By catering to the most extreme wing of the American right, the Republican party is alienating itself from moderate conservatives and setting up the stage for a potentially historic loss in upcoming elections.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s victory over Jimmy Carter ushered in a rightward shift in American politics that has lasted for three decades. Since that election, the Democratic party, even when in power, has been on the defensive, whereas the Republicans have been able to set the agenda and the tone of public discourse, even when not in power. For the first time, this arrangement seems to be unraveling, and as is to be expected, it’s the Republicans doing to moving and shaking. In the past week, there have been three powerful articles, each positing that the GOP may be sewing the seeds of its own decline.
In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibi argues that the Republicans are engaged in a perpetual and self-destructive campaign of fear mongering and finger pointing. After decades of weeding out all moderate elements of the party, those within the far right of the party have no one left to lash out at except themselves. Each debate (there have been 20 already and the general election is more than nine months away) showcases the candidates, taking turns arguing why they are the true conservative and why their opponents are liberal sellouts or Republicans in name only (RINOs). There is such an eagerness, an almost religious desire to conform to the orthodoxy of the current canon that no candidate can be deemed worthy of being a “true” conservative.
In New York Magazine, John Heilemann also feels that the GOP is tearing itself apart. The Republican playbook, which is increasingly the Tea Party playbook, sees the country in terms of Christian middle American and secular/urban/internationalist America – it is a constant beating of the us vs. them drum. There is a constant need to prove how American you are. The current Republican primary has been so dirty and vitriolic because the candidates, at least in their rhetoric, are so similar to one another that they must bend over backward to make their opponents seems like traitors.
In The New Republic, Ed Kilgore points out that among the current crop of contendors, there is no such thing as too conservative. Whereas George H. W. Bush called Reagan’s supply side theory “voodoo economics”, today’s criticisms would only come from the right. Christian faith, capitalism, free markets and military defense are among the sacred cows of the now. This primary season has been one big game of who can claim to be to the right of his opponents – “everyone else is too liberal except for me!”
When Barack Obama was elected in 2008 it almost felt like the beginning of a progressive renaissance – the 2010 elections dashed any such hopes/quelled any such fears. 2012 will not be the fulfillment of that or any other progressive renaissance, but it may be the turning point after which the GOP must rethink and reconstitute itself if it hopes to be relevant in the long term. If the GOP goes down in flames, it will not be to the credit of the Democrats (they are still weak and directionless), but because of the rigidity and self-destructive dogmatism that typifies the Republican party.
Unless the GOP figures out how to accommodate some progressive views, 2012 may mark a historic shift, similar to what happened in 1980. Even Reagan isn’t conservative enough for current bunch.