For a long time now, the Republican party has essentially decided to ride the tiger of right-wing extremism to electoral victories and total Washington gridlock. The real action on the right side of the aisle has been on the far right, with each new anti-Obama movement and eruption out-doing the last in terms of upping the ante. Shock-jocks have defined the message, aided and abetted by key leadership figures. And so, in the latest manifestation, we have the former vice-president, Dick Cheney, telling Sean Hannity the following last night:
They peddle this line that now we’re going to pivot to Asia, but they’ve never justified it. And I think the whole thing is not driven by any change in world circumstances, it is driven by budget considerations. He would much rather spend the money on food stamps than he would on a strong military or support for our troops.
So a former vice-president is out there, saying the president prefers to spend money on food stamps than on “support for our troops.” He could have made an argument why he thinks we should maintain the stratospheric levels of defense spending that have been in place since 9/11; he could have argued that the US needs to maintain the ability to fight two major land wars simultaneously in perpetuity. He could have said a lot of things. But he decided to accuse the commander-in-chief of not supporting the troops and actually wanting to keep people in poverty. There is this belief out there that Republican extremism comes from the base and not the elites. But Cheney proves otherwise.
Now we get the extreme religious liberty bills across the country that are clearly a function of gay panic among fundamentalists and a decision to capitalize on it for electoral gain; we have a Republican lobbyist pulling a publicity stunt by drafting a law to ban gay players from the NFL; we have a state senator, using sarcasm in such a way as to describe mothers as “hosts” of unborn children; we have gubernatorial candidates proudly campaigning with a man who called the president a “subhuman mongrel”; and the list goes on and on:
attempting to make contraception illegal (North Carolina), requiring sonograms and their images of fetuses to be presented to women seeking abortions (several states), advocacy of secession (Colorado and Texas), making enforcement of federal laws regarding guns a crime (Missouri), adopting a tax code that puts a greater burden on the poor and middle class while advantaging the rich (North Carolina and Kansas), mandating photo identification for voting while making the availability of those IDs only in Department of Motor Vehicle offices where the non-driving majority of those without IDs never go (a number of states), refusing federal funds for expanding access to Medicaid for millions who need such access and protection (21 states, all with Republican governors) and, attempting to mandate the teaching of “creationism” in schools (several states).
Now, it’s true that some kind of pushback seems to have begun.
Nugent felt obliged to apologize; McCain is now against the Arizona law that puts religious liberty on steroids; the Chamber of Commerce has tried to push back on the more extreme Tea Party candidates. But the truth, it seems to me, is that the kind of cost-free extremism fostered by Fox News and Jim DeMint and Sarah Palin has a logic and momentum all its own. And at some point, a party that seems increasingly defined as angry, contemptuous of the president, constantly rabble-rousing (Jindal yesterday) and hostile to immigrants, gays, Latinos, African Americans and women will become so tainted in an increasingly diverse, pluralistic and multi-racial society it may take a generation to recover. Right now, there seems little cost to continuing to ride the tiger of senior rightwing rage – as the GOP looks confidently toward the mid-terms. The checks on it, however welcome, seem tactical and defensive rather than structural and positive. The lack of any unifying, multi-cultural message is gaping. Until these problems are more deeply addressed, until someone is capable of tackling them with clarity and reformist urgency, an entire generation may be lost to the left.
For Obama to win them over is one thing; for the GOP to tell the younger generation to get lost is quite another.
(Photo: Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty)