Three things happened in the Republican party this week that demonstrate the party’s toxic, self-destructive quality. In short, the GOP has become the flesh-eating bacteria of political parties.
1) Conservative provocateur Andrew Breitbart died, and was revered as a great American hero by conservative commentators (and some liberals—we’ll get to that).
2) Rush Limbaugh called a Georgetown student a “slut” because she believes that birth control should be covered by health insurance.
3) Moderate Republican senator Olympia Snowe of Maine announced that she would not run for reelection.
Let’s start with Breitbart.
Andrew Breitbart was an interesting person, but I wouldn’t call him a good one. His primary contribution to the American conversation was bile. When Ted Kennedy died, Breitbart called him “a pile of human excrement” and “a duplicitous bastard.” But rather than itemize his behavior, I’ll let Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi do it:
…the whole man in this case was not just a guy who once said, “It’s all about a good laugh,” but also someone who liked to publish peoples’ personal information on the internet, hack into private web sites, tell lies in an attempt to get his enemies fired, and incite readers to threats against his targets and their families, including death threats.
There are some liberals—Arianna Huffington, Lloyd Grove, Mickey Kaus—who’ve praised Breitbart post-mortem. This is inside-the-bubble bullshit, a sign that the political class thinks, None of this stuff we say really matters, it’s just a game—we’ll all make a fortune off it and air-kiss at the Starbucks in Brentwood. It’s the same kind of thinking that kept Pat Buchanan on MSNBC for years too long. What does it matter that he’s a racist? He’s a sweetheart in person.
But what Andrew Breitbart did and said did matter; it wasn’t just a game. Breitbart hurt people and he lowered the level of discourse in American life (no easy feat). I’m sorry for his family’s sake that he’s dead; far better that he would have retired or repented. But the public square is better off without him.
Speaking of hurting people and lowering the level of discourse in American life—hello, Rush Limbaugh. The radio host—a term that really doesn’t seem to fit Limbaugh—went off on Georgetown student Sandra Fluke, after Fluke told a Congressional hearing that birth control cost Georgetown students $1000 a year because it wasn’t covered by health insurance.
“What does that make her?” Limbaugh said on his show Wednesday night. “It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute.”
“She wants to be paid to have sex,” Limbaugh continued. “She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception.”
Limbaugh isn’t backing down, but the backlash has been widespread and considerably more elevated than Limbaugh’s own comments; Georgetown president John DeGioia issued a statement that was learned, powerful, and reminded one of the valuable role that university presidents can and should play in civil discourse.
With men like Limbaugh and Breitbart dominating her party, it’s no wonder that Olympia Snowe decided to call it quits. She’s a reasonable woman in a party of unreasonable men; who’d want to linger in that crowd? Her departure means that the GOP is down one more woman and one more moderate.
I’ve been fascinated watching this campaign as the GOP commits political suicide. What does a candidate—and a party—try to do? Build constituencies in order to win elections and govern effectively. And yet this Republican party has attacked blacks, Latinos, gays and women—probably I’m leaving a few groups out—and this in an election year that should rightfully be dominated by discussion of the economy. Its electoral strategy seems to pray (and I mean that literally) that there are enough angry white men and self-hating women out there to win a national election. It’s terrible politics, both short- and long-term.
I’ve been reading a paper by some Berkeley and Oxford scholars on the history of right-wing extremism in the Great Depression which I’d recommend to the Republicans. (It’s better historiography than, say, that of Newt Gingrich.)
One of its conclusions is that, no matter how compelling right-wing movements may seem in the moment, they invariably fade when the economy improves.
When that happens, what will today’s Republican Party be left with? It’s going to look like Wile E. Coyote having just run off the edge of a cliff—and realizing what’s going to happen next.