Exclusive: The government-sabotaging fervor of the Republican Right – likened by one GOP congressman to “lemmings with suicide vests” – can only be understood from inside the right-wing bubble where a distorted view of the Constitution prevails and actual democracy is disdained, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
There is an old saying from the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” But the modern American Right seems to believe that “Hey, this is the USA, why shouldn’t we have our own facts!”
That sentiment is at the center of the current U.S. crisis involving the shutdown of the federal government and the threats to default on America’s credit. A determined minority within the House of Representatives has decided that its view of the Founding Principles and its assessment on the role of government are the only ones that count, whether factually anchored or not.
And it doesn’t even matter that this right-wing group has no mandate from the American people. Not only did the Democrats win the White House and the Senate in 2012, but the Democrats garnered about 1½ million more votes for House seats than the Republicans did.
The Republican House “majority” is derived to a significant degree from aggressive gerrymandering of congressional districts, like the one for northern Ohio where the GOP-controlled statehouse combined a Democratic district in Cleveland (represented by Dennis Kucinich) with one in Toledo (represented by Marcy Kaptur). The two cities are 116 miles apart and the connection along Lake Erie is so narrow in spots that you have to leave the district to drive from one half to the other.
But today’s Republican Party cares little about genuine democracy. Especially the GOP’s right wing is about shaping a false historical narrative which misrepresents the intent of the Constitution’s Framers and then insists that the Right’s fake Founding Principles must be applied regardless of how the majority of Americans voted. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Right’s Made-Up ‘Constitution.’”]
Thus, holding the federal government – and indeed the nation’s economy – hostage to impose the Tea Party’s will on the people makes a sort of perverted sense. If you’ve convinced yourself that the normal democratic process is threatening the esteemed wisdom of the Founders, then – as Sen. Barry Goldwater once proclaimed – “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”
For many Tea Partiers, their hostility toward democracy is even stronger when you factor in that President Barack Obama and the congressional Democrats won their majorities by piling up votes from African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans. In the view of many on the Right, these non-whites are not “Real Americans” and thus their ballots should not count – or at least not count as much as the votes of whites.
That racist attitude explains the recent surge of voter ID laws and the reduction of voting hours that are being enacted by Republican statehouses around the United States. They are doing so with the aid and encouragement of the five right-wing U.S. Supreme Court justices who gutted a clearly constitutional provision in the Voting Rights Act which required states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to get prior federal approval for changing voting rules.
The Fifteenth Amendment states, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” And the amendment gives Congress the “power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” Yet, the five right-wing justices deemed that their ideological belief in “states’ rights” trumped the explicit wording of the Constitution.
White Power Structure
Many on the Right with their selective interpretation of the Constitution despise these post-Civil War amendments, in particular, because they were forced on the white power structure of the South after the Confederate insurrection fought to save but failed to preserve slavery, the right of whites to own blacks.
So, these amendments, especially the Fourteenth and Fifteenth which protect the rights of blacks and other racial minorities, are seen as illegitimate, tolerable only if they don’t intrude on ultimate white rule. Or as famed conservative William F. Buckley declared in 1957, “the white community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically.”
Buckley’s edict is still the operational theory of the American Right: it’s okay to let black and brown people express their silly little opinions once in a while but they must never be in charge. So today’s Republican Party feels justified in taking action to make sure that whites can continue to “prevail, politically and culturally.”
There were political optimists who thought that the election of Barack Obama as the first African-American president would lift the United States into a post-racial era, but it instead has prompted an angry last stand for white supremacy.
That history of defending white supremacy can be traced back to the battle over the Constitution when some of its prominent opponents, known as Anti-Federalists, saw the document’s concentration of power in the federal government as an eventual death knell to slavery (despite the Constitution’s implicit acceptance of slavery).
To the slave-owning Anti-Federalists, the Constitution’s powerful central government combined with the North’s emerging industrial strength presaged an eventual elimination of slavery. To them, it didn’t help that some key supporters of the Constitution, like Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin, were abolitionists.
As Virginian Anti-Federalist leader Patrick Henry warned his fellow slave-owners in urging them not to ratify the Constitution, “they’ll free your niggers!”
The struggle to constrain the Constitution’s potential threat to slavery didn’t end with the Constitution’s ratification in 1788. The slave-owning opponents rallied behind fellow slaveholder Thomas Jefferson to impose a revisionist view of the Constitution, one that elevated states’ rights again and pushed back against federal authority.
