Monday, October 13, 2008

The Neo-Know Nothings

You know what I miss? The intellectual wing of the Republican Party. And I’m not the only one; Times columnist David Brooks, whom I used to despise as the constant Right-Wing balance to E.J. Dionne on NPR, is also in the same state of mourning. I know some really smart Republicans, and this was a party who once trumpeted science as the solution to all our problems. I mean, Reagan wanted to protect America from nuclear missiles using a global network of lasers and mass driver cannons for cryin’ out loud.

But as Brooks makes clear in his Oct 10 column, the Republican Party gave up being a party of ideas and embraced anti-intellectualism. This tactic is successful. Don’t casually wave your hand, snort, and point to to tell me that it’s not working this year. Obama may be up six or eight points in the national polls, but that still means that there are over a hundred million Americans buying into the notion that its okay to be ignorant.

Why does an embrace of anti-intellectualism work? Class warfare is effective in America today because the battle lines have seldom been as clearly drawn. If you added up all the wealth of the 400 richest Americans, it would take 150 million of our nation’s poorest to equal it. That’s four hundred people on one side, and one hundred fifty million on the other. And those poor and rural Americans are resentful, frustrated, mad and guilty. Guilty, you say? How could they feel guilty? After all, they didn’t do anything wrong!

But they do feel guilty: guilty they didn’t get a better education, guilty they don’t read, guilty that they still don’t trust the Black man or the Muslim, guilty that they still think being Gay is a crime. They look around and they see civil rights advancing and they know they’re supposed to keep their mouth shut, but they still, deep in their heart, think it’s all a huge mistake. They see those four hundred billionaires – they shop in their Walmarts – and get guilty that they didn’t strike it rich like those people did. The American Dream says that if you work hard, you can be a success. But that means that, if you’re not a success, you must not be working hard. Multiply that by one hundred fifty million. That’s a lot of resentment. A lot of guilt.

These people don’t want to feel guilty. They want their racial hatred, and their guilt over failing to educate themselves, to be excused. To be embraced and even elevated. And that’s why, last week, when Sarah Palin proclaimed in her best Church Lady voice that Barack Obama just doesn’t see America the way she sees America, what those guilty, resentful people heard was: “Come to our rallies, where it’s okay to standup and, with a microphone in your hand, say you don’t trust the Black man!” While you're at it, bring your Obama-monkey.

Plenty of Republicans have come out for Obama over the last couple of months. Some, like Wick Allison (editor of D Magazine and conservative columnist) have noted that if Obama is elected we can at least rest in the firm knowledge that our President has read the Federalist Papers. Is it too much to ask for, to have a President who reads? Who values education and literacy? Clinton used to sit up late at night reading the galley proofs of books which hadn’t yet seen print. Bush, by contrast, will forever be associated with My Pet Goat. Obama is a guy who writes his own books. I’ve never heard the same criticism leveled at John McCain.

The original Know Nothing Party was a single-issue party formed for one reason: to stop immigration. The arrival of foreigners into the United States was so alarming to these people that it enabled the creation of an entire political party. The history of this movement was sketched out for me in Doris Goodwin's Team of Rivals, and if you have not read this wonderful book yet all I can say is that things start to get a lot more interesting once Lincoln is actually elected. To this day, immigration remains one of the few causes which Republican candidates can reliably use to whip the crowd into a frenzy.

I wish that we really did have a Teddy Roosevelt Republican running for President. Teddy was a writer and an environmentalist; he earned his reputation as the “trust buster” by attacking mega-corporations who were raping the American citizen. He wasn’t perfect, but he would have been tolerable. I don’t morally approve of the idea of using the threat of military force to bend other countries to our will – but it has a realpolitik effectiveness which I find hard to argue with, and if done properly it saves us from actual war. I wouldn’t have voted for a man like that today, but I would not have been ashamed of his victory. If Teddy Roosevelt could meet the men surrounding John McCain’s candidacy, he’d take a singlestick to each and every one of them.

Of course, I want progressive Democrats to win this election, but I also crave a respectable opposition party in this country. I want a Republican party that doesn’t prey on the racist bigot in all of us, that educates at the same time as it governs, that can look in the mirror without shame. But I’ll have to let someone else in the Republican Party create that dream. I’m too busy drinking my latte, driving my Volvo, and sharpening my pointy-head.

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