November 6, 2012
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Losing: The Fire Next Time

Jim Fallows at The Atlantic asked what people thought would happen if the Republicans lost this election. Here was my reply:

If the GOP does indeed suffer a defeat in 2012, renewing the party will be much more difficult than 1972 was for the Democrats.

The Democratic Party of the Nixon-Reagan era could look to compromise with Republicans on a wide range of areas because those areas — tax policy, military budgets, welfare reform — were things on which compromise was possible. The things that could not be compromised — civil rights, peace in Vietnam, and Social Security — were never under serious attack.

The Republican Party today regards sexual reregulation and religious belief as core to its identity. Abortion is murder, homosexuality is depraved, and the twin terrors of Islamic Fundamentalism and Humanism threaten to unhinge society. These are not issues on which compromise is possible. One can regard a change to the tax code or to welfare rules as unwise, and yet acquiesce in trying the experiment. One cannot acquiesce to what one considers murder and depravity.

The obvious parallel, alas, is to the New England resistance to slavery, 1828-1860. Though good people tried to find a way, there really was no path to compromise. If slavery is evil, Thoreau argued, you can’t sit by and regret it. If it’s not evil, Calhoun was right. Between them, there was no place for Dan Webster, and the memory of Shiloh meant that, for a century, US politics carefully kept to topics on which compromise was possible. The original nativism and know-nothing conspiracies receded. The anti-Semitism that was such a disaster for Europe never got a really respectable foothold; we had Lindberg and Father Coughlin but not Mosley and the Duke of Windsor. American Protestants stopped fighting over doctrine and stopped fighting against Catholics.

For a long time, it seemed that no compromise was possible on the integration of the South, and the Senate was organized to make such compromise unnecessary. That ended when, in 1948, Humphrey convinced the Democrats that segregation was no longer something that could be countenanced, that it had to end whatever the consequences for the party. And of course that did split the party and transformed the landscape of American politics into the world we know. (In the end, Johnson saw that the South could compromise on integration and still be the South: “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” might be a a bit of a shock, but if it’s Sidney Poitier and he’s a doctor, you could live with it and talk about the Dallas Cowboys.)

How does today’s GOP sit down for a nice dinner with Planned Parenthood, Sandra Fluke, Lena Durham, and Richard Dawkins? I used to know Republicans socially. My parents and aunts and uncles all did. I don’t anymore. Democrats and Republicans are beginning to dress differently, to wear their hair differently. Limbaugh really thinks that Sandra Fluke is a slut. You simply can’t have both of them to dinner.

In a real sense, Romney already is the Republican turn toward moderation. It’s untenable; you can’t defend the unborn one day, and promise to keep Roe v Wade the next. The only way Romney could moderate his positions was to be seen to lie, to convince people that he held contradictory opinions but would govern the way they hoped. There’s just no viable position for a potential nominee who is more moderate the Romney. As an intellectual exercise, one could imagine a Republican who supported immigration reform, a stronger social safety net, and overturning Roe and Griswold – but this would simply alienate the tea party while remaining unacceptable to almost all Democratic voters.

There might be scattered opportunities for the GOP, but I think this may be their high water mark, the first of a long sequence of bitter losses and painful memories, of choices between bad and worse. But I have a very bad feeling about this: I think it ends in a the televised battle on the California border between state police seeking to apprehend an attractive young physician on charges of capital abortion, and the California National Guard who are determined to save her. The old vineyard of the grapes of wrath is closer than we imagined, and the fruit hangs heavy on the vine.