In a Verdict column last October, I described why I had reluctantly concluded that the modern Republican Party has become dominated by a group of people who exhibit the classic symptoms of sociopathy. American politics, I contended, was no longer a matter of two parties that agreed on the basic ground rules, and that fought within those rules over reasonable differences of opinion about which policies might better advance the interests of society. Instead, the people who run the Republican Party had made it clear that they are truly antisocial—that the needs of “society” are of no concern to them, because only some people (the rich and powerful) really matter.
The election of 2012 saw the American people soundly reject the Republican Party’s candidates—re-electing Barack Obama and Joe Biden, increasing the number of Democratic seats in the Senate, and casting a majority of their votes for Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives (votes that were nullified, unfortunately and unethically, by Republican gerrymandering of House districts). Even so, after a brief post-election moment in which it looked as though the few remaining voices of sanity among Republicans might pull the party back from the edge, we are now seeing Republicans across the country engaged in a fierce battle to advance an agenda that is so extreme that it shocks the conscience.
Examples are rife. House Republicans have voted to completely eliminate the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as “Food Stamps”), which would literally starve millions of innocent children. Just this week, Republican leaders have announced that they plan to cut financing for student loans for poorer students, and to slash spending on community block grants to cities for housing and social programs. The Republicans’ agenda is clear: The less advantaged in society are the problem, and they must be punished.
Describing these Republicans as sociopaths, however, is merely an attempt to explain why they are so eager to engage in such extreme and damaging behavior. It is, perhaps, more important to try to understand what they are doing in the broadest sense. That is, are Republicans trying to push through a series of initiatives that is simply an effort to punish weaker people for not being “makers” or “job creators”? Or is there some larger theme in their efforts?
In this column, I argue that the Republicans are actually engaged in their cruel agenda because they reject hundreds of years of moral and intellectual progress, a set of ideas generally referred to as “the Enlightenment.” After describing the depth of Republicans’ commitment to repealing the Enlightenment, I will briefly note that the technocratic responses from the Democrats have inadvertently empowered the Republicans to do their worst.
The Sixties, the New Deal, the Post-Lochner Era, and More: What Are Republicans Really Against?
Many commentators have noted that the modern Republican Party seems to be particularly obsessed with the 1960’s—or rather, with a cartoon version of the Sixties, in which sex and drugs and rock and roll lured America away from the firm morality of the Fifties, when a Republican President led America to postwar greatness.
There is much to be said for this description of Republicans’ motivations. Their pathological hatred of Bill Clinton seems to be based on their view of him as being emblematic of everything they hate about the Sixties, including his wife’s clear identification with feminist advances and ideals.
Beyond symbolism, however, Republicans for the last few decades have been obsessed with rolling back advances in the treatment of criminal suspects, and they have more broadly engaged in a largely successful effort to undo the Warren Court’s jurisprudence.
The recent Supreme Court decision invalidating Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has, similarly, been followed immediately by Republican-dominated state legislatures’ doing everything they can to repeal the efforts that were made in the Sixties to advance the cause of electoral reform (especially with respect to voting by racial and ethnic minorities).
More generally, much of the religiously motivated conservatism in the Republican Party has for years been driven by a clear desire to fight back against gender equality and sexual liberation. In many ways, the Republicans’ “war on women” has been a war on the very idea of sex. Fighting against sex education in schools, contesting the availability of contraception, and certainly trying to end legal abortion no matter how early in pregnancy are all efforts to undo important social changes that took hold in the Sixties and early Seventies.
The rise of the Tea Party-fueled economic conservatives, however, has widened the attacks on social changes beyond those that took place in the decade of the Beatles and Martin Luther King, Jr. With Republicans refusing to allow the government to respond to the recent economic downturn with adequate spending—which would have both directly reduced suffering by those who have lost their jobs, and brought the economy back to full health—we have seen that they are also, in effect, trying to repeal the New Deal.
That attack, moreover, is not just an attack on Keynesian fiscal policy. Republican attacks on the National Labor Relations Board and on financial regulation have made clear that Republicans do not merely want to prevent the government from responding to crises, but they also want to prevent the government from being able to avert crises in the first place.
Indeed, this particularly extreme brand of economic conservatism pushes back in history, through even the New Deal era, seeking a return to the time when the federal government (and, for that matter, state governments) could not even lightly regulate commerce. The longstanding efforts of Republicans to make it more difficult to sue corporations (by, for example, limiting class actions and narrowing courts’ jurisdiction) are clearly designed to return us to a time when the strong controlled the weak, and the government merely enforced the will of the strong.
