Princeton University Professor Cornel West, as quoted by Howard Fineman in his philosophically brilliant "The Thirteen American Arguments".
"We believe the best of America is not all in Washington D.C. We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all you hard working, very patriotic... very pro-America areas of this great nation. This is where we find the kindness and the goodness and the courage of everyday Americans. Those who are running our factories and teaching our kids and growing our food and fighting our wars for us. Those who are protecting us in uniform. Those who are protecting the virtues of freedom."
Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin, 10/16/2008, in North Carolina.
West eloquently defines patriotism in a way that Republicans, today, have largely repudiated. The U.S. Constitution has been a living, breathing document for over two centuries. America in its very foundation has been a living embodiment of a social work in progress. To wish to see America improve, to recognize her fallibility and continue the quest for a more perfect Union is not anti-American. Belief in an unrealistic American perfection and adherence to an idyllic 1950's "Leave It To Beaver" psuedo-reality that never truly existed is not patriotism by any reasonable standard.
However, Republicans for 40 years have used a strict interpretation of the Constitution (which would, of course, dictate that Barack Obama is 3/5 of a citizen) as their shield and dirty, divisive politics as their sword in a culture war that revolves around abortion and social issues and has lived, politically, in the red state/blue state map created by Pat Buchanan's 1972 "Southern Strategy" for Richard Nixon.
Conservative columnist David Brooks of the New York Times decried the rotting from within of the GOP as evidenced by the excommunication of their own intellectuals:
"What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole The liberals had coastal condescension, so the conservatives developed their own anti-elitism, with mirror-image categories and mirror-image resentments, but with the same corrosive effect.
"The Republicans have alienated whole professions. Lawyers now donate to the Democratic Party over the Republican Party at 4-to-1 rates. With doctors, it's 2-to-1. With tech executives, it's 5-to-1. With investment bankers, it's 2-to-1. It took talent for the Republicans to lose the banking community."
In this context, how telling is Palin's speech? Yes, exposed as pandering to an audience, she later walked back her comments and clarified that if rural North Carolina is "pro-America", there are not necessarily other parts of the country that are anti-America. This, however, is a false choice, a dichotomy that does not exist. We are all equally American. Just some parts are more equal than others. What Palin did not later withdraw from was the notion, as she waxed poetic about the oh-so-American virtues that reside specifically in small towns, that some parts of America are more emblematic of the America that she chooses to identify with and that the Republican Party has defined and molded itself to serve.
And serve them loyally (or at least market to them effectively) they have. In a 2000 US Census Bureau study of the social impact of education on a state-by-state basis, 7 of the top 10 states voted for John Kerry in 2004, while the bottom 17 voted for George W. Bush.
While Palin would not cop to an "us vs. them"/"good vs. evil" orientation, Republican rhetoric has descended to McCarthian depths in recent weeks. McCain, after saying he would never question Obama's patriotism, later came out and said of his opponent, "That's not country first, that's Obama first!" Palin, herself, has literally called Obama a socialist. Now, to the average voter, the word "socialist" evokes images of Communist totalitarianism. Yet all free countries are to some degree a public-private partnership, and if you have gone to a public school in America or received an unemployment or Social Security check, you have participated in a socialist institution. Most Western nations have an even greater socialist reach, and manage to do so without impeding upon the basics of free market principles. They simply lean further to that side than we do in the name of stability and not leaving anyone behind.
And these are arguments, as Fineman insightfully points out, that we need to have. The ability to have these arguments vigorously and publicly and, when possible, inclusively and civilly, is what distinguishes our brand of Democracy from others or from the systems from which the Founders fled. But their ideology under siege, Republicans have increasingly built a Maginot Line to protect Palin's "pro-American" parts of the country from the scourge of liberalism. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann proposed a "patriotism test" for members of Congress, and lumped in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid with Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright as part of a leftist, anti-American monster supporting Obama. North Carolina Congressman Robin Hayes, warming up the crowd for McCain today, went beyond mere implication:
"Liberals hate real Americans that work and achieve and believe in God."
Democratic rhetoric does not employ "conservative" as an epithet, but Republican rhetoric consistently does so with "liberal". And while Democrats compete amongst each other to prove who can best work across the aisle, Republicans jockey for the title of truest believer. Democrats have not banded together to pick apart their former colleague, Joe Lieberman, after he became John McCain's top confidant and surrogate. Yet the Republican rush to throw Colin Powell, the leading respected military voice of his generation and former Bush Secretary of State, under the bus has been saddening, if predictable.
And while liberal talk radio exists on the fringes of the public discourse, conservative talk radio dominates southern airwaves and Rush Limbaugh is an icon. Fox News was founded to present strict partisan propaganda. Fineman again:
"Most of humanity pays allegiance to only One Eternal Answer, whether it's a sacred text or 'revolutionary' party. I first saw that dangerous allegiance as a student on a visit to the old Soviet Union in 1970. On my first night in Kiev, I checked into a hotel. The spartan room had a desk with a lamp and a modern looking radio. As I examined the radio more closely I noticed something odd - and chilling. It had no dial, only an 'on/volume' switch. I was in a country with only one voice - the government's."
While liberals who watch MSNBC and CNN to follow politics can handle, and in many cases relish, seeing strong conservative voices, be it William Bennett on CNN or Pat Buchanan, Joe Scarborough, or Tucker Carlson on MSNBC, Fox News and conservative talk radio represent conservatives' "one voice", and their "sacred text" is a literal reading of the Constitution (as a decoy for their attack on Roe v. Wade) in the way their supporters on the religious right choose (or attempt) to interpret the Bible. Like fans of a sports team who think that every national announcer and umpire/referee is against them, they decry a liberal bias in the mainstream media, inflate it into a conspiracy against their way of life, and retreat behind their ramparts, with guns firing at the invading liberal Huns.
The intellectual wing of the conservative party has seen this happening. Powell, Brooks, Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan, the Washington Post's George Will, the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan, former Bush aide David Kuo, and former Nixon aide John Dean have all seen this departure from Goldwater conservatism into the cesspool of the neoconservative movement, a departure from productive ideas into a destructive ideological struggle. None are supporting John McCain this year, a stunning and historic rejection of a candidate by his own party's intelligentsia. And the Chicago Tribune, whose founder, Joseph Medill, was also one of the founders of the Republican Party, a publication that in 180 years has never endorsed a Democrat, this week endorsed Obama.
The culture war, elevated into a crusade, has eaten the Republican party from the inside. The always-irreverent Matt Taibbi, in "The Great Derangement", offered this take:
"In the pointy-headed northeastern America of my experience, there were no legends of wandering prophets, no dinner table discussion of personal salvation. But in the rest of the country you had this weird dichotomy: an advanced industrial economy confidently riding the superconductor and the microchip into the space age, while most of its population hurtled backward away from the Enlightenment, living out a Canterbury Tales-type quest for revelation in a culture dominated by superstition and mystery."
Reasonable conservatives are left with a difficult choice: alignment with a radicalized form of their own beliefs, or voting with the other party just to try and force their own side back into line. Whatever their choice may be, the moderate right has no voice right now, and the unfortunate result could be that the entire right gets a seat on the sidelines for a few terms while they come to terms with their inner demons like an emotionally troubled person going to therapy. The nation may be on the verge of an intervention on the dysfunctional right side of the aisle to restore some civility to the necessary debate.