The GOP's dark little shop

Posted: Nov 29, 2006 12:01 AM
The GOP's dark little shop

Reflecting national trends, the news just keeps getting better for Democrats here in Arkansas.

First they won every statewide office on the ticket. Beginning next year, Arkansas will no longer have a Republican governor - the reform-minded Mike Huckabee is now considering a presidential campaign. (The death earlier this year of Winthrop Rockefeller, the state's promising lieutenant governor and one of the GOP's bright hopes, was a blow to both his party and state.)

Now the GOP's most polarizing figure - a state senator from Arkansas' hilly Northwest who was beaten soundly in the lieutenant governor's race - has announced he's leaving elective politics. He's Jim Holt, who ran a campaign heavy on ideology and light on reform. He did his best to exploit fears about illegal immigration and railed against the Republican governor's plan to improve education. And those were Jim Holt's moderate positions.

After his second defeat in a statewide race, Mr. Holt now plans to form his own little pressure group. That way, he can preach to the converted without fear of contradiction - or rejection by the voters. He'll doubtless be a big hit on the e-mail circuit, where he can rail to his heart's content against the minimum wage, early childhood education, and other Soviet conspiracies he mentioned during the campaign.

Talk about a twofer for the Democrats: Not only did they sweep into every statewide office, but they'll still have Jim Holt to kick around. If he can be portrayed as the face of the Republican Party, its chances of once again appealing to the broad middle of the electorate will be pretty much gone.

But a petty consideration like winning elections needn't trouble the kind of zealots who just want to hear their own views repeated and magnified. As in an echo chamber. What fun - a lot more fun than the real world, where political leaders are expected to enter the public arena, not withdraw from it to organize their own little club.

After the GOP's Neanderthal right had been largely wiped out in the midterm elections of 1958, wise old Whittaker Chambers warned his party about the dangers of such self-indulgence. He knew that, in a practical-minded, results-oriented, can-do society like this one, ideologues tend to wind up sealing themselves off from public opinion instead of leading it.

Writing to a young conservative friend of his named William F. Buckley, the always eloquent Mr. Chambers came up with the perfect metaphor for the danger represented by the party's far-right fringe:

"If the Republican Party cannot get some grip of the actual world we live in," he prophesied, "and from it generalize and actively promote a program that means something to masses of people - why, somebody else will. There will be nothing to argue. The voters will simply vote Republicans into singularity. The Republican Party will become like one of those dark little shops which apparently never sell anything. If, for any reason, you go in, you find, at the back, an old man, fingering for his own pleasure, some oddments of cloth. Š Nobody wants to buy them, which is fine because the old man is not really interested in selling. He just likes to hold and to feel."

Whittaker Chambers' observation remains relevant every time an American political party ties itself to its true believers - and winds up wondering why it lost.

The moral of the story: If the Republican Party wants to become a permanent minority, one sure way to do it is to embrace the nuttism of its Jim Holts. Because their political fortunes aren't likely to improve as the years pass and the country's Hispanic population grows.

Jim Holt had a simple "solution" for all the questions raised by the country's broken immigration system. It boiled down to denying illegals government services, including medical attention and any college scholarships their children might have earned. Or just deporting mama and papa - no matter how long they'd been here or how hard-working they were.

That's not the kind of thing the American-born children of immigrants are likely to forget. Indeed, they tend to remember how their parents were treated with even greater feeling long after they're grown - and voting. Wouldn't you?

Simple demographics should send an unmistakable message to the GOP: Alienating the newest and fastest growing group of Americans is no way to become the majority party - in Arkansas or anywhere else in the Union.

Whatever their transient appeal, ideologues represent a danger to any great party hoping to unite the country. For a time they may be a useful source of new energy. But when they begin to dictate the party's agenda, it's headed for defeat. See the fate of the Goldwater campaign in 1964 - and the McGovern debacle in 1972.

When the Republican Party was still young, one of its promising leaders, Abraham Lincoln, never turned down any support from the Know-Nothings, the radical nativists of his time. But he wasn't about to let them control him, any more than he would make their prejudices his own. As he wrote his old friend Joshua Speed in confidence:

"I am not a Know-Nothing; that is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneration appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation we began by declaring that Œall men are created equal.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read Œall men are created equal, except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.' When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty - to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."

Radical supporters may contribute to a political party's success, but if they come to dominate it, that party may soon enough find itself about as inviting as just another dark little shop.