Why are so many high profile Republicans supporting Joe Biden?
For much of its history, the Republican Party was a coalition of geographic and ideological factions. When the party’s presidential nominee offended one of them, its members had an incentive to remain loyal in the hopes that their segment of the party would win the next factional skirmish. But today, the GOP has become an ideological party, remade in the image of President Trump, offering dissenters little reason to stay on board.
American political parties typically have been heterogenous coalitions of interests pragmatically seeking power. This led to semiregular schisms after one faction lost out on a party’s presidential nomination. In 1884, the good-government reformers known as the Mugwumps walked out of the Republican national convention rather than support their party’s corruption-tainted nominee, James G. Blaine. A similar walkout from the 1912 Republican convention led to the formation of what became known as the Bull Moose Party under former president Theodore Roosevelt. In 1948, President Harry Truman had to contend with defections from both the Democratic Party’s left (former vice president Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party) and right (Sen. Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats).
For most of the first century after its founding in 1854, the Republican Party’s internal divisions meant that it had to balance between moderate and conservative factions. By the time of the 1952 Republican convention, this division manifested itself in a battle between the moderate Dwight D. Eisenhower and the conservative Sen. Robert Taft (Ohio). Eisenhower’s victory produced considerable ill will, but both sides understood that it was in their best interest to reconcile to defeat their common foe, the Democrats.
By the early 1960s, there were four strands of Republicanism: a liberal faction inspired by the civil rights movement and led by New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller; Eisenhower-aligned moderates; Taft-style conservatives and libertarian conservatives led by Sen. Barry Goldwater (Ariz.).
Goldwater’s clinching of the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 sundered the party. Many of Goldwater’s positions would be considered extreme even now — including calling for making Social Security voluntary, repealing progressive income taxation and allowing battlefield commanders to fight communism with nuclear weapons. And in June 1964, he was one of only six Republican senators to vote against the Civil Rights Act, while 27 voted in favor.
Progressives, moderates and even some Taftites opposed Goldwater’s nomination because they felt his beliefs betrayed Republican traditions, particularly the party’s support for civil rights, which dated to its founding. They correctly perceived that his conservatism was too extreme for the American public and would lead to a wipeout on Election Day.
Moderates further opposed Goldwater’s attempt to convert the GOP into a factionless, ideologically-defined party. Goldwater purged moderates and liberals from party organizations, refused to balance his ticket with a moderate vice-presidential candidate and demanded that the convention pass an ultraconservative platform with no compromises. His famous convention declaration that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice … [and] moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue” amounted to an excommunication of nonconservatives.
Pennsylvania’s moderate Republican Gov. William Scranton unsuccessfully tried to challenge Goldwater’s nomination at the convention. Prominent Republican politicians such as Sen. Kenneth Keating (N.Y.), along with most of the party’s Black delegates and alternates, walked out of the convention. Michigan Gov. George Romney (father of Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney) was one of several Republican officeholders who refused to endorse Goldwater.
No well-known Republican politician, however, went so far as to endorse Goldwater’s Democratic opponent, Lyndon B. Johnson. And while there were some citizen groups, like Republicans and Independents for Johnson (who urged Republicans to “Split Your Ticket … Not Your Country”), few current or former Republican officeholders bolted from the party.
In part, this was because moderates and progressives believed that they represented the majority of Republican voters as well as the leading strain of Republicanism throughout history; they saw Goldwater as an anomaly. “The Republican Party is bigger than one man,” Sen. Kenneth B. Keating (R-N.Y.) warned. “In the past, Republicanism has been almost synonymous with moderation. Senator Goldwater cannot expect to win the support of a broad cross-section of Republicans by his attacks on moderation and his defense of extremism.”
“I urge all Republican progressives to remain in the party,” Keating’s New York colleague Sen. Jacob Javits insisted. “We must not surrender our party for all time to the ultra-conservative forces. We have earned our presence in the Republican Party by many years of service. We cannot allow ourselves to be chased out.”
But moderates and progressives also were unwilling to allow conservatives to destroy the party’s coalitional makeup by bolting.
Richard M. Nixon, writing to Eisenhower, criticized candidates with “cannibalistic instincts” who tried to discredit and destroy the leaders of other factions. The moderates, as much as they objected to the conservatives’ ideas, understood that as a growing faction in the party they would have to be accommodated — including getting a shot at the presidential nomination. Walter Thayer, president of the moderate Republican New York Herald Tribune, conceded that the 1964 convention was “a sad experience. Perhaps, however, it is necessary for the Republican Party to go through this and let the Conservatives have their chance.”
Goldwater’s massive defeat had long-lasting impacts. It discredited the case for an extreme conservative ideological transformation of the Republican Party and reinforced the lesson that all party factions had to try to live with one another.
When Ronald Reagan, the conservative former California governor, gained the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, he avoided a Goldwater-style takeover. Instead, he pursued a factional strategy, naming the moderate George H.W. Bush as his running mate and cooperating with moderates in writing the party’s platform.
Reagan’s conservatism was still too much for the party’s few remaining progressives, who left to support John Anderson’s independent candidacy. And Reagan’s presidency undoubtedly moved the Republican Party to the right. But he gave prominent roles in his administration to moderates and pragmatists such as James Baker and Howard Baker, and he understood that governing required him to compromise both with Democrats and moderates in his party. As he told aides on many occasions, “I’d rather get 80 percent of what I want than go over the cliff with my flag flying.”
Starting with Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich’s ascendancy in the late 1980s, however, the Republican Party abandoned the factional model. Increasingly, it became the narrowly ideological party with little internal diversity that Goldwater had first attempted in 1964. Leadership punished moderates in Congress who deviated from the conservative line with undesirable committee assignments, loss of position within committees, lack of campaign support and official party indifference when incumbents faced challenges from outside conservative enforcers like the new Club for Growth. Pressure toward ideological conformity intensified during George W. Bush’s presidency and with the rise of the tea party. Increasingly, even the leadership found itself ideologically boxed in, pressured by the extreme fringe with allies in conservative media who demanded purity.
Republican opposition to Trump in 2020 therefore differs significantly from past patterns of intraparty dissent not only because of Trump’s character, but also because the Republican Party has become a monolith.
While Trump did force the party to abandon long-held principles — for example on trade and fiscal responsibility — he also remade it from top to bottom entirely in his image, not even bothering to write a 2020 platform. A party that had eliminated its internal diversity and insisted on conformity had no defense against Trump. He has not tolerated any dissenting views, and no Republican who dared to stand up against him — with the partial exception of Mitt Romney — still holds any power in the party.
Since the GOP is no longer a coalitional party, Republican voters and former officials who once would have found a place in its different factions now reject the Trump brand. Former officials, without hope of regaining influence in the GOP, have denounced Trump. Moderates and principled conservatives have announced their support for Biden and the Democratic Party — a party that is still organized along factional lines and has an ideological breadth that stretches from highly progressive to fairly conservative.
If the Republican Party suffers a massive defeat in this election, it will have two choices. It can remake itself as a big-tent, factional party, as it existed through most of its history. Or it can claim that it lost because it was stabbed in the back by Trump’s Republican critics. If it opts for the latter, it may be a very long time before the party regains power.