What do the Florida 2000 presidential vote, the Texas congressional redistricting controversy, and the upcoming California gubernatorial recall election have in common? Answer: They each illuminate the dark recesses of the Republican soul and expose the GOP for what it has clearly become, a kind of neo-fascist political entity possessing neither conscience nor scruples. Most tellingly, they reveal the onetime party of Lincoln to have developed deep in its bones a fundamental contempt for democratic institutions.
Think back to the Florida imbroglio of three years ago. The outcome was contested, the tally rife with irregularities, a situation that cried out for a recount. The Republican response when faced with possible defeat through the ballot box? Engineer a vote stoppage and throw the decision to a packed GOP Supreme Court.
In Texas, a decennial redrawing of congressional districts, carried out as the law required following the 2000 census (but prior to a GOP takeover of the state legislature in 2001), failed to produce the desired result of additional Republican seats in the House of Representatives. The GOP's attempted recourse? Flout the rules and redistrict a second time to capitalize on changed political circumstances.
Fast forward to the summer of 2003. California conservatives, unhappy with the reelection of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, look for a way to change horses in midstream. Their remedy? Use the state's recall provision in a way it was never intended -- not to unseat a corrupt, immoral, or dangerous public official, but to prematurely evict a momentarily unpopular incumbent burdened by economic forces beyond his control.
What these apparently unrelated incidents all share is a kneejerk Republican impulse to short-circuit democracy for partisan advantage. The GOP approach to gaining office is simplicity itself. If you don't like an election's outcome, void it by judicial appeal or hold it again when conditions are more favorable; vote only when you can win or not at all. If the established procedures don't produce the desired result, change the procedures or just ignore them. Above all, don't allow democratic institutions and laws to frustrate your God-given right to rule.
This modern Republican strategy is eerily reminiscent of the path to power taken by totalitarians of the 1920s and 1930s. The comparison may seem overdrawn, but the parallels are striking. It's not at all difficult to visualize the welldressed Republican thugs who intimidated Florida vote tabulators roaming the streets of Berlin or Nuremberg in brown shirts roughing up political opponents. Come to think of it, GOP House Majority Leader Tom DeLay bears a more than passing resemblance in rhetoric and personal style to a Nazi gauleiter. No one overly concerned with the niceties of democracy would ever be nicknamed "The Hammer."
The Republicans, to use the argot of contemporary politics, play hardball; they give no quarter and take no prisoners. They learned that from Newt Gingrich, whose modus operandi was attack, attack, attack. One manifestation of this attitude is the Bush administration's governing premise -- that its marginally legitimate victory in 2000 constituted a mandate for the right-wing agenda and that razor-thin GOP majorities in Congress require no consensus building and no compromise when formulating legislation.
If controversial and far-reaching Republican bills can be forced through the House and Senate by one- or two-vote margins, they will be. If the opposition squawks, that's just too bad. While liberal Democrats worry about appearances (What will people think if we're partisan?), conservative Republicans couldn't care less; they are devotees of the late Vince Lombardi. Winning, in their canon, is not the most important thing; it is the only thing.
At bottom, the current crop of Republican politicians, as well as their hallelujah chorus in the media -- the Bill O'Reillys, Sean Hannitys, Ann Coulters, and Rush Limbaughs -- are not very nice people. Their stock in trade is character assassination, halftruth, insult, personal attack, demeaning comment. Their distaste for political rivals goes beyond disrespect; it borders on outright hatred. But President Bush and the people around him don't normally employ such tactics, some will say. True enough, but then again, they don't disavow them either; they prefer to look the other way when their surrogates pounce, betraying only the Cheneyesque halfsmile, the Rumsfeldian chuckle or the cynical presidential smirk.
And what of the Democrats? you might well ask. There are two things to be said about them in this context. First, they've forgotten, for the most part, how to play political hardball. With apologies to James Carville, the last truly effective political infighter in Democratic politics was Bobby Kennedy -- the "bad" Bobby of pre-1963, who orchestrated his brother's ascension to the White House and then guarded his back like a pit bull on steroids. Until modern times, the Democrats always had someone like that; FDR, for all his charm, needed a Jim Farley working the back rooms, making the deals, and rabbitpunching the opposition when the ref wasn't looking. Somewhere along the line, Democrats simply lost their taste for the jugular.
The second unvarnished truth about the Democrats is that, being liberals for the most part, they are not naturally nasty and confrontational; they have to work at it. Most liberals are idealists at heart, and hitting below the belt violates their sense of themselves. Deep down, they tend to view human nature in optimistic, uplifting terms; like Jefferson, they trust in earthly progress and the goodness of man. Conservative Republicans, on the other hand, have a mostly negative -- they would say realistic -- view of human nature; they believe the worst of people, suspect their motives, and act accordingly. This mindset gives them an immense shortrun advantage when things get down and dirty.
Don't misunderstand. This is not a brief calling upon the Democratic left to adopt wholesale the thought processes and tactics of its opposition. It's possible to counter neofascist politics -- the sort of politics that took down Max Cleland in Georgia last fall -- without descending into the depths. It's a matter of knowing where to draw the line on decency, something the Republicans, increasingly dependent on a hardcore antidemocratic cadre of bullies, fanatics, and extremists, no longer grasp. In the end, that could well be their fatal Achilles heel.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.