Thursday, May 5, 2011

Revenge Politics and the Fading of One American Way of Life

When Republicans won elections all over the place int 2010, I expected them to try and do stuff with their new power. Why wouldn't they? And given how, at the Federal level, they united in the common goal of preventing any aspect of President Obama's agenda (an agenda he campaigned on and the American people voted for by a significant majority) from becoming policy through filibusters, anonymous holds, and other techniques, all while pretending it was the Democrats who were unwilling to compromise (oh, the public option, how practical and restrained you would have been) I expected them to be equally united and aggressive once gaining control of the House of Representatives (which, if we all remember from our high school civics classes can control the government's purse strings), and I was ready for state governments to do something similar.

What has actually happened, I did not expect. Imbuing state regulators and emergency financial managers with heretofore unseen executive power. The introduction of flat out misogynistic abortion legislation. The threatened defunding of NPR because of a heavily edited video, after NPR rolled some heads in response. The threatened defunding of Planned Parenthood. The Paul Ryan, or as I like to think of it “Mad Max,” budget that somehow manages to find more tax breaks for the rich while gutting the most popular social programs our country has ever come up with. The state by state crusade against unions that has gone so far in my home state of Maine, that the governor (on whose authority?) removed a mural depicting the history of the labor movement in Maine from the Maine Department of Labor. It would be stupid to assume that Republicans in power would not try to change policy to match their ideology, but the speed, vehemence, and dramatic nature of these policy changes is a surprise. So, I asked myself, why are they acting like this?

We've all seen this particular plot in movies, TV shows, and books. Someone kills the protagonist's brother and the protagonist responds by killing said killer's entire family. Revenge is an exponential emotion. To me, Republicans are acting like they are getting revenge. This doesn't mean I believe Republicans, in general, are saying to themselves “Oh, you see, we'll get all those Democrats and progressives for what they did to us since 2008, we'll get them good,” but the policies we're seeing being enacted and attempted have the passion and radicalness of a counter-attack.

But what was the attack? The Bush Top 2% spending program was extended (more commonly referred to as “the Bush Tax Cuts”). There were no new regulations on gun ownership and no changes in federal policy on stems cells or abortions. After the bank bailout money, the domestic stimulus spending was relatively restrained and no particularly rigorous regulations were imposed on the financial institutions at the source of the financial crisis. And Obamacare did almost nothing to change the day-to-day lives of most Americans because the public option was nixed early in the process and the most important remaining mechanism for lowering healthcare insurance costs, the state to state insurance exchanges that would allow customers to (gasp!) shop around for the best price, hasn't gone into effect.

Many people have a very specific picture of what the “American way of life is;” that utter illusion of the the 1950s two-car garage suburban living of landscaping, sitting up straight at the table, vacationing at lodges in national parks, etc, all in a strong America fighting around the world against the enemies of freedom. It was a stable picture built on how some Americans saw themselves at the height of American wealth and power in the world. And that way of life is crumbling. Terrorism is a very different enemy from the Soviet Union and “Communism.” Very few jobs actually pay enough for those houses, cars, garages, and vacations. Our car culture is destroying the environment. Our food is making us fat. The economic power of China and India continue to grow. More women are getting college degrees than men. Demographically, America is becoming less white. To someone whose identity is based on that image of the strong father in a strong America, this can feel like an attack.

And since you can't counter-attack the world, many of them congealed their emotional need to defend their way of life into an attack on “Obama,” an emotional response that was manipulated and exploited by politicians and interest groups to secure major conservative gains in the 2010 elections. But I think it's incorrect to completely separate the “public” from the “politicians.” Especially at the state level, many of politicians elected on this wave of misplaced revenge are people who truly believe this way of life is under attack from specific democrat policies.

I, personally, don't know why this counter-attack has taken the form of union-busting, wrong-headed attacks on public education, and misogynistic legislation. It could simply be that these are old standard topics for conservative politicians and, in the absence of tangible policy alternatives, they have fallen back on those standards. They believe abortions are wrong, and unable to identify the source of the attack on their way of life, they intensify their efforts to ban (rather than reduce, but that's another essay) abortion. They believe collective bargaining rights limit the economy's ability to grow, so, with no other apparent targets, they intensify their efforts to limit collective bargaining.

Emotions have always been a part of politics; have always been a part of human decisions. What's different now is the sophistication of techniques for manipulating emotions. Politicians and interest groups can draw on decades of advertising expertise (you know, the people who convinced us McDonald's serves food) and use mass media to project their manipulations to the public. Furthermore, the media moves through news items so quickly, that we rarely get the chance to rationally examine an event or policy after we've gotten over whatever emotions those events or policies generated. By the time you've calmed down enough to think about something, a new outrage is being paraded through the news.

The thing is, though, none of these backlash policies are going to stop the eroding of that particular way of life. The environment is changing. The global economy is changing. The power dynamics between the US and the rest of the world are changing. The structure of American society is changing. The problem is that every government policy designed to preserve this declining (if it ever really existed) way of life, renders us less able, as a society, to cope with new challenges. In trying to force America into a certain image, these conservative policies will create an America no one will recognize.

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