*In the beginning of The Princess Bride after Vizzini repeatedly uses the word “inconceivable” another character tells him: “I do not think it means what you think it means.” That basic disagreement about a word is used for a laugh in the movie but the idea that people can hear a word, see a scene, or perceive a situation, and understand it in completely different ways is indicative of a basic problem in American society today.
That problem is the marginalization of the Republican Party.
Over the past week there has been an uproar over a statement by Todd Akin, a Congressman from Missouri who is running for re-election. Akin questioned whether women could get pregnant as a result of being raped. Akin uses questionable medical understandings of female physiology to take a stand against abortion.
The back and forth that Akin’s comment inspired illuminated two things for me. First – just how much conservatives and the Republican party have surrendered the center of political spectrum. And second – how much of a problem this is for American political discourse.
The 1960s was a decade in which liberalism reigned supreme. The 1960s saw the Civil Rights movement that began in the 1950s continue with its push for integration while a burgeoning black nationalism movement picked up steam; the women’s movement was patterned after the Civil Rights Movement and had two distinct waves; there was a liberal movement repudiating the Vietnam War specifically and militarism in general; there was a general movement of students and young people; there was the beginning of the fight for civil rights and civil liberties by gay and lesbian Americans; there was a heightened emphasis on the environment; and there were smaller movements for Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and senior citizens to name a few.
In short the 1960s was a time in which the United States as a society made the most progress to include citizens of all backgrounds. But because it all started with the Democratic party championing the Civil Rights Movement the Democratic Party continued to be the group that people looked to in an effort to champion causes. A majority of people gravitated toward the Democratic Party and thereby captured the center of the political spectrum. The Republican Party, in part because it resisted civil rights from the beginning, took on the role of the party that fought making the country more democratic. The Republic Party became reactionary.
This is a problem because it forced the Republican Party to embrace ideas and stances that were further from the mainstream of American thought. When the Democrats are supporting most people’s desires (a solid minimum wage for instance), the Republican Party is left to speak up on behalf of the minority of people who would oppose those desires. This is the beginning of the 99% – 1% battle.
In social issues the percentages may not be as starkly contrasted but the divide is still present. Most people couldn’t care less about what happens in the bedrooms of their neighbors. Ergo the Democratic Party has promoted marriage equality for gay Americans. The Republican Party is reduced to contesting the definition of the word marriage and the origins of the institution even though winning such a debate would only be important to a small percentage of Americans.
The same dynamic exists when the issue is legalization of marijuana, immigration, health care, and unfortunately for Akin, women’s issues. The Republican Party has resisted reproductive freedom (this term encompasses birth control, comprehensive sexual education, and abortion) on behalf of their marginalized constituency and is fighting a losing battle. No woman wants to be reduced to her reproductive ability.
And this is how the Republican Party is imploding. It has been put in the position of having a reduced base. The leaders of the party decided not to try and expand their views into the center of the political spectrum where there would be common ground with Democrats (common ground with Democrats is not acceptable), and where they would have the ability to attract more of the electorate. Instead the Republican Party chooses to pander to its increasingly marginalized base. The Republican Party is constantly raising the stakes while holding a losing hand.
The shame of this is that there are probably parts of the Republican platform that are attractive to moderate voters. But when forced to choose between slightly lower taxes but without universal health care and being forced to bare babies after being raped, or the same taxes as one currently pays but with guaranteed health care and reproductive freedom – which is the more attractive option? There is a reason a recent poll determined that Romney is attracting 0% of the African-American vote. I’m sure he will likely garner a similar amount of Latin-Americans and women.
The two party system is only great when both parties are actual options. And we are moving further away from that being the case. It is up to the Republicans to stop playing to the extremes. Doing so will help the national conversation be more productive.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.