What to Do When Your Party Sucks
Progressives are gonna have a lot of fun and satisfaction over the next two, four and eight years – although with each passing day and appointment, it doesn't appear as though much of it is going to come from Barack Obama.
More on that last bit another time. Meanwhile, the good stuff will be coming from the other team, for once. Now harmlessly out of power, their antics will have little impact in the real world. But, if schadenfreude is your game, you're gonna enjoy this.
The Republican Party had the absolute shit kicked out of it. And that was back in 2006. Then it was drowned, set on fire, hung, drawn and quartered, and hit by a freight train in 2008. These were not elections they won, or even barely lost. In 2006 they gave up control of both houses of Congress. The 1994 episode notwithstanding, that is not something that generally happens even once in a generation. George W. Bush, in perhaps the one truthful statement of his entire presidency, described it as "a thumpin'." He somehow neglected to also mention the cause for that thumpin', despite that it being someone with whom he is quite familiar. In 2008 they got stomped by similar proportions again, only this time they also lost the presidency too. And possibly (two Senate races are still unresolved) even the potential to filibuster as well. What's more, getting trounced twice in a row is an order of magnitude worse than simply getting trounced twice. That's another thing that rarely ever happens to an American political party.
If an atom bomb fell on their heads, it could hardly be worse for the GOP. As one of their former congressional leaders, Tom Davis, put it, as he retired in disgust, "The Republican brand is in the trash can. If we were dog food, they'd take us off the shelf." Right now, I'd say they'd be lucky to be dog food.
Some of these goofballs even seem to get it, though a lot of them don't. I've heard right-wingers running around saying that the problem was that the public was so stupid that it didn't realize Democrats were in control of Congress, and therefore actually took out their anger by punishing the wrong party! Nevermind that what that says about the elections their team won – how did those happen? Nevermind that the Democratic Congress never actually did anything, let alone anything remotely liberal, save for raising the minimum wage. What was there to punish Congress for? These people are walking around in a shell-shocked daze, completely disoriented. They look like nothing so much as the stunned, bloodied survivors lurching about the Middle Eastern marketplace scene, just after a terrorist bombing. This is the political equivalent of PTSD.
You get a sense that some people in the GOP do get it. Maybe Minnesota's Governor Tim Pawlenty, for example. Definitely David Brooks – who is about to change his ideological stripes for the second time in one lifetime – for another. Probably Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Dick Lugar and Arlen Specter as well, though I've not heard a peep from any of them. These are the few remaining sorta, kinda, center-right moderates in their party, and they're not stupid, and they're not suicidal. The first two, in particular, as senators from Maine, can see what's happening right on their doorstep. As of January, not a single congressional district in all of New England – once a GOP stronghold – will anymore be represented by a Republican. Remember when people like Ronald Reagan used to say "I didn't leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me"? Of course, he lied. (Surprised? Yeah, me neither.) It's now definitely true of the GOP, though. Remember Gerry Ford's Republican Party? Remember the mastodon? They roamed the planet at about the same time. Moderate Republicans of yore (some of them were even a bit liberal) stood by (silently) and watched (but also benefitted) as their party was hijacked by the likes of Reagan and Gingrich and DeLay and Bush. Nowadays, though, it ain't so great a ride anymore.
But here's the part where it gets really fun. These centrists are in the minority, absolutely dwarfed in power by the hard right, for whom the GOP is a wholly-owned subsidiary. They are so cowed, they don't even dare suggest that the party moderate its politics. I haven't heard a single Republican make a single suggestion along those lines since their drubbing, let alone before. I haven't even heard of a single prominent criticism of George W. Bush from within his party, despite that a few folks have admitted realizing that he dragged them over the cliff. The reason for this is that most everybody in the base and in elected office is on the same ideological page as Bush, and has been for a decade. Meanwhile, whatever few stragglers there are over on the left side of the far-right party, skirting dangerously close to sanity, are afraid to raise their heads, lest they be swiftboated, just like Bush did to McCain in 2000.
In most democracies, after you see a spanking of the magnitude the Republicans just brought down on their own head – let alone two in a row – you can pretty safely expect an ideological civil war among the ranks of the spankee party. That would definitely be happening now in the GOP, save for one minor technicality: wars require two sides to fight them, and there is effectively only one side within the party today. I doubt seriously there will be a Republican civil war, but if there is, I guarantee it will be a short one. Look for the "Mission Accomplished" banner to be flying over the Focus on the Family building, and this time they won't be kidding. But it would be a pyrrhic victory that would make Chicago in 1871 look like a Boy Scout weenie roast.
