What exactly are conservatives arguing about these days? After listening to the latest speeches of Senator Ted Cruz denouncing his critics and reading Erick Erickson’s latest piece at Red State in which he angrily denounces the editors of National Review as “well fed” and complacent enablers of liberalism, I think those who are not already clued in to the subtext of the dispute would be forgiven for being puzzled about what it was all about. Those parachuting into this debate from the outside will struggle mightily to see what the two sides disagree about in terms of principles or policies and will discover little evidence of any actual split on anything of importance. All participants oppose President Obama’s policies and ObamaCare. They’d like to see the president replaced by a conservative at the next presidential election and ObamaCare to be repealed. But that unity of purpose isn’t enough to prevent what is starting to take on the appearance of an all-out civil war within the ranks of the conservative movement. Those on the right have grown used to seeing liberal mainstream publications and broadcast outlets doing stories about conservatives tearing themselves apart that are motivated more by a desire to fuel the dispute than any objective proof of a significant split. But in this case, it’s hard to avoid the impression that what we are witnessing is actually nothing less than a full-blown civil war among conservatives that may have profound implications for the outcome of both the 2014 and 2016 elections.

At the heart of this is the ongoing debate about the wisdom of the government shutdown that resulted from the Republican majority in the House of Representatives following Cruz’s advice about tying the continuing resolution funding the government to a proposal to defund ObamaCare. As many sober conservatives predicted, the strategy failed. It accomplished nothing other than to damage the Republican Party in the eyes of most of the nation, although it did burnish Cruz’s reputation among those on the right who think the GOP is an assembly of sellouts because they failed to accomplish the impossible. In response to calls from those who were correct about this for a reassessment, Cruz and his followers have begun a campaign whose purpose seems to be to trash all those who had doubts about the senator’s misguided tactic and to damn them as not merely faint-hearts but traitors to the cause of conservatism. That this is arrant nonsense almost goes without saying. But the longer this goes on and the nastier it gets, the more convinced I’m becoming that far from a meaningless spat that will soon be forgotten, the shutdown may become the impetus for a genuine split within conservative ranks that will fester and diminish the chances that liberals will be prevented from retaining their grip on power in Washington.

I think Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru were on to something when they wrote in their National Review essay that sent Erickson over the edge that the problem behind the angst on the right is despair. I touched on the same theme in an essay in the Intercollegiate Review published last month as part of its symposium on what’s the matter with conservatism, as well as in a blog post published here titled “Tea Party Despair and ObamaCare.” Frustrated by the Supreme Court’s illogical decision that affirmed ObamaCare’s constitutionality and by the results of the 2012 election, many conservatives have more or less given up on conventional politics. Right now all they are interested in is a fight, no matter how quixotic. And anyone who won’t charge over the cliff with them strikes such people as something far worse than a political foe.

In response, Erickson and others who have written about this topic ground their attacks on the so-called Republican “establishment” as being analogous to the situation in the 1950s when William F. Buckley founded the modern conservative movement as part of a protest against the way Republicans had become enablers of the Democrats’ liberal agenda. Regardless of the political facts of the day, they say the only rational response of conservatives to the situation is to take a principled stand much like Buckley’s famous declaration that the purpose of National Review was to “stand athwart history” and to yell “stop.” Those who won’t do that are no better than the Republicans who opposed Buckley. Even more important, they say that those who are more concerned with Republicans winning elections even at the cost of their souls than standing up for principle really are RINOs and traitors no matter what their positions on the issues might be.

But it bears repeating there is a big difference between the state of the Republican Party when Buckley was first yelling “stop” and today.

Buckley and his allies were justified in trying to radically change the nature of the GOP because many of its leaders weren’t “timid” conservatives who were afraid of challenging the legitimacy of liberal government. Nelson Rockefeller and much of the GOP establishment of that time really were liberals and were not shy about saying so. Buckley had no interest in electing more liberals even if they called themselves Republicans, but he also famously said conservatives should always back the most electable conservative, not the most right-wing candidate.

The battle that was waged over the soul of the GOP over the next quarter century after NR’s founding was fierce because there were real ideological differences at stake. By contrast, Cruz and Erickson’s targets are not merely fellow conservatives but among the most conservative individuals and outlets in the country. Their sin is not the genuine dispute about the virtue of the welfare state and big government that drove the internal arguments in the Republican Party in that era, but rather one of attitudes. The editors of NR as well as hard-core conservatives like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are not blasted for their beliefs as Nelson Rockefeller and Co. were but because they differ with Cruz on tactics.

What we are seeing here is nothing less than a call for a Leninist-style schism on the right in which NR and McConnell are treated as the Mensheviks to the Tea Party’s Bolsheviks. Anyone who won’t hue to the Cruz party line isn’t merely wrong but, as Erickson’s piece seems to indicate, worthy of being read out of the conservative movement and denounced as betrayers.

This makes sense only if you are of the mindset that anyone not willing to shut down the government is indistinguishable from Barack Obama no matter how conservative they might be. As such, what we are witnessing is not an attempt to convert the Republican Party into a gathering of conservatives—something a previous generation of conservatives accomplished under the leadership of Ronald Reagan—but a war on rational conservatism whose only end is the immolation of the movement the Gipper helped build.

What does this portend?

It’s too soon to know for sure, but right now I’m starting to think that those inclined to pooh-pooh the chances for a genuine split are wrong. If that portion of the conservative base listens to Cruz and Erickson they are going to spend much of the next year trying to exact revenge on the senator’s critics. And if that means helping to knock off genuine conservatives like McConnell who will almost certainly be replaced in the Senate not by more Cruz clones but by liberal Democrats, they think it’s no great loss because such people are more interested in purifying the GOP than in beating the Democrats. Assembling a national coalition that could enable conservatives to govern is a matter of complete indifference to them and they seem openly contemptuous of the necessity of gaining Republican majorities and a Republican president in order to advance the conservative agenda.

This drama will be played out in many states next year in the midterm elections, but it will come to a head in 2016 when a single formidable moderate conservative may possibly be opposed by a split field of right-wingers in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. If so, those today yelling about the betrayal of Cruz are likely to be louder and even more self-destructive. A few more years in which Tea Partiers stop seeing themselves as the vanguard of the conservative movement but as members of a different political alignment altogether could lead to exactly the kind of right-wing walkout from the GOP that was threatened in 2008 and 2012 but never actually materialized. If so, we may look back on the aftermath of the shutdown as not just a foolish argument started by frustrated conservatives but the beginning of a schism that enabled the Democrats to consolidate their hold on power in Washington for the foreseeable future.

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