Friday, August 7, 2009

The Confederacy Is Alive And Well

"Conservative" is defined as: holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.

In a world and a nation that is changing faster than ever before, more ardent resistance from conservatives should not be so shocking to the rest of us.

However, the Republicans are, in addition to maintaining a pastiche of conservatism, predominantly a southern, white party (more on this later) in a country that is now at 68% white and falling. With a fast-rising Hispanic population leading the charge, America will be less than 50% white by sometime this century.

America has seen cultural upheaval throughout its history - something that most thinking Americans celebrate. Even from colonial times, Pennsylvania was Quaker, Massachusetts was Puritan, New York was Dutch, and so on. And during the immigration surge around the time of the Industrial Revolution, America took on a wave of Catholics from Ireland and Italy, as well as Jews from Eastern Europe. They changed American culture, which has always been a work in progress and we have always endured that progress haltingly and turbulently.

In a town hall meeting in Arkansas on health care, a woman was in tears as she wailed about wanting her America back.

Her America is not the actual America. It's merely her own image of America. And these people see their image of America slipping away. This image is mostly white, and either rural or a 1950's "Leave It To Beaver" suburban bliss that for most never existed anyway. While it's true that the transition from the Industrial to the Information Age along with the population explosion and global environmental and geopolitical threats posed by the burning of fossil fuels have made the world a much more complicated place today - and wishing it away as many conservatives are trying to do only exacerbates our problems - this image of a culturally stable and homogeneous America never existed at all.

The problem is, the woman from Arkansas' image of America is what drives the Republican Party. Their blanket opposition on all issues is just a cloak of principle, obscuring the waging of a culture war that a plurality of Americans find to be somewhere on the spectrum between "uncomfortable" and "abhorrent".

When we look at the political discourse in America, we assume that both sides seek a peaceful and prosperous nation, a more perfect union, but simply disagree on how to get there. It's time to re-examine this assumption.

The reality is that the Republicans' end is not peace and prosperity. What they want is the warped image of a country that they are never getting back because it never existed in the first place, and that if "peaceful" and "prosperous" do not also come with "predominantly white", "theocratic" and "individualistic (at the expense of community)"... well, then peace and prosperity be damned.

I'll say it again, because people need to understand this:  the Republican base, the capital-C Conservatives, would prefer to live in a less prosperous, less peaceful conservative America than in a liberal Pax Americana, and it is in this "ideology, then country" approach that the true difference in the two parties lives.

(With regards to "individualistic (at the expense of community)", this hearkens back to a more rural America where people were much more spread out, had to fend for themselves, and rarely needed to concern themselves with communal needs or the effects of their own actions on others. To the great distress of conservatives, that world disappeared a century ago with the age of mechanized transportation, although they stubbornly cling to policies that reflect the wishful thinking that it still exists.)

When Rush Limbaugh said he hoped Barack Obama would fail, he wasn't saying that he hoped Obama would come up short so we could get Republicans back in power and do this right and get where we all want to go. The second part of his rant received significantly less play because it carried less shock value, but it was significantly more telling. Rush said: this isn't the America I want.

Rush, who echoes the sentiments of the Republican base and remains their single biggest opinion-maker, was saying that even if Obama were to fix health care, get us extricated from the Middle East, and achieve energy independence, it would still be bad because a black President leading a multicultural society and a bipartisan, cooperative government that can be a force for getting important things done here and around the world runs against everything he wants from his country. Rush, and the preponderance of conservatives who he represents, cling to that fictional vision and a Jeffersonian ideal of a gentleman farmer that rode into Washington to serve for a few years and went home - an ideal that never for a moment existed here and could not possibly have existed after the Industrial Revolution.  I think Fox News recently found a way to blame the Industrial Revolution on Obama.

Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina echoed similar sentiments to Limbaugh when he said that if the GOP could beat Obama on health care, it would be his "Waterloo", that it would "crush him". Let's be clear on this: Republicans are not interested in solving the health care crisis. There is no plainer way to state it. They're pretending there's not even a problem, which is why their campaign of misinformation and fear-mongering against the imperfect (or even inadequate) Democratic plan has been notably short on ideas of their own. They simply need to beat the White House so they can reclaim power and tilt at windmills in their pursuit of a fictional vision of America.

