Every so often, someone will come across my first book–“What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?”–and will express surprise that I was once a Republican. That happened the other day, and I tried to explain how different the party I belonged to for so long–35 years!–was from the party they see today.
Strange as it may seem today, I was considered “too conservative” for a significant number of Republicans in 1980, when I was their local candidate for Congress; many of them actually defected and voted for my more “mainstream” opponent, Andy Jacobs, Jr. My political philosophy hasn’t changed, but the GOP certainly has; the result is that the positions I held–and hold–that were once labeled conservative now are considered left-wing. I stood still; the party careened “right” past me.
I don’t think people with whom I have that conversation really believe me when I explain how dramatic the shift has been over the last 30 years. But a forthcoming book makes the case more eloquently than I have been able to do.
The book is “It’s Even Worse than it Looks,” and it was written by Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute. Back when I was a Republican, Ornstein was an important intellectual force in the party, and was considered a member of the GOP’s right wing. In the book, Mann and Ornstein write
“One of our two major parties, the Republicans, has become an insurgent outlier–ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
A number of my friends have marveled at how weak the field of GOP Presidential contenders is, but when a political party has become an angry, unthinking mob, when the base that candidates must satisfy prefers red meat to reason, potential candidates have a distasteful choice. They can wait for a less fevered, less rabid environment, or they can do what Romney, Gingrich, et al have chosen to do: reject evolution and science, extol fundamentalist religion and “family values,” attack gays and immigrants, and use barely coded “dog whistles” to play the race card. (One of the most dispiriting elements of this campaign season has been watching Dick Lugar–once a reasonable, dignified elder-statesman–grovel for the votes of these rabid know-nothings by trying to become someone other than the Dick Lugar who once commanded bipartisan respect.)
The real tragedy in the transformation of what used to be the Grand Old Party is that America desperately needs two competitive parties controlled by rational political actors. We voters need to hear different perspectives on policy issues, thoughtfully argued–not name-calling and demonization. Worse still, the absence of a worthy adversary encourages similarly juvenile antics by the Democrats. It makes a circus of the whole political process.
I miss my old party–and America is poorer for its absence.