There are few better ways of grasping how far the Republicans have abandoned the middle ground, where they used to win elections, than the way their leaders have become agents of the gun industry. Conservatives used to consider themselves law-abiding citizens who put great store by the permanence of institutions, by the rule of law, and by the traditional caution and common sense of the sensible majority. Such devotion to stability, continuation, and moderation explains why so many conservatives were alarmed when the social revolution of the Sixties erupted. Suddenly, it seemed, everything was on the move. Children no longer believed in the wisdom of their elders, nor obeyed the unwritten rules that had guided every previous generation. The days of everyone knowing their place and remaining in it were overthrown and it appeared that anarchy had broken out in America.
Nowhere was this more evident to traditional conservatives than in the way African-Americans responded to the civil rights legislation enacted by Lyndon Johnson. Instead of being grateful for the overdue democratic changes wrested from reluctant Southern lawmakers, a significant number of African-Americans demanded more profound change. There were riots in Los Angeles, Detroit, and other major cities which were met by calls from conservatives for tighter gun controls. The Black Panthers, dressed as soldiers and carrying guns, as was their right under the Second Amendment, demanded that African-Americans be allowed to live in a separate self-governing state. In May 1967, 30 Panthers took loaded rifles, shotguns, and pistols into the California State Capitol to protest against new gun control laws. The California governor, Ronald Reagan, declared: “There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”
After John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King were assassinated, Johnson joined with conservatives to pass the federal Gun Control Act that stipulated a minimum age for gun buyers, restricted traffic across state lines to federally registered gun dealers, limited the sale of certain destructive bullets, required guns to carry serial numbers, and added drug addicts and the insane to those, like felons, who were already forbidden to own guns. When it transpired that Lee Harvey Oswald had bought the rifle that killed the president mail order from the pages of the National Rifle Association magazine, the NRA Executive Vice-President Franklin Orth backed an end to mail-order sales. “We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States,” he said.
In the mid-Seventies, the NRA switched from being a moderate organization backing moderate gun controls into a radical body that promulgated an absolutist interpretation of the Second Amendment with a new motto: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” It was this originalist interpretation of the Second Amendment that led Warren Burger, the conservative, constructionist chief justice appointed by Richard Nixon to declare on PBS in 1991 that the NRA had perpetrated “one of the greatest pieces of fraud – I repeat the word fraud – on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime. … [the NRA has] misled the American people and they, I regret to say, they have had far too much influence on the Congress of the United States than as a citizen I would like to see. And I am a gun man.”
Today the Republican Party remains in hock to the NRA leadership and through them to their paymasters in the gun-making industry. The NRA runs an official list, like the old Communist Party, of preferred candidates and grades them according to their adherence to the strict constructionist interpretation of the Second Amendment. If a candidate fails to offer total support for absolutist gun rights, the NRA funds a campaign in the next party primary to unseat them. Polls suggest, however, that the NRA leadership no longer represents the wishes of its members towards moderate gun controls, and since the Sandy Hook massacre of schoolchildren, the extremism of NRA leaders like Wayne LaPierre, whose tin-eared response to the shootings so jarred voters in all parties, suggests the existence at the top of the organization of a self-serving, superannuated elite that no longer commands the confidence of its rank and file.
Gun rights activism is just one strand of Republican extremism out of kilter with moderate Republicans and middle ground independent voters who decide elections. In the mid-Seventies, while Second Amendment fundamentalists were starting to blacklist GOP candidates who would not support their hard line, the party was also transformed by the rise of radical Christian fundamentalists, whose literal reading of scripture led them to adopt social conservative positions on abortion, race, and homosexuality. These changes coincided with the arrival of neo-conservatism, a body of theory that saw America as not just the world’s policeman but the harbinger of democracy everywhere with a particular brief to counter radical Islam. Until then it could be argued, citing two world wars, Korea and Vietnam, that the Democrats were the war party and the Republicans the party that put America first. Since the neo-cons that notion has been turned on its head by the persecution of two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which were to be abandoned after an inconclusive outcome.
Around the same time, economic notions that had ensured unprecedented prosperity under Eisenhower and Nixon gave way in the GOP to fiscal conservatism – absolutist ideas about the money supply and reducing public spending that George H. W. Bush derided as “voodoo economics.” Since 2009, libertarian insurgents that in the GOP primaries last year accounted for about 10 per cent of party activists have extrapolated careful budgeting into demands for minimal government. Since Tea Party protestors entered the GOP in numbers in 2009, they have instituted further restrictive demands upon Republican candidates, diminishing the discretion of elected officials by directing them to obey pledges not to raise taxes.
Once a moderate party protecting old fashioned values, since the mid-Seventies the Republicans have adopted extreme positions that are alien to the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Nixon and Bush Sr. A party proud of its pragmatism is being driven by dogmatic theories imported by unbending ideologues such as Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek. On guns, abortion, immigration, women’s health, homosexual rights, home schooling, and a host of other issues, the once inclusive Republican Party has lost its one-nation tradition and supplanted it with a hotchpotch of sectarian interests policed by a coalition of narrow, theory-driven mavericks, curmudgeons, libertarians, radicals, and eccentrics.
The GOP is deeply divided, a split that conservative commentators like Charles Krauthammer attribute to fast footwork by President Obama. Other conservatives, such as Bill O’Reilly, think the party will find it hard to put itself back together by the time of the next presidential election, never mind the mid-terms in two years. Citing the way Obama and Bill Clinton arrived from nowhere to save the Democrats from an unpopular ideological stance, Krauthammer believes the Republicans will be saved by an as-yet unknown savior. Four years is, indeed, a long time in politics, but it may take far longer than that to purge the party of its popular perception as a redoubt for gun-toting, women-loathing, gay-hating, xenophobic, war-mongering anarchists.
Nicholas Wapshott is a Reuters columnist.