I once heard an interview with an American journalist who was traveling in the country of Denmark around the time of the American 2000 presidential election. He spoke to a man who was a member of the Conservative People's Party in Denmark, and when he asked the man whether he wanted Democrat Al Gore or Republican George W Bush to win the presidency, the man replied Al Gore. When the journalist asked him how he could want Gore to win when he was a member of the Conservative People's Party, the man replied "the most right wing party in Denmark is to the left of your Democrats."
In my last post, I wrote about how one's political beliefs are often influenced by what part of the country you're born in and whether or not your ancestors farmed or herded. But even given those factors, it still is surprising not just how big the divide between progressives and conservatives is, but also just how far to the right conservatives are in this country. Although there are a handful of moderate conservatives left, the majority clearly seem to be extreme; here's a good example, every other industrialized nation in the world has a national health care plan, and while no plan is perfect, most of those countries are happy overall with their plans (last year, the Olympic games in England opened with a musical tribute to their national health system!). And yet when president Obama attempted to reform America's health care system to be more in line with that of other countries, the response from the right was vociferous to say the least. Town hall meetings on the issue degenerated into screaming matches. In a truly crazy moment, one protestor compared Obamacare to a plan by Adolph Hitler, while talking to the openly gay, jewish Obamacare supporting congressman Barney Frank. Eventually, a watered down bill was passed, but not with one Republican vote, and it was accompanied by protestors who chanted "kill the bill" to the delight of the congressional Republicans. And despite it being the law of the land, the Republican party has still refused to accept it, with house Republicans voting to overturn it a stunning thirty-seven times (so far).
A recent poll says it all: a majority of registered Democrats and Independents want politicians to compromise, but Republicans do not. Let's go back to the year 2000 again to take a look at that difference in action. Whether or not George W Bush legitimately won the contested state of Florida is something we may never know, but it is an undeniable fact that Al Gore won the popular vote by over half a million votes; it would, therefore, not have been out of line for the congressional Democrats to oppose every piece of legislation Bush proposed, and block every cabinet nomination, saying that he had no real mandate from the voters. But they didn't; even before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Democrats showed a willingness to accept and work with Bush, with some of them even voting in favor of his tax cuts. Fast forward eight years to the election of Obama; unlike Bush, his victory could not be contested, and yet right from the start there was outspoken opposition to him. In the senate, Republicans used the filibuster to block so many of the president's nominations for cabinet and judge positions, that he now has had to deal with more filibusters than every president before him combined! Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell famously said "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." Meanwhile, rumors that the president was born in Kenya and not Hawaii spread like wildfire on the right, until the president himself had to display his long form birth certificate. And still the rumors persist; although none of this was enough to defeat his reelection, the continued obstructions from the Republican party clearly show that they do not want to compromise in any way.
And none of this kind of thing is new; during the Clinton years the Rev. Jerry Falwell appeared on his TV show peddling videotapes that claimed that the president was dealing drugs and calling out hits like a mob boss when he was governor of Arkansas, and in 1994, when Newt Gingrich became speaker of the house of representatives, he held a press conference in which he implied that the president was no longer relevant. And in the context of all this, we see study after study showing that since 1979 the poor and the middle class have been standing still or losing ground economically while the rich have been accumulating more wealth and power. It's gotten so bad that the US leads the industrialized world in uneven distribution of wealth, with the now infamous 1% of the population earning around 35% of the country's total income. And yet Republicans still say that taxes on the rich are too high. How do they get away with this? Why do average people in the US accept such huge gulfs of wealth and privilege, ones that threaten to turn America into a third world nation? (If we aren't there already.)
Here's the kind of story that illustrates how much like a third world country America sometimes seems: the New York Times recently reported that every year in Tennessee, people who are quite poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, but who still have high medical bills, can apply for state aid. The way that applications are received is through a government hot line, which inevitably is jammed with phone calls and only open for a certain amount of time. Is this really how the wealthiest nation in the world should be dealing with people's health care issues? By distributing aid like a radio DJ giving out tickets to a Jay Z concert? It's hard to know whether or not to laugh or cry at that kind of story.
I am a liberal; in fact, I'm a European Socialist. I honestly believe that if the US were more like Europe and Canada, the average American would be better off. The fact is, generally, people in those countries are healthier and live longer, and have less poverty and crime to worry about, many of them even provide national daycare. America is the best place in the world to live for that 1%, who can live in gated communities, send their children to private schools, and pay for the best doctors when they need them. For the rest of us, the country is a mixed bag; a good place that could be better.
