Can the GOP Win Without the Crazies?

Birthers, truthers, paranoids, conspiracists — the whole angry, resentful, frightened mob of right wingers who make up a good portion of the Republican base scares the wholly living hell out of most of the rest of us. They exist on a different plane of reality — uncomfortable with deep thinking, irrational when their delusions are challenged, and unable to climb out of the echo chamber in which they find comfort and support with other like minded crazies.

Worse than who and what they are, the establishment Republicans and even other rational conservatives tolerate them, dismiss them as inconsequential, or actively encourage them in hopes of using their energy, activism, and money to win office.

I categorize the crazies, recognizing there is overlap in and redundancy in my taxonomy:

1. The Birthers. Still alive and kicking and insisting that either a) Obama wasn’t born here; or b) he is an illegitimate president because he’s not a “natural born citizen.” They’ve only got 4 more years to prove their case.

2. Conspiracists. Runs the gamut from the birther issue mentioned above to the idea that hundreds of reputable scientists are colluding to cook the books on global warming. Several prominent congressmen – Michele Bachmann among them — have joined this group by wondering if Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s close aide, isn’t a Muslim Brotherhood plant.

3. Anti-Science crackpots. Enter the evangelical right who dismisses evolution, the Big Bang Theory, as well as other right wingers who worry about vaccinations and are convinced a woman can’t get pregnant from rape because her body automatically shuts down to prevent it.

4. Anti-intellectual. Dismissing out of hand any criticism from anyone who they believe isn’t a conservative. They are suspicious of anyone who went to an Ivy League school or who thinks for a living, and they reflexively reject nuance and logic because if you don’t feel it in your gut, you’re probably a squishy moderate.

5. Paranoids. Pure Hofstadter. Read.

6. Cry “Communist!” and let slip the dogs of war! Is there anything loopier about the crazies than their belief that the US is turning into a Marxist dictatorship? Sheesh.

It is an open question how large this segment of “conservatives” might be. Being in a better position than most to hazard an intelligent guess, I would put the percentage at more than 25% but less than 35%. I don’t believe any polls on the matter for the simple reason that the way questions about birtherism or socialism are formulated sweeps up many on the right who have questions about such things, but don’t give them much credence.

So, how much did fear and loathing of the GOP crazies by ordinary voters contribute to the party’s debacle on Tuesday?

On Wednesday, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray said the decisive Senate victories for her party had “proved to Republicans that extremists are dooming their party to disaster.”

“If Republicans want to follow the Tea Party off a political cliff, that’s their prerogative,” Murray said on a conference call with reporters. “But we will not let them take America off a cliff.”

Sorry, but it’s far more complicated than that. The self identified “Tea Party” has many faces, many factions — some of whom are rational libertarians, thoughtful federalists, or plain old Main Street Republicans.

But there is no doubt that the energy, the dynamism, and the soul of the Tea Party movement can be found in the angry, contorted faces of its members screaming about “Communism” and “Socialism” at rallies across the land. They are a fraternity of, for the most part, middle aged, Middle Class angry white males who believe they see the country they grew up in slipping away. Their vision of what America was like — a vision that obscures or ignores the more unseemly aspects of American society in decades past — lives on in Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” (a phrase The Gipper stole from Puritan leader John Winthrop). It’s a precious, if completely fanciful vision of an America that never was, but is embraced because it validates the sincere patriotic feelings felt by most ordinary Americans. They fear change because it is unsettling to have America’s perfection challenged in such a stark and obvious way.

America is changing — has always changed — and this has always unnerved some of us. It’s too easy to explain it away by saying that racism is the motivating factor in their hate. By limiting one’s explanation to the loss of white privilege, you lose sight of the traditionalist nature of their opposition to President Obama and his leftist allies.

Ed Kilgore:

As we have seen throughout history, cultural despair can lead to quiescence—to the withdrawal from politics and the building of counter-cultural institutions—or to hyper-activism—to the building of self-consiously counter-revolutionary political movements that exhibit contempt for democracy and treat opponents as enemies on an almost existential level. Maybe the kind of stuff I quoted above just reflects an emotional hangover from an election conservatives convinced themselves they were going to win. But it’s hardly new; much of the Tea Party Movement and its “constitutional conservative” ideology has involved a strange sort of anti-Americanism cloaked in super-patriotism. It wouldn’t be surprising if the same people reacted to the re-election of Barack Obama by taking their hostility to America as it is to another level.

For better or worse, the Tea Party has become the Tao of the GOP. Trying to remove them would sap most of the energy and activism from the party, which is why you don’t see too many establishment or mainstream Republicans trying to marginalize them.

