There is only one route to restoring health to the American polity, comity to its dialogue, constructive and collegial approaches to governance, an end to extortion and a restoration of the belief that the United States truly has a government of, for and by its citizenry.
That way is to defang and defeat the Tea Party, the far right-wing of the Republican Party, their supporters, enablers, acolytes and cheerleaders. They are the principal source of governmental paralysis, unbridgeable political divisions, continuing and dangerous economic brinkmanship, extremist policies and a growing lack of respect for the political process in general and the Republican Party in particular. They need to be dislodged from the elected positions of power and influence they currently enjoy in both Congress and state legislatures.
In 1967, I conceived of and, with the late Allard Lowenstein, organized a grassroots effort that came to be called “The Dump Johnson Movement,” which intended to provide an alternative to extremism, reverse the upward trajectory of American involvement in Vietnam and remove the principle buttress of that escalation from power. When Sen. Eugene McCarthy provided national leadership for that effort by mounting a challenge in the Democratic primaries, I enlisted in his campaign. When McCarthy began his candidacy, he was unknown to 57 percent of the American citizenry. When I took the train to New Hampshire to help coordinate McCarthy’s campaign there one month before the primary, polls showed only two percent in the state supported his candidacy. The conventional wisdom was that a sitting president could not be beaten within his own party. But we succeeded in making it impossible for Johnson to seek reelection, transforming the Democratic Party’s advocacy from pro-war to anti-war, and creating a permanent majority national popular opposition to the continuation of the war.
Only a similar major grassroots effort in GOP primaries by mainstream Republicans and Republican-leaning independents now can reverse the destruction the right-wing is wreaking to party and country.
The first step on this road is to cease dignifying the far right with the word “conservative.”
The essential underpinnings of conservatism from Burke to Buckley have been a respect for the institutions of both governance and society, moderation in manner, skepticism about major and abrupt change and a concomitant rejection of extremes. True conservatives’ belief in traditional values is leavened by a tolerance for diverse views. Their support for free markets is tempered by understanding the need for constructive regulation of their excesses. They are committed to human equality and support equality of opportunity without a mandate for equality of result. Their vision of governance is by representative rather than direct democracy and, where possible, a civil approach to political dialogue and a rational approach to public policy.
The Republican right-wing is the antithesis of historical conservatism. It is radical in approach, extremist and reactionary in viewpoint, uncompromising in mode of operation, lacking in respect for the institutions that undergird the American republic and contemptuous of any opposition to their viewpoint.
The second step is to understand that the damage the Republican right-wing has done to its party and the nation is fundamentally different than what happened to the Democratic Party in the 1970s and 1980s – despite the claims of symmetry by such distinguished analysts as Andrew Kohut, William Galston and Elaine Kamarck.
The Democrats pursued policies that were unpopular and unwise, including but not limited to: using the school bus as the method to achieve academic racial integration, advocating representational quotas in everything from college admission to convention seating and engaging in identity politics that was perceived as favoring some at the expense of all. For a long time, they were silent about the political excesses of the New Left, until Bill Clinton attacked the lyrics of Sister Souljah in the 1992 presidential campaign. They were smug about their control of Congress and shocked when the foibles of newly elected President Clinton (most notably in his mishandling of the “gays in the military” issue) hastened the likely inevitable change from the once solid Democratic South to Republican dominance and temporarily cost them control of both houses of Congress.
But the Democrats never allowed the New Left a place at their table. While there were differences among the Blue Dog Democrats, the Democratic Leadership Council, liberals and labor, the differences were never so wide as to tear the party asunder and most found resolution somewhere in the middle, although in some cases, most notably welfare reform, that middle didn’t yield sound policy.
The problems that the Republican right-wing has inflicted on its party and nation are of a geometrically greater magnitude:
–They have rendered their party unrecognizable to the Republicanism of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and even George W. Bush.
–Using state nominating processes, they have destroyed the honorable careers of a number of distinguished office-holders, most notably former Sens. Bob Bennett and Richard Lugar and are trying to do the same to the equally distinguished Lamar Alexander and Lindsay Graham.
–They have propelled the nomination of unelectable statewide candidates – Ken Buck in Colorado, Linda McMahon in Connecticut, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Richard Mourdock in Indiana, Todd Akin in Missouri and Sharron Angle in Nevada — in races that were seen by pollsters as winnable by the GOP before these nominations.
–They have made comity and compromise in Congress impossible and have helped make this year’s Congress and the preceding one the least productive in recent memory with the lowest public favorability ratings (now below 10 percent) in polling history.
–They have virtually emasculated their party’s saner leadership and forced sensible lawmakers to adopt their extreme positions for fear they will be successfully challenged in their party’s primary contests.
–Their deeply unpopular litmus test issues made it virtually impossible for the party’s national candidates and leaders to speak to the needs and desires of a majority of Americans.
–They have attempted to hold governmental funding and the statutory debt limit hostage to unwise and unattainable public policy aims. They have succeeded in using those tools to sequester government spending and, by virtue of that, weaken national defense, education, law enforcement and many other needed and constructive aspects of government. And they plan to attempt to conduct this type of blackmail and extortion again and again.
The fundamental difference between today’s right-wing Republicans and the ‘70s and ‘80s Democratic left is not simply that the GOP right-wing is more extreme, which it certainly is, but that it has power — via its office-holders in state legislatures and Congress. Policy adjustments could solve the Democratic divisions of yore. Only wresting power from the Republican extremists can save the GOP.
The right-wing derives its power from a variety of sources. They are very well funded by the Koch brothers, the Club for Growth and other anti-government sources. They have a very visible band of cheerleaders, including Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint’s Heritage Foundation and, at least in Congress, they have a leadership group of enablers, including Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan and John Boehner.
