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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.