The Republican Party as Pakistan

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) spectacular primary trouncing last week by a rival who hailed from a place no one had thought to exist — viz., Cantor's right — made for high drama even by Washington standards. For those who know places beyond American shores, however, Cantor's fate likely brought little surprise. It is just one more instance of that "blowback" which seems to burn all who exploit atavistic passions in pursuit of immediate political gains.

ADVERTISEMENT
The most familiar recent example of this phenomenon probably is Pakistan, with which many Americans have become more familiar since 2001 than most were before then. Although its executive leadership, often supplied by the military, turned over with sometimes surprising suddenness during its first 50 years as a nation, Pakistan until recently had a more or less stable state structure and was on a trajectory toward more or less stable democracy. Its deep pool of first-rate, often British-trained lawyers and judges, committed as they were both to Pakistan's constitution and to the rule of law, played a critical role in this healthy development.

During the later 20th and early 21st centuries, however, Pakistan's intelligence services became more and more involved with long-bearded, traditionally clad right-wing extremists in the nation's hinterlands and in neighboring Afghanistan. In time, it helped arm these elements, permitted them to establish and operate indoctrination schools and training camps on Pakistani soil, and ultimately played a critical role in organizing them into that political movement which we now know as the Taliban.

This cynical exploitation of violent back-country traditionalists whose ideological commitments they did not actually share seemed initially to constitute good strategy in the eyes of Pakistani officials. It supplied them with a reliable stock of impassioned insurgents and "shock troops," whom they could deploy against rival India in ongoing competition over Kashmir and other disputed territories.

The problem, however, is that once you stoke these sorts of passions, and once you provide those who act on them with the one thing they've typically, and thankfully, lacked in the past — organizational infrastructure and advanced technologies — it takes little time for them ultimately to reach back and bite the same hands that have nurtured them. For they invariably learn that their "handlers" do not really share the same putatively "traditional" values as prompt their own passions.

This is of course precisely what has happened to Pakistan over the past decade or so, as its own creations increasingly have come to direct their energies against Pakistan itself. Things have now reached the point that nuclear-armed Pakistan is actually faced with the distressing prospect of becoming a "failed state" lacking in any effective central governance. Entire territorial swathes of the nation are now governed, not by the Pakistani government, but by self-appointed shadow states.

Now consider today's Republican Party here at home. Until about 20 years ago, both major political parties in the U.S. hewed to the venerable Anglo-American ideal of the "loyal opposition." The White House and Congress regularly changed hands between parties, and each time that one of them lost one of those seats of government, it cooperated with the other side in stable governance even while working to ensure that at least some of its values found some reflection in legislation and executive action. "Compromise" wasn't a dirty word prior to that time, it was a virtue — so much so that even that most beloved of America's lawyer symbols, Atticus Finch, stressed its importance in teaching his daughter how to negotiate passage through life. Deal-brokering members of Congress were "statesmen," not "RINOS," and some compromises even were celebrated as "Great" or as "Grand."

Not anymore. Sometime in the 1990s, Republicans began celebrating their loudest and most mulish legislators — no longer the likes of former Sens. Bob Dole (Kansas) and Howard Baker (Tenn.) or former Rep. Jack Kemp (N.Y.), but of former Reps. Bob Barr (Ga.) and Newt Gingrich (Ga.) — and began characterizing their president from the other party not as their president from the other party, but as some sort of "Great Satan" to be demonized, hounded and "investigated" throughout his tenure. These parvenus even shut down the government, briefly, in 1995. And their new organ of ideological propagation, Fox News, celebrated and cried out for more such moves as the decade progressed, as did a surprising number of self-styled "Christian" radio networks.

The late 1990s turned out to be merely a prelude to much worse to come. When Barack Obama won election to the White House in 2008, Cantor, Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and other Republican congressional leaders decided that, rather than work with the newly elected Democratic President, Senate and House in a spirit of national unity to address a national crisis that was universally acknowledged to be the most ominous since the Great Depression, they would instead work to ensure government failure in hopes merely of retaking the Congress in 2010 and the White House in 2012. Cantor's job, which he seems to have relished, was to ensure that not a single Republican House member voted in favor of any of the president's or the congressional Democrats' efforts, lest these efforts succeed in a nonpartisan fashion. In this Cantor succeeded. But there was much worse to come.

As the 2010 midterm elections approached, operatives who had been instrumental in changes to Republican tactics in the late 1990s and early 2000s — not to mention in organizing "flash mobs" who attacked polling stations during the 2000 Florida ballot recount — began funding and organizing frightened provincials into hysterical, sometimes even armed groups of self-styled "traditionalists." Many of these people wore 18th-century knee breaches and tricorn hats, all while purporting to wish to "restore" the Constitution notwithstanding their complete ignorance of the document's contents or court-derived legal consequences. More and more Republican politicians pandered to these self-styled throwbacks even as more and more frightened rural Americans joined them, with the ultimate result that the House reverted to Republican — but now much more reactionary Republican — rule in 2011.

Thereupon Cantor and his associates were off to the proverbial races. They converted the House into little more than an administration-harassing, recovery-preventing, and even would-be bankruptcy-inducing device that went so far as to threaten default on the U.S. national debt. This they did all while daily repeating empty and seditious Fox News and "Tea Party" slogans to the effect that our now twice-elected president is somehow simultaneously "weak" and "a king," "socialist" and "secretly Muslim."

Against such a backdrop, is it any wonder that armed groups of "traditionalist" cattle ranchers who deny U.S. sovereignty now occupy federal lands in the U.S. southwest, rather as self-styled traditionalists who deny Pakistani sovereignty now occupy Pakistan's northwest? And is it any wonder that Cantor, who has done more than any member of Congress to bestow mainstream credibility upon Tea Party extremism, now is brought low by that movement itself?

We must all now hope that Republicans draw the right lesson from Cantor's pitiable fate. The right lesson is that the American way is not that of Pervez Musharraf, but that of Atticus Finch.

Hockett is a professor of law at Cornell University Law School.