Saturday, April 25, 2009

What Happened to the Republican Party ?

The GOP does not seem to be in good shape. They are in opposition and unpopular, but what's worse is that the seem to be incapable of facing those facts. In fact they seem to be incapable of facing any inconvenient facts at all. I'm going to write a sloppy unoriginal essay about how this happened.

OK US policy resets with the great depression. The old arguments made by the Republicans were refuted by the depression and they were in opposition for a while. Then they regained power and embodied the establishment more than the Democrats. My story starts then with the Eisenhower presidencies.

First Eisenhower made peace with Roosevelt. He accepted Social Security and actually expanded it. Of course he was a war hero leading a nation that had recognised the benefits of being led during world war II. He was presented as the right leader for the US in the Cold war. Now obviously a large part of the appeal of the Republican party was their untarnished anti-communism. Stalin was loathsome in so many ways that he united people who had little else in common by epitomising everything they hated most. So a party could unite people whose ideologies were religious, militaristic/imperialist, pro-market, pro-business, nationalistic, and conservative. Quite a broad tent, held together so long as USSR existed and it was possible to define oneself in opposition to it (and pretend that atheists, doves, egalitarians, civil rights activists, internationalists and liberals were soft on communism because they rejected the many ideologies which claimed a monopoly on anti-communism, or rather, claimed to share an oligopoly and formed a cartel.

Note I consider such a response was reasonable when Eisenhower was inaugurated. I don't think opposition to Brezhnev was so demanding that it required all those groups to put aside their differences, but they managed to convince themselves.

The party was threatened by its Western or crazy wing (my god back then Ohio was Western !?!) and by the fact that some Republicans let their disrespect for Democracy show and lied so blatantly that they got caught (details skipped it was long ago).

The first political event which I remember was the election of 1964, looks like the Republicans had decided to be a fringe party. The attempt at political suicide failed. I think it is clear that the event which saved the GOP from itself was the Civil rights movement and the Southern strategy. The extremism of the new left helped too. I think the party learned one of its post Eisenhower lessons from Nixon. The first lesson is that the party can gain by allying itself with people whose views are unpresentable in public -- to wink and nudge and get their votes without suffering to much from the taint of association. The second was, oddly, that dirty tricks work so long as you don't go to far. I would have thought that the correct lesson was that they are to be avoided as they backfire, but I'm not a Republican. On the other hand I think Nixons opportunism and well Nixonianness offended Republicans too. After Nixon one is tempted to look for someone with principles, which often means ideological purity.

Yes then came Reagan. It is plainly obvious that he is the leading figure to conemporary Republicans. The party pretty much defines itself as the party of Reagan. Nixon, Eisenhower and, of course, Ford are forgotten. Now the case of Reagan is very strange. I just didn't get it. I still don't get it. I really have no business trying to think about the Republican Party. However, it is clear that Republicans think they learned important lessons from Reagan.

Facts don't matter. Reagan was famously ignorant by choice. First he showed that Americans could elect and respect someone whose ignorance and intellectual laziness were the subject of nightly comedy routines. Odd. I wouldn't have expected that.

"Deficits don't matter Ronald Reagan showed that" I'm quoting Dick Cheney. I don't know what he had in mind -- that deficits don't harm the economy even in the long run or that they aren't really unpopular in the short run. This was a huge change. The Republicans had always been the party of fiscal responsibility which used to mean balanced budgets as well as low spending. The rule was "don't spend but if you must spend tax". It became "Well ideally you aren't supposed to spend but, in any case, don't tax." This is a huge change. It is surprising that a great country could fall for the blatant scam that what it needed was tax cuts with or without spending cuts (which either weren't necessary or were supposed to follow because deficits were more unpopular than taxes).

Cut rich people's taxes. This is an obsession. It can't just be a desire for campaign contributions plus self interest (Republican party leaders are not poor). The belief that this is good for the economy is plainly not based on evidence. It's hard to believe that it wasn't always this way.

The adversary will collapse if you are bellicose and build lots of weapons. Couldn't have been a coincidence.

Simplify simplify simplify.

From Bush senior they learned its good to fight Iraq and bad to compromise with Democrats.

The other lesson was learned in 1994. This is that refusal to compromise can be useful if your opponents are blamed for the gridlock. Language can be used as an instrument of power (don't tell me that Gingrich didn't consider 1984 as an instructin manual). Slogans are suited for soundbites. Slander bears no costs. The press can be played, because they feel they must be Ballanced they balance truth and lies. Blatant corruption will be ignored if it has nothing to do with Bill Clinton.

This leads to a party which has no interest in reality. They consider ignorance to be a good thing and they are totally willing to lie. I think by now most Republican leaders really have no idea how one adapts ones beliefs to the facts. They have learned that only fools admit that inconvenient facts exist. So many facts have been banished that their version of reality is unrecognisable to anyone not raised in the party. I'm not sure how they get out of their current state.

1 comment:

Neuroskeptic said...

Don't forget the Bush years. I think the George W. Bush presidency taught Republicans that they were always going to win elections without really trying. No matter how much the media and the rest of the world might hate them, it didn't matter because they had a huge block of people who would inevitably vote for them. All they needed to do was to cater to that block. Hence Palin.

Now they have a choice: they can reject that logic and try to broaden their appeal. Or they can continue to think that they have a natural majority, write off Obama's election as some kind of bizarre outlier, and continue as per usual.