10.02.2006

40 years

Things Fall Apart
by Paul Krugman


The right-wing coalition that has spent 40 years climbing to its current position of political dominance may be cracking up.

Right after the 2004 election, it seemed as if Thomas Frank had been completely vindicated. In his book "What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America," Mr. Frank argued that America’s right wing had developed a permanent winning strategy based on the use of "values" issues to mobilize white working-class voters against a largely mythical cultural elite, while actually pursuing policies designed to benefit a small economic elite.

It was and is a brilliant analysis. But the political strategy Mr. Frank described may have less staying power than he feared. In fact, the right-wing coalition that has spent 40 years climbing to its current position of political dominance may be cracking up.

At its core, the political axis that currently controls Congress and the White House is an alliance between the preachers and the plutocrats — between the religious right, which hates gays, abortion and the theory of evolution, and the economic right, which hates Social Security, Medicare and taxes on rich people. Surrounding this core is a large periphery of politicians and lobbyists who joined the movement not out of conviction, but to share in the spoils.

Together, these groups formed a seemingly invincible political coalition, in which the religious right supplied the passion and the economic right supplied the money.

The coalition has, however, always been more vulnerable than it seemed, because it was an alliance based not on shared goals, but on each group’s belief that it could use the other to get what it wants. Bring that belief into question, and the whole thing falls apart.

Future historians may date the beginning of the right-wing crackup to the days immediately following the 2004 election, when President Bush tried to convert a victory won by portraying John Kerry as weak on defense into a mandate for Social Security privatization. The attempted bait-and-switch failed in the face of overwhelming public opposition. If anything, the Bush plan was even less popular in deep-red states like Montana than in states that voted for Mr. Kerry.

And the religious and cultural right, which boasted of having supplied the Bush campaign with its "shock troops" and expected a right-wing cultural agenda in return — starting with a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage — was dismayed when the administration put its energy into attacking the welfare state instead. James Dobson, the founder and chairman of Focus on the Family, accused Republicans of "just ignoring those that put them in office."

It will be interesting, by the way, to see how Dr. Dobson, who declared of Bill Clinton that "no man has ever done more to debase the presidency," responds to the Foley scandal. Does the failure of Republican leaders to do anything about a sexual predator in their midst outrage him as much as a Democratic president's consensual affair?

In any case, just as the religious right was feeling betrayed by Mr. Bush's focus on the goals of the economic right, the economic right suddenly seemed to become aware of the nature of its political allies. "Where in the hell did this Terri Schiavo thing come from?" asked Dick Armey, the former House majority leader, in an interview with Ryan Sager, the author of "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians and the Battle to Control the Republican Party." The answer, he said, was "blatant pandering to James Dobson." He went on, "Dobson and his gang of thugs are real nasty bullies."

Some Republicans are switching parties. James Webb, who may pull off a macaca-fueled upset against Senator George Allen of Virginia, was secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. Charles Barkley, a former N.B.A. star who used to be mentioned as a possible future Republican candidate, recently declared, "I was a Republican until they lost their minds."

So the right-wing coalition is showing signs of coming apart. It seems that we're not in Kansas anymore. In fact, Kansas itself doesn't seem to be in Kansas anymore. Kathleen Sebelius, the state’s Democratic governor, has achieved a sky-high favorability rating by focusing on good governance rather than culture wars, and her party believes it will win big this year.

And nine former Kansas Republicans, including Mark Parkinson, the former state G.O.P. chairman, are now running for state office as Democrats. Why did Mr. Parkinson change parties? Because he "got tired of the theological debate over whether Charles Darwin was right."

11 comments:

James said...

I hope Krugman is right.

Over the weekend I listened to an excellent interview with Lenni Brenner on the role of religion in modern politics since WWII -- specifically, as a tool to counter "godless" Communists. He had some very interesting comments on how the US propped up various religious organizations -- from the Papists in Italy (favoured over the more secular anti-facist parties) all the way through to the Wahabists in Afghanistan. Of course, just about all of these things have resulted in massive blowback...

Mike said...

I smelled a push back in the centerist Republican voter block after the 2004 election. I knew they would look back, and wonder what they were thinking.

However, it's not like the Democrats stand up for what *we* believe either. They are just one small step above.

L-girl said...

Hey, I'm not saying this, Paul Krugman is.

I don't think it's happening, because the fuckers have taken over the election system.

And of course I hate the Democrats, that goes without saying. But there's no doubt that these guys are worse - way worse.

L-girl said...

In a way the Bush junta functions to make ordinary ultra-conservatism look palatable.

FormerOwl said...

As my favourite writer said, (paraphrased), the difference between bad and worse is much sharper than the difference between good and better. I guess that the Democrats are bad, and the Republicans are worse.

Re Kansas and good administration by a Democratic governor -- highly valued everywhere, and badly lacking in the Junior Shrub's methods.

I remember Ann Richards said that when she left the Texas government to Bush, there was $2 billion in the treasury. Bush spent it all by giving tax breaks.

Premier Tommy Douglas who brought free hospitals, medicare, and improved the education, roads, etc. in Saskatchewan always watched the money very carefully, and was very honest.

Douglas was, correctly, very suspicious of borrowing from banks. Any new program or idea that was presented to him also had to have a method of paying for itself.

James said...

From Seattle PI:

A 32-year old man was booted from his flight out of Seattle because he was overheard speaking a non-English language -- Tamil -- on his mobile phone while he waited in line, and again on the aircraft before takeoff. [...] "[The passenger] told officials that he would not speak in a foreign language on his cell phone at an airport in the future."

The terrorists won -- the US is definitely terrorized if things like this are happening. And Bush has been encouraging the fear all along.

L-girl said...

Or is it just a great excuse for bigotry?

Lone Primate said...

You know, I never really understood the triumph of conservatisms in rural places. I get that they are less exposed to the social changes that big cities, with their varied populations, tend to give rise to, and there's a tendency to cling to established values. But why the nod to the economic aspect of it? People in rural areas are often economically disadvantaged because of the scarcity of options... if the one or two local industries or the typical crop fails, people can be hit hard. And yet, the people in these areas still tend to support parties that are mean-spirited and tight-fisted (except where it comes to buying things that blow up real good). Is there a masochistic streak that prompts these people to vote again and again for parties whose solution to economic distress is to boot people in the pants? The same places, when they're sensible, have also been the rich soil of socialism — witness Tommy Douglas of Saskatchewan. Are those days over?

L-girl said...

Is there a masochistic streak that prompts these people to vote again and again for parties whose solution to economic distress is to boot people in the pants? The same places, when they're sensible, have also been the rich soil of socialism — witness Tommy Douglas of Saskatchewan. Are those days over?

The history of socialism and the labor movement in the US is also full of rural activism. But somewhere along the line, those same people became convinced that their taxes were going to support layabouts in the city, brown people who don't speak English, wasteful government programs...

deang said...

But somewhere along the line, those same people became convinced that their taxes were going to support layabouts in the city, brown people who don't speak English, wasteful government programs...

To my mind, the racism of white people is especially important here. I've heard several erudite people say over the years, among them TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson, that if a substantial portion of the populations of, say, the Scandinavian countries or Canada were to become black or brown, we would see those countries' famous social programs severely reduced or revoked by whites in order to discourage people of color from living there and thriving. I think a lot of white people say they're merely against "government" or "big government" but what they really mean is they're against their tax money going to help people of color.

I know this is a huge and volatile topic, but to me it seems key here.

L-girl said...

I think a lot of white people say they're merely against "government" or "big government" but what they really mean is they're against their tax money going to help people of color.

I agree with you.