The Hard Line

Two articles this week explained why Republicans are (depending on your point of view) either (1) able to hold together on hardline positions, or (2) unable to compromise. Turns out, it’s not just the party leadership or elected officials that are different, it’s the rank-and-file:

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NYT blogger Nate Silver looks more deeply at the polling data and concludes that while polarization is hitting both parties, it has a more profound effect on the Republicans. Republican is becoming identical with conservative, while the Democrats remain a coalition of diverse philosophies. So Democrats worry about alienating their moderates, while Republicans focus on energizing their base.

In The three fundamentalisms of the American right, Salon’s Michael Lind notes a long-term philosophical shift in conservatism. William F. Buckley modeled the mid-20th-century conservative movement after 18th-century philosopher Edmund Burke, who argued that people underestimate the values embedded in traditional practices, so change should be measured and thoughtful rather than sweeping and giddy.

But increasingly, 21st-century conservatism is built around fundamentalist reaction rather than thoughtful prudence. Christian fundamentalism (the Bible), constitutional fundamentalism (the Constitution and carefully selected quotes from the Founders), and market fundamentalism (Atlas Shrugged) each have a holy scripture that teaches unquestionable Truth. And that creates a problem for democracy.

Back when conservatism was orthodox and traditional, rather than fundamentalist and counter-revolutionary, conservatives could engage in friendly debates with liberals, and minds on both sides could now and then be changed. But if your sect alone understands the True Religion and the True Constitution and the Laws of the Market, then there is no point in debate. All those who disagree with you are heretics, to be defeated, whether or not they are converted.

A Burke-Buckley conservative respects the status quo, but to a fundamentalist the status quo already represents a fall from a lost Golden Age — often an imaginary one.

It’s tempting to respond to all three types of right-wing fundamentalist with scorn, especially when they make up facts about their respective Golden Ages. But in the long run scorn may be counterproductive. Fundamentalism is a reaction to a loss of identity and community. (No one who feels at home here and now pledges loyalty to a lost era or an ancient text.) Ultimately, fundamentalists need to be healed, not beaten down further. The candidate-Obama message of Hope and Yes We Can seems exactly right to me, if we can see it through.


This move conflicts with my healing strategy, but I’ll be interested to see if it works tactically: The American Values Network points out that two of the right-wing fundamentalisms contradict each other. Jesus and Ayn Rand are not at all on the same page.


Less-extreme Republicans have finally started protesting against the hard line: David Brooks, David Frum, Kathleen Parker, Robert Samuelson.

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  • […] The Hard Line. The Republican inclination not to compromise goes all the way down to the grass roots, where three kinds of fundamentalism are replacing the 20th-century conservative’s respect for the status quo. […]

  • […] I’m criticizing. So I put my criticism of Obama’s political strategy (compromising with people who don’t want to compromise) into the fantasy conversation Barack, Can We Talk?. This was also part of the Bizarro World theme: […]

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