If we had a serious media establishment in America, it would be full of stories about how the Republican Party has lost touch with reality. Analysts would ponder how a party whose policies are opposed by the overwhelming majority of Americans continues to exercise outsized influence; detailed examinations of the dysfunctional Senate would be standard front-page news; and GOP politicians who have been wrong on virtually every major issue of the past decade would be lambasted and their ideas discredited.
Instead, we have a media in which theater has replaced substance, fact-checking is rare, and reporters spend their time parroting talking points rather than doing analysis. Nevertheless, when the people get a chance to vote on specific rightwing ideas, they fail miserably. It turns out that the ideas might make good sound bites, but even in deep red states they cannot stand up to reason.
Case in point is the recent defeat of the Personhood Amendment in Mississippi, one of the reddest states in America and one of the most opposed to abortion rights. Faced with taking the anti-abortion rationale to its logical extreme—that from the moment of conception a fertilized egg is morally equivalent to a human being—the voters of Mississippi balked. The amendment lost by almost 20 points, a stunning defeat for the anti-choice movement.
The strength of the anti-abortion position has always been its moral absolutism. Pro-choicers are derided as moral relativists whose logic heads down a slippery slope on which human life is devalued. Some anti-abortionists do allow for exceptions when it comes to the health of the mother, and some are willing to do likewise in cases of rape and incest; but purists have never countenanced abortion under any circumstances.
The problem with moral certainty is that it leads to unreasonable and intolerable conclusions, even by the standards of one of America’s most conservative states. If a fertilized egg is a human being, what about fertility clinics which typically destroy hundreds or thousands of fertilized eggs? What about a woman who isn’t aware she’s pregnant, but has a miscarriage? Will exceptions for the mother’s health, rape, and incest no longer be allowed? Perhaps even more damming, millions of fertilized eggs are miscarried every year due to natural causes. Does this make God the world’s biggest abortionist?
As Gary Gutting opined in a recent New York Times piece, the practical implications of saying that human life begins at conception make people realize that there are grey areas, and what seems like a black and white issue really isn’t. Once this is acknowledged, the logic of the extreme rightwing position on abortion disintegrates and a window for morally acceptable abortions is opened.
Another rightwing extremity—the effort to strip public employees of their bargaining rights—was similarly defeated in Ohio, another traditional GOP stronghold. With states paying generous benefit packages to public employees, while private employees are seeing their benefits shrink, the GOP thought that attacking union rights would be a winning strategy.
But again, provocative sound bites don’t necessarily translate into sound policy. Ohio voters realized that workers without collective bargaining rights are at a disadvantage, and that unions have played a critical role in the creation of America’s middle class.
The 2012 presidential race is heating up, and the GOP primary is generating any number of extreme positions on taxes, Medicare, environmental protection, and other issues. The facts will ultimately undermine these positions, just as they undermined the Personhood Amendment and Ohio’s anti-union legislation. The truth is that just about every major Republican idea these days can’t stand up to reason, and would be rejected if it were put to an individual vote.
Whether voters will realize that Obama is not to blame for the economy, and that he presents a sensible alternative to rightwing extremism, is yet to be seen. I think they will. But if they don’t, any Republican president will soon find out that nearly all the positions they ran on are unpopular and ineffective, and pursuing them will only weaken the party in the long-run. Only by returning to more centrist, rational policies can the GOP reclaim its position as a serious political party.