Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Curious Case of NY 23

It’s hard to see this story in anything other than religious terms. This is what happens when a political party reaps the fallout of courting the most reactionary elements in society. It was only a matter of time before a schism formed. We know this because we can look around and see the evidence of it everywhere. There are buildings out there with signs that point to it. Most of those signs contain the words “Baptist” or “Bible” somewhere. Other times they have the word “Fellowship” or some other random Christian buzzword. Eventually in the life of any church the congregation splits. It’s usually acrimonious and filled with much deeply non-Christian backbiting. Honestly, it’s not a particularly surprising thing, since any time you put a bunch of people together there are bound to be conflicts. But in the case of a church there are the extra layers of orthodoxy and commitment, combined with the fact that religion tends to magnify differences between people by making little disagreements in to issues of eternal significance. I lived through one church schism. When I was in junior high and high school a whole bunch of people grew dissatisfied with the church I grew up in. In a situation like that you have some people who grin and bear it, some people who go off and find another church, and some people who basically throw a coup. The coup failed, but not before it cost the church a pastor and a whole lot of people’s names were dragged through the mud, especially in the anonymous letter writing campaign. The failed revolutionaries wandered off and started their own church.* My parents went to find a different church that was less filled with people who suck. I stuck around. At the time it was because my friends were all at that church. Now I’m pretty sure it was because I’m an idiot. But I digress… Church schisms don’t just happen. Everything is fine as long as the church is stable. That requires a charismatic leader and a steady, well-perceived group of elders. If the charismatic leader disappears or the steady collection of elders is somehow knocked down a peg or two, then things start to get difficult. What happens next generally takes the form of a gathering wave of discontent. If there are malcontents in the congregation they’ll generally start passing around rumors. If they’re bold enough they’ll announce their disaffection to the entire church. Eventually things go pear-shaped if the leadership can’t get things under control. Now, the interesting thing is that this sequence of events usually only happens in independent churches. The system in the Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and Presbyterian churches generally discourages this sort of thing, since there’s a larger corporate body making decisions that usually won’t accept half the congregation leaving and starting up a rival church down the street. The larger body certainly won’t accept a congregation-wide insurgency to put just anybody in charge, either. It might withdraw an unpopular pastor/priest, but it will then say, “And, by the way, here’s your new guy.” In those cases people usually just leave the church in dribs and drabs. In independent churches, however, the congregation gets to decide pretty much anything it wants. If enough people turn against the pastor then he’d better start working on his resume. It’s actually fairly rare to see a pastor who sticks to his church for more than five years or so. Generally the ones who do are fantastic politicians or the Bill Hybels- or Rick Warren-types who built the church from the ground up and trade on their celebrity and charisma every day of life. Any pastor who starts a new job at an independent church is basically walking in to a nest of vipers. It’s only a matter of time before someone starts biting. Which brings us to the curious case of NY-23. It’s historically been a safe district for Republicans (“historically” being used in politics-speak, where sixteen years of Republican control over a House seat and the general perception that the number could easily grow is a pretty good record. Any claims that it’s always been a Republican seat are fallacious, but eight terms is an eternity in American politics. Then again, there’s also the issue of gerrymandering. NY 23 currently fills an area that is historically Republican going back to the old Whig days. Of course “Republican” in the North from 1860 to about 1908 doesn’t mean anything at all. Tories had a better chance of winning a seat than the Democrats did during that time period). But now no matter what happens today there won’t be a Republican in charge of NY-23 tomorrow. And it’s all because of the Tea Bagger insurrection. Now, I don’t claim to know the entire story of NY-23. But I know the broad strokes and I know something of the underlying mindset. And I’m far more interested in looking at the underlying mindset than I am at the race itself. Plus, I’m a blogger, which means I’m an expert in everything… We all know the story. The Republicans picked Dede Scozzafava to run for them in the special election. The Democrats picked Bill Owens. Scozzafava had the backing of the NRA and in most cases her record as a state representative was actually slightly to the right of the rest of her party. However, on some things, like abortion and health care, she’s closer to the Democratic side of the spectrum. Rumor has it she also believes Barack Obama is an American citizen and not a sooper seekrit Mooslim… Now, when going in to any election for a representative the question should be, “Will this candidate look after my own best interests?” As a former mayor and assemblywoman who seems at least reasonably moderate and willing to break party lines on issues of conscience there’s a good chance that yes, Scozzafava would have been a good choice for a representative. This, of course, makes her a terrible choice for a certain percentage of her constituency. Enter Doug Hoffman. Hoffman does not live in the district (although it’s not entirely his fault, since his house didn’t move, but the district did). He, in fact, might as well live in Chicago. When asked what he thought of the issues of the district he indicated he didn’t care and that national ideology was the most important. This, specifically, is the Tea Bagger ideology. No