Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The "Stupid" Party

One of the best pieces of historical analysis I have had the pleasure to read was the chapter about the 1867 Reform Act in Robert Blake's biography of Disraeli. Ruthlessly fact-driven Blake rose above his partisan conservative credentials (he was the official historian of the Conservative Party in Britain) to completely demolish many established opinions on the motivation behind this incredible piece of legislation - legislation that both advanced and restricted the right to vote (with some of these restrictions being removed in further landmark legislation in 1884). Following the methodology that underpins so much that is good in broader scientific research, Blake was able to be critical of those from within his own tradition, to expose their callous attitudes and to do so against data that leaves the reader in no doubt about where he stands on issues of propriety in public life. He was, without doubt, a Conservative historian, but he was a master of objectivity and very influential because of it.

I mention this for the stark contrast it presents to the current predicament of the Republican party in the US - the "Stupid" Party. The party that someone like me, who is fiscally conservative but socially liberal, could never currently vote for. I don't particularly want to dwell on successive fiscally irresponsible Republican Presidents - and rather than launch into a tirade against the incompetence of GWB, let's lay the blame where it is deserved - Reagan, who I regard as the turning point in Republican politics. I believe "stupid" really started to take hold during his era and evidence of this is provided by his current acolytes who are prominent in the party and who are on the wrong end of all the issues that will come to define this age.

There is a complete absence of a modern Blake in Republican politics, someone who can rise above the "stupid" and set the party back on a modernizing and centralizing course. I really hope this can happen. It is very bad for democracy for one of the major two parties to be legitimately branded as "stupid"and it will serve the electorate poorly if the Democrats become the permanent party in power with all the arrogance that will entail. Some are more hopeful than I in seeing the potential for change - and there have been countless analyses already since the election that highlight what Republicans need to do - but the case for change is undeniable. Speaking purely tactically, Republican policy is wrong because it speaks to a narrow and shrinking proportion of the US population - it might make you feel good to be sticking to time-honored principles (although this isn't really an accurate description of the issues), but you had better enjoy losing because there are fewer and fewer people who agree with you.

And it isn't just the tireless efforts of the most recent batch of really stupid Republican politicians who are to blame. The fact that Michele Bachman and Sarah Palin - both of whom held the Republican base in thrall at different points over the last 5 years - exude such smug certitude regarding their ignorance of, say, the age of the earth, shouldn't be allowed to conceal the fact that Reagan was just as limited. The difference, if it is worth arguing over, is that Reagan knew when to keep quiet about it - as though he was intelligent enough to be aware that his own stupidity wouldn't exactly endear him to a wider public who were already a little leery of yet another Hollywood President. Yes. I would lay the blame for the Republican demise - its retreat towards stupidity - firmly at the feet of Reagan. What Reagan permitted…even made acceptable…in much the same way Margaret Thatcher did in the UK, was to legitimize fringe views. It is no coincidence that the rabid bunch of neo-conservatives so beloved of the anti-intellectual GWB were all time-served apologetics of the Reagan era clothing their moral legitimacy in outmoded and offensive theology.

So what are the key areas of policy that mark out the current Republican party as the party of "stupid"? Well, from a long list that suggests I am spoiled for choice, I'll pick just 3.

First, the Republican party has allowed itself to become anti-science, particularly where that science contradicts the skewed belief-set of its narrowing base. Evolution is the lightening rod issue. Whereas all sanity would suggest that declaring personal opposition to such a monumental scientific theory as evolution should render you unfit for public office, it has become a badge of dishonor for aspiring Republican Presidential candidates to fall over themselves in genuflection towards the Christian God of creation and in denial of the fact of evolution. I know of no modern industrialized nation where the declaration of such ignorant beliefs would be accepted by the public. It is, frankly, an embarrassment. We need politicians and public leaders to educate the masses and provide leadership to them, not to lie to them and pander to their prejudices. Evolution is as much a scientific fact as the germ theory of disease or the theory of gravity. Endless Republican politicians at the state level lining themselves up behind anti-evolution legislation do an enormous discredit to the respectability of the US as a science friendly nation. Advocating the teaching of creationism in Biology classes is the equivalent of requiring a batch of alchemy in Chemistry classes. While whole swathes of middle America deludes itself into thinking that the Flintstones is a documentary we need politicians who can point out not only why this is mistaken and wrong, but also unacceptable. Rather than speaking in tongues, Sarah Palin should be explaining why exploration in science is essential for our longevity - actually, maybe I am stupid - the thought of Palin having anything sensible to say is stretching things to say the least.

