The Darker Patterns of Overshadowed Conservatism

I’m going to get this out of the way and say that I did not write this.  It was written by this fellow.  But it is a great read about the state of the Republican party in the United States right now, and anybody with a passing interest in what’s going on should read this.  Alright, enough of me.  Enjoy:


I have already referenced Nate Silver’s Republican Death Spiral, the pervasive chain that has shrunk the GOP drastically, to the point that less than 2 in 10 americans will self-identify as a Republican.


Self-described conservative Republicans represent only about 20 percent of the population. This base is not necessarily becoming smaller; it’s still alive and kicking. What is true, however, is that the (1) base has never been sufficient to form a winning electoral coalition, and (2) that there are fewer and fewer non-base (e.g. moderates, libertarian Republicans, Republican leaning-independents). As these moderates have fled the GOP, the party’s electoral fortunes have tanked. But simultaneously, they have had less and less influence on the Republican message.

Thus the Republicans, arguably, are in something of a death spiral. The more conservative, partisan, and strident their message becomes, the more they alienate non-base Republicans. But the more they alienate non-base Republicans, the fewer of them are left to worry about appeasing. Thus, their message becomes continually more appealing to the base – but more conservative, partisan, and strident to the rest of us. And the process loops back upon itself.

Let’s play cause and effect and see how accurately this has played out, starting with The Guns of August.


In April the Department of Homeland Security issued a report, originally commissioned by the Bush administration, on the rising threat of violent right-wing extremism. It was ridiculed by conservatives, including the Republican chairman, Michael Steele, who called it “the height of insult.” Since then, a neo-Nazi who subscribed to the anti-Obama “birther” movement has murdered a guard at the Holocaust museum in Washington, and an anti-abortion zealot has gunned down a doctor in a church in Wichita, Kan.

This month the Southern Poverty Law Center, the same organization that warned of the alarming rise in extremist groups before the Oklahoma City bombing, issued its own report. A federal law enforcement agent told the center that he hadn’t seen growth this steep among such groups in 10 to 12 years. “All it’s lacking is a spark,” he said.

This uptick in the radical right predates the health care debate that is supposedly inspiring all the gun waving. Nor can this movement be attributed to a stepped-up attack by Democrats on this crowd’s holy Second Amendment. Since taking office, Obama has disappointed gun-control advocates by relegating his campaign pledge to reinstate the ban on assault weapons to the down-low.

No, the biggest contributor to this resurgence of radicalism remains panic in some precincts about a new era of cultural and demographic change. As the sociologist Daniel Bell put it, “What the right as a whole fears is the erosion of its own social position, the collapse of its power, the increasing incomprehensibility of a world — now overwhelmingly technical and complex — that has changed so drastically within a lifetime.”

Radical assertion, neh?


GOP Congressman Wally Herger.


At a town hall meeting this week, a partisan crowd of over 2,000 people cheered on Rep. Wally Herger’s (R-CA) fear-mongering about the Obama administration and its policy proposals:

Herger did not hold back on his opinion of the health care plan and the administration’s appointment of “czars” to head various departments and task forces. “Our democracy has never been threatened as much as it is today,” Herger said to a loud standing ovation.

The audience also loudly cheered a man who stood up and declared himself to be “a proud right wing terrorist.” “Amen, God bless you,” Herger responded. “There is a great American.”

To underscore the issue: Herger cannot be waved away as just a fringe nut. He is a congressional representative. He is the face of the GOP. More importantly, he’s a stellar example of what mentality is left behind in the GOP after the spiral has collapsed the GOP inward. The Big Tent is dead.

This brings up another important issue: why is the remaining GOP going all-out against health care reform of any sort? One could point at issues such as special interest and sinecure incentives, but there are two broader patterns at work here.

The first is that the GOP itself knows on a strategic level that were America to adopt UHC, it would be permanent. It would become as politically untouchable as Medicare and Medicaid. — Reagan famously declared that Medicare would be horrible to our old people and would also be the ‘death of capitalism,’ and the core rhetoric on health care amongst the GOP strategists has altered little. Back then, they insisted that Medicare would be a mistake and that our elderly would loathe it; today the elderly have higher satisfaction with their care than the rest of us do, and Medicare is entirely unassailable. To try to revoke Medicare would be political suicide.

