November 9, 2012:
I occasionally write a piece for MILITARY HISTORY in a series they call "What We Learned," which describes major battles and then talks briefly about what we learned from them. The last one was on Gallipoli, a remarkable example of incompetence, ignorance, arrogance, and other "--ences" and "---ances" in World War I in which British and French forces attacked the Dardanelles in an attempt to seize Istanbul and drive the Ottoman Empire out of the war, and were very badly beaten. I've been thinking of it while reading the many analyses of the election this Tuesday in which the Republicans were badly beaten trying to attack deeply entrenched forces in the electorate, about which they were poorly informed, to which they took superior attitudes, and against which they demonstrated remarkable levels of incompetence. The parallels seem striking. Even more striking is the fact that the British and French learned very little from their defeat; and from what I can tell so far, neither have the Republicans.
This is not good news. I come from a Republican family, but none of my forebears would recognize the party now. It was run then by wealthy people who had a social conscience and a sense of noblesse oblige, who were deeply interested in foreign policy, wrote about it intelligently, and did not start wars irresponsibly, or at all. I left the party after college, largely thanks to what I learned in college about what the two major parties stood for. My parents never said anything but I'm sure they weren't pleased. But in any case I understood Republicans; I knew my parents, my grandparents, my uncles and what they stood for and it wasn't what the current party stands for. These were decent people, decent inside as well as polite and well-behaved outside. They did not harbor undisguised antipathies for immigrants, for women, for the poor, for minorities. They themselves had been poor once; they were the sons and daughters of immigrants; they had worked their way up. They were still close to their roots. They were not college graduates; but that doesn't mean they were unintelligent. And I could see where they were coming from.
I no longer understand Republicans. I have been trying for some time now to figure out how they can possibly take the stands they take, what has led them into the impenetrable plastic bubble they have made their home, what makes them impervious to argument, unwilling to engage in any sort of dialogue, what has happened to their social conscience. The more hysterical types, exemplified by the Limbaughs, the Hannitys, the Coulters, have managed to demonize anything and everything outside their bubble, delivering diatribes about "parasites," who seem to make up 47 percent of the population, about "socialism," and so on. We have all seen it. It seems more than a little crazy. And it's sad.
It's more than that, it's dangerous. Their only political strategy now seems to be to obstruct whatever Democrats propose in the way of legislation. That is no longer a two-party system; that is war--and to the death. But it won't work; it will, on the contrary, do enormous damage to the country, and they will lose, for the simple reason that they have refused to recognize, to accommodate to, or even to understand what is happening right under their noses. The United State is no longer a country in which rich white men control everything. In the Federal government, state governments, everywhere, more and more women, blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans are taking part and taking office. Did you look at the make-up of the crowd in Chicago last Tuesday night celebrating Obama's victory? You saw everybody: white men, white women, blacks, Latinos, all the minorities, waving American flags, dancing, clapping, singing. And at Romney headquarters in Boston? With very few exceptions it was all white, and it was mostly male.
I'm not saying anything that original here, but the more voices that are raised the better. We need a two-party system, we need dialogue, not war. Modern day conservatism at its best dates from Edmund Burke, and if you read Burke, he makes a lot of sense. Institutions are indeed important, and it is important that they keep faith with the people, and that people in return keep faith with them. I am not a religious person but I would hate to see churches disappear. Tradition, too, is important. I never bought entirely into the 1960s; I could see that it was going to destroy things that were valuable, as well as reform things that were not. I also understood that most Americans want the same things, whatever their politics: a decent job, a chance to advance, family life with all its pleasures and pains, a nice house in a good community, or a nice apartment in a lively city. The left tends toward the utopian. I don't believe in utopias, or the perfectibility of man.
But I recognize hardly a trace of traditional conservatism in the current Republican Party. I recognize only a worship of wealth, and an absolute determination to keep it to themselves. The Party is living in the past, in a bubble of its own making. Their astonishment at their losses on Tuesday is revealing. Reality has destroyed their myths, and it is very difficult to detach yourselves from your myths. But they must, if they are to survive. Otherwise they will go the way of the Whigs, once a dominant party in American politics, now a memory. Facts cannot be wished away. Reality inevitably sneaks up on you. To continue to believe that we are the most enlightened, the best educated people in the world, that we offer the most opportunity in the world, when none of this is true, when it has been demonstrated clearly and convincingly not to be true, is inevitably to lose your way.
"Know thyself," it read on the entrance to the cave of the Delphic Oracle in Greece. Until you do, until you face the reality of who you are--in this case, a minority--and how ill your attitudes and beliefs accord with the world at large, there is not much hope for you.