A recent survey showed that amongst Republicans, 59 percent want the party to become more conservative, as opposed to 28 percent who want it to remain where it is, and only 12 percent who prefer to see it move toward the middle. This is an amazing set of statistics. It's even more amazing when you consider that, among the general population, the party has hit its lowest favorability rating ever, down to 34 percent now, six percent less than a month ago, with 61 percent of the public now holding an unfavorable view of the GOP. And those numbers come directly on the heels of a presidential election cycle, presumably when any party is best able to market itself. They just spent half a billion dollars telling you how great they are, and what their money bought them was a six percent decline in favorability. Ugh. That's a real bad sign if you're a political party. Less so if you're a submarine, of course. I'm not sure how you can read those numbers as anything other than catastrophic for the GOP. When you add in the massive shift among voters toward Democratic Party registrations, it gets even worse. And when you then consider the especially high tendency to abandon the GOP among new young voters, who are likely to keep their affiliations for life, it looks a lot like the China Syndrome of partisan politics – a meltdown so bad it could go right through the Earth's core and out the other side.
And no wonder. Everything about these guys is wrong. Consider the composition of the Republican Party right now. It houses three major tendencies, with some degree of overlap among them, but also some friction over whose agenda will get the priority attention of the party. First are the fiscal conservatives who, while nevertheless having a mass following for some of their ideas, are basically just Wall Street masters-of-the-universe robber-baron types. They run the party, are always first up to get their policy toys, and always get everything they want, which is pretty much just money. Boatloads of it. Especially yours. John McCain complaining about the idea of redistribution of wealth? You gotta be joking. How did the guy ever keep a straight face? Thirty years ago, the wealthiest ten percent of Americans brought home one-third of the national income each year. Since Reaganism-Bushism came to town, that number has been jacked up to one-half (hey, just like it was in the fun 1920s!). Wanna know where all that money came from? See that empty space in your wallet?
Of course, if people actually ever voted their own interests, the party of ten percent of the population would lose every election in sight. That's where group two comes in – the social conservatives. These are the really scary monsters among a crowded house full of them. These people long ago turned pro. They tend to be existentially frightened down to their bones, and cling hard to the assurances provided by religion and an ideology which seeks both to block all manner of change and, especially, to keep womenfolk and brown people in their place. Of course, the kleptocrats and their operatives laugh at the Jesus Freaks behind their backs. But never to their face. (You think I'm making this up? Both David Kuo and John DiIulio said so – and they both worked in the Bush White House.) Why should Karl Rove and his ilk pretend to respect the social conservatives? Because these are the shock troops who allow the ten percent to win elections they otherwise never could. And the price is dirt cheap too. When the GOP controlled both Congress and the White House recently, did you notice them outlawing abortion? Mandating school prayer? Criminalizing homosexuality? Nope, nope and nope. They didn't do squat for the holy rollers, other than appoint justices to the federal bench who are supposed to do all these things, but haven't either.
Last are the neocons – wee Kid Charlemagnes, one and all – out to conquer the world, or at least all the parts with oil underneath them. Like the plutocrats, the neocons need the storm troopers of the religious right to provide the votes, intimidate the opposition, justify the unjustifiable in the name of our lord, and produce the bulk of the cannon fodder who will march off to war, no questions asked. The religious right is especially useful for the neocons because of the obsession that the holies have adopted toward Israel in the last decades. Sometimes it's hard to know who's using whom, since the End Times that the crossketeers have in mind for the circumcised set is not exactly a pretty picture (it has something to do with masses of sinners writhing in pain – before burning in Hell – while all the nice folk float up to heaven to joyfully strum their harps all day and claim their prize of whatever is the Christian equivalent of 72 virgins – 72 guilt-trips for masturbating, perhaps?).
Anyhow, these three groups form the predominant strains of the Republican Party in our era. Because they share in common a mutual preference for jackbooted, S&M style authoritarianism, and because the scared-shitless social conservatives have a compulsive, pathological need to be deceived in every respect, they have kept themselves amazingly disciplined, despite actually having rather separate agendas. There has been some jockying for legislative priority and some occasional tensions between the camps. By and large, though, the other two camps have so far only needed to throw the religious right the occasional Supreme Court justice to keep them satisfied. That was their absolute bottom line, though. When Bush tried to put up the very-conservative-but-not-conservative-enough Harriet Miers, it was a bridge too far, and his base went all apoplectic on him. That was the end of Harriet, to be sure, but really, that leg of the party – which does all the envelope-licking and church carpool-driving – gets little else from their laughing masters.
