Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
A funny thing happened in November 2015 on the way to the supposed self-destruction of the Republican Party and the radical-Right ideology for which it stands. On November 3, in a series of elections so obscure many progressive political activists (including me) weren’t all that aware they were even happening, the Right won sweeping victory after sweeping victory on a wide range of issues in locations as diverse as Kentucky and San Francisco.
In the race for governor of Kentucky, Tea Party Republican Matt Bevin crushed Democrat Jack Conway by nearly 10 percent (511,771 votes to 426,944, or 52.5 to 43.8 percent), despite pre-election polls that had Conway leading by as much as 11 points. In Houston, a city that in its last election chose open Lesbian Annise Parker as mayor, a Queer rights ordinance was repealed by the shockingly huge margin of 61 to 39 percent.
In Ohio, an initiative to legalize marijuana went down to an equally crushing defeat, with 65 percent of voters opposed and only 35 percent in favor — despite polls showing Ohioans broadly in favor of allowing marijuana use. And even in supposedly progressive San Francisco, an initiative to regulate the home-sharing service Airbnb lost, 55 to 45 percent.
Initiatives to raise the minimum wage also fared poorly. After the city council of Portland, Maine voted to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, “Fight for 15” campaigners put an initiative on the ballot to take it up to $15. But Portland voters decided $10.10 was enough and rejected the additional increase. In Tacoma, Washington, there were dueling minimum-wage initiatives on the ballot — one for $15 and one for $12 — and while both passed, the one for $12 got more votes so it will be the one that takes effect.
And in Spokane, Washington, a ballot measure to create a so-called “Workers’ Bill of Rights” — a minimum-wage increase, equal pay for equal work, protections against wrongful termination and preferences for workers’ over corporations’ rights — went down to a sweeping defeat. Over 62 percent of Spokane voters opposed the measure, and even Spokane’s labor unions offered it little support.
There were a few bright spots in the overall gloomy picture for progressives on November 3. Voters in Maine and the city of Seattle, Washington approved public financing of political campaigns on the so-called “clean money” model, in which, once a candidate gets a certain number of small donors, they qualify for public support as long as they don’t take any more private money.
Ohio voters took the power to draw legislative districts away from the legislature and set up a process that no one party can dominate. And San Francisco voters passed a crackdown on major corporations who set up so-called “Astroturf” campaigns — phony citizens’ organizations or nonprofits through which to promote corporate-friendly laws or policies — by requiring corporate funders of such groups to disclose how much they’re giving them.
Overwhelmingly, though, the election results of November 3, 2015 were a strong sweep for the American Right. To progressives, they were a wake-up call that we still live in a profoundly conservative country, one which overwhelmingly distrusts government and believes the “free market,” not legislators or initiative writers, should determine how much people should get paid for their work.
It was also a reminder that despite a few defeats — notably the U.S. Supreme Court decision enforcing marriage equality for same-sex couples nationwide — the so-called “social” or “Christian” Right is still very much alive. The Queer-rights initiative in Houston was crushed partly by the opposition of African-American religious leaders, but mainly by an hysterical campaign that said that because the ordinance included protections for Transgender people, men would dress up as women and pose as Transgender just to get into women’s restrooms and eye women’s private parts.
A rational observer might read such an argument and think it said more about the sick concerns of the people making it than anything that might really happen. But one of the reasons the social Right has won so many battles against the Queer community has been their skill at inventing these freaky straw men. In the 1990’s it was stories about Gay soldiers and sailors ogling their straight comrades in showers that led to President Clinton to retreat from his campaign pledge to allow Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals to serve openly in the military and instead sign into law the hateful “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
In 2008 it was the hideous propaganda that persuaded a majority of Californians to pass Proposition 8, which banned legal recognition of same-sex marriage and lasted five years until the U.S. Supreme Court threw it out on a technicality. Remember the ads about schoolchildren who’d supposedly be “forced” to listen to their teachers talk about same-sex marriage? About the little girl who breathlessly told us that if Prop. 8 failed, she could “marry a princess”? About the claim — demonstrably false, but effective nonetheless — that churches would be forced to perform same-sex weddings?
Well, the radical Right has found a similar weapon to derail the quest for equal rights not only for Transgender people but Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals as well: the public restroom. That’s why I heaved a huge sigh of relief three years ago when a Right-wing attempt to put SB 48, California’s pioneering law to protect the rights of Transgender students in public schools, before voters barely missed getting enough signatures to make it on the ballot.