But what's different about America? What makes us unique among first world countries in accepting such high rates of poverty? I believe that it is the sad legacy of slavery, which lasted much longer here than it did in Europe; the tragic fact of the matter is that countries that have robust social safety nets had the least amount of ethnic diversity when those nets were put in place. A depressing fact of human nature is that people are more willing to help the poor when those poor people look like them.
In the US, if one looks at the demographic statistics, the single strongest conservative voting group are blue collar white males. These are not rich people, these are men who don't gain by tax cuts for the rich, and who would benefit from strong unions, so why do they continually vote against their own economic interest? Because the rich and the powerful in this country have figured out that by dividing poor and middle class people by race, they can get poor and middle class white people to vote for politicians who will allow them to keep more of their wealth and power. They have effectively convinced those blue collar white males that any kind of government assistance for the poor is just taking money out of the hands of hard working white people and giving it to lazy nonwhite people.
The political changes in this country over the years rule this out: for decades after the Civil War, the Southern states were all strongly for the Democrats, but then the arrival of the civil rights movement changed that, and in 1964 when Democratic president Lydon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Voting Act, white southerners turned on the Democratic party, with the Republicans waiting with open arms. This lead to what came to be know as the Southern strategy, described in a 1970 interview by Richard Nixon's political strategist Kevin Philips in this way:"The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are."
And that kind of nod to negative racial stereotypes would just continue from the Republicans: while running for president in 1976, Ronald Reagan often told a story about a young welfare mother in Chicago who was making $150,000 a year off the government. The story behind this woman is murky, and she is far from representative. He also referred to a potential food stamp cheat as a “strapping young buck”. Later, as president he would veto sanctions against the white supremacist South African Apartheid government and give a speech defending that government. His successor, George Bush, used a political ad against his opponent that played on racial fears. In 1991, a Republican named David Duke, a former wizard of the Klu Klux Klan, ran for governor of Louisiana; the Republican party understandably attempted to repudiate him, but his stands on most issues mirrored theirs. Although he lost that election, he stunningly received a majority of the white vote. You want recent examples? In the run up to the 2012 presidential election, Newt Gingrich referred to president Obama as a "food stamp president", and said ".. I'm prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I'll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps." The obvious implication is that most people on food stamps are African American, and that they don't work. Neither of these things are true (The center on budget and policy priorities states that one third of food stamp recipients are African American, while Forbes magazine points out that 30% of people on food stamps work, and another 32% are elderly or disabled), but that didn't stop Republican audiences from cheering him when he defended the statement in a debate. And don't get me started on recent voting restriction laws that are brazenly intended to limit the African American vote. Not only is this form of race baiting offensive, it's also wrong. The largest federal government anti-poverty program in America is not welfare, food stamps or medicaid, it's social security. The enormously popular social security program was founded in 1935 to aid impoverished people who were too old to work, and is obviously not based on benefiting one race over another. Another interesting fact is that many of the red states that claim to hate the federal government get more money each year in federal programs like social security, medicare and medicaid than they pay in Federal taxes, so they're being bailed out by the same government they say they despise.
I should mention that conservatives have found other wedge issues over the years to convince those blue collar white men(and women) to turn out for them; Thomas Frank, in his book WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS described the three g's, God, Guns and Gays as the three big issues that connected with working poor Republicans in the 90's. So, it's not just coded race baiting that gets those voters out.
The good news is that the days of these kind of attacks by conservatives are quickly fading, as older Republican voters are passing away, to be replaced by a younger, more open generation who don't fall for the same tricks. And the changing demographics of America, with white people becoming a smaller group, is doing them no favors. Clearly, the Republican party knows this, as they have made some attempts to appeal to non white voters, although, sadly, they seem more concerned with passing those voter ID bills. Still, I'm optimistic for the future of this country, because I think we can slowly evolve into a more egalitarian society as more and more poor and middle class people call for better heath care, schools and aid for the impoverished. The conservatives are fading away, but, as we all know, they won't go quietly.
In conclusion, let me quote an extremely wise man who wrote something in 1949 that's strikingly relevant today:
Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.
from the essay WHY SOCIALISM?