Generally speaking, political parties are comprised of two somewhat distinct groups of voters. There is an activist group, which will not only support the party’s candidates but will volunteer, donate and organize. The other group consists of the universe of party registrants who are not, at least at that moment, part of the activist base. There is movement between the two groups, driven by factors such as particular candidates or causes or (for the activist base) fatigue.
The core group of activists tend to be more committed to not only the party, but to the ideology to which the party is linked. However, I would argue that within the universe of activists there is a further distinction. There is a party’s base that may or not be activist, but generally the former, and then there are less ideological partisans. This is where I find a lot of political reporting and punditry to be lacking. In my years as a politician and a consultant, I came across a fairly sizable number of partisan Republicans who were neither conservative nor ideological. They were simply partisan Republicans. (For the Democratic side, see Markos’ many non-ideological Democrat, but partisan Democrat writings.)
In a well-functioning political party the partisan not base group, along with the party registrants who are not activists, serve as a moderating influence on the activist base. For most of the 20th century, both parties fit this description. Prior to the past couple of decades, the Republican Party had a sizable number of moderate (Rockefeller) Republicans while the Democratic Party included its share of conservative (Southern) Democrats. The broadness of each party ensured that its activist base would not come to dominate either party.
During the 1980’s and into the 1990’s the Democratic Party came to be controlled, by and large, by its liberal base. It was unable to win presidential elections, but maintained its grip on the House and (sometimes) the Senate. The DLC and one of its stars, Bill Clinton, pulled the Democrats back from the brink and broadened the party to include moderates and conservatives again. In a way, the party apparatus under Clinton was able to push aside some of the crazier elements of the Democratic Party and assert adult leadership.
And while pundits now portray the netroots of the Democratic Party as some sort of bastion of dirty f*cking hippies, the reality is that many are partisan Democrats, not activist base (liberal). Just look at the hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into moderate and conservative Democratic campaigns by the netroots and the mantra of more and better Democrats. I also think the political reporters miss something crucial when they portray the current fight against Blue Dogs and Senate “centrists” as some sort of ideological purge. Of course, there are some elements of that out there, but the majority of those calling for some backbone, especially on health care reform, believe that support for HCR and a public option is actually part of a winning strategy for 2010, not just good policy.
In many ways today’s GOP is where the Democrats were before Bill Clinton. Their activist base has not only exerted control of the party, but has managed to elect more than a few of its members into positions of power (Senate, House). While there were fringe elements of the Democratic Party in Congress in the past (some would say now, as well), they never held the sort of power now in the hands of the teabaggers and their supporters. Certainly, some of those espousing crazy Beck/Palin/Limbaugh talking points in the halls of Congress are not true believers, but are political opportunists. However, it’s fairly easy to come up with a list of those who are not only parroting the crazy, but believe the crazy. In short, the inmates are running the GOP asylum.
There is simply no adult supervision of the current Republican Party. And rather than resisting the calls for even more ideological purity, GOP leaders are echoing it. This goes beyond silly loyalty tests and chants of RINO to leading Republicans literally saying their party has no place for anyone but far right base activists. How bizarre is it to see someone with a lifetime American Conservative Union rating over 75 being raked over the coals for not being pure enough?
Way back in the 1980’s and early 1990’s there was an acknowledgment by many in the Democratic Party that things had to change. That the party had to distance itself from some of its fringe elements, as represented by some of its base. Not everyone agreed with this assessment, but it was not some radical idea either. Just look at the 1992 primary field and its coterie of moderates- Clinton, Wilder, Tsongas, and Kerrey.
Fast forward to 2012 and the Republican field. Where are there moderates? Pawlenty was the closest thing, but he’s gone full wingnut lately. Heck, we’re even now hearing rumors of Dick Cheney running! It’s the perfect storm of ideological rigidity, hubris and stupidity. And it spells a long time in the wilderness for the GOP.