Dishheads know I believe that you cannot understand the current GOP without also grasping how bewildered so many people are by the dizzying onset of modernity. The 21st Century has brought Islamist war to America, the worst recession since the 1930s, a debt-ridden federal government, a majority-minority future, gay marriage, universal healthcare and legal weed. If you were still seething from the eruption of the 1960s, and thought that Reagan had ended all that, then the resilience of a pluralistic, multi-racial, fast-miscegenating, post-gay America, whose president looks like the future, not the past, you would indeed, at this point, be in a world-class, meshugganah, cultural panic.
When you add in the fact that the American dream stopped working for most working-class folks at some point in the mid 1970s, and when you see the national debt soaring from the Reagan years onward, made much worse by the Bush-Cheney years, and then exploded by the recession Bush bequeathed, you have a combustible mixture. It’s very easy to lump all this together into a paranoid fantasy of an American apocalypse that must somehow be stopped at all cost. In trying to understand the far-right mindset – which accounts for around a quarter of the country – I think you have to zoom out and see all of this in context.
Many of us found in Barack Obama a very post-ideological president, a pragmatist, a Christian, and a traditional family man, and naively believed that he could both repair the enormous damage done by the Bush-Cheney administration and simultaneously reach out to the red states as well. I refuse to say the failure is his. Because he tried. For years, he was lambasted by the left for being far too accommodating, far too reasonable, aloof, not scrappy enough, weak … you know the drill by now. In fact, he was just trying to bring as much of the country along as he could in tackling the huge recession and massive debt he inherited at one and the same time, and in unwinding the 9/11 emergency, and in ending two wars and the morally and legally crippling legacy of torture (about which the GOP is simply in rigid denial).
Obama got zero votes from House Republicans for a desperately needed stimulus in his first weeks in office. So I cannot believe he could have maintained any sort of detente with the Republican right, dominated by the legacy of Palin, rather than McCain. But the healthcare reform clearly ended any sort of possibility of coexistence – and the cold civil war took off again. The first black president could, perhaps, clean up some of the mess of his predecessor, but as soon as he moved on an actual substantive change that he wanted and campaigned on, he was deemed illegitimate. Even though that change was, by any standards, a moderate one, catering to private interests, such as drug and insurance companies; even though it had no public option; even though its outline was the same as the GOP’s 2012 nominee’s in Massachusetts, this inching toward a more liberal America was the casus belli. It still is – which is why it looms so large for the Republican right in ways that can easily befuddle the rest of us.
But it is emphatically not the real reason for the revolt. It is the symptom, not the cause. My rule of thumb is pretty simple: whenever you hear a quote about Obamacare, it’s more illuminating to remove the “care” part. And Obama is a symbol of change people cannot understand, are frightened by, and seek refuge from.
That desperate need for certainty and security is what I focused on in my book about all this, The Conservative Soul. What the understandably beleaguered citizens of this new modern order want is a pristine variety of America that feels like the one they grew up in. They want truths that ring without any timbre of doubt. They want root-and-branch reform – to the days of the American Revolution. And they want all of this as a pre-packaged ideology, preferably aligned with re-written American history, and reiterated as a theater of comfort and nostalgia. They want their presidents white and their budget balanced now. That balancing it now would tip the whole world into a second depression sounds like elite cant to them; that America is, as a matter of fact, a coffee-colored country – and stronger for it – does not remove their desire for it not to be so; indeed it intensifies their futile effort to stop immigration reform. And given the apocalyptic nature of their view of what is going on, it is only natural that they would seek a totalist, radical, revolutionary halt to all of it, even if it creates economic chaos, even if it destroys millions of jobs, even though it keeps millions in immigration limbo, even if it means an unprecedented default on the debt.
This is a religion – but a particularly modern, extreme and unthinking fundamentalist religion. And such a form of religion is the antithesis of the mainline Protestantism that once dominated the Republican party as well, to a lesser extent, the Democratic party.
It also brooks no distinction between religion and politics, seeing them as fused in the same cultural and religious battle. Much of the GOP hails from that new purist, apocalyptic sect right now – and certainly no one else is attacking that kind of religious organization. But it will do to institutional political parties what entrepreneurial fundamentalism does to mainline churches: its appeal to absolute truth, total rectitude and simplicity of worldview instantly trumps tradition, reason, moderation, compromise.
An important thesis of the book is that as religious organizations grow powerful and complacent, and their adherents do likewise, they make themselves vulnerable to challenges from upstart sects that “impose significant costs in terms of sacrifice and even stigma upon their members.” For insurgent groups, fervor and discipline are their own rewards.
Right now, the Republican Party is an object of contempt to many on the far right, whose adamant convictions threaten what they perceive as Republican complacency. The Tea Party is akin to a rowdy evangelical storefront beckoning down the road from the staid Episcopal cathedral. Writing of insurgent congregations, Finke and Stark said that “sectarian members are either in or out; they must follow the demands of the group or withdraw. The ‘seductive middle ground’ is lost.”
In other words, this is not just a cold civil war. It is also a religious war – between fundamentalism and faith, between totalism and tradition, between certainty and reasoned doubt. It may need to burn itself out – with all the social and economic and human damage that entails. Or it can be defeated, as Lincoln reluctantly did to his fanatical enemies, or absorbed and coopted, as Elizabeth I did hers over decades. But it will take time. The question is what will be left of America once it subsides, and how great a cost it will have imposed.
(Photos: from a Tea Party rally, Ken Cucinnelli, far right candidate for governor of Virginia, and Michele Bachmann, apocalyptic prophet, by Getty Images.)