People who know me today might be surprised to learn that I voted for Ronald Reagan. Twice. I was (past tense) a registered Republican. Once I even flipped the Republican lever, back in the day when some mechanical voting machines had a switch for voting a straight party line.
Why was I Republican during a good portion of the 1970s and 80s? It isn't much of an oversimplification to say that my worldview placed a high value on balanced budgets and keeping government bureaucracy lean. Government was an unfortunate necessity, but a necessity nevertheless. On social issues I was quite liberal, something that has always seemed to me to be no more nor less then the logical entailment of believing "that government is best which governs the least." Small government requires public respect for a wide range of private choices. Some today would say that I was never a true Republican because of that, and they might be right. But the fact is that being socially liberal while fiscally conservative USED TO BE one of the standard flavors of conservatism. There USED TO BE room for me and people like me in the Republican party.
Even in the 70s, when I was young and idealistic, I was aware that I was associating with some unsavory Republican characters. There had always been theocrats and imperialists and nationalists who wanted "to get the U.S. out of the U.N." Some of those were willing to subordinate fiscal responsibility to their goals in the culture war, but I wasn't too worried about them. I had faith that the American "system" would keep those people in check. After all, the Constitution explicitly guarantees all citizens equal protection of the laws and prohibits any official religious discrimination. The executive or legislative branches might pander to extremists from time to time, but the courts would eventually correct such excesses. I actually thought social issues would tend to sort themselves out in favor of individual freedom as long as government just focused on doing its duty as minimally and efficiently as possible.
Have I changed since then? Yes, but only a little. I certainly know a lot more now about America's problems and system of government than I did as a twenty-something. I am no longer blissfully ignorant of the darker aspects of American culture that can rightly be called intolerance and backwardness. Most importantly, I came to see social issues as requiring protection from all branches of government, not just the judicial. Yet my core values have changed hardly at all. I still think a balanced budget and lean bureaucracy are critically important. I still feel that a commitment to small government means little or no interference in private choices, including choices about such things as abortion and marriage. And I still see people who think such social issues are more important than basic economics are radical revolutionaries rather than true conservatives.
While I changed slowly and marginally, the Republican party changed rapidly and greatly. In my political awareness this started with the Reagan administration. I responded viscerally to Reagan's rhetoric of small government and balanced budgets, and supported him enthusiastically. But the stark difference between words and actions became too great to ignore. Reagan drove the budget deficit through the roof. He appointed archfiend Antonin Scalia, willing to place his own ideology ahead of logic and precedent, to the Supreme Court. The party used the Religious Right as puppets to manage the votes of social conservatives, and at times the puppets became the puppet masters. What the Reagan years taught me was that Republicans are lying when they talk about fiscal responsibility and that we can NOT rely on the courts to protect civil liberties from legislators and executives.
Those were harsh enough lessons in reality, but that was just the 1980s! Things only got worse from there. Bush Senior was abandoned by his own party for trying to rein in some of the Reaganomic excesses and for not being enough of a culture warrior. Paleoconservative and failed presidential candidate Pat Buchanan gave his infamous "culture war" speech at the 1992 GOP convention, proclaiming the supremacy of "traditional Judeo-Christian values." A lower life-form named Newt Gingrich codified the Republican policy of total obstructionism. The party paraded Bill Clinton's private sexual peccadilloes before the public in a grandly staged impeachment opera. The Religious Right established itself as a major political power. People who were socially liberal but fiscally conservative left the party almost entirely. No matter. We were easily replaced by the less socially conscious.
One of the things I find so terrifying about the Republican party is that every time they seem to have sunk as low as possible, to have abandoned core principles as far as possible, new depths are revealed. Reagan's betrayal of fiscal conservatives and the Gingrich-led march into obstructionist madness now seem trivial. The new century dawned and Bush Junior lied to America and the United Nations about Weapons of Mass Destruction, destroyed the credibility of the U.S. internationally, undertook a hugely expensive war, ignored warnings about mortgage lenders, and then left the economy in ruins. His V.P. Dick Cheney infamously said, "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter."
The Obama years SEEMED to signal a major change in American culture, an attainment of at least some social maturity. Progress on social issues that had developed from the 1960s onward IN SPITE of Republican opposition seemed to be cemented in place. Simple demographics, regardless of parties or ideologies, had made America more diverse and less religious. Women and minorities were more visible in positions of power. Laws limiting abortion were being passed by legislatures but also were being chipped away at in the courts. We took a step toward universal healthcare. Same-sex marriage became the law of the land. An African-american had been elected, not once but twice, as President of the United States. The financial disaster left by the Bush administration was slowly but steadily being cleaned up. The budget deficit and unemployment were both declining.
The country seemed poised to continue along the Obama path, and Republicans were in no position to prevent it. The rapid rightward match of the party had left internal factional divisions that were hard to work around. In 2012 they actually flirted with the idea of running Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum for president, then had to compromise on the bland and indecipherable Mitt Romney, who could not unseat Obama. By early 2016 the party seemed near to collapse. They could not field a single candidate from their own establishment that had even the remotest chance of standing up to Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton. Without a winning presidential candidate, the party was likely to lose big in congress and in statehouses. The party's self-description seemed nearly complete.
To save themselves from themselves, the party acquiesced to Donald Trump, an inexperienced know-nothing whose race-baiting demagoguery seemed to energize a large portion of the voting base. Republicans of a more practical temperament (there still are a few such people in the party) were understandably skeptical. But there were simply no alternatives. It was Trump or death for the GOP, and with dreary predictability the party put its own well-being ahead of that of the nation.
For the moment, at least, this strategy seems to have been wildly successful. The Republican party controls many statehouses and governorships, both houses of Congress, and at least in theory the presidency. The party now has power that is at least equal to that which it had during the best of the Reagan years. The only fly in the ointment, most likely, is Trump himself, who is something of a loose canon. The party will have to play hardball with its own candidate to gain a degree of control over him.
The situation appears grim to me. Trump's picks for his administration, if confirmed, will implement an unprecedented degree of plutocracy and corporatocracy. His stated intentions for taxes and spending terrify economists on both the Left and Right. The lesson of Trump's win by appealing to the most anti-social and anti-modern aspects of American culture has been lost on no one, and attempts to reverse recent gains on any number of social issues seem likely. This is one of those moments when I would say the party has sunk as low as it possibly could. But mark my words: I've been wrong every other time I've said that.