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In honor of the greatest moralist who never lived
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Becker

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The Seeds of Our Own Destruction
Copyright © 2008 by Bill Becker

"I am done with great things and big things, with great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny, invisible moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet, if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man's pride." — William James

"It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important." Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — The Adventures of Sherlock Homes. (A Case of Identity)

In recent years a number of books have appeared discussing a new theme; to put it more crudely than the authors: America is going down the tubes. A sampling:

The Sorrows of Empire — Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic, by Chalmers Johnson (2004); Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, also by Chalmers Johnson (2006)); Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire, by Morris Berman (2006); and The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, by Naomi Wolf (2007).

The two Johnson books are part of the Blowback Trilogy, named after the first book of that series, Blowback. I have read all three. I leave it to the reader to decide whether these titles are intriguing enough to justify further inquiry or a purchase.

The essence of these authors' message is that our Republic's very existence is in danger. I accept without hesitation, and with a real sense of dread, the dark future implied in these titles, even if I have not read all of the books. That future is fascism or worse; most likely a northern variant of a Central American oligarchy. What this means is a nation with a few very rich and many poor, and wherein the rich allow just enough of a middle class to organize the labor of the poor so as to provide the goods and services they desire. This middle class is far more comfortable than the poor, enjoying modest access to the accouterments of what is generally called "the good life." The rich naturally make sure that the military and police forces protect the middle class from a discontented poor. Ideally — usually, in fact — the poor are so intimidated by the security forces that they remain docile, and they generally agree that they are themselves responsible for their condition. In such societies, the rich do not particularly like or dislike the poor, but the middle class hates the poor.

(The rich reserve their hatred for those of their own class who advocate on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged. My reference to a wealthy Salvadoran landowner who was assassinated by his wealthy compatriots because he sympathized with the campesinos is somewhere on this website — see my Central America pages. But, the American rich are also capable of hatred: "Regardless of party and regardless of region, today, with few exceptions, members of the so-called Upper Classes frankly hate Franklin Roosevelt" Time, April 27, 1936. Cited in Traitor to His Class, by H. W. Brands. Doubleday, 2008, p. 11.)

The above authors are all seasoned foreign or domestic policy analysts. They see, understand, and write about the big picture. I personally am deeply, inexpressibly grateful for the time and effort they put in trying to educate us about the reality behind the appearances.

I think small. I think about the individual, and try to figure out how his or her actions contribute to the big picture. For example, where other, more experienced and more professional analysts blame Fox News for degrading the very definition of "news," I tend to blame the people who provide the market for the way Fox News talks about what's happening in the world. (I hesitate to use the term "reporting" for what Fox News does; thus the more basic description.) Nor do I blame Fox News for telling its audience that it is "fair and balanced." Rather, I'm critical of the Fox News consumer who believes that statement simply because Fox News said it.

Nor do I blame our politicians for being who they are; I blame the voters who elect them. There is usually a better candidate seeking an elective office than the person who will actually win the election. It is not generally the better candidate's fault if he or she didn't win — it is the voters' fault. For example, let's say that Smith and Jones are running for President, and that Smith wins the election. Let's imagine, very plausibly, that things quickly go wrong. We might then see bumper stickers on cars driven by people who voted for Jones: Don't blame me; I voted for Jones, or Don't blame me; I didn't vote for him, where "him" obviously refers to President Smith. The jibe is perfectly reasonable. While things might not have been better if Jones had won, it is trivially true that if enough people had voted for Jones, he would have won and things might have turned out better. This proves that one's vote does count.

There is a parallel to this importance of the small and of the individual on the cosmic scale as well. Writing about the universe itself, a long-ago article in Science News noted "... the largest cosmic phenomena we observe are direct functions of the happenings and internal workings of the atom. Thus the basic structures of the universe are governed not so much by the blazing heat of suns, but by the invisible, unnoticed radiations which emanate from the individual atoms deep within each sun." (Science News, circa 1978-79)

Finally, according to Karl Marx, capitalism contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Seeds are small and they are individual. On this basis then — the importance of the small and of the individual, I will proceed.

