With the Iowa caucuses just days away, the Republican crack-up threatens the future of the Grand Old Party more profoundly than at any other time since the GOP's eclipse in 1932. That's bad for America.
The crack-up isn't just Romney-the-smooth versus Gingrich-the-bomb-thrower. Not just House Speaker John Boehner, who keeps making agreements he can't keep, versus House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who keeps making trouble he can't control. And not just the GOP establishment versus the Tea Partiers.
The underlying conflict lies deep in the nature and structure of the Republican Party. And its roots are very old.
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As political analyst Michael Lind has noted, today's Tea Party is less an ideological movement than the latest incarnation of an angry white minority – predominantly Southern, mainly rural, largely male – that has repeatedly attacked American democracy in order to get its way.
It's no coincidence that the states responsible for putting the most Tea Party representatives in the House are all former members of the Confederacy. Others are from border states with significant Southern populations and Southern ties.
This “no-compromise” right wing of today's GOP isn't much different from the evangelical social conservatives who began asserting themselves in the party during the 1990s, and, before them, the “Willie Horton” conservatives of the 1980s, and, before them, Richard Nixon's “silent majority.”
Through most of these years, though, the GOP managed to contain these no-compromise radicals. Most of the Southerners were still Democrats. The conservative mantle of the GOP remained in the West and Midwest – in the libertarian legacies of Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft and Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, neither of whom was a barn-burner – while the epicenter of the party remained in New York and the East.
But after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as the South began its long shift toward the Republican Party, and New York and the East became ever more solidly Democratic, it was only a matter of time. The GOP's dominant coalition of big business, Wall Street, and Midwest and Western libertarians was losing its grip.
The watershed event was Newt Gingrich's takeover of the House in 1995. Suddenly, it seemed, the GOP had a personality transplant. The gentlemanly conservatism of House Minority Leader Bob Michel was replaced by the bomb-throwing antics of Gingrich, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay.
Almost overnight Washington was transformed from a place where legislators tried to find common ground to a war zone. Compromise was replaced by brinkmanship, bargaining by obstructionism, normal legislative maneuvering by threats to close down government – which occurred at the end of 1995.
Before then, when I'd testified on the Hill as secretary of labor, I had come in for tough questioning from Republican senators and representatives – which was their job. After January 1995, I was verbally assaulted. “Mr. Secretary, are you a socialist?” I recall one of them asking.
The first concrete sign that no-compromise radicals might take over the Republican Party came in the vote to impeach Bill Clinton, when two-thirds of the senators from the South voted for impeachment. (A majority of the Senate, you may recall, voted to acquit.) America has had a long history of white Southern radicals who will stop at nothing to get their way – seceding from the Union in 1861, refusing to obey civil rights legislation in the 1960s, shutting the government in 1995, and risking the full faith and credit of the United States in 2010.
Newt Gingrich's recent assertion that public officials aren't bound to follow the decisions of federal courts is in keeping with the tradition.
This no-compromise radicalism is dangerous for the GOP because most Americans recoil from it. Gingrich himself became an object of ridicule in the late 1990s, and many Republicans today worry that if he heads the ticket, the party will suffer large losses.
It's also dangerous for America. We need two political parties solidly grounded in the realities of governing. Our democracy can't work any other way.