What biology teaches about the GOP predicament | Jay Bookman

The biggest unanswered question revolving around the 2012 GOP presidential campaign is why?

Why is the field so lackluster? Why does it consist of Mitt Romney, a mediocre candidate whom much of the party continues to reject, running against a variety of unacceptable alternatives? I mean, when a man with as much baggage as Newt Gingrich remains viable this late in the process, it suggests a major leadership vacuum in the party.

As Democratic consultant Paul Begala writes today in the Daily Beast, “When I look at the economy, I think Obama can’t win, but when I look at the Republicans, I think he can’t lose.”

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So what’s the explanation? Why, at a moment of great opportunity, has the party fielded such weak candidates?

To answer that question, it may be useful to import a concept from biology called “genetic diversity.” According to science, species that boast a wide range of genetic diversity, with a lot of variation, are generally healthier and more robust than species in which genetic diversity is restricted. In the field and in the lab, researchers have found that genetically diverse populations can fend off illnesses more easily and can adapt quickly to changing conditions; genetically similar populations find it much more difficult to respond to such challenges.

Genetic diversity explains why mongrels claimed from the humane society tend to be more hardy than their purebred cousins. It’s also why monoculture agriculture, in which vast swaths of farmland are planted in one genetically identical crop, is extremely vulnerable to pests and disease.

I would argue that by rejecting ideological variation and pursuing purity, the Republican Party has turned itself into a political monoculture that is unable to respond well to changed conditions. And as we’ve seen, by insisting that the most important test of a leader is his or her willingness to abide by a pre-ordained orthodoxy, they tend to produce a leadership class that shies away from creativity, imagination and innovation.

We’ve all seen that process at work. Any scent of heretical thought or deviation among Republicans is quickly sniffed out, its source ostracized as a RINO, or Republican In Name Only. The conservative media serves to enforce that orthodoxy, its power and profitability depending on its ability to punish those who might stray. Over time, the strain of acceptable conservative thought has become more and more pure, to the point that today Ronald Reagan himself would be dismissed as a RINO.

In stark contrast, the Democrats have no real counterpart to the concept of RINO, and they do not consider the term “moderate” to be a deadly epithet, as it is among Republicans. Depending on the state or district, it can in fact be a label to be embraced. They lack a sternly enforced party discipline and orthodoxy, and the truth is that their “squishiness” has significant drawbacks.

For example, Democrats in Congress rarely produce the unanimous party-line votes that allow Republicans to get maximum leverage from their numbers. And while Democrats tend to speak in a jumbled cacophony, their GOP opponents speak one clear message to the voters from many voices. The result is that “Republican” is a sharply defined brand, while “Democrat” is much more amorphous.

According to biologists, a lack of genetic diversity becomes a particular problem in times of great change, when adaptability is at a premium. And I would argue that in politics, this is one of those times. What we thought we knew about this world and this country no longer applies. The environment has changed dramatically, and those quickest to adapt and experiment are those most likely to succeed.

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The Republican Party, however, cannot bring itself to admit that capitalism unbound can lead to dangerous excesses; its ideology insists that capitalism has no faults whatsoever, and that any or all failings of the system can be attributed to imperfections imposed on capitalism by government.

Likewise, it cannot acknowledge that the ever-increasing share of wealth accruing to the richest of Americans poses economic, moral and social challenges to this country. And if they cannot admit the existence of a problem, they certainly cannot propose conservative approaches to address it.

Those beliefs have become increasingly difficult to defend in light of the events of the past five years. Yet the GOP is unable to bring itself to adapt to this changed environment.

Earlier in the primary season, Jon Huntsman tried to challenge the Republican orthodoxy head-on and was predictably brushed aside as a RINO. In his own unique fashion, the ever-rebellious Gingrich is trying to do the same, but through a more guerrilla-type approach.

With his attacks on Romney as a symbol of capitalism run amok, Newt is attempting to inject a needed degree of ideological variation into the intra-party debate. Sure, he’s doing so purely out of self-interest — he’s Newt Gingrich, after all — but that’s how the process works. Like any opportunistic predator, he sees weakness and is trying to attack it.

Given all that, the ferociousness of the counterattack against Gingrich is hardly surprising. He portrays himself as a threat to the GOP establishment, and the establishment sees him that way as well. And if the Republican Party goes on to do poorly in this election cycle, I suspect that Gingrich will get a lot of the blame, at least initially, from his fellow Republicans.

But in the end, he’s doing his party a favor.

– Jay Bookman

What biology teaches about the GOP predicament | Jay Bookman.

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