When I first read the above quote by William James, I thought I had found the kernel from which I could grow the Big Book On Ethics that I planned to write someday — when I had time. I never got the time, but I kept the quote. Then, several years ago, I realized with dismay that I had let my enthusiasm trump my objectivity. I did not realize that "the hardest monuments of man's pride," and all the so-called evil that we associate with those monuments — war, poverty, environmental degradation, child abuse — are also created by James's "tiny invisible moral forces." (For example, to expand the metaphor, the "capillary oozing" of silica-rich water through a sedimentary layer of sand forms quartzite by cementing together the individual grains. Quartzite is one of the most durable of rocks.)

Thus, Hitler tapped into "tiny invisible moral forces" within the German people as much as Roosevelt and Churchill tapped into a not too dissimilar set of "tiny invisible moral forces." (Primarily tribal patriotism.)

(It is important to realize that the "tiny invisible moral forces" which responded so willingly to Hitler were not entirely absent in the democracies. It is by now a truism that the kinds of atrocities committed by the Nazis and their various surrogates during WWII could be carried out by anyone under the right circumstances. Even today, there are many thousands of Americans with Nazi and fascist proclivities, probably more than in any other nation. My intention is not to label the German people as "bad" in contrast to "good" Americans and Brits, say.)

Parents who discipline their children by beating them severely, and parents who use gentle reason instead are all relying on moral force, because they are doing what they believe is right, with the intention of producing children whom we will call good. They may of course produce children whom we will call bad instead. (Note: Henceforth I will use the adjectives "moral", "immoral", "good", "bad", "right", "wrong", "evil", ... as shorthand for the more accurate phrase "what we are in the habit of calling moral/immoral, good/bad, right/wrong, evil ...")

I expect that many readers will demur to this "symmetrizing" of the meaning of "moral force" so it will — uncharacteristically — include the bad as well as the good. They will insist that Hitler should be labeled an immoral force, that the Axis powers were immoral just because they did bad things, and that they were defeated by the good, moral Allies. But, this argument is like saying that negative numbers are not really numbers. Thus, I will stand on my usage, not least because there are still many people in the world who do not agree that Hitler and the Nazis were bad. They believe instead that the Allies were bad for preventing Hitler from seeing his plan through to the end. So far, ethical theory has not proven that either side is correct in any absolute sense. This proves that the problems of ethics and morality are more subtle and more difficult than we think they are.

But, this philosophical question does not matter for the purpose of this essay, and is best left to professionals. I am interested in a line of behaviors and attitudes, and I doubt that my "symmetrizing" the ethical jargon will do the least harm to anyone's ethical theory or practice. Let us move on, then.

In The Beginning

A common theme in literature is when an individual shows great promise as a youth, and then fails to fulfil that promise through weakness of character — squanders the promise, it is sometimes said. The disappointment felt by those who had predicted great things from the talented youngster is generally proportional to the perceived "distance" between the heights the wunderkind was expected to reach and the actual level to which he or she finally sank.

The same hope can be felt for a promising young nation as well. Certainly America immediately after the Revolutionary War was, justifiably, the object of great hopes by virtually everyone who had taken part. (Including the French, who sort of took part.) Our second President, John Adams, expressed that hope perfectly:

"It has been the will of Heaven that we should be thrown into existence at a period when the greatest philosophers and lawgivers of antiquity would have wished to live ... a period when a coincidence of circumstances without example has afforded to thirteen colonies at once an opportunity of beginning government anew from the foundation and building as they choose. How few of the human race have ever had an opportunity of choosing a system of government for themselves and their children? How few have ever had anything more of choice in government than in climate?" — John Adams (John Adams, by David McCullogh. Touchstone 2002. Paper p. 102.)

Adams spoke here of a people who had fled the tyranny, poverty, and wars of Europe. Newly settled in a land apparently unlimited in resources, he must have hoped that they would reflect on the sins of the governments they had left behind, and perhaps even upon their own darker sides, and would decide to live in harmony and cooperation. Adams marveled at the opportunity.

But Adams was perceptive as well, and had a premonition of a possibly dark outcome to this unique new experiment:

"Gentlemen in other colonies have large plantations of slaves, and ... are accustomed to higher notions of themselves and the distinction between them and the common people than we are. ... I dread the consequences of this dissimilitude of character, and without the utmost caution on both sides, and the most considerate forbearance with one another and prudent concessions on both sides, they will certainly be fatal."

Adams was referring to the Southern states, and to the Southerners' posture of superiority to both slaves and poor Southern whites, and undoubtedly to New Englanders as well. The "dissimilitude of character" between the Southerner and the New Englander certainly referred to the New Englanders' more egalitarian attitude toward others who were unlike themselves.

