It is a cardinal rule of horserace-style political journalism in the U.S. that no two elections can have the same narrative. That’s not to say certain tropes aren’t repeated ad nauseam. But it is to say that that the press corps’ desire to mitigate the unavoidable, soul-crushing monotony of a campaign often causes it to flip the script from one election to the next, despite politics in the real world changing much more slowly. If you look at the way the media’s covered the ongoing “invisible primary” to be the GOP’s next presidential nominee, you’ll see the narrative for 2016 is being pre-written already.
So, because the most important story of the 2012 cycle was the surprising potency of President Obama’s so-called Rising American Electorate, the story in 2014 concerned the Republicans’ electorate, which also proved itself to be alive and kicking. And because the story after 2012 focused on the Tea Party pulling Mitt Romney too far to the right, the narrative for 2016 will be about the Republican “establishment” throwing its weight around to nominate an ostensibly more moderate, electable candidate. The bland, cautious, managerial Republican Party of yesteryear is back! The crusading, militant and extremist Tea Party is over!
Except, well, it isn’t.
It’s not over in the U.S. Congress, where a shutdown-in-miniature is unfolding between the White House and the Tea Party wing of the GOP. It’s not over in Wisconsin, where a Tea Party-darling governor is slashing the state university system’s funding, changing its mission statement (while lying about it), and fighting tooth and nail to humiliate people on government benefits. It’s not over in North Carolina, where a billionaire-backed Tea Party government is also going after the public university system in its effort to turn the state into Kansas. And it’s not over in South Carolina, where one state representative hopes to mainline National Rifle Association propaganda to a generation of public school students.
Let’s stick with the South Carolina example for a moment, because I think it tells us much about the contemporary GOP’s character. According to Kimberly Johnson of Al Jazeera America, the recent decision on the part of PTR Industries, a gun manufacturer, to move its headquarters from Connecticut to South Carolina has inspired Republican state Rep. Alan Clemmons to propose what he’s calling the “Second Amendment Education Act.” As the name implies, the bill would “provide all public elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools” with “instruction in the Second Amendment” for no fewer than “three consecutive weeks in one grading period in each academic year.” The curriculum would be written by the NRA, of course.
Anyone who does not consider Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s frequently rabid executive vice president and chief public representative, to be a proper author of school children's education might look on this proposal skeptically. They might wonder if it’s not exactly the kind of big government social engineering that Tea Partyers, who often accuse the left of changing the culture to reflect its worldview, usually decry. They might also worry that the bill is an example of the crony capitalism the Tea Party says it hates, with the government aiding a friendly and favored industry — or picking winners and losers, as they like to say. What the Al Jazeera report shows is that, on both counts, these fears would be correct.
“It’s a big handshake,” is how PTR Industries purchasing manager Bob Grabowski described Clemmons’ bill. “It’s a big ‘hello’.” He recounted how his company was treated by South Carolina locals, who are desperate for good-paying jobs in a state where the unemployment rate remains significantly higher than the national average. He and his co-workers were made to feel, he said, like “rock stars.” He praised Clemmons for his support of PTR; he said the lawmaker “really went to bat” on its behalf. He loves the bill Clemmons came up with, too: “I think it’s an awesome idea,” he said, more of “a handshake” to his industry than “a nod.” Why? Because it’s “right out in the open.”
The bill’s implications for the way future graduates of South Carolina’s public school system will see the world are no less momentous. The communications director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Ladd Everitt, told Al Jazeera that the possibility of the NRA writing a three-week-long curriculum is “a nightmare,” because the organization “endorses an insurrectionist interpretation of the Second Amendment.” As if there wasn’t enough of this in South Carolina already, an NRA-penned review of American history would leave millions of children under the impression that the Framers saw the Constitution much the same as the men behind the Confederate States of America. Fond as they are of quoting Orwell, the Tea Partyers have evidently taken to heart his famous quote about the past and the future.
As we see in South Carolina, then, the Republican Party narrative of 2010, 2012 and 2014 hasn’t drifted into the past just yet. The media may shudder at the prospect of a fourth-straight election with the Tea Party as the most influential and most significant actor. It may prefer to imagine the GOP is in the midst of an intellectual revival. It may hope that the “reasonable conservative” is on his way back to the arena, saving nominally objective reporters from finding themselves in the uncomfortable position of thinking one of the people who might be president sounds kind of crazy.
But none of that particularly matters, because the Republican Party is still being driven by the Tea Party. And the Tea Party remains what it’s always been: A collection of dedicated, unsentimental and ambitious ideologues who don’t see themselves as responsible, competent managers, but as conservative crusaders on a transformative, holy mission.