These two phrases were uttered not by Democrats, but by prominent Republicans (Sen. Lindsey Graham, Gov. Bobby Jindal). Conservative author Matt K. Lewis said that although conservatism used to have “big, thoughtful ideas,” it has “lost its intellectual bearings.” The decay has been developing for years, so is by no means just in current debate behavior. As to that behavior, conservative historian Max Boot concluded the Trump surge “proves every bad thing Democrats have ever said about the GOP is basically true.”
Well, a proviso. I don’t think deterioration is unique to the Republican party, nor even the combination of the party and its tethered television outlet, Fox News. Further, I don’t agree with Boot that Trump’s performance, as appalling as it is, proves all Democrats’ claims to be true. I don’t revere everything Pres. Obama has done, nor do I criticize everything Pres. Bush did. Somewhat allied with Lewis, however, I do consider that the Republican party has been in decline since possibly the 1960s and surely since the 1980s, with a further marked descent since 2000. It is not the first political party to get lots of mileage out of untruths. Esteemed Democrat JFK won the presidency due in part to his damning, though inaccurate charge that that his predecessor, Pres. Dwight Eisenhower, had allowed a terrifying missile disadvantage vis-a-vis the USSR.
But I have additional motivation with respect to the Republican party: I fear that the US without a competent opposition to Democrats is a less robust, less philosophically muscular country. However, to my great regret, the current Republican party has forfeited that role by increasingly allying itself with the influences of xenophobia, bigotry, paranoia, and anti-science. (On a given issue, I might agree or disagree with the Republican position.) I find small mindedness, short-term focus, careerism, fudging and spinning, along with problems of agency in politicians of both parties. Each party condemns the other about actions for which it itself is guilty, for example, in recent years we’ve seen the reversal of which party is on which side of the Senate’s cloture rule.
Both parties stoop to intentionally quoting statements out of context in their arguments. For years Republicans have kept up an incessant drum beat of lies about Obama’s Democratic administration despite their being simply untrue, such as Obama’s “apology tour” or Obamacare’s inclusion of death panels. Neither was true, but the drum beat was too energizing to sacrifice to mere truth. In my opinion, however, while I’d not proclaim the Democratic party blameless, for the past fifteen years Republican conduct has been the most shameful.
Of course, bad things happen in every administration. It is never difficult to find things to criticize and well-deserved aspersions to cast. Unfortunately, it is hard to assess those aspersions, since the honesty of both parties may be in question and any issue’s importance may be misrepresented. As to importance, the rule seems to be that any act of the opposition that can be shown to be shady or questionable becomes important regardless of how trivial it is. What we can know is that choosing which charges to make and how crucial to say they are can never be trusted as unbiased and proportional.
Democrats, for example, would charge that the unending Benghazi investigations may have revealed unfortunate or unacceptable behaviors, but compared to Pres. Bush’s plunging the Middle East into a complex, extensive, and costly war is like comparing a skin rash to cancer. But whatever the wrongdoings that might be discovered about Benghazi, is it not curious that Republican elected officials have investigated the skin rash with a righteous fervor they never exhibited with respect to the cancer? They apparently value their role in making partisan points greater than their obligation as public servants, the role to which they were elected and for which they took an oath. All taken together, there is nothing done by the Obama administration or the Democratic party since the start of the century that comes close to Republican misdeeds.
Republicans have evolved into the anti-science party (see my post “Scientists (that’s plural!) define science,” August 19, 2013), substituting political judgment for scientific consensus whenever ignorance might be courted. They have reduced biology and climate science to political issues. Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin would have been right at home, having their highly disciplined truth-finding judged by magistrates and priests. Federal scientific advisory committees have been diluted with non-scientist Republicans beginning as early as the Bush administration, an attempt to remove any “unacceptable facts,” hardly the action of a party interested foremost in facts rather than dogma. Congressional hearings carefully select outlier scientists to corroborate political positions instead of the reverse.
From its mistaken belief that blocking ideas constitutes producing them, to risking the country’s financial health for small partisan victories, to treating compromise and playing by the rules as unacceptable, to outright lies and deception, and recently to conducting “debates” as if reruns of the Jerry Springer Show, the party has dishonored an earlier history of substantive concepts and those “intellectual bearings” Matt Lewis mentioned. Pity. The Republican party (along with unaffiliated conservatives) was at one time a party of political concepts that gave us William F. Buckley, Morton Blackwell, Paul Weyrich, and—to go back further in the history of conservative thought—Edmund Burke. (Not Lincoln, for despite the same name, his was a different party.) It is not necessary for either Republicans or Democrats to agree with these thinkers, but it is important to recognize what is lost when the lowest common denominator of judgment and intellect replaces them. Today’s Republican party has given us George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and Fox News clown Glenn Beck, among other intellectual leaders.
Disinformation is a political strategy, one that hampers citizens’ ability to make rational decisions in complex matters. Millions of conservatives, sustained and abetted by the party, carried the torch of disinformation by spreading preposterous claims about Pres. Obama and Democrat officials. I have received many of these, often taking time to check their authenticity, sometimes engaging the senders. If anything was more pronounced than the implausible rumors, it was the attitude of senders that seemed to be if the farfetched claims aided their cause, then accuracy mattered little or none.
Did Democrats act as if everything President George W. Bush did was wrong? Unwilling to limit their criticisms to only the obvious and massive mistakes, some Democrats did just that. It is a human characteristic to slip into unfair criticisms and can be found in any party and about any party. I have known Democrats, for example, to act as if Pres. Bush’s time at his ranch was a dereliction of duty, just as inconsequential as similar charges Republicans have made about Pres. Obama. The difference is that in the past seven years, the Republican party raised unwarranted criticism and counterfactual deceptions to an art form.