But despite Kilgore’s use of scare quotes for “constitutional conservative” — as if this isn’t a valid philosophical construct or something to be feared or belittled — there is actually a purpose to the Tea Party’s obsession with the Constitution. The Kilgore’s of the world definitely don’t want to debate this, but the notion of “limited” government is at the heart of the Tea Party critique of the American government. Many of them have almost a biblical belief in the sanctity of the Constitution, that it must be taken literally, word for word like the Bible, and if something like national health care doesn’t appear in it, it is by definition “unconstitutional.” Others have a childlike understanding of the meaning of federalism, or the commerce clause, that makes them suspicious of anything that augments those concepts.

But despite all this, they are the only Americans willing to debate the limits of power granted to the federal government by our founding document. In this respect, the left, who prefer to keep their options open when it comes to defining limits on federal power, finds it convenient to tar tea partiers as racists, or authoritarians, or, as Kilgore does, anti-American. Some may be all of those, but to dismiss the argument they are making with scare quotes and name calling fails to recognize the value in what, in their own misguided way, they are trying to accomplish. I would venture to say that not since the ratification debates of 1787-88 has the Constitution been so seriously studied and debated. It’s a debate that needs to happen if there is any hope of maintaining a healthy balance between individual freedom and the needs of society to progress.

But the Tea Party does not represent the totality of the GOP crazies problem. Radical Christians who want to deny basic rights to gays, and even to women, are a far larger quandary. They vote. And no candidate for the presidency who runs on the Republican ticket can avoid toeing the line on their issues. If Mitt Romney had stood up to them by maintaining his position on gay marriage, abortion and other social issues, it is very likely he would not have been nominated. It’s at least partly the reason that governors like Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie refused to enter the GOP field in 2012. Catering to the concerns of people who believe the earth was created 6,000 years ago proves to be too much for some.

It would be a dream solution for the evangelicals, the tea party, and the other crazies to form their own party, as Herman Cain suggested:

Herman Cain, the former presidential candidate who still has a robust following via his popular talk radio program and speaking tours, today suggested the most clear step to open civil war: secession. Appearing on Bryan Fischer’s radio program this afternoon, Cain called for a large faction of Republican Party leaders to desert the party and form a third, more conservative party.

“I never thought that I would say this, and this is the first time publicly that I’ve said it: We need a third party to save this country. Not Ron Paul and the Ron Paulites. No. We need a legitimate third party to challenge the current system that we have, because I don’t believe that the Republican Party … has the ability to rebrand itself,” Cain said.

Rush Limbaugh agrees:

Rush Limabugh, two months ago, echoed the sentiment. ”If Obama wins, let me tell you what it’s the end of: the Republican Party. There’s gonna be a third party that’s gonna be oriented toward conservatism,” he said.

Well, some people’s idea of “conservatism” anyway.

Of course, a third party of anti-abortion and anti-gay activists, evangelical Christians, radical anti-government Objectivists, and paranoid loons would never win a national election. But then, neither would the GOP. This wouldn’t exactly be a split between ideologues and pragmatists, but it would clearly define the divisions in the conservative movement and Republican party in such a way that one or both parties might attract enough Democrats who may be tiring of the relentless liberalism currently in vogue on the left and would seek a different brand of populism or moderate politics.

But for the present, the crazies and the GOP establishment need each other. And unless the pragmatists realize just how much of a drag the crazies are on their political fortunes, the GOP is likely to continue losing mainstream voters who look in askance on a party that tolerates such nuttiness.

crazy man grahic via shutterstock.com

17 Comments

  1. Extremely well written article! I have to wonder though. Even though there may only be a 25-35% of these crazies comprising the party, we saw a relatively narrow win for Obama. That tells me that a great amount of Reps are more willing to tolerate the evangelical right view in order to win, than vote against them regardless of how irrational their party may be. It is the mob effect, where people suddenly transform into killing and marauding monsters because they are suddenly anonymous in a protective crowd.
    If the moderates and intelligent among the Republicans can still vote for a party that espouses such insanity, then what does that tell us. They are , like most people controlled by fear, sheep. So was pre WW2 Germany….
    Lets hope they can purge the radical right element from their conservative ideology.

  2. I think the more radical segment of the GOP breaking off to start their own party would be the best possible thing for the Republicans in the long run. Yes, it would damage them for at least a couple of election cycles but would increase the willingness of moderates and those who are really right-center as opposed to far right to listen to them and quite possibly vote for their candidates.

  3. Good analysis Rick but I have to disagree a bit with this:

    but the notion of “limited” government is at the heart of the Tea Party critique of the American government.

    They want to limit other people’s use of government but not their own. They want the government in everyone’s bedrooms and every woman’s uterus. They want freedom of religion but only their religion. And the list goes on.

  4. Sorry Ron. You paint with far too broad a brush. Yes there is overlap between tea party and evangelicals but I’ve had extensive contact with TPers and can say with a lot of confidence that there is a very wide libertarian streak in the TP. The anti-government objectivists are a minority (as are the Birchers and other anti-government types). And evangelicals are present, although not in numbers you might think. Many in the TP are Ron Paul supporters and he doesn’t capture much of the religious right.

