Revelations from the Republican Debate

On Tuesday evening I listened to the Republican candidates’ debate on economic issues hosted by the Fox Business network and the Wall Street Journal – two bastions of conservative economic ideology.

It felt rather strange to briefly enter the conservative bubble with the moderators giving tacit approval to the candidates’ views during the debate and the hosts applauding them for their views in the personal interviews afterward.

If one accepts the candidates’ premises (which in my view are quite erroneous), their proposed fixes to the economy look very sound.

Just lower taxes and magically create more employment and prosperity for all (hooray!).

Keep wages low and America can successfully compete with China and other countries (paying only $1 a day?).

Expel 11 million undocumented immigrants and build a wall to keep them out to solve … well basically, all of America’s economic and social ills!

Talk tough to Putin, flex some military muscle, and your opponents will back down (sure they will; nothing could go wrong there).

To me it all sounds alarmingly crazy.

Ted Cruz’ interview afterward was perhaps the most illuminating. He divided the field of Republican candidates into two categories – the remaining large number of ‘moderate’ candidates, as he called them, and the diminishing number of truly ‘conservative’ candidates like himself. I suppose that within the Republican feedback loop that might seem an accurate description. But that is certainly not the way many others see it.

As it happens, I had just a few hours earlier listened to a recent interview with the noted leftist linguist, philosopher, social justice activist, and political commentator Noam Chomsky. Here is a transcription from that interview as he described the current gamut of political positions in American politics:

The spectrum is broad, but in an odd sense. The spectrum is basically from center to extreme right – extreme right – way off the spectrum.

The Republican Party about 20 years ago basically abandoned any pretense of being a normal political party. …What happened is that the party – during the whole neo-liberal period [actually] both parties – shifted to the right … and the Republicans just went off the spectrum.

They became so dedicated to the interests of the extreme wealthy and powerful that they couldn’t get votes. So they had to turn to other constituencies which were there but were never politically mobilized: the Christian evangelicals, nativists [who] were are afraid that ‘they’ are taking our country away from us, people who are so terrified that they carry a gun into the coffee shop – and that’s their base essentially.

He went on to say that

The Democrats have shifted to the right as well. Today’s mainstream Democrats are pretty much what you used to call moderate Republicans.

Dwight_D._Eisenhower,_official_photo_portrait,_May_29,_1959Chomsky then paraphrased Eisenhower’s famous statement in a letter to his brother Edgar in 1954,

Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. … Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

Chomsky continued,

Well by now [Eisenhower’s position] is a left-wing program – basically Bernie Sanders’ program. … So the spectrum is – it’s true that it’s broad – but in a very strange sense.

While this is the view of a noted leftist, it echoes the consensus of a broad range of recent academic scholarship on American political history [detailed my previous post, The Demise of Moderate Republicans]. Chomsky’s language may be a bit sharper than others, but he forms the same conclusion.
By their measure and historically speaking, Barack Obama occupies a space slightly to the right of Eisenhower and Nixon.
And Bernie Sanders – the “radical socialist” from Vermont – is the sole remaining advocate of the kind of liberal New Deal programs that for more than a generation defined the standard for American economic and social policy.

In contrast, the small but determined insurgent “New Right” of the Goldwater campaign which lost so badly in 1964 finally triumphed in 1980 with the election of their chosen candidate Ronald Reagan. Reagan subsequently became the “patron saint” and standard bearer for the New Right.

However, after George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush disappointed conservatives in not carrying forward Reagan’s economic policies strongly enough, the new “New Right” has pushed the ideological standard far beyond that of Reagan.

Emboldened by right-wing talk radio hosts and Fox News commentators and under the guise of opposing Obama’s “left-wing” policies (really?), this new insurgency backed nativist Tea Party candidates espousing much more radical views in the 2010 midterm elections. They have also supported a large field of extremist candidates in both the 2012 and 2016 primaries. This is where, in Chomsky’s words, the Republican Party “went off the spectrum.” These are some of the same extremist candidates that the staunch traditional conservative John McCain called “wacko birds” in 2013.

Heaven help us if any of these candidates win the presidency in 2016.

Photo credits: Associated Press; Reuters/Gary Cameron; Reuters/Jorge Dan; AP/Andrew Harnik