Has the GOP Become a Cult?
Written by Deborah Small, Jack & Jill Politics
Okay, I admit I’ve never been a Republican. I’ve never voted for a Republican, although my father did support John V. Lindsay when he was mayor of New York. I guess I’m just one of the millions of “brainwashed” black people Herman Cain (aka Uncle Ruckus) likes to deride. But I did have a certain grudging respect for the Republican Party – it’s ability to maintain discipline, articulate a clear message with conviction and stick with an issue – however unpopular – until it gained legitimacy in the political mainstream (e.g. school vouchers, prison privatization, HMOs, etc.). Lately that grudging respect has turned into terror.
When I look at the Republican Party today, the cartoonish cast of characters that purport to be its leaders (either as presidential candidates or legislative officials), the hateful and ignorant rhetoric that substitutes for substantive policy analysis and the slavish devotion to positions that make no sense (e.g. rejection of climate change, the so-called ‘birther’ controversy, supply-side economics) it occurs to me the GOP has morphed from a legitimate political party into something that resembles a modern day cults.
I know this argument may strike many as exaggerated and ‘over-the-top’ even among those who love bashing the GOP, but before you dismiss this idea out of hand, let me list the common characteristics shared by cult-like groups and see if you think they describe the current GOP. While there is often fierce debate about which organizations/religions/groups can be legitimately characterized as cults, there is general agreement about the common characteristics of cults:
- Displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether alive or dead) regards its belief system, ideology, and practices as the truth and/or law.
- Polarized, us-versus-them mentality – demeaning those who do not share their beliefs, sowing fear and mistrust amongst members about such people.
- Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
- Elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for its leader(s) and members who are on a special mission to save humanity.
- Teaching or implying that its exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary to achieve them.
Let’s see whether the current GOP exhibits these characteristics.
Displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leaders (whether dead or alive) and regards its belief system, ideology and practices as truth and/or the law.
It’s hard to dispute that within the GOP, Ronald Reagan has been accorded virtual demi-god status. Every major Republican leader has come and worshipped at the altar of Reagan, holding him up as the model for all would-be conservative Presidents. In many respects Reagan is for conservatives what Jesus is for fundamentalist Christians – an object of uncritical devotion tangentially related to the actual human being. Within this cosmology, Reagan single-handedly brought down the Soviet Union (effectively ending the Cold War), held the line against communist insurgents in Latin America, affirmed the role of Christian faith in the political mainstream and most importantly established the current orthodox belief that government is the enemy of the people and the only way to rein it in is to “starve the beast”. The following video produced by the Heritage Foundation in commemoration of Reagan’s centennial birthday presents Ronald Reagan as icon.
This deified version of Reagan ignores any facts (however well documented) that run counter to the narrative in the same way many fundamentalists conveniently ignore Jesus’ focus on charity, humility and generosity as the prerequisites for living a ‘Christian’ life. One of the many consequences of this revisionist view is that it’s enabled people who label themselves “conservative” to wear the Reagan mantle while embracing policies and tactics that Reagan rejected while in power.
The relationship between today’s Republicans and Ronald Reagan was nicely summarized by Jimmy Carter during an interview earlier this year with Rachel Maddow about how the GOP has elevated Reagan to virtual sainthood:
Polarized, us-versus-them mentality – demeaning those who do not share their beliefs, sowing fear and mistrust amongst their members about such people
This point hardly needs any demonstration. Almost everything the GOP does and says is polarizing and demeans all those who dare to disagree. What’s particularly pernicious about the polarizing tactics employed by the GOP is that it has expanded well beyond the normal political fights regarding opposing candidates and political power to impact almost every major issue of American life. How people view issues as basic as: scientific education (to teach or not teach evolution?); environmental protection (should business be required to pay for environmental damage and commensurate health consequences?); civic participation (should the government encourage voting?); unions (should workers have the right to organize and improve their working conditions?) are now driven by people’s political identification.
It wasn’t always that way, I remember when Republicans didn’t demonize teachers and public employees, I remember when Republicans supported extending the voting age to 18 year olds, I remember when Republicans like Richard Nixon supported the EPA and touted their record as protectors of land, waters and air.
