So much ink and pixels have been spilled of late, all attempting to explain the modern conservative zeitgeist. What has possessed the Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower, to drive them to such extremes?
Where did the chaos – the craziness – come from? There are many theories on offer in the blogosphere.
Are conservatives motivated by fear of the other, fear of immigrants, Muslims, and so forth, as ED Kain suggests? Are they authoritarian, reactionary anti-progressives, the modern version of the Confederacy, as Corey Robin posits? Are they fueled by hate, racism, and vindictiveness, the desire to punish the black man in the White House, as Andrew Sullivan writes?
These are fascinating intellectual and academic diversions, but they unfortunately bring us no closer to explaining what it is we see emanating from the right wing blogosphere, from cable television and talk radio, and from Republican lawmakers themselves. We cannot read the minds and understand the hearts of conservatives. But we can read history. We can look at the practical, tangible timeline of events that has lead the Republican party to its current iteration.
After all, conservatism is just an ideology, an idea. It can be whatever we want it to be. But the US government, along with its two political parties, isn’t an idea. It’s a real-life institution.
This is the lens through which we should view the modern conservative movement. When we stop psychoanalyzing conservatives and instead look at the facts, the answers to our questions become clear.
What happened to the Republican Party? Simple. George W. Bush happened.
In 2000, both parties, Republican and Democratic, were essentially dormant, in a political stasis void of grassroots movement, enthusiasm, and principle. Following the end of the 50 year Cold War (the dominant set-piece for the majority of preceding American political movements), the US government in the 1990’s hummed along idly as a technocratic machine manipulated solely by the only interest groups still paying attention – economic, financial, and industrial stakeholders.
The apathy of movement partisans, the bases, was so endemic across party lines, it was almost as if politics ceased to exist at all, as if the great American democratic experiment had come to a close and all that remained was light maintenance and basic administration.
Thus during the 2000 presidential campaign, the two parties were arguably indistinguishable. The platforms of candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush were so similar that the election results came down to a virtual tie. That the Supreme Court eventually handed the presidency to the Republican candidate was almost an afterthought. Indeed, the decision in Bush v Gore even stipulated that it wasn’t meant to set a precedent, it was only a one-time deal.
But the decision, in hindsight, was a precedent. It was the first disaster of the presidency of George W. Bush.
The Democratic party suddenly had a purpose behind their movement again. Quite simply, Democrats remembered that they existed, and they began to recruit. This “stolen” election became the first spark that would, six years later, totally engulf the party.
And there were still many more sparks to come. From the devastating, systemic breakdowns of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina to the staggering incompetence of the invasion of Iraq, the presidency of George W. Bush was nothing if not a series of unmitigated disasters.
Everything Bush touched turned to ash, from tax cuts to education, Medicare to environmental regulations. And every step he took, the Democratic party grew stronger. No one, not moderates, not centrists, not independents, wanted to be associated with the devastation of the Bush administration, and one by one they flocked to the alternative.
And importantly, each time an alternative was sought, the Democratic party was there. Political refugees saw in it whatever it is they craved. Al Gore, the same empty suit from the 2000 election, became a warrior for environmental progress. Hillary Clinton, dithering Senator and former First Lady of the previous boring, technocratic administration became a universal health care demigod. The same party that voted for the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq war was now the party of peace and the middle class.
Nevermind that the image almost never matched up to reality, the Democratic party was always there, ready and willing to take up the mantle of anything that wasn’t George W Bush. Angry about the Iraq War? So are the Democrats. Hate the PATRIOT Act? So do the Democrats. Worried about climate change? Surprise! The Democrats are, too.
By 2006, fueled by a new base of online activists and organizers collectively known as the Netroots, the Democratic party took back control of congress. This was not because the United States had suddenly become populated by hardline progressives and liberals though, but rather because so many sought an escape from Bush – and his party, the Republicans.
With the 2008 election, Republican party identification was at an all time low. When the global economy finally collapsed in September of that year, the outcome was inevitable. Democrat Barack Obama was elected president, and along with him came Democratic super-majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives.
But once more, it cannot be overstated that this had nothing to do with the liberalism of Americans, with the spirit of progressive struggles, or any other political movement. Obama was simply the penultimate alternative to George W Bush. Just as Republicans in 2012 search for their so called Not-Romney, Obama and the Democratic party was the definitive Not-Bush.
And as with everything else remotely associated with the Bush presidency, the Republican party itself became radioactively toxic.
Which brings us to the central question: Where did the fire-breathing lunacy of the Republican party we see today come from? We have our answer now.
The seething turmoil and fantastical craziness we see in Republicans is the opposing side of the coin to the bloated, overly moderate and endlessly compromising Democratic party. It has very little to do with ideology and almost everything to do with a burning desire to not be George W. Bush.
While most of the country ran away from Bush and into the waiting arms of the Democratic party, the other part, the conservatives, had no party to run to. They simply ran off a cliff.
If you’re not with the platform of the Not-Bush party (the Democrats) and you’re not with the platform of the party of George W. Bush (the Republicans), that means you’re what? You’re screaming about Kenyan Muslim Socialists, death panels, and FEMA concentration camps, that’s what.
While liberals, progressives, independents, and moderates were able to shelter themselves in the comforting, albeit mostly misrepresented, narrative of the Democratic party, conservatives had nothing. No platform to stand on, no politicians to unite them, no party to represent them. Only a bitter, smoldering core of conservatives remained.
And that’s where we find this new, inscrutable conservative movement reluctantly squatting inside the Republican party tent. They seem irrational, scared, and angry because everything they thought they believed in, from war in Iraq to tax cuts for the rich, has been turned to puss and ash by George W. Bush.
We can’t figure out what the conservatives believe (small government or no government at all?) or why they believe it (are you racist or just a jerk?) because conservatives themselves don’t know why or what they believe. They just know that they’re not Bush.
And until both sides narrow down exactly what they believe in (Are Democrats progressives or just a big tent catch-all? Do Republicans stand for anything, or just stand in the way?), they will remain just as lopsided, incoherent, and of course, crazy as they are now. They narrow it down, mind you, by actually dealing with the issues at hand. Those overseas wars? Still going on. PATRIOT Act? Still the law. Climate change? Still happening.
Remember this the next time you turn on your TV and see conservatives spouting vitriolic fantasies, or Democrats once again rolling over in the face of adversity. It’s not about ideology, or race, or even economic class. And it’s certainly not about liberalism or conservatism.
We’re all just experiencing fallout from yet another disaster of President George W Bush.