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Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Libertarian Challenge within the GOP

The Libertarian Challenge within the GOP

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst-U.S. Senator Rand Paul departs after a photo opportunity where he invited fellow legislators to have coffee on the steps of the U.S. Capitol during the government shutdown in Washington, October 3, 2013. A U.S. government shutdown entered its third day on Thursday with little sign of compromise between Republicans and Democrats and concerns grew about the economic consequences of a prolonged stalemate.

Would a stronger appeal to libertarian values help the Republican Party win elections? This was one of the central questions raised during a discussion of the Public Religion Research Institute’s (PRRI’s) American Values Survey, “In Search of Libertarians in America,” launched at the Brookings Institution on October 29th, 2013.
Libertarianism has become a major part of the political conversation in the United States, thanks in large part to the high profile presidential candidacy of Ron Paul, the visibility of his son Rand in the United States Senate, and Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s well-known admiration of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” And the tenets of libertarianism square with the attitudes of an American public dissatisfied with government performance, apprehensive about government’s intrusiveness into private life, and disillusioned with U.S. involvement overseas. Libertarianism is also distinct from the social conservatism that has handicapped the Republican Party in many recent elections among women and young people.
Within this context, libertarians seem likely to exercise greater sway on the Republican Party than at any other point in the recent past. But a closer look at public attitudes points to many factors that will limit the ability of libertarians to command greater influence within the GOP caucus.
First, according to the PRRI poll, libertarians represent only 12% of the Republican Party. This number is consistent with the findings of other studies by the Pew Research Center and the American National Election Study. This libertarian constituency is dwarfed by other key Republican groups, including white evangelicals (37%) and those who identify with the Tea Party (20%).[1]
While these groups are similarly conservative on economic matters (indeed, libertarians are further to the right than white evangelicals or Tea Partiers on some economic issues, such as raising the minimum wage), they are extremely divided by their views on religion. Only 53% of libertarians describe religion as the most important thing or one among many important things in their lives. By comparison, 77% of Tea Party members say that religion is either the most important thing or one among many important things in their lives, and – not surprisingly – 94% of white evangelicals say that religion is either the most important thing or one among many important things in their lives. A full 44% of libertarians say that religion is not important in their lives or that religion is not as important as other things in their lives. Only 11% of Tea Party members and 1% of white evangelicals say that religion is not important in their lives.
Additionally, libertarians are among the most likely to agree that religion causes more problems in society than it solves (37% total: 17% completely agreeing, 20% mostly agreeing); the least likely to agree that it is important for children to be brought up in a religion so they can learn good values (35% total: 13% completely disagree, 22% disagree); and the least likely to think it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values (63% total: 30% completely disagree, 33% mostly disagree).
These stark differences in attitudes toward religion help explain the large difference in view between libertarians and other conservatives on social issues such as abortion, physician-assisted suicide, and marijuana legalization. Given their positions on these contentious social matters, it is very difficult to envision Libertarians gaining the support of socially conservative voters in the Republican Party.
Libertarians’ influence on the Republican Party is also limited by geography. Libertarians are broadly dispersed across the country – and even where they are most regionally concentrated, they are outnumbered by Tea Partiers and White Evangelicals. According to the PRRI survey, of the 7% of the American public that is libertarian:
  • 22% live in the Northeast
  • 22% live in the Midwest
  • 18% live in the West
  • 38% live in the South.
By contrast, of the 10% of Americans who consider themselves members of the Tea Party:
  • 18% live in the Northeast
  • 17% live in the Midwest
  • 22% live in the West
  • 44% live in the South.
 Of the 18% of Americans who identify with the religious right:
  • 12% live in the Northeast
  • 22% live in the Midwest
  • 17% live in the West
  • 49% live in the South.
These numbers strongly reinforce the notion that the South is the center of gravity for the Republican Party, with nearly every major constituency within the party (perhaps with the exception of the business community) seeing its highest levels of support in the region.
According to a study on the ideological compositions of individual states, published by Jason Sorens, a political scientist at Dartmouth College and founder of the Free State Project, the ten states with the largest libertarian constituencies are (in descending order) Montana, Alaska, New Hampshire, Idaho, Nevada, Indiana, Georgia, Wyoming, Washington, and Oregon. By this analysis, the states with the highest levels of libertarian support are predominantly rural, sparsely populated, and share a frontier past, with the partial exceptions of Indiana, Georgia, and New Hampshire.
Of the 10 states that Sorens identifies as having the most libertarians, only New Hampshire, Nevada, and Georgia had spreads of 8 points or less in the 2012 presidential election. The other seven were either solidly red (Montana, Alaska, Idaho, Indiana, Wyoming, and Utah) or solidly blue (Washington and Oregon). 
As such, there seems little impetus for any ideological change of course in these states—not to mention the South writ large, the region with the greatest level of libertarian support—since they are already so stoutly Republican. Perhaps in individual districts with a particular libertarian bent, libertarian candidates could have some electoral success. But any candidate running as a libertarian would, by the nature of libertarianism, have to emphasize their laissez-faire values on social issues. If running for higher office, this would surely alienate more socially conservative voters, so strongly represented in the Republican Party in these areas. 
The business establishment of the Republican Party would seem a natural libertarian ally, given its moderate views on social issues, opposition to government regulation, and natural sympathy for classical economics. But this view is contested by Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. At the recent Brookings discussion, Olsen argued that the business community consists of “people who are generally but not intensely opposed to government expansion, people who are generally but not intensely supportive of personal social liberties, people who are generally but not intensely suspicious of intervention abroad. That is the center of the Republican Party, not the libertarian alliance.” The very intensity of the libertarian movement is, as Olsen observed, “a bit off-putting to the person in the middle.”
There is also a kind of limiting syllogism: Though the states with the most libertarians are primarily rural, libertarians are also wealthier than average, better educated than average, and young (indeed, 62% of libertarians are under the age of 50)—three demographic sets that tend to live in densely populated areas. Heavily populated areas are overwhelmingly Democratic. It is not clear how many of voters in these areas would support a more libertarian Republican. Regardless, it is even less likely that libertarianism would tilt the balance in urban counties towards the GOP’s way. Writing in the New York Times, Thomas B. Edsall pointed to a study showing that “98% of the 50 most dense counties voted for Obama. 98% of the 50 least dense counties voted for Romney.”
For a variety of reasons, the burden falls on libertarians to demonstrate how they will change these dynamics. While there may be real appeal for some for Republicans to embrace a more libertarian approach, the undercurrents of the party do not paint an encouraging picture for this as a successful electoral strategy.
The cornerstone of libertarianism—a fervent belief in the preeminence of personal liberty—leads libertarians to hold views on social issues that fall far outside of the mainstream of large portions of the Republican Party. In addition, libertarians’ greatest concentrations in numbers tend to fall either in small, sparsely populated states with less national political power, or among younger individuals who live predominantly in densely populated, Democratic areas. This culminates in an environment where political and demographic forces across the United States and within the Republican Party itself severely limit the power and growth of libertarians as a force within the GOP.
Relationship between Libertarians, the Tea Party, and the Christian Right

[1] Tea Party members are much more likely to identify with the religious right than they are with libertarianism. More than half of Tea Partiers (52%) say they are a part of the religious right or the conservative Christian movement, and more than one-third (35%) specifically identify as white evangelical Protestants. In contrast, only 26% of Tea Partiers were classified as libertarians on PRRI’s Libertarian Orientation Scale.

Ross Tilchin
Program and Research Assistant, Governance Studies

Sunday, December 22, 2013

How the GOP became the “White Man’s Party”


How the GOP became the “White Man’s Party”

From Nixon to Rand, Republicans have banked on the unerring support of Southern white men. Here's how it came to be

How the GOP became the  
Richard Nixon, Rand Paul (Credit: AP/Ed Reinke/Photo collage by Salon)
Few names conjure the recalcitrant South, fighting integration with fire-breathing fury, like that of George Wallace. The central image of this “redneck poltergeist,” as one biographer referred to him, is of Wallace during his inauguration as governor of Alabama in January 1963, before waves of applause and the rapt attention of the national media, committing himself to the perpetual defense of segregation. Speaking on a cold day in Montgomery, Wallace thundered his infamous call to arms: “Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland … we sound the drum for freedom. … In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny . . . and I say … segregation now … segregation tomorrow … segregation forever!”

The story of dog whistle politics begins with George Wallace. But it does not start with Wallace as he stood that inauguration day. Rather, the story focuses on who Wallace was before, and on whom he quickly became.

Before that January day, Wallace had not been a rabid segregationist; indeed, by Southern standards, Wallace had been a racial moderate. He had sat on the board of trustees of a prominent black educational enterprise, the Tuskegee Institute. He had refused to join the walkout of Southern delegates from the 1948 Democratic convention when they protested the adoption of a civil rights platform. As a trial court judge, he earned a reputation for treating blacks civilly—a breach of racial etiquette so notable that decades later J.L. Chestnut, one of the very few black lawyers in Alabama at the time, would marvel that in 1958 “George Wallace was the first judge to call me ‘Mr.’ in a courtroom.” The custom had been instead to condescendingly refer to all blacks by their first name, whatever their age or station. When Wallace initially ran for governor in 1958, the NAACP endorsed him; his opponent had the blessing of the Ku Klux Klan.
In the fevered atmosphere of the South, roiled by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision forbidding school segregation, the moderate Wallace lost in his first campaign for governor. Years later, the victor would reconstruct the campaign, distilling a simple lesson: the “primary reason I beat [Wallace] was because he was considered soft on the race question at the time. That’s the primary reason.”4 This lesson was not lost on Wallace, and in turn, would reshape American politics for the next half-century. On the night he lost the 1958 election, Wallace sat in a car with his cronies, smoking a cigar, rehashing the loss, and putting off his concession speech. Finally steeling himself, Wallace eased opened the car door to go inside and break the news to his glum supporters. He wasn’t just going to accept defeat, though, he was going to learn from it. As he snuffed out his cigar and stepped into the evening, he turned back: “Well, boys,” he vowed, “no other son-of-a-bitch will ever out-nigger me again.”
Four years later, Wallace ran as a racial reactionary, openly courting the support of the Klan and fiercely committing himself to the defense of segregation. It was as an arch-segregationist that Wallace won the right to stand for inauguration in January 1963, allowing him to proclaim segregation today, tomorrow, and forever. Summarizing his first two campaigns for governor of Alabama, Wallace would later recall, “you know, I started off talking about schools and highways and prisons and taxes—and I couldn’t make them listen. Then I began talking about niggers—and they stomped the floor.”

Wallace was far from the only Southern politician to veer to the right on race in the 1950s. The mounting pressure for black equality destabilized a quiescent political culture that had assumed white supremacy was unassailable, putting pressure on all public persons to stake out their position for or against integration. Wallace figures here for a different reason, one that becomes clear in how he upheld his promise to protect segregation.

During his campaign, Wallace had vowed to stand in schoolhouse doorways to personally bar the entrance of black students into white institutions.

In June 1963, he got his chance. The federal courts had ordered the integration of the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, and US Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach flew down from Washington, DC, to enforce the order. More than 200 national reporters and all three of the major broadcast networks were on hand for the promised confrontation. From behind a podium, Wallace stood in the June heat and raised his hand to peremptorily bar the approach of Katzenbach. Then he read a seven-minute peroration that avoided the red-meat language of racial supremacy and instead emphasized “the illegal usurpation of power by the Central Government.” In footage carried on all three networks, the nation watched as Wallace hectored Katzenbach, culminating with Wallace declaiming, “I do hereby denounce and forbid this illegal and unwarranted action by the Central Government.”8 It was pure theater, even down to white lines chalked on the ground to show where the respective thespians should stand (Katzenbach approached more closely than expected, but ultimately that only heightened the drama). Wallace knew from the start that he would back down, and after delivering his stem-winder, that is what he did. Within two hours, as expected, the University of Alabama’s first two black students were on campus.

Over the next week, the nation reacted. More than 100,000 telegrams and letters flooded the office of the Alabama governor. More than half of them were from outside of the South. Did they condemn him? Five out of every 100 did. The other 95 percent praised his brave stand in the schoolhouse doorway.

The nation’s reaction was an epiphany for Wallace, or perhaps better, three thunderbolts that together convinced Wallace to reinvent himself yet again. First, Wallace realized with a shock that hostility toward blacks was not confined to the South. “He had looked out upon those white Americans north of Alabama and suddenly been awakened by a blinding vision: ‘They all hate black people, all of them. They’re all afraid, all of them. Great god! That’s it! They’re all Southern. The whole United States is Southern.’” Wallace suddenly knew that overtures to racial resentment would resonate across the country.

His second startling realization was that he, George Wallace, had figured out how to exploit that pervasive animosity. The key lay in seemingly non-racial language. At his inauguration, Wallace had defended segregation and extolled the proud Anglo-Saxon Southland, thereby earning national ridicule as an unrepentant redneck. Six months later, talking not about stopping integration but about states’ rights and arrogant federal authority—and visually aided by footage showing him facing down a powerful Department of Justice official rather than vulnerable black students attired in their Sunday best—Wallace was a countrywide hero. “States’ rights” was a paper-thin abstraction from the days before the Civil War when it had meant the right of Southern states to continue slavery. Then, as a rejoinder to the demand for integration, it meant the right of Southern states to continue laws mandating racial segregation—a system of debasement so thorough that it “extended to churches and schools, to housing and jobs, to eating and drinking … to virtually all forms of public transportation, to sports and recreations, to hospitals, orphanages, prisons, and asylums, and ultimately to funeral homes, morgues, and cemeteries.” That’s what “states’ rights” defended, though in the language of state-federal relations rather than white supremacy. Yet this was enough of a fig leaf to allow persons queasy about black equality to oppose integration without having to admit, to others and perhaps even to themselves, their racial attitudes.

“Wallace pioneered a kind of soft porn racism in which fear and hate could be mobilized without mentioning race itself except to deny that one is a racist,” a Wallace biographer argues. The notion of “soft porn racism” ties directly to the thesis of “Dog Whistle Politics.” Wallace realized the need to simultaneously move away from supremacist language that was increasingly unacceptable, while articulating a new vocabulary that channeled old, bigoted ideas. He needed a new form of racism that stimulated the intended audience without overtly transgressing prescribed social limits. The congratulatory telegrams from across the nation revealed to Wallace that he had found the magic formula. Hardcore racism showed white supremacy in disquieting detail. In contrast, the new soft porn racism hid any direct references to race, even as it continued to trade on racial stimulation. As a contemporary of Wallace marveled, “he can use all the other issues—law and order, running your own schools, protecting property rights—and never mention race. But people will know he’s telling them ‘a nigger’s trying to get your job, trying to move into your neighborhood.’ What Wallace is doing is talking to them in a kind of shorthand, a kind of code.”

