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July 16, 2013 5:26 PM Uh, Yeah, This Is a Different GOP

By Ed Kilgore

I have journalistic friends who aren’t really happy with me for early (and middle, and late) doom-saying about the trajectory of gun and immigration reform legislation. Yeah, I was right, but why rub it in, and why not try to promote good bipartisan legislation even if the odds against it are stiff?

My answer to this kind of complaint has been two-fold: First, Political Animal isn’t a public utility or an agitprop operation; its mission is to offer acute and accurate and sometimes even slightly profound (at least by frantic-news-cycle-blogger standards) observations about political life in our country from a progressive POV. But second, I’m convinced the most important phenomenon in contemporary American politics is the radicalization of the conservative movement at almost the precise moment it consolidated its hold on the Republican Party after nearly five decades of struggle. There are a variety of interesting byproducts of this phenomenon, including asymmetric polarization, culture wars, the Tea Party Movement (a radicalized phase of the conservative “base” activism that has been there all along), congressional gridlock, and a Democratic Party deep into a defensive crouch. But the main show is what’s important, and I feel an obligation to keep pointing that out so long as people keep misunderstanding or discounting it, as they most definitely do.

It does seem, however, that people are coming around, particularly as the reality of what’s happening on immigration reform sinks in, viz. a column from the New Yorker’s John Cassidy that concludes that it will take at least a third consecutive presidential defeat to bring the GOP to its senses.

With even some respectable political analysts now peddling the argument that the most urgent task of the G.O.P. is to appeal to more alienated and absentee white voters, is it time to junk the theory that the party will eventually direct its attentions to the electorate at large? Could the party really remain in thrall to the God, guns, and anti-government brigade until Ronald Reagan returns to save us all from eternal damnation? That’s doubtful. Clearly, though, the adjustment process is going to take more time.

Indeed. But where I part company with Cassidy and a lot of other progressive and/or neutral observers who wonder, as Barack Obama put it, when “the fever” might break, is that I don’t think this is just about conservative inability to think straight about how to win elections. History is littered with “lost” political causes that inspire intense loyalty and far outlive their practical usefulness. For one thing, while you might think of politics as a matter of winning the next election so your “team” can implement its immediate agenda, intensely ideological people tend to think of politics as a matter of winning wars rather than battles, and focus on winning elections that put them into the position to radically change history. And for another, some people express themselves politically in order to vindicate minority points of view—e.g., that the United States is in the midst of a “Holocaust” against unborn babies that’s not fundamentally different from what the Nazis did—whether or not they ever prevail.

So the best way to understand the contemporary conservative movement is as a coalition with an unusually large number of people who either don’t agree with the CV on how to win elections, don’t care about short-term political implications, or don’t care about anything other than expressing their opinion about the hellwards direction of the Republic and perhaps of the human race. Mix in another significant number of people with a large pecuniary interest in reactionary politics, and you have a movement that’s not going to turn from its current trajectory with any great speed. You can stamp your feet or call them crazy people or deplore their impact on the level of discourse all you want, but they just aren’t going away, and we might as well get used to it instead of marveling about it as though it came out of nowhere and will soon disappear.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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