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Leftward, Ho!

Why the Republican Party will continue to liberalize, despite itself

There are a couple of long political reads in The Atlantic that I want to bring to your attention.

The first, by Peter Beinart, discusses the apparently unstoppable leftward drift of the country.  Excerpts:

I came of age in the ’80s and ’90s, when the backlash against ’60s liberalism still struck terror into Democratic hearts. I watched as Ronald Reagan moved the country hard to the right, and as Bill Clinton made his peace with this new political reality by assuring white America that his party would fight crime mercilessly. Seeing this year’s Democratic candidates crumple before Black Lives Matter and shed Clinton’s ideological caution as they stampeded to the left, I imagined the country must be preparing for a vast conservative reaction.

But I was wrong. The more I examined the evidence, the more I realized that the current moment looks like a mirror image of the late ’60s and early ’70s. The resemblances are clear, but their political significance has been turned upside down. There is a backlash against the liberalism of the Obama era. But it is louder than it is strong. Instead of turning right, the country as a whole is still moving to the left.

Beinart goes on to make a case that even if Republicans hold the Congress and win the presidency, the culture is moving steadily to the left, and will continue to do so. I think he hugely overestimates the impact of Occupy, and would like to think he overestimates the impact of the militant Black Lives Matter movement, except that the Democratic Party today really does see no enemies to the left — and that is their victory.

Beinart argues that on race, for example, even the Republicans are accepting at least some of the left-wing critique:

Most interesting—because he is the Republican candidate with the keenest sense of how to appeal to the general electorate—has been the approach of Senator Marco Rubio. In August, a Fox News anchor asked him about Black Lives Matter. Instead of condemning the movement, Rubio told the story of an African American friend of his whom police had stopped eight or nine times over the previous 18 months even though he had never broken the law. “This is a problem our nation has to confront,” Rubio declared. Then he talked about young African Americans who get arrested for nonviolent offenses and pushed into plea deals by overworked public defenders. The government, he said, must “look for ways to divert people” from going to jail “so that you don’t get people stigmatized early in life.”

Conservative Republicans didn’t talk this way in the ’90s. They didn’t talk this way even in the early Obama years. The fact that Rubio does so now is more evidence that today, unlike in the mid-’60s, the debate about race and justice isn’t moving to the right. It’s moving further left.

For the record, I think it’s a good thing if we work to fight police brutality and harassment of black motorists. Conservatives ought to care about those things, as matters of justice! My main objection is to the sense you get among activists that these are the worst problems facing black America, and the viewpoint that seems to remove all moral agency from African-Americans. The crazy demands by black activists on campuses make it harder for conservatives to take seriously legitimate complaints about racial injustice.


And it’s not just crime where the Democratic Party’s move leftward is being met with acceptance rather than rejection. Take LGBT rights: A decade ago, it was considered suicidal for a Democratic politician to openly support gay marriage. Now that debate is largely over, and liberals are pushing for antidiscrimination laws that cover transgender people, a group many Americans weren’t even aware of until Caitlyn Jenner made headlines. At first glance, this might seem like too much change, too fast. Marriage equality, after all, gives gays and lesbians access to a fundamentally conservative institution. The transgender-rights movement poses a far more radical question: Should people get to define their own gender, irrespective of biology?

Yet the nation’s answer, by large margins, seems to be yes. When the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law examined polls, it found that between two-thirds and three-quarters of Americans now support barring discrimination against transgender people. It also found a dramatic rise in recent years in the percentage of Americans who consider anti-transgender discrimination a “major problem.” According to Andrew Flores, who conducted the study, a person’s attitude toward gays and lesbians largely predicts their attitude toward transgender people. Most Americans, in other words, having decided that discriminating against lesbians and gay men was wrong, have simply extended that view to transgender people via what Flores describes as a “mechanism of attitude generalization.”

That is why, in the 2016 presidential race, Republicans have shown little interest in opposing transgender rights. In July, the Pentagon announced that transgender people will be able to serve openly in the military. One Republican presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee, denounced the move. Another, Jeb Bush, appeared to support it. The remaining contenders largely avoided the issue.

This feels right to me. Beinart is right: transgender is a far more radical thing than homosexuality, but I am not surprised that the public is largely getting in line. Everything follows from the principle of that Justice Kennedy articulated in the 1992 Casey decision:

“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Does anyone dispute that most Americans today agree with this? If marriage can be fundamentally altered because of it, why not gender? We have lost sight of the Christian meaning of marriage, of sex, of sexual complementarity, and now we are losing sight of the meaning of male and female. We are going to reap the whirlwind, I believe, but Beinart is right about the leftward, liberationist movement of our culture.

