How We Got Here

I have been pretty scornful of the MAGA crowd and its belief in “the good old days”–its nostalgia for a time that existed (if at all) for a very small subset of White, middle-class, male Americans. But if I’m honest, I’ll admit to a similar, albeit far more limited, nostalgia: a time when being Republican simply meant adherence to a philosophy of limited government and free-market economics.

My recollections are admittedly as selective as those of the MAGA crowd. In both cases, a reality that was true for some limited number of people ignored a much larger–and less rosy– picture.  Those fondly recalling the 1950s– “mom’s baking cookies!”–somehow fail to mention the discriminatory practices that gave mom her underpaid household “help,” and the desperation over women’s subordinate status and economic dependence that often had mom drinking in the kitchen.

Similarly, the nice Republicans with whom I worked rarely noted the “fringe” elements on the Party’s far right;  when they did, they typically sneered. It was okay to use “those elements” to do partisan grunt-work , but the more genteel and intellectual “movers and shakers” would set the policy agenda.

Little by little, of course, that fringe–the Evangelical “Christians,” the Birchers, the Neo-Nazis and other assorted racists, cranks and anti-Semites--became the GOP.

As a recent book review in The New Republic put it, the GOP establishment (naively) believed it could appeal to its extremist fringe without succumbing to it. The review was of a book by Nicole Hemmer, titled “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s,” and Hemmer evidently  focuses on the “moment the Republican Party lost its ability—or desire—to keep its fringe at bay.”

It prefaced the description of the book with some history:

Although some of the most prominent Never Trump pundits—such as William Kristol, editor at large at The Bulwark, and New York Times columnist David Brooks—remain shocked by the obliteration of a more cerebral conservatism, the media-driven partisanship that dominates U.S. politics today is hardly new. Since advertising professionals entered the political consulting business in the 1950s, political messaging has been designed to translate ill-formed, often unconscious, ideological predilections into conservative voting majorities by ever more intense appeals to voters’ emotions and grievances.

Those appeals always circulated on the extremist right. For mainstream politicians who wanted to win these voters, the rule of the game—one that infuriated activists like Phyllis Schlafly—was to disavow the fringe, while signaling to its members. In 1964, even as Barry Goldwater denied that the John Birch Society was promoting his candidacy and deploying canvassers for him, his campaign slogan—“In your heart, you know he’s right”—was designed to reassure those activists that Goldwater embraced their values. The nature of campaigning in the 1950s and ’60s required hiding extremism’s dark side. Television and radio ad buys on channels governed by the Fairness Doctrine made it not just possible, but almost compulsory, to court voters outside the party: A successful campaign could not purposely make itself noxious, as campaigns do today. And although alternative political media provided platforms for extremism, mainstream news outlets did not.

The article traced the trajectory from Goldwater’s campaign through Nixon’s Southern Strategy, through the coded slogans employed by Reagan and George W. Bush, to their  “populist descendants”—Patrick J. Buchanan, Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, and the Tea Party—still believing that party leaders could contain the ambitions of the “pitchfork politics” voters to whom they pandered.

The review describes Hemmer’s book –which I intend to read–as focusing on the question

how did one of America’s two major parties become dominated, not just by vicious, public attacks that used to be the province of undercover dirty-tricks specialists, but by a proud rejection of democracy itself? How did virulent nativism, homophobia, and racism spread from the far-right, where the Republican Party successfully contained it for decades, to take over a whole political party? When did culture wars, promoted between both right-wing pundits acting like politicians and right-wing politicians acting like pundits, stop simply motivating voters and shift the center of gravity in the GOP to conspiracism and illiberalism?

The review is lengthy, and situates Hemmer’s explanation in a political history that is familiar to those of us of a certain age. But here we are. The Democratic Party is far from perfect, as commenters here predictably remind us, but it remains a traditional political party. The GOP, however, has abandoned policy and embraced emotion, primarily racism and resentment; the refusal even to create a party platform marked its surrender of any pretense to care about governing.

The GOP is now the pitchfork party–and those of us who once saw it as something else need to come to terms with that reality.

 

The American Idea

It’s December. Are we ready for the War Over Saying Merry Christmas?

I don’t mean to be flip. After all, when you step back and look at the issues that are currently pitting Americans against one another, virtually all of them are rooted in a profound disagreement about what I call “The American Idea”–a disagreement that animates the Christmas wars.

On the one hand, we have the Christian Nationalists, whose vision of America has much in common with the “blood and soil” beliefs that roiled Europe for centuries. America, to them, is a White Man’s country, with various “others” here essentially as guests. So long as we “others” mind our manners and recognize the rightfulness of their ownership–so long as we “know our place”– we can be permitted to stay and participate in the workforce and (to an extent) political life.

