The Hedgehog Who Won
Gather closely, children — no, closer even than that — for I have a story to tell you, and at the end I have a question I will need you to answer.
The story I have to tell you goes like this:
Once upon a time, in a forest far away, there lived a very grouchy and prickly Hedgehog. There were a lot of things the Hedgehog hated about the forest — he was, after all, quite grouchy and prickly — but the thing he hated most was the forest’s Winter Carnival.
Now, you might ask yourselves why would anyone ever hate a carnival, but this is because you are not a hedgehog.
The Hedgehog hated the noise and bustle of the spring, summer, and fall, and through each of these seasons he longed for the quiet stillness that winter brought. For the Hedgehog, winter was the only time he truly felt happiness. Or it at least it had been, until the other animals in the forest decided to have a Winter Carnival each year at solstice.
The carnival was a noisy, weeklong affair form which the Hedgehog could find no peace. Worse, the build up to the event was unceasing and went on for months; in its wake the carnival left a trail of after-parties, remembrances, and other assorted frivolous merriment. In short, the Winter Carnival had taken the one season of the year the Hedgehog could be happy and transformed it into the time of year that made him the most miserable.
Then, one year, it was decided that the Carnival would host a yodeling contest. Yodeling is much beloved in the forest, as you know, and as such it was decided that whoever won this contest would be crowned the Winter Carnival King and would, for the following seven years, have total and complete control of every carnival during that time.
As you might imagine, my children, the Hedgehog was thrilled to hear of this. He was a fairly decent yodeler, and believed that with a fair amount of practice and discipline he might become a great one. If he could just get good enough to win the contest, he thought, he could transform the next seven Winter Carnivals from a thing that brought misery into a thing that might bring happiness. He would replace the much-beloved Loudest Farting & Belching contest with a Who Can Be The Most Quiet contest, for example, and close down the all-hours beer gardens, initiating a mid-afternoon tea and nap in its place. The Hedgehog decided, in short, that he would try to win the yodeling contest so that he could once again find three months of happiness each winter.
The Hedgehog worked very hard through the spring and summer, and I must tell you, my children, that he did indeed become a master yodeler. By October he was one of the finest in the forest. Still, he grew more and more frustrated. Each morning, you see, he would awaken to hear the Sparrow practicing her own yodels. The Hedgehog knew that by solstice his yodels might well surpass the other animals’ in their beauty and grace, but not the Sparrow’s.
The problem, he knew, was his tongue.
I do not know if you have ever seen a hedgehog’s tongue, my children, but it is a long and lolling appendage, more suited for the giving of raspberries than the tasting of them. The problem was that every time he went for the highest notes of the yodel, his overly-long tongue would fall back into his throat. Not enough to ruin the yodel, mind, but enough to keep him from hitting his note as pure and as sweet as the Sparrow. He tried everything he could think of, including a kind of jury-rigged tongue sling made from papas leaves, but to no avail. Finally, the Winter Carnival arrived and the Hedgehog, desperate for his seven years of happiness, took the only action he could think of that might allow him a more honeyed yodel like the Sparrow.
He cut out his tongue.
This strategy tuned out to be a sound one. Without his tongue, the high notes turned at once glorious and ethereal. At the contest the Sparrow delighted the animals, no doubt. But halfway through the Hedgehog’s performance every soul in the forest — including the Sparrow — knew who their Winter King ought to be. That night, as he was carried through the woods by his annoyingly jubilant and cacophonous neighbors, the Hedgehog began to weep for joy at the thought of the seven winters that would follow.
That next summer, the animals came to the Hedgehog’s house and asked him what kind of Winter Carnival they should throw on the solstice. The Hedgehog tired to tell them, but to no avail. Without a tongue, all that came out of his mouth was a long, loud, sweet note. This frustrated the Hedgehog, so he began jumping up and down, kicking whatever piece of furniture was nearby and flailing his little hedgehog arms. Seeing this, the animals decided that what their new Winter Carnival King wanted was the biggest, loudest, most kick-ass carnival ever, and so they made that happen.
And because they enjoyed it so much, they vowed as soon as that carnival was over that for the remaining seven years they would make each succeeding year’s Winter Carnival bigger, louder, and longer than the one before, and so they did. And the forest winters were never, ever quiet or still again.
And now, my children, I have finished with my tale of the Hedgehog, and I have for you the question I promised at that start.
Did you think the Hedgehog won?
Through most of 2016, conventional wisdom held that that the Republican Party was in trouble.
After having lost the most winnable election against a sitting POTUS since 1980, the party seemed to be floundering. The GOP put forth a menagerie of candidates to replace Obama; almost none of them were remotely qualified, and those few who were found themselves quickly cast aside. The eventual candidate was a joke, to the point where there was a very real question as to whether or not party delegates would acknowledge his victory at the convention. On top of that was the looming specter of a demographic reckoning. The party had spent most of the previous administration doing everything it could think of to alienate blacks, Hispanics, Asians, women, and really pretty much everyone else that was neither a white male or Ben Carson.
