I’ve been reading a bit on politics. Randomly insane rhetoric and behavior makes me nervous, and I’ve seen little else since the Republican primaries started. I’m sure it will get much worse as the Democrats start their campaigning.
As it turns out, there are underlying patterns. I’m not sure whether those patterns make me feel more comfortable or more nervous. But here’s what I’ve learned.
We’ve had a two-party system for a long time, and it settled into the Republicans and Democrats around the middle of the 1800’s. What’s interesting is that, although the names have remained the same, the parties have effectively switched places.
Turn back to the Civil War era. Democrats were the South. Republicans were Yankees, the North. Democrats supported states’ rights and slavery. Republicans were Federalists, and were neutral-to-opposed on the slavery issue. Democrats represented wealthy landowners. Republicans represented wealthy industrialists.
After the Civil War, the freed blacks — nearly all of them working class or poor — voted Republican for obvious reasons, along with most of the rest of the Northern working class. The Democrats remained loyal Southerners, unsettled representatives of the losing side in a major civil war.
This is the context in which you hear about Abraham Lincoln (Emancipator of Slaves) or Teddy Roosevelt (Great Outdoorsman and Conservationist) being Republicans, versus Woodrow Wilson (overt racist, American imperialist and architect of the One World Order) being a Democrat.
Things changed substantially after the market crash of 1929.
The blame for the Great Depression landed squarely on the Republicans, rightly or wrongly. FDR was a Democrat, and it fell to him to seek some resolution to the issues of the economic depression, the increasing unrest of farmers (who were moving toward armed insurrection), and the impact of the Russian Revolution and the ideals of Communism and workers’ rights. These issues were severe: he was under pressure from both Democrats and Republicans to repeal the Constitution and establish a Fascist dictatorship, as was happening in Europe under Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Salazar. Instead, he chose to implement the New Deal. When a reporter gushed that if FDR’s New Deal worked, it would make him the most famous American president of all time, FDR replied that if it DIDN’T work, he’d be the LAST American president.
FDR’s New Deal politics made a strong populist appeal, and drew the black vote to the Democrats for the first time in the party’s history, as well as the support of the new labor unions. FDR’s political opponents — Republicans — found themselves less sympathetic to the workers and the Communists in Russia, and more sympathetic to the elites — particularly the financial elites — and the Fascist movements of Europe.
In effect, the parties switched places — ideologically, if not geographically. The black and working-class people who used to vote Republican now voted Democrat. Democrats were consequently more sympathetic to socialism, Republicans to fascism. Bankers — whom FDR had no choice but to rein in after the market excesses of 1929 — flocked to the Republicans, and the Democrats, with their broad popular base, let them go. Democrats, formerly the champions of states’ rights, became the champions of expanding federal power “to do good.”
Things changed again in the 1960’s, when Lyndon Johnson was cornered into signing the landmark Civil Rights legislation. He and the Democratic operatives of the time believed that they were signing away the entire Southern vote. They were correct, though some say the reason was not so much racism as states’ rights, which the Democrats had abandoned. In either event, in the 1970’s the South began to swing Republican for the first time since the Civil War. At the same time, the strong influence of labor unions in the industrialized North had pulled that region away from its historically Yankee Republican leanings.
This, then, was the world I grew up in: Democrats were the labor party of Detroit and Chicago and the steel and coal mines, as well as the more racially-mixed working-class New Deal liberals (i.e. “communists”); Republicans were the party of corporate elites, big money, and the conservative (i.e. anti-communist/fascist) West and Deep South. This was geographically and ideologically almost the exact opposite of the situation in the late 1800’s, which is why it’s so confusing when someone tries to say the Republicans are the “party of Lincoln,” or the Democrats are the “party of Woodrow Wilson.” That was true of the parties as they existed in 1920, but not as they existed in 1970.
