For years, the GOP was a totally top-down organization. It exploited the fears, faiths and foibles of its core constituency. Paul Krugman, in a November 2009 NY Times Op-ed, described it in his article, Paranoia Strikes Deep ( http://bit.ly/krugmn .) He discusses how a major protest in Washington D.C., officially sponsored by the House Republican leadership, which he described,
"including large signs showing piles of bodies at Dachau with the caption "National Socialist Healthcare." It was grotesque -- and it was also ominous. For what we may be seeing is America starting to be Californiafied.
The key thing to understand about that rally is that it wasn't a fringe event. It was sponsored by the House Republican leadership -- in fact, it was officially billed as a G.O.P. press conference. Senior lawmakers were in attendance, and apparently had no problem with the tone of the proceedings.
True, Eric Cantor, the second-ranking House Republican, offered some mild criticism after the fact. But the operative word is "mild." The signs were "inappropriate," said his spokesman, and the use of Hitler comparisons by such people as Rush Limbaugh, said Mr. Cantor, "conjures up images that frankly are not, I think, very helpful."
What all this shows is that the G.O.P. has been taken over by the people it used to exploit.
image by Rob Kall
Krugman describes how paranoia has seeped back into the Republican party, a paranoia that Hofstadter described in 1964. He discusses how, with the election of Reagan, Republicans began pandering to the passions of the angry right, but how, until recently,
"that catering mostly took the form of empty symbolism. Once elections were won, the issues that fired up the base almost always took a back seat to the economic concerns of the elite. Thus in 2004 George W. Bush ran on antiterrorism and "values," only to announce, as soon as the election was behind him, that his first priority was changing Social Security."
Then, Krugman observes,
But something snapped last year. Conservatives had long believed that history was on their side, so the G.O.P. establishment could, in effect, urge hard-right activists to wait just a little longer: once the party consolidated its hold on power, they'd get what they wanted. After the Democratic sweep, however, extremists could no longer be fobbed off with promises of future glory.Krugman is describing the power of bottom up passion. Limbaugh, Beck and Palin tap the energy and emotions of the masses, and flame their biases and bigotry. This is the "madness of the crowds" that was always to be feared. It is a potent force that, if effectively tapped, can be very destructive.
Furthermore, the loss of both Congress and the White House left a power vacuum in a party accustomed to top-down management. At this point Newt Gingrich is what passes for a sober, reasonable elder statesman of the G.O.P. And he has no authority: Republican voters ignored his call to support a relatively moderate, electable candidate in New York's special Congressional election.
Real power in the party rests, instead, with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin (who at this point is more a media figure than a conventional politician). Because these people aren't interested in actually governing, they feed the base's frenzy instead of trying to curb or channel it. So all the old restraints are gone.
In the short run, this may help Democrats, as it did in that New York race. But maybe not: elections aren't necessarily won by the candidate with the most rational argument. They're often determined, instead, by events and economic conditions.
Krugman looks at how the teapartying far right acolytes of Beck and Limbaugh could literally gain enough power to do what Republicans in California have done, saying, "In California, the G.O.P. has essentially shrunk down to a rump party with no interest in actually governing -- but that rump remains big enough to prevent anyone else from dealing with the state's fiscal crisis. If this happens to America as a whole, as it all too easily could, the country could become effectively ungovernable in the midst of an ongoing economic disaster."
The same thing could and may already be happening with the Democratic party. Obama either promised or allowed people to develop expectations that he would make big changes happen. Who would have thought that would mean reducing women's access to abortion-- an issue central to the women who make up at least 60% and probably closer to 65% of the Democratic party?
Who would have thought that Obama's health care plan would enrich big Pharma and raise profits for health insurers while raising taxes on small businesses and threatening to jail people who were uninsured?
It is not surprising that both major parties are facing either backlashes or major groups within their consituencies who are raging and leaning towards operating as independents, or even towards starting third parties. Already, there's a "Tea" party being discussed and there are more people who identify themselves as independents than as either Democrats or Republicans.
The fact is, the web and the media have changed the basic rules.
The grassroots are connected in new ways, like never before. Glen Beck's madness can be reinforced on right wing blogs and media sites. Tea partier activities can be shared by listserves and e-mail blasts, whereas in the past, it took money and much more time for bulk mailing via the post office, by conservatives like Richard Viguerie, to get the word out.
The grass roots are the ultimate "bottom" and they have more bottom-up power than perhaps any time in history. But they can be influenced, aggregated, coalesced and whipped up by top-down powers, forces and entities. Top-down groups that thought they had control of bottom-up groups and energies will more and more find that they have created powerful new coalitions that they have little or no power over. It's unlikely this will stop top-down organizations from creating, encouraging or exploiting these groups. But it will, or at least should get them to change their expectations and the way they handle these forces of nature that are no longer in their control.
1 | 2