Tag Archives: Republicans

Of Whigs And Wackos

A few nights ago–as I previously reported–I was a guest lecturer in a friend’s class on political activism. I had been asked to address America’s current political polarization, and I shared many of the opinions I previously posted here: the asymmetric nature of that polarization, with the GOP moving far, far to the right and the Democratic party only recently listening to its more progressive members; the fact that the Democratic party is a much bigger tent than the GOP (which is currently a lock-step cult), making cohesion far more difficult for Democrats; the outsized role of a fragmented media; and of course, White Christian Nationalism, aided and abetted by Republican gerrymandering.
 
During the question and answer period, the undergraduates asked pretty sophisticated questions–this was clearly a group of politically-engaged and thoughtful young people. One of them asked me what I thought would happen to the Republican Party.

I responded honestly that I had no clue–that the GOP might go the way of the Whigs, or might return to something approaching a normal political party as the oldsters died off and the fever abated. Or??

However, the next morning, columnist Jennifer Rubin addressed that same question,  noting that Trump critics and disaffected Republicans have already begun to run for the exits.

Matthew Dowd, a former Republican adviser to George W. Bush, is running for Texas lieutenant governor as a Democrat. Evan McMullin, former CIA officer and Republican congressional aide, is running for a Utah Senate seat as an independent. This is a sound trend: If you can’t beat the MAGA cult, leave.
 
There is scant evidence that any appetite exists in the GOP for independent thinking or pro-democracy critics of the disgraced former president. When Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) is booted from House leadership and ostracized while anti-Semitic mouthpiece and crackpot Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) remains a member in good standing, it is obvious which way the wind is blowing.

The sane faction of the GOP could probably fit around a dining room table. The House minority leader apparently does not believe he cannot survive politically without showing unwavering loyalty to the former president who incited a violent insurrection. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans think it is acceptable to vote to send the country into default but not to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Trump and Trumpism remain firmly in control of the GOP–as Rubin reports, a recent Pew  survey found two-thirds of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents reaffirming their loyalty, including 44% who say they would like him to run for president in 2024. The poll’s results confirm Rubin’s conclusion that no one can oppose the cult leader and remain viable in the party.

Many well-meaning Republicans have tried in vain to shake the GOP from its Trumpian foundation. Finding no success, they now need to topple the MAGA party if they want to insulate the country from instability, authoritarian rule and possibly violence.

Reform from within is apparently impossible–a conclusion with which a number of former Republicans agree. Rubin encourages them to run as Democrats (providing evidence that the party is hardly the nefarious gang of “socialists” portrayed by the cultists) or Independents (hopefully splitting the GOP vote). 

In our two-party system, it is extremely difficult to “kill off” a major political party. But it has been done before.The Whigs were active in the middle of the 19th century;  although the Democratic Party was slightly larger, the Whigs were one of the country’s two major parties  between the late 1830s and the early 1850s. Four presidents were affiliated with the Whig Party during at least part of their respective terms, and Whig party leaders included names we all know–men like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, William Seward, and John Quincy Adams. Ultimately, the Whigs divided over the issue of slavery, and were replaced by the Republican Party.

As the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Today’s GOP is now firmly committed to White Christian Supremacy, and Republicans who do not share that worldview are leaving, in a reversal of the desertion that destroyed the Whig Party. (Pro-slavery Whigs left to join the nativist, pro-slavery American Party.)

Rubin is right, and Republicans appalled by the party’s descent into racism and nihilism are recognizing the fact.

 I think we may be seeing the beginning of the end….The only question is, how much damage can a party in its death throes inflict on the rest of us?

 

Words, Words, Words…..

One of the barriers to productive political debate is language–its use and misuse.

Genuine communication–in general, not just in politics– is anything but simple. Back in “the day,” when I was a high school English teacher, discussions of grammar included a lesson on the difference between “definition” and “connotation”–between the dictionary meaning of a word, and the social or emotional “freight” it had picked up through use. (Further complicating matters, that “freight”–the negative or positive spin on a word or phrase–often varies depending upon the constituency hearing it. Think of how different ears hear “woke.”)

