As the Republican Party train wreck continues and GOP presidential candidates increasingly court the most lunatic elements of the party base, including religious fanatics, open racists, and white supremacists, the threat posed to the nation has increased. Compromise becomes increasingly impossible and as recent events in Oregon demonstrate, the crazy elements are emboldened to more toward violence and extremism. A column in the Washington Post looks at how the GOP got the where it is and what needs to happen for the good of the country. Here are lengthy highlights:
The Republican campaign for the 2016 presidential nomination has become a carnival, a comedy hour and, for many in the party, a horror show. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the two leading candidates in Monday’s Iowa caucuses, are despised by most of the party’s leaders. The GOP’s so-called establishment has, so far at least, been hapless in bringing them down.
Democrats can be forgiven for being gleeful. At last, it seems, the GOP’s extremism and obstructionism throughout the Obama years are catching up with it.
But at the risk of spoiling the fun, the crisis of conservatism is actually a problem for all of us — and I say that as an unabashed liberal. An intellectually vibrant conservatism is essential to a healthy democracy.
At its best, as Philip Wallach and Justus Myers argued in National Affairs , conservatism is a “disposition” that “has the most to offer societies that have much worth conserving.” Even those of us who are critical of our nation’s injustices and inequalities can agree that the United States is such a society. The task of conservatives, Wallach and Myers write, is to offer “incremental adaptation” as an alternative to radical change.
The trouble is that large parts of the American right are not interested in “incremental adaptation,” and they certainly don’t want to compromise with Democrats. In a two-party system that frequently divides a government with separated powers, this produces exactly the sort of dysfunction that voters are so angry about. In the meantime, working-class Republicans are increasingly (and justifiably) indignant that their loyalty in election after election has brought them no material benefits and few satisfactions of any kind.
The rise of Trump is not an accident. Erick Erickson of the popular RedState blog was succinct: “The Republican Party created Donald Trump, because they made a lot of promises to their base and never kept them.”
For half a century, the history of American conservatism has been a story of disappointment and betrayal. Conservative leaders have denounced decades of change, pledging what would amount to a return to the government and economy of the 1890s, the cultural norms of the 1950s and, in more recent times, the ethnic makeup of the country in the 1940s. But no conservative administration — not Richard Nixon’s, not Ronald Reagan’s and neither of the Bush presidencies — could live up to the rhetoric that conservative politicians regularly deploy to rally their supporters.
[But] Conservatives haven’t been able to roll back cultural changes, because most Americans don’t want to return where we were before the rights revolutions on behalf of African Americans, women and gays. And politicians can’t reverse the fact that white Americans gradually are losing their majority status in an increasingly diverse nation. The absurdity of Trump’s promise to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants is obvious to most Americans, if not to Trump’s supporters.
[The] aging [GOP] base, however, bodes ill for the party’s long-term prospects. . . . . For the rank-and-file right, the sense that their leaders have failed them and the political system shortchanged them has created a cycle of radicalization. With each disappointment, movement conservatives have blamed moderation and advanced an ever-purer ideology, certain that doing so will eventually bring them the triumphs that have eluded them over and over.
Trump’s overriding ideology is opportunism. But in a perverse way, his rise embodies the phenomenal success of Goldwater’s war on moderation. If the GOP front-runners are uncompromising, this is exactly what most of those who remain in the Republican primary electorate want them to be. And this distinguishes Republicans from Democrats. . . . In 2013, the Pew Research Center asked Americans whether they preferred elected officials who “make compromises with people they disagree with” or those who “stick to their positions.” Among Democrats, 59 percent preferred compromise-seekers; among Republicans, only 36 percent did.
The spectacle of what is happening in this year’s nominating contest already alarms many Republicans, but it will probably take a third consecutive presidential election defeat to force a real reckoning. Political movements, after all, tend not to change course until they have no alternative. The British Conservative Party turned to moderation and modernization under Prime Minister David Cameron only after three losses. . . . . And if the GOP lost again after picking a nominee who represented an unvarnished version of the conservative creed — Cruz comes to mind — it would no longer be possible to blame defeat on a lack of ideological purity, a charge conservatives leveled against both John McCain and Mitt Romney.
With their “take our country back” rhetoric, conservatives these days do not seem to like the raucously and creatively diverse United States that actually exists. They refuse to acknowledge that certain reforms were adopted and then broadly accepted precisely because they better reflected the purposes of the American creed — “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and the idea that all are created equal — than did the status quo.
They should realize that their forebears eventually embraced what reformers achieved. Many conservatives in the pre-Civil War period opposed the abolition of slavery; many conservatives in the 1930s opposed Social Security; many conservatives in the 1960s opposed civil rights laws. But the justice of these measures became obvious over time, and the values behind them became part of the American way of life.
Undoing the entire New Deal/Great Society legacy is not, in the end, conservative. The rise of Trump has called forth some useful soul-searching on the right. Conservatives need to look candidly at the roles of racial reaction and white backlash in building their movement and their continuing roles today, as witnessed in Trump’s xenophobia.
The country and not just the Republican Party would be better off if this very strange election year marked the beginning of a large-scale reassessment by conservatives of the trajectory their movement has been on since Goldwater transformed it in 1964. It is common for conservatives to say that liberals need to free themselves from the 1960s. This is now imperative for the American right.