The Radicalization of the Republican Party and the Current State of America
There are certain moments in history where many different and amorphous threads coalesce into a hitherto unanticipated shape. The accession of Augustus Caesar in 27 BC ended the 482-year-old Roman Republic and ushered in the Empire. A similarly historic metamorphosis seems to be taking shape in the United States, though it marks the decline of an empire rather than its inauguration. One symptom of that transition, both as outcome and mover, is the disturbing evolution of the Republican Party into an engine of obstruction within the American government as well as an increasingly extreme and belligerent theocratic combatant on sexual mores.
This marks a sharp reversal of the widely shared communitarian attitudes that shaped American politics in the first half of the twentieth century. The dominant ethos was the Progressive movement. It campaigned for women’s suffrage, instituted the ill-considered Prohibition, sought to curb the power of the large corporations, regulate banking, prohibit child labor, promote the right of workers to unionize, impose government-backed workplace health and safety standards, and institute a social safety net through unemployment insurance, minimum wages laws, and a government-run pension system. Republicans, though generally anti-union (not nearly so strongly as they are today), were almost as likely as Democrats to share the rest of these goals. Insofar as religion was part of the motivation it was the social service ideals of the mainstream Christian churches, drawing on the Sermon on the Mount rather than the gospel of self-enrichment preached by the televangelists.
Contrast today’s Republicans with their ancestors in the 1950s. Back then the party’s leaders were eminently conventional Northern industrialists, not casino and hedge fund managers or talk radio and cable TV shock jocks. Party ranks were filled with the respectable middle class, especially in small towns: stodgy neighborhood bankers, real estate promoters, farmers, small business owners, members of the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs. They were fiscal conservatives who dutifully went on Sundays to hear soporific sermons at conventional churches – Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics. Babbitts and boosters.
When Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense, Charles E. Wilson, the former head of General Motors, was widely misquoted as saying “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country,” though the left saw this as corporate arrogance, most people shrugged and probably agreed with the sentiment. Asked to imagine a Republican woman would most likely elicit a picture of Betty Crocker, not a harridan like Ann Coulter. If anything could excite them it was the fight against Communism, and Communism, while the crusade against it in the United States went overboard and birthed its own evils, was an evil system.
Bipartisanship was central to the functioning of the American Congress. This was possible because the country by the 1950s faced no serious economic or social threat other than its low key Cold War. The two ruling parties had more in common than the issues that divided them. Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 was offered the presidential nomination by both parties. The Republicans had a strong Progressive tradition. This went back to the Radical Republicans who carried out Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War, and the trust busting of Teddy Roosevelt. In 1960, Nelson Rockefeller, a very moderate Republican who had served under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, was governor of New York. Prescott Bush, George W.’s grandfather, was the Republican U.S. senator from Connecticut. He was a strong supporter of Planned Parenthood, backed civil rights, donated to the United Negro College Fund, and attended the Episcopal Church. Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., former Republican U.S. senator from Massachusetts, was American ambassador to the United Nations, of which he was a strong supporter. Nixon’s VP running mate in 1960, Lodge was shunned by Southerners for pledging, without Nixon’s approval, that if his party won the presidency they would appoint an African American to the cabinet. In 1963 George Romney, Mitt’s father, was elected governor of Michigan. He strongly backed the civil rights movement, resisting sharp criticism from the Mormon hierarchy, and refused to endorse Barry Goldwater in 1964 because of Goldwater’s outreach to Southern segregationists. He had excellent relations with the state’s powerful union movement.
The Democrats, in contrast, were a more mixed bag. The party had emerged from the Civil War as an unholy coalition between Northern big city governments with their working class constituencies and the defeated slaveholders, who held millions of poor whites in thrall and fostered a segregationist system that disfranchised blacks from voting and excluded them from public schools, with white-only restrictions pervasive throughout society. The pro-segregationist Southern Democrats put a brake on the progressive and labor forces in the party and shifted it to the right. The Democratic Party contained within it forces considerably both to the right and to the left of the more homogeneous Republicans. As these canceled each other out, the Democrats came to rest only slightly left of center, under the impetus of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms, instituted to use governmental power to lift the country out of the Depression of the 1930s.
Of course, for both parties this was a virtually all white political system, and patriarchal to boot. The 1960s and demographics changed that.
The sixties, more accurately the decade between 1965 and 1975, shattered this, in retrospect, almost bucolic pattern. As a precursor, the civil rights movement began with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56, expanding in the Freedom Rides in 1961, winning a layer of white as well as black youth who were radicalized in the fight for school integration and voting rights in the South. President Johnson’s huge escalation of American troops in Vietnam in 1965 provoked a wave of revulsion at home, magnified by the military draft that touched millions of young men. The veterans of the civil rights movement waded into the antiwar struggle, over the next seven or eight years winning the approval of a large majority of the country’s population.
The black civil rights movement in the South faced a more openly hostile white population than in Northern cities, but its goals involved fairly simple legal changes: to prohibit segregation of schools, restaurants, and movie theaters, and win the right to vote. There were no comparable legal solutions for the low wages, substandard housing, and job discrimination in the minority ghettos of the Northern metropolises. When protest erupted there it was volcanic and indiscriminate. The Watts riot in Los Angeles in 1965 was the first, in which 34 people were killed. The assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968 sparked uprisings in 110 cities. Crowds of up to 20,000 burned large sections of Washington, DC, where the government responded with the most massive mobilization of federal troops in any American city since the Civil War.