We all bring our individual world-views to our discussions, and those views and personal experiences become the lens through which we interpret what others are saying. Often, those interpretations are wildly different from the intended meaning–think “Defund the Police”–which is why political strategists and PR folks are so concerned with the language employed by candidates and/or commercial interests. Insisting “that isn’t what I meant” is almost always ineffective; it’s far preferable to initially frame an argument or proposition using  language that is as accurate about meaning as possible, and that will be most resistant to misinterpretation, whether intentional or unintentional.

Sometimes, partisans forget that the object should be to communicate, not simply to engage in virtue signaling.

Back in April, Governing Magazine ran an article titled ” ‘No Accountability, No Peace’: Sloganeering and the Language of the Left,” focusing on the differences in language employed by contemporary Republicans and Democrats. The author noted the “constant demand on the left” to be sensitive, to use words that are received as less hurtful. Sometimes, he wrote, this makes perfect sense. “Other times it feels like they want to fight on the wrong battlefield.”

This is not an isolated linguistic debate. It comes just after the recent overbaked argument about whether President Biden’s infrastructure plan, or parts of it, qualify as infrastructure, namely caregiving for children, the elderly and those with disabilities. Mother Jones was not alone in decrying this as a “semantic argument,” stressing the importance of Biden wanting to support women workers as part of the recovery.

But semantics do matter in politics. For years, the right has found success by putting potent, clever labels on things that help make their arguments for them: Recasting estate taxes as the “death tax,” for example, or succeeding in switching usage from the clinical description of intact dilation and evacuation to the soberingly graphic “partial-birth abortion.”

On the left, the impulse is more aspirational. You increase the power of your vocabulary by borrowing meanings, asserting that some things actually mean other, good things — that child care is infrastructure, or that housing is a human right or health care is a human right.

Give credit where it’s due: the GOP has been far more successful than Democrats in using language–words–to drive public opinion. That success has been partly due to good PR advice, but it also owes a debt to the fact that today, Republicans are far more monolithic  than Democrats, and their major goals are simpler to convey: keep my taxes low lends itself to far clearer messaging than, say, immigration reform, or even “Black Lives Matter.”

I actually think a large-scale public debate over the meaning of “infrastructure” would be  very useful. I have often distinguished between physical infrastructure (roads, bridges, the electrical grid, etc.) and what I think is accurately described as social infrastructure–the governmentally-provided social supports and services that are arguably necessary to social functioning and national cohesion.

America is rather clearly not ready for that discussion–not ready to use language for its intended purpose, which–I will reiterate– is to communicate. Far too many of us evidently subscribe to Tallyrand’s theory that “speech was given to man to conceal his thoughts.” 

“Make America Great Again” comes to mind….

Why America Elects Moral Midgets

I haven’t previously posted about the Impeachment trial. Initially, I figured that, since virtually everyone who has an opinion has written, spoken and generally fulminated about those opinions, there wasn’t much of value I could add.

Most of the commentary has–quite correctly–pointed to the cowardice and lack of integrity of all but seven Republican Senators. Columns and editorials have especially zeroed in on the breathtaking hypocrisy of Mitch McConnell; in his speech immediately after the vote, he made it clear that he knew Trump was guilty as charged. The fig leaf that McConnell and his spineless colleagues  were frantically trying to hide behind was an utterly unpersuasive opinion that a President who no longer held office could not be constitutionally impeached–an opinion rejected by virtually all constitutional scholars.

It also didn’t escape notice that McConnell was the reason the trial had been delayed until after Biden was inaugurated.

Suffice it to say that the overwhelming hypocrisy and dishonesty in the face of what everyone in that chamber clearly knew was astounding–and it has all been the subject of widespread condemnation. What hasn’t been adequately analyzed, however, is how we got here–“here” being a legislative chamber containing so many Senators clearly unworthy of public office.

