The Rise & Fall of America's Political Right
There is no real name for the movement that took over America six years ago and continues run it. That's part of the reason for its success. Its very vagueness makes it hard to attack. In actuality, it is not a single entity. It is made up of three main parts.
Corporatism, which is based on the belief that whatever makes money is good -- and should not be restrained.
Neo-con megalomania, which is the belief that American power is absolute, irresistible, and always good, and should therefore be used -- without restraint.And right-wing religion, which is the certainty that this movement's form of Christianity is God-commanded; therefore it should rule America and, through America, the world -- and any restraint against it is opposition to God.
To add to the confusion, this movement did not stand out on its own. Its proponents entered into the existing Republican Party and the old Goldwater-Reagan conservative movement. They brought those people along with them (roughly half the voting population) and ran for office under the guise of being Republicans and conservatives. Most of what they said they stood for was in the mainstream.
Capitalism is good. Being strong is good. Education, financial security, and trade are good. America is a good, idealistic country. It's good that America defeated its enemies in the past, like the Nazis and the Soviets, and it's a good idea that we remain capable of doing it in the future. Faith and belief in a higher power is good. We should be careful about foreign military adventures, though once we are attacked we have to be vigorous in our response and fight them over there before we have to fight them over here.
All that sounds reasonable, appealing, and familiar. What distinguishes Bushism from old-line Republicanism and reasonable conservatism is not the names on their beliefs, it's the quality of their beliefs. The beliefs of Bushism are theological. Theological thinking creates powerful and convincing rhetoric. There are two reasons for this. People with theological beliefs don't mind lying. It's for the greater good.
This has been combined with the corporate attitude toward truth: "Coke adds life!" It doesn't matter if it's true or false, or absolutely meaningless. If it moves the product, that's what you say. The result is spinning, which is more effective than straight-out lying. For years, Bush was a master of spin. If you analyze his speeches, it is exceedingly rare to find an outright lie that you can nail to the table. Yet he was able to lead his listeners to conclusions that were absolutely false.
The classic example is in his 2003 State of the Union address, in which he said, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." The substance was absolutely false. He had been told as much by the CIA. The consequences of creating a false impression were vast, tragic, and intensely stupid. Yet, by putting the opening clause on it, citing the British government -- whose intelligence service did, at one time, think there was reason to believe it -- it is not, technically, a lie. People with theological beliefs routinely lie to themselves. In their theological minds, the theory is always true. Only reality is flawed.
When the CIA stated that there was no substantive link between al-Qaeda and Iraq, Cheney disputed their claim and in effect said, "It must be true! Find intelligence that does agree, or if you're too incompetent, I'll find it myself." Bush believes that cutting taxes always increases revenues and creates jobs. Yet year after year, when the numbers came back and it didn't happen, the response was to insist on more tax cuts, because the theology says it has to happen. Listening to Bush -- and Cheney and their supporters -- is exactly like listening to a Marxist explaining away Stalin. And Mao, and the gulags, and the East German secret police, and the madness of Ceausescu.
They were a new force. They believed completely in their cause and that they should have power. They arrived cloaked in old and familiar and reassuring rhetoric, so they encountered little resistance, and conquered rapidly and thoroughly. What is astonishing is how rapidly their ideas are being revealed as bankrupt. The war in Iraq has demolished the myth of America's unlimited power. Iraq was the neo-cons' great experiment in democracy and free-market capitalism. The true believers really believed that simply by having people vote for a democratic-style government and sweeping away all restrictions on free markets, a little America would instantly emerge -- stable, friendly, prosperous, the envy of its neighbors. Instead, it created a hell on Earth. Anti-government government was exposed as bankrupt by Katrina. Prosecutor-gate is revealing, quite rapidly, how the quest for power, fueled by theological righteousness, tossed out all other virtues -- like justice, fairness, and honesty. Economists and pundits are behind the curve, but ordinary Americans get that Bush economics do not work for them. And that what's good for giant corporations is not necessarily what's good for the USA.
Religion has been a sacred cow. But the excesses of Christian power and the violent madness of Islamic fundamentalism have changed that. Now atheist books are on the best-seller list. Because it is necessary, it has become respectable to genuinely question why and how and what people believe. Theological thinking, itself, has been revealed as bankrupt. It is almost impossible to overstate how disastrous the eight years of Bush are going to turn out to be for the Republican Party and for the right. It is not entirely visible yet, but this tumble downhill is going to turn out to be a fall off a cliff.
The Democrats, and the left, have a great opportunity here. I hope they make something out of it, because those other people are dangerous idiots. If they are going to, they can't simply fall back on their old rhetoric. The world has changed. It always changes. It will keep changing. They have to come up with something new. Something that combines realism and good, hard-headed American pragmatism with ideals. Then make it sound exciting.
Larry Beinhart is the author of Wag the Dog, The Librarian, and Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin. All available at nationbooks.org