If it had succeeded, Queer rights advocates in California would have had to face the same ugly, but devastatingly effective, propaganda about potential rapists donning dresses and haunting women’s restrooms that worked so well in Houston. And our cause in Houston wasn’t helped by a typically wimpy campaign defending the Queer rights ordinance which made the same mistakes made by the marriage equality movement until it found its groove in 2012: trotting out celebrities and making abstract arguments about “equality” instead of communicating to voters the real pain suffered by Queer victims of discrimination.
A Right-Wing Country
But it would be a mistake to look for local reasons for the progressive defeats of November 3, 2015 and over-analyze the election results based on them. The fact is the results indicate just how conservative a nation the United States of America is politically — and has been at least since 1968, when Republican Richard Nixon and American Independent George Wallace took a combined 57 percent of the Presidential vote to Democrat Hubert Humphrey’s 43 percent. The Right didn’t solidify its electoral triumph until Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, but the 1968 results showed an ongoing realignment in the American electorate that ended the New Deal coalition and ushered in a period of Right-wing dominance that, despite occasional hiccups, has continued to this day.
Though Nixon’s and Democrat-turned-independent-turned Republican South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond’s “Southern strategy” in the 1968 campaign was originally planned as a one-time response to the threat of Wallace’s independent campaign, it ensured Republican dominance of Presidential politics for the next three decades. It flipped the two major parties’ historical positions on civil rights and racial equality. The Democrats, once the party of Jefferson Davis and then of the Ku Klux Klan, became associated with the African-American struggle for equality. Meanwhile, the Republicans, once the “Party of Lincoln” ideologically as well as historically, assumed the Democrats’ former mantle as defenders of white supremacy masquerading as “states’ rights.”
The result was a long-term switch in the “Solid South” from once solidly Democratic to now solidly Republican. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964, he told his aide Richard Goodwin, “I’ve just handed the South to the Republicans for the next 15 years.” It’s turned out to be a lot longer than that. The three Democrats who have won Presidential elections since 1968 have done so only because they had special characteristics that partially neutralized the Republicans’ structural advantages in the South. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did it by being white Southerners themselves, and Barack Obama did it by mobilizing such a heavy African-American vote it made up for his piss-poor showing among working-class whites in the South.
And not just in the South, either. In 1964 George Wallace mounted an exploratory campaign against Lyndon Johnson in Wisconsin and did so well commentators coined the phrase “white backlash” to describe it. Though Wallace had mounted his campaign as a nominal Democrat, Republicans looked at his success and realized it offered them a recipe for pulling working-class whites away from the Democratic Party and thereby shattering the New Deal coalition that had allowed the Democrats to win seven of the nine Presidential elections between 1932 and 1964.
They were helped by another development of the 1960’s: the rise of the so-called “counterculture.” Working-class whites who had risen from poverty largely due to the efforts of organized labor — and the laws passed by Democrats that made it possible to form unions in big manufacturing industries — saw their sons and daughters grow their hair long, listen to loud, obnoxious music, do drugs and trash the colleges and universities their parents had worked their asses off to raise the money to send them to.
The result was an overwhelming backlash that continues today. It has cost the Democrats any chance at winning a majority of white male votes in a Presidential election, and forced them to rely on the votes of women and people of color to get elected to virtually anything. What’s more, it’s given the Republican Party and its sympathetic media outlets — talk radio and Fox News — a raw, roaring energy that motivates its voters to go to the polls far more often.
Republican voters are motivated because they think that they’re being overtaxed and discriminated against to support people they believe inferior — people of color, undocumented immigrants, Queers and other counterculturalists. All too often, Democrats and progressives in general either tune out electoral politics as a distraction, actively reject them or just don’t bother to vote. The oft-repeated truisms that turnout in mid-term elections is low, and low turnouts benefit the Republicans and the Right in general, are not explanations. They are EXCUSES.
We Sleep — They Live
In 1988 John Carpenter made a science-fiction film called They Live, which was based on the premise that the entire Right-wing political movement had been started by space aliens who had infiltrated Earth by disguising themselves as ordinary humans. They had largely taken over Earth’s politics — in the theatrical and DVD version (though not the one released to TV) there’s a funny scene that revealed that Ronald Reagan was a disguised alien — and their goal was to set up untrammeled lassiez-faire capitalism worldwide so Earth’s environment would be polluted, and when it was so filthy it resembled the aliens’ home world they would come in en masse and take over.