I am convinced that the pathetic performance Americans saw last week was the result of forty-plus years of denigrating the very existence of government and belittling those who serve in it.

Reagan started the incessant attacks, and Republican dogma ever since has been that government–far from being an important tool for collective action addressing America’s problems–is always and inevitably a threat that must be constrained and hobbled.  Republican messaging has been sneering and dismissive of the very notion that government might be an essential mechanism for achieving the common good. It has been years since I heard a Republican politician employ terms like “statesmanship” and/or “public service.”

When I saw that both of Indiana’s undistinguished, moral-pygmy Senators had (predictably) voted to acquit, I could almost picture them spitting on Dick Lugar’s grave…

The Republican demonization of government has largely succeeded in changing the identity of the GOP. The political culture that produced statesmen like Dick Lugar and Bill Hudnut has been replaced by the slimy “what’s in it for me” opportunism of Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump–and Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and too many others.

Honorable, talented people are attracted to careers that those in their particular tribes consider prestigious and admirable. When government employment is denigrated and mocked–“couldn’t get a real job?”– when political actors are expected to be corrupt, and when politics is widely considered the refuge of blowhards and scoundrels, blowhards and scoundrels are who it will attract.

It’s instructive to emphasize that these persistent attacks on government and public service have come overwhelmingly from Republicans. Democrats have been far more likely to defend the importance and worth of  America’s political institutions, and I don’t think it is just happenstance that as a result–as we can see at the federal level– Democratic officeholders these days tend to be considerably more public-spirited, honorable and impressive than their Republican peers.

Today’s Democrats have Jamie Raskin; Republicans have Marjorie Taylor Green…

 

The New Confederacy

Little by little, as media sources obtain access to previously unavailable information, Americans are learning the true extent of the criminal and racist activities of the Trump administration–and far more concerning, we are now seeing how far gone, how amenable to those characteristics, today’s QOP remains.

One example among many: in the final, lame-duck days of the administration–after the election but before Biden’s inauguration–the Justice Department moved to undo what the Washington Post called “decades-long protections against discrimination,” by
moving to change the interpretation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Title VI bars discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin by recipients of federal funding.  The rules apply to the recipients of some six billion dollars of annual federal aid, and provide that actions will be considered discriminatory if they have a demonstrably discriminatory effect on protected groups. That’s what’s known as a “disparate impact.”  Under the new version, only intentional discrimination would be prohibited.

Intentional discrimination is incredibly difficult to prove, as lawyers who bring cases under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment can attest. (In order to succeed, challenges brought under that clause must show evidence that at least a part of the challenged law or action was intended to be discriminatory.)
 
According to the Post’s report, the Trump administration had been considering the change for over two years, but had waited until its final weeks to try to put it into effect. It was one of William Barr’s last efforts before his welcome departure as Attorney General.

And as usual, the Trump administration ignored the required procedures for making  significant policy changes.

Typically regulations of this magnitude are published first as proposals and the government collects public comment before publishing its final version. It would be unusual to publish a final regulation — particularly one of this magnitude — without going through that process, but the document says that its proposal falls under an exception and therefore the administration is not required to seek public comment.

Conservatives have long argued that allegations of discrimination should require proof that any disparate effects were intentional. If this argument is accepted, it allows the defense to deny the existence of structural racism: if person X doesn’t have a conscious animus, then what he does isn’t racist. So the bank officer who declines a mortgage under his bank’s redlining criteria, the police officer who participates in “stop and frisk” activities only in “certain” neighborhoods, the HR department that hires applicants based upon “cultural compatibility,” the City Council that paves streets far more frequently in the “nicer” areas of town–all are off the hook.

If no one is burning a cross on a Black person’s lawn, or screaming the “n” word, there’s no racism.

