Given the ever-rightward march of today’s Republican Party, it can be difficult to recall that there was a time when moderates played a prominent role within its ranks. How they lost this position and became a alienated presence within the GOP is the subject of Geoffrey Kabaservice’s book. In it he tells a dispiriting tale of the rise of extremism within one of the two dominant parties in American politics, one that charts the key moments in the party’s ideological shift and explains the fate of the moderate politicians caught in this process.
Kabaservice dates the origins of this shift to the 1960s. He identifies four distinct factions within the party at the start of the decade: moderates, progressives, conservative “stalwarts”, and reactionaries. With Dwight Eisenhower in the Oval Office the moderates held sway, leaving the stalwarts and the reactionaries frustrated with the direction of events. In the aftermath of the 1960 presidential election, the militant extremists on the right sought to fill the vacuum created by Richard Nixon’s defeat to take over the party infrastructure. Rallying around Barry Goldwater, who had emerged as the right’s leading figure, these activists sought to take over the party at the local and state level by whatever means necessary. Gaining control of these mundane posts, they used their positions to promote Goldwater over Nelson Rockefeller, the liberal New York governor who was the front runner for the party’s presidential nomination in 1964. Benefiting from a backlash against Rockefeller’s divorce and remarriage, they succeeded in winning the nomination for Goldwater, who then lost the subsequent election to Lyndon Johnson in a landslide.
Faced with such an aggressive and self-defeating insurgency, the moderates mobilized to take back control of their party. Kabaservice’s description of their efforts form the heart of his book, and he notes the considerable success they enjoyed both in regaining a degree of control and in electing moderates in the 1966 midterm elections. Yet the extremists proved too well entrenched to dislodge completely, forcing an accommodation between the two sides. Conservatives and reactionaries benefited as well from the broader political trends of the 1960s, as social tensions involving young people and minorities served as easy targets for their rhetoric and convinced moderates to unite with their intraparty rivals. Nevertheless, Kabaservice sees George Romney’s failed presidential bid as the moderates’ last real opportunity to maintain power in the GOP, with their history from the Nixon years onward being one of a slow decline into marginalization and irrelevance.
Kabaservice’s book offers a good account of one of the developments that shaped the modern American political landscape. His description of the internal battles and the personalities involved is particularly useful as he shows that the outcome was not necessarily inevitable, but the product of a series of choices by key individuals and their response to developments that did or did not take place. Yet while Kabaservice provides a valuable description of the activities of the moderate Republican activists, he overstates their importance relative to the activities of the extremists and the broader shifts in the public mood, which downplays the degree to which the moderates were swimming against the political tide. More attention to the takeover by the conservatives of the party organization in the early 1960s, particularly within the previously African-American dominated state and local Republican parties in the South, would have provided a more well-rounded picture of the right-wing entrenchment that moderates faced, one that likely foredoomed them to defeat even before they fully realized that the battle was at hand. As it is, his book provides only a partial portrait of the downfall of moderation within the GOP, albeit one that examines factors that have been understudied for far too long.