dallas. One of the speakers said that the Republicans had to be the good government party and then up stepped to the microphone - a Christian right pioneer, a new right organizer named Paul Weyrich, who gave a very famous speech.
PAUL WEYRICH They want everybody to vote. I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections, quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE I think of Weyrich is one of the pioneers of direct mail campaigning.
RICK PERLSTEIN Right. They would send out these thousands and thousands of letters accusing Democrats of wanting to have homosexuals teach their children or give welfare to college students. Much like today, elections that the polls thought were in the bag for the Democrats suddenly turned up roses for the Republicans, much like, you know, the kind of target advertising we see on Facebook. It was not the idea that two candidates fight it out on the torrent of ideas before the public. It was this underground media that was feeding horror stories about the Democrats. We saw that attitude carried into the Reagan administration itself. Right. I mean, what was one of Ronald Reagan's dearest policy goals supporting the anti-communist insurgence in Nicaragua known as the Contras. It was just after Vietnam, an extraordinarily unpopular idea.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So he snuck around and did it without buy in from the Congress.
RICK PERLSTEIN Where democracy didn't work, subterfuge intervened. And that was the whole genesis of this conspiracy to illegally fund this very vicious right wing army in Nicaragua.
BROOKE GLADSTONE By selling arms to Iran.
RICK PERLSTEIN If democracy doesn't work, other means just may be necessary.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I guess it was the active expression of an idea that was gaining steam at the time, the doctrine of the unitary executive.
RICK PERLSTEIN After the Vietnam War and after Watergate and after a best selling book called The Imperial Presidency by Arthur Schlesinger, there was an enormous popular mood to rein in the executive branch's power to act unilaterally. Among conservatives, most prominent among them, a young congressman named Dick Cheney, the idea was that the executive branch had to get its power back. This is also an inherently minoritarian project, of course, because the idea that once you an elected president, no rules should constrain his activity is much more of a monarchical ideology than a democratic one. This is all running in parallel with this project that begins with Ronald Reagan creating an ideologically supplicant judiciary. And one of the things that happened in 1981 when Ronald Reagan took over, was that the appointment of judges was taken out of the hands of elected senators. It used to be under previous Republican presidents like Eisenhower and Nixon and Ford, that basically when they needed a federal judge, they would go to a senator who would suggest someone almost on a patronage basis. But what the Reagan administration did was they began scouring the law schools, scouring the federal judiciary for conservative clerks, and they set up this whole ideological evaluation bureaucracy with computers and everything. Testing their ideological opinions on every issue under the sun. And this is extremely controversial at the time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Litmus tests!
RICK PERLSTEIN Exactly, litmus tests. But this is a once again, this minority and project where you can kind of lock in power, whatever the popular mood.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But is it exclusively conservative policies that are associated with this minoritarian project?
RICK PERLSTEIN The fact of the matter is, the kind of social policies or tax policies that Democrats favor are often popular. And that presents a profound dilemma for a political party in a democracy that wants to undo those policies. So when it comes to something like Social Security, the Cato Institute says this is their Leninist strategy, we must recognize that there is a firm coalition behind the present Social Security system. Basically, they're saying Social Security is popular.
RICK PERLSTEIN Before Social Security can be reformed, which means, you know - end, we must be able to divide this coalition and cast doubt on the picture of reality it presents to the general public. Casting doubt on the picture of reality doesn't sound like normal democratic politics to me. It sounds like conspiratorial politics because in a fair fight and the battleground of ideas, they lose.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What about the nature of hierarchy and class and authority? Do those things find a place in that effort?
RICK PERLSTEIN The bottom line of why conservative politics is conservative is it's about preserving the existing hierarchy. It's about preserving authority, it's about keeping society in its proper place, right. And the striking thing about that is there have been all kinds of policies that have been considered conservative over the years. In fact, I used to have a Ku Klux Klan pamphlet from the 1920's that was calling for national health insurance program because immigrants are dirty and we don't want to get sick, right. Obviously, it's big intrusive government when you have government agents breaking into immigrants homes and snatching them from their children. Small government, big government. Ultimately, what the name of the game is, is preserving hierarchy and authority. If it means more social programs, it's OK. If it means less social programs, it's OK. And if it means states rights, it's OK. If it means violating states rights. I mean, the extraordinary things we've been seeing from the federal courts leading up to the 2020 presidential election of individual judges reaching deep into the guts of state voting rules. Nothing could be further from the Constitution's injunction that states run their own voting systems imaginable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So how does understanding the history of the American right in this way change things?