This "dissimilitude of character" was pronounced enough to evoke in Adams a sense of dread; he felt that the dissimilitude required utmost caution in good-faith efforts to overcome the centrifugal tendencies inherent in such dissimilitude; and he predicted fatality to the nation if the different sides did not make prudent concessions to each other.

This is not tepid prose.

And what happened? For eight decades after the founding of the republic, the North made what it considered "prudent concessions" to the South, affirming the legal right to own another human being in the original slave-holding states even as it resisted the South's obdurate arguments that the Constitution itself guaranteed the expansion of slavery to the "territories." During this period, "tiny invisible moral forces" created a virtually impregnable monument of Southern arrogance and pride — and a belief in something called Popular Sovereignty: "if one man would enslave another, no third man should object."

As the quarrel grew more heated, the soon-to-be Republican nominee for President in the 1860 election, Abraham Lincoln, spoke to a gathering of Republicans at the Cooper Institute in New York City. Lincoln might as well have been channeling John Adams:

"And now, if they would listen - as I suppose they will not - I would address a few words to the Southern people.

… "I would say to them: - You consider yourselves a reasonable and a just people; and I consider that in the general qualities of reason and justice you are not inferior to any other people. Still, when you speak of us Republicans, you do so only to denounce us a reptiles, or, at the best, as no better than outlaws. You will grant a hearing to pirates or murderers, but nothing like it to "Black Republicans." In all your contentions with one another, each of you deems an unconditional condemnation of "Black Republicanism" as the first thing to be attended to. Indeed, such condemnation of us seems to be an indispensable prerequisite - license, so to speak - among you to be admitted or permitted to speak at all. Now, can you, or not, be prevailed upon to pause and to consider whether this is quite just to us, or even to yourselves? Bring forward your charges and specifications, and then be patient long enough to hear us deny or justify. ...

"Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events." ...

"A few words now to Republicans. It is exceedingly desirable that all parts of this great Confederacy shall be at peace, and in harmony, one with another. Let us Republicans do our part to have it so. Even though much provoked, let us do nothing through passion and ill temper. Even though the southern people will not so much as listen to us, let us calmly consider their demands, and yield to them if, in our deliberate view of our duty, we possibly can. Judging by all they say and do, and by the subject and nature of their controversy with us, let us determine, if we can, what will satisfy them." (Cooper Union Address, February 27, 1860. The Address includes the reference to Popular Sovereignty mentioned above.)

Lincoln's efforts to preserve the Union failed. The South had promised to secede if he were elected President, and it kept that promise on Dec. 21, 1860. The ensuing Civil War justified Adams's sense of dread.

Let us now move ahead a few years, and look at a "tiny, invisible moral force" described by Englishwoman Isabella Bird in one of her several travel memoirs: A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains. (Dover Publications Inc., Mineola, New York 2003.) Bird had landed in San Francisco in mid-1873 on her way home to England after touring the Far East. She wanted to see the West, and stopped in Colorado's Estes Park neighborhood for a while.

Bird gets to know the locals, among them reputed former desperado "Rocky Mountain Jim" (Jim Nugent); Griff Evans, a rancher who will ultimately kill Jim; and two men who live together in a comfortable cabin and with whom she trades recipes.

There is an Englishman, Dr. Hughes, and his family, too. The family is educated and refined, and the children are a delight to Bird. In England, Hughes appeared to have been at risk for a pulmonary disease, and "in an evil hour he heard of Colorado" and its "unrivaled climate." The family purchased land in Longmount, and "were cheated in land, goods, oxen, everything, and, to the discredit of the settlers, seem to be regarded as fair game." (p. 40.)

Bird is dismayed at this shabby treatment of her compatriot, but notes that her rural neighbors cheat each other as well:

Lower Canyon [Colorado], September 25 [1873]
"This is not Arcadia. "Smartness," which consists in over-reaching your neighbour in every fashion which is not illegal, is the quality which is held in the greatest repute, and Mammon is the divinity. From a generation brought up to worship the one and admire the other little can be hoped. ( p. 42.)

