As I've written about before, its hard to avoid celebrating the shadenfreude of the moment. But this week, Melissa Harris-Perry sounded a warning about that.
A challenge to the status quo could be a good thing, of course. It is what animates both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement. And as a media observer, I find it exciting to watch the Republicans behaving so erratically. But I am more than a little concerned that no one seems to be steering the GOP ship anymore. Democratic loyalists may gleefully herald the Republican disarray, but they should be concerned that the populism of the right is coalescing around the race-baiting, divisive extremism of Newt Gingrich, which seems likely to prove more rabid than that of the existing elite. A new Southern Strategy, fueled by the multimillion-dollar weaponry of Citizens United, could be enough to make me yearn for the good ol’ days of the Republican establishment.
Harris-Perry's main concern is the addition of "the multimillion-dollar weaponry of Citizens United" to the mix. And she's certainly right about that - its the one new ingredient to this kind of battle that hasn't been there in the past. Would Gingrich still be alive as the "not-Romney" alternative were it not for the cash infusion from Sheldon Adelson? Perhaps not.
But as I've said all along, political pundits continue to miss the impact of people like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh (not to mention the legions of bloggers and local conservative talk radio) on Republican base voters. How can we miss this when in the not-too-distant past even Republican elected officials were demonstrating that they bow to the whims of Rush Limbaugh? Have we forgotten that a clash with this Republican power-broker has typically been followed with an apology from said official? And as crazy as it will forever be to those of us on the left, the truth for anti-establishment Republicans is that "when Sarah speaks, they listen."
In her article, Harris-Perry was looking for historical precedence for this situation in our political swings. As I have done on several occasions, I would point to an article written by Peter Beinart over a year ago. He compared what is going on now in the Republican Party to what happened to Democrats in 1968-1972.
...for the purposes of analogy, is what happened between 1968 and 1972, when a centrist, Hubert Humphrey, lost a close race, and Democrats responded by nominating McGovern, the most left-leaning candidate ever to seek the presidency.
The process works something like this. When parties lose power, activists ascribe the loss to the ideological impurity of their incumbent president. In so doing, they vent the frustrations they kept bottled up while their side was in power. Since defeat frees them from the messy business of governing, ideological purity suddenly becomes easier. And since defeat usually hits party moderates disproportionately hard, the opponents of purity usually hold less sway.
One needs only a simple reminder of the fierce split between establishment and anti-establishment forces that led a Democratic Mayor of Chicago to unleash brutal police forces against protesters outside the Democratic Convention while inside delegates were walking out of the nomination process. The establishment forces won that round with the nomination of Sen. Hubert Humphrey - leading to his loss to Richard Nixon. But that only energized the anti-establishment wing, who came back in 1972 to nominate George McGovern who lost in a landslide.
In that context, its interesting to consider what David Frum wrote a few months ago about the 4 possible outcomes of this presidential race for Republicans. Certainly a general election win for either the establishment (Mitt Romney) or the anti-establishment (Newt Gingrich) candidate would be a clear victory for one side or the other and cement their hold on the party. But either of those possibilities is looking more and more unlikely as the primary continues on.
The real possibilities are likely to come down to either a Gingrich or Romney nomination and their loss to President Obama in the general election. Interestingly enough, as Frum points out, the real disaster would be a Romney nomination and loss.
For non-tea party Republicans, this second outcome opens all kinds of ugly, ominous possibilities. If candidate Romney loses, tea party Republicans will claim that the GOP lost because it failed to nominate a "true conservative." That claim may fly in the face of political math (how would a more extreme candidate win more votes?), but it will pack a lot of emotional punch. Intense partisans are always ready to believe that the way to win is to be more intense and more partisan.
As I've said before, I don't have a dog in this fight and will be doing everything I can to defeat whoever it is the Republicans nominate. But it also strikes me that perhaps the best way to put an end to this extremist nativism of the anti-establishment wing of the Republican Party is for them to have their say and go down in a landslide defeat (as did McGovern in 72). Certainly there's always the risk of what will rise from the ashes of the Republican Party after that. But its beyond time to put an end to the nonsense they're spewing now. The prospect of having to listen to their ramped-up wailings for the next four years is just beyond me to imagine as an alternative.