As much as they may grumble, there is a legitimate reason why the Republicans have been labeled the “Party of No.” For decades, the party’s kneejerk stance has been to oppose any legislation or policy involving social, economic or political progress.
You name it, the right has opposed it: civil rights, school desegregation, women’s rights, labor organizing, the minimum wage, social security, LGBT rights, welfare, immigrant rights, public education, reproductive rights, Medicare, Medicaid. And through the years the right invoked hysterical rhetoric in opposition, predicting that implementing any such policies would result in the end-of-family-free-enterprise-God-America on the one hand, and the imposition of atheism-socialism-Nazism on the other.
Republicans are obstructionist for one simple reason: it’s a winning strategy. Opposing progressive policies allows the right to actualize the ideals that both motivate and define their base. Rightist ideologies are not without sophistication, but right-wing politicians and media figures boil them down to a crude Manichean dualism to mobilize supporters based on group difference: good versus evil, us versus them. By demonizing and scapegoating politically marginal groups, the right is able to define “real Americans,” who are good, versus those defined as parasites, illegitimate and internal threats, who are evil.
There is a critical paradox at work. The Republicans have deftly turned being the “Party of No” into a positive stance: They signal to their base they are working to defeat an alien ideology while defending real Americans and traditional values and institutions.
Ideologues and opinion-makers spin any redistributive policy as a zero sum game; progressive policies give to undeserving groups by taking wealth from or denying rights to deserving Americans and institutions. Since Obama took office, the rise of the Tea Party has made the Republicans even more strident in their opposition. The GOP fights against every Democratic policy – including the stimulus bill, jobs programs, aid to local governments, court appointees, more labor rights, health care, financial regulation, net neutrality unemployment benefits, expanding access to food stamps and Head Start, action on global warming and immigrant rights – because it claims some sort of theft of money or rights is involved.
Sara Diamond neatly summarizes the politics behind the right’s obstructionism in her book, Roads To Dominion. She writes, “To be right-wing means to support the state in its capacity as enforcer of order and to oppose the state as distributor of wealth and power downward and more equitably in society.” (emphasis in original) These principles, in turn, flow from four interrelated political philosophies that animate the modern right: militarism, neoliberalism, traditionalism and white supremacism.
The heart of the right’s agenda is neoliberalism, which is the rule of the “free market” above all else. It demands that everything be a commodity, all actions be judged according to cost-benefit analysis, every realm be opened to capital’s predations, all human needs subjugated to those of finance. If neoliberalism is left unchecked, argues David Harvey in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, it would result in market anarchy and the dissolution of social solidarities. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously summed it up in her view, “There is no such thing as society but only individuals.”
Faced with market nihilism, “some degree of coercion appears necessary to restore order,” writes Harvey. Enter the neoconservatives, who play a crucial role resolving the contradictions between neoliberalism and traditionalism through militarism. Harvey explains that they “emphasize militarization as an antidote to the chaos of individual interests. For this reason, they are far more likely to highlight threats, real or imagined, both at home and abroad, to the integrity and stability of the nation.”
Militarism is just the means, however. To mobilize support for repressive methods the right stokes the passions and fears of its base by posing traditional values as under attack: the family, God, marriage, America, private property, law and order, and freedom itself. These values are often linked to neoliberalism and contrasted in opposition to “collectivism,” which is presented as a looming danger to both property and God. This also bridges the ideological gap between the religious right and the free-market right.
For example, the Christian Right is stridently anti-union. While the Bible can easily be read as a socialist document, the central role of money-driven ministries and televangelism has oriented Evangelicals toward free-market ideology that is expressed in its “prosperity theology” – “the belief that God rewards signs of faith with wealth, health and happiness.” As many Evangelicals are actual or would-be entrepreneurs, this doctrine is readily accepted. It’s a small step to convince them that unions promote secular collectivism that threatens private religious values, thus creating a theological rationale for neoliberal policies.
I use “the right” instead of “Republican” or even “conservative” to describe the movement and its ideas. Until recent years, there was a breed of socially liberal, fiscally conservative Republican that retained a foothold in the GOP. These Republicans provided critical support for civil rights and other progressive legislation. This segment, which tended to concentrate in the North, has largely shifted to the Democratic Party (with the result of pushing the Democrats further to the right). So while the right may now overlap significantly with the Republican Party, it wasn’t always so. More important, as shown by the Christian Right in years past and the Tea Party today, the right will try to purge those Republicans deemed not sufficiently orthodox, making the party more and more extreme.
