The radicalism of the current Republican Party –- its ideological extremism, disdain for empiricism, the inability to share or modulate power –- is, to me, the central problem in American life. In the long run, the resolution to nearly every policy problem depends on the GOP refashioning itself as a normal, non-pathological party. Ultimately that will have to happen from within, which makes the fate of the Republican reform project vital.Readers of my blog know that, along with most people of sense, I consider catastrophic anthropogenic climate change and anti-democratizing as well as immiserating wealth concentration as the most urgent crises we earthlings face in this moment. But as Americans who happen to inhabit one of -- if not uniquely the -- powers historically, materially best situated to address these two planetary crises our responsibilities in the face of their demands are unique (a responsibility we bear not least because we assumed this unique position as Americans in no small part through the exacerbation and exploitation of the crises in question). It is in this context that what may seem the less crucial crisis of governance created by the intransigent irrationality and anti-governmentality of the Republicans in this moment in their long history -- a history that includes important early periods of anti-slavery and land reform and populist fervor when they were a primary force of good in this country -- assumes its stature as "the central problem in American life," as Chait puts the point, because this irrationalism is standing in the way of the indispensable work that the United States could and must otherwise do to solve the larger crises that bedevil us.
The American duopoly system confers advantages upon even an utterly dysfunctional GOP that make it unlikely the Democratic party could prevail sufficiently across all the Federal branches and across the subsidiary layers of State and City/County governance to implement and administer such solutions on its own (even disregarding the expectation that attracting such power to one party for so long would render it too corrupt to accomplish these ends, a problem with which the party grapples and often loses even in the absence of such prevalence). The politics of overcoming this structural duopoly -- through the implementation of public financing of campaigns and universal instant run-off voting, say, in the hope of encouraging the long work of building a multiparty landscape and working progressive coalitions among them -- as a way of enabling a government more capable of addressing the problems at hand is unfortunately even less plausible than the effort to address the problems with our obviously failing system as it is, since the duopoly remains the ineradicable context in which overcoming the duopoly would have to take place here and now in defiance of all the incentives in play.
While sometimes people who recognize the hopeless dysfunction of the present GOP point cheerfully to the supplanting of the Whigs by the GOP over a century ago, it is crucial to note that there is no third-party formation connected to a constituency and an urgent issue that might produce an analogous shift away from the GOP today. Obviously, the climate crisis and the Green party are suggestive here -- and, of course, there should be a historical connection between the Republicans who championed conservation and National Parks and sound public investments and respect for our shared heritage and the politics of contemporary environmentalism -- but the fact is that there are few topics on which the GOP is more stubbornly insane these days than in its climate-change denialism, and we all know that in the present day the Green Party is a functional spoiler for the electoral hopes of the more environmentally concerned party (not at all consistently and never enough, that goes without saying) in the duopoly, the Democrats, and in ways that tend only to benefit the anti-environmentalism of the Republicans.
The more apt historical analogy for the GOP, I'm afraid, is not the Whigs but the relentlessly obstructionist Catonian boni of the late Roman Republican era whose irresponsibly inflexible defense of the forms of the mos maiorum, the traditions of a plutocratic Republican City-State in the face of the changed circumstances and problems of a culturally diverse continentally-dispersed polity, actually ensured the complete destruction of that mos maiorum and the (for them) worst-case emergence of its imperial successor. (My point, by the way, is not that we are on the verge of an imperial system supplanting our democracy -- Chalmers Johnson proposed something like that a few years back -- my point is that Republicans can probably manage to destroy our government with the consequence that we will not address catastrophic anthropogenic climate change coupled with planetary wealth concentration and proliferating weapons in time, in which case the prospect is not imperial so much as mass die-off followed by local feudal warlordism or hunter-gathering in an irradiated wasteland of Greenhouse storms.)
Although there have been endless stories about the need for the GOP to reform in the aftermath of the McCain and especially the Romney defeats to President Obama in the last two cycles, and these stories are as likely to emerge from Republicans themselves as from others talking about them, the truth is that there have been no substantial signs of anything remotely like a demonstrably real willingness to reform on the part of actually-elected actually-organized Republicans. If anything, Republicans seem committed in actual substance to rearguard defenses against democratizing demographic realities through desperate efforts at disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, and transparently superficial marketing gestures about "diversity" coupled with a doubling down on the most virulent anti-choice and pro-plutocratic politics in a general atmosphere of self-congratulatory white-racism and anti-governmental nihilism.
It is obviously true that a party that has managed to alienate most women, most people of color, most queer folks and their families, most people with educations, most people in cities, and most young people isn't exactly a party with a viable long-term future. But it is also true that most of the real organizational energy and funding resources of Republicans in office, insulated in non-urban white-majority often safely-gerrymandered districts, depends for its maintenance on tapping the ignorant, resentful, credulous, belligerent white-racist patriarchal pricks who prefer the very policies and attitudes that are alienating majorities otherwise.
Like for-profit corporations that focus obsessively on quarterly returns, elected representatives and party functionaries are fixated on imminent elections, fundraising targets, recent polls, and even more restless newscycles -- even those who know well the long-term irrelevance portended by the dysfunction in which they live from day to day are too busy adapting to its demands in realtime to adjust in the face of those long-term realities, even when they know they will be among the casualties of their own failure to change as they know they should. There are almost no incentives for actual Republicans to change course, and indeed almost every Republican who does change will pay an incredible price for doing so: a withering chorus of hostility from the hate-talk congress of popular Republican culture (entertainers who earn more money and more attention the more outrage they generate, and who are likely to be more and not less successful when their audiences are too small to constitute a voting constituency adequate for viable national governance) and a costly primary challenge are the likely result, with little chance of accomplishing any more lasting or substantial policy outcome for one's pains.
