Daily Archives: November 25, 2003

The Cult of Personality 1: The Nature of True Republicanism

In a long and more personal post than he usually indulges in, David Neiwert of Orcinus lays out his journey from mainstream Idaho-conservatism to a sort of liberalism-by-default, convincingly pegging the change in his own attitudes to the changes in conservatism over the last quarter-century:

Working-class values, and my belief in blue-collar virtues — like integrity, decency, hard work, honesty, common sense, and fair play — all were quite deeply ingrained. When I was younger, I really believed that conservatism best embodied those values.

Over the years that morphed, especially as I worked as a newspaperman (beginning in about 1976, when I was just turning 20). I was confronted innumerable times with realities that conflicted with my old preconceptions. I came to know hard-working Democrats who had the highest integrity and greatest decency (people like Frank Church and Cecil Andrus). I got to know Republicans who were prolific liars of the lowest integrity (like George Hansen, Steve Symms and Helen Chenoweth). And, of course, I got to know scumbag Democrats and honest Republicans as well, people who jibed with my old worldview. But it was obvious that the old construct was not really valid.

What became especially clear was that — even though I had always believed, and still do, that upper-class and urban liberals are prone to a phony compassion that only extended to various victim classes, rather like a parlor game, often rationalized with a tortuous intellectualism — conservatives likewise were fond of wrapping themselves in my old-fashioned, working-class values (along with the American flag, of course) while utterly undermining the ability of ordinary, working-class people to make a decent living and obtain equal opportunity.

Conservatism, especially in the past 20 years, has come less to represent those old-fashioned values, and instead has become a watchword for rampant, unfettered corporatism. Republicans in Idaho particularly were fond of gutting my state’s heritage — letting “free enterprise” pollute our streams, wipe out fish runs and wildlife habitat, destroy the forests in which I used to hunt and fish — while proclaiming they were doing so in the name of “liberty.” They weren’t the party of the little people, despite their pose, which so many people I knew bought into. They were the party of the fat cats who bellied up to the public trough, trashed our lands, and walked away fatter and fancy free.

Mr Neiwert seems here to be blissfully unaware that what he is describing has been the GOP agenda since the days of the Robber Barons 130 years ago. Whenever the Republicans have been in control, they have encouraged the rape of resources (the Republicans who controlled Maine in the 19th century allowed logging interests to clearcut the entire state, for example) and the unfettering of business to the point where corruption, fraud, and even murder were condoned to a degree we would find hard to believe even now.

The rise of moderate Republicanism began after Teapot Dome when a reaction set in against the revelations of a naked corporate rapacity so arrogant, so unbridled, that it thought nothing of reaching into the White House itself and buying a President. What I will call the standard GOP agenda had to be brought under control and modified to blunt the animosity Teapot Dome had ignited among ordinary voters or the GOP wasn’t going to survive the backlash.

The election of FDR in ’32 was a repudiation of Republican policies (which were widely seen as the prime cause of the Stock Market crash and the Depression which followed) that was to herald a sea-change in American politics. By the beginning of the Second World War, the GOP had lost not just the White House but the Congress as well, at least in part because they had fought Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program, which aimed to help Britain defend itself from Hitler, by offering a platform of Isolationism and warm words for the German leader which were not remembered fondly when he declared war on us.

At that point, moderation was solidified as the only acceptable strategy – GOP isolationists and extremists were being thrown out of office after office. The election of Eisenhower – a moderate centrist – which regained them the Presidency served to confirm the strategy, but they never really forgot their roots. They compromised only because they had no choice.

To be personal for a moment, I grew up in conservative New Hampshire and well remember the burning hatred that surfaced among them whenever Roosevelt’s name was mentioned – and that was 20 years after his death. Nor was the hatred confined to the generation which had lived under him. Fathers passed their hatred of the New Deal and its creator to their sons like an heirloom. As the South has never forgotten or forgiven the Civil War, conservatives had clearly not forgotten or forgiven the man they blamed for “socializing” the US and destroying their party in the process. Even then they dreamed of reversing everything Roosevelt stood for: “socialized medicine”, Social Security, Welfare (called “Relief” in the Depression), unemployment insurance, all of it.

I was lectured over and over again about how these things were “anti-American”, Communist-inspired “perversions” (a word the John Birch Society was particularly partial to using about Roosevelt personally as well as his policies) of “their” Constitution, despicable “invasions of privacy” (which turned out to mean, when you questioned them, govt “interference” with business) that would destroy the fabric of America and the American promise.

Their hatred rarely seemed to have any bounds. They fantasized about military rebellion against what they interpreted as a “Communist takeover” of their govt by “Soviet-backed” liberals, seeing any move to weaken the Second Amendment as an obvious attempt at disarming them and preventing their ability to raise armies of opposition. They talked about seceding from the Union – not necessarily peacefully – if they didn’t get what they wanted. A common statement you might hear from any of them was, “We should have killed that son-of-a-bitch (FDR) when we had the chance.” And they meant it.

At first I dismissed them, as did everyone else, as a fringe group of whackos. But as I got to know more of them, I discovered that they were supported – quietly but steadily – by people who sounded, in public at least, like moderate centrists who would be appalled at the excesses of, say, the Birchers. The dichotomy between the public and private statements of “moderate” Republicans at that time was extreme, a gulf so vast it couldn’t be explained except by hypocrisy and political expediency. For a while (I was young) I became convinced that every moderate Republican was really a closet Bircher plotting in secret to overthrow the “Liberal/Communist Conspiracy”.

Of course that wasn’t true. Some moderate Republicans were legitimate moderates, not radicals; as time went on and the extremists were no closer to their goals, perhaps most of them were legitimate. But the strain of GOP radical idealism I noted then remained just under the surface all during the 60’s, given new life by the twin towers of Viet Nam and massive social change. By Nixon’s second term, plans were already afoot in the radical wing to win back the govt, and their goals had not changed one whit in the intervening 30 years: to reverse Roosevelt’s Communist Programs and Johnson’s Great Society extension of them, and to once again make corporations safe from democracy and democratic “interference”.

So where Neiwert sees a moderate GOP that “morphed” into a radical, intemperate beast–

I’ve become much more concerned about conservatism, largely because it has itself morphed from a style of thought, like liberalism, into a decidedly ideological movement. One never hears of a “liberal movement,” while the “conservative movement” proudly announces its presence at every turn. Conservatism has become highly dogmatic and rigid in its thinking, allowing hardly anything in the way of dissent — indeed, it is nowadays practically Stalinist itself, especially in the way it punishes anyone who strays from the official “conservative” line.

–I see a GOP that is simply returning to the core philosophy and goals it had to abandon for practical reasons of survival, jettisoning a “moderation” it never really embraced except as a tactic. The evidence for this can be shown by the periodic outbreaks of Republican attempts to come out of the closet: 1948, when they were beaten back by Truman’s relentless exposure of their greed and arrogance; the early 1950’s when Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon tried to destroy the Democratic party – and liberals of any kind – by “proving” that they were Communists; and 1964 when they chose Barry Goldwater as their standard-bearer and for the first time since WWII declared their intentions in the wide open spaces of a national campaign. What Niewert rightly decries is not an abberation, however, but the re-emergence of the GOP’s long-stifled Prime Agenda.

The radical right-wing extremists have not “hijacked” the party, they’ve just come out of hiding and re-assumed their rightful place: in the open, as representatives and advocates of the true Republicanism that has been underground for 100 years. Like locusts, they may not have been visible but they were there all the time, waiting for the right time to emerge.

to be continued….