2012 As Gettysburg

Jon Chait offers an excellent post today noting the case of a Pennsylvania Republican legislative leader, Mike Turzai, who screwed up and admitted the purpose of the state’s new voter ID law is to give Republicans a fighting chance to carry the state this November. Money quote from Chait:

[Turzai] committed a classic Kinsley Gaffe, in which a politician inadvertently blurts out what he really believes instead of what he is supposed to say. Turzai’s gaffe was actually a Bond Villain Gaffe, which is a subset of the Kinsley Gaffe, in which rampant egomania drives you to unadvisedly confess your evil scheme.

But what really caught my eye was a February 26 post by Chait that he linked to, and that I somehow must have missed when it first appeared, that explains succinctly that Republicans have engineered a period of maximum political confrontation since Barack Obama’s presidency in no small part because they are aware that their current voter coalition is all but doomed by demographic change (a change that Obama himself happens to embody). Here’s my favorite passage:

In the cold calculus of game theory, the expected response to this state of affairs would be to accommodate yourself to the growing strength of the opposing coalition—to persuade pockets of voters on the Democratic margins they might be better served by Republicans. Yet the psychology of decline does not always operate in a straightforward, rational way. A strategy of managing slow decay is unpleasant, and history is replete with instances of leaders who persuaded themselves of the opposite of the obvious conclusion. Rather than adjust themselves to their slowly weakening position, they chose instead to stage a decisive confrontation. If the terms of the fight grow more unfavorable with every passing year, well, all the more reason to have the fight sooner. This was the thought process of the antebellum southern states, sizing up the growing population and industrial might of the North. It was the thinking of the leaders of Austria-Hungary, watching their empire deteriorate and deciding they needed a decisive war with Serbia to save themselves.

Given my background, you can appreciate that I find the Civil War analogy especially interesting. In the billion words that have been written about the manifest folly of the South’s belief it could prevail in the Civil War (none better expressed than Rhett Butler’s warning to the secessionist hotheads in Gone With the Wind), it has often been forgotten that for the defenders of the slave economy, it was a question of “when” rather than “whether,” and the calculation that the tides of history were moving rapidly North was entirely accurate.

I’m not as sure as Chait that grassroots conservatives are fully conscious of their demographic problem, though the fear of “the other” that is right below the surface in their manias about “welfare” and immigration, and in their entirely irrational hatred of Obama, is clear enough. And like the South after Manassas (and again before Gettysburg), conservatives have let their 2010 victory (in no small part attributable to predictable midterm turnout patterns) convince them they can build a new majority via audacious tactics and sheer fanaticism. But no scenario for the triumph of conservatism includes an Obama victory in 2012. And so the Armies of the Right will leave no stone unturned and no nasty tactic undeployed between now and November. They don’t have the kind of leader they would prefer, but Jefferson Davis had his shortcomings, too, and that didn’t keep Confederates from turning him into a saint and revering his memory for decades to come (as I know as a former state employee in Georgia who used to get his birthday as a holiday, as it still is in Alabama).

Consciously or subconsciously, the conservative movement and the party it has finally captured are approaching this election as the climactic battle in a war for America, a battle they have provoked because they felt it was necessary. No amount of conservative grousing about Mitt Romney (designed mainly to extract promises redeemable in the event of victory) should distract progressives from that reality.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.