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The GOP and the Whigs: Political Parties Are Not Forever

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Reverberations in the Echo Chamber

We have with good reason heard much recently of the "echo chamber" in which conservatives whip each other into an anti-Obama frenzy in a destructive paranoid loop of crazy, immune to outside influence and unhindered by the constraints of reality. McConnell and Boehner are like Maxwell Smart and the Chief conspiring incompetently under the Cone of Silence, deaf to any external sounds of reason. But they are not alone; instead of a contraption for two, other conservative leaders have strapped into the device for the worst kind of insulated group think.

In an open-microphone exchange between Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul concerning the government shutdown, we overhear the two feeding each other's fantasy of victory. After a cynical exchange in which the two discussed manipulating their media message about compromise, Paul said, "... but we're gonna win this, I think." He could only draw such an unlikely conclusion by living in that echo chamber because all outside evidence at the time, and later, pointed to anything but a victory for GOP intransigence.

Conservative insularity has become like a hardened shell around a soft gooey middle. Just as conservatives did prior to the last presidential election, they continue to only talk among themselves about the consequences of the shutdown and debt default, convincing each other of their desired truth, each encouraging the other in a resonance of extremism. That inward circular opaqueness is how we arrived at this nadir of popular disgust: a recent NBC/WSJ poll shows how damaging to the GOP this shutdown has been, even as the echo chamber reverberates with empty claims of impending victory. A clear majority of Americans by a margin of 22 points (53 percent to 31 percent) rightly blame the GOP for the current mess. Reaching a new historic low, only 24 percent view the GOP favorably, and the numbers are worse (21 percent) for the Tea Party. This decline comes from living in the Cone of Silence where all protests of reason are filtered out.

If this claim of extreme GOP insularity seems unjustified, or just specific to this particular case of the shutdown, let us not forget the projections in the last presidential election from established GOP pundits that Romney was a sure winner, even up to and including the night of the vote. Karl Rove said: "Mitt Romney will be declared America's 45th president. Let's call it 51-48 percent, with Mr. Romney carrying at least 279 Electoral College votes, probably more." George Will predicted a landslide of 321-217 Electoral College votes, which included a Romney victory in every swing state (Romney lost all but one). Dick Morris also predicted a landslide win for Mitt, even while returns were coming in. Glenn Beck confidently said that Romney would win with 321-217 Electoral College votes -- note these are exactly the number from George Will. The list goes on. These supposedly connected folks were so wrong not because they misinterpreted data, but because they wantonly ignored any information that did not support their desired conclusion. They only processed numbers that fit into their world view and rejected everything else as liberal media bias. This could only happen in the isolation of the echo chamber. Fortunately, politics is not like religion in one important aspect: facts ultimately matter. Just wishing something to be true does not make it so. Ask Romney and all those who so confidently predicted his time in the Oval Office. They were all talking to each other under the Cone of Silence and could not hear the sound of truth.

Real Consequences

A real consequence of this positive loop of amplified lunacy might well be that Republicans cease to be a national political force. Political parties are not inevitable. The voice of the GOP is now the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and Ted Cruz. Their extremism positions the Republican Party more as a fringe group like the LaRouche movement rather than as a major player on the national scene. This is by no means the first time in our history that a minority has hijacked the Congress to pursue a radical agenda; take heart in the fact that the ship of state eventually rights itself. Consider the ugly few years of McCarthyism. A trouble-causing minority eventually either ceases to exist or becomes politically irrelevant -- no matter how much noise they make while in the spotlight.

In the throes of death, Republicans may experience an intermediate stage of irrelevance on their slide to extinction as a consequence of inner-party splits as extremists pull ever harder to the right. The rise and fall of the short-lived Bull Moose Party might be informative as an historic comparison. During the presidential election of 1912, Theodore Roosevelt formed the new party (formally called the Progressive Party) after losing the nomination to William Howard Taft. The new party, named popularly from Roosevelt's assertion that he was "as strong as a bull moose," won 27 percent of the vote compared to Taft's 23 percent during the election. The resulting split allowed Wilson to win with 42 percent of the vote. The Bull Moose Party was on scene only briefly, and is little remembered today, but had a significant impact on American politics.

We might also witness a trajectory in which the Republicans simply cease to exist at all. We of course have precedent for the demise of important political parties. The Federalist Party comes to mind. But the most telling historic parallel would be the rise and fall of the Whig Party, established in 1834 as a reaction to the growing executive clout of Andrew Jackson. States' rights were a major party platform.

While now nothing but a distant memory, Whigs at one time were a powerful force in national politics, boasting three presidents to its credit. William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor were elected president as Whig candidates. Millard Fillmore, also a Whig, became president after Taylor's death. During the height of Whig power nobody would have predicted that the party would cease to exist.

Ironically, the Whigs died in the face of the new Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln when the issue of slavery divided the nation, and Lincoln's Party attracted more Whigs than anti-slavery Democrats. The Republicans might soon experience the same fate as Lincoln inflicted on the Whigs. Major parties can die.

The death of the Republican Party, at least in its more traditional form, would be no cause for celebration. Excess on the left is as dangerous as right-wing craziness. The only way to weave a path to the middle is through reasonable opposition that prevents the extremes of either group from gaining too much influence. Moderate Republicans have much to offer that would be sorely missed if the GOP declines to the point of irrelevancy. The ideals of smaller government and reduced taxation are laudable, if tempered by realism. But Republicans have truly lost their bearings as even moderate winds of change drive conservatives to ever greater extremes, responding with growing amplitude to that resonant frequency of crazy. Threatening default on our nation's debt because of an unhealthy obsession with Obamacare is not crazy like a fox, but the brand of crazy that comes with a helmet and straightjacket. The kind of crazy that might drive the GOP to permanent irrelevance. Beware the Bull Moose.