Two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the Republican crackup threatens the future of the Grand Old Party more profoundly than at any time since the GOP's eclipse in 1932. That's bad for America.
The crackup isn't just Romney the smooth versus Gingrich the bomb-thrower.
Not just House Republicans who just scotched the deal to continue payroll tax relief and extended unemployment insurance benefits beyond the end of the year, versus Senate Republicans who voted overwhelmingly for it.
Not just Speaker John Boehner, who keeps making agreements he can't keep, versus Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who keeps making trouble he can't control.
And not just venerable Republican senators like Indiana's Richard Lugar, a giant of foreign policy for more than three decades, versus primary challenger state treasurer Richard Mourdock, who apparently misplaced and then rediscovered $320 million in state tax revenues.
Some describe the underlying conflict as Tea Partiers versus the Republican establishment. But this just begs the question of who the Tea Partiers really are and where they came from.
The underlying conflict lies deep into the nature and structure of the Republican Party. And its roots are very old.
As Michael Lind has noted, today's Tea Party is less an ideological movement than the latest incarnation of an angry white minority -- predominantly Southern, and mainly rural -- that has repeatedly attacked American democracy in order to get its way.
It's no mere coincidence that the states responsible for putting the most Tea Party representatives in the House are all former members of the Confederacy. Of the Tea Party caucus, twelve hail from Texas, seven from Florida, five from Louisiana, and five from Georgia, and three each from South Carolina, Tennessee, and border-state Missouri.
Others are from border states with significant Southern populations and Southern ties. The four Californians in the caucus are from the inland part of the state or Orange County, whose political culture has was shaped by Oklahomans and Southerners who migrated there during the Great Depression.
This isn't to say all Tea Partiers are white, Southern or rural Republicans -- only that these characteristics define the epicenter of Tea Party Land.
And the views separating these Republicans from Republicans elsewhere mirror the split between self-described Tea Partiers and other Republicans.
In a poll of Republicans conducted for CNN last September, nearly six in ten who identified themselves with the Tea Party say global warming isn't a proven fact; most other Republicans say it is.
Six in ten Tea Partiers say evolution is wrong; other Republicans are split on the issue. Tea Party Republicans are twice as likely as other Republicans to say abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, and half as likely to support gay marriage.
Tea Partiers are more vehement advocates of states' rights than other Republicans. Six in ten Tea Partiers want to abolish the Department of Education; only one in five other Republicans do. And Tea Party Republicans worry more about the federal deficit than jobs, while other Republicans say reducing unemployment is more important than reducing the deficit.
In other words, the radical right wing of today's GOP isn't that much different from the social conservatives who began asserting themselves in the Party during the 1990s, and, before them, the "Willie Horton" conservatives of the 1980s, and, before them, Richard Nixon's "silent majority."
Through most of these years, though, the GOP managed to contain these white, mainly rural and mostly Southern, radicals. After all, many of them were still Democrats. The conservative mantle of the GOP remained in the West and Midwest -- with the libertarian legacies of Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft and Barry Goldwater, neither of whom was a barn-burner -- while the epicenter of the Party remained in New York and the East.
But after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as the South began its long shift toward the Republican Party and New York and the East became ever more solidly Democratic, it was only a matter of time. The GOP's dominant coalition of big business, Wall Street, and Midwest and Western libertarians was losing its grip.
The watershed event was Newt Gingrich's takeover of the House, in 1995. Suddenly, it seemed, the GOP had a personality transplant. The gentlemanly conservatism of House Minority Leader Bob Michel was replaced by the bomb-throwing antics of Gingrich, Dick Armey, and Tom DeLay.
Almost overnight Washington was transformed from a place where legislators tried to find common ground to a war zone. Compromise was replaced by brinkmanship, bargaining by obstructionism, normal legislative maneuvering by threats to close down government -- which occurred at the end of 1995.
Before then, when I'd testified on the Hill as Secretary of Labor, I had come in for tough questioning from Republican senators and representatives -- which was their job. After January 1995, I was verbally assaulted. "Mr. Secretary, are you a socialist?" I recall one of them asking.
But the first concrete sign that white, Southern radicals might take over the Republican Party came in the vote to impeach Bill Clinton, when two-thirds of senators from the South voted for impeachment. (A majority of the Senate, you may recall, voted to acquit.)
America has had a long history of white Southern radicals who will stop at nothing to get their way -- seceding from the Union in 1861, refusing to obey Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s, shutting the government in 1995, and risking the full faith and credit of the United States in 2010.
Newt Gingrich's recent assertion that public officials aren't bound to follow the decisions of federal courts derives from the same tradition.
This stop-at-nothing radicalism is dangerous for the GOP because most Americans recoil from it. Gingrich himself became an object of ridicule in the late 1990s, and many Republicans today worry that if he heads the ticket the Party will suffer large losses.
It's also dangerous for America. We need two political parties solidly grounded in the realities of governing. Our democracy can't work any other way.
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