One undeniable benefit of living in America has long been the comforting continuity of our political system, its reliable moderation, not of everyone in the system of course, nor would that even be desirable, but the moderation of the system itself, compared with nations prone to wrenching changes and drastic alterations. A growing number of Americans no longer are convinced this will always be the case in America, and the demise of such an abiding conviction is a disturbing development in and of itself.
Observers of history, and retrospective examiners of perfidious rule or undemocratic regimes will often ask: How did this happen? Why did they allow it to happen? Couldn’t they see? In seeking to detect signs in one’s own society of such undemocratic and insidious drift before it becomes too late, even in America there is surely a threshold point, that when crossed by a political movement warrants the kind of warnings that at one time could be legitimately dismissed as partisan overreach or unjustified alarm or hysteria.
I’ll venture, at the risk of being labeled the shrill Cassandra, unfair partisan or hyperbolic flame-thrower that at the very least it is time to begin to make the case for why the modern Republican Party should be regarded as a real and present danger, and its dogmatically-driven extremism rightly defined at last as evil, or something uncomfortably like it. This must be qualified by noting that there really are level-headed, decent Republican political operatives, while at the same time pointing out that aside from contributions to cable television panels any influence they exert on the Republican Party itself remains so infinitesimal no microscope capable of detecting it has been invented.
Here are seven warning signs:
1. Those who persistently, systematically and substantially misrepresent or wholly deny material reality or concrete fact are capable of anything. This is not theory but manifest in the historical record. It isn’t spin to deny the consensus of climate science or to depredate scientists in the process of denying scientific consensus: it is a sinister mechanism of authoritarianism. Passing laws that disallow the mentioning of homosexuality in classrooms or expunge historical facts from textbooks isn’t politics but the construction of an ideological reality to replace the actual one. When the Soviets extolled the success of collectivized agriculture while millions starved it wasn’t naughty politics but painful tragedy.
A majority of polled Republicans question whether the President of the United States is an American citizen. Any political apparatus and attendant media and propaganda machinery that can foment such a level of belief in unreality should be viewed as profoundly troublesome for a free democracy. Prior to the last election, Republican political operatives, prominent media figures, elected officials and virtually the entire Republican establishment accepted an alternative version of reality they themselves created, not simply claiming, but actually believing Mitt Romney not only would defeat the incumbent president but do so in a landslide. I ask you, does this indicate not only a remarkable societal disjuncture but a situation worthy of alarm as well?
2. Those who demonstrate a pattern of willingness to casually subvert the democratic process ought to be kept an eye on. Conceiving and enacting laws whose purpose is the creation of obstacles to exercising the right to vote for large, singled out segments of the population is ample enough evidence of disappearing fidelity to democratic principles. Proposing laws that distort the tabulation of electoral votes in order for the will of a minority of voters to trump the will of a majority signals that those who do so will gleefully rule by fiat rather than by consent. Such contempt for majority rule (as if promiscuous Republican use of the filibuster already was not de facto civil war) can fairly be judged capable of much worse.
Republicans’ enactment and use of the Emergency Manager law in Michigan, whereby a governor and his administration is empowered to nullify municipal elections as well as contracts entered into by municipal governments, and to assume control of those municipalities, in effect, disenfranchising the entire community and abrogating the basic democratic right of self-governance should be shocking, more akin to something found in dystopian fiction than American tradition. Rational people should find this worrying, if not greatly distressing.
Likewise states governed by Republican governors and legislatures are now nullifying federal law, in effect declaring their states not subject to selected federal laws. Kansas and Missouri each have passed laws declaring that federal gun laws are unenforceable in those states. Arizona has attempted to usurp federal immigration law though has largely been hindered by the federal courts. What other federal laws might states governed by Republican radicalism choose to nullify next: Workplace safety laws, environmental rules, civil rights laws, voter laws, tax laws or laws pertaining to defendants and the criminal justice system?
