Friday, August 31, 2012

The Party of Almost Inevitable Decline

Taken as a whole, the Republican convention had an air of decline. It did not help that the convention had to start a day late, in part because of the party’s own efforts to cut funding for disaster response, or that the natural disaster that brushed past the site of the convention caused damage on a massive scale elsewhere for the duration of the convention. But the feeling of an institution in decline that was so in evidence at the convention was not merely the result of bad luck. It was an expression of the people at the convention, most especially the delegates.

One of the bigger stories to come out of the convention was the expulsion of a group of delegates for harassing a television news employee. The delegates shouted derogatory remarks and threw food. This is not a scene we would have seen in any of the Republican conventions of the previous 40 years. The Republican party is not capable of the level of performance we have expected of it in the past.

The more obvious self-inflicted wound was best symbolized by the cowboy hats, a reference to the last Republican president, George W. Bush. He liked to be seen in a cowboy hat even though he was not a cowboy and did not actually do anything outdoors except when the new cameras were there to see it. Bush wore a cowboy hat to represent his approach to foreign policy, which came to be known as “cowboy diplomacy.” So the cowboy hats that were very much in evidence at the convention were asking for a return to cowboy diplomacy. It is not that cowboy diplomacy was a success. Among its other failings, it got the United States into an inconclusive war that was perhaps as expensive in military terms as World War II. No one at the convention was claiming that cowboy diplomacy was a success. If delegates were celebrating it, it was just because they had nothing newer or better to offer. That is the kind of thing you expect to see in an institution in decline.

Decline characterizes not merely the Republican party organization itself, but also its view of the United States as a country. Big parts of the Republican agenda, which I wrote about yesterday, might be seen as residual anger from the fight against Bill Clinton, president until 12 years ago, who made a point of saying that success was the result of everyone working and that we could not afford to leave anyone behind. The Republican agenda, if you read between the lines, is based on the opposite idea: that we cannot afford to take everyone along; that if we do not start throwing people over the side now, we will all go down together. The rhetoric in the convention speeches returned again and again to the feeling that the less successful people in the country — poor people, those who are unemployed or who fall ill, retirees, soldiers wounded in battle, students, and so on — are dragging down the whole country. That is not the image of a country progressing and expanding, but of one that faces too many burdens to make real progress. This sense of almost unavoidable national decline is not necessarily the view of Republican voters, but it is certainly the current view that comes across from the Republican party as an organization.

The same attitude is reflected in the uglier actions of the delegates at the convention. Their crude behavior and outbursts were not mere racism, as they might have appeared on the surface. The vast majority of people at the convention, obviously not all aging white men, were treated in a polite and civil manner. Republican delegates reserved their threats and abuse for those who they saw as working ineffectively. This was not the view of the whole Republican party, obviously, but there is a faction in the party that believes that the solution to most problems is to get rid of the people whose performance is below average. It is the strategy that corresponds to the military order “Every man for himself,” which in the military is reserved for situations so disastrous that any attempt to coordinate is likely to lead to delay that compounds the disaster. The rest of us in the United States must come to understand that a significant fraction of Republicans see the current condition of the country as one that rises to that level of despair.

This Week in Bank Failures will return next week.