Tag Archives: Tea Party

A Conservative Lexicon With English Translation

Yes, you can understand what conservatives are saying.


Liberals and moderates often find statements by conservatives to be nonsensical or even incomprehensible. Sarah Palin, just to name one example, is frequently accused of speaking in “word salad“, a style in which terms are thrown together without apparent attention to syntax or meaning.

I have come to believe that this view does conservatives an injustice. What has actually happened is that conservatives, like tribes marooned on inaccessible islands, have developed what is essentially a new language. While language-drift in the wild may take generations or even longer, conservative word use has diverged from English far more quickly due to (1) the speed of modern communication, (2) the very tight circles of conservative discourse (sometimes described as an “echo chamber”) in which outside input is discounted or viewed as sinister, and (3) the neologisms of conservative candidates facing election, who often need to seem to be saying something different than they actually are.

Consequently, the new Conservative language outwardly resembles English, but its terms have been redefined and repurposed in ways that create the seeming unintelligibility. For example, statements like “Voter ID laws are necessary to reduce voter fraud” may seem delusional to someone who interprets voter fraud in the standard English sense of “votes cast by people legally ineligible to vote”, since this very rarely happens, and (when it does) happens in ways voter-ID laws would not affect (i.e., absentee ballot fraud or hacking vote-counting machines). But once you understand the true conservative meaning of voter fraud (“votes cast by people whose demographic profile makes them likely to vote Democratic”), the statement makes perfect sense.

In a similar way, seemingly bizarre utterances like “Obama is a Marxist” or “Fox News is fair and balanced” are perfectly coherent, understandable, and even true once you have access to the proper definitions.

Previous lexicons have been attempted (here, for example), but I don’t think they have captured the systemic nature of Conservative, i.e., the way its terms interact to describe a complete worldview.

And so, in hope that Americans of all political persuasions will better understand what conservatives are really saying (rather than write off their statements as harmless nonsense), I present this incomplete Conservative-to-English lexicon.

American exceptionalism. The belief that the United States is exempt from all legal and moral standards. Example: Waterboarding is a capital crime when done to Americans, but legally and morally acceptable when practiced by Americans.

Appeasement. Hesitating before attacking or overthrowing the unfriendly government of an oil-rich nation.

Balance. 1. Providing Democrats as well as Republicans the opportunity to criticize President Obama. 2. Providing blacks as well as whites the opportunity to indict black culture. Usage: “Fox News is fair and balanced.”

Color-blindness. Fighting racial injustice by refusing to see it, much as an ostrich avoids danger by sticking its head into the sand.

Confederacy. An early attempt to restore the freedom envisioned by the Founding Fathers. Still an object of nostalgia in the GOP’s southern base.

Constitution. A holy scripture written by the Founding Fathers. Like the Bible, it means whatever conservatives want it to mean, regardless of its actual text. The Constitution, for example, protects corporate personhood, and the near-infinite powers it assigns to Republican presidents vanish when a Democrat takes office. Unlike the real-life Constitution, the Constitution includes the Declaration of Independence, and so really does mention God.

Controversial. An adjective applying to any fact or set of facts that conservatives don’t want to believe. Examples: evolution and climate change. Once facts have been labeled controversial, stating them as facts is evidence of liberal bias.

Dependent on government. Anyone receiving welfare, encompassing retirees, students, and the disabled. Usage: “there are 47 percent … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”

Europe. A hellish dystopia governed by liberals, where people belong to unions, have guaranteed health care, and earn high wages with long vacations. Soon to be overrun by Muslims. Usage: “I want you to remember when our White House reflected the best of who we are, not the worst of what Europe has become.”

Fair. Favoring the wealthy. Usage: “A true free market is always fair.”

Fascism. An insult with no meaningful content, similar to “bastard” or “asshole”. The previously well established Mussolini/Hitler sense of the term —  a militarist, nativist, corporatist style of totalitarianism claiming to restore a nation to the greatness of its mythic past — is now archaic, having been successfully jammed by tangential usages like Islamo-fascism and oxymorons like liberal fascism.

Founding Fathers. Loosely based on the American generational cohort that fought the Revolution and wrote the Constitution, the conservative Founding Fathers are heroes of a great mythic past constructed by pseudo-historians like David Barton. Divinely inspired, the Founding Fathers intended to create a non-denominational Christian theocracy, but inexplicably failed to mention God in the Constitution. They were implacably opposed to Big Government, even as they were writing a constitution that vastly extended the powers of the national government beyond those laid out in the previous Articles of Confederation. They “worked tirelessly” to end slavery, while owning hundreds of slaves themselves, and without actually ending slavery until long after they were all dead.

Free market. A system of decision-making based on the only fair principle: one dollar, one vote.

Freedom. 1. The ineffable quality that exempts the United States from all moral standards. (See American exceptionalism). Usage: “They hate our freedom.” 2. The right of the powerful to use their power as they see fit. Usage: “The minimum wage is a freedom killer.” 3. The right of job creators to use public infrastructure without paying taxes, or to exploit common resources (like air, water, or public land) without regulation. Example: Cliven Bundy.

Freedom of religion. The right of conservative Christians to shape society and define social acceptability. Intended by the Founding Fathers only to protect expressions of religion, not atheism or Islam.

Freedom of speech. 1. The right of a conservative to speak and write publicly without criticism. (See persecution.) Example: Sarah Palin’s objection in 2008 to the characterization of her charge that Barack Obama was “paling around with terrorists” as “negative campaigning”. “If [the media] convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning, for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations, then I don’t know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media.” While no one had disputed Palin’s right to say what she said, the fact that she faced criticism for it violated her freedom of speech. 2. In election campaigns, the right of the rich to drown out all competing voices.

God. Jehovah, the father of Jesus, as revealed by a literal reading of the Bible. Non-Christians do not believe in God, but in other supernatural beings like Allah. Some liberals claim to believe in God, but they use the word incorrectly.

Hate. Criticism of conservative ideas or disputation of facts alleged by conservatives. See persecution.

Innocent human life. The unborn, who possess souls of infinite worth. At birth, a child inherits the soul-value of his parents, which — if they are black or poor — does not amount to much. Consequently, abortion in the United States is a moral crisis equivalent to the Holocaust, while our third-worldish infant mortality rate (34th in the world, just behind Cuba) is no big deal.

Job creator. A wealthy person, who may or may not be an employer, and who may even have become wealthy by firing people or shipping jobs overseas. Usage: “Let’s cut taxes for job creators.” Does not apply to public works, public schools, or any other government program, no matter how many Americans such a program might productively employ.

Judicial activism. When judges rule against corporate interests or white supremacy, or in favor of separating Church from State.

Liberal media bias. The fading tendency of certain portions of the journalistic establishment to require supporting facts before promoting a conspiracy theory. For an example of the frustration this causes conservatives, consider the following quote from Jonah Goldberg shortly before the 2012 election: “If you want to understand why conservatives have lost faith in the so-called mainstream media, you need to ponder the question: Where is the Benghazi feeding frenzy?”

Marxist. One who regrets the increasing concentration of wealth. Unrelated to any theories contained in the writings of Karl Marx. Usage: “Elizabeth Warrren, who has almost confessed to her Marxist views”. (Synonyms: communistsocialist, liberal.)

Persecution. (1) Denying conservatives the special rights they believe they are entitled to. Example: The War on Christmas, in which conservative Christians are persecuted if they are not allowed to dominate all public space for the month of December. (2) Criticism directed at conservatives. Example: If a conservative says something racist and you point that out, you are persecuting him. (See freedom of speech.) (3) Enforcing laws broken by conservatives. Example: Dinesh D’Souza.

Political correctness. The bizarre liberal belief that whites, men, straights, Christians, the rich, and other Americans in positions of privilege should treat less privileged people with respect, even though such people have no power to force them to.

Poor. Lacking in gumption or virtue, undeserving, black.

Racism. Calling attention to racial injustice with an intention to rectify it. Also called “playing the race card”. (See color-blindness.) Example: the Fox News commentator who said, “You know who talks about race? Racists.”

Religion. Christianity, not including degraded liberal variants that accept evolution or gay rights.

Second Amendment rights. The right of whites, Christians, the wealthy, and other traditionally privileged groups to commit violence when their privileges are threatened by democratic processes. (People not from privileged groups may be gunned down by police — with full conservative support — if they are even suspected of being armed.) Best expressed by Sharron Angle in her 2010 Senate campaign: “if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies.” Also by Virginia Republican Catherine Crabill: “We have a chance to fight this battle at the ballot box before we have to resort to the bullet box. But that’s the beauty of our Second Amendment right. I am glad for all of us who enjoy the use of firearms for hunting. But make no mistake. That was not the intent of the Founding Fathers. Our Second Amendment right was to guard against tyranny.”

Taxes. A method of stealing money from job creators and giving it to poor people. Unrelated to Social Security, Medicare, roads, schools, lowering the deficit, or any other useful goal.

Terrorist. 1. A Muslim. 2. Any violent person conservatives don’t like. Cannot be applied to violent anti-abortionists, white supremacists, or tax resisters. (See Second Amendment rights.)

Tyranny. When a Marxist gets elected and then tries to carry out the platform the people voted for. Example: ObamaCare.

Values. Beliefs that condemn gays or promiscuous women. Usage: the Values Voters Summit.

Voter fraud. Any votes cast by people whose demographic profile makes them likely to vote Democratic, i.e., blacks, Hispanics, or students. Alternate form: election fraud. Usage: “Obama likely won re-election through election fraud.”

Welfare. Any payment from the government, including (when convenient) Social Security, unemployment compensation, or student loans. Usage: “Unemployment compensation is just another welfare program.”

While far from complete — please suggest additional entries in the comments — I hope this lexicon will make conservative speech more comprehensible to the general public, and persuade voters that the apparent gibberish spoken by conservative candidates actually expresses a unified worldview that should be taken more seriously.

Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party

Tea Partiers say you don’t understand them because you don’t understand American history. That’s probably true, but not in the way they want you to think.


