The United States is in grave danger from domestic enemies: Infiltrators from the Muslim Brotherhood have wormed their way into sensitive government positions, Communists wield influence in the House of Representatives, and President Barack Obama hates America and is trying to dismantle, brick by brick, the American Dream.
The first two assertions – Muslim infiltrators and Communists in Congress – come from Republican members of Congress. The third comes from the host of the radio talk show with the biggest audience in the United States. All three merit pondering about the current state of the Republican Party, a mainstay of American democracy for more than 150 years.
A brief look at the details of the claims first. In June, Michele Bachmann, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a radio interview that “it appears there has been deep penetration in the halls of our United States government by the Muslim Brotherhood.” In letters that came to light in mid-July, she asked the inspectors general of four government departments to launch inquiries into the depth of Muslim penetration.
Bachmann’s letter to the Department of State pointed to Huma Abedin, a top aide of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as grounds for “serious security concerns.” The letter, co-signed by four other Republican lawmakers, quoted an anti-Muslim organization as saying Abedin had family members with connections to the Muslim Brotherhood.
That claim prompted angry rebukes from the man who ran her unsuccessful campaign for the presidency, Ed Rollins, and from Senator John McCain, the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2008. Rollins, a veteran Republican strategist, combined criticism of Bachmann’s “far-fetched” charges with a warning about the future of the party: “The Republican Party… is going to become irrelevant if we become the party of intolerance and hate.”
Bachmann’s root-out-the-Muslims campaign came just two months after Allan West, a Florida Republican, told a town hall meeting that “I believe there are about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party (in Congress) that are members of the Communist Party.” Republican leaders let that statement pass without comment.
For two of the country’s most eminent Congressional historians, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, West’s claim provided evidence that the Republican Party has gone astray. In an op-ed article in April, the two noted the lack of condemnation from major party figures. What was remarkable about the case, they said, “is that such extreme remarks and views are now taken for granted.”
For other extreme views, let’s turn to talk show host Rush Limbaugh on July 16: ”I think it can now be said, without equivocation – without equivocation – that this man hates his country. He is trying – Barack Obama is trying – to dismantle, brick by brick, the American dream.” Why? “He was indoctrinated as a child. His father was a communist. His mother was a leftist.”
FROM LUNATIC FRINGE TO MAINSTREAM
Limbaugh has an average weekly audience of around 15 million, more than any other radio talk show and no matter how over-the-top his attacks on Obama and his team may be, they very rarely draw comment from Republican politicians who fear doing so might cost them votes.
Particularly in an election year, it’s not unusual for members of Congress or commentators to make outrageous remarks about the political opposition. Democrats were harshly critical of President George W. Bush. But there is no exact Democratic equivalent of the likes of West, Bachmann, Limbaugh and others who vent ideas that were once restricted to the lunatic fringe and are now part of the Republican mainstream.
To help understand how U.S. politics arrived at this stage, and the dysfunction that goes with it, a new book by Mann and Ornstein entitled It’s Even Worse Than It Looks is recommended reading. The two work for think tanks on different places on the political map – Mann for the centrist Brookings Institution and Ornstein for the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Their conclusion: “The… core of the problem lies with the Republican Party. The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
“More loyal to party than to country,” the Republicans behave like an adversarial party in a parliamentary democracy. In America’s separation-of-powers government, this is a formula for “willful obstruction and policy irresolution,” write Mann and Ornstein.
The two criticize the U.S. mainstream media for having done a poor job in explaining the transformation of the Republican Party and its steady rightward drift to a place where compromise is a dirty word. They argue that the journalistic tradition of giving both sides of a story produced false equivalence and thus failed to portray an accurate picture.
But in the end, they say, it’s up to the voters. If they punish ideological extremism at the polls next November, the Republican Party would have an incentive to return to the center. “Otherwise, our politics will get worse before it gets better.”
Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist.