Monday, July 29, 2013

The Republicans and Conservative Revolution

Political rhetoric always has its particular strangeness. Today in the US, a particular part of the strangeness is way in which conservative Republicans use the rhetoric of sedition, nullification and even revolution without sending either their base voters or the mainstream press into orbit with such talk.

White advocates for gun proliferation talk very publicly and proudly about "the people" needing guns to protect themselves from "tyranny." In the plain meaning, that would involve using weapons to kill cops and soldiers and public officials. In practice, most of them that mouth off with that kind of thing have more in mind something like using them against the "tyranny" of teenagers wearing hoodies and carrying bags of Skittles.

This shurff (actually police chief), for instance, presumably isn't organizing his own armed vigilante squad in order to fight police tyranny from the department he runs: (John Usalis, Gilberton police chief says YouTube video supports U.S. Constitution Republican Herald 07/24/2013). Also, according to Ryan Lenz of SPLC's Hatewatch in Oath Keepers Rally Reveals Radical Politics of Group 07/25/2013, the shurff is also part of the Radical Right Oath Keepers group. The Young Turks have images (includes profanity, sex talk), America's Scariest Police Chief 07/25/2013:

Then there's NRA Board of Directors member Ted Nugent: Josh Sugarmann, NRA's Ted Nugent Jokes About Gunning Down South Central LA Residents Like Feral Hogs Huffington Post 07/12/2013; Timothy Johnson, "Anti-Racist" Nugent's Analogy: Profile Blacks Like Dangerous Dogs Media Matters 07/24/2013. In fairness, NRA board member Nugent does suggest there are some some politicians that he might want to murder, too, as he did in 2007: Elizabeth Goodman, Ted Nugent Threatens to Kill Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton During Vicious Onstage Rant Rolling Stone 08/24/2007.

In addition, we have various rightwingers who have shot people for more-or-less political motives in recent years, like the antiabortion extremist who murdered Dr. George Tiller in his own church. I would include Congresswoman Gaby Giffords in that group, as her would-be assassin seems to have been motivated in part for rightwing extremist ideas. The media typically script those events as a Lone Nut doing the attack, even when he shows definite far-right connections. Dave Neiwert's excellent book And Hell Followed With Her: Crossing the Dark Side of the American Border (2013) gives a good look into the violent orientation of the Patriot Militia-type fringe that has been heavily involved in extremist "border watch" actions.

The NRA is an entirely respectable group in today's Republican Party, despite featuring people like Nugent and militia/border-watch leader Jim Gilchrist on their board of directors; And Hell Followed With Her discusses Gilchrist at some length. How respectable is illustrated by this editorial from Bloomberg View/Business Week, On Capitol Hill, More Gun Control Cowardice 07/25/2013:

The ATF is responsible for conducting regulatory inspections of the nation’s more than 123,000 licensed gun dealers. A Department of Justice report released in April found that the agency is so hindered by congressionally imposed obstacles and "insufficient investigator resources" that it can’t adequately perform its duties. In addition to preventing the ATF from keeping computerized records of gun transactions, Congress passed legislation prohibiting the agency from inspecting a licensed gun dealer more than once a year. Because the ATF has only 2,500 agents to police guns, tobacco, alcohol, and explosives, the majority of gun dealers received no inspection at all from the understaffed agency during a five-year period.

From 2004 to 2011 the nation’s gun shops lost 174,679 guns through theft or loss. (That’s the official number; actual losses are undoubtedly much higher.) It’s unknown how many of these ended up in the possession of criminals. Even when the ATF concludes that a gun dealer is not complying with the law, it can take years to revoke a license. The practical consequence is that rogue gun dealers can supply criminals for years without worrying about official disruptions to their business.
The antiabortion movement, which helped spawn the militia movement of the early 1990s and continues to be a source of some of the most extreme, hate-filled and violence-inclined rhetoric of any political faction in the US are happily supported by the Republican Party. If there are any Republican members of Congress that are taking care to distance themselves from the standard movement rhetoric of abortion being "killing babies" and abortions in the US being worse than the Holocaust, I couldn't name one. Yet that inflammatory talk that makes any compromise seemingly impossible is common as dirt among the antiabortionists.

