I'm becoming worried that the Republican Party is cracking up. I don't mean the long-running split whose latest manifestation is the Tea Party's push to purge. No, I'm afraid that the GOP is literally going crazy.
Back in 2003, the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer coined the phrase "Bush Derangement Syndrome" to describe the irrational reactions the 43rd president aroused in critics. The 1990s were rife with "Clinton Derangement Syndrome," as the president was accused of crimes ranging from running a cocaine smuggling ring to arranging for the murder of aide Vincent Foster, among others.
But under the tenure of Barack Obama, political derangement syndrome seems to have metastasized.
Obama inspires a special madness in some quarters, and one that seems to be virulent. The prime example is the "birther" movement—the people who believe that he was not born in the United States (and is therefore not eligible for the presidency). Some conservatives argue that birtherism is a creation and obsession of the left, who play it up as a way of making Obama opponents look crazy.
But consider the survey of likely 2012 GOP primary voters released this week by Public Policy Polling: 51 percent believe Obama was born abroad. Another 21 percent answered that they were "not sure," meaning that 72 percent of the people likely to select the next GOP nominee are either birthers or open to it. This should not be surprising. An August CNN/Opinion Research poll found that 41 percent of Republicans believe that Obama was probably or definitely born abroad; a May 2010 ABC News/Washington Post poll put the number of GOP birthers at 31 percent, and a CBS survey from April 2010 put it at 32 percent. Notice the trend line.
And actions trump polls. Politico reported last week that bills have been introduced in at least 10 states requiring presidential candidates to prove they were born in the United States before being allowed on the ballot. And in the last Congress, 13 House members signed on to such a bill. [See editorial cartoons about the Republican Party.]
The Obama strain of political derangement syndrome is not confined to birtherism or even to Obama directly, though the antifederalism animating it is at least an indirect reaction to him. Indeed, his election has coincided with a lunatic renaissance. GOPers have, to various extents, embraced the loopy narrative that they are fighting an existential threat, not only to the nation, but to liberty itself. Obama is not merely too liberal but is actually illegitimate; the healthcare law is not just ill-conceived but a malevolent attempt to nationalize the healthcare system; and so on. Given that they have cast themselves as the literal and figurative heirs to the original Tea Party revolutionaries, it is perhaps no surprise that they are increasingly reaching back to 19th and 18th century policies. [See editorial cartoons about the Tea Party.]
So, for example, state legislators in South Carolina and Virginia have introduced bills requiring their states to look into establishing their own gold- and silver-based currencies as alternatives to, as one of the bills puts it, "the currency distributed by the Federal Reserve System"—better known as the U.S. dollar. A proposed Georgia law would require "debts by or to the state" (read: taxes) be paid in gold and silver; and a Utah state legislator wants to let citizens mint their own legal gold and silver tender. Like-minded proposals have been put forth in at least 12 states since Obama's election.
Then there's the new nullification push. According to the Tenth Amendment Center, a pro-states-rights think tank, bills declaring the healthcare reform bill unconstitutional and thus null and void have been introduced in 11 state legislatures. In addition, Iowa's GOP-controlled state House this month passed a bill nullifying the law's individual mandate, and an Arizona bill would empower the state legislature to nullify any federal law.
Nullification was debated (and discredited) before the Civil War. And, as the (apparently sane) GOP attorney general's office in Idaho, one of the states now weighing a nullification bill, wrote last month, "the theory runs contrary to the very purpose of the federal constitution," adding that, "taking the logic of the nullification theory to its natural extension, federal law would become a patchwork of regulation depending upon which States chose to comply." The letter concluded: "There is no right to pick and choose which federal laws a State will follow."
The extent to which the far right, often self-described as "constitutional conservatives," settles on pre- and anti-constitutional policies is striking. But perhaps severe political derangement also blurs one's sense of history. [See a slide show of 10 GOP frontrunners for 2012.]
Take House Tea Party doyenne Michele Bachmann, who is toying with a presidential run. Bachmann last month waxed reverent for "the very founders . . . [who] worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States." She added that it's "high time that we recognize the contribution of our forebears who worked tirelessly—men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished." Adams, while a tireless opponent of slavery, was less a Founding Father than a founding son, and one who died 17 years before the Civil War ended the despicable institution. And not only did the founders in many cases own slaves, they enshrined slavery in the Constitution.
My late father, the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., was fond of saying that "history is to the nation as memory is to the individual. As persons deprived of memory become disoriented and lost . . . so a nation denied a conception of the past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future." If political derangement is even infecting our national memory, we really may be in trouble.
- See an Opinion slide show of 12 ways Republicans want to change the Constitution.
- See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.
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