WASHINGTON — Following the recent tea-party Tet Offensive — tactically disastrous but symbolically important — the Republican establishment has commenced counterinsurgency operations. Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee — both facing primary challenges from the right — are responding more forcefully to their populist opponents. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has cut ties with a Republican advertising firm employed by tea-party challengers. "We're not going to do business," says a spokesman, "with people who profit off of attacking Republicans. Purity for profit is a disease that threatens the Republican Party."
This vivid turn of phrase — "purity for profit" — captures the main reason Republican leaders are edging away from a strategy of accommodation. The Obama era has unleashed a great deal of genuine populist and libertarian energy. But a good portion of it is being channeled into business and fundraising models that depend on stoking resentment against the GOP itself (at least as currently constituted).
The result is a paradox. Over the last few decades, Republican members of Congress have become more reliably conservative (as their Democratic colleagues, to a lesser extent, have become more liberal). Liberal Republicanism has essentially ceased to exist. This means that tea-party conservatives are revolting against a more uniformly conservative party. The RINOs they hunt are actually an endangered species. So they have transformed tactical disagreements — over, say, a hopeless attempt to defund Obamacare — into defining ideological struggles.
Some of this results from a deep, even apocalyptic, conviction that Obamacare represents the final ruin of the old Republic, requiring desperate measures. But the political change we are witnessing is also structural and technological. Matt Kibbe, the president and CEO of FreedomWorks, describes it well: "You're really seeing a disintermediation in politics. ... Grass-roots activists have an ability to self-organize, to fund candidates they're more interested in, going right around the Republican National Committee and senatorial committee. That's the new reality. Everything's more democratized and Republicans should come to terms with that. They still want to control things from the top down, and if they do that there will absolutely be a split. But my prediction would be that we take over the Republican Party, and they go the way of the Whigs."
The disintermediation of American politics is undeniable. The Internet allows people to find the like-minded, feed the intensity of their mutually held convictions and organize more swiftly and effectively. (It also allows people to filter out opposing views, anonymously attack their opponents and spread conspiracy theories.) This has become a powerful channel of influence outside the political parties — and is increasingly directed against the Republican Party. The Ron Paul and the tea-party movements have prospered in this atmosphere. Policy entrepreneurs, political advisers and media personalities are monetizing this trend. In the tech-driven balkanization of American politics, Freedonia is a major power.
But the interests of Freedonia are substantially different from those of the Republican Party. Tea-party candidates — recall Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell, Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin — often lose winnable races. Tea-party primary challenges, and the fear of them, encourage a harsher ideological tone among sitting Republican legislators, undermining their general-election appeal to independents, minorities and young people. And maximal tea-party legislative strategies, as we've just seen, can be ruinous. Yet within an ideological bubble, success is defined differently — in purity, combativeness and the acclaim of the faithful. As the public standing of the GOP recently reached its lowest point ever, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told a cheering tea-party audience, "Look, the Democrats are feeling the heat." It is one thing to engage in Pickett's Charge; another to describe it as a victory.
The Republican Party, in the business of winning elections, has little choice but to respond. But an effective, long-term response will require conservatives to understand that political parties exist for good reasons. Jesse Norman's recent biography, "Edmund Burke: The First Conservative," makes the case that Burke (a Rockingham Whig) helped found the modern party system. In Burke's view, parties (while hardly perfect instruments) promote civil cooperation in common goals, encourage leaders to rise above factional interests and channel public sentiments into realistic strategies and policies.
"Burke thus strikes a subtle balance: political parties must be strong and disciplined enough to hold government to account," writes Norman. "But they must not be made so partisan that they lose sight of the public interest and undermine the deliberative function of Parliament."
In this case, conservatives would be well advised to listen to a Whig.
Michael Gerson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.