Sunday, November 27, 2011

When Did the GOP Lose Touch With Reality?

Happy Thanksgiving – and STOP THE PRESSES!!! for the best political article I've read all year, about how the Republican Party has been hijacked by extremists and lost touch with reality.  This is not a new theme – NYT columnist David Brooks wrote in July that the Republican Party "may no longer be a normal political party [because it] has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative" ( – but what makes this article in the latest issue of New York Magazine particularly compelling (in addition to its cogent arguments) is its author, David Frum, who describes himself as follows:


I've been a Republican all my adult life. I have worked on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, at Forbes magazine, at the Manhattan and American Enterprise Institutes, as a speechwriter in the George W. Bush administration. I believe in free markets, low taxes, reasonable regulation, and limited government. I voted for John ­McCain in 2008, and I have strongly criticized the major policy decisions of the Obama administration.


In other words, this article is written by an insider with impeccable conservative credentials, who hasn't abandoned his party but rather is fighting to save it.


So why am I sending a purely political article that doesn't once mention schools to my education reform email list, risking the wrath of thousands of my readers who are Republicans?  Because the Republicans on this email list are among the most powerful and influential in the country and I'm throwing down a challenge to them: step up, speak out and take back control of your party – because the future of our country depends on it.  As Frum writes in the last two paragraphs of his article:

This is, unfortunately, not merely a concern for Republican voters. The conservative shift to ever more extreme, ever more fantasy-based ideology has ominous real-world consequences for American society. The American system of government can't work if the two sides wage all-out war upon each other: House, Senate, president, each has the power to thwart the others. In prior generations, the system evolved norms and habits to prevent this kind of stonewalling. For example: Theoretically, the party that holds the Senate could refuse to confirm any Cabinet nominees of a president of the other party. Yet until recently, this just "wasn't done." In fact, quite a lot of things that theoretically could be done just "weren't done." Now old inhibitions have given way. Things that weren't done suddenly are done.

We can debate when the slide began. But what seems beyond argument is that the U.S. political system becomes more polarized and more dysfunctional every cycle, at greater and greater human cost. The next Republican president will surely find himself or herself at least as stymied by this dysfunction as President Obama, as will the people the political system supposedly serves, who must feel they have been subjected to a psychological experiment gone horribly wrong, pressing the red button in 2004 and getting a zap, pressing blue in 2008 for another zap, and now agonizing whether there is any choice that won't zap them again in 2012. Yet in the interests of avoiding false evenhandedness, it must be admitted: The party with a stronger charge on its zapper right now, the party struggling with more self-­imposed obstacles to responsible governance, the party most in need of a course correction, is the Republican Party. Changing that party will be the fight of a political lifetime. But a great political party is worth fighting for.

I feel very comfortable throwing down this challenge because I and a small group of like-minded Democrats faced a very similar challenge in our own party, which had become a wholly owned subsidiary of the most powerful interest group in the country, the teachers unions.  Our great party had become so corrupted by the unions that it was betraying its core principles and throwing its most loyal and vulnerable constituents – low-income minorities – under the bus, again and again.


So did we sit there and bemoan what had happened to our party?  Hell no – we took action!  We created Democrats for Education Reform and a number of other organizations with the explicit goal of breaking the stranglehold of the teachers unions on our party so that the Democratic Party could return "to its rightful place as a champion of children, first and foremost, in America's public education systems" (from DFER's Statement of Principles).  It's worked beyond our wildest dreams, as Steve Brill documents in Class Warfare (


So what are you waiting for?  Get going – to save your party and our country!


PS—Here are a few excerpts from Frum's article, starting with my favorite paragraph:


It's clearly true that the country faces daunting economic troubles. It's also true that the wrong answers to those problems will push the United States toward a future of too much government, too many taxes, and too much regulation. It's the job of conservatives in this crisis to show a better way. But it's one thing to point out (accurately) that President Obama's stimulus plan was mostly a compilation of antique Democratic wish lists, and quite another to argue that the correct response to the worst collapse since the thirties is to wait for the economy to get better on its own. It's one thing to worry (wisely) about the long-term trend in government spending, and another to demand big, immediate cuts when 25 million are out of full-time work and the government can borrow for ten years at 2 percent. It's a duty to scrutinize the actions and decisions of the incumbent administration, but an abuse to use the filibuster as a routine tool of legislation or to prevent dozens of presidential appointments from even coming to a vote. It's fine to be unconcerned that the rich are getting richer, but blind to deny that ­middle-class wages have stagnated or worse over the past dozen years. In the aftershock of 2008, large numbers of Americans feel exploited and abused. Rather than workable solutions, my party is offering low taxes for the currently rich and high spending for the currently old, to be followed by who-knows-what and who-the-hell-cares. This isn't conservatism; it's a going-out-of-business sale for the baby-boom generation.


