Ian Kershaw is one of the most eminent historians of the Second World War. His most recent book, The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1944-1945, is a powerful examination of the last year of the war, from the attempted assassination of Hitler in July 1944 to Germany's final capitulation in May 1945. Specifically, Kershaw attempts to answer a very important question: Why did Germany continue fighting when it was obvious to anyone with an understanding of the military and political situation that the war was lost? Here is Kershaw's conclusion:
Of the reasons why Germany was willing and able to fight on to the end, these structures of rule and underlying mentalities behind them are the most fundamental. All other factors... were ultimately subordinate to the way the charismatic... regime was structured, and how it functioned, in its dying phase... The dominant elites possessed neither the collective will nor the mechanisms of power to prevent Hitler from taking Germany to total destruction.It wasn't so much that the Nazi leaders were bound up with Hitler's fate; by this time Hitler had lost most of his charisma. But they were all bound together to a common ideology, and had committed common crimes. Hitler knew that the only way out for him was victory or death; his closest acolytes, even though some tried to make deals with the West in the war's dying days, knew this as well. The ones who drove the German war machine into its destruction knew they had nothing to lose, and that nothing awaited them on the other side of a defeat. It was the desperation of the desperate.
Why do I bring this very worthwhile book up? It's certainly not to make a direct comparison between the modern conservative movement and the German Nazis. That's done way too often -- including, at times, by myself -- for no profit. As dangerous as I think conservatives are to the future of this country, I wouldn't expect concentration camps to pop up like mushrooms all over the country if they were to control all levers of power. (Although you don't have to be in a camp to feel like an outcast, as many would in a Rick Santorum America.) Even the Tea Partiers aren't Nazis -- although I do think they would find much that was favorable with Francisco Franco's Spain. No. I bring up The End because of the reason why the Nazis held on and fought mirrors the modern GOP's increasingly fervid stands on the political questions of the day.
It's becoming clearer by the day that the Obama victory in 2008 -- and his likely re-election this year -- heralded a decided pole shift in American politics. He and the Democrats were finally able to bring people into the political arena who had been voiceless up until then. Young people, who have historically lagged in voting participation, came out in their millions for the Democrats. Minorities of all types saw in Obama an aspirational figure, one who had overcome the usual deterrents to success in America -- a son of a single-parent household and a skin color darker than preferred -- and had gone from strength to strength as he scaled the ladder of American success -- and doing it all without compromising or betraying his core principles. Women see in Obama someone who sees them every bit as equals, not to be patronized or talked down to. It was the Silent America that he energized, the America that had no desire to return to culture wars concocted by the white right, that wanted an America that was more equitable, where everyone did their fair share, where people couldn't shirk their responsibilities to their fellow citizens simply because of wealth and privilege. This is the coalition of the present moment and the future, the coalition around which electoral politics will be built for a generation, a coalition into which the Democrats have tapped. It even includes that segment often demonized by some on the Left: the white working class. Recent polling shows that Obama is winning back many of that segment, especially those who live in the states hardest hit by the GOP victories of 2010. The classic strategy of divide and rule which the conservative movement has used for the past 30 years is faltering. Cracks are showing and growing more pronounced.
As these cracks show, GOP positions both harden and splinter. We've seen that with the fight over contraception coverage in the ACA. The GOP House and Senate leadership are going all in with creating an exemption for any business that wants to restrict its employees' health coverage for any reason if it violates a moral code. The remainder of the moderate Republicans are imploring their leadership to not go down that road. Senators Snowe and Collins have broken with the Senate GOP colleagues and have endorsed President Obama's "accommodation" with religiously-affiliated institutions of last week. But the "base" has to be appeased. Boehner and McConnell are not stupid men; they know they don't have the votes for their measure. But the base demands a scorched-earth policy, and they see no way out of giving them that.
And why? Because of the other political conflict which is causing a splintering in the GOP coalition: the payroll tax holiday. The GOP leadership has basically caved, offering to extend the tax holiday for the rest of the year without spending offsets. They're doing this against the wishes of the fervent "base", the Tea Party Congress members elected in 2010. The leadership knows its a battle they can't afford to lose, while the contraception fight can be an example of a glorious defeat. The concession is too late, though. The voters know which party wanted to extend a middle class tax-cut, and which party thought it was just a worthless gimmick. No amount of 11th hour concessions will make voters forget that. And the unemployment insurance and Medicare payments battles will be won the same way. The GOP is still holding fast to their positions, for now. But the same logic which made them concede on the payroll tax holiday holds true for UI and Medicare "doc fix".
At the end in Germany, there was a real political conflict between those who wanted to burn everything and make a heroic last stand, and those who tried to save some of the country so that it could be rebuilt after the looming defeat. We're seeing that same dynamic in today's GOP. The doctrinaire conservatives espouse more fervent, more hard-line stances as they see everything collapsing around them. Only maximum effort will do; any sign of defeatism must be clamped down upon. If they can't have the America they've envisioned for the past generation, then it would be better for the whole thing to collapse. The more realistic conservatives don't want to take down America with them in some conflagration from Gotterdammerung. They would like some place at the table of the America they see being reborn, day by day, as pragmatic progress is made continually to right some of the country's great injustices.
Unfortunately for those moderates, you don't win a GOP nomination to be dog-catcher unless you can expound on how Obama is quickly turning the country into a Marxist economy following Sharia law. Fortunately for the rest of us, the die-hards don't have as much power as they think they do (e.g., Grover Norquist). They won't take the country down with them, but they will poison the label "conservative" just as effectively as they poisoned that of "liberal" for a generation. And when conservatives do eventually resurface, they will look nothing like the ones currently dominating. And that will be good for the health of the Republic.