If Dwight Eisenhower had made any real effort to build a political base within the GOP, his moderate brand of Republicanism – often termed “modern Republicanism” – might have continued to dominate the party after he left office, and Arthur Larson would have been remembered as its leading theoretician. Instead, the GOP’s philosophy came to reflect the conservatism of the two main critics of “modern Republicanism,” William F. Buckley Jr. and Barry Goldwater, and Larson was reduced to a footnote. The brief notoriety that surrounded Larson and his 1956 manifesto, A Republican Looks at His Party, is worth revisiting both as a reminder of why moderation once was thought to be the Republican wave of the future, and also why moderates ended up losing out to their conservative rivals.
Larson grew up in South Dakota, attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and taught labor law as a professor and dean before becoming Eisenhower’s assistant secretary of Labor in 1954. During his first year with the administration, Larson used his spare time to write his defense of Eisenhower Republicanism. A Republican Looks at His Party became a surprise bestseller, and Larson briefly served as Ike’s top speechwriter.
Larson positioned Eisenhower between the ideas of 1896 (Old Guard Republican conservatism) and those of 1936 (New Deal radicalism). Ike was fiscally conservative, greatly concerned that the United States balance its budgets; he was no believer in the power of Keynesian deficit spending. Modern Republicans also believed that the balance of federal-state power under Franklin Roosevelt had swung too far in the federal direction, and that decentralization rather than further centralization was both the moral and practical path. They believed that business was a progressive force, and that the New Deal had been unnecessarily hostile to capitalism.
However, the moderates’ aim was to rationalize and reform the New Deal rather than repeal it. Moderates conceded that government had an obligation to protect the rights of labor, and that most Americans wanted a limited welfare state, which they credited for the security they’d gained since the hard years of the Depression. Eisenhower realized that to try to take away those gains and abolish the status quo would not be a conservative but a radical act. Ike also believed that while all Americans had a duty to oppose Communism, the irresponsible Red-hunting of Senator Joseph McCarthy damaged America.
Larson depicted modern Republicanism as, in a sense, Eisenhower’s personal qualities writ large. It was as much a temperament as an ideology, espousing balance, reasonableness, prudence, and common sense. Not that Ike was a pushover – he had, after all, staked the existence of the free world on the D-Day landings and at one point threatened to nuke Communist China. But Larson believed that Eisenhower and the American people shared a common instinct for the political center, and that Ike’s policies were making the GOP the party of the American center. And Larson reminded his readers that “in politics – as in chess – the man who holds the center holds a position of almost unbeatable strength.”
Larson’s critics on both the right and left denied that moderation could be a separate political stance between liberalism and conservatism. Liberals slammed moderation as a flint-hearted imitation of liberal social concern, and joked that a moderate Republican was like a man who, seeing a group of people drowning fifteen feet off shore, would throw them a ten-foot rope and feel that he’d gone more than half way.
Moderation was even more of a red flag for conservatives, who saw Larson as a traitor who was legitimizing liberalism by incorporating it into the Republican Party. Barry Goldwater sniped that Larson had not even registered to vote until 1954, and that he was one of “the political do-gooders and opportunists who have so lately crowded under the Republican banner.” The modern Republicans, according to Goldwater, were seeking to subvert the basic traditions of the GOP, and Larson’s philosophy “in practically every respect parrots the old and decrepit New Dealism of Harry S. Truman.”
William F. Buckley Jr. devoted much of his 1959 work Up From Liberalism to attacking modern Republicanism, though he thought Larson had “verve and spirit” and smirked that his book “had the singular distinction of being read by President Eisenhower.” Buckley scorned bipartisanship in foreign affairs, thought moderate Republicanism incapable of halting the advance of the welfare state, and blamed Larson as well as liberals for marginalizing conservative ideas in political discourse. Above all, Buckley found the moderate philosophy to be as bland as Eisenhower himself; like the political upstarts on the left during the 1960s, he craved madder music and stronger wine than the ‘50s centrist consensus.
Barry Goldwater’s 1960 political declaration The Conscience of a Conservative (ghostwritten by Buckley’s brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell) accused Larson of conniving with Democrats in “an unqualified repudiation of the principle of limited government,” and acquiescing to a statism that inevitably would lead to absolutism. Goldwater’s book charged that moderation was too vague to inspire a political movement, and pointed out that Eisenhower’s popularity had not translated into Republican Congressional majorities (aside from 1953-55). While Americans liked Ike and the eight years of peace and prosperity he brought to the country, they found it hard to differentiate his moderate position from the Democrats’ and were not particularly eager to join his Republican Party.
Eisenhower and his followers were indeed poor base-builders, which allowed conservatives to seize the machinery of the Republican Party after 1964, never to relinquish control. In the long run, though, it doesn’t appear that the conservatives definitively won their arguments with Larson and the modern Republicans. Larson left the government in 1958, wrote another book on moderates (more or less), and became a law professor at Duke, where he remained until his death in 1993.
The moderates were on the right side of history in supporting federal efforts (which both Buckley and Goldwater opposed) to end Jim Crow segregation in the South. The GOP’s massive defeat in 1964, when Goldwater was the party’s presidential nominee, disproved the hypothesis that a hidden majority of voters was waiting to embrace a radically conservative agenda if they were give “a choice, not an echo.” While conservatives were able to galvanize grassroots support in a way that moderates could not, a conservative Republican Party would become a majority party under Ronald Reagan only after the Democrats had drifted too far left from the political center, and conservatives had grudgingly accepted government responsibility for at least some level of social welfare, much as Larson had counseled in the 1950s. In hindsight, the views advanced by Larson on the moderate side and Buckley and Goldwater on the conservative side were not incompatible opposites but complementary viewpoints in a necessary dialogue.