TO DISMISS all the "tea party" protests, parades, and rabble-rousing during the past few weeks as just so much more "weirdness of the wing-nut summer," as one blogger put it, is tempting. But the multifaceted - some would say incoherent - demonstrations of fear-based anger signal a more worrisome development in the political dynamics of the country.
I'm afraid the vehement thrashing of Glenn Beck-inspired "angry white people" could dig an even deeper hole for the Grand Old Party than it's already in. And contrary to popular opinion, I don't wish that on any Republican or Democrat or nation that needs competing, constructive voices to move forward.
A one-party system is not in anyone's best interest. But fear is on track to utterly derail the GOP and push it to irrelevancy. Without a modern day, turn-of-the-century party leader in the mold of say, a progressive Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican Party, as we know it, could be relegated to the fringe sidelines.
Frankly, it's distressing to see the party so hunkered down in a shell that no member is willing to take it in a new, bold direction for fear of being beaten down by the Rush Limbaughs or Sean Hannitys of the uber right. Yet that's what has to happen if the few remaining moderate Republicans hope to realize some of their ideals and ideas.
Look, change is stressful and there's already plenty of apprehension going around with people losing their jobs, their homes, their hopes. To some degree, we're all anxious about the unknown. But when uneasiness and uncertainty reign in abundance, fear can become powerfully attached to fiction. That's what professional fear-mongers count on.
They stand ready to pounce, feeding the general misgivings of the population, a potent diet of dread. Yet when they shamelessly manipulate frayed emotions to encourage impulsive reaction over rational response, things can get really twisted.
The angry are stoked to wage indiscriminate war against any target that stands apart from them - black men, women, gays, whatever. The fearful bundle a catalog of dissent and pitch a fit against an enemy that is made to epitomize all that is wrong with the world.
But this time, those who incited the reactionaries to flail in town hall meetings and marches on Washington, the ones holding the matches that started the fire, could get burned themselves. So could those who quietly stand by while the flames of unfounded fear are wildly fanned.
When the face of the GOP becomes contorted through apocalyptic rhetoric, dark delusions, and ugliness aimed at anyone different, the country as a whole will recoil.
In the end, what Americans want is not a mob of screaming ditto-heads assembled to vent anger about a disjointed litany of issues from abortion to term limits to financial bailouts and the legitimacy of President Obama's election.
No, what the nation wants are sensible, practical solutions to its problems. It needs Republicans, whether far right or moderate, to be part of the conversation about critical issues from health-care reform to getting out of Afghanistan.
We need their ideas, their dissenting voices, to strengthen the process of constructing rational plans for the greater good. It's a lot easier to scream and shout in nebulous protests or raise the tangled specter of socialism or Nazism than to engage in the hard work necessary to make tough choices and good decisions.
But nothing stays the same forever and change in America will happen with or without Republican input. The longer the GOP allows itself to drift without a rudder in the insanity of the moment, the longer it will take to gain the trust of voters who know the difference between noise and noble.
If Republicans don't want to be marginalized into extreme movements like the John Birchers or worse, they need to say more than no and do more than maintain the status quo. They need to stop being intimidated by those who are paid well to stir up public misgivings for broadcast ratings, or accept the certain death of their party in 20 years.
Regressive nonsense doesn't cut it in the 21st century. Right-wingers have had their fun with noisemaking, scorch-and-burn tantrums to rally the core, provoke the perplexed, and orchestrate an uprising against everything and everybody. Now it's time for conservatives with a conscience to get serious and come to work for their party and country.
Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.
Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org