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The Changing Republican Party


My first political role model was Dwight D. Eisenhower – “Ike.” He was a peace-loving war hero, a Main Street Republican who sent troops to desegregate schools, a free-market guy who appreciated unions and launched the huge government program building the Interstates, a standup guy who stood up to GOP demagogue Joe McCarthy.

When I first voted, I supported Republicans like my Congressman, Paul Findley, and my Senator, Chuck Percy. Percy, who died in September, was a staunch Republican who also appreciated “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Findley, who still lives in western Illinois, spent 11 terms in the U.S. House advocating for farmers, but was independent enough that he supported Palestinian rights.

As shown in Indiana this month, today’s GOP has no room for folks like Findley or Percy, and probably not even Eisenhower (despite his military record the GOP probably would call him a “RINO” – Republican In Name Only”). Indiana’s six-term U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar in the GOP primary was defeated by Tea Party-backed Richard Mourdock. The Associated Press oozed, “It was a double-barreled show of conservative enthusiasm and strength. Voting gave clues about the state of the electorate.” It WAS a show of strength, but in a PRIMARY – of ONE party. (Mourdock got 391,000 votes; Lugar 257,000, says the Indiana Secretary of State: 649,000 GOP ballots cast. Few media gushed so when Wisconsin citizens gathered 1 million signatures to recall strongman Gov. Scott Walker.)

Lugar is an Eagle Scout, Rhodes Scholar, Navy veteran and leader on arms control, which resulted in the former Soviet Union dismantling 7,500 nuclear weapons. But behind millions of dollars from right-wing campaign contributors such as the Club for Growth, Mourdock accused Lugar of being too willing to compromise.

Days before Indiana’s primary, Indiana University sociology professor Fabio Rojas said, "A victory here will spell the beginning of the end for moderate politics in the Republican Party.”

Indeed, award-winning Arkansas writer Gene Lyons said, “What the data seem to reflect isn’t a broad change in public opinion, but the growing concentration of churchgoing evangelicals within the GOP – particularly in the South and rural Midwest.”

A handful of books tries to make sense of the GOP takeover that leaves real Republicans behind: Max Blumenthal’s “Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party,” Geoffrey Kabaservice’s “Rule and Ruin,” John Lukacs’ “Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred,” and Chris Mooney’s “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality.”

The latter title purports to show that conservatives are mentally predisposed to “psychological authoritarianism and a lack of openness to new ideas,” in Mooney’s words, but it’s unfair (or unclear). Why don’t conservatives in other countries oppose science or seek an end to their national health care? Haven’t dictators of various ideologies also opposed science or faiths they don’t like?

Republican Mike Lofgren, who left the GOP after 28 years as a Congressional staffer, said, “The Republican Party is becoming less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and more like an apocalyptic cult.”

Historically, Republicans dating to Teddy Roosevelt and before were AGAINST the concentration of wealth and imperialism, and FOR small farmers and labor rights. Republican Sens. Mark Hatfield and Charles Goodell plus Michigan Gov. George Romney opposed the Vietnam War. Republicans ranging from Gerald Ford, Bob Dole and Illinois’ Everett Dirksen supported 1964’s Civil Rights Act.

From 2012 debates, it seems like the GOP denies climate change and Darwin’s natural selection (that even the Vatican recognizes as having happened) and thinks Obama was not born in Hawaii but that Al Qaeda did cooperate with Saddam (who had weapons of mass destruction). They claim to rebel against big government but endorse intrusive social legislation. They think corporations are “people,” but human beings’ deaths due to executions or lack of health insurance is OK, that torture or deportations also are OK, as well as preventing Americans without certain IDs (such as older people and the poor) from voting.

Lofgren said, “[They] focus their anger on scapegoats that do no damage to corporations' bottom lines: ‘Instead of raising the minimum wage, let's build a wall on the Southern border.’ Instead of predatory bankers, it's evil Muslims. Or evil gays. Or evil abortionists.”

Back in Wisconsin, home of Republican “Fighting Bob” La Follette, young Republican Arthur Kohl-Riggs got 20,000 votes in this month’s primary recall there – running against the GOP’s Walker, saying, “Scott Walker is not a real Republican. He’s part of the crowd that took over the Republican Party and made it into something Abraham Lincoln would not recognize.”

In 1954, a politician wrote, "Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs … they are stupid."

It was Republican President Eisenhower. I still like Ike.

Bill Knight is a freelance writer. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.