Coming GOP Meltdown

| March 1, 2012 | 8 Replies

I considered writing something about the recent primaries in Michigan and Arizona, in advance of Super Tuesday, but things have become so mind-numbingly bizarre I’m not sure I’d have anything relevant to say, at least not about this particular election cycle.  As a personal observation, I’d like to say that any of the Republican candidates still vying for the nomination disturb me. Romney is the least noxious, but that’s hardly a reason to vote for someone (and yet, we often do).  I don’t find him as objectionable as the other three, and in another era he would probably be a half-way decent president.  But he would be a creature of his party and right now the GOP is in the process of a major meltdown.

Whether you agree with their policies or not, this is simply a fact that cannot be denied.  Of course, many Republicans are very good at denial, which is one of the reasons their party is in the shape it’s in.  Climate change, bailouts, evolution, birth control…their favorite word has become No and unfortunately for them you can’t run a government that way, much less a country.  With the addition of the small but inordinately vocal and strident Tea Party contingent in 2010, the internal workings of the GOP have become untenable.  If you don’t believe me, just look at John Boehner sometimes when he’s not being interviewed.  The man is, I think, reasonable, but he’s saddled with an unruly bunch of pseudo-libertarians who think the best way to fix things is to do a complete tear-down and start all over.  Combine them with the contingent that seems to believe the only citizens in the country are in the seven-figure income club and you have a recipe for doing virtually nothing for ordinary citizens.  Boehner is not just trying to herd cats, he trying to guide a creature that is a cross between a honey badger and a burro.  (I know, I know, that’s supposed to be the Other Party’s symbol.)

It has been so long since the sides in this war were formed, most people can be forgiven if they don’t really know what the fighting is all about.  Here’s a quick rule of thumb for the battle lines that were drawn up way back in the Sixties and had concretized by the Nineties.

Republicans have traditionally been the party of the individual.  This is the party that supports the self-made man, the entrepreneur, but there was a time that did not always mean the millionaire.  They believe that America is made strong by encouraging and even occasionally forcing individuals to strive, on their own, to Make It.  That interference from government hinders that potential, therefore as little control from above as possible should be applied.  Let people go out and struggle and then reap the rewards of their efforts.

As quaint as that may sound, it’s a good philosophy, and it’s based on sound principles borne out by experience.

Democrats have traditionally been the party of factions.  Large groups are their natural constituency, often groups made up of those who have been unable to compete in the individual struggle and ended up at the bottom of the heap.  Consequently, they have been the advocates of trade unions, minorities, and various organizations that claim to speak for the voiceless.

You can see how this played out during the Great Depression.  Few of the programs that FDR pushed in his first years were in any way original—or Democratic.  Hoover started most of them.  But Hoover did so with such penny-pinching trepidation, bolstered by his belief that direct government aid would damage the American worker and make him hopelessly dependent, that none of them did a bit of good.  Still, he might have sold it had not the Bonus Marchers been met with the same pecuniary stinginess and, when they refused to go home, tanks.  As soon as General Douglas MacArthur finished burning the shanty town of impoverished veterans out than Hoover told his staff that they had just handed the election to Roosevelt.

FDR funded Hoover’s programs to the hilt and started the slow process of digging the country out.  He wasn’t much interested in the effect government aid might have on individuals, all he knew was that one-in-four American workers were unemployed, and that 25% made a big group that had to be dealt with, individuals be damned.

The philosophical differences could not have been more manifest.

And FDR was right.  This was not a crisis of ordinary proportions, it called for something more.  Hoover and the Republicans worried over the effects of big government and were willing to let people starve to preserve the principle.  (Not really, but they kept insisting private charity should take up the slack, ignoring the growing evidence that private charity was as overwhelmed as everyone else.  They didn’t really want anyone to starve, they just thought it should be compensated for privately, not through government.  Sometimes, size matters.)

Now we come down to the present.  Since Reagan came to power, these traditional lines have hardened.  There are problems with the Democratic insistence that groups matter more than individuals.  People cannot be dealt with in cookie-cutter fashion.  Democrats have long been blinded by the unstated but implicit assumption that individuals who can take care of themselves (A) don’t need anything from government and (B) are dangerous to programs aimed at groups.  This has led to some disastrous legislation from time to time, as in the Welfare Act of 1965 and Department of Education policies that ride roughshod over local school districts.  Their one-size-fits-all approach has caused damage, just as unintended, I’m sure, as Republican’s inability to recognize when individuals just can’t get out of a hole on their own.

