If you’re a Republican, you care about issues: Abortion, stem-cell research (or at least you used to), The Patriot Act, gun control, capital gains tax (maybe not this year), the privatization of social security (though you don’t hear that one brought up so often, anymore).
The GOP cycles through issues like hairstyles or the latest fashions; righteous anger for something new every season.
For 40 years, this strategy served the party well, drawing in a wide swath of business and religious groups, families, social conservatives and hawks. Underneath it all, however, the party was rotting from within. Like the titans of industry they protected, the Republican Party mortgaged its future for temporary gains. By treating the democratic process as an a la carte buffet, Republicans found the perfect stance on any issue — but they built a party based on populism at the expense of a coherent political philosophy. This shell game has finally caught up with the party, which is no longer “conservative” in any meaningful way. Pro-lifers support the death penalty. Fiscal conservatives hand over no-bid contracts. Gun-toting libertarians want mandatory school prayer. In short, it’s a mess.
Desperate for a wedge issues, social conservative Republicans looked at the deep-blue post-election landscape, saw one glimmer of old-time social divisiveness and breathed a sigh of relief. The country may have gone commie, but at least they still hated fags. Here was an issue that could be used again and again to draw a contest between the “real Americans” and the ‘Democrat’ party. Imagine their surprise then when the the head of the GOP started saying nice things about gay rights.
Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele told GQ last week:
“I’m not gonna jump up and down and beat people upside the head about it and tell gays that they’re wrong for wanting to aspire to that, and all of that craziness… [Y]ou just can’t simply say, oh, like, ‘Tomorrow morning I’m gonna stop being gay.’ It’s like saying, ‘Tomorrow morning I’m gonna stop being black.'”
But let’s face it: Steele let’s himself get quoted like a man looking for a pink slip. It’s practically his core media strategy. For most of the party faithful, gay rights isn’t something to moderate on; it’s a rallying point. As Paul Jenkins writes on HuffPo this week:
“For now, Republicans seem to be settling their hopes on the usual suspects: abortion and gay people. When Steele is deposed of his chairmanship, it will be because of his intemperately moderate comments on both issues, which have predictably energized the party’s social conservatives. Indeed, Barack Obama may well add fuel to the fire if he extends benefits to same-sex partners of federal workers. This, says sex-obsessed right-winger Gary Bauer, will “provoke a furious grass-roots reaction [and] reinvigorate the conservative coalition.” So that is what will unify the Republican Party: keeping gay people uninsured. A sure winner.”
But, instead of dividing Democrats from Republicans, increasingly, the issue of gay rights is dividing Republicans from themselves. In one corner, you have a coalition of “intellectual conservatives” like David Frum and moderate Republicans like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charlie Crist, and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who believe the party must offer gay rights to citizens. In the other corner, you have our favorite social conservatives, like Focus on the Family, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and their ilk, who believe that you can’t give in on gay rights and keep your conservative soul.
This isn’t to say that the only thing dividing these two groups is the issue of gay and lesbian equality, but no where does the bright shining fracture in the GOP appear as obviously as does when the issue of gay rights brought up. Of course, when gay and lesbian rights are brought up in conservative circles, they aren’t really talking about you — we’re a shorthand for a certain kind of lifestyle and worldview.
For social conservatives, the anxiety over gays and lesbians stems from a fear that the country has strayed too far from its platonic ideal: Women loving their husbands, families gathering around the dinner table, and attending church every Sunday, and sex for procreation’s sake. For them, “America” is a state of grace, which the nation should be striving to achieve.
Watch former evangelical Frank Schaeffer talk to D.L. Hughley and explain how the GOP’s base is now under the control of neo-facists.
The moderate Republicans have no such delusions of grandeur — they want to win elections and if being beholden to a mythos keeps them from getting there, they’re willing to reformulate. These conservatives see the writing on the wall. The most virulent anti-gay conservatives are either dead or have one foot in the grave already. Americans are, despite our many failures, a tolerant people. Or at least we like to think we are. Actively hating on gays and lesbians is a big turn-off.
The result is an all-out civil war among Republicans, unsurprising when one-wing of the party, like Rorschach (the neo-con fascist superhero in Watchmen, operates on a ethical code of “No compromise, no surrender.” But it’s no longer the 80s and at some point, the GOP will want to win elections again. The question is, when they do, will anybody care?
Look at it another way: Social conservatism, may be as loud as ever, but rejected by mainstream America, it’s retreated to within the Republican Party. And like a crazy uncle you can’t kick out, they’re going to be a thorn in the side of the GOP for years to come.