Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Republican Party as Pakistan

By Bob Hockett


This past Tuesday's off-year election results, followed by Wednesday's RNC decision no longer to endorse primary candidates, followed in turn by Thursday's and Friday’s bemusing, astroturfed "tea party" assaults on the US Capitol, call to mind a disturbing, if less amusing, precedent.

It is often observed that the seeds of the trouble with theocratic insurgents now faced by Pakistan were sewn years ago by elements in the Pakistani government itself. How? Via the fostering, training, organizing and financing of the Taliban and associated theocratic movements as tools in the Pakistani intelligence service's perceived rivalry with India and, somewhat less intensely, neighboring Shiite Iran.

Pursuant to an all too familiar "blowback" dynamic, the "monster" that Pakistan nurtured ultimately grew out of hand to the point not only of consuming Afghanistan, but now of threatening to consume Pakistan itself. Acid attacks upon women and girls who dare attend schools, mass killings of innocents in crowded market places, brazen attacks upon army and police posts within major metropolitan areas, the murder of beloved political leaders such as Benazir Bhutto, and de facto control by theocratic militant groups over entire Pakstani provinces have recently culminated in the government’s having to send tens of thousands of troops into the provinces to oust the extremists from power.

Now consider today's Republican party: Since the 1980s it has sought, by strategically whipping up fears of moral and cultural entropy falsely said to be fomented or orchestrated by “anti-religious” progressives, to capture the votes and the energies of evangelically minded Americans. It has then sought to direct these against progressive Democratic political figures (many of whom happen to be quite religiously committed, as our colleague Steve Shiffrin, on whose new book Mike has been posting this week, can attest).

Now all along, this less affluent, religiously conservative wing of the Republican party has rested in uneasy alliance with the more well to do, fiscally conservative and, as it happens, quite secular wing. (“One cannot serve both God and Mammon,” after all.) First Reagan, then – less convincingly – the first Bush, and finally the second Bush managed just barely to bridge the latent gulf between these groups, largely by talking the Main Street evangelical talk on the one hand, while walking the Wall Street fiscal walk on the other.

The deep fissures inherent in this combustible Republican coalition grew impossible any longer to paper over by the time of the 2008 election, however. This grew quite clear in the course of the primary season, then became almost “dramatic” in the tensions that surfaced in the McCain-Palin ticket. Often McCain was visibly uncomfortable in the face of those manifest fears and hatreds to which his running mate openly appealed. Nevertheless, McCain did his own part in contributing to the degeneration of American politics into a theatre of paranoia.

He did so, for instance, by commencing the now profligate misuse of the “s” word (“socialism”) in describing progressive taxation – a century-old mode of public finance that not only then candidate Obama, but all mainstream political figures since Teddy Roosevelt have supported. He did so, as well, by naming Ms. Palin – a woman with great “sex appeal” to the fearful and ignorant but with no discernible understanding of the principal policy questions facing the American polity – as his running mate. And he did so, of course, by making a strange sort of mascot of a skin-headed “plumber” who didn’t believe in taxes at all and, in the end, left the McCain campaign itself for being insufficiently ideologically pure.

The falling out between Mr. McCain and Ms. Palin within weeks of their liaison, and the repudiation of Mr. McCain by Mr. “Plumber,” it turned out, were harbingers of worse to come. For since the election one year ago, the gap between traditional Republicans and the party’s paranoid culture wars “base” has widened all the further.

It is now genuinely unclear whether the leadership of those who are dissatisfied with Democratic governance resides in the traditional “loyal opposition” that is the party out of power – presently, the GOP – or whether instead it resides in an increasingly disloyal, “Shay’s Rebellion”-reminiscent “base” that is no longer that of the Republican party, but of something much uglier. Bizarre television and talk-radio entertainers, often without formal party affiliation, now seriously look to have nearly as much claim to leadership of the anti-Democratic paranoid chorus as do any Republican party officials or politicians.

Against this backdrop, Tuesday’s off-year elections are particularly noteworthy. Some Republican party officials were heard to crow Wednesday about the “turn of the tide” represented by their party’s taking the Virginia and New Jersey governorships. But the operative “tide” actually looks to be sweeping in a rather different, more ominous direction than Republican resurgence. It is sweeping toward the Republican party’s Pakistanization.

