During our latest elections, a militant group of Republicans has shown that they are willing to oust a member of their own party, midway through a campaign if necessary, for deviating from party dogma.
The strong arming of Rep. Dede Scozzafava clearly indicates an attempt to purge the party of independent politicians. Undaunted by the resulting defeat, some Republicans have openly advocated for a smaller party, with Sen. Jim Demint saying he would rather have 30 committed Republican colleagues than 60 who are beyond party control.
Yet, to capitulate in this manner would mean a serious loss of conservative influence. What could arouse such a destructive desire?
Party leaders must think that if the group returns to its original conservative tenets, it will recapture the spirit of the country. But these leaders are indulging in a destructive fantasy if they believe that an internal inquisition will draw more voters to the GOP.
Furthermore, it is telling that the most outspoken supporters of this campaign of intimidation are media personalities who peddle their opinions from protected studios and rarely face the people they so viciously attack. These broadcasting blowhards have nothing to lose from ceding Republican influence and much to gain from an inflamed political climate. People will tune in every day to learn who will go next to the gallows.
Once a political movement’s initial energy has been spent, puritanical zeal often sweeps through its leadership with calamitous results. The cycle runs something like the following.
A unified movement takes power, and it brings about tremendous societal change through innovations or reform programs. Nevertheless, after a time, the tolerance for struggle and conflict wanes, comfort and compromise become habit, and the movement ultimately is corrupted and fragmented. For vivid examples one can look to the Chinese and French revolutions.
Once the movement has degenerated into disorder, an outraged and militant group emerges. Its members are appalled that a perfect society has not materialized as a result of government policy, and they decide the only way back to the straight and narrow path is to purge the deviant.
Shortly after the French Revolution, puritanical rage coalesced into the famous Reign of Terror, when thousands were beheaded. The Chinese had their own violent purge in the Cultural Revolution, which lasted 10 years and left its economy, civil society and culture in ruin.
There is usually a turning point in a movement which makes manifest its corruption, and in the American conservative movement we know today, that moment came with the election of President Barack Obama. Only days after the defeat of John McCain, columnist David Brooks predicted the fierce reaction of Republican partisans. Now the party’s internal aggressions are daily on display. Last week, even zealous evangelical Sen. Lindsey Graham was publicly reprimanded by the Republican establishment in his district for daring to use his own judgment and vote independently.
Militancy of this kind can be useful in seizing political power, but only when force is an option. Partisans will do well to remember that today’s conservative movement was carried to power in 1994 on the broad appeal of its reform plan and moral example. The original tenets, laid out most clearly by Georgia’s own Newt Gingrich, captured and channeled widespread American sentiments. The support it earned across the country gave the movement the kind of lasting legitimacy necessary to implement its program and hold power for 15 years, even through the Clinton presidency. One might ask: With so much success, why should the party change?
Experience tells us that no movement can maintain momentum without the invigoration of new ideas. Yet now party control is concentrating around those who are most skeptical, if not hostile, to intellect. It is true that intellectuals have a limited place in government, but if they are not included in the development of a strategy for the party, the strongmen can quickly take absolute control. These bullies offer only the ancient tactics of coercion.
The results are predictable. When politicians feel threatened, they regress to a numbing repetition of the same tired themes. The fear stifles constructive action and leads to disengagement through protest. This sort of deadlock is unhealthy for our system and hurts our state in particular.
Georgia is now heavily invested in the Republican Party, and it is hard to imagine a scenario where our representatives would not side with its more aggressive elements. Our governor, both senators and seven of 12 House representatives are members of the GOP.
If our state is to be so exclusively represented, then the party must not stand on tradition alone, but employ ideas to mold a strategy, and assert influence by engaging the majority. A party that withdraws to play the victim accepts defeat, and protest is the only luxury that the loser has left.
Jesse Corn is a Gainesville native and Northeast Georgia resident. His columns appear regularly.