Finally, a third bolt of lightening struck Wallace: he could be the one! The governor’s mansion in Montgomery need not represent his final destination. He could ride the train of revamped race-baiting all the way to the White House. Wallace ran for president as a third-party candidate in 1964, and then again in 1968, 1972, and 1976. It’s his 1968 campaign that most concerns us, for there Wallace ran against a consummate politician who was quick to appreciate, and adopt, Wallace’s refashioned racial demagoguery: Richard Nixon. We’ll turn to the Wallace-Nixon race soon, but first, another set of weathered bones must be excavated—the remains of Barry Goldwater.

The Rise of Racially Identified Parties

The Republican Party today, in its voters and in its elected officials, is almost all white. But it wasn’t always like that. Indeed, in the decades immediately before 1964, neither party was racially identified in the eyes of the American public. Even as the Democratic Party on the national level increasingly embraced civil rights, partly as a way to capture the growing political power of blacks who had migrated to Northern cities, Southern Democrats—like George Wallace— remained staunch defenders of Jim Crow. Meanwhile, among Republicans, the racial antipathies of the rightwing found little favor among many party leaders. To take an important example, Brown and its desegregation imperative were backed by Republicans: Chief Justice Earl Warren, who wrote the opinion, was a Republican, and the first troops ordered into the South in 1957 to protect black students attempting to integrate a white school were sent there by the Republican administration of Dwight Eisenhower and his vice president, Richard Nixon. Reflecting the roughly equal commitment of both parties to racial progress, even as late as 1962, the public perceived Republicans and Democrats to be similarly committed to racial justice. In that year, when asked which party “is more likely to see that Negroes get fair treatment in jobs and housing,” 22.7 percent of the public said Democrats and 21.3 percent said Republicans, while over half could perceive no difference between the two.

The 1964 presidential election marked the beginning of the realignment we live with today. Where in 1962 both parties were perceived as equally, if tepidly, supportive of civil rights, two years later 60 percent of the public identified Democrats as more likely to pursue fair treatment, versus only 7 percent who so identified the Republican Party. What happened?

Groundwork for the shift was laid in the run-up to the 1964 election by rightwing elements in the Republican Party, which gained momentum from the loss of the then-moderate Nixon to John F. Kennedy in 1960. This faction of the party had never stopped warring against the New Deal. Its standard bearer was Barry Goldwater, a senator from Arizona and heir to a department store fortune. His pampered upbringing and wealth notwithstanding, Goldwater affected a cowboy’s rough-and-tumble persona in his dress and speech, casting himself as a walking embodiment of the Marlboro Man’s disdain for the nanny state. Goldwater and the reactionary stalwarts who rallied to him saw the Democratic Party as a mortal threat to the nation: domestically, because of the corrupting influence of a powerful central government deeply involved in regulating the marketplace and using taxes to reallocate wealth downward, and abroad in its willingness to compromise with communist countries instead of going to war against them. Goldwater himself, though, was no racial throwback. For instance, in 1957 and again in 1960 he voted in favor of federal civil rights legislation. By 1961, however, Goldwater and his partisans had become convinced that the key to electoral success lay in gaining ground in the South, and that in turn required appealing to racist sentiments in white voters, even at the cost of black support. As Goldwater drawled, “We’re not going to get the Negro vote as a bloc in 1964 and 1968, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are.”

This racial plan riled more moderate members of the Republican establishment, such as New York senator Jacob Javits, who in the fall of 1963 may have been the first to refer to a “Southern Strategy” in the context of repudiating it. By then, however, the right wing of the party had won out. As the conservative journalist Robert Novak reported after attending a meeting of the Republican National Committee in Denver during the summer of 1963: “A good many, perhaps a majority of the party’s leadership, envision substantial political gold to be mined in the racial crisis by becoming in fact, though not in name, the White Man’s Party. ‘Remember,’ one astute party worker said quietly . . . ‘this isn’t South Africa. The white man outnumbers the Negro 9 to 1 in this country.’ ” The rise of a racially-identified GOP is not a tale of latent bigotry in that party. It is instead a story centered on the strategic decision to use racism to become “the White Man’s Party.”

That same summer of 1963, as key Republican leaders strategized on how to shift their party to the far right racially, the Democrats began to lean in the other direction. Northern constituents were increasingly appalled by the violence, shown almost nightly on broadcast television, of Southern efforts to beat down civil rights protesters. Reacting to the growing clamor that something be done, President Kennedy introduced a sweeping civil rights bill that stirred the hopes of millions that segregation would soon be illegal in employment and at business places open to the public. Despite these hopes, however, prospects for the bill’s passage seemed dim, as the Southern Democrats were loath to support civil rights and retained sufficient power to bottle up the bill. Then on November 22, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated. His vice president, Lyndon Johnson, assumed the presidency vowing to make good on Kennedy’s priorities, chief among them civil rights. Only five days after Kennedy’s death, Johnson in his first address to Congress implored the assembly that “no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.” Even under these conditions, it took Johnson’s determined stewardship to overcome three months of dogged legislative stalling before Kennedy’s civil rights bill finally passed the next summer. Known popularly as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it still stands as the greatest civil rights achievement of the era.

Indicating the persistence of the old, internally divided racial politics of both parties, the act passed with broad bipartisan support and against broad bipartisan opposition—the cleavage was regional, rather than in terms of party affiliation. Roughly 90 percent of non-Southern senators supported the bill, while 95 percent of Southern senators opposed it.
Yet, heralding the incipient emergence of the new politics of party alignment along racial lines, Barry Goldwater also voted against the civil rights bill. He was one of only five senators from outside the South to do so. Goldwater claimed he saw a looming Orwellian state moving to coerce private citizens to spy on each other for telltale signs of racism. “To give genuine effect to the prohibitions of this bill,” Goldwater contended from the Senate floor, “bids fair to result in the development of an ‘informer’ psychology in great areas of our national life—neighbor spying on neighbor, workers spying on workers, businessmen spying on businessmen.” This all seemed a little hysterical. More calculatingly, it could not have escaped Goldwater’s attention that voting against a civil rights law associated with blacks, Kennedy, and Johnson would help him “go hunting where the ducks are.”

Running for president in 1964, the Arizonan strode across the South, hawking small-government bromides and racially coded appeals. In terms of the latter, he sold his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a bold stand in favor of “states’ rights” and “freedom of association.” States’ rights, Goldwater insisted, preserved state autonomy against intrusive meddling from a distant power—though obviously the burning issue of the day was the federal government’s efforts to limit state involvement in racial degradation and group oppression. Freedom of association, Goldwater explained, meant the right of individuals to be free from government coercion in choosing whom to let onto their property—but in the South this meant first and foremost the right of business owners to exclude blacks from hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and retail establishments. Like Wallace, Goldwater had learned how to talk about blacks without ever mentioning race.

No less than Wallace, Goldwater also demonstrated a flair for political stagecraft. A reporter following Goldwater’s campaign through the South captured some of the spectacle: “to show the country the ‘lily-white’ character of Republicanism in Dixie,” party flaks filled the floor of the football stadium in Montgomery, Alabama, with “a great field of white lilies—living lilies, in perfect bloom, gorgeously arrayed.” To this tableau, the campaign added “seven hundred Alabama girls in long white gowns, all of a whiteness as impossible as the greenness of the field.”
Onto this scene emerged Goldwater, first moving this way and then that way through “fifty or so yards of choice Southern womanhood,” before taking the stand to give his speech defending states’ rights and freedom of association. If these coded terms were too subtle for some, no one could fail to grasp the symbolism of the white lilies and the white-gowned women. Much of the emotional resistance to racial equality centered around the fear that black men would become intimate with white women. This scene represented “what the rest of his Southern troops—the thousands in the packed stands, the tens of thousands in Memphis and New Orleans and Atlanta and Shreveport and Greenville—passionately believed they were defending.” Goldwater made sure white Southerners understood he was fighting to protect them and their women against blacks.

