Much has been written this past week about Republican candidate Todd Akin and his troghalodyte-like opinions about rape. The speed with which former colleagues and supporters of Akin have ran away from him is a challenge to Einstein's theory that nothing moves faster than light. Still, many have missed the fact that there is much more at stake at this moment in history than who will hold Missouri's 2nd congressional district seat. There is a war going on for the soul of the Republican Party that will carry through to the 2012 Presidential election and afterward. Who wins that election will largely determine who wins the war.
Todd Akin, Steve King, Sarah Palin, Joe Walsh and others are figureheads of a powerful faction of the Republican Party that at a molecular level is not just anti-science, it is anti-fact. On significant issues large swaths of the republican grassroots have opinions that are closer to the Taliban in their thinking than ordinary Americans. For them evolution is on par with creationism; homosexuality can be cured; anthropogenic climate change is a hoax and vaccines are more dangerous than what they vaccinate against.
Ignorance in this group has come to be celebrated. The political party that freed the slaves, the political party that elected President Eisenhower, the political party that championed women 's suffrage and was the first to elect a woman to congress, is in danger of being overrun by cave people at the very time that America needs them the most. The Republican Party of old is at war with the Republican Party of New, and both cannot long co-exist.
The origins of this war can be traced, in part, to the 2004 election, when a beleaguered George W. bush and his advisor, Karl Rove, were fearful of losing the Presidency to John Kerry. In their desperation, they turned to a group they didn't fully understand. A group that elements of the traditional Republican Party did not take seriously on an intellectual level and would often ridicule in private. They turned to evangelical Christians.
According to surveys of voters leaving the polls in the 2004 election, Bush won 79 percent of the 26.5 million evangelical votes. More poignant for understanding the origins of this war, he welcomed millions of hitherto politically apathetic evangelicals into the Republican grassroots. In states such as Ohio, hundreds of churches launched registration drives, thousands of churchgoers registered to vote, and millions of voter guides were distributed by Christian and anti-abortion groups.
At the time, the spectre of gay marriage was a boogieman that motivated evangelicals into becoming more involved in politics and President Bush, under the guidance of Rove, presented himself as "one of them," a "true believer," who would fight for their values. At the grassroots level, the Republican Party's evangelical or otherwise religious membership grew enormously. Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, said he believes that thousands of clergy members gave sermons about the election.
How is it possible that people like Todd Akin win a nomination? How is it possible that Christine O'Donnell, who believes in witchcraft, ever taken seriously as a candidate for U.S. Senate? How is it that people like Donald Trump can surge to the top of early presidential polls in the Republican Party while spewing nonsense about President Obama being born in Kenya?
It is not just racism, it is a grassroots composed of people who consider belief without evidence, or faith, a virtue. The reason these carnival barkers have risen so far in the Republican Party at a time when America can least afford their ignorance is because much of the grassroots is composed of people to whom faith is a barometer of fact. Belief with insufficient evidence defines the contours of their lives and their proscriptions for public policy. Without this element of the grassroots already firmly embedded in the party, I think the Tea Party would have failed, the debt ceiling fiasco would never have occurred and American political culture would be more bi-partisan and less caustic.
Bush and Rove thought they understood the people they were welcoming into their party; but they failed to appreciate the long term consequences. They also failed to understand that some people aren't looking for anything logical when they make dangerous decisions. Some people, as Alfred Pennyworth would say, just want to watch the world burn. In the case of evangelicals, many do, quite literally.
The Republican Party, with its emphasis on personal responsibility and the role of strong families in building a successful state, have a tremendous amount to contribute to the American political discussion. If Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan win in November the religious fringe of the Republican Party will solidify its place in substructure of Republican politics. The Republican Party needs to lose, and loose badly, so it can remove from its tent the intolerant and credulous whose presence has begun to rot the bowels of a once great institution.