So much ink and so many pixels have been spilled of late, trying 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 and the craziness come from?
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, and the modern version of the Confederacy of the 19th-century South, as Corey Robin posits? Are they fueled by hate, racism, and vindictiveness, and 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 emanates 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, looking at the timeline of events that has led the Republican party to its current iteration.
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 the Republican and Democratic parties were dormant, void of grassroots movement, enthusiasm, and principle. Following the end of the half-century Cold War, the US Government in the 1990s hummed idly as a technocratic machine, manipulated by the only interest groups still paying attention --- economic, financial, and industrial stakeholders.
The apathy of movement partisans was so endemic across party lines that 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.
During the 2000 presidential campaign, it could be argued that the two parties were indistinguishable. The platforms of candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush were similar in a race that came down to a virtual tie. The handing of the Presidency to Bush by the Supreme Court was almost an afterthought.
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. Quite simply, Democrats remembered that they existed, and they began to recruit. The “stolen” election became the first spark of a Party revived by 2006. .
There were 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 Bush Presidency kept yielding its unmitigated disasters. Everything Bush touched turned to ash, from tax cuts to education, Medicare to environmental regulations. And with every step he took, the Democratic Party grew stronger. No one beyond Bush loyalists --- not moderates, not centrists, not independents --- wanted to be associated with the devastation of the Administration, and one by one they flocked to the alternative.
Importantly, each time an alternative was sought, the Democratic Party was there. Political refugees saw in it whatever 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 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 US was suddenly populated by hardline progressives and liberals, but rather because so many sought an escape from Bush and his Republicans.
By the 2008 election, identification with the Republican Party 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: this had nothing to do with the liberalism of Americans, with the spirit of progressive struggles, or with 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 became toxic.W
The seething turmoil and fantastical craziness we see in Republicans is the opposite side of the coin of the bloated, overly moderate, and endlessly compromising Democratic party. While most of the country ran away from Bush and into the waiting arms of the Democrats, conservatives had no one to run to. So they simply ran off a cliff.
If you’re not with the platform of the Not-Bush party and you’re not with the platform of the party of George W. Bush, you’re what? You’re screaming about Kenyan Muslim Socialists, health care death panels, and the concentration camps of the Federal Emergency Administration, that’s what.
This new, inscrutable conservative movement, reluctantly squatting inside the Republican tent. seem irrational, scared, and angry. Everything they thought they believed in, from war in Iraq to tax cuts for the rich, has been turned to Bushian pus and ash.
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 crazy as they are now. And 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