The GOP’s Rightward Ratchet
For forty-odd years, from the moment my mom tried to explain the bizarre development of a peanut farmer romping through the Democractic primary in the mid-70s, I’ve been magnetized by politics. There’s something irresistible about a massive human project with so many contradictory, layered, and interdisciplinary impulses, all crashing against each other to produce unexpected outcomes. Or it was, until 2016. That’s when I developed a sense of helplessness about politics, which no longer seemed dynamic nor unexpected — and worse, which now seem to be headed on an inexorable path toward a constitutional crisis..
My helplessness stems from the way the Republican Party is has become inaccessible to the normal forces of politics. Like any party, the GOP has always had rival factions that forced self-correction following elective disasters. Representing monied interests — necessarily a minority faction — the party has long flirted with authoritarianism. The John Birch Society and Joe McCarthy in the 40s and 50s were early examples. But it has also had tempering influences — those same elites need stability and order for markets to thrive. If authoritarianism was a sickness, the GOP had antibodies in the form of sensible, democracy-championing leaders like Dwight Eisenhower to heal the Party. For every Goldwater, there was a Rockefeller.
Neither major party was ideologically or regionally homogeneous, and that helped preserve a healthy balance. Unfortunately, the realignment of the parties following the Civil Rights era damaged the GOP’s directional gyroscope. Southern White reactionaries streamed out of the Democratic Party, infusing the GOP with a whole new dimension of racial resentment and religious fervor. (The Dems, a coalitional party, remained riven by competing factions and experienced the opposite trend — one driving their Party toward moderation.)
Realignment introduced two new toxins into the GOP. The first, from the unyielding religious right, was a moral certainty that snubbed cooperation. You can’t horse-trade with godless baby-killers. The second, an eschatological mindset dredged up by the “lost cause” of the civil war — the idea that good, honest people can’t win and will always be painted as villains — infused the party, at least at the grassroots, with nihilism. That the parties had by that time become homogeneous meant Republicans lost members who held socially or racially liberal views. No one remained to challenge moral certainty or the sense of cultural loss.
We don’t need to go through the full history, which starts with Nixon’s southern strategy and picks up speed with Reagan’s libertarianism and Gingrich’s zero-sum politics before blossoming in the mass media world of Fox News and the internet. What’s important in the development is that Republicans began to see a winning strategy that defied normal politics.
They realized that if they never broke ranks, every loss became emblematic of their worldview of lost causes, grievance, moral certainty, and existential threat. They could use loss as a boomerang to future success. And so, first in fits and starts but later with precision clockwork, the pattern became clear: always escalate the fire-breathing to shore up emotional engagement of the base, adopt a scorched-earth policy toward negotiation, and further demonize Democrats. Gingrich was the evil genius who saw the unerring wisdom in this course. The GOP became a rightward, authoritarian ratchet, always turning in one direction.
What it means is that after ever election, win or lose, the GOP gets more extreme. If they win, as in 2016, it is evidence the cause is true. If they lose, its because someone has betrayed the cause. Either way, the answer is the same: get more extreme, move further right, and burn the heretics. Moderates — those politicians who would actually negotiate with Democrats — were mostly run out of the party by the mid-aughts. Now a moderate is anyone who has been in office long enough to have come of political age before recent ratchets to the right. Heroes of the party from one decade become betrayers the next. Even the Paul Ryans eventually become squishes.
(The rest of us played some role in this, allowing whatever latest extreme actions the GOP committed to become normalized. We held the parties to different standards and wearily accepted that one party was in the business of destroying its rivals while the other, to retain legitimacy, had to woo theirs. It was the dysfunctional relationship of the abused to the abuser, and I say that not to diminish even a tiny bit people abused by parent or spouses, but to emphasize just how dysfunctional our politics have become. As one party gets ever more extreme, everyone must accommodate themselves to the changes.)
So, it was of course inevitable that Republicans would begin to openly embrace violent sedition and treason. It was inevitable they would abandon even the pretense of supporting democratic elections. It raised eyebrows to learn of a plot to kidnap and kill a Democratic governor, but it didn’t surprise. The assault on the Capitol was more startling but hardly, knowing everything else we have leaned about the party, unexpected. And the latest revelations that a sitting Congresswoman called for politicians to be killed (GA’s Marjorie Taylor Greene) were just more of the same.
So here we are and this is why I am so enervated by politics. We have passed the point where the politics common to democracy still function. There is no legal or political solution to stop the GOP, no self-correcting mechanism to snap them out of this nihilistic vortex. If I could look back into the history post-Gingrich and find a single case where the party bucked this habit, it might give me a little hope. There isn’t one. The opposite is true: when any Republican politician has tried to buck this trend, they soon become ex-politicians.
No one knows what this means. We’re way off the grid in terms of normal democratic politics. In past eras I understood the rules and would have delighted in the gamesmanship of the two parties as they maneuvered for popularity and power. Now I watch in horror as one party quickly escalates its assault on those rules, seeing them as the ultimate barrier to their ends — along with, of course, those who want to to preserve them. It is an extremely bad time in America and I lack the imagination to see an easy way out.