Purity on the March

Why it’s impossible to be a moderate Republican these days.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed column, Alan Simpson lamented the lack of Republican support for Democratic Senator Dick Durbin’s campaign finance bill. Simpson, the former Republican senator from Wyoming — known by both sides for his crusty, folksy and candid comments on all topics — takes on George Will, who dismissed the hearings because of the very absence of Republican involvement. Simpson, who did attend, and spoke in favor of the reforms, writes about his support: “I’m not alone. Former Senate colleagues who also support this long-overdue reform include Republicans Warren Rudman, Bill Cohen, Bill Brock and Frank Murkowski.” Campaign finance reform, he reminds his Republican friends, was first introduced by Theodore Roosevelt.

Notably, Simpson’s colleagues are from the past; the operative word is “former.” Today, not one of the above moderates would have a prayer of being elected.

Others could be added to the list of moderate GOP “formers” who today don’t fit: Dan Evans, arguably Washington state’s most popular governor ever — he wouldn’t have a chance. Bob Packwood in Oregon? A long shot at best. Chuck Percy in Illinois? Forget it. Edward Brook in Massachusetts? No way. Former Majority Leader Howard Baker would be in trouble. Lindsay Graham, often a moderating voice, is under siege and, unless his recent far-right spoutings gain traction, may be a goner. Orrin Hatch is finding his purity credentials questioned.

It will be interesting to watch how our two New England Republican Senators up for reelection, Olympia Snow and Scott Brown, handle the right wing soft-shoe dance in a region not taken by moralizing in any form.

Today's GOP seeks to turn James Madison on his head.
In Federalist No. 10, Madison argues that a federal republic will work best to “break and control the violence of faction.” Madison’s analysis assumes the need for government by compromise, which necessitates all interests moving towards the middle. But today, the GOP’s strategy — indeed, its ideology — is to exploit the margins. They seek to widen the religious right, narrow the secular left, all the while shrinking the middle. We call this polarization.

The GOP’s overriding concerns aren’t about the centrist issues — declining income and revenue, energy, health care. And surely no one any longer believes the party that twice doubled the size of the national debt is concerned about fiscal management. The truth is, today’s GOP is mostly about moralizing.

Madison’s world was rational and secular.

Today’s Republican Party has ridden moralism into purity. Recent polls indicate Sarah Palin still remains the religious right’s first choice. No matter that she’s been thoroughly discredited: obvious bad judgment, vindictiveness, ignorance (in American history, governance, world affairs, economic matters — you name it, she flunks). But all this is of no concern because she is presentable, and on the purity scale, she’s right on.

Kevin Phillips, in his book American Theocracy, saw purity’s emergence from the moment George W. Bush won in 2000. And after 9/11? Thank God our new president knew he had God’s ear — Onward Christian Soldiers, you know.

Phillips writes: “The potential interaction between the end-times electorate, clumsy pursuit of Persian Gulf oil, Washington’s multiple deceptions, and the credit and financial crisis that could follow a partial liquidation by foreigners of their U.S. debt and other dollar holdings is the stuff of nightmares.”

Winning in 2004 sealed the deal. End-times, viewed both literally and symbolically, had won out. The broader effects were devastating. Instead of seeking Madisonian common ground, the right has been performing a governmental death dance in front of an ideological backdrop. Consider: The GOP House has spent far more time trying to do in NPR and Planned Parenthood than on the serious issues of jobs, health reform and the budget. They voted unanimously to abolish health reform and did it, from soup to nuts, in just a few days. When the Ryan Budget came out, overnight they voted it up with only four dissenting votes.

Next up is the question of whether we should raise the debt ceiling. Will that debate be framed around the idea that perhaps America deserves to be punished for straying too far from their idea of purity?

Today the surrounding constellation of so-called “social issues” near and dear to the religious right are what the GOP has come to be about — it’s the common denominator. An assault on the secular — especially anything smacking of cosmopolitanism (the enemy of faith) — will drive the upcoming Republican presidential race and dictate the candidates’ lunges to the right.

American theocracy, writes Phillips, won’t look like Calvin’s Geneva nor Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony. It’ll be less obvious, but just as insidious: the vetting of Supreme Court nominees by religiously based private groups; generals invited to tour friendly churches (combining God with American exceptionalism); more and more books about end-times; efforts to influence TV programming; active opposition to contraception, except abstinence; active opposition to science, especially medical science and environmental science; continued opposition to gays; more direct attacks on women’s rights.

It’s all a perfect way to deflect attention away from the aforementioned secular problems: the effects of globalization on the American standard of living; the rising debt in the face of changing demographics; the continuing cost of military adventures; increasing inequality and more.

Which brings us back to Alan Simpson’s op-ed.

In hoping his party takes on the pragmatic conservatism of an earlier era, he really is alone.

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.