In times when there was an equitable distribution of reasonableness across both parties, these differences offset each other.  Not perfectly, but things got done that actually did the country good.  Sometimes you have to treat problems from a group perspective.  Other times, you have to stand up for individuals.

But in both instances, these are policy problems, not something for which you go to the mat as though your soul depended on it.  As the prime motive of an ideology, they are dangerous, and we’re seeing the results of just such an embrace now.

An underlying part of the disparity of viewpoint between the two, related to their fundamental differences, is their respective attitudes toward systems.

Let me explain.  As people mingle, communicate, build, etc, they inevitably build systems.  Infrastructure, certainly, like roads, railways, canals, telephones, and the like, but also social systems, which are like the deltas of great rivers—channels dug by long use that are difficult not to use, that direct the flow of people and sometimes ideas along lines that become preset.  We sometimes call this culture, but culture is more than just a social system.

It seems—and my own interaction with Republicans over the years tends to support this—that Republicans don’t care to credit systems very much.  Their traditional insistence on the hegemony of the individual underplays and often rejects the idea that systems matter much.  An individual genuinely self-motivated can circumvent or even ignore systems.  Which suggest that for those who don’t, can’t, or won’t do so choose not to.  Hence you get the belief that poverty is indicative of the person’s will or character rather than a consequence of systems.

Democrats for their part tend to fall to the other side and place an overemphasis on the effect of systems, that in fact they are all that matter, and those individuals who can effectively ignore them are aberrations.

Now, I don’t suggest that each individual Republican or Democrat consciously thinks along these lines—but taken in aggregate the trends are obvious.  (In a curious way, it’s almost a Nature vs Nurture argument, and when you look at the rhetoric of the extremists on both sides this emerges quite clearly—American exceptionalism on the one hand, American Imperialism on the other.)

What has also been clear historically—and I am speaking now of all history, not just American—is that those who grasp the fundamental operation and importance of such systems usually end up acquiring the power.  (As a dramatic example, consider the French and the Germans of 1870.  The French believed in elan, the courage of the individual French soldier, that as long as one had elan, nothing could defeat him.  The Germans believed in training and logistics.  The Germans won.)

The GOP has gone through a curious metamorphosis, though, over the last 30 years.  While still operating from their basic premise that individuals matter most—and I have actually not heard any of them state this as a principle in a long, long time—they have fought the Democratic Party for control in order to save the country from an overburden of systems, which the Democrats consistently advocate as solutions to all sorts of problems, often to the detriment of the very people they seek to serve.  In order to do this, they have honed their tactics and policies to the point where in order to deprive the enemy of the ability to conduct the war they have focused on funding and, paradoxically, on a kind of intellectual eugenics.  While the individual matters most, they seem to advocate, only a certain kind of individual is really meant.  This has led them to abandon the progressivism that once made up a significant part of their party philosophy—because progressivism was becoming more and more a matter of systems, vis a vis the so-called Safety Net and through federal education initiatives and so forth.  Now, to take the extremist view, only True Americans are important, and they are defined by—

Well, that’s a problem.  What constitutes a “true” American?

No matter.  Someone will do that along the way, in fact the very individuals they are defending and encouraging will do the defining, and that has led them into a cul-de-sac wherein the members of the club are setting the admission standards and they get stricter and stricter every year.

This year, whether they intended it or not, they seem to have defined women out of the club.  Along with gays and along with certain economic minorities and along with anyone who might otherwise qualify for membership who supports the aforementioned groups.

What I fear is they have defined themselves out of a viable constituency, because the definitions are narrower even as in the general population the definitions are broadening.  The Democrats are better able to make political gains in this situation, if they so choose, because this is how social systems operate, and they are all about systems.

I’m not optimistic about this in the long run.  As usual, both parties are missing certain fundamental realities.  The Democrats have always bothered me the way trade unions bother me.  I think we need more unions, but I don’t like them.  I see them as necessary monsters, because, as unitary systems, they have little room for individuals with needs that aren’t part of the whole.  I think we need them because the people who own the businesses are not kind and gentle souls, but single-minded, acquisitive wolves.  It is not that such people don’t care about people but that people to them are simply components.  Components in a system under their control.

