NEW YORK--It happens after every election: One side wins, the other side loses. The winner declares the results to be solid proof that the people have endorsed its agenda--and repudiated the loser's. The losing side conducts a purge in the guise of soul-searching, blaming bad candidates who failed to live up to its good ideas.
It happened to Democrats and their allies of desperation on the left in 1980 and 1984 and 1994 when they suffered defeat at the hands of not merely the right, but the hard, extreme, God-created-the-universe-6,000-years-ago right. "The tide of history is moving irresistibly in our direction," declared Hard Right standard-bearer and future patron saint Ronald Reagan in 1985.
Why? Because the other side is virtually bankrupt of ideas. It has nothing more to say, nothing to add to the debate.
Now it's the right's turn to wallow in masochistic angst and self-loathing. George W. Bush's approval rating has plunged from 91 percent in 2001 to 35 percent--the same as Watergate-era Nixon.
Impeachment, though still improbable, is now within the realm of the possible. The future, at least the short-term version, seems grim for righties.
Republican presidential frontrunners are particularly unappetizing to conservatives: John McCain has gotten old and out-of-touch, Rudy Giuliani is too liberal and Mitt Romney is too Mormon. Conservatives, reports Time magazine in a cover story titled "How the Right Went Wrong," are "handcuffed to a political party that looks unsettlingly like the Democrats did in the 1980s, one that is more a collection of interest groups than ideas, recognizable more for its campaign tactics than its philosophy. The principles that propelled the movement have either run their course, or run aground, or been abandoned by Reagan's legatees."
My political duty is to join the pile-on, to loudly pronounce the death of the GOP, the bankruptcy of conservatism and all things to the right of Howard Dean now and forever, never to rise again, amen. But I prefer reality to wishful thinking.
Yes, I wrote a book called Wake Up! You're Liberal. And I haven't changed my mind. Peel away the B.S. and poll after poll proves that most Americans have fundamentally left-of-center beliefs on economic issues (health care, the minimum wage, taxation), social values (gay marriage, school prayer, abortion) and even foreign policy (they can be stampeded into starting wars for fun and profit, but not into seeing them through).
Nevertheless, the right will never die. As long as Americans remain susceptible to easily provoked fears--of losing their jobs to immigrants, their kids to perverts, their lives to terrorists--and as long as there are wealthy corporations and religious control freaks eager to exploit them--the Republican Party and its allies have a bright future.
The right's secret weapon is "fictional conservatism"--a post-1964 Goldwater brand of bumper-sticker libertarianism to which most Americans, Democrat and Republican alike, subscribe. Fictional conservatives favor cutting taxes, reducing the size and power of government, and avoiding foreign entanglements. America first, and keep the guvmint outta my goddamn bedroom!
Fictional conservatives have never held power in the United States.
Irony: The closest they've come to a kindred spirit was Bill Clinton. (Balanced the budget! Kept us out of war! Shrunk the government!)
By objective standards, Reagan and the two Bushes were neoliberal radicals, spearheading the biggest expansion of government and its intrusive powers in modern history.
Republican voters know they're suckers. "I believe in low taxes, smaller government and minding our own business internationally," a pal tells me.
"I know, I know," he interrupts. "I just can't bring myself to vote for a Democrat."
American politics epitomize the triumph of image--weak, accommodationist liberals vs. strong-willed no-nonsense conservatives--over experience. American voters, therefore, do not belong to the reality-based community.
Gay haters and anti-abortion types--"values conservatives"--are starting to get it. "If so-called values voters couldn't get meaningful action on the two issues that have most animated our side this decade--abortion and gay marriage--with an evangelical president and both congressional chambers in Republicans' hands, it's not going to happen," columnist Rod Dreher writes in The Dallas Morning News. "With the fading of GOP rule in Washington, it's becoming clearer how much it has cost culture-cons to be a subsidiary of a party that's taken our votes but not delivered." He goes on to argue that Christian fundamentalists ought to align themselves with Democrats on such issues as the environment and reigning in consumerism.
But Genevieve Wood, director of strategic operations for the rightist Heritage Foundation, says there's no need for a political realignment--just more energetic promotion of fictional conservatism. "What worked for Reagan, what worked back in 1994 that helped them take over the Congress after 40 years, were the principles that defined them as a party--which was limited government, traditional values, a strong national defense," she says.
Self-delusion, fed by a steady diet of brilliantly focus-grouped attack ads and an endless stream of broadcast propaganda masquerading as news, isn't about to vanish as an effective tool. Fictional conservatives, after all, are used to voting in direct opposition to their beliefs.
Sixty-four percent of Republican voters say they wouldn't vote for a gay man; 62 percent say they'd refuse to support a candidate who'd cheated on his wife. Yet Rudy Giuliani, the thrice-married ex-New York mayor who humiliated his wife by inviting his mistress to official events--and has been repeatedly photographed wearing a dress--is running 25 points ahead of his nearest rival in the latest poll of the very same Republican voters.