The Republicans are radicals, not conservatives

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

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.

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

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.