January 2009: The nation -- not to mention, the world -- was exuberant with the inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the United States. When he took the oath of office on January 20, his approval rating stood at 79%, a number that included many Republicans. The catchwords of the moment were "hope" and "change." The nightmare of the Bush-Cheney regime was finally over. And the nation had crossed a historic divide: the election of a man only half white to our highest office had finally moved us into the 21st century.
The GOP had smaller minorities in both houses of Congress than any party had had in decades. Common wisdom was that the Republican brand was spoiled, spoiled by the obnoxious, idiotic, ideologic arrogance of the W. junta, which had left the nation impoverished, dysfunctional, and globally despised.
In his inaugural speech, Obama wisely warned his record-breaking audience that their expectations were unrealistically high: "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to prepare the nation for a new age." Fixing our many problems, he warned, would take time, patience, commitment, and sacrifice. But he confidently proclaimed that "[o]n this day, we come to an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."
What a difference a year makes.
The ironically termed "liberal" media that shared the world's optimism in January of 2009 are this January of 2010 declaring this presidency DOA (Dead on Anniversary) and the Republican Party in the ascendance, sure winners in the midterm elections this November. Obama's approval rating hovers just above or below 50%, depending on which polls the press cites. Most voters like neither party much. Many liberals are disillusioned by the compromises made to get the comprehensive health care bill through Congress and by Obama's commitment of more troops to Afghanistan. But bad news is good news for the Right, which is energized. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
At least one thing hasn't changed. Obama's inaugural prediction that the stale political arguments of the other side were passé was premature. The ideologues that constipated the government under W. have dug their heels in even more. Arguably, the Obama administration managed to yank the steering wheel of state from its predecessor as we were lumbering full-speed toward the precipice. As we grind back uphill in low gear, the Party of NOP keeps both feet jammed on the brake -- whether the issue is economic stimulus, health care, or environmental protection -- still preaching that government is inherently evil and that only the invisible hands of God and the market can solve the problems caused on their watch. If there is one thing Republicans are good at, it is building political capital on disasters of their own making.
As Jonathan Chait of The New Republic observed yet again in December, 2009, "[p]artisan self-interest -- an accurate belief that Obama's legislative failure offers Republicans the most likely road back to power-surely accounts for some of the party's obstinacy." However, he adds, "at least as powerful is the deepening hold on the GOP of anti-government ideology." Reprise: "the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long." It cannot be emphasized enough, as Chait emphasizes once more, that "the fundamental difference between conservatism and . . . liberalism is that the former is driven by abstract philosophical beliefs in a way that the latter is not . . . . If conservatives came to believe that tax cuts failed to increase economic growth, most would still support them anyway . . . ."
In short, what has come to be called "conservatism" has de-coupled itself almost completely from the reality-based world. The magical thinking that dictates you can make something true just by believing it and repeating it -- e.g., "We not only know Hussein has weapons of mass destruction; we know where they are," or "We can slash taxes and balance the budget," or "There is no global warming," or "Obama is a Kenyan communist" -- has saturated the mind of the Right like syphilis.
On the one hand, it can be refreshing to listen to a pure libertarian like Ron Paul, whose opposition to government actually includes the high security state promoted by Dick Cheney and his ilk, and wasteful misadventures such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and lavish bailouts of Wall Street crime organizations. As the health care bill slogged its way through the Senate this fall, it was easy to come to the conclusion that American democracy has become too cumbersome. Perhaps like a Windows operating system that has grown dysfunctional with glitches and patches, it needs to be wiped and rebooted. On the other hand, how many times have you done that, only to find that there were programs and files you can never recover?
Of course, the most rabid contemporary version of anti-government ideology is the Mad Tea Party movement. During the mad dog days of last August, mobs of self-christened "teabaggers" stormed town hall meetings and the Washington mall, aggressively asserting their constitutional right to depict the President in racist terms -- say, in white face or as a stereotyped witch doctor with bone in nose -- or their constitutional right to threaten him and other elected officials with violence, the death threat being the ultimate argument of the rightwing populist.
According to teabagger rhetoric and signage, they want to overthrow the government in favor of the Constitution. Apparently, they don't realize that the authors of the Constitution set up our institutions specifically to head off mob rule and the concomitant demagoguery; in that sense it is a conservative document, in the original sense of "conservative." Apparently they no more know what's in the Constitution than they actually know what's in the Bible they also often cite.
The teabaggers are the loony fringe, but a fringe sucked up to by Republicans desperate to energize their base. Beginning last summer, we have seen GOP congressional leaders like Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and Eric Cantor running to get in front of the mob. Even so-called Republican moderates like Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenti, seen as a presidential prospect for 2012, has begun to echo the teabaggers. Now everybody on the Right wants a Mad Tea Party of their very own -- Fox News, Dick Armey's FreedomWorks -- which has led to at least three organizations proclaiming themselves as the only authentic TP.
Old-fashioned conservatives like David Brooks worry that the Mad Tea Party movement may end up setting the agenda for the next decade. With Sarah Palin as their beauty queen, Holy Mother, and presidential ideal, in the short term the teabaggers are targetting incumbent Republicans like Arizona Senator John McCain, whom they blame for Palin's pathetic performance in 2008, and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, whose sin is talking to Senate Democrats about cap-and-trade legislation. For the teabaggers, the Republican loss of New York's congressional district 23 last November 3 to a Democrat, a seat which had been held by a Republican since the Civil War, was a great triumph; the safe GOP candidate, Dierdre Scozzafava, was TPed out of the race by the Conservative Doug Hoffman, who received the endorsement of Palin and Pawlenti. The best thing that can happen to the Democrats this election season is more such triumphs by the TPers.
The worst thing, of course, is for the scorched earth policy of the Right to succeed. Even small gains by Republicans, especially in the Senate, will mean that the Obama agenda screeches to a stop, making him a lame duck before his first term is half over. They have been open about their strategy: the failure of Obama and the nation will ideally create a vacuum that will suck them into power in 2012. At a time when Americans are begging the government to do something about health, jobs, and security, the Right's answer is to destroy that government. For them to get their way would be as if the citizenry of the Thirties, upset that the New Deal had not ended the Depression by 1936, had decided to bring back Herbert Hoover.
In the meantime, the big governments of China (scary) and the European Union (benign) are pulling out of the recession ahead of us and are busy retooling their technologies and economies for the 21st century. In the column cited above, David Brooks observed that "sixty-one percent of Americans believe the country is in decline." By detaching us from the realities of the modern world and promising a government too weak to work, today's Right would make that belief reality.
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Slouching Toward Bedlam