Ellison: A dangerous shift to the right

Last month, on this page, John Scrudato ’11 praised the candidacy of Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman for New York’s 23rd Congressional seat (Politics of revenge, Oct. 29). He wrote, “The hope is that Hoffman’s success will encourage voters across the country to stop looking at politics as red versus blue and take a chance on something truly different.”

This idea is wholly inaccurate. Hoffman wasn’t outside of the red-blue dichotomy; he was at the far red end of it. His success came because Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava was not red enough, prompting conservative leaders like Michelle Bachmann, Dick Armey, Fred Thompson, Sarah Palin and even former New York Governor George Pataki ’67 to endorse Hoffman. Without conservative support, Scozzafava found herself lagging in the polls, and just three days before the election, she dropped out and endorsed Democrat Bill Owens, who emerged with a narrow victory in the Republican-leaning district.

Scozzafava, who is pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and, as a member of the New York Assembly, voted to raise taxes to balance the state budget, was not always such an anomaly within the Republican Party, especially in the Northeast. Moderates in the party, known as Rockefeller Republicans after former New York Governor and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, used to be abundant.

Even past Republican leaders would feel out of place in the mainstream Republican Party today. Former Senator and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, considered radically conservative in the 1960s, was pro-choice and supported gay rights. President George H. W. Bush ’48 raised taxes to reduce the deficit and signed into law a cap-and-trade bill to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions. Had Fox News existed then, it would likely have blasted Presidents Nixon and Reagan as appeasers for opening up diplomatic relations with China and negotiating with Gorbachev, respectively. And Gerald Ford? He was the House Republican leader for almost a decade, but he could hardly identify with the Republican Party in the final years of his life.

Ever since Ronald Reagan’s rise, the Republican Party has been moving right. Moderate Republican officeholders have either left elected office (Christine Todd Whitman), become Democrats or Independents (Arlen Specter and Jim Jeffords), lost election because their constituents didn’t want to empower a right-wing Republican (Lincoln Chafee and Chris Shays), or became more conservative to remain electable in the Republican Party (Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani). As a result, the modern Republican Party is the most right-wing major party in the U.S. since before the New Deal.

Some Republican leaders do not seem bothered by this, believing that ultra-conservative principles can still be compete. South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, appearing on CNN after Specter defected in April, expressed this view, opining that “the biggest tent of all is the tent of freedom,” prompting CNN anchor Rick Sanchez to ask, “What, what the hell does that mean, freedom?”

Although most of them are more articulate than DeMint, many conservative Republicans are fully on board with this purge of the moderates, preferring an ideologically pure party over a bigger tent. Like DeMint, they believe that a well-made conservative case against progressive taxation, against health care reform, against gay rights, against abortion and for a belligerent neoconservative foreign policy can win elections.

In 2010, if the economy continues to languish, they might be right, and the Republicans might be able to excite their base and pick up seats in Congress, just as they picked up two governorships in 2009. But in the long run, I fail to see how this approach can be successful. For one, it will continue to push young voters away from the Republican Party. Not a great plan for the future.

Secondly, this ultra-conservative approach has very little non-white support. Through our lifetimes, the white population in the U.S. is going to decline percentage-wise by a significant amount, and whites are expected to cease being a numerical majority in 2042. John McCain lost the Latino vote more than 2 to 1 and the black vote more than 9 to 1 in 2008. You do the math.

Republicans like to call moderates in their own party like Scozzafava RINOs — Republicans in name only. Now RINOs go by a different name: Democrats. And as a Democrat who likes to win elections, even if that occasionally means wrangling with those in my own party who might disagree with me on some key issues, the ideological purification of the Republican Party is great. Enjoy the tent of freedom.

Matthew Ellison is a senior in Branford College.


  • santorum

    perfectly written.

  • Goldwater…

    When did Goldwater support same-sex marriage?

    Oh, yeah, he didn’t…

  • robert99

    The black vote went for obama for….obvious reasons. I think that the novelty of this is wearing off fast. While absolute white majority my disappear, I think that as people get older they get over some of the idealistic stuff that drove droves to vote the way they did last year. You can’t bring your idealism to the grocery store if you don’t have a job and/or if your taxes allow you no dicretion in spending. And if the claim that the republicans are more right wing, it is certain that the guy in the white house is certainly borderline.., well let’s just say a real socialist with all the trimmings. And his party more left than perhaps any in history.

  • John_D

    Good analysis.

    In seeking to explain this phenomenon, it might be good to take another look at the book “Victims of Groupthink”, by Yale psychologist Irving Janis, e.g., his discussion of what he calls “Mindguards”, or enforcers of orthodoxy, ruling out possible alternatives. Another feature of Groupthink is hubris and the assumption of invulnerability – certainly something that contributed to the decision to invade Iraq.

  • John Scrudato

    Mr. Ellison,

    I never attempted to say that Hoffman somehow fell out of existing ideological spectrum. My point was that he does not belong to a dominant party and is not beholden to all of the patronage, special interests, and national party concerns that a Republican or a Democrat would be.

    As for your argument that conservatism is falling out of fashion I think you are dead wrong. The Republican Party’s fortunes may rise and fall, but Conservatives are still the largest self-identifying ideological group in the country by a good margin. Linking conservatism to John McCain’s election loss is disingenuous. McCain was one of the most moderate Republicans. He didn’t lose because he was “radical” (nor did Chris Shays for that matter). They lost because A. they shared a party with a deeply unpopular president and B. because they tried to attract voters by standing slightly to the right of the Democrats. They tried to be the less liberal alternative to Democrats and ended up alienating many conservatives while still losing most moderates and nearly all of the liberals; that’s not exactly a winning strategy.

    After the rise of Goldwater, the “right-wing radical” label you and other folks keep using came into common usage. The prediction that the right will die is also not new, I could show you a book I have from 1963 arguing precisely the same thing you are; that conservatism was a dying ideology and those who championed it are dinosaurs. That author was wrong then just as you are now. I can show you poll numbers showing the number of registered Democrats outnumbered the registered Republicans in the 1960s by 2-1 (liberalism vs. conservatism for the party minded out there), yet conservatism still did not die.

    I could go on all day arguing with you quoting facts and precedent as to why the Republican Party is not doomed simply because it is moving to the right. I’m not going to however, because there is no point. After all, we’ll still likely disagree and the best litmus test is 2010 and 2012. Best of luck…

  • FailBoat

    I always appreciate Democrats warning Republicans that they’re too conservatives to win elections.

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