"In districts distant as this is from "Church Ordinances," there are three ways in which Sunday is spent: one, to make it a day for visiting, hunting and fishing; another, to spend it in sleeping and abstinence from work; and the third, to continue all the usual occupations, consequently harvesting and felling and hauling timber are to be seen in progress. Last Sunday a man came here and put up a door, and said he didn't believe the Bible or in a God, and he wasn't going to sacrifice his children's bread to old-fashioned prejudices. There is a manifest indifference to the higher obligations of the law, "judgment, mercy, and faith"; but in the main the settlers are steady, there are few flagrant breaches of morals, industry is the rule, life and property are far safer than in England or Scotland, and the law of universal respect to women is still in full force." ( p. 42.)

Denver, November 9 [1873]
"But the truth of the proverbial saying, "There is no God west of the Missouri," is everywhere manifest. The "almighty dollar" is the true divinity, and its worship is universal. "Smartness" is the quality thought most of. The boy who "gets on" by cheating at his lessons is praised for being a "smart boy," and his satisfied parents foretell that he will make a "smart man." A man who overreaches his neighbour, but who does it so cleverly that the law cannot take hold of him, wins an envied reputation as a "smart man," and stories of this species of smartness are told admiringly round every stove. Smartness is but the initial stage of swindling, and the clever swindler who evades or defines the weak and often corruptly administered laws of the States excites unmeasured admiration among the masses.(2)

May 1878. — I am copying this letter in the city of San Francisco, and regretfully add a strong emphasis to what I have written above. The best and most thoughtful among Americans would endorse these remarks with shame and pain. — I. L. B." ( p. 114.)

Bird makes an additional observation:

"One of the most painful things in the Western States and Territories is the extinction of childhood. I have never seen any children, only debased imitations of men and women, cankered by greed and selfishness, and asserting and gaining complete independence of their parents at ten years old. The atmosphere in which they are brought up is one of greed, godlessness, and frequently of profanity."

Thus, to Bird, the gentle, polite, and thoughtful Hughes children seemed like "flowers in the desert."

This is something new in the historiography of the American west. Corrupt land barons and corrupt rural sheriffs have inspired countless books and films. Usually though, these legends are set against the backdrop of a fundamentally kindly and honest pioneer folk who would not dream of taking advantage of another. This legend of essential rural honesty persists, but I believe Isabella Bird. (In fact, I can personally attest that Bird's "smartness" is alive and well in at least one small corner of contemporary rural America.)

Mammon worship is one thing; the "dissimilitude of character" of such concern to Adams is something else. While Bird was observing the Rocky Mountain pioneers cheating each other with gusto, the South was putting the finishing, violent touches on the end of Reconstruction.

The North won the Civil War, but the South never conceded — it merely surrendered. The blow to Southern pride generated enduring resentments and hatreds. After their defeat, Southerners of all classes — politicians; businessmen; and especially poor whites who feared that they would no longer have anyone to look down upon — embarked on a holy, violent, and ultimately successful crusade to prevent the newly freed slaves from becoming a political force. The grim story is documented in Nicholas Lemann's Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War.

Crucial realignments in political party loyalties were taking place as well. Lincoln was a Republican, and the Republicans of that era were solidly against slavery and, perhaps less solidly, but still significantly, for the development of black political power. Today, the Democrats are the party of civil rights and the "little guy," whereas the Republicans are clearly in the service of Corporate America. What happened?

In a nutshell, two things: 1) after the Civil War, Republican idealism and progressive action in the South became too difficult to sustain in the face of murderous Southern violence. It faded away. Meanwhile, hatred of the slave-freeing Republicans drove Southerners into the arms of the only other major party available: the Democrats. 2) Over time, Big Business took over the leadership of the Republican Party, and northern Democrats began to promote populist issues. Having successfully ended the possibility of black political power in the south, Southern Democrats — a.k.a. Dixiecrats — saw no reason to change parties. It was a prudent application of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." As long as northern Democrats didn't promote civil rights, Dixiecrats could work with them.

The tiny invisible moral forces continued to work — through the eras of the robber barons, the rise of the labor movement, WWI, Prohibition and the Roaring 20s, the Depression, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War. In the South, hatred for blacks continued to spawn violence against them, and violence followed them when they fled north. For a taste of what historian Rayford W. Logan called the American Dark Ages (1880-1950) see http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1979/2/79.02.04.x.html. Literature on the subject is abundant.

During the Vietnam War and the protest movements of the 1960s these capillary moral forces fractured the nation. Liberals, led by America's students, challenged the President's power to take the country to war. Black pastor Martin Luther King Jr. led a non-violent movement against segregation and racism. Northern and urban Democrats signed on to both of these programs. Their egalitarianism, and alleged lack of patriotism would lead to a paradigm shift in the foundations of American politics.

