Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What Is The Opposite Of The GOP's Base?

Everybody in America, liberal and conservative alike, owes it to themselves to read Thomas Frank's books What's The Matter With Kansas? and The Wrecking Crew. Both books explain the transformation of the GOP in recent years. Essentially, the GOP left some of its core principles of fiscal conservatism behind several Presidents ago. Its new system energizes a fervent base of religious social conservatives in the service of aggressive imperialism which often backfires (Iraq, Vietnam) and economic policies which benefit only the very wealthy. The McCain/Palin ticket demonstrates the failings of this philosophy - two candidates who are both kind of crazy in their own unique way and don't really seem to have much in common with each other.

You hear a lot on the news about the GOP's base. Consider demented comments like "I heard he was an Arab." As if Obama were a Muslim. As if that should matter, in a country which has stood for religious freedom since the first Puritans landed in the 1600s. As if all Arabs were Muslim, and there were no Christian Arabs, like the ones in Lebanon. As if anybody in their right mind would try to run an Arab for President in the United States in the first place. As if the Democrats decided that getting a black man elected President only 150 years after slavery ended wasn't challenging enough, and for some insane reason decided they would run an Arab instead.

This madness happens because the center cannot hold. The Republican party is a political coalition uniting two very different extremes, and that unity may not last. Moderates matter in American elections, moderates meet where two extremes agree, and the two extremes of the Republican party don't agree on as much as they really need to agree on in order to hold their party together. The McCain Republicans and the Palin Republicans have so little in common with each other that the Palin end of the spectrum even has an ethnic slur for the McCain end. When a huge group of poor people give a lot of time, energy, and political power to a small group of rich people who are telling them what they want to hear, it's a reasonably safe bet that the rich people are employing an elitist strategy. But you'll never hear McCain Republicans called elitist, no matter how many homes they own, no matter how obvious their contempt for the uneducated. "Elitist" means "rich person who doesn't hate gays or foreigners" in the Republican lexicon. The Republicans without money call the Republicans with money RINOs - Republicans In Name Only.

The people who use the term RINOs don't have any word for themselves but "Republicans." Meanwhile, in the mainstream media, you won't hear the term RINO. There the term "Republicans" means "RINOs plus the other guys." The mainstream media does have a word for the other guys - they call them the base. "Palin energizes the base." "These policies appeal to the base." "The base is pulling hard for Mike Huckabee." Etc., etc., etc.

The mainstream media and the GOP base hold very different opinions about the world. The mainstream represents a centrist point of view, by definition, while the GOP base represents a particular extreme. Both the mainstream media and the GOP base agree that the parts of the Republican party are different enough that one part deserves its own name. They just disagree on which part that is. The base says that the RINOs are the exception from the rule, different enough to deserve their own name. The mainstream media says that the base are the exception from the rule, different enough to deserve their own name.

The schism Frank identified in the Republican party several years ago is growing. It's big enough now that everybody has a word for it, although we've yet to agree as a country what that word is. The major advantage of using the mainstream media's terminology is it isn't hostile or judgemental. Republican In Name Only essentially means "traitor" or "poseur." It doesn't tell us anything about how RINOs differ from the base. It just tells us that the base doesn't like them. It's also obviously false. If you're giving money to the Republican party and voting with them, you're not just a Republican in name, but also in votes and in cash.

We have to throw out the term that the GOP base uses. But it's probably time to put a name on both sides of the divide. If they've already started calling each other names, it might only be a matter of time before they start fighting. And that's where the question comes in. What is the opposite of a base? Is it the GOP antenna? The GOP cap? The GOP apex? It could be that the only way to clearly articulate this schism is to throw out the term "base" as well and replace it with something a little more specific.

I think of the two sides as the suckers and the con men, but I'm biased.