I don't see a lot of evidence that this rather amazing coalitional discipline is cracking up (ramshackle, cacophonous Democrats – who, despite probably going to be much better at it this time than they were under Carter or Clinton, nevertheless – can only be jealous), or that these will be the faultlines within the regressive movement in the coming months and years. There is clearly some division within each of the three camps. The smart money figured out months ago which party was going to be ruling Washington in 2009, and since they couldn't care less which set of minions they buy at any given time, Wall Street investments – er, campaign contributions – have been going to Democrats in record amounts this year. The religious right is actually dividing a bit along generational lines, and the younger cohort is particularly interested in environmental issues, not to mention being, one senses, a bit embarrassed by the sexual obsessions of the Jerry-atric Falwell set. Hard to blame them for that. Meanwhile, many of the neocons - anxious to remain relevant and continue getting talk-show bookings (as if the mainstream media ever found a regressive so wrong on the issues as to deny them a megaphone) have jumped ship somewhat after the debacle of Iraq blew up in their collective faces.
But I think the real divide within the party will be strategic and ideological, though it won't be deep, and it probably won't last long. A few Republicans will try to soften the party's message a bit, to make its image kinder and gentler – to play George H. W. Bush to the others' Ronald Reagan, John Major to their Maggie Thatcher. That ain't gonna happen. The GOP is wholly owned by radicals who would much rather see the party die than reform, as the above-referenced poll data make eminently clear. Like the Blues Brothers, these people are on a mission from god. Literally. Only, it's not funny this time, and the soundtrack totally sucks. Any potential reformers would have to pry the battered party loose from the grip of the cold, dead fingers of these die-hards, but the pragmatists have neither the numbers nor the will to get there from here. Who would you bet on in an alley fight – Kärlsreich Röve and his Gang of Waffen Swiftboaters, or a nice guy named Tim from Minnesota?
The McCain-Palin ticket explains the entirety of the GOP's problem now, just in the form of the two personae. He was always a pretty regressive guy, then he morphed himself into an even more regressive guy to run for the Republican nomination, and still he couldn't make the cranky Christians at the base of his party happy. On most days, they actively disliked him. On his best day, they were merely bored to death by the old geezer. "War hero? Big Deal. What have you done for me lately on protecting blastocysts from those evil, genocidal, liberal mass murderers? We'll swiftboat you in a heartbeat if you're even a micron to the left of party dogma, just like we did to you in 2000."
By the same token, the ticket never came alive until Sarah Palin was added to it, and that says just as much about the party as does its reaction to McCain. I doubt Sarah Palin is dumb, but she was, quite simply, completely uninformed about the political issues of our time. She has simply been quite literally focused on other things these last thirty years, while you and I were tuning into and caring about and working on the great foreign and domestic questions of the day. She's basically a very ambitious beauty contest competitor now operating in the realm of American politics instead, perhaps the one domain anywhere that could actually be more vacuous than her former gig. True, you don't have to do the swim-suit competition, but sometimes there are even more humiliating rituals to endure. For example, you're expected to actually know the names of the newspapers and journals you're pretending to be reading. I mean, how demeaning is that?
But this same, embarrassingly ignorant Palin might as well have been the Second Coming incarnate for the reaction she produced among Republicans. They couldn't have cared less about the corruption and the numbed mind and the messy family life. "She's a Christian! She didn't terminate a pregnancy! She kills non-human living things with rifles! And, she makes us feel better about our pathetic selves because she seems just like us." If it seemed like Palin could have been or done or said most anything and still won the passionate support of these folk, provided she was correct on what passes for religious morality these days (i.e., sexual repression), that's because indeed she could. There didn't seem to be the slightest embarrassment over this embarrassment of a candidate, and they adored her like it was some sort of gaga teen lust for the mentally disturbed. Beatlemania comes to the asylum. And, of course, anyone who attacked her was part of some sort of liberal/socialist/secular/media/whatever evil cabal, sent by Satan to tear down The Holy Barracuda, champion of the emotionally needy, patron saint of the massively insecure. Rarely can I remember seeing such a scary display of mass ignorance and hysteria in American politics, a domain where scary happens about as regularly as sunrise. Watching her political rallies during the campaign, all of a sudden I got Limbaugh. Not to mention Jonestown.
But rarely, also, have I seen the dilemmas of a political party condensed so nicely into the form of two individuals. What does it say about your party when a regressive like John McCain goes out of his way to whore himself into becoming even more regressive – abortion, immigration, torture, you name it – and still winds up despised and ignored by the party faithful for his unacceptably Milquetoast tendencies? What does it say when a buffoon like Sarah Palin, a would-be Il Duce in a skirt – only even more comical – can say and do and be anything idiotic and cringe-worthy, and column after column of the loyal troops will still adore her, perhaps even more so, marching off to war in her name? What it says to me is that this party is going nowhere ideologically.