When I watch the angry, shouting, sometimes violent behavior at a Donald Trump rally, I see people understandably angry due to their own real pain and fear, but also misinformed by the Republican falsehoods. Obama is a Muslim. Obama wasn’t really born a citizen. Obama is ripping American apart. Obama is a socialist. Obama is responsible for divisions in the country. Obama ignores the Constitution.
Although the Fox News faithful have been shown to be less informed about national and international events, you can be sure they are certain about where blame lies for any problem that comes up. No one seems to care whether the stories are accurate or “fair and balanced,” just that they fit fans’ brain receptors like a drug. Years of such aided ignorance brought the nation almost far enough to pave the way for Obama’s defeat four years ago. We shall see if doubling down on similar disinformation and innuendo will usher a Republican into the White House this year. And that brings me to this year’s debates.
The unbelievable antics of Republican party candidates for president are, well, beyond belief. Continued descent into Jerry Springer Show politics brings us closer to its becoming the new normal. We have already developed an inability to grasp how disastrous it could be for the globe’s most powerful country to toy with political psychosis. Observers outside the US have reason to worry about so powerful a nation exhibiting paranoia and anti-intellectualism. While the Democratic contenders fight it out almost totally on policy issues, their Republican counterparts conduct a verbal slugfest.
At times, they’ve seemed to be trying to out-Christian each other (see my post “Democrats vs. theocrats,” January 30, 2016), to out-condemn “political correctness” in each other (see my post “Political correctness,” April 20, 2014), and to out-shout each other with sins of Pres. Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Do they debate policies? Yes, somewhat, though there is a tendency only to bring up issues that enable an anti-Obama political point to be made. In any event, grownups are in short supply. I wonder if the candidates, if asked, would say their performance adds to the vaunted American Exceptionalism or detracts from it (see my post “American exceptionalism, American bloviation,” November 11, 2015).
Let’s turn to another drama I call “A Justice Delayed is Justice Denied.” Due to the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the Republican party has to deal with more than its embarrassing primaries behavior. A less conservative justice than Scalia will change the tilt of the court for years. Understandably irritating to Republicans is that the sitting president has the job of nominating a replacement and the job of the Senate is to “advise and consent.” There is no Constitution provision that excuses assigned duties just because a party doesn’t care to perform. The country was titillated or shocked (depending on party), by the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s announcement that, despite the Constitutional obligation, the Senate would simply not do its job; that is, even if Pres. Obama faithfully performs, the Senate will not. This irresponsible action—supported by most Republicans in Congress—is not just a matter of disagreement on some policy decision, but far worse. It is an intentional and autarchic change in the Constitutional rules, as if a football team unilaterally changes the rules to its benefit during the game.
(Sen. McConnell, as Republican leader, famously declared at the beginning of Pres. Obama’s first term that the “number one goal” of Republicans was to make Obama a “one-term president.” Funny, one would think any party’s main goal would have something to do with fulfilling the responsibilities of governing, in fact to perform so well that its political chances are increased honestly. (What happened to the concept of “loyal opposition”?) Republican Congressional behavior after that point was, in fact, consistent with its less-than-patriotic goal.)
Republicans’ stated justification for this kind of contemptable action varies, but is often rather transparent. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley compared Pres. Obama to King George III—for his ostensible “executive overreach,” in any event also a tactic of Pres. George W. Bush. Sen. Grassley hadn’t noticed that. Senator John Cornyn said that if President Obama nominates someone, Senate Republicans will make “a piñata” of the nominee—that said with no idea who the nominee will be! Moreover, said Sen. Cornyn, “I don’t think the voters are really interested in seeing the ideological balance of the court changed for the next 30 years by a lame duck president.” Of course, it is not “voters,” but Republicans who might feel that way. Sen. Cornyn has no idea what voters want and doesn’t care. Nor does it matter. Sen. Mitchell and his colleagues have decided that no president—no, this president—should be allowed a nominee in the last year of his (or her) term.
Compounding the dishonor, the Republican establishment began a rumor that refraining from nomination in a president’s final year is a time honored practice. It is not. This tactic should not surprise us, for the right wing of House Republicans has acted that way since early victories of the Tea Party. Lying and obstructionism, not governing, have become an acceptable theme of political leadership. Authoritative repetition substitutes for truthfulness until the lie is believed as truth; that is closer to 1984 than is comfortable.
We’re at a dangerous and embarrassing position. It is dangerous because the political machinery, at least on the Republican side, is more engaged in its hyper-partisanship than doing its job for the country. It is embarrassing because the United States, the self-described indispensable country, is disgracing itself at the highest levels with uncivil and childish antics, incompetence at facing and resolving diverse opinions, and shunning the science which has contributed to our ascent. This may turn out just to be a bad period, one in which we recover from humiliating political freefall as actually has happened before (e.g., the Jefferson/Adams campaign). But leaving that recovery to chance is excruciating.
This post has been a brutal criticism of the Republican party by a complete amateur as a political pundit. I’ve tried to be fair. The torch carried by the Republican party in the past is an important element in an informed citizenry. Its loss is not trivial. It has already occurred and reconstituting a viable and responsible party may be a Humpty Dumpty affair.
In one of my next posts, I hope to look at the quality of public discourse this country deserves and the world deserves us to have. I have not enjoyed addressing a laundry list of failures that I believe to be true, but that at one time or another could be true of any party. I will be happy to get beyond partisan madness and the pits into which it occasionally falls. Frankly, on a personal basis, I am more comfortable with system design and system maintenance than I am with being critical of a political party. We have an opportunity to contemplate something far more hopeful as well as crucial and that is what I look forward to thinking about: The nurturance of a political system.