How would Goldwater fare in the South? Beyond his racial pandering, that depended on how his anti-New Deal message was received. The Great Depression had devastated the region, which lagged behind the North in industry. Federal assistance to the poor as well as major infrastructure projects, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) that brought electricity for the first time to millions, made Southerners among the New Deal’s staunchest supporters. Yet despite the New Deal’s popularity in the South, Goldwater campaigned against it. While he was willing to pander racially, Goldwater also prided himself on telling audiences what he thought they needed to hear, at least as far as the bracing virtues of rugged individualism were concerned. Thus he made clear, for instance, that he favored selling off the TVA, and also attacked other popular programs. As recounted by Rick Perlstein, a Goldwater political biographer, at one rally in West Virginia, Goldwater “called the War on Poverty ‘plainly and simply a war on your pocketbooks,’ a fraud because only ‘the vast resources of private business’ could produce the wealth to truly slay penury.” Perlstein singled out the tin-eared cruelty of this message: “In the land of the tar-paper shack, the gap-toothed smile, and the open sewer—where the ‘vast resources of private business’ were represented in the person of the coal barons who gave men black lung, then sent them off to die without pensions—the message just sounded perverse. As he left, lines of workmen jeered him.”

Another factor also worked against Goldwater: he was a Republican, and the South reviled the Party of Lincoln. If across the nation neither party was seen as more or less friendly toward civil rights, the South had its own views on the question. There, it was the local Democratic machine that represented white interests, while the GOP was seen as the proximate cause of the Civil War and as the party of the carpetbaggers who had peremptorily ruled the South during Reconstruction. The hostility of generations of white Southerners toward Republicans only intensified with the Republican Eisenhower’s decision to send in federal troops to enforce the Republican Warren’s ruling forbidding school segregation in Brown. Most white Southerners had never voted Republican in their lives, and had vowed—like their parents and grandparents before them— that they never would.

Ultimately, however, these handicaps barely impeded Goldwater’s performance in the South. He convinced many Southern voters to vote Republican for the first time ever, and in the Deep South, comprised of those five states with the highest black populations, Goldwater won outright. The anti-New Deal Republican carried Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina, states in which whites had never voted for a Republican president in more than miniscule numbers. This was a shocking transformation, one that can only be explained by Goldwater’s ability to transmit a set of codes that white voters readily understood as a promise to protect racial segregation. It seemed that voters simply ignored Goldwater’s philosophy of governance as well as his party affiliation and instead rewarded his hostility toward civil rights. In this sense, Goldwater’s conservatism operated in the South less like a genuine political ideology and more like Wallace’s soft porn racism: as a set of codes that voters readily understood as defending white supremacy. Goldwater didn’t win the South as a small-government libertarian, but rather as a racist.

If in the South race trumped anti-government politics, in the North Goldwater’s anti-civil rights attacks found much less traction. Opposing civil rights smacked too much of Southern intransigence, and while there was resistance to racial reform in the North, it had not yet become an overriding issue for many whites. That left Goldwater running on promises to end the New Deal, and this proved wildly unpopular. To campaign against liberalism in 1964 was to campaign against an activist government that had lifted the country out of the throes of a horrendous depression still squarely in the rear view mirror, and that had then launched millions into the middle class. More than that, though, to campaign against liberalism in 1964 was to attack government programs still largely aimed at whites—and that sort of welfare was broadly understood as legitimate and warranted.

Goldwater’s anti-welfare tirades produced a landslide victory, but for Lyndon Johnson. Voters crushed Goldwater’s last-gasp attack on the New Deal state. Outside of the South, he lost by overwhelming numbers in every state except his Arizona home. Voters were offended by his over-the-top attacks on popular New Deal programs as well as by his penchant for saber rattling when it came to foreign policy. Goldwater especially suffered after the release of “Daisy,” a Johnson campaign ad that juxtaposed a little girl picking the petals off a flower with footage of a spiraling mushroom cloud, sending the message that Goldwater’s militarism threatened nuclear Armageddon. In the end, the Democrats succeeded in making Goldwater look like a loon. “To the Goldwater slogan ‘In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right,’ the Democrats shot back, ‘In Your Guts, You Know He’s Nuts.’ ” The country as a whole, it seemed, had solidly allied itself with progressive governance, and big-money/small-government conservatism was finally, utterly dead.
Or at least, this was the lesson most people took from the 1964 election. But like the clang of a distant alarm barely perceptible against the buzzing din of consensus, a warning was rising from the South: racial entreaties had convinced even the staunchest Democrats to abandon New Deal liberalism. If race-baiting had won over Southern whites to anti-government politics, could the same work across the country?

Richard Nixon

Notwithstanding the emerging racial strategy initiated by Goldwater, when Richard Nixon secured the Republican nomination in 1968, the new racial politics of his party had not yet gelled, either within the party generally, or in Nixon himself. Indeed, the moderate Nixon’s emergence as the party’s presidential candidate reflected the extent to which the Goldwater faction had lost credibility in the wake of their champion’s disastrous drubbing. Nevertheless, the dynamics of the presidential race would quickly push Nixon toward race-baiting. Nixon’s principal opponent in 1968 was Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey. But running as an independent candidate, George Wallace was flanking Nixon on the right. By October 1, just a month before the election, Wallace was polling more support in the South than either Humphrey or Nixon. Nor was his support limited to that region. Wallace was siphoning crucial votes across the country, and staging massive rallies in ostensibly liberal strongholds, for instance drawing 20,000 partisans to Madison Square Garden in New York, and 70,000 faithful to the Boston Common—more than any rally ever held by the Kennedys, Wallace liked to crow. Republican operatives guessed that perhaps 80 percent of the Wallace voters in the South would otherwise support Nixon, and a near-majority in the North as well.

Late in the campaign, Nixon opted to publicly tack right on race. He had already reached a backroom deal with South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond— an arch-segregationist who had led the revolt against the Democratic Party in 1948 when it endorsed a modest civil rights plank, and who switched to become a Republican in 1964 to throw his weight behind Goldwater. Nixon bought Thurmond’s support during the primary season by secretly promising that he would restrict federal enforcement of school desegregation in the South. Now he would make this same promise to the nation. On October 7, Nixon came out against “forced busing,” an increasingly potent euphemism for the system of transporting students across the boundaries of segregated neighborhoods in order to integrate schools. Mary Frances Berry pierces the pretense that the issue was putting one’s child on a bus: “African-American attempts to desegregate schools were confronted by white flight and complaints that the problem was not desegregation, but busing, oftentimes by people who sent their children to school every day on buses, including mediocre white private academies established to avoid integration.” “Busing” offered a Northern analog to states’ rights. The language may have referred to transportation, but the emotional wallop came from defiance toward integration.