The Trump administration’s effort to bolster structural barriers to equality is just one of many examples of what has become distressingly clear during the past four years: today’s QOP is our contemporary version of the Confederacy. It is dominated by White Christian male supremacists intent upon doing whatever it takes to protect their historic hegemony–intent upon ignoring/excusing the operation of systems developed and maintained over the years that lock in White advantage without demonstrating cruder, more obvious bias.

It is not a coincidence that those willing to engage in that cruder racism–the “out and proud” racists of the KKK and Proud Boys and neo-Nazis– flocked to Trump and today’s Republican Party.  The efforts of more “respectable” members of the party to maintain plausible deniability–to distance themselves from their Confederate motives– is increasingly unconvincing.

The problem, as I have repeatedly noted, is that a two-party system needs two adult parties. It will be interesting to see if the embryonic efforts to form a new center-right party to replace the cult that is the current QOP go anywhere….

 

 

 

Political Tribalism

One of the more intriguing “factoids” that emerged during 2019 was the shift in parental views on intermarriage. Objections to their children marrying across racial or religious lines  continued to diminish; however, the proportion of people who didn’t want their children marrying across political lines increased substantially. In fact, more parents would object to their child marrying into a family with a different political persuasion than would be upset by an inter-racial union.

Political identity has become a potent–albeit not perfect– marker of a range of attitudes about race, women’s rights, economic justice, and (as one political scientist has quipped) one’s favorite grocery store.

The vastly increased saliency of political identity recently led Thomas Edsell to pose a question.

Is the deepening animosity between Democrats and Republicans based on genuine differences over policy and ideology or is it a form of tribal warfare rooted in an atavistic us-versus-them mentality?

Is American political conflict relatively content-free — emotionally motivated electoral competition — or is it primarily a war of ideas, a matter of feuding visions both of what America is and what it should become?

Edsell quotes Lilliana Mason, a leading scholar of partisanship.

“Group victory is a powerful prize,” Mason writes, “and American partisans have increasingly seen that as more important than the practical matter of governing a nation.”

The recent party-line vote on Impeachment in the House of Representatives certainly supports Mason’s thesis. For that matter, the importance of group victory to partisans is all that can explain the behavior of Republicans in both the House and Senate during Trump’s Presidency; they have consistently put the interests of their party above the interests of the nation and the concerns of governance.

Edsell also quotes Shanto Iyengar, a political scientist at Stanford, for the proposition that “policy preferences are driven more by partisans’ eagerness to support their party rather than considered analysis of the pros and cons of opposing positions on any given issue.”

Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory, disagrees. He doesn’t believe that partisanship dictates ideological and policy decisions; instead, he argues that ideological differences drive polarization.

Democratic and Republican voters today hold far more distinctive views across a wide range of issues than they did in the past. And it is among those Democrats and Republicans who hold views typical for their party, that is liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, that dislike of the opposing party is strongest.

Alexander Theodoridis is a political scientist at the University of California-Merced. He appears to think it goes both ways–that people originally identify with a party based on ideological compatibility, but then “adjust” or harden their positions in response to partisan messaging:

For most people, party identity appears to be far more central and salient than particular issue positions. We see increasing evidence of people adjusting their issue positions or priorities to fit their party allegiance, more than the reverse. We are very good at rationalizing away cognitive dissonance. More important than this chicken-or-egg question is the reality that ideology and party have become very highly sorted today. Liberal and Conservative are now tantamount to Democrat and Republican, respectively. That was not always the case. Furthermore, all sorts of descriptive and dispositional features (ranging from religion and race to personality type and worldview) are also more correlated with political party than they were in the past. All this heightens the us-versus-them nature of modern hyperpolarization.

Whichever came first, we are now at a point where most Republicans and Democrats inhabit different realities, informed by different “facts,” and espouse distinctly different values.

When disagreements are about policy, compromise is possible. When those disagreements are about morality, not so much.