But there are three more important factors that have contributed to their ascendancy.
First, they were the principal beneficiaries of the results of the 2010 election – in Obama’s words, the “shellacking” the Democrats suffered that allowed the GOP to claim majorities in a greater number of state legislative chambers than in any year since 1946. The year was particularly important because it was the year of the decennial Census, the subsequent redrawing of Congressional and state legislative districts. With the control of a larger number of state legislative chambers, the GOP was able to draw a larger number of safe one-party legislative districts that favored their party.
They also have understood that they and what they stood for represented a small minority in the nation and had a sophisticated understanding of how they might leverage that minority status into power. It is the reason they have supported caucuses for the nomination of convention delegates that their organized zealotry could control rather than primaries that they might not. Following upon this strategy, they, like Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, seek conventions they can control to nominate statewide candidates rather than primaries that they can’t. (And if the right-wing had its druthers, they would repeal the 17th Amendment to the Constitution and have state legislatures, some of which they control, choose U.S. Senators, rather than have them chosen by a popular vote in a general election.)
Their strategic path to elected power has been to run primary candidates for state legislature and Congress in one-party districts, including the additional ones they have helped create. They have done so because turnout in those contests is abysmally low. The average turnout for a statewide Democratic primary (for governor or U.S. Senate) is slightly over 10 percent of the eligible electorate. The average turnout for a statewide Republican primary tends to be around nine percent or less. Turnout for Congressional primaries is smaller and is even smaller for state legislative primaries. That, in turn, means that an organized minority representing the views of no more than four percent of the electorate can win those primaries and, by virtue of the one-party nature of the districts, effectively elect their candidate to office. The organized minority in the Republican Party is now and has been for several years its extremist right-wing.
Those elected are also potential candidates for higher office. But whether they achieve these ambitions – and they have in places like Florida, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin – they serve to create paralysis in both Washington and some states and deeply reactionary laws in others.
Finally, the legitimate conservatives, moderates and few remaining liberals in the Republican Party have failed to engage in grassroots organizing since before 1964 while the right-wingers have maintained and expanded extensive grassroots organizations since they were first mobilized by Clifton White for the 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater.
The Democrats cannot rescue the Republicans from their extreme officeholders. At best, because of the extremism and obstruction of the Congressional GOP, the Democrats won’t lose control of the Senate and may even have a small gain. They may gain a few seats in the U.S. House and state legislatures, but because of the post-2010 Census redistricting, there are not sufficient Republican one-party districts where the Democrats have a chance to make major inroads.
It would be nice if the nation could immediately redraw its Congressional and state legislative districts to maximize two-party competition and minimize the one-party districts that have enabled the extremists. This may be a goal to be pursued, but even were there a maximum of good will and a huge public movement to make these changes, the earliest they could occur is after the 2020 Census, and that would not rescue the nation from its present political crisis. Competitive redistricting would solve some of the polarization problems the right-wing has created, but it isn’t going to happen any time soon.
The only durable way to fight and overcome the influence the right-wing has amassed is for sensible Republicans and GOP-leaning independents to pursue precisely the strategies that allowed the extremists to gain the power that they now have. They must put forward a manifesto of true conservative principles and sensible policies that can appeal to mainstream Americans. They must carry that manifesto into battle in the same one-party districts that have elected right-wing office-holders. It means doing what these groups have failed to do for a half-century – get engaged in grassroots organization and hand-to-hand political combat. They should go into battle with the same understanding of the low-turnout terrain that allowed a small reactionary minority to gain power and in the belief that their common sense approach can draw at least as many to the polls as did the extremists. If common sense campaigns and candidates cannot draw more than the three or four percent of voters that propelled craziness into office, then there is something deeply wrong with America.
Such an effort will require leadership with stature, commitment, large sums of money, organizational skill, political savvy and the involvement of thousands. But the leadership is there if it wants to act. There are skilled political pragmatists like former Reps, Tom Davis and Vin Weber, to name two of many, who are capable of guiding such an effort. There are former office-holders of stature such as former officeholders like former Sens. Bob Bennett, Slade Gorton and Richard Lugar who could help give such an effort credibility as could former state officials like former Governors Thomas Kean and Christie Todd Whitman and soon-to-be former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling. There are respected Republican pollsters like Bill McInturff and Neil Newhouse who have guided the campaign of moderates and who could guide this campaign. Most traditional suppliers of Republican money are appalled by the Republican Party they now view and would likely be able to provide more than enough money to mount such an effort. Some business leaders are already mounting such campaigns against individual Tea Party office-holders in at least three states. The big engine that could can be created.
The need for such a massive effort is major and compelling on two levels. The first is that the structure of American democracy depends on a functioning two party system — one that is broad enough to encompass the needs and aspirations of a large majority of American citizens, one that can organize the debate and consideration of major policy issues in a constructive manner, one that is pragmatic enough to find common ground when the needs of the nation outweigh the desires of partisans, one that can earn the respect of the American public.
The second is fear of what might happen if the rescue of sane American politics is not undertaken. Almost every national election is a referendum on current political and economic conditions and the record of the party in power. Because the present Republican Party has adopted a policy of “No,” blocking any effort to use fiscal tools to restore health to the American economy, because that recovery is not certain and not vigorous and because of as yet unforeseen events, the Democratic Party may be in 2016, as it was in 2010, highly unpopular. That, in turn, may pave the way for a Republican return to power. But to return the current Republican Party to power, one that is controlled in part by the irrational demands of its right-wing to essentially dismantle the welfare state and eviscerate constructive governmental intervention to address major societal needs from education to infrastructure, is to threaten the health and continued viability of the American democratic system. American democracy cannot continue to have its only political choices be between a moderately liberal 21st Century party and a party held hostage to the worst of 19th Century notions about economics, governance and human equality.