In the closing days of the 1880s, beset by far reaching societal change, the Indians of the American West embraced a messianic practice called the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance religion, put forth by a Paiute medicine man named Wovoka, foretold of the destruction of the existing world and its replacement with the old order where only the Indians would occupy the landscape. The buffalo would return in great numbers and those Indian warriors who had died fighting the white man would be resurrected. This new world order would be hastened by the performance of the Ghost Dance ritual and the wearing of shirts blessed to repel the bullets of the American Army.
Listening to the rhetoric flowing out of CPAC 2009 one could conclude that the Conservative Movement has embraced its own version of a 21st Century Ghost Dance, led by its own modern day Wovoka in the person of Rush Limbaugh. It is as if by reiterating ideology, invoking the memory of Reagan and maligning the Obama recovery effort as “socialist”, that Conservatives will somehow forestall imminent political change. In an attempt to heighten alarm Limbaugh lays claim to the idea that life, liberty and freedom are under assault. He states that Barack Obama will eliminate capitalism and individual liberty as the cornerstone of American life. Limbaugh makes such a claim in spite of the historical fact that the government has been intimately involved in economic affairs since 1819 with no appreciable loss of personal liberty to date. Nonetheless Limbaugh has put the failure of the Obama recovery program at the top of his personal political agenda because he thinks that such failure will bring about a return to a glorious (imagined) past. Limbaugh defiantly rejects the 2008 election as proof positive that Americans want a change in direction because the electoral results don’t square with his vision of America. All this from a man who, somewhere on the spectrum between ideological purist and buffoon, doesn’t know the Declaration of Independence from the Constitution when it comes to a quote regarding life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Somehow talk of “true patriotism” rings hollow coming from a man who had more draft deferments during the Vietnam War than some soldiers had combat action medals. As CPAC continued, Mike Huckabee claimed, “Lenin and Stalin would love the Obama program” leading one to believe that the former presidential candidate knows less about history than does Sarah Palin. Anyone who thinks that the Obama recovery plans bear any resemblance to Soviet economic polices of the last century is either irresponsibly playing with words for the sake of incitement or just lacks the background required to engage in intelligent political discourse.
Beyond Limbaugh and CPAC the hysteria over the “slide into socialism” continues unabated in conservative media. Harry R Jackson, Jr. intones that: “a war for the soul of the nation” is raging. Pat Buchanan declared the Obama budget a “declaration of war on the Right.” The latest piece from Dick Morris is entitled “Waging War on Prosperity.” Limbaugh’s own brother David has gone so far as to say that media attacks leveled at Rush are really aimed at those who support him, the “true patriots” that oppose Obama’s “Marxist agenda and Stalinist tactics.” Newsmax suggests some on the Right may consider armed violent resistance to the Obama Administration, which to me represents a new high watermark in rightwing hysteria surpassing the previous one left behind by the Terri Schiavo case. The “patriot game” was of little use to Republicans in the last election cycle and except for the low- information voter should prove equally useless this time around.
Progressive political thinkers might ask themselves what intellectual ammunition would be of use in countering this 21st Century Ghost Dance. My suggestion is to start with facts. Socialism is defined as the “collective or government ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.” That definition encompasses the entirety of economic activity. While the present breakdown in the economy has necessitated a large degree of government involvement in economic affairs, nowhere is there any evidence that Barack Obama is advocating government oversight of economic activity beyond those sectors where the free market has failed. Ironically, it was House Republicans that advocated a partial socialization of banking in the financial bailout of 2008. How hypocritical to oppose the very ideas they once promoted. Having dispensed with the allegation that the Obama Administration aims to affect a wholesale socialization of the economy we can skip past the Stalinist / Leninist rhetoric altogether.
Conservative media is obsessed with the idea that Barack Obama wants to punish success and has declared a war on prosperity. For all of the Conservative rhetoric regarding government policy and the economy, it is an established fact that in the post World War II period the economy has generally done better under Democrats than Republicans. Democratic administrations have outperformed their Republican counterparts across the board on average in terms of annualized job creation, GDP and GDP per capita growth rates. Despite all of the talk of taxing the wealthy and its effect on the economy, under Democratic administrations the wealthiest have done almost as well as they have under Republicans. It is noteworthy that Barack Obama won the majority of those earning over $200,000.00 in spite of the fact that Republicans constantly warned voters of the prospect of higher taxes. While Conservatives bend over backwards in arguing for lower tax rates for the rich and businesses, they remain silent on the subject of tax fairness. In 1980 the amount of national wealth received by the top one percent of wage earners was eight percent of the total wealth created in the United States whereas in 2008 it was twenty six percent. Changes in tax laws since the Reagan era have led to the shifting of the national tax burden from wealth to labor resulting in the largest redistribution of wealth upwards since the 1920s. Likewise, the past eight years have seen the percentage of national wealth that accrues to the working American fall to the lowest percentage on record. Median family income, based on Census Bureau findings, actually declined between 2000 and 2007 when adjusted for inflation while at the same time productivity, profits and executive compensation registered strong gains. That said, what are the real arguments to be made for maintaining the status quo with regard to tax policy and the distribution of income as it relates to the economic well being of the people who actually go to work every day and create the goods and services of a modern economy? Somehow, Conservative thinking as it relates to tax policy and prosperity has either missed or ignored eighty percent of the population while obsessing on the well being of the business community and entrepreneurs. Owing to the fact that the “prosperity” of the past eight years was largely fueled by financial engineering, debt accumulation and the housing bubble rather than income growth, where in this time period can we find evidence of the validity of a conservative economic theory which promotes growth through lower taxes?
