The Republican party is dramatically off kilter. Born to “restore the Union to its true mission of champion and promulgator of Liberty rather than propagandist of slavery,” according to Horace Greeley, what has been a coalition of fiscal conservatives, bonded of late by commitments to both a smaller federal government and so-called family values (sexual abstinence until a marriage between one man and one woman, etc.) has become a motley band who instead promote deficit spending and seek government intrusion into citizens’ private lives, especially women’s lives. Gone is laissez-faire, replaced by do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do. Ironically, even as the formerly conservative Republican ideals have eroded in the country, today’s cadre of Republican legislators in Washington repeatedly place party allegiance over national welfare and over moral clarity. Today’s Republican voters face depressing choices.
Traditional Republicans in Congress stand by watching as the current President strikes down regulations for the sake of eliminating two regulations for every one that is passed, regardless of the reasoning behind the regulations. Is there a role for regulatory reform? Definitely. Is every regulation inherently intrusive? Absolutely not. It is ridiculous not to evaluate each regulation on its own merits. Two among many examples are preventing coal ash from being dumped into rivers and streams, and barring gun ownership for people too mentally ill to hold a job. State and local governments as well as domestic and international businesses are left to navigate uncertain terrain. Yet, our Congress enables this administration’s dogmatic chicanery – for reasons that can be nothing but political.
Here in North Carolina, Republicans have acted with hubris and alacrity since winning a majority in the General Assembly in 2010, for the first time in more than a century. “HB2” was but one in a series of draconian moves in a powerfully sobering backlash, which saw Republicans treating Democrats, and Independents, to a staggering display of “me and mine” which some may call a natural response to being in the minority for over a hundred years. Having been on the receiving end of Democratic gerrymandering for so long, the Republicans struck back with vengeance, targeting congressional, legislative and judicial districts. Sigh. We can dream of one day having grown folk among the ranks of our legislators. We would be glad of Republican lawmakers who seek public service, rather than partisan, personal wins. Our current crop is not promising.
Is our current president a Republican? We have to say yes, because Republicans aided and abetted his rise to the presidency, and embraced him as their standard bearer. How this happened will be a ripe source of historical analysis for decades to come, if humanity survives this administration. The current president used to endorse Democratic ideas. And he does not understand economics, let alone conservatism. And he is not exactly an embodiment of traditional family values. Why, then, did Republicans let this happen to the party?
Early in the first Obama term, it looked from the outside as though both parties might work together to achieve compromises on health care reform. Although the parties had already begun drifting away from common ground, shared governance still seemed possible. The Affordable Care Act incorporated a slew of conservative elements, taken directly from Republican models, as part of the overall program. But in 2009, House Republicans withdrew from negotiations and chose obstruction over participation. Senate Republican leadership had infamously declared that making Obama a one-term president was their number one priority – not the welfare of the American people, not advancing their own legislative priorities, not the defense and governance of our nation. That should have been a red flag! At the same time, the Republican party accepted an influx of excited new applicants to sit at the Republican table. In a cynically manufactured astroturf movement, the Koch brothers conjured the “Tea Party” movement out of citizens tired of feeling ignored by Washington and fearful of government overreach. Mixed in with a healthy dose of whites who were chagrined to see a black man as president. Who could have foreseen problems? Anyone. Anyone at all.
This new movement was populated with activists who called for the dismantling of our government as we know it. The path from Ted Cruz to Steve Bannon is not opaque. It is paradoxical (diabolical?) to see people running for federal office who decry the federal government. If you really and truly don’t believe in a role for the federal government in America, then why on Earth would you want to serve in that very federal government? Representing constituents is by definition participating in governance. Do these candidates really understand so little about the job? The answers turn out to range from idealism to cynicism amongst a mosaic of individuals, some of whom seek to dismantle the federal government from the inside, and others who want government to serve only their ilk – not smaller government in general. We have ended up with a plethora of politicians who are more loyal to their perceived “base” than to our constitution and institutions of government.
Combine this burgeoning arrival of a new voting base more loyal to the idea of being renegades than to alleged Republican ideals, with the Citizens’ United Supreme Court decision which eviscerated party structure as a central power in American electoral politics. The stage was now set for ideologues to run the table. Rather than answering to party bosses anymore, elected officials’ allegiance to donors has swelled. Once corporations were people as far as their political contributions were concerned, and dark money could flow endlessly through PACs, major donors mattered more than ever, more than party infrastructure, and far more than citizens. Oh, citizens are still told that we matter. And Tea Party voters were courted and flattered by their Republican candidates and representatives, so much so that compromise became a dirty word and the beginning of the end of moderate Republicanism had concluded.
At what cost? A thrice-married philanderer who brags in public about sexually assaulting women and dodging sexually transmitted diseases is the choice for president of evangelical christians. A man who inherited great wealth and repeatedly declared bankruptcy to evade his financial obligations to contractors and investors is the choice for president of fiscal conservatives. Voters think electing to the Senate a serial sexual predator who molested teenaged girls while serving as a 32-year old District Attorney and was disciplined and fired as a judge for ignoring the law, serves their conservative Republican values. When did traditional family values start meaning a fusion of church and state? When did an “R” behind someone’s name start mattering more than the content of their character?
These questions may not be new. Their sheer volume and velocity do mark unprecedented peril for our democracy. When Republican voters would rather “shake up the system” than vote in their own self-interest; when Senate Republicans refuse for over a year to do their job and hold a vote on the sitting president’s supreme court nominee in case they win the next election, then vote along relentlessly partisan lines for cabinet secretaries uniquely unqualified for their posts; when a Republican Attorney General repeatedly lies to his former Senate colleagues without being called to task; when this Republican president’s family members are elevated into government posts for which they have no expertise (although they do have plenty of conflicts of interest); when a foreign adversary meddles in our electoral process and ends up being praised by this Republican president who would rather open a probe into his former rival than secure the future integrity of our country; and, when all of this goes unchallenged by the legislative majority, by contemporary Republicans, there is something horribly, terribly, off kilter. Republicans who refuse to acknowledge and address this may well drown in the swamp of their own making.
Full disclosure: I am an unaffiliated voter, registered as independent of both major political parties because I prefer to choose any candidate in a given race whom I think speaks most logically and compassionately. My values align more often, traditionally, with candidates in the Democratic than in the Republican party here in North Carolina. Since my home county is about 70% Republican, unaffiliated status enables me to choose either major party ballot and thereby have a voice in primaries that often ‘determine the outcome’ of a general election.
Keep the faith. Keep in touch.