Not finished, the radical decade plowed on with the women’s movement, challenging male supremacy in the home and the work place, then came the Stonewall Riots, heralding the emergence of the gay liberation movement.
This social turmoil was capped by ominous international signs of U.S. decline. The Arab oil embargo of 1973-74 quadrupled the price of oil to the then devastating but now laughable $12 a barrel, boosting gas prices to an unheard of 55 cents a gallon. Thousands of gas stations closed and those that remained mostly shut on weekends. There were block-long lines and three-hour waits. Many stations would sell only 5 or 10 gallons per customer. The event revealed American vulnerability and dependence on foreign governments it could not control.
Then in 1975 came the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, vindicating the millions who had opposed the war, but deeply wounding its supporters. A small Asian nation had beaten the colossus, an unprecedented sign of American weakness.
The end of the sixties revealed a different populace from the one that had existed in 1964. The institutions of government never recovered the level of respect and trust they had enjoyed in the 1950s. On the left there now existed an amorphous but quite large layer of people who had come to look on the federal government as an evil empire, large corporations as a sinister force in American politics, and all U.S. influence in other countries – diplomatic, commercial, or military – as predatory. These veterans of the sixties radicalization shared with a still larger group a constellation of progressive social views, starting with those inherited from traditional American liberalism: for progressive taxation to fund a strong social safety net, for universal healthcare, these now expanded to add support to feminism and gay rights, antiracism, for the right of abortion. Never much attracted to socialism, whatever sympathy there was in that direction evaporated with the collapse of Communism in 1990, Tea Party claims to the contrary notwithstanding. What remained was a very moderate leftism similar to European liberals and social democrats.
The mirror evolution on the right was in some ways more complex. In 1968 Richard Nixon institutionalized the Southern Strategy, appealing to segregationist whites, terrified by the black uprisings earlier that year and angry at the young radicals who had undermined the U.S. war in Asia. The shift of the white South from Democrats to Republicans was prolonged, beginning with the conservative upper class and encompassing the majority of white workers only in the 1990s, but essentially consolidated with Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980. Two Democratic presidents were elected in the last half of the century, both Southerners – Jimmy Carter, on the wave of anti-Republican sentiment after Watergate, and Bill Clinton, on bad economic news that disenchanted voters with George H. W. Bush. But since 2000 the white South has been militantly Republican. Obama in 2008 lost the white Southern working class vote by 18 percent.
The fraught consequence of the realignment in the South was to give the political map a clear territorial division that had not been present since the Civil War. The much circulated maps of red and blue states overlay with chilling precision the country’s division on the eve of the firing on Fort Sumter. Today’s Republicans command the whole of the Confederacy plus the Midwest, which in 1864 were territories contested between free and slave states. The Republican hostility to the federal government echoes the secessionist sentiments of the Old South, occasionally voiced openly today, as in a speech by failed Republican presidential candidate and Texas governor Rick Perry in April 2009 to a Tea Party crowd, where he threatened his state’s withdrawal from the Union.
Not only the geography but the demographics tell us we are looking at differences that have festered and metastasized since the nineteenth century. The Republican base is overwhelmingly older whites, heavily rural or Southern. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2050 non-Hispanic whites will decline to 46.3% of the population. This, along with many symptoms of national decline, domestic and foreign, stoke existential fears in much of this aging white population.
The result of the sixties was that both left and right came to distrust their government. Survey data from the Pew Research Center shows that in the period since 1958, public trust in the U.S. government peaked at about 77% in 1965, with a surge of patriotism at the first large-scale escalation of the Vietnam War. It plummeted almost immediately, crashing to about 26% after Jimmy Carter’s failed effort to rescue the American hostages in Iran. There was a slight revival under Reagan and the first Bush administration, but it never reached 50%. 9/11 fostered a brief spark and then tobogganed steadily downward to a historic low in 2010 of 18% who would say they trusted the government.
These numbers are for both parties. They are not remarkably different between them, Republicans going up a bit when their party holds the presidency, Democrats for their side. The polarization is somewhat greater for the Obama government. But while all sectors of the population have radically lost their faith in Washington, Republicans uniquely in the same period also changed their religion, abandoning the mainstream Protestant churches in droves and flocking to the hitherto fringe fundamentalist, Pentecostal, Evangelical, and Charismatic sects. These are spread among innumerable individual churches and vary among themselves in their specific set of beliefs, but most tend to expect the imminent second coming of Christ, stress Bible literalism, often including young earth Creationism, reject biological evolution and global warming, and look forward to the Rapture. This is a belief invented in 1827 by English clergyman John Nelson Darby, based on a rather strained interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:16, claiming that Jesus will come back not once but twice, the first time to whisk the true believers to heaven while leaving the majority of the human race behind to suffer under the lash of the Anti-Christ until Jesus comes back again to carry out the last judgment. Catholics and mainstream Protestants do not accept this idea. It is hard not to see the Rapture as a narcissistic invention of people who imagine they are vastly superior to the rest of humanity and even to the great majority of Christians.