They know that were the country to succesfully enact UHC, the same event would happen again. We would simply become like every other modernized nation, UHC would become unassailable, and it would be a deathly blow to conservatism. The CATO institute, one of those very conservative think tanks/sinecure incentivizers, has admitted as such. Michael Cannon, Director of Health Policy Studies at the CATO Institute and therefore one of the most prominent ideological directors of conservative policy through sinecure incentives, wrote a piece called Blocking Obama’s Health Plan Is Key to the GOP’s Survival. The idea is that if Obama gets universal health care passed, he will bring “reluctant voters” into the Democratic coalition because the program will become infinitely preferable to the prior situation in America and such a system will inexorably become as untouchable as Medicare/Medicaid, and thus Republicans must at all costs prevent that from happening, because if the program is allowed to pass, Americans will love it despite the fact the GOP told them they won’t love it.

In effect, the GOP has to block an infinitely preferable system because they are defined in part as being against that system; if the system is allowed to be enacted in spite of their claims, it will triumph in spite of their claims, and they spend a few decades bleeding out adherents because they are identified solidly as the people who tried to stop a great thing from happening, while trying to catch up to the new normal.

The second reason is because the GOP has become a victim of perverse incentives that they have inflicted on themselves: they thrive on dysfunction, as Thomas Frank describes in How Dysfunction Helps the GOP. In essence, the Republican party says its own mistakes prove government can’t work; since they are rewarded by ‘vindication’ when the government does not work, they have an incentive to ensure that government does not work, so they keep government from working.


‘Remember the $400 hammer? How ’bout that $600 toilet seat?“ asks a Conservatives for Patients’ Rights TV commercial criticizing President Barack Obama’s health-care plan. "Seems when Congress gets involved, things just cost more."  As it happens, I do remember the incident of the $436 hammer, the one that made headlines back in 1984. And while it may "seem” in hazy retrospect as though it showed how “things just cost more” once those silly liberals in Congress get started, what the hammer episode actually illustrated was a very different sort of ripoff. The institution that paid so very much for that hammer was President Ronald Reagan’s Pentagon. A private-sector contractor was the party that was pleased to take the Pentagon’s money. And it was a liberal Democrat in the House of Representatives, also known as “Congress,” who publicized the pricey hardware to the skies.  But so what? Myth is so much more satisfying than history, and with myth the competence of Washington actors from 25 years ago doesn’t matter any more. Nor does it matter which arm of the federal colossus did what. Republican or Democrat, White House or Congress, they’re all part of a monolithic, undifferentiated “government” that acts according to a money-burning logic all its own.  The myth has been getting a lot of play from conservatives in recent weeks as the debate over health care has heated up. The message, as always, is that government can’t do anything right.  Where the conservative mythologists show their hand is when they use their own monumental screw-ups, committed during conservatism’s long years in charge of the government, to prove that government in general is a futile proceeding, and that Democratic health-care plans, in particular, can’t possibly succeed.


A government that works, some conservatives fear, is dangerous stuff. It gives people ideas. Universal health care isn’t just a bad idea for their buddies in the insurance business; it’s a gateway drug to broader state involvement in the economy and hence a possible doomsday scenario for conservatism itself. As two fellows of the Ethics and Public Policy Center fretted in the Weekly Standard in May, “health care is the key to public enmeshment in ballooning welfare states, and passage of ObamaCare would deal a heavy blow to the conservative enterprise in American politics.”

On the other hand, government fails constantly when conservatives run it because making it work would be, for many of those conservatives, to traduce the very laws of nature. Besides, as we can now see, bungling Katrina recovery or Pentagon procurement pays conservatives huge dividends. It gives them potent ammunition to use when the liberals have returned and are proposing another one of their grand schemes to reform health care.

This is the perverse incentive that is slowly remaking the GOP into the Snafu Party. And in those commercials and those proclamations we should also discern a warning: That even if Democrats manage to set up a solid health-care program, conservatives will do their best, once they have regained power, to drop it down the same chute they did the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Maybe they will appoint a tobacco lobbyist to run the thing. Maybe they will starve it for funds. Or antagonize its work force. And as it collapses they will hand themselves their greatest propaganda victory of all. They will survey the ruins and chide, “You didn’t really think government could work, did you?”