Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Real Work

Ex-House majority leader Dick Armey, a 1994 "Contract on America" author, says his former colleagues "need to do some serious substantive legislation" to improve their electoral chances. Armey, a conservative Republican, says his GOP colleagues are "wasting time" debating constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage and flag burning. "They're not doing real work. They're making political statements," he said, in remarks made two weeks ago.

Obviously his compatriots are not listening. Congress is on a roll, not only trying to ban gay marriage and flag-burning, but dirty TV shows, prostitution, and the free press ( I refer to their measure condeming a newspaper for recently reporting what was already public knowledge in 2001.) Like Armey, a lot of us find it bizarre that the GOP are so far off track, but in fact, he may be wrong about what it takes for them to win elections. I had the occasion to ask a major beltway Republican operative (call him "Tony") whether there was any chance the GOP could return to its more progressive, internationalist roots, and he shrugged. "Look, it took us 50 years to figure out how to put together a winning coalition, and we're not going to change course now."

The question, then, is whether it is about actually standing for something, or purely about winning, regardless of what that means. If you take "Tony" literally, it is about taking a box, labelled "Republican", and filling it with whatever will get people to choose it. If you want to win, you work your butt off for the box labelled "Republican", and you don't care what's inside it. That is the essence of mindless partisanship.

The irony is that the major components of the GOP coalition, namely Wall Street and the social conservatives, have nothing in common except a shared hatred of an equally empty box labelled "Hillary". The world the Wall Streeters want to achieve, would be awfully cold and frightening for the typical heartland Christian conservative. It is a world of free-agency, free capital flows, unfettered economic competition, and rampant vulgarity in the media. It is a world in which we had better teach science in schools, or our shiny new industries will vanish. It is a world that would eat most Christians alive (an image of the Colisseum comes to mind). And the world of the Christians is certainly not one the Wall Streeters would like. Picture Afghanistan under the Taliban. No fun. No dates. No laughing. Nothing to do with all your money except wait for martyrdom (ie, the Rapture), unless you own your own island (which some, but not all of them, do).

As a supporter of free trade, liberal markets, open immigration policies, technological advancement and internationalism, this writer finds common cause with the old advocates of "progress", and by extension, to some extent, with the Wall Streeters. However, all evidence suggests that to avoid the destruction of the environment and the enslavement of most people, one needs a balance of power, so that there is a floor beneath which the less successful are not permitted to fall, so that the guardians of the environment have the power to say "enough". That balance of power can also serve to protect non-economic freedoms and the dignity of the weak and the different. Markets don't provide that protection; only the enforcement of enlightened norms can do that. This all seems to be achievable only through democratic institutions, wherein those with little individual strength can collectively wield a measure of power to protect themselves.

The genius of the Republican coalition builders was to find a way to motivate large numbers of ordinary people to vote against their own economic interests, and to disregard the future of the planet. That way involved appealing to them on non-economic grounds, by feeding their fears and giving those fears a name. Call it liberalism, Hillary, gay marriage, immigrants... whatever, just keep them in fear. The problem is that the yahoos and rednecks have proven smarter, more organized, and more determined than any of the old guard gave them credit for, and they have risen up and are taking over the party. Now they are the 800-pound gorilla in the room, but they still feed on hate and fear. What they hate and fear are the very people with whom they would be making common cause, if they really cared about their childrens' futures.

I have heard an interesting debate: which wing of the Republican coalition is using which? Some say the Wall Steeters are using the Christians to win votes, in the service of policies that strictly benefit the money guys. With the common folk divided, the money guys can clean up as they never have before. Others say the Christians are using the infrastructure of the old GOP to take over the country, after which women will have to wear burkas, and we may become a third-world country, but at least gays will be back underground where they belong. Will one of these wings end up ascendant? If so, what happens to the losers? Do they join forces with the remnant of the Democratic party to form a new, more centrist party? Will there be any Democratic party left to talk to?

More disturbing: what if the two wings manage to keep co-existing, and keep a largely comatose opposition in its place? That certainly appears to be the strategy of those in and around the White House. So far, it has worked, and the consequences are becoming clear. The combination of suppression of personal freedom, persecution of the unpopular, and concentrated ownership of the government, starts to look like something we were all taught died in 1945.

3 Comments:

Blogger edman said...

Wow, this is rich and I have to read it many times to absorb all of it. I kind of agree with you ... in that there are a lot of opposing wants even within the GOP. Unrecognized dicotomy, if you will. I think this is the inefficiency of a democracy ... that each voice is valid and the majority rules. As you describe the GOP and its own dicotomies, I'm reminded of the long tail and blockbuster thinking in movie making and venture capital. The folks in power try to imagine what the constituency wants, and then it goes around and around and all you are left with is blockbuster thinking and ignoring the long tail.

I'm not sure how that relates to your conclusions, but it's my food for thought. Let's talk live on this so I can understand better.

June 29, 2006 7:27 PM  
Blogger Other Lisa said...

Great, eloquent post. You should submit this to some "old media" outlets.

July 05, 2006 8:53 AM  
Blogger Carlos Zapato said...

Dear Lisa,

thanks for the suggestion. May do that, with a little editing.

meanwhile, please forward to people who might read it.

Best,

July 12, 2006 7:49 PM  

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