Republican rhetoric has become hyperbolic. If you listen to RNC Chair Reince Prebius last weekend he said that people had to vote Republican to save America. Here in Maine Governor Paul LePage blasted the Supreme Court health care ruling by claiming it makes the IRS “the Gestapo.” Others lament the “loss of freedom” or even the “end of America.” Apparently the Democrats are a threat to the country and we need a single party state. Even in the emotion of an election year such hyperbolic rhetoric is striking.
One of the most important things for the vibrance and success of democracy is acceptance of the necessity and importance of opposing parties. When people believe only ones’ own party fit to govern and that the other will destroy the country, then democracy is threatened. From that perspective, this rhetoric is startling.
However, it’s not new. Talk like this emerged in the early nineties with Bill Clinton as the target. The “draft dodging womanizing child of the sixties” was regarded by many as the most dangerous President ever. He tried to allow gays to serve openly in the military, pushed for universal health care, and was branded an anti-American dangerous narcissist who had to be stopped. It’s easy to forget how frothy the far right got over Clinton.
While the “strangeness” of Obama to many on the right (he’s black, grew up overseas, flirted with radical ideas as a student) explains part of the hyperbole, it’s more than that. As with Clinton it’s a reaction to a cultural shift that has been building for decades. Demography is against this reactionary nostalgia, at least in the long term.
This assault on the cultural change that has been building in the US has two components. One is an attack by the economic elites. They seek to equate freedom for large corporate actors to evade oversight and regulation with freedom for the average person to live their life unencumbered. It is a false convergence, but one that many on the right have internalized. It became extremely popular amongst working class whites, people who earlier had been likely to vote Democratic.
This created a quandary for the Democrats, which Clinton “solved” by essentially siding with Wall Street and the economic elites in order to get as much as he could for his agenda. Given the appearance of economic success (we know now that high debt levels in the eighties and bubble economies created an illusion of success) he had little choice — the conservative narrative was dominant.
After 9-11 and the Bush years this narrative took a dramatic twist. Suddenly America was under attack both from within (the left wanting to “tear down freedom”) and without (Islamic extremists). This siege mentality grew. A decorated war hero like John Kerry was ‘swiftboated’ and demonized for being elitist. For awhile any critical utterance was punished – the Dixie Chicks were boycotted, Bill Maher fired, and the Attorney General told people to “watch what they say.”
That view of America under assault still resonates on the right. The economic crisis (caused by the policies started in the early eighties and continued for nearly thirty years), the rise of someone like Barack Obama, and the changing social scene creates a sense of doom.
An emotional mix of themes – the memory of 9-11, a knee jerk defense of big business while condemning big government, and a nostalgia for a time when values were not so much in flux create an almost paranoid belief that it’s Obama and the Democrats to blame for everything, and it’s them who threaten freedom.
Fortunately for the Democrats, this isn’t universal. Minorities don’t share that sense of doom over change – most of them did poorly under the old rules, and welcome change. Whites are split. Working class and less educated whites are more likely to feel that fear, but the youth and well educated whites tend to support Obama. The reality is that the ‘save America’ line has limited appeal. It’s strong enough to have taken over the GOP, but not strong enough to take the country. Maine’s bombastic Governor LePage won with 39% of the vote, if the progressives hadn’t split the vote by running a strong independent alongside a weak Democrat he would not have made it.
This also means a lot of conservatives are wearing blinders. So convinced that it’s obvious that Obama and the Democrats mean the destruction of all we value, they believe it’s almost inevitable that others will agree and come around to vote him out of office. How could they not? In their minds the Democrats want to create a dependent culture with government largesse giving bureaucrats and politicians control over peoples’ lives. It’s an fantastical mix of Orwell and Huxley – scarey!
But it’s not true. In fact, the growth of dominant power by the big business using campaign contributions, lobbying and inside connections to essentially get government in their pocket has been the real threat to our freedom – a threat not seen by many who simply define freedom as freedom from government. The real threat to traditional American values comes from the declining middle class, and increasingly large number of people at or near poverty. Yes, poverty in America is far more comfortable than even above average wealth in third world countries, but in relative terms it weakens the fabric of society.
And many Americans get that. That’s why Obama still leads in the polls, that’s why his argument resonated so well in 2008. It’s only the economy that renders him at all vulnerable – and with the whole world caught in economic crisis it’s hard to say that Obama could have magically fixed things by now.
But the Democrats don’t have the answers either. America functions best when the two parties have to compromise – and that requires a Republican party that is able to work both with and against the Democrats, not just against. The current economic crisis needs a transformation in how the US government operates — neither party alone can achieve it. Solving these problems requires the Right to recognize that America of 2012 is very different than America of 1982 or 1952. The future cannot be lived in the past.