How Republicans can save themselves -- as the party of legal weed

A modest proposal that might redeem the GOP (or at least make it a lot cooler): Seize the marijuana moment

Published July 12, 2014 4:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/Reed Saxon/<a href=''>aastock</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Reed Saxon/aastock via Shutterstock/Photo montage by Salon)

Dear Republicans: Believe it or not (and you won’t), I am here to help. There is a path that can lead the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and Eisenhower out of the political wilderness, a path away from the nightmarish dead-end coalition of white racists and plutocrat zillionaires and back toward national relevance. It isn’t the path of fire-breathing ideological purity and permanent obstructionism and wild fantasies about defunding the entire liberal welfare state. I know that stuff feels good to you right now, but it feels good in roughly the same way that taking a massive drug overdose feels good, for the first minute or two. Sure, you can keep telling yourselves that the fact that you will still hold a majority in one house of Congress after November (and maybe both of them) means that one day you will “take America back,” and that you have a long-term future outside Wyoming and the Confederacy. But you know that funny feeling in your stomach? That’s you knowing better.

Despite the estimable case built by Sam Tanenhaus in last week’s New York Times Magazine, the path I speak of is also not the path of “reform conservatism” and the child tax credit and the talking points on Marco Rubio’s iPad and whatever Ramesh Ponnuru writes about. Most of you know that too. Even trying to struggle through Tanenhaus’ article from a disinterested or analytical perspective – like, have any of these people got game? – I could feel your pain. Some of the ideas raised by Ponnuru and Yuval Levin and the rest of those soporific Beltway wonks with bad suits may be valid, for all I know. But who cares? They are so boring that no one can really understand them, or really wants to.

No, the path to redemption for the Grand Old Party is not boring. It leads through the verdant fields of cheeba. It is Route 420, traveling coast to coast from Humboldt County to backwoods Maine. The chronic dysfunction of American politics demands a Chronic solution. Republicans have a window of opportunity – and it’s pretty much right now -- to take a step ahead of the historical curve and seize the marijuana moment.

In the wake of Washington and Colorado, we all know legalization is coming; it's just a question of when and how. For the GOP, it's time to put down the gun and pick up the bong. (Although there's definitely a constituency that loves them both.) Hypothetically, conservatives could pivot from weed-as-drug to weed-as-commodity, a commodity that creates new opportunities for entrepreneurs, big corporations and venture capitalists alike, and turns thousands of illicit small business proprietors into taxpayers and “job creators.” Let's face it, “legal weed and low taxes” is a winning platform, and one that could revitalize the Republican brand without violating it in any fundamental way. Millions of younger voters are out there for the taking on this issue, and GOP candidates who embraced the cause would become competitive almost overnight in many places where they’re irrelevant today.

This is not an entirely new idea, to be sure. I can remember getting high with a group of libertarian activists outside the Houston Astrodome while reporting from the notorious "cultural war" Republican convention of 1992. The Ron Paul faction of the Republican Party has favored legalization or decriminalization of drugs all along, and potential 2016 candidate Rand Paul is pretty waffly on weed himself. But you don't have to be one of the Republicans who wants to abolish the income tax and fire the entire federal bureaucracy to grasp the wisdom of this position. Most in the GOP, to be sure, can only view it wistfully, as if through a potent haze of seventh-generation unsexed Congolese sinsemilla smoke, since the idea demands a philosophical and generational shift within the party that simply isn’t going to happen.

I’m almost sorry, my Republican friends, that you’re not going to take this advice. It would make America a lot more interesting for the next few years, if nothing else. Here’s the thing: Setting aside the question of whether a weed-and-taxes platform is moral or sensible, it papers over much of the incoherence in Republican politics by exploiting the incoherence of Democratic politics. As with the same-sex marriage issue, Democrats find themselves lagging behind public opinion and unsure what to do about it. After 25 years of moralistic triangulation on social issues and fervent support for the war on drugs, prominent Democrats are slowly creeping around to the bureaucratic half-measure of medical marijuana. (The version that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed in New York is an especially dreadful example.) But they remain desperate to steer clear of the hippy-dippy cause of legalization.

What pisses me off about the Democrats and pot is that a whole lot of liberals are basically OK with the current dispensation, in which weed is virtually legal at the middle-class backyard barbecues of Brooklyn and Berkeley and Boston, but can still be used as a pretext for sweeping kids of color off the streets in less privileged neighborhoods. It’s worth noting that Colorado and Washington, the two states to legalize pot through the ballot box in 2012, are closely divided purple states with strong libertarian currents (although both have tilted Democratic in recent years). Many of the states considered likely to legalize in the near future, including Alaska, Arizona and Maine, either have an eccentric independent streak or tilt Republican or both. In California, Massachusetts and New York, the three most reliably blue states in the nation, full legalization looks to be many years away. That's partly because Democratic apparatchiks think the issue is toxic and don’t care about public opinion, and partly because some of the things Republicans say are true: Democrats really are statists with a passion for huge, poorly functioning bureaucracies that can't get anything done.

Republicans won’t seize this opportunity, of course, and there are several obvious reasons why. To seem even halfway convincing as the "Legalize It" party, they’d have to get past the same-sex marriage issue (on which they have been comprehensively defeated) and agree to slide abortion to the back burner, and those things are still too important to too many of their true believers. If they weren’t so fatally screwed up by racism and big money and an especially noxious interpretation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, they might understand not just that this is a political masterstroke with far-reaching symbolic implications, but also that it accords with what are supposed to be the party’s core principles.

