Monday, October 28, 2013

To Still a Wackobird

"Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win."

I came across this line last week while re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird for my humanities class, and it struck me that it nicely captures the appeal of the GOP's recent quixotic effort to defund Obamacare that resulted in the government shutdown.

The line belongs to Atticus Finch, the attorney who takes on the legal defense of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of rape. While I think it absurd to compare the principled nobility of that fictional act to the GOP's attempt to destroy the Affordable Care Act, the people who rallied to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's cause don't. They believe in the nobility of the hopeless fight.

Harper Lee's novel retains its power more than 50 years after it was first published because it not only sends a clear message of condemnation of racial prejudice, but also tries to understand how whites came to hold those views, and turn those views back on them.

One of the lessons Atticus imparts to his children is the need to understand those we are tempted to dismiss or condemn: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." On some level, Lee's novel is an exercise in just that.

Lee understands the depth of the racial prejudice she attacks, and knows how to reveal it. She adroitly connects her hero to the very quality ostensibly prized by the adherents of the South's "Lost Cause" mentality. When Atticus says it is worth fighting even when you know you will lose, Scout associates the sentiment with his Cousin Ike.
"Tell you, Atticus," Cousin Ike would say, "the Missouri Compromise was what licked us, but if I had to go through it agin I'd walk every step of the way there an' every step back just like I did it before an' furthermore we'd whip 'em this time ..."
Lee's brilliance consists of taking this mindset--the one that allowed defeated Confederates to salvage something from their defeat by focusing on the honor of making a good fight rather than the system of slavery that victory would have perpetuated--and transferring it to a character who stands for the rule of law and equal justice, rather than the Jim Crow oppression that the "Lost Cause" sentimentality made possible. Atticus tells Scout: "This time we aren't fighting the Yankees, we're fighting our friends." Lee neatly equates the proponents of white supremacy with the hated Northerners.

If what white Southerners truly value is a principled fight, Lee suggests, then they should stand with Atticus Finch. When they don't, they show what it is they truly value: the preservation of a system that institutionalizes their racial privilege. In some sense, Lee's novel revolves around that insight: the gap between the purported ideals and the ugly reality that they mask.

The power of the ideal is undeniable: persisting in the face of certain defeat is supposed to prove the purity of the motive. The honor of the fight is all.

This is the ideal embraced by the supporters of the shutdown strategy. More mainstream Republican figures said the idea was crazy and bound to fail (John McCain has memorably called Cruz a "wackobird"). To them, an effort that has no chance of success is foolish, even counterproductive. For others, however, the fact that it has no chance is precisely what recommends it.

In the aftermath of his utter lack of success, Cruz refused to express any regret. He called the fight a "courageous stand" and a "profile in courage." When asked if the fight was worth it, Rep. Michele Bachmann replied: "Absolutely.... What we did is fought the right fight.”

It is too easy to dismiss Cruz's shutdown advocacy as a stunt meant to propel him into the rank of 2016 presidential contenders. Of course it was that. The more important question is this: why did he think (evidently correctly) that it would have appeal among the Republican Tea Party base?

I would argue it is because he rightly recognized the appeal of the "Lost Cause" mentality.

In the course of American history, that concept is most closely associated with white Southerners, and while it may be more common among them, it is not at all uniquely "Southern." It is, however, an idea that has a special appeal to people who believe they have already lost the battle.

Many Southerners are Tea Party supporters, but not all Tea Party supporters are Southerners. During the shutdown, when a Tea Party protest at the White House brought out a Confederate battle flag, it was easy (too easy, really) to label all Tea Partiers as "neo-Confederates." Yes, race is an element here. It is not, however, everything. What is going on is more complex than that.

What we too loosely refer to as the "southern" mentality of the Tea Party is not geographic, but cultural. The Tea Party represents a subset of the larger culture: more white, more rural, more elderly, more traditional. The reason the apocalyptic rhetoric, the dig-in-your-heels style, and the confrontational (even anti-democratic) tactics appeal to Tea Party supporters is due to a simple fact: they see "their" America dying.

That's what they have in common with the Southern fire-eaters of the pre-Civil War era.

What many people don't understand about secession is that it was prompted merely by the fact of Lincoln's election, not anything concrete he had done--he had not even taken the office yet when eight states seceded. Secession was a response to what his election represented: the end of the Southern veto over national policy. Lincoln's election proved the northern states could elect a president without the aid of the southern states.

At that point, the fire-eaters decided the democratic game was over within the United States: they would always lose. Thus the only way to win, the only way to preserve "their" America, was to separate and create a new one in which they would be the permanent majority.

Today's GOP faces something similar. Demographic trends suggest that in the future, the GOP will not be able to remain the same ideologically and also be a majority party. Since it is not geographically defined the way the pro-slavery South was, the Tea Party core cannot secede in order to create a new majority (though "secession" and "nullification" have predictably enjoyed a recent resurgence in Tea Party circles).

One solution to this dilemma would be ideological change, which would require writing off the Tea Party. But the party is unwilling to take that step. Nothing shows that better than the way Speaker John Boehner abdicated all leadership in deference to the Tea Party caucus during the recent shutdown.

So what the party has been trying to do instead is change the rules so that they can control government without having to be an actual majority party.

That is what holds together the variety of the tactics used by the GOP since Obama's election in 2008. The abuse of the filibuster in the Senate has become a vehicle of minority veto, a way to say no to everything, to make a supermajority the new requirement for things that traditionally required a regular majority. The voter ID laws reflect the same desire to rig the outcome: if we cannot get a majority of the existing electorate, we can find a legal way to redefine the electorate and create an artificial majority.

The shutdown debacle was the same thing--unable to achieve the "correct" result through normal democratic process, Tea Partiers decided to hold the funding of government hostage to achieve its end of defunding Obamacare.

Why choose that issue? The term "Obamacare" has come to encompass everything they despise: the man himself, the electoral coalition that brought him to power and successfully kept him in office, the governmental philosophy he represents. It is the embodiment of their fear--bordering on certainty--that history is passing them by, that the America they believe in is passing away.

The desperation in the rhetoric is real. As long as cynics like Ted Cruz continue to pander to it, it will not diminish, and the Tea Party will remain politically relevant--and destructive.

Republicans are trying their best to frame the current divisions within the party as merely a matter of "tactics and strategies," as Cruz recently put it. It is not. It is a fight between those who think time is short and compromise is betrayal, and those who don't. The Tea Partiers are right, I think, if deep down they believe that they are fighting a losing battle. As long as they continue to demonstrate power within the GOP primaries, however, the racket of the wackobirds will go on and on.

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