Back in the 1950s, the Republican Party was very dumb indeed. It was mostly isolationist, opposed to civil rights and civil liberties, still fighting Social Security, in thrall to the demagogue Joseph McCarthy and xenophobic to boot. In time, the party changed and -- a bit troubling to me -- I found myself more and more in agreement with it. Now, though, I have very good news indeed. The Good Ol' Days are back. The GOP is again as dumb as a post.
I say "good news" because nothing cheers a columnist like really stupid politicians. They are like rain to farmers or, if you like, bodies for morticians. But just as the Republican Party of old was no joke, neither is today's. If anything, it is defined by a hostility toward minorities -- all sorts of minorities -- and by a craven cowardice on the part of its more moderate members. The truth of the matter is that the party is having a crackup. If it were a person, it would be medicated.
At the moment, the GOP seems to stand for the following:
(1) Implacable opposition to gun control. It believes in an imaginary right of almost any person to buy almost any weapon in almost any place at any time -- no questions asked.
(2) Opposition to abortion rights. Never mind this nonsense about "compassionate conservatism," if you are an addled and panicked 14-year-old girl, few people in the party of Lincoln are going to feel any compassion at all for you. If the Republican Party has its way, you will have the baby -- unless, of course, you've been raped. For some reason, fetuses produced by rape don't count.
(3) Hostility to the rights of minority religions or those who have no religion at all. It would permit the placing of the Ten Commandments on the walls of the nation's schoolrooms, thus somehow ensuring that no kid will ever go bad and, in the process, reminding those who do not share the majority's religious beliefs that this school is not really theirs.
(4) Homophobia. Its leaders in Congress have repeatedly made remarks that any fair-minded person would consider anti-gay, and the party as a whole kisses the ring of the Rev. Pat Robertson, the smiling bigot and head of the Christian Coalition. Robertson insists he is only taking instruction from the Bible. Segregationist preachers used to say the same thing.
(5) Mindless opposition to Bill Clinton. This, as it happens, is the sum total of the party's foreign policy. If Clinton's for it, the GOP's against it.
I grant you that not all Republicans endorse such positions and that, in fact, some Democrats do. One of the most passionate opponents of gun control, for instance, is Rep. John Dingell, a Democrat. Similarly, you'll find Democrats who think posting the Ten Commandments is just a terrific idea and every woman, no matter what her situation, ought to be denied an abortion.
But these are not the positions of the Democratic Party's leadership -- in the House, the Senate and in the White House. Not so with the GOP. In particular, its congressional leadership is downright homophobic. This is not an issue of grave importance to most Americans, probably, but tolerance toward gays is one of those canary-in-the-mine issues that tells you an awful lot about values in general -- a peek into the party's soul.
To equate homosexuality with kleptomania, as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has done, evinces a smug contempt for the "other" -- a provincial certainty that your way is the only way: God's way.
What's more -- and what's worse -- is that this rampant homophobia is never criticized by those in the GOP who know better. Where is the conservative magazine that has denounced this rank bigotry? Where are Republican thinkers and intellectuals when it comes to such a basic matter? Where is the leading Republican who will tell Pat Robertson that he is not welcome in the GOP -- that his remarks about gays are ugly, unfounded, wrong and encourage violence? I know of no one who has stood up to the man. On this issue, the GOP is either intolerant or chicken.
In essence, the '50s are back. The Republican Party has planted itself in the past, aligned itself with ignorant preachers, become identified with small-town, small-minded America, spouting values while exhibiting few of its own and taking oaths to irritating irrelevancies like public displays of the Ten Commandments. It comes across as the party of meanness, smallness, pettiness. Only in one area is the GOP expansive, and that is what scares so many of us: It is breathtakingly tolerant of intolerance.