As he so often does, Paul Krugman nailed it right in his column on Friday. The time for euphemism is past: the Republicans are crazy. Ok, he doesn’t mean crazy in the literal clinical sense, and he probably doesn’t mean all Republicans. (A lot of them only pretend to be crazy, but the consequences are the same). But the current government shutdown/debt limit shenanigans are just the latest piece of evidence that the driving forces in today’s Republican Party are politically crazy—i.e., significantly detached from political reality–and willing to act destructively on their delusions.
I’ve been saying for a long time that today’s Republican Party is unique in American history–a truly radical major party. The party is radical in its reactionary ideology, which seeks to undo much of 20th century public policy, substantially reverting to the business-dominated American society of the 1920s. (The several versions of the Ryan budget, passed unanimously or near-unanimously by House Republicans, would eviscerate large swaths of the federal government by largely defunding them.) But it is in its radical strategy and tactics that the party’s craziness is most striking. The Republicans’ repeated use of extortionate threats–to shut down the government, to blow up the world economy via the debt limit–has no parallel in US history. Nor does their routine abuse of the rules of the US Senate to disable majority rule. Nor does their deliberate sabotage of lawfully constituted government agencies: Senate Republicans withheld approval of appointees to the Consumer Financial Protection Agency and the National Labor Relations Board not because they deemed the nominees unqualified, but in order to prevent those agencies from operating.
This is not the behavior of a traditional American political party. It’s the behavior of a party that sees politics as war. In war, the rules, such as they are, can be ignored in the all-out effort to destroy the enemy. Newt Gingrich candidly expressed this view way back in 1994 when he said, “This war [between conservatives and liberals] has to be fought with the scale and duration and savagery that is only true of civil wars.”
The war must be fought savagely even against a mildly reformist administration in Washington, like Clinton’s or Obama’s. Take the current Republican extortion attempt targeting the Affordable Care Act. Obamacare is not a radical reform. Its complexity reflects its very conservatism: rather than simply replace the existing health care insurance system with a single payer, Obamacare laboriously works around the existing system. And yet the Republicans claim to believe, and many do believe, that Obamacare gravely threatens American freedoms and prosperity. This perception is clearly disproportionate–it seems curious, overwrought. But consider that the centerpiece of Obamacare—the health insurance mandate—had been proposed by the right-wing Heritage Foundation in 1989. Massachusetts Governor George Romney worked closely with Heritage to fashion his health care reform, which became a model for Obama’s. Along with insurance exchanges, the mandate had defined the leading conservative approach to health care reform until 2009. Until, that is, the conservative approach became Obama’s approach, when it suddenly became a threat to American democracy and capitalism. That’s not just curious or overwrought; that’s crazy.
Radicals don’t have to be crazy. As a budding political scientist, I wrote my dissertation on Italian politics, which for four decades after World War II featured a continuing struggle between the dominant Christian Democrats and the Italian Communist Party, Italy’s second largest. Political scientists sometimes characterized the Communists as an “anti-system” party, on the assumption that if they ever gained power they would overturn the political system. But Italy’s Communists were never as systematically and consistently obstructionist, as disdainful of the informal norms of restraint that keep conflict manageable, as today’s Republicans.
Now, you might suspect that lefty pontificators like me and Krugman would be inclined to exaggerate the craziness of the American right. But listen to two unassailably centrist analysts, James Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute (yes, the American Enterprise Institute) in their recent book, It’s Even Worse than It Looks:
…however awkward it may be for the traditional press and nonpartisan analysts to acknowledge, one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
In other less polite words: crazy.
It is noteworthy that Ornstein and Mann feel obliged to point out that mainstream media find it awkward to acknowledge the Republicans’ craziness. Our journalists traditionally affect a stance of non-partisan objectivity. To say frankly that one of our two political parties is crazy violates that tradition, so you read and see commentators on the current political scene talking as if today’s Republicans are a more or less normal party. That is false objectivity: it implies that crazy is normal.
I’ve been doing a good deal of reading lately trying to understand how this happened: how did one of our two major parties go crazy? I’ll report on my findings in my next post.