Sailing to Irrelevance: Irrelevant is the New Normal
Earlier this morning at A Healthy Commotion, Elias had a pretty gloomy response to a “crazy comment” from Louisiana congress-critter John Fleming. Readers can link over to the good Mr. Isquith’s post for the actual NYT-reported quote, but the basic gist of Mr. Fleming’s remarks is this: Obamacare is such a pernicious Evil that it may well be worth wrecking the country in order to avoid having it become a regular feature in American life.
I share Elias’s malaise, if not his surprise. (Elias finds the quote ‘jaw-dropping,” but to my ears it sounds pretty consistent with most of the quotes I’ve heard from the right regarding the PPACA over the past twenty-four months.) However, reading his post did make me wonder about the future of the GOP. Up to now, like most of the Republicans’ other critics, I have been asking myself just how many times the party will have to have the stuffing beat out of it nationally before it notices it’s lying in a gutter covered in its own vomit, admits it has a problem, and embarks on a twelve-step journey to recovery. Indeed, I’ve been re-writing this question over and over these past two years. But as I was reading Elias this morning, I was hit with a terrible, horrible thought:
Why on Earth should I believe the GOP is going to change, ever, regardless of how they do nationally at the ballot box?
Why isn’t it reasonable to believe that this is just who they are now, and who they’re always going to be?
From a political standpoint, nationally speaking the Grand Old Party is mess. Last year Republicans lost what was probably its most winnable bid for the White House since George H.W. Bush rode Reagan’s coattails into office, as they simultaneously botched a slam-dunk opportunity to re-take the Senate. At any other point in our nation’s history, this would be cause for the party to do some serious self-reflection and retooling in order to avoid future drubbings. Now, however, that incentive is largely gone.
Consider: Membership in the GOP as a percentage of the electorate is rapidly shrinking, and has been for a while. The party continues to largely ignore women and minorities on its best days, while seemingly going out of their way to offend them on its worst. This despite the fact that every electorate metric shows that capturing the white-male vote at their expense is a recipe for defeat at a national level in both the short and the long-term. Worse, outside of their own bubble-enclosed base they’re pretty much laughingstocks with the rest of the country, including conservative independents. And yet despite all of this, thanks to its total integration with its media machine, the business of being a base-driven Republican has never been better.
Fewer individuals may be writing checks to Republicans, but those that continue to do so are writing bigger checks. In last year’s election it is estimated that the various arms of the GOP collectively raised over three billion dollars. That’s twice as much as it raised in the early 2000s, despite the fact that over that same period of time the percentage of registered voters who identified as Republicans has plummeted from 33% to 23%.
In the past, the collective size of political donations was largely tied to a candidate’s perceived electability; the greater the chances of defeat appeared, the quicker the income stream would dry up. In today’s media-machine driven GOP, however, that standard has reversed. When Todd Akin’s astoundingly moronic and tone-deaf rape claim produced secret electoral juices that shut all that potential-Republican-majority-in-the-Senate down, his war chest actually grew. The same happened with Richard Mourdock’s war chest after he made similar comments, and with Paul Broun’s after he claimed that evolution and the big bang theory were evil conspiracies created by Satan. Hell, in the media-machine world of the GOP, you can be the worst major-party VP candidate in history, quit your job as governor mid-term out of boredom, become a shameless reality TV star along with the rest of your family, hint that you maybe, possibly, might kind of run for some office someday soon, and still snag more than a million dollars a year from the base.
Additionally, there is the problem that competence in today’s GOP has little reward. A decade or two ago, being invited to the Sunday morning talking-head shows was a sign that a congress-critter was working on something big. Think: Bob Packwood on tax reform, Phil Gramm and Jim Leach on banking regulations, Newt Gingrich with his Contract with America, John McCain and Feingold with campaign finance reform. You might not have agreed with their ideas or strategies, but you couldn’t deny they were getting shit done.
Tune in those same talking-head shows today, and which Republican up-and-comers are you likely to see? People like Louie Gohmert, who has done almost nothing of note as a legislator, but is able to gin up the media machine by making ludicrous conspiracy theories about terror babies, the US. Government being run by the Muslim Brotherhood, or how the Aurora theatre shootings were caused by the Supreme Court’s school prayer ruling. Or Steve King, whose meaningful legislative accomplishments are as barren as Gohmert’s, but who nonetheless demands the spotlight by repeated hammering on Obama’s middle name, accusing the president of being a Muslim shill, supporting racial profiling, and making bizarre comments about Mexicans, marijuana and cantaloupes. Or maybe they’ll just book – God help us all – Donal Trump.
Is there a GOP legislator out there crafting real legislation designed to do something other than create sound bites that get them Fox News or talk radio airtime? If so, I certainly never hear of them in either the mainstream media or the conservative media machine. It might be that there just aren’t any left in the party; it might be that there are still plenty, but that they are relegated to obscurity by their own party and base. Either of those options is equally depressing for patriots of any political stripe who value a strong and vibrant political system.
On top of everything else, there is the knowledge that most political careers come with an expiration date. In years past, being so sack-of-hammers nuts that you cost your party an elected seat meant that you were post-defeat persona non grata with the party and the base alike. That’s just not the way it works in today’s media-machine-driven GOP. In today’s GOP, nutty gets you airtime, and airtime gets you notoriety, and notoriety gets you lobbying contracts and gigs in the very media machine that sucked ratings out of your bat-shit crazy gaffes. Seriously, is there anyone out there that doesn’t beleive Michelle Bachmann is going to be highly paid Fox Contributing Editor after next year? (Assuming, of course, she doesn’t get her own show on The Blaze.)
So where, really, is the incentive for the Grand Old Party to change? If they keep losing the White House and never again get a whiff of major federal legislation passed – so what? How does that actually hurt any of the party’s players – or at least those players that still matter?
Now that I think about it, its funny that it took me this long to consider this a possibility. When considering my Sailing to Irrelevance series, you’d think I would have come to this conclusion long ago. But until now, I’ve always assumed that they couldn’t keep going like this for very long. I took comfort in Andrew Sullivan’s oft-repeated mantra “It’s going to get worse before it gets better” because that meant that it would, eventually, get better. I always assumed that if nothing else, pride would force the party to correct course. But now I find myself considering the horrific possibility that this is just the new normal.
Hey, the market wants what the market wants – can’t fight the market. And despite the degree to which it may be slowly killing this country, a radical, non-conservative, ineffectual and self-destructive political party seems to be exactly what the market demands of today’s GOP.
Maybe we’re just stuck with it, for now and forever.
Other entries in the Sailing to Irrelevance series can be found here.