The Republican Party won’t take yes for an answer. Even though recent polls bode a turn in the Republican Party’s fortunes, the internal rift between the right and the far right continues to threaten the stability necessary to take advantage of the opportunity. Moderate and conservative Republicans, highly conservative though labelled by their purer-than-pure party colleagues as “Republicans in Name Only” or “RINOS,” will have to fight two-front campaigns in the coming months. The Democrats will attack face-on, while the Tea Party will attack from behind.
This is the point in the evolution of a political party when a death-wish informs the struggle for ideological purity, the point when the perceived cure can disable if not kill the patient. This is the point when the inner-Robespierre of people like Senator Cruz and Congresswoman Bachman (not to mention the chorus of voices from the sidelines, whipped to scratchy frenzy by Sarah Palin) is unleashed in all its fury, demanding the right to be right rather than to obtain control of the Senate or maintain control of the House.
The Republican Party is not a stranger to this. Ever since its far right wing of true believers raised up Barry Goldwater in ’64, the demographic shift to the southwest spawned a militant right wing that has threatened to rip the party from its more moderate northeastern bearings. Goldwater was an attractive candidate and, given the times, absolutely doomed to defeat. He was the voice of the 1964 right wing, but he was a moderate compared to today’s Tea Party. Goldwater’s defeat paved the way for Nixon, a Californian who’d moved to New York, but his promise was realized in Reagan, a Californian who’d moved to California from the Midwest. At present the GOP is adrift, unable to coalesce about a weak center or its far right wing.
Fear can turn a society to the right, and the desire for safety and order can trump the freedoms guaranteed by the founding documents. However, at present, despite some Cassandras who forecast the onrush of economic collapse, there is not enough “catastrophe” in the zeitgeist to support the Tea Party’s bridge-too-far.
Are the Democrats vulnerable? Absolutely. But their vulnerability would be to a moderate, even right-wing Republican Party, and not the far-right Tea Party fanatics who shut down the government three months ago.
A recent poll shows that 49% of the people would rather be represented by a Republican, while 44% would rather be represented by a Democrat. It’s not a sea-change or a tsunami of support, but it’s better than the same poll that reversed the numbers some weeks ago when, in the wake of the government shut-down, 50% favored Democrats while 42% favored Republicans.
Of the many forces at work that caused the shift in sentiment, two are readily identifiable: The impact of that technological and government fiasco – Healthcare.gov, and the public’s ever decreasing attention span consequent to the overload of information, news, stories and opinions that fill every screen and demand attention 24/7.
Healthcare.gov, the website, has been an Olympian failure. It’s so bad that it has driven ardent Obama supporters to tears and rage. If all politics is local (with a nod to Tip O’Neill) then one’s failure to make the cursor work on a screen that freezes, shuts down, locks, and blames the victim is about as local as one can get. In an era when technology rules all and the general public both embraces and fears the rapidity of change, Healthcare.gov portends a dark future of distant and non-responsive bureaucracies that have perfected a system of evasion – a cruel and unusual means of communication where phones lead one on an infinite journey of hold and transfer, while torturing the caller with the muzak that drove Noriega nuts.
Some reports from the past week say the website is getting better. More people are signing up, which is to say the website’s working well enough to accept applications. But anecdotal evidence is unreliable and ultimately will conform to the media statements made from the top down. Some guy on MSNBC says it’s getting better, and exceptions aside, people will begin to say it’s getting better. Whether it is or not will soon become irrelevant, because in the age of media, perception is everything, and the perception is what the media says it is.
The second element underlying the mild resurgence of the Republican Party is always at work. It is the relentless flow of information and the consequential ever-decreasing attention span of the public. The information highway is as wide as it is shallow, which is to say, there are still only 24 hours in a day and the capacity to process information has yet to catch up with the quantity of information conveyed. The result is a kind of mass attention deficit disorder. The effects are evident in the public’s obsession with cell phones, texting, iPads, instant communication with less and less concern as to what’s being communicated – a recipe for cacophony.
The effect on politics is as follows: The waves of sentiment that would otherwise gather, build and spill over the country during a twelve month campaign are now more like Alberta Clippers that whip over a city in a cold shower of sentiment and opinions. The wave then moves on, quickly, within a news cycle or two, leaving the audience a bit unsettled and waiting for the next big thing.
Were 2014 a pre-internet election year then the Republican Party might have some basis for its forecasts of victory in November. The Affordable Healthcare Act appears to be a source of disquiet that they can exploit, and, given the slower speed with which events moved before 24 hour news channels and the 24/7 world wide web, the displeasure might have built slowly to a crescendo only to break at the same time voters went to the polls.
But 2014 is a midterm election in a post internet world. The speed with which news items are ingested, digested and left behind is unprecedented in our history. In the same way weathermen have yet to harness the mathematics of chaos theory to predict the weather beyond a 36 hour window, pundits, pols and professionals will have to revisit their predictive models to accommodate not only the changes in sentiment, but the rate of change as well. In the old days any pol knew a month in politics was forever. Not so long ago a week was forever. Today a news cycle is forever and there are approximately three hundred news cycles before America goes to the polls.
This means there are at least three hundred opportunities for some intervening event to diminish the negatives attendant to Healthcare.gov, as well as three hundred opportunities for the Republican Party, at war with itself, right and far right, to make the kind of news that will resuscitate the sentiment prevalent not so long ago when Tec Cruz blamed everybody but himself and his ilk for the $24 billion federal government shutdown.
By Michael Hogan