After the 2016 election, however, conventional wisdom shifted. The GOP, it was decided, was an unstoppable winning machine. After all, Donald Trump did go on to win the White House. And since that 2016 election, the GOP has essentially controlled all three branches of the federal government (save for about seven months of the least powerful house of Congress) as well as twenty seven of the fifty state executive offices and 60% of the state legislatures. Looking at results such as these, how could anyone ever argue that Republicans have been anything but the party of winners?
As it turns out, the answer to that question — as with the question of the Hedgehog — is more philosophical than first appears.
For almost a century, the GOP has existed to promote, expand, and defend a number of underlying conservative values its members held sacrosanct. There has been some fluidity to the rank and the scope of these values, obviously, but one can arguably condense all or most of the them into the following: unfettered free trade, a small and relatively powerless federal government with limited spending, freedom of (if not celebration of) openly religious lifestyles, the putting of a stake through the heart of identity politics, the rule of law and order, adherence to the Constitution, a strong world-reaching military presence, and a return to a (perhaps mythical) state of national morality and sensibilities. (Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, they would add gun rights, anti-abortion, and anti-deficit rhetoric, but each of these were initially folded into those more long-standing values listed above.)
We live in a cynical enough age to pooh-pooh underlying values in politics, and so it’s worth taking a moment to stop and consider that successful political parties do not exist in vacuums. Party operatives, corporate opportunists, and professional lobbyists aside, almost every single person who voted for a Republican over the past 100 years did so because, politically speaking, they wanted all of us to live by those values. The same holds true for almost every dollar donated to the Republican Party in that same period of time. To those of us who are political junkies all of this is all largely a game; to everyone else it really, really isn’t. And so, if we are to ask “did the GOP win in 2016,” it is worth asking as well, “how many of those underlying values and overarching goals have were tossed aside to assure victory?” The answer is: pretty much all of them.
The concept of free trade is now anathema to the GOP. Tariffs are issued to negatively affect certain industries, while cash infusions of taxpayer cash is dipped into to bolster the bottom lines of others. Derision and boycotts against individual corporations are called for by the White House at an almost weekly rate. Special taxes and changes in laws meant to negatively impact specific corporations are floated by the president, legislators, and party operatives at a similar clip. In almost all of these cases, the motivation behind the restriction of free trade is not some half-baked economic theoretical strand of spaghetti thrown against the wall, but rather the degree to which the party thinks businesses are showing proper deference to the president.
The party has either successfully increased unfettered federal spending and federal power since 2016, or has thus far failed but is still attempting to do so. The party abandoned its fight for freedom of religious expression almost overnight. The party has decided that one of the criteria for judges (and for that matter, federal executives) should be that candidate’s ethic background. Iran aside, the GOP is now not only isolationist, it shockingly leans anti-NATO and pro-authoritarian governments. Rather than uphold the law, that party now openly boasts its intention to ignore or break it when inconvenient. And the idea of the GOP supporting any kind of traditional morality post-2016 is such a joke I’m not even going to bother linking to examples.
There are those who will point to the appointment of judges as the one area where the Republicans have truly won the day. But this argument, too, hides a philosophical question within its seemingly innocuous shell: if you have successfully increased your number of federal judges while simultaneously successfully delegitimized the very office of federal judge, what have you won? The assumption from all, of course, is that whoever follows Trump will surely abdicate whatever power Trump and the GOP has carved out abasing the judicial branch – but what in all of modern US history suggests that such a thing will happen? The more likely scenario, I would argue, is that any nationally unpopular ruling SCOTUS might decree against — oh I dunno, let’s just say abortion — will just be ignored by a Democratic executive office, or negated by the appointment of additional judges. After all, if we all now agree judges’ rulings aren’t legitimate unless whoever holds the executive branch agrees with them, why bother listening to them when we don’t?
On top of all of that this is this: those demographic changes? The one that showed that a day of reckoning is coming soon for the GOP if they continue to demonize or mock 70% of the country to placate the other 30%? Those trends didn’t magically disappear when Trump took office. They’re still there, and they’re not slowing down. Not to sound callous, but ten years from now a big chunk of the voters the GOP currently relies on to win elections will no longer be upon this mortal coil, and the party is doing little to replace them with new warm, breathing bodies.
And all of that’s assuming that the reported signs of a looming recession is just wishful thinking by the DNC.
So yes, it is true that after the smoke cleared in November 2016, the Republican Party found itself ruling the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of the federal government, and more than half of the same on the state level. But in order to do so, they needed to sacrifice almost everything they have been fighting for a century to achieve. Worse, at least psychologically, is that they have been forced to embrace almost everything they hate most in order to hold these offices that they now cannot use to get those things they have always wanted. And other than hopes that the Democrats will implode over and over again into perpetuity, there is little indication that any of this tainted power will even last.
In short, the Republicans rule the Winter Carnival but sacrificed their tongue in order to do so.
The question of whether that counts as winning is up in the air.