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Watching Republicans Flail is not a Strategy

(Photo: DonkeyHotey/flickr/cc)

It’s pretty amazing to watch the disaster unfolding in the Republican Party on both the home front and the national stage. Scott Walker, the “unintimidated” governor, has returned from the triumphant launch of his presidential campaign with his tail between his legs, House Speaker John Boehner is departing in a river of tears, and the Republicans are scrambling to figure out how to fire Donald Trump, their frontrunner in the 2016 presidential race, before he blows up any chance the party has to win the White House.

Rubbernecking at the Republican debates was fun. See Donald Trump do what a million citizens who signed recall petitions and tens of thousands more who marched in the streets could not accomplish, dispatching Walker with a couple of deft put-downs. Watch Carly Fiorina, with her beautifully slick appeal to women, put Trump in his place. Giggle along as your friends on Twitter take up Rand Paul’s challenge to the other candidates to come clean about their drug use.

But seriously, as much as the 2016 sideshow is more entertaining and distracting than any I can remember, we have drifted an awfully long way from any meaningful democratic exercise.

I can’t help but worry that watching all of this is bad for progressives, Democrats and anyone who is not a card-carrying member of the burn-down-the-government, to-hell-with-civilization wing of the Republican Party.

Yes, the Republicans seem to be on the brink of self-destruction. But waiting for them to self-destruct is not a political strategy.

Any productive activity on our side is going to involve getting people engaged in the issues that matter to them. All the razzle-dazzle of the presidential race is a good way to make people stop paying attention, and, in the end, that’s better for the party that wants to sneak some really bad policies past us.

The Republican brand  is now all about not governing. It’s about shutting down the entire federal government over some phony propaganda videos about Planned Parenthood. It’s about obsessively attacking a modest health-care expansion and giving big tax breaks to corporations and billionaires at the expense of our schools and roads and state parks.

Most of all, the Republican brand is about a lot of destructive anger — at immigrants, at the government and civil servants, at black people and poor people and Muslim Americans.

Some of that destructive energy is taking a toll on Republican politicians like Walker and Boehner. And it threatens to immolate the party itself.

Mike McCabe, who started Blue Jean Nation to try to re-energize progressive politics, likes to say that we have one party that’s scary and another one that’s scared.

The Republican destruction machine is opening up an opportunity. Democrats and progressives should start talking about what we are for.

Here is what we are for: great public institutions that serve the common good.

For decades, a right-wing propaganda campaign has been claiming, falsely, that our public institutions are no good, inefficient and wasteful, and that they should be handed over to private business. Part of the reason that message resonates with the public is that everyone has had a bad experience with bureaucracy; waiting in line at the DMV.

But here is something else Americans know from experience: In the deregulated private market, con artistry abounds. That’s why Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have struck a chord with their criticism of hucksterism on Wall Street. Credit card companies routinely take advantage of their customers. And millions of Americans know what it’s like to be ripped off by big banks and jerked around by health insurance companies. Fly-by-night voucher schools and shady charter-school operators are cashing in on public education funds by shortchanging students.

If the privatizers have their way, soon millions of Americans will be sending our kids to school at private academies in the same strip malls where we use the privatized postal services, bank at the check-cashing joint and shop at the deregulated rent-to-own shop.

Progressives need to stand up to this dystopian vision with better values: great public schools for each and every child, a well-maintained infrastructure and communities that are a great place to live for everybody — not just those rich enough to send their kids to private schools, buy up the prettiest land and build big walls to keep the rest of us out.

A more positive, generous message leads to more progressive politics.

And, as Bernie Sanders show, with a campaign that is now catching up to Hillary Clinton in fundraising, but without a super PAC or a stable of big donors, progressive politics can still get serious traction in our country. Maybe there’s hope for democracy after all.

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Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is editor of The Progressive magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @rconniff

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