Two years before the 1966 mid-term election, a brilliant young ethnologist with serious conservative sentiments noticed something below the radar of older political hands: a revolt against Great Society programs in a "score of Southern, border and Southwestern states," and also "an erosion of hostility to Yankee Republicanism, which for a century had been the key to Democratic predominance." Kevin Phillips knew that something important was up, and he tried to cheer up his Republican compatriots, who were devastated by Goldwater's ignominious defeat by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 Democratic landslide. Be patient, he said, the country will go Republican soon.

The 1966 returns justified Phillips's optimism. "In Maryland, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky and Missouri, Democratic governors, senators or congressmen were being toppled by Republicans. ... Random television reports mentioned that a California district centered in Bakersfield and another in the Oklahoma dustbowl had just elected Republican congressmen for the first time in their history." Nixon's Southern strategy ‘It's All In the Charts' by James Boyd. New York Times, May 17, 1970.

The next morning, Phillips began work on his blockbuster book The Emerging Republican Majority, which would earn him a position on the Nixon campaign staff.

The common wisdom has it that the definitive realignment of the Southern States' loyalties from the Democrats to the Republicans began when Richard Nixon followed Phillips's advice in 1968, and ran for the presidency on the basis of states' rights and opposition to affirmative action. Nixon narrowly won the popular vote against Democrat Hubert Humphrey, and would certainly have won by a significantly greater margin had Alabama governor George Wallace not entered the race and took most of the Southern states that went for Goldwater in 1964. Even so, Nixon's electoral college victory against Humphrey was a rout. (See Postscript 2 for more on Kevin Phillips.)

Somewhat unexpectedly, though, Nixon worked with Democrats and liberals, and some of America's most important advances occurred on his watch. He created the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, significantly desegregated America's schools, "opened up" China. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Nixon)

But the tiny, invisible moral forces were working, not least within Nixon's own mind. His political paranoia inspired the burglary of the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel by the White House "plumbers" on June 17, 1972. Even though Nixon won re-election by a landslide that year, the ongoing investigation of the Watergate burglary generated an unstoppable movement for impeachment, and he finally resigned in disgrace on August 8, 1974.

Exactly one month after Nixon resigned, the new President, Gerald Ford, pardoned him for any Watergate-scandal crimes he might have committed. The pardon is widely believed to have cost Ford the presidency when he ran for re-election against Georgia governor Jimmy Carter in 1976. Carter was as unlucky as Ford, though, and his presidency was destroyed by an unruly group of Iranian students, who took 52 American diplomats hostage on November 4, 1979, and held them for ransom in Tehran for 444 days. Carter would lose the 1980 election to the Republican Party's Magic Salesman, Ronald Reagan.

Former Governor of California Ronald Reagan had failed in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968, but his loyal followers never gave up on him. He lost the 1976 nomination to Gerald Ford by only 117 votes. Reagan was the true bearer of the Goldwater standard, and time had finally given the Goldwater wing of the party its shot at glory.

For Reagan and his supporters, the moderate domestic policies of Nixon and Ford, and their apparent abandonment of uncompromising, aggressive confrontation with the Communist world represented serious moral backsliding. Millions of patriotic, conservative Americans felt a deep sense of personal shame at the "loss" of Vietnam — a loss brought about by liberal and "hippie" America. (Nor did it help that Nixon had been unmasked as what the liberals had always said he was: a crook.) This shame was felt most viscerally in the rural West and the South. It had festered for years, creating an inarticulate hatred of liberalism itself. Reagan had long before defined himself as the perfect screen upon which to project that hatred:

"We should declare war on North Vietnam. We could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it, and still be home by Christmas." — 1966

"Welfare recipients are a faceless mass waiting for a handout." — 1966

"The time has come to stop being our brother's keeper."— Concerning welfare budget cuts in California, 1967

"A tree's a tree. How many do you need to look at?"— Concerning the expansion of California's Redwood National Forest, 1967

"Let me point out that my administration makes no bones about being business-oriented."— As California governor, 1967

"If it's a bloodbath they want, let's get it over with."— Concerning student demonstrations, 1970

"It's just too bad we can't have an epidemic of botulism."— In response to the Hearst family's free food giveaway to the poor as partial ransom for their daughter Patricia, kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army terrorist group, 1974.

