The Post-Rove GOP

Pulling the nation back from the extreme Right ought to accomplish another goal we lefties don’t talk about much, but which the nation needs. That goal is restoring the Republican Party to something resembling sanity.

Short-term we’re all focused on defeating Republicans and DINOs in 2008, returning the White House to the Dems and increasing the number of progressive Dems in Congress. But so far I haven’t heard any lefties crow about a “permanent Democratic majority,” and I hope I don’t. First, as the Buddha said, everything is impermanent. Second, one-party rule is not healthy for a democracy. Power corrupts, and all that.

The long-term goal, IMO, is to establish a healthier and more balanced political climate in America. By this I mean a political climate in which diverse opinions can get a fair hearing, and we as a people can have fact-based, rational discussions about our problems. In other words, we’ve got to end the stranglehold the Right has had on the nation’s political discourse. We’ve got to end the political culture in which any opinion that deviates from right-wing orthodoxy is buried under relentless propaganda and ridicule.

And most of us don’t want to replace that with a culture in which any opinion that deviates from left-wing orthodoxy is buried under relentless propaganda and ridicule.

At the moment, what’s left of the Republican base remains stuck in propaganda and ridicule mode. And it’s breaking the GOP apart. Ron Brownstein has an op ed in the Los Angeles Times about the Republican “double whammy.” The dwindling number of Republican moderates in blue and purple states are being hurt by association with the Republican brand and the rising blue tide. And red state voters are increasingly intolerant of Republican moderates and mavericks. As a result, the party is losing any pretense of diversity.

Fewer than half a dozen Republican senators (such as Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine) still qualify as moderates. Their numbers are so attenuated that they now exert influence almost solely when they align with maverick conservatives (such as Graham, Hagel or Virginia’s John Warner), whose numbers now top those of true moderates. But even combined, the two groups’ size in both congressional chambers remains modest. In the House, for instance, only 20 Republicans (out of more than 230) voted against a majority of their caucus even as much as 15% of the time during the last Congress.

The upcoming election may further deplete the ranks of both the mavericks and moderates. Bush’s focus on mobilizing the conservative base, while generally helping Republicans in conservative areas, has alienated independent and moderate voters in the suburban districts many moderates GOP officeholders represent….

…The question for Republicans, as they try to dig out from the collapse of Bush’s second term, is whether they can rebuild a majority coalition without tolerating more dissent and diversity as well.

I don’t think they can, but I think it’s going to take an even bigger humiliation than the 2006 midterms before the party wakes up and gets serious about reforming itself. It may be that the best thing that could happen to the GOP is a thorough pounding in 2008.

Republicans weren’t always nuts, you know. Those of us old enough to remember the Eisenhower Administration know this. Ike wasn’t always right, but at least he was rational. He stood up to the lunatic wing of the party that wanted nuclear war with China. He had a behind-the-scenes hand in arranging the televised Army-McCarthy Hearings that put an end to Joe McCarthy. He famously foresaw the dangers of the military-industrial complex. And if he came back today there’d be no place for him in the GOP.

So what happened? For one thing, the party was taken over by pseudo-conservatives. I’ve written about Richard Hofstadter’s essays on pseudo-conservatism from the 1950s and 1960s before, such as here. And I say again that Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics: And Other Essays is essential reading for anyone who wants to know How America Got So Screwed Up. Some of these essays are available online in abridged form, but the abridged versions leave out too much good stuff. (There is, however, a reasonably good explanation of the difference between conservatism and pseudo-conservatism here.)

Hofstatder takes his definition of pseudo-conservatism from Theodore W. Adorno:

The pseudo-conservative, Adorno writes, shows “conventionality and authoritarian submissiveness” in his conscious thinking and “violence, anarchic impulses, and chaotic destructiveness in the unconscious sphere… The pseudo conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”

This is from one of the essays, “Goldwater and the Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” which Hofstadter wrote in the mid-1960s:

Writing in 1954, at the peak of the McCarthyist period, I suggested that the American right wing could best be understood not as a neo-fascist movement girding itself for the conquest of power but as a persistent and effective minority whose main threat was in its power to create “a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.” This still seems to be the true potential of the pseud0-conservative right; it is a potential that can be realized without winning the White House, even without winning the Republican nomination.

And he was right. Creating “a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible” is precisely what they did. And once that was accomplished, they were able to actually win national elections.

Goldwater was not a pure pseudo-conservative, but he attracted the loyalty of some real doozies. Here’s more from the “Goldwater” essay, which looked at the 1964 presidential election.

Goldwater’s zealots were moved more by the desire to dominate the party than to win the country, concerned more to express resentments and punish “traitors,” to justify a set of values and assert grandiose, militant visions, than to solve actual problems of state. More important, they were immune from the pressure to move over from an extreme position toward the center of the political spectrum which is generally exerted by the professional’s desire to win. Their true victory lay not in winning the election but in capturing the party — in itself no mean achievement — which gave them an unprecedented platform from which to propagandize for a sound view of the world.

