Monday, September 2, 2013

Realignment to Radicalization

Everyone in the GOP-controlling Tea Party can't be paranoid, even if the word paranoid is broadened from  its clinical definition to include paranoid politics, where we react to threats to the polity as if they were direct threats to us, thus eliminating the boundaries between the personal and the political. Every Tea Partier can't be a deep conspiracy nut, I said after finishing yesterday's piece. Something else must be going on to give broad credence to paranoid conspiracy theories.

And I think there is, and we find it in Kim Messick's second great Salon articleThe Conservative Crackup: How the GOP Lost Its Mind, where he tracks the GOP realignment since 1960, leading to polarization and finally to our current gridlock. Key elements:

  • Nixon's 1960 defeat set the conservative visionaries like William Buckley to work. The target was partly the Democrats, of course, but most powerfully, the point was to purge the party of moderate Republicans like Eisenhower. This anti-GOP moderation theme was present at the creation, and never disappeared as an organizing principle.
  • When Johnson gifted Republicans with the Voting Rights Act in 1964, thus effectively ceding to them the South, Nixon, knowing his "Eisenhower Moderate" label had failed last time, went all in for resentment politics, stirring Southern voters up around the new Federal intervention in States' rights and minority preferences, initially in civil rights, but increasingly in new job and income advantages. This argument - that the Federal Government is putting its nose into what is not its business, and in doing so, is continually privileging minorities over whites - has been the central GOP thrust since Nixon's successful 1968 campaign.
  • As just one of many possible examples, Reagan's first post-convention campaign speech in August, 1980. was at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, just a few miles from Philapelphia, Mississippi, where in 1964 three civil rights workers were gunned down by the KKK. In that speech, Reagan gave a loud shout-out to states' rights, saying the balance had gone askew. To say that resentment politics defined Reagan is clearly wrong; but to say this thread was absent is wrong as well.
  • The Southern realignment served Republicans well. It is a very little known fact that between 1968 and 2008, the Democratic Party did not get a majority of the Presidential votes, except in 1976 with Carter, when it achieved 50.08% of the vote. Clinton received 43% of the vote in 1992 and 49% in 1996, due to the presence of Ross Perot on the ballot. In 2000, Gore beat Bush by 544,000 popular votes, but still did not crack 50%. This is an astonishing electoral record, which came to an end in 2008, when Obama received 52.87% of the vote.
  • Conservative visionaries and reformers, who were building the GOP's institutional structure at the local, the state, and national levels, redoubled their efforts in 1992, when Bush I lost to Clinton by allowing a tougher, more conservative Ross Perot to get almost 19% of the vote, handing the victory to Clinton. George H. W. Bush was the problem, not Clinton; and there was a renewed effort in conservative circles to purify both the policy presented and the candidates making the presentations. "No more squishes," conservative leaders said. "And get tough on welfare cheats, and all others trying to game the system." This energy was so successful that Clinton adopted it, leading to his Welfare Reform in 1996.
  • Bush II turned out to be a major problem for conservative reformers. The Iraq war wasn't the problem. Neither was the debt explosion, since this was used to pay for the war that the GOP supported. And obviously the big tax cuts were terrific. The problems, and they were significant, were the Prescription Drug Act - which expanded entitlements precisely when think tanks like the Petersen Institute were developing hard data on how and why to dismantle them - and his intense effort to accomplish Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Both of these were perceived by Conservatives to be disasters, which explains, in part, their fairly tepid support of John McCain in 2008. Conservatives say that Government should fight wars, reduce taxes, and (in extremes) shore up the financial system in very limited ways. But they should not try to help people or extend entitlements- especially for "those others"- because the country is broke and can't afford it;  they MUST stop illegal immigration, and MUST NOT grant amnesty to those millions who stole their way into this country to take US jobs and resources.
  • Resentment politics mostly disappeared from view during Clinton's years, and was muted under Bush II. But they were never gone; they had merely gone underground, only to explode into the light with the election of Barack Obama and the birth of the Tea Party in the summer of 2009. In that same time period - after Obama's election and before the 2010 midterms - conservatives once again concluded: "No more RINO's. No more squishes. We must rid our party of moderates. We have got to purify, purify, purify - both our policy and our people.
So here we are. We have a GOP, whose surge to prominence, from 1968 on, was founded on southern resentment, complimented, more recently, by northern white working class resentment. "Those people are claiming vital resources - from us personally, and from the country. It is not fair that they constantly get preferential treatment. They are slackers. They withdraw vitality from our beloved country. Plus we are broke and cannot afford this excess." Combine this with a fierce commitment by conservatives to find candidates who are increasingly orthodox and pure, and we have a very narrow GOP container - both in terms of its ability to support a diversity of opinion, as well as a diversity of candidates.

Toss into this extremely narrow container a Tea Party, where some percentage of the membership is  politically paranoid, and you see a combination of elements that leads Messick to conclude his article as follows:

The Republican Party, particularly in the House, has turned into the legislative equivalent of North Korea — a political outlier so extreme it has lost the ability to achieve its objectives through normal political means. Its only recourse is to threats (increasingly believable) that it will blow up the system rather than countenance this-or-that lapse from conservative dogma. This was the strategy it pursued in the debt ceiling debacle of 2011, and if firebrands such as Ted Cruz and Mike Lee have their way it will guide the party’s approach to the same issue this fall, and perhaps to government funding (including “Obamacare”) as well. Realignment and polarization have led us to gridlock and instability.

The relentless radicalization of the Republican Party since 1964 is the most important single event in the political history of the United States since the New Deal. It has significantly shaped the course of our government and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But this means it has also shaped the individual life of every citizen— the complex amalgam of possibilities and opportunities available (or not) to each of us. The conservative visionaries of the ‘50s and ‘60s wanted a new world. We’re all living in it now.

What do you think the odds are for either a Government Shutdown, or a Debt Default, or - Heaven help us - both, before the end of the year, or early in the next?

I put the odds at 70-80%.

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