The right's most troubling victory may be its brilliant subversion of the language of political debate
I'm overwhelmed not by the Republican victory but by an inability to express political ideas or sculpt a coherent opposing vision. The language has been literally taken over, with meanings completely distorted in a brilliant subversion of language. This isn't the result of deliberate conspiracy, with loyal fundamentalists chanting the day's new meanings in the streets while Republican elders torture the dictionary into reimagining yet another word. Politicians, pundits, talk-radio hosts and callers, as well as the people themselves, are reinventing the language until meaning is in the eye of the beholder. This is especially amazing coming from the anti-moral-relativism crowd, avowed champions of the traditional three "R"s and concrete reality.
But in a world where it is a given (not an opinion) that Fox News demonstrates no bias but mainstream media's liberal leanings are so pronounced as to be communist propagandizing, anything is possible.
Consider the following:
"Civil rights" has nothing to do with a level playing field or achieving racial equality, but the exact opposite. It now means ignoring the consequence of centuries of oppression and exclusion. The very term "oppression" now rebuts itself, earning public contempt rather than indicating once-prevalent social conditions.
"Class war" is not a consequence of the disparity between the wealthiest and poorest economic classes or the result of a constantly growing underclass that feels ever more disenfranchised from mainstream society. Instead, it is an appropriately disdainful Republican label for vicious anti-Americans who question tax cuts for the very richest among us.
In the debates, the president disingenuously chided John Kerry for having a "litmus test" for judges, while taking the position that he, in contrast, was only looking for those who would follow the law and the Constitution without injecting their personal beliefs. This was basic nonsense that not even the president's supporters believed: Witness the unabashed controversy over U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter's post-election cautioning. But it made a great debating point. Forget that Bush had in a previous debate cited the Dred Scott decision, anti-choice shorthand for the reversal of established Supreme Court precedents. In the very discussion against litmus tests, he offered as a positive example judges who wouldn't remove God from the Pledge of Allegiance, which by any measure demands constitutional reinterpretation, with a strict constructionist reading pretty clearly arguing the opposite.
"Judicial activism" has come to mean nothing more than judges reaching decisions Republicans don't like. In other words, judges who act according to what are perceived as liberal/progressive beliefs are activists even if their decisions are clearly following constitutional precedent. Judges are not "activist" if they follow the Republican right agenda. Erecting a multiton monument to the Ten Commandments is not activism, but just try to faithfully understand and interpret the Constitution in a way the religious right doesn't like.
On election night, when Republican pundits and right-wing talk-show hosts complained of lawyers corrupting the electoral process, listeners knew they meant Democratic attorneys' efforts to protect voters' rights and not Republican advocates' efforts to prevent fraud by disenfranchising voters. Given that the current president came to office because of judicial involvement, this was a stupefying proposition. How could anyone ignore that the Republicans had already aggressively and successfully courted judicial involvement, as well as having as many attorneys and poll watchers lined up for this election as the Democrats did?
But in a time of substantial confusion, international political and religious realignments, and ongoing social change, certainty sells.
The left, progressives, Naderites, Democrats, what-have-you play right into this by charging full speed ahead into every trap the right sets. In the wake of the last election, there's been a lot of disappointed whining, adolescent denial, and finger-pointing by Democrats. Conspiracy theories may provide salve, but they offer exactly the kind of anti-Middle America reinforcement that the Republicans are selling.
The Republicans won not just the presidency but impressively across the board because more people voted for them. They had a message; they sold it; and voters bought it. Maybe they needed to believe it maybe the right is really onto something, and those of us who disagree really are as dense as they say. But that's as classy as I'm going to get. I'm filing this election and the last decade of Republican rhetoric, campaign successes, and achieved legislative agenda under the Lincoln-inspired heading "You can fool all the people some of the time."