Second, and continuing the anti-science theme, Republicans need to step back and consider whether they are fit custodians of the planet. Anthropogenic Global Warming is a fact. Allowing big oil dollars to skew scientific logic does a great disservice to this planet and has seriously retarded essential actions to combat the threat of real climate change. However esoteric a debate Republicans think this is now, it is going to shed that cloth over the next 50 to a 100 years and they will bear real culpability. As marginal as they are right now the Republican party is going to be a 'bete noir' of mammoth proportions in the next 50 years as their egregious anti-science stance reveals the vacuity of their position. "Drill baby, drill" won't come to be seen as an effective policy for the protection of the delicate ecosystem that is rural Alaska. Nor will failing to act on vehicle emissions represent a sensible policy on combatting poor air quality - at a time when the control of spiraling healthcare costs would seem to be pressing, the cognitive dissonance that prefers no action against carbon pollution while holding to the view that the provision of universal healthcare is a crime against humanity, will be exposed for what it is. But when you are in denial of science you can permit yourself the freedom to deny the illogicality of your position.

Third, it is in the area of social policy that the label "stupid" is most truly deserved. We can pick any or every issue from gay marriage to abortion and find the bigotry and prejudice of the Republican party ill serving the electorate who depend on their leadership. We need Republican leaders who can stand up and declare Roe v. Wade as settled policy. We need them calling a halt to silly "personhood' definitions in law that would provide a legal route to undermining otherwise perfectly legal abortion. Them doing so doesn't prevent all people finding accord in seeing abortion as a last resort, but twisting biblical references to motivate a credulous public against a perfectly reasonable medical decision - a decision I should add, that is best left to a woman and her doctor - has been viciously exposed by the recent decision in Ireland to allow a woman to die rather than abort the foetus that was killing her. You don't deserve to stand on a "pro-life" platform when these beliefs marginalize the rights of those who are living against the interests of those yet to be born - even those who might not have a viable prospect of even being born. Being on the wrong side of the gay marriage issue is further proof of the "stupid" label. That there is a genetic basis to human sexuality is undeniable and Republicans perverting the truth in denial of this is egregious. Just as most Republican hetro-sexuals can't point to the stage in their past when they chose to be hetro-sexual, their presumption that gays made a different choice is exposed as pure bigotry. Using the law to codify this bigotry is in denial of basic human rights. As the tide continues to turn in American public opinion, the stupid party stands alone and isolated. Whereas it used to use gay marriage as a means of energizing its base supporters, they now find themselves in the minority. Just as Mormons needed a "revelation" to see the light in post civil rights US, so the Republican party needs some kind of inspiration and leadership to extricate them from a mess of their own making. It is inconceivable that they will go into the next Presidential election opposing gay marriage, but if they do they will lose and lose heavily. At that point they will be completely unelectable, as a stupid party should be.

So I am looking with interest at the new batch of potential Republican leaders and I wait in hope, but more likely I will wait in vain. The signs are not good. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana is a misogynist and biblical literalist who is anti-evolution and a climate change denialist. Marco Rubio is still caring for his bruises from his recent GQ magazine interview where he publicly stated his ignorance on the age of the earth. Such settled scientific issues are not…and cannot be…matters of personal opinion. Maybe there's a Republican leader out there who has some sanity…someone who is as concerned as I about the party being seen as the stupid party. I hope they step forward soon. There are 47% of Americans (the percent of the popular vote Romney secured) desperate for scientifically literate leadership. The problem, of course, is that no candidate has a chance in hell of winning the Republican primary unless they speak to issues the base wants to hear. Until Republican leaders step forward and accept their role in re-educating that base - and this means telling them they are dead wrong on key areas of science - they will be locked into a vicious circle. Now, there's a problem and I doubt even Robert Blake could find an answer.

Welcome to stupid.

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