One cannot help but feel a bit pessimistic about American politics these days -- a contrasting feeling to the heady days of Barack Obama's election, when the election of the first African-American president seemed to herald a new era in political and social life in the United States. It also appeared that the hegemony of conservative Republicans was over, their ideology discredited by the disasters of the Bush-Cheney presidency; a presidency that ran up America's deficit, after inheriting a surplus, through reckless tax cuts and foreign entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The election of Barack Obama showed the best of America, a country that went from an era of racial segregation only 40 years earlier to an African-American attaining the highest office. The new president was a community organizer who worked with the impoverished in Chicago's southside.
Democrats held the Senate, House of Representatives and the presidency, heralding the potential of a new progressive era. Pundits compared Barack Obama favourably to a well-regarded progressive president, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Now, however, these expectations seem somewhat naïve.
It would be hard to say Mr. Obama has been a failure as president. He helped guide America out of recession through a stimulus bill that provided much-needed jobs, and helped save the American automobile industry from complete collapse. He has drawn down troops in Iraq, eliminated Osama bin Laden, and passed health care reform (even if the actual reforms are convoluted).
Nonetheless, given America's high unemployment numbers and the numerous difficulties with Congress, Mr. Obama's re-election is far from certain, making him sometimes appear more Jimmy Carter than Franklin Roosevelt. The United States, with its system of multiple branches of government and weak party discipline, is a difficult country to govern; more so for Mr. Obama, given the significant right-wing backlash he has faced.
This backlash has brought a more assertive and ideologically-driven Republican Party in large part due to the Tea Party movement. Rumours of the death of neo-conservatism seem to have been greatly exaggerated. With the influence of the Tea Party, the Republican Party has been pushed further to the right, into a territory where ideological purity takes precedence over reality and facts, with people like George W. Bush and Karl Rove seeming moderates in comparison.
It is not uncommon nowadays to see officials from the Reagan and Nixon administrations, considered stridently right-wing in their time, denouncing Republicans for going too far off the cliff on foreign and economic policy.
Overall, this advent of dogma over reason is a dangerous trend, especially with America going through difficult economic times -- with high unemployment and growing deficits -- and wars overseas. Policymaking needs to be based on facts and reality, not on blind dogmas that create blinders to these realities. The blanket disdain of Tea Partiers and Republicans for the role of government -- as opposed to an honest assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the public and private sectors respectively -- and disregard for science, especially on evolution and climate change, is worrisome.
This extremism has come to the point that one candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Jon Huntsman, was able to present himself as "moderate" simply because he stated he believed in science and believed that climate change is real.
The Republican Party is now, and has been, driven by an anti-intellectualism, a pride in ignorance, that has given rise to politicians such as Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and most recently Texas Governor Rick Perry, who is a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. Leaders such as these are ridiculed by progressives, but loved in Republican circles.
Further evidence of Tea Party/Republican extremism is seen in the audience of Republican debates, the audience that the candidates for the nomination are trying to appeal to. At one debate, the audience cheered when the number of people executed in Rick Perry's Texas was recited. At another, several audience members cheered on the scenario of letting an uninsured 30-year-old, seriously injured in an accident, die because they did not have the money for health care.
The lunatic right in the Republican Party is not at the fringes, it is front and centre in the party's mainstream, pushing forward more than before into the territory of ideological extremism. This is especially worrisome, given that the United States has the largest economy and military in the world, what happens in America is of serious concern to the rest of the world.
Though there is still the 2012 election, and one cannot count Barack Obama out. Where high unemployment numbers and stalemates with Congress make the outlook grim for Mr. Obama, a Republican Party hijacked by extremists could be a large part of what helps him win re-election.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Telegraph Journal.
Hassan Arif is a columnist with the Telegraph Journal in New Brunswick. He is a PhD candidate in urban sociology at the University of New Brunswick and has a background in law and political science. He can be reached at email@example.com.