The defining essence of today’s Republican Party is that it lives in its own reality with its own set of “facts.”
You know this well enough. On the planet most of us inhabit, huge tax cuts for the rich hurt the economy and compound the deficit. The Earth is warming, and man-made carbon emissions have a lot to do with it. Evolution is a fact that happened and is still happening. On GOPEarth, tax cuts for the rich help the economy and reduce the deficit. The Earth isn’t warming, and even if it were just a little, it’s nothing to do with us. Evolution is just a theory.
It’s all fantasy, and all promulgated partly out of deluded belief but mainly for the benefit of Republican politicians’ benefactors and shock troops—in the three cases above, for the über-rich, for energy and oil companies, and for religious-right voters. And because of the way discourse in a democratic society works, if one party decides that it believes and wants to peddle empirically untrue things, well, provided it gets enough people to believe and repeat those things, the rest of us have no choice but to take those arguments seriously and engage them and quarrel with them. So we waste a lot of time in this country “debating” things that in every other advanced democracy in the world are settled matters of fact.
But now Reince Priebus may be doing those of us on mother Earth a favor. With his astonishing admission Monday that anyone allowed to ask a question of a Republican presidential candidate at a debate ought to “care or give a rip about the Republican Party,” the GOP chairman is unwittingly hastening the arrival of the day when the flat-earthers can just talk among themselves and the rest of us don’t really have to pay attention.
It’s an incredible statement in the way it imposes a precondition of support for the party before a person is even allowed to ask a question. Now, there may be a reasonable role for ideological journalists to be on a debate stage. I’d love to participate in a Democratic debate. But not so I can lob them softballs. Rather, I’d ask them tough questions that it would never occur to Anderson Cooper to ask, because I’m immersed in liberal thought and policy debates in a way he isn’t, and I have a pretty strong sense of what kinds of questions might get them off their talking points. So there’s a role for that. But that of course is not what Priebus meant. He meant lickspittles.
On the surface, the Republican anger over the debates is about a series of somewhat picayune questions about format, like these, which were set forth in a letter from GOP lawyer Ben Ginsberg to the networks (Will you commit that you won’t “show an empty podium after a break/describe how far away the bathrooms are”?)
While Donald Trump, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich all said Monday that they would not sign the letter, even I would agree that Republicans have a couple of legitimate gripes on some of these format questions.
The format of having the top 10 (or 11) candidates debate and leaving the others to the kids’ table has been ridiculous from jump street. Lindsey Graham and Rick Santorum, both of whom have actual policy knowledge, aren’t any less serious than Chris Christie and John Kasich just because they’re a point or two behind them but within the margin of error. From the start, it should have been two groups of eight or nine, randomly drawn from a hat (although, interestingly, the campaigns did not agree Sunday that this should be the practice going forward).
They’re right that the CNBC debate was chaotic. And they’re right that questions aren’t fairly distributed. Underlying these two problems, especially the latter one, is a hard economic fact that the networks won’t acknowledge and which Republican free-marketeers are unlikely to condemn. These debates, especially with Donald Trump in the picture, are far less about civic edification than they are about ratings and the ad rates that can be charged when Trump-scale audiences tune in who naturally enough want to see more of Trump than they do of Mike Huckabee. Did CNN expand that GOP debate to three tedious hours so the public would learn more, or so that the network could rake in one extra hour’s worth of ad revenue? Let’s not kid ourselves.
But at bottom, the Republican complaints about the debate process aren’t really about these format issues. They’re about GOP resentment that the questioners don’t share the candidates’ ideological presumptions and don’t see the debate as a PR opportunity for the party; which is to say that they’re about this insular reality that Republicans and conservatives have created for themselves in which everyone who doesn’t reflexively agree with a long list of litmus-test assumptions about the world, many of them provably untrue, is a liberal and an enemy of freedom and all the rest.
So now, with Priebus’s words Monday, they’re edging close to retreating into that reality in a way that would have been unimaginable a few years ago but that we may yet see. Picture this: Hillary Clinton wins the presidency. In 2019, Republicans start contemplating running against her and start thinking about primary debates. First off, they may not even have them at all (a blessing in a way, though not really a triumph for democracy). But if they do have them, is it far-fetched to think that there will be only two, and that they’ll be limited to, oh, the Christian Broadcasting Network and the Tea Party Network? After all, remember, it’s C-effing-NBC they’re mad at—the network that helped create the Tea Party! Remember also that Fox made them furious back in the summer, when Fox moderators asked tougher-than-expected questions. Pretty soon their own mothers won’t even be allowed to ask them questions (especially Jeb Bush’s).
Priebus doesn’t seem to have thought through one basic fact: If the Republican Party really sues the political media for a debate divorce, then the political media will be under decreasing obligation to take the party’s barmy positions seriously, and they can talk on their networks about their world, and the rest of us can talk in every other outlet about the real world. It’s sad, but not as sad as having to take all their whining seriously.