There’s an old saying back in the States that I just made up and it goes something like this: “If there is a zombie in the well, you probably shouldn’t drink the water.” Apropos of which, for all the buzz in El Norte regarding a civil war brewing within the ranks of the Republican Party, I’m thinking the metaphor is all wrong. It’s not a civil war. It’s a zombie apocalypse of absolutist ideologies. A near-tipping-point percentage of the Republican Party has become like unto a herd of undead intellects unable to alter course and chomping ferociously at everything in their way. I know that’s an inflammatory charge, and I intend to back it up with some ballpark (barroom?) numbers. But it seems to the Surly Bartender that at least half of — and arguably far more — conservative voters in the United States have surrendered their ability to reason based on observable truths.
That deserves comment.
And let’s not get too cute here. I am not saying all Republicans are silly absolutist “zombies.” What I am saying is that the ones who think Barack Obama was born in Kenya, that global climate change is a world-wide conspiracy of evil scientists, and those who believe the Second Amendment should prevent background checks on gun purchases, in fact, are.
Further, it’s my contention that the framing of the intraparty battle by the Beltway media has it all wrong. A civil war, while violent, presumes a rational point of disagreement. But in the current situation, one side in the battle has given up living in a fact-based world — and their influence is spreading despite the claims from D.C. of a resurgence of the Republican establishment.
The remaining rationalist Republicans, rather than trying to put out positive spin on the Sunday morning talk shows, would be better off nailing boards to the windows and grabbing anything that can be used as a blunt instrument. They might need them to survive.
A civil war in the party allows for the possibility of reconstruction in its wake. I do not think that will be possible. My assessment may be wrong, but I’d wager that at some point in the next few years, the Grand Old Party will break apart upon the anvil of history. The establishment and the radicals will be cleaved in twain. The other alternate future is no brighter, wherein the “zombie virus” takes over entirely.
Republicans have drunk deeply from a well they should have avoided, and it has altered them in ways that can’t be reversed. The radical Republicans of today hold political, social and economic views that are absolutist and often just plain nuts. And once staked, absolutist ground is near impossible to surrender.
This is a bad thing for all of us.
Effective government ain’t easy. Effective democracy in a world where corporations are people (my friend), and money is speech (old chum) is more difficult and dangerous than juggling axes in a kindergarten. There are the constant pressures of lobbyists advocating for the self-interests of the already powerful. There is the natural tendency towards faction. And there is the usual incoherence of the uninformed and otherwise occupied.
But the most dangerous times for any representative government are when the ignorant band together in celebration of their folly. At times like these, bullying hordes advance terrible, foolish, provably untrue ideas with missionary arrogance. That is what is going on in the Republican Party today, but by no means is it the first time such a thing has happened in American history. Even the Founding Fathers were aware of these dangers and did what they could to build a ship of state that might withstand a crew of fools, and the voyage has been choppy since the early 19th Century.
With that in mind, let’s consider some events of the early republic. We’ll get back to the zombies later.
On November 29, 1803, Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, received the new British Ambassador to the United States at the White House. The Ambassador, one Anthony Merry, arrived dressed to the nines in 18th Century aristocratic poofery. He was sporting a giant hat with an exaggerated plume. At his side was a long, ceremonial sword with a bejeweled hilt. His knee socks were sparkling white and his shoes were clasped by shiny silver buckles. Merry was a man quite full of himself and his position in society. Rather exactly what President Jefferson couldn’t stand.
Merry was accompanied to the executive residence by Secretary of State James Madison. Madison took little note when they were given entrance by the house staff, but Merry was baffled and offended that they had to make their ways through the rooms and down the hallways calling out for “Mr. President.”
They finally found Jefferson in the small, low-ceilinged anteroom of his study where there wasn’t space for three men, a sword, and a round of handshakes — much less the rhythmic gymnastics of diplomatic greetings common to Europe at the time. Moreover, Jefferson looked a sight.
In his letters to the English Foreign Secretary, Merry described Jefferson’s “indifference to appearances” and his “utter slovenliness.” As it turns out, Jefferson was wearing the early 19th century equivalent of pajamas and a pair of slippers.
Three days later, still smarting from his introduction to the Americas, Merry and his wife were invited to dinner at the White House. Thinking this would be the opportune time for the President to make amends for his disservice to the King’s Ambassador, the couple accepted. What followed was express and intentional.
Ambassador Merry was greeted as a guest, but not a particularly honored one. When the party moved to the dining room, seats were taken “first come, first served.” Merry tried to grab the chair next to the Spanish Ambassador’s wife, but was knocked out of the way by a lowly creature called “a congressman.” In the end, he had to settle for a place of no great position.
This was a practical application of the concept of pell-mell, upon which Jefferson conducted his public affairs. It bespoke his general feelings of equality (black folks and women excluded, of course; that’s an important, but different, story). But, if accounts of other Jeffersonian dinner parties can be used as reference, the conversation was sparkling.