The protagonist of They Live stumbled on a resistance movement when he picked up a special pair of sunglasses that enabled him to see what was really going on, including the subliminal messages — “Obey,” “Stay Asleep,” “No Imagination,” “Submit to Authority” and the like — the aliens were transmitting to ordinary people through the media. The members of the resistance were trying to get the masses to wake up to what was really going on, and their slogan was, “We sleep — they live.” (The premise was similar to that of the later Matrix films, but Carpenter did a lot more with it.)
The difference between Right-wing and Left-wing America can be summed up in the same four words by which the resistance movement in Carpenter’s film attempted to wake up the people: “We sleep — they live.” Over the last 50 years, ever since Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Presidential campaign set the template for the Tea Party (read Norman Mailer’s description of a Goldwater rally in his book Cannibals and Christians and you’ll be struck by its similarity to a Tea Party event today) and later Right-wing candidacies, the Right has shown remarkable perseverance and constructed a level of organization that has enabled them to move from victory to victory, and to come back stronger from seemingly devastating defeats.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Left has carefully and meticulously followed a series of insane policies that well earn the description Vladimir Lenin applied to the ultra-Leftists of his place and time: “an infantile disorder.” If the Left in this country had deliberately tried to reduce themselves to irrelevance, they couldn’t have done a better job. So what has the Right done right and the Left done wrong?
Electoral politics and direct action. The American Right has realized that you do not achieve dramatic social change in the U.S. (or anywhere else, for that matter) exclusively through electoral politics. Nor do you achieve it exclusively by street activism — demonstrations, protests, civil disobedience, strikes. It takes both. This simple fact was something the American Left knew and put into effect in the 1890’s, the 1930’s and the 1960’s. Today we’ve forgotten it.
Instead, all too many American Leftists regard electoral politics and direct action as two opposed alternatives, and think they have to choose one or the other. Often activists who have chosen direct action look down on and even ridicule those who work in the electoral system as “sell-outs” or Leftists in name only. In turn, progressives involved in electoral politics tend to fear the direct-action activists and worry that they’ll do something “extreme” to jeopardize their hard-won positions within the system.
The Right’s electoral activists and direct activists work together to build their influence both within the political system and outside of it. The Tea Party started almost as soon as President Obama took office and parlayed public rage against his administration in general and his health-care plan in particular into a political force that has virtually taken over the U.S. Congress. Tea Party-identified candidates like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are among the leading contenders for the Republican Presidential nomination.
By contrast, the closest equivalent on the U.S. Left, Occupy, didn’t start until more than 2 ½ years after Obama took office, explicitly disclaimed any interest in electoral politics, made an initial splash and didn’t have a Plan B once city police closed down their highly publicized encampments. “We don’t want to be a Tea Party of the Left,” several Occupiers told me during their movement’s brief heyday — making my heart sink because a Tea Party of the Left is exactly what we need and what I was hoping Occupy would turn into.
Bernie Sanders gets it. The Vermont Senator who, after a political lifetime as an independent, joined the Democratic Party to run for President this year (see “The will-o’-the-wisp of ‘third parties’,” below), has been ridiculed by the mainstream media because of his call for a “political revolution.” But what he actually means by that — hundreds of thousands of people in the streets demanding radical change — is essential for achieving the progressive agenda. What all too many progressive and Left Americans don’t realize is electing candidates who are at least persuadable on their key issues is also essential.
The will-o’-the-wisp of “third parties.” One thing the American Right has done right — and the American Left has done wrong — is avoided the tempting trap of organizing or supporting alternative political parties. Instead the Right has focused its electoral involvements almost exclusively within the Republican Party. There have been a few Right-wingers who’ve worked inside the Democratic Party, but the mass Right-wing movements like the Tea Party have concentrated on working with the Republicans in order to take them over; instead of forming the Tea Party Party, they have sought — largely successfully — to remake the Republicans in the Tea Party’s image.
By contrast, all too many progressives and Leftists I know not only avoid working within the Democratic Party but take active pride in having rejected it. Most people I know who’s registered with the Green or Peace and Freedom Party can vividly remember the last Democratic President they ever voted for — and what they did in office that disillusioned them and caused them to reject the Democratic Party and its candidates forever. It’s quite similar to listening to born-again Christians talk about the experience that led them to find Jesus and abandon their former secular lives — and, like being born again, it’s an experience that’s more about personal transformation than political reality.