Following the same line, today’s American Right consistently adopts not the literal reading of the Constitution or the views of the Federalists, its principal authors, but rather the revisionist interpretation imposed by Jefferson and what might be called “the pre-Confederates.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Four Eras of the American Right.”]
The Civil War and Reconstruction ended slavery but enabled the Democratic Party to exploit white resentment against the anti-slavery Republican Party and consolidate a white base within the Old Confederacy. With Jim Crow laws to repress black citizens, the Democratic Party, which had emerged from Jefferson’s southern-based political faction, went from being the party of slavery to the party of segregation.
That changed in the 1960s when the national Democrats took the lead in ending racial segregation. Though the Republican Party had historically been the anti-slavery and anti-segregation party, President Richard Nixon saw an opening for stealing away the Democratic Party’s southern white support. Nixon’s Southern Strategy appealed to white Southerners with racial code words in the 1970s and Ronald Reagan consolidated the Republican lock on southern whites in the 1980s with his populist appeals against “welfare queens” and other racial stereotypes.
Along with the Republican embrace of neo-Confederate ideology, right-wing think tanks and the rapidly expanding right-wing media popularized bogus versions of the Founding narrative, turning the Framers of the Constitution, who actually implemented a dramatic consolidation of power in the central government, into their opposites, big promoters of states’ rights who wanted a tightly constrained federal government.
Given the historical illiteracy of many Americans – and the disdain that many on the Left feel toward the Constitution for its protection of property rights – there was little protest over this stolen American narrative. Few in mainstream media or academia dared remind the public of the actual history in which the key Framers of the Constitution were pragmatic nationalists who placed very few limits on what the federal government could do.
Despite their many aristocratic tendencies, the Framers arguably had more faith in democracy than the current batch of Tea Party extremists. The Framers created a constitutional system that trusted the judgment of the people’s representatives to do essentially whatever was necessary to “provide for the common Defense and the general Welfare of the United States,” as they wrote in Article I, Section 8.
Further, Section 8’s so-called “enumerated powers” authorized Congress “to make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.”
It was initially the pro-slavery forces of the South who imposed a revisionist view of these powers, insisting they should be much more limited than they were written by the Framers of the Constitution. This “limited government” banner was later picked up by the Robber Baron industrialists of the late Nineteenth Century as they resisted reform movements that sought to constrain their power over the economy.
The struggle to impose this revisionist interpretation of the Constitution has always been anti-democratic in its desire to prevent the collective will of the broad American populace to implement changes to “promote the general Welfare.”
The insistence that the Constitution forbids what it actually endorses has been a touchstone of the American Right for more than two centuries, especially relating to expanded rights of non-whites and the effective regulation of powerful corporations. By demanding a “Confederate” interpretation of the Constitution, the Right asserts that reformist government action responsive to the popular will must be prohibited.
While the Right’s view is anti-historical, it can be persuasive if you put yourself into the right-wing media bubble where this made-up national narrative is all you hear. You see yourself standing shoulder-to-shoulder with George Washington and James Madison in denouncing health-care reform as an existential threat to American liberty.
But someone outside that bubble, who actually has read the Constitution and knows the history, would see the Affordable Care Act as simply an imperfect attempt to provide for “the general Welfare” by ensuring that millions of citizens who have been locked out of regular health care by a greedy health-insurance industry can finally go see a doctor without inviting bankruptcy.
Clearly, there were more efficient ways of accomplishing that goal – i.e. a single-payer system or at least a Medicare buy-in – but those other options were precluded by Republicans and some pro-corporate Democrats, thus leading to a free-market-oriented structure that had originally been devised by the right-wing Heritage Foundation and promoted in Massachusetts by Republican Gov. Mitt Romney.
Only when this plan was embraced by President Obama did the concept become an unconscionable assault on the constitutional rights of Americans. But the fury around the issue can only be explained by the Right’s bogus interpretation of the Constitution, which excites the base to don tri-corner caps and wave yellow flags with a coiled snake declaring, “Don’t Tread on Me.”
The extremism of this Republican Tea Party faction is so intense that it has bewildered even other conservative Republicans. For instance, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-California, likened the behavior to “lemmings with suicide vests,” adding:
“It’s kind of an insult to lemmings to call them lemmings, so they’d have to be more than just a lemming, because jumping to your death is not enough.”
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.