Answering Norris

A few days ago, Norris Lineweaver left a question prompted by my partisan history.

Once upon a time, you were an active Republican. What were the pillars of Republican ideas then versus now? What pillars of Democrat thinking (at large) attracted you to make a change? What major shifts took place in the Republican Party that define them today?

Fair question, and Norris isn’t the only one who has asked it. Every so often, a student would come across my book What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU? and confront me with a version of “You were a Republican?” It’s difficult to convey to younger people, especially, the immense difference between today’s GOP and the party to which I once belonged.

Here’s a clue: In 1980, I ran for Congress. I was pro-choice and pro-gay-rights (although LGBTQ issues weren’t the subject of much discussion back then, a story in NUVO made my position clear). I WON a Republican primary. Convincingly. That just wouldn’t happen today.

It’s difficult to overstate the extent to which the Republican Party has become radicalized. 

I became politically active in 1960. A Facebook meme that looked at the Republican Party platform from 1956 was found “mostly true” by Politifact.  That platform endorsed: Providing federal assistance to low-income communities; Protecting Social Security; Providing asylum for refugees; Extending the minimum wage; Improving the unemployment benefit system to cover more people; Strengthening labor laws so workers can more easily join a union; and Assuring equal pay for equal work regardless of sex.

Today’s Republican Party rejects all those positions–although it still gives lip-service to protecting Social Security. There’s a reason so many of us “old” Republicans insist we didn’t leave the GOP–the GOP left us.

As Republicans began their transformation into culture warriors, those of us who considered ourselves “traditional” Republicans differentiated ourselves by protesting that we were “social liberals and fiscal conservatives.” For most of us, being fiscally conservative meant being prudent–neither profligate spenders nor pious “conservatives” for whom fiscal conservatism was code for cutting social programs and enacting tax breaks for the rich. 

As the GOP continued its war on reality and sanity–not to mention Black and Brown people–I was one of many who concluded the disease was terminal, and I left.

As Tom Nichols recently wrote in The Atlantic,  today’s Republicans find themselves in their own version of end-stage Bolshevism– members of a party “exhausted by its failures, cynical about its own ideology, authoritarian by reflex, controlled as a personality cult by a failing old man, and looking for new adventures to rejuvenate its fortunes.”

The Republican Party has, for years, ignored the ideas and principles it once espoused, to the point where the 2020 GOP convention simply dispensed with the fiction of a platform and instead declared the party to be whatever Comrade—excuse me, President—Donald Trump said it was….

A GOP that once prided itself on its intellectual debates is now ruled by the turgid formulations of what the Soviets would have called their “leading cadres,” including ideological watchdogs such as Tucker Carlson and Mark Levin. Like their Soviet predecessors, a host of dull and dogmatic cable outlets, screechy radio talkers, and poorly written magazines crank out the same kind of fill-in-the-blanks screeds full of delusional accusations, replacing “NATO” and “revanchism” with “antifa” and “radicalism.”

Nichols compares today’s GOP to the final “aggressive and paranoid” Soviet-era holdouts in the Kremlin, and notes  that they blame their failures at the ballot box on fraud and sabotage rather than admit their own shortcomings. 

And then, of course, there’s the racism. As the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank observed,

Trump’s overt racism turned the GOP into, essentially, a white-nationalist party, in which racial animus is the main motivator of Republican votes. But in an increasingly multicultural America, such people don’t form a majority. The only route to power for a white-nationalist party, then, is to become anti-democratic: to keep non-White people from voting and to discredit elections themselves. In short, democracy is working against Republicans — and so Republicans are working against democracy.

Bottom line: Today’s Republican Party has absolutely nothing in common with the party I joined in 1960, or even the party whose nomination I won in 1980. The Democrats certainly have their problems, but at least most Democrats are sane.

Hope that answers Norris’ question.

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Why America Elects Moral Midgets

I haven’t previously posted about the Impeachment trial. Initially, I figured that, since virtually everyone who has an opinion has written, spoken and generally fulminated about those opinions, there wasn’t much of value I could add.

