Current trends in American politics suggest a new form of mobilization predicated on ideological absolutism and fantastical claims. This trend contrasts with other recent American social movements, including the civil rights movement, that neither sought to delegitimate the public sphere nor to foreswear responsibility for self-governance.
President Barack Obama went to Selma, Alabama on March 7 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that milestone civil rights march, and he delivered what many analysts consider his most eloquent speech in a political career marked by memorable addresses. The President argued at Selma that race relations had indeed improved in the United States since that day on the Pettus Bridge in 1965,
Because of campaigns like this, a Voting Rights Act was passed. Political and economic and social barriers came down. And the change these men and women wrought is visible here today in the presence of African Americans who run boardrooms, who sit on the bench, who serve in elected office from small towns to big cities; from the Congressional Black Caucus all the way to the Oval Office. (Applause.)
Because of what they did, the doors of opportunity swung open not just for black folks, but for every American. Women marched through those doors. Latinos marched through those doors. Asian Americans, gay Americans, Americans with disabilities—they all came through those doors. (Applause.) Their endeavors gave the entire South the chance to rise again, not by reasserting the past, but by transcending the past.1
But President Obama also warned those to whom he spoke that efforts were vigorously afoot to undo a substantial share of the gains obtained in part by the blood spilled by those involved in the Selma march:
And with effort, we can protect the foundation stone of our democracy for which so many marched across this bridge—and that is the right to vote. (Applause.)
Right now, in 2015, 50 years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote. As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed. Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood, so much sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, the Voting Rights Act stands weakened, its future subject to political rancor.2
The President did not say that the Supreme Court had ruled in 2013 that Southern states need not submit their redistricting plans any longer to the national government for scrutiny, on the view that such was no longer necessary. Few independent analysts agreed with that conclusion, but the GOP, which dominates Southern statehouses, pressed strongly for that outcome. Similarly, Obama did not highlight that efforts to make voting more difficult have come only from the Republican Party, whose leaders have claimed, without evidence, that voter fraud demands such actions. Since there is no empirical support for these initiatives and they have been the product of lockstep GOP partisanship in the states that have enacted them, it seems clear they are intended to suppress the vote by groups that party views as unlikely to support its candidates. That is, a major political party has worked diligently to de facto deny the franchise to millions for partisan gain.
Even as the President spoke in Selma, controversy continued concerning House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) decision to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress on March 3, without first consulting the President. Boehner’s actions were widely and rightly interpreted as an attempt to undermine the chief executive’s ongoing effort to obtain an agreement with Iran and America’s allies on a strategy to monitor that nation’s nuclear industry and prevent its development of an atomic weapon. The GOP leader violated long-standing constitutional practice and tradition as well as personal courtesy in an apparent effort to realize a partisan gain.
Similarly, on March 19, United States Senate leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) wrote America’s governors urging them not to abide by Environmental Protection Agency regulations governing pollution abatement by coal-fired power plants. That is, McConnell asked the nation’s governors, over whom he has no jurisdiction, to break federal law in furtherance of his personal argument that the EPA rules directed to cleanup of these facilities aimed at addressing climate change, were neither necessary nor legally appropriate. Both of these legislative leaders’ steps were radical, profoundly ideological and unprecedented.
All of these actions suggest that GOP leaders have become so caught up in parochial rancor, supporter appeasement and power seeking that they have lost their way. But while these examples suggest a willingness to undermine governance and the legitimacy of law and of the franchise in the name of ideology and power, other Republicans have elected to press equally, if not more, extreme agendas. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), for example, chose to argue the following (among much else) on March 23, when he announced his candidacy for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination:
Five years ago today, the president signed Obamacare into law. Within hours, Liberty University went to court filing a lawsuit to stop that failed law. Instead of the joblessness, instead of the millions forced into part-time work, instead of the millions who’ve lost their health insurance, lost their doctors, have faced skyrocketing health insurance premiums, imagine in 2017 a new president signing legislation repealing every word of Obamacare. … Imagine abolishing the IRS.3
All of Cruz’s claims concerning the nation’s health care access law are simply ideological assertions with no relationship to empirical reality. And unless our nation decides it no longer needs to govern itself, it appears exceedingly unlikely we shall soon abolish the Internal Revenue Service. These arguments represent Cruz’s calculation of what his prospective supporters wish to hear, however misleading, extremist and counterfactual. It is important to understand why he believes these claims might appeal to a share of Republican voters, but it is equally essential to note that his arguments represent a form of power-seeking so removed from reality as to be frightening in its implications for democratic governance.
A final example will suffice to illustrate the current direction of the Republican Party. On March 26, former Secretary of State James Baker, a close friend of former President George H. W. Bush and advisor to the likely 2016 presidential campaign of Bush’s son, Jeb Bush, addressed J Street, the liberal pro-Israel advocacy organization in Washington. Baker argued that Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent anti-Arab and anti-two-state solution rhetoric was undermining the prospects for peace in that region and that the Prime Minister should recast his position accordingly. The former Secretary said nothing new and, in fact, echoed a policy position long-held by many leaders in the traditional center of his party. But the backlash from hard right conservatives in the GOP, led by casino magnate and billionaire Sheldon Adelson, was quick, loud and deep. Its message was that an individual may no longer serve as a GOP leader and question Netanyahu in any way. That is, supporting Israel in an unqualified way has emerged as an absolute litmus test for Republicans. Given the response of Adelson and other opinion leaders on the far right of his party to Baker’s speech, Jeb Bush soon released a statement and offered comments aimed at distancing himself from his distinguished advisor.
This episode suggests the center of gravity of the party has moved distinctively in an absolutist direction, one that allows no room for a reasoned to-and-fro concerning possible courses of action to secure peace in the Middle East. Apparently, to be a Republican presidential contender, one may not question Israeli policy in any way. Instead, GOP hopefuls must support without question whatever that government’s current leader elects to do.4
Taken together the examples treated here suggest a political party moving aggressively to embrace profoundly anti-democratic steps to attain perceived political advantage and hardening its policy prescriptions in ways that increasingly brook no dissent. It also is a party whose ranks contain a group of leaders and major stakeholders embracing positions that reflect grotesque ideological posturing unrelated to reality. It is important to contrast this form of “fantasy” mobilization politics and its accompanying animus against self-governance with the very real democratic hope and genuine engagement represented by Selma’s civil rights marchers. That effort and others like it, as the President argued, symbolize heartfelt steps in the long journey toward freedom. In comparison, this new brand of GOP ideological and mythical posturing signifies little but fear, loathing and irresponsibility.
1 The White House (2015). “Remarks by the President at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches,” March 7. Office of the Press Secretary webpage. Available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/03/07/remarks-president-50th-anniversary-selma-montgomery-marches
2 The White House (2015). “Remarks by the President.”
3 Beckwith, Ryan Teague (2015).”Read Full Text of Sen. Ted Cruz’s Campaign Launch,” Time Magazine, March 23. Available at http://time.com/3754392/ted-cruz-liberty-university-speech-transcript/
4 Baker, Peter (2015). “For G.O.P., Support for Israel becomes new Litmus Test, New York Times.” New York Times, March 27. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/28/us/politics/republicans-criticize-james-baker-for-speech-on-benjamin-netanyahu.html?emc=edit_th_20150328&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=40087534&_r=0