While these attempts at nullification are clearly in violation of the Constitution, federal courts and a Supreme Court dominated by partisan justices and ideological extremists who have demonstrated a willingness if not propensity to throw out decades and even centuries of precedent in prior instances could conceivably go much further in the issuance of radical rulings. This is secession without the secession declaration. In other times these actions by the states would be likened to insurrection, or deemed so belligerent to American constitutional government as to be viewed as nascent steps toward civil war. How far will current radicalism be allowed to go before it is seriously considered in mainstream circles to be indicative of potentially dangerous outcomes, the movement and its incarnation in the Republican Party regarded as retaining both the will and willingness to rule in defiance of popular will, and democratic principles, and even of constitutional democratic laws?
3. A broad and sustained pattern of acting in emphatic contravention of the popular will is not a small or insignificant thing, nor is it one to be regarded as benign or normal, nor to be reflexively dismissed as neither a genuine or imminent danger. In how many areas of American life will Republicans need to defy the will of citizens before they as a party and political movement are definitively categorized as fundamentally and maliciously anti-democratic? More than ninety percent of Americans have been in favor of a background check requirement for the purchase of weapons, but a small, extremist minority has successfully stymied the popular will. A strong majority of Americans favored an end to the Bush tax cuts and now demand higher taxes on the wealthy along with revenue enhancement over austerity. Is the popular will reflected in current law? Not by a long shot. Americans have favored by substantial majorities that stimulus programs be enacted in order to reduce the unemployment rate, an idea categorically rejected by Republican members of congress. These are fundamental economic and public safety issues, and the will of citizens is largely, and worse arrogantly ignored.
Current Republican elected officials, primarily through procedural obstructionism defy the popular will on consumer and financial regulations, environmental concerns, defense expenditures and a long list of other matters. The adage is that when elected officials act in defiance of the popular will the citizenry will punish them at the ballot box. However, in an era when rural and low-population areas are dramatically, structurally overrepresented in the United States Senate, areas retaining very much minority views relative to the larger population; when voter suppression initiatives, manipulation or usurpation of election laws prevent a response at the ballot box, the majority no longer rules, the minority do. When majority rule no longer is the operating principle of a nation and a small minority exercise power over a large population that nation no longer is a democracy as traditionally defined or understood. Is it possible that, as with the European horror shows of the last century such a “democratic” transformation of a democracy into something else can occur in America enabled by a similar political, press and elite indolence, inattention, denialism and self-absorbed indifference?
4. Radicalism so extreme, unapologetic, resolute ideological purism has never in American history captured fully one of the two major political parties to the extent it has overtaken the current Republican Party at present, nor has it achieved such actual governmental authority at the state and national level as now. Ideological absolutism is incompatible with democratic governance and it is unprecedented for views long considered wholly unsound, eccentric, fringe and beyond the pale to be entrenched at the highest levels of American power, actively thwarting the will of the mainstream and the American majority as demonstrably is the case now. Whether it is threatening to default on the nation’s debt, or to insist upon diminishment of the American safety net in defiance of the will of the majority or to ignore myriad practical problems in deference to ideological strictures there is a visible danger, not an inconspicuous one.
When a party, in this case the Republican Party will behave only in strictest deference to ideological absolutes and rigid dogma to the exclusion of practical or pragmatic considerations or cooperation or compromise, so willfully deaf to expertise and empiricism the nation is in some degree of jeopardy at the very least. Shouldn’t America’s elites and a full range of American media outlets as well as organs of elite or academic or intellectual opinion persistently sound the alarm for the rest of America? Isn’t there an obligation to do that at some point? Are they underestimating the threat, or merely captive to a kind of careerist or insider ineffectuality, jaded nonchalance, or image or status conscious triumph over functionality, responsibility, higher professional purpose and genuine preservation of self?
5. When a political party’s specific goals, intentions and outcomes and ideological consequences are no longer forthrightly stated, when a party forgoes the traditional project of conversion or persuasion, but instead reverts largely to manipulation of the political and electoral process in order to achieve or to sustain rule, that is an extraordinarily bright red flag. Though Republicans have failed to win the popular vote in 5 of the last 6 presidential elections, the ordinary political pressure resulting from a loss for a party to modify or to moderate has been noticeably absent, and in fact the opposite has been the case: the party has moved even further toward the embrace of ideological absolutism and partisan extremity.