(Click here for reference.)

At the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit, Michigan, Reagan's dark persona won him an overwhelming victory: 1939 delegates out of 1994 (97%). And, he did not disappoint his constituency: Reagan kicked off his election campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where in 1964 three civil rights workers — Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman — had been murdered. It is hard to imagine a more perfect expression of conservative hatred for liberalism.

In his inaugural address, Reagan augmented his pandering to Southern racism by overtly attacking government itself: " In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." The present "crisis" was of course caused by "taxes" and liberal welfare programs that "coddled" the poor. These two themes would become the touchstones for all future anti-government, anti-liberal political strategies — strategies underwritten by the deep pockets of Corporate America.

Over the years, rural Americans had come to know only two things: they were hard workers. They never whined, never complained, and they never asked anyone for help. Those who did were weak, and their very existence threatened the ethic of self-reliance and "personal responsibility" that built America into the most powerful nation the world has ever known. Even the examples of the robber barons did not diminish the rural American's admiration for the "captain of industry," who was seen as the paragon of entrepreneurial achievement. Contempt for government regulation of business became ever more entrenched in America's farm and ranch communities.

Thus are explained rural America's virulent anti-union sentiment, and its enthusiastic response to Reagan's wildly exaggerated invocation of the generic "welfare queen": "She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names." See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welfare_queen.

In all of my many conversations with conservatives, all of rural American mentality if not zip code, not one has ever proactively inveighed against white collar crooks like Enron's Ken Lay and Andrew Fastow, who took criminal advantage of the deregulation of the energy industry in perfect lockstep with liberal predictions. Nor do they spontaneously bring up the crooks who almost brought down the savings and loan industry after the Reagan-inspired deregulation of the 1980s. Their immediate, visceral anger and contempt are reserved strictly for the poor, most of whom are by definition "undeserving." It is a truism that legislation designed to assist the poor, as well as to protect the health and safety of the working American — including legislation to protect the "old swimming hole" from industrial pollution — originates in the cities. Representatives of rural America overwhelmingly oppose such legislation.

So as to protect the rights of the minority, the structure of our Republic gave rural Americans more political power than their numbers would justify in a strict democracy. The Senate is co-equal in the drafting and passing of legislation that affects all Americans. Each state has 2 Senators, regardless of its population. Thus, in 2006, with a population of 515,004, a Wyoming resident had 71 times the Senatorial political clout as a resident of California — population 36,457,549. Today's Senate has 49 Republicans, 49 Democrats, and 2 Independents who caucus with the Democrats. A look at a red state-blue state map confirms the skewed Congressional influence of the rural American versus his or her urban counterpart.

John Adams feared the consequences of the "dissimilitude of character" he observed between Southerners and New Englanders. He counseled that without the "most considerate forbearance with one another and prudent concessions on both sides, they will certainly be fatal" to the nation. Abraham Lincoln observed that Southerners "denounce us [Republicans] as reptiles, or, at the best, as no better than outlaws. You will grant a hearing to pirates or murderers, but nothing like it to "Black Republicans."

In fact, there has been no "considerate forbearance" or "prudent concession" on the part of Southern and rural America. Ronald Reagan resurrected the politics of hatred that Lincoln lamented in his Cooper Union Address. (Or as the Southerner might say with gratitude, he "redeemed" those politics.) The very existence of liberalism — its tolerance and open-mindedness — was anathema to Reagan and his corporate sponsors, and their collusion fostered the right-wing hate radio and television industry. The Fairness Doctrine required provision of equal time for editorial content beamed over the publically-owned airwaves. "Ronald Reagan tore down this wall (the Fairness Doctrine) in 1987...and Rush Limbaugh was the first man to proclaim himself liberated from the East Germany of liberal media domination." (Daniel Henninger, in a Wall Street Journal editorial. My emphasis, not Henninger's. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rush_Limbaugh.)

Right-wing media mogul Rupert Murdoch built on Limbaugh's hate-mongering with the launch of Fox News Network in late 1996. Liberal-bashers Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity were warmly received by rural America. By giving the rural American permission not merely to dislike government and liberals, but to hate them, Ronald Reagan channeled the two capillary moral forces into one powerful, refractory, hate-filled political force.

