Deluded Republican Reformers
Conservative pundits and intellectuals have spent the past week or two—ever since the publication in Commentary magazine of Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson’s “How to Save the Republican Party”—talking about, well, how to save the Republican Party. They have lots of ideas—some good, some not so good, most very sober-minded policy prescriptions. I wrote a short blog post about this on Thursday. But then I reflected: This topic needs a longer treatment. The party they purport to support and care about has been engaged in burning down the house of American politics for three or four years now, and they are saying nothing about it; and until they say something about it, everything else they say is close to meaningless.
As I’ve written many times, the conventional view of what’s wrong with the GOP gets at only a portion of the truth. When The New York Times or Politico does such a story, the story inevitably focuses on policy positions. Immigration. Same-sex marriage. Climate change. Tinker with these positions, several sages are quoted as saying, and the GOP will be back in the game.
God knows, policy positions are a problem. But they are not the problem. The problem is that the party is fanatical—a machine of rage, hate, and resentment. People are free to scoff and pretend it isn’t so, but I don’t think honest people can deny that we’ve never seen anything like this in the modern history of our country. There’s a symbiosis of malevolence between the extreme parts of the GOP base and Washington lawmakers, and it is destroying the Republican Party. That’s fine with me, although I am constantly mystified as to why it’s all right with the people I’m talking about. But it’s also destroying the country and our democratic institutions and processes, which is not fine with me.
The party can change all the positions it wants, but until people stand up and yell “Stop!” to this fanaticism, it won’t mean anything. In fact, the problems feed into each other, because the idea that today’s Republican Party can change its stripes on same-sex marriage or immigration is absurd, and it is absurd precisely because of the rage and fanaticism I’m talking about, much of which is directed at brown people and gay people. Such a party cannot change its stripes on these issues until the mindset and world view are changed.
Immigration, you say? I’ll believe it when I see it. In fact, I’ll make a prediction now: I bet the House is likely to break immigration reform into two pieces, enforcement and path-to-citizenship. Maybe more, but for now let’s say two. A big majority of Republicans will support the former. The latter will pass, if it does, with a small number of Republicans joining nearly all Democrats, and therefore only with John Boehner breaking the Hastert Rule once again. And the haters will go on hating.
And the following people will write nothing about it: David Brooks; Ross Douthat; the aforementioned Wehner and Gerson; Reihan Salam; Yuval Levin; Ramesh Ponnuru. Now I know most of these gentlemen, and I like them. But they’ve been participants to varying degrees in these recent conversations I’m talking about, and frankly, they are wasting their own and their readers’ time. They’re like a family in deep denial at the Thanksgiving table. Guys, debating the best way to cook brussels sprouts is of marginal utility. Whether Cousin Ruthie wears her hair this way or that way is not worth dwelling on. The overwhelming fact at hand is that Uncle Ralph is drunk again, and he’s being a belligerent racist homophobic ass again, and he is preventing any civility and progress from taking place, and it’s been this way for four Thanksgivings in a row, and you are intentionally choosing to say nothing about it.
I do not understand how they can watch this and let it happen—to their party!—without saying anything. This past week, we have had four Republican senators—Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte, and Rand Paul—in essence demand that a cabinet nominee, Chuck Hagel, disprove rumors against him. It’s one thing for Breitbart bloggers to do that. But senators? Using tactics that are straightforward McCarthyism? If one of the above named or some other prominent conservative pundit criticized that quartet, then good for them. But I sure didn’t see it, and I think I would have.
Like me, I’m sure many of you were aghast at those people who cheered John McCain when he lectured the parent of the son who was killed in the Colorado shooting. There was blood lust in that cheer, just like the blood lust in the boos back in the presidential primary season of that gay soldier. Are any conservative thinkers writing that this kind of thing makes them sick and ashamed?
We all know the problem. It’s Rush Limbaugh and his imitators and Roger Ailes and his network. They drive this hatred daily, and they intentionally misinform and lie; you think it’s an accident that polls always find Fox viewers the least connected to empirical reality? Pushing this fury and constructing this alternate reality is great for business. But it’s horrible for America. And the “serious” conservative pundits by and large try to pretend it doesn’t exist, or it’s not that bad, or MSNBC does the same thing in reverse. Well, it does exist, it is that bad, and no, MSNBC does not do the same thing in reverse. MSNBC has an agenda, but it doesn’t craft its messages in such a way as to make it viewers hate half the country.
This is the poison in our politics. Nothing changes until it changes. Somebody has to initiate it, and the people I named are the only people who can. Of conservative thinkers—and I apologize to him in advance for naming him, because I’m sure praise from me in this context will make him wince—only David Frum has addressed this problem. His 2011 New York magazine essay “When Did the GOP Lose Touch With Reality?” said it well. He understands that this problem is one of the central facts of our current historical moment.
If that were my party or movement, I promise you I would criticize it (and I did, in a book in 1996, as Brooks and others know). I sure wouldn’t be wearing blinders and pretending that my side could solve its problems with the right kind of EITC expansion. I’d be glowering at Uncle Ralph as he poured himself another, getting surlier and surlier, and I’d be scheming to take the bottle away.