In what sense is that true? Well, first note that the winners in Virginia and New Jersey won by campaigning as traditional, “moderate” Republicans. These Republicans actually spoke of “hope” and “audacity,” of “pragmatism” and “getting things done.” (No kidding.) And yet this is a kind of Republican whose days, if New York’s 23d Congressional District is the indication it seems to be, appear to be numbered.

For those who weren’t following, the 23d District for its part had not sent a non-Republican to the US House of Representatives since Ulysses S. Grant was US President – in 1872. Its seat was open this year because President Obama had named its Republican incumbent, John McHugh, to be his Secretary of the Army. The Republican party selected Dede Scozzafava to run to fill the seat in this week’s special election.

Ms. Scozzafava, however, notwithstanding endorsements by Newt Gingrich, Congressman Peter King, the NRA, and others, was not ideologically pure enough for the increasingly shrill base that the party has cultivated. In consequence, this base defected to support the purer candidate, Doug Hoffman of something called the “Conservative” party. Though Hoffman showed himself in debate to be quite noncognizant of the local issues that concerned actual residents of the 23d District, he did pass ideological muster with national conservative figures like Ms. Palin, who endorsed him.

The ensuing debate among national Republican figures including Mr. Gingrich and Ms. Palin culminated in Ms. Scozzafava’s withdrawing from the race and endorsing Bill Owens, the Democratic candidate, who won. By nationalizing what ought to have been a localized 23d District race, ironically, the far right representatives of the Republican party actually increased the Democratic majority in the US House of Representatives. And it looks as though we can expect more of this sort of thing next year. For, emboldened by their ouster of Scozzafava from the 23d District race, right-wingers this week have now vowed to do the same to all Republican moderates elsewhere. One imagines the Democrats’ mouths are now watering at the prospect, just as they did earlier this year when Rush Limbaugh began to emerge as apparent leader of the Republican Party.

There seems to be a lesson here for Republicans, a lesson much like that which Pakistan’s government is now learning. The tactical fostering of ugly, fearful, bigoted passions is very bad strategy. For these human tendencies often prove ultimately to be uncontainable and unchannelable. They tend, once let out of the bottle, to blow back and devour the very parties who uncork them. Were I a Republican, I’d look at New York’s 23d District as the party’s own Northwest Frontier Province. And I’d look at 2010 as a year to begin making amends with the true American tradition, which has always been much more pragmatic than ideocratic or theocratic.

34 comments:

Western Coalition for Sustainable Living said...

Look, I'm a conservative, and I don't believe in pushing my views on others. Comparing conservatives to religious fanatics is way off the mark. How can you make such a comparison? Are you watching the debate in Congress tonight? Let them decide, the people have been heard from. And God help us all.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Thanks for the elegant post, Bob. It has been suggested that Hamas is another example of this phenomenon: Israel originally supported Hamas to weaken the rival PLO/Fatah--a tactic that succeeded but only after Israel had decided to try to deal with the latter. The blowback has been severe.

On the analogy to the Republican Party, I'm not so sure that things are so dire for the GOP. For a few years now, moderate Republicans have been complaining that the social conservatives have were elbowing them out (see, e.g., Christine Todd Whitman's It's My Party Too), just as, for a longer period, the social conservatives have been complaining about exactly what you observe: That the elite Republicans care more about Wall Street than the social conservative to which they pay lip service. I think it's not all that surprising that during a period in which the party is out of power nationally, the coalition would fray even more. They're likely to patch things up--and if they don't, if the Palin wing really takes over the Republican Party to the exclusion of the likes of Dick Cheney as too liberal, then the Republican Party will likely go the way of the Federalists and the Whigs. Such are the operations of Duverger's Law.

Bob Hockett said...

Many thanks for your thoughts here, Western Coalition.

Were "conservatives" monolithic, I'd take your point. Certainly there are, for example, what Mike would insightfully call "Burkean" conservatives who, if American, would shy away from forcing their views upon others as distinguished from appealing to reason in seeking to persuad others. The reason is that view-forcing as distinguished from reasoning is not of the mainstream American tradition; and that which Burkean conservatives conserve is, of course, mainstream tradition.