The bare-bones reality is that, with exceedingly rare exceptions, only Republicans and Democrats are allowed to govern America. Joining any other party means consigning yourself to political oblivion. It made sense to organize the Green Party in the country where the movement was founded, Germany, because their electoral laws guarantee that if you get five percent or more of the vote nationwide, you get that percentage of seats in their legislature even if you didn’t win a plurality in any one district. It did not make sense to organize a Green Party in the U.S., with its system of winner-take-all districts, its long tradition of two and only two important parties, and the power the two established parties have to write the electoral laws to keep both Left and Right rivals out.
Treating electoral strategy as pragmatic, not “moral.” One reason there are so many American Leftists who self-righteously — and self-defeatingly — reject working in the Democratic Party is they feel that making that compromise would literally be “immoral.” Politics is not an arena in which to find “morality” — if that’s what you want, join a church instead. Politics, both in and out of the electoral system, is a series of strategies and tactics to be used or abandoned according to whether or not they work to put your ideas into practice and enact them into public policy. It is not an arena for personal growth or expressing your “morality.”
Closely allied is the delusion many American Leftists have talked themselves into that there is “no difference” between the Republican and Democratic parties. Anyone who’s watched any of this year’s Presidential debates would be quickly disabused of that notion. It’s true that both the Republican and Democratic parties are committed to the defense of the modern capitalist economic system, and it’s also true that they’re both funded by wealthy individuals and (to the extent the law allows) corporations. It’s true that they largely represent the ruling class and are committed to maintaining capitalism.
But the Republican and Democratic parties still differ profoundly in how they propose to maintain capitalism, and those differences are important in terms of where and how effectively both Right and Left activists should work to pursue their political agendas. As weakened as these commitments have become over time, the Democratic Party still believes that government has a right — and, at least in some instances, a duty — to intervene in the economy and put brakes on the ability of corporations to exploit their workers and seek profits, no matter what.
The Republicans, by contrast, blame almost everything wrong on government. Their solution to virtually every social problem is to increase the share of wealth and income going to the rich, “free” corporations from all remaining restrictions on their ability to exploit their workers, jeopardize their health and safety, and despoil the environment. They want to destroy the few remaining avenues for workers to organize into unions and bargain collectively with their employers. They want to abolish Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation and every other part of America’s tattered social safety net.
The modern-day Republican Party believes in an extreme libertarian ideology that regards all taxation of the rich to benefit the not-so-rich as “theft” and “slavery.” Its policies would produce a massive shift of social risk from institutions to individuals. If you got old, you lost your job, got sick, if an accident and hadn’t (or hadn’t been able to) put money aside to pay for those eventualities, tough luck. You’d be on your own and government would be specifically forbidden to do anything about it. They would expect you to ask your local church for help instead, and hope they were both able and willing to help you.
In other words, despite the deficiencies of the Democratic Party, it’s still the only game in town for Americans who reject the extreme libertarianism of the Republican Party and believe in a society whose members accept the existence of a mutual obligation for people to act together collectively to ensure their future. I recently received an e-mail from the Green Party denouncing Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and saying, “A dollar for Bernie Sanders is a dollar for Hillary Clinton.” Well, a vote — or a dollar — for the Green Party’s likely presidential candidate, Dr. Jill Stein, is a vote or a dollar for Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio or whoever survives the demolition derby the Republican Presidential nomination has become.
“Internal democracy.” One of the most staggeringly awful decisions American progressives and Leftists have made in the last 40 years is to impose a regime of so-called “internal democracy” on their organizations that makes it utterly impossible for them to do anything. “Internal democracy” was a shibboleth seized on by Leftists who were horrified at the authoritarian dictatorships Lenin’s Russia, Mao’s China and Castro’s Cuba had turned into, and it was a way of ensuring that no movement led by them would ever establish a dictatorship once it took power. Unfortunately, it worked by ensuring that the Left would become so chronically disorganized and impotent it would never get anywhere near taking power anywhere at any time.
Every successful Left-wing movement — “successful” meaning that it either launched a revolution that actually took power or built a network of institutions (like labor unions and civil-rights organizations) with long-term impact — has been run in a top-down hierarchical manner. And every Left movement that has attempted to govern itself according to the principles of “internal democracy,” from the Paris Commune of 1870 to Occupy in 2011, has failed. And they’ve all failed for the same reason: they didn’t have the organizational strength to withstand and survive the authorities’ repression.