Late in 2012, I came out of the Lincoln movie with two historical mysteries to solve:

  • How did the two parties switch places regarding the South, white supremacy, and civil rights? In Lincoln’s day, a radical Republican was an abolitionist, and when blacks did get the vote, they almost unanimously voted Republican. Today, the archetypal Republican is a Southern white, and blacks are almost all Democrats. How did American politics get from there to here?
  • One of the movie’s themes was how heavily the war’s continuing carnage weighed on Lincoln. (It particularly came through during Grant’s guided tour of the Richmond battlefield.) Could any cause, however lofty, justify this incredible slaughter? And yet, I realized, Lincoln was winning. What must the Confederate leaders have been thinking, as an even larger percentage of their citizens died, as their cities burned, and as the accumulated wealth of generations crumbled? Where was their urge to end this on any terms, rather than wait for complete destruction?

The first question took some work, but yielded readily to patient googling. I wrote up the answer in “A Short History of White Racism in the Two-Party System“. The second turned out to be much deeper than I expected, and set off a reading project that has eaten an enormous amount of my time over the last two years. (Chunks of that research have shown up in posts like “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor“, “Cliven Bundy and the Klan Komplex“, and my review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article on reparations.) Along the way, I came to see how I (along with just about everyone I know) have misunderstood large chunks of American history, and how that misunderstanding clouds our perception of what is happening today.

Who really won the Civil War? The first hint at how deep the second mystery ran came from the biography Jefferson Davis: American by William J. Cooper. In 1865, not only was Davis not agonizing over how to end the destruction, he wanted to keep it going longer. He disapproved of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and when U. S. troops finally captured him, he was on his way to Texas, where an intact army might continue the war.

That sounded crazy until I read about Reconstruction. In my high school history class, Reconstruction was a mysterious blank period between Lincoln’s assassination and Edison’s light bulb. Congress impeached Andrew Johnson for some reason, the transcontinental railroad got built, corruption scandals engulfed the Grant administration, and Custer lost at Little Big Horn. But none of it seemed to have much to do with present-day events.

And oh, those blacks Lincoln emancipated? Except for Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, they vanished like the Lost Tribes of Israel. They wouldn’t re-enter history until the 1950s, when for some reason they still weren’t free.

Here’s what my teachers’ should have told me: “Reconstruction was the second phase of the Civil War. It lasted until 1877, when the Confederates won.” I think that would have gotten my attention.

It wasn’t just that Confederates wanted to continue the war. They did continue it, and they ultimately prevailed. They weren’t crazy, they were just stubborn.

The Lost Cause. At about the same time my American history class was leaving a blank spot after 1865, I saw Gone With the Wind, which started filling it in like this: Sadly, the childlike blacks weren’t ready for freedom and full citizenship. Without the discipline of their white masters, many became drunks and criminals, and they raped a lot of white women. Northern carpetbaggers used them (and no-account white scalawags) as puppets to control the South, and to punish the planter aristocrats, who prior to the war had risen to the top of Southern society through their innate superiority and virtue.

But eventually the good men of the South could take it no longer, so they formed the Ku Klux Klan to protect themselves and their communities. They were never able to restore the genteel antebellum society — that Eden was gone with the wind, a noble but ultimately lost cause — but they were eventually able to regain the South’s honor and independence. Along the way, they relieved their beloved black servants of the onerous burden of political equality, until such time as they might become mature enough to bear it responsibly.

A still from The Birth of a Nation

That telling of history is now named for its primary proponent, William Dunning. It is false in almost every detail. If history is written by the winners, Dunning’s history is the clearest evidence that the Confederates won. [see endnote 1]

Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel had actually toned it down a little. To feel the full impact of Dunning-school history, you need to read Thomas Dixon’s 1905 best-seller, The Clansman: a historical romance of the Ku Klux Klan. Or watch the 1915 silent movie made from it, The Birth of a Nation, which was the most popular film of all time until Gone With the Wind broke its records.

The iconic hooded Klansman on his horse, the Knight of the Invisible Empire, was the Luke Skywalker of his day.

The first modern war. The Civil War was easy to misunderstand at the time, because there had never been anything like it. It was a total mobilization of society, the kind Europe wouldn’t see until World War I. The Civil War was fought not just with cannons and bayonets, but with railroads and factories and an income tax.

If the Napoleonic Wars were your model, then it was obvious that the Confederacy lost in 1865: Its capital fell, its commander surrendered, its president was jailed, and its territories were occupied by the opposing army. If that’s not defeat, what is?

But now we have a better model than Napoleon: Iraq.

After the U.S. forces won on the battlefield in 1865 and shattered the organized Confederate military, the veterans of that shattered army formed a terrorist insurgency that carried on a campaign of fire and assassination throughout the South until President Hayes agreed to withdraw the occupying U. S. troops in 1877. Before and after 1877, the insurgents used lynchings and occasional pitched battles to terrorize those portions of the electorate still loyal to the United States. In this way they took charge of the machinery of state government, and then rewrote the state constitutions to reverse the postwar changes and restore the supremacy of the class that led the Confederate states into war in the first place. [2]

By the time it was all over, the planter aristocrats were back in control, and the three constitutional amendments that supposedly had codified the U.S.A’s victory over the C.S.A.– the 13th, 14th, and 15th — had been effectively nullified in every Confederate state. The Civil Rights Acts had been gutted by the Supreme Court, and were all but forgotten by the time similar proposals resurfaced in the 1960s. Blacks were once again forced into hard labor for subsistence wages, denied the right to vote, and denied the equal protection of the laws. Tens of thousands of them were still physically shackled and subject to being whipped, a story historian Douglas Blackmon told in his Pulitzer-winning Slavery By Another Name.

So Lincoln and Grant may have had their mission-accomplished moment, but ultimately the Confederates won. The real Civil War — the one that stretched from 1861 to 1877 — was the first war the United States lost.

The missed opportunity. Today, historians like Eric Foner and Douglas Egerton portray Reconstruction as a missed opportunity to avoid Jim Crow and start trying to heal the wounds of slavery a century sooner. Following W.E.B. DuBois’ iconoclastic-for-1935 Black Reconstruction, they see the freedmen as actors in their own history, rather than mere pawns or victims of whites. As a majority in Mississippi and South Carolina, and a substantial voting bloc across the South, blacks briefly used the democratic system to try to better their lot. If the federal government had protected the political process from white terrorism, black (and American) history could have taken an entirely different path.

In particular, 1865 was a moment when reparations and land reform were actually feasible. Late in the war, some of Lincoln’s generals — notably Sherman — had mitigated their slave-refugee problem by letting emancipated slaves farm small plots on the plantations that had been abandoned by their Confederate owners. Sick or injured animals unable to advance with the Army were left behind for the slaves to nurse back to health and use. (Hence “forty acres and a mule”.) Sherman’s example might have become a land-reform model for the entire Confederacy, dispossessing the slave-owning aristocrats in favor of the people whose unpaid labor had created their wealth.

Instead, President Johnson (himself a former slave-owner from Tennessee) was quick to pardon the aristocrats and restore their lands. [3] That created a dynamic that has been with us ever since: Early in Reconstruction, white and black working people sometimes made common cause against their common enemies in the aristocracy. But once it became clear that the upper classes were going to keep their ill-gotten holdings, freedmen and working-class whites were left to wrestle over the remaining slivers of the pie. Before long, whites who owned little land and had never owned slaves had become the shock troops of the planters’ bid to restore white supremacy.

Along the way, the planters created rhetoric you still hear today: The blacks were lazy and would rather wait for gifts from the government than work (in conditions very similar to slavery). In this way, the idle planters were able to paint the freedmen as parasites who wanted to live off the hard work of others.

The larger pattern. But the enduring Confederate influence on American politics goes far beyond a few rhetorical tropes. The essence of the Confederate worldview is that the democratic process cannot legitimately change the established social order, and so all forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified when it tries.

That worldview is alive and well. During last fall’s government shutdown and threatened debt-ceiling crisis, historian Garry Wills wrote about our present-day Tea Partiers: “The presiding spirit of this neo-secessionism is a resistance to majority rule.”

The Confederate sees a divinely ordained way things are supposed to be, and defends it at all costs. No process, no matter how orderly or democratic, can justify fundamental change.

When in the majority, Confederates protect the established order through democracy. If they are not in the majority, but have power, they protect it through the authority of law. If the law is against them, but they have social standing, they create shams of law, which are kept in place through the power of social disapproval. If disapproval is not enough, they keep the wrong people from claiming their legal rights by the threat of ostracism and economic retribution. If that is not intimidating enough, there are physical threats, then beatings and fires, and, if that fails, murder.

That was the victory plan of Reconstruction. Black equality under the law was guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. But in the Confederate mind, no democratic process could legitimate such a change in the social order. It simply could not be allowed to stand, and it did not stand.

In the 20th century, the Confederate pattern of resistance was repeated against the Civil Rights movement. And though we like to claim that Martin Luther King won, in many ways he did not. School desegregation, for example, was never viewed as legitimate, and was resisted at every level. And it has been overcome. By most measures, schools are as segregated as ever, and the opportunities in white schools still far exceed the opportunities in non-white schools.

Today, ObamaCare cannot be accepted. No matter that it was passed by Congress, signed by the President, found constitutional by the Supreme Court, and ratified by the people when they re-elected President Obama. It cannot be allowed to stand, and so the tactics for destroying it get ever more extreme. The point of violence has not yet been reached, but the resistance is still young.

Violence is a key component of the present-day strategy against abortion rights, as Judge Myron Thompson’s recent ruling makes clear. Legal, political, social, economic, and violent methods of resistance mesh seamlessly. The Alabama legislature cannot ban abortion clinics directly, so it creates reasonable-sounding regulations the clinics cannot satisfy, like the requirement that abortionists have admitting privileges at local hospitals. Why can’t they fulfill that requirement? Because hospitals impose the reasonable-sounding rule that their doctors live and practice nearby, while many Alabama abortionists live out of state. The clinics can’t replace them with local doctors, because protesters will harass the those doctors’ non-abortion patients and drive the doctors out of any business but abortion. A doctor who chooses that path will face threats to his/her home and family. And doctors who ignore such threats have been murdered.