How did we get to this point? The history is nicely summarized in a Time article entitled, American Discontent: The Problem with Washington Politics:
The first shirts-and-skins President was Ronald Reagan, the first truly conservative Republican elected in 50 years. But it was only after Reagan and his GOP successor, George H.W. Bush, left office that congressional Republicans realized they could use political polarization to stymie government — and use government failure to win elections. And with that realization, vicious-circle politics started to become an art form.
In the 1980s, discrediting government was not the strategy of the congressional GOP, for two reasons. First, the sorting out hadn’t fully sorted itself out yet: the Senate alone boasted moderate Republicans from blue states like Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Oregon, where activist government weren’t dirty words … Second, because Republicans occupied the White House, making government look foolish and corrupt risked making the party look foolish and corrupt too.
All that changed when Bill Clinton took office. With the GOP no longer controlling the White House, a new breed of aggressive Republicans — men like Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay and Trent Lott — hit on a strategy for discrediting Clinton: discredit government. Rhetorically, they derided Washington as ineffective and conflict-ridden, and through their actions they guaranteed it. Their greatest weapon was the filibuster, which forced Democrats to muster 60 votes to get legislation through the Senate … Merely declaring their intention to filibuster derailed any bill that lacked 60 votes.
In Clinton’s first two years in office, the Gingrich Republicans learned that the vicious circle works. While filibusters were occasionally broken, they also brought much of Clinton’s agenda to a halt, and they made Washington look pathetic….
With these acts of legislative sabotage, Republicans tapped into a deep truth about the American people: they hate political squabbling, and they take out their anger on whoever is in charge. So when the Gingrich Republicans carried out a virtual sit-down strike during Clinton’s first two years, the public mood turned nasty. By 1994, trust in government was at an all-time low, which suited the Republicans fine, since their major line of attack against Clinton’s health care plan was that it would empower government. Clintoncare collapsed, Democrats lost Congress, and Republicans learned the secrets of vicious-circle politics: When the parties are polarized, it’s easy to keep anything from getting done. When nothing gets done, people turn against government. When you’re the party out of power and the party that reviles government, you win.
What began as political tactic has become the governing (or non-governing) principle of the GOP – do not cooperate with the opposition on any issue for any reason even if it’s in the best interest of the country or what the majority of voters want. As famously declared by Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – his most important objective is to “beat Obama and make him a one-term president.”
In order to avoid accountability for adopting a strategy of deliberate sabotage and obstructionism the GOP is constantly on the offensive – demeaning their opponents as ‘unpatriotic’, ‘immoral’ charlatans who only want to waste people’s money by giving it to the ‘undeserving poor’ in a misguided attempt to impose ‘socialistic’ views on the American people. The modern GOP has been both aided and guided in this goal by the Murdoch communications conglomerate and right-wing echo chamber who spew forth a constant stream of misinformation designed to sow fear and mistrust of anyone who is not an avowed conservative or any source of non-approved information. As noted by Media Matters for America the most recent survey about FOX viewers reaffirmed the results of numerous other surveys that consumers of this steady brain pablum are mentally malnourished:
The release yesterday of yet another survey indicating the more you watch Fox News the less they know, has once again shone a spotlight on one of the unique features that defines Rupert Murdoch’s cable news outlet – it is very, very good at misinforming people. And it’s very bad at reporting the news.
The fear and mistrust generated by conservative media found its highest expression in the emergence of the Tea Party. The Tea Party has been an ideal vehicle for conservatives to promote their anti-people agenda under the guise of populism. With help from the Murdoch empire the Tea Party and its political adherents in Washington and various states have accomplished the amazing feat of cloaking themselves in the mantle of the Founding Fathers who created government while working systematically to destroy it.
Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished
This characteristic is the most common and also the most dangerous aspect of cults – the requirement both overt and covert that members accept without question the core beliefs, principles or ideology of the group. Adherence is usually enforced through methods that range from expulsion and shunning (Jehovah’s Witnesses) to physical assault and death (Nation of Islam and Malcolm X).
Over the past few election cycles the GOP has been effectively purged of moderates and is being driven by people who’ve embraced hard-right ideology. Anyone who deviates from the conservative line or suggest compromise will face political opposition and/or public criticism at the hands of conservative talk jocks like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham and Pat Buchanan. For elected officials the threat of well-financed challengers has been an effective tool of thought control.