This trend fostered a rise in magical thinking. If these vast supernatural events are at hand, the normal rules of nature and fact are to be overwritten by the miraculous. Such an outlook depreciates the significance of facts, and of science, a method that fails to acknowledge the most important fact of all, the imminence of Armageddon, proclaimed by prophecy in thousands of church sanctuaries every Sunday. As a sign of the times, the sixteen Christian apocalyptic novels of the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins – which began publication in 1998, in which the true Christians are Raptured to heaven and the Anti-Christ takes over the world in preparation for the final battle with Christ and his Angelic legions – sold upwards of 65 million copies.
The point here is that for the Republican Right, in large part under the influence of its new-found Southern branch, the response to social turmoil and international decline shattered faith in government and replaced it with an embrace of apocalyptic supernaturalism, churches that look to the imminent end times rather than to the conventional homilies and modest reform efforts of the previously dominant Protestant denominations. These churches generally reject the mainstream Christian commitment to charity and aid to the poor, seeing salvation as a plan for their own members to jump into the Jesus lifeboat and escape the sinking ship, leaving the majority, who have somewhat different views, to drown. This prioritizing of saving one’s own skin and letting the rest hang permeates the contemporary Republican attitude toward the poor in the here and now – particularly if they happen to be black or Latino, a rather traditional attitude of white Southern churches. Government intervention, apart from a strong military and expansive prison system, is to be focused on enforcing religious sexual mores, not on such irrelevancies as healthcare, food stamps, or unemployment insurance for the undeserving. Of course these are sociological generalizations, not descriptions of individuals. Every mass movement sweeps up its share of innocents. In 1976 it looked as though the whole of China contained nothing but fanatics. Polls show that a fair portion of the Republican voting bloc are more moderate than their leaders in Congress and in state houses, particularly younger voters. But it is the leadership and the more militant that set the agenda.
Mainline Protestants were the large majority of American believers until the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. These churches were socially liberal, committed to public service, support to government, and proponents of a strong social safety net for the poor. Fundamentalists rejected all of these views, but throughout much of the last century largely withdrew from the world. The conservative Evangelical churches that boomed after 1975 shared most of the Fundamentalists’ attitudes but sought to energetically proselytize their views and to contest with other currents in the political arena. They grew rapidly as trust in government waned, becoming the new focus of self-identification for millions. In 1979 Jerry Fallwell founded the Moral Majority, the genesis of the Christian Right, that aimed at capturing the Republican Party and ultimately imposing a conservative Christian regime on the country.
The mainstream Protestant denominations were revealed by the Pew 2010 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey to have fallen to only 18.1% of the population. The conservative Evangelical churches in contrast have grown to 26.3%. Even these figures don’t tell the whole story. Catholics are 23.9% and in recent years there has emerged a substantial current within American Catholicism similar to the Evangelicals. The membership in the militant Evangelical churches are far more active, somewhat younger, and have more children than their liberal rivals. The congregations of the Evangelical churches are heavily invested in the Republican Party, where they champion opposition to abortion, rejection of gay rights, disbelief in evolution, advocacy of school prayer, and, less obviously derived from any Christian religious grounds, rolling back government provision of old age pensions, medical care, or aid to the poor, the disabled, and the elderly – as well as lower taxes for the rich.
The Evangelical churches, of which the Southern Baptists are the largest single example, are largely an export of the Deep South, which, once persuaded to switch to the Republican Party, has since captured that organization and driven it far to the right of mainstream American politics.
Colin Woodard writes in the July 5, 2012, Washington Monthly, “The radicalization of the Republican Party in recent years has a lot to do with it having been taken over by Deep Southerners like Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey and George W. Bush, Haley Barbour and Jim DeMint. The central policy goals of Tea Party Republicanism mirror those of the Deep Southern elite: rollback federal power, environmental, labor, and consumer protection laws, and taxes on capital and the wealthy. It’s a program one never would have seen in the days when the GOP was run by Yankee – read ‘Greater New Englander’ – figures like Teddy Roosevelt or George Bush the senior.” We could add to the Southern coterie Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. This conservative magnet has drawn to it a few Northern ideologues such as Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota and budget slasher Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. John Boehner of Ohio as House Speaker has tried to toe the Tea Party line but has been humiliated several times by his own caucus when he supported some minor compromise with Obama.
As could be surmised, the Deep South takeover of the Republicans was possible only because the party was essentially all white. The Pew Trends in American Values 1987-2012 surveys, released June 5, 2012, show that the Republican Party is 87% white, 2% Black, and 6% Hispanic, this last heavily composed of Cubans, whose history of exile from the Castro government and automatic legalization on arriving in the United States place them far to the right of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. In contrast the Democratic Party is 55% white, 24% black, and 13% Hispanic. The most dramatic findings in these extensive surveys are the fall in Republican agreement that the government should take care of those unable to take care of themselves, from 62% in 1987 to only 40% in 2012, and the collapse of its agreement that the environment must be protected. In 1987 the two parties differed by only 5% in support to environment protection. In 2012 the gap was 39 percentage points, due to the Republican reversal. There is nearly as great a change in the Republican attitude toward unions. Never very favorable, there was a 20% difference between the parties in 1987; this has grown to 37 percentage points in 2012.