As Malcolm Gladwell, in his article “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted” (The New Yorker, October 4, 2010), put it, “If you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment, you have to be a hierarchy.” Gladwell cited the early actions of the African-American civil rights movement, the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56 and the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins of 1960, and noted that they were organized with what even their enemies, the White Citizens’ Councils, said was “military precision.”
Gladwell quoted movement historian Aldon D. Morris, who argued that the hierarchical structure of the civil rights movement came from the Black church. “Each group was task-oriented and coordinated its activities through authority structures,” Morris wrote in the passage Gladwell quoted. “Individuals were held accountable for their assigned duties, and important conflicts were resolved by the minister, who usually exercised ultimate authority over the congregation.”
Likewise, anyone who reads Stephen Spender’s biography of Mahatma Gandhi — the book on which Richard Attenborough based his multi-Academy Award-winning biopic — will note the military precision with which he led his civil disobedience campaigns. In particular, Gandhi was as obsessed as any military commander with surprise; though his “attacks” were nonviolent, like any good general he wanted them to startle and keep his adversaries, the British, off balance, never knowing what he was going to do next.
By contrast, Occupy was organized as what Gladwell called a “network,” in which the decision-making process was kept as loose and open as possible. Occupy made its decisions — to the extent it ever did — in “general assemblies” of whoever showed up, which could be as few as 10 people or more than 100. Though Gladwell wrote a year before Occupy, he uncannily predicted its failure: “Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?”
Talking the people’s language. The American Right’s orators and propagandists speak in simple, direct language, expressing and appealing to the fears and obsessions of its audience. The American Left speaks in academic jargon that doesn’t particularly appeal to anybody outside the choir. I suspect this is a hangover from the days in the 1970’s, when the Leftist movements that had arisen in the 1960’s in support of civil rights and against the Viet Nam war were being violently suppressed by the U.S. government — and many Leftists survived the purge by hiding out in the halls of academe.
Of course, the Left’s association with the academic world — and the Right’s savaging of them for that — long predates the 1970’s. Many of the original progressives of the turn of the last century came from college campuses and sought to remake society by taking over government, purging it of the corruption from big-city political machines and corporate donors, and reorganizing it along “scientific” principles worked out in college political science, economics and public administration departments.
In the 1930’s — a period in which the economic collapse of American capitalism actually benefited the Left (today, by contrast, it seems to be paving the way for a sweep to power by the Republican Party and the political Right) — Franklin Roosevelt’s administration was filled with recent college graduates, as well as some of their professors. They became known as the “Brain Trust,” and their academic backgrounds became a favored target of their opponents on the Right.
By the 1950’s, the Right’s attacks on political intellectuals precisely because they were intellectuals had reached such a fever pitch that political scientist Richard Hofstadter actually wrote a book called Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. One of Senator Joe McCarthy’s favorite attack lines against the (alleged) Communists in the U.S. government was that they had all gone to prestigious colleges and learned to be Communists from their equally anti-American professors. In the 1960’s, the availability of student deferments from the Viet Nam-era draft attracted a lot of Leftists to colleges, where if they kept their grades up they could avoid having to fight in the war.
So American Leftists became increasingly reliant on the academic world, first to avoid getting drafted (if they were men), then to avoid the political repression of the 1970’s and finally to find long-term, relatively secure employment. They also used the colleges to recruit other Leftists, and as a result American Leftist discourse became increasingly academic, abstruse and distant from the real world. I remember one article that noted that campus Leftists were wearing buttons and T-shirts that said, “Subvert the dominant paradigm” — and the author joked, “That’ll really inspire them on the barricades.”
And as the Left became more academic, that played into the Right’s strategy of attacking the Left for being academic and making arguments that sounded good to professors and students but didn’t mean jack to anyone in the “real” world. Sarah Palin was neither the first nor the last Right-wing spokesperson to make invidious comparisons between the academic ideas of the Left and the “common sense” of the Right. I remember when John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, I startled a lot of my long-time political friends by saying, “I love Sarah Palin!” I quickly added that I hated, loathed and despised everything she stood for, but I admired her ability to speak the language of working-class America and wished more people on our side could do that as well.