    Libertarians are far more liberal on social issues which is why you didn’t see much in the way of anti-gay marriage or anti-abortion signage at the big TP rallies.

    You are making a classic error of confusing your crazies.

  5. Ron Beasly nailed it.

    I would personaly add that Republicans Want: Government of the CEO, for the CEO, and, by the CEO. Government by Corporate decree being the republican true religion. Clearly they would try to destroy this country if they do not get their way. I suspect they will play a game of “fiscal cliff chicken” with Democrats now. We can’t have anymore of this crazyness. So I’ll close my eyes and put the peddle to the metal if you will.

  6. In some ways I wonder if this is the CNN Republicans vs. the Fox News Republicans?

  7. No GOP establishment or RINOs
    +No Ron Paul or Libertarians
    +No changing demographics

    = small percentage of a decreasing base

    “Let them eat cake”

  8. Sometimes, I like your succinct observation.

    In other words: Those who can rationalize with coherence and facts why they do not like Obama versus those who cannot.

  9. We’re making progress folks. Before the election ALL Reps were crazy, evil evangelist, filthy capitalists. Now, some are saying it’s only 25%. Wow that’s progress, and I will not have to keep my hair long to hide my horns and I will soon be able to walk the beach without shoes. Thanks guys.

  10. They want the government in everyone’s bedrooms and every woman’s uterus.

    Will there be a Secretary of Uteri? I would watch THOSE confirmation hearings!!

    OK, bad taste, sorry. :-P

  11. On a more serious note, there are crazies on the left, too. It’s a different form of crazy, it includes people who actually believe things can be offered for free without consequences, who believe everything can be regulated, who believe wealth is bad, who believe businesses are evil (as a blanket statement), who loyally vote as directed by their Union, who believe that life should be led without consequence. And there are PLENTY of leftist conspiracy theorists.

    What’s happened is the Right is actually MARKETING to their crazies, wheras the Left is simply expecting theirs to tag along.

  12. Barky, sounds about right.

  13. Another great post Rick. The challenges the GOP faces are serious ones; it will be interesting to see how they deal with them. A bit funny seeing the Limbaugh quote in there since I believe most people view him as one of the crazies. If republicans don’t approach their problem honestly and realistically they will continue to shed voters. I wish them well because I think we need at least two healthy and sane parties.

  14. But there is no doubt that the energy, the dynamism, and the soul of the Tea Party movement can be found in the angry, contorted faces of its members screaming about “Communism” and “Socialism” at rallies across the land. They are a fraternity of, for the most part, middle aged, Middle Class angry white males who believe they see the country they grew up in slipping away.

    And they don’t even notice that it slipped away a long time ago.

    I’m a middle aged, middle class white male (not angry too often) who grew up with the ever looming threat of “Communism” hanging over my head. The difference between me and my angry fellow white dudes seems to be that I grasp the fact that that threat imploded in upon itself a generation ago. I remember watching international communism fall live on television, presided over by David Hasselhoff singing atop the remains of the Berlin Wall.

    My own kid was a toddler when that happened. She has no recollection of the Soviet Union. Movies like Rocky IV and Red Dawn mean nothing to her. Yet the crazies are trying to scare her and her generation all over again with a bogeyman that simply doesn’t exist anymore. They don’t even understand why they’re supposed to be scared of “Communism.” only that the should be.

    And they shouldn’t be. Except for North Korea and Cuba, the bogeyman is long dead.

  15. Good writing, Rick. I’ve witnessed the “death” of the Republican Party upon Goldwater’s loss and the “demise” of the Democratic Party upon McGovern’s and assorted announcements of irrelevancy, fractures, fissures ever since.

    This too shall pass. For everyone happy at some political juncture, there is another dissatisfied and two more waiting to get there.

    The right needs to emphasize electoral success strategies over ideological purity going forward and the left will undoubtedly find out that electoral success does not beget ideological happiness for the their entire coalition as time passes. The moon is not the only body that will wax and wane.

  16. Very interesting…thanks….the one place i hesitate to agree with is in minimizing the fears that are generated with the loss of white privileged…With TP’s that i know that seems to be a pervasive underlying issues….

    If i were to make a suggestion to the Republicans it would be; Strong political movements don’t spend all the time and energy in the contrariness of what and who they are against, but rather they put the energy in lifting up that which they are for and feel the most passionate about… one is based on hate and the other on love… leave the crazies, they are needed, but teach them the difference between love and hate…

  17. There’s one more element to the Tea Party; it is probably small, it may only be really evident in the south, and it may be that you folded these people in with one of your other groups – but I have noticed a fair number of what I would term “survivalists who came in from the cold” – people who have this notion that they can exist apart from government, or even society, and who seem to have a dream of a final showdown with government agents who have come to take their guns. But the problem for Republicans isn’t so much that the Tea Party-ish groups exist within their ranks, but that they dominate the primaries. And the only solution is for those who consider themselves traditional Republicans to start showing up for the early caucuses and primaries.

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