30,000 years ago the Neanderthals roamed the earth. They were thought to have been a robust species that evinced some sophisticated practices like tool-making, controlled fires and ceremonial burials. The fossil record shows that they even had brain sizes comparable to those of modern humans. Yet it is widely believed that Neanderthals were unable to adapt to their changing environment and, around 24,000 years ago, went extinct.
Like the Neanderthals, the Republican party has failed to adapt to their current environment. While a major reconfiguration in an established power regime is usually a slow and gradual process, last Tuesday’s election delivered an acute blow to the Republican base, sending party leaders in to a justified state of alarm. The dwindling prominence of the tea party caucus has signaled a shift away from the empty ideology, inflammatory rhetoric and uncompromising gridlock that had become a mainstay of the far-right in Washington. Instead, voters seemed to have preferred candidates who displayed more grown-up behaviors.
Allen West was among one of the most incendiary tea partiers to have been ousted by his constituents. Rod Smith, Chairman of the Florida DNC didn’t hesitate to throw salt on West’s festering wounds, saying “tonight, the people of this district rejected divisive, hateful rhetoric in favor a fresh-faced, bipartisan approach centered around the issues important to Florida’s middle class families.”
Those candidates who, on the election trail, demonstrated a bewildering understanding for rape and a remarkable lack of empathy for rape victims, were similarly dismissed by the American electorate. Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock were among tea partiers favored to win, only to be relegated by voters after declaring their faith in God to selectively impregnate women through rape.
Tea party favorite Sharron Angle decided to sit out the election and instead make a documentary about voter fraud in her home state of Nevada, which she attributes to her failed Senate bids. “Over the past 18 months,” she said, “I’ve become keenly aware of an epidemic that has swept our nation, eating away at the very fabric of our freedom …The progressives in the media would like us to believe that voter fraud or election tampering either do not exist or represent such a small portion of our election process we should just sweep them under the rug.” It is of course unthinkable that her failure to win public office had anything to do with the principles that she ran on. Whether it was her unique mutation of visual perception or her outrightracial prejudice that turned voters off, we will perhaps never know.
What was perhaps one of the closest calls for the tea party caucus was Michelle Bachman, who—after becoming the de facto tea party spokeswoman after the tragic death of Sarah Palin—hung on to her House seat by a very thin thread, winning by a margin of only 3000 votes.
Despite losing the White House by a sizeable margin and witnessing its waning power in both the House and the Senate, the Republicans seemed shocked by Tuesday’s results. Do surprises like this still happen with all our advanced statistical tools? No, not really. In fact, Nate Silver of the New York Times accurately predicted the outcome in 50/50 states as well as in the District of Columbia. So how is it that the Republicans were so surprised? Simple, they looked at hundreds of years of mathematical certainty and decided to ignore it.
What big-wig GOP players like Karl Rove thought was going to be a conservative redux turned out to be a fad just as transient as razor scooters, laser pointers and butt pants. Instead of exploding like a grand finale on the fourth of July, the tea party movement fizzled like a sputtering sparkler. It may be too soon to call the time and date, but it is safe to say that the conservative movement is in critical condition.
The catatonic state of the Republican party has caused even the most ideological propagandists to “evolve” on issues that, two weeks ago, they were stubbornly unwilling to compromise on. Evolution, even in figurative cases, is a gradual process. We should be suspicious when it isn’t. But the Republicans must modify their message. This entails jettisoning ideologies that don’t really matter to them, like immigration and gay marriage, in order to safeguard the one’s that they actually care about, like tax breaks for the wealthy. Their cat’s paw strategy with the tea party failed to achieve its desired effect. The GOP leadership was hoist by its own petard and the reaction has been one of two things: either full-fledged denialism, or practical, albeit disingenuous, back-peddling.
We are witnessing a shifting social landscape in America, wherein the trend—despite short-term fluctuations—is one of growing tolerance. Around the time of the ratification of the thirteenth amendment there was wide-spread outrage about what doors freeing black slaves would open. Among the items in Pandora’s box were inter-marriage and the woman vote. And the darkest fears of the sexists and anti-abolitionists were realized. As we know, when black women were able to marry white men and women were able to vote, America abruptly shriveled up in to the fetal position. If gays are allowed to marry and young children of illegal immigrants are given amnesty, America just may vaporize into the ether.
Although Chick-fil-a and the far-right conservatives who hold the “God hates fags” and “Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve” signs still curry some favor, they will, as time goes on, be relegated to backward thinking bigots in the minds of their progeny.
The Neanderthals were unable to adapt to their environment and eventually tapered out. If the GOP doesn’t change its tune, they may very well face a similar fate. The question is, after their inflammatory rhetoric and fervent denial of equal rights, who will believe them?