As the country has polarized into gridlock along sharp geographical as well as political lines there is the impression that the problem is simply the stubborn irreconcilability of counterposed ideologies. That is not so. Virtually all studies show that the Democrats have moved only marginally leftward, essentially being slightly center left on social issues and centrist or center right on economic ones. In contrast the Republicans have moved from center and center right to far right across the board. Worse, they have for years adopted a policy of delegitimizing the American government, using the many available procedural rules of the House and Senate to paralyze and discredit the institution. This is well documented in Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein’s recent book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism .
Mann and Ornstein have been involved in the professional study of Washington politics since 1969, Mann as a resident scholar at the Brookings Institution, Ornstein at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. In 1978 the two founded the Congress Project, affiliated to the American Enterprise Institute. Its purpose was to closely track changes in the American Congress. Their first program at AEI was to meet with a group of incoming freshmen representatives. These included first-term Newt Gingrich from Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.
Democrats had long held majorities in the House and Senate. At Mann and Ornstein’s 1978 dinners with newly elected House members Gingrich presented his radical plan to discredit the Democrats and bring the Republicans to power:
“The core strategy was to destroy the institution in order to save it, to so intensify public hatred of Congress that voters would buy into the notion of the need for sweeping change and throw the majority bums out. His method? To unite his Republicans in refusing to cooperate with Democrats in committee and on the floor, while publicly attacking them as a permanent majority presiding over and benefiting from a thoroughly corrupt institution.”
Republicans as well as Democrats present were shocked. Of those around the dinner table there was one man who agreed with Gingrich. His name was Dick Cheney. One of Gingrich’s first tactics was to reserve time for Republican speakers on the House floor in the evenings. C-SPAN cameras were fixed on the podium. Gingrich and some of his colleagues “attacked Democrats for opposing school prayer, being soft on Communism, and being corrupt. . . . In the favored technique, the lawmaker speaking turned as if he were addressing Democrats in the chamber, and the lack of response made it appear as if those in the audience either accepted the charges or were unwilling or unable to counter them.” In fact there was nobody in the audience.
The Gingrich strategy of delegitimizing the American government was adopted wholesale by the Republicans following their 1994 capture of the House of Representatives in their stunning 54-seat victory, ending forty years of Democratic control. In November and December 1995 Republican intransigence in demanding budget cuts shut down the government for 28 days. Tens of thousands of federal workers were sent home. According to a 2010 Congressional Research service report, health services for military veterans were cut, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention virtually shut down, and toxic waste clean-up was stopped at 609 sites.
This was a pale preview of Republican tactics against the Obama presidency. Mann and Ornstein write:
“Republicans greeted the new president with a unified strategy of opposing, obstructing, discrediting, and nullifying every one of his important initiatives.” This has gone to such extremes that on January 26, 2010, six Republican senators voted against a bill of which they were themselves cosponsors – a measure to create a deficit reduction task force – when President Obama endorsed it. This kind of obstruction increased tenfold when Republicans won control of the House in 2010. “What followed was an appalling spectacle of hostage taking – most importantly, the debt ceiling crisis – that threatened a government shutdown and public default, led to a downgrading of the country’s credit, and blocked constructive action to nurture an economic recovery or deal with looming problems of deficits and debt.” By October 2011 the Republican strategy of gridlock and delegitimization had plunged public approval of the institution of Congress to a historic low of 9 percent. This was a party that seems never to have heard the maxim, Don’t spit in the well from which we all must drink.
Mann and Ornstein, the latter with impeccable conservative credentials, place the blame squarely on the Republicans, declaring that “the Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the center of American politics, it is extremely difficult to enact policy responsive to the country’s most pressing challenges.”
Mann and Ornstein are particularly upset by the Republican threat to have the government default on its debts that was the centerpiece of the spurious debate in the fall of 2011 over the normally routine vote to raise the federal debt limit. The debt limit was raised seventy-eight times between 1960 and 2011. These actions are taken not to authorize new spending but to cover outlays that have already taken place. To vote not to raise the limit to cover such obligations has nothing to do with preventing new government spending but is like deciding not to pay your credit card bill. Mann and Ornstein object that the Republicans “frequently mischaracterized a vote to lift the debt ceiling as a vote to add more debt.”
It has been Republican presidents who have driven the country into the deep debt it faces today. According to FactCheck.org, the national debt rose 190% under Ronald Reagan, 52% under George H. W. Bush, 37% under Bill Clinton, and 86% under George W. Bush. Obama, inheriting an economy that fell into a depression almost as deep as the Great Depression from Bush Jr.’s unfunded wars and extravagant tax cuts, married to a rampant and unregulated financial sector that promoted the housing bubble with billions in subprime mortgages, raised the debt by a surprisingly low 45%, much of which went to recovery efforts. With revenue desperately needed to keep people working and stoke demand to restore businesses, total Republican intransigence in refusing even the tiniest tax increase – while taxes are at historic lows not seen since the 1950s – is a form of sabotage. They often candidly admit this with their slogan “Starve the beast.” Anti-tax guru Grover Norquist, whose pledge never to raise taxes under any circumstances has been signed by virtually every Republican in Congress, famously laid out his envisioned endgame for the American government: “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” The Republicans have harped on the notion that the Democrats “tax and spend.” The record shows that the Republicans spend far more – on credit.
