Another Tea Party Implosion

[This was meant to be a fairly short post, but it got away from me. I’ve chosen not to revise and edit for brevity, but leave it as an overly long rumination on the state of the Republican Party.]

Once again we are seeing the problem of running for office in a two-party system when one is far from the median voter. This time it’s Indiana’s U.S. Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who was locked in a tight, within the margin of error, race with Democrat Joe Donnelly, but now trails by double digits. This one personally interests me for several reasons: as a native Hoosier who remains fond of and still pays attention to his state politics; as someone who had great respect for the incumbent whom Mourdock beat in the primary, Dick Lugar; and as the son of an elderly right wing Christian woman who’s been a staunch Mourdock supporter from the beginning (her response to my defense of Lugar, who as much as anyone in the entire world is responsible for keeping loose nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists, was, “But what has he done for us lately?”)

And I’m enjoying the Mourdock meltdown on two levels. At one level I just despise religious conservatives. Let me clarify that–I despise moralists. If someone goes to church three times a week, has never had a sip of alcohol, never even contemplated a toke of marijuana, has been married and faithful since they were 19, never had an abortion, and raised their kids to be the same, I have no problem with that. It’s the attempts to make others live that way that bother me (and if we select a different set of variables, we can as easily find liberal moralists). At the other level, I shake my head in wonder at people who think the majority of the public has been just wringing their hands in quiet desperation, anxiously waiting for a politician further to the right (or left, as the case may be) than the ones we currently have. No, folks, it’s a two-party system–find the median voter in your state, and that’s what “the public wants” (to the very limited extent we can talk meaningfully about a group having a preference).

Indiana, despite being a normally reliable Republican state in presidential elections (it’s defection to Obama in’08 is as good an indicator as any of how bad a campaign McCain ran), is not a right-wing state. It’s frequently had Democratic senators (especially if they’re named Bayh) and governors (since WWII 6 of its 13 governor have been Democrats). Granted the state likes its Democrats to be pretty conservative (see Bayh, Evan), but it also likes its Republicans to not be too conservative.

Mourdock was in a tight race from the beginning against Donnelly precisely because he is too far from Indiana’s center. But just how far was only revealed when he he claimed that babies born as a consequence of rape were God’s will. This has been treated by liberals as an outrageous statement, but really it’s not, from a religious perspective. A fundamental belief in Christianity is that God is omniscient and omnipotent–nothing happens that he does not know of and allow to happen. God is in control, so what happens is, plausibly, his will.

But if the statement is not truly outrageous, it is theologically troubling, in a way that has been debated for centuries. It’s essentially the problem of theodicy–how can evil exist in a world created by a loving and benevolent God? While Mourdock obviously does not believe that rape is God’s will, it’s difficult for many people to see how the outcome of the rape could be God’s will, without God at least being fairly blase about the rape itself. The “when life gives you lemons make lemonade” approach doesn’t really work here because not very many people think that the woman who becomes pregnant is blessed by carrying a child whose genes are half those of the man who raped her. Not only has the rapist violated her, but she must now do him the genetic favor of producing his child?

And yet of course it’s not the child’s fault, and that child is deserving of as much consideration–has as much “intrinsic worth” (in the words of my college’s founder, Asa Mahan) as any other child. Note that I’m fudging on the issue of when the union of the sperm and egg become a child, but for sake of argument let’s take it as happening at the moment of conception, because in fact many people do sincerely believe that. That’s why I can’t see Mourdock’s belief as outrageous. It’s not like Todd Akin’s monumentally stupid claim that a woman can’t get pregnant through rape, which means that if she did get pregnant we can determine that she in fact wasn’t raped. Mourdock’s not being that dismissive of how terrible rape is, as Akin did. Here are Mourdock’s actual words:

“I just – I struggle with it myself for a long time but I came to realize that life is that gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape that it is something that God intended to happen.”

Rape is horrible, and because it is horrible this is an issue he’s struggled with. I think that’s respectable.

But it isn’t median. Americans are divided over the issue of abortion, with relatively few being either for banning it in all or almost all situations or for allowing it in all situations, and the percentages have been relatively stable for over 35 years. Scroll down to page 2 in that Gallup poll, and you see that 75% of respondents favor a right to abortion in the case of rape or incest. 75%. Whatever the intellectual and moral legitimacy of Mourdock’s thoughts, the median voter does not agree with him on this really charged issue.

(Warning: This was meant to be short and sweet, but it kind of got away from me. I decided not to revise and edit for compactness, but let it stand as an organic rumination on the current state of the Republican Party and its future.)

Despite the common liberal claim that if men could get pregnant abortion would be legal in all circumstances, the gender divide on abortion really isn’t that great. Woman are more likely to see abortion as a major concern, but overall there is not much difference between woman and men on whether abortion should be legal or not.

