by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
If there’s anyone on the American Left who still believes there is no real difference between the Republican and Democratic parties and therefore it doesn’t matter which one wins this year’s elections, the Republicans are doing their level best to disabuse you of that notion. In the two weeks immediately preceding the start of the Republican National Convention on August 27, two things happened to prove just how savagely retrograde the current Republican Party is and how determined they are to turn back the clock not just to the 1950’s but the 1880’s, the 1820’s or even earlier.
The first was Mitt Romney’s selection of Wisconsin Congressmember Paul Ryan as his running mate. It was a surprisingly bold move for a presidential candidate who had previously told an ABC-TV reporter, “All I have to do is keep talking about the economy, and we win.” Romney’s hope had been that the American people would vote in 2012 “retrospectively and negatively,” as pioneering political scientist V. O. Key said they usually did — that they’d be willing to fire President Obama for the economy’s lackluster performance during his term and wouldn’t be too worried that Romney wasn’t clearly spelling out what he would do differently.
When he picked Ryan as his running mate, Romney decisively rejected that strategy and essentially bought into a long-standing far-Right Republican belief system that says that not only is government too big, it redistributes wealth and income to the wrong people — away from the super-rich individuals and corporations that supposedly create all economic value and to working people, low-income people, senior citizens and others who consume government services while paying few or no taxes. The budget Ryan has proposed as head of the House Budget Committee, and which would become law if Romney becomes President and the Republicans have majorities in the House and Senate, embodies those principles and turns them into government policy.
Ryan’s budget would replace Social Security with individual private accounts and thereby leave old people’s incomes dependent both on the ups and downs of the stock market and their own skills — or lack of same — as investors. It would replace Medicare with vouchers with which senior citizens would have to buy private health insurance — thereby offering them less care for more money than the current system. It would replace Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California), the government-funded health program for the poor, including the working poor, with block grants to the states, so whether you got health care if you weren’t covered through your job and couldn’t afford the astronomical costs of individual insurance would depend on the generosity, or lack of same, of the government of your state. It would also shrink the Medicaid budget by one-third and massively cut back other social programs while swelling the defense budget.
There’s a strong ideological agenda behind Ryan’s plans embodied in the so-called “Austrian School” of economics. Created in the 1920’s and 1930’s as a response to Marxism, the “Austrian School” was founded by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek, but it was principally popularized by novelist Ayn Rand. The essence of the Austrian School is that workers don’t create value; instead, value is created by heroic entrepreneurs who deserve all the wealth created by their enterprises. Any government interference with the distribution of wealth and income, whether it’s done directly through taxation to pay for social-welfare programs or indirectly by protecting workers’ rights to organize labor unions, is evil, according to the Austrian School, because it merely takes money away from those who create wealth to what Rand famously called the “moochers” who consume it. Another central tenet of the Austrian School, articulated by Hayek in his book The Road to Serfdom, is that any attempt by government to regulate businesses or the economy in general inevitably leads to socialism and tyranny by making the individual overly dependent on government.
Though in recent months he’s tried to backtrack from his formerly enthusiastic embrace of Ayn Rand, Paul Ryan is on record as saying that Rand’s works — especially her most important novel, Atlas Shrugged — were what led him to a conservative world-view. Ryan told New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza, for a profile published in the July 30 issue, “What I liked about her novels was their devastating indictment of the fatal conceit of socialism, of too much government.” Lizza also quoted a 2005 speech Ryan made to the Atlas Society, a group devoted to Rand’s ideas, in which he said, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand,” he told the group. “The fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” After reading Atlas Shrugged he went on to the works of her inspirations, von Mises and Hayek from the Austrian School, and their principal American disciple, Milton Friedman.
Ryan’s attachment to Rand went beyond his own personal belief system. He told the Right-wing magazine The Weekly Standard in 2003 that he gave his staff members copies of Atlas Shrugged as Christmas presents, and in the spring 2011 issue of Democracy magazine Jonathan Chait reported that Ryan was requiring everyone who worked for him to read Rand’s novel. Anyone who reads Atlas Shrugged or Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom will be aware of what a sweeping vision Paul Ryan has for America’s future: essentially a return to the days of the 1880’s, in which the U.S. government openly served the interests of the rich and powerful, and if you were unemployed or became disabled or the bank in which you’d deposited your life savings went under, too bad, you were S.O.L. and all society owed you was a chance to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and work … whether you actually could or not. (Rand was once asked whether government had an obligation to take care of people with chronic illnesses or disabilities. Her response: “Misfortune does not justify slave labor.”)
As a long-term visionary, Paul Ryan is willing to make compromises in the here and now. His 2012 budget made the private vouchers instead of Medicare “optional” instead of mandatory for everyone 55 and under, as his 2010 budget had. He’s not demanding the outright abolition of the welfare state and all government programs that help the sick, the disabled, the poor … yet. But that’s clearly the ultimate aim of his ideology. And by picking Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney has signed on to that class war. Romney’s choice of Ryan as his vice-president puts an end to the forlorn hope that as President, Romney would revert to the relative moderate he was when he governed Massachusetts.