Religion — specifically, Christian Evangelicalism, a 1947 splinter from the older Fundamentalist movement — entered the picture in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. Two specific political movements (Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, and Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition) mobilized the still-uncomfortable Southern Republicans and delivered enough Republican votes to give Reagan his “landslide mandate” over the incumbent Democrat, Jimmy Carter. Evangelicalism has been an inseparable part of Republicanism ever since, even though the Goldwater Republicans of the 1950’s would have spit in disgust at what they would have called an open act of prostitution between government and religion.
In the late 1980’s, disaster struck the Republicans, something even worse than Nixon’s disgrace in the 1970’s: the Soviet Union fell. The Republican Party was by then so deeply invested in militarism and anti-communist rhetoric that it found itself effectively without a reason to exist.
At the same time, the Democrats were suffering from the rapid de-industrialization of the US as the Steel Belt became the Rust Belt. As heavy industry faded, so did the labor unions, their decline accelerated by Ronald Reagan’s active union-busting. The Democratic Party had lost its main constituency, and (more significantly) its expected source of funds in a political world increasingly dominated by expensive televised marketing campaigns.
So in the 1990’s, both the Republican and the Democratic parties converged on the only real money left in the game: the corporate/financial sector. Bill Clinton gave the corporations all the “free trade” they wanted through the NAFTA and WTO treaties. The Republican Congress repealed the Glass-Steagall Act and opened the door to the 2008 financial collapse. People started to comment in the 1990’s that there was no visible difference between the Republicans and the Democrats, largely because both were competing for exactly the same money, and pandering to exactly the same constituency — the constituency we are now calling the 1%.
So where are we now, in 2012?
The Democratic Party still wields the rhetoric of the people, but represents almost exclusively the interests of the financial and corporate elites. There are still second- and third-generation New Deal liberals in the Democratic party, but most of them are getting old and retiring. The new breed of Democrat is less interested in serving the public good, and more interested in attracting money for their campaigns, most of which comes from corporate sponsors. They are rapidly taking the place held by the pro-business Republicans of my childhood.
The Republican Party is a squirming, purposeless mass of contradictory impulses that has coughed up four cartoon characters who represent four distinct and incompatible collections of these impulses. Any two of the four groups can find some common ground, but any three of them taken together can find nothing that they all agree on — other than “beating” the Democrats.
The first group, the Traditional Republicans, are the old-school pro-business-industrialist core of the party. These are the classic supporters of Wall Street, international banking, and large corporations. The Bill of Rights is not of much concern to them: that’s for the little people. Their concern is with low taxes (particularly capital gains and inheritance,) and business regulation (ideally, none whatsoever, except whatever it takes to put their competitors at a disadvantage.) They have been consistently anti-environmental and anti-labor. They spend billions lobbying for preferential treatment. Many of them rely heavily or even exclusively upon corporate welfare, such as military contracts or congressional pork-barrel projects, yet (ironically) are one of the main sources of the bizarre propaganda that “private industry creates jobs, not the government.”
It seems appropriate that their cartoon mascot, Mitt Romney, is by profession the very apotheosis of unchecked corporate greed: the corporate reaver. The “reavers” of old were bands of pirates who would light fires on fog-bound and stormy shorelines to lure ships into thinking there was a safe port where they could wait out the weather. The ships would wreck on the reefs, and the reavers would then wade out, kill any survivors, and loot the wreckage. That is precisely how Mitt Romney made his substantial fortunes, using corporate mergers and acquisitions instead of bonfires. He’s a job-killer, a wealth-concentrator, a facilitator of monopolies, and an upper-class twit who makes $10,000 bets on live television as casually as I would bet a beer in a pub.
The second group, the NeoCons, are still around, despite the catastrophic consequences of their run in the sun from 1996 to 2008, and their full control of federal government from 2000 to 2006. Their origins lie in the fascist leanings of the post-FDR Republicans. They rose to substantial power in the 1996 Republican Revolution led by Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House, as heirs apparent to the Republican Party in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse — with no more Communists to fight, the NeoCons turned to world conquest through militarized expansion of “democracy” and “capitalism.” They are not in fact democratically inclined at all, nor do they support capitalism — they are openly fascist/corporatist and contemptuous of the US Constitution (Dick Cheney said on several occasions that he didn’t believe a constitutional democracy could survive in the modern world of terrorism.) They are also fiscally irresponsible, disingenuous, amoral, and profoundly unrealistic Utopian idealists.
