Friday, March 12, 2010

The Modern Republican Party

I read with both amusement and sadness Jonathan Chiat's analysis of yet another Republican's roadmap for America. The roadmap was released by rising star Paul Ryan. Among much else, it proposes eviscerating all that's progressive in the federal tax code, dismantling federal programs like Medicare and Social Security, and ending employee-based health care programs.

In short, Ryan wants to remove anything that smacks of society from American society.

His hero? Ayn Rand.
"The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand," Ryan said at a D.C. gathering four years ago. . . .
At the Rand celebration he spoke at in 2005, Ryan invoked the central theme of Rand's writings when he told his audience that, "Almost every fight we are involved in here on Capitol Hill . . . is a fight that usually comes down to one conflict—individualism versus collectivism.
Let's set aside the sidesplitting irony of a member of Congress—a word derived from the Latin congradi meaning "walk together"—calling for an end to collectivism, and focus on the senselessness of anyone who says, "Almost every fight we are involved in . . . comes down to one conflict--individualism versus collectivism" (my emphasis).

In this contradiction we come face to face with the intellectual incoherence at the heart of the modern Republican Party: yearning to govern while dismissing the value of government. The GOP declines to acknowledge what absolutely all of us know: that nothing in life is achieved alone; that the great question in political life is not "Society or the individual?" but "Who are we and how do we survive?"

Not alone, that's for damn sure.

Prior to Reagan, Republicans knew this. They taxed the rich at 91% under Eisenhower and in one short decade we effectively funded the construction of our nation's modern infrastructure. Republicans taxed the rich at 70% under Nixon and with that money started Medicare, our nation's first meaningful step toward compassionate health care for its elderly. And even under Reagan, Republicans taxed the rich at 50%, giving them the revenues to consolidate our position as the world's dominant military power. Indeed, since Lincoln, Republicans have, for the most part, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Democrats in defense of progressive taxes (almost always above 50% for our richest citizens) and fundamental social protections.

So the question arises: "What changed?"

Fundamentally, this: the demographics of "we, the people."

And an abject inability to embrace this change has destroyed the moral authority of the party of Lincoln.

To clarify what I mean, let me tell a brief story:

I lived in Utah during the early 90s, and one night I was going to Salt Lake City with my roommate at the time, Paul Marchant. Out of little more than curiosity, we decided to check out a gathering on a hill above the State Penitentiary—that night, the State of Utah was set to execute a man for being an accomplice to three murders.

Paul and I parked and walked up a path to the gathering. Upon arriving, we encountered a curious spectacle: two groups of people, only circumstantially divided, one group chanting for the convict's death, the other group holding candles and singing gospel hymns.

It didn't take long to figure out the dynamic: the louder the hymn, the louder the chants for the inmate's death. From the group of singers: sadness, even tears; from the group of chanters: laughter, applause, and self-congratulatory delight at the cleverness of their pro-death rhymes.

Standing among those people that night, disgusted by the meanness, racism, arrogance, and spiritual frigidity of the people in support of the inmate's execution, I contemplated my own political future, and I soon took my place among the candle-lit faces gazing down at the prison.

In short, that night I said goodbye to American conservatism. 

That's a melodramatic account of one of the epiphanies important in my political journey. But it's not false for being melodramatic. Until that night, I'd been a devoted Republican, a "dittohead," even, and an unblinking supporter of the death penalty. But listening to my fellow Americans—my fellow Mormons, at that time—chant for and applaud another man's death, I realized that what matters about our politics is not what it does to others. What matters about our politics is what it does to us.

And the consequences of our two predominant political attitudes were easy to see. On the one hand: rage; cynicism; arrogance; bitterness; racism; hatred; and not merely indifference but delight at the suffering of others. (In short, I saw embodied beside me the attitude of contemporary right-wing talk radio, Dick Cheney, and the moral philosophy implicit in Paul Ryan's roadmap.)

On the other hand: gentleness; humility; compassion; not merely sadness but determination in the face of suffering—the suffering, I add, of the least among us, including, on that night, a scoundrel thief who, at the age of nineteen, drove the getaway car for two brutal, odious murderers.

I'd been Republican long enough to know what was going on at that rally/protest. I knew the code words, the knowing looks, the self-satisfied dismissiveness of the carefully groomed white faces around me. I knew what the chanting, laughter, and applause were really about—

Because this is the deal: Post-Goldwater Republicans don't really object to collectivism; they object to the demographics of the modern American collective. They can't abide a community that includes people whom they see as unlike—and inferior to—themselves. The modern American conservative movement is racist—to its core. From its racism, all else follows. Pres. Carter was right: the Tea Party hysteria has one source: Obama is black. Were he white, there would be no Tea Party. He has cut their taxes, done all he can to save their jobs, rescued the country from an immoral and tragic war, ended torture by the American government, given hope to the justifiable goal of Afghan reconstruction, and fought heroically, against his own political allies, for a new direction in American education. He's a centrist pragmatist, by any reasonable political measure. (David Brooks, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, covers that here.) But Obama is black. So he represents yet another step in the diminution of white power in this country and is, therefore, unacceptable. Not merely unacceptable: he is inexplicable! So I must suffer through the tedious barrage of conspiracy-theory emails that attempts to explain Obama's rise to prominence as the work of secret elites and their parasite-welfare, liberal minions. 

Look at the faces at CPAC, at the Tea Party gatherings. Good, decent, bewildered people—white people, all of them, stunned by changes they can't hope to control. How many of them know that Eisenhower taxed the rich at 91%? Dare I say none of them? But they know this: a black man shouldn't be running the show.

The Republican Party must now harvest what it has sown. Let's hope that the harvest doesn't leave many dead. I was not in the least surprised to see a white, middle-class conservative American fly his airplane, al Qaeda-like, into a building in Texas. That's the inevitable consequence of a political philosophy that repudiates both politics and philosophy and bases itself on the loathsome, doomed dream of white superiority.


  1. It really is a shame if the only people who see these posts are your blog readers. Quite sure there are not enough of them.

  2. I just happened on your blog while reading reviews of Gilead. Your comments were thoughtful and insightful. I am fascinated by the story you told of your disenchantment with the Republican Party. More to the point, are you still Mormon? I have read "Under the Banner of Heaven" and about to read "The Execution of the Penalty" (available on Amazon).