Most of the commentary has–quite correctly–pointed to the cowardice and lack of integrity of all but seven Republican Senators. Columns and editorials have especially zeroed in on the breathtaking hypocrisy of Mitch McConnell; in his speech immediately after the vote, he made it clear that he knew Trump was guilty as charged. The fig leaf that McConnell and his spineless colleagues  were frantically trying to hide behind was an utterly unpersuasive opinion that a President who no longer held office could not be constitutionally impeached–an opinion rejected by virtually all constitutional scholars.

It also didn’t escape notice that McConnell was the reason the trial had been delayed until after Biden was inaugurated.

Suffice it to say that the overwhelming hypocrisy and dishonesty in the face of what everyone in that chamber clearly knew was astounding–and it has all been the subject of widespread condemnation. What hasn’t been adequately analyzed, however, is how we got here–“here” being a legislative chamber containing so many Senators clearly unworthy of public office.

I am convinced that the pathetic performance Americans saw last week was the result of forty-plus years of denigrating the very existence of government and belittling those who serve in it.

Reagan started the incessant attacks, and Republican dogma ever since has been that government–far from being an important tool for collective action addressing America’s problems–is always and inevitably a threat that must be constrained and hobbled.  Republican messaging has been sneering and dismissive of the very notion that government might be an essential mechanism for achieving the common good. It has been years since I heard a Republican politician employ terms like “statesmanship” and/or “public service.”

When I saw that both of Indiana’s undistinguished, moral-pygmy Senators had (predictably) voted to acquit, I could almost picture them spitting on Dick Lugar’s grave…

The Republican demonization of government has largely succeeded in changing the identity of the GOP. The political culture that produced statesmen like Dick Lugar and Bill Hudnut has been replaced by the slimy “what’s in it for me” opportunism of Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump–and Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and too many others.

Honorable, talented people are attracted to careers that those in their particular tribes consider prestigious and admirable. When government employment is denigrated and mocked–“couldn’t get a real job?”– when political actors are expected to be corrupt, and when politics is widely considered the refuge of blowhards and scoundrels, blowhards and scoundrels are who it will attract.

It’s instructive to emphasize that these persistent attacks on government and public service have come overwhelmingly from Republicans. Democrats have been far more likely to defend the importance and worth of  America’s political institutions, and I don’t think it is just happenstance that as a result–as we can see at the federal level– Democratic officeholders these days tend to be considerably more public-spirited, honorable and impressive than their Republican peers.

Today’s Democrats have Jamie Raskin; Republicans have Marjorie Taylor Green…

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The Economy And The Parties

Talk about your provocative headlines! The New York Times opinion page recently ran a column titled: “The Economy Does Much Better Under Democrats. Why?”

The column began with an acknowledgement  of the limited control presidents exert over the economy. After all, presidents are at the mercy of numerous global and other realities, as the pandemic is currently illustrating.  Furthermore, economic performance is determined by literally millions of decisions made every day by businesses and consumers, many if not most of which have little relation to government policy.

So why is there an undeniably “stark pattern” showing that the economy has grown significantly faster under Democratic presidents than Republican ones?

It’s true about almost any major indicator: gross domestic product, employment, incomes, productivity, even stock prices. It’s true if you examine only the precise period when a president is in office, or instead assume that a president’s policies affect the economy only after a lag and don’t start his economic clock until months after he takes office. The gap “holds almost regardless of how you define success,” two economics professors at Princeton, Alan Blinder and Mark Watson, write. They describe it as “startlingly large.”

Since 1933, the economy has grown at an annual average rate of 4.6 percent under Democratic presidents and 2.4 percent under Republicans, according to a Times analysis. In more concrete terms: The average income of Americans would be more than double its current level if the economy had somehow grown at the Democratic rate for all of the past nine decades. If anything, that period (which is based on data availability) is too kind to Republicans, because it excludes the portion of the Great Depression that happened on Herbert Hoover’s watch.

