Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
On February 10, Republican Presidential front-runner Mitt Romney gave a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C. in which he referenced the one time in his life he has ever held an elective office: as governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007. “I fought against long odds in a deep blue state,” Romney said. “But I was a severely conservative Republican governor.” In the same speech, he also recalled how he had responded to the landmark decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Court that same-sex couples had a legal right to marriage equality by invoking an old state law to bar same-sex couples from out of state from marrying there. “On my watch, we fought hard and prevented Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of Gay marriage,” Romney said. “When I am President, I will defend the Defense of Marriage Act and I will fight for an amendment to our Constitution that defines marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman.”
Romney was rewarded for his defense of the Right-wing faith (in more ways than one) by winning CPAC’s annual Presidential straw poll, with 38 percent to 31 percent for his nearest rival, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum. He was also lampooned by writers like Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize-winning economist and op-ed contributor to the New York Times, who responded with a column quoting Molly Ball of The Atlantic as saying that Romney had “described conservatism as if it were a disease.” Krugman also quoted Mark Liberman, linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, as saying the words that most commonly follow the adverb “severely” are “disabled,” “depressed,” “ill,” “limited” and “injured.”
I generally have a high respect for Paul Krugman as author and thinker, but this time he got it almost totally wrong. When Romney invoked “severe” as a definition of his conservatism — to an audience of the kinds of people he needs to convince of his Right-wing bona fides not only to get the Republican Presidential nomination but to arouse the base of voters, volunteers and small contributors he needs to beat Barack Obama in November — it had nothing to do with disease. Instead it had to do with a value that is transcendent in the thought of the radical Right, a single word that brings together all the strands of Right-wing thought and reconciles the otherwise incomprehensible contradiction at the heart of their philosophy: the gap between their economic policies, which are total lassiez-faire and call for the government to end regulations on business and “unleash the private sector,” and their social policies, which seek government intervention in the most intimate details of our personal lives: whom we love, marry, have sex with and how we deal with the consequences therefrom.
The word is discipline, and it occurs early on in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary’s definition of “severe”: “1. a: strict in judgment, discipline, or government. B: of a strict or stern bearing or manner: austere. 2. Rigorous in restraint, punishment, or requirement: stringent, restrictive. 3. Strongly critical or condemnatory: censorious.” The online dictionary goes on to give five other, similar definitions of “severe,” of which only one definition, plus one subdefinition, have anything to do with illness or disease. The list of synonyms for “severe” the dictionary gives is “austere, authoritarian, flinty, hard, harsh, heavy-handed, ramrod, rigid, rigorous, stern, strict, tough” — all characteristics it’s easy enough to find in the rhetoric of Romney and his principal rivals for the Republican nomination: Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. There’s an even more revealing note in a user comment on the Merriam-Webster site which suggests that one possible word origin for “severe” is the Latin “se vere” — “without kindness.”
What was most striking about Romney’s description of himself as “severely conservative” was its dramatic contrast to the way another Republican governor — a sitting one, rather than a former governor like Romney — described himself in his own Presidential candidacy just 12 years ago. When George W. Bush emerged as a Presidential candidate, he called himself a “compassionate conservative.” Anxious to project a moderate image — especially once his Democratic candidate, Al Gore, seemed on many issues to be running to Bush’s Right (in the campaign it was Gore who called for a highly interventionist “nation-building” foreign policy and Bush who was the voice of restraint!) — Bush wanted to soften his “conservative” image and put what his father had called a “kinder, gentler” face on his views.
But that was then, and this is now. These days, the Republican electoral base has become so hard, harsh, heavy-handed, stern, strict, tough, flinty — in a word, so severe — kindness and compassion have become major liabilities. Newt Gingrich suffered the first of his several near-death experiences in the campaign when he dared to take on Congressmember Paul Ryan’s (R-Wisconsin) plan for privatizing Medicare and denounce it as “Right-wing social engineering.” Rick Perry’s campaign started to unravel when he said that anyone who didn’t support allowing the foreign-born children of undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. so they could attend college or fight in the military “didn’t have a heart.” And well before the nation learned of Herman Cain’s sexual peccadilloes, he’d already turned the stomach of the Republican base when he said that if his granddaughter were raped and got pregnant by her rapist, he would respect her “choice” whether to bring the pregnancy to term or have an abortion.
It’s this obsession with discipline — severe discipline — that unites the Republican base and holds together the two wings of the party, which otherwise would seem to have little in common. In economic matters, Republican discipline manifests itself in a fervent commitment to lassiez-faire and a belief that The Market should be allowed to work itself out for good or ill. If General Motors was so badly managed that it found itself on the edge of going out of business, the radical Right’s creed says, let it go out of business — no matter how many workers, not only at GM itself but at all the companies that produce parts for it and service its car loans and sell meals and clothes to its employees, would lose their jobs as a result. If people don’t voluntarily buy health insurance (since requiring them to do so is an assault on their precious “freedom”) and they get a catastrophic illness, either let them die (the response of two Tea Party activists in the audience at a notorious Presidential debate in Tampa, Florida September 12, 2011) or hope they can get help from churches or private charities (the answer given by Ron Paul, the candidate who was actually being asked that hypothetical question by debate moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN).