And as if the Ryan appointment wasn’t enough to show just how far-Right the Republicans have become and how crazy their agenda really is, a week before their convention Rep. Todd Akin (R-Missouri), their party’s nominee against Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, Just when you thought the political season couldn’t possibly get any weirder, Missouri Congressmember Todd Akin — the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate against Democrat Claire McCaskill — told a sympathetic local TV interviewer that he didn’t think the federal government needed to pay for abortions for victims of rape or incest because he didn’t think victims of rape or incest could get pregnant. “From what I understand from doctors, that’s extremely rare,” Akin said. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down.”
It’s hard to say what’s more appalling about Akin’s statement — the scientific ignorance behind it, the offensively patronizing reference to women’s reproductive functions as “that whole thing,” or his bizarre use of the word “legitimate” as an adjective to modify “rape.” The scientific ignorance would be appalling from any legislator but is even more astounding from a man the House Republican caucus put on the Science, Space and Technology Committee. A 1996 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology estimated the rate of pregnancies resulting from rapes of women of childbearing age as 5 percent — the same as the rate from unprotected consensual sex.
Not wanting a story like this to break just one week before the Republican National Convention — when the GOP is going to try to do its best to give Mitt Romney a sunnier image and introduce the country to his running mate, Wisconsin Congressmember Paul Ryan — the Republicans tried to cut Akin adrift. Both the official Republican Congressional organization and Karl Rove’s Crossroads PAC said they weren’t going to give any more money to Akin’s campaign. Romney and Republican national party chair Reince Priebus (whose name makes him sound like a character in a novel by Ayn Rand, until recently Paul Ryan’s favorite writer) urged Akin to quit the race against McCaskill in favor of some less tainted Republican. Akin’s response was predictable: he pointed to a poll saying that even after his “legitimate rape” remark he was still leading McCaskill, said he wouldn’t quit the race, and blamed the “liberal media” for attacking him.
Akin’s comments aren’t just the ravings of one looney-tunes Republican in a mostly red state. He’s put his money — or at least his legislative power — where his mouth was. In 2011 he co-sponsored a bill to rewrite the federal ban on funding low-income women’s abortions to change the exception for “rape or incest” to “forcible rape or incest” — and Paul Ryan, who has a perfect voting record against women’s reproductive choice, signed on to this bill as another co-sponsor. It’s a distinction that reveals an old-fashioned view of what rape is, one which was actually the law in most U.S. states until the 1960’s and 1970’s, when feminist activists successfully organized to change it. The idea is that it’s only rape if the woman is physically overpowered by violence on the part of her attacker; if she’s drunk, drugged, or psychologically intimidated into having sex, that’s seduction, not rape.
One gets the impression from Akin’s 200-year-old ideas about how women’s reproductive organs work, and his belief that it isn’t really “rape” unless it involves physical force, that Akin is at once awed and fearful of women’s sexuality. His comments about “legitimate rape” signal a desire to return to the not-so-good old days when any underhanded thing a man did to a woman to get her to have sex with him short of actual physical assault was perfectly legal, and when the law made a married woman’s body her husband’s property, sexually available to him any time he wanted it. As with so many other issues, progressive activists who worked hard to change those laws two generations ago thought they had won — but those monstrous prejudices are alive, well, and hatching out of the swamp we thought we had confined them to 40 years ago.
In 2000, when Zenger’s endorsed Ralph Nader for President, it was still possible to make a fact-based case that the Republican and Democratic Parties were growing closer together on most of the important issues, from deregulating the economy and increasing the power of giant corporations through globalization and so-called “trade” agreements to maintaining a huge U.S. military presence throughout the world. That’s no longer true. Though both major parties remain part and parcel of the corporate system, the Republicans have become far more ideological and intense. The Democrats want to nibble at the edges of the social welfare system — including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which, under pressure from Left activists, they created in the 1930’s and 1960’s — while the Republicans want to smash it completely.
The Democrats depend at least in part on the existence of what’s left of a U.S. labor movement — labor supplies the Democrats with money and, more importantly, direct political “education” of their members (which is why unionized blue-collar workers are still much more likely to vote for Democrats than non-unionized ones) — while the Republicans want to get rid of it altogether. The Democrats want to develop renewable energy — albeit in the form of corporate-friendly mega-projects that enable the big utilities to stay in business but make little environmental or economic sense — while the Republicans outright oppose not only renewable energy but the whole idea that human activity is causing earth’s climate to change.
The widening gap between the two big parties doesn’t mean that the Democrats have become more progressive — they’ve steadily retreated from the ideals of the New Deal and the Great Society over the last 40 years. It’s because the Republicans have become so strongly ideological. It was once conventional wisdom among American political scientists that neither major party could stand too far on the ideological spectrum, for if it did, voters in a basically “centrist” country would reject it and force it back to the middle.