If the disparate results are too clear and too large to dismiss, the reasons are far less obvious. (As the King in “The King and I” liked to say, “It’s a puzzlement.”)

The authors of the study considered and discarded several possibilities. They threw out  Congressional control, because the pattern held regardless of which party was running Congress;  deficit spending also couldn’t explain the gap, because–contrary to GOP rhetoric–during the past 40 years, Republican presidents have run up larger deficits than Democrats.

If Congressional partnerships and deficit spending couldn’t account for the differences, what might? The authors concluded that the difference could be explained by the willingness of Democrats–but not Republicans–to respect  that pesky thing we call evidence.

As they note, Democrats have been far more willing to consider the lessons of economic history–to see which policies have been shown to actually strengthen the economy, and to replicate those approaches. Republicans, on the other hand, have “clung to theories that they want to believe — like the supposedly magical power of tax cuts and deregulation.”

In other words, Democrats have been pragmatists; Republicans have been ideologues.

As the authors note, since 1980, Republican economic policy has boiled down to a single measure: large tax cuts, tilted heavily toward the rich. That may work in countries with very high tax rates, but the United States has had very low tax rates for decades.

It may be that Republicans actually believe in their own prescription, despite the repeated failure of tax cuts to provide the promised economic stimulus and/or job creation. Or it may be–as cynics suggest–that the parties are simply playing to their respective bases of support– responding to the interest groups that support and finance them.  Democratic-leaning groups (like labor unions and civil-rights organizations) favor policies aimed at achieving broad-based economic growth; Republicans are pandering to wealthier supporters (those we used to call “country club Republicans), who favor policies that will shift income in their direction.

It will be interesting to see whether Republican ideology shifts as the  GOP becomes increasingly the party of whites without wealth or a college education–and as significant numbers of those suburban “country club” Republicans desert a GOP that is firmly in thrall to bigots and crazy people.

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When You Put It That Way…

As we watch the dust settle from the November election, many of us are torn: we are immensely relieved that Trump was emphatically defeated, but disappointed that the polling was so wrong, that the Democrats failed to take the Senate and win the many statehouse races around the country that looked within the party’s grasp.

Dana Milbank addressed that disappointment in a recent column for the Washington Post.

Milbank reminded his readers just how significant the election results were, and noted that the recriminations and dismay fail to do justice to “the historic victory that Democrats, independent voters and a brave few Republicans just pulled off.”

They denied a president a second term for the first time in 28 years — putting Trump in the company of Jimmy Carter and Herbert Hoover. President-elect Biden — just writing that brings relief — received more votes than any other presidential candidate in history, in an election with historically high voter turnout. A president who loves to apply superlatives can now claim a RECORD, HUGE and BIGGEST EVER defeat….

Ousting a demagogue with the loudest megaphone in the land is not an easy undertaking. Trump’s opponents had to overcome an unprecedented stream of disinformation and falsehoods from the president, even as his party normalized the assaults on truth, on facts, on science, on expertise. Trump’s opponents were up against a strongman who used the Justice Department, diplomats and the intelligence community to harass political opponents, who used federal police to suppress public demonstrations, who engaged in a massive campaign of voter intimidation and suppression, and who used government powers for political advantage: enlisting government employees to campaign for him, sabotaging postal operations, putting his name on taxpayer-funded checks, using the White House for a party convention. And Trump’s opponents had to contend with a Fox News cheering section and social-media landscape that insulated millions from reality.

It would be great if We the People could now just breathe sighs of relief and go back to our apathetic ways–back to the time before Trump where majorities of citizens essentially ignored politics and government–leaving policy to the political class. A sweeping victory that included the Senate would undoubtedly be seen as a signal that “our long national nightmare is over” and we can return to our previous preoccupations.

That would be a mistake. Perhaps a fatal one.

The Trump administration has been a symptom. A frightening one, for sure, but a warning that when large numbers of citizens take a protracted absence from participation in the democratic process, bad things happen. People like Mitch McConnell gain power. The rich and well-connected bend the laws in their favor. Politicians who place the exercise of power above the common good are entrenched. The planet suffers.

