The Dying Elephant
In the wake of Senator Arlen Specter's defection from the Republican Party, many people have called into question the future survival of the GOP. After being routed in two disastrous election cycles, Republicans are understandably demoralized and concerned at the prospect of a new era in which the Democratic Party is dominant.
Though they are frightened of a one-party system, last week's comeuppance shows that the GOP has hardly learned the lessons of 2006 and 2008, when voters handily rejected the radical, right-wing policies of the Republican Party. Rather, conservatives have sought to purge the Republican caucus of its remaining moderates valuing purity over pragmatism and holding their ideologies above the good of the nation. When courageous New Englanders like Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Arlen Specter mustered the strength to support President Obama's stimulus plan which has already begun to resuscitate the economy, they were demonized by right-wing media outlets like talk radio and Fox "News." When political thugs like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh are threatening an 80-year-old statesman with a primary challenge, unless he closes ranks behind his fellow party members in their asinine attempt to play politics with the country's future - and they are supported by the chairman of the Republican Party - then you know it's time to leave that party.
Despite the efforts of Hannity, Limbaugh, et al. to paint Specter's switch as an act motivated completely by political expediency- Hannity going as far to label the senator from Pennsylvania "Benedict Arlen"- his actions can be understood in a larger context as a final stage in the radicalization of the Republican Party. It was once a proud tradition of New Englanders to send moderate and liberal Republicans to the US Senate and House, like New York's own Jacob Javits. This is no longer true, with the last vestiges of this tradition being the two female senators from Maine.
The Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, of Theodore Roosevelt, the Trust Buster, and even Richard Nixon no longer exists. No, instead this is the party of George W. Bush and Rush Limbaugh, who seek and have sought to destroy the progressive tax code, a response to the injustices of the late 19th Century and the brainchild of Roosevelt. The same party which today has consistently sold out the public interest - something T.R. held in high regard - in favor of corporate greed. Lincoln, the first Republican president, helped found a party whose mission was the abolition of slavery and equality for everyone, however, the modern GOP's path to victory and philosophical origins are predicated on just the opposite. Since 1968, with Nixon's second campaign for the presidency, Republicans have brazenly exploited lingering and insidious racial antipathy among whites with their "Southern Strategy." Whether they were being blasé about school desegregation, as Nixon infamously was, or they were denouncing "welfare queens" in the inner cities as Reagan did, Republicans intentionally stoked prejudices to gain at the ballot box. We were constantly reminded of this, especially in last year's presidential campaign, when Governor Sarah Palin, so riled up crowds in the South, with her notso subtle racial remarks, that some people were yelling "kill him" and "treason," referring to then-Senator Barack Obama.
Finally, by transforming the Republican Party into a conservative monolith, and crowding out moderates, the party elites of the GOP may have inadvertently turned their party into a regional political institution representing a constituency comprised mostly of racist, old, Southern white males. This is because conservatism is a philosophy which fails to allow for changing circumstances and times, and is incompatible with a progressivist view of the world, which sees the human condition as a something that always improves over time. Conservatives want exactly what their label implies; conservation of societal norms even in the face of a changing world, and as William F. Buckley said to "stand athwart the train of history, yelling 'Stop'." Today, this is painfully obvious; as we watch Republican politicians express their delight at the notion of returning to the year 1972,
Letters before the Supreme Court legalized a woman's fundamental human right to choose an abortion. A couple of lines from one of my favorite poems illustrate this view as expressed by Buckley and his compatriots:
In solemn pride he stands aloof
And greets each venture with
Had he the power he'd efface
The history of the human race;
We'd have no radio or motor cars,
No streets lit by electric stars;
No telegraph nor telephone,
We'd linger in the age of stone.
In the end, Republicans have a choice. They can moderate themselves and prosper, or continue to radicalize and fade into oblivion. They can pursue viable alternatives to President Obama's agenda, and again become a party of issues, or they can slap the word "tax cuts" on their cars, and become the party of bumper stickers. I hope they choose the former choices over the latter, because America desperately needs a lively and healthy two-party system.