I spend a lot of hours thinking about what goes on in the hearts and souls of the regressive right.
Probably you’re already thinking, “Boy, what a waste of your time”. Or maybe, “What hearts? What souls?”
Far be it from me to disagree. But I have been haunted this last quarter-century, and especially this last decade, by the darkness that has descended over the American political landscape, a long shadow unlike any I remember from the first half of my life.
That’s a pretty remarkable statement, if you think about it, since among the political lowlights of my first decades were the deepest depths of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, Vietnam, reaction to the civil rights, antiwar, women’s and gay rights movements, three major political assassinations, Watergate, the Nixon/Kissinger/Pinochet coup in Chile, the oil shocks, the Iranian Revolution and the Hostage Crisis. And while much of that I was too young to fully appreciate at the time, you have to admit that’s a helluva of roller-coaster ride for just a few decades.
Just the same – maybe it was my youth, and maybe it was my naiveté – but it sure seemed like things were nevertheless different then, even through the worst of times.
People hated Nixon, for example, and for very good reason. You can even make a pretty compelling empirical argument that his depredations were more lethal abroad and more destructive at home than those of his profoundly stunted present-day successor and sociopath sidekick.
Still, somehow there were limits then that don’t seem to exist today. Somehow there was a fundamental decency – though hardly universal – that has disappeared in our time.
It’s hard to put your finger on, exactly, but there’s a base meanness of spirit and a destructive indifference attached to the likes of Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Antonin Scalia or Karl Rove for which it is hard to find equivalents among the Gerry Fords or Nelson Rockefellers or Harry Blackmuns or even Barry Goldwaters of old (though high marks go to the likes of Spiro Agnew and Joseph McCarthy for representing their generations well in the Most Debauched Neanderthal competition). Something profound changed in the forty years preceding 2007.
Things are different now. Not only is the moderate wing of the GOP no longer dominant within the party, today it represents a nearly vanished species, and may be fully extinct after 2008. And no longer is there a lack of public support for the worst tendencies of the sickest Republican minds (though things have improved marginally in that regard in the last year or so). Nor are there any longer substantial limits on what the party is capable of doing. Nowadays the inmates are in charge of the asylum, and a very scary segment of the public has been applauding their reprobate policies and their noxious tactics. These are not good signs. This is not the mark of a healthy republic.
How did we get here?
You could begin to see it in the 1980s, though that was still a time of transition. The Reagan administration was in so many ways a warm-up act for the current calamity, though it was still qualitatively different. Perhaps that is why Nancy is always at such great pains to disassociate her Ron from the rabid feralites who inherited his party. Usually I find her plaint unconvincing, but too often even the deceitful and rapacious policies of the Reagan administration look downright patriotic compared to the present crew.
By the 1990s, the ugliest tendencies of the regressive movement were on full display, though, of course, not nearly in the magnitude of what was to come. The arrogance and sheer maliciousness of Gingrich and the hounding of the decidedly not-liberal Bill Clinton made clear that a new and destructive vector had been cut loose in American politics, and that everything – including, if not especially, the institutional and philosophical inheritance from America’s Founders – was expendable if it got in the way of the will to power. When we saw a bunch of Republicans impeach a president – for only the second time in American history – for a less egregious version of exactly the same thing they were all doing (“But his lies about philandering were under oath!”, don’t you see), you knew the country was adrift in some dark waters.
But the real emblem of regressive malignancy circa the 1990s was the savaging that was directed toward Hillary Clinton. Again, it is important to note that Hillary, who had grown up Republican and conservative, was never much of a liberal. Unless you think that giving people access to healthcare or a decent childhood is a stealth project of some Trotskyite anarchist sleeper cell attempting to corrode America’s moral fiber from within. It is highly instructive to remember that there were senators and congressfolk (who, by the way, unlike Hillary had a real title and real governing authority) with politics far to the left of hers, who never took anything like the beating that she did. And also that there have been women in leadership positions in the GOP then and now – Elizabeth Dole, Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe – some of whose politics are, like Hillary’s, even rather centrist, and obviously none of whom were subjected to any right-wing venom at all, let alone the oceans’ worth dumped on the former Ms. Rodham.
Something about Hillary struck a primal nerve in the psychology of regressives – and not just public ones like Gingrich and Limbaugh, either, but a whole lot of ordinary folk as well. Why? I think, quite clearly, that she posed some kind of profound and essential threat to a certain kind of person, a threat which entirely transcended all rationale calculus.
