From my provincial cheap-seats perch as a small-town public radio reporter and occasional newspaper and book writer, I’ve watched American politics for what (weirdly enough) amounts to about a quarter-century.
I have studied and written about, in particular, the rise of traditional conservatives, especially those activists and politicians whose values are rooted in rural America.
Despite observing at fairly close hand some of the great political dramas of recent history, I am completely gobsmacked by the sudden death spiral of the Republican Party.
I know “death spiral” seems like strong, perhaps even biased language. I’ve become convinced that it amounts to accurate reporting, stripped of the cautious but inaccurate equivocation that has shaped much recent journalism.
Again and again since 2006, when the GOP first suffered severe electoral setbacks, I’ve posited the idea that some new coherent center would form that would draw Republicans back toward their longstanding role as one of America’s most important civic institutions.
Instead, a maelstrom of forces — ranging from the rise of billionaire activists, the growth of talk radio, the popularity of Fox News, more aggressive gerrymandering of House districts, the growth of the tea party in 2010, and on and on — have steadily eroded the Republican Party’s leadership.
A party that once produced statesmen, patriots and — in some cases — actual heroes of the caliber of Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, and George HW Walker Bush is a vastly diminished force.
These days, the party is at its very best when it puts forward a John Boehner or a Mitch McConnell, and that’s not saying much.
More often the GOP is represented by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Herman Cain, Sarah Palin, or the latest “maverick” talking about legitimate rape or the evils of contraception or the need for an “uprising.”
It’s worth pausing to take stock of just how far the GOP has gone down this path toward what may very well be a final, irreconcilable dissolution.
Not so long ago, Republicans strove to serve the nation as the party of the “silent majority,” a movement that prided itself on being the grown-ups, the budget-balancers, the people who favored dependability and steady progress over radical movements and turmoil.
The GOP also prided itself on being the party of American exceptionalism, convinced that our republic has a moral responsibility play a firm, predictable and strong role in the world’s affairs.
But in 2013, Republican rhetoric and political strategies look far more like that of the extreme left of the 1960s than like the “morning in America” movement of Ronald Reagan.
The party’s most powerful and influential voices are often shrill, desperate and apocalyptic.
Prominent figures on the right speak openly of dissolving the United States and its democratic institutions through secession or some kind of ostensibly peaceful revolution.
They talk of arming themselves to fight our own service-members and our own police.
While protesting something as picayune as a health insurance law, they proudly drape a foreign flag — that of the southern Confederacy — on the fence of our White House.
In an essay that was widely disseminated (and praised) in conservative circles this week, former GOP presidential contender Pat Buchanan argued that conservatives should go ahead and wreck the national economy if they don’t get their way in unraveling the Affordable Care Act.
“If Harry Reid’s Senate demands the GOP end the sequester on federal spending, or be blamed for a debt default, the [Republican] party should, Samson-like, bring down the roof of the temple on everybody’s head,” he insisted.
The temple that he’s talking about is America, our cherished nation. The global economy. Our jobs, our pensions and 401ks, our ability to defend our country and our interests overseas.
His essay was praised in particular by Rush Limbaugh, who spoke favorably of Buchanan’s “bring down the roof” metaphor.
There was a time when anyone flirting with the idea of this kind of collective national self-immolation would have been quietly shown the door by the worldly, accomplished and effective leaders of the Republican Party.
So far, that hasn’t happened. Instead, moderate Republicans continue to wring their hands about Mr. Obama, even as the far-right plots to push the last GOP centrists off the cliff in 2014′s primaries.
It is hard to see, at long last, what might pivot the Republican establishment back toward the kind of awakening where they realize that before they can speak sensibly about the travails of our nation, they must first see to their own crisis.
Bluntly, America desperately now needs an act of real courage from the GOP’s leaders.
We need them to rediscover their calling as the party that stopped the spread of slavery, led the fight against southern treason, stood strong against Soviet communism, and crusaded for the establishment of a strong, effective, and limited Federal government.
We need them to acknowledge and begin to combat the rise of racism, cultural paranoia, isolationism and end-times apocalyptic thinking within their own base and their own caucus.
This fight will almost certainly cost some politicians their careers. There will be lost battles, ugly days, and perhaps in the end it will be impossible for the GOP to salvage itself as a center-right institution capable of governing a superpower.
But right now it is this fight over its own soul — not the battle over Obamacare or the Federal debt or Mr. Obama’s rather ho-hum second-term agenda — that America most needs common sense conservatives to fight and win.