Another Nail in the Republican Coffin

25 September 2009


Early in the history of this forum I wrote several posts about the Republican’s electoral defeat during the last election cycle and the fate of the Republican Party in the wake of the Age of Barack Obama. These were as follows:

The Strategic Consequences of Republican Meltdown

More on Republican Disarray

Of Weeds and Flowers

The Republican’s Existential Crisis

Republican Evolution

Would I now care to modify my views given Obama’s declining poll numbers and a few legislative setbacks? No. A few days ago in the Financial Times there was an interesting little story that indicates another nail is being driven into the coffin of the Republican Party (“Religious right on the lookout for a leader” on 21 September 2009 by Sarah O’Conner). At a gathering of evangelical voters — the very voters who were at the core of Karl Rove’s “turn out the base” strategy — there was obvious disaffection with the Republicans for their perceived failings, but failures that have been highlighted are the not the ones that cost them the last election.

The subtext of the recent gathering of evangelical voters was the desire for ideological purity. In the postings above I explicitly discussed the potential among defeated Republicans to look to restored ideological purity as the strategy that would return them to their former position of power. This is now exactly what is happening. One attendee of the Values Voters Summit remarked regarding the Republicans “abandonment” of its commitment to Christian values: “And sure enough, they’re not in office any more . . . We need to clear the whole group out and start afresh.”

Ideological purity is the antithesis of the “big tent” philosophy that temporarily raised the Republicans up to majority party status. If the Republicans seek to woo back evangelical voters by cultivating ideological purity, they will guarantee that the Republican Party will be a merely regional force rather than a national force in politics. If the Republicans could convince their evangelical base that they must accept being a part of a “big tent” coalition, then they would have a chance of regaining an influential national position.

A “big tent” political philosophy is a philosophy of tolerance. Without tolerating differences and agreeing to disagree, differences disintegrate into polarization and it is impossible to assemble a national coalition. But the extent to which the Reagan administration made intolerance fashionable is insufficiently appreciated in recent political history. Ronald Reagan is one of the few figures that Republicans and evangelicals and all their fellow travelers equally admire, and the Reagan legacy is seen within the Republican Party as the ultimate mantle for a politician to assume. Among the Republicans there has been no dispute as to the value of the Reagan legacy, but there should be.

The Republican Party was a national force prior to Reagan. By so closely aligning the Republican Party with rightist evangelicals that no daylight could be seen between the two, Reagan had struck a deal with the devil. The evangelicals delivered reliable and motivated voters, and the Republican Party incrementally moved from courting these voters to being utterly dependent on these voters. Now the chickens are coming home to roost. The Evangelical voters have become undependable for the Republican Party for the simple reason that they don’t want to back Republican candidates, they want to back evangelical candidates.

How are we to understand the fashionable intolerance of the Reagan administration? I have a book in my personal library that, more than most others from the time, expresses the political Zeitgeist of the Reagan era. Published in 1983, Decadent Societies by Robert M. Adams demonstrates the degree to which the chattering classes embraced the Reagan era vision of society. Here is a representative passage from the book:

In a Jeffersonian democracy, crime is very adequately controlled by the town constable, who supervises the local drunk, shoplifter, and sneak thief; the village atheist provides freedom of speech with its supreme test; and sharp commercial practice is represented by a grocer with his thumb on the scale… Heinous crime is of course quickly taken care of; there is a gallows in the little town, and though its application is unusual, nobody has yet contemplated the thought that it is unusually cruel. Arsonists, murderers, rapists, horse thieves, and people who incite insurrection among slaves are subject to capital punishment in Jefferson’s America. That there should be little mercy for those beyond the law was, tacitly or explicitly, a reason for granting generous freedoms to those within it…

Decadent Societies, Robert M. Adams, pp. 160-161

We note here that this book came from a small literary press, North Point Press, that is no longer in existence. North Point Press was based not in Orange County or some tony Republican suburb, but in San Francisco. The book is not an intemperate rant, but an intelligent and well-written meditation on past societies viewed as decadent and the condition of contemporary society of the time. The author is a scholar who writes elegantly and who has many edited volumes to his credit, including being a co-editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature.

Decadent Societies - front

Adams is much too sophisticated and subtle a writer to identify the scenario of Jefferson democracy sketched in the above passage with the Reagan era vision of society, but the sotto voce implication is impossible to miss. And the fact that this comforting vision of society is set in the past connects scenarios such as this to the long tradition to looking back to a past Golden Age and seeking a vision for the future through a return to this idealized past. Like the Taliban who took their vision of society from the community established by Mohammad at Medina, disaffected Americans looked back to the imagined Jeffersonian community with longing and nostalgia.

Decadent Societies - back

The vision of society here advanced is that of a paternalistic and patronizing state that graciously, if with some reluctance, grants some rights to its people, but only on the condition that they behave. This is a transparent secularization of Genesis: we enjoy all the perks offered by the Garden of Eden if only we will not eat of the fruit of a particular tree. This conception of civil society is the antithesis of that encapsulated in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, written primarily, I might add, by Thomas Jefferson — the same Jefferson of the Jeffersonian democracy ideal:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

Of course, the idealized Jeffersonian society imagined by Adams never existed. And it is moreover a bad thing when people begin to seek consolation in imagined societies than in the society in which they actually live. When this happens, it is a failure of nerve; confidence in the actual world has slipped. The classic Marxist critique of philosophy was that philosophers created ideal worlds of justice (think of Plato’s Republic, for example) because they either could not or would not work for actual justice in the real world. But this activity is not confined to inefficacious philosophers. The population at large may imagine a community more to their taste, and this, as much as religion (or, more likely, mixed with religion) becomes an opiate of the masses.

The winning Republican strategy at this juncture in time (keeping in mind that there are countless losing Republican strategies) is to return to the “big tent” conception of the party and to push further in this direction. The winning strategy for the Democrats at this time is to quietly foment continuing squabbles within the Republican Party and to encourage the false hope of ideological purity among Republicans. Indeed, I would not be in the least surprised to learn that Democrats and their backers are secretly, through intermediaries, giving money to movements like the Values Voters Summit. It would clearly be in their interest to do so.


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