Saturday, November 18, 2006

Republicans face a choice

Note: This piece was written in the weeks before the recent midterm election. The author stands by the prediction that the Republican Party is going to move further to the "right".

Ex-House majority leader Dick Armey, a 1994 "Contract on America" author, said earlier this year that his former colleagues "need to do some serious substantive legislation" to improve their electoral chances. Armey, a conservative Republican, said his GOP colleagues are wasting time. “They're not doing real work. They're making political statements," he said, in his June remarks, referring to a long string of actions which, among other things, repeatedly placed ideology above rationality.

Like Armey, a lot of us find it bizarre that the GOP are so far off track, but in fact, he may be wrong about what it takes for them to win elections. I had the occasion to ask a major beltway Republican operative (call him "Tony") whether there was any chance the GOP could return to its more cosmopolitan, internationalist roots, and he shrugged. "Look, it took us 50 years to figure out how to put together a winning coalition, and we're not going to change course now." That was three months ago. Now, that coalition is showing signs of cracking. Truthfully, we should have seen this coming, and some did (but were dismissed). However, it has taken a month of really bad news to expose the contradictions within the GOP.

The two major components of the Republican coalition, namely Wall Street and the social conservatives, have nothing in common except a shared hatred of an empty box labelled “liberalism”. The irony is that the world the Wall Streeters want is awfully cold and frightening for the typical heartland Christian conservative. It is a world of free-agency, free capital flows, unfettered economic competition, and unchecked vulgarity in the media. It is a world that would eat most fundamentalist Christians alive (an image of the Colisseum comes to mind). Most important, it is a world in which we must teach science in schools, or our shiny new industries will vanish.

And the world of the Christians is certainly not one the Wall Streeters would like. Picture Afghanistan under the Taliban: Lots of religious indoctrination. No fun, no dates, no laughing. Nothing to do with all your money except wait for martyrdom (ie., the Rapture), unless you own your own island. It was, in one sense, the genius of the Republican leadership over the past 20 years, that they were able to convince the Christian conservatives to blame the increasing pornification of the world on liberalism, rather than seeing it as a natural consequence of free-market policies, exploding media and greatly increased mobility.

Now that there in dissension in the ranks, an old debate is taking on new significance: which wing of the Republican coalition is using which? Some say the Wall Steeters have been using the Christians to win votes, in the service of policies that strictly benefit the money guys. This is an obvious implication of the just-published book “Tempting Faith”, by a former Bush Administration insider, David Kuo (link?). With the common folk under control, the money guys can clean up as they never have before, goes the theory. There is certainly some soul-searching within the ranks of the social conservatives, who are finally wondering if they have been had.

Others say the Christians are using the infrastructure of the old GOP to take over the country, after which women will have to wear burkas, our schools will become like the Madrassas, and we may become a third-world country. This has been my fear since the day I was told by a fourth-grade classmate that I would go to hell for thinking we “came from monkeys”. Even with the tide turning against the GOP, and, in fact, perhaps because of this reversal, the threat of a fundamentalist takeover of the party seems only to loom larger. After all, party leadership has responded to its stress by pandering even more to the Christian right, not less. Hence, Dick Armey’s comments from earlier this year.

If the Republicans lose big in November, the party is going to change radically. The few remaining moderates have been targeted by the Democrats (which is unfortunate), and infighting will eliminate those who survive. Even reduced to a minority in one or both houses, the prospect of the Republican party as a party of theocracy should frighten all of us who value human progress. It is essential that we find and support Republicans who will stand up for education, science and reason-based decision-making, before it is too late for the party and for all of us.

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