07 August 2009

Extremism and Right Wing Populism : The Face of the Republican Party

The GOP and its extremists

The recent tea parties sponsored by some Republican columnists and Fox News were frightening because they so catered to people on what was once the lunatic fringe... The ugly spirit of the tea parties soon animated the mob behavior of rightists invading town hall meetings that were to focus on health care reform...
By Sherman DeBrosse / The Rag Blog / August 8, 2009

E.J. Dionne has another good column on whether the GOP can escape the grip of its extremists. It is especially timely in view of the current rightist mob actions at town meetings Democrats have called to discuss health care reform.

He notes that Senator George Voinovich has complained to the Columbus Dispatch that the party is being taken over by Southerners and that it has too many Jim De Mints and Tom Coburns

Voinovich is depicted as a moderate, but he is essentially an old-style Ohio country club Republican who is wise enough to avoid wild attacks on organized labor and the American automobile industry. He is not Olympia Snow or Susan Collins. Some trot out Charles Grassley as a moderate because he might be open to a very weak, pro-insurance industry health care plan. On most matters, he is solidly conservative. He has sometimes briefly flirted with protecting whistleblowers, but invariably backs off when he feels the heat.

In 2008, the Dispatch, though as conservative as ever, did not endorse John McCain. Perhaps the editors were bothered because the Ohio GOP that year was almost a wholly owned subsidiary of the Christian right, even using church space and at least one church-owned airplane. If the Republicans want to return to power, they need, in some states, to learn to satisfy their new masters.

David Brooks and some others think the GOP must counter adverse demographic trends by becoming moderate. Going moderate is not an option. The simple fact is that genuine moderates are an endangered species in the Republican Party, and the few that exist do not offer policy choices for the GOP to consider.

The best the GOP can do is distance itself a bit from its extremists. As for offering new policies, it has nothing it can unite on. On the stimulus package, some Republicans wanted to do nothing; and others demanded more tax cuts. On health care, they are only united in protecting the insurance companies and big pharmaceuticals.

Emphasizing right wing populism -- a fear of an imagined cultural elite plotting against traditional American values -- brought the GOP very close to its goal of a permanent majority. Of course, there was a slightly disguised admixture of anti-minority sentiment in this formula. There is something infectious about rage and paranoia, especially in bad times. As the longshoreman/philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote: "hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents."

From time to time, the GOP has adopted some of the intemperate language of people once considered the lunatic fringe: survivalists, the Patriots, Christian Identity, etc. These folks are to the right of the right-wing populism and advocate refusal to pay taxes, sometimes racial supremacy, and various forms of exclusionist doctrines. Each time, Republicans were able to import some of their rhetoric without shifting dramatically to the far, far right twilight zone.

The Swift Boat frenzy of 2004, claiming John Kerry was some sort of anti-American elitist and even a traitor, attracted these exclusionists in droves, but it also appealed to many, many others. No amount of solid information dissuaded any of these deluded people. The controversy also illustrated that the mainstream media will not correct patently false and wild political propaganda and that the GOP, when using it, pays no price for deploying vile tactics.

The nomination of Governor Sarah Palin for vice president briefly resurrected the McCain campaign, but it also put the GOP on a fast track to greater extremism. She repeatedly spoke about some parts of the United States being much more American and patriotic than others. Soon, her events resembled Klan rallies. Her devoted supporters were no longer worried about some relatively small cultural elite that was plotting against them. Now the enemies were more numerous, they were liberal Americans.

John McCain tried to dial back the paranoia because he feared it could threaten his campaign. Whether that's a real threat remains to be demonstrated. Americans have become so accustomed to the right’s binges of irrationality. It could be that only we progressives, and a very few thoughtful conservatives and centrists, are really bothered by the extremists.

Today, the appeals to right-wing populism are especially shrill. Senior citizens are being told that liberal elitists want to use health care reform to deprive them of end-of-life care because they are too old, too sick, and require very costly treatment. They are also being told that the liberals want to strip away Medicare, which many oldsters incorrectly think is private insurance. A few papers have tried to correct these lies. Republican tactician Dick Morris is now bragging that senior citizens are quickly turning against health care reform.

The recent tea parties sponsored by some Republican columnists and Fox News were frightening because they so catered to people on what was once the lunatic fringe. Democrats were called “socialists,” and there was a great deal of hate speech. Usually, loose talk about secession was confined to gatherings of Constitutionalists, survivalists, and the Alaska Independence Party, to which the Palins had ties. But there was more than a little talk about secession at the tea parties, and even the Republican governor of Texas mentioned it as an option.

The ugly spirit of the tea parties soon animated the mob behavior of rightists invading town hall meetings that were to focus on health care reform. Palin-like Republicans are currently being sent to pro-health care reform rallies -- the political meetings of progressive Congressmen -- with instructions on use of thuggish tactics to disrupt the events.

Thug-like conservatives use GOP talking points to shout down speakers at town hall meetings on health care. Extremists attending a town meeting held by Christopher Dodd demanded that he commit suicide as a way of resolving his problem with prostate cancer. Followers of Glenn Beck created a near riot at a recent Tampa meeting, where violence was reported. In Rome, New York, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland struggled to speak over someone repeatedly shouting “Liar.”