Most of us see the American Idea rather differently. As I read the country’s history and philosophy, an American is someone who believes in the governing philosophy advanced in the Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Unlike citizenries that depend upon some element of identity–ethnic, religious, etc.– for their cohesion, one becomes an American via acceptance of those overarching ideas. As G.K. Chesterton argued, America aspired to create “a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles” united by voluntary assent to commonly held political beliefs.

As America has diversified, White Nationalists have found themselves faced with a new and unpleasant reality: rather than inviting “guests” to “their” national table, they are facing claims to shared ownership.

In a very real way, how we manage difference is a fundamental challenge of humanity, and it is a challenge we can no longer evade, thanks to the communication and transportation technologies that increasingly shrink the distances between people. It has become more and more difficult to isolate like-minded and otherwise similar folks into the kinds of self-contained communities that used to dot the American landscape.

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that this clash between world-views goes a long way toward explaining our current political dysfunctions. It also helps–but doesn’t completely explain– the differences between Red and Blue states. I recently came across a  chart ranking the states by various measures and types of diversity, and I was unsurprised to find that my own state of Indiana was ranked 40th overall. Indiana clearly has a long way to go when it comes to recognizing, let alone accommodating, diversity–thus far, our legislature is firmly in the grip of lawmakers who think they still live in the “Father Knows Best” 1950s.

The study on which the graphs were based broke “diversity” into a number of different kinds of difference: racial, religious, political, income and other categories, providing sociologists with intriguing data that can be mined to determine what sorts of differences are most or less politically relevant.(Different states, of course, come to these challenges with very different political cultures–and taking very different approaches to their changing populations. The top two states on the diversity list were California and Texas, states with governments that have responded to their growing population differences in dramatically different ways.)

White Nationalists are not responding well to the country’s changing demographics, to put it mildly. In his book “The End of White Christian America,” Robert P. Jones offered some trenchant observations about Americans’ very different approaches to the American Idea, and the degree to which those different world-views have influenced the identities of today’s Republicans and Democrats. He especially highlighted contrasting responses to the country’s changing demographics and culture as the country has ceased to be a majority White Christian nation — going from 54 percent in 2008 to 43 percent today.

As Jones has written,

Democrats — only 29 percent of whom are white and Christian — are embracing these changes as central to their vision of an evolving American identity that is strengthened and renewed by diversity. By contrast, Republicans — nearly three-quarters of whom identify as white and Christian — see these changes eroding a core white Christian American identity and perceive themselves to be under siege as the country changes around them.

America’s first  motto was e pluribus unum–out of the many, one.  Our “Christian soldiers” prefer to substitute “One nation under God.” Those competing slogans tell the tale of Americans’ contending approaches to nationhood. We either celebrate our differences within the overarching philosophy embedded in our constituent documents, or we revert into a “blood and soil” society based upon acceptance of White Christian male dominance.

It’s a war, and not just about Christmas.

 

Ron “Contempt For The Constitution” DeSantis

Yesterday’s blog post noted that Florida man Ron DeSantis is a favorite of the New Right. A recent judicial opinion, striking down one of his many outrageous attacks on the Constitutional rights of Florida citizens explains why.

A federal judge on Thursday halted a key piece of the “Stop-WOKE” Act touted by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, blocking state officials from enforcing what he called a “positively dystopian” policy restricting how lessons on race and gender can be taught in colleges and universities.

The 138-page order from Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker is being heralded as a major win for campus free speech by the groups who challenged the state.

Among other “dystopian” provisions of DeSantis’ anti-woke law were rules about what university professors could–and could not–say in the classroom. As the Judge noted in his opinion, the law gave the state “unfettered authority to muzzle its professors in the name of ‘freedom.'”

Florida legislators passed DeSantis’ “Individual Freedom Act” earlier this year (a label reminiscent of George W. Bush’s anti-environmental “Blue Skies” Act..). The law prohibits schools and private companies from

leveling guilt or blame to students and employees based on race or sex, takes aim at lessons over issues like “white privilege” by creating new protections for students and workers, including that a person should not be instructed to “feel guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” due to their race, color, sex or national origin.

The judge ruled that such policies violate both First Amendment free speech protections and 14th Amendment due-process rights on college campuses.

The law officially bans professors from expressing disfavored viewpoints in university classrooms while permitting unfettered expression of the opposite viewpoints,” wrote Walker. “Defendants argue that, under this Act, professors enjoy ‘academic freedom’ so long as they express only those viewpoints of which the State approves. This is positively dystopian.”

This particular lawsuit challenged the application of the anti-Woke law to colleges and universities; other pending challenges assert that the law is illegal and unconstitutional when applied to  K-12 schools and to the workplace.