Nixon also began to hammer away at the issue of law and order. In doing so, he drew upon a rhetorical frame rooted in Southern resistance to civil rights. From the inception of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, Southern politicians had disparaged racial activists as “lawbreakers,” as indeed technically they were. In the Jim Crow regions, African Americans had long pressed basic equality demands precisely by breaking laws mandating segregation: sit-ins and freedom rides purposefully violated Jim Crow statutes in order to challenge white supremacist social norms. Dismissing these protesters as criminals shifted the issue from a defense of white supremacy to a more neutral-seeming concern with “order,” while simultaneously stripping the activists of moral stature. Demonstrators were no longer Americans willing to risk beatings and even death for a grand ideal, but rather criminal lowlifes disposed toward antisocial behavior. Ultimately, the language of law and order justified a more “quiet” form of violence in defense of the racial status quo, replacing lynchings with mass arrests for trespassing and delinquency.
By the mid-1960s, “law and order” had become a surrogate expression for concern about the civil rights movement. Illustrating this rhetoric’s increasingly national reach, in 1965 FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover denounced the advocacy of nonviolent civil disobedience by civil rights leaders as a catalyst for lawbreaking and even violent rioting: “‘Civil disobedience,’ a seditious slogan of gross irresponsibility, has captured the imagination of citizens. … I am greatly concerned that certain racial leaders are doing the civil rights movement a great disservice by suggesting that citizens need only obey the laws with which they agree. Such an attitude breeds disrespect for the law and even civil disorder and rioting.” This sense of growing disorder was accentuated by urban riots often involving protracted battles between the police and minority communities. In addition, large and increasingly angry protests against the Vietnam War also added to the fear of metastasizing social strife.
Exploiting the growing panic that equated social protest with social chaos, one of Nixon’s campaign commercials showed flashing images of demonstrations, riots, police, and violence, over which a deep voice intoned: “Let us recognize that the first right of every American is to be free from domestic violence. So I pledge to you, we shall have order in the United States.” A caption stated boldly: “This time. . . . vote like your whole world depended on it … NIXON.”

Nixon had mastered Wallace’s dark art. Forced bussing, law and order, and security from unrest as the essential civil right of the majority—all of these were coded phrases that allowed Nixon to appeal to racial fears without overtly mentioning race at all. Yet race remained the indisputable, intentional subtext of the appeal. As Nixon exulted after watching one of his own commercials: “Yep, this hits it right on the nose . . . it’s all about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.”

Nixon didn’t campaign exclusively on racial themes; notably, he also stressed his opposition to anti-war protesters, while simultaneously portraying himself as the candidate most likely to bring the war to an end. Nevertheless, racial appeals formed an essential element of Nixon’s ’68 campaign. Nixon’s special counsel, John Ehrlichman, bluntly summarized that year’s campaign strategy: “We’ll go after the racists.” According to Ehrlichman, the “subliminal appeal to the anti-black voter was always present in Nixon’s statements and speeches.”

Nixon’s Southern Strategy

Nixon barely won in 1968, edging Humphrey by less than one percent of the national vote. Wallace, meanwhile, had captured nearly 14 percent of the vote. Had Nixon’s coded race-baiting helped? Initially there was uncertainty, and in his first two years in office Nixon governed as if he still believed the federal government had some role to play in helping out nonwhites. For instance, Nixon came into office proposing the idea of a flat wealth transfer to the poor, which would have gone a long way toward breaking down racial inequalities. But over the course of those two years, a new understanding consolidated regarding the tidal shift that had occurred.

On the Democratic side, in 1970 two pollsters, Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg, published The Real Majority, cautioning their party that “Social Issues” now divided the base. “The machinist’s wife in Dayton may decide to leave the Democratic reservation in 1972 and vote for Nixon or Wallace or their ideological descendants,” Scammon and Wattenberg warned. “If she thinks the Democrats feel that she isn’t scared of crime but that she’s really a bigot, if she thinks that Democrats feel the police are Fascist pigs and the Black Panthers and the Weathermen are just poor, misunderstood, picked-upon kids, if she thinks that Democrats are for the hip drug culture and that she, the machinist’s wife, is not only a bigot, but a square, then good-bye lady—and good-bye Democrats.” How, then, could the party get ahead of these issues? Scammon and Wattenberg were frank: “The Democrats in the South were hurt by being perceived (correctly) as a pro-black national party.” The solution was clear: the Democratic Party had to temper its “pro-black stance.”

On the Republican side, a leading Nixon strategist had come to the same conclusion about race as a potential wedge issue—though, predictably, with a different prescription. In 1969, Kevin Phillips published The Emerging Republican Majority, arguing that because of racial resentments a historical realignment was underway that would cement a new Republican majority that would endure for decades. A young prodigy obsessed with politics, Phillips had worked out the details of his argument in the mid-1960s, and then had gone to work helping to elect Nixon. When the 1968 returns seemed to confirm his thesis, he published his research—nearly 500 pages, with 47 maps and 143 charts. Beneath the details, Phillips had a simple, even deterministic thesis: “Historically, our party system has reflected layer upon layer of group oppositions.” Politics, according to Phillips, turned principally on group animosity—“the prevailing cleavages in American voting behavior have been ethnic and cultural. Politically, at least, the United States has not been a very effective melting pot.”

As to what was driving the latest realignment, Phillips was blunt: “The Negro problem, having become a national rather than a local one, is the principal cause of the breakup of the New Deal coalition.” For Phillips, it was almost inevitable that most whites would abandon the Democratic Party once it became identified with blacks. “Ethnic and cultural division has so often shaped American politics that, given the immense midcentury impact of Negro enfranchisement and integration, reaction to this change almost inevitably had to result in political realignment.” Phillips saw his emerging Republican majority this way: “the nature of the majority—or potential majority—seems clear. It is largely white and middle class. It is concentrated in the South, the West, and suburbia.”
The number crunchers had spoken. The Southern strategy, incipient for a decade, had matured into a clear route to electoral dominance. The old Democratic alliance of Northeastern liberals, the white working class, Northern blacks, and Southern Democrats, could be riven by racial appeals. Beginning in 1970, Richard Nixon embraced the politics of racial division wholeheartedly. He abandoned the idea of a flat wealth transfer to the poor. Now, Nixon repeatedly emphasized law and order issues. He railed against forced busing in the North. He reversed the federal government’s position on Southern school integration, slowing the process down and making clear that the courts would have no help from his administration. But perhaps nothing symbolized the new Nixon more than his comments in December 1970. Reflecting his initially moderate position on domestic issues, early in his administration Nixon had appointed George Romney—a liberal Republican and, incidentally, Mitt Romney’s father—as his secretary of housing and urban development. In turn, Romney had made integration of the suburbs his special mission, even coming up with a plan to cut off federal funds to communities that refused to allow integrated housing. By late 1970, however, when these jurisdictions howled at the temerity, Nixon took their side, throwing his cabinet officer under the bus. In a public address, Nixon baldly stated: “I can assure you that it is not the policy of this government to use the power of the federal government . . . for forced integration of the suburbs. I believe that forced integration of the suburbs is not in the national interest.”41 That dog whistle blasted like the shriek of an onrushing train.

In 1963, Robert Novak had written that many Republican leaders were intent on converting the Party of Lincoln into the White Man’s Party. The following year, Goldwater went down in crushing defeat, winning only 36 percent of the white vote. Even so, less than a decade later, the racial transmogrification of the Republicans was well underway. In 1972, Nixon’s first full dog whistle campaign netted him 67 percent of the white vote, leaving his opponent, George McGovern, with support from less than one in three whites. Defeated by the Southern strategy, McGovern neatly summed it up: “What is the Southern Strategy? It is this. It says to the South: Let the poor stay poor, let your economy trail the nation, forget about decent homes and medical care for all your people, choose officials who will oppose every effort to benefit the many at the expense of the few—and in return, we will try to overlook the rights of the black man, appoint a few southerners to high office, and lift your spirits by attacking the ‘eastern establishment’ whose bank accounts we are filling with your labor and your industry.”42 McGovern erred in supposing that the Southern strategy pertained only to the South. Nixon had already learned from Wallace, and then later from the number crunchers, that coded racial appeals would work nationwide. Other than that, especially in its class and race dimensions, McGovern had dog whistle politics dead to rights.

