'Republicans in disarray' stories are, these days, as common as grains of sand on a beach. I would suggest, though, that something far more fundamental is happening than a bad Presidential primary or the odd retirement or two. Simply put, the foundations are starting to crack, and the republican coalition is ripping asunder under the stress of longterm trends that seem to be reaching critical mass at the same moment.
So what's going on?
It's a largely unexamined truism of political science and American history that our system of government is extraordinarily stable and not, in the normal course of events, subject to sudden, abrupt upheaval. By and large, this is an accurate assessment; we still govern ourselves, well into the Twenty-First Century, in a framework substantially devised at the close of the Eighteenth.
This system has proven stable, and at the same time supple enough to accomodate the growth of a small, mainly agrarian society perched at the edge of the Atlantic into a superpower information economy sprawled across a continent and beyond, the universal extension of the franchise, the elimination of slavery, the emancipation of women, and the transformation of a yeoman republic into a democracy.
In short, our form of government survived and even prospered not because of a posited divine dispensation or innate exceptionalism, but because it managed to adapt itself to changing circumstances and unpredictable challenges. In the social sciences, we call this a Complex Adaptive System.
What did change dramatically within this system, to the point of extinction, were the actors that largely shaped it: the two political parties. Specifically, in the nineteenth century, two powerful parties (loosely) of the right went the way of the dodo, first the Federalists, then the Whigs. In the twentieth century, similar fates befell the Progressive Party and the Reform Party. The same thing has happened in other English-speaking countries, notably in the United Kingdom.
I would argue that there are good reasons to expect, in the near term, another tectonic shift within our two party system, owing in large part to the failure of one of the two parties, the GOP, to meaningfully adapt to an era of radical, systemic change. Change it is structurally, intellectually and demographically unable to adapt to, unless it itself changes beyond recognition. The Republican Party is today at a similar stage of its lifecycle as Britain's Labour Party during the early Thatcher years. Indeed, the similarities are quite striking.
The ontological problem with a sudden seismic shift like this is pretty straight-forward: it is sudden, and happens outside the internal logic of a given system. The USSR was a nuclear superpower with manageable problems - until those problems, in a self-reinforcing negative feedback loop, multiplied past a tipping point, became unmanageable, and led its brittle institutions to practically instantaneous collapse. In systems theory, this process is referred to as Cascading Failure.
And I think it's happening right now. Read on.
American modern political parties are essentially mass coalitions of disparate interests united across regional, economic, religious and other fault lines. Structurally, they gain cohesion by forming agreement on a set of core issues of governance and society, and then working through the electoral process to enact as much of their agenda as possible, with all the incentives and rewards this implies. They lose this cohesion in two scenarios: one, if separate core groups differ beyond reconciliation on core issues, or two, if their approach to a given issue either fails or succeeds spectacularly. If the latter seems counter-intuitive, consider the fate of the Democratic Party after Dredd-Scott secured chattel slavery in the entire union, in what seemed at the time the ultimate triumph of the slaver interests that formed the party's main base of support. The Democrats subsequently splintered regionally and ideologically, and did not regain the White House for decades. I would argue that the Supreme Court's Citizen United decision will historically be seen as having had much the same effect, the step too far over the cliff.
In the United States, due to several structural factors - the sheer size of the country, enormous regional, ethnic, and religious diversity, local economies ranging from agrarian to post-industrial, the divergence between rural, suburban and urban interests, economic and educational stratification - our two parties have long been 'Big Tents', trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible while maintaining a reasonable coherence of the underlying values cluster. In practical terms, this limits the number and scope of core values they can represent or require, as well as the demographics they are able able to attract. Simply put, they can't be all things to all people.