Legislators, of course, express horror at the murder of doctors, just as the pillars of 1960s Mississippi society expressed horror at the Mississippi Burning murders, and the planter aristocrats shook their heads sadly at the brutality of the KKK and the White Leagues. But the strategy is all of a piece and always has been. Change cannot stand, no matter what documents it is based on or who votes for them. If violence is necessary, so be it.

Unbalanced. This is not a universal, both-sides-do-it phenomenon. Compare, for example, the responses to the elections of our last two presidents. Like many liberals, I will go to my grave believing that if every person who went to the polls in 2000 had succeeded in casting the vote s/he intended, George W. Bush would never have been president. I supported Gore in taking his case to the Supreme Court. And, like Gore, once the Court ruled in Bush’s favor — incorrectly, in my opinion — I dropped the issue.

For liberals, the Supreme Court was the end of the line. Any further effort to replace Bush would have been even less legitimate than his victory. Subsequently, Democrats rallied around President Bush after 9/11, and I don’t recall anyone suggesting that military officers refuse his orders on the grounds that he was not a legitimate president.

Barack Obama, by contrast, won a huge landslide in 2008, getting more votes than any president in history. And yet, his legitimacy has been questioned ever since. The Birther movement was created out of whole cloth, there never having been any reason to doubt the circumstances of Obama’s birth. Outrageous conspiracy theories of voter fraud — millions and millions of votes worth — have been entertained on no basis whatsoever. Immediately after Obama took office, the Oath Keeper movement prepared itself to refuse his orders.

A black president calling for change, who owes most of his margin to black voters — he himself is a violation of the established order. His legitimacy cannot be conceded.

Confederates need guns. The South is a place, but the Confederacy is a worldview. To this day, that worldview is strongest in the South, but it can be found all over the country (as are other products of Southern culture, like NASCAR and country music). A state as far north as Maine has a Tea Party governor.

Gun ownership is sometimes viewed as a part of Southern culture, but more than that, it plays a irreplaceable role in the Confederate worldview. Tea Partiers will tell you that the Second Amendment is our protection against “tyranny”. But in practice tyranny simply means a change in the established social order, even if that change happens — maybe especially if it happens — through the democratic processes defined in the Constitution. If the established social order cannot be defended by votes and laws, then it will be defended by intimidation and violence. How are We the People going to shoot abortion doctors and civil rights activists if we don’t have guns?

Occasionally this point becomes explicit, as when Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle said this:

You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years. I hope that’s not where we’re going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.

Angle wasn’t talking about anything more “tyrannical” than our elected representatives voting for things she didn’t like (like ObamaCare or stimulus spending). If her side can’t fix that through elections, well then, the people who do win those elections will just have to be intimidated or killed. Angle doesn’t want it to come to that, but if liberals won’t yield peacefully to the conservative minority, what other choice is there?

Gun-rights activist Larry Pratt doesn’t even seem regretful:

“The Second Amendment is not for hunting, it’s not even for self-defense,” Pratt explained in his Leadership Institute talk. Rather, it is “for restraining tyrannical tendencies in government. Especially those in the liberal, tyrannical end of the spectrum. There is some restraint, and even if the voters of Brooklyn don’t hold them back, it may be there are other ways that their impulses are somewhat restrained. That’s the whole idea of the Second Amendment.”

So the Second Amendment is there not to defend democracy, but to fix what the progressive “voters of Brooklyn” get wrong.

It’s not a Tea Party. The Boston Tea Party protest was aimed at a Parliament where the colonists had no representation, and at an appointed governor who did not have to answer to the people he ruled. Today’s Tea Party faces a completely different problem: how a shrinking conservative minority can keep change at bay in spite of the democratic processes defined in the Constitution. That’s why they need guns. That’s why they need to keep the wrong people from voting in their full numbers.

These right-wing extremists have misappropriated the Boston patriots and the Philadelphia founders because their true ancestors — Jefferson Davis and the Confederates — are in poor repute. [4]

But the veneer of Bostonian rebellion easily scrapes off; the tea bags and tricorn hats are just props. The symbol Tea Partiers actually revere is the Confederate battle flag. Let a group of right-wingers ramble for any length of time, and you will soon hear that slavery wasn’t really so bad, that Andrew Johnson was right, that Lincoln shouldn’t have fought the war, that states have the rights of nullification and secession, that the war wasn’t really about slavery anyway, and a lot of other Confederate mythology that (until recently) had left me asking, “Why are we talking about this?”

By contrast, the concerns of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and its revolutionary Sons of Liberty are never so close to the surface. So no. It’s not a Tea Party. It’s a Confederate Party.

Our modern Confederates are quick to tell the rest of us that we don’t understand them because we don’t know our American history. And they’re right. If you knew more American history, you would realize just how dangerous these people are.



Endnotes

[1] The other clear evidence stands in front of nearly every courthouse in the South: statues of Confederate heroes. You have to be blind not to recognize them as victory monuments. In the Jim Crow era, these stone sentries guarded the centers of civic power against Negroes foolish enough to try to register to vote or claim their other constitutional rights.

Calhoun way up high

In Away Down South: a history of Southern identity, James C. Cobb elaborates:

African Americans understood full well what monuments to the antebellum white regime were all about. When Charleston officials erected a statue of proslavery champion John C. Calhoun, “blacks took that statue personally,” Mamie Garvin Fields recalled. After all, “here was Calhoun looking you in the face and telling you, ‘Nigger, you may not be a slave but I’m back to see you stay in your places.’ ” In response, Fields explained, “we used to carry something with us, if we knew we would be passing that way, in order to deface that statue — scratch up the coat, break up the watch chain, try to knock off the nose. … [C]hildren and adults beat up John C. Calhoun so badly that the whites had to come back and put him way up high, so we couldn’t get to him.”

[2] The vocabulary of this struggle is illuminating. A carpetbagger was a no-account Northerner who arrived in the South with nothing more than the contents of a carpetbag. A scalawag was a lower-class Southern white who tried to rise above his betters in the post-war chaos. The class-based nature of these insults demonstrates who was authorizing this history: the planter aristocrats.

For a defense of the claim that the aristocrats intentionally led the South into war, see Douglas Egerton’s Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War.

[3] Though Congress had to find other “high crimes and misdemeanors” for their bill of impeachment, Johnson’s betrayal of the United States’ battlefield victory was the real basis of the attempt to remove him.

[4] Jefferson Davis and the Confederates also misappropriated the Founders. It started with John Calhoun’s Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States, published posthumously in 1851, which completely misrepresented the Founders and their Constitution. Calhoun’s view (that the Union was a consortium of states with no direct relationship to the people) would have made perfect sense if the Constitution had begun “We the States” rather than “We the People”.

Calhoun disagreed with Jefferson on one key point: All men are not created equal.

Modern conservatives who attribute their views to the Founders are usually unknowingly relying on Calhoun’s false image of the Founders, which was passed down through Davis and from there spread widely in Confederate folklore.

Actually, David IS Goliath

Powerful forces aligned behind Dave Brat and against Eric Cantor


When previously unknown Dave Brat beat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary Tuesday, pundits struggled in vain to find appropriate historical parallels. In America, majority leaders just do not lose primaries … until now.

Since then, the conventional-wisdom storyline has been David vs. Goliath: A grass-roots candidate with virtually no resources overthrew one of the most powerful insiders in the country. But that’s not exactly true; the more accurate story is that one branch of the Billionaire Party had an unexpected victory over the other branch.

Let’s start with the David. The quick description says Brat is an economics professor from Randolph Macon College in Ashland, VA. That’s true, but there’s more to that story. Brat is director of the BB&T Moral Foundations of Capitalism Program at RMC, one of those ethically suspect programs where billionaires pay a university to teach a particular point of view; in this case, that free-market capitalism is morally superior to all other systems.

Probably, Brat genuinely believes this Randish philosophy. And propagandizing students with his personal opinions makes Brat no worse than professors of many other viewpoints. But unlike those other professors, Brat is paid not to change his mind. He may be a genuine proselyte, but he’s also a hired shill.

Other shills hired by the same people are the stars of right-wing talk radio. As Politico has reported, talk radio runs on a political version of payola:

A POLITICO review of filings with the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Election Commission, as well as interviews and reviews of radio shows, found that conservative groups spent nearly $22 million to broker and pay for involved advertising relationships known as sponsorships with a handful of influential talkers including [Glenn] Beck, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh between the first talk radio deals in 2008 and the end of 2012. Since then, the sponsorship deals have grown more lucrative and tea party-oriented, with legacy groups like The Heritage Foundation ending their sponsorships and groups like the Tea Party Patriots placing big ad buys.

Dick Armey has described the system — known as “embedded media”– more bluntly:

The arrangement was simply FreedomWorks paid Glenn Beck money and Glenn Beck said nice things about FreedomWorks on the air.

Brat spent only $200K or so on his campaign (compared with $5 million by Cantor). But (in what the NYT calls “a unique and potent alignment of influential voices in conservative media”) he got the kind of support money supposedly can’t buy from talk-radio personalities like Ingraham and Levin. Not only did they talk him up regularly on their shows (and dis Cantor), but Ingraham lent her star-power to a Brat rally. Thom Hartmann refers to this arrangement as a “dark money machine” and says:

Once you’ve realized that David Brat wasn’t just some random college professor but was actually the hand-picked candidate of the libertarian billionaire class and its army of talk radio hosts, it’s easy to see another one of the major reasons Eric Cantor lost. We’re living in a brave new world of dark money politics, and in this day and age, doing what Eric Cantor did – hanging out with the Chamber of Commerce, K Street, and Wall Street – only gets you so far. If you want to win these days, you need to win the support of the Kochs, their libertarian billionaire friends, and their allies in the talk radio world.

