For 25 years, the American right wing has been pursuing a strategy designed to increase their political power, and it’s cost them their principles and basic competence.
The present government shutdown is an embarrassment; a failure of basic governmental competence that would be unimaginable in any other developed nation. Nowhere in any other democracy on earth could denying the fundamental, routine responsibilities of government be considered as a serious proposal, much less employed as a “hostage-taking” measure in an attempt to overturn settled and constitutionally-valid law.
The responsibility for this trainwreck lies wholly with a portion of Republican party, the hard-right Tea Party caucus, and its evident belief that it is the only source of political legitimacy. It takes a special kind of blind arrogance to believe that a law that’s been passed, signed, supported as an electoral issue, and upheld by the Supreme Court is nonetheless somehow not legitimate.
Unfortunately, the Tea Partiers have exactly that kind of arrogance. Comparing themselves to everything from the civil rights movement to the Union army in the Civil War, they have clearly taken the position that those who oppose them should not be considered a legitimate part of government. For proof of this, one need look no further than the ridiculous list of demands they issued in exchange for the basic, necessary act of raising the debt ceiling. The only way the American government can function, they are saying, is by enacting their entire agenda. No other agenda can be considered legitimate.
How did things come to this pass? How, in the most powerful democracy in the world, can our government be held hostage by a radical group that rejects the very concept of democracy? How can a constitutional republic with a tripartite government be crippled by a minority that doesn’t believe in checks, balances, or separation of powers?
The answer is that we’re witnessing the backfiring of a quarter-century plan by the American right, a plan that has paid immense political dividends for the Republican party, at the cost of their principles and ability to govern.
Today’s right wing stands for nothing. Their position has been usefully defined as “The opposite of what liberals want today, updated daily.” This is easily tested: their own legislators will demonstrably oppose their own positions if the alternative is agreeing with a Democrat. The reactions of right-wingers to events bear this out even more obviously. When liberals began pushing anti-bullying campaigns, the right suddenly discovered they were pro-bullying.
When liberals decried the murder of Trayvon Martin, the right immediately shot past “Maybe we should hear out the facts” and straight to “Trayvon deserved to die.” If President Obama were to come out against self-immolation, right-wingers coast to coast would burst into flames.
It’s this blunt, reactionary non-position that defines the modern right, and has given rise to the current crisis. And the ground for it was laid in 1987.
That was the year that the FCC repealed the “Fairness Doctrine“, the rule that, since 1949, had required broadcasters using the public airwaves to present even-handed coverage regarding controversial issues of public interest. By the late Reagan administration, though, the concepts of public interest and public property were considered unfashionable, and the doctrine was repealed. Broadcasting on controversial issues now belonged to whoever could buy the biggest microphone. Unsurprisingly, the resultant wave of one-sided programming favored the interests of rich corporations.
The rise of right-wing radio created the new identity politics that has dominated the past two decades, starting with the “angry white male” vote of the 1994 elections. It’s a right-wing identity that is based on the knee-jerk opposition described above. It’s not even conservative so much as “not-liberal”, and it’s become the core identity of a certain irreducible percentage of the nation.
Now, decades later, we’ve seen the peddling of paranoid, reactionary fables grow into a vast industry with its own news network, and even moderate conservatives can only shake their heads at how detached from reality this media bubble has made its enthusiasts.
I was in high school when I saw the beginnings of the collapse of the Republican party into its present status as a national disaster. It had started in 1987, but the effects didn’t start to become visible right away, and I didn’t start paying attention to politics until my teen years.
I saw the young Republicans in my high school, the guys writing papers titled “In Defense of Racism” and saying that the most important thing in life was money, talking about their new guru, a radio demagogue named Rush Limbaugh. Curious, I gave the guy a listen and read his first book. What I saw was a political philosophy defined entirely in the negative. Limbaugh, and the vast army of his imitators, didn’t actually rail in favor of anything; merely against “liberals”.
The basis of Limbaugh’s appeal, and that of the entire mediasphere feeding the same audience as Limbaugh, is moral outrage. Offense and anger are literally all it’s based on, and they’ll exaggerate, manufacture, and if necessary just plain make up new enemies to be outraged at. I realized even then that this was no basis for a coherent political stance, and wondered what would become of the people growing up in the alternate universe they were creating.
Today, we’re seeing what’s become of them. They’re serving in the most incompetent Congress in the history of our country.
Ted Cruz was 16 years old in 1987. He’d have been in college during the rise of the right-wing talkers, and has spent his entire adult life within the alternate reality of right-wing radio, Fox News, and the ubiquitous email forwards that vary from urban myths to outright cons. He’s been allowed to exist within a universe of false information that has been telling him consistently that only his views are legitimate, that anything other than the farthest-right position is treasonous, unpatriotic, and wrong.
And now he and his cohorts are attempting to govern as though all that is true. Their self-justifying fantasy, fed on manufactured outrage against imaginary enemies, has plowed into the reality of actual governance, and been found completely incompatible.
Sadly, the same forces that have let them come to power mean that these dangerously irresponsible legislators are unlikely to pay an electoral price for their actions. Not only have years of gerrymandering and voter suppression, designed carefully to protect Republican seats, helped make many of them election-proof, but the same media stream that’s led to their election has also created a subset of voters who cannot imagine voting for anyone but a Republican. These voters will never connect their representatives’ actions to any real-world consequences, living as they do in a bubble where anything bad that happens is the Democrats’ fault almost by definition.
Indeed, one of the major electoral threats faced by Republican politicians is being faced with a primary challenge from a further-right Republican. In many cases, longstanding Republicans have been ousted by right-wing extremists in direct retaliation for perceived disloyalty to the hard-right agenda. Such disloyalty usually takes the form of compromise, passing legislation, confirming candidates, and otherwise actually doing their job as legislators.
This, then, is the state of play. We are split into two Americas not along socioeconomic lines, but along parallel realities. A certain percentage of the electorate has seceded from consensus reality, preferring to inhabit a world they find more morally comforting than the truth. Once set up in this reality, they have begun sending representatives to Washington, people whose affiliation might as well be listed as R – (Fantasyland).