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THE collapse of John Boehner’s “Plan B” reveals the Republican Party to be in a politically disastrous position.The media narrative is shaping up to pin the full blame for sending the country over the fiscal cliff on the Republicans. News coverage of Mr Boehner is characterised by a mixture of disdain and pity. The tea-party congressmen who have sabotaged his position are portrayed as delusional zealots unable to connect their professed goals to their actions in a rational fashion.
In the other major storyline of the end of the year, the NRA, to which the GOP has been chained by the ankle for the past two decades, has just held a catastrophic press conference that not only outraged the entire left and centre of the country but apparently lost the support of the right-wing New York Post. (And when the Post breaks up with you, man, it doesn’t let you down easy. Headline: “Gun Nut! NRA loon in bizarre rant over Newtown“.) As John Dickerson puts it: “The Republican Party is in a rebuilding mode after its 2012 election loss. These two events—a defiant NRA and an incompetent leadership—cannot be the face of confrontation the GOP wants to show the public on high-profile issues.”
The thing is, for a party like the current GOP, it’s not clear that any of this matters. Hardline conservative and nationalist parties in many countries often maintain or intensify their commitment to catastrophic policies, even as those policies lose majority support. For the constituents of such parties, criticism from opponents tends to be irrelevant: they believe their cosmopolitan, effeminate, ethnically/sexually/religiously/ideologically deviant adversaries have always been united in a conspiracy against them. Fresh attacks from the out-group tend to merely confirm their pre-existing insular biases, and the fact that the out-group appears to be growing often inspires them to visions of Spenglerian decline rather than prompting them to ask whether there might be a good reason why they’re turning people off.
I was talking this over yesterday with a friend who was in town from Jerusalem. Where, obviously, some very similar dynamics are going on. The Israeli government found out a few weeks ago that a tectonic shift is taking place in international sympathies: the world’s countries voted 138 to 9 to grant the Palestinian Authority observer-state status in the United Nations. America couldn’t use its power to dissuade many countries from voting for the measure, and even generally Israel-friendly countries such as the Netherlands and Germany abstained rather than vote against. The Israeli response, predictably but horribly, was to retaliate by ramming through approval for huge new settlement blocs in occupied East Jerusalem, the largest of which happens to be underneath the windows of my friend’s apartment in an old Arab neighbourhood. The location of the new Israeli developments will make it impossible to connect Arab East Jerusalem contiguously to any future Palestinian state on the West Bank, which has led many to say that this is the last nail in the coffin of the two-state solution—a move, in other words, that actually seems to run against the Israeli right’s own interests in any rational articulation of their goals, except that the Israeli right seems to be unable to come up with any rational articulation of its goals.
The thing is, though, that Israeli rightists do not actually process a vote against them in the UN as cautionary information. Since I was a kid in the early 1980s, the Israeli right has believed that Europe is a cesspool of anti-Semitism, that the UN is dominated by third-world communists and Muslims, and that Europe and the UN will always vote against them so there’s no point trying to curry their favour. And every time a vote like this goes through, it only redoubles the commitment of right-wing voters to right-wing parties. Israeli conservative parties have no disincentive to pursue disastrous settlement policies that produce antagonistic results which only reconfirm the support of their ever-more-anxious and militant base, any more than Republican tax or gun maximalists have any incentive to compromise with Barack Obama in the face of mounting public antagonism that only confirms their own supporters’ feelings of embattled fury.
How, I asked my friend, can organisations like this change their minds? The more they get pounded down by the response to their actions, the more hardened they get. “You’ve seen this kind of thing play out,” I asked my friend, who grew up in Serbia. “How does it end?”
“It ends when certain very powerful people and institutions decide they can no longer do business with these people,” she said.
The text of the Business Roundtable’s letter from December 11th, supporting both tax hikes and spending cuts, is here. The day after the Roundtable sent this letter, Dave Camp, the Republican chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, dismissed this group of CEOs representing $7.3 trillion in annual revenues in insulting terms: “Big business may support raising tax rates on small businesses, but I do not.” How Republicans could possibly be reconciled to any action on gun control, I don’t know; but on the fiscal cliff, at this point it’s clear who is standing in the way of the kind of deal corporate CEOs want. I can’t see the GOP changing its mind on taxes because of any change of heart on the part of Republican voters, but at the point where Republican politics meet the policy preferences of American business, I could imagine a lot of action starting to happen soon.
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