The Republican Party is eating itself

Conservatives have forgotten that Americans are pragmatists first, ideologues second.

We say we are pro-life and then say we want abortion to be legal. We say we're mostly economically conservative but then say we like Medicare and food stamps. We say we want affordable health care and then say that the law that makes it affordable is un-American. What gives?

Part of it is the media. It can badly distort reality. But part of the reason (I think the greater part) is that Americans are so often lied to. Europeans have no doubt heard of the impact of Citizens United, the US Supreme Court case that permits unlimited sums of money to be spent on elections. This is the ruling that allowed Newt Gingrich to survive the GOP nomination process for much longer than he would have under prior conditions, and it allowed Mitt Romney to take the GOP nomination without the political benefit of charm, charisma or likeability.

Europeans, however, may not have heard of the army of secretive front groups that stealthily spread corporate propaganda. Recently, one of those advocating for the coal industry paid people $50 each to attend a regulatory meeting in Chicago. The goal here was creating the illusion that coal enjoys mass grassroots support when in fact it does not. This same tactic prevailed in 2010 when billionaire-backed groups like the Center for Protect Patient's Rights created the false impression that the Tea Party was a bottom-up conservative "insurrection." It funneled more than $44.5 million in 2010, much of it provided by two people: Charles and David Koch.

"Grassroots" isn't the only way the power elite masks its unpopular and oligarchical agendas. So is "small business." Few things are more sacred in Washington than the entrepreneur and small-business owner. Carrying its mantle, a group called the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) is challenging the constitutionality of Obama's health care reform law along with 26 states. The US Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in June. Meanwhile, a cursory look at the group's leadership suggests it has long-held ties not to small business but to Big Business Republicans. 

Its president is a former lobbyist for the steel industry who served in Ronald Reagan's White House. Its chief lobbyist served in the first Bush administration before working for Citizens for a Sound Economy, a think-tank financed by the Kochs. Citizens for a Sound Economy is now part of the brothers' Americans for Prosperity, which, along with FreedomWorks, underwrites much of the Tea Party. And the NFIB's communications director once worked for the American Legislative Exchange Council, which, as a service to state legislatures, writes "model legislation" that often undermines the right to collective bargaining. The Kochs are known for their anti-unionism.

But in politics, lies don't last forever. Eventually, there is a reckoning, and in the case of the president's health care law, a GOP reckoning may be on the horizon.

Consider Congressman Allen West of Florida. Over the weekend, he told a liberal blog that if the Supreme Court strikes down the law, it has to be replaced with something. That is, as a practical matter, something has to do done, and as a political matter, it's important to consider features of the law that Americans now like. Those, in West's words, would include: allowing children up age 26 to be covered by a parent's plan, outlawing discrimination based on "pre-existing conditions" and expanding drug coverage, aka closing the "donut hole."

For those paying attention, West's remarks amount to a tiny incendiary device going off beneath the skullcap, as West is one of the beneficiaries of the Tea Party "insurrection" and probably best known for saying that more than 80 Congressional Democrats are members of the Communist Party (they're progressives, but that's the same thing, right?). He and other Tea Party conservatives (libertarians mostly) won office by slamming "Obamacare" as evil socialism, and now, here he is, saying, well, some of that socialism is kinda sorta OK.

Unsurprisingly, West is up for re-election, as are many other Congressional Republicans (the House has two-year terms). And some of them, even among the GOP's leadership, are saying privately that Obamacare ain't all that bad. This has inspired worry among ideologues and swift reprimand from conservative groups like FreedomWorks, which demands that none of the law be re-packaged. Ever. FreedomWorks and others scare the bejesus out of Republicans because of the cyclical threat of primaries. They recently gave the boot to Indiana's Dick Lugar. He was the Senate's longest serving member.

This puts the entire party in a position that perhaps only presidential candidate Mitt Romney can fully appreciate. As he turns his attention to the general election and starts courting mainstream "swing" voters, Romney must constantly protect his right flank from trumped up charges of being a RINO (Republican in name only). Same for House Republicans. They must appeal to mainstream voters who are only now warming up to the health care law while ducking the ire of the conservative power elite.

The irony is that the power elite is hoping to elect candidates of dubious electability. The more ideological they are, the less likely Americans are to vote for him. Americans are pragmatists first, ideologues second. Fixing the problem is more important than who's right, and the problem is so clearly that health care costs too much (it grew at twice the general rate of inflation).

The other irony is that the power elite, by backing candidates of dubious electability who themselves parrot the power elite's missives of misinformation, are setting themselves up for failure. They have manufactured an entirely self-contained world of delusion and hysteria that has no application to real-world issues. That is, they aren't offering solutions unless you count preserving the status quo as a solution, and Americans, despite our abundant confusion, know that the status quo is not sustainable.

The next couple of months are going to be a doozy for the radicalised Republican Party. Either it navigates this political mine field, repudiates the propagandists or gives itself entirely to the theatre of the absurd, in which case we may really be witnessing a party eating itself. Fun!

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney smiles as he is introduced during a campaign rally at Somers Furniture on May 29, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada. 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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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.