Thinking About What Happened to the Republican Party

Something is up.  The year 1969 brought us Kevin Phillips’ book, The Emerging Republican Majority – there was a rising conservative trend right after the 1968 presidential election, and Republicans really ought to pursue a “Southern strategy” and abandon “the liberal establishmentarian constituencies in the northeast” (the legacy of Eisenhower and Rockefeller and those moderate business-friendly but prudent dudes).  The next one hundred years or more would be the age of Rove, or something.  America had turned into a firmly “conservative” country, in its politics and culture and attitude.  That’s just the way it is, now.  Case closed.

 

Well, Phillips was former a Nixon staffer, but he ended up leaving the Republicans in disgust – something to do with the Party’s adherence to war, oil, and the religious right.  And that eventually led to him to write that 2006 book, American Theocracy: Politics, The Perils and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century.  America may be firmly conservative, but something has gone wrong.  Those who claimed to be conservatives once in control of things ended up being a bit loony, and not that conservative at all.  Recently, former Nixon attorney John Dean has been writing a series of books saying the same thing.  In Dean’s case the titles say it all – Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches, and before that, Conservatives Without Conscience, and the first of the trilogy, Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush.  The disappointed traditional conservative Andrew Sullivan last year published the seminal The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back.  It’s quite fine, if you read books on political theory, political process and policy.  Not many people read such books.

 

All of these books were and are influential, but represent the sort of thinking that roils around under the surface of things.  They were for wonks, and “serious people.”  For most people the surface of things is the broadcast news, the cable news, the news weeklies and the major newspapers.  If you don’t come across an idea there, like that famous tree falling in the forest with no one near, does that idea exist at all?  Ideas become important, or relevant and actual, when they pop to that surface.  That’s where most people live a bit of their lives, glancing at the issues of the day after work and before getting a bit of sleep for the next day’s work.

 

And this whole business of what is happening to the Republican Party, the conservatives, and the right is now breaking the surface.  It took the 2006 midterm elections, where the Republicans lost both houses of Congress, after Katrina and growing distress over the Iraq War, and one scandal after another – Jack Abramoff to Larry Craig and all points in between – for the “surface media” to notice something was going on here.  The Republican “brand” was in trouble, and there might be a reason for that.  Even the Wall Street Journal notes the GOP Is Losing Grip On Core Business Vote

 

New evidence suggests a potentially historic shift in the Republican Party’s identity – what strategists call its “brand.” The votes of many disgruntled fiscal conservatives and other lapsed Republicans are now up for grabs, which could alter U.S. politics in the 2008 elections and beyond.

 

Some business leaders are drifting away from the party because of the war in Iraq, the growing federal debt and a conservative social agenda they don’t share. In manufacturing sectors such as the auto industry, some Republicans want direct government help with soaring health-care costs, which Republicans in Washington have been reluctant to provide. And some business people want more government action on global warming, arguing that a bolder plan is not only inevitable, but could spur new industries.

 

And the “Businessman Republicans” just don’t “get” the evangelical social conservatives – those anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-choice, xenophobic “values voters” (as if no one else had any values).  When the Wall Street Journal sees a problem there is a problem.

 

And there is the affable David Brooks in the New York Times, the man who wrote the amusing Bobos in Paradise, saying things like this

 

To put it bluntly, over the past several years, the GOP has made ideological choices that offend conservatism’s Burkean roots. This may seem like an airy-fairy thing that does nothing more than provoke a few dissenting columns from William F. Buckley, George F. Will and Andrew Sullivan. But suburban, Midwestern and many business voters are dispositional conservatives more than creedal conservatives. They care about order, prudence and balanced budgets more than transformational leadership and perpetual tax cuts. It is among these groups that GOP support is collapsing.

 

American conservatism will never be just dispositional conservatism. America is a creedal nation. But American conservatism is only successful when it’s in tension – when the ambition of its creeds is retrained by the caution of its Burkean roots.

 

Edmund Burke aside, and all the airy-fairy books noted above, America is a creedal nation?  What does that mean?  If voters are dispositional conservatives more than creedal conservatives, is he saying no one cares about the history and creeds of conservative thought and a just grumpy about the fools in power?  That seems to be the idea – political theory, political process and policy are bullshit for the damned intellectuals.  Something is wrong, and people know it.

