Magical Thinking

The GOP’s Aversion to Reality

Those of us who write about elections tend to treat each new one as path-breaking. Finally, we tell ourselves, this time there will be an explicit choice between two different understandings of American purpose. Then the election happens, politics returns to normal, and not much changes.

But this time—2012—I really believe it. Though President Barack Obama is a cautious politician, temperamentally unsuited to laying out a strong ideological vision, this year he faces a Republican Party that seems set on forcing him to do just that. In the past we have had Republicans who have been either extremist or unified, but never before have we seen a Republican Party that is both extremist and unified at the same time. When the Republicans unanimously adopt a budget proposal as radical as the one submitted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Obama—post-partisan though he may have wished to be—has little choice but to respond by characterizing it as “Social Darwinism” and laying out a vision of a fairer society as an alternative. There is the choice, and it is a stark one.

Extremism and unity together, it must be noted, offer certain political advantages. A party that adheres to both will stake out clear positions and appeal to voters seeking certainty; it will also be in a better bargaining position, especially when the other party is less united. Yet the combination is dangerous as well. We know,...

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About the Author

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, and the author of Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It (Knopf).