The Republicans were able to pull it off largely by developing alternative ways to reach voters. First they allied themselves with the radical religious Right and got a ready-made audience in churches. Then they used the opportunity created by President Reagan’s repeal of the Fairness Doctrine to create their own alternative media, centered around talk radio and (since 1996) Fox News, which has abandoned all pretense of objectivity and constantly inculcates its audience with Right-wing propaganda 24/7 and trains them to think about issues their way and automatically reject all other points of view.
The Republican Right has followed a decades-long game plan aimed at winning total control of American politics and purging it of any pretense that anything other than the naked self-interest of privileged individuals should govern us. They are on the brink of their final success, and if they win the presidency, the Senate and the House in 2012, they will be able to enact their entire platform. And a look at their far-reaching rhetoric should be enough to convince anyone of how sweeping a transformation they intend to make in American society, rivaling in thoroughness the transformation Adolf Hitler put Germany through when he seized power in 1933.
In its current guise, the “Tea Party,” the radical Republican Right has proposed eliminating the income tax altogether, getting rid of direct election of U.S. Senators and returning that task to state legislatures, and rewriting the 14th Amendment to the Constitution — the basis for virtually all legislation and court decisions securing the civil rights of African-Americans, other people of color, women and Queers. The only power in society that has a realistic chance of stopping this agenda short-term is what Noam Chomsky has called “the reality-based wing of the ruling class.”
Many Leftists speak of “the ruling class” or “the 1 percent” as if it were a single entity, monolithically united behind a particular pro-corporate, pro-capitalist agenda. That is demonstrably untrue. There’s a world of difference between what Warren Buffett wants the government to do to save capitalism and what the Koch Brothers want. Indeed, throughout its history, the American Right has saved much of its bitterest venom for people they consider upper-class class traitors, rich and super-rich people who want to give something back to the working classes — not necessarily because they’re interested in “justice” or “fairness” than because they realize that if capitalists do too good a job of impoverishing their workers, then they won’t be able to make money because nobody will be able to buy their products. In the 1930’s Franklin Roosevelt was the upper-class “class traitor” the radical Right most loved to hate. In the 1960’s it was Nelson Rockefeller. Today it’s Buffett and George Soros.
When I saw Cindy Sheehan speak August 19 at a private reception in Ocean Beach, I was enthralled and exalted by her vision of a socialist revolution and a post-capitalist society in which education, employment at living wages, health care and housing were considered human rights — not privileges controlled by a capitalist class which could bestow or withdraw them at will. But when I left the room, I returned to a world and, in particular, a United States where the immediate task for progressives is not creating a Left-wing revolution but forestalling a Right-wing one that is on the brink of imminent and total success.
The radical Right has convinced millions of Americans consistently to vote against their class interests as workers and buy into the Randian theory that only a lassiez-faire economy based on unfettered corporate power and capitalist greed can create long-term prosperity. And the response of much of the American Left is to cling to the bad habits of the last 40 years that have essentially made us politically irrelevant: the outright rejection of major-party electoral politics (in some cases, of electoral politics at all!); the constant trashing of America’s historical icons, which has allowed the Right to claim the exclusive mantle of patriotism; the addiction to unworkable notions of “internal democracy” and “consensus,” “non-hierarchical” or (the current euphemism) “horizontal” decision-making that leave many Leftist organizations paralyzed and unable to do much of anything at all; and, most horrifying, a repeat of the mistake the German Left made in the early 1930’s, in which the Communists called the Social Democrats “the real enemies” and thereby paved the way for the rise of the real real enemies, Hitler and the Nazis.
Social change in a representative republic like the United States is not made solely in the halls of electoral power. Nor is it made solely by direct action in the streets. It takes both. The American Left used to know this; our successes in the 1930’s and the 1960’s were built on a strategy that encompassed both, one that got enough people into the streets in mass demonstrations and (occasionally) general strikes that the corporate elites conceded some of what we wanted for fear that if they didn’t, the whole system would collapse. Today we’ve forgotten it: all too often progressives who do direct action regard progressives who do electoral politics (especially within the Democratic party) with visceral hatred and scorn.
Meanwhile, the Right has learned to play the inside/outside game to perfection, using their electoral power within the Republican Party to swing the whole center of gravity of American politics dramatically Rightward and using the direct-action campaigns of the Tea Party to enforce ideological uniformity on the Republican Party. At the height of the Occupy movement I cringed whenever any Occupier told me, “We don’t want to be a Tea Party of the Left” — when I thought a Tea Party of the Left was exactly what the Occupy movement should become.
In order to reverse the Rightward trend in American politics, we will need direct activists and electoral activists not only to settle their differences but actively to work together — and unless we wake up to the short-term need to keep the Democratic Party and the reality-based wing of the ruling class in power, we will end up living under the Republican ideal of a government that lets corporations do whatever they want, makes labor rights and environmental protection a distant reality, and micromanages people’s private lives with a ferocity even the Nazis, who didn’t have today’s computer surveillance technology, would have envied.
Portions of this post have appeared previously on the East County Magazine Web site, www.eastcountymagazine.org
Portions of this post have appeared previously on the East County Magazine Web site, www.eastcountymagazine.org