RICK PERLSTEIN It forces some very hard questions about our very conception of these two broad coalitions, factions, parties, whatever you want to call them, that make up the American political culture. You know, left and right, liberal, conservative, Democrat and Republican, we uphold this ideal of bipartisanship as a way to preserve and extend democracy. When do we begin to get to a point where we have to think of cooperating with a party which has turned minoritarian, anti-democratic ideals and rank distortion of reality into its program for keeping and holding power? When did they disqualify themselves from cooperation?
BROOKE GLADSTONE But who does the disqualifying? Not the party out of power. The only one who can do that is the electorate.
RICK PERLSTEIN And if the electorate is being disenfranchised in a systematic way, when does cooperation become something more like collaboration? If Donald Trump is an aspiring dictator and more and more he begins acting like one, is cooperating with them, in fact collaborating with dictatorship. But when one of the parties in a two party system is about delegitimizing the other party, you begin to wonder whether they aspire to create a one party system.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But if bipartisanship is an untenable, even misguided goal, what's a small D democrat to do except to cease being democrats themselves?
RICK PERLSTEIN Well, if the alternative is becoming complicit -
BROOKE GLADSTONE So let's assume it is collaboration, a betrayal of democracy.
RICK PERLSTEIN Why should it be an ideal to get along with someone who is trying to destroy you, right? Who doesn't is a legitimate participant in the American political project? And where does that leave us?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Where does that leave us precisely? If small D democrats still believe in democracy and the other party does not, and you can't even begin to govern together drawing from a common pool of facts. Then then where does that leave the democrat? Large d or small. What option is open to them other than becoming like the Republicans?
RICK PERLSTEIN I think we have very few models for this within the American experience that don't end in violence. We have to begin to look to resistance movements in places like South America.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But small d Democrats aren't the ones with the guns.
RICK PERLSTEIN So one interesting concomitant of the question you just posed is why are you asking that of the Democrats? Why is it why is the burden on the Democrats to fight a dictatorship? Why aren't we talking to the dictator?
BROOKE GLADSTONE We talk to the dictators all the time, but it's the nature of dictatorship that they don't listen.
RICK PERLSTEIN Yeah, it's true. It's true. I have no easy answers. It has to be asked of maybe wiser, prophetic figures than myself. I think we have to look very hard at what is actually happening. And that's the first step, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE I mean, I feel like we've been staring it down now for years and years.
RICK PERLSTEIN Yeah. I mean, as we have this conversation, there's an enormous debate going on left about when protesters should go on to the streets to call attention to the election rhetoric and actions that the Republican Party is carrying out. Because if we do, the people on the right who have been primed to believe that the Democrats are about to steal the election in conspiracy with the deep state might see this as the opening toxin of the civil war. Are we going to live on our feet or die on our knees? Is a classic question that subjects of tyrannies have had to ask for centuries. Now Americans begin to have to ask that. And we have very few emotional, intellectual political resources to draw on. And just once again, in joining, there is no red America, there is no blue America. We only have the United States. America doesn't seem to be doing the trick.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You are scaring the crap out of me more than I've already been scared. The militias that we've been following say that everything they do will be defensive.
RICK PERLSTEIN That's also what the Confederate troops who fired at Fort Sumter did, too. They were defending themselves against the John Browns of the world, the senator Charles Sumners, the guy who was beaten within an inch of his life for telling the truth about the slave south being a rapeocracy. Do we tell the truth or do we evade the truth?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Rick, thank you very much.
RICK PERLSTEIN Does that make any sense? Is that OK?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Did it make any sense? It made too much sense. Rick Perlstein is a historian of American conservatism and the author most recently of Reagan Land America's Right Turn, 1976 to 1980.
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show, On the Media is produced by Alana Cassanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan and Eloise Blondiau with help from Ava Sasani. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter and our show was edited... by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munsen, our engineer this week was Josh Hahn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media, is a production of WNYC Studios, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I’m Bob Garfield.
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