October 2010

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by Peter Bearse

When a political party thinks that “the wind is on our backs”, one should ask which way the wind is blowing. Over the long run, the historic opportunity facing the GOP this election year is more likely to weaken the Republican Party than strengthen it.

Unlike Bob Dylan, the GOP needs “a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows.” Republican candidates fail to appreciate the fact that most voters do not view the GOP favorably; they primarily would be voting against Democratic policies. Thus, the 2010 November elections would be a inverse replay of those in 2006 and 2008, when most voters voted for Democrats and against Republican policies. The Party sees itself as solving a self-defined problem: “The wrong party is in control.” Wrong. This attitude is an illustration of what a new book describes as “How we trick ourselves and others into solving the wrong problems….”1 Upon returning to power (if they do), Republicans are no more likely to change Congress than the Democrats.

So, what is the truly “historic opportunity” of this election year? It is that, after decades of decline in political participation, “We the people”, representing a good cross section of the electorate, have finally woken up, and seeing how badly off our nation has become, said: ‘We’ve got to get involved -- to take our government back.’

With the election-year opportunity recast in these terms, we can begin to see to what degree the GOP is, like the Congress it seeks to control, a dinosaur rather than an institution offering even evolutionary change. For the Republican mantra is ‘lower taxes, less spending, smaller government and free markets. Nothing here about helping people to ‘take back our government’. Just change the seats from ‘D’ to ‘R’ and all will be well!

If the Party was really listening, its emphasis would shift from the conventional headline issues (symptoms) to the underlying factors affecting issues (causes). These include:

  1. Congress-as-an-institutional-dinosaur, implying that issue #1 is none of the above but rather the need to change the way Congress does the people’s business on any of the headline issues. The last such effort was made by Congress’ “Class of ‘94” under the leadership of Newt Gingrich.

  2. The dominance of big money over people: Campaign finance reform (CFR) a la McCain-Feingold has failed, and a recent Supreme Court decision allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on campaigns. “Big money” has corrupted the Congress.

  3. The need to empower people to take back what, indeed, should be their politics and their government. Lacking this, new Members will revert to SO/SO [Same-Old/Same-Old] Congressional behavior dictated by Lady GA GA [Go-Along/Get-Along] pressures -- as if “change” is simply a game for insiders only. Congress has proven unable to reform itself.

The exception is the Tea Party, a radical departure from the GOP in terms of structure and organization. Contrast flat with hierarchical organization, democracy with oligarchy, newness with SO/SO, dynamics with statics, and individualism with GA/GA. Tea Party candidates’ positions overlap the GOP Platform on headline issue #1, deficits and spending. Otherwise, they represent the empowerment of people who either have not been politically involved or who do not represent the ‘establishment’ of any established party. In other words, they represent a new, conservative populism.2 As Peggy Noonan has written: “The populist movement is more a critique of the GOP than a wing of it.”3

The GOP is caught in a contradiction. On the one hand, the Party needs to co-opt the Tea Party in order to engage the new political energies that it has mobilized. On the other, the self-organizing, populist dynamic of the Tea Party is utterly foreign to the good old boy network that dominates the GOP. How and whether the GOP can bridge these gaps may well determine whether the Party makes history by leading American politics into a new, conservative political realignment, or whether the party becomes history.

Whether the GOP is really open to the change that the Tea Party represents is very much open to question. The acid test will lie with candidate recruitment and financing. The GOP has a greater chance of bringing Tea Party folks into its ranks to the extent that it:

  1. Rebrands itself as a “Party of People” and begins to throw off the image of the Party as a party of big money. This implies not favoring “big money” men and women for candidate recruitment, and rebuilding the Party from the ground-up.

  2. Offers an alternative way to reform the so-called “reform” of CFR, one that for the first time values people’s contributions of time over big money donations.

  3. Substantially revamps Party structure and functions in terms of leadership, hierarchy, decentralization, financing, membership training, and use of new Internet or ‘Web-based technologies.

  4. Recruits candidates who have proven themselves to be innovators and change-agents at the local and state levels of government.

Fundamentally at issue in all of this is whether our democratic Republic can be saved. Real change is required in the place where it most counts -- in the Congress, the branch of government that, under our Constitution, is the only branch constituted to work for us, “We the People”. If the GOP cannot change, we may have a dinosaur party in control of a dinosaur Congress. This is a formula for failure of our Republic. [Sept. 20, 2010]

PETER BEARSE, Ph.D., former Republican Candidate for Congress in NH CD 1

1 See Mitroff, Ian and A. Silvers (2010), dirty rotten strategies, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

2 See Bearse, Peter (2004), WE THE PEOPLE: A Conservative Populism. Lafayette, LA: Alpha Publishers, Inc.

3 Noonan, Peggy (2010), “Why It’s Time for the Tea Party,” WALL St. JOURNAL (Sept.18-19)