The Tea Party is the latest chapter in the history of the Republicans as the “Party of No.” Its existence depends on continuous promotion from FOX News, organizing by Republican consultants, front groups such as Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works, and the GOP itself. Much of the Tea Party’s funding comes from right-wing foundations through the front groups, and its politics are anti-government, anti-labor, pro-corporate and often socially conservative, which is the same agenda the right has been pushing for more than 30 years.
The roots of right-wing obstruction are represented by three pivotal historical figures: William F. Buckley, Jr., Barry Goldwater and George Wallace. “The father of modern conservatism,” Buckley proclaimed his intention to stand “athwart history, yelling Stop!’” in founding National Review in 1955. He knit together traditionalism, free market ideology and anti-Communism, and his politics were a textbook case of opposing distribution of power and wealth and for imposing social order. In the 1950s, he dismissed civil rights legislation because Southern whites were “the advanced race.” This wasn’t a passing fancy; he defended this position as “absolutely correct” in 1989 on NPR. He inveighed against the 1965 Voting Rights Act as threatening “chaos” and “mobcratic rule.” While opposing basic freedoms for all people because it threatened the traditional order, he was for using force to impose gulag-like policies such as quarantining drug addicts, tattooing people with AIDS on their buttocks and suggested “relocating chronic welfare cases” to “rehabilitation centers.”
Buckley was not alone in believing progressive policies eroded traditional mores and institutions. Barry Goldwater, who was trounced as the Republican presidential nominee in 1964, voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, calling it “unconstitutional.” He fought school desegregation, and the desegregation of public accommodations, claiming it “tampers with the rights of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of property.” He railed against federal aid to schools, the minimum wage, Medicare and the entire welfare state because “socialism can be achieved through welfarism.” He opposed the progressive income tax because it artificially “enforce[ed] equality among unequal men.” One of Goldwater’s informal advisers in 1964 was economist Milton Friedman, who saw nothing wrong with racial discrimination in employment because it was a matter of “taste.” Many campaign volunteers came from the conspiratorial John Birch Society, which labeled integration a communist plot. Within Goldwater’s campaign one can see how various segments of the right united in opposing racial equality, but each for different reasons.
In contrast to Buckley, Goldwater was no religious traditionalist, but he did combine libertarianism and anti-Communism. He hewed to a secular traditionalism forged from patriotism, the Constitution and frontier mythology, and was far more open-minded on social issues. His wife Peggy helped found the Arizona chapter of Planned Parenthood, and he made clear his contempt for and opposition to the Christian Right when it began to take over the Republican Party in the 1980s.
A contemporary of Goldwater was the unapologetic racist, former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who swept the Deep South in the 1968 presidential election running on a segregationist platform. He represented yet another form of traditionalism, one that stoked fears that “blacks were moving beyond their safely encapsulated ghettos into ‘our’ streets, ‘our’ schools, ‘our’ neighborhoods,” according to Dan Carter, author of From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution.
Wallace pioneered the race-based appeals that still excite the populist right today. But he was also a deft cultural warrior who, writes Carter, “knew that a substantial percentage of the American electorate despised the civil rights agitators and antiwar demonstrators as symptoms of a fundamental decline in the traditional cultural compass of God, family, and country, a decline reflected in rising crime rates, the legalization of abortion, the rise in out-of-wedlock pregnancies, the increase in divorce rates, and the proliferation of ‘obscene’ literature and films.” Add gay marriage, Islamophobia and immigration, and you pretty much have the right’s culture war agenda of today.
The right’s need for enemies is coded in its political DNA. Without enemies to defeat, vanquish and even destroy, the right would suffer an existential crisis. For Goldwater it was the Communist menace; for Wallace, integrationists and intellectuals; for Nixon, liberals, antiwar activists and black radicals; for Reagan, labor, welfare queens and the Evil Empire; for Gingrich and his cohorts it was gays, feminists, welfare mothers and the Democrats; during the Bush years, it was Islam, immigrants, gays and abortionists; For the Tea Party, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, it’s all of the above.
There is one final step in how the right mobilizes grassroots support behind an obstructionist agenda. Few people mull over philosophical concepts when making political decisions. That’s why mobilizing group resentment and solidarity simultaneously is so effective. It gives people a way to see both enemies and allies in their daily lives. In the case of immigrants, the narrative is about “illegals” stealing jobs and social services from taxpayers. In the case of the Obama administration, the story is that taxes are being stolen from hard-working Americans to support parasites ranging from welfare recipients to Wall Street bankers.
Chip Berlet, a scholar at Political Research Associates, describes this as “producerism.” He defines it as “a world view in which people in the middle class feel they are being squeezed from above by crippling taxes, government bureaucracies and financial elites while simultaneously being pushed around, robbed, and shoved aside by an underclass of ‘lazy, sinful, and subversive freeloaders.’ The idea is that unproductive parasites above and below are bleeding the productive middle class dry.”