But you must admit there are many others who nowadays attempt to cash in on the cachet that attends true conservatism, while in fact being profoundly -- indeed pathologically -- radical. Those who routinely at this point abuse language and history by suggesting that cautious middle-of-the-road almost boring Obama is simultaneously Hitler, Stalin, Mao, a Martian, and a Vampire seem to me about as fanatical -- if not ill -- as one can get before commitment to an asylum. You're clearly not of that camp, but you surely see there are all too many right now who are.

Thanks again,
Bob

Bob Hockett said...

Thanks a million for the comforting observations here, Mike. I definitely take your point. Possibly my distress in the face of what's happening these days in the political shpere is the product of some sort of stuffy Burkean-style conservatism of my own. For it seems a hallmark of folk with this temperament that they view the pathological eruptions of their own day as somehow worse than the counterpart events of previous days. Didn't Aristotle at some point complain that the adolescents of his era were so much more scatterbrained and irresponsible and disrespectful of elders than those of previous times that civilization itself was about to end? Perhaps I am Aristotle with none of the wisdom and all of the Cassandra-ism!

Cheers!,
Bob

michael a. livingston said...

The interesting thing about all of your comments is that you seem to assume, rather blithely, that both the Pakistani militants and the more radical wing of the Republican Party will lose. This seems far from clear to me in either case.

michael a. livingston said...

There was a column by Paul Krugman in today's NY Times saying--more eloquently, of course--more or less what I tried to say above.

Bob Hockett said...

Thanks, Michael Livingston,

I hope I've not blithely assumed what you say that I seem to have done. But as it happens, I do believe these people will lose. This might stem partly from a metabolic sort of optimism I seem to live with, and partly from some sort of Kantian tendency to presume what one must presume to get on. But I think it stems also from observation. While progress is often a two steps forward, one step back sort of affair, the steps forward do generally seem to outnumber those backward in the medium to long term. Bigots don't generally win out for long.

Thanks again,
Bob

michael a. livingston said...

Well I think it depends a little bit on what you call "progress." As Michael Dorf suggests, there is another side to this, where the established GOP has an elitist edge and many of the Tea Party types see themselves, however improbably, as the vanguard of change in a way not entirely different from the Obama people in 2008. Perhaps I've been studying fascism too long, but I think it's very difficult to divide people into "progressive" and "reactionary" sides: it's rather more complicated than that. Thanks for a provocative piece, anyway.

Bob Hockett said...

Thanks again, Michael L,

Certainly I agree there are degrees of reactionariness and progressiveness. Indeed I find the last several Democratic administrations scarcely progressive at all by my own lights. The teabag bunch, on the other hand, strike me as being as reactionary as we've seen in American politics since Father Coughlin and Co., and every bit as foolish.

Cheers,
Bob

Bob Hockett said...

PS, Michael L,

I meant to add before: It's very good to have someone studying fascism right now. I've been worried since the Republican convention in 2008 that at least one major political party and one major television network are lurching dangerously close!

Cheers,
Bob

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric said...

How do you explain the Democrats treatment of the Blue Dog Dems during the Health Care debate? The coordinated effort to marginalize their views seems to be utterly at odds with any notion that the Democrats are more inclusive than the Republicans.

Also I could point to what the Democratic party has done to Senator Joe Lieberman as another example. Both parties engage in this kind of behavior.

The fact of the matter is that one job of political party leadership is to maintain a coalition and get others to fall in line. It seems like that is fundamental to any party system.

Bob Hockett said...

Thank you to John and Eric.

John, use of locutions like "voters' wrath" and "will come for you" exhibits the very phenomenon I have in mind here. Wrath is an "angry God" category.

Accusations of "pushing your totalitarian, statist agenda" also exhibit the phenomenon in question -- in this case, its paranoic hysteria. If appointing Larry Summers your chief economic advisor, and Robert Gates your defense secretary, and so on and so forth count as "totalitarian and statist" in somebody's estimation, then the somebody in question cannot have read anything about 20th Century Russia -- or even, for that matter, about today's China or even Bush II's America.

