The Long, Downward Slide of the Republican Party

On January 28, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) made a trip to Florida to meet with ex-president Trump.  The intent was to advertise to all that “We’re still with you.”  Reports are that McCarthy wanted to also “apologize” to Trump.  It’s still unclear what he wanted to apologize for.

A recent Politico poll shows 72 percent of Republicans think the recent U.S. presidential election was fraudulent.  Now, think about this: almost three-fourths of one of the two major political parties in the U.S. subscribe to a cockamamie conspiracy theory and support a former leader who, through his irresponsible and incendiary oratory, inspired an insurrection by white supremacists against the U.S. Capitol.

This in addition to four years of incessant bloviating, insults, lies, and just plain bad policy that has turned America into the wealthiest banana republic in the world.

I don’t know what these people are thinking.  Do they think?  But the black comedy we’re experiencing now, where GOP congressmen actively promote a political tactic the German National Socialist (Nazi) Party perfected called the Big Lie, refuse to publicly wear facemasks during a deadly pandemic, refuse to hold hearings on Supreme Court nominees (Merrick Garland, in January 2016), or who set off alarms by bursting through congressional metal detectors installed to protect legislators, has to begin somewhere.  When and how did this horror show begin?

To be fair, Democrats have also shifted from the middle in the last forty years or so.  However, most political observers agree that the shift is much more pronounced on the right side of the aisle and is less about policy than behavior.  Part of it is due to a powerful conservative-biased media that erupted during the Clinton presidency and is now a regular news/propaganda source for many Republican voters.  Columnist and GOP’er David Brooks recently observed that “a lot of these Trumpy Republicans, they run for office so they can get on FOX News, not to pass (legislation).”  That’s a lot of power—dangerous power— for a news network to wield, and it’s a major contributor to the gridlock we now see in Washington.  And FOX News is just one of many conservative outlets…shockingly, one of the more benign ones.

Another reason why the Republican Party has abdicated its responsibility as a guardrail of democracy is existential fear.  Authors Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky, in their book How Democracies Die, trace this fear to a changing demographic precipitated by civil rights legislation in the 1960s.  The historically dominant white male demographic is shrinking, due to civil and equal rights, immigration, and an overall more tolerant and diverse secular and non-secular landscape in America.

No group wants to be squatting on the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder.  But white males, who predominate in the Republican Party, see themselves slipping downward.  This existential fear encourages extremism, embodied by, at best, election-year attempts at character assassination, and ever-increasing racist and xenophobic behaviors at worst.  And now, Big Lie tactics.

The slide began a long time ago: GOP strategist Lee Atwater’s self-admitted “naked cruelty” against Gov. Michael Dukakis (D-MA) before the 1988 presidential election; Republican politicians’ incessant attempts to scandalize Bill Clinton during the 1990s (Travelgate, Filegate, Whitewater, then the pearly gate of Monica Lewinsky, which resulted in the partisan weapon of impeachment for lying about sex); the now-discredited “Swift Boat” smears of 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry; GOP accusations that Barack Obama was a Muslim, or that he wasn’t born in the U.S. (which Trump spearheaded, quite successfully, before his own presidential run); the 2016 refrains of “Lock Her Up,” led by GOP leaders, including Trump, despite zero evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton.  And most recently, Trump’s attempt to smear Joe Biden through enlistment of a foreign power in digging up dirt on his political rival’s son (and which Trump was justifiably impeached for, despite Senate Republicans’ refusal to convict).

Maybe the slide began with the illegal activities of the Nixon re-election campaign committee (CREEP) that resulted in the Watergate scandal.

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So far in 2021 it’s clear that the Republican Party is still the party of Trump, with all the poison that such an association brings to American democracy.  Unless moderate Republicans (those few that are left) have the chutzpah to pull their party back to reality and decency—and if world history is any lesson—there are even darker days ahead for the U.S. than what occurred on January 6.

NEWSFLASH: a recently-elected GOP congresswoman from Georgia named Marjorie Taylor Greene posted on Facebook in 2018 that a Jewish-run banking firm deliberately fired a space laser to start a California wildfire in an effort to manipulate the stock market and benefit itself.  Ms. Greene is a QAnon supporter with a history promoting wacky anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. She also posted and liked Facebook comments advocating execution of Democrats. Despite this, Republican leaders, including fellow conspiracy-theorist and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (see above) have so far done nothing.