So while Cantor spent more-or-less transparently — receiving contributions and then buying ads — money got spent invisibly around Brat: The Koch-supported candidate got pushed by talk radio personalities who have sweetheart deals with Koch-funded groups.

That’s not exactly grass roots.

The other misperception about the Brat/Cantor race is that it was all about immigration, where (despite blocking House consideration of the bipartisan Senate immigration bill) Cantor was painted as pro-amnesty. That dynamic was certainly part of the campaign, but if you have a half-hour to burn, it’s worth listening to Brat’s stump speech.

Immigration certainly comes up, along with the I-can’t-believe-he’s-an-economist explanation that cheap labor from immigrants is to blame for the slow growth in jobs. (Cheap unskilled immigrant labor might lower the wages of unskilled jobs, but basic supply-and-demand says that lowering wages would increase the number of such jobs. Since the number of people employed only recently got back to pre-recession levels, immigrant competition can’t be the main reason the job market is so tough.) But Brat’s indictment of Cantor runs much deeper: He’s the Chamber-of-Commerce candidate, while Brat is running against TARP and bailouts and all the other ways that government fixes the game in favor of big business.

If he’s elected, we’ll see if anything comes from that populist rhetoric, or if Brat only implements the cut-spending-on-the-poor and let-corporations-pollute aspects of Randism.

Thomas Frank, whose What’s the Matter With Kansas? detailed the conservative bait-and-switch between populist social-issue rhetoric and cut-taxes-on-the-rich votes in Congress, is skeptical. Yesterday in Salon, he wrote:

The clash of idealism and sellout are how conservatives always perceive their movement, and what happened to Eric Cantor is a slightly more spectacular version of what often happens to GOP brass. That right-wing leaders are seduced by Washington D.C., and that they will inevitably betray the market-minded rank-and-file, are fixed ideas in the Republican mind, certainties as definite as are its convictions that tax cuts will cure any economic problem and that liberals are soft on whoever the national enemy happens to be.

Which is not to say that such betrayals don’t really happen. But Frank finds their inevitability not in universal human corruptibility, but in the fundamental tenets of conservatism itself: Anyone who believes the free market should control all aspects of life will eventually sell his vote to the highest bidder.

So the cycle goes on, uprising after uprising, an eternal populist revolt against leaders who never produce and problems that never get solved. Somehow, the free-market utopia that all the primary voters believe in never arrives, no matter how many privatizations and tax cuts the Republicans try. And so they seek out someone even purer, someone even more fanatical. They drag the country into another debt-ceiling fight, and this time, they say, they really mean it! But what never occurs to them is that maybe it’s their ideals themselves that are the problem.

Rights Are for People Like Us

Those high-flown principles put forward by the militiamen defending Cliven Bundy’s rights … do they apply to anybody else?


The best summaries I’ve seen of the conflict between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the federal Bureau of Land Management are from the local St. George News and the Washington Post. Cutting it down somewhat: the BLM charges that Bundy has been grazing his cattle on public land without paying grazing and tresspass fees for 20 years. (They got their first court order telling him to stop in 1998; he ignored it.) The claimed fees now amount to over $1 million, and so April 5 the BLM started seizing some of Bundy’s illegally grazing cattle.

Self-appointed defender of Freedom.

Armed militiamen who support Bundy started gathering at a camp on April 10, and on April 12 the BLM backed down after what the Las Vegas Review-Journal described as “a 20-minute standoff … [w]ith rifles pointing toward each side”. The BLM released a statement:

Based on information about conditions on the ground, and in consultation with law enforcement, we have made a decision to conclude the cattle gather because of our serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public.

The Bundy Ranch blog described the scene like this:

The result was a group of Bundy’s family members and supporters making a slow advance on a line of armed agents who kept ordering them to halt. At one point, the protesters were even told “one more step and you’re dead,” but the group kept coming, eventually walking easily through the line of federal agents and SWAT members who obviously didn’t have the courage of their convictions. According to InfoWars, the BLM had already announced it was leaving, but the county sheriff refused Bundy’s demand to disarm the federal agents and return his cattle. Within about a half hour, the cattle were released from the federal pen.

In other words, federal agents tried to enforce the law, were met with armed resistance from a mob, and decided to temporize rather than start killing people. On the extreme Right, this was celebrated as a victory for Freedom. Bundy’s son said, “The people have the power when they unite. The war has just begun.”

And the mainstream Right went along. The Powerline blog wrote “Why You Should Be Sympathetic Toward Cliven Bundy” while admitting “legally, Bundy doesn’t have a leg to stand on.” National Review‘s Kevin Williamson made “The Case for a Little Sedition“, saying

Of course the law is against Cliven Bundy. How could it be otherwise? The law was against Mohandas Gandhi, too

Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano described the BLM (and not the miltiamen) as “a group of thugs dressed in military uniform with loaded M16s pointed at a rancher and his family.” Fox News produced this sympathetic segment, in which National Review editor Rich Lowry described the resistance as “in the finest American tradition of civil disobedience going back to Henry David Thoreau.”

To me, the Bundy incident has captured much of the basic sickness of conservatism in America: The rhetoric is full of high principle, but it’s hard to find any actual principle that would apply to anyone other than People Like Us — people like the people who belong to the conservative fringe.

It’s tempting to characterize this kind of thing as racism. Certainly that’s what the NYT’s Timothy Egan is suggesting with:

If you changed that picture to Black Panthers surrounding a lawful eviction in the inner city, do you think right-wing media would be there cheering the outlaws?

But it’s more subtle than that. Probably a black man who behaved like a far-fringe-rightist in all other ways could become People Like Us and come to have similar “rights” recognized. But the Black Panthers are clearly not People Like Us, so it would be an absolute horror if they were to arm themselves and resist the law. Likewise, it would be a horror if a Hispanic militia decided to liberate one of Sheriff Arpaio’s detention camps for immigrants. If some miltiamen got killed in such an attempt, I doubt Fox News would lament about “government overreach”. The Occupy protesters weren’t People Like Us, so they could be thrown off public land with impunity. Imagine the outrage if Occupy had militarized Zuccotti Park!

One of the reasons Bundy is supposed to deserve sympathy is that “his family has been ranching on the acres at issue since the late 19th century”. You can imagine how far similar sympathy would extend if armed Native Americans were threatening to kill whites over land their people had been hunting and fishing on for thousands of years. Hispanics have been wandering back and forth across the Rio Grande for centuries, but if they do it today, we have to enforce the Rule of Law. If people get killed, well, so be it.

But not People Like Us. When we feel wronged and take up arms, everyone should sympathize, the government should show restraint, and the media should re-litigate our case to the general public.

A number of Bundy’s sympathizers are rehashing the bizarre claims he has made in court: that the federal government can’t own land inside a state, or that the federal government is itself illegitimate. Bundy repeatedly refers to the federal government’s ownership as “unconstitutional”, probably because his reading of the Constitution never got as far as Article IV:

The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States

This is why we have courts, to adjudicate disputes like this. Bundy made his argument in court and lost. Most people don’t then get to appeal their case to the Court of Nuts With Guns. But People Like Us do.

Whenever Bundy supporters are given media time, I would like to see them challenged to state their position in such a way that they would support similar rights for people not at all like them and not already part of the conservative movement. And I’d like to see mainstream conservative pundits confronted with a different challenge: Are there any limits to what you will support if the people doing it are on your side?

Subtext in the State of the Union (and its responses)

You can learn a lot about how our leaders (in both parties) view us by observing how they try to manipulate us.


Once upon a time, state of the union addresses contained major policy initiatives, like when President Johnson announced the War on Poverty in 1964. But nobody does that any more, especially not in a gridlocked era where nothing is going to get through Congress anyway. 21st-century state of the union speeches (and opposing-party responses) are about politics rather than policy. They’re about moving public opinion, not moving the country.

So you might ask, “Why watch?” And there’s an answer: You can learn a lot about how our leaders (in both parties) view us by observing how they try to manipulate us. When they try to scare us, they reveal what they think we’re afraid of. When they reassure us, they reveal what they think we’re insecure about. When they try to be likeable, they reveal what they think we like. They emphasize issues where they feel strong and avoid issues they have no answers for.

They have spent months polling and testing in front of focus groups. Each has carefully crafted the message it believes will best appeal to its part of the public. Listen hard, and you can tell what part of the public they see as their own.

President Obama. The best way to watch the SOTU is via the White House’s enhanced video. (Here’s their transcript.) You get the same video everyone else uses, plus elucidating slides.

President Obama focused on two themes: inequality (which I explore in “Occupying the State of the Union“) and the dysfunctionality of Congress. Clearly he thinks Congress’ unpopularity works to his advantage:

For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government. It’s an important debate – one that dates back to our very founding. But when that debate prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy – when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States – then we are not doing right by the American people.

I know Ted Cruz comes from an alternate timeline in which Obama and Harry Reid shut down the government and provoked the debt-ceiling crisis, but here’s all you need to know about that: Democrats applauded the President at this point, while Republicans sat on their hands. They all knew who he was calling to account.

The two themes came together in Obama’s executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors, something he can do as federal CEO without congressional action. I hadn’t realized the full political import of this until Rachel Maddow pointed it out: Obama has put every executive in the country on the spot. Are governors going to raise the minimum wage for state contractors? Mayors for city contractors? (Yes in St. Louis.) I’ll bet the sound bite (at the 33-minute mark) tested really well:

No one who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty.

Any time the words Obama and executive order appear in the same news story, Republicans start yelling “tyranny”, as if no previous president issued executive orders. (Sunday Paul Ryan described the Obama administration as “increasingly lawless“.)

Clearly, they have identified a set of voters ready to believe this. In reality, though, Obama has been relatively hesitant about executive orders, issuing fewer of them than other recent presidents. He also has put forward no new theories of executive power, such as President Bush’s sweeping notion of the unitary executive.

Republican response. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington gave the official Republican SOTU response (text & video).