But where woman may really stand out is when a candidate appears to be too dismissive of the areas where they are more likely to find abortion acceptable. Mourdock has gone from having a 6 percentage point disadvantage in the female vote to an 18 point disadvantage.

Over the past two elections the Republicans had a real shot at taking the Senate from the Democrats. But Tea Party favorites ruined a couple of chances to pick up seats in 2010, making this year’s effort at regaining a majority that much harder, and this year Akin and Mourdock are hurting their chances again–Akin by possibly failing to pick up a Democratic-held seat that he was favored to win, and Mourdock by losing a Republican held-seat that the party, at least, if not him personally, was initially favored to retain.

And of course on the national stage Mitt Romney’s necessary kowtowing to the Tea Partiers during the primaries continues to hurt him, as he is unable to get momentum on persuading the public that he really would govern moderately as he did as governor of Massachusetts (for the record, I believe he mostly would, except, probably, in foreign affairs), nor can he go all out in making that case without risking losing the GOP base.

The Tea Partiers won’t learn from their defeats. They’ll blame Romney’s loss on his not being a true conservative, and they’ll blame Mourdock’s and Akin’s probable losses on the liberal media. The GOP establishment types desperately want to re-take their party’s center from those folks and move it back closer to the public’s center, but that’s increasingly difficult as the real moderates get pushed out of party. Unless they can bring liberal and moderate Republicans back into the primaries, they’ll not be able to get the kind of nominees that will help pull the party back to the center.

My friend PJ thinks they’ll get this sorted out by 2016 and be a strong contender again. I’m more skeptical, and think the Tea Partiers still have an arsenal of excuses they can wield to avoid facing up to their responsibility. And if Rush Limbaugh is right when he predicts a Romney loss will lead to a conservative split from the Republicans to form a third party, the process of GOP recovery will be even slower. He’s probably wrong, both because he’s paid to be provocative rather than correct and because nothing in recent history to suggest that a splinter third party can successfully challenge its parent party for supremacy.

But then again I’m not sure we’ve seen just this kind of determined revolt against the party establishment before. Because this movement actually, I think, begins with George Wallace’s American Independent Party in 2008. That was merely a southern conservative revolt against the Democrats, but it presaged the conservative Dems leaving the party, which they did in increasing numbers until the 1994 Republican takeover of the House led to the final break, with most of the last holdouts jumping to the GOP. In that interim we had first Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan stimulating the organization of religious conservatives as a political force. As the southern conservatives joined the GOP they shifted the balance of that party well to the right, and have progressively pushed the classic old northern style Republicans–the Gerald Fords, the Nelson Rockefellers, the Jim Jeffords, even the Alan Simpsons–out of the party. With each departure the weight of the conservatives grows. But with each departure the positioning of the party shifts further away from the median American voter. The fact that the median voter in some states is to the right of the median American helps obscure this, by preserving some fairly safe Senate seats, and the intensive gerrymandering (both Dem and Rep) that has occurred over the past 20 years further obscures this by creating many extremely safe House seats for conservatives.

So what factors are out there that are likely to reverse this trend? The only one I can see is if a long series of losses makes it clear to conservatives that they need to moderate their demands–not necessarily their beliefs. You’d think the sudden collapse of support for Mourdock would lead them to start thinking seriously about that. You’d be wrong. Moralists learn slowly, if they learn at all.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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9 Responses to Another Tea Party Implosion

  1. James K says:

    I think it would have been better for the Republicans if they’d nominated someone like Santorum. That way they’d have had less of an excuse when he lost (and lost badly).

  2. AMW says:

    If the Tea Party stuck with its original vision (i.e., Taxed Enough Already), I think it would have broader support. The median voter doesn’t like taxes; and although he does seem to like spending quite a bit, that’s an argument the Tea Party might be able to move him on. But wedding low taxes with the social issues isn’t a good strategy for expanding the Republican base; just energizing it.

  3. Matty says:

    I think, begins with George Wallace’s American Independent Party in 2008

    My knowledge of history and politics is worse than I thought, I completely missed the zombie candidate in 08.

  4. James Hanley says:

    You need to pay more attention to elections then, Matty, and less attention to my writing. ;)

  5. Mark Boggs says:

    The whole “learning from errors” thing is lost on most of these folks as some of them seem to thrive on the idea of “us against the world, righteously fighting the good fight” and the victimization that comes along with it. I seriously speculate that the losses simply reinforce the fact that the world has gone awry and they need to double down on their efforts to “right” it.

