National Journal | February 27, 2010
The history of the modern Republican Party in one sentence: Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller got into an argument and George Wallace won.
OK, footnotes are required. The most important is that racism, a central factor in Wallace's career, is marginal in today's Republican Party. In fact, if there is anything Republicans like about President Obama, it is the racial breakthrough that his election represents. Nothing in this article implies that the GOP is a racist party.
But there was much more to George Corley Wallace than race. We too easily forget, today, what a formidable figure he cut in his heyday. His four-term career as governor of Alabama spanned a quarter-century. In 1968, he launched one of the most successful independent presidential candidacies in American history, winning 13 percent of the popular vote. In 1972, this time running as a Democrat, he won five primaries and was on a roll when a would-be assassin's bullet knocked him out of the race.
"To dismiss George Wallace as a racist or a demagogue is to seriously underestimate his allure," said the National Observer in 1968. "His appeal is broader, far broader, than racism, and his themes too vital to be contained within mere demagoguery." Wallace drew a map for Republicans' subsequent inroads into the South and blue-collar America, and he pioneered legitimate issues to which establishment politicians paid too little attention: easy money, dysfunctional welfare programs, perverse crime policies.
What Wallace did not do was frame a coherent program or governing philosophy. His agenda was "this strange conglomeration," says Dan Carter, a University of South Carolina historian and biographer of Wallace. "I don't expect politicians to be running a seminar, but there's an absolute incoherence about the thing that is more a cry of angst than a program."
Wallace's national appeal came neither from the racial backlash he exploited nor from his program, such as it was. "It was a deep sense of grievance," Carter says -- a feeling that elites "are not only screwing you over but at the same time they're laughing at you, they're looking down their noses at you."
Fast-forward to the present. The hottest ticket in the Republican Party is Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska and the party's 2008 vice presidential nominee. In a recent column, George Will compared her insurgent libertarianism to that of Goldwater's, which electrified the Right in 1964. Fair enough. But Goldwater served for 30 years as a respected insider in Washington's most exclusive club, the U.S. Senate; he was never interested in cultural and social issues; resentment and rage were alien to him. Palin's style and appeal are closer to Wallace's.
Palin: "Voters are sending a message." Wallace: "Send them a message!"
Palin: "The soul of this movement is the people, everyday Americans, who grow our food and run our small businesses, who teach our kids and fight our wars.... The elitists who denounce this movement, they just don't want to hear the message." Wallace: "They've looked down their noses at the average man on the street too long. They've looked [down] at the bus driver, the truck driver, the beautician, the fireman, the policeman, and the steelworker...."
Palin: "We need a commander-in-chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern." Wallace: "We have a professor -- I'm not talking about all professors, but here's an issue in the campaign -- we got these pseudo-theoreticians, and these pseudo-social engineers.... They want to tell you how to do."
Palin: "What does he [Obama] actually seek to accomplish...? The answer is to make government bigger; take more of your money; give you more orders from Washington." Wallace: "They say, 'We've gotta write a guideline. We've gotta tell you when to get up in the morning. We've gotta tell you when to go to bed at night.' "
Wallace was not a libertarian. In Alabama, he expanded the state government and built the junior college system. He never presented a program to shrink the government in Washington. That never stopped him from attacking Big Government, at least on the federal level. He called for "freedom from unwarranted, unwise, and unwanted intrusion and oppression by the federal government" and said, "I think that what they ought to do is cut down on federal spending." But he never put his money where his mouth was.
The cash value of Republican libertarianism has been similarly low. Ronald Reagan didn't reduce federal spending or try very hard; George W. Bush was a big spender; beginning in 1999, before Bush came to office, the Republican Congress sought to spend its way to a permanent majority. Today's "tea partiers" and Palin fans are angry about that, but try asking them for their plan to change it.
In February, Palin criticized Obama's proposed freeze on most domestic discretionary spending (about a sixth of the budget) as "certainly not enough," which it certainly isn't. "We need to go further," she told the Tea Party Nation convocation this month: "Cut spending, don't just simply slow down a spending spree." And she offered... what? To just simply slow down a spending spree: "Kill the plans for the second stimulus." This, she allowed cheerfully, is also "not going to be enough," but she said that her proposed non-increase, unlike Obama's proposed non-increase, would be "a good way to start and to show that we're serious about getting our financial house in order."
Actually, it shows that, like Wallace and his supporters 40 years ago, today's conservative populists are long on anger and short on coherence. For Wallace, small-government rhetoric was a trope, not a workable agenda. The same is true of his Republican heirs today, who insist that spending cuts alone, without tax increases, will restore fiscal balance but who have not proposed anywhere near enough spending cuts, primarily because they can't.
Someone who at least tried is Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, who recently unveiled a new edition of what he calls a "Road Map for America's Future." Its willingness to reform entitlement programs is laudable. But it keeps taxes at 19 percent of gross domestic product while raising (repeat: raising) federal spending from 21.6 percent of GDP in 2012 to more than 24 percent in the 2030s. It balances the budget, all right -- in 2063.
Even so, its spending cuts are political nonstarters. The House Republican leadership "distanced the party from the road map almost as soon as it was released," writes the Cato Institute's Gene Healy, who points out that Republicans' recent rush to position themselves as defenders of Medicare makes it "pretty clear that the GOP isn't serious about reducing spending."
It does seem serious about pandering to cultural resentment. Speaking to a conservative conference in February, Tim Pawlenty, the governor of Minnesota and a possible 2012 Republican presidential contender, denounced "elites" who "hang out at... Chablis-drinking, Brie-eating parties in San Francisco" and who look down on conservatives as "bumpkins." The only substantial difference from Wallace's resentful rhetoric is that Wallace did it much better ("They've called us rednecks.... Well, we're going to show, there sure are a lot of rednecks in this country!"). When Pawlenty called on the crowd to "take a nine iron and smash the window out of Big Government in this country," you knew you were deep into Wallace territory.
I am not saying that today's Republicans are a bunch of Wallace clones. Or that everything Wallace did or said was wrong, or that Republicans should shun all of his themes just because he used them. I am saying three things.
First, with the important exception of race, not one of Wallace's central themes, from his bristling nationalism and his court-bashing to his anti-intellectualism and his aggressive provincialism, would seem out of place at any major Republican gathering today.
Second, and again leaving race aside, any Republican politician who publicly renounced the Wallace playbook would be finished as a national leader.
Third, by becoming George Wallace's party, the GOP is abandoning rather than embracing conservatism, and it is thereby mortgaging both its integrity and its political future. Wallaceism was not sufficiently mainstream or coherent to sustain a national party in 1968, and the same is true today.
Conservatism is wary of extremism and rage and anti-intellectualism, of demagoguery and incoherent revolutionary rhetoric. Wallace was a right-wing populist, not a conservative. The rise of his brand of pseudo-conservatism in Republican circles should alarm anyone who cares about the genuine article.