 

They might know it from things like this

 

Yesterday, in response to a question from a reporter suspicious of why he wasn’t wearing an American flag pin on his lapel, Barack Obama explained his belief that for some, the pins became a substitute for “true patriotism.” The senator said he would instead “try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism.”

 

The item also notes that the condemnation was thunderous and the widely-read Jonah Goldberg described Obama’s response as “staggeringly stupid,” and “the single dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of him doing.”  And over at “Atlas Shrugs” there was this

 

Seriously, you want this for President of these great United States?  This is how he catches the attention of a media aligned with the terror force?  This useful tool won’t wear an American flag pin?  Talk about pandering to the radical base, he ought to run against Ahmadinejad.  He is scoring points with Georgie Soros, won’t be waiting long for his on his Soros stipend, I’m sure. What’s Obama Hussein’s new campaign slogan, “America Sucks!”?

 

From Kevin Drum, this

 

To be honest, I don’t think the lapel pin pseudo-controversy even rises to the level of symbolism. Rather, it’s just the latest example of the effluvium that wafts over our public discourse when you combine conservative cynicism with press corps ennui. To call it symbolism is to give genuine symbolism short shrift.

 

But he thinks we do need an “intellectually serious defense” of symbolism of any kind, patriotic or otherwise –

 

We’re human beings, after all, not East African great apes, and symbolism is fundamental to our existence. We liberals use symbolism constantly – think AIDS quilts, breast cancer ribbons, and green Emmy awards. Memorable photographs are powerful symbols…. Great symbolism (the Boston tea party) helps to change history; bad symbolism (cardigan sweaters) provokes derision.

 

Good symbols turn abstract ideas into concrete action. In fact, as our messaging gurus have been telling us so insistently lately, we liberals really ought to get better at using them. Great causes are won and lost on appeals to emotion and values, and symbols of all kinds – metaphors, images, taglines, emblems, what have you – are an ancient and powerful way to tap into that.

 

Patriotism is no different, and symbolic patriotism can be as potent a unifying force as any other kind of symbolism. It’s good to the extent that it appeals to the better angels of our nature and bad to the extent that it appeals to mere jingoism. The fact that it’s been mostly the latter in recent years is the problem, not the symbolism itself.

 

But it’s just a pin, and former Republican and former Bush supporter John Cole, seeing the larger issues, lets it rip

 

For starters, people got tired of being associated with these drooling retards. Then, when they realized that these drooling retards had ideological allies running the show in the Bush administration and then began to experience their idiotic policies, they moved from disgusted to outright hostile.

 

Like me. It had nothing to do with Burke, and everything to do with what the party had become. A bunch of bedwetting, loudmouth, corrupt, hypocritical, and incompetent boobs with a mean streak a mile long and no sense of fair play or proportion.

 

Seriously – what does the current Republican Party stand for?  Permanent war, fear, the nanny state, big spending, torture, execution on demand, complete paranoia regarding the media, control over your body, denial of evolution and outright rejection of science, AND OMG THEY ARE GONNA MAKE US WEAR BURKHAS, all the while demanding that in order to be a good American I have to spend most of every damned day condemning half my fellow Americans as terrorist appeasers.

 

As one of his reader’s notes – “Ah, the quaint days of yore… when you disagreed with someone they didn’t automatically become ‘the enemy.'”  Just so.  And Cole also links to this item which he says shows “the COMPLETE and TOTAL corruption of our political processes at every level.”  Well, it does, actually.

 

And Cole is clear on where he stands in relation to the current Republican, conservative right –

 

Screw them. I got out. They can have their party. I will vote for Democrats and little “L” libertarians and isolationists until the crazy people aren’t running the GOP.  The threat of higher taxes in the short term isn’t enough to keep me from voting out crazy people and voting for sane people with whom I merely disagree regarding policy.  Hillarycare doesn’t scare me as much as Frank Gaffney having a line to the person with the nuclear football or Dobson and company crafting domestic policy.

 

That is why the Republican Party is in shambles.  The majority of us have decided that the movers and shakers in the GOP and the blogospheric right are certified lunatics who, in a decent and sane society, we would have in controlled environments in rocking chairs under shade trees for most of the day, wheeled in at night for tapioca pudding and some karaoke.