Segments of the right use producerism differently, explains Berlet. “Economic libertarians blast the government for high taxes and too much regulation of business. Anti-immigrant xenophobes blast the government for letting ‘illegals’ steal their jobs and increase their taxes. Christian fundamentalists blast the government for allowing the lazy, sinful, and subversive elements to ruin society.” In recent history, Wallace and Nixon used producerist rhetoric to mobilize white working-class resentment against blacks.
Producerism is premised on other techniques. First, argues Berlet, a group of people are dehumanized so they are seen as objects and then they are demonized as evil. Next, the group is scapegoated irrationally for specific problems. Lou Dobbs mastered this process in defining undocumented immigrants as “illegal,” then spouting dubious claims about immigrants being responsible for crime waves and disease outbreaks, and finally blaming them for stealing jobs and social services. Another example is FOX News and its hit job on ACORN. The group was caricatured as so nefarious and omnipotent, a poll last year by Public Policy Polling found that 52 percent of Republicans believed ACORN had stolen the 2008 election for Obama.
The Tea Party movement – which the Republicans have helped create and exploit to oppose the entirety of the Obama administration – is the latest political variant of the right’s themes. Much of the right’s anger is directed at immigrants, African Americans and social welfare and equality in general. Among Tea Partiers, 73 percent think “Blacks would be as well off as whites if they just tried harder”; 73 percent believe “providing government benefits to poor people encourages them to remain poor”; 60 percent believe “We have gone too far in pushing equal rights in this country”; 56 percent think “Immigrants take jobs from Americans”; 92 percent want a smaller government with “fewer services”; 92 percent think Obama’s policies are moving the country toward socialism; only 7 percent approve of Obama’s performance as president; and a combined 5 percent identify themselves as black, Asian or of Hispanic origin.
One survey found that identifying as a conservative or a Tea Party supporter was an accurate predictor of racial resentment. Additionally, only one-third were opposed to the government tapping people’s telephones and racial or religious profiling, and barely half opposed indefinite detention without trial. This is a movement that thrives on opposing the distribution of power and wealth more equitably in society and for imposing a repressive social order.
With nearly 60 percent of Tea Partiers believing Obama is foreign born or saying they are not sure, it becomes clear why so many on the right have adopted violent and revolutionary rhetoric. The thinking is he’s a foreigner or a Muslim or stole the election, so he is alien and illegitimate. As such, it makes sense he is pushing an alien idea like socialism that may be part of some grand conspiracy like the New World Order, the North American Union, the Bilderberg Group or Satan. (In a poll last September of New Jersey residents, not known for being prone to right-wing radicalism, 29 percent of Republicans thought Obama was the Anti-Christ or were unsure.)
However irrational this position may be, the logical consequences are not: anything Obama and the Democrats do must be opposed because it is a life-and-death struggle. In opposing the health care plan, the right is not just trying to deny services to the undeserving, it is affirming and protecting free choice, family, the sanctity of life, the market, God, country, the Constitution – all arguments trotted out in the last year.
Like the Clinton years, no matter how much Obama tries to appease Republicans, he will remain under attack and be held responsible for bizarre crimes and conspiracies because the right has nothing to gain from compromise. In fact, Republican opposition has devolved from the philosophical to the tactical. The right-wing noise machine frames Obama and the Democrats as the source of all evil, making compromise virtually impossible. Republicans now assail Obama policies they used to champion from the market-friendly health care law and huge tax cuts in the stimulus bill to the bipartisan deficit commission and pay-as you-go budget rules.
At the same time, the Obama administration has stoked support for the Tea Party by providing aid and comfort to Wall Street rather than Main Street. The Republicans have exploited legitimate anxieties over high unemployment, a shrinking economy and onerous taxes by scapegoating the weak and marginal for policies that are structural and historical in nature.
The lesson for Obama and Democrats is not that they went too far to the “left,” it’s that they went too far to the right. Obama had the political capital and the leverage over the banking and auto industries to push for a “Green New Deal” that could have restructured the transportation and energy sectors and created millions of new jobs. Slashing the bloated military budget while fighting for some type of single-payer health care – instead of a plan that uses public money to subsidize the for-profit healthcare industry – budget deficits could have been constrained while reducing the financial burden of medical bills for most American households. Implementing such an agenda could have created a mass constituency that would fight for a progressive vision and against the right’s repressive politics.
The right has well-thought-out ideologies, a specific agenda, clearly defined enemies, and ruthlessly pursues power to achieve its goals. And it’s fighting a Democratic White House and Party that stand for nothing, which is why being the “Party of No” will continue to be a winning strategy for Republicans.