I was struck by a phrase I saw used in Spiegel Online during President Obama's first term to describe the Republican Party's Congressional strategy against his domestic agenda, "fundamental opposition." While I wouldn't call it a "revolutionary" approach, it's certainly a militant nullification strategy aimed at thwarting the majority will being expressed in Congress. Hearing about the Republicans' genuinely unprecedented level of obstructionism in Congress, I'm often reminded of this cartoon depicting the Cech nationalist party in the Vienna Parliament (Reichsrat) of the western part of the Habsburg Empire ("Austro-Hungarian Empire") in the years prior to the First World War. Formally, the Reichsrat was the parliament of "Cisleithanien," the western portion of the Empire; "Transleithanien" was the unofficial name for the eastern part that included Hungary.

"Die tschechische Opposition in unserm Parlament" ("The Czech Opposition in Our Parliament")

Historian Brigitte Hamaan writes about this Czech nationalist group in Hitlers Wien. Lehrjahre eines Diktators (1996). Numerous events had lead to particular political tensions in 1908 and 1909, including confrontations among the various national-ethnic groups in the Habsburgs' often-dysfunctional empire. And those conflicts were reflected in the Parliament in Vienna, which really did come close to fitting the stereotype of a powerless talking shop. "The most dangerous obstruction," she writes, "became that of the 'Czech National Socialists'." They were furious that the German ethnic parties in the Czech homeland of Bohemia had rendered the local party unable to do much of anything.

After martial law was declared in Prague on December 2, 1908, the protest of the Czech parties of made Parliament a complete national witches' kettle. Right at the introductory words of the [parliamentary] President, the Czech National Socialists Vinzenz Lisy, Václav Fresl and František Burival advanced at a double-quick pace towards the Presidential rostrum blowing metal whistles and children's trumpets, following by more representatives whistling and crying, "Boo!" The respresentative Dr. Anton Hajn, armed with a child's trumpet sounded the Sturmmarsch [presumably the Düppeler Schanzen-Sturmmarsch, a well-known Prussian military march]. The Young Czech Prague Representative Václav Choc to the President: "There is the hanging judge!" Lisy followed: "Do you want to impose the martial law of Prague on the Bohemenian Representatives in Vienna?"

[German original: Nach der Verhängung des Standrechtes in Prag am 2. Dezember 1908 machten die Proteste der tschechischen Parteien das Parlament vollends zu einern nationalen Hexenkessel. Schon bei den Einleitungsworten des Präsidenten drangen die tschechischen Nationalsozialisten Vinzenz Lisy, Václav Fresl und František Burival im Sturrnschritt, auf Metallpfeifen und Kindertrompeten blasend, gegen die Präsidententribune vor, von weiteren pfeifenden und »pfui« rufenden Abgeordneten gefolgt. Der mit einer Kindertrompete ausgerüstete Abgeordnete Dr. Anton Hajn blies dabei den Sturmmarsch. Der jungtschechische Prager Abgeordnete Václav Choc zum Präsidenten: »Da ist der Scharfrichter!« Darauf Lisy: »Wollen Sie das Prager Standrecht auf die böhmischen Abgeordneten in Wien übertragen?«
That's what "fundamental opposition" looked like in the Vienna Parliament on that particular day.

(Hamaan notes that the young Adolf Hitler frequently observed sessions of the Reichsrat from the public gallery in those years. He claimed in Mein Kampf that his experience watching the Vienna Reichsrat convinced him of the worthlessness of parliamentary democracy. It may be pure coincidence that his later German Party took the name "National Socialists," for which "Nazi" was the popular short form.)

The Republicans haven't thrown a melodramatic hissy fit quite like that one in Congress. But it's not too hard to picture. And in any case, they're always in a hissy fit about something.

Yet the strategy of disruption and paralyzing the normal working of the institution is a similar one. And the US Congress has far more real responsibility and power than the Imperial Parliament in Vienna in 1908, essentially lacking any real power. The Czech National Socialists were causing a real ruckus by doing that, but not actually hindering any substantial business of the government by doing so. That cannot be said of the current Republican obstructionism of the Republicans in Congress, aimed at nullifying laws of which they don't approve and also nullifying majority rule. Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have given a careful account of this radical approach by the Republicans in Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism (2012). This summary of a Bill Moyers interview with the two authors, Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann Explain Why Congress is Failing Us 04/26/2013, says:

In [the book], they argue that congressional gridlock is mostly the fault of right wing radicals within the Republican Party who engage in “policy hostage-taking” to extend their political war against the president.

