But the news is actually better than that. Because the events of the last thirty years were actually the high-water mark of conservative ascendancy.
For most of American history, the conservative movement was divided. The Bible-beating, race-baiting southerners were firmly entrenched in the Democratic party, while the big-business bankers and businessmen were on the other side of the line of scrimmage, first in the Federalist party and the Whigs, and then in the Republican party. Conservatives couldn’t unite because the two wings of the movement were always in two different parties.
Then several things happened, to strengthen the conservative movement.
The big one was the race issue. In 1948 Hubert Humphrey crystallized racial equality as a central issue for the Democratic party, and Truman backed him up. This began to loosen the Democratic party’s grip on the south. In the 1960s the Democrats pushed civil rights legislation. In 1968 George Wallace showed southerners that they didn't always have to cling to the Democratic party, and Nixon openly used a racist appeal to win southerners over to the GOP. By the 1980s the south was turning very red, and former hardcore Democrats like Strom Thurmond, Phil Gramm and Dick Shelby were now Republicans. And what that meant was that the big-business Wall Street conservatives and the southern conservatives, the two main pillars of the right wing movement, were all united. As the southerners joined the GOP, they picked up the powerful NRA too.
Also, the Democratic coalition that dominated America after the Depression collapsed. It was not a gradual decline: it happened all in one summer, due to the short-sighted, destructive actions of one man, George McGovern. In 1972 McGovern wanted to run for president, and came up with an ingenious method for securing the party nomination: taking over as chairman of the Commission on Party Structure and Party Selection, and using the party’s rules to grab the nomination for himself, much the same way Dick Cheney took over Bush’s VP selection process and grabbed the job for himself. But in doing so, McGovern had to launch devastating attacks against the major power centers of the party, the unions and the city bosses. He destroyed their power, and then when he needed their money and manpower in the general election, they said “you declared war against us at the convention, you destroyed our power, we can’t help you now.” There were other reasons McGovern lost big in 1972 – he embraced the same radical elements that scared the hell out of Middle America in 1968 and he handled his VP selection badly – but the one mistake that had long-term consequences was his deliberate choice to destroy the power centers which the Democrats had used for decades to win elections, the urban machines and big labor.
While the Democratic coalition was collapsing, and the southern and big-business conservatives were uniting under the GOP banner, the conservative alliance was adding a third wing. In 1950 America was reeling from the “loss” of China to the Communists, the news that the Russians had acquired the atom bomb through treachery, the communist invasion of South Korea and the anticommunist jihad of Joe McCarthy, and the Republicans swiftly crafted a “Democrats are weak on foreign policy” meme which helped them win elections throughout the Col dWar, something that really only ended when Obama shot Usama bin Laden in the head.
So now the GOP had an alliance of three strong movements: fiscal conservatives selling sexy tax cuts, social conservatives selling “family values”, and foreign-policy conservatives promising to protect America from the bad guys. And just as important, these three movements learned to support each other: the Wall Streeters learned to sing the “pro-life” sheet music, the war hawks learned to preach the low-taxes gospel.
Then other things happened to help the Republicans. Reagan, a superb salesman with impeccable timing, succeeded where Goldwater had failed sixteen years earlier, in selling the conservative message. Conservatives built their own television network, Fox. They concocted a scheme which put harsh conservative rhetoric on the radio for hours each day across a huge swath of middle America, giving the programming away for free, in exchange for advertising deals and the implied pledge that radio stations wouldn’t add liberal programming – the Rush Limbaugh show. The pushed legislative rules to the limit, filibustering any bills they didn’t like and using that tool to slow the flow of Democratic judges into the federal judiciary, thereby giving the federal bench a far-right tilt. And then they used all those rightwing judges to affirm the right of big-money conservatives to buy elections with millions of dollars in ad money. And lots of mud-slinging and attacks, ranging from Willie Horton to “Obama will kill your grandma”.
So, a Republican party with three strong, mutually-supporting factions, with strong messaging, clever parliamentary tactics, tons of money, and an amazing gift for dishonest attack ads. Facing a Democratic party whose power coalition had fallen apart, and which kept trying, foolishly, to reach out the hand of compromise to Republicans who just wanted to kill them. How could the Republicans lose?
The Republicans lost because America saw them try their ideas out.
They saw America, under Republican leadership, follow the war-hawk foreign policy into an unbelievable quagmire in Iraq. They saw supply-side economics destroying the middle class. They saw what the social conservatives meant when they said “family values” and “traditional America”: a nation in which gays and other minorities were barely tolerated, and women were seen as too stupid to manage their own lives.
And the other tactics failed too. The nasty filibusters began to backfire, the millions of dollars in attack ads backfired, the lies got shot down on live television, nothing the GOP tried worked.
And the amazing thing is how briefly the Grand Coalition of Republican elites lasted at the top of the hill. They won two elections with Reagan, a superb salesman, and then beat Dukakis who was one of the worst campaigners in electoral history. That’s it: three elections.
Since then, the Republicans have won the popular vote exactly once in 24 years of presidential politics: Bush, a wartime incumbent running against a lazy opponent, scored a wimpy 50.7 percent. They used scary lies about health care to win the House in 1994 and again in 2010, and they used gerrymandering to keep the House in 2012, even though the Democrats actually got more votes than the GOP in the 2012 House elections. And that's it.
The conservative movement reached its high-tide mark during Reagan, and since then they have had nothing to sustain themselves, but dishonest attacks, fear, hate, unethical tactics, and sheer brass. Once they empty that toolkit, what else do they have? America has rejected their belligerent foreign policy, their rob-the-middle-class-to-feed-the-rich fiscal policy, and their medieval attitudes regarding women, gays and minorities. They can’t win on ideas, they can’t win on strategy and tactics. Their bag of tricks is now empty.