Loving and hating America. It also doesn’t help the cause of the Left that the Right has been able to grab hold of the great symbols of America’s history and heritage, while the Left has thrown them away. The Right tells the American people they have a history they can be proud of, while Leftist scolds like the late Howard Zinn tell them they should be deeply ashamed of their past. I don’t know how many articles I’ve read and statements I’ve heard by American Leftists that the entire economic success of the U.S. was founded on its genocide against its Native population and the exploitation of African slaves.
That’s defensible as historical analysis, but it’s lousy politics. Given a choice between a political tendency that tells them they live in the greatest country on earth and they should be proud of their heritage, and one that tells them they should be deeply ashamed of it, it’s not surprising that the American people would pick the one that gives them a sense of pride.
As the late democratic socialist Michael Harrington put it in his 1972 book Fragments of the Century, “If the American Left wants to change America because it hates it, the people will reject it and the people will be right.” Harrington called on the Left not to ignore the less savory aspects of America’s past, but to see “the seed beneath the snow” and celebrate the activism that expanded the definition of “we, the people” in the U.S. Constitution from what it originally meant — “We, the white male landowners” — to encompass people of color, women and working people.
Commitment and perseverance. But the most important ingredient in the American Right’s recipe for success is simply a level of commitment and perseverance that far outstrips anything on the Left. The modern U.S. “conservative” movement (and I put “conservative” in quotes because it seeks a radical reshaping of U.S. politics, economics and social policy, while genuine conservatism usually seeks to preserve existing institutions instead of destroying them) began in the 1930’s as a reaction to the New Deal — and it has survived a series of losses and blows that would have finished off any political movement that didn’t have its incredible tenacity.
The modern American Right survived the exposure of many of its leaders as enemy sympathizers and unregistered foreign agents during World War II. It survived the disgrace and downfall of its first national figure to hold elective office, U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), in the 1950’s. It survived and even prospered from the landslide defeat of its first Presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, in 1964.
It survived when President Richard Nixon was driven from office in disgrace over the Watergate scandal in 1974. And it not only survived, it ultimately benefited from, the near-total collapse of the American economy in 2008 and the election of Barack Obama as President — which they were able to turn from a crushing defeat into merely a temporary setback on their way to total dominance of American politics.
As much as I hate the politics of Right-wing columnist Jonah Goldberg, his analysis of the so-called “Obama Coalition” is absolutely correct. As Goldberg has documented, the “Obama Coalition” has been able to elect only one person — Obama himself. Otherwise, the Obama years have been one political disaster for the Democratic Party after another. The Obama Presidency saw the rise of the Tea Party and its crushing triumphs in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014.
In a recent column, Goldberg snidely noted (being snide comes as naturally to Right-wingers as being academic and abstruse does to Leftists) that of the four most prominent Democrats in national politics right now — Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — Obama is the only one who isn’t old enough to collect Social Security. One reason there are so many more Republicans than Democrats running for President right now is that the Democratic “bench” — the hotshot younger candidates who could have provided the party badly needed new blood — were wiped out en masse by the crushing midterm losses of 2010 and 2014. They were beaten by hotshot young Republicans like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who have emerged as major Presidential candidates.
For at least the last two decades — and probably longer — there has been an abysmal “intensity gap” between the commitment, dedication and fervor of America’s Right-wing activists and the relative dispirit and apathetic resignation of its Left. Thomas Frank noticed that when he went to his home state of Kansas to research his book What’s the Matter with Kansas, visited the organizers and shock troops of the anti-choice Operation Rescue — and came away deeply impressed with the intensity of their willingness to sacrifice for their principles. He found himself admiring their dedication even while loathing their cause.
Online commentators on the 2015 elections picked up on the same theme: the dedication, intensity and commitment of the Right versus the relative disinterest of the Left. On November 4 a Daily Kos poster calling him/her/itself “Midwesterners” put up an article called “No, Virginia, the Republican Party is (unfortunately) NOT in Shambles!” (http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/11/04/1444590/-No-Virginia-the-Republican-Party-is-unfortunately-NOT-in-Shambles?detail=email) that showed just what we’re up against in winning back the hearts and minds of the American people:
The bottom line is that a growing number of voters throughout America in 2015 have become increasingly more Republican. They will vote for any candidate with an “R” after its name — plain and simple. In other words, the Republicans have won the Culture Wars they started four or five decades ago. For a growing percentage of people, the Democratic Party has become synonymous with “Guvment” — and that is all that matters. (This is especially true of white voters, but it is by no means inclusive of only them.)
