A few days ago I was philosophically pleased and comfortable with the state of our nation despite its fractious politics. This morning I'm less pleased. There are several reasons why.
First, it appears that by about a margin of 53% to 47%, voters in Maine have repealed a same-sex marriage law. This is a margin similar to California's Proposition 8 a year ago. Along the way, the backers of the initiative fought tooth and nail to not disclose where the money to pay for their political campaign came from, and once again claimed to be "protecting marriage," "protecting churches," "protecting families," and "protecting children." Protecting them from what?
It was another campaign based on questionable political tactics and lies, with the goal of enshrining bigotry into law.
Second, the weight of the world was placed on a special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District. This district, which is very rural, looks on a map a little bit like Canada dropped several gobs of paint on top of New York State, which then oozed down about three-quarters of the way to Albany. It has always been a Republican stronghold; it hasn't sent a Democrat to Congress since before the Civil War. The Republicans nominated a member of the state legislature and the Democrats found their patsy to stand up for the party, hoping forlornly for something bizarre to happen. Well, it did; "Tea Party" conservatives found the Republican nominee "too liberal" and ran a political novice against her on the Conservative Party ballot (New York has four political parties, with the Liberal and Conservative parties being used for this purpose often enough to tweak moderates to more extreme positions). Whether she was "too liberal" because she had voted for tax increases in Albany or because she was pro-choice remains a little bit uncertain in my mind. But the effect of the split the right-of-center votes was to siphon off enough support from the mainstream GOP candidate that the Democrat appeared to have a plurality. So then the mainstream Republican withdrew from the race -- and endorsed the Democrat. Now, it appears that the Democrat has won, although the polls are very close and it's at least mathematically possible that the Conservative could pull it out; I'm not fluent enough in the politics of the area to know whether that's a realistic possibility or not.
In the grand scheme of things, one seat in the House of Representatives switching parties isn't going to matter all that much. There are two depressing things about this election. First and foremost, it seems there was thuggery and intimidation at the polls, and the supporters of the insurgent conservative candidate are to blame. It was depressing when progressives sent out thugs to poll-watch in 2008 and it's depressing to see conservatives do it now. But while of less immediacy, I find more pernicious in the long run the fact that, even as the Conservative candidate (prematurely?) conceded defeat, the social conservatives have called this race a victory for conservatives over liberal elements in their own party. They didn't care about winning the election. They cared about ideological purity within their own party.
This is not a recipe for political success, as the apparent results in New York demonstrate. The recipe for success is what happened in Virginia, where the Republican candidate found a way to bridge the gap between the two wings of his party, keep the voters' eyes on the prize -- the promise of good government -- and got a majority of voters behind him. Or even in New Jersey, where the Republican gubernatorial candidate withstood charges of corruption (and obesity) to promise competent government and defeat the (bald) incumbent.
Deliver good government. Work change incrementally. Make room at the table. Find common causes. Oh, and duck the bigotry.
I feel like something of a lone wolf howling at the moon on this. I know I'm not, that other sane Republicans can see an existential threat to our party in this growing schism. But for the moment, we are being hooted down as "liberals," "traitors," or subject to ad hominem attacks. Both of the thoughtful and well-written bloggers I linked to in this paragraph have recently been at the receiving end of intramural brawls and efforts to purge them from the "movement." As for the national party leadership, I've got to conclude that at minimum, the RNC is completely useless in dealing with the schism. I saw this sort of thing emerging in the California GOP twenty years ago, and just look at the electoral success it's brought us in California ever since.
The trend will continue, with a higher-stakes primary battle in Florida between Governor Charlie Crist, an ally of John McCain, and Tea Partier Marco Rubio for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate. That primary election will probably be the playboard upon which the opening moves of the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination are executed, and right now the likely candidates are looking like Palin, Pawlenty, Huckabee, and Romney; the surprising early leader is Mike Huckabee. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, but I would have thought it would have been Palin or Romney. Other potential candidates have either self-destructed on the "Appalachian Trail" or exorcised themselves from contention. Of course, 2012 is a long time in the future in political terms so it's easy to read too much into the maneuvers and polling.
My big point here is that as I had sadly feared, the hard-line conservatives motivated by social issues and unthinking reactionarianism, appear to have taken the upper hand in the struggle for the soul of the GOP. William F. Buckley described his efforts, back when he helped revive conservatism as a vital, intellectually important force in American politics, as standing athwart history yelling "Stop!" But it's important to read the entire thing, to understand what Buckley wanted conservatives to do once they got history to pause -- and that was to think carefully about what would happen next, to take the time to understand what's important and good about our country and adapt those ideas to the problems of the day.
I won't say that there are no Tea Party Conservatives or social conservatives who would do that. Plenty are. And sometimes I'll agree with them and sometimes I'll disagree with them. But there doesn't seem to be a lot of thought going on at all over in that camp. There's a lot of emotion, a lot of passion, a lot of something that smells like fanaticism. If anyone stopped to think about same-sex marriage, they'd see that it is where the future is and opposition to it is based on nothing but bigotry; it's fanaticism that makes people adhere to that bigotry -- which is why I lump the Maine SSM election results in with the intramural knife fight (aside from the fact that it's a good bet that there is considerable overlap between Tea Partiers rejoicing at the NY-23 results and anti-SSM advocates rejoicing at the Maine results).*
I have not drunk the Kool-Aid and I find the recent behavior of those who have to be repellent. It's fanaticism that rejoices in causing a Republican candidate for office to withdraw from a race and endorse a Democrat; it's fanaticism that causes conservatives to think that electing a Democrat to Congress is better than electing a moderate Republican. And while I can deal with a thoughtful conservative who disagrees with me on individual planks in our party's platform, it's fanaticism that repels me. There's no room for someone like me in a party of fanatics.
* If you're a Tea Partier who is in favor of same-sex marriage, please comment here so that I can at least know that someone like that even exists.