THE PROBLEM WITH THE NIHILIST PARTY…. I didn’t agree with every observation in the piece, but Time‘s Joe Klein raises a very reasonable question this week.

How can you sustain a democracy if one of the two major political parties has been overrun by nihilists? And another question: How can you maintain the illusion of journalistic impartiality when one of the political parties has jumped the shark? […]

Hyperbole and distortion certainly exist on the left, but they are a minor chord in the Democratic Party. It is a very different story among Republicans. […]

This may tell us something about the actual state of play on health care: the nutters are a tiny minority; the Republicans are curling themselves into a tight, white, extremist bubble — but there may be enough of them raising dust to render creative public policy impossible. Some righteous anger seems called for, but that’s not Obama’s style. He will have to come up with something, though — and he will have to do it without the tiniest scintilla of help from the Republican Party.

Right. A lot of this may seem obvious, but given Klein’s background, I’m pleased to see it anyway. As Michelle Cottle recently wrote, “I have given up hope for a loyal opposition. I’d settle for a sane one.” Regrettably, the opposition seems neither loyal nor sane, and conditions seem to be deteriorating.

Kevin Drum had an interesting response on Klein’s piece.

Both parties have their extreme wings, but the GOP’s is not only way deeper into crazy land (“death panels” for them vs a public option for the most liberal Dems), but it’s virtually all they have left. Michele Bachman is pretty much the modal Republican now, not just a fringe nutball. Conversely, Dennis Kucinich, who’s far to the left but perfectly sane and coherent, barely gets the time of day from the mainstream core of the Democratic Party.

I don’t actually mind if most or all Republicans vote against healthcare reform. They’re Republicans! They’re opposed to expanded government programs and private sector regulation and new entitlements. But the death panels and the home nursing inanity and the “healthcare racism” and the town hall screeching and all the rest are the mark of a party that’s gone completely off the rails. They’re doomed until they figure out a way to extricate themselves from the Beck/Limbaugh/Fox News axis of hysteria.

That last observation is the only part of the argument that concerns me.

I’d argue that the Republican Party started losing its institutional mind and soul somewhere around 1993, but at the time, there were still some moderates in the party. Sixteen years later, the proverbial inmates are running the asylum, and the “axis of hysteria” has become the norm.

The Republican “mainstream” is so far to the right, it would have been hard to imagine what’s become of the party, say, two decades ago. The median GOP House member in 2003 was 73% more conservative than the median GOP member of the early ’70s — and Republicans have gotten more conservative since 2003.

Klein mentioned that it was a Republican lawyer who “delivered the coup de grace to Senator [Joe] McCarthy when he said, ‘Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?’ Where is the Republican who would dare say that to Rush Limbaugh, who has compared the President of the United States to Adolf Hitler?”

This is only part of a very long list worthy of Joseph Welch moments. This year, Republicans have become the party of “birthers.” And unfounded fears of “death panels,” “enemies lists,” and the “Fairness Doctrine.” We’ve heard wild-eyed nonsense about ACORN, “re-education camps,” Gestapo-like security forces, and Census-related conspiracy theories. Rage and paranoia are not an attractive combination, but they’re driving the GOP talking points and the larger political discourse.

And then there are the policy positions. This is a party that honestly thought a five-year spending freeze was a wise approach to the economic crisis. The same party proceeded to make truly ridiculous arguments about everything from taxes to energy policy, Iran to health care. In each instance, GOP claims were proven false, only to be repeated anyway.

When a member of the Republican leadership talked about the GOP emulating the Taliban, no one in the party deemed this controversial. Republicans compare U.S. leaders to Germany in the 1930s with some regularity, and the party mainstream barely bats an eye. Prominent GOP lawmakers this week openly discussed the prospect of state nullification of federal laws, and no one in the Republican ranks stepped up to say, “Good Lord, these people are mad.”

The question of how our democracy is supposed to function when of the two major political parties has been overrun by nihilists is not at all rhetorical.

But to Kevin’s point, are Republicans doomed until party leaders throw some water on their face and rejoin reality? I wish I could say I’m as confident about this. I’m not. GOP poll numbers aren’t improving, at least not yet, but if enough motivated voters are just angry enough about the status quo, and the left is disillusioned and feeling let down, the “axis of hysteria” may not be enough to prevent significant Republican gains in 2010 and 2012. GOP lawmakers can act like confused children while embracing the exact same policies that forced them into the minority in the first place, and it won’t make any difference.

Speaker Pelosi was recently talking to some children visiting Capitol Hill, and one youngster asked why Pelosi joined “them” (Democrats), instead of “us” (Republicans). The Speaker replied, “I’m delighted that you associate yourself with a political party. I wish more people would, and I hope that the next generation will take back the Republican Party for the grand old party that it used to be. It is important for us to have a strong Republican Party,”

I agree, but I’m not sure we can wait that long for the GOP to grow up.

Peggy Noonan argued in July that we’re in an era in which the nation needs “conservative leaders who know how to think” and a Republican Party that is “serious, as serious as the age, because that is what a grown-up, responsible party — a party that deserves to lead — would do.”

We’re waiting.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.