My second-favorite part:

Many hope that the tea-party mood is just a passing mania, eventually to subside into something more like the businessperson's Republicanism practiced in the nineties by governors and mayors like George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani, Christine Todd Whitman and Dick Riordan, Tommy Thompson and John Engler. This hope tends to coalesce around the candidacies of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, two smart and well-informed former governors who eschew the strident rhetoric of the tea party and who have thereby earned its deep distrust. But there are good reasons to fear that the ebbing of Republican radicalism remains far off, even if Romney (or Huntsman) does capture the White House next year.

1. Fiscal Austerity and Economic Stagnation

2. Ethnic Competition

3. Fox News and Talk Radio

Extremism and conflict make for bad politics but great TV. Over the past two decades, conservatism has evolved from a political philosophy into a market segment. An industry has grown up to serve that segment—and its stars have become the true thought leaders of the conservative world. The business model of the conservative media is built on two elements: provoking the audience into a fever of indignation (to keep them watching) and fomenting mistrust of all other information sources (so that they never change the channel). As a commercial proposition, this model has worked brilliantly in the Obama era. As journalism, not so much. As a tool of political mobilization, it backfires, by inciting followers to the point at which they force leaders into confrontations where everybody loses, like the summertime showdown over the debt ceiling.

But the thought leaders on talk radio and Fox do more than shape opinion. Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics. Outside this alternative reality, the United States is a country dominated by a strong Christian religiosity. Within it, Christians are a persecuted minority. Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy ­errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he's a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action ­phony doomed to inevitable defeat. Outside the system, social scientists worry that the U.S. is hardening into one of the most rigid class societies in the Western world, in which the children of the poor have less chance of escape than in France, Germany, or even England. Inside the system, the U.S. remains (to borrow the words of Senator Marco Rubio) "the only place in the world where it doesn't matter who your parents were or where you came from."

We used to say "You're entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts." Now we are all entitled to our own facts, and conservative media use this right to immerse their audience in a total environment of pseudo-facts and pretend information.

When contemplating the ruthless brilliance of this system, it's tempting to fall back on the theory that the GOP is masterminded by a cadre of sinister billionaires, deftly manipulating the political process for their own benefit. The billionaires do exist, and some do indeed attempt to influence the political process. The bizarre fiasco of campaign-finance reform has perversely empowered them to give unlimited funds anonymously to special entities that can spend limitlessly. (Thanks, Senator ­McCain! Nice job, Senator Feingold!) Yet, for the most part, these Republican billionaires are not acting cynically. They watch Fox News too, and they're gripped by the same apocalyptic fears as the Republican base. In funding the tea-party movement, they are ­actually acting against their own longer-term interests, for it is the richest who have the most interest in political stability, which depends upon broad societal agreement that the existing distribution of rewards is fair and reasonable. If the social order comes to seem unjust to large numbers of people, what happens next will make Occupy Wall Street look like a street fair.

Finally, here's Frum on how he was ostracized by daring the challenge Republican orthodoxy:

On the day of the House vote that ensured the enactment of health-care ­reform, I wrote a blog post saying all this—and calling for some accountability for those who had led the GOP to this disaster. For my trouble, I was denounced the next day by my former colleagues at The Wall Street Journal as a turncoat. Three days after that, I was dismissed from the American Enterprise Institute. I'm not a solitary case: In 2005, the economist Bruce Bartlett, a main legislative author of the Kemp-Roth tax cut, was fired from a think tank in Dallas for too loudly denouncing the George W. Bush administration's record, and I could tell equivalent stories about other major conservative think tanks as well.

I don't complain from a personal point of view. Happily, I had other economic resources to fall back upon. But the message sent to others with less security was clear: We don't pay you to think, we pay you to repeat. For myself, the main consequences have been more comic than anything else. Back in 2009, I wrote a piece for Newsweek arguing that Republicans would regret conceding so much power to Rush Limbaugh. Until that point, I'd been a frequent guest on Fox News, but thenceforward some kind of fatwa was laid down upon me. Over the next few months, I'd occasionally receive morning calls from young TV bookers asking if I was available to appear that day. For sport, I'd always answer, "I'm available—but does your senior producer know you've called me?" An hour later, I'd receive an embarrassed second call: "We've decided to go in a different direction." Earlier this year, I did some volunteer speechwriting for a Republican contemplating a presidential run. My involvement was treated as a dangerous secret, involving discreet visits to hotel suites at odd hours. Thus are political movements held together. But this is not how movements grow and govern.


When Did the GOP Lose Touch With Reality?

Some of my Republican friends ask if I've gone crazy. I say: Look in the mirror.

"What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior can you begin to piece together [his actions]?"  

(Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

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