Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Robert Reich indulges in some hopeful (wishful?) thinking about the Republican Party

Robert Reich is in an optimistic mood in The GOP Crackup: How Obama is Unraveling Reagan Republicanism 01/25/2013. But he may well be letting his hopes get a bit ahead of his analysis here:

Inconsistencies and tensions within the GOP have been growing for years – ever since Ronald Reagan put together the coalition that became the modern Republican Party.

All President Obama has done is finally find ways to exploit these inconsistencies.

Republican libertarians have never got along with social conservatives, who want to impose their own morality on everyone else.

Shrink-the-government fanatics in the GOP have never seen eye-to-eye with deficit hawks, who don’t mind raising taxes as long as the extra revenues help reduce the size of the deficit.

The GOP’s big business and Wall Street wing has never been comfortable with the nativists and racists in the Party who want to exclude immigrants and prevent minorities from getting ahead.

And right-wing populists have never got along with big business and Wall Street, which love government as long as it gives them subsidies, tax benefits, and bailouts.
If we're looking for some kind of actual split in the Republican Party, we have to keep in mind three levels: the overall marketing "brand" of the Party; shifts in significant portions of the Republican voting base; and, the intensity of the rivalry between internal factions of organizations, pressure groups and leaders.

The Republicans' overall branding problem is clearly serious. The Republicans are about as close to a monolithically ideological party as it gets in American politics. And that ideology is increasingly openly hostile to workers, women, Latinos, African-Americans, immigrants, students and the elderly. If Obama had been as clear in his defense of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid all through the 2012 campaign as he was in his Second Inaugural Address, he would likely have peeled off considerably more older voters from the Republicans last November.

There have been two really decisive shifts in major voting group behavior in the last 60 years in the US. The bigger of the two was the shift of those Southern whites who don't much like black people decisively into the Republican column. Party voting patterns in Mississippi are so polarized by race that some whites now use "Democrat" as a synonym for "African-American". A derogatory synonym, of course. The second big shift was in California in the wake of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's Pyrrhic victory in backing the successful 1994 anti-immigrant Proposition 187. Latino voters had leaned Democratic before that. But the obvious racism and nativism involved in that campaign not only strengthened that partisan allegiance, but it increased Latino voter participation significantly and made California with its large Electoral College vote effectively a safe state for Democratic Presidential campaigns. The continued growth of the Democratic-leaning Latino electorate is a very visible and important feature of today's political landscape. But I don't see any shift in major group voting patterns that add up to something like the Republican Party split Reich is hoping for.

At the level of Republican factions, we've been hearing for decades about the supposedly uneasy relationship of the Wall Street and Main Street factions of the Republican Party. And, yet, somehow, it never seems to happen. for all the colorful squabbling between Republican factions the last four years, they all managed to unite behind cartoon plutocrat Mitt Romney against the Kenyan Muslim atheist Marxist Islamist President Obama in the general election.

Such seemingly bizarre coalitions are not new. Back in 1984, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., noted the similarity of the conservative blocs in the 1920s and 1930s to that of the Reagan coalition (Jerry Brown et al, The Election and After New York Review of Books; 08/16/1984 issue; link behind subscription):

The present conservative swing is especially reminiscent of the Twenties. You have the same dominance of trickledown economics, or, as it is now called, supply-side economics. You have the same crusade against regulation. You have the same desire to devolve federal powers on the states and to dismantle the federal administrative apparatus. You have the same pretentious intellectualizing and "agenda-setting," which in the 1920s was called the "new era" philosophy, in the 1950s "new conservatism," and now takes the form of "neoconservatism."

You also have the same division, which Kevin Phillips has written eloquently about, between the business community and the fundamentalists in the conservative coalition. In the 1920s, the fundamentalists imposed prohibition on a hapless country. They did their best to stop the teaching of Darwin. This was the supreme period of the Moral Majority, even if the term was unknown. It was the age of Aimee Semple McPherson and Billy Sunday; it was the time when Sinclair Lewis wrote about Elmer Gantry. You had the same division in the conservative coalition over the question of prohibition that you have today over questions like abortion and drugs. The businessmen who dominated economic policy in the private-interest administrations of the 1920s patronized bootleggers and accepted evolution, while the fundamentalist wing of the conservative coalition demanded stricter enforcement of prohibition and creationism in the public schools. [my emphasis]
Those earlier coalitions, though, included both conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats, while the New Deal coalition included both liberal Democrats and a political category now nearly unimaginable, liberal Republicans. By the 1980s, those cross-party ideological alliances were disappearing, largely because conservatives grouped themselves into the Republican Party. There is an enormous conceptual drag, though, in our punditocracy about recognizing this. They still idolize the "bipartisanship" of that fading era. You would think by now it's such an anachronism that even David "Bobo" Brooks would recognize it. But our Pod Pundits don't operate that way.

