Individuals, movements, and institutions often define themselves against their adversaries. The Cold War allowed Capitalists to delight in their freedoms and Communists to lament the West’s frivolities. Barack Obama defined himself as pragmatic and multilateral to contrast with the idealism and unilateralism of the Bush years. Yale and Ohio State necessarily have to take on the mantle of superiority and good looks when contrasted with their respective archrivals. Lastly, Kate Gosslin’s hair juxtaposes itself with a mullet.
One of the political trends of 2009 has been the cult personality and devotees surrounding the Fox News host Glenn Beck. From promoting Tea Parties, to shameful use of the race card (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxLJVVhcDqE), to bating Birthers, Beck - as well as others on talk radio and Fox News - has struck a cord with a populist, disenchanted, and disempowered thread of conservative America. As we have seen over these months, many of the out-pourings from this group - although genuine - have at times shown a darker side of American public discourse.
After a summer when these personalities and words steered the conservative ideological narrative, many moderates and traditional conservatives are now standing up to this negative and potentially dangerous rhetoric. David Brooks powerfully argued in an op-ed a few weeks ago that the Republicans should not be swayed by the fake power of Beck and his cronies (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/02/opinion/02brooks.html). Bob Dole recently chided some of the adversarial rhetoric to health care reform on the right and advised for engagement on the issue – perhaps the most important domestic debate of our time (http://www.kansascity.com/340/story/1496048.html). Lindsey Graham also added to the chorus of individuals critiquing Beck and his brand cynicism. For Senator Graham, Beck is not the embodiment of the conservative movement (http://themoderatevoice.com/48584/lindsey-graham-blasts-glenn-beck/)
However, what is behind the cynicism that empowers Beck is a reactionary movement as well. This reaction is being pushed by bigger forces in the public’s discourse than what is driving the anti-Beckites. From deficit spending to a stimulus bill that has in the short term correlated with falling employment rates to fear over death panels, for many Government is moving at an alarming pace into new roles and a broader scope. Through these actions by a Democratic Congress and President, a group of Republicans have been fighting for the GOP to become defined as the “Party of No.” Pushing this brand, Pat Toomey, Senator DeMint and others see the party as a necessary restraint and opposing force to government in a time of potential excess. (NB: to further elaborate on this movement, I highly recommend this New Yorker article if you can get your hands on it - http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/09/28/090928fa_fact_boyer)
Given the policies of Obama, Pelosi and Reid and the spending of the Bush administration, Republicans defining themselves this way can create a very poignant and sticky message. My concern though is that this direction is one of negativity, fear, and, as we are seeing with the health care debate, disengagement. If you are the “Party of No,” the path of least resistance is to shake your fist at your opponent as opposed to shaking his hand. You are more inclined to political victories in other's defeats than minor gains through compromise that actually impact the public.
I certainly applaud the efforts of Brooks, Graham and others who have stood up to potentially powerful interests and ideas on their side of the aisle. But, those actions only move the ball so far against the tide of cynicism and fear within the right of center circles. To be more powerful than the “Party of No,” moderates and others on the right need to contrast themselves not only against Glenn Beck but also articulate an easily understood ideology that could be applied to a policy or a movement. Perhaps the challenge is to reform the idea of “No” to something more positive and engaging. To something that embraces protecting liberties but also recognizes that government has some role to play, such as with defense or protecting citizens from government bodies or, yes, maybe even health care.
Through this change in rhetoric and engagement, the Republican Party could redefine itself not as a party of “no, you shouldn’t” but to a party of “yes, we are” to take on the high expectations set by an adversary of “yes, we can” in 2012.