Excerpted from “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class” by Ian Haney López. Copyright © 2014 by Ian Haney López. Reprinted by arrangement with Oxford University Press, a division of Oxford University. All rights reserved.
Ian Haney-López is a law professor and the author of a forthcoming book, Dog Whistle Politics: How Fifty Years of Coded Racial Appeals Wrecked the Middle Class. Follow him on Twitter: @DogWhistleRace

Friday, November 15, 2013

Why Republicans Suddenly Care — Deeply! — About All Those Canceled Health Policies

Memo Pad

Why Republicans Suddenly Care — Deeply! — About All Those Canceled Health Policies

November 15th, 2013 10:32 am

by Joe Conason

Amid the current national uproar over the troubles of the Affordable Care Act, it is almost uplifting to hear the deep concern expressed by politicians, pundits, lobbyists, and corporate leaders over cancelation of existing health insurance policies. They empathize loudly with the millions of potential victims, whose plight infuriates these worthy observers. They fill hours of television and pages of print with expressions of outrage.

Suddenly everyone in Washington is intensely concerned about Americans who are losing their health insurance.

The outpouring of noble sentiment would be laudable — indeed, long overdue — if only there was any reason to believe these protestations are sincere. Sadly, the evidence points in the opposite direction, for a single obvious reason: Millions of people in this country have been losing health insurance for many years, resulting in untold thousands of serious illnesses, bankruptcies, and early deaths – but until insurance cancelations became a political embarrassment for Barack Obama, the usual right-wing reaction was silence. (Except for that awkward and revealing outburst during the Republican debates of 2012, when a live audience howled its approval for the “let him die” plan.)

For anybody who ever honestly cared about people losing their health coverage – for instance, President Obama or his Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton – the depressing statistical reality has long been plain. Every day of every year, thousands of people leave the rolls of the private insurance industry in this country, almost never voluntarily.

People often forfeit insurance after losing a job, which happened to millions during the Great Recession. At the recession’s height, when the Tea Party Republicans were fighting to kill Obamacare in the cradle, more than 44,000 people were losing their health coverage every week. In May 2009, the policy journal Health Affairs published a projection that nearly 7 million Americans would lose coverage by the end of 2010.

People also lose insurance because their insurance company doesn’t want to pay the cost of a grave illness (having gorged on costly premiums for years), which has happened to many thousands more. The most recent congressional report on the subject found that three major insurance companies had saved at least $300 million through “rescission” of policies held by 20,000 seriously ill clients, while their profits mounted.

Or people lose insurance because the cost rises and they can no longer afford it, which happens routinely to nearly half the population at some point during every decade. A report released by the Treasury four years ago found that “nearly half of non-elderly Americans” had lived without health coverage at some point between 1997 and 2006, a period of relative prosperity and high employment.

The consequence, as everybody ought to know by now, is that upward of 45 million Americans have gone without health insurance at any given moment since 2007. And the further consequence is that many of those uninsured – men, women, and children — go without needed health care, leading to untold suffering and premature deaths for as many as 45,000 annually, perhaps more.

But such dismal facts have never seemed to trouble the Republicans who are screaming so loudly now about the terrible toll of Obamacare. The perennial GOP attitude was set forth by neoconservative eminence Bill Kristol back in 1993, when the prime objective was to kill the nascent Clinton health plan. “There is no health care crisis,” Kristol famously declared, and for him — then a well-paid flack in the Murdoch empire — that was true enough.

After two decades of medical costs skyrocketing above inflation, threatening fiscal and economic ruin, while millions went without insurance, such smug right-wing complacency remains largely intact. The only “health care crisis” ever feared by Republicans like Kristol is the prospect that reform will help Americans – as Obamacare is already doing, despite their worst efforts.

Let’s hope that the president’s team swiftly solves the inherent problems of providing universal coverage through private insurers. It is certainly possible, if never optimal, as Massachusetts and other states seeking to advance that goal are already proving.

And meanwhile, let’s please have no illusions about this momentary flurry of concern on the right over insurance lost. It would disappear instantly and permanently — if only Obamacare could be repealed.
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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Wisconsin Republicans Pass Flurry of Regressive Bills

Wisconsin Republicans Pass Flurry of Regressive Bills


By Rebecca Kemble, 
Nov. 15, 2013 

On the last day of the fall legislative session, the Republican-dominated Wisconsin State Assembly spent more than 12 hours passing a spate of socially regressive laws that roll back voting rights, public access to land surrounding a proposed mining site, and authorize the state to fundraise for an anti-abortion group by issuing “Choose Life” license plates.

Lawmakers also passed two constitutional amendments: One that makes it more difficult to recall elected officials and another that changes the State Supreme Court’s process around how the chief justice is selected.
Before the Assembly took up the agenda, a group of Democratic Party freshmen moved to suspend the rules and take up a measure that would change the legislative redistricting process. The effort comes in the wake of an extremely contentious, partially illegal redistricting process in 2011 where lawyers for Republicans drew up redistricting maps in secret and required legislators to sign secrecy oaths about the contours of the maps.

That process and the resulting maps have been challenged in court. During the proceedings Republicans and their lawyers refused to produce relevant documents until they were ordered to do so by the court. In that process, it was discovered that hundreds of thousands of files were deleted from the computers in question.

Rep. Stephen Smith (D-Shell Lake) summed up the group’s view on the gerrymandered districts saying that democracy no longer exists “when politicians pick their voters rather than voters picking their representatives.” The bill was tabled on a party line vote.

On the constitutional amendment to further restrict Wisconsin’s already tough standards for recalling state elected officials, Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) pushed back hard. “If you don’t want to be recalled, represent your constituents!” she said. “I can understand why you’re concerned about recalls given your records. It must be horrible to realize that you can only win elections when people don’t vote.”
Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) pointed out that historically, constitutions are amended to enhance and protect people’s rights, not to restrict or remove them.

Rep. Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie) called the constitutional amendment to change the way a chief justice is selected for the Wisconsin Supreme Court from seniority to an election every 2 years by the seven justices a potentially unconstitutional abuse of power. “You’re trying to take control of the judiciary,” he said. Both measures have to be passed by both houses of the legislature in two consecutive sessions, and then they are put to a statewide referendum.

Republicans defended what Democrats called voter suppression bills by raising the spectre of “voter fraud,” even though there have only been a handful of documented cases in the state. This is the second time around for a voter id bill after the first one was ruled unconstitutional earlier this year. The bill’s authors hope that tweaks to avoid questions about the id requirement amounting to a poll tax will allow this version to pass constitutional muster.

Proposals to curtail absentee voting hours, to restrict how people in extended care facilities can vote, and to allow more invasive “poll watching” practices all passed on party-line votes.

Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine) pointed out that the effect of these measures would have a disproportionate impact on poor people and people of color who live in urban areas, calling the collection of bills “Jim Crow for the 21st century.” And Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee) asked, “why aren’t Republicans trying to persuade people to vote for them with their policies? Why are they trying to suppress the vote?” The bills were messaged to the state Senate, where their future is uncertain.
The Assembly also passed a bill that allows Gogebic Taconite to close off public access land without paying the approximately $800,000 in penalties for removing it from Managed Forest Law. The bill was modified by the Senate to allow the company to restrict access from 600 feet on either side of the access road that leads to their proposed bulk sampling sites.

Opponents of what is proposed to be the largest open pit taconite iron mine in the world located on the shores of Lake Superior believe that the law is designed to intimidate and discourage independent scientists from conducting independent analyses of the rocks and wetlands in the area. Already geologists have confirmed the presence of an abundance of grunerite, which contains a particularly nasty form of asbestos fiber. GTac lobbyist Bob Seitz has either denied or downplayed the significance of the finding.

GTac lobbyist Bob Seitz, CEO Bill Williams and Engineer Tim Myers. Photo: Rebecca Kemble.
Proponents of the bill insist that the measure has nothing to do with restricting public access, but that it is required for worker safety. To make this point, Rep. Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh) performed a dramatic reading of a complaint lodged against a group of people who confronted GTac contract workers at a sample drilling site last summer who climbed on equipment, threw tools and yelled at the workers. During this recitation he managed to use the word “terrorist” or “eco-terrorist” at least five times.

Rep. Andy Jorgensen (D-Ft. Atkinson) pointed out that there were no co-sponsors of the bill in the Assembly and wondered who was there to answer questions about it. He suggested that the extra desk on the Assembly floor be given to “the representative from GTac” so they can answer questions directly. Republican leaders have openly admitted that lawyers from the company wrote the massive mining deregulation bill that was the first law to be passed this year.

Others decried the giveaway of power and taxpayer money to GTac that the bill represents. Referring to Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) who has championed this and other mining-related bills, Rep. Chris Danou said, “GTac doesn't want to pay penalties to remove land from MFL so they get Taconite Tommy to write them another bill."

While the bill now heads to Governor Walker for signing, GTac’s momentum seems to be stalled by local ordinances involving asbestos, blasting and bulk sampling activities, and their own failure to answer questions that regulators at the Department of Natural Resources asked them three months ago about their bulk sampling plan. The project cannot move forward without permits related to the plan, and the permits can’t be granted until all the DNR’s questions are answered.

After the mining bill was passed at around 10:30 p.m., the already stretched-too-thin veneer of collegiality in the chamber began to break down. Democrats tried to advance a resolution commemorating the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings – a measure that had been passed unanimously in the Senate in September - but Republican leaders tabled the resolution, wanting to get on with the 15 more bills ahead of them on the agenda.

Majority Leader Bill Kramer (R-Waukesha) then announced that they would be taking up the “Choose Life” license plate bill, even though there was a bipartisan agreement to not take it up at that time. Kramer said his decision was spurred by a comment one of the Democratic representatives made on Twitter, and his frustration that Democrats were wasting time with frivolous motions.

Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber (D-Appleton) had worked hard on the compromise that had been abandoned. “It is truly worrisome to me that we have people in this body that act as if they’re in middle school and high school and that they can change the rules whenever they want,” she said to Kramer. “This is childish, stupid, asinine… We have spent a long time on this compromise, and I know that I can’t trust any word that I hear from Republican leadership. That is a problem. “

At issue with the bill is the fact that the brand new “Choose Life Wisconsin,” which would receive $15 for every license plate, has connections with organizations identified as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. They have also not been able to produce documentation proving they are an independent 501(c)3 non-profit organization.

Reps. Terese Berceau (D-Madison) and Josh Zepnick (D-Milwaukee) called out Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) and Kramer for abandoning their promises of bipartisanship on the issue.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos sits stone-faced as he is called out by Democrats for reneging on a negotiated compromise. Photo: Rebecca Kemble.

Zepnick said, "I'll call out Robin Vos, Bill Kramer and whomever I damn well please! Stand up and do your job!" before he was called out of order and his microphone was turned off.
The bill passed and is available for scheduling in the Senate next year.
Featured photo: Flickr user David Berkowitz, creative commons licensed.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Tea Partyers’ grave fear: Why they disdain young people — even their own!


Thursday, Oct 17, 2013 06:30 PM EDT

Tea Partyers’ grave fear: Why they disdain young people — even their own!

Sociologist Theda Skocpol tells Salon what drives the angry right -- and what comes after the government shutdown

Tea Partyers' grave fear: Why they disdain young people -- even their own!Louie Gohmert (Credit: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The past weeks’ showdown in Washington, D.C., has shocked and perplexed some observers. Theda Skocpol was not among them. Skocpol, a veteran Harvard professor, is the author of books on topics ranging from the politics of the U.S. welfare state (“Protecting Soldiers and Mothers”) to the state of grass-roots political engagement (“Diminished Democracy”), and of the definitive social science tome on the Tea Party (“The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” with Vanessa Williamson).

With the immediate debt ceiling/shutdown showdown coming to a close, Salon called up Skocpol Wednesday to discuss how the media misunderstand the Tea Party, how an unpopular movement can move so many members of Congress, and why the right hates Obama’s moderate healthcare law so much. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Has this month shown us anything we didn’t know about the Tea Party?

I think people in mainstream media and D.C. politics kind of wrote the Tea Party off after 2012. They thought, “Well, this isn’t popular anymore, and the Democrats succeeded in defeating the primary goal of Tea Party forces.” But I think that was always misreading what the Tea Party was about. It’s been there all along to keep Republicans from compromising. I think we’ve seen over the past two weeks that they have the ability to just tie up the federal government and put the country at risk, and they don’t show any signs of backing down. And I don’t think they will, even if they’re defeated in this episode.

Frances Fox Piven argued to me that the Tea Party is something old and something new – it has some demographic continuity with the Birchers or Christian right, but also represents a genuine shift motivated in part by fear that white people are losing their privilege in the U.S. Do you agree?

In many ways I do. We actually did the research, both by pulling together national [data] and by doing observations in groups in three regions. There’s no question that at the grass roots, approximately half of all Republican-identifiers who think of themselves as Tea Partyers are a very conservative-minded old group of white people, some of whom do go all the way back to Goldwater and the Birch Society. They are skeptical of the Republican Party as it has been run in recent years. But they both hate and fear the Democratic Party and Obama. We argued in many ways that anger comes from alarm on the part of these older conservatives that they’re losing their country — that’s what they say. That they’re the true Americans, and they’re losing control of American politics. So that’s the grass-roots component.

Now there is a somewhat new development at the top. There’s no sense in which the grass-roots protests are a fake, or a creation of big money forces. But we have seen the unleashing of billionaire-backed, highly ideological groups that are outside the Republican apparatus, itself symbolized by people like Dick Armey. And much more recently, by Jim DeMint giving up a Senate position to move to Heritage, and turn Heritage into a much more hard-edged political machine. These guys are calling the shots about what happens in Congress. And that’s why we saw the amazing thing [Tuesday] of Heritage Action, under DeMint, indicating that it would score a vote for the leaders’ proposals negatively — within 20 minutes, [Republican leaders] switched. And that’s because they fear now the aroused grass-roots activists, the people who paid attention and vote in Republican primaries. And equally, they fear money coming to challenge them as ideologically impure if they vote the wrong way on key legislation.
So it’s a pincers movement – top-down [and] bottom-up. It really has taken control over the governing part of the Republican Party. It’s probably got less effectiveness in elections.

“Pincers”? How so?