And paradoxically these are the people that Republicans tend to support as examples of individuals.

I do not want to see the destruction of an organized conservative party.  Unbridled progress can be as destructive as the utter suppression of progress.  We need both in order to have a viable community.  The worst aspects of the Democratic Party have not manifested for a long time simply because the Republicans waged a somewhat successful campaign against liberalism and the Democrats, in order to hang onto some power, moved to the right, and are now almost as centrist as Republicans of the Sixties and Seventies were.  Systems, remember?  They followed the runnels of the systems.  But if the GOP melts down and fragments completely, we may see a different sort of Democratic Party emerge.

Right now, though, it appears to me that meltdown is on its way.  The GOP has lost touch with the average American in a big way.  They are becoming marginalized and if not this year then by the midterms of 2014 we will see them grappling with the death throes of becoming irrelevant.  They have bent their ear to individuals, true, but only the individuals who still seem to talk to them, and they are a rarefied group indeed.

On the other hand, I may be overstating it.  Whatever the case may be, something has to change within the GOP.  They cannot survive as a party of extremists

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Category: American Culture, Community, Culture, Current Events, History, Political Science, Politics

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (8)

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  1. Adam Herman says:

    Really interesting post, good analysis. I have one thing to dispute, and one thing to add.

    To add:

    Given the extreme incompetence and corruption of the GOP from 2001-2006, this was supposed to be their time in the wilderness. During this time, a party is supposed to have a battle for its soul, with a lot of the infighting you see now, and what emerges down the road is a stronger party. The Democrats screwed all that up by taking power and pissing off the public almost immediately. Their very strategy was built around doing things quickly because they didn’t expect to be in power long. You didn’t see Republicans act with that much urgency, because Republicans expect to win the next election. If they don’t pass something now, they’ll pass it later. Democrats acted as if their window was short, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. So now a very broken and fractured GOP gets to compete on a level playing field with the Democrats.

    To dispute:

    The GOP is not extreme, if we judge that by public acceptance. An extreme party would not be able to win elections. They are nonsensical, incompetent, and haven’t the foggiest notion about how to achieve their agenda, but let’s be under no illusions that there is a lot the public likes about that agenda. And the Democrats have completely failed to lead. No budget passed in over 1000 days. No plan to reform Medicare as required by law. A deficit reduction plan that the President supposedly has, but that no one has seen and which he refuses to show anybody. the Republicans on the other hand passed a budget and have put on paper their long term plan, and submitted it for CBO scoring. It’s been a political liability for them, but it is also a source of strength if the Democrats refuse to lead. Americans will always support a party that wants to lead over a party that doesn’t.

    • Adam,

      Good points. I won’t dispute what you say about public approval of various aspects of the GOP agenda, but I will add a But.

      These primaries have been instructive in that in many instances, voter turn-out has been ridiculously low. Santorum’s supposed Big Wins in Missouri, Colorado, and Montana came with a pitiful number of voters going to the polls. These are usually Democratic turn-outs. Likewise the voting seems to track according to which part of the Republican agenda is supported, with the social conservatives going for Santorum or Gingrich, the Libertarians for Ron Paul, and the rest for Romney, leaving a fractured coalition. What has traditionally been their strength is becoming their Achilles Heel due to the extreme positions these various factions hold and the importance of No Compromise.

      The Democrats can always turn this into defeat by, as you say, doing nothing.

    • Tim Hogan says:

      Adam, the Democrats didn’t try to rush anything because of the fear of short term power. I imagine that may be what you believe but, that doesn’t make it a fact.

      The issues facing the country after the “Lost Decade” and the “Great Recession” of GW Bush and the Republicans required immediate action to change the curves of downward unemployment hence, the Stimulus Plan and the upward curve of federal spending hence, the Affordable Care Act.

