For the past eight years, I--like many liberals--have gnashed my teeth at the Democratic Party's political incompetence and spinelessness, watching them roll over for the Republicans and the Bush Administration time and time again. It's frustrating going through almost a decade where the only major political party that comes even close to representing your beliefs seems to be run by incompetents who are so steeped in Beltway Villager conventional wisdom that they mistake ritual capitulation for bipartisanship.
This has been one of the joys of President Obama's candidacy and victory, in that Obama has repeatedly made fools of political commentators and bloggers--myself most definitely included--by demonstrating that he plays a much deeper game than everyone else, that he focuses on long-term strategy rather than becoming blinded by the immediacy of tactical advantage. I still gnash my teeth when it looks like he's unnecessarily sacrificing principles or policies on the altar of the cult of bipartisanship, but he's been consistently right enough that I've been able to take a step back and stop fretting every time he makes a call that looks dumb. At this point though, I'm starting to wonder how much of this is due to Obama being frighteningly smart and competent, and how much is due to the GOP being--or becoming--spectacularly dumb.
The rise of the Know-Nothing faction within the Republican Party is neither a new nor a particularly arguable phenomenon. You know who they are. They're the ones whose agenda is to suppress any kind of education or science that butts up against their ideology. They're the ones who when pressed for details utter pabulum, clichés, rote phrases and unintelligible gibberish--unintelligible not because the viewer is ignorant of the subject matter, but because the speaker is. They lie about things big and small, things new and old, because lying is the only way they can persuade the electorate, the only way they can make their descriptions of the world comport with facts on public record. They embrace exegesis as a substitute for evidence. They are the Palins, the Cornyns, the Limbaughs. Their skills, such as they possess, are in demagoguery, not governance.
I feel compelled to note, at this point, that this is not to say all conservatives are dishonest idiots. Far from it. There are a sizable number of sane and reasonable conservatives who hold sincere beliefs about the way government and society should be run, beliefs that are to one degree or another informed and based on that person's experiences in life. And we need them to either take back their party from the ones who glorify ignorance and ideology, or form a new one whose voting base is not completely, irredeemably insane.
I won't go so far as to say such a split is inevitable. Pundits said similar things after the Democratic realignment of 1992, and in 1994 the GOP swept into control of Congress behind their Contract with America. Indeed, more than one parallel has been drawn between 2008 and 1992, and some of them have merit.
What I will say is that while the split isn't inevitable, the GOP seems to be working incredibly hard to make it happen. The social conservative wing of the Republican Party has long been unhappy with the way the GOP treats them like the ugly girl who gave them a ride to the prom so that they could dance in public with the hot rich chicks. The main thing that's kept them in the GOP for so long has been the distinct lack of any major party alternative. Indeed, John McCain's candidacy and selection of Palin for VP could be viewed, metaphorically, as a political marriage of convenience between the sane and corporatist elements of the GOP and its more ignorant, medieval elements. The fact that the country overwhelmingly repudiated Bush Republicanism in 2006 and 2008 fazes them not a bit--they view this, bizarrely, as a vindication of the conservative agenda.
Let's take a moment to unpack that a bit. Under normal circumstances, a party which had just held the presidency for eight years and all three branches of government for most of it, a party who had every imaginable advantage to allow them to enact their agenda, would look at their crushing losses two elections in a row and take this as a major Come-to-Jesus moment. They see it as evidence that they were not conservative /enough/. Most of the Republicans in Congress who lost their seats were moderates, RINOs, politicians who had to get elected in solid blue or at least D+ districts and whose conservative credentials were squishy. McCain himself was deeply loathed by the hardcore conservative base, most notably for the very "maverick" qualities they tried to play up during the campaign.
There is one major problem with this viewpoint: it discards all other evidence to the contrary. These Congressmen weren't primaried from the right by another Republican, they were defeated by Democrats. McCain didn't lose the election to another Republican or a conservative Southern Democrat, he lost it to a black Democratic junior Senator from Chicago with the middle name of Hussein who was portrayed relentlessly in the media as being just to the right of Mao or Lenin and campaigning on a platform of turning Gitmo into a ski resort for out-of-work terrorists. The country didn't reject the GOP's offering of moderate candidates because they weren't conservative enough, they rejected them because these were largely Democratic districts and Obama's ground operation helped make even dark red districts competitive.