By the time we came to the era of Caligula himself, the dark heart of contemporary regressivism was on full display. You could see it in the post-election debacle of 2000, as Scalia actually stopped the counting of votes, as the Brooks Brothers Riot brought GOP congressional aides to Florida for some wee brownshirting to the same effect, and as Bush loyalists waved their ugly “Sore Loserman” signs in an attempt to close down a legitimate legal process seeking to determine the winner of the presidency.
Here, along with the prior impeachment, was a bitter anger and destructive vengeance on display rather unlike most of mainstream politics in the prior century. No quarter would be given, and no prisoners taken. Not only ideologically, but also tactically, the radical right of the former fringe had become instead the Republican, and later the national, mainstream. The barbarians had penetrated the gates and were now occupying the very halls of power, while the genteel dinosaurs from a more civilized era stood by watching in stunned silence. Tom Daschle never knew what hit him. This was a different breed altogether.
It would get worse, of course – much worse. Like (the now gone native) John McCain before them, war heroes John Kerry and Max Cleland would be savaged by a smear machine for which conscience was an entirely foreign (and undoubtedly Gallic) concept. It wasn’t that long ago that the wearing of Band-Aids mocking Purple Heart recipients would have been unheard of, even among the Reagan crowd. Next, in an act of what can only be called treason, an undercover CIA agent would be outed in order to destroy her husband, whose crime was to expose one of the myriad lies told to sell a completely fabricated national security crisis. Anyone who disagreed with this most disagreeable of foreign policies had their patriotism publicly questioned, and were accused of abetting the enemy. Historic allies – some dating to the very beginning of America itself, and all only a year earlier fully supporting the Afghan invasion – were ridiculed, mocked and alienated. Longstanding keystone treaties and international laws were shredded. And there is much, much more. What is scary is that this could happen in America, but what is scarier still is that it could receive significant public support.
What happened here? What trauma occurred during these decades, so extensive that it transformed these people and their party into something no longer recognizable even for the likes of former Republican senator Jim Jeffords?
As an upstanding social scientist trained to empirical caution, I’d want to see loads of data before I’d proffer any definitive answers to that question. But as a reckless armchair social theorist, I can’t help but be struck by four highly significant macro trends that have been temporally coterminous with this turn to the mean-spirited right in the United States.
The first of these is economic stagnation. Or, at least, for some of us. The hourly wage of the median American worker has risen only 9 percent from 1979 to 2005. Not too good, eh? Well, more precisely, not too good for the middle class. Certain other folks did just fine, thank you very much. In 1982, CEOs made 42 times more in salary than the average worker at their company. By 2001, that ratio had grown to 525 to 1, meaning that a CEO today makes, over the course of eighteen holes and two beers, what the average worker pulls down in an entire year. Overall, the share of total national income going to the richest ten percent of Americans has returned – after holding steady from the 1930s through the 1960s at about one-third – to pre-New Deal levels of close to one-half, thus bequeathing to our happy country levels of economic inequality only the Third World can match (welcome to Managua, my friends).
The upshot of this stagnation is that people have had to work harder and longer just to tread water. Today’s household typically requires two breadwinners to sustain what a single one could a generation prior. And even that pathetic income is not exactly leaving exhausted workers feeling content. Between globalization, layoffs, outsourcing, and the corporate shedding of healthcare and pension benefits, Americans feel the ground shifting beneath their feet every day. It isn’t inevitable that such conditions would produce a meaner politics, but it certainly provides fertile ground for the purveyors of cheap scapegoats (e.g., welfare queens, ‘the government’, immigrants) and cheaper-still solutions (reckless tax cuts, beating up punky countries, etc.).
Meanwhile, if falling economic standards are a first causal factor, almost certainly a second one driving such politics is the unprecedented rise of social equality America has experienced since the 1960s. In most circles, it is no longer acceptable to be racist, sexist or, increasingly, homophobic. ‘Worse’ yet, for America’s Archie Bunkers, not only can such outgroups no longer be dominated and disparaged, but they have now become officially privileged, winning jobs and other opportunities on the basis of these classifications, the product of a remedial equality program based on reverse discrimination.
Third among these likely explanatory factors, it must be noted that the driving cohort in American politics (and economics) these last decades has been the Baby Boomers. Stereotypes are just that, and generalizations should be understood, by definition, to be riddled with exceptions. That said, groups do sometimes have tendencies, and the tendencies of this group have (well-)earned it sobriquets like the Me Generation. Boomers have done a lot of good in their life span, I’d argue, as well as a lot of bad. What seems to unite it all is a certain pronounced self-absorption, selfishness and self-reverence. What, you disagree? Well, if you’ve got a problem with that, we can gladly toss in a healthy slathering of self-righteousness too, as we disabuse you of your foolish misconceptions.
