Published in POLITICO
By Scot Faulkner and Jonathan Riehl
In the classic 1956 sci-fi film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, an alien race comes to Earth and begins turning humans into “pod people.” Their bodies are left intact, but their minds are regrown, rending them humanoid robots under the aliens’ command. Unrecognizable to neighbors, the pod people take over until nothing is left of human society.
At the time of its release, the film was seen as a metaphor either for communist takeover (according to conservatives) or an ironic criticism of the irrational fears of communist takeover (according to liberals). Today, we think the body snatchers conceit perfectly fits another trend: the takeover of the responsible conservative movement -- or least what is left of it. A small faction-within-a-faction -- government-decrying, religious-fanatic, anti-science -- have turned thinking Republicans into pod people.
There is growing concern that while Republicans may dominate off-year congressional elections, their ability to win a presidential election is diminishing. The crisis on the right revolves around two issues: demographic trends working against the GOP in the general election, and insanity working against the GOP in the nomination process. Extremist outliers now dominate both the public face and internal organization of the Republican Party. It is time to snatch these bodies back, and to steer the debate toward more concrete issues: America’s role in the world and the global economy; cultural divides over how to address environmental issues; our healthcare system and the costs of aging families; and bridging multicultural divisions in our country and around the globe. These are the issues the GOP needs to address head-on, with input from a wider range of perspectives.
The evidence of Republicans at war with themselves and with reality mounts daily. Even those recognized as seemingly “rational” Republican and conservative voices, both in elected office and the punditocracy, are pandering to religiously radical, inward-focused factions. The result is a GOP fixated on the roughly 10 million people who listen to conservative radio and television pundits, instead of projecting messages of inclusion and hope to 230 million registered voters.
It was not always this way. In 1988, George H.W. Bush coasted to the third Republican presidential landslide in a row. The GOP won five of six post-Great Society presidential elections, four by epic-sized landslides. In the elections of 1972 and 1984, the Democrats won only one state each, plus the District of Columbia. Up through 1984, the modern Republican Party had perfected appealing to voters across the political spectrum. Broad themes and accomplishments -- the economic growth after the Carter years, reversing the decline of the U.S. military, winning the Cold War, and generally re-energizing national morale -- neutralized internal factions and ideological differences within the Republican Party, while the Democrats were still healing from their Vietnam and Civil Rights meltdowns.
Although President Bill Clinton’s “triangulation” would eventually help lead the Democrats out of their wilderness, there were signs of the radicalization of the GOP as early as Ronald
Reagan’s second term. First and foremost, the United States and the West were winning the Cold War. It would take until Nov. 9, 1989, for the Berlin Wall to fall, but many within the Reagan administration and the conservative movement knew events were unfolding to end the Soviet Empire and free Eastern Europe, which the Republicans had made a key rallying point for years. As this happened, and with the American economy booming, core Republican and Independent constituencies lost their fervor to fight. Unfortunately, Republican leaders failed to develop or articulate a “third act.”
Into this vacuum stepped faith-based Republicans, also known as “TheoCons.” The TheoCons, including national politicians and the religious coalitions backing them, entered GOP circles during the 1978 off-year elections. Many were evangelicals who supported Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election, hoping that Carter’s devout Christianity would usher in policies friendly to their Christian worldview. Their disappointment led them into the Republican Party. GOP leaders and Reaganites were grateful for these additions to the larger coalition, but they were also wary of the TheoCons’ preference for big government. While the Cold War raged, Republicans told the TheoCons to “wait their turn” at policy formulation.
The TheoCons used their time in waiting to methodically take control of the Republican Party at the county and state levels. Their fervor for biblical policies and evangelical beliefs easily overwhelmed the waning legions of GOP Cold Warriors and independent libertarians. This is not a criticism of the Tea Party movement alone; the TheoCons poach from this camp as well as a separate cohort of religiously driven conservatives who have been part of the conservative coalition since the late 1970s.
Fast forward to 2012, and the Republican Party of the 21st century looks more like 16th-century Europe, when doctrinaire Catholicism and fervent Protestantism were literally fighting over hearts and souls amid the Reformation. Science and medicine were locked in the realm of superstition. Absolute dictators ruled everywhere. It would take another 100 years before the beginnings of rational thought, scientific inquiry, and liberal democracy took root.
That is the fundamental problem of today’s Republican Party: Its philosophical “outliers” have become its activist core. This has infected Republicans at all levels, from the state house, to the Congress, governors, and the presidential contenders. Virtually any Republican candidate who wants to run and hold office, must at least give lip service to an activist government based on biblical imperatives. We know from personal experience, over recent years, that in some circles, in order to obtain the GOP nomination, raise funds, and attract campaign volunteers, Republicans must not only embrace biblical creationism, but also go on the record supporting the concept of a “young Earth” -- the creationist belief that our planet was formed in seven days, starting on March 18, 3952 B.C. (though dates vary). They must also agree to expand the size of government to enforce biblically based policies, like the absurd anti-sodomy debate going on in Virginia.
For GOP leaders, officeholders, and candidates who are afraid to confront the TheoCons, the dilemma is no longer about how to put this genie back in its bottle but how to placate this faction internally without broadcasting the fragmentation to the broader public. The TheoCon body snatchers have turned a Party of the Enlightenment and liberty into the pod people of science fiction movies. Many meetings among Republican fundraisers, caucuses, and party leaders have enforcers -- local activists -- ready to alert their fellow pods to heresy. Shrinking numbers and electoral defeat only strengthens the pod people’s hold on the party. More and more Republicans fall asleep under their spell, only to awake and join them.
The invasion of the GOP body snatchers is not just hurting the legacy of the Republican Party and conservative movement. It is hurting America’s ability to conduct a civil and sensible national debate. When the process of positive political dialogue is invaded by pod people, it ceases to be possible. Everyone has an interest in fighting the invasion.