[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]
On the political psychodrama on Capitol Hill, Paul Krugman had a blog post yesterday telling you exactly what you need to know about the Republicans and why they are behaving the way they are:
The War On The Poor Is A War On You-Know-Who
Lots of people have been referencing this Democracy Corps report
on focus-group meetings with Republicans, and with good reason: Greenberg has basically provided a unified theory of the craziness that has enveloped American politics in the last few years. What the report makes clear is that the current Republican obsession with attacking programs that benefit Americans in need, ranging from food stamps to Obamacare, isn’t about some philosophical commitment to small government, still less worries about incentive effects and implicit marginal tax rates. It’s about anxiety over a changing America — the multiracial, multicultural society we’re becoming — and anger that Democrats are taking Their Money and giving it to Those People. In other words, it’s still race after all these years. One irony here is that at this point it’s the liberals who believe in America, while the conservatives don’t. I believe in our ability to change while retaining our essential nature; I believe that today’s immigrants will be incorporated into the fabric of our society, just as Italian and Jewish immigrants — once regarded as fundamentally incompatible with American ways — became “white” by the middle of the 20th century. Another irony is that the great right-wing fear — that social insurance programs will in effect buy minority votes for Democrats, leading to further change — is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. The GOP could have tried to reach out to immigrants, moderate its stances on Obamacare, and stake out a position as the restrained, sensible party. Instead, it’s alienating all the people it needs to win over, and quite possibly setting the stage for the very liberal dominance it fears. Meanwhile, a key takeaway for us wonks is that none of the ostensible debates we’re having — say, the debate over rising disability rolls — can be taken at face value. Yes, we need to crunch the numbers, but in the end the other side doesn’t care about the evidence.
The Democracy Corps memo, “Inside the GOP: Report on focus groups with Evangelical, Tea Party, and moderate Republicans,” is here. What the report recounts is not exactly news to anyone who has been following the American right over the years. One thing needs to be made crystal clear: the Republican party base is not opposed to social insurance schemes such as Social Security or Medicare. Right-wing Republicans have no problem with transfer payments that they benefit from. Right-wingers only oppose social insurance when this goes to categories of the population the right doesn’t like, e.g. the “undeserving poor,” or the “47%,” or just them (and the disproportionately white Southern Republican base knows who “them” is). Social insurance schemes—referred to in the US as “entitlements” (an unfortunate neologism that is banned on my blog)—have a conservative pedigree, as I’ve written more than once, and are not opposed by conservative citizens who have paid into them in the course of their working lives. Only an extremist ideological fringe—but which is loud and dominates right-wing media—advocates a mythical libertarian vision of an unregulated free market and minimalist state. Sociologists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, among others, documented this in their essential 2012 book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, which was the fruit of a near full year of field research inside the Tea Party movement in different parts of the country.
On the Tea Party’s antecedents, Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, has a post on “Your grandfather’s Republicans.” The lede: “It’s startling how absolutely unchanged the ideology of the extreme American right has been over fifty years…” Gopnik’s piece begins
My colleague John Cassidy wrote not long ago about his difficulties, shared by the fine historian Jerrold Seigel, in finding an apt historical analogue for the Tea Party caucus as it exists today. Nothing quite like it anywhere else, he mused—and then Cassidy won this Francophile heart, at least, by citing as a possible model the Poujadists and Poujadisme, the small shopkeepers’ revolt in France in the nineteen-fifties—a movement that seemed to wither away when de Gaulle came to power, though it’s still alive today in many of the doctrines and practices of the French National Front.
On the parallel between the Tea Party and French Front National, I wrote on this at length two years ago in my post on “Le Pen and America.” As for the Tea Party resembling the Poujadists: sort of but not really. Poujadism was short-lived—lasting barely two years (it had fizzled by 1957)—and had little ideological content. There was a sharp right-wing populist tone to Pierre Poujade‘s discourse but his world-view—and which was that of his petit bourgeois supporters—was centrist at its core (adhering much more to the republican radicalism of the Third Republic than to the reactionary authoritarianism of the Vichy regime or the prewar ligues).