The Republicans, however, have gone in the opposite direction from the one this model implies. Instead of narrowing the class of required litmus tests, they have expanded it. At the same time, the penalties for apostasy have sharpened. To quote George Will:
Republicans are more conservative than at any time since their 1980 dismay about another floundering president. They are more ideologically homogenous than ever in 156 years of competing for the presidency.In contrast to this expansion of the number of views one must hold to be a 'true conservative' - and the increased rigidity with which they must be held - the GOP is express in declining to represent several emerging demographics, notably Latinos and LGBT Americans. Quite the contrary, the GOP has made the active exclusion of these and several other demographics a part of its core values cluster. Notably, these groups are growing in absolute numeric terms and rapidly integrating into mainstream American society, while the same cannot be said of the GOP's historic base. This limits its ability to attract voters and to govern effectively in several ways.
As our society becomes progressively more inclusive, diverse and tolerant, a reactionary posture alienates not only those it excludes, but ripples through their various life networks, i.e., families, neighbors, co-workers and friends. It also has the effect of creating a self-reinforcing negative feedback loop, in that ineffective or exclusionary governance again narrows the universe of potential support and the talent pool available for that governance.
That universe is constricted further by the Republicans' abandonment of the methods by which we as a society describe, analyze and act on given issues. The basic tools of applied logic, the scientific method, empiricism, actuarial theory and textual analysis haven't changed; but at this moment in time, the non-partisan consensus that reality exists, that it can be measured and acted upon, simply no longer includes the conservative end of the political spectrum.
To give just one example, it is an absolute article of faith for most republicans and conservatives that cutting taxes correlates absolutely with GDP growth and rising government revenue. Empirically, this is complete hogwash, a demonstrably false statement.
It is, however, not singularly false - most republican and/or conservative policy positions fail any empirical test of efficacy - and is defended by a fleet of think tanks, media outlets, lobbying shops, and the like. Between them, these organizations create an entirely self-sufficient political and intellectual universe. This is the most striking parallel between classical dogmatic Leninism and contemporary dogmatic American conservatism. Both exist(ed) in a self-contained, self-referential system of thought characterized by epistemic closure. Epistemic closure as a concept is closely related to the theory of a Closed System of Thought, which is defined as follows:
A closed system has three peculiarities. Firstly, it claims to represent a truth of universal validity, capable of explaining all phenomena, and to have a cure for all that ails man.The functional challenge to a closed system, as it relates to governance, is simple: it is inefficient at processing external data and therefore, at delivering positive policy outcomes. This inefficiency at processing data is precisely what led to the economic collapse at the end of the Bush administration, or even more vividly, to that administration's inability to foresee or hinder the 9/11 attacks, despite reams of data in both cases suggesting an urgent need for action.
In the second place, it is a system which cannot be refuted by evidence, because all potentially damaging data are automatically processed and reinterpreted to make them fit the expected pattern. The processing is done by sophisticated methods of causuistry, centered on axioms of great emotive power, and indifferent to the rules of common logic; it is a kind of Wonderland croquet, played with mobile hoops.
In the third place, it is a system which invalidates criticism by shifting the argument to the subjective motivation of the critic, and deducing his motivation from the axioms of the system itself.
In the political sphere, a dogmatic posture can work quite well. It has the advantage of producing, or rather seeming to produce, order out of chaos. It begins to fail when the scope of societal complexity exceeds its ability to impose that order. This is precisely what is happening to the GOP at this writing (and what happened to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the state it ruled); its policy prescriptions, such as they are, have little bearing on the challenges the nation faces. One can argue convincingly that the inverse is true: that GOP policies have created or exacerbated these challenges, everything from our crumbling infrastructure to the budget and trade deficits to the erosion of our human capital and natural resources. If there is in fact national decline, and some argue there is not, conservative policies and the philosophy underlying them are a proximate cause.
This is a systemic threat to the GOP, leaving it with two choices: either to defend and distract, or fail. By instinct if nothing else, it will choose the former.