What's more, Ornstein and Mann say, the mainstream media and media fact-checkers add to the problem by indulging in "false equivalency" — pretending both parties are equally to blame.

"Sadly, divided party government, which we have because of the Republican House, in a time of extreme partisan polarization, is a formula for inaction and absolutist opposition politics, not for problem solving," Mann tells Bill.

Ornstein says, "Some of this is coming from the kinds of people who we're electing to office, through a nominating process that has gotten so skewed to the radical right. But some of it is an electoral magnet that pulls them away from voting for anything that might have a patina of bipartisan support because they'll face extinction." [my emphasis]
More recently, long-time conservative Ornstein has written, "What is going on now to sabotage Obamacare is not treasonous — just sharply beneath any reasonable standards of elected officials with the fiduciary responsibility of governing." (The Unprecedented — and Contemptible — Attempts to Sabotage Obamacare National Journal 07/24/2013) Prompting Paul Krugman to observes, "When you have a GOP so radical that Norm Ornstein feels compelled to clarify that its actions — its attempts to sabotage the law of the land — don't quite rise to the standard of treason, the old notion that equated centrism with practical politics is utterly outdated." (Things Fell Apart 07/26/2013)

It's said of Republicans that they campaign for office complaining that government doesn't work, then when they get into power they go about proving it true. What we're seeing now is an extreme form of that strategy. And it's accompanied by a notable and enduring radicalization of their program. That radicalization is even more pronounced in the state legislatures controlled by Republicans than it is even in Congress. Those legislature are eagerly passing segregationist laws like Stand Your Ground (which doubles as a gun proliferation measure) and enacting schemes to suppress the votes of African-Americans and Latinos. And these actions are taking place in conjunction with the Tea Party groups and their militant and even revolutionary rhetoric; the gun-proliferation lobby and their supporters; the antiabortion fanatics; and, the substantial Republican media infrastructure of which FOX News and hate radio are the most visible manifestations.

Now, the Republican Party has no shortage of blowhards. And a lot of the militant, violent and "eliminationist" rhetoric we hear coming from those parts of the political spectrum are hot air. But when we look at the popular agitation - and the occasional violent actions - of the more hardline groups over issues like gun proliferation, immigration and abortion combined with the radical obstructionism of the Republicans in Congress and the Republican-dominated Supreme Court making partisan rulings on major issues that overturn important precedents, often with 5-4 votes, I think it's reasonable to say that the Republicans are pursuing a genuinely radical strategy with even quasi-revolutionary elements to it. Handing the Presidency to Republican George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in 2000 against both the popular vote and what the Electoral College vote would have been had Florida's votes been accurately counted was quite a radical step. President Obama said of the Citizen's United ruling, "This ruling strikes at our democracy itself. ... I can't think of anything more devastating to the public interest." (my emphasis)

Which brings me to this. Reading about the political scene on the militant left in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the Untied States is a glimpse into another world. Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin recently published a history of the Black Panther Party, a leftwing Black Power group that had its political heyday in roughly 1968-1971, Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (2012). It looks at the political impact of that group with special emphasis to the Panthers' political understanding of their own mission and accomplishments. They write in their conclusion:

Members of revolutionary sects can hawk their newspapers and proselytize on college campuses until they are blue in the face, but they remain politically irrelevant. Islamist insurgencies, with deep political roots abroad, are politically significant, but they lack potential constituencies in the United States. And ironically, at least in the terrorist variant, they tend to reinforce rather than challenge state power domestically because their practices threaten — rather than build common cause with — alienated constituencies within the United States.

No revolutionary movement of political significance will gain a foothold in the United States again until a group of revolutionaries develops insurgent practices that seize the political imagination of a large segment of the people and successively draw support from other constituencies, creating a broad insurgent alliance that is difficult to repress or appease. This has not happened in the United States since the heyday of the Black Panther Party and may not happen again for a very long time. [my emphasis]
But when we look at the strategy and practice of today's Republican Party and affiliated groups, how does that affect how we would understand that assessment by Bloom and Martin?

They use the term "revolutionary" there in the sense that was common among the New Left and groups like the Black Panthers to mean groups that are anti-capitalist and seek to fundamentally change both the social and political systems. There are decades of hair-splitting disputes about whether far-right groups like the Italian Fascists or German Nazis that styled themselves as revolutionary insurgent groups as they were building their power were genuinely revolutionary.

The Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse published an essay in 1972 called "The Left Under the Counter-Revolution" in a book called Counter-Revolution and Revolt. He described his perspective this way:

The Western world has reached a new stage of development: now, the defense of the capitalist system requires the organization of counterrevolution at home and abroad. ...

The counterrevolution is largely preventive and, in the Western world, altogether preventive. Here, there is no recent revolution to be undone, and there is none in the offing. And yet, fear of revolution which creates the common interest links the various stages and forms of the counterrevolution. It runs the whole gamut from parliamentary democracy via the police state to open dictatorship.
In one sense, Marcuse was defining the US national security state and the Long War, the unending series of military conflicts that took the form of the Cold War and, after the fall of the Soviet Union, of what we now call the Global War on Terrorism. Marcuse was seeing it from his own Marxist perspective, which saw the capitalist system as permanently destabilized by its own inherent contradictions: economic, social and political.

It's not my purpose here to judge whether the Black Panther Party had a sensible strategy or whether Marcuse's definition of global counter-revolution made sense. The Panthers did have a dramatic if short-lived success in mobilizing a significant group of African-Americans to their cause and in energizing white radical sympathizers. And one doesn't have to assume an inevitable or imminent collapse of capitalism to notice the deeply counter-revolutionary elements in both foreign and domestic policy; the latter is often explicit and, when the revolutionaries are Islamists, often supported by people who understand themselves as liberals or progressives.

All that said, the present-day configuration of the Republican Party and more-or-less affiliated rightwing groups has some elements that have a revolutionary edge in the sense of a Conservative Revolution, to borrow a term from the Weimar Republic. To borrow from the terms used by Bloom and Martin, groups like the NRA, other gun-proliferation groups, the antiabortion movement, the anti-immigration organizations, often used the rhetoric of sedition, but one can't say "they remain politically irrelevant" at the current moment. They certainly don't "lack potential constituencies in the United States," even if those constituencies are mostly some form of older white people with Christian fundamentalist leanings. And with the funding of various rightwing billionaires like the now-infamous Koch brothers and an extensive organizational infrastructure to generate "astroturf" demonstrations, they also "build common cause with ... alienated constituencies within the United States." Alienated in the sense of alienated from the 20th century form of liberal democracy with social-democratic/New Deal elements to protect the rights of poor and working people to some extent and to restrain the more catastrophically destructive tendencies of "free market" capitalism.

And its not too much of a stretch to say that the Conservative Revolution in the US has been able to "seize the political imagination of a large segment of the people and successively draw support from other constituencies, creating a broad insurgent alliance that is difficult to repress or appease." As Digby put it this past weekend (When the inmates take over the asylum (GOP style) Hullabaloo 07/28/2013):

The Republican establishment is afraid of its own voters which is perhaps the most important underlying premise of democratic governance there is. They truly are responding to the will of the people. Unfortunately, their voters have been radicalized by about 40 years of increasingly nihilistic propaganda that's resulted in the insurgency turning on the system itself. Since men like [Sen. Tom] Coburn are responsible for this, it would be tempting to just sit back and munch on the popcorn as the party implodes, but unfortunately the GOP wields a tremendous amount of power in our two party system, even if it has gone nuts. [my emphasis]
Both the Bloom/Martin and Marcuse quotes relate especially to the situation that obtained in the US in the early 1970s, in the first Presidential term of Richard Nixon. This is also a key period for the formation of the leaders of today's Republican Party leaders. It was the the point in which the current terms of the "culture war" were largely fixed, especially as it applies to hurrah-patriotism and race, and to a large extent on women's rights, as well. That was the point at which the Republican Party committed itself to the "Southern Strategy" on race the eventually led them to their current state of "fundamental opposition" to a Democratic Administration headed by an African-American President. Projection looms large in Republican culture war thinking. And at some level, many Republicans see today's approach as an attempt to mount a conservative version of what their culture-war collective memory tells them "The Sixites" were.

I don't have any big insightful conclusion on this. But in the conditions of the 21st century, the Republicans' attempts to restore something like a 19th-century, robber-baron-era approach to business regulation and social policy, and to recreate a new segregation/Jim Crow regime of race relations, look like an attempt to radically alter not only the electoral system (by excluding blacks and Latinos) and to radically change the social conditions (for the worse!) for the vast majority of the public. Whether we want to call those "revolutionary" in a political-science or philosophical sense, it certainly seems that they understand their project as a Conservative Revolution against not just the 21st but the 20th century, as well.

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