For those in the academic or policy world, other methods have been employed. The case of David Frum, speechwriter to George W. Bush is instructive. He recounts his personal experience in a must-read article entitled: When Did the GOP Lose Touch with Reality?
Through the debate over health-care reform in 2009–10, I urged that Republicans try to reach some kind of deal. The Democrats had the votes to pass something. They could not afford to lose. Providing health coverage to all is a worthy goal, and the core mechanisms of what we called Obamacare should not have been obnoxious to Republicans. In fact, they were drawn from past Republican plans. Democrats were so eager for Republican votes to provide bipartisan cover that they might well have paid a substantial price to get them, including dropping the surtaxes on work and investment that supposedly financed the Affordable Care Act.
My urgings went unheeded, obviously. Senator Jim DeMint predicted that health care would become Obama’s Waterloo, the decisive defeat that would destroy his presidency, and Republicans accepted DeMint’s counsel. So they bet everything – and lost everything. A major new entitlement has been written into law, financed by redistributive new taxes. Changes in the bill that could have been had for the asking will now require years of slow, painful legislative effort, if they ever come at all.
Republicans hope that the Supreme Court will overturn the Affordable Care Act. Such a decision would be the most dramatic assertion of judicial power since the thirties, and for that reason alone seems improbable. Yet absent action by the Supreme Court, outright repeal of President Obama’s health-care law is a mirage, requiring not only 60 votes in the Senate but also the withdrawal of benefits that the American people will have gotten used to by 2013.
On the day of the House vote that ensured the enactment of health-care reform, I wrote a blog post saying all this -and calling for some accountability for those who had led the GOP to this disaster. For my trouble, I was denounced the next day by my former colleagues at The Wall Street Journal as a turncoat. Three days after that, I was dismissed from the American Enterprise Institute. I’m not a solitary case: In 2005, the economist Bruce Bartlett, a main legislative author of the Kemp-Roth tax cut, was fired from a think tank in Dallas for too loudly denouncing the George W. Bush administration’s record, and I could tell equivalent stories about other major conservative think tanks as well. [emphasis added]
Newt Gingrich, in a rare instance of political honesty and candor criticized the Paul Ryan proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher system as an attempt at ”right-wing social engineering,” which he considers not “any more desirable than left-wing social engineering.” For speaking this truth directly, Gingrich was roundly denounced as a traitor by his fellow conservative Republicans. In a matter of days, Gingrich was forced to apologize and change his position in order to keep his presidential aspirations alive. This rigid political orthodoxy is not just problematic for the GOP as Frum points out, it has dire implications for our democracy:
The conservative shift to ever more extreme, ever more fantasy-based ideology has ominous real-world consequences for American society. The American system of government can’t work if the two sides wage all-out war upon each other: House, Senate, president, each has the power to thwart the others. In prior generations, the system evolved norms and habits to prevent this kind of stonewalling. For example: Theoretically, the party that holds the Senate could refuse to confirm any Cabinet nominees of a president of the other party. Yet until recently, this just “wasn’t done.” In fact, quite a lot of things that theoretically could be done just “weren’t done.” Now old inhibitions have given way. Things that weren’t done suddenly are done.
Elitist – claiming special, exalted status for its leader(s) and members who are on a special mission to save humanity
The Reagan presidency coincided with the emergence of the religious right as a political force in the Republican Party. The alliance between traditional conservatives and the religious right has both strengthened and marginalized the GOP. In hotly contested races the GOP found it could win by using wedge social issues such as opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and gun control to bring out committed single-issue voters.
In embracing the so-called ‘values voters’ the GOP also embraced positions and policies at odds with the rapid demographic and cultural shifts occurring among the populace. But instead of modifying or altering its positions to be more aligned with mainstream voters, the GOP has double-downed on its assaults on reproductive rights and alternative lifestyles as well as its opposition to any form of gun control. The debate about funding for Planned Parenthood was just the most recent iteration of the federal debate. During the first six months of this year 19 states enacted 80 new provisions to restrict access to abortion services.
