Private militias, skin-heads, neo-nazis, homophobes, gun owners, xenophobes, jingoists, anti-Semites, and the whole sorry lot who advocate violence against minorities -- which party will they vote for in this year's national elections? In spite of sanctimonious and pious distancing from these groups, Republican candidates will reap their overwhelming support.
A powerful magnetism has existed between extremist right wing groups in America and the Republican Party for more than six decades - from the days of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal to the present. In the Great Depression, fringe leaders included William Dudley Pelley and his brigades of anti-Semitic Silver Shirts, radio preacher Father Charles Coughlin and his Christian Front, Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee, and Fritz Kuhn and the German-American Bund. In the early 50's, Senator Joe McCarthy stepped forward initiating years of witch-hunting that revived the dormant bigotries of the 30's and sustained short-lived GOP majorities in both houses of Congress. In the 1960's, the John Birch Society, protagonists of the anti-fluoridation hysteria, and other extreme right-wing groups stepped forward to buttress Barry Goldwater's candidacy. (I did so, too, but for other reasons entirely.) Anita Bryant's Save Our Children [from homosexuals], and Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority followed on their heels in the 1970's. Now, a host of other organizations, led by the Christian Coalition, have replaced communists with homosexuals as the leading enemy of "all we hold dear" and as a potent fundraising tool.
The naked hatreds of the past have become more sophisticated in the last three decades, during which the old bigotries have become masked by moderate-sounding social, religious, and political claptrap. Nevertheless, the old hatreds are still alive behind the rhetoric of religious leaders, conservative think tanks, and radio commentators.
The Republican Party has been the target of insurgency of such groups -- and, in times of political difficulty, has even courted them -- since the first Administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Their increasing influence over the years has discouraged and driven out many of those in the GOP who would withstand them. Some, including me, never did take seriously the party's complicity in the ascent of the extremists. Over the years the Republican Party has fostered such groups, often covertly, sometimes even publicly denouncing them in a mutually-understood act of pragmatic politics.
This dynamic, born during the near collapse of the Republican Party during the New Deal, has continued to this day and has spawned the continuing battle in the GOP between the forces of intolerance, isolationism and extremism and the "moderate" defenders of inclusivity. Pat Buchanan and Bob Dole have been recreating this decades-old routine since the New Hampshire primary in February.
Earlier, this battle was brought into the living rooms of America with the TV coverage of the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston. It was there that Buchanan, as spokesman for the extremists, urged delegates to choose sides in a "cultural" and "religious war" to change the very definition of America. The gauntlet, tossed to an enthusiastic throng at the Convention, sparked concern in much of the viewing audience. The GOP's long flirtation with its radical-right fringe, an open secret in the sanctums of Republican decision makers, became the subject of heated debate across the nation.
Two years later, a somewhat softened rhetoric was successful in sweeping the GOP and its now defunct "Contract With America" into power, emphasizing the deep disaffection of Americans with the status quo. Interpreting the 1994 election results as a mandate, both the GOP right and lunatic-fringe now seek even more influence in the party, and Republican politicians seem eager to comply with their demands.
This struggle for power has helped to polarize American politics, exacerbating religious antipathies, stigmatizing minorities, and heightening mistrust between citizen and government. The present danger of extremism to American democracy proves that the United States is not immune to the life-and-death evil of bigotry and intolerance that has afflicted other nations in the past and in the present.
The Republican Party's much touted "big tent" has provided a haven for bigotry for over sixty years, and it has never dared break the ties between itself and the intolerant right. As the extremists become stronger, the "moderates" become weaker and suffer the delusion that they can still make a difference in the GOP. It is too late. Insofar as American gays and lesbians are concerned, the Democrat Party (while not always a bastion of toleration) does show more willingness to welcome us and work for our well-being. It has become the home of many who have fought the extreme-right in vain for control of the GOP.
Recently, Pat Buchanan lashed out at the GOP's "lords and barons" and called on his followers to hoist their "pitchforks" to oust them from the party. One of the leading younger conservatives, William Kristol, replied, "After all, we conservatives are on the side of the lords and the barons." For those of us who are not lords, barons, or pitch-fork brandishers, but who want a country better off for all of us tomorrow than it is today, the "big tent" is one that we've been forced to abandon by those who fill it now.