I thought Rodgers’ put forward a likeable image. (The conservative American Spectator protested that her “real message” was “PLEASE LIKE ME”.)  She expressed admirable sympathies, but presented little of substance to back up her good intentions. She talked about working to “empower people … to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be”, but the policies behind those words implement the same old Republican wealth-trickles-down-from-the-rich ideas.

A larger question was: Why her? She’s not a major player in the Republican leadership. She’s not a rising star they’re grooming for bigger things. Nothing about her record in Congress picks her out as the ideal person to speak to these particular issues. But she’s a woman and Republicans want to put a token female face on camera to counter the war-on-women meme.

As Ian Haney Lopez says in Dog Whistle Politics:

The right slams affirmative action for making distinctions on the basis of race, even as it has developed its own perverse form of affirmative action, consciously selecting nonwhite faces to front its agenda.

Rodgers is the female version of Bobby Jindal or Marco Rubio, but without the presidential speculation: Republicans can’t possibly be sexist. Look! They have a woman speaking for them.

But the war on women rages on, no matter who’s in front of the camera. The House Republican majority passed the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, whose purpose is to get private health insurance plans to drop abortion coverage. Last week I pointed to its draconian limitations on rape exceptions.

Rodgers’ talk was also noteworthy for invoking yet another bogus ObamaCare horror story. As Paul Krugman put it:

So was this the best story Ms. McMorris Rodgers could come up with? The answer, probably, is yes, since just about every tale of health reform horror the G.O.P. has tried to peddle has similarly fallen apart once the details were revealed.

Tea Party response. Mike Lee (text, video) did a good job countering the Tea Party’s image as the dangerous lunatics who almost pushed the United States into default last October. The over-arching metaphor of his talk was the journey from Boston (the Boston Tea Party in 1773) to Philadelphia (the Constitution in 1787).

Now, as in 1773, Americans have had it with our out-of-touch national government. But if all we do is protest, our Boston Tea Party moment will occupy little more than a footnote in our history. Hopefully our leaders, reformers and citizens will join the journey from Boston to Philadelphia – from protest to progress. Together we can march forward and take the road that leads to the kind of government we do want.

He mentioned several positive Tea Party proposals in Congress without detailing what they would do. But the mere possibility of “the kind of government we do want” is a significant shift in Tea Party rhetoric. I’ll be interested to see if it catches on inside the Tea Party, or if it’s just for export.

Rand Paul’s response. Rand Paul’s talk was mostly a collection of offensive stereotypes and right-wing fantasies. He used the story of black conservative columnist Star Parker to smear welfare recipients:

She was 23 when she quit her job at the L.A. Times so she could go on welfare. By collecting $465 a month, plus Food Stamps, and by getting a part-time that paid cash under the table, she could rent a nice apartment and earn far more money than working an honest 40-hour week. Later, she said, she had no trouble dropping her daughter off at a government-funded day-care center, selling some free medical vouchers to buy drugs, and hanging out at the beach all afternoon.

It’s Ronald Reagan’s Cadillac-driving welfare queen all over again, or Fox News’ lobster-loving Food Stamp surfer. Are those stories supposed to be typical of the people helped by government anti-poverty programs? Paul seems to think so. After putting a happy ending on Parker’s story — she could only get a real job and climb out of poverty after she gave up her “dependence” on government assistance — Paul says:

I want Star Parker’s story to be the rule, not the exception.

But how is that even possible unless her original situation is the rule? Unless welfare recipients in general are lying, cheating, drug-using, child-neglecting blacks who can get honest jobs whenever they want? I’m sure that’s exactly what Paul’s target audience wants to believe, but is it true? Like Reagan, Paul presents no evidence beyond the anecdote.

Another taffy-pull stretching of the truth was Paul’s claim that Obama has “spent more than a trillion dollars on make-work government jobs”. Actually, that number is somewhere close to zero. For example, a big chunk of the $800 billion stimulus was tax cuts. Some of the stimulus’ other big-ticket items sent money to the states so that revenue shortfalls wouldn’t force them to lay off teachers, and paid for repairs to roads and bridges.

So the next time you drop your kid off at public school or drive across an old bridge, remember that Rand Paul thinks teaching or keeping bridges from falling down are “make-work government jobs”.

Thuggery. The weirdest story of the night was New York Republican Rep. Michael Grimm threatening to throw a reporter “off this fucking balcony” (i.e., the Capitol balcony) for asking a question he didn’t want to answer. “I’ll break you in half,” Grimm warned.

Rudeness to the President. Well, at least this year nobody yelled “You lie!” during the speech, as Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina did in 2009. However, Texas Congressman Randy Webber tweeted:

On floor of house waitin on “Kommandant-In-Chef”… the Socialistic dictator who’s been feeding US a line or is it “A-Lying?”

Another Texas congressman, Steve Stockman (who is Senator Cornyn’s Tea Party challenger in the upcoming primary) walked out of the speech.

Isn’t it an amazing coincidence how Southern Republican Congressmen lost their sense of decorum and their respect for the office of the presidency at the precise moment when a black man was sworn in? Did a memo go out, or did they just know what to do by intuition?

Occupying the State of the Union

The conventional wisdom about Occupy Wall Street is that it failed. It made a splash and generated headlines, but ultimately it elected no candidates, passed no laws, and didn’t even leave behind a memorable lost-cause proposal like the Equal Rights Amendment. So it was all a big waste of the activists’ effort and our attention.

By contrast, the Tea Party did elect candidates and has influenced all kinds of laws, especially at the state level. Without the Tea Party, the government wouldn’t have shut down last October. You may not consider that much of an accomplishment, but it is proof of continuing influence. The Tea Party may eventually even displace the Republican establishment and take over half of the two-party system.

What has Occupy done to rival that?

But all along, Occupy visionaries like David Graeber were defining success differently:

For the last quarter millennium or so, revolutions have consisted above all of planetwide transformations of political common sense. … What they really do is transform basic assumptions about what politics is ultimately about. In the wake of a revolution, ideas that had been considered veritably lunatic fringe quickly become the accepted currency of debate.

The French Revolution, for example, failed to hold power, “but afterward, institutions inspired by the French Revolution … were put in place pretty much everywhere.” Suddenly, it was obvious that monarchy was obsolete. Not only did people around the globe believe that, they believed that they had always believed it.

Now consider President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union and the responses from Cathy McMorris Rodgers (for the Republican Party), Mike Lee (for the Tea Party), and Rand Paul (who seems to be a party unto himself). Maybe it’s not surprising that President Obama would talk about inequality and how difficult it is to stay in the middle class:

Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have  barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead.

But here’s the interesting thing: The responders accepted that framing of the problem, they just tried to shift the blame.*

Bear in mind how conservatives used to respond whenever liberals tried to make inequality an issue: Wealth has nothing to do with poverty. Wealth is conjured out of the aether by creative capitalists, not usurped from the common inheritance or distilled from the blood and sweat of the laboring masses. So talk about poverty if you must, but don’t talk about wealth and poverty in the same paragraph, because they’re totally separate phenomena. This was still the conservative conventional wisdom two weeks ago, when David Brooks argued (in his own italics):

to frame the issue as income inequality is to lump together different issues that are not especially related.

More than just conservative dogma, some version of that argument has been the conventional wisdom of Very Serious People for decades. It has been fine for liberal politicians to talk about the plight of the poor or the struggles of the middle class, but if they combined that downward-looking and sideways-looking compassion with an upward-looking head-shake at the explosion of wealth among the few, mainstream pundits would start lobbing phrases like “class warfare” and “redistribution of wealth” — warning shots that come just before “Why don’t you go back to the Soviet Union, comrade?”.

But post-Occupy, everybody knows about the 99% and the 1%. And it’s no longer anti-American to point out that the 1% (and mostly the .01%) have owned all the productivity growth of recent decades.

Mike Lee’s Tea Party response doesn’t deny any of this, but instead tries to pin it on government and President Obama:

This inequality crisis presents itself in three principal forms: immobility among the poor, who are being trapped in poverty by big-government programs; insecurity in the middle class, where families are struggling just to get by and can’t seem to get ahead; and cronyist privilege at the top, where political and economic insiders twist the immense power of the federal government to profit at the expense of everyone else.** … [W]here does this new inequality come from? From government – every time it takes rights and opportunities away from the American people and gives them instead to politicians, bureaucrats, and special interests.

Rodgers points to the same problems, but calls them by a different names and promises that vague, unnamed Republican “plans” will solve them.

our mission – not only as Republicans, but as Americans, is to once again to ensure that we are not bound by where we come from, but empowered by what we can become. That is the gap Republicans are working to close. It’s the gap we all face: between where you are and where you want to be. The President talks a lot about income inequality. But the real gap we face today is one of opportunity inequality… And with this Administration’s policies, that gap has become far too wide. We see this gap growing every single day.

And this is where the spin becomes obvious, becomes the metaphor changes: The gap “between where you are and where you want to be” would seem to be in front of you, between you and the people whose examples inspire you to be more successful. Republicans are going to help you bridge that gap, so that you can be rich too.

But as Rodgers gets down to cases, it’s clear she’s talking about a chasm opening up behind middle-class voters, threatening to suck them into poverty as it has already claimed so many of their friends and family:

We see it in our neighbors who are struggling to find job, a husband who’s now working just part-time, a child who drops out of college because she can’t afford tuition, or parents who are outliving their life’s savings. Last month, more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one. Too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the President’s policies are making people’s lives harder. Republicans have plans to close the gap.

Even Rand Paul has to recognize the hollowing out of the middle class, though (unlike the others) he sticks to the old-time religion that the rich will save us, if only we let them keep getting richer. (It never worked before, but it will if we give it one more shot.)

Parents worry about their children growing up in a country where good jobs are few and far between. More than ever before, Americans wonder how they’ll afford to send their kids to college, and what will happen if they lose their job. … Prosperity comes when more money is left in the private marketplace. … Economic growth will come when we lower taxes for everyone, especially people who own businesses and create jobs.