Much has been written about the Imperial Presidency, largely because the Congress, since U.S. entry into the Korean War in 1950, has abdicated to the executive branch its authority to declare war, leaving the president with exceptional control over military and federal police powers. This was notably expanded under the George W. Bush administration in pursuit of the so-called War on Terrorism. The American government nevertheless remains a tripartite system of checks and balances, which depends for its functionality on mutual respect between branches. The Congress operates under rules in which a determined minority can veto the decisions of the majority and bring government to a standstill.
Two of the most powerful tools of a hostile minority party are the Senate hold and the filibuster. Senate rules peculiarly require unanimous consent to bring a bill to the floor for a vote. Any senator can anonymously place a hold on any piece of legislation, preventing it from coming to a vote. Intended to allow a senator to ask for time to study a bill strongly affecting his home state or committee, the hold was rarely used until the 1970s. Today it is routinely and repeatedly used by Republicans to block almost all legislation supported by the Obama administration.
Mann and Ornstein recount how Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, best remembered for being arrested for indecent conduct in 2007 while playing footsie under a restroom partition in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, used anonymous holds in 2003 to block all Air Force promotions for months, trying to blackmail the Air Force into stationing some cargo planes in his state. Richard Shelby, Republican senator from Alabama and chair of the Senate Committee on Housing, Banking, and Urban Affairs, in February 2010 put a blanket hold on all White House nominations for executive positions – more than seventy then pending – to get two earmarks for his state. They conclude: “[T]he minority party’s sharply expanded use of the hold as a political tactic to delay and block action by the majority has transformed the Senate, especially over the past four years.”
Twenty-eight-year congressional Republican staffer Mike Lofgren offers a devastating survey of the Republican evolution in a widely circulated September 3, 2011, article, “Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult.” Commenting on the debt ceiling standoff then still in progress he wrote:
“Everyone knows that in a hostage situation, the reckless and amoral actor has the negotiating upper hand over the cautious and responsible actor because the latter is actually concerned about the life of the hostage, while the former does not care. This fact, which ought to be obvious, has nevertheless caused confusion among the professional pundit class, which is mostly still stuck in the Bob Dole era in terms of its orientation. . . . It should have been evident to clear-eyed observers that the Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe.”
He excoriates the deliberate Republican misuse of congressional procedural rules to hamstring the government:
“The only thing that can keep the Senate functioning is collegiality and good faith. During periods of political consensus, for instance, the World War II and early post-war eras, the Senate was a ‘high functioning’ institution: filibusters were rare and the body was legislatively productive. Now, one can no more picture the current Senate producing the original Medicare Act than the old Supreme Soviet having legislated the Bill of Rights.
“Far from being a rarity, virtually every bill, every nominee for Senate confirmation and every routine procedural motion is now subject to a Republican filibuster. Under the circumstances, it is no wonder that Washington is gridlocked: legislating has now become war minus the shooting, something one could have observed 80 years ago in the Reichstag of the Weimar Republic. As Hannah Arendt observed, a disciplined minority of totalitarians can use the instruments of democratic government to undermine democracy itself.”
“Undermining Americans’ belief in their own institutions of self-government remains a prime GOP electoral strategy.”
The filibuster, the right of any senator to speak as long as they wish, entered Senate procedure not in the Constitution but in an apparent error in rewriting Senate rules ordered by then-Vice President Aaron Burr in 1805. In the first half of the twentieth century it was most commonly invoked by Southern segregationists to delay or derail civil rights legislation. A filibuster can be ended only by a cloture motion, which requires 60 Senators to pass. In the 1960s, there were never more than seven cloture votes in an entire Senate term; in the 110th Congress, in 2008, there were 112. Under the rules, even a successful cloture motion must be followed by thirty hours of floor debate. Republicans now routinely insist on taking the full thirty hours, mostly used for endlessly repeated roll calls that show the absence of a quorum.
One much used tactic is to file multiple filibusters for the same piece of legislation: first for the motion to consider the bill, then for the bill itself, then for any amendment the majority may make to accommodate minority objections, each filibuster requiring debate, then a cloture vote, then thirty hours of floor time afterward. With the Democrats and their allies in the Senate down to fifty-nine, even a cloture vote is impossible, giving the minority the ability to prevent any piece of legislation from coming to the floor for consideration.
Republicans repeatedly file filibusters even against bills that they support and will eventually in their majority vote for, just as a disruption tactic. Mann and Ornstein give several recent examples. In 2009 the Obama administration sponsored H.R. 3548, a bill to extend unemployment benefits during the worst of the recession. No one openly opposed it; the bill ultimately passed on a vote of 98 to 0. But Republican senators filed two filibusters, each of which required two days of debate before cloture could be invoked, followed by thirty hours of floor time after each cloture motion. “A bill that should have zipped through in a day or two at most took four weeks, including seven days of floor time, to be enacted.”
Republican filibusters were similarly invoked against H.R. 627, a bill to limit usurious interest rates and exorbitant hidden credit card charges, and the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, aimed to set stiffer penalties for mortgage and securities fraud. In both cases virtually all Republicans as well as the Democrats voted for the measures, but the filibusters/cloture obstruction added weeks of congressional time. Mann and Ornstein conclude:
“One purpose is rank obstruction, to use as much precious time as possible on the floor of the Senate to retard progress on business the majority wants to conduct, and to make everything look contentious and messy so that voters will react against the majority and against the policies the senators do manage to enact.” The phony hue and cry against Obamacare is only the most egregious example of Republicans denouncing as socialist and tyrannical a policy created by Republicans themselves and in fact the hallmark achievement in Massachusetts of their chosen standard bearer in the 2012 presidential race.
