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Alarm bells for the GOP; Republican Party has to find a way to loosen the grip of its extremists

Here is a measure of the depth to which the Republican Party has fallen:

"The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."

The excerpt is from an op-ed piece in Friday's Washington Post by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein and was, itself, adapted from their new book, "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism."

This is the critical thing to know about the authors: They are noted, respected political experts and Ornstein is a resident scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. They are not liberal flame-throwers intent on re-electing President Obama. But they know a frog when they see one -- and that's what this party, once a prince of American politics, has become. The question is: Can anyone reclaim it?

There is a tendency, not just in politics but in life, to spread blame equally when a relationship or organization fractures. Sometimes, that may be true. Both parties in a marriage may more or less equally contribute to its demise. But sometimes, it may be because one of them broke the rules.

That is what is happening in Washington, D.C., and around the country as the tea party Republicans have kicked the legs out from under a political system that is built on compromise, evidence and a degree of collegiality. That, inevitably, puts American democracy on a path to crisis.

Yes, it is true that Democrats can behave badly, too. But as Ornstein and Mann make clear, what is happening in today's Republican Party is of a different order. These are true believers -- zealots -- immune to evidence, persuasion, compromise, even science. They believe what they believe and are perfectly willing to upend a century of social and political development in vain pursuit of their mirage of ideological purity.

In a large, diverse and mainly centrist country, that makes the Republicans the outlier that Ornstein and Mann contend. That also makes them unlikely to achieve significant control of the government. But that's not good news.

Even in their current configuration, the party is able to block movement on important issues. That means that critical issues like the budget deficit and entitlement reform will remain in limbo.

What is more, "unlikely" to achieve control doesn't mean "impossible." One of the country's two main political parties is held in the grip of extremists who care for nothing but their own distorted view of the country. As bad as things are, they could get worse.

This is a moment for all Americans to consider the ramifications of their votes. Which candidates in any given election are more likely to help lead the country, and the Republican Party, off the ledge? When even conservative observers are sounding the alarm, it is time to pay attention.