The Republican Party’s biggest problem is mental illness. The big elephant party is suffering from a severe case of split personality disorder. It’s an old problem that has only gotten worse over the years.
It can be hard to remember sometimes while swimming in the media bubble that depicts the Republican Party as some offshoot of the John Birch Society, the KKK and the Confederacy, that it’s the exact opposite. All of the organizations mentioned got their start opposing the Republican Party. The Republican Party might have been considered radical before the Civil War, but by the time it was over, it had become the ultimate big government party. It was the oversized elephant tying together big government and big industry.
The Republican Party spent generations running on Lincoln, the Civil War and Unionism. It followed the politics of what would much later be described as Eisenhowerism. And those politics were reasonably successful. Big government and big business got along really well. Industries boomed, land was opened up and a big country got bigger and bigger. Not everyone was happy, but not everyone mattered.
The Elephant was socially liberal and fiscally conservative. It believed in growth and modernity. It championed national power over regional power. It was concerned about social problems and looking for ways to bind the country together around a shared set of values that could be exported around the world. If you want to understand what it was like, find a top big city Republican donor and talk to him about the issues. You’ll get a faint echo of the party from back then.
The Elephant Party liked the way things were and it had no idea what came next. That void was exposed by two Roosevelts; Theodore and Franklin. Both men were reformers with dramatically different visions for the future. The Republican Party was not ready to deal with either man. It suppressed Teddy and ended up being ground under by Franklin.
The cult of personality built up around FDR created a political void that could not easily be filled. That opened the door for Eisenhower and the clumsy resurgence of the Republican Party around the same old big government and big industry, tied together with a big red Anti-Communist bow. That party’s greatest moment of triumph came when Reagan combined all these together and added militant attacks on big government to create a new wave of populism.
Reagan’s populism brought home the schizophrenia of a Republican Party whose base sounded more like Goldwater and whose leadership still sounded the same.
The Republican Party became lost in the political currents and found itself stuck with a populist base that opposed most of its values. The contradictions were paved over with rhetoric. The GOP would pretend to represent the values of its base on social and economic issues, even as worked against them. And no matter how often this baffling betrayal takes place, it’s always a shock to a base that imagines that the Republican Party must stand for the same values as its voters. It doesn’t. It never did.
The GOP is still basically the same party that it was after the Civil War. It believes that big government can make the country work, that centralizing everything will make the country more modern and that anything that contributes to growth must be good. And it’s stuck with a base of Jacksonian Democrats who are highly suspicious of centralized power, value their independence and don’t think that anyone should tell them what to do. Meanwhile the Republican Party’s donors come from a more traditional Republican brand of politics.
Every now and then, a Republican Party leader must feel tempted to stand up and say. “Folks, you’ve got us wrong. We don’t really stand for any of the things that you think we do. We like small business, in theory. But we like big business more. That’s about all we have in common. Also we’re still against Communism, not that it matters anymore. But we’re fine with having a lot of government agencies. We created most of them. And we like abortion and gay rights. We’re also on board with Global Warming, illegal immigration and some international law.”
That rarely happens. It rarely happens because that Republican Party is the one that was nearly consigned to oblivion in the first half of the last century. And as the Romney campaign showed, running on a platform of nothing but big business is not very inspiring. If Romney had actually been honest about his views, instead of dressing them up to win the primaries, he would have done even worse in the general election.
But while the official announcement doesn’t get made, radical pivots like amnesty reveal that the GOP that most people think that they know is a front. Rubio and Ryan pivoted on amnesty for illegal aliens because it’s what they really believed all along. They just couldn’t say it until they were told that the pivot was here and that they would be rewarded for pushing it along.
The same is true of countless other issues such as gay marriage. The rhetoric is there, but it has no conviction because the real GOP doesn’t believe in it.
It never did.
The GOP “folds” on so many issues, because it doesn’t believe in them. It isn’t really folding, it’s shrugging and counting on its base to move on.
The schizophrenic elephant consists of a party without a base and a base without a party. The base is still represented widely in lower offices. You can find plenty of Republican Jacksonians in local and state offices. There are a respectable number of them in Congress. But there are only a handful in the Senate who really mean what they say. And forget about the White House.
The GOP may be able to reconcile itself to a Rand Paul, sacrificing its national security plank to keep its socially liberal values and free trade core intact, but not to a Ted Cruz who represents something far closer to its populist base. Give the Elephant Party someone it can agree with on illegal alien amnesty, sending jobs to China and shrugging at all the Bible Belt stuff… while winning back the approval of the Tea Party and it can work with that.
The great tragedy of the Republican Party is that it never adapted to the rise of the left. It is still in many ways a late 19th century party full of devout faith in the rites of progress and the power of modernity. It believes that progress is inevitable, but that it’s being mismanaged by ideologues who don’t understand business. The last election’s clash between Mitt Romney, who best represented that progressive big business elephant, and Barack Obama, who has become the most successful left-wing politician in American history since FDR, aptly summed up the problem.
The Republican Party did not really understand what the coming of FDR meant and they had some excuse for their inability to fully grasp the coming transformation. But the Republican Party of 2012 had no such excuses and yet was still unable to come to grip with what Barack Obama meant for America in the way that its base had begun articulating vocally before the midterm elections.
The elephant is out of touch with the enemy and out of touch with its own base. It’s out of touch with America and the world. It dwells in a comfortable bubble where nation building still works, amnesty solves problems and a few good attack ads can swing any election. It doesn’t understand the issues on foreign policy and it can’t connect with domestic issues anymore. That bubble is Washington D.C.
But the real tragedy is the Republican base, the working Americans misrepresented by a party that dislikes them almost as much as it needs them.
The Republican Party, like the Democratic Party, never amounted to very much. It ceased being radical shortly after it came into being and instead became a government party. It’s the wasted energy and votes of its base who might have been able to make a difference that it has siphoned off in multiple elections. The voters who might have been able to save America instead wasted their votes and energies on the likes of Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan, who for all their youthful cred, preach the discredited politics of another era, while scrambling to connect with voters facing the fallout of their policies.
The Republican Party can be transformed, the schizophrenic elephant can be healed, but first we have to recognize what it is and what it isn’t.
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam. He is completing a book on the international challenges America faces in the 21st century and his blog is Sultan Knish.