If the Republican Party was hobbled at the outset of the 2008 election, they were on the floor when it ended. And now Rush Limbaugh is sitting on them. When new party Chair Michael Steele described Limbaugh’s hope that President Barack Obama would fail as “ugly” and “incendiary,” he quickly apologized. Steele’s lack of backbone is not unique. It seems no Republican is up to the challenge of confronting the lunatic fringe’s Lunatic-in-Chief: South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and Georgia Representative Phil Gringey have also criticized Limbaugh, only to later supplicate themselves. But Steele’s apology, in particular, demonstrates the dubious honor of being chosen to play referee in a Republican Party torn apart by internal politics. Moderate conservatives, business elites, neoconservative hawks, and, yes, Limbaugh-loving social reactionaries all want to control the party’s reconstruction. And what Limbaugh’s recent tantrums demonstrate is that the negotiations will be anything but cordial.
Some might think that understanding the crisis in conservative politics requires a lot of sophisticated analysis. I prefer explanations that mix in a good amount of gloating and some pop culture references. For the Republican Party, the template is Sergio Leone: three contingents are fighting for control—the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly—and three possible futures hang in the balance.
Rush Limbaugh speaks for—you guessed it—the Ugly. The Ugly describe Republicans who are hateful toward women and minorities, who believe they’ve been wronged by the secular leftist establishment and want revenge. All of the participants in the right-wing populist culture wars—zealots who picket outside abortion clinics, Prop 8 pushers, minutemen—get filed under Ugly.
The Bad may not be as passionate as the Ugly, but they are calculating and crassly self-serving. They’re the hawks and free-market ideologues who subordinate the common good to narrow agendas for the expansion of the wealth and power of their own kind. They get indicted a lot. Tom Delay and Donald Rumsfeld come to mind as exemplars, but the Bad are often the power behind the party rather than its public face—billionaire campaign donors, lobbyists, etc.
Then there’s the Good. Clint Eastwood’s character in the The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was a scoundrel but, crucially, his word was his bond and he kept to a personal code of justice. Partisanship aside, Republicans interested in running an opposition party that is socially conservative without being intolerant and fiscally conservative while still concerned with the common good certainly qualify as Good guys. Olympia Snowe and Mitt Romney are Good Republicans. But Good Republicans are mostly marginal to the party today.
In his world, Limbaugh may be the new conservative kingmaker, but he’s ultimately only the bloated overseer of the Ugly Right. A recent Newsweek survey found that Limbaugh’s positives don’t crack the 30% mark; about half of the nation actively dislikes him and the rest can’t be bothered to care. He’s less a king than a slumlord. His dittoheads are a subspecies of social conservative troglodytes that are trivial in the broad view of American politics. Too bad for the Republicans that getting Ugly has been central to their electoral strategy for over a decade now.
Karl Rove’s wager was that conservatives could carry the day without playing to the political center, so long as it reliably mobilized “values” voters: the Evangelicals, the single-issue pro-lifers, the homophobes, and NRA hawks. Under his leadership, the party lunged rightward, but it did so in a way that would be maximally appealing to the party’s non-elite base. The neocons and corporate oligarchs might never have relinquished control of the party’s economic and foreign policy agenda, but their electoral foot soldiers needed to be purchased with conservative populist concessions. Now that social conservative voters have cohered into a powerful political entity, any vision for a reconstituted Republican Party has to pay their respect.
From that nexus, the Limbaugh problem emerges. Perhaps a pariah to most Americans, Limbaugh gets a 60 percent approval rating among Republicans. And following an electoral cycle in which the party hemorrhaged moderates, the rabid social conservative sect may have grown more powerful. But Limbaugh’s unexpected relevance to mainstream politics only gets at part of a much deeper crisis for the Republican Party, one that goes back to Ronald Reagan. The last visionary man of the right, Reagan’s leadership forged an alliance between the Bad and the Ugly without ever addressing the serious class antagonisms that prevented a genuine identity of political interests. Working-class social conservatives could mostly ignore an increasingly imperial foreign policy and an economic policy catered to the wants of corporations so long as they felt they were making strides against abortion, gay rights, and secularism. Obama spoke to the same trend with his controversial statement that working-class whites had turned to cultural politics out of frustration and bitterness over a bad economic situation that neither party had much improved.
