Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Future of the GOP

I have to remind myself that most things in life are simply reactionary. Seriously, like 98% (I got that stat from somewhere, who knows if it's legit or not) of all action is a reaction. Sonic the Hedgehog was a reaction to Mario. Andy Warhol's soup cans were a reaction to abstract impressionism (i.e., Jackson Polluck). My wife is free to correct me on that last bit.

Much of what we think as "American" is a reaction to the Cold War. We constantly positioned ourselves as far across the table as possible from the U.S.S.R. They were Communists, were were Capitalists. We developed the "science" of economics to try and prove the superiority of free markets. Economics came into it's own in the 50's--it existed before, but it wasn't really codified before then. Which is why we still don't know all the root causes of the Great Depression. They were "godless" so we underwent a tremendous God-ification. We added the phrase "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance and declared "In God we trust" to be our national motto.

Fast forward to today.

I had assumed that the election of Barack Obama and his cadre of socialists Democrats was simply the pendulum swinging back to the left, that the GOP would regroup, re-(ahem)-center themselves, and stage a comeback in 2020 or so. But discussions with politically-minded friends have led to some interesting possible outcomes--Evan points out that when the Labour Party in Britain took over in 1997, the Conservative Party was scattered and has yet to re-assemble itself. While the parties aren't 100% analogous, they're pretty damned close. So what does this mean for the Republicans?

Well, it depends on what you think the Republican Party does. Let's get one thing clear--this is not your father's Republican Party. Overwhelmingly, centrists and moderate conservatives have made the claim that the neo-conservative movement within the GOP did not reflect their values of fiscal responsibility, strong defense, and personal liberty. If you think of the right as being a check on the left, then it stands to reason that it will regroup, recenter, and regain control when the pendulum swings back.

But there's something that I've never been quite able to pinpoint. The GOP of late has been divided into two distinct wings: business libertarians and moral authoritarians.  Their aims aren't mutually exclusive, per se, but they make odd bedfellows.  I frequently joke that the unholy marriage between the two groups oddly reflects the typical midwestern union.

But I digress.

No, what occurred to me, at long last, is that the modern GOP is in many ways a vestige of the Cold War.  As tenuous as the link between atheism and communism are (and imagine how the world might be different if Russia had been officially Russian-Orthodox), they find their mirrors in the Republican Party.  It seems to me that the GOP, and in a broader sense the Conservative movement, was cobbled together from disparate ideologies whose only commonality was to be vehemently anti-communist.  No wonder the GOP frequently painted its opponents as communists.  Joe McCarthy was a Republican, and before being famous for Watergate, Nixon was a famous for red-baiting.  When Reagan compaigned against Medicare, he compared it to socialism.

But then the Cold War ended, and the strength of the economy became more important than the nature of it.  So when the country swung left in '92, the Republican response was to become the party of high morality, and this paid off when then-President Clinton had his now infamous affair.  But the GOP still had its pro-business roots.  This is how you get peculiarities like the '04 election, in which Bush campaigned on overturning Roe v. Wade and banning gay marriage, and then called his election a mandate from the people to privatize social security.

But with the Iraq War, the GOP effectively recused itself, sacrificing the moral high ground--and here's the ironic part--in order to pursue a new common enemy.  That's right, "terrorism" was to be the new "communism".  But the pursuit has been, pardon the phrase, abortive.  Most thinking adults know that the Iraq War is making us more vulnerable to terrorism, not less.  And the fact that Osama bin Laden has not been caught after a 7 year chase has left the administration (and the party it represents) looking somewhat impotent.  In addition, the promises to stick it to gays and abortionists have proven empty, at least at the federal level.

So, lacking a good common enemy (and for the record, the Democrats do not constitute a common enemy), can the GOP un-fragment itself into a dominant political force again?

Well, a lot of that depends on what the Obama administration accomplishes.  Pundits are calling the Obama cabinet "a return to responsibility" (as opposed to loyalty).  Obviously the economy is going to be a priority, and Obama's pledge to empty Gitmo is an equally real and symbolic gesture that has "moral high-ground" written all over it.  If he manages to salvage the economy, the combination of that and the dismal W-years should cement the image of Democrats as the champions of economic policy (rightly or wrongly).  Team Obama has a lot of obstacles, but they're an incredibly savvy lot, and this is an excellent opportunity to shine, if they're up to the task.  Obama-led policy successes could set the GOP back some fifty years--especially if he makes some significant headway in health care (assuming universal health care would be as immensely popular here as it is in every other developed nation in the world).

In short, the neo-cons have screwed their own pooch, and they may well have taken the rest of their party with them.  Time will tell.

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