In past posts, I have enumerated many–certainly not all– of America’s structural issues and the way those issues have facilitated our transformation into a kakistocracy. We the People have our work cut out for us, and just as the obvious dangers of the Trump administration served as a wake-up call for millions of Americans who had been ignoring our downward spiral, the fact that seventy million Americans voted not just for a frighteningly mentally-ill ignoramus, but for the party that enabled him, must serve as a warning.

Americans who live in the reality-based community cannot afford to lapse back into complacency and the never-well-founded belief that “it can’t happen here.”

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What’s Next?

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Thomas Edsall asks a question that is rapidly becoming more pressing: what happens after the election?

It’s a question we really can’t answer until we know not just who has won the Presidency, but how the transition has been handled and–far more important–who will control the Senate.

Although “what now?” depends upon currently unknown election returns, we can–actually, we should–consider a variation of that question. What ought to happen next?

My own concerns revolve around the inevitable splintering of the Democratic Party into its factions. One of the problems with single-party dominance (or in this case, single-party sanity) is that reasonable people holding very different views all end up in the non-crazy party. Democrats have never been ideologically monolithic; these days, thoughtful conservatives, liberals and leftist activists are all Democrats because their only other options are to join a cult (the contemporary GOP) or vote for a third-party candidate (essentially flushing their votes).

My most fervent hope–assuming Democratic control of the Senate as well as the House and the White House–is that leadership will immediately move to implement policies on which there is broad consensus: rolling back the roll-backs of environmental protections; passing H.B. One–the broad reform of electoral rules that passed the House by a massive margin and languished (along with everything else Mitch McConnell touched) in the Senate; ending tax policies that soak the middle class while allowing the rich to evade paying their share; re-instating DACA and instituting humane immigration policies.

There are others, and they should all be introduced and passed as expeditiously as possible.

Noted political scientist Theda Skocpol believes the Democrats will hang together; she tells Edsall that, in the event of a Democratic Senate majority, especially with a cushion of 2 or 3 votes, she

does not foresee any acute internal conflicts, because there will be so much to do in a pandemic and economic crisis,” adding, “I think joint approaches will not be hard to work out: voting reforms, expansion of Obamacare with a strong public option, college costs help for lower income and lower middle class, robust green jobs investments, etc., etc.

I hope she’s right.

Other measures that ought to be taken–preferably, within the first hundred days–include eliminating the filibuster and expanding the number of federal judges. If–as is likely–Judge Barrett has been confirmed in a departing f**k you by McConnell, the number of Justices on the Supreme Court should also be expanded. (Actually, according to the Judicial Conference, that should be done even if, by  some intervening miracle, her nomination fails). But what should be done and what will occur are two different things, and opinions on both the filibuster and the approach to the courts divide the party’s moderates and progressives.

“What’s next” is, of course, a broader question than “what policies should Democrats pursue?” Edsall’s column is concerned less with policy and more with politics. He quotes a political scientist for the rather obvious observation that it’s easier to unite against something than for something, a truism that doesn’t bode well for continued Democratic unity. He also tackles the less obvious–and far more important–question “what happens to Trumpism” if, as seems likely, Trump loses?

Rogers Smith–another noted political scientist–thinks that a loss for Trump won’t defeat Trumpism.

Trump has built a new right populist coalition that has more electoral appeal than the full-tilt neoliberal, moderately multicultural economic and social positions of the prior Republican establishment. It has plenty of reasonably charismatic youthful champions. Its leaders will avoid the crude bullying and rule-flouting that Trump displayed in the recent presidential debate, and they’ll certainly try to avoid Access Hollywood-type scandals. But otherwise they will carry the Trump right-populist movement forward.

The “Trump movement” is essentially racist, theocratic and misogynistic. So long as it remains a viable, non-fringe element of American political life, the “American experiment” is at risk.

Whatever is “next,” we probably aren’t yet out of the woods.

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