The end result of this is a party whose elected officials appear to be in a fiercely contested race for irrelevance. America isn't a far-left nation and we're not on any kind of slippery slope to all-out socialism, but Americans like what they're hearing from Democrats a lot more than what's coming from the Republicans, and not only the polls but the last two elections bear this out. Two thirds of the country prefers the Democratic proposals for the economic stimulus. Yet when the GOP had its chance to define themselves in the eyes of the country, to truly shine in the midst of a national crisis, their proposed alternative bill consisted of 100% tax cuts. It read like Santa's wish list for conservative anti-tax jihadists: abolishment of the Estate Tax, the AMT, and tax cuts for the rich and business interests.
This was the considered, official counter-offer from the GOP, from a party which had eight years to demonstrate that tax cuts alone are the solution to our fiscal woes, a party which just received an electoral drubbing of historic proportions. This was the most serious proposal that emerged from one of the two major parties in the United States.
This was /lunacy/.
And it's neither the beginning nor the end of the lunacy, either. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) recently uttered what John Cole noted may be the dumbest thing said in the last 20 years, spinning a convoluted hypothetical that begins with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed getting a trial in a federal court in the US for his central role in the 9/11 attacks, and ends with him being set free because and gaining asylum and citizenship he wasn't read his Miranda rights. McCain, in a further glide into the abyss of the Stupid Party, recently remarked that the economic stimulus bill isn't really a stimulus bill, it's a spending bill. If you're having trouble figuring out how King got from Point A to Point X, or what exactly McCain thinks a economic stimulus bill /does/ if not allocate the spending of money, you're not alone. And unlike the Know-Nothings faction, you probably don't think Sarah Palin is your best bet to rescue the country from the Left.
At some point the sane elements of the Republican party are going to need a standard-bearer, someone to bring their message to the forefront. Right now there is a major battle under the surface for the soul of the Republican Party, and the battle lines are drawn between the Palinites, who rally around religion, gay marriage and other culture war topics, and the rest of the party. For at least 25 years the Palinites have held tremendous sway in the GOP because of their power in numbers, mobilization and funding. But the Know-Nothings are just as capable of taking their ball and going home as any other interest group, and that choice may be before them sooner than they think.
Ultimately, the Know-Nothing agenda is a losing one. America's culture continues a slow but inexorable drift towards liberalization, as things that seemed scary and unthinkable in decades past prove in familiarity to not be so threatening after all. Their economic ideology is based on smoke and mirrors, on assumptions that when tested in the marketplace have failed exhaustively. Their electoral success relies on keeping the public ignorant and suppressing science, and like all movements that depend on obscurity and ignorance, they wither when exposed to scrutiny. They are dinosaurs, electoral losers who cannot govern the country even when given every imaginable advantage, and to the extent that their voice prevails in the Republican Party, the long-term political prospects of the Democratic Party remain bright.
The remainder of the GOP, that dwindling element of the party that is focused on good governance and long-term success, they see this. And they know that while their only chance to stop their slide towards a regional and irrelevant party is to jettison the Know-Nothings, they also know that without the votes and support of social conservatives they cannot ever hope to win another election in this country.
I say go for it. Unless Obama and the Democrats really hose this up--and mind you, betting against the political instincts of Congressional Democrats is rarely a losing wager--they are screwed either way. At least by splitting the party they can be electorally screwed without becoming a nationwide laughing stock. The GOP can keep the sane conservatives, splitting the Palinites off into their own Stupid Party where they can continue keeping The Daily Show and The Colbert Report in business. They can keep the elephant as their mascot, and remind people that their motto is "God, Country, Liberty" without tacking on the words "in that order".
The Palinites, on the other hand, should choose a new mascot for Stupid Party, one befitting the party's seriousness and dedication to good government: the Lolcat. I imagine for a motto Redstate could simply post a picture of their nominee on Icanhascheezburger and have the community caption it and vote on one. I vote for "I CAN HAZ TACKS CUTS?", as that seems to be their answer to everything that doesn't have to do with religion or sex.