Thursday, November 8, 2012

Republicans and conservatives: the aftermath

I broke a recently adopted rule of mine and checked out the 24-hour cable news outlets for their election coverage Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

I was pleasantly surprised by the Tuesday coverage, which was reasonably cogent and on point. By Wednesday morning, things had returned to the status quo, which is to say the usual blather that is so depressingly bad that it drove me away from these outlets. I maintain that the only time to check out the cable news channels is when news is breaking; otherwise they seem to have no idea how to fill time.

The Wednesday morning blather was largely of the "what do Republicans do now" variety, with a little bit of "the people want divided government" thrown in for good measure.

"The people want divided government"? What crap.

"The people" don't want divided government: the people want a functioning government. Unfortunately, we, the people, have incredibly divergent views of what constitutes a functioning government. That's why the House of Representatives looks the way it does. It's a collection of polarized and polarizing politicians because that's what we look like as a nation.

With that out of the way, what do Republicans do now?

The party that loses the election does a self-examination to figure out what went wrong. I don't know what that process was like before 1980, but in my political lifetime the losing party is wont to recalibrate itself and its message, sometimes drastically. It took a while for Democrats to figure out how to nominate someone electable after Reagan swamped Carter, but eventually they did. Clinton wasn't exactly my favorite politician: he bent with the political wind and drove me nuts with his habit of unfailing accommodation. Others, though, would call that reasonable compromising, the hallmark of a well-regarded and successful politician of any party.

Democrats, whether politicians or voters, are used to having to compromise in the wake of the vaunted Reagan Revolution. They're used to having to hold their noses and vote for the lesser of two evils (John Kerry for president, or the flawed Affordable Care Act, for instance).

The controlling plurality of Republican voters, though, is locked into a mindset of "no compromise". Some of them feel like they've been denigrated and abused by the rest of the country and they're not taking it any more. Some of them are appalled by how the rest of the country thinks and are indignant enough to take their stand here, metaphorically speaking. Some of them are scared enough by The State Of Things Today that they feel they have no choice but to rise up and take back the country from those that would otherwise destroy it.

Longtime politicians of any party are, well, politicians, who generally understand the need to compromise. Their motivations may be pure ("this is what's best for the country", or at least "this is the best we can do for the country") or not ("if I vote my conscience I'll be voted out of office, so the hell with my conscience"), but the net effect is the same. Without trivializing them or their beliefs, they act as if politics were a game with two objectives: get themselves reelected, and get as many like-minded souls elected as they can.

So while Republican politicians — those who predate the Tea Party movement, anyway — might be ready to modify the party's positions on various issues in order to get something done, the controlling plurality of Republican voters isn't ready. These voters are fighting for what they think is right, and they see themselves as the only heroes in the country. Moreover, they have an entire media ecosystem to feed their sense of self-righteousness.

Longtime Democrats should understand this bunker mentality, because they — we — have felt this way about certain issues for ages. Climate change, anyone? I've been worried about it since I was a kid in the 1970s. A lot of us feel pretty damned self-righteous about it, too.

The thing is, a bunker mentality can close your mind to reality. And while I've met my share of Democrats and progressives who are divorced from reality, the majority I know are heavily invested in facts, the kind of facts that are reported in, say, scientific journals and reputable periodicals that don't have an avowed axe to grind.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said of that aforementioned plurality of Republican voters. So while the rest of us consider what steps to take to keep the country functioning and to ameliorate what's bad, that Republican plurality is listening to a self-congratulatory echo chamber that also, to keep its ranks closed, promotes paranoia about Democrats and liberals in general, and Barack Obama in particular.

It's a toxic brew (and the fact that MSNBC engages in similar tactics on the political left is disgraceful). It keeps millions of my fellow citizens from looking at the same facts the rest of us see, and discussing them in a reasonable way. It keeps those same millions fearful (or contemptuous) of science and knowledge generally, making them unwilling to support the best tools we have for understanding ourselves and our problems.

So where does this leave the Republican Party?

No one knows. And the fact that none of the bloviating commentators on cable news yesterday was willing to acknowledge that fact reinforced my belief that giving up on cable news was the right thing to do.

The Republican Party could split. If it did, my guess would be that the most uncompromising of its current members, politicians and voters both, would form a new party; let's call it the Conservative Party for lack of a better term. The Republican Party left standing would suddenly be a far more moderate place, though what its political heft would be is unclear.

Or the Republican Party might double down on its current bet, deeming Mitt Romney to have failed because he was insufficiently conservative. (I hate using that term, by the way, for reasons I mentioned the other day.) Over time it would purge itself of even more moderates, a process I imagine would be akin to the "self-deportation" Romney espoused during the campaign. The end result might be a Republican Party very much like the "Conservative Party" I mentioned above.

And then, of course, there's the long shot: those voters in the controlling plurality of the Republican party could, slowly, awaken to their isolation from the rest of the country, and wonder if, just maybe, they should take a hard look at themselves and their beliefs.

I hope for the long shot to come off, because frankly I think the voters who are what one might call the Tea Party base are right that something is wrong with the country, just as those who are part of the Occupy base are right that something is wrong with the country. I want both groups to join the rest of us in figuring out what the something is and in fixing it, rather than humming self-congratulatory nonsense to themselves.

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