Tuesday, May 19, 2009

All-or-Nothing: The Republican Party and the Tamil Tigers

It might seem like a stretch to compare the Republican Party to the Tamil Tigers. But the comparison is more instructive than you would think.

The Tamil Tigers spent 33 years trying to overthrow the government of the island nation of Sri Lanka by mostly military means. The self-styled revolution is in disarray and appears to have been defeated more by its own inflexible, all-or-nothing thinking than by military firepower.

The Republican Party is attempting to take over the United States by political rather than military means, but you cannot always tell that by its words and actions. It speaks of a culture war, promises revolution, and lately threatens secession and calls for overturning the constitution. Its emphasis on the importance of weapons has led its members to be, in a few states at least, better armed than the combined police and military presence. Yet the mountain of weaponry, combined with the Republican rhetoric that frequently verges on the paramilitary, has done little to help the party win the hearts of voters.

Like the Tigers, the Republicans find a base of at least grudging support across about half of the country’s territory, yet they are not popular in any center of population. Squarely at odds with their nation’s traditions and cultural norms, they are driven to take over the government and use it as a tool to force cultural and institutional change, yet they lack the energy to do so.

Most of all, the Republicans, like the Tigers, lack the support of the people they are seeking to change — exactly the reason why they seek control of the government, to use the force of law to change the country. Any group that sees itself as a popular revolution first has to imagine that it is popular. The Tigers, quite mistakenly, saw themselves as representing the will of the people. They ultimately failed because the strategy of revolution cannot work if the people do not allow it. If you want to force a whole country to change against its will, the action you are undertaking is not a revolution, but an invasion, and the scale of effort and firepower required is quite different.

The Republicans are making the same mistake. They look at their 19 percent support in recent polls and fantasize that an additional 50 percent secretly support their plans. Yet the active support for the Republican culture war could not be higher than about 3 percent. Republicans seem to have persuaded themselves that they represent the traditional American point of view, yet their current ideas have come together only within the last five years, and such cornerstones as “family values” are inventions that trace their roots back only to the 1970s. The “traditional” values they seek to implement would lead most Americans to say, “You really mean that? You’ve got to be kidding.”

A revolutionary group, as the new Republican Party styles itself, can hope to rise to prominence by latching on to popular ideas as they come along, but that takes flexibility, and the Republicans are becoming increasingly intolerant and intransigent, to the point of forcing elected officials out of the party. In their dogged determination to implement the ideas they already have, the Republicans missed the chance to co-opt the core ideas of the tea bag movement of a month ago, a failure that speak volumes.

Too inflexible to engage in the conversation of American culture, too unpopular to mount an actual revolution, too old and tired to mount a full-scale invasion, the Republicans can only fall back on the usual approach of would-be revolutionaries, that of talking a good story. Based largely on the quality of the Republican story, the news media continues to treat the Republican Party as a major party, and I see no indication that this media presence will go away anytime soon.

Still, the Republican Party no longer represents mainstream politics and no longer participates in the major policy discussions of the United States. If Republican leaders cannot regain their political flexibility, reporters seeking to cover the actual workings of the political process will eventually have to move on.