The House operates more sensibly, on simple majority vote, but even there the Republican majority use their voting power to prevent the body from accomplishing anything of note. For example, the Republican House has taken the time to vote to abolish the Obama healthcare law 33 times – while it has never taken up a job creation bill.
Back in my Marxist days we would chide some of our most extreme members who took the position of advocating the worse the better for the country on the gamble that if the country fell apart our little group would be able to pick up some of the pieces. Remarkably, one of the two major American political parties now has as a whole embraced that approach, seeing a deteriorating economy and mass unemployment as a liability for Obama and therefore a plus for their side.
The Republican Party leadership and their candidate by default, Mitt Romney, have come down firmly in rejection of scientific fact when it conflicts with the shibboleths of the Religious Right on biological evolution, the causes of homosexuality, or medical understanding of fetal development. They have done the same when science disagrees with the propaganda – and lobbyist campaign contributions – of the oil industry on global warming or the risks of oil depletion. This propensity for promoting policies that have no factual basis can be seen as well in Republican economic proposals that grossly favor the rich and growing inequality over the rest of the population.
Romney has launched millions of dollars in attack ads against Obama over what should have been the noncontroversial idea that government has an important role in stabilizing the economy. Romney denies that the Recovery Act reduced unemployment, or that the bank bailouts saved the financial system, while continuing to insist that tax cuts, especially for the wealthy, produce more jobs and increase revenue for government. Economists Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers in a July 23, 2012, Bloomberg post, report a nationwide poll of leading economists of all political persuasions, Republican, Democratic, and independent, conducted by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business:
“Watching Democrats and Republicans hash out their differences in the public arena, it’s easy to get the impression that there’s a deep disagreement among reasonable people about how to manage the U.S. economy. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, there’s remarkable consensus among mainstream economists, including those from the left and right, on most major macroeconomic issues. The debate in Washington about economic policy is phony. It’s manufactured. And it’s entirely political.”
The Booth School poll showed that 92 percent of the country’s forty leading economists “agreed that the stimulus succeeded in reducing the jobless rate.” The economists were unanimous that the bank bailouts lowered unemployment. They were unanimous that the Republican charge that Obama’s energy policies were responsible for high gas prices was false. And on tax cuts:
“How about the oft-cited Republican claim that tax cuts will boost the economy so much that they will pay for themselves? It’s an idea born as a sketch on a restaurant napkin by conservative economist Art Laffer. Perhaps when the top tax rate was 91 percent, the idea was plausible. Today, it’s a fantasy. The Booth poll couldn’t find a single economist who believed that cutting taxes today will lead to higher government revenue.”
Stevenson and Wolfers summarize:
“The debate in Washington has become completely unmoored from the consensus, and in a particular direction. Angry Republicans have pushed their representatives to adopt positions that are at odds with the best of modern economic thinking. That may be good politics, but it’s terrible policy.”
The 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision overturned a century of precedent for restricting the amount of money that can be pumped into election campaigns. The motivation in the peculiar ruling that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as actual people was supposed to be the even-handed empowerment of corporations on the right and trade unions on the left. This fiction ignored the vastly growing financial power of corporations in the American economy and the concomitant shrinking away of the unions, in large part from the massive deindustrialization of the United States and the off-shoring of its manufacturing sector to China and to lesser nations in the developing world.
Union membership peaked in 1954 at 32.5% of the work force. By 1984 it had fallen below 20%. In 2011 it was down to 11.8%, and even that is misleading, as it includes numbers above 30% among public employees averaged against private sector unionization of only 6.9%. The numbers have grown so small that it is little wonder that the vast majority who are not unionized don’t look on the unions as the vanguard of the working class, but more as privileged job trusts, not entirely but predominately composed of older white workers.
Despite John Roberts’ unexpected reprieve for the healthcare act, the nominally anti-government right, using presidential appointments to the Supreme Court and a wrecking operation in the U.S. Congress, have leveraged their substantial electoral support into the ability to prevent the majority from governing. On the positive side, given American demographics this should promise to be a short-lived ascendency. The aging white base of this movement, no matter how militant, will be swamped in the electoral arena in a decade or two. This, of course, explains both their anxiety and their readiness to violate the norms of government. From their viewpoint their way of life is passing away, into the hands of aliens of many sorts: domestically, blacks, Hispanic immigrants, and treacherous white liberals; internationally, increasingly powerful global competitors. This in the setting of the seemingly interminable economic crisis that began in 2007 that promises only a shrinking pie.
The Republicans respond with sabotage of the common institutions of governance, charges of tyranny where none exists, tacit support to rumor campaigns of the president’s illegitimacy: that he is a secret Muslim, that his Hawaiian birth certificate is a forgery, that he is a socialist radical planning to take people’s guns and give their money away to (nonwhite) freeloading loafers. Republican rallies and blogs abound in talk of Second Amendment solutions and, here and there in the old Confederacy, of secession. There is an air of desperation about all this.
