The GOP’s burgeoning civil war


The GOP’s burgeoning civil war
By: James Kirchick
March 23, 2009

Watching the various spats among conservatives, it’s difficult to tell whether one is witnessing a series of lively political disagreements or an episode of “Monday Night Raw.”

In one corner, there’s former Bush administration speechwriter David Frum versus talk radio king Rush Limbaugh. In another ring, Limbaugh is taking on former House speaker-turned-conservative guru Newt Gingrich. And in the Royal Rumble, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele is battling, well, pretty much everybody in the GOP.

Liberals have shown no small measure of delight in this fracas, and understandably so. Taking political advantage of conservative fratricide makes perfect sense, as it’s the strategic execution of Henry Kissinger’s observation about the Iran-Iraq War: “It’s a pity both sides can’t lose.” Fueling the intra-party fire weakens the GOP from within. Even the White House has gotten in on the act with senior figures like spokesperson Robert Gibbs and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel launching attacks on administration critics ranging from Limbaugh to CNBC personalities Rick Santelli and Jim Cramer.

But as liberals engage in multiple rounds of schadenfreude over conservative wrangling, what’s noticeable is that the burgeoning civil war we’re witnessing on the right could not play out on the left, at least not rise to the level of gravity that would attract front-page articles in Newsweek or the instigation of partisans on the other side. And that’s because liberals — unlike conservatives — do not have a “movement” over which to fight.

Given the Barack Obama phenomenon, the rise of the liberal blogosphere and overwhelming Democratic congressional majorities, the proposition that liberals lack a movement might sound strange. But while the Republican Party comprises three steadfast pillars (free marketers, defense hawks and the religious right), the Democratic Party remains a coalition of a vast and diverse assemblage of interest groups (minorities, labor unions, academics, trial lawyers, etc.) rather than an ideological enterprise. As such, the Democrats, up until very recently, have long had more intense internal squabbling than the Republicans, whose various factions learned to reconcile.

The conservative movement began to take form in the 1950s as a reaction to the then-regnant statist consensus. It was firmly anti-communist, opposed the New Deal and the further expansion of government programs, and later launched a harsh critique on many of the social changes that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. What further distinguishes the conservative movement from the liberal coalition is that conservatives built an array of institutions to sustain their ideological apparatus. In Washington and across the country, there exists a constellation of think tanks, like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. In the 1980s, conservatives took to the airwaves and now attract tens of millions of listeners every day on talk radio. Perhaps the most important feature of the movement was its recruitment of young people through organizations like Young America’s Foundation, which identifies and trains conservative students on campuses across the country.

To see the vitality — if not reasonableness — of the movement, one only had to visit last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual ritual that attracts conservative activists, politicians and celebrities from across the country. There is no liberal equivalent of this confab. Indeed, the relative influence of the conservative movement on the GOP versus any liberal parallel on the Democratic Party can be seen in the vast number of Republican politicians who proudly call themselves “conservative.” By contrast, few Democrats publicly identify themselves as “liberal,” opting for the more vague and voguish “progressive,” if at all.

Liberals are belatedly constructing themselves a movement akin to the one crafted by their ideological adversaries. In 2003, John Podesta founded the Center for American Progress, a partisan think tank explicitly modeled on Heritage. Media Matters aggressively attacks any perceived anti-liberal media bias in the same way that conservative watchdog groups have been monitoring the mainstream press since the 1980s. POLITICO’s Ben Smith has reported on the daily conference call in which the heads of more than 20 major liberal interest groups participate to shape a coherent message for the day, as well as Unity ’09, a coalition of groups ranging from MoveOn.org to the American Civil Liberties Union “aimed at helping President Obama push his agenda through Congress.” Never before have the disparate organizations of the American left been so well-coordinated.

Does the nascent liberal movement portend good or ill? Judging that question depends in part upon whether or not one agrees with the agenda. If scaling back American commitments overseas, increasing the power of unions, and building a more left-leaning Supreme Court, among other goals, of course, are your thing, then the means by which these ends are achieved will presumably matter less than their attainment.

But the answer also lies in whether or not movement politics is itself a healthy feature of the American electoral system. There is something ironic in the tendency of liberals to denounce the staleness and conformity of the conservative movement and relish in its apparent demise while constructing something of their own that is just as ideologically rigid.

James Kirchick is an assistant editor of The New Republic.

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