If I had any of the entrepreneurial zeal Republicans love to talk about, I would go buy a suit from Ramesh Ponnuru's tailor and try to extort millions of dollars and lots of expensive Georgetown dinners for this advice. But I’m not convinced that Reince Priebus and John Boehner and Ted Cruz are pining for counsel from a disgruntled left-wing culture-vulture, so I’m giving it away free, in the spirit of furthering democratic discourse. We’d be a lot better off in this country if we actually had competing political parties with coherent ideologies, instead of rival factions of the ruling elite dressed up in overheated rhetoric. I know that’s a big dream, and not one that’s likely to come true.

Just to fend off enraged liberal readers for a moment: No, I’m not saying there are no differences between the two major parties, especially in an era when the scariest Supreme Court of all time has anointed itself as an alternative legislature. But despite all the partisan heat of Washington there are wide areas of agreement between Republicans and Democrats on the most fundamental issues of government – the stewardship of the economy, the conduct of our semi-secret worldwide wars, the management of the spy agencies – and those are precisely the areas where public opinion is neither valued nor consulted.

Even more to the point, in the context of the dismal political summer of 2014, we’d be a lot better off if the conservative movement in this country actually supported small business, limited government and individual liberty, as it claims to. Those are respectable and defensible ideals, at the very least. Instead, as the Hobby Lobby decision and related SCOTUS antics suggest, the American right has responded to repeated electoral defeat by morphing into a crypto-fascist rearguard movement, devoted to rolling back social progress and enshrining corporate power by extra-democratic means. Sam Tanenhaus’ most trenchant piece about the Republican predicament is not last week’s dutiful “reformicon” manifesto, but rather the one he wrote for the New Republic shortly after the defeat of Mitt Romney, exploring the long-term legacy of 19th-century white supremacist and states'-rights advocate John C. Calhoun.

Dubbed “the Marx of the master class” by political scientist Richard Hofstadter, Calhoun argued forcefully for the natural rule of whites over blacks and the propertied elite over the landless and the poor. (He also served as vice president under two different presidents, which is irrelevant but pretty weird.) As Tanenhaus puts it, Calhoun developed “a radical theory of minority-interest democracy … which often subordinated the will of the many to the settled prejudices of the few.” He viewed the United States as a confederation of sovereign nations, each of which was free to reject any federal laws that infringed on its autonomy. Calhoun was the “Great Nullifier,” Abraham Lincoln’s arch-nemesis, and one of the first American public figures to issue dark warnings about the dangers of big government. His Sauron-like reach extends across 150 years to troglodyte conservatives who’ve probably never heard of him (although I bet Ted Cruz has). The racist, regionalist and obstructionist Republican Party we see today was made in his image.

While the nihilistic, post-Calhounian counterattack against women’s reproductive rights and LGBT rights exemplified by Hobby Lobby is dreadful for all sorts of more important reasons, it’s also likely to be a disastrous long-term political strategy for the Republican Party. “Denial has always been the basis of a nullifying politics,” Tanenhaus wrote in that New Republic article, and even Calhoun understood that he was on the losing side of history. Many of today’s most fervent conservatives either don’t believe that or don’t care, and in either case they have embraced the Republican Party’s new role as the voice of embittered heartland white men, with no clear agenda beyond gumming up the works in Washington as long as possible. As reformicons like Levin and Ponnuru understand all too well, what lies at the end of that road is political extinction.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Indeed, I suspect that Republicans have become mesmerized by the “Emerging Democratic Majority” argument of the last two decades, which holds that the nation’s shifting demographics, especially the fast-growing Latino population and the declining white majority, will inevitably lead to long-term liberal hegemony. Maybe this reflects the essential Calvinism beneath American conservatism – the doctrine that our salvation or damnation was decided by God before we were even born – but Republican doom is only predestined if Republicans continue to insist on it. A much-discussed new survey of Americans aged 18 to 29 contains troubling news for both parties. It suggests that the infamous millennial generation is politically conflicted and largely unaffiliated, and that the Democratic Party's hold on its affections is tenuous at best.

While the poll was conducted for the libertarian Reason Foundation (and one should be cautious about embracing any individual poll, as Nate Silver has taught us), its methodology appears sound and its findings feel plausible enough. Large majorities in the poll favor apparently contradictory things: cutting spending and cutting taxes on one hand, universal healthcare and raising the minimum wage on the other. While 57 percent favor a smaller government that provides fewer services, exactly the same proportion favor spending more money on helping the poor and on building infrastructure. I’m not sure how you account for that, except by saying that American politics is full of magical thinking, and also that this is a generation that cannot remember the era of rising real wages and has no idea how low taxes are today, in historical terms. Or maybe it's just that they've been smoking so much weed.

If the Reason survey offers cold comfort to today’s backward-looking, Tea Party-inflected Republicans (supported by only 23 percent of the sample), the influence of Republican ideology is still visible in the widespread mistrust of government. As for my imaginary doobie-centric Republican Party, it would do pretty well. Respondents supported the legalization of pot by that same magic number of 57 percent, which is a lot higher than the number who identified with either political party. How the bong-hit 57 percent intersects with the tax-cutting 57 percent and the poverty-fighting 57 percent I couldn’t tell you. What I know is that fate and history and the ineptitude of their opponents has thrown the Republicans a rescue line, woven of sweet, sweet ganja. If they would rather drown than grab hold of it, whose fault is that?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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