      Republicans, who have never accepted Barack Obama as their President, adopted a purely partisan response of “NO!” and to denigrate and obstruct any and all efforts to repair the damage of their past tax cutting and spending excesses. Please remember, the entire national debt of America from 1789 through 1980 was $1 trillion. Then, we had Reagan, Bush I and Bush II with their tax breaks for the corporations, millionaires and billionaires. Clinton brought us “surpluses as far as the eye can see.” When Obama took over, the national debt was some $14.3 trillion!

      http://dangerousintersection.org/2011/02/15/de-heroification-dispelling-some-reagan-myths/

      http://dangerousintersection.org/2010/10/13/republicans-not-fiscal-conservatives/

      The Stimulus Plan worked.

      http://dangerousintersection.org/2012/02/20/the-democractic-stimulus-bill-worked/

      The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been so distorted by the psychotic minds of conservative sycophants of Rush Limbaugh that nothing any one of them says has any credibility. It is true that Democrats have not been affective countering the lies and distortions about the ACA but, the recent attacks related to birth control are having an amazing salutary effect: people are actually finding out exactly what the ACA has done and will do to make health care available for all Americans and save billions in future costs to the country.

      http://dangerousintersection.org/2010/03/24/what-healthcare-reform-really-does-for-us/

      http://dangerousintersection.org/2009/08/15/another-ill-informed-conservative-argument-on-health-care-reform/

      http://dangerousintersection.org/2009/08/20/george-lakoff-offers-some-framing-tips-to-the-democrats-re-health-care-reform/

      What has happened since Jan. 21, 2009 is that the Supreme Court has made corporations people and allowed unlimited spending for the wealthiest few adherents of the most extreme elements of the fringe right to have a dramatic impact upon public opinion by buying hundreds of millions to shape and influence public opinion to “make sure Barack Obama is a one term president.”

      The Republicans are extreme as they oppose higher taxes for the rich to pay for anything. A super majority of Americans support increasing taxes on billionaires so they pay at about the same marginal rate as their secretaries.

      The Republicans are extreme as they oppose deficit spending for infrastructure and job creation instead insisting that their past profligate spoending and tax breaks for the wealthy did nothing to add to our national debt and the ulra rich are “job creators.” If the tax the working poor and Middle Class policies of the last 30 years were such a success, why don’t we have growth like under Clinton where taxes were raised? The majority of Americans support additional deficit spending if it results in jobs, which infrastructure spending will do-and didn’t get to do much of in the former Stimulus Plan as only 38% of the total of the tax and spending expenditures of the $787 went to infrastructure because of almost unanimous Republican opposition.

      http://dangerousintersection.org/2009/01/26/obama-is-being-republican-lite/

      The Republicans are extreme as they mewl and meander in their current re-iterations of “culture wars” on birth control because the economy, through no help of Republicans, is recovering.

      Obama and the Democrats have faced nearly unanimous Republican opposition to anything which they attempted to do since Obama was elected. Notwithstanding the intransigence of Republicans, unemployment is down from over 10% to 8.2%, there have been some 26 months of continuous private sector job growth, the economy grew at nearly 3% for the last quarter of 2011, and all economic trends look positive for the future.

      The Democrats got zero, zip, nada, nicht, nunca, zilch, kein, nada help from the Republicans. America got no help from the Republicans. America got no help from the Republicans because they value their party over their country. That’s because Republicans are extremists.

  2. Adam Herman says:

    You’re right that Republicans have taken a stance of “no compromise” on many big agenda items of the Democrats. But it made strategic sense to do so because most of what Democrats wanted to do was unpopular. They desperately wanted Republican buy-in so that they wouldn’t have to be accountable and Republicans were right to not give them that.

    But you’re wrong that Democrats weren’t rushing. From 2009-2010 they were trying to legislate like there was no tomorrow. They wanted health care done by July, before there could be any national debate on the merits of the legislation. They wanted a cap and trade bill right afterwards. The stimulus had to be passed right damn now, even though the process of approving projects was at a snail’s pace over the next few years. The fact that they thought their window was short wasn’t exactly a secret. It didn’t have to be that way, but they expected to lose in 2010, and so they did. And they’ve done nothing to increase public confidence in them, so they are very likely to lose the Senate. The President has done a little better, so he’ll probably keep his job.

    • All of which is arguable, depending upon where you look. Health care? During the debates, it was fairly obvious that most people supported single payer, but GOP pundits managed to make it appear the reverse was true. Obama backing down on that actually annoyed more people than might otherwise have been. Cap and trade has suffered similar vicissitudes for the more than a decade it’s been debated, but there’s marginally more support in the general population for environmental regulation than not. Naturally, if you pose the question as many GOP spinmeisters have that it’s a choice between lowering emissions or jobs, people react out of self-preservation, but for many it was clear that this was a false syllogism. As for the stimulus, the question was more where the money would be spent, not whether it should be done, and in the end the whittling down of the amount by constant GOP negativism meant less of a positive impact, and that caused dissatisfaction.

