I’m no partisan. When I visualize today’s two-party system, my mind’s eye sees a picture of an ancient Egyptian figure, painted or sculpted in bas relief on the wall of a typical pharaoh’s tomb. The figure is standing with arms outstretched and palms facing skyward. In the one hand sits the word “venal.” In the other hand sits the word “inept.”
What an unsavory choice!
In the ’80s and ’90s, when a spate of Democrats swapped parties, it was common to say, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party; it left me.” The Bush presidency has finally pushed the Republican Party so far to the rabid right that if it doesn’t settle back toward the middle, Republicans are setting themselves up to suffer the same sort of desertions that hobbled the Democratic Party during the last two decades.
In 1969, then-Republican Party strategist Kevin Phillips wrote a book called, “The Emerging Republican Majority.” This week’s New York Times Book Review explains that author Phillips predicted “the movement of people and resources (to wit, capital) from the old Northern industrial states into the South and the West (an area he enduringly labeled the ‘Sun Belt’) would produce a new and more conservative Republican majority that would dominate American politics for decades.”
“Phillips viewed the changes he predicted with optimism. A stronger Republican Party, he believed, would restore stability and order to a society experiencing disorienting and at times violent change.”
But three decades later, the Times’ reviewer, historian Alan Brinkley, reports that Phillips no longer sees “Republican government as a source of stability and order. Instead, he presents a nightmarish vision of ideological extremism, catastrophic fiscal irresponsibility, rampant greed and dangerous shortsightedness.”
I have spent the last 15 years of my career tracking partisan politics hoping for a rebound of the moderate wing of the Republican Party. If anything, the changes Phillips describes portend a calcification of extremism rather than its dissolution. A March 15 poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press shows what pollsters call the “two Americas.” One is populated by Democrats and unaffiliated voters. The other by extremist Republicans. The moderates are nowhere to be found.
The poll shows the president’s overall job-approval rating at an achingly low 33 percent. Yes, there were declines among his most ardent supporters _ conservative Republicans and (I would posit) evangelical Christians. But the declines in support from his base fall nowhere near the depths to which they should have if the situation were reversed. Imagine a progressive president who turned a large surplus into a historic deficit, bungled an invasion whose genesis was questionable from its conception and divided America by religious, racial and economic lines.
In this poll, the term voters used most frequently to describe this president was “incompetent.” We hear it more and more, with good reason. Despite all this, his support among self-described conservative Republicans dropped from 94 percent in January of last year, to 78 percent in March of this year. Seventy-eight-percent support for this presidency by any group is outrageously high, given the budgetary, scientific, international and fiscal damage it has caused.
Phillips’ new book is titled, “American Theocracy.” Now he points to yet another powerful force shaping contemporary American life and culture. Brinkley calls it “radical Christianity.”
“On the far right is a still obscure but, Phillips says, rapidly growing group of ‘Christian Reconstructionists’ who believe in a ‘Taliban-like’ reversal of women’s rights, who describe the separation of church and state as a ‘myth’ and who call openly for a theocratic government shaped by Christian doctrine.”
For my own sake and for the sake of future generations of Americans, I hope Phillips turns out to have lost his gift of premonition. He was dead-on in the predictions he made in 1969, which were widely scoffed at by journalists and politicians. It will already take a generation or two to reverse the scientific and environmental damage done by this president, if indeed it ever can be undone. If Phillips is right, America’s political leadership of the future will take us to a place that makes the Iron Age look modern.
(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)