Continuing his tour of recent history, Gopnik sees a strong resemblance between the Tea Partiers today and the John Birch Society of the 1960s
In their new book, “Dallas 1963,” Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis demonstrate in luxuriant detail just how clotted Dallas was with right-wing types in the period before Kennedy’s fatal visit. The John Birch Society, the paranoid, well-heeled, anti-Communist group, was the engine of the movement then, as the Tea Party is now—and though, to their great credit, the saner conservatives worked hard to keep it out of the official center, the society remained hyper-present. Powerful men, like Ted Dealey, the publisher of the Dallas Morning News, sympathized with the Birchers’ ideology, and engaged with General Edwin A. Walker, an extreme right-wing military man (and racist) who had left the Army in protest at Kennedy’s civil-rights and foreign policies—and who had the ear of Senators Strom Thurmond and John Tower. It was Walker who said of the President, “He is worse than a traitor. Kennedy has essentially exiled Americans to doom.” … Medicare then, as Obamacare now, was the key evil. An editorial in the Morning News announced that “JFK’s support of Medicare sounds suspiciously similar to a pro-Medicare editorial that appeared in the Worker—the official publication of the U.S. Communist Party.” At the same time, Minutaglio and Davis write, “on the radio, H.L. Hunt (the Dallas millionaire) filled the airwaves with dozens of attacks on Medicare, claiming that it would create government death panels: The plan provides a near little package of sweeping dictatorial power over medicine and the healing arts—a package which would literally make the President of the United States a medical czar with potential life or death power over every man woman and child in the country.” Stanley Marcus, the owner of the department store Neiman Marcus, heard from angry customers who were cancelling their Neiman Marcus charge cards because of his public support for the United Nations.
I remember the John Birch Society well from the early-mid 1970s, during my last two years of high school, when I developed an ongoing interest in right-wing movements. The Birchers’ monthly magazine, American Opinion, was sold at my local drug store in Evanston IL (a once conservative city—which voted Goldwater in 1964—but that had lurched liberal by the ’70s) and I would discreetly read it there (in the first of only two times in my life that I shoplifted, I stole a copy—I didn’t want to give the Birchers a cent of my allowance—so I could read it at my leisure). Wild stuff, about how America was being taken over by Communists. Even Republicans were infected with the communist virus (the term RINO hadn’t been coined yet, though that’s clearly how the Birchers saw many Republican politicians). It was fascinating to read a perspective and world-view that were so antithetical to mine and that of my family and social milieu (liberal/left). And that was so utterly ignorant of the world beyond America (I had lived in Turkey for four years in my early adolescence and two years in Somalia as a child—and had seen much of Europe and the Middle East, plus India—, so knew something about that world). The Birchers were naturally opposed to the civil rights movement—and had labeled Martin Luther King 100% communist—and there was an undercurrent of racism in their magazine—I remember clearly one article extolling apartheid South Africa—, though one of American Opinion’s regular contributors was black: the now mostly forgotten journalist and author George Schuyler. A black intellectual Bircher, only slightly to the right of Clarence Thomas, Thomas Sowell, or Herman Cain (or maybe not; these three may well be as conservative as Schuyler was in his day). All goes to show that just as some of the best friends of an anti-Semite are Jews, one may be racist and admire a like-minded person or two of color.
Gopnik makes this observation about the Birchers of the ’60s
The whole thing came to a climax with the famous black-bordered flyer that appeared on the day of J.F.K.’s visit to Dallas, which showed him in front face and profile, as in a “Wanted” poster, with the headline “WANTED FOR TREASON.” The style of that treason is familiar mix of deliberate subversion and personal depravity. “He has been wrong on innumerable issues affecting the security of the United States”; “He has been caught in fantastic lies to the American people, including personal ones like his previous marriage and divorce.” Birth certificate, please?