What makes this so powerful is not popularity. People don’t like them; that’s irrelevant. When you’ve got a bloc of legislators in the states and in the Congress, and they can be empowered by very attentive voters who vote in primaries, and then by big money funders who are the ones to challenge other Republicans who don’t go along with the extremists, then you’ve got really a double whammy. The only thing that could counter this would be if more traditional conservative forces started raising money that they used to protect people from challenges on their right. And there are some signs that that’s beginning to happen, but not very many.

Do you expect we’ll see more of that?

We may. But I think this is going on for a while. These folks are coming back at it again in a few months, and they will keep coming at it.

Some Democrats I talk to have this view that this will not happen again in the near future because the voters are going to punish the Republican Party – by taking levers away from the Republican Party and by weakening the leverage of the Tea Party within the GOP.

I think it’s way too soon to conclude that. There’s a huge difference in the electorate that turns out in the midterms. If they do it again next year — which I think they will, at least some of it – it could change the equation in November 2014 a little bit. But let’s get real here.

I mean, you’re going to have to talk about taking the majority away from Republicans in the House of Representatives. You have to talk about getting rid of the filibuster check in the Senate. And I don’t think many liberal commentators are paying any attention to the very important developments that have occurred across so many American states where very extreme Republicans have supermajorities at the moment. So that’s all got to be chipped away at, because as long as a fired-up and morally dogmatic minority, backed by ideological money, can manipulate legislatures, it can choke things up. Their goal is to show that Obama and the Democrats can’t govern, and unfortunately they have some of the levers to do that.

To what extent do you think that the tactics Republicans have taken up show something about our political institutions’ ability to work in the face of what some would call more parliamentary tactics?

Well, I don’t think this is parliamentary. I think this is truly extremist. The filibuster rules, of course, are rules, and they can change. And the ability of one or two senators to hold up everything may be something that even the minority will want to change, because you know, Sen. Ted Cruz is really a cruise missile. He has unsettled Senate Republicans plenty.

American institutions do not in any way require that the same party or the same faction controls the presidency and both houses of Congress. And so that creates openings for obstructionists to really grind everything to a halt. We’ve seen Republicans, as they fear that they can’t make it in majority elections, turn to creating new uses for old institutional mechanisms and rules. That’s what’s going on right now.

A decade ago, you observed a long-term decline in American civic participation and the groups that used to foster it. What does the Tea Party mean for that?

At the grass roots, it’s a return to some traditional methods. The grass-roots Tea Party actually formed, at their height, about 900 local groups — genuinely new groups. I wrote in “Diminished Democracy” that the right has been more effective at either sustaining or re-creating federated action, which is the key to American politics — to be able to organize across many districts, many states, and still be part of something national. The Tea Party is a different kind of manifestation of that.

They’ve actually destroyed the organizational integrity of the Republican Party right now. That’s why the situation is so scary for the United States. The Washington press corps wants to write again and again that both sides should compromise. The fact of the matter is that Obama doesn’t have anybody to compromise with. He can’t make a deal, because the Tea Party forces have discombobulated the Republican leadership. John Boehner can’t make a deal with anybody. He can’t deliver even on what he wants for breakfast.

“Destroyed the organizational integrity of the Republican Party.” How so?

Republican Party committees can’t necessarily keep themselves at all levels from being taken over or end-runned by Tea Party forces. The leadership in the Senate, [and] especially in the House, can’t control their various actions, can’t use a combination of carrots and sticks to put things together. It means even that in elections, Republicans can’t control the message they’re sending out. You can declare that you’re going to have outreach to women and minorities, and the next day Rush Limbaugh can say god-knows-what. People can show up at the U.S. Capitol with a Confederate flag in front of the White House. Things are kind of out of control.

The Confederate flag – is there some larger significance in that popping up when and where it did?

There’s a strain in the Tea Party, especially at the grass roots, that’s xenophobic and racist, and certainly the Confederate flag also symbolizes regional resistance to federal power – there’s lots of themes here that resemble nullification, and even the pre-Civil War crisis.

But I don’t really think it’s helpful to announce that the entire Tea Party base is racist.  I don’t think it’s that simple. For one thing, they’re just as riled up about immigration as they are about blacks. There’s certainly a worry about a change in the social composition of America. But we found in our research that they also resent young people — including in their own families.

They think young people are not measuring up. That the grandsons and daughters and nieces and nephews expect to get free college loans, and don’t get a job, and hold ideas that are not very American in their view — like Obama. Obama symbolizes all of this.

How does that play out in the politics around the Affordable Care Act, and these accusations of raiding Medicare?

One of the big mysteries that we’ve tried to deal with in our research is why the Affordable Care Act, which after all is fairly moderate — it’s an extremely important piece of legislation, but it’s moderate in its means — why would that become a flashpoint?

Well, despite all of the particular policy features that came from conservative origins, it is a powerfully redistributive law. The people left out of the insurance system have been lower income and more moderate income workers.  They’re a younger population, browner and blacker. And then you come along with a president who symbolizes everything that conservatives and Tea Partyers hate. And he proposes to raise taxes on wealthier people, Medicare beneficiaries and business to pay for insurance for those people who’ve been left out. So Obamacare really symbolizes the idea that this new America is going to take something from “our America.”

And for the ideological forces, Freedomworks, Americans for Prosperity, Heritage Action — you just have to go back to Bill Kristol’s memo in 1993 on Clinton healthcare. They’re worried about filling in one of the big holes in the American welfare state, and creating a positive relationship between the government and working-age people that will make it hard for Republicans to win elections or proceed with their preference: to roll back Social Security and Medicare, let alone another big piece of the American welfare state.

Another thing you’ll hear from Democrats is that every past program like this has been controversial at the time, and then becomes popular to the point Republicans won’t even admit they want to get rid of it. Is there reason to expect the same here?

Yes. It’s going to be a tough battle because of the new levers the Supreme Court gave to the states to reduce the Medicaid expansion. There is a question in my mind as to whether a regional group around Texas will stay out permanently. But over the last month, while we’ve been having an Armageddon-like battle supposedly over Obamacare in Washington, several more Republican-led states have accepted the Medicaid expansion, or are on the verge of doing it. In the final analysis, this is about money for healthcare, and states and localities as well can’t be denying care to people who get sick in this country.

Business interests and hospitals and doctors are grudgingly accepting this vast expansion of resources in their sector, and the disconnect in public opinion is so extreme. If you ask them about the particular provisions in the law, almost all of them are very popular, including with majorities of Republicans. So once this thing is actually carried through — and it’s obviously not going to be easy, and it’s not clear that the Obama administration is entirely up to it — this law is here to stay. It’s not going anywhere. By 2016, it will not be reversible. And by about five years after that, people will be wondering what all the fuss was about.

You said the right is more effective at building the kind of organizations that wield political leverage. What do you think explains that?

Partly, the right in this country, over the last half-century, has recognized that fighting across many localities and states is worth it. And they’ve developed mechanisms for doing that, and that turned out to have a big payoff in Congress. There’s also a whole series of reasons why older conservative voters, backed by ideologues, have this combination of apocalyptic moral certitude with organization that really gets results. Especially in obstructing things in American politics.

I don’t happen to think that the left and the center-left could imitate this. For one thing, they don’t have the presence across as many states and districts. But it’s also not clear it’s a model worth imitating. I think the real problem that you’ve got right now on the left is how to defeat this stuff, how to contain it, how to beat it — given the permeability of American political institutions to this kind of thing. And I don’t think it’s clear what’s going to happen.