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by Michael Stafford
With the debt ceiling crisis resolved, it is appropriate to pause and reflect on how America was brought to the precipice of a potential catastrophe. The answer can be found in two lines from William Butler Yeats’ famous poem “The Second Coming.” In the poem, Yeats’ wrote: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Today, Yeats’ words are an apt description of the state of America’s poisonous public discourse.
Although radicalization and incivility are prevalent across the political spectrum, at this moment their most dangerous manifestations are on the right. In the debt ceiling crisis, the ideological rigidity, and aversion to compromise, of the radical right risked bringing ruin upon us all. This can never be permitted to happen again. As such, confronting them, and wresting the Republican Party from their grip, is a matter of the highest priority for the nation.
Republicans are traditionally loath to criticize one another. After all, we have the famous example of Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment- “thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” And yet, Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment is deployed in peculiar ways these days. It is forgotten or ignored when Tea Party zealots are on the warpath purging so-called moderates or centrists from the GOP. It is nowhere to be found when cries of “RINO” fill the talk radio airwaves at the first sign of independent, rational thinking by a Republican pundit or elected official. Today, the Eleventh Commandment is used to silence us, but never them.
As the Republican Party has moved to the right, many of us have either kept quiet, disengaged, or drifted away. Responsible voices within it are either intimidated into silence or driven out by the confrontational, school-yard bully tactics of madmen with microphones and their angry audiences. If our right-wing demagogues convey one thing to their listeners, it is a passionate sense of certainty in a simplistic vision of the world stripped clean of all complexity and devoid of subtlety and nuance. As a result, what passes for conservative thought has degenerated into a series of mere bumper sticker slogans designed to generate an emotional response. They do not form an adequate basis for governing or solving the problems facing America today.
However, those who have left the Republican Party as it has moved to the right have committed a grave error — one that has merely accelerated the process of political radicalization in this country. By fleeing or staying silent rather then fighting, they’ve allowed the GOP to be co-opted by radicals. And that’s ironic, because it’s the radical right that’s propounding a vision at odds with traditional conservatism. As David Jenkins of Republicans for Environmental Protection observed in an interview with Andrew Revkin of The New York Times, the GOP has fallen into the hands of “pretend conservatives.” These individuals “are the radical libertarians that dominate the right-wing talk radio and outlets like Fox News… The policies being peddled by these folks reflect a live for today-let me do what I want mentality” that is alien to authentic conservative thought.
In remarks earlier this year to the United Nations, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Razak spoke of an urgent need to form a “global movement of moderates” aimed at countering rising religious extremism across the world. In particular, Razak pointedly observed that “we have inadvertently allowed the ugly voices of the periphery to drown out the many voices of reason and common sense…” This insight aptly describes what has taken place within the Republican Party in America.
It’s time for Republicans of good will to speak openly and critically about the dangers posed by the radical right. We have reached a point where our continued silence is tantamount to complicity; our continued restraint, the political equivalent of a license to further radicalization. Today, we have an opportunity to show the nation that the best within the GOP still have the courage of our convictions by confronting the “pretend conservatives” and the “ugly voices of the periphery” in our midst.
Together, we can walk the GOP back from the cliff’s edge and reclaim the rich legacy and heritage both of the Republican Party and of traditional conservatism.