By and large, social and fiscal conservatives’ two divergent agendas have united mostly due to their opposition to the Democratic Party. But in the current economic downturn, issues like health care and social services carry more saliency. Immigration creates a second fissure: social conservatives call for sealed borders and protectionist measures for American jobs, while economic conservatives would prefer a continued steady supply of cheap labor. Final fissure: the war in Iraq. The invasion was a neoconservative experiment, but it’s poor and working-class Americans who do the fighting. The recession and the war thus drove moderates from the party starting in 2004, resulting in the Republicans’ miserable electoral failures in ’06 and ’08. The Bad-Ugly alliance is officially broken; the question of how to renegotiate the sharing of power within the party remains.
The party’s elites enter the fray at a major disadvantage. Wealthy powerbrokers are hardly a sizeable voting bloc, and in the current economic climate, their anti-regulation, anti-protectionist stances will be a harder sell to moderate Republicans and social conservatives. A fiscally conservative agenda only remains viable if social conservatives can be convinced to stay on board. This is why Steele has to play to Limbaugh’s antics. Moderate Republicans must also confront the religious right: Romney, for all of his financial expertise, couldn’t get past the anti-Mormon virulence of many conservative Christians. It was an alliance of moderates, corporate types, and hawks that secured John McCain’s nomination—the same voters that flinched when Palin joined the ticket. But those voters knew they weren’t going to win without the large social conservative turnout that gave Bush the edge in 2004. A party of technocratic fiscal conservatives is a no-go: Ask Ron Paul or the Libertarians.
Possible future #1 is that fiscal conservatives keep paying lip service to extreme social conservatives, and a party much like the one that existed under Bush keeps trudging along. But this is not a winning scenario: As I’ve pointed out, it’s an arrangement that moves class issues off the table, which means that socially-minded Democrats will continue to win over poor Republicans who can’t justify Ugly at the expense of their own economic well-being. This incarnation of the Republican Party could get a little more mileage if voters are dissatisfied by Obama’s first term, but eventually Republicans will need to renegotiate their unstable combination of elitism and populism.
In possible future #2, Limbaugh’s followers seize the reins and the Republican Party evolves toward a nationalist party of social conservatives, anti-immigrant voters, and flag-waving War-on-Ter’-supporting patriots. The electoral performance of this party is uncertain at best. We know that there aren’t enough Limbaugh lovers to matter outside the party, that Huckabee might have had an outsider’s chance at the nomination, but would have been devastated in the general election, and that for every Ugly who loved Palin, two moderates saw right through her. With few broadly likable candidates and no strong financial base, it’s not difficult to imagine a miserable failure for the party. The war and the economic meltdown have made cultural politics far less relevant, and a party with social conservatism as its major precept would have little to offer moderates and independent voters. A viable party in this mold remains improbable absent a major transformation in conservative ideology—one that would require, among other things, a leader far more convincing than Limbaugh.
If that scenario keeps me up at night, then future #3 is what progressive liberals should hope for: It involves a Republican Party that survives by conceding to a general—if temporary—leftward shift in American politics. The Good win by taking the economic plight of Americans seriously. Their economic policy would call for balancing the provision of essential services between free markets and adequately funded state programs. This would all be animated by a concern with fiscal conservatism that tried seriously to get the national debt under control. They would try to absorb some of what currently attracts the wealthy to the party into a responsible economic policy as deregulation and top-down stimulus. Though liberals have good reason to be wary of these policies, they can prove useful in some circumstances, and reasonable people can and should disagree about which circumstances those are. The Ugliness of each candidate would vary based on personal religiosity, but the party could still woo social conservatives through faith-based initiatives, protections for veterans and the elderly, and moderate, sensible compromises in gay rights and abortion legislation.
The loss of the religious right at the polls would be more than compensated for if the new Republicans could gain the support of centrists and moderate Democrats; in fact, their main challenge would be to differentiate themselves from moderate Democrats. Rather than disagreeing in broadly ideological terms, moderate Republicans would make specific, targeted criticisms of Democratic policies and respond with their own proposals which would involve more moderate reforms in the social sphere and less costly adventures in the economic. In a sense, they’d operate much like the opposition parties in Europe’s parliamentary democracies. They’d then remain viable as a party, maybe even steal away much of the political center in good years, but the cost would be a permanent leftward shift in American politics. Any GOP visionary who proposes such a shift will have to answer to the party’s de facto leader, and as long as Limbaugh’s virulent politics maintains its appeal to a core Republican constituency, there’s little chance of a party makeover.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.