And, therefore, that it is going nowhere politically. Except perhaps south. Figuratively, for sure, probably literally as well. This is not a party that is going to allow itself to modify its positions on abortion policy, guns, gays, economics, stem-cell research, foreign policy, immigration or any of a hundred other passionately-held ultra-regressive issue stances. The Tim Pawlentys of the world can try all they want (and I doubt they'll even do that), but this is a rock that will not be moved. Except possibly further to the right. The folks who own the party now – the result of a Faustian bargain made between the kleptocrats and religious kooks – are not going to let go of it. I guarantee you they'd rather stay pure on their issues and see the party die than make any compromises for electability. If there is going to be any movement whatsoever, it will reflect members' belief that the party needs to become even more regressive, even more repressive, even more medieval. These people want more Terri Schiavo, not less, more Matthew Shepard, not less, more Elian Gonzalez, not less, more Kenneth Starr, not less, more Charlton Heston, not less, more Antonin Scalia, not less, more Iraqs, not less, and more Enrons, not less.
Which is great news for the world, since even in way-backward America, that stuff is already no longer selling – in a big way. What could be better than the belief among the faithful that they are losing elections because they are not regressive enough, rather than the truth – which they probably actually perceive, but are too frightened to face – that just the opposite is the case? Imagine you were on a sinking ship and decided that it might be a good idea to bail water... into the boat. Imagine your house was on fire and you thought the best solution to your crisis was to douse the flames with... gasoline, not water. For once in my life, I couldn't possibly agree more with the radical right about what they should do next.
And following this path, it won't take them long to slip into a political coma, either. I mean, how many gang-bangs, knee-cappings and drive-by shootings in a row can you endure before your pulse finally throws in the towel just stops showing up for work? Going to the electorate with a "Bring back the good old days of the Bush era" message is absolutely my idea of what the GOP should do in 2010 and 2012. Oh, god, please. I just can't believe it happens also to be theirs as well. Maybe they're right, after all, and there is a god. How else can you account for them doing the dirty work of eradication and garbage collection for us? For evil taking itself out?
If they only knew. You practically have to get as creative as Salvador Dali, and twice as twisted, to invent some obscure demographic category in which the GOP is not slipping badly, even as we speak. (And this, despite that their opposition, the Democratic Party, is about as exciting as last week's leftover Malt-O-Meal.) How about over-sixty white male born-again church-attending evangelical pickup-driving Merle Haggard-listening NRA-member deer-hunters with less than a high school education living in Appalachia? I'm pretty sure the Republican Party still rocks with them crackers. Otherwise, though, it's a helluva stampede going in the other direction. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, Catholics, suburbanites, the West, the Midwest, New England, the Mountain states, men, women, the middle class, the working class, the wealthy, young people, middle-aged people, high school grads, college grads, postgrads, moderates, new voters – all these folks are abandoning the GOP with a vengeance. Hard to imagine why, too – what with two endless and botched wars, one drowned city, a doubling of the national debt, torture, Constitution-shredding, international loathing, exacerbation of global warming, skyrocketing energy costs, shrinking paychecks, healthcare disarray, and now a depression that would warm Herbert Hoover's cockles. As if that isn't a record to be proud of! Oh well. People can be so fussy sometimes in their political expectations.
So what happens now, given that the only two directions available to the GOP are down and to the right? My guess is that they marginalize themselves into a regional party, playing well for national elections in the Bible Belt, and that's about it. That's a grim path to go down, to be sure. The few remaining moderates of the party will not look forward to suffering the same fate as Lincoln Chaffee and Chris Shays, two members of Congress well-liked at home, but not well enough to get past the (R) after their names on the ballot. Rather than be handed a pink slip by voters, they'll start defecting, further isolating the extremists within the GOP, and further solidifying their control of the sinking party. The situation could remain like this, with the Democrats dominating nationally and the Republicans winning only the South in presidential elections, decreasingly attracting candidates for down-ticket positions anywhere else, and decreasingly attracting voter registrations, a process which has already begun in a wholesale fashion among 18-29 year-old voters.
But such a scenario also opens up a substantial political vacuum, particularly as the Democrats are likely to inch themselves a bit back to the left, at least in Congress. This condition would practically scream out for a new political party to rise up on the center-right and become what the Republicans once were, before the Reagan-Bush hijacking. And if that happens, it could be only a matter of a few election cycles before - losses leading to defections, leading to more loss and more defections – the Grand Old Party becomes the Gloriously Extinct Party, one that you can only see in museums anymore, right next to the exhibit on evolution. That may seem like a leap, but it isn't. It isn't so much that the Republicans are unpopular that is their problem as it is the lethal combination of being unpopular and completely resistant to any remedies to your unpopularity. The far right owns this party. They are not letting go.
And I thank them for that patriotic duty and sacrifice for America. Because, after all, what could be a better service to this country than for the regressives to neuter themselves politically, and destroy the political party that has brought to America and the world so much unspeakable damage?
Bravo, Lunatic Fringe. Bravo.