Call it a Leap Day double-whammy. Celebrated Republican Senator Olympia Snowe’s abrupt announcement she would not seek re-election this November, coupled with the first major snow storm of the year left Mainers buried in a blizzard of both media coverage and the actual white stuff. In the words of Homer Simpson during the aberrant thirteenth month of the year, “Lousy Smarch weather!”
While the extent of Senator Snowe’s oft-lauded moderate conservative politics is often exaggerated, she has, nonetheless, proven herself an intelligent, sophisticated and commendable politician. In other words, she is everything the current incarnation of her party is not. And her departure from Washington begs the inevitable question: What the hell happened to the Republican Party?
And yes, it is the Republicans that are the major problem in Washington. It is important this fact is understood before going on. Mainstream news coverage routinely laments the partisan “gridlock” in Congress, complaining that “neither party can get along.” Snowe’s press release which decries Washington’s “atmosphere of polarization,” furthered this belief with her statement, “…I see a vital need for the political center in order for our democracy to flourish and to find solutions that unite rather than divide us.”1
This lens that “both sides” (i.e. both Democrats and Republicans) are to blame for Congress’ seeming inability to “reach compromise” and “get things done” is more a result of the mainstream media’s misguided emphasis on “objectivity.”
The truth is, however, the GOP has moved significantly to the right in the past thirty years, while the Democrats continue to straddle the middle, if not center-right. This trajectory is confirmed by Keith Poole, professor of political science who charted every major House and Senate vote from 1879-2011. Poole’s findings, which chart the Democrats’ and Republicans’ votes on a liberal to conservative axis, reveal the latter party routinely voted along strict partisan lines far more often than the former, beginning around the 1980s.
Yet, while the GOP has shifted to the extreme right, there has been no corresponding Democratic trend to the left. In fact, as Nation writer George Zornick notes, “This analysis shows what we can see to be anecdotally true every day: while the Republicans are in lockstep behind privatizing Medicare, there isn’t even close to Democratic consensus that Medicare should be extended to everyone.”2 In other words, if Snowe is looking for someone to blame for the “gridlock” in Congress, she need look no further than her own party.
Indeed, the right-wing zealots currently running the House of Representatives are not your daddy’s Republicans. While the Democrats are no better, having largely adopted many of the right’s standard platforms--like tax-cuts for the wealthy, permanent war, and the constant rollback of our civil liberties—at least the Dems, for the most part, have not abandoned science, intellectual discourse and rational thought. The same cannot be said of the GOP.
Take the Republican presidential candidates, for instance.
With the sole exception of Rep. Ron Paul, all of the candidates believe a U.S. airstrike on Iran’s alleged nuclear facilities is a good idea. They all praise the supremacy of the “free-market,” yet not when it comes to ailing Wall Street banks. They constantly decry the national deficit, yet refuse to raise taxes on those most able to pay. They reject the scientific evidence of global-warming. And evangelical candidates like Rick Santorum wish to push their misogynist, homophobic Christian beliefs on the rest of us. These ideological hypocrites oppose abortion based on their belief in the “sanctity” of life, but have no problem initiating prolonged wars which leave thousands of innocent children maimed and slaughtered.
Perhaps worst of all is the GOP’s recent embrace of anti-intellectualism and ignorance (“death panels” anyone?) as best exemplified by Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Donald Trump.
Compared to these nimrods educated, thoughtful moderates like Olympia Snowe look pretty darn good. No wonder both Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins have been derided throughout their careers by extremist colleagues as “RINOs,” or a “Republican In Name Only.”
Speaking to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! last fall, Noam Chomsky called the right-wing extremism “astonishing,” and claimed it had “no analogue in American history.”
“I’m not a great enthusiast for Obama as you know,” Chomsky said. “But at least he’s somewhere in the real world.” He goes on to call the Republican presidential candidates’ idiotic views, “Off the international spectrum of sane behavior.”3
Again, this is not to let the Democrats off the hook. While President Obama does not garner media attention for making vapid, absurd comments, the policies he and his party pursue are mostly identical to those of the Republicans. But for frightened liberals looking to cast the “safe” vote for the “least worst” candidate (between say, Romney and Obama), it is not difficult to determine which of the two meets that minimalist (and, frankly, cynical) criteria.
All of which brings us back to Snowe’s decision to retire.
In the coming days we will no doubt read many an Op-Ed column painting the senior senator’s departure as indicative of how “broken” Washington has become, and lamenting why neither party can just get along. But I think Snowe’s leaving says something else about our political and intellectual culture—something far more frightening: The loonies are no longer at the gate. They have taken over the country.
1. Steinhauer, Jennifer. “Olympia Snowe Won’t Seek Re-election.” New York Times
28 Feb. 2012. Web.
2. Zornick, George. “Olympia Snowe and Misdiagnosing Gridlock.” The Nation 29 Feb.
3. “Noam Chomsky: 2012 GOP Candidates Views are ‘Off the International Spectrum of
Sane Behavior’.” Narr. Amy Goodman. Democracy Now. New York, 19 Sept. 2011. Web.