America surely has problems, but the Republican Right tends to ignore its role in causing them and now – under President Obama – exaggerates how bad the situation is, writes former Republican staffer Mike Lofgren.
By Mike Lofgren
Barton Swaim, former speechwriter for Mark Sanford, the walking governor of South Carolina, is now a disillusioned conservative pundit. In his latest opinion piece, he denounces Republicans’ belief that America is “off track” solely because of President Obama, and that putting the right people in power will put us “on track.”
Swaim argues against this by saying the “track” analogy is a faulty metaphor, because countries are not like vehicles. Policies are not interchangeable parts: once implemented, they imbed themselves in the political and social fabric. He is broadly correct.
He also says – surprisingly for a Republican – that the GOP’s insistence that Barack Obama’s presidency is some sort of fluke at best and a monstrous hoax on the American people at worst a silly delusion. “Obama was elected and reelected, fair and square, and . . . and the American public knew what it was doing.”
So far, so good. A large number of GOP politicians, from Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell on down, have treated Obama since the beginning of his presidency as illegitimate and as an enemy to be maligned and legislatively blackmailed rather than treated as America’s chief executive. This attitude gave us government shutdowns, a near-default on our sovereign credit, and some of the worst congresses in history.
But then Swaim veers off track himself, indignantly rejecting the “defamatory belief . . . that the reason the Republican base detests Obama so deeply is because he is black.” In not a single conversation with all the Republicans Swaim knew was Obama’s race even as much as a subtext in their denunciations.
Really? He must have hung out with a more refined bunch than I encountered when I was a GOP operative. Did the “Obama-was-born-in-Kenya” meme that took the GOP base by storm in 2009 just fall out of the sky like an asteroid, with no cultural “subtext” to it? And how about the degrading caricatures depicting the president as an animal that one sees at conservative rallies and in right-wing chat rooms? Readers can draw their own conclusions.
Next, Swaim swerves into full declinist mode, like an Oswald Spengler of the Palmetto State. Republicans need to acknowledge, he says, that “America is in decline,” and there is nothing we can do to reverse it, only “manage the decline.”
Again, really? Certainly, the country faces serious problems: domestically, our prosperity is more unequally shared than at any time since the days of Calvin Coolidge, and there is a chronic disinvestment in infrastructure. Abroad, we are too prone to assume every crisis requires military intervention.
How did this happen? Domestically, it was through economic policies begun by Ronald Reagan (and continued by Democrat Bill Clinton) and doubled down on by George W. Bush. Our struggle with the hydra of Middle Eastern terrorism was made vastly worse by the decision of Bush and a Republican-led Congress to invade Iraq – arguably the worst foreign policy blunder in our nation’s history, because its global consequences are graver and longer-lasting than Vietnam’s aftereffects.
But the only example that Swaim offers that we are in decline – that America is “fast becoming a European-style regulatory state” – is ludicrous. The actual, rather than statutory, tax rate that U.S. corporations pay, is less than the average among the developed countries. The corporate share of total federal tax revenue has dropped by two-thirds in 60 years.
Compared to Whom?
While economic growth since the crash of 2008 has been tepid by post-World War II standards, it is still far better than in the European Union. Obama’s stimulus program – which Republicans voted en bloc against – kick-started a stalled economy, while many E.U. countries, applying the GOP’s favorite nostrum of austerity, continue to suffer negative growth and high unemployment.
If America is declining, we must ask: compared to whom? In the 1990s, the E.U. seemed to have the potential to become a world-beating trading bloc. But one by one, erstwhile European tech giants like Nokia and Vodafone have plummeted out of the corporate top tier, while American firms like Apple and Google are hands down the premier tech firms on the planet. The 11 largest firms in the world by market capitalization are U.S.-based. And as the Brexit vote showed, the E.U. can barely hold itself together.
Crackpot alarmists like Michael Crichton once thought Japan would eat America’s lunch. But two decades of Japanese stagnation have made that prediction as silly as Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” spoof. It has been relatively easy for a command economy like China’s to force investment into capital and export goods, but it now faces a crisis of industrial overcapacity, weak banks, and ballooning corporate, consumer and state debt. Environmental pollution – which kills 1.6 million Chinese annually – may well be an existential show-stopper for that country.
America doesn’t just have the world’s most powerful military, it is well ahead in most international comparisons: we have the best flagship universities in the world, and they draw foreigners in droves to study, teach and do research. We have the biggest rosters of Nobel Science Prize laureates and Olympic medalists, we send space probes beyond the solar system, and American English, not Mandarin, is the world’s language of business, science and culture.
Yes, there are severe problems, as stagnation in the Rust Belt and the opioid epidemic attest. But I find it ironic that conservatives, who fancy themselves the most patriotic Americans, are eager to talk down America whenever they get the chance. When constructive, moderate conservatism curdles into right-wing reaction, cultural pessimism takes hold. The leitmotif of Donald Trump’s campaign is that the whole world is beating up on poor little us.
The self-pitying, pessimistic conservatism that is now fashionable theorizes that because a majority of Americans might disagree with its tenets, that majority is morally corrupted and the American experiment has failed. This corrosive negativity is one reason I left the GOP.
I am a strong critic of America’s politics, but I am confident our problems can be redressed with good faith and the will to succeed. This assumption that the country is condemned to decline is based not on evidence, but on the Schadenfreude that some people enjoy in fantasizing that their pessimism will be validated.
It is a curiously unremarked oddity that beneath the aggrandizing, tough-guy swagger of the Trumps, Limbaughs, and O’Reillys, today’s conservatives are a swooning passel of neurotics who see every temporary setback, every cultural trend they disapprove of, and every social change that most humane people would call progress, as evidence that America is inevitably doomed.
Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His latest book, The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, appeared in January 2016.