There is rarely anything “civil” about civil war. That definitely seems to be the case as the Republican party and conservatives react to defeat at the hands of President Barack Obama.As with most such fights – think of the Labour party in Britain in the early 1980s, or the Conservatives in the early 2000s – the conflict is between modernisers dragging a party more in line with the electorate it seeks to represent and reactionaries convinced salvation lies in a harder adherence to ideology.
On the one hand are people who accept the Republican party has now lost five out of the last six popular vote tallies in US presidential elections. They examine the changing demographics and social attitudes of Americans (less white, less religious, and more angry at the very wealthy) and see a powerful need to change.
On the other hand are Republicans who look at Mitt Romney’s capture of 48% of the vote and see a flawed “moderate in conservative clothing” who failed to connect to voters the way a true believer would. Just another couple of percentage points, these folks argue, and it would now be a dawn of a conservative golden age.
But the fascinating element of this sure-to-be-brutal conflict lies not in the opposing arguments, but in the make-up of each side. For long years, buoyed by Fox News and a legion of talk radio shockjocks, the conservative media and its allies in radical thinktanks have been an integral part of the Republican party. If you agreed with them, you saw people like internet scribe Matt Drudge, radio host Rush Limbaugh and anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist as necessary watchdogs on slippery politicians. If you didn’t, it seemed that in the Republican party, the inmates had taken over the asylum.
Look at those now standing on the side of retrenchment. There is Drudge, promoting the “secession” petitions that grassroots activists have sent to the White House from every state. That sort of extremist posturing feels very pre-2012 election (even Texas Governor Rick Perry – no stranger to secession talk – thinks so). Or look at Limbaugh. He dubbed critics of conservatism “the usual suspects” and asked millions of listeners to hold firm. Across the country “mini-Rushes” are repeating that message.
Take Steve Deace, a radio host in Iowa, who has slammed potential 2012 modernising candidates like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush or New Jersey’s Chris Christie. “Those people will never happen,” he emailed Business Insider.
Or look at Bryan Fischer, a radio host with the American Family Association. On the key issues of immigration, gay marriage and the deficit, Fischer’s argument is for more of the same message that has just rejected at the polls. “There hasn’t been such a rush to surrender since the French dropped to their knees before the Nazis in 1940,” he wrote this week.
There is even talk about a third party emerging from this fight. Limbaugh has floated the idea. So has Herman Cain, who may have run for the GOP nomination, but whose real power lies in his radio show and his speaking tours.
What do these people all have in common?
No one elects them. They are pundits and firebrands whose very existence relies on stirring up the base. That is where they get readers, listeners and donors. These people do not fear election losses. They thrive on them. Opposition suits their purpose.
The last thing they need is any form of accountable relationship with actual voters. Former George W Bush speechwriter David Frum, firing a brutal shot from the moderate camp, summed up their tactics the best: “Republicans have been fleeced and exploited and lied to by a conservative entertainment complex,” he told MSNBC.
So, what of the people who actually have to appeal to the voters?
That is where the other side of the GOP civil war is pitching its camp. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s remarkable interview to Politico this week had him sounding like MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. Jindal, echoing the “nasty party” fears of a previous generation of British Tories, said it was time for Republicans to stop being the “stupid party”. He went on:
“We’ve got to make sure that we are not the party of big business, big banks, big Wall Street bailouts, big corporate loopholes, big anything. We cannot be, we must not be, the party that simply protects the rich so they get to keep their toys.”
Wow. That is heady stuff for anyone who has listened to Republican dogma over the past decade or more.
Among the GOP’s elected representatives – and its more traditional elites – there is a sudden outbreak of moderation. The new intake of the House of Representatives now includes a dozen Republicans who have refused to sign Norquist’s “no tax increases” pledge. Others have recanted their allegiance. It is a clear sign of an ideological break with the past in favour of practical reality.
House speaker John Boehner is making noises about not seeking to repeal Obamacare, apparently accepting that most virulent of political fights is finished. Chris Christie has not backed down despite conservative ire over his across-the-aisle back-slapping with Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Indeed, Christie has now earned the displeasure of the Koch brothers-backed conservative group Americans for Prosperity, which once fervently supported him.
And Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol – the epitome of the Washington establishment conservative – even recently raised the prospect of supporting tax hikes. “It won’t kill the country if Republicans raise taxes a little bit on millionaires. It really won’t,” he told the flabbergasted viewers of Fox News.
Finally, there is immigration reform. Witnessing Obama’s overwhelming support among Hispanics, Republican politicians are rushing to embrace this once toxic issue. Three Senate Republicans, in the shape of John McCain, Orrin Hatch and Marco Rubio, are making noises about legislation that includes the once-unmentionable idea of a path to citizenship.
This sort of thing is a huge shock to the “conservative entertainment complex” Frum so accurately identified. Which is what makes the coming Republican civil war so unique. For it is not really a battle between two sets of warring politicians. Instead, it is a fight between politicians and pundits. It is policy versus talking points, voters versus ratings.
Even Democrats should hope the politicians win.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.