In a column discussing the law and the ruling, Jennifer Rubin noted,

The law, for example, bars discussion of the concept that a person “by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment to achieve diversity, equity, or inclusion.” During oral arguments, when asked if this would bar professors from supporting affirmative action in classroom settings, attorneys for the state government answered, “Your Honor, yes.”

Walker cited that admission, finding:

Thus, Defendants assert the idea of affirmative action is so “repugnant” that instructors can no longer express approval of affirmative action as an idea worthy of merit during class instruction. … What does this mean in practical terms? Assuming the University of Florida Levin College of Law decided to invite Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to speak to a class of law students, she would be unable to offer this poignant reflection about her own lived experience, because it endorses affirmative action.

The law so blatantly violates the concept of free speech that one wonders if remedial constitutional education should be a requirement for Florida officeholders.

No wonder the so-called intellectuals of the New Right see DeSantis as one of their own. He has consistently used his position and the power of the state to suppress the expression of views he dislikes. Rubin reminds readers of DeSantis’ “don’t say gay” law, his statute banning “critical race theory” in schools and his attempt to fire an elected county prosecutor who criticized his abortion policies. To which I would add his attacks on voting rights and his (successful) gerrymandering efforts.

DeSantis has also regularly flexed his power as governor: excluding media from events, taking public proceedings behind closed doors (including the selection of the University of Florida’s president) and exacting revenge on supposedly woke corporations such as Disney.

DeSantis’s contempt for dissent and his crackdown on critics should not be discounted. This is the profile of a constitutional ignoramus, a bully and a strongman. Voters should be forewarned.

DeSantis, Trump and the New Right sure don’t look anything like the libertarian, limited-government GOP I once knew…The only part of Rubin’s critique with which I disagree is her labeling of DeSantis as a “constitutional ignoramus.” It’s much worse than that.

Unlike Trump, who is an ignoramus, DeSantis knows better. He just doesn’t care.

 

What The Right Really Wants

Vox recently published an interesting postmortem of the midterm elections, looking to see how right-wing intellectuals (a term which I consider an oxymoron) are responding to the lack of that promised “red wave.”

This New Right “intellectual” movement arose after the 2016 election; its approach to Republican politics is a commitment to relentless, aggressive culture war. (Fortunately–at least in the recent elections–voters have seemed unreceptive.)

The article describes three distinct, albeit overlapping, reactions. One is a call to display what the article calls “some tactical moderation” (most notably by bracketing abortion, which was clearly not a winner for the GOP); another “centers on whether Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis represents the movement’s future, and what reasons there are to prefer one over the other.” The third centers on democracy itself.

A minority of New Right thinkers responded to defeat by suggesting the electorate is too far gone for conservatives to ever triumph — and even questioning the value of democracy itself.

“Democracy did not end slavery, and democracy will not end abortion,” declared Chad Pecknold, a self-described “postliberal” theologian at Catholic University.

The “thinkers” pursuing all-out culture war want to discard the conservative commitment to limited government; they argue that limiting the power of the state “stands in the way of waging an effective counterrevolution.”  They believe that their culture war can only be won “by jettisoning libertarianism and using the levers of policy to roll back the left’s cultural victories. Out with tax cuts, in with bans on critical race theory in schools.”

Abandoning the culture war, on this perspective, is not mere folly but national suicide. For some on the New Right, the idea that their approach to these issues might be unpopular is unthinkable. 

One star of the New Right argues for switching allegiance from Trump to  DeSantis –saying that he “backstops his culture-war agenda with capable governance.” (Granted, no one in his right mind could argue that Trump can even spell governance,  let alone provide it.) This DeSantis partisan believes DeSantis will be more able to deliver on the New Right’s shared goals: “to clean house in America: remove the attorney general, lay siege to the universities, abolish the teachers’ unions, and overturn the school boards.”  In other words,  eradicate “woke-ness.”

If the DeSantis contingent doesn’t terrify you sufficiently, there are the New Right “integralists.” These are “Catholic arch-conservatives who believe that the United States government should be replaced with a religious Catholic state.”

Integralists are a part of a broader “postliberal” trend among right-wing intellectuals that traces the cultural decay of American society back to its ruling liberal political philosophy: the doctrine that government should liberate people to pursue their own visions of the good life. Liberalism, they argue, promotes licentiousness and a corrosive individualism…

Postliberals believe that instead of protecting individual freedom, government should aim to promote the “common good” or “highest good”: to create a citizenry where people live good lives as defined by scripture and religious doctrine. This leads them to support an even more active role for the state than even the national conservatives, endorsing not only aggressive efforts to legislate morality but also expansions of the welfare state.

And here we come to the crux of the anti-democratic argument. It isn’t new.

Liberalism–properly defined–rests on a belief that humans are endowed–born with– certain “inalienable” rights that government must protect. The liberal conception of the common good is a society in which government respects those individual liberties to the extent that their expression does not infringe on the rights of others.