The really weird thing—the American exception in it all—then as much as now, is how tiny all the offenses are. French right-wingers really did have a powerful, Soviet-affiliated Communist Party to deal with, as their British counterparts really had honest-to-god Socialists around, socializing stuff. But the Bircher-centered loonies and the Tea Partiers created a world of fantasy, willing mild-mannered, conflict-adverse centrists like J.F.K. and Obama into socialist Supermen.
Absolutely. The American right sees socialists, communists, Marxists etc in their midst—Obama being one of these or all three—but have no idea what any of these species look like in real life. Continuing with Gopnik’s observation, even the French FN knows the difference between a socialist and a communist; frontistes can identify the real thing. The most reactionary French rightist understands that there is no confusing François Hollande with Olivier Besancenot or Arlette Laguiller. And no French right-winger with the slightest knowledge of American politics would call Obama a socialist, let alone a Red (for the anecdote, when I spoke to an audience of several dozen UMP activists and local politicians in a Paris banlieue last year, the local deputy-mayor, who presided over the event, assured me that in France Obama would be in the UMP; I respectfully begged to differ).
It has been said by many that one of the reasons the right hates Obamacare owes not to fears that the latter may sink the economy but rather that it may well prove a popular success. In this vein, The NYer’s James Surowiecki has a piece on “The business end of Obamacare,” in which one “learn[s] that Obamacare may well be the best thing Washington has done for American small business in decades.” And The Nation is recirculating a blog post from a year ago on how “Paul Ryan quietly requested Obamacare cash,” which may at least partly explain why the GOP’s faux policy wonk didn’t mention defunding Obamacare in his debt ceiling proposal the other day.
UPDATE: Josh Barro, political editor of Business Insider—and who calls himself a Republican—, tells readers to take “One look at these emails [that he's received], and you’ll see why Republicans let Ted Cruz lead them off a cliff.” The GOP base in all its splendor. And they don’t like the RINO Marxist socialist Barro. He concludes: “These people are idiots. But if you’re a Republican elected official, they’re your idiots.”
2nd UPDATE: Garry Wills has a must read post on the NYR Blog, “Back door secession,” which concludes with this
So we have one condition that resembles the pre-Civil War virtual secessionism—the holding of a whole party hostage to its most extreme members. We also have the other antebellum condition—the disproportionate representation of the extreme faction. In state after state in the 2012 election, there was a large vote for President Obama, but a majority of House seats went to Republicans. In Pennsylvania, for instance, Obama won 52 percent of the votes cast, but Republicans got over twice as many seats (13 to 5), thanks to carefully planned gerrymandering of districts by Republican state legislatures. This advantage will be set in stone if all the voter restriction laws now being advanced block voters who might upset the disproportion.
The presiding spirit of this neo-secessionism is a resistance to majority rule. We see this in the Senate, where a Democratic majority is resisted at every turn by automatic recourses to the filibuster. We see it in the attempt to repeal the seventeenth amendment, which allows a majority of voters to choose a state’s senators. The repealers want that choice to go back to the state legislatures, where they rule thanks to anti-majority gerrymandering.
The Old South went from virtual to actual secession only when the addition of non-slave Western states threatened their disproportionate hold on the Congress and the Court (which had been Southern in makeup when ruling on Dred Scott). It is difficult to conjecture what will happen if the modern virtual seceders do not get their way. Their anti-government rhetoric is reaching new intensity. Some would clearly rather ruin than be ruled by a “foreign-born Muslim.” What will the Republicans who are not fanatics, only cowards, do in that case?
We’ll see soon enough, when they lose the 2016 election.
3rd UPDATE: Josh Barro has an amusing commentary on how “Republicans aren’t the ‘daddy party’ anymore.” They’re now “the abusive ex-husband with a substance abuse problem party,” which “is drunk and beating the children”… (October 13)
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