Another piece of conservative dogma has been to blame the poor for failing; their laziness, crime, drug addiction, and general irresponsibility is dragging down the rest of us. And if people are falling out of the middle class — losing their jobs, getting their homes foreclosed, failing to send their kids to college — well, that’s their own damn fault. We aren’t failing them; they’re failing us.

Recall the opening shot of the Tea Party’s rebellion, Rick Santelli’s famous rant a few weeks after Obama took office. Backed by a cheering mob of traders on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Santelli challenged the new president:

How about this, president and administration: Why don’t you put up a web site to have people vote on the internet to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages? Or would we like to at least buy cars and buy houses in foreclosure and give them to people that might have a chance to actually prosper down the road, and reward people that could carry the water instead of drink the water? … [Gesturing to include all the traders***] This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills? Raise their hands! [boos from the crowd]

Tuesday night no one was blaming the “losers” for falling out of the middle class, or fantasizing about picking the bones of their foreclosures. Instead, everyone sympathized with growing middle-class anxiety: how hard it is to find good jobs, how hard it is to pay for college, how insecure you feel even if you currently have a good job. Everyone acknowledged that Americans are losing faith in the old nostrums: work hard, study hard, say no to drugs, get married, buy a house, pay your bills … it just doesn’t seem like enough any more. You might do all that and still lose out, even as billionaires get ever richer.

Everyone but Rand Paul is acknowledging that some kind of gap needs to be bridged, that some people have more of this vaguely defined “opportunity” that you wish you had. Mike Lee is even denouncing “privilege at the top”, though he blames this privilege on government favors rather than the normal workings of capitalism.

It’s important to realize what we’re seeing: an early stage in the “transformation of political common sense”. People who believed and may still believe that OWS was horribly misguided and failed completely — those same people see the world differently now. The problem isn’t that a few “losers” are dragging the rest of us down. The problem is that there’s a 99% and a 1%. We’re arguing about what caused that and how to fix it, but we all see the problem now.

Thank you, Occupy.


* Ultimately they’ll lose that argument, because the facts are clearly against them. Look at the graphs: This problem didn’t start with Obama. It started in the Carter-Reagan years. If your explanation doesn’t account for that, you’re just spinning.

I explain it by Carter and the Democrats in Congress turning to the right: de-regulation, lower capital gains taxes, free trade deals, and turning a blind eye to union-busting. That all started slowly under Carter and then really took off during the Reagan administration. The long version of this story is in Thomas Edsall’s The New Politics of Inequality from 1985, but William Anderson of the conservative Mises Institute noted the same thing in 2000:

Republicans like to point to the failures of the Carter Administration and then claim that Ronald Reagan brought us into the present era. Alas, while I prefer Reagan to Carter, I cannot say that the above statement is true. Granted, much occurred during the Reagan Administration that was good, but if truth be known, many of the important initiatives that enabled those boundaries to expand came from Carter’s presidency.

I agree completely, if you reverse the value judgments and define “the present era” as the Second Gilded Age.


** Perversely, the purest examples of cronyism are due to a trend conservatives champion: privatizing public services like prisons or public schools.


*** I love the assumption that the well-compensated wheeler-dealers on the CME represent “America” and the people who “carry the water”. I think it’s arguable that American productivity would go up if the Earth swallowed the Chicago Mercantile Exchange whole. The people who really “carry the water” are the ones who grow stuff and build stuff and deliver services. The water-carrier is the single mother who cuts your hair (and who may need Food Stamps to feed her son), not the venture capitalist who conjured up millions by franchising Supercuts.

Nobody’s a Moderate in the Republican Civil War

The Tea Party and establishment Republicans differ on style and tactics, not goals.


After his loss in Tuesday’s Virginia gubernatorial election, Tea Party Republican Ken Cuccinelli refused to make the traditional phone call to congratulate the winner, Terry McAuliffe.

No big deal, you might say. Cuccinelli has admitted in public that he didn’t win, and McAuliffe becomes governor in any case. The Outside the Beltway blog argues that the congratulating call doesn’t matter, because such gracious gestures are insincere anyway. And Kevin Drum threw the question out to his readers: Does symbolic politeness still matter or not? (Typically, the comment thread quickly devolved into insults that leave no clear consensus answer. And that’s a meta-answer, I suppose.)

But whether the absent phone call has any direct significance on governance, I think it is important. Congratulating the winner, no matter how much your defeat still rankles, recognizes that in the end we are all on the same side. We are all Americans, or (in this case) all Virginians. However bitter the campaign has been, however overheated the rhetoric has become, we all want the collective project we call “government” to succeed, whether our side gets to lead that government  or not.

That is more-or-less precisely what the Tea Party denies: We are not all on the same side. In President Obama’s case, Tea Partiers often don’t even admit that he’s an American. And they see election campaigns not as contests between differing views of how to move our country forward, but as apocalyptic battles between Good and Evil.

The Obama/Romney election, evangelist Franklin (Billy’s son) Graham warned last fall, “could be America’s last call to repentance and faith. … There’s still time to turn from our wicked ways so that He might spare us from His wrath against sin.” And the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer saw the shutdown/debt-ceiling showdown as evidence “the destruction of America” is on President Obama’s “bucket list”.

Like Cuccinelli, Ted Cruz did not even fake politeness when the President visited Cruz’ home state of Texas this week: “President Obama should take his broken promises tour elsewhere.” Where’s that famous Southern hospitality?

Tea Party strategist

Legitimate rivals merit politeness, but if the AntiChrist wins you don’t congratulate him on his victory or give him a chance to implement the vision the voters have endorsed. You continue the struggle wherever and however you can. And if you bring the temple down on your own head like Samson, you take satisfaction in the number of enemies who perish with you.

The Republican establishment. One popular interpretation of Tuesday’s election results was that establishment Republicans had flexed their muscles and proved that they (and not the Tea Party) are the GOP’s best hope for victory.

Christie and AntiChrist

There was some truth to that. Cuccinelli’s campaign suffered from a lack of money, in large part because big bankroll donors like the Chamber of Commerce wouldn’t contribute. The Chamber also figured in the victory of establishment Republican Bradley Byrne over Tea Party Republican (and birther) Dean Young in Alabama’s 1st congressional district.

And the biggest Republican winner of the night was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who had praised Obama’s handling of Hurricane Sandy and accompanied Obama on a photo-op tour of damaged areas late in the 2012 campaign: “It’s been very good working with the President,” Christie said. “He and his Administration have been coordinating with us. It’s been wonderful.”

Frontrunner? After his landslide win in a blue state, some pundits anointed Christie the early frontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, while others were more skeptical.

But his potential opponents have treated Christie’s victory like a serious threat, barely even pretending to be happy about a Republican victory. Rand Paul gave Christie a backhanded compliment, saying that the Republican Party needs “moderates like Chris Christie who can win in New Jersey.” (Recall that “moderate” is an insult in GOP circles. It was Mitt Romney’s opponents who called him a “Massachusetts moderate“, which the Boston Globe characterized as “the two dirtiest words in the Republican lexicon”. Romney himself claimed to be “severely conservative“.) Rick Perry likewise questioned whether “a conservative in New Jersey a conservative in the rest of the country”.

Ted Cruz’ comments were even more pointed:

I think it is terrific that he is brash, that he is outspoken, and that he won his race. But I think we need more leaders in Washington with the courage to stand for principle.

So congratulations to the cowardly, unprincipled Governor Christie.

Moderate? For most of American history, moderate sounded reasonable and good, and to much of the electorate it still does. But what evidence is there of Christie’s moderation?

Traditionally, a moderate was someone who shared at least a few positions with the opposing party (like Democrat Joe Lieberman’s support for the Iraq War and waterboarding, or Republican Rudy Giuliani’s support for abortion rights and immigration reform), or shared goals with the other party but tried to achieve them by different means. (That’s what RomneyCare was about, and why Mitt Romney would have deserved the moderate label if he had truly run on his record. Mitt tried to achieve universal health care via private insurance and the free market. Obama’s embrace of that moderate-Republican approach should have earned him moderate status as well.)

I can’t think of any issue where Christie fits the bill. His position on marriage equality seems typical: He believes only in opposite-sex marriage. He vetoed a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage in New Jersey, and then sued to prevent same-sex marriages after a state judge ruled in their favor. He eventually dropped the suit and allowed same-sex marriages to proceed in New Jersey, but only after it became clear he would lose.

That’s not moderation, it’s pragmatism. He doesn’t waste his effort on losing battles.

He occasionally makes agreeable noises about gun control, but in the only real test he vetoed three popular bills, one being a version of something he had proposed himself just a few months before.

On contraception and abortion, he vetoed funding for Planned Parenthood five times. The anti-abortion Life News says he proved wrong the “media elite [who] claim Republicans can’t win on a pro-life platform.”

He believes in tax cuts for the wealthy and spending cuts for the poor. There’s nothing in his record resembling RomneyCare.

ThinkProgress goes into more detail on Christie’s conservative record.

Opposing the Tea Party doesn’t make you a moderate. Likewise, you’ll search Bradley Byrne’s web site in vain for any moderate policy. He just won’t say stuff as gratuitously offensive as his Tea Party opponent Dean Young, who wants anybody who supports marriage equality thrown out of the Republican Party

If you want to have homosexuals pretending like they’re married, they need to go to the Democrat Party.

Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, as well as Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander and Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell are all likely to face Tea Party opposition as they run for re-election. They all (eventually) voted to keep the government open and not default on America’s commitments, but they’re no moderates. Just because they won’t set themselves (or the country) on fire to protest ObamaCare doesn’t mean that they secretly support it.

So when they run against Tea Party extremists in the Republican primaries, I’ll be rooting for them. But that offer expires the morning after the primary. I respect their higher level of politeness and their caution about burning down the house we all live in. But they differ from the Cuccinellis and Cruzes and Youngs merely in tactics, not in goals.

The Method of Madness

It isn’t that Obama has the wrong policies or writes the wrong numbers into his budget proposals. It’s that he belongs to the wrong tribe.


