E.J. Dionne, Jr. – American Conservatism and the Republican Party

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February 23, 2016 — E.J. Dionne, Jr., Washington Post op-ed columnist, discussed his new book, Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism from Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond, and the role of the media in the 2016 election.

In looking for the roots of the Republican Party’s current predicament – which includes the rise of candidates not favored by the Republican establishment and dwindling support among youth and minorities – Dionne singled out Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign as an event that “fundamentally altered the Republican Party” and “set the party’s politicians up to make a series of promises they couldn’t keep.” This cycle of broken promises has led conservative voters to feel disappointed and betrayed by the leadership of their party, he said.

Since Goldwater, Republicans have pledged to make the government smaller, said Dionne, but implementation has been another matter – for example, the government was the same size as a share of GDP both before and after Reagan’s presidency. “Even though people listen to all kinds of abstract critiques of regulation, they rather like it that government tries to keep the air safe, the water clean, consumer products in some condition so they won’t kill you, and on and on down the list.” He also noted that many Tea Party supporters are opposed to Social Security cuts, and that conservatives are often reluctant to cut military spending – two key areas that could be reduced to shrink the size of government.

A second core principle of conservatism that dates back to the 1960s is the promise to roll back cultural changes, said Dionne, which can be seen today in Donald Trump’s approach to immigration policy.

Compounding the problem of broken promises, Dionne argued, is the “purge” of more moderate and liberal Republicans from the party, which also began during the 1960s. The result has effectively hollowed out the party: “The more moderate conservative forces in the party…are looking around now and saying ‘we want to stop Trump and Ted Cruz’ – except the voters whom they used to rely on, many are no longer Republican,” said Dionne. “This is a problem for the recovery of what I see as a saner and more constructive kind of conservatism.”

Dionne then turned his focus to media coverage of the 2016 election. “I believe that the rise of an opinionated and mobilizing media is not altogether a bad thing,” he said, regarding the partisan and fragmented nature of today’s media. “But I worry very much about the nature of a public conversation that loses some of the standards and some of the reporting of the older kind of media, and here technology is a very mixed force.”

With the breakdown of traditional news business models, accountability journalism has been on the decline, said Dionne, while the competition for ratings has led to uneven coverage. “If you look at Donald Trump’s campaign, no one understood the problems facing the media better than Trump, and exploited them more,” he said. “I am not convinced that he is being held to the same standards, and I think part of that is because Trump is a ratings machine for everyone.”

During the question and answer session, Dionne also discussed Nixon’s Southern strategy, the Young Americans for Freedom movement of the 1960s, and the use of humor in political discourse, among other topics. Listen to the full audio recording above.

Article and photo by Nilagia McCoy of the Shorenstein Center.