The Republicans are in disarray. They aren’t in disarray for lack of a strong leader. Rather, Republicans depend upon “strong leaders” because without them, they’d have to face the source of the disarray, which is that their ideology is morally and intellectually bankrupt but they can’t fix the ideology without alienating key interest group constituencies in American politics.
And the scare quotes are deliberate—the GOP had to invent “strong leaders” where none existed out of PR and adulation as a means of masking the problems for itself and the country created by the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of its ideology. I mean, George Bush as “strong leader?” Really? I was there. I watched it happen. The guy was a potted plant who they imagined into faux greatness by sheer force of Noonanian gibberish and the D.C. establishment’s will to believe it.
To my mind, that moral and intellectual bankruptcy has been obvious since at least 2005. The failure of the Social Security privatization push, the Schiavo debacle, the disintegration of Iraq into murderous chaos, and the hailing of a financial industry edging ever closer to outright criminality as the Miracle of Markets Creating Wealth and Prosperity for All.
All of these disasters—political, social and economic—were the consequence of Bush Administration’sapplication of the Reagan realignment policy paradigm to social and economic circumstances that no longer remotely resemble those existing in 1980. Privatization, tax cutting, the embrace of politicized Christian fundamentalist as policy, militaristic interventionism, and deregulation—of course the Bush Administration’s zealous application of those policy principles led to serial disasters for the GOP and the nation. All of the problems—real or perceived—that these policies were implemented to fix had long since been as “fixed” as it was possible for those principles to fix them. And yet they were compelled to keep acting like top marginal rates were at 90%, the Evil Empire had to be rolled back and business was groaning under the weight of oppressive regulation and mired in strangling red tape because the constituencies that were the pillars of the party’s electoral constituencies.
And so it goes. This is the cycle of American politics. One party controls the policy paradigm while the other initially resists, then accommodates and then, finally, emerges with a new(ish) paradigm of its own and takes control. We call these shifts in control of the paradigm that sets the agenda “realignments.” New policy paradigms arise to fix the problems created the the application of the last party’s policies long after the problems they were designed to fix were fixed. The new paradigm initially benefits all but naturally benefits some more than others. Those who benefit the most become the key constituencies that fund and drive the party’s turnout machinery. At a certain point, however, the problems created by the last paradigm’s policies are as fixed as the current paradigm’s policies can fix them and all the while demographic change—the one inexorable constant of American politics throughout history—keeps rolling. At that point, the continued application of the dominant policy paradigm ceases to benefit everyone, albeit unequally, and instead it becomes a matter of benefitting the dominant party’s key constituencies at the expense of everyone else.
And throughout this process, the party that “lost” the realignment begins with anger and denial—fueled by the continued demands of the constituencies created by the last realignment, transitions to “yes, but” accommodation with the new paradigm as the electoral power of those constituencies is—quite intentionally—eroded by the effect of new paradigm’s policies and by simple demographic change and eventually a new policy paradigm emerges to deal with the consequences of the other party’s over-extension.
This is where we were in 1930. It’s where we were in 1978. And it’s where we were in 2006.
The problem this time, however, is that over the last thirty years, the GOP’s policies created one constituency—our bloated financial sector specifically and a top 1% that controls a greater share of the nation’s wealth than at any time since the gilded age—that presents a potentially insurmountable barrier to policy reform within the GOP, especially given the Supreme Court majority’s seeming determination to magnify their importance. That constituency demands policies that foster continued upward redistribution of wealth and if it doesn’t get them, there’s no reason for it to continue funding the GOP. Without that money, it’s got nothing because the electoral power of its other constituency—non-college educated whites—is fading fast.
This is what’s behind all of the infighting and the stridency, the doubling down and the many, many seminars that all seem to end up concluding that there’s nothing wrong with the policy paradigm, they just haven’t articulated their views clearly enough—and, yes, the increasingly open racial animosity and resentment. They’re boxed in by their need to keep advocating policies that represent upward wealth redistribution to keep the money—the only thing that keeps them competitive—flowing but advocating those policies make them propose things that sound more and more obviously out of synch with reality which, in turn, makes them unelectable. The 2010 gerrymander may buy them a little more time, but in the end, gerrymandered electoral success will only drive them deeper into the trap they’re in and make it harder for them to change before it’s too late.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.