This is why the party that once proudly called itself the "Party of Ideas" has now been reduced to the "Party of No": because they actually believe in nothing save that false ideal. They construct a set of beliefs in 180-degree opposition to what the Democrats want to do, whatever that may be, because they are under the delusion that they can bring back the lady from Arkansas' America if they win.

The Republicans are against health care reform not because it runs counter to their ideology - since when is the health of Americans counter to conservatism? Rather, they oppose health care reform for one reason only: because the Democrats are for it. Had Hillary Clinton not been the face of health care reform in the '90s, it's a good bet that it's an issue that would have seen the light of day during the subsequent years of Republican rule.

They're against "Cash For Clunkers" not because they don't believe it's important to get more fuel-efficient cars on the road or that the money going right into the economy would be stimulative, but simply because it's an Obama plan that worked better than expected, and as DeMint told us: Obama has to be defeated.

Sarah Palin has railed on the cap-and-trade component of the energy bill, joining the conservative chorus calling it a "cap-and-tax". Never mind that it has worked in other countries and that she, herself, was on record (repeatedly) as being in favor of it while campaigning for John McCain and his energy plan. Now that Obama owns it, it must be opposed.

Note that Democrats do not stand in blanket opposition to all things Republican as the Republicans do to all things Democrat. Just to pull out one recent and germane example: Democrats in the senate voted for John Roberts' confirmation with 23 yeas and 22 nays. Republicans, on a similarly qualified Sonia Sotomayor, voted 31 to 9 against, despite her judicial record being the epitome of centrist and to the right of the justice she replaced, David Souter. Sotomayor had the double-whammy of being nominated by a Democrat and not being white - both representing the change conservatives so fear.  Obama gently nudged the Court to the right, and the Republicans' knees collectively jerked in opposition!

Where the GOP has taken us is to a place beyond partisanship that can only be characterized as tribalism.

It used to be that one's party affiliation flowed from a position on issues. You chose the party that best represented the policies you wanted to see pursued. Now, at least on the right side of the aisle - which is predominantly driven by people on the south side of the Mason-Dixon line - the flow has been reversed. Your position on issues is given to you by party leaders and a virulently aggressive conservative media apparatus who share the same visceral fears that you do of a world and a nation that are changing too fast for comfort. Remember our definition of "conservative"...

And this is really where the culture war resides. It's not in the wedge issues of abortion or gay marriage. That's just one front of the battle, one that gets the most exposure because of the passions that are evoked when people are engaged on their politics and - on the conservative side - their faith. But it's not where the war originates. It's much more primal than that.

When Sarah Palin, on the stump, waxed poetic about small town America as "the real America" or, since the election, has continued to take frequent pot shots at New York and Los Angeles - which are more progressive and culturally diverse than Sarah's "real America" - what you're seeing is a rare moment of naked honesty from someone holding the conch shell in this political "Lord of Flies" scene that has emerged.

Consider the poll commissioned by the liberal blog, The Daily Kos, but conducted by Research 2000 - a reputable nonpartisan research firm. It found that while 7% of Democrats and 17% of independents either believe Obama was not born in the United States or aren't sure, a whopping 58% of Republicans are either "Birthers" or not sure. But the geographic distribution is even more striking, with 69% of "Birthers" residing in the south against 12% in the midwest, 12% in the west and 6% in the northeast. Republicans - especially southerners - are simply more willing or even anxious to believe in Obama's illegitimacy. It's irrational, it's xenophobic, and in the cotton south, yes, it's racist, but it validates their fear of him.

Are southerners inherently likely to feel differently about health care or environmental policy or foreign policy than northerners? Or have they willfully allowed themselves to be programmed with the party line of those who stand against the change that they fear in America?

