In Santorum, Death or Vindication for Democracy?

Especially given Rick Santorum’s two recent wins, and headlines practically blaring Romney’s concomitant weaknesses, I tend to see the Republican primaries as proof of a problem without a solution: members of a democracy don’t always vote for the superior candidate.

To be perfectly clear, I’m no fan of Mitt Romney. But I think it’s reasonable to conclude that he’s a better experienced and substantially less extreme (fleeting appearances to the contrary) nominee than Rick Santorum, and therefore objectively better equipped to run a twenty-first century democracy, where decisions must be made on the basis of reality rather than wishful ideology. Polls and mounting unfavorables to the contrary, Romney’s also better equipped to beat Obama in the general election, as Santorum’s ability to energize for the base simply cannot make up for the mass exodus of moderates Republicans will witness following a Santorum convention.

This is to say, if Republican primary voters are attempting to rationally select (1) the best President (2) who is also best-equipped to defeat the sitting President, they’re doing a bad job of it, or the democratic process is failing to translate their preferences into useful results. My conclusion holds even if Republicans are trying to select, instead, (1) the most conservative (read: extreme) candidate (2) who is also electable.

Given this bleak outlook, there’s one way to save democracy: if we imagine that, despite the voters’ stated goals, the Republican electorate is actually engaged in a longer game of which they’re not even consciously aware: crafting the party over the long term. Here we see two possible narratives emerge:

First, Republicans are happy to take a dive this term, so long as by nominating a conservative candidate, they build a philosophy that can win given enough time, and set the stage for a better message man to win with it. Call this the Goldwater option (per Toobin’s analysis), under which Republicans nominate an evangelical to signal (and cue up) an evangelical revolution, knowing it’ll take about four years to incubate. Even so, this seems like objectively bad strategy, because the current facts don’t fit the Goldwater pattern. Santorum’s evangelical revolution is not so much a true revolution as a counterrevolution against an infant post-culture wars finance-centered Republican Party, happily smothered in its cradle by the chaotic influence of the Tea Party. And, more importantly, the electorate isn’t just “not ready” for Santorum-style theocracy; they’ve affirmatively rejected it in poll after poll showing support for gay marriage rising by the day, and shock at Santorum’s anachronistic opposition to contraception (I mean, really). Truly, Santorum is one of the finest minds of the 13th century… and (maybe) a good alternative to George W. Bush. In the 2000 primaries.

SecondRepublicans are engaged in the eschatalogical reinvention of their party, a process that can only be begun by the ritualistic sacrifice of a fundamentalist scapegoat. In Santorum, they’ve found their man. By this theory, Republicans really believe that they lost in 2008 because they weren’t conservative enough, and aim to test the theory by setting a paleoconservative against a week incumbent. If they win, they’ve proved a theory, and the Party can continue to radicalize apace. But when they lose, Santorum absorbs the blame, as a proxy for the religious right, and moderates may begin the arduous task of extirpating the fundamentalist influence on their party.

I want to believe the second narrative is true, but it’s one that entirely deprives the voters of agency. The justification for why democracy “works” in this case is that the electorate is either smarter than its component parts, like a hyper-efficient market, or force standing “behind the veil, unseen yet present”; or that we expect to spin gold from whatever electoral straw the electorate hands us.

Maybe the answer is that democracy can’t be judged by the short-term, or by individual elections, but only in retrospect. The arc of the Republican primary is long, but it bends towards… something?

Stay Uselessby the Cloud Nothings

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