IT’S THE INMATES’ ASYLUM NOW…. Paul Krugman weighs the consequences of a Republican Party run “by the people it used to exploit.”

[S]omething snapped last year. Conservatives had long believed that history was on their side, so the G.O.P. establishment could, in effect, urge hard-right activists to wait just a little longer: once the party consolidated its hold on power, they’d get what they wanted. After the Democratic sweep, however, extremists could no longer be fobbed off with promises of future glory.

Furthermore, the loss of both Congress and the White House left a power vacuum in a party accustomed to top-down management. At this point Newt Gingrich is what passes for a sober, reasonable elder statesman of the G.O.P. And he has no authority: Republican voters ignored his call to support a relatively moderate, electable candidate in New York’s special Congressional election.

Real power in the party rests, instead, with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin (who at this point is more a media figure than a conventional politician). Because these people aren’t interested in actually governing, they feed the base’s frenzy instead of trying to curb or channel it. So all the old restraints are gone.

Now, there are likely some on the left who find these developments encouraging. Republicans moved to the far-right cliff, and were punished by voters. Now the Tea Party crowd has pushed the GOP over the far-right cliff, which will make the party even less tolerable to the American mainstream. We saw it happen last week in New York’s 23rd, which sent a Democrat to Congress for the first time since the 19th century, despite a highly motivated conservative base.

But there’s a real gamble here, which comes with potentially dangerous consequences. If the electorate takes on a strong anti-incumbent attitude, and decides to punish the governing party for a struggling economy, the Limbaugh/Beck/Palin party may very well thrive in spite of itself.

That’s the big fear about next year’s midterms — if, say, high unemployment produces big Republican gains, the right-wing base will think they’ve been rewarded for their tactics and far-right agenda.

Krugman concluded, “[T]he country could become effectively ungovernable in the midst of an ongoing economic disaster. The point is that the takeover of the Republican Party by the irrational right is no laughing matter. Something unprecedented is happening here — and it’s very bad for America.”

Steve Benen

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.