The GOP has begun to speak of the vote as a privilege and not a right, seeking through new legislation in states under Republican control to prevent students from voting and demanding photo IDs, currently not possessed by many millions of American registered voters who do not drive and do not have driver’s licenses. There are one million voters without such ID in Pennsylvania alone, the state where Republican State House Leader Mike Turzai admitted openly that the purpose of the state’s new voter ID requirement was to suppress Democratic votes, declaring when listing the accomplishments of this year’s legislative session, “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania? Done.”
The idea that there could be significant voter fraud by in-person appearance at the polls on election day is on the face of it absurd. There are virtually no examples of it in the last century anywhere in the country. To carry it off the voter would have to already exist on the voting rolls. The fraudster would have to be assured that the voter was not going to vote themselves, and would have to be intending to vote for different candidates than the real registered voter for the action to make any difference. Voter suppression is the only way to explain this sudden rush to outlaw a crime that doesn’t happen at the cost of ensuring that very large numbers of legitimate voters will be barred from the polls. The old Jim Crow poll taxes, designed to exclude black voters in the South, were very small, often no more than $1 or $2. These obstructions to voting were declared unconstitutional with the passage of the 24th Amendment to the Constitution in 1964, as well as in Supreme Court rulings based on the 14th and 15th Amendments. Under most of the new Republican rules already long-time voters must first secure a certified copy of their birth certificate – often difficult or near impossible if they were born at home in rural areas or urban slums – at a cost of from $10 to $45, then use that to apply for a state photo ID. The time and expense of this prolonged two-step process can be guarantee to lose a large number of previous voters. In one case last March, 86-year-old World War II veteran Paul Carroll was turned away from the polls in the Ohio town where he has lived and voted for forty years when the staff refused to accept his federal Veterans Administration photo ID, on the grounds that it did not have his current address (the VA by policy does not put addresses on their cards).
Not surprisingly this effort to rig elections by excluding potentially millions of already registered voters raises the question of how far the Republicans may be willing to go if they cannot win elections at all. Some on the left fear that the Republican Right may seek an authoritarian preemption of elections. The term they often use to describe this eventuality is fascism. It is difficult to tell how widespread this apprehension is. A Google search of “Republican Party fascist” returns 2.9 million hits. Many of these are stories about Republicans calling Obama a fascist, and much of the charge coming from the left is hyperbole, but there is significant speculation on a drift by the newly extremist GOP toward fascism or something like it. So far this discussion is mostly confined to the blogosphere. I would approach the subject rather gingerly, as “fascist” has mostly become a swear word, empty of content, for any political formation one disapproves of, or at best conjures images from old movies of Nazi storm troopers herding Jews onto trains bound for Auschwitz.
What is true is that crises of economic decline in the first half of the twentieth century spawned many authoritarian movements, of which those that called themselves fascist were the most widespread. Among these, Americans think principally of the German Nazis, who were the most barbaric, and who never used the word. If there was a mainstream of fascist type it was Mussolini’s Italy, a police state run by black shirted thugs, but one that didn’t kill very many people, didn’t have mass concentration camps, didn’t promote anti-Semitism (until their German allies insisted on it), and which had a tolerable modus vivendi with the traditional Right and the Catholic Church. What it did represent was a political party that ruled above the law, that disparaged parliamentary institutions, and that politicized its concept of moral norms and imposed them on a powerless citizenry.
I don’t think I would worry too much that the Republicans are headed in that direction if I thought the present economic slump would soon be over and prosperity would return. It is the substantial decline in American fortunes since 1975 that has pushed the GOP as far as it has gone to date. If national decline deepens in the future there is reason to consider that we have not yet seen the limits to which the Deep South-dominated Republicans may go.
People have been trying since the 1930s to understands what fascism was really about. It is worth looking at that discussion, as we are well into a period that poses somewhat similar social stresses of the 1930s. The old Marxist notion that fascism was a conspiracy of the big capitalists to head off a workers’ revolution has long been discredited. Particularly to be distrusted are definitions contrived recently, specifically to indict the Republicans. A handful of scholars have emerged as the ranking authorities on this kind of movement, people far removed from the debates in contemporary American politics. Stanley G. Payne, Roger Griffin, Richard Wolin, Michael Mann, and Robert O. Paxton are among the most distinguished. Paxton in his The Anatomy of Fascism offers a brief snapshot of the fascist phenomena:
“Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
What is interesting here is that those who have studied these authoritarian movements find that they arise not from ruling class conspiracies but from within a broad community that sees itself in decline and unjustly victimized by others, even if this is sometimes only in their imagination, as with the Germans who believed that they were the victims of a world Jewish conspiracy. Certainly there is something of this in the situation facing the older conservative whites, who see their domination slipping away.
The talking points of Republican politicians and their promoters at Fox News brim with victimhood. They claim to be suffering a thousand indignities, from a tyrannical federal government that is trying to shackle businesses with crippling regulations, a hostile “lamestream” media, Christian-hating officials who want to ban Christmas, a swarm of shiftless “takers” who use the government to redistribute income from honest job creators to themselves, illegal aliens who arrive by the truckload to drop anchor babies to qualify for American welfare, black imposters who show up at voting booths impersonating actual voters who they happen to know have stayed home that day, schools that inculcate anti-Christian beliefs that humans did not really walk together with the dinosaurs, which really died off because they wouldn’t fit on Noah’s Ark, not to mention the proponents of un-Biblical marriage in which men marry men and women marry women, when everyone knows that the Bible requires that marriage must be between one man and one woman, except perhaps for Solomon, who had four hundred wives.
