Zombies on the March
Electric Politics, 18 July 2011
Does anyone still remember the GOP of the chowder and marching society, Jell-O salads, Buicks, and cloth coats? Is it conceivable that a Republican could have written the following? —
“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
That was President Eisenhower, writing to his brother Edgar in 1954.
But the Republican Party of 2011 is not your grandfather’s GOP, not by a long shot. To be sure, the party always had its share of crackpots, like Robert K. Dornan or William E. Dannemeyer. But the crackpot outliers of two decades ago have become the vital center today: Steve King! Michele Bachman (now a leading presidential candidate as well)! Paul Broun! Patrick McHenry! Virginia Foxx! Louie Gohmert! The Congressional Directory now reads like a casebook of lunacy.
The Republican Party of 2011 believes in three principal tenets (the rest of their platform is essentially window dressing):
1. They solely and exclusively care about their rich contributors, and have built a whole catechism on the protection and further enrichment of America’s plutocracy. Their caterwauling about deficit and debt is so much eyewash, intended to con the booboisie. Whatever else President Obama has accomplished (and many of his purported accomplishments are highly suspect), his $4-trillion deficit reduction package did perform the useful service of smoking out Republican hypocrisy. The GOP could not abide so much as a one-tenth of one percent increase on the tax rates of the Walton family (net worth: $86 billion) or the Koch brothers, much less a repeal of the carried interest rule that permits billionaire hedge fund managers to pay income tax at a lower effective rate than cops or nurses.
2. They worship at the altar of Mars. While the me-too Democrats have set a horrible example of keeping up with the Joneses with respect to waging war, they can never match GOP stalwarts such John McCain or Lindsey Graham in their sheer, libidinous enthusiasm for invading other countries. McCain wanted to mix it up with Russia — a nuclear-armed state — during the latter’s conflict with Georgia in 2008 (remember? — “we are all Georgians now,” a slogan that did not, fortunately, catch on), while Graham has been persistently agitating for attacks on Iran and intervention in Syria. And these are not fringe elements of the party; they are the leading “defense experts” who always get tapped for the Sunday talk shows. If we are to believe Eric Cantor, a majority of House Republicans will not vote to raise the debt ceiling; yet these are the same people who just passed a defense appropriations bill that increases spending by $17 billion over the prior year’s defense appropriation. To borrow Chris Hedges’ formulation, war is the force that gives meaning to their lives.
3. Gimme that old time religion. Pandering to religious nuts is a full-time vocation in the GOP. Beginning in the 1970s, religious cranks ceased simply to be a minor public nuisance and grew into the major element of the Republican rank and file. Pat Robertson’s strong showing in the 1988 Iowa Caucus signaled the gradual merger of politics and religion in the party. The results are all around us: if the American people poll more like Iranians or Nigerians than Europeans or Canadians on questions of evolution versus creationism, scriptural inerrancy, the existence of angels and demons, and so forth, that result is due to the rise of the Religious Right, its insertion into the public sphere by the Republican Party, and the consequent normalizing of formerly reactionary or quaint beliefs. The Constitution to the contrary notwithstanding, there is now a de facto religious test for the presidency: major candidates are encouraged (or coerced) to “share their feelings” about their “faith” in a revelatory speech; or, some televangelist like Rick Warren dragoons the candidates (as he did with Obama and McCain in 2008) to debate the finer points of Christology, with Warren himself, of course, as the arbiter. Politicized religion is also the sheet anchor of the culture wars. But how did this toxic stew of beliefs come completely to displace Eisenhower Republicanism?
Phi Beta Iota: This article is also recommended by Contributing EditorJohn Steiner.