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The Republicans are radicals, not conservatives

The party has forgotten that change, if necessary, should be incremental and practical.

New Statesman
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is introduced by Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan. Photograph: Getty Images.

It's not Ted Nugent's fault that he is clearly a born whack-job, but we can hold Republicans accountable for tolerating the Motor City Madman's rhetoric of violence.

Nugent told supporters of the National Rifle Association recently that he'd "be dead or in jail" if President Obama were re-elected. Nugent and his right-wing apologists have since denied that he was making any kind of threat to the president's life. The Secret Service evidently felt otherwise and paid a visit to the well-known gun fetishist.

Nugent has come out in support of GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney. When asked, Romney condemned violence generally without referring to Nugent. The Secret Service concluded that the rock musician best known for singing "Cat Scratch Fever" had no intent to assassinate anyone.

Well, that's good to know, but what was the context of his little chat? Something about Obama being a criminal, that his administration is evil, and that conservatives need to "chop their heads off." Yeah, sounds about right.

For the record, I enjoy gutter-sniping and trash-talk. It's deliciously lowbrow and a grand tradition in American oratory. The theatricality of the Nuge is part of his appeal, too. But Romney is a presidential candidate. That he seems unwilling to distance himself from Nugent suggests he and the GOP are so accustomed to the rhetoric of violence that they are inured to radicalism when it's in front of them.

US Rep. Barney Frank has said Democrats aren't perfect, but Republicans are nuts, conceding that voters have a less than ideal choice but Dems are at least functional. Yet "nuts" is only half right. Since 2008, and especially since 2010, the GOP has become extremist, so much so that its current state challenges the very notion of "conservatism."

A dominant tone in the rubric of conservatism is preservation: maintaining and protecting whatever a community has valued over time. In the US, that has meant tradition, civic institutions, family, marriage and Christianity, among other cultural norms. Moreover, conservatism is method for dealing with modernity. If change is needed, let it be incremental and practical.

But conservatives like US Rep Paul Ryan, author of a budget proposal endorsed by Romney, want to move rashly and radically to tear down widely-valued institutions like Medicare. Debates over its merits were settled long ago, but Ryan, as if he were a revolutionary waiting to blow up the current system, seeks to decimate Medicare by privatizing the entitlements that every American pays for.

The GOP vision isn't just radical; it's obliquely socialist. I'm not talking about the good kind of socialism, which the GOP is historically hostile to. I'm talking about a brand of socialism in which the government interferes with markets for the benefit of the one per cent: tax loop holes, corporate giveaways, tax cuts, etc. Noam Chomsky once wryly said that capitalism is a great idea that no one has bothered to try yet. The corporate socialists would never allow it.

Worse is that the GOP appears to want everyone who is not rich and not a corporation to believe in its free market gospel. That's why the House cut funding for food stamps. Freebies make people lazy. That's why GOP leadership is threatening to make those who earn the least pay more in federal income tax. That's only fair to the rest of us. Meanwhile, there's no place in America for a millionaire's tax. Let's not start annoying the job creators, OK? 

So what we have is a party of radicals bent on using the power of the government to redistribute wealth upward. Of course, the GOP hasn't been alone in its obsession. Democrats are to blame too. But that's largely because radical Republicans have pulled the center of the political spectrum far to the right, so much that tax cuts seem always sensible while tax hikes are always treasonous.

We are so far to the right, so terrified of irritating business, that 2,700 corporations, including Nissan, Sears and Goldman Sachs in effect tax their own workers. Twenty-two states have subsidies programs in which huge corporations keep money that would have been levied by the state for public sector purposes. But instead of going to roads, schools and fire departments, about $5.5 billion (over 20 years) has gone straight into corporate coffers.

David Cay Johnston, of Reuters, wrote: "These deals typify corporate socialism, in which business gains are privatized and costs socialized. They also mean government picks winners and losers, interfering with competitive markets."

Like I said, not the good kind of socialism. That would never be tolerated. When a moderate president like Obama says the GOP wants to "impose a radical vision on our country," he's right. But that's when someone like the Motor City Madman will get crazy and call him a socialist.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in Political Science at Yale University.