Sticking with 1984 and the New York Review of Books, V.S. Naipaul wrote in Among the Republicans (10/25/1984 issue; link behind subscription) about the 1984 Republican National Convention, which triumphantly re-nominated St. Reagan for re-election. The Convention's benediction was given by the famous Southern Baptist fundamentalist, Dr. W. A. Criswell of the 1st Baptist Church of Dallas. On the Sunday just before the convention, the good Reverend had given a sermon on the topic, "The White Throne Judgment." Naipaul's account:

Dr. Criswell, working up to his Judgment theme, spoke of homosexuality. His language was direct. No euphemisms; no irony; no humor. He was earnest from beginning to end. He moved about on the platform and sometimes for a second or so he turned (in his white suit) to face his red-gowned choir.

"In our lifetime we are scoffing at the word of God…and opening up society and culture to the lesbian and sodomite and homosexual…and now we have this disastrous judgment…the disease and sin of AIDS...."

AIDS, on the first Sunday after the Republican Convention, and in that voice of thunder! But if you thought about it the topic wasn’t so unsuitable. There was something oddly Biblical (though Dr. Criswell didn’t make this particular point) about AIDS, which struck down buggers and a special kind of black and spared everybody else.

"God is like his LAWS!" Dr. Criswell thundered. "There are laws everywhere. Laws of fire, laws of gravity."

From this idea of Judgment and the laws (two distinct senses of "laws" run together) Dr. Criswell moved on to Karl Marx. A bugger? Only metaphorically. Karl Marx had his place in this sermon as a nineteenth-century atheist. Dr. Criswell gave Marx’s dates but said little about the heresies: in this auditorium Karl Marx was just his demonic name, and it was enough. Karl Marx wasn’t dead, Dr. Criswell said (or so I understood him to say: the theology was a little difficult for me). Karl Marx was still alive; Karl Marx would die only on the great Judgment Day.

"The great Judgment Day comes at the end of time, history, civilization.... The whole universe shall be turned to conflagration…. The caverns beneath this earth, the whole thing, shall be turned to dreadful fire and fury when the Lord cleanses this earth and purges this earth...when God comes to the end of the world."
This hellfire political fundamentalism was part and parcel of the Republican coalition under St. Reagan's leadership. Like Sinclair Lewis' Rev. Ezekiel Bittery, the message was there for anyone paying attention. And those to whom the message appealed were paying attention.

They even had an early model of Herman Cain present. It was, uh, former Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, speaking at a press conference featuring Richard Viguerie and Howard Phillips, on the subject of, "Are Liberals Soft on Communism?"

Eldridge Cleaver! One of the famous names of the late 1960s: the self-confessed rapist of white women, the man who had spent years in jail, the Black Muslim, the author of Soul on Ice (1968), not really a book, more an assemblage of jottings, but a work of extraordinary violence, answering the mood of that time. In 1969, when for a few weeks I had been in the United States, I had heard it said of Cleaver that he was going to die one day in a shoot-out with the FBI. That hadn't happened. Cleaver had found asylum in Algeria and then in France; he had become homesick there and had returned, a born-again Christian, to the United States.

In Paris earlier this year I had met a man who had made an important film about Cleaver during the revolutionary days of the late 1960s. The film man now regarded that time, which had its glory, as a time of delusion. And now Cleaver himself was part of a side-show—or so I thought of it—at the Republican convention.
And he offered up the same nonsense that African-American Republicans are expected to today: "I'm passionately opposed to the welfare system because it's made people a parasitic dependency on the federal system.... I want to see black people plugged into the economic system.... Welfare is a stepping-stone to socialism because it teaches people the government is going to solve our problems."

I don't mean to say that the Republican Party was quite the clown show in 1984 that it had become by 2012. But it was well on its way. And some of the same seeming tensions and absurdities that Robert Reich notices now were pretty painfully obvious in 1984. And yet the coalition among the conservative activists of such seemingly different ideological and class perspectives still holds together.

Nothing lasts forever. And Party splits of more or less severity are always possible. But the practical reality for over 30 years has been that Wall Streeters who wanted government handouts and favorable legislation managed to cooperate within the Republican Party with moralistic fundamentalists, who in turn christened Ayn Rand economics as "biblical capitalism." And the factions we saw during the Republican primaries were factions clustered around religious sects (Pentecostal demon-chasers for Perry, Catholic fundis for Newt and Santorum, Mormon fundis for Romney, etc.) than the kind of groupings Reich points to. The Tea Party groups managed to get comfortable with their "populist" protests being bankrolled by corporate money. The Tea Party was less a faction than a colorful brand variation to invigorate the Republican base.

Reich's post includes a video where he has most sensible things to say about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But he also advocates means-testing Social Security, which is a Republican trap to stigmatize Social Security as a "welfare program." Defenders of Social Security can't afford to be careful about such maneuvers, however plausible and sensible in might look from a theoretical economic perspective.

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