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Tactical Radicalism and Its Long-Term Implications

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on July 19, 2010.

It's been obvious for quite some time--dating back at least to the fall of 2008--that the Republican Party is undergoing an ideological transformation that really is historically unusual. Normally political parties that go through two consecutive really bad electoral cycles downplay ideology and conspicuously seek "the center." Not today's GOP, in which there are virtually no self-identified "moderates," and all the internal pressure on politicians--and all is no exaggeration--is from the right.

But as Jonathan Chait notes today, there are two distinct phenomena pulling the GOP to the right this year: there's ideological radicalism, to be sure, but also what he calls "tactical radicalism:"

Obviously the conservative movement is intoxicated with hubris right now. Part of this hubris is their belief that the American people are truly and deeply on their side and that the last two elections were either a fluke or the product of a GOP that was too centrist. It's a tactical radicalism, a belief that ideological purity carries no electoral cost whatsoever.

This is what I've called the "move right and win" hypothesis, and it's generally based on some "hidden majority" theory whereby every defeat is the product of a discouraged conservative base or some anti-conservative conspiracy (e.g., the bizarre "ACORN stole the election" interpretation of 2008). As Chait observes, there is a counterpart hypothesis on the left, but is vastly less influential, and anyone watching internal party politics these days will note the major difference in tone between Democratic primaries where moderation is generally a virtue and Republican primaries where it's always a vice.

While many Democrats (including Chait in the piece I've linked to) are interested in the short-term implications of tactical radicalism, such as the possibility that GOP candidates like Sharron Angle or Rand Paul could lose races that should be Republican cakewalks, there's a long-term factor as well that no one should forget about for a moment. If, as is almost universally expected, Republicans have a very good midterm election year after a highly-self-conscious lurch to the right, will there be any force on earth limiting the tactical radicalism of conservatives going forward? I mean, really, there's been almost no empirical evidence supporting the "move right and win" hypothesis up until now, and we see how fiercely it's embraced by Republicans. Will 2010 serve as the eternal validator of the belief that America's not just a "center-right country" but a country prepared to repudiate every progressive development of the last century or so?

That could well be the conviction some conservatives carry away from this election cycle, and if so, what would normally pass for the political "center" will be wide open for Democrats to occupy for the foreseeable future.