Monday, 5 March 2012

When Life Imitates 'The West Wing'

As has been widely discussed, there is all sorts of crazy happening in the US Republican party lately*. So much of it has been well-analysed, with Charles Blow and Maureen Dowd at the NYT (among others) pointing out the futility of the GOP hoping to roll back the last 40-50 years of social progress. Hopefully it's a sign of Obama's strength in the coming election that reasonable/politically-talented/sane Republicans have chosen to sit this one out.

I suppose I can go out on a limb here, being a non-print news source, and suggest that a party with rational policy problems with the Dems' agenda would coalesce, show a unified front, pick the best candidate early and go for a strong showing in the general election. A party obsessed with gender, race, money, power, and sex, though: they would splinter into a hundred warring factions, each one clamouring to claim the very edges of can't-even-form-a-sentence crazy wingnut-ism. (It's tempting to list them in order of increasing incredulity, but I'll hold back.)

There are several things that have come up recently that have highlighted the extent to which we have two separate cultures in the US: One that believes we should work together to try to run the country and make sure no one starves to death, and another which believes that it doesn't matter how bad things get, because Jesus is coming soon, and we need to make sure that there aren't any out gays or financially-secure single moms when he gets here.

It seems like there was a time when the parties were about the size and scope of the federal government in a more principled way. This I am fine with: One party says "let's have health care, unemployment support, job training, and free massages for everyone!" and the other says "what if we cut out the massages and lower taxes?" and everyone's happy. Where did this totally-imaginary Golden Era break down? Was it when the right got obsessed with the military, and so could never actually trim a budget, but instead just put any savings from cuts into more missiles? Was it when they got so terrified of crime in the 1980s that they turned their backs on social justice and just decided to build prisons until everyone lived in a "gated community" of one kind or another? And when did they get so scared of The Gays? This makes the least sense to me. If you, like most Republicans, were a straight white male, and you had to pick a group of people to not be scared of, I think The Gays would be pretty much toward the top of the list. (Maybe after Docile Small Children.) Who could less threatening, really, to your romantic relationships?

But then there's the psychological perspective, where all of this looks different. Normal people don't go into politics. We should expect people running for office to have incredibly strong, deeply personal reasons for doing so— not the kind of thing you see on a campaign ad ("A war hero in Vietnam, he returned to Washington to continue serving his country") which is just PR crap. The kind of thing someone's not even likely to know about themselves. Which, of course, explains why so many crazy right-wingers are tortured closet-cases. (See above video if you need a recap.) If, more than anything in the world, you need to deny this part of yourself, what better way to do it than to become a crusader against its existence outside of yourself? It's safe, because you don't have to ever acknowledge that it's you that you're fighting against, and it's effective, because you get to spend a lot of time hating the piece of yourself that you hate most. But hating it by proxy.

A similar issues comes up with gender. Despite the "surge of two" women in prominent positions in the GOP recently, most of the right-wing roles for women are of an observing-and-voting nature. Possibly with some cheering or approving. This post on Skepchick brings us back to the "two cultures" topic**: it's titled "Idiots Review the Woman's Bible" and is basically a list of comments made by people who bought the Elizabeth Cady Stanton book expecting, certainly, advice on how to "submit lovingly". (But not in a sexy way. That's different and okay and a topic for another post.)

What's happening with these two cultures? Much as I would like to simply ring up the South and say "Hi. Sorry, we were wrong about the Civil War. Can you please re-secede? We'll let it go this time." And then take all that federal money we'd save, and just implement national health care in the North (sorry, Indiana, you're going to have to come with us quietly... Oh, wait, maybe not.) It looks like we're stuck as one country for now. Is demographic change the answer? Are the young people and the non-European immigrants going to stick around while the Republican base descends into senility?

I certainly hope so. We need a sane opposition in this country. Competition tends to lead to stronger ideas, and any organisation the size of the Federal government is going to be subject to institutional inertia and bloat. If the GOP gets a 49-1 kind of wipeout loss this time, it might be just what they need to regroup and build a socially-laissez-faire, economically-conservative, non-isolationist, at-least-nominally-secular party that could bring intellectually-defensible ideas to the table.

But right now we're stuck with Rush being horrible and Obama being decent in response. Feels just like an episode of The West Wing. (C.J. would be glad.)

*I'm going to go ahead and claim the phrase "there is all sorts" as a correct form of American vernacular.
**Similar: This Tumblr site of people who don't understand that The Onion is satire.