A Connecticut group called Right Principles organized some of the disruptions. Conservatives for Patient Rights bragged about the organized disruptions, while Republican officials claimed none of the disruptions were organized. Some think there will be a public backlash against these Brown Shirt tactics, but there is a substantial body of evidence that much of the public has learned to tolerate ugly tactics when they are deployed by Republicans.

Freshman Maryland Congressman Frank M. Kratovil was hanged in effigy outside his district office and a town meeting he organized was disrupted. Representative Brad Miller of North Carolina received a death threat. Representative Tim Bishop of New York needed police to extricate him from an angry mob so that he could go home.

Anti-black feelings have always been part of right-wing populism, and they are now almost front and center in the GOP’s assault on President Barack Obama. Rush Limbaugh, who does the thinking for over 20,000,000 lemmings, has a long history of making racist comments and is now saying Obama is anti-white. Glenn Beck, the embodiment of the Republican lunatic fringe, claims that President Obama “has a deep seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”

Rush Limbaugh, who does the thinking for over 20,000,000 lemmings, has a long history of making racist comments and is now saying Obama is racist, and other conservative commentators indirectly make this point. Pat Buchanan gave away the Republican strategy in his “Buchanan to Obama” piece. He cited noted statistics on blacks robbing and raping whites and demanded that blacks show profound gratitude for all that white America has done for them.

Latent racism is also a major ingredient in the “birthers” movement and white outrage over Professor Henry Louis Gates’ remarks to a white policeman. The “birthers” are saying that Barack Obama is part of some 48 year old conspiracy to place a black Kenya-born male in the White House. Richard Shelby and a number of Republican senators said they were not sure Obama was born in the United States.

They have been joined by radio and television shock jocks, including Lou Dobbs. He is an unusually bright man who seems to be saying that he personally does not believe Obama was born in Kenya but he eggs on the birthers nonetheless. At base, this has always been a way for those who abhor having an African American in the Oval Office to express their anger without appearing to be overt racists.

When Barack Obama said it was stupid to arrest Dr. Henry Louis Gates, he handed the Republicans the perfect issue to subtly fan racist sentiments. Most whites did not vote for Obama and they do not believe that police often mistreat African Americans. Two-thirds of whites disapproved of Obama’s initial support of Gates, who was arrested in his own home after he had properly identified himself. The arresting officer had refused to provide identification.

Many whites were bothered by the image of an uppity black mouthing off to a white officer. The story dominated the news cycle for almost two weeks, and it still has legs. There is no way to document how much this drove down Obama’s public approval rating because very few would admit to racist sentiments.

Unable to provide positive options in the health care and stimulus and hydrocarbons debates, the Republicans’ best choice is continued obstruction and playing to right-wing populism, while trying to avoid excesses. This might well work in the short run. In the longer run, it may not hurt the GOP as the press and nation seem willing to tolerate almost any outrage from that quarter. But the effect all this hate-mongering will have on our democratic processes cannot be salutary.

Scholars once thought that right-wing populism was a phenomenon that ran its course in short episodes, such as the popularity of Father Charles Coughlin or Senator Joseph McCarthy. We now know that it can last decades, when properly managed by very bright people in conservative think tanks. At the moment, it appears these scholars think it necessary to borrow more from the fringe elements, including some mob tactics. It is unlikely that many of them want to go much farther than bully boy tactics now and then and occasional not-so-subtle appeals to racism.

As Dionne notes, much depends upon what happens with health care. It looks like the Democrats are going to pass something, but the Obama health care package is likely to be far too costly and inefficient because the Blue Dogs and others will not vote for a package that provides real savings at the expense of the providers and insurance companies.

For starters, a good package would permit citizens to import drugs from Canada, would allow Medicare and ObamaCare providers to bargain for better provider prices. Recently, Bill Moyers listed many other cost savings provisions that are not in any of the legislation on center state.

If the GOP does well in 2010, there is little likelihood it can or will depart from its present course of obstruction and catering to its extremists. It is likely that the Democrats will either fail to pass health care or pass a plan that is too expensive because so many concessions will be made to special interests. Either way, the GOP comes out covered in roses. In 1994, the voters rewarded the GOP for blocking a health plan. Today, the anti-health reform advertising blizzard is at least as effective as its predecessor and could help the GOP regain seats next year.

Moreover, “the Great Recession” proved to be far worse than many of us expected and is likely to lead to a weak, jobless recovery. Maybe we should have known how deep the crisis would be as household debt in 2007 exceeded $40,000 per every man, woman and child in America. The financial services sector incurred massive damage due to unbelievable self-abuse and is likely to be weak for years to come.

Hard times could lead the whites among the jobless and working poor to accept the easy solutions offered by right-wing extremists. Given this situation, the GOP strategy of right-wing populism combined with obstructionism and carping because full recovery has not yet arrived could well work.

Much depends upon whether today’s voters remember who created this economic disaster and have a measure of the patience their ancestors had during the New Deal.

[Sherm’s The New Republican Coalition: Its Rise and Impact, The Seventies to Present (Publish America) can be acquired by calling 301-695-1707. On line, go here.]

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