Isabella Bird reckoned that "from a generation brought up to worship the one [Mammon] and admire the other [smartness, swindling] little can be hoped." George W. Bush is the least intelligent, least mature, least qualified of any president in living memory. He is the apotheosis of the process began by Goldwater in 1964, picked up by Reagan in 1968 and 1976, and solidly entrenched during Reagan's two terms as President from 1981 to 1989. In the 2000 election, only 48 percent of those who cast votes for the major party candidates recognized this and voted for Democrat Al Gore. 48 percent voted for Bush. (Gore actually won the popular vote by 540,000 votes. The spoiler Ralph Nader took 2,883,000 votes, most of which would have gone for Gore had Nader's Green Party supporters been able to distinguish between dissimilars.)

Four years later, after it had been proven beyond doubt that Bush sent America's armed forces to kill and to die in Iraq under false pretenses, the major party candidates received together 19,616,000 more votes than in 2000. Ralph Nader ran again, but this time the overwhelming majority of his Green Party members supporters had wised up and either sat out the election or voted for John Kerry. Nader received only 411,000 votes. Bush received 3,012,000 more votes than Kerry.

Americans who voted for Al Gore in 2000, and for John Kerry in 2004 have been proven correct: the right-wing Republican agenda is morally, intellectually, and economically bankrupt. In concert with the religious right, the military-industrial complex that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against is still in full control. Only those who voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004 can set the nation back on its 'self-correcting course,' to quote the great progressive activist Charlie Clements. Do they finally understand the stakes? If they do, will their response in November be too little, too late?

Bill Becker, June 7, 2008


I know a respectable number of Republicans — some I know well, some not so well. Most of them consider themselves to be moderates, and I accept their self-assessments. I know that they would be deeply offended by my apparent painting them with the same dark brush that I have so broadly applied to Southern and rural conservatives in the lump. But, in fact, their dissension is irrelevant to my point, just as they have themselves been irrelevant within the Republican Party for decades.

Harsh words, but the fact is that since Reagan, the moderate Republican has had no voice whatever. In Washington, and in most red state legislatures, moderate Republican officeholders have been as powerless as the Democrats have been. Powerful right-wing theorists like Grover Norquist elevated right-wing political strategy to high art. Moderate Republican legislators got the message: toe the right-wing line, or face a right-wing challenger in the next primary. The moderate Republican voter allowed it to happen.

Even Presidential appointees are not immune to the influence of the Republican right. President George H.W. Bush appointed John E. Frohnmayer to chair the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989. Unfortunately, the moderate Frohnmayer believed that the possible funding of bad, or even offensive art was far less dangerous to the country than the long-term effects of religious or political censorship of art. His support for the funding of controversial projects raised the ire of the religious right. Under pressure from uber-right culture warrior Pat Buchanan, President Bush asked Frohnmayer to resign in 1992. In 1993, Frohnmayer published his account of life in the Republican kitchen: Leaving town alive: confessions of an arts warrior.

The current President Bush appointed New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman as head of the Environmental Protection Agency on January 31, 2001. Whitman was somewhat serious about protecting the environment, which got her in trouble with Vice President Dick Cheney. She resigned effective June 27, 2003. Interestingly, her letter of resignation is a model of Republican loyalty; she gives no hint of political pressure on her decision-making. Years later, Whitman would admit that Cheney's "insistence on easing air pollution controls" was the real reason she resigned.

In 2005, Whitman published It's My Party Too: The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America. This title itself is perfect corroboration of my point that the Republican moderate has been irrelevant within the party.

In a January, 2006 mass-mailing to Republicans, Whitman announced the launch of It's My Party Too PAC (IMP-PAC), a political action committee designed to take back the Republican Party: "We can't allow a few extremists to hijack our Party, dictate our ideology, attack our moderate candidates, and alienate centrist Republicans."

The IMP-PAC website invites moderate Republicans to "Make a difference! Join It's My Party Too today and help us return the Republican Party to the sensible center."

My personal advice to moderate Republicans: join up. Can't hurt.

Postscript 2

Over time Kevin Phillips became disillusioned with the monster he had helped create, and is now one of the Republican Party's most prolific, articulate, and persuasive critics. I recommend any of his books without hesitation.

After I first posted this essay, I received the July, 2008 issue of Harper's Magazine. Phillips was one of four participants in a forum: HIGH NOON FOR THE REPUBLICAN PARTY — Why the G.O.P. must die.

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Page created June 7, 2008.
Page last updated April 12, 2009.
Page revised November 24, 2020.