Similarly with respect to LGBT issues, conservative Republicans have remained steadfast in their opposition to marriage equality and for the repeal of laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Despite overwhelming evidence that they’re losing the public debate, the right adheres rigidly to its views on the pretext that its part of their divine mission to uphold traditional Judeo-Christian values and mores. While all the GOP presidential contenders have embraced conservative social positions, the two who most embody the rigid, evangelical wing of the Republican Party are Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachman.
Teaching or implying that its exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary to achieve them
One would think events of the past few years would engender a certain amount of reflection and humility in those who supported the policies that got us into this mess. Instead the GOP has engaged in the greatest feat of collective brainwashing since the demise of the People’s Temple in Jonestown, Guyana. As David Frum ruefully observes:
Some of the smartest and most sophisticated people I know – canny investors, erudite authors—sincerely and passionately believe that President Barack Obama has gone far beyond conventional American liberalism and is willfully and relentlessly driving the United States down the road to socialism. No counterevidence will dissuade them from this belief: not record-high corporate profits, not almost 500,000 job losses in the public sector, not the lowest tax rates since the Truman administration. It is not easy to fit this belief alongside the equally strongly held belief that the president is a pitiful, bumbling amateur, dazed and overwhelmed by a job too big for him – and yet that is done too.
In service to these beliefs the GOP has upped the ante on its extremist rhetoric and tactics. The repeated debasement and vitriol directed at President Obama rivals the response of southern segregationists to Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s purpose is to appeal to racial fears and further undermine the legitimacy of government.
After the election of President Barack Obama the GOP rediscovered the religion of fiscal austerity. Spurred on by Grover Norquist and other anti-tax crusaders, GOP officials in Congress and state houses throughout the country have insisted on significant cuts in government spending at the very time it’s most needed to address the country’s economic crisis. Unemployment is at record high levels and one in three Americans is living in poverty or near poverty, yet conservatives are against extending jobless benefits or increasing food stamp benefits.
Despite the continuing crisis with mortgage debt and foreclosures the GOP has rejected every effort to enable government to help people remain in their homes. Instead the GOP has engaged in political extortion, threatening programs for the most vulnerable and/or a total shutdown of government if its demands for further spending cuts are not met. The GOP threatened to allow the government to default on its financial obligations if it did not get its way. This manufactured ‘debt crisis’ resulted in a downgrade of the US credit rating for the first time in the country’s history. The willingness to take the economy over the cliff to prove a political point was anathema to the majority of the country producing the lowest Congressional approval rating in history – only 9% of the public approves of the job Congress is doing – less than the percentage of people who believe Elvis is still alive.
However, to the GOP base these actions have received overwhelming support making heroes out of hard-liners like Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and most-notably Michele Bachmann. Bachmann helped found the Congressional Tea Party Caucus and has used the platform it provided to springboard her presidential bid. The Republican presidential debates have shown that rather than moderating their views to appeal to a national constituency, all the presidential contenders have tried to outdo each other in embracing right-wing views on health care, immigration, taxes, regulation, foreign policy, climate change, creationism, the death penalty, etc. Most importantly, if elected they’ve all vowed to quickly dismantle government – their message in essence is: Put me in charge of government, so I can proceed to destroy it.
This is the political equivalent of saying I have to destroy your body in order to save your soul…
The GOP has made it plain that it is willing to destroy the essence of contemporary American society in service of its ideological vision of America. The GOP has no commitment to representative democracy. The GOP is not a political party – it’s become a cult, masquerading as a political party where the only commitment is to attaining and wielding power. POWER!!! That’s the ultimate goal here – political power which enables the further consolidation and protection of economic power by the top 1% that are the sponsors and funders of the GOP. The GOP doesn’t believe it should abide by normal political rules. Elections can be rigged, undermined or stolen, and if all else fails – do everything you can to keep your opponents from voting – after all, it’s for a greater good.
Recent Wisconsin politics provides a blueprint of the GOP’s national agenda – gain control of all three branches of government – executive, legislative and judiciary and then proceed to push through a strong conservative agenda. The single-mindedness of Wisconsin Republicans in pushing their right-wing agenda despite vocal and active opposition is a reminder of what’s at stake. President Obama was right in describing this as, “not just another political debate. This is the defining issue of our time.”
This post was originally posted by Jack & Jill Politics.
Photo from Mike Licht via flickr