Why The Republican Party Is What It Is

“A reactionary is a person who holds political viewpoints that favor a return to a previous state (the status quo ante) in a society.”

Wikipedia

I often use the term “reactionaries” to describe those folks on the right who have a problem living in the 21st century, a problem coming to grips with present reality. I sometimes differentiate between reactionaries and conservatives because conservatism doesn’t necessarily involve reactionary politics, though it often does, especially as we watch conservative behavior today. Most of the conservatives we see dominating the Republican Party these days are—without the slightest doubt—reactionaries.

As most of you know, I was born and raised in Kansas. I lived there until I was about 30 years old. I worked there. I played there. I became a conservative there. I was baptized into an evangelical faith there. The political Kansas I knew was mostly a right-of-center place, with pockets of leftish resistance here and there, and for the most part its politics was not radical or reactionary. Today, though, like a lot of red states Kansas has been radicalized and has turned into one of the most reactionary places in the country.

Nothing could better demonstrate the change from a mild, if not moldy, conservatism into a radical and fiery reactionaryism than what emerged in Kansas recently. Last week, as nearly everyone knows by now, the Kansas House passed a bill that, according to Time,

would permit businesses and government employees to deny service to same-sex couples on the basis of their religious principles. 

That Jim Crowish bill, which has been condemned far and wide by progressives, passed 72-49 and is now being considered by the state senate, which is expected to either water it down significantly or kill it. Apparently there are some Kansas Republicans left who haven’t been completely radicalized by religious zealots in the state. But the fact that such a reactionary piece of legislation passed one side of the legislature in 2014—2014 for God’s sake—says a lot about not only about the Republican Party, but it speaks to why it is that our national government is so profoundly, if not dangerously, divided.

At the heart of this ascendance of a rabid reactionary politics in Kansas and elsewhere—there is an anti-gay bill in Idaho that is even worse than the one in Kansas—is the anxiety that (mostly but not entirely white) evangelical and fundamentalist Christians feel deep in their bones over the loss of cultural dominance they and their Iron Age theology once enjoyed. Most of the theological angst started with the Supreme Court ruling in 1962 (Engel v. Vitale) that government-composed prayers could not be used in public schools, then just after that blow came atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s victorious lawsuit in 1963 (consolidated with Abington School District v. Schempp) in which the Supreme Court put the kibosh on the Lord’s Prayer and Bible reading in government schools.

If I heard it once, I heard it a gazillion times from the conservative church folk I knew back home: “They kicked God out of the schools! Why do you think things are so bad!”

So, it started with those two court rulings, but other rulings followed that were specifically related to Bible-based anxiety over a rapidly changing culture. There was Griswold v. Connecticut (which found that because of the Constitution’s now strangely controversial “right to privacy” states could not prohibit the use of contraceptives by married people; later this freedom was extended to all couples via Eisenstadt. V. Baird; and now we are fighting over the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage mandate). Skipping over the landmark 1973 Roe V. Wade case (which isn’t necessarily—even though it has mostly become—a case involving evangelical theology), we come to Lawrence v. Texas, a 2003 case that effectively struck down all sodomy laws in the country and paved the way for the eventual legitimation of same-sex marriage, which is now driving right-wing Christians into convulsions not seen since the Gadarene Demoniac.

Along with—perhaps partly because of—these culturally significant court cases, public opinion has evolved in the direction of progress and against the forces of Bible-inspired conservatism. Holy Book-believing Christians have essentially lost the fight over whether the Bible or a secular Constitution will be the ultimate law of the land. This has led to a backlash, a serious and divisive backlash, among folks who take the Bible seriously and who genuinely—I repeat: genuinely— believe that America is going straight to hell because it has turned its back on God and his Word.

More important, though, than all the talk of cultural anxiety and ancient theology is what these Bible-believing folks have been up to lately. In order to turn their biblical notions and reactionary tendencies into public policies like the one proposed last week in Kansas, they have increasingly and fanatically turned to grassroots politics.

These religious reactionaries have educated themselves and essentially taken over the Republican Party’s organizational structure. One such reactionary lives right here in Southwest Missouri. I used to go to the same evangelical church he did and used to believe a lot of the same things he believes. His name is John Putnam. He’s from Carthage and he is the Chairman of the Jasper County Republican Party.

Mr. Putnam has essentially written his own bible on how to take over and transform the Republican Party from the ground up. He notes that there are some “183,000 precincts in the 50 states” and he outlines how the system works:

putnam's patriotsThe voters of each precinct, according to their state’s laws, can elect or appoint one man and one woman to represent the people of that precinct in their political party’s organizational structure (sometimes called the party “machine”).  The precinct chairs/executives become members of their county committee and elect their county committee’s Chair and Vice-Chair who, in turn, help elect their Party’s State Committee; plus, they largely influence which candidates will run (and most likely be elected) in their party’s primary election and who, subsequently, will carry their party’s banner in the November General Elections. 

All of this represents the nuts and bolts of party organization. It is how a political party can be commandeered by a zealous minority and how such zealotry can come to represent the face of the party. It it why the Republican Party is so schizophrenic. It is why its national leaders are so afraid to actually lead. It is why Washington is suffering from legislative paralysis. You think I am exaggerating? Putnam goes on to point out that,

Nationwide, half of these positions sit empty and most voters no longer even know they exist.  If Constitutional conservatives will fulfill the precinct leader’s role and elect Constitutional conservative chairs and vice-chairs to their county committees, we can cleanse our representative form of government in very short order.  This is assuming the men and women who fill the precinct position have the wisdom of  Cleon Skousen gleaned from The Five Thousand Year Leap and the virtue of George Washington (see Glenn Beck’s Being George Washington).

If that stuff about cleansing doesn’t scare you, then you don’t know who Cleon Skousen and Glenn Beck are. Perhaps now you can see why the Republican Party looks the way it does. This kind of tactical action is going on, has been going on, all over the country. Mr. Putnam provides local zealots everywhere, those who have a biblical ax to grind, with essential knowledge of how to go about that grinding. Become “party officials” at the local level, he says. Why? Because:

…party officials have a strong influence on who wins the Primary because of their influence in recruiting and endorsing candidates. They also influence whether the Party stays philosophically true to its platform. There is no reason why YOU cannot become a Precinct Patriot and be one who influences these decisions. 

If you ever wondered why a disturbed and disturbing man named Todd Akin became the Missouri GOP’s U.S. Senate candidate in 2012, now you know why. Even after Akin was disgraced, even after his horrific views on women and rape were revealed, even after the Republican establishment abandoned him, John Putnam came to his defense and supported him. And even with that robust defense of a man clearly out of touch with reality, perhaps because of that robust defense, John Putnam remains in charge—in charge!—of the Jasper County Republican Party.

That tells you all you need to know about what is wrong with the GOP. At the ground level, where it often matters most, the reactionaries are running the asylum.

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