For many voters, “Guvment” equals folks who want to take away their guns, or give everyone in America a free abortion, or let Gay folks marry one another in public places, or whatever updated issue you want to put in the blanks here. Furthermore, with such a large number of Americans obtaining their version of “reality” from “Faux News,” it does not appear as if things are going to turn around for a long time now. Why not? Because these are the folks who get out and vote. The Republican Party figured out long ago that if you gin up people with enough fear, hatred, paranoia, or whatever, that they will somehow make it to the ballot box. [Emphasis in original.]
Another Daily Kos poster, Chris Reeves, put up an article on November 4 (http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/11/04/1444472/-It-s-Time-for-Some-Real-Talk-How-Republicans-Grab-Statehouses?detail=email) that noted that Democrats seem to think that political power flows from the top down — that if they elect a decent or halfway decent President with a “D” on the end of his or her name, the power of the presidency will flow downward and the Democrats will be able to accomplish a progressive agenda. The Republicans, by contrast, know that political power flows from the bottom up.
Decades ago, the Republicans launched their own version of what former Democratic Party chair Howard Dean called “the 50-state strategy,” determined to recruit candidates for the lowest levels of public office — school boards, water districts and other positions so obscure many Democrats don’t even know they exist — not only to build support for their candidates and issues but to develop a pool of people they could advance up the political ladder to higher and higher offices. “In 2001, ‘Conservative Networks’ were formed in several states which were designed to look at a long-term way to capture, control and handle statehouses,” Reeves wrote.
Reeves quoted a Republican candidate from 2002 (he didn’t say what name, what office or where) who noted that “Democrats are good about picking up the phone and saying they will vote and not showing up. They keep waiting for their ship to come in, and it never does.” He also quoted a Democratic campaign manager as saying, “Republican voters would walk across broken glass and burning coals to vote for their candidates. Democrats gripe about ‘pinching their nose’ and they turn up to vote as an inconvenience when they have the time and good TV isn’t on.”
“Simply put,” Reeves commented, “Republicans fall in line. Democrats either fall in love or are unmotivated early. … Republicans put their focus on long-term trends at the state level, and how the Republicans work at the state level has worked to permanently change election results.” As a result, 25 state governments are under complete Republican control — the governorship and both houses of the state legislature — while only seven states are fully governed by Democrats. This means that through much of the U.S. Republicans control the process by which Congressional and legislative districts are drawn — which gives them a lock on a majority in the House of Representatives even if, as happened in 2012, more people vote for Democrats than Republicans to represent them in the House.
It also gives the Republicans power to shrink the electorate — to purge it of people who aren’t likely to vote for them — because it’s the states that control who can vote and how easy — or hard — it is to register. When the U.S. Constitution was enacted, it assumed that state governments had absolute control over who could vote and under what circumstances. The great Constitutional amendments that have extended the franchise — the 15th, which (at least theoretically) gave it to people of color; the 19th, which gave it to women; the 24th, which abolished the poll tax; and the 26th, which set the legal voting age at 18 — all began,” The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on the basis of … ” — which meant that the amendments were framed as limits on the otherwise absolute power of state legislatures to determine who could and couldn’t vote.
That’s why the Republicans are not worried about the much talked-about demographic changes in the U.S. population that many analysts think will favor the Democrats. With their power in state governments, they are answering the challenge of potential voters who might vote against them — young people, poor people, people of color — by making it difficult or impossible for them to vote at all. The U.S. Supreme Court’s evisceration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was just one battle in an ongoing campaign by Republicans and Right-wingers to make it harder for theoretically qualified voters to exercise the franchise.
Some of these measures are direct attacks on the ability of people to vote: opening more polling places in affluent areas and closing them in less affluent areas; requiring photo ID’s to vote (especially hard on rural people who live miles from state offices that issue ID’s and don’t have any way to get there); eliminating same-day voter registration; cutting hours polling places are open; and the neat one the Texas legislature came up with in which a student ID isn’t considered an acceptable form of identification to vote, but a permit to carry a gun is.
Others are more subtle. Much of the Republican campaign of obstruction against the Obama administration was directed specifically at the sense of hope Obama’s election had entailed. Every time Republican legislators or judges block something a Democratic president or governor wants to do to advance the progressive agenda, it makes the people who worked so hard to elect the Democrat feel hopeless. They end up convinced that political activity is a waste of time, and therefore they don’t vote. And every potential Democratic, progressive or Leftist voter who doesn’t vote is another vote for the Republicans — as is every progressive or Leftist who throws their vote away on a Green, Peace and Freedom or “independent” candidate.
