Richard Cohen
Richard Cohen
Opinion Writer

A grand old cult

Someone ought to study the Republican Party. I am not referring to yet another political scientist but to a mental health professional, preferably a specialist in the power of fixations, obsessions and the like. The GOP needs an intervention. It has become a cult.

To become a Republican, one has to take a pledge. It is not enough to support the party or mouth banalities about Ronald Reagan; one has to promise not to give the government another nickel. This is called the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” issued by Americans for Tax Reform, an organization headed by the chirpy Grover Norquist. He once labeled the argument that an estate tax would affect only the very rich “the morality of the Holocaust.” Anyone can see how singling out the filthy rich and the immensely powerful and asking them to ante up is pretty much the same as Auschwitz and that sort of thing.

Richard Cohen

Cohen writes about politics in a weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog.

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Norquist’s pledge refers not only to tax increases but also to closing any loopholes, no matter how egregious, that would bring the government more money “unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.” Almost all the GOP’s presidential candidates have taken this oath, swearing before God and Grover Norquist to cease thinking on their own, never to exercise independent judgment and, if necessary, to destroy the credit of the United States, raise the cost of borrowing and put the government deeper into the hole.

Yet another pledge concerns abortion. It is called the “Pro-Life Leadership Pledge,” and it was conceived by the Susan B. Anthony List, an antiabortion group. Once again, most — but not all — of the GOP presidential candidates have signed it. In general, it demands a complete antiabortion position, not just personal opposition but opposition to judges, health officials and others who might, totally inexplicably, permit abortion. The pledge is silent about the usual exceptions — rape, incest, etc. — but Marjorie Dannenfelser, head of the Susan B. Anthony List, tells me the intent is to prohibit all abortions — even, say, the early termination of a 12-year-old’s pregnancy caused by incest. This, in other words, is the Pro-Hypocrisy Pledge.

Excuse me if I skip over other pledges and move to other matters. The hallmark of a cult is to replace reason with feverish belief. This the GOP has done when it comes to the government’s ability to stimulate the economy. History proves this works — it’s how the Great Depression ended — but Republicans will not acknowledge it.

The Depression in fact deepened in 1937 when Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to balance the budget and was ended entirely by World War II, which, besides being a noble cause, was also a huge stimulus program. Here, though, is Sen. Richard Shelby mouthing GOP dogma: Stimulus programs “did not bring us out of the Depression,” he recently told ABC’s Christiane Amanpour, but “the war did.” In other words, a really huge stimulus program hugely worked. Might not a more modest one succeed modestly? Shelby ought to follow his own logic.

Something similar has happened with global warming. It has become a conviction of much of the GOP that you and I, with our cars and factories and leaf blowers and barbecue pits, are off the hook — innocent of cooking the atmosphere. That being the case, it therefore is not the case that anything has to be done about it. Only much of science, common sense and your average walrus differ, but the GOP soldiers on. This is a version of Nancy Reagan’s pledge: Just say no.

Not every GOP candidate adheres to all of these cockamamie beliefs. Mitt Romney has not signed the antiabortion pledge (he has some quibbles), and in the Senate, Tom Coburn has broken with Norquist about raising revenue. But the net effect is to establish an intellectual barrier for admittance to the presidential race: Independent thinkers, stop right here! If you believe in global warming, revenue enhancement, stimulus programs, the occasional need for abortion or even the fabulist theories of the late Charles Darwin, then either stay home — or lie.

This intellectual rigidity has produced a GOP presidential field that’s a virtual political Jonestown. The Grand Old Party, so named when it really did evoke America, has so narrowed its base that it has become a political cult. It is a redoubt of certainty over reason and in itself significantly responsible for the government deficit that matters most: leadership. That we can’t borrow from China.

cohenr@washpost.com

 
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