Finally, all of these factors have arisen against the backdrop of a fourth development, which sets a sometimes subtle, sometimes not, context for the others. That is the crossing of the imperial watershed. Even if Americans, with their short attention spans and their profound ignorance of history, can’t see it, it is nevertheless pretty clear that the ‘American Century’ actually only lasted about twenty-five years, and the empire is today seriously in decline – not only in a relative sense, but now also in an absolute sense. (It is true that this four-to-one projected to actual life span ratio is considerably better than the one percent of Hitler’s thousand-year Reich he actually managed to realize, but then surely there’s no better sign of your empire’s sorry demise than having to take solace in favorable comparisons to Nazi Germany, eh?)
In any case, the signs are all there. The crumbling of Bretton Woods in the early 70s, the vulnerability to oil blackmail that decade, the superpower’s drubbing by an impoverished Third World guerilla army clad in pajamas, and now a latter day repeat of the same disaster, the feel-good beating of collective chests represented by politicians like Ronald Reagan and George H. W. (“By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all!”) Bush, and their yellow-ribbon-bedecked wars against such pathetically outgunned ‘enemies’ as Panama, Grenada and Iraq.
The list of such signs of imperial apocalypse is endless. It would certainly include the current insanity of our debt levels, the rapaciousness of our predatory elites that seems to know no bounds, the inability of the richest country in the world to provide basic services for millions of its citizens, and the near-monarchical dynastic tendencies of a polity that has produced the likes of George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton as its leading political figures. And don’t even get me started on American Idol! You don’t have to be Hamlet to know there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark.
Put all these factors together and it’s easy to explain (though not excuse) America’s turn to the ugly right. Opportunities are diminishing, foundations are eroding, empire is fading. All this is happening especially to a generation of walking ids, used as they are to wanting what they want when they want it, and then getting it. And it has been happening most, and longest, to middle- and working-class straight white males.
The pinch is not inconsiderable. And gone are the socially-acceptable psychological safety-valve releases of yore which long provided coping mechanisms to these dispossessed. Back then, you might have been poor white trash, but you could at least feel better about yourself every time you asserted your superiority to blacks. No more. You might have been dealt some crummy cards in life, but at least your woman knew who was boss, especially when you brought home the sole paycheck. No more. And even when elites humiliated you with their power, you could always reassert your tenuous manhood by stomping a few queers here or there while the cops looked away (or assisted). Nowadays you’ll draw thirty years for committing a hate crime.
These people – these discarded and existentially exposed denizens of a dying empire – were walking targets for an angry ideology of greed, selfishness and violence. Like so many wandering San Francisco street kids seduced into attending a Moonie retreat, you could see them walking through the door. Mix in a little 9/11 fear and unfocused hatred at this or that brown-skinned foreign race, and these dudes were fully locked and loaded, ready to rumble. If you had to design a set of circumstances in order to sell tax cuts, war, repression and the permanent rule of Wall Street in America, you could hardly engineer a better program. And, to a certain extent, that is exactly how it went down.
The political figureheads, at the behest of their cynically clever marketing gurus, like to mask it as a cool and efficient resolve. But you don’t exactly need magnetic resonance imaging to pick up on the sheer self-loathing fury raging just below the surface of a guy like Newt Gingrich or George W. Bush. And just below that lies (and lies often) what is really the operative emotion, a deep, essential and defining terror. Without question, these politicians resonate with our bedraggled Boomers not only for their jejune policy prescriptions of belligerence abroad and selfishness at home, but most especially because such voters recognize in them a kindred spirit. One which hates Hillary Clinton profoundly and viscerally, without really being able to explain why. One which thinks blacks and Hispanics have gotten to be more than a little uppity and are stealing ‘our’ jobs. One which thinks that kicking some Arab ass might be a pretty good idea just on general principles.
