Some People Just Want to Watch the World Burn
by E.C. Gach
So by now, most of you know about Mike Lofgren’s piece in Truthout (if not you can find it here).
“Where I disagree with Lofgren, Erik, and frankly most other people I know is this whole idea that the GOP today is apocalyptic, scary, or really even anything new and different. And while I think that the party is far worse than its counterpart today, I think this is largely due to its current circumstances and don’t think it worse than its counterpart has been in the past.”
Kelly’s basic point is that, no matter how radicalized the Republican Party is right now, we shouldn’t jump to hyperbolic conclusions that proclaim this to be a fundamentally new shift in American politics. Most things that come along aren’t new, so Kelly’s skepticism is prudent. But stretch any timeline over a long enough period and the local extremes naturally moderate. Wars, civil unrest, and technological breakthroughs don’t appear as dramatic when looked at in terms of a whole century or millennia perspective, no matter how radical things might have been at the time.
And then there’s the tendency to view history through a deterministic lens. On the one hand, much of the U.S. foreign policy throughout the Cold War now, from the vantage of 2011, appears to have exaggerated the threat of communism and the autocratic regimes that championed it. Yet had just one exchange of nuclear weapons occurred, our interpretation of the entire period would be different. And there’s no reason to think that just because an exchange didn’t in fact occur, such an outcome was necessarily precluded by circumstances at the time. Things could always have been different.
Thus, while prudent, Kelly’s skepticism runs the risk of overlooking the importance of radical shifts. Even if they have occurred before, and even if over the long run these shifts will balance out, there’s no reason to think something dramatic, and possibly disastrous, can’t happen in the short term.
The radicalization of the GOP is evident in their willingness to sacrifice political popularity by threatening default, take advantage of a weak Presidency by running dismal, B-team candidates, and oppose middle class tax cuts for the sake of, well, who knows. Is this how a sane GOP takes back control of the federal government? Actually, this is how a rogue party demonstrates its irrationality through repeated attempts to harm themselves and others. And though the Republican Party is crazy right now, they have message, and this message is derailing Congress and the prospect of effective governance to an unusually dangerous degree.
Using the votes of the many to deregulate and protect the wealth of a few only makes the grand GOP electoral strategy that much more insidious. Admittedly, that’s been the name of the game for a while. Pit private sector workers against public unionized ones and watch the working class undermine itself while the plutocrats divide and conquer. Nothing new here, except that the economy is looking really, really grim. Maybe not by historical standards, but certainly by recent ones. American’s care about their level of prosperity when compared to their neighbor and to yesterday. If things are getting better and they feel on par with the folks next door, it’s Morning in America. If the economy is getting worse and they also feel like they’re falling behind relative to the top, then times are really bad. And there’s plenty of evidence for why this recovery is just different.
Then there’s the situation that Lofgren describes: fewer and fewer Americans trust their national political institutions to put the country on the right track, and one of the two parties has found a formula for gaining support while eschewing responsibility. There is a broad portion of the electorate who hates government in the abstract but likes it in the particular, disapproves of Congress on the whole but thinks their Representative is doing a good job, and thinks Obama is a poor leader despite liking him as a person.
This schizophrenia can actually be a powerful tool, and has been, when channeled using GOP tactics and rhetoric. This is how Republicans can rule the House while Obama is held accountable for the economy. In part, this incentive to scapegoat flows naturally from America’s unique flavor of divided presidential democracy. But it’s been accelerating in part because of increasing polarization on two fronts. On the legislative end, Congressional districts are more politically safe then ever. For Democrats, this radicalizing mechanism is partly offset by an apparent preference for compromise, but also because of the disparate groups that make up that party’s ruling coalition. Republicans on the other hand, have little structural factors to prevent them from racing to the right during the ever expanding primary campaign season.
On the side of the American electorate, the commercialization and overall failure of the mainstream media has left a vacuum that’s been filled by partisan editorial and closed epistemic feedback loops. The result is an ill-informed public that lacks a strong objective reality. Elections are won by getting people out to vote rather than persuading them to follow a particular policy agenda. Journalists still talk about the “Center” as if it is an active force in American politics. The center doesn’t vote and is easily confused. Republicans know this, which is why they focus on energizing the base rather than debating policy. As a former Congressional staffer who wrote into James Fallows noted:
“One thing that especially resonated with me about Mike’s piece is the importance of "low information" voters. The mainstream media absolutely fails to understand how little attention average Americans really pay to what goes on in all forms of government. During our 2008 race, our pollster taught me (hard to believe it took me 24 years to learn this) that the average voter spends only 5 minutes thinking about for whom to vote for Congress. All the millions of dollars of TV ads, all the thousands of robo-calls and door-knocks, and it all comes down to having a message that will stick in the voters’ minds during the 5 minutes before they walk into the voting booth.”
The GOP is just better at this style of politics. Presidential elections might be about “hope” and the future, but Congressional elections are based on fear. Mid-term elections are overwhelmingly decided by older voters and tend to turn on fear of the other, fear of losing entitlements, or some combination of the two (like the prevalent belief that Social Security is being used up by illegal immigrants and disability abusers).
Republicans don’t have to offer a coherent policy plan because Congressional politics is increasingly more about perception than governance. And the cynical strategy of defaming the federal government may just be about winning elections, but the collateral damage is real. The problem with the GOP’s parasitic campaign against all things Washington D.C. is that they have gone beyond demonizing its flaws and excesses to defaming the institutions and the people who are associated with them. If you work for the government you are part of the problem (unless, of course, you are part of the military or local police and fire departments). This isn’t “starve the beast,” it’s anti-government nihilism; faithfully on message and fundamentally paradoxical. Imagine a program with the purpose of deleting itself, thus repetitiously chasing its own tail with the aim of self-annihilation. That’s the Republican Party of the moment in a nutshell.
How else to account for public sentiment over the past few years? Rather than a wave of economic populism following the banking crisis, a significant portion of the electorate flocked to the defense of private enterprise and corporate job creators. So distrustful of their own political institutions and elected representatives, of one another and themselves, a large swathe of America drank the supply-side Kool-Aid and wants to save the economy by first letting the business pillage the remains.
Fallows reader also wrote:
“Privately, many of us who have worked in Congress since before the Clinton Administration have been complaining about the loss of the respect for the institution by the Members who were elected to serve their constituents through the institution. I don’t think people realize how fragile democracy really is. The 2012 campaign is currently looking to be the final nail in the coffin unless people start to understand what is going on.”
We’ve heard this line often enough now. Moderates, centrists, and Broderian compromisers complain about Congressional incivility while partisans and political historians remind us that it’s always been that way. But while in the past it was only the individual political parties that won or lost in Congressional squabbles, it’s now the legislative system that threatens to implode.
That doesn’t mean an implosion will occur tomorrow, this election cycle, or even the next. Beyond that though, I don’t see how the national problems, many of which have been around for decades, are going to be resolved in some moment of high, Henry Clay style statesmanship. The country faces real challenges, is at the very least in “relative” decline, and is coming to the realization that there’s no money left to spend our way out, or even afford the status quo.
One in three people slips out of the American middle class when they reach adulthood. “Climate change is real and it’s heating up.” And the economic prospects for recent college graduates are still sluggish, not to mention for those with only a high school diploma, whose financial future is as bleak as ever. In response to these challenges, the Republican answer is to burn down the American experiment and wait for social prosperity to arise from the ashes. Kelly may be right that in the future we look back at this period in the natural ebb and flow of American politics. But in the near term the process is breaking down, and outside of having faith in the resiliency of the system, there’s little to indicate that this unraveling is going to reverse anytime soon.