Which is likelier: that Mitt Romney campaigning for the presidency had no specific ideas or plans or intentions to be implemented upon his eventual assuming of the office, so could not offer more than vague proposals absent any specifics; or that much of the American electorate would have disapproved of those intentions and those specifics, motivating him to conceal them? Is it likelier that Scott Walker was entirely honest and forthcoming while running for the office of governor of Wisconsin when he assured voters he would not be, and explicitly rejected tampering with collective bargaining rights once in office; or that he understood citizens of Wisconsin strongly disapproved of doing so and concealed it from them? Which is likelier: that Republican derogation of Social Security and Medicare does not convey a desire to dismantle the programs, that policies proposed by Republicans that diminish those programs are indeed designed to fortify as well as prolong them; or that these “reforms” of the programs are indeed designed to erode them and to eventually eliminate them in accordance with right-wing and Libertarian ideology?
Labeling a proposal designed to lead to the incremental demise of Social Security as Social Security reform is not clever political marketing, but truly insidious given the ramifications of that demise for so many citizens, and a popular will strongly opposing such a demise. At what point when the Orwellian becomes a political party’s standard modus operandi should that party be regarded with trepidation? At what point, when elites recognize and fully understand the scale of discrepancy between what a party believes and intends and what it says it believes and intends does the failure to illuminate that discrepancy volubly and persistently become shamefully and manifestly irresponsible?
6. When, with increasing regularity a political party runs for office, elects, and populates elected bodies at every level from local to federal with individuals broadly observed as of highly questionable psychological and intellectual competence, dysfunctional, unstable and potentially dangerous governance becomes likely. The list is too long and the statements too voluminous to include, but the new commonality of such dubious personalities being supported and elected by a Republican Party base is well known and widely acknowledged. What isn’t so widely acknowledged is that mere ostracizing by comics and political insiders and establishment figures is insufficient.
Expecting sound governance from elected bodies increasingly populated with eccentric, incompetent, unstable individuals is unrealistic to say the least. Radical movements and political parties often attract and often include and incorporate radical personalities and unbalanced ones. History tells us such individuals too empowered have done and are more capable of doing terrible things. Many Americans in positions of power and influence, particularly in the press, should regard this development with a greater degree of seriousness, and in my view be a great deal more frightened than apparently they are. Of course, it is in this way that societies look up eventually to find themselves under the rule of reprehensible people. It doesn’t sneak up on them: it simply has been ignored
7. When the mendacity of a political party reaches such a level that large swaths of the citizenry, in fact a majority of it, is held in contempt, demonized, depredated and regarded as lesser beings, in other words, dehumanized, it has become a political party and a political movement beyond the pale. In other words, it should be regarded with extreme wariness if not as an immediate danger, as a genuine potential danger. Historically, a key component of right wing and nationalist movements has been dehumanization of subsets of the population, transformation of segments of the population into the other. Once a group is less than fully human, no longer fundamentally like you it is no longer terribly difficult to subject that group to what otherwise may be unthinkable.
The case of the current President of the United States is instructive. He is not simply disagreed with for his policy proposals, opposed for his espousal of traditional liberal Democratic Party views, but instead assailed as foreign born, a “socialist” a “Kenyan anti-colonialist,” routinely described as anti-American, or in league with America’s enemies or one of her enemies. Once a fellow American has been so categorized then logically it is permissible to treat that person the way in which such people customarily are treated. That so accomplished an American as President Obama, elected with 365 electoral votes and over fifty-percent of the popular vote, could be so virulently reviled by a prominent political minority within the country tells you enough about both the nature and the peril of that minority.
While the capturing on video of a presidential candidate expressing contempt for 47% of the citizens of the United States of America is an anomaly, the views expressed are commonplace in Republican Party and conservative circles, on conservative blogs and message boards, or any place rank and file Republicans gather. In other words, such contempt is a core component of the Republican Party outlook now. No small number of elected Republican officials, as well as rank and file Republicans consistently cite an affinity with the Objectivist views of Ayn Rand, a vision of the world regarding ordinary people and all but elites, as largely unfit, extolling a small number of elites, essentially business elites and capitalists as vastly superior human beings.