In the shutdown/debt-ceiling fight, the Tea Party Republicans put President Obama in a position where compromise was a practical impossibility: They demanded concessions in exchange for a resolving a crisis that they created, and that they could recreate at will. To give them anything at all would invite an endless series of crises that drop-by-drop would bleed the administration dry. The election of 2012 would effectively have been nullified.

So Obama held firm and the non-Tea-Party Republicans blinked. The deal did not resolve the crisis, but it did buy time. The government is funded until January 15 and the debt ceiling is raised until February 7. Obama didn’t win anything in terms of policy; he just got the metaphorical hostages released for a few months.

Now, presumably, we should be negotiating about the budget and other government policies, so that January and February don’t hit us the way October did. But increasingly we face the question: Negotiate about what?

The essence of negotiation is to figure out what you where you would be willing to compromise with the other side and where they might be willing to compromise with you. It presumes a desire on both sides to reach an agreement.

But increasingly, liberals like me are becoming skeptical. For the Tea Party base, the point of this last fight seems to have been the fight itself. It accomplished nothing, and (by one estimate) cost the economy $24 billion, reducing the growth rate in 4th-quarter GDP from 3% to 2.4%. But that leads Ann Coulter to say, “We should be proud. Tea Partiers should be standing tall after the last few weeks.” And Ted Cruz went home to a victory tour, reportedly getting standing ovations of eight minutes and 14 minutes.

What’s up with that?

So often, when you try to grapple with the issues the fight is supposed to be about, they evaporate. The national debt is supposed to be an apocalyptic threat to America. But the fact that the annual deficit is dropping does not seem to mitigate the urgency. The prospect of going back to the tax rates that produced a surplus in the last years of the Clinton administration is off the table. No tax increase of any kind can be part of the solution, no matter what spending cuts it might be coupled with. Not even egregious tax loopholes can be closed, unless that money is used to lower taxes somewhere else.

So we have a problem that is destroying America, but you can’t consider paying any money to solve it?

Some on the Left have begun talking about “post-policy nihilism” — Republican opposition for the sake of opposition, even when Obama offers their own ideas back to them. Or passing a budget whose cuts they themselves won’t vote for when they’re spelled out.

What are we to make of bizarre irrationalities, like Ted Cruz shutting down the government, and then protesting that the national monuments are shut down? With a confederate flag in the audience and sharing the podium with a guy who called on President Obama to

leave town, to get up, to put the Quran down, to get up off his knees, and to figuratively come out with his hands up.

Ryan Cooper comments:

these tea partiers were absolutely incandescent with rage at Obama that the national parks are shut down. This was the plan, don’t you remember? Guys? The only operating principle at work here seems to be “If X is bad, then X is Obama’s fault.”

The total disregard for even the simplest details or logic here, even according to the Republicans’ own frame of reference, underscores again that this crisis has nothing to do with actual policy differences. This is nothing but the politics of reactionary grievance.

Mike the Mad Biologist elaborated by referring to a piece he had previously written about Sarah Palin:

Her policy ignorance isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Palin is conceptually and intellectually poor because her politics are not about policies, but a romantic restoration of the ‘real’ America to its rightful place. The primary purpose of politics is not to govern, not to provide services, and not to solve mundane, although often important, problems. For the Palinist, politics first and foremost exists to enable the social restoration of ‘real’ Americans (think about the phrase “red blooded American”) and the emotional and social advantages that restoration would provide to its followers (obviously, if you’re not a ‘real’ American, you might view this as a bad thing…). Practicalities of governance, such as compromise and worrying about reality-based outcomes, actually get in the way.

And that, I think, gets to the heart of it. The root motivation of the Tea Party isn’t the deficit or ObamaCare or any other policy it’s currently focused on. The root motivation is tribal: a feeling that People-Like-Me used to own America, but it is being taken away by People-Like-Them and needs to be taken back.

That’s why nothing Obama can do is right. It isn’t that he has the wrong policies or writes the wrong numbers into his budget proposals. It’s that he belongs to the wrong tribe. Who that tribe is, exactly, varies from person to person and situation to situation. Sometimes it’s racial and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s cultural — the whole guns-and-religion thing. Sometimes it’s the Makers vs. the Takers. But what unites them all is a sense of tribal grievance. People-Like-Me used to own American and need to take it back.

I am in debt to Jonathan Korman (a.k.a Miniver Cheevy) for making the connection between the Palinist rhetorical style and the “Duckspeak” of 1984. After rendering an apparent word salad into free verse, Korman finds the structureless structure:

You may have trouble following Palin not only because of the way her arguments jump around, but also because they are almost all incomplete. To decode them, you need to know that they are allusions to right-wing talking points. … I submit that this is not just clumsiness. This is a method, if not necessarily a conscious one.

The point is to remind the initiated of feelings and conclusions and frames without providing any actual facts or ideas that could be thought about or disputed. Orwell noted the usefulness of this technique in “The Principles of Newspeak“.

For the purposes of everyday life it was no doubt necessary, or sometimes necessary, to reflect before speaking, but a Party member called upon to make a political or ethical judgment should be able to spray forth the correct opinions as automatically as a machine gun spraying forth bullets. His training fitted him to do this, the language gave him an almost foolproof instrument.

…. Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centers at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak, meaning ‘to quack like a duck’.

This is a common speech pattern on the Right. You just quack “Benghazi” or “out-of-control spending” or “religious freedom” or “the Constitution” and whole narratives of misinformation click into place. And because they need not be spelled out, they cannot be challenged.

I’m not sure where we can go from here. A group with policy goals can be negotiated with. A aggrieved tribe with identity issues really can’t be.

Seven Key Points About the Shutdown

1. This is not a pox-on-both-your-houses situation. The Republicans planned this shutdown and carried it out.

Last Monday, on the eve of the shutdown, Rachel Maddow showed the tapes of one Republican candidate after another making campaign speeches about shutting down the government and being cheered for it. That never happens on the Democratic side. No Democratic candidate for Congress tells his crowds he’s going to shut down the government and expects to get a cheer. Rachel summarized:

What is happening tonight is happening tonight because this is what Republicans want to do. This is what they promised to do. … Elect Republicans and they will burn the place down and they will laugh while they do it and have a great time.

The Daily Beast’s David Freedlander talked to a number of Republican donors from the banking industry, who said Rep. Walden (chair of the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, which wants their money) told them “We have to do this because of the Tea Party.” (An NRCC spokesman denies Walden said that.)

Jonathan Chait traces the Republicans’ post-2012-defeat strategy to a meeting in January.

If you want to grasp why Republicans are careening toward a potential federal government shutdown, and possibly toward provoking a sovereign debt crisis after that, you need to understand that this is the inevitable product of a conscious party strategy. Just as Republicans responded to their 2008 defeat by moving farther right, they responded to the 2012 defeat by moving right yet again. Since they had begun from a position of total opposition to the entire Obama agenda, the newer rightward lurch took the form of trying to wrest concessions from Obama by provoking a series of crises.

The first element of the strategy is a kind of legislative strike. Initially, House Republicans decided to boycott all direct negotiations with President Obama, and then subsequently extended that boycott to negotiations with the Democratic Senate. (Senate Democrats have spent months pleading with House Republicans to negotiate with them, to no avail.) This kind of refusal to even enter negotiations is highly unusual. The way to make sense of it is that Republicans have planned since January to force Obama to accede to large chunks of the Republican agenda, without Republicans having to offer any policy concessions of their own.

2. This “budget” showdown has nothing to do with the budget. Both sides agree on the spending number that should be in the continuing resolution.

That’s because Democrats agreed to the Republicans’ number. In other words, the only genuine concession in this process has come from the Democrats. John Boehner could have taken that concession, passed a continuing resolution to avoid the shutdown, and then called a press conference to declare victory. Instead he shut down the government.

3. The threat not to raise the debt ceiling is unprecedented, except for when these same Republicans made the same threat in 2011.

Posturing about the debt ceiling is perennial: “Look how profligate the party in power is. They’ve run up so much debt we have to raise the ceiling.” But making a credible threat not to raise the debt ceiling unless your legislative demands are met? No. That is an absolutely new tactic in American politics.

Slate’s David Weigel goes through all the alleged examples of the Democrats threatening the debt ceiling. In 1981, Tip O’Neil tried to get President Reagan to promise that Republicans wouldn’t use a debt-ceiling vote against incumbent Democrats in the next election cycle (i.e., no policy demands), but passed it in plenty of time. In 1984, a Democratic committee chair blocked a debt ceiling bill for one day, seeking defense spending cuts. He was roundly criticized for “brinksmanship” and backed down.

That’s it. Dozens of other times Democratic majorities in Congress have passed debt-ceiling increases proposed by Republican presidents without making an issue of it.

If Democrats accepted the tactic Republicans are using, the September, 2007 debt-ceiling increase would have been an opportunity for Nancy Pelosi to demand deficit-reducing changes like a repeal of the Bush tax cuts or an end to Iraq War. But that didn’t happen, because Democrats don’t operate by extortion.

4. Republicans have redefined he words negotiate and compromise.

ThinkProgress’ Judd Legum summed up the Republican “negotiation”:

Can I burn down your house?
No
Just the 2nd floor?
No
Garage?
No
Let’s talk about what I can burn down.
No
YOU AREN’T COMPROMISING!

In a real compromise, both sides give something and both sides get something. So far, the Democrats have been offered nothing.

In the 2011 crisis, President Obama repeatedly tried to negotiate a “grand bargain” with Speaker Boehner that would knock trillions off the long-term deficit. That failed, and the “supercommitte” negotiations that were supposed to replace the sequester failed, on the same point: Republicans insisted there could be no tax increases in the deficit reduction plan. Zero. During one Republican presidential debate, the candidates were asked whether they would accept a 10-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases. All said no.

Since April, Harry Reid has been trying to form a conference committee so that the House and Senate can work out a budget compromise. The Republicans have refused to appoint their conferees, preferring to wait until they had the “leverage” of a government shutdown and debt default. The point here is exactly what Chait said above: to extort concessions out of the Democrats without offering any concessions of their own. “OK then, half the ransom” is not a concession, no matter what Ted Cruz says.

