Thinking back over the last month, it's difficult to comprehend that the Republicans who now walk the halls of Congress are the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower.
Clearly, what was once a political party identified with the end of slavery, with the establishment of national parks and environmentalism, as well as creating our nation's highway infrastructure has morphed into a cohort of obstructionists that is today all but unrecognizable.
What is equally disconcerting is the willingness of the GOP to allow an extremist, right-wing faction, the tea party, to hijack their party and press for a national shutdown of the government unless the Affordable Care Act is defunded (imagine wanting to deny millions of Americans the very health care these same Republicans take for granted) and then insisting that their leadership refuse to raise the debt ceiling. In retrospect, it seems incomprehensible that the nation stood on the edge of an economic precipice as Republican after Republican urged their leadership to stand fast and go over the cliff if their demands were not met.
Going forward, the question raised is: Will the GOP allow this minority of reactionary ideologues to take over their party while referring to the moderate wing of the GOP as outliers, compromisers, lacking ideological commitment to the reframed conservative movement?
But there is also something occurring that is equally disturbing: the denizens of the tea party, such as they are, not only possess but cultivate an abiding sense of anger — some might call it a simmering rage — that is directed not just at the Democrats but at the government, which they identify as the enemy. It could be argued that this deeply embedded tenet, that government is at the root of their discontent, began with Ronald Reagan who, in his first inaugural speech, in 1981, stated: "It's time to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond
the consent of the governed ... In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem."
For reasons that remain elusive, this last sentence — overly simplistic, jingoistic — resonated with countless Americans. It was soon embraced by the GOP and eventually echoed by Grover Norquist, the conservative lobbyist, who said, "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."
And so the tea party fantasists, the hardcore magical thinkers, the enemies of "big government," the adherents to the seductive myth of the self-reliant individual, have constructed an even more extreme narrative that is increasingly gaining traction within the wider GOP: Government is not only too large, but it poses a threat to their fundamental freedom as delineated in the Constitution.
According to their narrative, the federales will come for their guns, trample on the Second Amendment, hence they must be prepared. Result: any semblance of gun control is DOA, while well-armed, camo-covered militias, wielding AR-15s and possessing basements filled with amo, go on weekend field manuevers, shredding silhouette targets and foliage.
Government is also intrusive, mandating that citizens purchase health care or face a fine, thereby depriving citizens of their constitutional right to go uninsured. But of course these very same constitutionalists reserve the right to show up at any emergency clinic to set a fractured arm (tab to be picked up by those paying for health insurance).
And to those on the right it is self-evident that government is the source of repressive regulations and ubiquitous, meddling agencies. Look no further than the FDIC, the SEC, the FDA, the CDC and the EPA, agencies that insure bank losses, provide oversight to financial institutions, inspect our food, require vaccinations, track flu outbreaks or red flag contaminated baby food from China and assess air quality and public safety, all in the name of the common good. Isn't the Affordable Care Act, so continually denigrated, a reflection of our will to respond to the common good?
There is also a thread that runs through the new GOP/tea party and that's its reflexive anger toward and rejection of President Obama, since his election. It is almost impossible not to view their challenge to his citizenship, his birthplace, to his very legitimacy, as barely concealed racism. How else to understand it?
Increasingly, it has been the conservatives' mission, compounded by the growing power of the tea party, to obstruct at every turn what the first African American president has proposed in policy and goals. And recently some moderate Republicans, echoing the far right, have proffered the idea of impeachment of the president for reasons never articulated.
This is no longer your grandfather's Republican Party. It's something else, and it is taking our nation in a direction where truly there be dragons.
Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.