 

That’s clear enough – not as elegant as John Dean’s well-researched and closely argued points in his three recent books, but it will do.  And it’s at the surface.

 

As far as “Atlas Shrugs” – the website named in homage to Ayn Rand, see this lengthy item on how that Rand book, Atlas Shrugged informed many of those in power.  The author, Digby, quotes the Allen Greenspan letter to the New York Times in which he lauded that book

 

“Atlas Shrugged” is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.

 

And this man controlled the economy of the West for decades?  That’s interesting.  It explains a lot, actually.

 

And the book, as many of us believe, is crap –

 

Ayn Rand, muse to the millionaire, thought she was imparting philosophy, but her own philosophy of “Objectivism,” (which was essentially a personality cult) remains very marginal in society at large. But certain of her ideas seem to have greatly informed the worldview of modern free market thinkers and business leaders in ways that run far more deeply and strongly than works of “philosophy” normally do on these types of people.

 

Many of these leaders admit that “Atlas Shrugged” was the most important book they ever read. And “Atlas Shrugged” is a very stupid book, a turgid fantasy, tailor made for the scores of 16 year olds who still read it every year (mostly because the Ayn Rand institute sends nearly half a million copies a year to Advanced Placement high school courses.) It appeals to the smart, sexually overwhelmed adolescent with its passionate relationships allegedly based purely on “reason” but which experienced adults know to be the complex work of hormones, opportunity and much more mysterious influences than the purely “cerebral.” I have little doubt that all those advanced placement geeks find that concept enthralling. (I was once one myself.)

 

As it happens, Rand’s own life shows that her beliefs about rational love were a crock – she seduced her married protégé, half her age, which pretty much negates the “heroic” alpha male model Rand extolled in her novels. Rand, for all her guru status, proclaimed she was not a feminist and that she would never vote for a woman for president: “it is not to a woman’s personal interest to rule men. It puts her in a very unhappy position. I do not believe that any good woman would want that position.” She worshiped manly heroism and her supposed philosophical novels lean far more heavily on that archetypal narrative than anyone cares to admit. It’s bodice-ripping for nerds, a fantasy of the pants far more than a philosophy of the mind.

 

The young girls absorb this message of fantasy alpha male and the boys see a path to “heroism” purely by virtue of doing exactly what they want to do. What teen-ager wouldn’t be thrilled with such a philosophy? (People are rarely as self-absorbed and selfish as they are as adolescents.) Most of us grow out of it, however, when the complexity of the world and our own emotional needs manifest themselves in adulthood.

 

Not so with those now in power.  As for boys who see a path to “heroism” purely by virtue of doing exactly what they want to do, we have one as president.  Everyone wants to be John Galt.  Well, when you’re fourteen and feeling put upon, that has its appeal.  But it’s still crap.  It’s too bad it took more than six years for people to notice.

 

Of course, even the Republican base is really, really unhappy

 

Scholars who study the role of religion in politics now say it is possible that the Bush years were an anomaly and that evangelicals, of whom religious conservatives are only a subset, could find themselves back where they were before – divided among themselves and just one of many interest groups vying for attention.

 

“It’s not so much that evangelicals are more divided than they were before, it’s that Bush himself was a unique candidate,” said Corwin E. Smidt, director of the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College, an evangelical school in Grand Rapids, Mich. “It’s partly going back to previous patterns.”

 

And that stings. Religious conservatives were alarmed last month when none of the Republican front-runners showed up for the Values Voter Debate Straw Poll in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. More than 40 groups, some of them major organizations known for their capacity to mobilize voters, had put together the event. Questions were directed even at the no-show candidates, and many of those questions were angry.

 

“Beyond their cowardice, there’s an arrogance on the part of these candidates,” said Janet L. Folger, the president of Faith2Action, who helped organize the debate. “The arrogance is this: ‘We are just taking your votes for granted. You have nowhere else to go.'”

 

Okay then – the traditional, thinking and prudent conservatives are fed up, and those who value faith over reason are feeling, perhaps rightly so, that after George Bush is no longer in office, no one will be out there fighting EVIL and standing up for the angry God who will soon come and smite the unrighteous and cleanse the earth of sinners.  No wonder the Republicans are in trouble.  No one is happy.  The last six years have not gone well.

