Since we have determined through the years that we shall have two and only two political parties in this country, the irrationality of one of them is such a grave threat to good governance that the other party has an affirmative obligation to the country to make the irrational party pay such a fearsome price for its indulgent eccentricity that it must reform itself or risk permanent irrelevance. Unfortunately, that task falls to the other creaky vehicle, the Democratic party, which has proven spectacularly ill suited to it.
As conservatism was developing its powerful infrastructure, the Democratic party was still sucking its thumb over what happened to George McGovern in 1972. While conservative millionaires were pouring money into the construction of the network of institutions on the right, the Democrats were throwing themselves, through the creation of the Democratic Leadership Council, in the general direction of the same money. Nothing arose on the left, or around the Democratic party, that remotely resembled the formidable arsenal of opinion that developed on the right, and of which the Republicans took full advantage, not realizing at the time that all of that success was hollowing out their party’s essential intellect until all that is left today is raw, overwhelming id.
The Democrats were powerless against this, and they did not seek to be anything else. They became gifted at defense, surrendering bits of what was once fundamental to their party’s identity as a bulwark against losing it all. This created a perennially discontented, but not mutinous, base because, at bottom, that base had nowhere else to go to exert its power. That is not the case with the Republican base, as we have seen. Armed with the power of its extraparty institutions, there is a strong element within the Republican base that does not care if the party loses one, two, or three elections as long as their ideology remains pure. There is nobody so powerful in politics as influential people who don’t care if they lose. The Republicans have these in abundance. The Democrats don’t have them at all.
This is what keeps the Democrats from being able to make the Republicans pay full price for their party’s departure from reality on so many issues. In 2006, the Republicans were handed a defeat in the midterms every bit as resounding as the one suffered by the Democrats four years later. The difference is that there were so many institutions enabling and validating the Republicans’ outré ideas that they didn’t see any need to moderate them as a result of the 2006 debacle. They simply rode out the 2008 presidential election and retooled those ideas for the age of Obama. Suddenly, we started hearing about “czars,” and more talk about socialism than you would have heard at Eugene V. Debs’s bachelor party. What were once moderate Republican ideas were now the thin edge of the collectivist wedge. The transformation was complete. And it was remarkable.
The Democratic party has an obligation to beat the Republican party so badly, over and over again, that rationality once again becomes a quality to be desired. It must be done by persuading the country of this simple fact. It cannot be done by reasoning with the Republicans, because the next two generations of them are too far gone. The state legislators now passing all manner of crazy laws represent the next generation of national Republican leaders. They are proudly unknowing. They are certain, because it is impossible.