Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Our Republicans and their “Our American Cousin” Problem

By Bob Ferris

"I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap." The line in "Our American Cousin" delivered just before President Lincoln was shot at Ford's Theater.
I recently walked by Ford’s Theater in DC and thought about Lincoln and “Our American Cousin” the play he was watching when shot by John Wilkes Booth.  By all accounts it was a pretty well-received play but for the rest of time it will be associated with this heinous act perpetrated by an unhinged extremist.  My sense is that the Republican Party is fairly far down this path as well and needs to course correct or face the music in terms of the actions of its own extremes.

In his manifesto Charleston shooter Dylann Roof claimed to be influenced my group run by Republican donor.
Part of the above notion springs from spending parts of my weekend dealing with a silly climate denial piece in The New American circulated by a friend on Facebook arguing that much of the climate change debate has been manufactured or corrupted by Hollywood and that the media has been ignoring "important" skeptics.  The New American is the house organ of the John Birch Society. The problem is that this is also a view that is held by many in leadership positions in the Republican Party or serving as elected officials representing that party.
“In 1962, Buckley denounced Robert W. Welch, Jr., and the John Birch Society, in National Review, as "far removed from common sense" and urged the GOP to purge itself of Welch's influence.” from Wikipedia page on William F. Buckley Jr.
William F. Buckley Jr. arguably the father of modern conservatism in the US and the catalyst of much of what we see to today realized the danger to big “C” conservatism as he called it if the snowball he created gained too much that lacked “common sense” either in policy or proposed solutions.  He worked to prevent this including speaking out against the John Birch Society, Ayn Rand, George Wallace and a variety of racist interests including the white supremacists and the anti-Semites.  To be clear Buckley was hell-on-wheels when it came to Communism and even supported Joseph McCarthy in his efforts but he felt that groups charging towards Fascism or bellowing bigotry jeopardized the Conservative movement which itself was a force moving the Republican Party to the right politically.

Prior to his death Buckley bemoaned the fact that things were moving in the wrong direction or directions within the movement that he created.  Things progressed so far that after his death his son and intellectual heir Christopher endorsed Barack Obama for president because of this disappointment.

Reuters photograph of KKK Confederate Flag Rally in South Carolina 2015.
I recount all of this now and in this context because I believe this country needs a strong two party system.  We thrive when both parties exhibit quality leadership instead of obstructionism.   We derail ourselves and do the country harm when we forget that all issues, like coins, have two sides and fail to proceed with that understanding neglecting the balance part of “checks and balances.”

Annoying as they sometimes are, where would be without the constant debate about whether we are a democracy or a republic?  Or what about the arguments about state’s rights versus the need for federal oversight? If that long-standing tension were removed by one side winning or withdrawing what would our country be? The same is true about majority rule as opposed to individual rights and a myriad of other debates which seem to simultaneously pull us apart and define our system of governance as well.  We need these debates but we need for them to be balanced which means that too much weight in the extremes breaks or unbalances the system.

This last part brings us back to the Republican Party and this play.  I said “our” Republican Party in the title because it really belongs to all of us regardless of whether or not we are card-carrying members.  If it continues not to heed Bill Buckley’s guidance about not being a home to often violent extremists and goes the way of the play, we all lose.  And with pending crises such as climate change, economic inequity, domestic terrorism and other looming threats our losses will be huge.

I am encouraged by little steps like Lindsey Graham’s sort of acceptance of climate change and the Republican leadership’s recent action relating to the outrageous comments of Donald Trump, but these are indeed little and not nearly enough.  While it is convenient to lay blame, it is probably better to accept some as well, because a stance like climate denial, for instance, is not mainly about science but rather about the fear of regulation.  If we had done a better job of painting a future with opportunities in a post-carbon world including transition options for fuel and energy companies thus removing or mitigating the trepidation perhaps the Republican Party would not have become so much the party of fossil fuels.

I think that we can recover from the above with thought, diligence and essential corrections such as campaign finance reform.  My optimism about that comes from a fairly simple source.  My father is from a family that was once one of the richest in the country—a family that was so Republican that his grand-mother never referred to Franklin D. Roosevelt by his name but simply as “that man.”  He married—after a three-day courtship—a woman whose father was a government bureaucrat and had a picture of Harry Truman on his wall.  Their marriage survived much and lasted for nearly a third of this country’s history (71 years) producing four children, 7 grand-children and 12 great-grandchildren and counting.

Many will dismiss the above as sentimental nonsense as families are not as complex as countries or governments.  To this I would reply: Really?  Aren’t parents a little like elements of the federal government and children often like states?  Elements of the federal government do not always get along nor do the individual states.  Throw in grand-children (counties) and great-grandchildren (municipalities) and we see many parallels between families and the various levels of governance.  Stir into this mix divorces (state splits), the dynamic of step-children (added states), adoptions (acquired territories) and other familial dynamics and we start to see something so resembling the US and our dance with petty jealousies, competition for attention, and real tragedies that it is eerie.

My point in establishing this construct is that my parents stayed together because my father believed in the union and my mother was absolutely dedicated to the welfare of the children and their progeny. That is not to say that this is a rosy picture and there were no civil war equivalents in our family, but those honestly wishing to solve our current dilemma and reestablish the balance we need to move forward should remember the lesson of this and other families that last and prosper: In the end it is the family or country that matters and that selfishness or party loyalty that tends to forget this first part will lead to an unfortunate result or end.

(P.S. For those wanting to know, I am truly a product of both my parents frequently voting across party lines though less so recently which is part and parcel of the above.)

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