In their nostalgia for the Reagan era, Conservatives have adhered to an image of the man based on his rhetoric as opposed to his actual record in office. The federal government actually grew under Reagan as he added a new cabinet level department and various other executive level bureaus. While he argued the virtues of limited spending he embarked on a massive military buildup, much of it in excess of what the threat level of that time required. Large-scale military buildups are public spending just the way bridge and highway projects are, it’s only the products that differ. Both ultimately aid overall economic activity. In spite of supposed strength of conservative economic theories, the recession of 1981-1982 was the worst downturn since the Great Depression, until today, with unemp
loyment topping ten percent. While Reagan talked tough with the Soviets he reached out to them and successfully concluded an arms treaty. He was far more bipartisan than are the Republicans of today. He was largely silent on the issue of abortion.
While those in the pro-Obama mainstream media, along with Rahm Emanuel and his Democratic allies, will continue to publicly bait Limbaugh for their own obvious benefit, there is a growing chorus of concern among Republicans inside and outside of government as to how to defuse the extremists on the far right. Former Republican Congressmen Tom DeLay and Vin Weber have been quick to point out that Limbaugh is not the head of the GOP nor is he its spokesman. Former Republican Congressman and talk show host Joe Scarborough has pointed to a need for the GOP to formulate a constructive strategy for the future and to ignore Limbaugh altogether. Former RNCC Chairman Tom Cole of Oklahoma summed up the GOP’s current predicament with the following observation: “The politics of the country are changing profoundly and rapidly, much as they did in 1932 and 1980.” While Rush Limbaugh intones that Conservative principles are essentially unalterable and forever, moderate Republican observers will argue that those principals need to be modernized or else Republicans are looking at a future with their party in permanent minority status.
Limbaugh and his CPAC acolytes argue that “Americans are conservative by instinct”, but empirically it is hard to make such an argument. A November 2008 poll by Pew Research would show that only 38 percent of Americans identify as conservatives. More importantly the most recent NYT/CBS tracking poll of political identification shows only 28 percent of Americans consider themselves Republican. On a county-by-county basis the 2008 presidential election reveals a significant shift towards the Democratic Party, even in many of the states that went for McCain. With the exception of an arc running roughly from Oklahoma through Arkansas, Tennessee and into Appalachia, most of the rest of the country shows an overall rise in the numbers of people who voted Democrat. Current opinion polls also show that in the face of stubborn opposition from the Right, Obama’s overall approval ratings remain high. With a 60 percent favorable rating overall, the President does even better when polling becomes more specific. On topics like withdrawing from Iraq or whether the economic crisis is his fault or inherited, his ratings exceed 80 percent, whereas for Republicans 56 percent of respondents say they are playing politics rather than standing on principles. In terms of the direction the country, 41 percent say it is on the right track, up from 12 percent who felt that way in October of 2008. Currently, Congressional Republicans have an approval rating below that of their Democrat counterparts. Meanwhile among those below the age of 40, Mr. Limbaugh receives a paltry 11 percent approval rating. His audience and his appeal among independent voters is essentially nonexistent.
While this modern day Conservative Ghost Dance wends its way across the political landscape, its ultimate destination remains a mystery. Given the current political climate it does not seem that Rush Limbaugh, his acolytes and his defacto, if not unwilling, Republican allies will return to majority status or the seat of power anytime soon. While Conservatives are venerating an imagined past, the number of people identifying with the Republican Party or willing to vote for its program is shrinking. The GOP is seen more and more as the party of the South and one that is only gaining adherents among the less educated living in the most rural regions of the country. While the core beliefs and principles of the Right seem out of date or inapplicable in this current climate of worldwide economic crisis, there has to be more to the movement than the politics of obstruction. Absent a new message and a program that attracts independents, the only hope that Conservatives and Republicans have is to bank on Democratic failure, which is neither creative nor compelling in the eyes of the voters. Beyond this paucity of new ideas the more immediate concern is that Limbaugh, the Radical Right and the politics of obstruction will derail the GOP’s electoral chances altogether in the next election cycle. After all 2010 will be here before we know it.
Steven J. Gulitti
New York City
March 5, 2009