abortion, no gay marriage, no national health care, Nobama. You know the drill. Ideological purity trumped actually working with his constituents and, you know, representing NY 23 in the House. This, to me, sounds a lot like a church schism. For, you see, churches rarely split over something like, “You think we should be supporting the soup kitchen, I think we should be supporting Toys for Tots.” They split over things like, “Jesus doesn’t like Muslims. You’re friends with Muslims, so we’re out of here,” or, “The Bible says women and gays shouldn’t be pastors, so we’re going to go re-join the Catholic Church. They know what’s what.” In an ever-increasing drive for purity churches rarely actually work through their issues. They simply split apart. Then when the splinters start to fight they split again. All in an ideological drive for purity. The Republican Party is currently in a fight to determine what makes a perfect conservative. There’s no such thing. For some “conservative” simply means “small government.” For others “conservative” means “Republican.” For some it simply means, “keep your hands off our guns.” For still others “conservative” means “only allowed to do whatever the Bible says.” Then, of course, there are those for whom “conservative” means “do what Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O’Reilly tell us to do.” Michelle Malkin called Dede Scozzafava a “radical leftist.” If an NRA-endorsed Republican with a few Democratic leanings is a “radical leftist,” then there’s a wide gulf between reality and imagination. The difference between the two is the ideology of purity and the attending attitude that you can be for or against, but there’s no middle ground. Dick Armey, the former political insider turned “grassroots” organizer has said, “My own view right now is the myth that you have to be a moderate — a Democrat lite — to win in the Northeast probably has less standing now than in any time since I’ve been in politics. The small-government candidate in the Republican Party — or running as an independent — is going to be the one to draw the energy of these voters.” This statement runs directly contrary to Michael Steele’s goal as RNC Chairman to focus less on ideological purity and more on a Republican Party that actually reflects the district it represents. I rarely say this, but Steele is right in this case. Of course being right in an argument against Dick Armey and the Tea Baggers is right up there with winning a battle of wits against Ray Comfort or a brain damaged chihuahua. But the point stands. From, basically, Lincoln up until now the Republican Party has been able to find a collection of charismatic (at least to them) leaders or unite against a common outside foe. From Grant through McKinley it basically coalesced around a group of Civil War veterans and the threat of a resurgent South. From Teddy Roosevelt’s defection and the Bull Moose split in the 1912 Election through Truman the Republican Party largely faltered. However, from Eisenhower through George W. Bush the Republicans again found their stride with the fight against Communism and militant Islam and strong (if not always charismatic) leadership from on high. In the process, however, the Republicans made a deal with the Devil. The Devil, in this case, was conservative Christianity. The Christian Right responded well as long as they felt there was a good pastor in charge. But as more and more people fled from Bush and no one stepped forward to take the mantle, the Christian Right did as right-leaning Christians tend to do and split apart, searching for ideological purity. With the complete implosion of Bush the Younger and the drive for purity came the end of the Republican Party as we know it. The RNC is not helping its cause, either. By throwing its support behind Hoffman it’s announcing that it will do whatever the wingnuts want. So either the Republicans who don’t like the Tea Baggers will support Democrats (as Scozzafava has done) or find themselves high and dry and alone (as Scozzafava has also done). The wingnuts might be able to take local control in places like NY 23. But there’s no way they’ll be able to maintain a national presence. There simply aren’t enough people out there who agree with them. Of course they could simply try to win enough seats to disrupt the democratic process. That worked really well to destabilize and ruin a different Republic about seventy years ago. What was it that Sinclair Lewis said? “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.” I’ve avoided playing the Fascism card before. I simply do not see Fascism (or Communism) on the Democratic side of the line. I didn’t see it on the Republican side, either. However we might actually end up seeing it on the Tea Bagger side. All of the elements are there: focus on ideological purity, willingness to scapegoat, and a complete disinterest in the mechanics of governance. I don’t think it will end up that way. But I also thought the Tea Bagger thing would burn itself out in a month or two. Now they’re a real threat to put a completely unqualified and inept candidate in to the House of Representatives. This is not a good trend… -------------------------------- *Ironically enough, my church was planning a big move to a new building on new property right as I was getting sick of it and decided to leave. The new property is right next door to the schism church’s property. 10 years on they’re neighbors…

1 comment:

jessa said...

I'm gonna go ahead and give you a pass on the whole "not leaving the church I grew up in when I was in middle school was because I was an idiot" thing. You were what, 12, 13, maybe 14? I'm pretty sure it's okay for you to stay with your friends, and not to notice how completely shot to hell things are getting. But I do find that bit of history, and the current state of the two groups as physical neighbors mighty tantalizing.

I like your explanation of the relationship between the Republicans and the crazies. I don't understand Republicans, and looking at the crazies just makes Republicans look like idiots. But thinking of it as the Republicans selling their soul to the crazies for the votes, it makes a little bit more sense and makes Republicans a little bit more understandable to me. (It isn't that they are incomprehensibly stupid, it is that they are desperate for votes.)