 

No matter – Tony Judt says there are those who want to continue what George Bush started.  Those would be the “liberal hawks” –

 

These, of course, are the politicians and pundits who threw in their lot with George W. Bush in 2003: voting and writing for a “preventive war” – a war of choice that would avenge 9/11, clean up Iraq, stifle Islamic terrorism, spread shock, awe and democracy across the Middle East and re-affirm the credentials of a benevolently interventionist America. For a while afterward, the president’s liberal enablers fell silent, temporarily abashed by their complicity in the worst foreign policy error in American history. But gradually they are returning. And they are in a decidedly self-righteous mood.

 

Yes, they concede, President Bush messed up his (our) war. But even if the war was a mistake, it was a brave and good mistake and we were right to make it, just as we were right to advocate intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. (“The difference between Kosovo and Iraq isn’t between a country that wanted peace and one that didn’t,” the Slate editor and onetime war cheerleader Jacob Weisberg, now tells us. “It was a matter of better management and better luck.”) We were right to be wrong – and that’s why you should listen to us now.

 

Yes, that seems quite mad, but there it is –

 

We are going to hear much more in this vein in the coming months. And there is a new twist. For all its shortcomings, the Iraq war, we are now reminded, was “justified” (Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator) by its impeccable moral credentials. It was supported – and is still – by leading European intellectuals, notably former dissidents like Adam Michnik and Vaclav Havel. They understand evil and the need for America to take a stand. So do we. Our domestic critics simply don’t “get it.” They are appeasers and defeatists.

 

Judt seems to think this is a bit bizarre –

 

In a democracy, war should always be the last resort – no matter how good the cause. “To jaw-jaw,” as Churchill reminded Eisenhower, “is always better than to war-war.” So the next time someone waxes lyrical for armed overseas intervention in the name of liberal ideals or “defining struggles,” remember what Albert Camus had to say about his fellow intellectuals’ propensity for encouraging violence to others at a safe distance from themselves. “Mistaken ideas always end in bloodshed,” he wrote, “but in every case it is someone else’s blood. That is why some of our thinkers feel free to say just about anything.”

 

And they do say just about anything.  But now, people are listening.  Things may change.

 

[][][][]

 

Amusing Hollywood footnote on the Russian-born Ayn Rand –

 

After several stops in western European cities, Rand arrived in New York City in February 1926. From New York, she traveled on to Chicago, Illinois, where she spent the next six months living with relatives, learning English, and developing ideas for stories and movies. She had decided to become a screenwriter, and, having received an extension to her visa, she left for Hollywood, California.

 

On Rand’s second day in Hollywood, an event occurred that was worthy of her dramatic fiction and one that had a major impact on her future. She was spotted by Cecil B. DeMille, one of Hollywood’s leading directors, while she was standing at the gate of his studio. She had recognized him as he was passing by in his car, and he had noticed her staring at him. He stopped to ask why she was staring, and Rand explained that she had recently arrived from Russia, that she had long been passionate about Hollywood movies, and that she dreamed of being a screen writer. DeMille was then working on “The King of Kings,” and gave her a ride to his movie set and signed her on as an extra. Then, during her second week at DeMille’s studio, another significant event occurred: Rand met Frank O’Connor, a young actor also working as an extra. Rand and O’Connor were married in 1929, and they remained married for fifty years until his death in 1979.

 

Rand also worked for DeMille as a reader of scripts, and struggled financially while working on her own writing. She also held a variety of non-writing jobs until in 1932 she was able to sell her first screenplay, “Red Pawn,” to Universal Studios. Also in 1932 her first stage play, “Night of January 16th,” was produced in Hollywood and later on Broadway.

 

She also worked as the head of the costume department at the old RKO Studios – down on Melrose at Gower.  It seems she was a neighbor, sort of.  In 1944 she moved into the 1935 Josef Von Sternberg house on Tampa Avenue in the San Fernando Valley, in Chatsworth, designed for Von Sternberg by Richard Neutra.  That low, modern thing was torn down in 1972 to make room for a housing development.

 

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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