I’ve been arguing since the Republicans sought to impeach Clinton in the 1990s that the Republican Party was becoming dangerous. We can define “dangerous” as either promoting policies that lead to 1) a significant decline in the health of the economy, or 2) significant injustice to segments of the population. I had argued much earlier, in the late 1970s and into the late 1980s, that liberals were making public arguments that would lead to a reaction on the right that they would be sorry for later. Well, we seem to be approaching where I predicted 30 years ago. I had criticized liberal tendencies, dominant in the late 1970s, to dismiss any and all attempts to make public moral arguments. Their argument was that morality should be private – as if we could have a just or stable society without public discussion of moral values. This latter position still largely holds the Democratic Party in its grips, and has since the McGovernites took the party over in 1972. This relativistic position is the single most important reason why the misnamed “conservative” movement has continued to gain power since 1980. In other words, I am and have been claiming for 30 years that the single reason that people like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh are able to get traction is because of the moral certainty of their tone and approach. This is self consciously in contrast to the wishy washy appearance of what conservatives call “the liberals”. Think of how many times Bush Jr. said “I have principles” and “I do not compromise”. It is this feeling of moral certitude exuded by “conservatives” that attracts so many Americans. Sadly, it is all smoke and mirrors, and the American right is dabbling in political strategies that would make the most entrenched dictatorship blush. Until moderate Americans and the Democratic party more generally learn to make moral arguments in a clear and strong way without resorting to the immoral and unjust methods of the American right, the United States will continue to decline into a situation of increasing instability. This instability will eventually be judged to have been caused by moral fanaticism, or in other words, American style Puritanism.
The excerpt below is from the first page of an article in the New York Review of Books with the title noted above, from the September 29th issue. The web site can only be accessed with a subscription. Click here to be brought to that site.Excerpt:
By Michael Tomasky
In the week after he announced he would run for president, Texas Governor Rick Perry attacked the targets right-wing Republicans love to hate, ranging from the Federal Reserve to climate scientists to evolutionists to the current president, who allegedly makes the military feel ashamed to be wearing the uniform of the United States. His charge that it would be “treasonous” of Fed Chair Ben Bernanke to try to help the economy with more quantitative easing, issued with the warning that “we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas,” grabbed most of the headlines. But the other comments were barely less extreme. Global warming, he said in New Hampshire on August 17, was a con cooked up by grant-hungry scientists.
The national press has largely pigeonholed Perry into the “Tea Party” category, a designation that is certainly not without merit. It was, for example, outside a Tea Party rally in April 2009 that Perry made his remark about the possibility of Texas seceding.
Texas is a unique place. When we came into the union in 1845, one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that. You know, my hope is that America and Washington in particular pays attention. We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, who knows what may come out of that?
Yet calling Perry only a Tea Party candidate is misleading. He is also a candidate of the Republican establishment—the senior party members who raise millions of dollars and influence the party’s priorities—because that establishment today is itself quite right-wing. It is based chiefly not on Wall Street anymore but in Texas (and in Wichita, Kansas, where Koch Industries is located). The “tiny splinter group” of “a few Texas oil millionaires” whom Dwight Eisenhower famously disparaged in 1954 now is arguably the most powerful tendency within the party. The state’s rich Republicans have been the chief backers of everything from George W. Bush’s campaigns to attacks on Democrats like the Swift Boat ads used against John Kerry in 2004.
While it’s reportedly the case that Karl Rove is no fan of Perry now, he helped launch the governor’s career, acting as his adviser when he successfully ran for agriculture commissioner in 1990 against the liberal populist Jim Hightower. Rove may feel, according to reports, that Perry lacks some of the varnish—and therefore potential appeal beyond the South—that Bush acquired by coming east to Andover and Yale. Perry went to Texas A&M; but that people are even speaking of Bush’s East Coast varnish is instructive. In any case Perry is very much a product of the party Rove helped build, and he is therefore part of that establishment whether Rove currently claims him or not.