The ultimate advocate of the free-market absolutism of today’s radical Right was the author and philosopher Ayn Rand (1905-1982), whose 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged has taken a place just behind the Bible among the sacred texts of the radical Right. Paul Ryan, who as chair of the House Budget Committee has more power over the federal purse right now than any other Republican, requires everyone he hires for his staff to read it cover-to-cover before they start work. The plot of Atlas Shrugged deals with a group of super-capitalists who, in Rand’s view, have created all worth and value in the world (a deliberate reversal of Marx’s idea that labor, not capital, was the source of all value). They react to an increasingly collectivist U.S. government by withdrawing to a redoubt in the Colorado mountains, from which John Galt, their leader and spokesperson, emerges to give a long lecture expressing Rand’s philosophy. The message was summed up by Ludwig von Mises, co-founder of the so-called “Austrian school” of lassiez-faire economics, who blurbed Atlas Shrugged by saying to Rand, “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior, and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the efforts of men who are better than you.”
So the modern-day radical Right’s message about the economy is that the government should just stay out of it and let the capitalists rule. Allow what Austrian (but not Austrian-school) economist Joseph Schumpeter called the “creative destruction” at the heart of capitalism to roll over and kill old industries to make way for new ones — no matter how many people were put out of work, how many lost their homes in foreclosures or their life savings in failed banks, how much of the environment was destroyed, how many people were died or injured in industrial accidents the capitalists didn’t consider it worth their while to protect against, or how much other collateral damage all that “creative destruction” wreaked in its wake. (Ironically, Schumpeter himself, though not a socialist, believed that a transition to socialism was inevitable because workers wouldn’t stand for having their jobs repeatedly “creatively” destroyed. Boy, was he wrong.) On economic issues, the radical Right says, we are to be subject to the “discipline” of a “severe” marketplace …
… while, in the management of our private lives, we are to be subject to the “discipline” of the same government the radical Right doesn’t trust to run or regulate the economy. The most severe (that word again!) restrictions the radical Right would impose on us all seem to have to do with our sexuality. Virtually all the world’s religions have tried to control people’s sexual expressions, and Christianity’s origins as an apocalyptic cult have made it perhaps the most anti-sexual religion in the world. The early Christians preached against having sex at all; they weren’t worried about propagating the race because they thought Christ was coming back in their lifetimes and therefore propagating the race wouldn’t be a problem. When it was clear Christ wasn’t coming back in their lifetimes, they moderated their anti-sex position just enough to be practical: it was O.K. to have sex, but only if you were a married heterosexual couple and only for purposes of reproduction.
It’s that tradition Rick Santorum was coming from when he recently said, “Many in the Christian faith have said, ‘Well, that’s O.K. Contraception’s O.K.’ It’s not O.K. because it’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is [sic] counter to how things are supposed to be.” Santorum’s idea of “how things are supposed to be” is that it’s only moral to have sex if you do it to make babies, and even then only in the context of a mutually monogamous heterosexual marriage. Birth control and abortion are both wrong because they allow straight people to have sex without making babies, and homosexuality is wrong because by definition it can’t make babies. The radical Right’s message to women, especially unmarried women, is if you don’t want babies, don’t have sex. Ironically, it’s a message that would have appalled Ayn Rand, an atheist and a (hetero)sexual libertarian, but the radical Right has mentally edited out those parts of Atlas Shrugged just as they’ve mentally edited out the parts of Jesus’s teachings that talk about the meek inheriting the earth, the peacemakers being blessed and the only law being to love thy neighbor as thyself.
And on foreign policy, the radical Right never seems to have met a war it doesn’t like, unless a Democratic president got us into it under some pretense of “humanitarian intervention.” Right now, in addition to promising to renew the U.S. troop presence in Iraq and reverse President Obama’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, the major Republican Presidential candidates (except for Ron Paul) are calling for bombing Iran, attacking Syria and throwing our military weight around the entire world. Theodore Roosevelt, a progressive Republican well before that became an oxymoron, famously said that in its foreign policy the U.S. should “speak softly and carry a big stick.” The Republican Presidential candidates of today believe in swinging the big stick without talking at all.
Fascinatingly, there was a figure during the last Great Depression — the one that began with the collapse of an overvalued stock market in 1929 — whose rhetoric coupled the lassiez-faire discipline of The Market and the idea that the American people needed a dose of state-enforced “morality” more eloquently than the members of the radical Right today. His name was Andrew Mellon, he was secretary of the treasury under President Herbert Hoover, and his chief claim to fame was that he relentlessly opposed even the half-hearted government interventions with which Hoover hoped to help bring back prosperity. Though he never said this publicly, his private advice to President Hoover was to let the Depression take its course and make no attempt whatsoever to use the government to help people hurt by the economic catastrophe.
“Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate,” Mellon told Hoover (according to Hoover, who quoted him in his autobiography). “It will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, lead a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.” The fact that modern-day Republicans are openly advocating for the sorts of policies Andrew Mellon felt safe discussing only in confidence in the office of the President shows what they have in store for us: a world in which uppity workers and consumers are “disciplined” by the Market and the buccaneering Randian entrepreneurs of an “unleashed” private sector, and people who live the “wrong” kind of life, and particularly people who have the “wrong” kind of sex, are disciplined by morality enforcers not that different from the ones in Iran or Taliban-led Afghanistan.
That’s the kind of future the Republican Party has in mind for us, and it’s the real meaning of Mitt Romney’s boast that he was a “severely conservative” governor and will be a “severely conservative” President.