The Elephant and the Circus: The Rise of the Radical Right

By Adam Stromme
Editor-in-Chief, International Relations & Economics Undergraduate Student

The politics of every country is capable of generating its own special, unique form of insanity when put under pressure. But today it seems only the nightmarish, never-ending spectacle of American politics is so absurd and offensive as to almost become a parody of itself. Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and even the hapless Mr. Establishment Jeb Bush are ridiculed for their absurd policies and shameless fearmongering in the face of tragedy. And for those who prefer even conservative sanity to sensationalism, the stiff robotic Hillary Clinton provides little relief.

But in between the sarcastic jests and casual derision, a more sinister reality emerges.

But in between the sarcastic jests and casual derision, a more sinister reality emerges. This can be seen most clearly in the weary expectation that the American political scene is always just about to produce another clown or fiasco. Only in American politics, the rationale goes, can a major party’s election cycle be led by a megalomaniacal uber-Capitalist, trailed by a pyramid scheme peddler and a dynast, and followed by a fiercely loyal media and a clown car of other various onetrick ponies.

But to mistake this as an inherent problem of American politics would be a grave mischaracterization of the current political spectacle. In reality, it is an outward projection of a struggle at the heart of government; a struggle being waged by the American Republican Party. This surprising conclusion is as true of the Republican Party’s economic extremism as the questionable social crusades for which Republicans have routinely given a voice. 

For much of the last eighty years, the Republican Party has been in retreat. With the onset of the Great Depression, left-leaning politicians dominated the landscape, controlling all of Congress directly for a span of almost thirty consecutive years, and reigning ideologically supreme with a more diverse coalition of interests all the way up until the Reagan Revolution in the 1980’s. As Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has wisely pointed out, this meant that even Republican candidates such as Eisenhower and Nixon held vastly more liberal dispositions during this time than would ever be recognizable to the modern Republican.

But to mistake this as an inherent problem of American politics would be a grave mischaracterization of the current political spectacle.

But today, the Republican Party faces a crisis of representation. No longer able to find consistent backing amongst the general electorate, they have instead been forced to campaign on spurious social issues or fearmongering amongst ill-informed voters in order to advance their agenda amongst those they cannot gerrymander out of electoral relevance. This, combined with the scattering of many of the progressive forces which used to power the Democratic establishment, has nonetheless at the surface given the GOP an aura of invincibility in the face of their recent successes in the post Citizens United Era

But all is not as it appears. The resurgence of the GOP is as much a product of a Faustian pact for votes as an egregious rigging of the electoral game. Led by Newt Gingrich in the House during the Clinton administration, the Republican Party began an aggressive campaign to disparage the government in order to back their agenda. The logic of this Conservative agenda is quite simple, and helps the Republicans overcome their poor electoral representation: people won’t vote for any party that empowers the government if the government isn’t working.

But today, the Republican Party faces a crisis of representation.

No where is this more evident than in the inanity of daily barrage of Republican soundbites. The never ending stream of absurd allegations, ad hominems, and gross misrepresentations of facts play into a carefully constructed narrative to shield Republicans from accusations and present them as the white knights crusading against the very government which they helped poison.

The radicalism of the American government thus has two drivers: The first arises from the tactics of a radical fringe of the resurgent Republican Party desperate to control the government in full once again, led by the so called “Young Guns” like Paul Ryan. The second is the natural consequence of that very same political party desperately needing the votes of the radical yet vocal minority which has bought into their narrative of government dysfunction which they have an interest in perpetuating. Both are a result of a Republican Party which is so close to its goal of electoral dominance.

This attack on the government, like their undemocratic strategies, has dire consequences for American democracy. As American political commentator Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute famously observed: “The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

This attack on the government, like their undemocratic strategies, has dire consequences for American democracy.

This should no longer surprise us. We can no longer meaningfully speak of the Elephant without the Circus which is at once an essential part of its political strategy yet increasingly veering out of control.

As much as we might wish to laugh off the circus, its very existence is no laughing matter.

—–

Feature image courtesy of Thomas Nast, WikiMedia Commons.

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