The social and economic agendas that the Republicans are aggressively advancing, therefore, represent—at the very least—an effort to roll back more than a century of American history. That effort, again, is not merely a matter of returning to “the good ol’ days,” but rather an effort to bring back an America in which women, racial and ethnic minorities, and working people were all at the mercy of a powerful elite class of white, propertied men. It is no longer possible to ignore or minimize the significance of that agenda.
The Enlightenment and the Modern World: What Is Really At Stake in the Republicans’ Efforts to Turn Back the Clock?
In the day-to-day skirmishes of political arguments, it is understandable that we often lose sight of what is really at stake. We no longer have that luxury. We have stopped arguing about whether a particular program should have its budget increased by 3 percent, or instead have it cut by 8 percent. We are not even arguing only about the continued existence of particular laws or government programs.
Instead, American politics has now reached a point where one party is attacking the fundamental ideas that brought humanity out of the Dark Ages. The fight is now over a commitment to ideas that had seemed to be settled for centuries.
What are the basic ideas that constituted Enlightenment values? Certainly one of the most important was the notion that might does not make right, that power must be tempered. Modern Republicans seem to believe that this idea only applies to the federal government (and even then, only when it is not intruding in people’s personal sexual decisions); but they are perfectly happy with the idea that the powerful cannot be stopped from imposing their will on workers, customers, the environment, and so on.
Beyond the basic notion of the rule of law having a leveling effect on even the most powerful, the Enlightenment also saw an effort to expand voting. Although it took centuries to come to fruition, the Enlightenment was fundamentally an effort to give political power directly to as many people as possible. Modern Republicans, by contrast, have been engaged in an intensifying effort to suppress voting among likely Democratic voters, to limit voter registration, and so on. Against the idea that voting should be universal, Republicans advance the idea that voting should be limited to those who can afford it.
Democratizing both the economy and the polity were essential elements of the Enlightenment. Democratizing education was a third essential aspect of the movement out of the Dark Ages. The idea of mass education was once truly radical. In the age of Enlightenment, Scottish thinkers in particular advanced the idea that education is a right, not a privilege.
Against the idea of equal educational opportunity, modern Republicans have done everything possible to privatize education and to undermine the very legitimacy of programs that seek to help poor children advance their educations. As a result of those Republican efforts, economic mobility among Americans is now a cruel joke, with the United States having fallen behind most other advanced countries.
Finally, consider the most fundamental of all of Enlightenment values: That knowledge should replace superstition. Republicans have spent years trying to suppress knowledge and to dismiss contrary evidence. This reached a comical low point last November, when Republicans insisted on ignoring the evidence that they were going to lose the election. It is less funny when, for example, they try to cut public funding for scientific research, or to prevent even private scientists from pursuing research on questions to which Republicans think they already know the answer.
Taken as a whole, the Republicans’ long-term agenda, which has finally, this year, come fully into focus, is not merely about repealing a century or so of U.S. federal laws. The Republicans are now fully on the record attacking every value that brought us out of the time when ignorance and superstition held humans captive.
The Democrats’ Responses to Republicans Are Weak Because They Miss the Larger Point
Many commentators, over the years, have noted that Democrats have been generally hapless in responding to the Republican onslaught. Even when Democrats win elections, such as the 2008 election of Barack Obama along with the forging of strong Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, Democrats act defensively and indecisively.
The reason, I think, is that Democrats have adopted a technocratic view of governance that misses the anti-Enlightenment core of the Republicans’ agenda. When Republicans, for example, try to cut federal support for student loans, or allow Head Start slots to disappear as a result of sequestration, Democrats respond by citing cost-benefit analyses showing that those cuts will weaken the economy.
Although those analyses are correct, they miss the point. (I confess that I, too, often couch my arguments—here on Verdict, and in my academic work—in such technocratic terms.) The Republicans have shown that they are perfectly willing to harm the economy to advance their larger agenda. To stop them, Democrats need to step forward and say that the fight is not merely about cost-benefit analyses, but about the kind of society in which we will live.
The real argument, therefore, is about the Enlightenment itself. Are we a society that believes that power—public and private—should be limited? Are we a society that believes in truly universal suffrage? Are we a society that believes that education should not be provided only to those who win the birth lottery? Are we a society that believes in knowledge and reason? Are we a society that views itself as a society?
If Democrats cannot ask those questions, and answer them with strength and commitment, America will no longer be a free and open society. Republicans have made it clear what they intend to do, if they are allowed to do so. Will Democrats finally understand what is really at stake—and act accordingly?