  6. Matty says:

    I have heard but not checked that up until the late 1970’s the more extreme religious conservatives, i.e those that would actually call themselves fundamentalist tended not to vote at all. The old position as I understand it was that secular government is hopelessly corrupt so true believers should deal with it only to the extent of keeping out of court and otherwise focus on getting their own churches run the ‘right’ way. A return to this attitude would probably be better for everyone else and arguably better for fundamentalists since it is a lot easier to impose religious rules if you are dealing with a small group of believers who all chose to be there.

  7. Matty,

    I’ve heard a similar story and although I’m an American historian (almost), I’m not sure how accurate it is even though the one historian of American religion I’ve met seems to believe it. One version of the story is that fundamentalists were about as active in politics as anything from their emergence as a quasi political force in the late 1800s until 1926. In that year, they were so embarrassed that H. L. Mencken made fun of them that they withdrew from politics completely, until Roe v. Wade energized them, President Carter catered to them, and Reagan catered to them better than Carter did. And now we have the fundamentalist/Catholic/anabaptist/Mormon alliance that gave us Bush II and Romney.

    That story, at least caricatured the way I have, seems too neat to me. The real story that my historian acquaintance endorses seems more nuanced. One thing to keep in mind is my acquaintance’s belief–which appears to be well accepted among historians of American religion (I stand to be corrected….that’s not my shtick)–that “fundamentalism” as we understand it is a fairly recent creation (late 1800s) among protestant-identifying Americans, for which there may have been precedents in the revivalist movements of the early 1800s and mid 1700s, but itself was it’s own distinct thing.

  8. Scott Hanley says:

    And yet of course it’s not the child’s fault, and that child is deserving of as much consideration–has as much “intrinsic worth” (in the words of my college’s founder, Asa Mahan) as any other child…. Rape is horrible, and because it is horrible this is an issue he’s struggled with. I think that’s respectable.

    This would be a respectable judgment, not just from a religious perspective, but from a humanist perspective as well. We have a circumstance where justice cannot be done, not fully, not to everyone. I would prefer to err on the side of the person who will know years of extra suffering, at the expense of the one who will never know suffering. But I can acknowledge that a terrible choice has to be made and nothing I choose can be truly just.

    Unfortunately, I didn’t hear Mourdock say that. What I heard ran more like this:

    My beliefs tell me that abortion is wrong and it is a simple matter of God’s Law that it should never be permitted. But here is a real-life scenario that seemed to presents me with a terrible choice: either acknowledge that God’s Law might require exceptions, or acknowledge that God’s Law does not always produce justice. I struggled with this contradiction a long time, but finally developed a formulation that allows me to remain uncompromising and to simultaneously deny that the outcome is unjust.

    I hear it that way because I’ve listened to anti-abortion arguments for too many years not to recognize that, for too many people, unwanted pregnancy is a desirable outcome. It’s desirable because it provides a disincentive to the behavior they want to curb, and without it, that behavior would go unpunished. STD’s serve the same function: infections serve a useful function in frightening some people into foregoing sex. You wouldn’t want the danger of STD’s to disappear, because then people could get away with immoral behavior with no fearof bad consequences.
    Pregnancy serves the same function. You wouldn’t want the danger to disappear, you wouldn’t want easy access to contraception, you wouldn’t want adolescents to know how the dangers of sex can be mitigated. You wouldn’t want to provide economic assistance to poor mothers, to make pregnancy less frightening.
    Because, of course, the problem isn’t mothers trying to raise children with too few resources, or children with dramatically stunted opportunities in life, or even the waste of potential human resources that entails. The problem is sex, illicit sex, someone breaking the rules, and if you can’t put a stop to it, you can at least make sure they don’t get away with it.
    That’s the great failure of moralists: they misidentify the problem. The damage, which often can be mitigated, is dismissed as a mere symptom of a deeper problem, one that is usually an offense mainly to their own sensibilities and usually one that can never be permanently solved. And they flatter themselves that they’ve looked deeper and gone to the root of the problem better than the technocrat who might offers solutions (such as contraception and sex education) that merely(!) mitigate harm.
    That’s one of the reasons that moralists are slow to learn: outcomes are not their responsibility. They stand against sin and are under no illusions that it will disappear from the Earth. Their job is only to make sure it gets punished, and that’s something you can keep doing forever.

  9. Matty says:

    One thing to keep in mind is my acquaintance’s belief–which appears to be well accepted among historians of American religion (I stand to be corrected….that’s not my shtick)–that “fundamentalism” as we understand it is a fairly recent creation (late 1800s) among protestant-identifying Americans, for which there may have been precedents in the revivalist movements of the early 1800s and mid 1700s, but itself was it’s own distinct thing.

    I do know that fudamentalism by name dates from the publication of The Fundamentals between 1910 and 1915. Obviously that was tapping into an existing demand for a certain kind of religious writing but the fact the movement was unnamed up to that point does support the idea it was a recent (late 19th -early 20th Century) creation.

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