Republicans Are Becoming Democrats

03/04/2011 01:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As a Democrat and a liberal, I used to worry about the party becoming ineffectual. Like others, I urged party members to man up, talk tough, avoid falling into the trap of becoming the girlie-party. But I have stopped worrying. We no longer have to worry. The Republicans have -- it appears from their recent behavior -- been moving into the positions we used to hold. The Republicans are, in fact, becoming Democrats. So Democrats don't have to become Republicans -- a significant relief.

A few pieces of evidence have surfaced over the last few months for this claim. Let me summarize them.

First: after the midterm elections, the current and future House Speakers gave many interviews. John Boehner -- the speaker-to-be, Republican -- reliably teared up every time. And he didn't just get misty-eyed: the tears ran down his cheeks. And he didn't just sniffle: he snuffled.

You might have expected Pelosi, soon to lose her speakership, to be the abashed and crying one. But no: she was strong, she was tough, she was assertive, and there was no hint of any sadness. So, in terms of gender stereotypes, he was the girl and she was the boy.

That went against all normal expectations. It has been the case for a long time that the Republicans are the boys, the Democrats the girls. Yet the lead Republican and Democrat had clearly shifted sides.

Since then, other evidence of a change in the rules has turned up. Again, males are expected to cooperate, to form teams and follow the leader. Females are traditionally supposed to be recalcitrant to organization, not to be willing to be led. They are, as in so many other ways, like cats -- they can't and won't be herded.

And again, the Democrats have behaved for a long time according to the female stereotype, the Republicans according to the male. Democratic leaders in Congress could never count on their members to line up and vote as instructed. But their Republican counterparts had no trouble achieving tight disciplinary control.

But lately, among the Republicans, strange things are happening. The House's newest members, the Tea Party contingent, are demonstrating a very un-Republican feistiness. The leadership doesn't want to close down Congress? Well, we'll see about that! The leaders seem unable to control their new brood. So once again, the Republicans seem to be moving toward a Democratic m.o.

With only these two examples, I might not be feeling too confident. But a third case of Republican leftward movement has just manifested itself.

In an article in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, "Fact-Free Science," Judith Warner notes that an old game of leftist academics is being taken up by Republicans: science denial, in particular climate-change denial. Of course, science denial is nothing new among conservatives: we might think of their decades-long attempts to prevent the teaching of evolution, which the new anti-climate-change agenda seems to be replacing in terms of urgency. But the Republican opposition to climate-change is curious in flying in the face of practically all responsible science, thumbing its nose at any idea of scientific truth.

As Warner reminds us, there is a precedent: in the left-wing academic postmodernism of the 1990s, in which there were not uncommonly arguments against the absoluteness of scientific truth.

Some of these arguments may have gone too far, though (even as a faculty member at what is sometimes still called the most radical university in the world) I never encountered a serious absolute denial of scientific truth among the postmodern left. Many of the arguments started out from the very real fact that "science" had, over the last century, borrowed misogynistic positions from the church that it was supplanting, making "scientific" claims about the inferiority of women that were disproved only when women were able to enter academic science in enough numbers and in authoritative enough positions to give these beliefs a well-deserved burial. Certainly those (and other similar) errors on the part of establishment science were enough to warrant some skepticism.

Warner also fails to notice a couple of other differences between the 1990s postmodern anti-scientism and that of 21st-century Republicans. The former, academics, published their work in scholarly journals read (at best) by about 23 people. They could not, and mostly did not want to, affect public policy.

Modern conservative science-deniers are very different. They often hold prestigious positions in politics or religion or both. They are all over the airwaves. Their aim is, without question, to affect public opinion and change public policy.

And the academics, being deconstructionists and postmodernists, necessarily took an ironic stance on everything they wrote about. Irony was their normal pose. They did not expect to be taken at their word -- that would have been cloddish.

The current Republican deniers, on the other hand, are very very serious. Irony, to many of them, is a form of Communism.

But even with these disclaimers, here is a new twist: Republicans are adopting a position that used to be left-wing. Skepticism about modernity (including science) has always been the business of the left. The right usually stands to gain more from scientific progress than the left. Yet the right has now taken on, in utter seriousness, the argumentative stance of its ironic opposition.

If these straws in the wind can be taken to mean anything, we may be in for an interesting next few years. Suddenly you'll need a scorecard to tell the sides apart. Suddenly it could be fun to be a Democrat again.