What the Republican Party Has Rot


No, I don't mean "wrought."  I want to discuss the smelly variety of the word. Those who have observed the Republican Party over the past few decades should not be surprised by Donald Trump's rise to the top of the garbage heap. GOP policymakers are alarmed, but the pile has been building for a long time. Call the party's current dilemma a compost heap begun by Kevin Phillips, with spades turned by Nixon, Lee Atwater, Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, the Tea Party, Anton Scalia, and Dick Cheney. It's called the "politics of division" and it works like a Madonna or Lady Gaga concert–once you obliterate the bar of acceptability, the pressure is always on to take a bolder step in the next act. Sooner or later, though, the only step left is off the precipice.

Political parties must walk a fine line between principles and inclusiveness—a party must have policies, but it must also appeal to broad enough constituencies to compete nationwide. Hot-button issues can temporarily boost enthusiasm, but unless they go mainstream they do long-term damage. This is where today's Republican Party finds itself. It has long ridden angry white men, evangelicals, and bourgeois suburbanites, but the elephant is now on its last legs, no matter how hard the mahouts beat it. If I might torture the metaphor a tad more, there's not enough hay left to feed the elephant–dumb white dudes, zealots, and greedy suburbanites are no longer a majority. America is a multicultural society whether anyone likes it or not.

Explain, pray, how Republicans can attract women when it supports privacy rights on guns, but not for reproductive rights. How do they intend to attract Latino voters and support curtailing immigration? African Americans? If the GOP gets 10% of their votes it's a surprise; 15% triggers an automatic electoral fraud investigation. How many college-age folks–call them future voters–are attracted to the GOP's obsession with school testing and free-market solutions to the college debt crisis? They want no part of evangelical calls to repeal gay marriage or dismantle Roe v. Wade, and they
are positively apoplectic over the GOP's stance on global warming. It drives angst-ridden privatizers crazy, but a whole lot of Americans like Social Security and other federal programs. As Mitt Romney discovered in 2012, it's hard to catch up when you write off 47% of the electorate. Moreover, Obamacare is all that stands between millions of voters—that word again–and a Darwinian survival of the fittest. (Even many GOP governors grudgingly accept this.)

Many Republican leaders are concerned by the reactionary turn the party has taken. Listen to its fire-eaters, and it sounds like Republicans are devoted to restoring the rural, Middle American values of 1956. Good luck with that–81% of Americans dwell in urban areas. I could go on, but it boils down to the fact that the GOP has become the party of an overly narrow base. Single-issue voters can tilt local and state elections, but the only way the politics of division work on the national level is through fear or disgust. These too have lost their power. One of the things Rove, Cheney, Scalia, et. al. left in their wake is cynicism. Cynical people are not pleasant, but they don't scare easily. Fear of terrorism has run its course and most Americans simply want the USA to mind its own business. Plus cynics tend to put things together pretty well–like maybe there's a connection between shrinking job opportunities and reflexive support for free trade, business deregulation, and reckless investing. (Blaming unemployment on immigrants doesn't work so well with white-collar workers.)

The problem is simple: the GOP's divide-and-conquer strategies have mutated into the politics of greed—not the 1% the left trumpets; more like the 38%, which means you have to fool quite a few of the remainder. Donald Trump is the ultimate expression of the politics of greed, but the GOP has no internal answer at this point. Ted Cruz? He's even less electable and nastier, albeit a bit less crude.  And here's the ultimate GOP nightmare—regulars switch to Cruz, Trump sues that under Article I Section 2 of the Constitution that Cruz is a Birther hypocrite who is ineligible to be president, gets a district court to agree, and a 4-4 Supreme Court fails to overturn that ruling. Then what?

Things have gotten so bad that old warhorses like John Sununu, Bill Kristol, and Ben Ginsberg are talking about forming a splinter party. That's probably words over a bad hairpiece, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that the mainstream GOP will jettison its dissident elements and reinvent itself. This is precisely what the Democrats had to do when it became clear that it could not be both the party of Dixiecrats and civil rights. That was a painful amputation that opened the door for the Reagan-GWH Bush era of 1981-1993, but Democrats have held the White House for 16 of the past 24 years and will have to be incredibly inept (even by Democratic standards) to lose it this fall. It's premature to speak of the death of the Republican Party, but it's not too soon to smell the gangrene.


For St. Patrick's Day, Give Dervish a Whirl

Thrush in the Storm (2013)
Whirling Discs
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Happy St. Patrick's Day! If you want to celebrate in style, forget the green beer and bad bar bands—download a few tracks from one of Ireland's best, Dervish. This veteran band has been around since 1989, and Irish music doesn't get much better than what Dervish cranks out. And you can start with this: any list of great female vocalists that doesn't have Cathy Jordan's name near the top should be ignored as rubbish.