Book Review: “How Democracies Die”

how democracies die

Two posts ago I previewed a book I was reading called How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (see “Tolling Bells?”). I finished the book, and now want to share my thoughts.

I’ll offer one more preface, though. In my view, since the election of Donald Trump, the American electorate can be separated into three groups: those who will support Trump no matter what, based on one or more narrow ideologies that they view Trump as upholding; those who are disgusted with Trump’s personal and/or political behavior, yet who, in the words of writer Sinclair Lewis, believe “it can’t happen here”; and people like me, sickened by what they see, and who also believe democratic principles in America are eroding now, and have been for a while.

How Democracies Die has only reinforced my feelings about the road America is traveling down.

It’s a small book, but contains many ideas. Therefore, it’s probably best I break the book into digestible bits:

Fateful Alliances.  Most authoritarian leaders ascend not through violent coups, but through legitimate elections, and alliances with established political figures. The most well-known are, of course, Hitler and Mussolini. Hitler exploited a reeling German economy and infighting between the major German parties, and an alliance with conservatives who believed they could “contain” him. Mussolini used the power of theatricality, his party’s 35 parliamentary votes, divisions among the political elite, fear of socialism, and the threat of violence by his own Blackshirts to gain premiership. Political order was restored, and the Italian stock market soared.  Mussolini became a rock star…but only briefly.

While Nazism and Fascism were the two most horrific examples of democratic breakdown, the authors discuss a more recent example. Military leader Hugo Chávez in Venezeula was assisted to power by democratic President Rafael Caldera, whose popularity was waning, and who saw an alliance with Chavez as a political lifeline. He considered the demagogic Chavez a passing fad. He was mistaken. In 1998, Chavez was elected by a majority of voters.

Levitsky and Ziblatt ask “(W)hat kinds of candidates tend to test positive on a litmus test for authoritarianism? Very often populist outsiders do.” They cite five of 15 presidents elected in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela between 1990 and 2012 as being populist outsiders who ultimately weakened democratic institutions.

They also provide four indicators of authoritarian behavior:

  1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game
  2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
  3. Toleration or encouragement of violence
  4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media

They argue that all democratic societies require “gatekeepers” to prevent authoritarians from gaining power, and the greatest gatekeepers are political parties and their leaders. Keeping extremists off party ballots, resisting alliances with extremist parties, resisting the urge to “normalize” extremists (as Caldera did with Chavez), and uniting with parties of opposing ideologies to block such extremists are all effective gatekeeping techniques.

They conclude “Fateful Alliances” with this:

For its part, the United States has an impressive record of gatekeeping. Both Democrats and Republicans have confronted extremist figures on their fringes, some of whom enjoyed considerable public support. For decades, both parties succeeded in keeping these figures out of the mainstream. Until, of course, 2016.

(To be continued)

A Liberal Nod to Richard M. Nixon

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Here’s to the government of Richard Nixon
In the swamp of their bureaucracy they’re always boggin’ down
And criminals are posing as advisors to the crown
And they hope that no one sees the sights and no one hears the sound
And the speeches of the president are the ravings of a clown
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of

Richard Nixon, find yourself another country to be part of

Phil Ochs, from his song “Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon”

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In my 5th grade class, I volunteered for a mock presidential debate. It was 1968, and the U.S. presidential election was nearing. The candidates were Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey.

I didn’t know anything about politics, of course. I supported Nixon’s candidacy only because Joe Devereaux and some girl had already picked Humphrey. It was me and Kurt Carson in Nixon’s corner. I don’t remember much about Kurt, except that he was nearsighted and sported a crew cut. I do remember our parents were happy that we were stumping for Nixon.

Long story short, Kurt and I lost the debate. But only because most of the kids had parents who were Democrats.

It was the first and last time I supported Nixon.

 ________________

I don’t like to disparage the dead. Most of us already know Nixon’s legacy. He abused his power multiple times in attempting to cover up clandestine and illegal activities by members of his administration. Staring impeachment in the face, he resigned in disgrace: the only American president to do so. Had he not resigned, his forced removal from office would have been deserved.

Nixon’s resignation was 40 years ago this weekend. nixon resignsIt seems our media loves to drag out the details of Watergate every time its anniversary rolls around. Certainly, it was one of the severest crucibles in American history. But it was also a high point, and turning point, of American journalism. It ushered in an age of so-called “gotcha journalism.” And every time the word “Watergate” is mentioned, the precocious microphone-fondling progeny of Woodward and Bernstein begin to salivate.