A liberal polity will argue–often vigorously–about where that line should be drawn. As I used to tell my students, freedom of religion cannot excuse the ritual sacrifice of your newborn.Figuring out what it can excuse is harder. Every liberty protected by the Bill of Rights has sparked philosophical and legal debate over the extent to which government must respect it–does your freedom of religion allow you to discriminate against people your church considers sinners? Does your Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches prevent government from going through the garbage bag you’ve left on the curb for pickup?

What the New Right wants is statism.  

These “thinkers” assume that they will be the ones who decide what the common good looks like–and they want government, under their control, to enforce their vision. (They’re not so different from the Tech moguls who want to impose their beliefs  by remaking society in their own image.) That approach to governance is incompatible with the cultural assumptions of most American citizens–not to mention the U.S. Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights.

You can call this philosophy a lot of things, but it sure isn’t American. 

Dense Pence Could Save The Democrats

Talk about life in a bubble…Mike Pence has been hawking his book (“So Help Me God”) and in a recent interview with Chuck Todd, displayed the perceptive characteristics that prompted what I’ve been told was his law school nickname: dense Pence.

Pence’s smarmy opinions will come as no surprise to Hoosiers who watched Mr. Piety with growing alarm during his gubernatorial term. In the interview, Pence doubled down on his support for anti-choice laws. When Todd asked him to reconcile that support with his purported belief in limited government–to explain how his declared opposition to “invasive government” co-existed with his insistence that  government force women to give birth– he simply repeated his clearly theocratic position.

Evidently, using the power of the state to impose the beliefs of fundamentalist Christians on everyone else isn’t “invasive government.” Who knew?

Pence also took the position that a fetus should be afforded constitutional rights–an opinion that places him at the very far reaches of the reactionary right.

As a snarky post on Daily Kos reported, however, he did exempt one medical procedure from the iron arm of the state: IVF–or fertility treatments. And why would this self-appointed “soldier of God” allow science to shape his approach to this method of assistingreproduction, when he pointedly ignores what medical science tells us about pregnancy and abortion generally?

Stay calm, America. While you’re taking some time to regain your breath after facing the raw, masculine courage it must have taken for a Republican to say out loud that maybe American citizens shouldn’t be thrown in prison for using a widely available infertility treatment that a creepy undercult of American society believes they and only they should be in charge of, you don’t need to be too surprised here. Yeah, it turns out a Republican thinks a particular medical procedure should not be criminalized only because it’s one that personally benefited his own family.

As that snarky post pointed out, this willingness to exempt a procedure because his family personally benefitted from it is patently inconsistent with the “theology” of “pro life” Christianists.  (But then, giving the state authority over reproduction is also inconsistent with the libertarian conservatism that opposed requiring masks and/or vaccinations during a pandemic…Pence evidently read Emerson to say that consistency–rather than foolish consistency– is the hobgoblin of little minds…) (Silly me–I doubt Mike ever read Emerson, or for that matter, anything but his bible…)

The problem with IVF, then, is that if you believe that the primary role of God is to police everybody’s sex lives and make sure nobody is either making babies or not making babies without the express written consent of Himself, Major League Baseball, and/or whatever local pastor has a bug up his rectory about it, then the IVF process of fertilizing multiple eggs and implanting each of them into the uterus in the hopes that at least one of them will successfully attach and grow means all the fertilized eggs that don’t get used or which don’tsuccessfully attach themselves are all full-fledged human beings and well, now you, your partner, and the doctors are all serial killers for not being able to bring all those fertilized eggs to term as well. Many far-right religious conservatives want would-be parents to go to jail for that, too.

If Mike Pence thinks his incoherent theocracy will sell to the American public, he really does occupy a very small bubble.

Research tells us that 24% of American women will have at least one abortion by age 45. Fifty-nine percent of those women are mothers. According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans identifying as “pro-choice” rose to its highest level in June of this year.

Pro-choice sentiment is now the highest Gallup has measured since 1995 when it was 56% — the only other time it has been at the current level or higher — while the 39% identifying as “pro-life” is the lowest since 1996.

Even among those self-identifying as “pro-life,” there is diminished support for the sort of complete ban favored by Pence and his theocratic cohort.

The latest data show Americans are less likely than a year ago to say abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, falling six points to 13%, the lowest Gallup has recorded for this position since 1995. At the same time, the 35% wanting it legal under any circumstances is the highest in Gallup’s trend by one point, after increasing slightly each of the past three years.

Pence’s obvious belief that his intransigence on this issue will help him electorally reminded me of something my kids would say to me after I uttered an observation that was wildly at odds with the national mood: “You don’t get out much, do you?”

Dense Pence doesn’t get out much.