I don't know about scary, but I do think there is something different right now. Andrew asks if the center will hold (well, he can't help himself; he actually says "the center isn't holding," but I think that's just Andrew-speak for asking). I answered in part one of this post that the center is holding just fine. If that's so, why is everyone so jumpy?
The center is holding just fine...but the Republican party and the conservative movement have mostly abandoned it. That's really new and different.
Conservative ideas aren't dead; a set of ideas going back (at least) a few hundred years doesn't die just because the people who champion those ideas have a few policy setbacks. And the odds are good that Republicans will revive themselves at some point in the not too distant future. It could, for all we know, happen very rapidly; it's not at all hard to imagine a strong GOP presidential nominee in 2012 who divorces the party from Glenn Beck and the rest of the gang without giving up conservative ideas. He or she wouldn't even need to give up the support of the radio yakkers and Fox News hosts; having a few loudmouths doesn't make a party crazy.
No, what causes problems for a party is when it's leaders start believing their own propaganda. Perhaps it's apocryphal, but the anecdote that David Alexrod told today is what I'm talking about:
Axelrod said he spoke recently to a "very significant figure" on the right who told him that Obama "wanted to start a national police force." "What are you talking about," Axelrod asked. The GOPer sent him a 21-second clip from a speech Obama made in Colorado last year -- a speech on national service -- and in it, Obama said he wanted to create a civillian force that could go into countries and provide humanitarian services.... Obama used the word "civil force" -- "They took that 21-second bite .... and it has been taken as an article of faith that the president wants to create a national police force."Yes, some Democrats believed crazy things about George W. Bush...but John Kerry didn't run for president in 2004 on a platform of accusing Bush of conspiring with the Saudis to attack New York, and none of the 2008 contenders filled their campaign rhetoric with diatribes about Diebold (an almost perfect left comp for ACORN). But it's not just about using over-the-top rhetoric, which the Dems certainly are capable of just as much as Republicans; it's that GOP leaders, politicians and not, act as if they really believe what Rush says and what they see on Fox News. Whether it's just an act or not is hard to tell, but the actions that flow from it -- from acting as if all was well in Iraq from 2003 well into 2006, to the Terri Schiavo thing, to the Palin fiasco -- indicate a party that really has seriously lost its way.
Right now, there really is a large difference between the parties: the Democrats play to the middle even if it annoys their base, while the Republicans, for almost a decade now, seem to have no interest in appealing to anyone who doesn't already attend the right churches or listen to the right radio program. They're stuck with a dynamic that involves revving up through influence over communication channels, but at the same time the people controlling those information channels have economic incentives to take more and more extreme positions, which in turn leaves party leaders with a larger and larger gap between what their base believes and what voters at the margins believe. All in all, the result is that the center is holding just fine, but it's holding well within the Democratic Party.
As I said, odds are that sooner or later this will change. It could happen very quickly. But I also wouldn't be surprised to see a few election cycles in which the Republicans really underperform, thanks to difficulties in nominating candidates that can appeal to the middle. And, if the GOP does wind up back in control of a House of Congress or the presidency before it changes, I think they'll find it next-to-impossible to govern, which I think describes what they went through during the Bush/DeLay years. Not because conservative ideas can't work, but because the Republican party isn't functioning very well.