Be afraid. Be very afraid. Mainstream, rock-ribbed, you-can't-make-me-flinch Republicans are. One former leader of the party I spoke with the other night said, "We've never seen anything like them. The Gingrich 'Contract with America' revolution was mild by comparison." Representative Bob Inglis, attacking the play to the lowest-common I.Q. of the base, said, "We're getting what we deserve."
America's first know-nothings were a mid-19th century collection of nativists who dreaded "foreign" influences on the American way of life. Reactionary as they were, we may someday see them as a collection of Rhodes Scholars and Nobel Prize Winners compared to their lineal political descendents who make up the current crew of Republican extremists now flexing their recently pumped up muscles in the Congress. Knowing nothing would be an improvement for this group which defiantly embraces the wrong, the indefensible, the illogical and the absurd with their only apparent criteria for taking a position being that it feels good for their adrenaline-stoked base. Facts, science, knowledge, and reality are all seen as the tools of elites, weapons against common folks who have gotten along just fine believing in foolish ideas for all these years.
The roots for the current movement could be found in the arguments of creationists against teaching the science of evolution in the schools. But today we have a new generation of fundamentalists ... climate creationists, foreign policy creationists, deficit creationists ... for whom arithmetic and history are simply the tools of the devil. They invoke the founders but sound more like their contemporaries in England who argued that the reason that British hikers were finding fish fossils in the mountains of England had nothing to do with where seas once might have been millions of years before and instead was a consequence of God putting the fossils there to trick people into doubting the literal word of the Bible.
In just the past couple of weeks since the election we have seen half a dozen examples of this next generation know-nothingism, this translation of a dumbed-down zeitgeist into a new movement that might be called Snookiism.
Some Republicans take comfort in the fact that the Tea Party isn't really a party and had no real hierarchic organization or unified platform in the last election. They see it more as an emotional spasm, the Perot Party Version 2010, and that it will pass. But the 110 newly elected representatives on Capitol Hill who were elected with some Tea Party affiliation are now starting to coalesce into a driving force. If they can effectively form and maintain the discipline of a caucus then they have a chance at further institutionalizing and preserving their movement.
In some respects this might be seen as democracy at work. The problem is we are taking an affliction of democracy -- ignorance -- and turning it into a political movement. This may be disturbing to all those who have a passing interest in the facts, but it creates a special burden for those who must oppose the movement, because those on the other side are actually immune to rational argument, by definition allergic to it.
It now falls to the mainstream Republican leadership, especially to presumptive Speaker John Boehner, to control this group and limit its worst traits. And all spirited Americans who can read and write ought to be pulling for him. Because if he fails, America will face the threat of the spread of a strain of reckless demagoguery unprecedented in our history, a Snookidemic that threatens to effectively lobotomize the body politic.
David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.