Wayne O’Leary

Existential Tempest in a Teapot

With Labor Day, the unofficial kickoff to the political season, upon us, it may be an opportune time to evaluate the choice facing American voters. The conventional wisdom says this will be a bad year for Democrats, with tea partiers in full cry and Republican fellow travelers smelling blood. But that very conventionality makes this purported wisdom suspect.

The extent of Democratic bloodletting will depend largely on the Democrats themselves. Will they try to make their case, or will they just accept the talking points of the Right and run from their party label (i.e. “Obama, Reid, and Pelosi made me do it!”)? If the latter, there’s no hope for them, but if the former, Election 2010 can be salvaged and then some.

What’s fortunate for the Democrats is that Republicans, prodded by their quasi-affiliated tea-party nuts and libertarian cranks, are clearly overreaching. Tea partiers, in particular, have done Democrats the supreme favor of reminding establishment Republicans what the contemporary GOP stands for in the purest sense — what its activist base really believes in its heart of hearts. And carried along by the tea-party momentum, Republican candidates are articulating those undiluted beliefs again and again.

The things today’s Republicans subscribe to as gospel are, quite simply, not the things most Americans believe. It’s a bizarrely eccentric set of convictions. Among the highlights: unemployment insurance should be abolished; Social Security should be privatized; Medicare should become a voucher system; US senators should be chosen by state legislatures; universal birthright citizenship should be constitutionally revoked; the federal Energy and Education departments, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, should be closed; banks and oil companies should be completely deregulated; and a national flat tax should form the basis of federal revenues, with the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy extended in the meantime. If Democrats can’t tie those cockamamie notions around the necks of every Republican running this year and beat them from pillar to post, it’s time for the heirs of Jefferson and Jackson to pack up and go home.

Some Republicans, especially those campaigning outside the rural red states, might be expected to try avoiding the noose. After all, the most vociferous voices on behalf of Stone Age conservatism are emanating from tea-party crazies like Sharron Angle in Nevada and bug-eyed libertarian extremists like Rand Paul in Kentucky. But even heretofore “moderate” business Republicans, such as California’s gold-dust twins, gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and senatorial aspirant Carly Fiorina, have swallowed the far-right message whole and are regurgitating it shamelessly. The national GOP, for its part, has not disavowed its fringe players; in fact, it’s endorsed them without exception in craven deference, no doubt, to the popularity among the Republican faithful of Sarah Palin, the tea-party queen herself.

A strange thing has happened to the GOP since it was thrust into the wilderness in 2006 and 2008: its road to Damascus has become a road to perdition. Republicans, avatars of irresponsibility, now openly embrace heartless, hateful, and harebrained concepts they didn’t fully endorse (or didn’t admit to endorsing) as recently as a decade or two ago. Take unemployment insurance (UI), settled policy since it was originally passed as part of the Social Security Act of 1935.

GOP spokesmen, prompted by the tea types and their media shills at Fox Network, have suddenly discovered the evil effects of government payments to the unemployed. UI apparently promotes indolence on the part of the jobless, who don’t want to return to work, preferring to live the carefree good life on their munificent government checks. This is so notwithstanding that those bare-subsistence disbursements entail a constant job search and replace only a fraction of lost salaries - - usually half to two-thirds. Despite statistics showing barely one available job for every five jobless Americans, the unemployed are portrayed in this fantasy as shiftless layabouts prone to decline endless vocational opportunities in order to subsist on the public dole.

That’s one Republican article of faith: the unemployed are lazy and won’t work. Here’s another: Social Security, which probably shouldn’t have been enacted at all, promotes waste, fraud, and abuse, and needs to be ended in its present form. Senior recipients should instead be empowered as individuals, given a modest lump sum, and forced to speculate on Wall Street for the best retirement deal they can find. Extrapolating from the performance of the American economy over the past few years, that prescription is the ultimate in brain-dead stupidity; ask anyone with a 401(k). But stupidity is no impediment to modern Republican thinking.

Interestingly, the fountainhead of modern tea-party Republicanism is conservative icon Ronald Reagan. That’s ironic because the radical, anti-government budget cutters of today worship at the shrine of a man who created more of the current national debt than any recent US president. Reagan’s supply-side budgets (spending combined with supposedly self-financing tax cuts) are part of the reason we’re where we are. The Gipper, of course, never worried much about deficits, but the forty-somethings who revere him do. One of them, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), typifies the intellectual takeover of the Republican party by the tea-flavored faux populism of the extreme Right.

Ryan, who’s been getting lots of exposure lately (including a Fortune profile, a seat on the Obama deficit commission, and a starring role during the president’s appearance at this year’s GOP congressional retreat), is now recognized as the leading Republican voice on economic policy. In January, he produced his “Roadmap for America’s Future,” a free-market manifesto of GOP aims and desires on the budgetary front, featuring an assault on government entitlements. Sample goals include eliminating the entire debt and deficit without any tax increases, lowering future benefits for the middle class, and privatizing every federal program in sight.

The Ryan declaration (this generation’s “Contract with America”) draws a clear distinction between contemporary interventionist liberalism and a revived form of reactionary conservatism not seen since the 1920s — between collective responsibility for the general welfare, on the one hand, and a nihilistic and destructive individualism, on the other. Over the next one or two election cycles, Americans will be asked to decide which path to take. They’d better choose carefully. The answer will determine the shape of this country for years to come.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine. specializing in political economy.

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2010


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