What of the anti-healthcare protests? Would you stand up? The Rump Republican party is not going away any time soon, and they are not dropping the neo-conservative ideology that crystallized during power in the 1980s and mass popularized in the radio show, anti-Clinton culture of the 1990s. The same organizers of the tea party protests seem to be playing a role in bringing out the base to the Specter, McCaskill, and other foaming-at-the-mouth town hall meetings.
Democrats criticize these Town Brawls (okay, I stole that one from FoxNews) – in the spirit of true liberalism – as inauthentic: Astroturf, not comparable to grassroots, or better, NetRoots. Not genuine, apparently, because a visceral reaction is being exploited for political gain. Unlike, say … well, idealized communist revolution, which is supposed to occur spontaneously. The Marxists’ method in interpretation of history is being imbibed by the Democrats: the facts you want to legitimize are spontaneously occurring, since you can claim nature (material conditions produce social consciousness and ideology) or historical necessity (the present day is a culmination of the way the world has been moving). And the facts you don’t like are just the firearms of counterrevolution – pragmatically contrived in order to justify the old power.
The Republicans’ difficulty is actually that their mass popularization of their ideology over the last quarter century has been too effective. They no longer control it. The Republican party has tapped into the natural conservatism of people many times in the past, but rarely ever so deeply and effectively as the neoconservative era. The “visceral” reactions to immigration, social change, and high taxes have historically been channeled in both liberal and conservative rhetoric, for partisan ends. More often than not, there exists a general antipathy to the present rulers, and opposition tries to harness that. The Republicans tapped into this strongly for a lot of reasons, but the key is that they put out a pretty coherent and comprehensive ideology that they themselves proved unable to keep up with when in power. This has produced the spat of Republicans in the last year, and especially since the election, who identify themselves primarily as conservatives rather than Republicans.
To use liberal-academic terms, they have been given a durable narrative. In more comfortably Christian terms, they have a more articulated worldview. The point in either case is that they can own the ideology, and organize themselves, in a way that does not need the Republican party – indeed, though, it owns the Republican party for this reason. The GOP message was so effective that the message owns the party. And in opposition, it will continue to be effective as a critique of a government that will inevitably have problems.
I’m not against these protests, and I don’t look down on them. Real democracy isn’t often pretty, which is why even conservatives rarely involve themselves in local politics. But I think the conservative protestors point to the near-impossibility of the GOP reforming its platform. The Right has fortified itself in the last few decades with not only institutions (think tank, magazine, etc), but with a free-markets, socially conservative, American Founding-loving ideology that is proving more resilient than two bad elections. I don’t think this can produce a majority in the near future, but it is producing a lot of angry, disaffected people attuned to a sharp and comprehensive political critique. It is clearly not now cool, but it cannot be ignored. President Obama, enjoy your thorn; Michael Steele, stop deluding yourself that you have an important job.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.