      As to Democratic popularity in Congress, that’s hard to determine. Congress’s approval rating in toto is low, but the turnover to Republican control in 2010 was pretty much an aberration. You have to remember, we only had 40% voter turnout for that and none of those elections were landslides—in fact most were quite close, and it is likely that had turnout been 50%, Democrats would have retained control. Just as we’re seeing in the primaries and caucuses so far, the GOP seems to be garnering a growing proportion of a shrinking whole, at least where specific candidates can be tracked. It’s ridiculous to claim a victory for Rick Santorum in states where he got 40% of a 2 to 6 percent total turnout.

      I think it is unlikely the Republicans will regain the Senate, especially now with this absurd debate over contraception making them all look like the reincarnation of Anthony Comstock. They’ve been leading with their chin for three years now and unless Obama does something truly spectacularly stupid, I suspect the GOP will lose big. The moderates keep leaving—Olympia Snowe’s parting shots should be taken to heart by those left behind—and that will shove the rest into a smaller and smaller corner.

  3. Adam Herman says:

    Single payer wasn’t an option because Americans who have insurance like their insurance and any plan that took that insurance away was going to meet with hardcore opposition. Especially among unions who had gold plated health plans. Single payer is not A+ health care for all, it’s the best health care a national budget can afford for all. The system the Democrats chose has the virtue of letting people keep their better plans while still making sure that everyone has access to health care at least as good as what Britain’s NHS provides.

    2010 was no aberration. The Democrats passed three big bills that were hung around their necks: the health care bill, the stimulus, and cap and trade(although cap and trade died in the Senate). As for turnout, it was higher than 2006, and supposedly 2006 meant something. But the Democrats are thinking as you do, they are re-running a lot of their defeated incumbents in the House. So we’ll find out if the voters really meant it for guys like Alan Grayson.

    The birth control thing is probably going to be a wash. The President overstepped and is in conflict with the 1st amendment(again). He was advised by Joe Biden not to do this, as well as other advisors, and a lot of Democrats are against him on this one. Some more diplomatically than others. John Kerry said he’s confident a compromise will be worked out, which is a nice, diplomatic way of saying he doesn’t support the current rule.

    • Again, I suppose that depends on how you read what numbers.

      As to the birth control thing, what 1st amendment conflict? Church institutions have always had to abide by state rules when it came to how they treated employees. This was blown up into a 1st amendment conflict by the anti-sex idiots of the Far Right. Obama then made an admirable compromise, which exposed them for the zealots they are—1st amendment be damned, they want people to stop having access to contraception. The original rule never applied to churches proper, only public facilities that serve the general public and employ non-members of the denomination. Rules, by the way, that some 22 (28?) state regulations already require. Obama set out the tar baby and they grabbed it with both arms.

      The election numbers is an interesting point. Can someone be said to carry any kind of a mandate with less than a quarter of the available vote? That’s the way things are run, sure, but it’s always bothered me. Not the winning part but the idea that such a situation is anything but a backhanded compliment to the victor. What it does indicate to me is that the GOP is garnering stronger and stronger support from a smaller and smaller slice of the electorate.

  4. Adam Herman says:

    We judge these things on a curve. 40% is high for a midterm. 60% is high for a Presidential election. At best a President will govern having won the votes of a third of the population. The GOP and Democrats alike have fewer and fewer reliable supporters with every succeeding election. Registration in both parties has been falling for some time.

    I don’t think the GOP victory of 2010 was a mandate so much as expressing displeasure with the Democrats. They really did steamroll the public on the health care bill and that’s when their ratings started to go into free fall.

    Now the birth control thing, obviously the 1st amendment isn’t all that clear on religion. All it really says is that the government will not interfere with the free practice of it or establish a national religion. It’s up to the courts to decide whether requiring catholic employers to cover contraception is a 1st amendment violation. I think it will end up being such because there is no compelling government interest. There is no problem that free contraception is supposed to solve. It’s just a policy choice. Contraception is already readily available. If we were talking about Jehovah’s witnesses and blood transfusions that might be different because blood transfusions are expensive and usually used when someone’s life is at stake. Contraception is cheap and people don’t use it to stave off death. So it will be hard for the government to make a case that there’s a compelling interest at stake. But I could be wrong. Scalia has ruled against his own religion before on similar cases.

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