Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I find myself fascinated by the fracturing going on within the Republican Party.

It’s kind of like staring at a car crash sitting on the side of the road. You know you shouldn’t be gawking. There are some people there who are having a very bad day. But still, there is this morbid fascination with the very fact of a crash, with all the bent fenders, flashing lights on the police cars and maybe even an ambulance or two. You think to yourself, “Wow, how did that happen? That’s terrible! I’m glad it wasn’t me.”

That’s sort of how I feel about the beginnings of what looks to be a crack-up of the modern Republican Party. It’s kind of amazing to watch, especially since the Republican Party under the “leadership” of George Bush and Karl Rove looked to be zooming down the freeway, unimpeded, at 80 mph, passing everyone in sight.

O.K., that’s enough of my car crash and freeway metaphor. After a while, it just becomes too cumbersome to keep up.

There are many Conservatives who are being pretty blunt about this. Chuck Hagel, retiring Senator from Nebraska, really let his own party have it the other day. While he was at it, he took a pretty nice shot at Rush Limbaugh as well. David Frum and Kathleen Parker have been sharply critical as well. The one person I have been following that has been very up front and articulate about the current problems of the Republican Party is David Brooks of the NY Times. This guy drives me nuts. Quite often, he is a very good read. I thought he did a terrific job as election night analyst on PBS. Other times, man, his ideology jumps out and pokes him in the ribs, I guess, and he comes out with some really astounding rationalizations and flat out false statements when he is trying to make a point about how bad Democrats and liberals are. This tendency has been what has earned him the nickname of “Bobo” among the liberal blogosphere.

Here is part of one of his more lucid moments.

It's only been a week since the defeat, but the battle lines have already been drawn in the fight over the future of conservatism.

In one camp, there are the Traditionalists, the people who believe that conservatives have lost elections because they have strayed from the true creed. George W. Bush was a big-government type who betrayed conservatism. John McCain was a Republican moderate, and his defeat discredits the moderate wing.

To regain power, the Traditionalists argue, the GOP should return to its core ideas: Cut government, cut taxes, restrict immigration. Rally behind Sarah Palin.

Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are the most prominent voices in the Traditionalist camp, but there is also the alliance of Old Guard institutions.

For example, a group of Traditionalists met in Virginia last weekend to plot strategy, including Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. According to reports, the attendees were pleased that the election wiped out some of the party's remaining moderates. "There's a sense that the Republicans on Capitol Hill are freer of wobbly-kneed Republicans than they were before the election," the writer R. Emmett Tyrrell told a reporter.

The other camp, the Reformers, argue that the old GOP priorities were fine for the 1970s but need to be modernized for new conditions. The reformers tend to believe that American voters will not support a party whose main idea is slashing government. The Reformers propose new policies to address inequality and middle-class economic anxiety. They tend to take global warming seriously. They tend to be intrigued by the way David Cameron has modernized the British Conservative Party.

Moreover, the Reformers say, conservatives need to pay attention to the way the country has changed. Conservatives must appeal more to Hispanics, independents and younger voters. They cannot continue to insult the sensibilities of the educated class and the entire East and West coasts.


The debate between the camps is heating up. Only one thing is for sure: In the near term, the Traditionalists are going to win the fight for supremacy in the GOP. They are going to win, first, because congressional Republicans are predominantly Traditionalists. Republicans from the coasts and the Upper Midwest are largely gone. Among the remaining members, the popular view is that Republicans have been losing because they haven't been conservative enough.


Finally, Traditionalists own the conservative mythology. Members of the conservative Old Guard see themselves as members of a small, heroic movement marching bravely from the Heartland into the belly of the liberal elite. In this narrative, anybody who deviates toward the center, who departs from established doctrine, is a coward and a sellout.