Maybe you’ve also gathered from personal experience, as I have, that for many such ordinary folk this has become a faith-based politics, in more than one sense of the term. Regressives have nowadays become post- (actually, pre-) empirical. It’s as if the Enlightenment and the Founders and all of the last two centuries never happened (though, somehow, they seem to like their SUVs and their atomic bombs just fine). Rationality, as the primary cognitive system for comprehending our world, has been rejected in favor of unyielding dogmatic belief. For example, there exists today plenty of evidence to clearly prove without question that the administration willfully and purposefully lied about Iraq to sell a war the American public didn’t otherwise want. The Downing Street Memos alone are enough to make that case, but there is also plenty more. (Just imagine if there was this much proof against Bill Clinton how the right would have responded.) But try presenting a regressive you know with this evidence, or with the overwhelming evidence for global warming, and watch how they put up the blinders and start quoting from the Limbaugh gospels or the New Fox Testament. They can’t hear of it, and so they don’t.
Given the prevalence of such attitudes, it is no small miracle that we appear to have survived our era’s toxic cocktail of regressive bile. We are, of course, not out of the woods yet, and it is possible that a new, new Pearl Harbor, or yet another Middle East war would rally the persuadable middle of the American electorate back to the flag of the Boy King. (Don’t forget he had 90 percent job approval ratings right after 9/11 – despite the fact that he had gone off hiding in Nebraska.) But I tend to think that is probably no longer possible. I also tend to think that the fact that they haven’t already done this suggests that they’re probably not going to, though you never know what they’re capable of once the impeachment process kicks in.
Americans have hardly become any more secure in their own skins, however. To the contrary, the loss of a second Vietnam and the economic disaster which continually seems looming right around the personal debt / government debt / trade debt / mortgage meltdown / globalization corner is only going to make things worse on that score.
Ironically, what saved us (if we are saved) in the long-term from a predatory regime of regressive kleptocrats was the short-term experience of living under a predatory regime of regressive kleptocrats. After the utter and complete hash these people have made of everything they’ve touched, who now wants anything to do with this absurdly deluded ideology, apart from the frightened old ladies who still allow their pastors to tell them how to think and vote (oh, and how to donate too)?
There is massive opportunity here. The combination of increasingly insecure Americans and the patent failures of a disastrous turn to the right meant to address those insecurities leaves one obvious prescription on the table – a turn to the left. Already there is overwhelming public support for a national healthcare system (wow, and to think – only sixty years after every other industrialized democracy in the world got theirs!). This would have been unthinkable as little as five years ago. Expect similar attitudinal swings as the trap door continues to open underneath Americans on issues like pensions, global warming, jobs and more. It is not exactly in the American tradition to favor governmental solutions to personal and social problems. It just so happens, though, that in so many of these domains they tend to work (however imperfectly – which imperfections usually having most to do with insufficient funding), and that the alternative of the conservative market deity (Praise the one true lord!) does not.
Americans have been slow to learn this, and have paid the price accordingly. But learn they now appear to be doing (it would sure help if somebody out there from the so-called liberal party would frame the question properly, and vocally), and we should perhaps be thankful that the damage done during this particular life lesson wasn’t greater than what has in fact been visited upon us. As awful as its been, it could have been much worse.
There is hope, especially, in the narcissistic selfishness of the Baby Boomers, whose only consistent attribute has been a tendency to take very good care indeed of Me (and, after all, who else really matters?). In their formative years, that meant playing at socialism. When, during their middle years, the bill for such policies would have come due in the form of higher taxes (and therefore fewer wide screen televisions), that meant playing – much more seriously this time – at capitalism. Now that they are getting ready to retire and will be dependent on external revenue sources to maintain a decent lifestyle, they’ll be back to the government teat again. You can bet, as Boomers usually do, somebody else’s bottom dollar on that one.
John Stuart Mill once said that “Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people... it is true that most stupid people are conservative.” Mill was certainly on to something there, though I prefer the term ‘ignorant’ (in its non-pejorative sense, that of simply lacking knowledge) to his use of ‘stupid’.
Regardless, I suspect that what is more significant to the determination of political dispositions than even the absence of education, knowledge or intellect is the question of personal security. We’d understand our current predicament much better by realizing that not all conservatives are insecure, but that most insecure people are conservative.
Fortunately, conservatism is not the only answer to insecurity, and in the end it’s no answer at all. Writing in “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, Hannah Arendt described how such movements “conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself; in which, through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never‑ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations”.
It’s great magic, but, of course it never lasts. However powerful your imagination, that empty belly of yours is still going to require food. However potent their propaganda, that medical condition you have is still going to require treatment.
Given a bit more courage, a smart progressive movement could successfully pitch its ideas to an insecure public hungry for protection from a threatening world, especially because the facts are so manifestly in our corner.
Fortunately, this process has already begun. Now it only remains to be seen just how courageous and smart we are, and just how desperate is the reaction of the regressive right to its own implosion.
The moment is ours.