History is unpredictable. As George Will has aptly put it, historical patterns repeat themselves until they don’t. I’m not going to proffer a grand theory about fanatical overreach and inevitable reaction, as though it were an immutable universal truth. But I will point out that, from time to time, when things swing too far in one direction, the reaction gains the more lasting victory.
There is another pattern that frequently reappears, perhaps a more constant one, one around which a simple military motto formed millenia ago: “Divide and conquer.” Or, as Ben Franklin put it, accompanying his famous sketch of a dissected snake, “United we stand, divided we fall.”
The Tea Party has been gracious enough to put the modern Republican Party on the wrong side of both of these trends. They have zealously and implacably tried to move the country farther right than even our right-leaning mainstream can easily stomach, and they have done so in a way designed to fracture by far the largest, and currently only viable, conservative party in the United States.
There is a lesson in this for the Left as well, a lesson many of my friends on the left are as ill-equipped to learn as their emotionally if not ideologically, similar counterparts on the Right: Don’t demand everything you are certain that reason and justice irrefutably recommend, but rather act with an eye to long-term sustainable success. I’ve often been critical of many on the Left for failing to heed this advice (see, e.g., “The Fault, Dear Brutus….” and Cluster Liberals v. Network Liberals).
We should not see-saw with zealots on the Right, taking turns yielding our advantage to the winds of our passions. Rather, we should actually be the party of reason and humanity, of patience and foresight and goodwill. If we could just commit to that, we would inevitably win the future. Instead, we are as committed to shooting ourselves in the foot as our more foolish opposition is, leaving everyone hopping and howling but no one leading the nation and world into a brighter future.
The last most famous moment when the Left threw its advantage was during the 1960s and 70s, when the country was reacting against Vietnam and Watergate, when hippies were culturally dominant, when Broadway sang of “the dawning of the age of Aquarius.” Thanks to that excessive euphoria, that overconfidence, in service to an unbalanced and unrealistic (even if somewhat refreshing) idealism, it became the prelude of the Age of Reagan Conservatism instead, which laid the groundwork, in a way palatable for that age, for the more extreme right-wing fanaticism of today. (Reagan, of course, the modern conservative messiah, would be drummed out of today’s Republican Party in a heartbeat, far too liberal was he for the new breed of glassy-eyed conservative cultists).
The Tea Party was heady with its brief ascendency, deluded into believing that they represented mainstream America, certain that God and Truth were on their side. They became a magnet for religious fundamentalists and libertarians, not always compatible ideologies but somehow generally hypocritical and inconsistent enough for many in their respective ranks to believe that they were one and the same. And as they held the country hostage (by refusing to vote for a raise in the national debt ceiling, a vote which had heretofore been routine due to the national self-destructiveness of failing to do it) in service to what virtually all economists, conservative and liberal, considered bad fiscal policy (extending the Bush tax cuts), forcing a downgrading of our national credit rating in the process, more and more people began to recoil in horror and disgust, as they should have recoiled long before. (See, e.g., Bargaining v. Blackmail, Why A Bad Deal Might Be The Best Deal Right Now, and Response to a Right-Wing Myth for discussions of that shameful episode.)
The Republicans had a real chance to defeat Obama this year, not necessarily justly, but simply due to the criteria by which people vote. The economy is still soft, and unemployment is still high. The current president is always held responsible for such things, no matter what the reality he inherited, and no matter how successful he was in turning the tide in a positive direction.
Obama, a black intellectual moderate liberal with a Muslim name who spent much of his childhood in an exotic foreign country, triggered a complex web of deeply entrenched American bigotries, failing to be innocuous enough to hopeful but easily disillusioned moderate supporters, failing to be zealously unrealistic enough to starry eyed believers that he could snap his fingers and change the world into their vision of what it should be, and continuing to be “foreign” enough to maintain the enmity of the ultra-conservative xenophobes who saw in him something inherently “un-American” and never liked him in the first place. A united and focused Republican Party would have had a relatively easy time toppling him in 2012.
But, thankfully, it apparently was not to be so. It looks like it is the Republicans’ turn to shoot themselves in the foot, overzealously demanding what too few Americans identify with, rejecting their best candidate and insisting on horribly defective alternatives (Santorum, the religious nut-case; Perry, the intellectual light-weight; Gingrich, the unlovable grinch; Paul, the extreme libertarian who would have surrendered to Hitler and left Jim Crow intact in service to the purity of his understanding of “liberty”). Despite the fact that Romney is the last man standing, Santorum and Paul supporters remian implaccable, unwilling to accept the “moderate” (oh! horror of horrors!) Romney.
Let this be a lesson, fellow progressives: Press our advantage when we have it; don’t squander it by overreaching. The world is moved by inches, sometimes over a threshold, but only when that threshold has been arrived at. Don’t mistake what’s right for what’s immediately possible, and don’t insist on what can’t be currently attained at the expense of what can be. But, all the while, lay the foundations for the giant leaps of the future, for those foundations are laid through work that does not register immediately, and only culminates after many unsung but vitally important labors. If we were wise enough and disciplined enough to follow this advice, the world we bequeeth to our children and our children’s children would be that much closer to the ideal we aspire to.