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Republican Extremism and the Lessons of History

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According to the usual workings of the American political system, success demands building diverse coalitions that contain swings too far to the right or the left. But historically this has not always been the case – not in the movement for Southern secession that provoked the Civil War, not in the paranoid politics of Sen. Joseph McCarthy early in the Cold War, not the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign that openly courted extremism and took over the Republican Party, and not in the George Wallace campaigns against civil rights.

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The current Republican Party is the latest angry exception to the rules of normal consensus-building politics, and it is unlikely that the GOP will function as a normal political party once again anytime soon. The GOP's long rightward march – deeply rooted in the revolt against the New Deal, headed by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and accelerated by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s – depends upon the "cannibalism" that Gingrich came to lament; and that cannibalism has devoured, among many things, what had once been the party's strong "moderate" and even "liberal" wings. All that remains as a supposedly tempering force inside the GOP are Republicans so conservative that they cannot really be called tempering, and so inept and on the defensive that they cannot be called a force. If John Boehner is the last man standing against extremism in the party, there is really nothing to bar the door.

Many experienced Republican politicos know that their party is at risk of dying. With the systematic removal of moderates from its ranks, the party has become based, more than ever, in the Deep South, along with the Mountain states – the least-dynamic regions in the country. Its base is also aging, a fact made all the more striking by the shift of young voters heavily toward the Democrats since Reagan's heyday. In 2012, Republicans ran worst among those national constituencies that are growing the fastest – from Latinos to youth – and in democratic politics, demography is pretty much destiny. One reason for the Republicans' ferocity is their sense that their time is inexorably running out.

Institutional reform could provide constraints that the Republican Party has long since lost. Changing the Senate rules to curtail filibustering and expediting the nomination process, for example, would halt some of the most outrageous obstructionism evident since 2008. The rise of a different kind of mainstream press, devoted to telling the plain, unvarnished truth, without fear or favor, instead of propping up a false equivalency and calling it objectivity, would also be a great improvement.

For the foreseeable future, though, the prolonged death throes of the Republican Party will lead from crisis to crisis. Certainly, there is little chance that the Republicans, even if they fail to get their way, will learn any lessons in moderation and self-control that might calm their destructive, subversive fury. For now, that spirit of subversive fury defines the Republican Party.

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So the acceleration of radicalism and the political crises will continue. Even Mitch McConnell – a notoriously conservative partisan, the party boss behind the obstructionist Senate filibusters and a man often openly contemptuous of President Obama – is the target of a primary challenge from the right in his 2014 re-election campaign. Sadly, frighteningly, after the 2011 debt-limit deal was struck, McConnell observed that "it set the template for the future," and threatened that soon "we'll be doing it all over." And so, all too soon, we will, in a reprise that ought to alarm Americans across the political spectrum: the Constitution unheeded and endangered, the nation's history blithely ignored, and the security of the American people put severely at risk by an extremist political faction.

This story is from the October 24th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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