The Challenge of an Ill-Defined Republican Party

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 19: U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) makes a statement to the media at the U.S. C
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 19: U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) makes a statement to the media at the U.S. Capitol on December 19, 2012 in Washington, DC. Speaker Boehner spoke about the ongoing talks with the White House on the so-called 'fiscal cliff.' (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

European parliaments have long been subject to confrontations with far right-wing fundamentalist political parties. The German parliament is at present trying to declare the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party unconstitutional. Sometimes, these parties actually form a government, such as when France was defeated in 1940 by Germany, and the Vichy regime of Philippe Petain and Pierre Laval came to power.

Americans, however, have little or no experience with this phenomenon in our Congress. We use a vague description of left, right and center for our political spectrum. Recently, we have also added far left, far right, very far right, orthodox right wing, liberal, conservative, and others. Unfortunately, all have very imprecise meanings* and as a result, are in no way identifiable categories.

The press doesn't help with sorting it out. For example, headlined in the Washington Post (20 November), "Conservative Republicans fight back," and, continuing, "Evangelical leaders and conservative activists have a simple message for establishment Republicans."

With this mix of labels, journalists are really indentifying fundamentalists** -- those Republicans who identified viscerally with the Tea Party long before it was absorbed by the Republican Party.

Paul Krugman in the New York Times (24-25 Nov. 2012) is more specific, writing about "the anti-rational mind-set that has taken over (the Republican) political party." Cynthia Tucker in The National Memo refers to the same element in the Republican ranks as "congenital cranks, destined to be dissatisfied." That is but one shaft of insight on the problem. Cranks are noisy and distracting, but they are rarely dangerous whereas fundamentalists can be. Given a leader such as Hitler or Stalin, they can be lethal.

To illustrate, one of the Republican Party's most prominent fundamentalists is Florida Senator Marco Rubio. In the Times, Krugman points to Rubio's response about why he is against science education, particularly the teaching of evolution. His answer? "It might undermine children's faith in what their parents told them to believe." Got that?

Shifting to the Republican Party in general, Krugman points to other issues such as climate change, which is a topic where GOP members have "buried deeper into denial, into assertions that the whole thing is a hoax concocted by a vast conspiracy of scientists," he writes. Krugman also points to the mind-boggling denial from the Republican organization that the polls clearly showed Barack Obama would win re-election. "More or less the whole Republican Party refused to acknowledge this reality," Krugman writes. He concludes that "today's Republicans cocoon themselves in an alternative reality defined by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and the Wall Street Journal's editorial page." (Not the WSJ's regular reporting, I should add.)

People who ask, "Where are the traditional 'conservative Republicans?'" are seemingly unaware that they disappeared years ago. Bringing up past Republican leaders who were genuine conservatives illustrates the point. The likes of Stimson, Taft, Harding, Coolidge, and even Hoover would turn their faces away, puzzled and depressed, if they could review the current Republican Party. Landon, Willkie, and Dewey would look away in shame. Dulles and Eisenhower would stand rigidly apart, quite horrified. Theodore Roosevelt and Nelson Rockefeller would have become Democrats, just as Governor Christie seemed to temporarily do following Hurricane Sandy.

But a bit more nuance is needed here. The Republicans are indeed divided between those who rigidly defend their fundamentalist views (a majority within the Party I expect) and those who see that the Party must move -- or at least present itself as shifting -- towards the center. This latter group is comprised of Republican leaders in Congress whose political experience leads them to know instinctively that if they are ever going to win future elections, they must change their hostile stance (veiled or open) against women, Hispanics, gays and immigrants (and avoid being subliminally racist).

Perhaps this latter group of Republicans are also the "moderates" that David Brooks wrote about in the New York Times (26 October 2012). In my opinion, however, they are not moderates. They are instead political pros thinking expediently; active politicians who understand a bit more of the political process than most fundamentalists do.

For very practical reasons -- certainly not a matter of principle -- Republican leaders like John Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives, know they must try hard to represent the traditional Republican Party in our American Democratic tradition, a process wherein both Democrats and Republicans focus on real national issues and then thrash it out with compromises. Given the present dynamics, it must be very awkward for Boehner when he negotiates with President Obama in the White House. Who does Boehner represent when he knows in his gut that fundamentalist Republicans in his ranks are viscerally against any of their doctrines being compromised? He knows he will face that solid bloc of Tea Party Republicans elected to the House two years ago, and they will have a de facto veto over whatever compromises he has agreed with Obama.

In a subsequent article (November 20, 2012), Brooks of the New York Times calls our attention to a group of young thinkers and strategists who he suggests may save the GOP. Mainly from Washington's think tanks, they are usually associated with the Republicans. However, how will they stand up to the Party's fundamentalists whose primary interest (or perhaps sole interest) is in organizing power and consolidating their position?

"Fundamentalist" may not be a term registering as a threat for many people who see their desire for law and order as necessary in a society which, to them, seems to be falling apart. They should look again. Fundamentalism is strongly attached to orderliness, a defined right and wrong, dividing us into those they approve of and those who are "different." Fundamentalists' need to focus on enemies, be it people like "lefties" or "big government."

Among active fundamentalists, differences in interpretation can easily arise that give off a lot of smoke and fire. One can see sharp divisions within their ranks in religion -- and now in politics. These divisions, often passionate, will plague the Republicans in their effort to recover from Romney's defeat. The party is currently bogged down with its need to establish who is guilty, who was at fault. Was it the candidate's moving of his positions to the center on some issues, for example, which marked a departure from the fundamentalist views that Mitt expressed during the primaries?

This struggle for leadership within the Republican Party over the next year should illustrate well the role of fundamentalism in the Republican Party, as well as in American politics at large. If the arch right fundamentalist wing prevails -- as I predict it will -- our country's democratic process will change. It is that fundamental. The Republicans will no longer be our traditional political opposition, a particular form and style that is essential to our American legislative system, whose process rests upon two parties dominating the scene in national and state legislatures. (Third parties in our country's politics have never thrived. Coalitions, as in Europe, are unknown.)

To catch a glimpse of just why this will cause a sea of change for the American political process, look at the roots of fundamentalism. That will be the second part of this article, drawing heavily on Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," written in the aftermath of "McCarthyism" in the U.S.

The Republicans like to say that they are the party of President Ronald Reagan. That has always been a vague reference, but it is about to be changed. They are now the party whose real heritage is that of former President Herbert Hoover, who intoned, "the sole function of Government is to bring about a condition of affairs favorable to the beneficial development of private enterprise." Remember, he was the president who presided over the Great Depression. For Hoover, "free enterprise" was sacrosanct and government intervention was a blasphemy.

When the Republican party's arch right wing takes over the organization, it will become doctrinaire, ideological, orthodox -- and rigidly so.

It will be fundamentalist.


*Americans seem unaware that our version of English is disappearing into vagueness. We have become used to the impressionistic lingo now in daily use. We make no demand for precision, whether it is a political candidate addressing us or a commercial for a new car on our television screens. There seems to be little comprehension that "impressionistic speak" clouds the possibility of ever understanding what is really meant. We are the losers--but seem unaware of our loss.

**We often forget the origins of the word "fundamentalist," which has recently morphed into political lingo. As the dictionary notes, a fundamentalist is "of traditional orthodox beliefs such as the inerrancy of Scripture & and literal acceptance of the creeds as fundamentals of protestant Christianity." I would include the right-wing of more catholic faiths as well.