Newt Gingrich is a perfect caricature of the NeoCon movement, and was in fact its leader in 1996: bombastic, hypocritical, indecorous, fueled by concentrated hubris; a used-car salesman who would cheat his mother and did cheat on his wife, lost in a fantasy-world that includes moon bases and a world-wide capitalist democracy formed of white people who all think exactly alike — and exactly like he does, only not (of course) quite so well.
The third group has its roots in the Evangelical political coalitions that brought Reagan to the White House in 1980, and go back further to the Fundamentalist movement of the early 1900’s, then completely skip over the Enlightenment-inspired deliberations of the Constitutional founders to the Puritan charter-colonies of the 1600’s. The Constitution and its history are, in fact, an embarrassment to the Religious Republicans, and they have invested a lot of effort in rewriting history to paint the Constitution as a Christian document of a Christian nation. Their social agenda is laid out in the goals of Fundamentalism, as outlined in the 1911 publication of The Fundamentals, and includes such things as defeating communism, preventing the teaching of evolution in public schools, mandating public (Christian) prayer in schools, putting women back in their place in the kitchen under the authority of their husbands, and criminalizing “immorality.” Most notably, they support a one-way interpretation of “separation of church and state” — in their view, the government must do God’s bidding (exactly as they proclaim it,) but must leave the churches free to do or say anything they please, unburdened by taxes or legal constraints. They have little interest in democracy, preferring instead to honor the “lordship of Christ” through a more hierarchical arrangement. Their extreme elements, such as James Watt as Secretary of the Interior under Reagan, believe in the “End Times” in which the world is destroyed and Jesus returns to save us: as a consequence, they have absolutely no qualms about destroying the earth, environmentally or in unbridled nuclear war.
The Republican Party coughed up two cartoons to represent this view, Michelle Bachmann to represent the Protestant strain, and Rick Santorum to throw the Catholic mitre into the ring. Both of these represent the extreme fringe of their respective religious bodies, as members of those religious bodies have taken pains to point out. Both conflate religion with politics in ways that are blatantly unconstitutional, and of deep concern to most US Americans.
The fourth group is the Tea Party, an attempt by the third-party Libertarians to gain some legitimacy under the Republican umbrella. As the newest kid on the block, the Tea Party agenda is less well-defined than the other groups, but what seems to be a common thread is the idea of reducing the size and importance of federal government. A sizable fraction want to reduce or eliminate all government, including state and city government. In the same way that the Communist movement was built on the economic theories of Karl Marx, the Tea Party movement is built largely on the social and economic theories put forth in the novels and plays of Ayn Rand, combined with fragments of unrelated theories from the Austrian school of economics, which includes economists Fredrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. In the Tea Party view, Capitalist free markets solve every economic and social injustice automatically so long as government doesn’t interfere, private ownership is the basis of all morality, the idea of a commonwealth or shared responsibility is a pernicious myth, and the world is divided into a black-and-white conflict between “producers” (who produce everything and therefore should own and control everything) and “parasites” (who produce nothing but instead whine and steal from the producers, and therefore should have nothing.)
The Republican caricature for the Tea Party is Ron Paul, who comes across as a wise grandfather and kindly country-doctor. Examining his views in any detail reveals a grotesquely unjust, mathematically impossible, politically unachievable stew of anti-government anti-tax Libertarian/Utopian sentiment that would reduce the nation, not to ruin, but to cannibalism.
The pendulum may eventually swing back. The Republicans can’t sustain much more of this cartoon nonsense, and will swiftly vanish from the political scene if they don’t pull together some kind of common vision. The Democrats are going to become very dangerous, I think, in the coming decades, as they lose their liberal idealism and pander more and more to big money.
It may not help anyone else, but it always helps me to see where this stuff comes from. It may still be insane, but at least it isn’t randomly insane.