Starting even before 2010, a populist movement began to take hold of American politics. On the right, the Tea Party came to power on a mission to achieve conservative policy victories for the American people.
While a backlash to business-as-usual in Washington was noble, politics over the past decade has become less about policies and more about personalities—and the Tea Party movement has too often settled for retweets instead of results.
American Carnage chronicles the rise of populism and tribalism within the Republican Party and the “Republican Civil War,” as author Tim Alberta describes it, that he asserts has been brewing for a decade. It’s a thoroughly researched book that tells this political story in a relatively neutral way.
I have mixed feelings about this book. I can’t say I enjoyed reading it. Having been part of the Tea Party revolution of 2010, it has been difficult to see good men that I respect like Rep. Paul Ryan, a central figure in the book, chewed up and spit out, sometimes more aggressively by my own party than by the Democrats. It’s not necessarily fun to read a 600-page reminder about the change for the worse in American politics.
But just because I did not enjoy reading the book, because it wound me up rather than settling me down like other literature, doesn’t mean it isn’t good or doesn’t have value.
Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I believe the objective of politics should be to get results via policy. As the fate of the GOP’s policy-wonk-in-chief, Ryan, shows, that has changed. Alberta’s book describes a politics that has devolved into a reality television show.
Crafting policy all-too-often has the entertainment value of the law section of a library, but the reality show version of politics is a made-for-TV drama and American Carnage depicts a drama unfolding within the Republican Party. It’s the natural result of our elected leaders wanting to be show horses, not work horses. It seems the majority of lawmakers spend more time reading Twitter than reading the bills that place America trillions of dollars more in debt and diminish our liberties.
Starting in 2011, the GOP was in a position to achieve great policy victories at both the state and federal levels. While there were some commendable achievements in many states and some nationally, I can’t help but see the magnitude of the blown opportunity to implement fiscally responsible, pro-growth policies that would set the country on a better track and prove the effectiveness of conservative policies.
Avoiding the boring work of writing laws and hammering out policy differences has the predictable result of opportunities to achieve results being wasted and differences being dramatized and hardened. American Carnage is an indictment of today’s tribalism.
The book was published July 2019, so an updated edition is obviously warranted in light of the continued coarsening of politics. Let me offer an epilogue.
Senior military officers are familiar with Carl von Clausewitz’s On War. Written in 1832, On War is best summarized that war is nothing more than the extension of politics, and military leaders and statesmen alike are heavily influenced by the politics that led to war. This observation of war is clearly evidenced by every civil war, which is the failure of domestic politics, and every military action abroad represents a failing, or escalation, of international diplomacy/politics.
The scenes in Kenosha and Madison last year were truly shocking because they brought to mind the beatings of statesmen and the destruction of treasured monuments during the French Revolution.
Then on the morning of January 6, 2021 events boiled over like we haven’t seen before. Cynical politicians, including many elected Republicans and pundits, assisted the spread of conspiracy theories that claimed the election result could somehow be flipped in a dramatic last-minute reversal. Acting on that belief, a mob took matters into its own hands in a way that was unprecedented in the history of American democracy.
If you thought Benghazi was a black eye, remember that we had federal law enforcement officers being bludgeoned to death by fire extinguishers in the United States Capitol. An assault, not by a sole madman, but by at least a brigade-sized group of insurrectionists.
Some say, “oh, those are just words,” as if words don’t carry power. Words do have consequences. Words are the ammunition of political debate, but when words are so frequently used so carelessly, then in order to be heard in the political realm people believe they must set businesses on fire, beat state senators, or kill federal law enforcement officers when the mobs believe words are no longer enough. It’s like a drug addict seeking a higher high or a pervert seeking ever more strange perversions. The situation becomes locked in a downward spiral until sane minds stand up and say enough is enough. Count me in.
This book and this moment serve as a great opportunity to regroup as both a party and as a nation. While American Carnage focuses on the Republicans, the Democratic Party is beset by many of the same problems and will likely prove they are also not a governing party. The fact is that drama and tribalism are a feature of politics today, not just a party.
A new generation of smart, hard-working leaders will rise, and there are GOP leaders right now who understand the current state of affairs. I have great hope that current and future leaders in the party will be willing to be honest, bold, and eager to do the hard work of getting tangible results for the American people.
RightBooks with Dale Kooyenga is a monthly feature at RightWisconsin. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) represents Wisconsin’s 5th Senate District in the state legislature. He is also a Certified Public Accountant and an Army Reserve officer.