The title of Chait's piece is "Yes, Conservative Reformers Exist," but one is left with the distressing impression that Chait declares these reformers to exist more because they MUST exist if we are to solve our urgently real problems than because they actually do. To his credit, Chait lists a long line of able commentators who argue forcefully that there is not real reformism to be found among real-world Republicans in this moment of loudly trumpeted reforms. I tend to agree with these pieces, more or less. But it is interesting to observe the instability of Chait's alternative case even on his own terms. Consider Chait's tale of the distinction of the separate paths of Reihan Salam versus Josh Barro as examples of the "reformism" he is talking about: Salam opts to be a cynical "operator" within the debased GOP as it is, which commits him to a succession of bad-faith distortions hard to distinguish either from the denialism characterizing the non-reformers of the present GOP or indeed hard to distinguish from the generational bad faith through which the long-winning GOP coalition duped dumb bigots into doing the bidding of greedy plutocrats by pretending their hate was the same hate (when in fact the plutocrats hated and punished their own dupes most of all). Barro opts to be a "truth-teller" occupying the position of the loyal opposition to the GOP in exile while pretending for all intents and purposes to be a converted Democrat (a path blazed by a long line of privileged white gay male Republicans like him from David Brock to Andrew Sullivan to John Avarosis, all getting attention they would not manage on their own merits and certainly do not otherwise deserve from progressives far more reliable and consistent than they are themselves), what looks to be yet another form of bad-faith and denialism.
Moving from individuals to his more conceptual case, just how substantial is the "reformist" impulse of that cadre of Republican intellectuals who are arguing, in Chait's formulation, "Ronald Reagan’s anti-tax, anti-regulatory agenda was an appropriate response to the world of 1980, but the world ha[s] changed, and the continued Reaganite agenda [is] both substantively outmoded and a political liability," when this formulation is stealthfully disavowing that these policies all failed and that the "chang[ed]... world" with which they and we are coping is one in which we are dealing with those failures and that it is these very failures that make the deregulatory, anti-tax Reagan legacy now an "outmoded" "liability" in the first place? There can be no substantial reform that does not recognize the fact of this failure as its point of departure. In the absence of this recognition, even the so-called "reformists" of the GOP are simply re-enacting the denialism that is characterizing the irrationalism of the non-reforms against which these reformers are presumably fighting.
The Republicans are engaging in denialisms all the way down -- denialism about the browning, secularizing demographic diversity of the actually "Real America," denialism about anthropogenic climate change, denialism of the well-substantiated tenets of Keynesian (well, Keynes-Hicks) macroeconomics, denialism of the facts of Darwinian evolution, women's health, sex-education, the constitutional separation of church and state, gun safety regulation, the failure and injustice of recreational drug prohibition, the inefficacy, injustice, and expense of capital punishment, and on and on and on and on and on. There is nothing in the longer history of the Republican Party, nor inherent in the broader distinction of conservative and progressive politics -- as a distinction of the politics of memory and the politics of experimentation, the politics of tradition and the politics of reform -- that necessitates the kinds of denialism and irrationalism and nihilism that characterize the current catastrophic Republican moment. Even a party representing the real, and probably ineradicable, interests of plutocratic incumbents needn't be devoted to the kinds of irrationalism that suffuse the present day GOP -- and I do think plutocrats are better represented by the party of memory, tradition, and incumbency over the party of experimentation, reform, and the majority who work for a living and would rather the plutocrats leave majorities to fend for ourselves against them to our mutual benefit.
Again, I agree with Chait that there is probably no more urgent need today than for the GOP to reform away from its present irrationalism. I agree that this is something that MUST happen, else the apparatus of American governance will fail to mobilize the agency best positioned (and possibly uniquely positioned) to address urgent problems of climate change coupled with the radical social instability and stratification produced by wealth concentration in the midst of proliferating weapons in time to head off the worst imaginable consequences. But I cannot say that I agree with Chait that just because this MUST happen I see any signs that it IS happening, and indeed all of the evidence -- very much including the examples he adduces in support of his view -- suggests otherwise.
I must say, given this state of affairs, it seems to me our best hope is to accomplish an utter prevalence of Democratic goverance across all branches and layers of society, long enough to implement a public healthcare system providing access and checking rising healthcare costs, to re-invest in public education, to invest in sustainable energy and transportation and agriculture infrastructure, and establish a progressive tax system to pay for these necessary investments and reverse anti-democratizing wealth concentration. Yeah, I began this piece by saying all that I could about what was wrong and implausible about such an eventuality. All still true and yet, here we are. Presumably, a Democratic prevalence sustained enough to implement and maintain these policy outcomes would also clear a space for a real refiguration of the GOP as a functional alternative party or, better but less likely, for a reform of the duopolistic electoral terrain into a more parliamentary multiparty form. I can only hope that the vibrancy of mass resistance movements like Occupy in the spotlight of sympathetic independent and mainstream media and in the context of global environmental and anti-austerity movements can provide a check on the corruption and abuses inevitably emerging out of such Democratic prevalence.
I do not know if I think this can be done, I do not know that I really think it would work -- but I do think this is more plausible than the expectation of legitimate internal reform of the GOP from within the duopoly in time to do the work that must be done, and definitely I think it more plausible than the expectation of any kind of successful revolutionary transformation in the United States in time to do this work (especially since the most revolutionary voices in present-day America are anarchists, possibly the least reliable cohort of left radicals imaginable, truly well-meaning and attractive though many of them may be to a secular democratic socialist feminist nonviolent revolutionary vegetarian queer aesthete like me). Believe it or not, by the way, I am much more optimistic than I was in the early days of the blog, writing in the belly of the beast of the Killer Clown Administration of George W. Bush.