We may all be going down, but plainly the Republican conservatives feel they are especially put upon, and that this justifies their short-circuiting the rules of democratic governance. At least so far, advocates of violent internal cleansing and external expansion are mostly found only in the blogosphere and in fringe groups, tolerated but not mainstreamed in the Republican movement.
The risk is in the gathering threats of further economic deterioration. The prosperity of the last two decades, which mostly benefitted the super rich but at least let the living standards of the rest stagnate rather than fall, was heavily based on mounting debt. For individuals and families this was unpaid credit card balances and serial home loans, speculating on an ever rising spiral of home prices. For the finance-dominated economy it was the vast sale of securitized risky mortgages. For the government it was the sale of Treasury bonds, which must be paid off with interest as they come due. Because of the Bush tax cuts, income from taxes is the lowest as a percentage of GDP it has been since 1950, and likely to stay that way given Republican intransigence. At the same time government expenses skyrocketed, with two wars, followed by the economic implosion of 2007. The result has been that Washington’s income in recent years has fallen far short of its basic obligations. The government in consequence has borrowed between 36 and 40 cents of every dollar it spends.
The almost jobless recovery has been anemic and continually threatened with relapse, as none of the three sectors can sufficiently fund new economic growth by resuming or increasing borrowing to the degree of the recent past. And in a period of world recession export markets are not coming to the rescue. The debt crisis in southern Europe, particularly in Greece, threatens the fragile recovery. Europe remains America’s largest export market, where a deepening European downturn can push the U.S. back into recession. In addition, if the Euro is devalued it would give European exporters an advantage over exports denominated in dollars going to countries like China and Brazil.
Then there are the ecological threats. Global warming, no matter who denies its existence, is already here, ravaging the Midwest and South and cutting deeply into our country’s vaunted food production. And the damage done by drought, wildfires, and floods is mounting year by year.
A related potentially devastating crisis is depletion of essential energy and mineral resources, especially oil. There is a vigorous debate now in progress over the threat of peak oil. Both the European governmental International Energy Agency and the U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration have concluded that ordinary crude oil has hit its global peak and is now in a plateau that will soon turn to steady decline. Historic price rises since the turn of the millennium have put a strain on the whole of the world economy. At the moment supply and demand are narrowly in balance, holding prices to the still very steep $90 a barrel for U.S. and $106 for European oil, this last used in California and much of the U.S. East Coast.
The precarious balance depends on two factors: a decline in world demand due to the recession, and a small increase in the supply of newly added “unconventional” oil: Canadian tar sands, fracking to release oil from shale deposits, deep sea drilling, very heavy oil, mostly from Venezuela, and conversion of natural gas to a liquid.
Even optimists and most knowledgeable Republicans, despite the simplistic “Drill, baby, drill!” slogan, generally concede that conventional crude oil has peaked and the days of cheap energy are over. Their hope is that the expensive and difficult-to-extract unconventional substitutes will save the day. Time will tell if they are right. A paper by Leonardo Maugeri , an Italian oil executive and visiting scholar at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, goes so far as claiming that projects, now in their early stages, by 2015 will have guaranteed a sufficient oil supply to meet projected world needs through 2020, supplies being so plentiful that prices will see a dramatic fall.
Global oil output in 2011 was 83 million barrels a day (mbd) according to the Energy Information Administration. They project that unconventional oil will grow to only about 9.5 mbd by 2035. The Bakken deposit of shale oil in North Dakota, which Maugeri cites as the most important source for U.S. unconventional oil, to date is producing only 800,000 barrels a day out of American total consumption of 8 million. Stephen Sorrell, senior lecturer in Science and Technology Policy Research, Sussex Energy Group, in a post to the July 11, 2012, OilDrum website says that Maugeri’s estimates are based on decline rates for existing conventional oil fields that are far lower than those of the U.S. government:
“[H]e uses an average annual decline rate for all fields of 1.6% over this period, which is less than half of the IEA [International Energy Administration] and CERA [Cambridge Energy Research Associates] estimates for 2008 (4.1%/year and 4.5%/year respectively). The discrepancy is even greater since the IEA and other analysts project an increase in average decline rates over the 2011-20 period.”
If the IEA and CERA estimates are correct, even the most optimistic hopes for unconventional oil will not come close to making up the shortfall. This would have a very serious effect on the U.S. and world economy.
All of the above causes pose severe risks for the future of the American economy. The geometrically expanding world population can only be fed, housed, and provided meaningful work with some level of ongoing economic growth, a prospect that becomes more and more unsustainable. It is reasonable to expect that, with some ups and downs, the trajectory of our future economy is on a downward slope. This will generate blame for anyone holding government office and encourage extremist movements of the right and left. And here the Republicans are well ahead of any left-of-center reaction, as most liberals are simply defending the status quo.
The particular racial and sexual fears of the elderly whites who have flocked to the transformed GOP are their unique problem, above and beyond the real problems that we all share. But for those who find becoming a minority to Hispanics, blacks, and Asians intolerable, or who cannot accept radically different concepts of marriage, including gay marriage, or who refuse to abandon traditional patriarchal power over women’s reproductive organs, these fears are highly motivating. They would not be the first group that, finding it impossible to rule by majority consent, seek to rule without it.