The reason why, Beinart says, is that the Millennials (even Republican ones) are a lot less conservative than older generations. Read the whole thing.

The second Atlantic piece is by David Frum, analyzing the GOP crack-up. It starts like this:

The angriest and most pessimistic people in America aren’t the hipster protesters who flitted in and out of Occupy Wall Street. They aren’t the hashtavists of #BlackLivesMatter. They aren’t the remnants of the American labor movement or the savvy young dreamers who confront politicians with their American accents and un-American legal status.

The angriest and most pessimistic people in America are the people we used to call Middle Americans. Middle-class and middle-aged; not rich and not poor; people who are irked when asked to press 1 for English, and who wonder how white male became an accusation rather than a description.

You can measure their pessimism in polls that ask about their expectations for their lives—and for those of their children. On both counts, whites without a college degree express the bleakest view. You can see the effects of their despair in the new statistics describing horrifying rates of suicide and substance-abuse fatality among this same group, in middle age.

White Middle Americans express heavy mistrust of every institution in American society: not only government, but corporations, unions, even the political party they typically vote for—the Republican Party of Romney, Ryan, and McConnell, which they despise as a sad crew of weaklings and sellouts. They are pissed off. And when Donald Trump came along, they were the people who told the pollsters, “That’s my guy.”

They aren’t necessarily superconservative. They often don’t think in ideological terms at all. But they do strongly feel that life in this country used to be better for people like them—and they want that older country back.

Frum goes on to discuss the Tea Party movement, and how the GOP leadership and donor class fundamentally misread it:

Yet even as the Republican Main Street protested Obamacare, it rejected the hardening ideological orthodoxy of Republican donors and elected officials. A substantial minority of Republicans—almost 30 percent—said they would welcome “heavy” taxes on the wealthy, according to Gallup. Within the party that made Paul Ryan’s entitlement-slashing budget plan a centerpiece of policy, only 21 percent favored cuts in Medicare and only 17 percent wanted to see spending on Social Security reduced, according to Pew. Less than a third of ordinary Republicans supported a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants (again according to Pew); a majority, by contrast, favored stepped-up deportation.

As a class, big Republican donors could not see any of this, or would not. So neither did the politicians who depend upon them. Against all evidence, both groups interpreted the Tea Party as a mass movement in favor of the agenda of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. [Emphasis mine. — RD] One of the more dangerous pleasures of great wealth is that you never have to hear anyone tell you that you are completely wrong.

Read the whole thing. It’s a good analysis of the class war within the GOP, and how immigration in particular separates, and separated, elites and the donor class from the base. Frum says the Republican Party has four options now. I’ll leave it to you to read them and decide which makes the most sense. Frum concludes with a great question: What happens to an elite whose followers withdraw their assent? 

I would dissent from Frum’s analysis in one way. He writes that the GOP should “recognize that the gimmick of mobilizing the base with culture-war outrages stopped working at least a decade ago.” Frum has been pro-gay marriage for a while now, and I know that he, like many in the Washington-New York conservative commentariat, finds religious conservatives to be a drag on the party and its prospects. I could certainly be wrong about this, but I sense that Frum, like many establishment folks on both the left and the right, thinks that the question of marriage is something essentially trivial, a “culture-war outrage.” What’s still the matter with Kansas?, etc.

Here’s the thing: the Indiana RFRA defeat was (or ought to have been) for conservative Christians a revealing moment about where we actually stand with the Republican Party leadership. The interests of big business will always matter more to them than the opposite. It was true on immigration and it is true on religious liberty when it conflicts with gay rights. Religious conservative voters may well vote Republican because they are confident that even thought Republican politicians are useless in protecting their interests, at least they aren’t positively menacing, like the Democrats. But voting Republican as the lesser of two evils is not the same thing as affirming the Republican Party and its leadership.

Me, I don’t trust the GOP, but I am resisting being pissed off, because anger is only going to blind us to what needs to be done, and may cause us to commit to futile causes. Trump is not my guy, and Trumpism not a credible answer. This is why I’m working on developing the Benedict Option idea as a creative, realistic way forward for small-o orthodox Christians. The GOP is going to do what it’s going to do, but it’s almost certainly not going to be doing much that defends my interests as an orthodox Christian — not only because its donor class and elites dislike bitter clingers like me, but also because the country is moving away from the things we believe in.



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