The Republicans, once upon a time, were conservative in policy as well as rhetoric. Today, only the rhetoric remains. They have at no point in the last three decades walked the walk on small government and fiscal discipline. Consider: why is Bill Clinton not every Republican's favorite Democrat? He balanced the budget, got people off of welfare, and was pro-business during a time of a booming economy, and presided over 8 years of relative peace. Yet they loathe him like no Democrat in history, despite the fact that he actually represented what they claim to want far more than even their patron saint, Ronald Reagan.

Republican small government rhetoric stems from a daisy chain of historical episodes.

The GOP is a southern party today as a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. President Lyndon Johnson predicted at the time that the law would turn the south for the Republicans, and he was right.  Republicans began to target Southern former Democrats who felt their own party was being too accommodating towards African-Americans. The GOP began tailoring their positions to Bible Belt interests - God, guns and oil - and the Southern Strategy established the red state/blue state map that we have come to know, a map that looks disturbingly like the Confederacy and the Union. The Republican stranglehold on the south only began to break in 2008 - 43 years later - when the urbanization of Virginia and North Carolina (combined with the rank incompetence of the Republican ticket) allowed Barack Obama to win there.

While most Republicans aren't necessarily racist in any overt way, their party, because of its southern base, is driven by a fear of racial and cultural change and a threat to that image of America carried by the distraught woman in Arkansas, Rush Limbaugh, and millions more. It's why LBJ correctly predicted the political fallout of the Civil Rights Act.  It's how Ronald Reagan stoked the angst of the culture war, as well, launching his bid for President with a speech on states' rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi - where three young civil rights workers (one African-American and two Jews) were famously murdered in 1964. In fact, Reagan's record on racial issues was notably poor, set back the civil rights movement, further cemented the African-American vote for the Democrats while satisfying the cotton south's latent racist leanings, and hardened the red state/blue state battle lines.

The former Confederate states, even a century and a half after the Civil War, continue to carry a hardwired antipathy for the federal government, best exemplified by the fact that the Confederate flag continues to fly in front of the state house in DeMint's South Carolina.  And Texas Governor Rick Perry spoke openly of secession earlier this year.

At every point in our history, conservatives have bitterly fought cultural evolution in America, and each time they have lost. Today they are fighting the same battles that they fought in the '50s and '60s, but most of society has moved beyond those arguments and has no wish to re-litigate them, so a blanket partisan opposition is simply the facade for fear of a black President and a darker skinned, urbanizing America.

Yet most people who vote Republican don't even know it's happening. They haven't noticed that the sudden concern for the federal budget was not evident during the previous eight years when the Republicans ran things, any more than a little old lady crying about Socialism has noticed that she only has health care herself because of Medicare and is only living above the poverty line because of Social Security.

Republican belief in small government originates not in the virtue of the limits of federal power (for which an intellectually honest argument can certainly be made), but rather, from a place of tribalism that is resurgent today. This retrenchment is especially dangerous on arguably our two most critical issues: health care and energy. Both are issues that will require more governmental regulation and, at times, direct intervention.

We're the one developed nation that left health care to the free market, and we're the one developed nation with a health care crisis. Notice that the Republicans are staunchly opposed to any health care reform bill, just as they were during the Clinton years. They know that more government involvement is necessary to take care of over 45 million uninsured Americans and rein in skyrocketing costs for the rest of us. This is why they offer no ideas of their own on how to fix it. There simply aren't any that don't include the government somehow getting involved. They only want to defeat Obama, because if he solves the problem it will forestall the Republicans' return to power.  45 million uninsured people who suddenly now have health care will be loyal Democratic voters in the same way people who lived through the Depression were loyal to the Democrats because they viewed FDR as their savior.  The Republicans would rather leave them uninsured and believing Obama failed them.  That's a much shorter path back to power.

On energy and climate change, the government is going to need to use tax policy and price signals to spur the development of the markets we need to emerge and wean us off the products and behaviors that are killing us from within. As Thomas Friedman explains brilliantly in his book, "Hot, Flat and Crowded", Republicans deny the problem primarily because they hate the solution. It's the only reason why conservatives in America would be the developed world's sole remaining holdouts on the realities of energy and climate change in the 21st century.

For conservatives, this is not about solving America's urgent problems. It's the Confederacy's tribal fight for survival in a world that is changing too fast beneath them.

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