Eric, I see no marginalization of Blue Dogs. Indeed, I find myself wondering how it can be that the Party which has majorities in both houses of Congress is so eager to accommodate the demands of this strange minority. Were the Blue Dogs not in fact anti-democratically calling the shots, we wouldn't be wasting our time with symbolic "public options." We'd be talking single-payer or publicly provided health care of the kind provided in "totalitarian" Canada and Great Britain.

michael a. livingston said...

Bob,

I should let you know that many of the more sophisticated students of fascism (Ze'ev Sternhell, etc.) see it as originating on the intellectual left. Of course, this did not keep the Israeli right from trying to kill him! As I say, some very strange bedfellows . . .

Bob Hockett said...

Many thanks, Michael L,

Yes, that's my understanding as well. There's a reason, I suppose, after all for the term 'socialism''s occurrence in the phrase 'national socialism.' And my understanding is, moreover, that the German fascists took much of their playbook from Stalin.

My own tendency in the face of these facts and others is to see the extremes at both left and right as effectively converging much of the time, such that the spectrum is less linear than it is U-shaped curvilinear.

I do also think, however, that whether the leaders of fascist movements think themselves unambiguously left or right, they very often find it helpful and feasible to manipulate rabble who think themselves unambiguously the opposite -- right or left. The rabble whom Mussolini and his understudy Hitler found easily dupable we often call reactionary 'Lumpenproletariat,' and the more innocuous left-leaning sorts whom Lenin and Stalin manipulated they often called 'useful idiots,' if I correctly recall my past reading on these subjects.

Thanks again,
Bob

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

I don't think it is at all accurate to characterize fascism as "originating on the intellectual left," even if fascists made pretense to borrow leftist ideas, proposals, and slogans.

Rather, I think Roger Griffin has proffered the most sound if not persuasive theory of fascism, an account in which fascism is "best defined as a revolutionary form of nationalism, one which sets out to be a political, social and ethical revolution, welding the 'people' into a dynamic national community under new elites infused with new heroic values."

Notice here the singular focus on NATIONALISM, something theoretically anathema to the Left even if it allows for national variants on socialism. As to methods or means, its "revolutionary" character is superfically in common with Marxism-Leninism, Maoism and other fairly dogmatic and ideologically simplistic variants of Marxism, but the nature of this revolutionary character or the dynamics of revolution are far more vague if not simplistic in fascism and closer to a Sorelian-like celebration of the absolute necessity of revolutionary violence. And while fascism's reliance on revolutionary violence lacks Sorel's theoretical sophistication, it subscribes in practice if not theory to his conception of the irrational and essentially mythic nature of politics, hence Griffin's remark that "the core myth which inspires [the fascist] project is that only a populist, trans-class movement of purifying, cathartic national rebirth (palingenesis) can stem the tide of decadence." This differs in significant respects from Marxist-inspired theories of revolution. Moreover, the Left was hardly prone to moralistic denunciations of "decadence."

Griffin elaborates upon his definition:

"[T]he whole thrust of the fascist revolutionary programme is anti-conservative [where 'conservative' calls to mind a Burke or Oakeshott], though not in the same way it is anti-liberal or anti-Marxist. Like modern conservatives (and here I am referring to illiberal conservatives [think de Maistre, for instance] rather than liberal ones), many fascists celebrate the virtues of nation, the family, hierarchy, (state) law, and (natural) order, discipline and patriotism."

There is simply no way one can plausibly construe this ideology as having emerged from or begun in dependence upon, the intellectual Left.

Griffin further describes fascist ultra-nationalism or "illiberal nationalism" as a "force which always has recourse to some mythical component to create an artificial sense of common destiny and identity, and... [Nazi] 'purity of blood' [or biological racism] is simply one of them [cf. Hindutva ideology as a species of contemporary fascism in India]."

Anyway, please see Griffin's The Nature of Fascism (1993 [1991]) for the full argument.

[Bob: comments forthcoming tomorrow]

michael a. livingston said...

Well it would be comforting if only the rabble supported fascism or communism, but unfortunately each movement commanded rather solid intellectual, and respectable nonintellectual support. If you ever want a talk on fascism BTW I'm your guy. And I won't even mention Cornell's refusal to boycott the Heidelberg anniversary in 1930s!

Bob Hockett said...

Thanks again, Patrick and Michael L, what terrific comments! I'll reply fully a bit later. All best,
Bob

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