Things Fall Apart
By PAUL KRUGMAN
Right after the 2004 election, it seemed as if Thomas Frank had been completely vindicated. In his book “What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America,” Mr. Frank argued that America’s right wing had developed a permanent winning strategy based on the use of “values” issues to mobilize white working-class voters against a largely mythical cultural elite, while actually pursuing policies designed to benefit a small economic elite.
It was and is a brilliant analysis. But the political strategy Mr. Frank described may have less staying power than he feared. In fact, the right-wing coalition that has spent 40 years climbing to its current position of political dominance may be cracking up.
At its core, the political axis that currently controls Congress and the White House is an alliance between the preachers and the plutocrats — between the religious right, which hates gays, abortion and the theory of evolution, and the economic right, which hates Social Security, Medicare and taxes on rich people. Surrounding this core is a large periphery of politicians and lobbyists who joined the movement not out of conviction, but to share in the spoils.
Together, these groups formed a seemingly invincible political coalition, in which the religious right supplied the passion and the economic right supplied the money.
The coalition has, however, always been more vulnerable than it seemed, because it was an alliance based not on shared goals, but on each group’s belief that it could use the other to get what it wants. Bring that belief into question, and the whole thing falls apart.
Future historians may date the beginning of the right-wing crackup to the days immediately following the 2004 election, when President Bush tried to convert a victory won by portraying John Kerry as weak on defense into a mandate for Social Security privatization. The attempted bait-and-switch failed in the face of overwhelming public opposition. If anything, the Bush plan was even less popular in deep-red states like Montana than in states that voted for Mr. Kerry.
And the religious and cultural right, which boasted of having supplied the Bush campaign with its “shock troops” and expected a right-wing cultural agenda in return — starting with a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage — was dismayed when the administration put its energy into attacking the welfare state instead. James Dobson, the founder and chairman of Focus on the Family, accused Republicans of “just ignoring those that put them in office.”
It will be interesting, by the way, to see how Dr. Dobson, who declared of Bill Clinton that “no man has ever done more to debase the presidency,” responds to the Foley scandal. Does the failure of Republican leaders to do anything about a sexual predator in their midst outrage him as much as a Democratic president’s consensual affair?
In any case, just as the religious right was feeling betrayed by Mr. Bush’s focus on the goals of the economic right, the economic right suddenly seemed to become aware of the nature of its political allies. “Where in the hell did this Terri Schiavo thing come from?” asked Dick Armey, the former House majority leader, in an interview with Ryan Sager, the author of “The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians and the Battle to Control the Republican Party.” The answer, he said, was “blatant pandering to James Dobson.” He went on, “Dobson and his gang of thugs are real nasty bullies.”
Some Republicans are switching parties. James Webb, who may pull off a macaca-fueled upset against Senator George Allen of Virginia, was secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. Charles Barkley, a former N.B.A. star who used to be mentioned as a possible future Republican candidate, recently declared, “I was a Republican until they lost their minds.”
So the right-wing coalition is showing signs of coming apart. It seems that we’re not in Kansas anymore. In fact, Kansas itself doesn’t seem to be in Kansas anymore. Kathleen Sebelius, the state’s Democratic governor, has achieved a sky-high favorability rating by focusing on good governance rather than culture wars, and her party believes it will win big this year.
And nine former Kansas Republicans, including Mark Parkinson, the former state G.O.P. chairman, are now running for state office as Democrats. Why did Mr. Parkinson change parties? Because he “got tired of the theological debate over whether Charles Darwin was right.”