Had Watergate never happened, Nixon’s presidency would probably have received mixed reviews. He was in office when the Vietnam War ended…but only after he severely escalated it. He expanded Johnson’s progressive Great Society domestic reforms, but his war policy stimulated inflation and caused large budget deficits. Nixon had a golden opportunity to unite a country plagued with a generational and ideological gap. But his paranoia prohibited him from reaching out to his opponents. Instead, he did just the opposite: he compiled an “Enemies List” to target his critics.

But…there are actually four areas in which Nixon deserves high marks:

Conservation: Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and signed into law the Endangered Species Act of 1973. He was the first president to make environmental protection a priority.

Foreign Affairs: Nixon normalized relations with China. His tentative friendship with the Communist nation forced the Soviet Union to the bargaining table, resulting in the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Human Rights: Nixon endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 to prevent gender discrimination, and ushered in large-scale, racial integration of public schools in the South.

Health Care: Long before Obamacare, Nixon proposed health insurance reform, including mandated health insurance by employers and federal funds to create Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs).

Nixon also deserves praise for resurrecting himself after he left office. He was a tireless American statesman, meeting with numerous foreign leaders, including those in the Third World. Along with Jimmy Carter and John Quincy Adams, he was one of our most active “ex-presidents.”

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Just a guess, but if Nixon were around today, I’m not sure he’d gain traction with the Republican Party. Not because of his “dirty tricks,” but because he’s closer to the center than the fringe. He’d probably end up like Jon Huntsman during the 2012 Republican primaries: the first to end his candidacy, after being accused of moderation, and for being bold enough to utter the word “compromise.”

Nixon may have been morally vacant, but he wasn’t dumb. I can’t see him surviving in the current political climate, where nearly half the voting public views climate change as a vast liberal hoax, and universal health care as an idea hatched in the bowels of Hades.

Gerald Ford’s controversial pardon of Nixon included the famous phrase “Our long national nightmare is over.”

But looking around today, isn’t there a different sort of national nightmare?

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U.S. Election 2012

The results of the 2012 U.S. presidential election are in.  Just a few thoughts before moving on to a more subdued topic.

This was the most expensive election in history.  According to the non-partisan Center for Responsible Politics, the presidential and congressional campaigns raised a total of $6 billion – $700 million more than the previous record in 2008.  This thanks in part to an abominable Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that said that government restriction of political expenditures from individuals, corporations, and labor unions was a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (popularly known as the “right to free speech”).  Why Super PACS (Political Action Committees) being allowed to dump millions into the candidate of their choice is considered “speech” is a question for the ages.  Regardless, all that money shifted just a few seats in the House and Senate.

President Barack Obama won election to a second four-year term, while Democrats gained some seats in the Senate, which they control, and also in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.  Obama was handed an awful mess in 2008, and in four years he did an extraordinary job of putting the U.S. back on track, while facing unrelenting hostility and vitriol.  The housing market is stabilizing; unemployment is still high but down to the level of when he took office; the Iraq debacle is over; we’re winding down in Afghanistan.  His signature achievements were killing Osama Bin Laden and stifling terrorism, rescuing the U.S. auto industry, and the historic passage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), designed to enable countless Americans access to quality, affordable health care (and is not the “government takeover” claimed by his critics – there’s not even a “public option”).  And we finally have a leader who isn’t timid about pushing for green energy.

But America is still at roughly 8 percent unemployment, there is still a large budget deficit, and there are still tax and immigration dilemmas.  The president needs to find a way to bridge the gap with stubborn Republican House members, who have signed a “pledge” not to raise taxes – even on the wealthiest Americans.  And Republicans will want Dems to address entitlements.  House majority leader John Boehner has promised his GOP members will work with the president to somehow find compromise, which is a good sign.  We’ll see.

The election was a resounding victory for Democrats and a thundering disappointment to Republicans.  If the GOP is going to maintain viability in the 21st century, it will need to embrace a changing demographic, one that includes blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans, gays, young voters, and women.  It will also need to re-examine its ideologies.  Is active government necessarily “big government,” or can it improve the lives of Americans?  Is regulation of business and industry such a dirty word?

If the economy continues to improve and the president can somehow find common ground with an intransigent Congress – and this country can stay out of another war – I think history will view Obama’s presidency with kindness. 

Forward.