The right's simple, on-point messages not only willingness but eagerness to say anything, regardless of past record or future intentions, combined with a brilliant manipulation of language proved overwhelmingly potent at the ballot box: Why not? It sure sounds good. God, patriotism, true Americans, a simple culprit for most problems (the Democrats), and a happy ending. The feel-good American politics of the new millennium celebrates the victor and the future. Sure, it might be brutal to some, but that just means they deserve the brutality. Might makes right not as a celebration of brute force, but because the United States' strength, righteousness, and power indicate divine approval. Those of us who don't want to talk constantly of our faith, to define ourselves obsessively in terms of our religious fervor, must not have it.
Concurrently, the words used to push the longtime progressive/liberal/Democrat position have not simply lost meaning: They are beyond dead, lacking any currency; Latin is as alive as hip-hop in comparison. Political success, legislative achievement, and economic evolution have all been major contributing forces to this loss. When government programs effectively address large-scale social problems, the flaws in those programs end up seeming as much more the problem than the cancers controlled.
When it comes to the most important issues, the differences between parties manifest not just in terms of policy, but in language, moral certainty, and optimistic vision.
Saying this is the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time, neither thwarting terrorism nor offering any kind of vengeance for 9/11, is clearly neither optimistic nor assuages fear. It does argue that thousands of Americans have been killed or wounded in vain. It does leave 9/11 unavenged. There is no closure or reassertion of traditional American superiority.
If you accept, however, that 1) as one letter writer put it, "the evil spread by fundamentalist Muslim murderers, combined with their imminent nuclear capability, is easily the greatest threat this nation has ever faced, and nothing else, not health care, not social security, not jobs, not welfare, not the homeless, not light rail, means anything until that threat is erased" and 2) that the war in Iraq is a forceful, determined response to 9/11 and Muslim fundamentalist terrorism, then the world shrinks back into understandable compartments. Further, if you believe we are winning the war and that it will bring peace and stability to the Middle East, then we are not being forced into a world of unknowns fraught with danger; rather, good old American know-how and basic common sense is once again illuminating the darkness.
When it comes to government services, saying we're going to cut the fat, cut taxes for everyone, and offer better services and more efficient government is digestible.
Arguing that this country needs a substantial tax base to afford the many crucial services provided by government sounds like school-yard socialism.
Suggesting that tax cuts are going to so spur the economy that the deficit will shrink is a lot more accessible than thinking about expanded sources of revenue and what programs to cut.
Nowhere has this been more effective than in defining the very terms of the debate: Republicans are true believers, Democrats pagan God-haters. Republicans love this country; Democrats hate it. Republicans are pragmatic realists, Democrats foolish idealists.
I was not against Bush and in favor of Kerry because I really love this country, feel Bush's policies are misguided and destructive to important American institutions, and think that Kerry would have proven a better leader. It was because I live in an ivory tower, hate God, have only contempt for the real American people, have nearly drowned in lazy Marxist idealism, and lack any understanding of the real world.
Here's an excerpt from one post-election letter whose writer seemed beyond delighted at just how out of it I was: "[Louis Black] may never understand mainstream America's respect for a man of genuine faith over opportunistic appearances at black churches. He may never understand why mainstream America supports plainspoken honesty over eloquent pandering. He may never understand why mainstream America chooses steadfast resolve in national security issues over 'wet-finger-to-the-political-winds' internationalism. He may never understand why the average, middle-class American's desire to achieve the American dream is diametrically opposed to the left's constant insistence that success be punished by redistributing wealth."
Before we all go off to take a much-needed nap, let me throw this out:
Although idealistic, Democrats are the realists, and although realistic, Republicans are the idealists, desperately trumpeting what they need to believe.
Just one example: Iraq. The Republicans believe this is a war against terrorists, that the 9/11 monsters and their compatriots are being punished, that this display of America's unparalleled military might will cow fundamentalist Muslim terrorists into abandoning their anti-American, violent fantasies and respecting our overwhelming power. Instead, we have played right into the 9/11 gang's seemingly most unrealistic fantasies: We have actually militarily pitted the Western world against the Muslim one. The war a pathetic tantrum and the most naked demonstration of American arrogance, religious bias, and determined naïveté imaginable rather than providing post-9/11 closure, welcomes us to a worldwide, ongoing conflict that will probably not come close to resolution in our lifetimes.