My late friend Bill Strauss, who co-wrote Generations and The Fourth Turning with Neil Howe, used to argue back in the early 2000s that the break-up of the country was a genuine threat. He thought the election of Hillary Clinton might trigger it. In the last months of his life (in late 2007) he was excited by Barack Obama, but he turned out to be just as divisive as Hillary would have been. (I do not think she would have been any less so, and since Obama essentially put a third Clinton Administration in place,. there's no particular reason to think that anything would have been very different ha she been elected.) Now the Republican Party, now centered in the white South, is every bit as determined to make its dreams come true as the slaveholding South was before the Civil War, but their ideas are less controversial than slavery and they have also wisely adopted a new strategy. Rather than try to break the country up, they are focusing on crippling the federal government and implementing their agenda of dismantling government in the states. Nothing that has happened in the last five years has changed their agenda and they appear to be going forward on many fronts.
Thus, several stories this week detail the plans of the House Republicans: to demand cuts of 50% or more in various federal programs in exchange for continuing to fund the federal government. They also seem committed to blocking immigration reform. If anything they seem more hostile towards compromising Republicans in the Senate than they are towards Democrats, perhaps because they are confident that they can continue defeating them in primaries. They enjoy the 24/7 support of Fox News (which a good many retirees watch from morning till night), all the money they need from the Koch brothers and their ilk, and the patronage of talk radio. They refused to pass the food stamp program as part of the farm bill, and they look forward to another round of cuts under the sequester next year.
Meanwhile, Republican dominated state governments are pushing their agenda as hard as possible. While I understand why many people oppose abortion I cannot understand the depth of the crusade the Republicans are on to stop it, passing more and more restrictive laws destined to be overturned by the federal courts. Opposition to Washington and all it stands for seems to have become an end in itself. On another front, the Republican government of North Carolina has just passed the most restrictive voting law it could imagine--a law now immune to challenge under the voting rights act, although not, of course, under the 14th or 15th amendment. It requires one of a very small number of photo ids (perhaps either a driver's license or a passport), ends same-day registration, cuts back on early voting and, incredibly, forbids polling places from remaining open past their closing time even if people are backed in lines waiting to cast their vote. It will undoubtedly be imitated in other Republican states.
The same ideological fervor dominates the votes of four Supreme Court justices, who have given us Citizens United, Heller, the end of the Voting Rights Act, and much more. And now we learn than John Roberts has been using his power as Chief Justice to pack the FISA court, which oversees national security searches, with Republicans, including many veterans of the Bush executive branch. That is why the court has rubber-stamped every NSA program. In a rare, hopeful political note, a coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats barely failed to pass limits on national security searches in the House of Representatives. That is one of odd features of the new Republicans: their hostility to the federal government includes the national security bureaucracy and even the Department of Defense.
The conservative Republicans, alas, are similar to the New Dealers I have been writing about for the last few years, in that they have been part of the same network for the whole of their adult lives, reinforcing their beliefs and nurturing one another emotionally. They have accomplished an extraordinary amount over the last forty years, and especially the last twenty, drastically shrinking most of the federal government (really all of it except benefit programs) as a percentage of GDP, dismantling the regulatory structure, cutting taxes to historic lows, and securing a fairly dependable majority on the Supreme Court. In the Senate they have used minority power more aggressively than any national party in American history, using tactics that southern Democrats used to save to fight civil rights legislation to stop almost anything the Administration wants to do. Their demographics are shrinking and the country may be tiring of them, but nothing seems to be able to threaten their self-confidence. The Weimar Republic collapsed in large part because an informal Parliamentary alliance of Communists and Nazis refused to vote for anything, forcing three chancellors to rely on emergency powers that do not exist under the US Constitution and paving the may for Hitler's accession to power. We are not suffering economic distress on the scale that the Germans did in the early 1930s, but our government is nearly as paralyzed, and things may get worse. The Democrats, meanwhile, lack any comparable organization or commitment to an agenda. They combine, in effect a residual belief in government with nearly equal subservience to corporate America. Nate Silver, who is now leaving the New York Times, recently analyzed the history of elections held after one party has been in office for two terms. They showed a great many very close elections and no clear pattern. The Republican Party cannot be counted out for 2016, and the Democrats desperately need a more broadly appealing candidate than Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden. It is not clear who that would be.