5. The principle at stake is majority rule.

I talked about this in detail last week. Speaker Boehner wants to tell the story that the shutdown represents a disagreement between two branches of government that have conflicting popular mandates: The public elected President Obama, but it also elected a Republican House of Representatives.

That’s not what this is about at all. If it were, Boehner could bring the Senate’s clean continuing resolution to the House floor for a vote and defeat it. He can’t do that, because given the chance the people’s representatives would pass it. In blocking that resolution, Boehner does not represent the majority of the House, he only represents “the majority of the majority”, i.e. a minority.

The entire give-us-what-we-want-or-we’ll-burn-the-house-down strategy is against all American ideals of democracy. The constitutional way to pass a law (or repeal a law you don’t like) is to do what the Democrats did to pass ObamaCare in the first place: Win not just a majority in the House, but also a substantial majority in the Senate (to overcome a filibuster, which the Founders never envisioned), and win the White House (to avoid a veto). The Republicans can’t do that, because they are a minority. (Even their House candidates collectively got a million fewer votes than the Democrats in 2012.)

6. Don’t believe the leak that John Boehner won’t allow a debt-ceiling default.

Thursday the NYT quoted multiple anonymous Republican congressmen saying that Boehner had told them he wouldn’t allow a default. But Matt Yglesias points out that Boehner has been saying such things all along, while also saying the opposite.

Boehner’s position, dating back to 2011, has been twofold. On the one hand he says that failing to raise the debt ceiling would be catastrophic and that he favors avoiding catastrophe. On the other hand he says that he requires unrelated public policy concessions in order to agree to a measure that he himself says he supports.

It is, in other words, the classic suicide hostage strategy: Do what I want or I’ll detonate the bomb strapped to my chest. This has always been Boehner’s position.

For example, on Friday Boehner said:

I don’t believe that we should default on our debt. It’s not good for our country. But after 55 years of spending more than what you bring in, something ought to be addressed. I think the American people expect if we’re going to raise the amount of money we can borrow, we ought to do something about our spending problem and the lack of economic growth in our country.

In other words, he wants concessions. And notice: Boehner doesn’t suggest doing something about the deficit, which has a revenue side. He only wants to discuss “our spending problem”. So he’s seeking spending cuts with no tax increases, the same no-compromise position that doomed the budget negotiations in 2011.

And then Sunday he reiterated:

STEPHANOPOULOS: So under no circumstances will you pass a clean debt limit?

BOEHNER: We’re not going down that path.

Stephanopoulos’ question: “So you sit down with the president. What would you offer him in that conversation?” got no answer. And when pushed on the tax issue Boehner said: “Very simple. We’re not raising taxes.”

He described Harry Reid’s proposal to negotiate about the budget after the shutdown and debt ceiling had been dealt with as

My way or the highway. That’s what he’s saying. Complete surrender and then we’ll talk to you.

So he wants concessions and won’t give anything in return. Without his extortion demand, he has nothing to talk about, so giving it up is “complete surrender”.

7. The clearest head in the room belongs to Elizabeth Warren.

The boogeyman government is like the Boogyman under the bed. It’s not real. It doesn’t exist. What is real, what does exist are all those specific important things that we as Americans have chosen to do together through our government. In our democracy, government is not some make-believe thing that has an independent will of its own. In our democracy, government is just how we describe the things that We the People have already decided to do together.

Countdown to Augustus

Losing the Republic one day at a time


About once a year, I recommend that Sift readers take a look at Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series of novels. It covers the final century of the Roman Republic, from the rise of Gaius Marius to the establishment of the Empire under Caesar Augustus. I recommend the series not just because it’s a good yarn (which it is), but because it’s a cautionary tale about how republics are lost.

Your high school world history class probably gave you a highlight-reel version of the fall of the Roman Republic — crossing the Rubicon and all that — but didn’t really cover the century-long erosion of public trust that made the big rockslides inevitable.

The highlight reel may have left you with the impression that at a few key moments, individuals failed or made bad, self-serving decisions: If Cicero and Cato had carried the day, if Julius Caesar didn’t march on Rome, if Octavian had restored the power of the Senate after Actium rather than becoming Emperor… everything would have worked out. And so people who apply the Roman model to the American Republic usually end up matching personalities: Who is our Caesar, our Cicero, our Brutus? Is there a parallel between FDR’s four terms and Marius’ seven consulships? Between the assassinations of the Kennedies and of the Gracchi brothers? And so on.

That’s a fun party conversation for history geeks, but the closer (and scarier) match is in the steady erosion of political norms.

As Chris Hayes has observed on several occasions (at around the 3:30 mark here, for example), republics don’t work just by rules, the dos and don’t explicitly spelled out in their constitutions. They also need norms, things that are technically within the rules — or at least within the powers that the rules establish — but “just aren’t done” and arouse public anger when anyone gets close to doing them. But for that public anger, you can often get an advantage by skirting the norms. And when it looks like you might get away with it, the other side has a powerful motivation to cut some other corner to keep you in check.

For the last few decades, we’ve been in a Romanesque downward spiral of norm-skirting. One side does something that just isn’t done, but calibrates it to avoid a rush of public anger. And the other side responds by doing something else that isn’t (or didn’t used to be) done.

One example has been growing use of the filibuster in the Senate. Once an arcane device that showed up more often in movies than in the Capitol, the filibuster is now in such constant use that journalists now write as if the Constitution required 60 Senate votes to pass a law. The brand new use of the filibuster not just to block the passage of laws but to nullify laws already passed (by blocking appointments to the agencies that enforce those laws) led the Obama administration to push the boundaries of recess appointments, which then led the courts to push the boundaries of their norms against getting involved in political conflicts between the executive and legislative branches.

Another example is impeachment. When Democrats began an impeachment process against President Nixon  in 1974, both parties proceeded somberly and with utmost caution, because the only precedent, Andrew Johnson’s impeachment in 1868, wasn’t something to take pride in. By contrast, the impeachment and trial of President Clinton in 1998-1999 had a circus atmosphere; Republicans were giddy that one of their endless investigations had turned up something they could exaggerate into an impeachable offense. Today, Tea Party Republicans see the Constitution’s definition of an impeachable offense as a technicality. This August, Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-MI) told his constituents that impeaching President Obama would be a “dream come true” except for the annoying little detail that “you’ve got to have evidence” and he doesn’t have any.

That follows a pattern that a Masters of Rome reader easily recognizes: The rules give an explicit power to some office, along with the implicit duty to wield that power to achieve a particular public purpose. But as the erosion of norms proceeds, the power becomes something the officeholder owns, and can use however he likes. So Congress was given the impeachment power to save the Republic from a president who had been suborned by a foreign power or domestic special interest. But the Tea Party believes a Republican Congress just owns that power to use according to its whims; the hurdle to overcome isn’t assembling the evidence, it’s acquiring the votes.

Similarly, the president has the power to enforce the laws and the Supreme Court has the power to interpret the Constitution. More and more, those institutions are coming to own those powers rather than wield them for a public purpose. So the meaning Constitution’s commerce clause changes from one case to the next, according to the whims of the Court’s conservative majority.

An abuse by one branch legitimizes an abuse by another. Congress’ inability to even compose a new immigration law (much less debate it and bring it to a vote) allows President Obama to be the champion of the popular Dreamers by stretching his powers of prosecutorial discretion. The norms of Congress used to allow simple legislative fixes to complex programs during the implementation phase; even if you opposed a program to begin with, you supported improving it once it was already established in law. But the refusal of the Republican House to allow any changes in ObamaCare short of repeal or sabotage has legitimized Obama in pushing the limits of executive orders.

That also is something an MoR reader will recognize: About half of the erosion in Rome was done by the good guys, in order to seek justice for popular causes that the system had stymied.

And that brings us to the present showdown over funding the government and managing the debt ceiling. Until Newt Gingrich, government shutdowns were glitches: Congress thought it could get the laws passed in time, but something went wrong and the government had to shut down for a day or two until Congress could get it fixed. With Gingrich the government shutdown became a tactic, comparable to a labor strike closing a factory: Give us what we want, or we’ll shut the place down.

In 1995-96, the public recognized that the norms had been violated and reacted with appropriate anger. Gingrich had to back down, and his partner-in-crime Bob Dole was soundly thrashed by Bill Clinton in the next presidential election.

President Bush’s clashes with Democrats in Congress were bitter, but impeachment and shutdown were never serious threats. With the anti-Obama backlash and the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, government shutdown has again become just another tool in the congressional toolbox. And for the first time, threatening the debt ceiling has become a tactic. Both parties had repeatedly postured over the debt ceiling in the past, but in 2011 it was a brand new norm-violation to demand concessions in exchange for allowing the government to pay debts lawfully incurred. Obama blundered by not standing on principle then, and so we are where we are.

Later today I’ll have more to say about where that is, but right now I just want to point out where it fits in the larger pattern. The Republicans have President Obama in a Roman-style box: He can surrender to this new minority-rule tactic with the prospect of more surrenders in the future, or he can watch havoc unleashed on the financial markets, with unpredictable effects on the American economy, or he can break the norms himself by invoking the 14th Amendment or minting a trillion-dollar coin or choosing which of Congress’s contradictory laws (the appropriations bills or the debt ceiling) he will enforce.

In the short run, the third choice — find your own norms to violate — does the least damage to the country.  But it keeps the countdown-to-Augustus clock ticking. As Congress becomes increasingly dysfunctional, as it sets up more and more of these holding-the-country-hostage situations, presidents will feel more and more justified in cutting Congress out of the picture.

We know where that goes: Eventually the Great Man on Horseback appears and relieves us of the burden of Congress entirely. He may come from either the Left or the Right, but when he arrives the people will cheer — as the people cheered first Julius Caesar and then Caesar Augustus — because the trust they have placed in the Republic has been so badly abused.

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