The Republican Party is in a world of trouble today, and what is worse is that they haven’t begun to plumb the depths of the hole they’re in.
This is not good.
American politics is based on a two-party, winner-take-all system. It has never functioned very well with more than two meaningful parties – eventually they winnow out until only two are left. And it has never functioned very well with only one effective party. That kind of unchecked power to enact whatever whimsical agenda might cross somebody’s mind just isn’t healthy and opposition parties have tended to evolve out of this, regardless of the intent of the actual politicians involved.
And yet we don’t have two meaningful parties now. There is only one.
Consider this situation:
You are a political party that has basically set the agenda for the country for the last three or four decades. Everything the country is, politically – good or bad – is more or less your responsibility. You came to power on the heels of a backlash against the other party and managed to forge a coalition of voters that kept returning you into office, year after year, and even during the rare years when the other side technically had the majority it was still your agenda that set the boundaries of debate. They had to work with your ideas.
But those ideas aren’t doing the job anymore. Times have changed. The economy isn’t based on what it was based on when you came to power three or four decades ago. Social structures are different, the culture unrecognizably so. The old ideas, the ideas that swept you into power, have ossified into dogma and no longer apply to the reality most people live in. In fact a coherent argument might be made that those ideas are now counterproductive at best and – followed to their full measure in light of all those changes – disastrous at worst.
You need to change those ideas – adapt them, bring them more into line with the reality facing the country. The core is still worthwhile, perhaps, even if the applications are no longer valid.
But you can’t do this because you have been taken over by wingnuts, people far more interested in ideological purity than in effective governance. Rather than face reality, their solution is to double down on these dysfunctional ideas – to dig the hole deeper in the belief that this will lead to sunshine. Moderates – the people capable of reaching out to the other side, of adapting your ideas to new times – are being thrown out of your party, and the race to the radical fringe is on, until you are left with the fact that the extremists who are the only people who can win your primaries are too extreme to be elected consistently and even when they are elected they are far too ideologically blinded to make the kind of nuanced policy decisions that governing an actual country full of actual people with actual needs requires. They give good sound bites, but are not the sort of people you want in charge of anything that has real consequences in the real world.
Quick – who am I talking about?
If you said the Democratic Party of 1968, you get a prize.
It took the Democrats almost a quarter of a century to recover from their ideological collapse. They didn’t go away during that time – they controlled Congress for much of it, and even managed to elect a President for a single term not long after 1968 – a surprisingly narrow victory considering that Nixon resigned in disgrace and Ford pardoned him (a move whose merits might be debatable but whose unpopularity never was) but a victory nonetheless. But that was a measure of their power, not their meaningfulness. Power without ideas is hollow and fleeting. They had no ideas, and the emerging modern conservative movement ate them for lunch. Even the name of their agenda – “liberal” – became an epithet.
And now the situation is reversed. So if you answered the Republican Party of 2008-2010 to my question above, I suppose you get a prize as well. Somebody ought to be getting something out of this. It certainly isn’t the country as a whole. Might as well be you.
Modern conservatism has convincingly demonstrated itself to be both morally and intellectually bankrupt. It has failed – repeatedly – to provide effective governance, and by any objective measure the country is now worse off for having endured thirty or more years of modern conservative rule than it was beforehand.
What started as a commendable effort to reign in the excesses of liberalism in the 1970s degenerated into a slash-and-burn assault on the very real progress that those liberals had made in their decades in power, a time when the gap between rich and poor had actually narrowed and more Americans than ever before were being included in the political processes of their own nation. If you weren’t already one of society’s winners in 1980, odds are the conditions of your life got measurably worse under modern conservative rule rather than better, and that’s not the American Dream last time I checked.
The nation’s debt, measured as a percentage of GDP, had been declining steadily since WWII but rose sharply after 1980 as taxes on the wealthy were slashed while spending (particularly military spending) soared, and after the appointment of George W. Bush as president in 2000 modern conservatives quickly converted the largest budget surplus in human history into the largest budget deficit in human history, even without counting the illegal war the nation was somehow conned into fighting. Even with the money we’re spending today to get through the current recession – a recession caused by the excesses of modern conservative policies in the first place – the roots of the problem lay with those who caused the crisis, not those trying to solve it. We will be paying that debt for generations.
And perhaps more importantly, the shift from the politics of money to the politics of values, a shift undertaken by modern conservatives in the 1960s when they realized that they had nothing to offer the vast majority of Americans with their economic policies, has left the United States more fractured, polarized and unstable than at any point since the 1850s, which is quite an achievement given the 1870s, 1890s, 1910s and 1960s.
New ideas are needed. But there are no new ideas coming out of that quarter. The wingnuts have taken over, and any attempt to stray from an increasingly radical interpretation of the party platform is taken as treason, to the party at minimum and – for a group that increasingly makes no distinction between themselves and the country, to the point where they can declare without irony that they are the only “real Americans” – to the nation as a whole.
This certainly applies to their dealings with Democrats, who were left in 2008 with the unenviable task of being the grownups and cleaning up the unconscionable mess left by modern conservative rule. It is telling that when it comes to solving the problems there has been almost no cooperation from the party that created the problems.
Moreover, it also applies within the Republican Party, as those who won’t toe the Teabagger line get removed from power. The Republican Party today advocates as “common sense” positions that would have been part of the lunatic fringe forty or fifty years ago, and they expect unquestioning obedience to those positions. If you listen to right-wing commentators (something I don’t recommend, actually, as it tends to suck intelligence from the room), one of the terms you will hear thrown around with causal abandon is RINO – “Republican In Name Only.” This suggests that there is a purity test for being a Republican, that it is in fact something of a cult, with orthodoxies that must be adhered to and heresies that must be rooted out with fire and tongs. Even from the outside, the savagery of these assaults is appalling. This is not a party that is capable of adapting its ideas to changing realities. This is a party trying to dig its way to the sunshine.
To my knowledge there is no such thing as a DINO.
This is not to say that the modern conservative movement and the Republican Party that it took over after 1968 are going away. Just as the Democrats did during their long exile in the intellectual wilderness, I expect that they will win some elections and even, at times, form a majority in the government. They will remain powerful. But they won’t be meaningful, not really, not until such time as they begin to realize that the old ideas need to change. My guess is that this won’t happen until the current generation of media figures that runs the party these days retires or passes on. That’s how it usually works, anyway.
It took the Democrats nearly a quarter of a century to claw their way back to meaningfulness – to be a party that actually had ideas, whether you agree with them or no. Whether the Republicans can do this any quicker is an open question – my guess at this point is no, since they don’t seem to have realized that there is a problem to be solved, let alone actually begun trying to solve it. For the next few years I expect them to get more shrill, more extreme, and more angry, until such time as some of the younger conservatives – people with no particular personal stake in the old policies, people who can recognize the excesses of their own side along with the virtues and the virtues of the other side along with the excesses – begin to try to take their movement in other directions. They will have to fight for it, though, as the old guard never goes down easily and always trains up successors.
If this were a movie, it would be entertaining. The stakes are higher in reality, though.