The Republicans Can’t Help Themselves

The Republicans Can’t Help Themselves June 25, 2013

Almost lost in the furor last week over the NSA spying story, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to ban all abortion after 20 weeks. The debate over the bill brought forth some ludicrous moments, such as when Rep. Michael Burgess defended it by arguing that male fetuses at that stage of development can masturbate. This led to one of the better Twitter jokes I’ve seen lately:

There was also Rep. Trent Franks, who made the Akin-esque comment that “the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy [is] very low” – so low that there was no reason to include a rape exception in the ban. (The uproar over that was so great that the leadership later, quietly, added one.)

The GOP legislators who voted for this bill made no attempt to argue that it was constitutional, much less that it had any chance of passing the Senate or being signed into law by the president. It’s just another sign of how the House Republicans have given up any pretense of governing in favor of an endless parade of futile, symbolic statements of defiance, like their 37-and-counting go-nowhere votes to repeal Obamacare.

By now, you’d think a rational group of lawmakers would have accepted that however much they dislike Obamacare or abortion, they don’t have the unilateral power to end these things, so they might as well come to terms with this and focus on what they can accomplish in a divided government. Instead, the GOP has dug in and settled on a strategy of even more bitter and unwavering opposition, redoubling their obsessive focus on a few signature culture-war issues and making it their aim to defeat or undo everything that Democrats propose.

They’re sticking to this strategy even when sheer self-interest ought to advise against it. The same week they passed their futile abortion ban, the House Republicans also voted for a punitive anti-immigrant measure that would undo the DREAM Act provisions President Obama implemented by executive order, which amounts to an act of political suicide in the face of the growing Latino vote.

In a sense, the Republicans are victims of their past success. It was once a winning strategy for them to pound on social issues, demonizing their opponents as godless heathens, perverted gays, lazy entitled minorities, dirty contraception-using sluts, pointy-headed intellectuals, and all the other slurs that could be relied on to rile up their traditional base of old, white Christian men, to get them to believe their way of life was threatened and storm to the polls in defense of it. (Newt Gingrich was one of the pioneers of this strategy, in a 1990s memo titled “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control”.)

But by refusing to acknowledge changing demographic realities, Republicans have trapped themselves in an ideological death spiral. As America becomes more diverse and less religious, it’s crucial to their future electoral prospects to broaden their appeal beyond old white Christian men. But to do that, they’d have to cast votes that would grate against the already frayed nerves of those base voters, who are anxious over a changing world and their shrinking influence in it. The result is that Republican politicians are left clinging to a smaller and smaller slice of the electorate, which, however, punishes them more and more harshly for any deviation from party orthodoxy on guns, God, gays, women or immigrants.

Some of them don’t even recognize the peril they’re in. For example, many Republican lawmakers have been dismissive of party reports concluding that they need to broaden their appeal, arguing instead that all they need to do is bear down harder and be even more conservative. With immovable ideologues like this consolidating their grip on power within the GOP, even as the rest of the country leaves them behind, it’s hard to see how the Republicans will be able to remain competitive in the long term. They literally can’t help themselves.

Obviously, this is a trend to be cheered. We can’t continue with a national party that’s run by misogynist, anti-intellectual fanatics. Even as their power slips, they’ll wreak immense harm wherever they’re still in control – like the Texas legislature, which is set to pass a brutal anti-abortion bill very similar to the one that passed in the House. In fact, 2013 was one of the worst years yet for choice, as Republican-controlled statehouses all across the country pass laws designed to intimidate, shame, harass and burden family-planning clinics and the women who use them.

But for all that, we shouldn’t want to see the GOP die off or crack up. It’s unhealthy for a democracy to have just one dominant party; competition keeps politicians honest and gives them an incentive to deliver results. It’s hard to see how the party as it’s currently constituted can be saved, but it’s just barely possible that if it collapses, something more like the Republicans used to be – more friendly to science, more supportive of minority rights, more opposed to government overreach and militarism – will emerge from the ashes.

Image credit: Brocken Inaglory, released under CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

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