So here we are, right in the thick of the Great Conservative Crack-Up -- a political nervous breakdown that's showing the GOP's ancestral Whigs and Federalists how to really polish off a party with dazzling pizzazz, while presenting, quite possibly, electoral hope for an often incoherent Democratic caucus.
Just how severe is its breakdown? Or, viewed from another angle, what actually constitutes the breakdown?
I largely dismiss the GOP's exotic obstructionism as a pathological sign of party disintegration. Republican stances, say, against unemployment benefits but in support of plutocratic tax cuts, or against economic stimulus because of deficit worries but in support of unfunded wars, are indeed conspicuously daffy and manifestly harmful to the nation's interests. But, almost any out-of-power party will get itself tied into hypocritical knots which reflect the underlying prejudices of its hardest-core base.
In short, many a GOP strategist knows the party's official politics-as-policy makes little sense, but they're humoring the pseudoconservative masses, who always seem to want blood at any cost, especially logic's.
It shouldn't be necessary to emphasize -- but I will, so that there's no misunderstanding -- that I'm only saying the GOP's schooled strategists and old-school pols of some sobriety know this. But there are of course the party's fiery revolutionaries who are pumped to the eyeballs with ideological zeal and crazed exuberance; in other words those who cannot discern ingratiating populist politics from genuinely lunatic policies.
And they, just as obviously, are the ones driving modern conservatism into its phenomenal crack-up.
The symptoms are everywhere and displayed as regularly as clockwork. This week, for instance, we've witnessed the Colorado Republican Party chair's live, on-the-air decimation of former but crypto-Republican, hipster-pseudoconservative and now-gubernatorial candidate Tom Tancredo: "What are you going to talk about? Impeach Obama and bomb Mecca?"
Neither side of that "debate" -- that is, neither the public outburst nor impending talking points -- is your grandfather's GOP.
Or, staying geographically tight, there was Colorado's Senate hopeful Ken Buck, who's been wisely playing to the lunatic fringe -- standard, indeed necessary procedure in a GOP primary these days -- but off-stage revealed his innermost and even wiser sentiments: "Will you tell those dumbasses at the Tea Party to stop asking questions about birth certificates while I'm on camera?"
And just look at the Beltway boys scatter at Michele Bachmann's invitation.
Join a Congressional Tea Party Caucus? Why sure, said Indiana's Mike Pence, chairman of the House Republican Conference. "You betcha," he said, as would any utterly unprincipled demagogue, which is precisely what Pence is. But most others? Thanks, but no thanks, they say (when, that is, they can be cornered for a comment). They know a political time bomb -- or for that matter, a humiliating dud -- when they see one. Whomever the tea partyers don't co-opt within conservative circles, they drive away.
And all that is driving modern conservatism's concentrically defined ideology: exclusion rather than inclusion, pup tents over big tents, intellectual guillotining and purifying bloodbaths. Only a tighter and tighter ideological circumference qualifies as True and Valid Belief -- an absolute killer in popular politics as well as in many an actual revolution. Outsiders need never worry for too long; the revolutionaries will stupidly slaughter themselves.
OK, so all that, as noted, is rather obvious. And in some ways, for today's liberal community, it's gratifying, even amusing. But it's also lethal.
Today's conservatism isn't serious conservatism. As a political philosophy, it's a joke. Yet in any healthy two-party system, one of them can't be a joke, not for long, anyway; for both sides to keep each other honest and rational, both, naturally and logically enough, must maintain at least some semblance of honesty and rationality.
Today, that requisite balance is decidedly unbalanced. One can't debate a lunatic, someone who genuinely doesn't give a damn about serious policymaking and cannot distinguish frivolous politics from it; therefore one is unable to sharpen one's own policy arguments against it.
It's sort of a yin-yang thing, but also a colossal paradox so characteristic of Eastern philosophy: The death of thoughtful conservatism could very well spell intelligent liberalism's demise.