Thrush in the Storm came out in 2013, but it's gotten a new push as a download—either single tracks or the entire shebang. I'd recommend the latter, but here's some info for those wishing to discover Dervish one track at a time. If you like sets with complex overlays, check out the instrumental titled "Green Crowned Lass," in which flutes and whistles intersect, depart, and whip up a hearty musical stew. Another Dervish instrumental staple is the patching together of tunes that start humbly, wend their way to a bridge, make a split second stop, and then leap into a heart-stopping pace. "Maggie's Lilt" is a good example of this. Shane Mitchell's accordion appears first as a flash, then disappears, and reemerges when the lilt becomes a sprint. The title tune is another example. Dervish doesn't rush at you all at once. Their sets are like Lego blocks—the pieces snap together piece by piece until the small becomes mighty; in this case, until a slow hornpipe becomes a fast reel.

A lot of Celtic bands use songs to slow the pace. Not Dervish. When Ms. Jordan steps up to the mic, it's often with bodhran in hand as she intends to command the tempo in every way imaginable. Thrush in the Storm contains mostly traditional songs, but with Jordan's twist on them. She revives "Handsome Polly," in part because it's one of the rare trad songs in which the woman is left standing at the end. In this case a dragoon captain dies of a broken heart after being spurned by a comely maid. "Snoring Biddy," which Jordan fashioned from incomplete snippets, is more gruesome in that a husband murders his wife, but Jordan's tongue-twisting treatment is so robust you may be too busy tapping your toes to notice the tragedy. A personal favorite is "Baba Chonraol," which opens with a simple drone-like arrangement until the bouzouki comes in and Jordan's voice becomes what dance sounds like. The song then evolves into a kind of nouveau medievalism that's at once ancient, yet new. Like I said, Irish music doesn't get much better than this. --Rob Weir


10,000 Maniacs Still Cranking Out Entertaining Tunes

10,000 MANIACS
For Crying Out Loud
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Confession time: I really liked 10,000 Maniacs back in the 1980s, but when Natalie Merchant left the band in 1993, I followed her and ignored the Maniacs. (Merchant's 2003 House Carpenter's Daughter is among my favorites of the new century.) I was surprised when Noisetrade offered a free download to celebrate the band's 35th year on the road, as I had assumed 10,000 Maniacs to be defunct. I'm happy to be wrong and I'm anxious to dip into a 2015 release titled Twice Told Tales, which consists entirely of covers of traditional songs.

The Maniacs have just two members left from the original 1981 lineup: bass player Steve Gustafson and keyboardist Dennis drew, though drummer Jerry Augustyniak has been with them since 1983. Merchant's replacement, Mary Ramsey, sang with the band from 1994 to 2001, left, and returned in 2007. Though she lacks Merchant's deeper dark tones, she compensates in the higher ranges and is quite a talent in her own right. As in the 1980s, you'll find 10,000 Maniacs called things such as: college rock, soft rock, folk rock, and alt-rock. My own handle for them is sunshine pop, by which I mean they are the kind of outfit that seldom challenges us, but are always entertaining—hummable songs wrapped in jangly guitar, heavy-on-the-first-beat percussion, soupy keyboards, smooth lead vocals, and harmonies that add more texture than power. For Crying Out Loud offers seven tracks from post-Merchant albums: the sweet "Ellen" from Earth Pressed Flat (1992), the dancey "These are the Days" from Our Time in Eden (1992), and "Shinning Light" and "Love Among the Ruins" from the 1997 album named for the second song (which enjoyed modest chart success). What is especially heartening, though, is that the album's best two selections are its most recent ones. "Triangle," from the 2013 album Music from a Motion Picture is both a lovely song and a well-crafted one that opens with an acoustic guitar/piano mix, subtly adds instruments, and builds to its swelling bridges. And I'm happy to report–as noted above–that 10,000 Maniacs are still infusing new life into old songs—their cover of "She Moved through the Fair" from the new record is moodily atmospheric and has thoughtful enhancements that interject just the right among of newness without destroying the song's time-tested integrity–like a flash of electrified fiddle and some soft blips that are the electronic equivalent of underpainting.

It's welcome back time for 10,000 Maniacs. They never strayed, but I went away for a few decades. Is this stuff cutting edge? No–but in an age of white noise, failed experiments, paint-by-the-numbers power pop, running-on-empty hip hop, and brain-dead major labels, there's joy in hearing a band that just gives us our money's worth.
Rob Weir