Political Culture: The Not-So-Great Society

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

Now is the summer of our discontent … arriving on the heels of a spring, winter, autumn and previous summer that roiled in similar fashion. Americans, it seems, have declared open season upon one another – rhetorically, if not (yet) physically – and our 230-year-old system of governance has proven itself incapable of fending off the modern pressures applied by special-interest money and the partisan media.

President Obama and congressional Democrats have managed to push through some undeniably Big Things – the stimulus, health care, financial reform. Yet one portion of the citizenry is disappointed by what it views as half a loaf, a series of shoulda-been-great bills watered down by corporate interests and lily-livered politicians, while another (louder) portion despises it all as a flouting of American values and a budget-busting harbinger of the nation’s demise.

And both sides agree that the legislative process, and personalities, involved in crafting and blocking and negotiating and celebrating these new laws deserve nothing but scorn. The result is a classic contradiction: The more Obama and the Democrats achieve the agenda on which they were elected overwhelmingly – and they’ve passed more major legislation in a year and a half than any administration since LBJ’s, if not FDR’s – the more the American people hate them for it.

Blame the lingering recession for the poison that permeates our discourse, if you like. After all, it’s difficult to get happy about Wall Street reform when half your block is still in foreclosure. But I refuse to accept that 9-percent unemployment or even a trillion-dollar deficit can shoulder the blame for the blatant race-baiting and other despicable behavior that has come to define contemporary conservatism. The more the Teafoxlicans have zig-zagged from one item on their contrarian agenda to another, the more they have exposed themselves as antithetical to the values of liberty and openness they purport to defend.

I have spent the summer blissfully (if painfully, due to neck problems that curtailed my computer use) silent on such issues as Arizona’s immigration law, the Shirley Sherrod episode, the Ground Zero mosque dispute, and the Glenn Beck devotee who was arrested near the conclusion of his cross-country journey to shoot up progressives in San Francisco. The same way I came to loathe the play-by-play analysis of the health-care debate last year, I have developed an aversion to snap commentary on each rhetorical skirmish in the current “I’m-not-a-racist,-YOU-are” culture war.

That’s not to say there’s no place for that kind of commentary, and my old friend Eric Boehlert emerged a true hero when he repeatedly dressed down that piss-ant Andrew Breitbart, to his face, over the Sherrod affair a couple weeks ago. Still, I have found I would rather sit back and wait for patterns to emerge, or for events to reach a critical mass when conclusions are inescapable.

Such a moment arrived this week, when the two Republican senators who previously had been most reasonable when it came to immigration reform – Lindsay Graham and John McCain – began advocating changes to the 14th amendment to the Constitution. It’s perhaps the culmination of the Teafoxlican white man’s backlash; it announces, “This whole equal-protection, melting-pot thing has gotten way out of hand, so what say we scale it back a bit?”

No, of course Lindsay and John aren’t suggesting we scrap the 14th entirely – they’re not looking to overturn the granting of full citizenship rights to black people, which made Barack Obama eligible for the presidency (or would have, if only Obama had been born here…). The only part of the 14th they’d like to repeal (for now) is the birthright-citizenship clause … as if such a change would make a dime’s worth of difference in solving illegal immigration. (Though it might offer a new avenue of irrationality for the birthers: “Where’s Obama’s mother’s birth certificate?”)

Still, the prospect of a Teafoxlican horde demanding an overhaul of the iconic 14th sits uneasily within the contemporary context: policies in Arizona that inevitably require discrimination against legal Hispanics; the absurd lengths to which facts are twisted in the right-wing media to portray any African-American in power as a “racist,” even as Obama’s national heritage is now called into question by more than three-quarters of Republicans (a number that’s still rising!); and, perhaps most egregiously, the right-wing firestorm over plans to open an Islamic center with a mission of promoting religious tolerance near the World Trade Center site.

Newt Gingrich’s primary argument against it — “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia” – exemplifies the danger inherent in the rhetoric surrounding all these trumped-up controversies. Does Newt, in fact, want the United States to more closely resemble Saudi Arabia in its denial of religious freedom? And more generally speaking, do Teafoxlicans really wish to close our open society to the extent that their current obsessions suggest? Do they really want to take the bloom off the 1st amendment, as well as the 14th? To intimidate African-Americans away from seeking public office? To discourage Hispanics of any nationality (including ours) from feeling free to drive the streets of Phoenix without fear of harassment?

The through-line from “He’s a Arab” to ACORN to the birthers to the teabaggers on Capitol Hill, and on to Arizona and Sherrod and the Ground Zero mosque, is unmistakeable. Instead of leading to a new era of multi-racial understanding or even feigned political colorblindness, Obama’s candidacy and presidency have unleashed the very worst impulses of the right wing, rendering every line of unsubtle, race-based attack fair game. Nixon, with his “silent majority,” and Reagan, with his campaign launch in Philadelphia, Mississippi, at least had the decency to couch their appeals to white backlash in coded words and actions. That’s all out the window, now that the president’s a black guy. Forget affirmative action — let’s take down the 14th amendment!

Of course, there’s one arena in which conservatives still tie themselves into knots in their attempts to discriminate while not appearing too intolerant. But a funny thing happened yesterday on the way to institutionalizing anti-gay bigotry, and … Whoops! I seem to have buried the lede!

The gist of Judge Walker’s decision striking down California’s Proposition 8 was threefold: that government has no compelling basis for distinguishing between straight and gay relationships; that minority rights are not subject to a majority vote; and that in any legislative battle between Biblical “morality” and constitutional rights, the Constitution must always win. None of those tenets, of course, reflect the modern Teafoxlican mindset — the once but no longer dominant mainstream white guy, beset on all sides by threats from interlopers foreign and domestic, black and brown and turbaned and breasted and gay and poor and elitist and liberal. (Of course, there are a number of those self-perceived “mainstream white guys,” including a black one, on the Supreme Court – a fact which gives pause to anyone tempted to become overjoyed at the district court’s rejection of Prop 8.)

That Teafoxlican self-image has become rather tiresome. And yet it clearly offers residual appeal in our current historical moment — a seemingly (and perhaps not just seemingly) endless job slump that coincides with an expensive and intractable war and a spate of enormous federal spending that supposedly has warded off disaster, but hasn’t obviously benefited the average American.

It’s in times like these that xenophobia, racism and other forms of hatred find fertile soil, particularly when fertilized by the likes of Beck, Limbaugh, Bachmann and Palin. A toxic stew of such poisons, along with the normal reversion to the mean that follows a landslide election like 2008, probably will bring the Republican Party control over at least one house of Congress this November. And that will bring an end to our brief experiment in unimpeded progressive governance.

But what will replace it? A fiscal caution that Republicans always claim, but have never actually displayed when they’ve been in power? Or a jacked-up vendetta against all those supposedly high-powered minorities who’ve collectively “wronged” them over this horrifying year and a half since they started noticing that the country is adrift?

I don’t claim to know exactly how much power the American people will hand back to Republicans this fall, or how they’ll respond once the GOP exercises that power. In fact, I’ve pretty much given up any belief that the American people have the slightest clue what they want. But one thing I know for sure: If Gingrich and his fellow race-baiting demagogues get their way, and construction of that mosque in downtown Manhattan is blocked, then the terrorists win.