He is, then, a kind of hybrid candidate, representing a fusion of the new establishment Republicanism and its Tea Party variant. Whether establishment Republicans end up coalescing behind him or Mitt Romney of course remains to be seen, but the point is that a Perry candidacy can be a serious one because the establishment has moved so far to the right that it is nearly indistinguishable from, and certainly now afraid of, the activist base.
This is what is new in Republican politics. Party establishments typically mitigate the more extreme impulses of the activist bases. But this isn’t happening in today’s GOP. As recently as a few years ago, establishment Republicans would never have demanded extensive budget cuts in return for a vote to raise the debt limit, a vote many of them have routinely cast dozens of times. A few years ago, moreover, it would have been an extreme step indeed for an establishment GOP senator like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to subject approval of the debt agreement to the cloture process, requiring sixty votes to avoid a filibuster.2 The new political use of the debt limit was a demand of the Tea Party, very deliberately plotted by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and others from the moment the new Republican majority was sworn in.3 The use of cloture was a strategic adjustment necessitated by the fact that had McConnell not called for cloture, one of the Senate’s Tea Party Republicans—Jim DeMint, Rand Paul, Mike Lee—would likely have blocked a vote single-handedly, or maybe all of them together. Both maneuvers, then, were embraced by a party establishment deeply fearful of the movement’s wrath.
So the establishment is cowed, and there are no mainstream conservative Republicans willing or able to stand up to the more rabid faction from a position of strength. Those who could have—senators like Orrin Hatch and Charles Grassley—have instead been doing all they can to pander to the Tea Party base, which showed it could elect dozens of congressmen in 2010 and keep some previously secure Republicans from being reelected.
One keeps thinking that surely this all has to end sometime, but for now there is no end in sight, which is a crucially important point to understand. To movement conservatives such as Cantor and Paul Ryan, the victory they secured against Obama in the debt deal—in my view, the political and even moral low point of his presidency, and one from which he may never recover—is not a culmination of anything. It is a beginning. Wyoming Senator John Barrasso told Fox News right after the deal was agreed to: “This [debate about the debt ceiling] is just round one in a fifteen-round fight…of cutting of spending. We need to realistically take a look at all the spending in this country….”
Some observers in Washington continue to hold out hope that the so-called “super-committee” of twelve senators and representatives who are supposed to agree to $1.2 trillion in cuts and revenues by December will succeed, and maybe it will somehow. But it’s nearly impossible to imagine the committee’s six Republicans agreeing to any measures that will raise revenues. Democrats will accept some entitlement cuts—for example, in Medicare reimbursement rates to providers—but not enough to satisfy Republicans. There is little reason to think that between now and Christmas, establishment Republicans will somehow reassert themselves and demand that business be conducted in the old way, based on bargaining in good faith, especially when the bad-faith method has been paying off quite handsomely for them against a president who by all appearances keeps convincing himself that surely they will behave reasonably at the end of the day.
How did this happen? Usually a political movement is driven by its ideas. Then it chooses the rhetoric it thinks best advances the ideas. I’ve long thought that sometime in the 1990s, this normal process
reversed itself on the American right, and rhetoric began driving, and even elbowing out, ideas. Once this wall is breached, compromise on any important issue becomes impossible, and responsible policymaking
In the 1980s, it could plausibly be said that the Republicans had become the party of ideas. The Public Interest, the famous quarterly, had laid the groundwork with its criticism of the Great Society. The
still-new think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute were turning out policy papers, and Commentary was publishing much-quoted articles on the alleged excesses of welfare and
on what became the Reagan Doctrine. We can debate the merit of these ideas, but at least they were ideas, and they were a big reason conservatism became dominant.
A bit later, the conservative movement started becoming known for its overheated rhetoric. Rush Limbaugh began his national broadcasts in 1988, and many imitators quickly followed.