The motives and the character of minority citizens who regularly vote for the opposition party are routinely demeaned. The motives and the character of the poor, the unemployed, immigrants, the political opposition and even those among their own declared apostates for their divergence from the purist, absolutist line are excoriated in terms, and certainly with rhetoric reducing them to something very near less than fully human. This proximity to dehumanization of large segments of the population is a trickier proposition than many seem to acknowledge, and a genuinely worrisome slippery slope, even in these United States, capable of leading to truly abominable consequences.
The fact should never be minimalized that since the 1992 election of Bill Clinton, the American right, and its Republican Party have ceased to be the loyal opposition. No longer does a Republican Party out of executive power rest at vigorously criticizing the president and his opposing party. It now must prevent that president from governing at all, at whatever cost to the nation. Republicans no longer regard the Democratic Party or Democratic presidents as legitimate, behaving toward them, thusly. In other words commitment to a two-party system has become a thing of the past.
Again, if the maximalist obstructionism of the last four years, including threats from members of congress, and a preference by members of congress to thrust the nation into default is insufficiently persuasive, one can’t imagine what would be. Essentially all functions of the executive branch dependent upon congressional oversight or congressional collaboration have been brought to a nearly complete and certainly historically unprecedented halt. This extends to cabinet appointments, agency appointments and judicial appointments as well as tax, budget and other laws upon which the nation depends. If this is not full-scale ideological warfare and unworkable absolutism, what must Republicans do to earn such a designation? Given the current dysfunction of government and its consequences I’m not sure America can withstand much more.
Much has been made, and rightly so, of the demographic changes in the country favoring Democrats and the American mainstream, and the decreasing power base for Republican radicalism. However at this point an unassailable case can be made that rather than producing moderation among Republicans this has only created desperation, and increasingly desperate behavior. Such desperation is most conspicuously evident in Republican attempts at voter suppression and other manipulation of the electoral process in order to lock in future minority rule.
Recognizing when political parties and ideologies have become desperate, and saying so, knowing what desperation is capable of, seems rational to me. Heightened scrutiny, if not the sounding of alarms about ideologies and political parties recognized to have achieved such desperation seems to me reasonable caution. If these times are not as extraordinary as I have come to believe they are, then I am clearly wrong.
Here’s a useful test: where else among the democracies of the industrialized world does one find any comparable movement of similarly extreme ideological beliefs, with the level of power and influence comparable to that of America’s Republican Party and far right? You can look, but I can tell you the answer: nowhere. Yes, there are many fringe parties of every stripe scattered throughout the industrialized world. But there is no “conservative party” in any Western or modern democratic nation that has adopted a similar alternate reality to replace the actual one, nor that retains the same antipathies to empiricism and factuality and modernity itself, nor that espouses the philosophical or economic or cultural radicalism of the American Republican Party. In fact, from Britain to France to Scandinavia to Central Europe to Asia no “conservative party” either in day-to-day governing or preferred policies, or in espoused beliefs has anything of significance in common with the American Republican Party. Shouldn’t the fact that this party now exists as such an outlier, has evolved into such a unique outpost of exotic ideology elicit at least a little more actual alarm from America’s elite mainstream?
We all like to hold out hope that those with whom we disagree or whose views are diametrically opposed to ours are still well meaning, essentially good people. But at a certain point the accumulation of racially tinged abuse, bad faith, talk of succession and insurrection, malicious talk radio and television, characterization of our own democratically elected government as tyrannical, extreme but unshakable convictions, deference to the ideological rather than the factual and the empirical, the pragmatic and practical; vitriolic demonization of so many of our citizens, so many groups of our citizens, purposefully engendered government dysfunction, sectarianism to the point of de-facto disruption of the union itself, such comprehensive negativity and hostility must lead only to the rational conclusion that indeed some of the people behind them indeed are the worst kind, and that what is afoot is evil, or close enough.