Politics as warfare
The Democratic Strategist has a mammoth post up; even the title and list of authors is a mouthful. Ed Kilgore, James Vega and J.P. Green’s piece is called “Wake up, commentators. The most dangerous group of ‘right-wing extremists’ today is not the grass-roots tea party. It is the financial and ideological leaders in the Republican coalition who have embraced the extremist philosophy of ‘politics as warfare.'”
The gist of the piece, which may be obvious from its title, is that the framing of intra-Republican politics as a battle for control between a moderate and extremist wing is a false dichotomy, though irresistible to the media:
The image of “Republican elites as pragmatic, the tea party fringe as extreme” suits commentators’ personal and professional needs because it allows them to be publically disdainful of “extremism” without ever having to actually use the term to describe any powerful and significant figure in the Republican coalition who might be in a position to retaliate. A suggestion of “extremism” directed against anyone in this latter group is a social – and possibly career-damaging – faux pas that mainstream journalists will take every imaginable step to avoid.
The authors distinguish between two different types of extremism. There are extremists who hold unorthodox, outside-the-mainstream views (they point to “abolish paper money” and “deny non-insured children medical care” as examples), but who “conduct themselves within the norms and rules of a democratic society.” Then there are extremists who refuse to accept those norms and rules, who “embrace a view of ‘politics as warfare’ and of political opponents as literal ‘enemies’ who must be crushed.”
The authors point to Newt Gingrich engineering the 1994 government shutdown as the first appearance of the politics as warfare strategy, but I think its seeds were planted well before. Nina Easton’s 2002 book Gang of Five: Leaders at the Center of the Conservative Ascendancy profiles Bill Kristol, Ralph Reed, Clint Bolick, Grover Norquist, and David McIntosh. Bolick and McIntosh are footnotes at this point, but people like Kristol, Reed, and Norquist are critical to understanding the warfare mentality of Republican elites. It was Kristol who wrote the famous 1993 memo outlining the Republican strategy for defeating the Clinton health care plan (“simple criticism is insufficient” – Republicans must “adopt an aggressive and uncompromising counterstrategy designed to delegitimize the proposal and defeat its partisan purpose”). It was Norquist, Reed, and Jack Abramoff who formed a triumverate at the College Republican National Committee, basically bringing the group back from the dead over the course of 1980, helping to lay the groundwork for groups like the Christian Coalition and Americans for Tax Reform. Newt Gingrich did not decide overnight to turn the Republican Party into an assault on political norms and institutions; it was helped, as such things frequently are, by the development of institutions. These Republican activists had strong, fairly rigid ideologies, but they also saw politics as a zero-sum game, in which defeating the opponent was as or more important than passing legislation.
Joe Nocera has caught a lot of flak for a recent column suggesting that the origin of our political “ugliness” started in 1987, when Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court was voted down. Bork was defeated outright – not filibustered – with six Republicans joining 52 Democrats to vote down the nomination. It seems absurd to point to the voting down of an extreme candidate (see here, here, and here) as our politics crossed the boundaries of comity. The real turning point ugliness, in my view, came from Bork’s old boss. Politics was certainly ugly before Richard Nixon took office, but I mark his presidency as the beginning of a Republican strategy to focus on defeating and destroying opponents for its own sake. Nixon’s predecessor in the White House was certainly no stranger to dirty tricks, but Lyndon Johnson at least saw political power as an opportunity to enact sweeping legislation. Nixon saw it as an opportunity to punish his opponents.
I would agree with Kilgore, Vega, and Green that the assault on Congressional rules and norms initiated with Gingrich’s stint as Speaker of the House. The notion of politics as warfare among GOP elites can be traced back earlier. A generation of Republican leaders and strategists – people like Karl Rove, Ralph Reed, and Grover Norquist – married the strict conservative ideology of the “Reagan Revolution” with the scorched earth tactics practiced by the Nixon administration.