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Can Republicans Govern?

Not unless they change The Narrative.

Feb 8, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 20 • By JEFF BERGNER
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Plausibly or not, though, The Narrative offers a way for progressives to bring the entire force of American history to bear against their opponents. This is no florid overstatement. To the contrary, The Narrative is a powerful tool designed to seize the moral high ground against opponents on issues that would otherwise need to be debated on their merits.



The Party of No

Herein lies the problem for Republicans who subscribe to The Narrative. Even when they doubt the wisdom of “moving too fast” on a given policy initiative, they remain captive in a larger sense to The Narrative. Even as they argue that “the time is not right” to endorse the latest progressive project, they concede the substance. Now, it may be true that it is peculiarly inappropriate to launch a massive new health care entitlement, for instance, at a time of deep recession, double-digit unemployment, and low tax revenues. But that begs the larger question whether there is actually any time when it would be good to establish a government-run health care system in the United States. “Not now,” “not so fast,” “not just yet”—these are the stock-in-trade of Republicans, arguments hinting that at some later date the reform they currently oppose might win their vote. In a very real sense, Democrats are correct: Republicans these days are the party of no.

Republicans captive to The Narrative are thus condemned to a perpetual rearguard action against the consolidation of government-imposed equality. For them, the very definition of a successful administration or Congress is one that doesn’t lose too much ground too fast. This is dispiriting for Republicans. It is also dispiriting to a sizable segment of the American electorate, which is uncomfortable with such a limited range of political options. Consider conservative voters: Why should they care about the 2010 elections? A Republican victory might slow the consolidation of government power, but does anyone think it would reverse it or chart a significantly different course? Is this even the goal?



Coloring Outside the Lines

From time to time individuals break out of The Narrative. Leading radio talk show hosts do this, rhetorically, and are subjected to vicious personal attacks for their trouble. This is because The Narrative denies any legitimacy to a genuinely different point of view; any such view has been predefined as backward, regressive, self-interested, and evil. There can be no reasonable debate with opponents of The Narrative. When opponents, or even mere skeptics, question not just one or another policy notion but the story itself, the political left goes into overdrive. The entire machine is activated—political progressives, left-wing bloggers, the mainstream media, academics, late night TV hosts, and the arts community all descend with fury to attack the intelligence, the background, and the character of anyone who questions The Narrative. To question The Narrative is to question the self-ascribed virtue of the left.

Occasionally political leaders arise who go outside the official story line. Ronald Reagan was one. He was a threat, and a very attractive, genial, and well-grounded one at that. He was a candidate who had the temerity to question The Narrative. Worse yet, if elected he actually threatened to do something about it. He threatened to roll back taxes, eliminate the Department of Education, and reduce the size and scope of the federal government. To add insult to injury, he made a point of holding American exceptionalism—the “shining city on a hill”—at the very center of his political views. 

For this, naturally, Reagan was vilified. His views were not merely mistaken, he personally was “stupid,” an “amiable dunce.” His policy prescriptions were not merely wrong, but “dangerous,” “trigger-happy,” “out of touch.” Thirty years later, it is difficult to recapture the ferocity of the left’s attacks on candidate Reagan in 1979 and 1980 and on President Reagan in the first several years of his administration. Here was no go-along, get-along guy, like so many Republican presidential candidates before and since; here was a genuine dissenter from The Narrative. And with such dissenters there can be no logical disputation or rational argument; their penalty must be personal annihilation. 

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