As Congress keeps kneeing the nation closer to the edge of a financial precipice, one can be forgiven for confusion over the nature of Republicans, the folks who used to make a great show of fiscal responsibility, concern for small business and a sound dollar. These days, that sounds more like the Democrats.

We’ve posted recently about the machinations that led to this juncture — the gerrymandering that has sent the ludicrous extreme of the GOP to Washington — and the new rise of the old South, as Bill Moyers pointed out (and there’s an unrelated study to back that up). But it stretches belief to think that the entire Republican Party has suddenly turned into Michele Bachmann clones. In fact, The Atlantic has called out the 32 tea partyers it sees as behind this manufactured — but very real — political crisis.

But what of the rest of the party? Why has it let the fringe seize the driver’s wheel?

Historian Garry Wills, writing in The New York Review of Books, has the answer: cowardice. In a piece headlined “Back Door Secession,” Wills draws parallels between today and the lead up to the Civil War, when slave holding states ignored federal laws as they saw fit, and violated the US. mails by requiring anyone in the South who received an abolitionist tract in the mail to claim it publicly, which opened them to vilification and occasionally violence. It was a mob mentality applied to the political stage, and to stray — for instance, saying maybe it’s not such a good idea to hold the economy hostage — draws excoriation:

Just as the Old South compelled the national party to shelter its extremism, today’s Tea Party leaders make Republicans toe their line. Most Republicans do not think laws invalid because the president is a foreign-born Muslim with a socialist agenda. But they do not renounce, or even criticize, their partners who think that. The rare Republican who dares criticize a Rush Limbaugh is quickly made to repent and apologize. John Boehner holds the nation hostage because the Tea Party holds him hostage. The problem with modern Republicans is not fanaticism in the few but cowardice in the many, who let their fellows live in virtual secession from laws they disagree with.

Republican leaders in Congress are too cowardly to say that the voting restrictions being enacted by Republican-controlled state legislatures are racially motivated. They accept the blatant lie that they are aimed only at non-existent “fraud.” They will not crack the open code by which their partners claim to object to Obama because he is a “foreign-born Muslim” when they really mean “a black man.” They will not admit that the many procedural laws adopted to prevent abortion are in violation of the law as defined by the Supreme Court. They go along with the pretence that all the new rules are “for women’s health.” De facto acts of secession are given a pseudo-legal cover.

Thus we get people who say they do not want the government in control of women’s health under Obamacare—just after they order doctors to give women vaginal probes the doctors do not consider medically necessary. Or that they do not want the government telling Americans what they should do about their health—just before they prohibit “navigators” from even discussing choices about their health. The same people who oppose background checks for gun purchases now want background checks for anyone the government authorizes to explain the law to people. This is a gag rule to rank with antebellum bans on the discussion of slavery.

The Republicans created this mess. It’s up to them to fix it. Interestingly, House Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday said that President Obama was insisting on “unconditional surrender by Republicans [before] he’ll sit down and talk to us. That’s not the way our government works.”

No. But it is the way hostage negotiations work. And poll after poll show that the vast majority of the American public lays this crisis at the feet of the Republicans. All of them, not just the tea party extremists. Maybe Boehner should look less to fronting for the extortionists and more toward cleaning up his own House.

—Posted by Scott Martelle.

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