COMMENTARY | Nearly 80 years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt gave an inaugural speech wherein portions have reverberated down through history, but none so much as when he cautioned Americans the "only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Although he was warning not to give in to the economic and sociological woes of the Great Depression, his words could describe the soul of the Republican Party today. It has come to embody fear itself.
David Frum, an economic speechwriter for President George W. Bush, touched on the subject of the GOP and its record of intractability and swing toward an even more far right radicalization as being Washington's biggest problem. Frum notes the GOP's swing is a product not only of political radicalization but a reflection of a radicalization among the electorate. An electorate that is increasingly older, invested and wealthy, and elects legislators that is more conservative than has been prevalent in the past.
Frum backs up his views by pointing out Washington political rhetoric and legislative gridlock but also on the work of political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. Their book, "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism," is an implication of the Republican Party's increasingly extremist politics as having a stalling effect on American government at large. Lest one thinks the book is a hit piece by liberals (Mann works for the liberal Brookings Institute), it should be noted Ornstein works for the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Together the two have studied Washington politics for four decades.
The Republican Party has become a national problem, but even moreso in Washington as it has contributed to an increasingly ineffectual government through policies that stray from empirical facts, ignore scientific contributions and avoids publicly talking about compromise. And its foundation is fear.
Somewhere along the way, someone coined the term "Party of Fear" to take a jab at the GOP's predilection to use fear tactics to gain popular support and secure votes. Although they weren't exclusive in using such political weapons, they became most associated with reaching into its arsenal. But over time, the reaching for things to fear to motivate and energize the electorate has also fostered an environment of fear, one so pervasive as to become ideologically innate. Instead of fear being the message, it became the party's definition.
And now the GOP has become fear itself. Not only just the embodiment of fighting for what its members have gained and/or the principles for which they stand, but with the further radicalization of the party through ultra-conservativism on the part of the tea party. It even has its moderates fearing those further to the right. The far right wing is politically strong, well-financed and perfectly willing to unseat long-standing Republican politicians such as Utah's Bob Bennett and Indiana's Dick Lugar.
What is usually not quoted along with Roosevelt's famous words is the completion of the statement. It continues: "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." That is the definition of fear itself.
Fear itself -- what the Republican Party has become. But there is one slight alteration to Roosevelt's words. Fear itself is no longer nameless. Republicans have given fear a name -- their own.