Fighting the Greater Evil
Ignore a lot of the nonsense that’s been written about the Republican Party being in “disarray.” The plethora of Republicans running for President and the difficulty they had recently in agreeing on a Republican Congressmember to be Speaker of the House are only bits of an unseemly battle over the spoils of a revolution they’re on the brink of winning but haven’t won yet.
The Republican Party is agreed on virtually all the major issues — they all want to see Social Security and Medicare privatized or eliminated, all or almost all government regulation of the economy or the environment abolished, organized labor consigned to the scrap heap of history, racial and gender discrimination made legal again, women driven back to the kitchen and Queers back to the closet.
The only difference — and what’s motivating a lot of the internal battles within the Republican Party — is over how fast to pursue these goals, and how far they want to take the clock back. During the Reagan years, progressives often accused the Republicans of trying to take the U.S. back to the 1950’s — which may have been true then. However, once the Republicans realized that the 1950’s had been the decade during which income taxes on the rich and the percentage of workers organized into unions had both been the highest ever in U.S. history, they started talking about going even further back.
Though they may not be conscious of it, most Tea Party members want to take the U.S. back at least to the 1880’s, when the power of corporations and wealthy individuals to buy elections was literally unlimited and there was no income tax. Tea Partiers often target three specific Constitutional amendments — the 14th, which provided that all people born in the U.S. are citizens (and also provided the basis for virtually all laws banning discrimination); the 16th, which allowed the U.S. income tax; and the 17th, which said U.S. Senators would be elected by popular vote instead of state legislatures — as ones they’d like to eliminate.
And some people want to take American politics even further back, to the 1820’s, when the franchise was restricted to white men with “property” — i.e., land. In 2014, when he wasn’t comparing the Occupy movement to the Nazis, 82-year-old venture capitalist Tom Perkins was calling for a rewrite of the American electoral system so the number of votes you had in an election would depend on the amount of taxes you paid. “The Tom Perkins system is: You don’t get to vote unless you pay a dollar of taxes,” Perkins said during an event hosted by Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky. “But what I really think is, it should be like a corporation. You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes. How’s that?” (Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/14/tom-perkins-votes_n_4788086.html.)
The Republican Party is not only seeking a far-reaching revolution in American politics — one which would march us back to the late 19th century, when exploitative and greedy corporate leaders regularly ran the economy into the ground and created “Panics” (19th-century speak for “depressions”) that devastated the lives of ordinary people and left them destitute and scrambling to survive any way they could. Our environment would become a soup of toxic gases; our inner cities would be war zones; and the already growing inequality of wealth and income in this country would grow to Marie Antoinette-era levels.
What’s even more amazing, they’ve managed to convince nearly half the American people that the policies that would bring about this outcome would be good things. One of the Republicans’ strongest bases is the white working class — the people who’ve been the most devastated by the closure of America’s factories and the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to countries with cheaper labor and dictatorial governments that enforce sweatshop conditions. Even with 2012 Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney on record that this was the sort of future he wanted — one in which individuals were left on their own and government didn’t “give” them things — 47 percent of the American electorate still voted for him.
The Republican Party already controls three-fourths of the federal government. They own the House of Representatives (and, due to gerrymandering, are likely to continue to do so for at least the next 15 years, maybe longer), they own the Senate and they own the Supreme Court. All they need to complete their Right-wing revolution is the presidency. And if they win the 2016 Presidential election and keep control of both houses of Congress, they will enact a sweeping program to dismantle public education, the welfare state, all regulation of corporations and all protections for workers’ rights and the environment — just as they did in Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina and other states in which they won complete control of the government in the last three election cycles.
Progressives and Leftists who see political activism in the phony “moral” terms I criticized earlier in this article often ridicule calls to vote for Democrats over Republicans as choosing “the lesser of two evils.” But sometimes the greater evil is so evil, voting for the “lesser of two evils” is a matter of self-preservation. That was the case in Germany in the early 1930’s, when the Social Democrats and the Communists fought a ruinous and destructive war against each other that allowed the real greater evil — Hitler and the Nazis — to take power. And that is also the case in the U.S. in 2016.