This narrative happens to be mostly bogus at this point. Most professional conservatives are lifelong Washingtonians who live comfortably as organization heads, lobbyists and publicists. Their supposed heroism consists of living inside the large conservative cocoon and telling each other things they already agree with.
But this embattled-movement mythology provides a rational for crushing dissent, purging deviationists and enforcing doctrinal purity. It has allowed the old leaders to define who is a true conservative and who is not. It has enabled them to maintain control of (an ever more rigid) movement.

In short, the Republican Party will probably veer right in the years ahead, and suffer more defeats. Then, finally, some new Reformist donors and organizers will emerge. They will build new institutions, new structures and new ideas, and the cycle of conservative ascendance will begin again.

I left quite a bit of his original column intact, just because there are so many points in there that I think are quite valid. This really is an ideological battle for control of the Republican Party. But what I find amazing is Brooks’ statement, and I have seen this from many others as well, that the remaining core of what Brooks calls the Traditionalist camp feels they need to become more militant, more conservative, not less. As more and more of the less rigid ideologues of the Republicans are voted out of office or finally give up on their party and becomes independents or even moderate to right Democrats, the more the core of the Republican Party contracts. There is no “big tent” for the Republican Party. There isn’t even a “moderate to smallish-sized tent.” No, the Republican Party of the Traditionalists requires that all card-carrying members, without exception, hold to the edicts laid out. They must believe that abortion is the murder of innocent babies, brown people are scary and either want to blow you up, take your jobs or live off “the dole” here in the U.S., war is always preferable to any other option, that global warming is a myth and that Democrats are evil-incarnate and therefore cannot be correct about anything, ever. If anyone deviates from these stated principles, they are expelled from the Congregation of True Believers.

David Brooks says as much in his column. If this column and many others like it aren’t evidence of the coming crack-up, I don’t know what is. What I find fascinating about this, I guess, is that this is so self-inflicted. For a political party, this is very self-destructive behavior. This is not based on any rational logic, at all. It is tribalism at its worst, driven by raw emotion and hatred of anything new or different. The Traditionalists of the Republican Party seem bound and determine not to learn any lessons, at all, from the elections of 2006 and 2008. If any political party had experienced the worst back-to-back defeats since the 1930’s, I would assume that a little self-introspection would be called for, and sooner rather than later. But all this seems to have done is make the Traditionalists angrier and more determined to be “right.”

I, for one, cannot understand how any rational human being can listen to Sarah Palin, especially in her unrehearsed moments, and come to the conclusion that this person should be in charge of anything, much less this country. She comes across as a total doofus, someone you might see as someone’s ditzy neighbor in a bad 1970’s sitcom. Yet, in the Traditionalists view, she is the new leader, the standard bearer for the Republican Party. Talk about self-destructive behavior. If this last election should have taught them anything, it is that, not only does most of the country think that she is not qualified, they also think she is a joke, something to be parodied on Saturday Night Live. And yet, several weeks before the election, I heard one person, just dripping with so much certitude that it made his socks damp and gathered in puddles around his shoes where he was standing, state that he wished that he could vote for Palin for President, since she was “obviously the most qualified of the four candidates.” I could only shake my head.

I am not a psychologist or sociologist. I have no training that would help me identify such illogical behavior by so many supposedly intelligent people. The willingness to buy into self-delusion on a massive scale, however, does seem to be at the heart of the Traditionalists’ “World As They See It.” My only response is to shrug my shoulders and quote that most famous rational yet fictional character, Mr. Spock. “That is not logical.”

This behavior does reinforce the notion that I have had for quite some time, that self-preservation is not always the highest priority for individuals of our species. Self-destructive behavior can be seen all around in our society, such as that exhibited by alcoholics, drug addicts, compulsive gamblers, cheating husbands and wives, etc. I suppose we can now add the Traditionalists of the Republican Party to that list. They may be quite content with their ideology and hatred of everything “other”, but they are surely driving the current edition of the Republican Party to second-tier status as a purely regional political entity that has some very difficult litmus tests for their member to pass before they can be called one of the “true believers.”

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