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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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.