Believe it or not, the Republican party’s approval ratings have actually gotten worse since the election.

As CNN reports, just 34 percent of Americans polled have a positive impression of the party, versus 61 percent with a negative view. Gallup says that’s the party’s worst performance since they started asking the question in 1992, and the 27-point spread is 11 points worse than in a recent CNN poll. Meanwhile, Democrats are holding steady at 55 percent approval.

So what does this say for the future of what is now incontrovertibly the “opposition party,” with at least 70 fewer seats in Congress than it held just over two years ago? That part’s not at all clear.

59 percent of self-identified Republicans say the party needs to get “more conservative.” What that means is, of course, pretty subjective:  for some it might mean focusing on relatively salutary principles like limited government powers and restrained foreign policy, but for most (in today’s political climate) it probably means more of the sort of closed-minded, hate-filled ideology embodied by Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. The general character of most of the Republicans actually left in Congress suggests they’re likely to adopt this stance, and be as stubbornly obstructionist as they can in response to attempts to get the country back on track.

On the other hand, it’s just possible that they actually care about the party’s electoral future… in which case the path ahead is, well, completely unclear. Self-defined independents, who swung to the Dems this year and on whom most elections hinge, are evenly split on what direction they want to see from the party, 35 percent wanting it to be more conservative and 35 percent wanting it less so.

As the neocons, chamber-of-commerce types, religious wingnuts and other assorted factions of the GOP’s strange bedfellows fight it out over the future direction of the party, I wish them luck making sense of numbers like these.

(Well, no, that’s a lie. Actually, I wish them no luck at all. At least in the near term, an opposition party obsessed with self-doubt and infighting might make it a little easier to get some positive things done in this country. In the long term, sure, it’d be nice if the GOP one day re-emerged as a principled, honorable party, up for some serious civic debate, and ready to hold the Dems accountable for their own genuine shortcomings. A party ready to speak to 21st century America. But I’m not holding my breath.)

Until then, it’s worth noting that that 34 percent (or perhaps just a few points lower, Bush’s recent 24 percent) almost certainly represents an unbreakable floor. About a quarter to a third of the population will always be the kind of people who embrace anti-intellectualism, authoritarianism, and paranoia, people who would embrace a party that played to those sentiments even if it started rounding up their neighbors and shooting them in the street. One of the dangers of democracy is that such people get a voice; one of its virtues is that (recent years notwithstanding) they have a very hard time seizing control, as a majority of more reasonable minds tends to prevail.

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