However, it will make that choice in an already weakened state. The current GOP, as Tom Friedman points out in the New York Times, is no longer capable of representing the American vital center, the one where elections are won or lost. It can no longer credibly represent a message of national security; that ship sank when its leaders dragged this country into a war in the Middle East we did not need to fight, and in consequence did not 'win', or when a Democratic President successfully ordered and executed the 'clean kill' of Osama bin Laden. It quite certainly can't run on economic competence, given the redefinition of that term by Occupy Wall Street and its own abysmal track record on economic stewardship. Its last trump card might be the culture wars, except that these are quite simply no longer relevant, as even the hard right admits. The current assault on one of the foundations of modern society, the ability of women to control their own fertility, is a rearguard action, the triumph of orthodoxy over expedience. Meanwhile, Citizens United, the conservative Supreme Court's supposed gift - entirely at variance with a century of precedent, one might add - has had the practical effect of moving control over the party's own message directly into the hands of a mere handful of super-donors, whose interests may or may not align with those of the GOP itself. It would seem, based on the evidence at hand, that the latter is true.
I would argue that at this point, the GOP is at the same stage as the very late USSR: when single failures or even strategic retreats can no longer be managed one by one, but coalesce into larger problems, much as a snowball can be stopped easily when it starts rolling down a hill, until it becomes the avalanche that buries the village.
And to be sure, at this writing in early 2012, those problems are immense. Even leaving aside the grim electoral prospects the party faces in this cycle - which might change, but only due to external factors beyond its control, in itself a sign of weakness - the underlying brand, structure and message are fatally flawed. Its brand, by the residual loathing of the Bush Presidency and its lost decade, which almost four years out remains embedded in the national psyche as an unmitigated catastrophe. Its structure, by the tea party, which for all intents and purposes has usurped its levers of power and has shown - pace Christine O'Donnell - a pronounced willingness, even eagerness, to sacrifice victory on the altar of ideological purity. Its message, among other lunacies, by its almost comically hysterical reaction to the Obama Presidency. The President is many things, chief among them a moderate, center-left Democrat of color; to describe him in almost apocalyptic terms as a Kenyan usurper who manages to be, simultaneously, a Nazi, a Communist, and a secret Muslim, beggars credulity. The cognitive dissonance required to believe in the veracity of all of these mutually exclusive attributes at the same time is unsustainable or, more to the point, at odds with observable reality. Within the ranks, this may not matter, but it does matter outside of them.
Can the GOP survive? Probably. But only if it takes the advice of the Cassandras in its ranks, such as David Frum:
1. We must develop economic policies that are more relevant to today's middle class. Adjusting for inflation, college graduates earned less in 2006 than they did in 2000. The culprit: rising health-care costs. Until Republicans can offer hope on this issue, our economic message will bypass those whom it would otherwise most benefit. Most Americans do not want government-provided health care. They could, however, be receptive to a market-oriented system—if we can intensify competition between private providers to slow the rise in health-care costs.It will have to do more than that, obviously; for example, accept LGBT Americans as a fact of modern society, not as something intrinsically evil that needs to be fought. It will need to accept that America is, and always has been, a nation of immigrants, and that instead of building fences and locking gates, it needs to welcome these new arrivals to the national family and give them a place at Dr. Martin Luther King's table of brotherhood. It will need to accept that you cannot, in the long term, govern only for the one percent, not if you want this country to have a future. It may want to consider whether it's perhaps just entirely laughable to require the citation of the Magna Carta in every piece of legislation. It will need to accept that this country's greatest moments came not because of the matchless force of our arms or because God loves us best among all his children, but because of our ideas and our compassion.
2. Republicans need to modulate our social and cultural message. Not jettison. Not reverse. Modulate. For example: we are a pro-life party, but every Republican platform since 1980 has gone much further, calling for a federal constitutional amendment to ban all abortions in all states under almost all circumstances. We don't mean it. We don't act on it. Yet we keep saying it. [...]
3. We have to adopt an environmental ethic of our own. This does not mean endorsing every scare story hyped by professional greens. From apples supposedly poisoned by the growth chemical Alar to the alleged commercial viability of wind power, green groups have been wrong at least as often as they have been proved right. But we do have to recognize a global shift in consciousness on environmental issues.
But above all, it will need to realize that it has a responsibility to its fellow Americans. This country cannot prosper if one of its two great parties checks itself into a lunatic asylum of its own making.
If or when it checks itself out of that asylum, we will not recognize the GOP. And that will be a wonderful thing.