The current debate over whether Barack Obama’s opponents are motivated by his policy or his race dominated the Sunday news shows, with a general consensus emerging that policy was the main factor. It was nonetheless conceded that racism was a disturbing presence in many of the protest events. Sadly, no Republican spokesperson on the shows said anything to condemn the organizers that allowed and may have encouraged the ugly manifestations of racism.
Many of the recent protests reminded me of rallies last fall at which Sarah Palin would talk about “taking back our America” and accuse Obama of “palling around with terrorists.” The fact that media types like Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh engage in overt race-baiting on a daily basis only adds to the perception that the GOP is out of sync with its basic principles and values. It seems no Republican luminary would dare question Beck or Limbaugh for fear of facing primary challenges down the road, which is somewhat ironic when you consider that neither of the two is an actual member of the GOP. After all, opposing a liberal administration is good for ratings.
Both Beck and Limbaugh represent a brand of populist extremism that has bubbled up at different times in American history. Recall Father Coughlin during the FDR years, Senator McCarthy during the post WWII hysteria over communist infiltration, and George Wallace in the 60s playing on the fears of the white working class. The difference now is that Beck and Limbaugh have a greater range thanks to the Internet. While a lot of their shtick is more entertainment than information, they have mesmerized the mainstream media, which seems to react to their eccentricities on a regular basis. CNN and MSNBC often ask their analysts to react to some of the more extreme interventions of Beck and Limbaugh. The result is a larger-than-life reality show of which the Republican party is merely a spectator.
It may be that the Republican leadership in Congress, prospective presidential candidates, and RNC Chair Michael Steele figure that the extremism, the populism and maybe even the racism will bring Obama down, leaving the voices of reason and moderation to pick up the pieces. If that is the case, it is a risky proposition. America has seen revolts against policies, perceived threats to freedom, big government, unpopular wars and so on, but at the end of the day, Americans choose to be governed by balance and moderation, both in their leaders and their institutions. The principle of checks and balances is enshrined in the Founding Fathers’ thinking and is embodied in the constitution. Politicians who exploit the rants of Beck and Limbaugh may make some short-term gains in the polls—as Sarah Palin has done—but in the long run, America will opt for candidates that appeal to their hopes and dreams as opposed to their fears and greed.
Fortunately , there are voices within the Republican party that have the potential to rise and challenge the extremism of the far-right—people like David Frum and Joe Scarborough, two Republicans who have dared to question the antics of Beck and Limbaugh. Reasonable conservative pundits and journalists like David Brooks, George Will, Peggy Noonan, and Kathleen Parker consistently make the case for smaller government, less taxation, rugged individualism, and greater inclusivity in ways that honour the vision of conservative thinkers like William F. Buckley. But they cannot match the theatrics and charisma of Beck and Limbaugh. Unless the elected leadership shows more courage, the Republican party will remain a hostage of the fringe. Obama`s approval may have dropped in recent months, but the Republicans are still far from making the gains that will make them a viable alternative in the 2012 presidential election.
This is not a plea for an eventual Republican takeover of the US government on my part. Rather, it is based on a belief that good government happens when opposing views confront each other in the political process. Obama and the Democrats won the election and have the legitimacy to fulfill their promises, and this blog hopes to see the changes promised by Obama come to pass, especially in foreign policy, health care reform, the environment, and financial regulations.
Still, changing America is not as cut and dry a process as winning an election. It is the product of debate within a system of government that is based on checks and balances and characterized by a propensity toward bipartisanship in making policy and legislation. Bipartisanship depends on individual political leaders reaching across party lines for the common interest and proposing policies that can be grounds for a potential compromise. It was a precursor to historical legislation like Medicare, civil rights, social security, the foreign policy of the Cold War. However , as long as Beck and Limbaugh call the shots, the Republican party will fail to meet its promise .