Beyond a doubt, the number one question of our politics right now is, when will the Republican Party’s fever break? So far, there are few signs of change in the party and in the conservative movement. The focus seems to be on two things. First, cosmetic changes to rhetoric. Second, change the rules to ,make winning easier. The latter is very disturbing: A systematic effort to alter the very rules of election to rig the results for Republican candidates. Voter suppression. Union-busting to defund the Democrats. And now, GOP-controlled states are planning to rig the electoral college rules in the states that they control that Obama won (but not in states Romney won) to practically guarantee that Republican wins future presidential election. This kind of nationwide, multifaceted, centrally coordinated scheme to fix the game is unprecedented in our political history, and we can only hope it fizzles out soon and is replaced by a constructive effort to remake the party.
(I’m sorry, but civilized conversation requires honest assessments. You want fake both-sides-equally-to-blame balance? Turn on the TV news.)
Of course, it’s possible that the GOP will be content for some time to be a destructive minority party, rather than to try to broaden its appeal to meet the challenges of changing demographics and public opinion. Our political system provides so many rewards for obstructing political change and so many opportunities to do so, that they may prefer a smaller, ideologically more pure party to a broader-based, more moderate one for a long time.
But, what cannot endure forever never does. On Monday, I don’t want us to just sit around bemoaning that it’s come to this. I hope we can use our imaginations to consider how the Republican Party might rescue itself from the cul-de-sac of its own making and redefine conservatism in a more constructive way that honors the timeless principles the Republican Party claims to represent. I think our analysis has to begin with the causes of the rightward lurch. I’ll preview those here so I don’t drone on too long on Monday. At our discussion, I hope we can look more at the countervailing forces, both inside and outside of the Party, might start the moderating process.
Causes of the GOP’s Rightward Drift –
Bookshelves already are groaning under the weight of attempts to answer this burning question. When I read about this topic, the following reasons get cited most often.
- It was planned: the most important thing to know is that the ultra-conservative takeover of the GOP did not just happen. It was the culmination of a decades-long strategic plan by the Right. This is not a conspiracy theory; It’s public history, and they were quite open about it. The religious right methodically took over state and local parties. The business community, led by a small number of companies highly dependent on government largesse (extractive industries like oil and mining) or highly vulnerable to government regulation (finance, Koch brothers) systematically organized think tanks and a behemoth lobbying infrastructure. A handful of right-wing billionaires did the same (Coors, Hunt, Mellon-Scaife, etc.) Starting in the 1990s, a large, alternative conservative news media (talk radio, Fox) was set up to proselytize the faith and keep the base riled up.
Since Gingrich, national GOP elected leaders have been a part of this effort. Thus, the long-term project to remake the GOP as a hard-right party came from both elites and regular people. This is really important to understand.
Needless to say, liberals are not above doing exactly the same thing. We’re hardly morally superior or above such base tactics. But, we never have. despite nascent efforts by the Occupy movement, a few liberal think tanks, and the support of MSNBC. IMO, the most important political development of my lifetime is that the right has created and matured an organized movement and the left has not.
- Stalled prosperity and economic backlash: The newest culprit among academics. Can it really be a coincidence that, as middle class progress has stalled and even reversed our politics have gotten meaner? A shrinking pie is harder to divide. Some analysts see polarization and the rise of a meaner breed of conservatism as a product of the slow collapse of the white working class, especially among men, and the growing economic stresses on most families. At the other end of the spectrum, a growing concentration of wealth at the top (the famous 1%) has helped to drown our political system in big money and lead political elites to circle the wagons against the needs of the many.
- Social liberalism and cultural backlash: Hey, cultural conservatives have lost the culture wars, and they don’t like it. As cultural liberalism has become mainstream, very conservative Americans have continued their backlash against it. Some analysts even talk about a “white cultural panic” as being behind the GOP’s evolution, although I think this is too simplistic.
- Voter Sorting: The electorate has now neatly sorted itself geographically in ways that amplify polarization and reinforce the GOP conservative march. Having lost the Northeast and the west coast, the party’s base is in the South, historically a bastion of a very conservative and unyieldingly combative form of politics. The growing non-white population has been concentrated mainly in already Democratic cities and states and regions, so Republican politicians GOP have not needed their votes until very recently. We are also sorting geographically by income. And, as Chris explained to us with charts one night, regular people are becoming as polarized as elites.
- The System: Arguably, our political system has helped to drive the GOP to the right. The dominance of big money. The many veto points that let a minority pay no price for obstruction. Gerrymandering. The over representation of small (white, rural) states in the Senate. Etc.,
Number one culprit: Our reliance on low-turnout primaries dominated by the most ideological voters.
- The echo chamber and “epistemic closure:” This is my number one culprit. Epistemic closure refers to the right’s tendency to listen only to itself. The bubble of talk radio, Fox, and every other element of movement conservatism has become a trap. To me, the rise of an unreflective and self-congratulatory news echo chamber has done more than anything else to lead the GOP to this point. How you gonna get them to accept immigration reform and Medicaid expansion when they’ve been weaned on Rush and Fox for 15 years?
Again, liberals are fully capable of living in a cul-de-sac of our own dreams. Maybe this has begun. But, conservatives’ groupthink is a real impediment to change and moderation for that party. What if Roger Ailes, Rush, Malkin, Savage, and their many, many imitators refuse to change?
- (only read if you really need convincing) The growing ultra-conservatism of the Republican Party:
- The data are clear: Republicans in Congress have moved dramatically to the right in the last 10 years. The Democrats largely stopped moving leftward in the early 1990s.
- The latest House budget plan is to the right of the radical 2011 Ryan budget.
- The latest state-level GOP efforts to shift the tax burden around.
- A few best articles on the basic dilemma facing GOP.
- The demographic challenge facing the GOP. (from the highly respected National Journal) Recommended.
- The GOP’s need for transformation from Newsweek.
- The Democrats moderated in the 1980s; can the Republicans do the same?
- Comforting to liberals: The GOP crack-up – No way out
- Less comforting: The GOP does not have to do much to win again. No big ideological realignment is needed or will occur. Recommended.
- My pet concern: The GOP should not have turned itself into an arm of a cable news network
I’ll have many more links in my next post, tomorrow.