Note this next bit:

The art of consensus politics, in our system, has to be practiced not only in coping with the opposition party but internally, in dealing with one’s partisans and allies. The life of an American major party is a constant struggle, in the face of serious internal differences, to achieve enough unity to win elections and to maintain it long enough to develop a program for government. Our politics has thus put a strong premium on the practical rather than the ideological bent of mind, on techniques of negotiation and compromise rather than the assertion of divisive ideas and passions, and on the necessity of winning rather than the unqualified affirmation of principles, which is left to the minor parties.

From here, Hofstadter goes on to discuss how various presidential nominees handled consensus building in the past. The Goldwater zealots, however, clearly were not into consensus politics. They were True Believers; they had all the answers and thought anyone who disagreed with them was a traitor. They wrote anything remotely moderate out of the platform and hectored Nelson Rockefeller mercilessly. When Goldwater lost, they blamed moderates and liberals from within the Republican Party, and they vowed to get revenge. It was Goldwater’s campaign, says Hofstadter, that “broke the back of postwar practical conservatism.”

But, above all, the far right has become a permanent force in the political order because the things upon which it feeds are also permanent: the chronic and ineluctable frustrations of our foreign policy, the opposition to the movement for racial equality, the discontents that come with affluence, the fevers of the culturally alienated who practice what Fritz Stern has called in another connection “the politics of cultural despair.” As a movement, ironically enough, the far right flourishes to a striking degree on what it has learned from the radicals. Their forces, as men like Fred C. Schwarz and Stephen Shadegg have urged, have been bolshevized — staffed with small, quietly efficient cadres of zealots who on short notice can whip up a show of political strength greatly disproportionate to their numbers. The movement now uses the techniques it has taken from the radicals while it spends the money it gets from the conservatives. Finally, it moves in the uninhibited mental world of those who neither have nor expect to win responsibility. Its opponents, as men who carry the burdens of government, are always vulnerable to the discontents aroused by the manifold failures of our society. But the right-wingers, who are willing to gamble with the future, enjoy the wide-ranging freedom of the agitational mind, with its paranoid suspicions, its impossible demands, and its millennial dreams of total victory.

I believe this essay was first published in 1964. Vietnam, the counterculture, Affirmative Action, and Roe v. Wade hadn’t happened yet. With the help of mass media, the Right exploited these issues to gain more strength and more control of the Republican Party. As I mentioned yesterday, Nixon actively went after the votes of white racists who left the Dems because of Dem support for civil rights. Thus racism and xenophobia became the cornerstones of today’s GOP. We’ve seen this on display recently in the hysteria over immigration reform. Then Goldwater’s followers switched their allegiance to Reagan, and would join forces with the radical Christian Right, as I also discussed yesterday.

I called this post “The Post-Rove GOP,” and so far I’ve been writing about the “Pre-Rove GOP.” I think to understand the future you need to look at the trajectory of the past. And the trajectory the GOP has been on is, um, out there.

I have a Taoist view that all successful things carry within them the seeds of their own self-destruction. No sooner is the zenith reached than the descent begins. I think, for pseudo conservatism, the zenith has been reached.

Through most of our lives we’ve witnessed a right-wing faction take over the Republican Party and, eventually, the government. But if you think of pseudo conservatism as a philosophy — I personally think it’s more of a pathology, but let’s pretend — it’s important to understand that it was never a true governing philosophy. It is better understood as an agitating philosophy. Pseudo conservatives are no more capable of responsible governance or building democratic consensus than they can fly. (Or tell jokes.) They smear, they hector, they ridicule, they propagandize, they kick all rules of ethics out of their way to gain power. But govern? Please.

When they finally got their hands on both houses of Congress and the White House, they had no idea how to actually run the country. That’s the plain, observable truth.

So instead of governing, they looked for more power. It’s all they know how to do. They became obsessed with politicizing and dominating the judicial branch, for example. And their pseudo-conservative chief executive, who is too incompetent to use the power the constitution gives him, usurped power the constitution doesn’t give him.

There’s been no end of whining from the Right that the Bush Administration and late Republican Congress failed because they weren’t conservative enough. But the truth is that they failed because the pseudo conservatives, finally, had the unrestrained power to extend pseudo conservatism to its illogical conclusions — senseless war abroad, decay at home, dysfunction all around.

So where does the GOP go from here?

The pseudos are not going to go away quietly. Like their cousins the neocons, no matter how badly they screw up they will never admit personal failure. Scapegoats will be found. It wouldn’t surprise me if Rove, Bush, and Cheney end up in the scapegoat pile. If so, the righties will become even bigger Bush haters than we are.

Rove himself might fantasize that he has a future as a Republican political consultant, but I’m hearing that much of the Washington GOP genuinely hates him and blame him for ruining their careers. I don’t doubt he has a bright future as a think tank fellow and Fox News analyst, however, if he stays out of jail.

Eventually — it may take a few election cycles — I think the GOP will find some way to re-invent itself as a more moderate and diverse party that is genuinely interested in real-world solutions for real-world problems, and these new Republicans will paint the Bush Administration as an unfortunate aberration. And if they do that, I wouldn’t be surprised if the pseudo conservative bitter enders leave the GOP and form a new minor party. If history is our guide, in twenty years or so they may start to make a comeback, so watch out for that.

If the GOP can’t reform, we may witness a more massive and radical political re-alignment involving a new party. This would be a long shot, but not impossible.