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.