Monday, May 11, 2009

The GOP's Long Day's Journey Into Night

In the 1956 classic play Long Day's Journey Into Night, Eugene O'Neill created an especially memorable character named James Tyrone whose plight is oddly similar to that faced by the current Republican Party. Blessed with acting talent that was described by his peers as nothing short of brilliant, Tyrone enters the story (and through it the awareness of O'Neill's audience) as a man whose innate gifts have been all-but-squandered due to the fact that he has spent the past few decades of his life performing only one role, that of the Count of Monte Cristo. The reason for this is gradually made clear to the audience as it is revealed that Tyrone was psychologically scarred from his childhood encounters with abject poverty, the lingering trauma of which is responsible for many of Tyrone's personal failings (of which he has no shortage) in the present-day story. Because his performance as the Count of Monte Cristo was lauded by critics and audiences alike, it became more financially secure for Tyrone to continue playing the role over and over again, rather than broaden and enrich his skill and acting career by accepting different parts. Thus by the time we are introduced to James Tyrone, his thespian capacities have atrophied except insofar as they enable him to continue as the Count of Monte Cristo. He is aware of this, regrets it in his own personal way, but knows that there is nothing that can be done. His lust for guaranteed fortune had destroyed a key aspect of his character thad had value, and it is too late for him to recognize that the value of that which he has lost (although not inherently financial in nature) was far greater than the value of that which he has gained (precisely because it is solely financial in nature).

This, to me, is a great analogy for the plight of the modern Republican party. Scarred from the political poverty they endured during half a century of liberal dominance (beginning with Franklin Roosevelt's presidency in 1933 and continuing through the administrations of Democrats Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Jimmy Carter, as well as Republicans Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford), Republicans finally recovered during the 1980s when they struck upon the winning formula pioneered by Ronald Reagan - oppose liberalism as an enemy of old-fashioned religious, social, and cultural values vis-a-vis any number of peripheral issues (including but by no means limited to school prayer, gay marriage, gays in the military, feminism, flag burning, creationism versus evolution, drug use, abortion, family values, the sexual revolution, an alleged war on the Christian faith or faith in general, an alleged war on patriotism and pro-American sentiment, and on and on and on), and then associate economic liberalism (which attempts to guarantee economic rights for all) with "socialism", the loss of liberty, and the support of all of the "bad" values previous mentioned, while simultaneously conflating the tried-and-true old fashioned religious and cultural verities with economic policies that favor an oligarchy of wealthy individuals and powerful corporations.

This formula worked beautifully for the Republican party in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, which marked a heyday for the party and its coalition of cultural conservatives (most prominently the Christian right) and economic elites (including wealthy individuals and powerful corporations). They even managed to synthesize nationalism into the mix after the September 11th terrorist attacks, making liberalism synonymous with hatred of America and conservatism synonymous with patriotism in the public mind. As such, the period spanning from the inauguration of Ronald Reagan in 1981 to the election of Barack Obama in 2008 marked a golden age for conservative rule, so much so that the extreme right-wing philosophy of Ronald Reagan defined the ideological landscape on which not only subsequent Republican presidents (George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush) but subsequent Democratic presidents (William J. Clinton) would have to operate.

That coalition, once so powerful that liberals succumbed to despair, is now obsolete. There is one simple reason for this fact: The economy is in a shambles, Americans overwhelmingly associate the policies of Reaganism as being responsible for its current state (even though they blame George W. Bush more than Ronald Reagan), and as such the part of the conservative formula that depends on conflating neo-laissez-faire ideas with old-fashioned cultural values has not only lost its appeal, but has become anathema to what most Americans today think and feel. In spite of this, the heads of the conservative movement - from pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Bill O'Reilly to political leaders like Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Mark Sanford, John Boehner, Newt Gingrich, and Eric Cantor - are continuing to employ the rhetoric and strategies of the Reagan era, alienating the vast majority of the American public even as they are mesmerized by the energizing effect it has on their base of right-wing zealots (which comprises, to their misfortune, a rather small portion of the voting population).

While their behavior seems not only inexplicable, but politically suicidal, it makes much more sense when compared to the actions of Eugene O'Neill's erstwhile protagonist from fifty-three years ago. Like James Tyrone, the heads of modern conservatism have spent nearly thirty years achieving success by only having to play a single part (that of Ronald Reagan), and because that role has yielded them so many delicious political dividends, they have refused to play any other. It is in this way that they have sacrificed ideological versatility for security, and thus relinquished the single most vital quality that any American political party must have in order to survive.

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