There have been many political changes in the United States over the past year, too many for even the most astute political observer to fully chronicle. Many of these political changes are constructs of the news cycle, manufactured scandals to fit the six hour gap between the fading of one viral video and the rise of another. But some of it is a very real change. Especially in the United States, where politics is always a shifting changes of alliances based on policy, culture and personal feuds, it is hard to see what the dominant theme is in an era of political change. Nevertheless, I am going to throw one out there, for discussion if not for belief.
And I will present it by asking a simple question: when was the last time that anyone heard from Dick Cheney? It is somewhat traditional in the United States that the President himself, once out of office, stays above the fray, and not comment on the actions of his successor. So George W Bush's silence is to be understood. For a while, Dick Cheney was one of the spokesmen of the Republican Party, but he seems to have quieted down lately, perhaps due to his health. However, I think it is more to it then that, because a number of other figures are also being overlooked by the current media attention. John McCain, long considered one of the elder statesman of the Republican Party? He is still a media presence, but not a paramount leader. Mitch McConnell, Senate minority leader? Again, he makes speeches, gets in political fights, but I have not heard of him being the voice of a generation. Bill Frist? John Boehner? Trent Lott? Pretty much the same thing. Arnold Schwarzenegger still has name recognition and some type of fame, but he has both strayed from the party line and had an unsuccessful career as governor of California.
What do all of these people have in common? They are all male, and older. They are all, in a non-flattering way, authoritarian and, frankly, kind of grumpy. Dick Cheney's name even screams out phallocracy.
As I said before, political parties in America are often a mix of ideas. One of the major identifications of the Republican Party was that it was the party of authority, for whatever the connotations and denotations of that term are. In the coming years, and especially since losing the presidency, the Republican Party has adapted itself into the party of autonomy, not just in terms of policy, but in terms of image. And a large part of this has to do with the spontaneous removal of grumpy old men from positions of leadership. Of course, no one was officially removed, the narrative just shifted the spotlight. The greatest beneficiary of this shift has been Sarah Palin, who in terms of image, if not policies, is about as far away from Dick Cheney as it is possible to get. Rather than being the party of privilege, tradition, and dour male power, the Republican Party is now a real party, where Sarah Palin might come flying across the scenery in a snow machine to the sounds of an anthematic power rock ballad while her blue collar supporters all hold up their lighters and/or cans of domestic beer.
After having established this image, which while it may be rough, might make instinctive sense to my readers, the next question is where this narrative is headed. The image of a party can take it far, but it must also be translated into policies that resonate with that image. There does seem to be some hints of this: with all of the exceptions taken to Barack Obama's policies, there has been relatively little said about his decision to accept the de facto legalization of marijuana by several states. I think this is in some parts because it actually does fit in with the small government rhetoric of the populist wing of the Republican Party --- as well as, perhaps, with the lifestyles of some of its members. But on the whole, I have had trouble seeing how much the populist image, and its focus on autonomy as the greatest of political virtues, will be translated into an actual coherent policy platform. As I have argued elsewhere, small government rhetoric is easier to say than to do.
In general, I feel that the new image being put forward by the Republican Party will cause serious disappointments, when it is realized that this change in image, and the idea of autonomy behind it, can not actually solve all the problems that have been promised. This is part of a larger issue, the importance put on personal autonomy in American culture, that is somewhat outside of this write-up. Although I can hardly tell the future of politics, I think that putting the "party" back in the Grand Old Party is a relatively shallow tactic.