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The GOP purity test
Why ideological “purity” is bad for local politics
By Jim Sack
Fort Wayne Reader
The Republicans are about to go through another round of ritual purifications, this time in Indiana, including one primary contest in Allen County. And, given the public apathy and antipathy toward politicians, nobody seems to care.
In what reminds historians of the Maoist purges of the 1960s, some within the Republican Party deploy conservative “purity” as the primary determinant. You might call yourself a conservative, but are you really, truly conservative enough? Inevitably, no one can answer that question, only the self-styled priest of purity. It has shades of the same sort of ideological purge that resulted in millions of deaths in China and their wrecked economy, but in reality it more like the Stalinist purges of the 30s that were only designed to eliminate the opposition and consolidate power.
It is not a whit different than the McCarthy Red Hunts of the 50s. Only, this time is an intra-party purge not unlike Stalin versus Trotsky, an effort that leads to the last-man-standing scenario.
So it has been in Republican primary race after primary race since Barry Goldwater’s brand of conservatism (read: purges) began its angry cannibalism. Purification within the venerable Republican Party has gained speed over the intervening years, recently culminating in the noisy Tea Party Movement which is solidly behind State Treasurer Richard Mourdock. The friend of “clean” coal has wrapped himself in ideological purity to campaign against the moderate Richard Lugar, Indiana’s senator for more years that most Hoosiers have lived. He is trying to paint Lugar as a closet pinko and, in reaction, Senator Lugar is veering to the right like an old truck with a flat.
And, so it is also the case locally with the more conservative than thou John McGauley, an ally of Mr. Mourdock, challenging the old (moderate) stag, Nelson Peters. Peters just is too willing to work with the other side, he fails to employ the scorched earth policy of the Tea Party set and he can be seen having civil conversation with office holders of all stripes. Too moderate by half.
But all veterans of political wars know that the finest art in politics is found in closing a negotiation when all sides feel they have gotten much of what they had hoped. They know the all or nothing politics we currently endure leads to stalemate and decay. A dear friend who works for the (conservative) German chancellor recently noted that “you Americans can not get anything done because you have stopped talking with each other, instead you are shouting at each other.” It reminds an historian of the divisions in 1775.
Happily, another local election ballot offers two names who are masters at finding practical solutions to complex local problems: the race for county council at-large. The two most prominent names on the Republican ticket are Bill Brown and Roy Buskirk. At a recent Conservative (not Republican) Breakfast Club meeting, neither bragged of their conservative credentials. Instead of invoking false purity, they spoke of complex public policy matters, of taxing districts, of inequities in our property tax collections system, of skewed policy boards, of challenges facing local economic improvement and how to make Allen County a more attractive, more enjoyable place to live. It was refreshing, educative and thought-provoking. They went as far as to compliment each other. Neither said a negative thing (gasp) about Mayor Henry, the president, or any fellow, not-pure-enough-to-be-a-true-conservative Republican. It was so nice to hear a smart discussion about policy and community improvement, rather than the divide and conquer rhetoric so many dogmatists use to separate themselves from their fellow Republicans, to belittle their fellow Republicans, a la Mourdock.
Now, to be fair, many Republican office holders in Fort Wayne and Allen County toast the work John McGauley has done in the Recorder’s office. No one doubts his sincerity or his character, just that he is playing the insurgent game, challenging the old guard for his own political gain, rather than answering a calling to restore dignity and efficiency to a tarnished office. Of course, the old guard deserves to be challenged and ideas debated, but branding opponents with the scarlet letter creates enemies and division. No one believes Nelson Peters to be anything but a fine man and a dedicated and productive public servant.
Government, at its core, is simply an organized effort to improve the common lot. We elect those from among us who should take the higher road and the longer view. We elect from among ourselves friends and neighbors who will embrace the whole community and work on behalf of all of us - the lame and the halt, as well as the lucky and the rich. The politics of division, whether excluding women, or minorities or the unfortunate, has the effect of limiting the intellectual and physical resources of self-government and, by extension, the capacity of the community to improve. Tie your right arm behind your back for a day as an illustration.
So, a slice of the Grand Old Republican Party wants to hold a purity test to determine whether Senator Lugar is conservative enough, and by extension whether Commission Nelson Peters has offended the conservative gods. It seems so tribal, so pagan, so much like sacrifices on the altar of Tenochtitlan. The essence of their argument is that others do not deserve a place at the table because their intellect, reasoning or pocket lint fail a test to which only a few ordained know the true answers. One wonders if Lincoln would have made today’s cut.
Ideologues should remember that it takes 50 plus one to win an election.
Meanwhile, the few of us who drag ourselves to the polling places will also vote in the increasingly insignificant Indiana presidential primary. Most of the Republican insurgents have flamed out between Iowa and here allowing us to redirect our worry to local matters, rather than to be caught up in the bloated rhetoric of Newt and his ilk. Barring a personal disaster former Governor Mitt Romney will be the Republican standard bearer in November and all the insurgents who compared him favorably to President Barack Obama and cast him in the same dung heap with the vilified Richard Lugar will have to swallow their bile and vote for the lesser of two “evils.” They may well have to vote for the moderate (“Curse the very word, Martha.”) Senator Richard Lugar, instead of Mr. Fire and Brimstone.
The other matter on the primary ballot, and probably the most important, is the referendum on school spending. The school board wants you to voluntarily raise your taxes to pay for much needed, they say, repairs at many of our schools. The concern of more than a few solid citizens is that Fort Wayne Community Schools had a substantial maintenance budget, had a maintenance plan, too, but chose to use the money for other things they saw as more pressing. Those same solid citizens ask how we can now trust the school board to use the hoped for tax increase to make the repairs when they have not done so in the past.
Sadly, the number of people voting in primaries has dwindled to miniscule levels. Increasingly, the bases of the two parties are pulling each to extremes, left and right. Like my German friend said, we are polarization. There are fewer and fewer politicians of the middle who can translate the languages of left and right into cooperative action. To a historian, it is reminiscent of 1860.