The Corruption of the Republican Party, Minus 400 Words

An internet person said: if you’re going to read one article this week, it should be “The Corruption of the Republican Party” by the American journalist and author George Packer. Of the article’s 2,100 words, I think the 1,700 below are the most important.

Why has the Republican Party become so thoroughly corrupt? The reason is historical—it goes back many decades—and, in a way, philosophical. The party is best understood as an insurgency that carried the seeds of its own corruption from the start.

I don’t mean the kind of corruption that regularly sends lowlifes … to prison. Those abuses are nonpartisan and always with us. So is vote theft of the kind we’ve just seen in North Carolina…

And I don’t just mean that the Republican Party is led by the boss of a kleptocratic family business who presides over a scandal-ridden administration, that many of his closest advisers are facing prison time, that Donald Trump himself might have to stay in office just to avoid prosecution…

The corruption I mean has less to do with individual perfidy than institutional depravity. It isn’t an occasional failure to uphold norms, but a consistent repudiation of them. It isn’t about dirty money so much as the pursuit and abuse of power—power as an end in itself, justifying almost any means…. it’s far more dangerous than graft. There are legal remedies for Duncan Hunter, a representative from California, who will stand trial next year for using campaign funds to pay for family luxuries. But there’s no obvious remedy for what the state legislatures of Wisconsin and Michigan, following the example of North Carolina in 2016, are now doing.

Republican majorities are rushing to pass laws that strip away the legitimate powers of newly elected Democratic governors while defeated or outgoing Republican incumbents are still around to sign the bills. Even if the courts overturn some of these power grabs, as they have in North Carolina, Republicans will remain securely entrenched in the legislative majority through their own hyper-gerrymandering—in Wisconsin last month, 54 percent of the total votes cast for major-party candidates gave Democrats just 36 of 99 assembly seats—so they will go on passing laws to thwart election results. Nothing can stop these abuses short of an electoral landslide. In Wisconsin…, that means close to 60 percent of the total vote.

The fact that no plausible election outcome can check the abuse of power is what makes political corruption so dangerous. It strikes at the heart of democracy. It destroys the compact between the people and the government. In rendering voters voiceless, it pushes everyone closer to the use of undemocratic means.

Today’s Republican Party has cornered itself with a base of ever older, whiter, more male, more rural, more conservative voters…. They could have tried to expand; instead, they’ve hardened and walled themselves off. This is why, while voter fraud knows no party, only the Republican Party wildly overstates the risk so that it can pass laws (including right now in Wisconsin, with a bill that reduces early voting) to limit the franchise in ways that have a disparate partisan impact. This is why, when some Democrats in the New Jersey legislature proposed to enshrine gerrymandering in the state constitution, other Democrats, in New Jersey and around the country, objected [and the proposal was withdrawn].

Taking away democratic rights—extreme gerrymandering; blocking an elected president from nominating a Supreme Court justice; selectively paring voting rolls and polling places; creating spurious anti-fraud commissions; misusing the census to undercount the opposition; calling lame-duck legislative sessions to pass laws against the will of the voters—is the Republican Party’s main political strategy, and will be for years to come.

Republicans have chosen contraction and authoritarianism because, unlike the Democrats, their party isn’t a coalition of interests in search of a majority. Its character is ideological. The Republican Party we know is a product of the modern conservative movement, and that movement is a series of insurgencies against the established order. Several of its intellectual founders … were shaped early on by Communist ideology and practice, and their Manichean thinking, their conviction that the salvation of Western civilization depended on the devoted work of a small group of illuminati, marked the movement at its birth.

The first insurgency was the nomination of Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. He campaigned as a rebel against the postwar American consensus and the soft middle of his own party’s leadership. Goldwater didn’t use the standard, reassuring lexicon of the big tent and the mainstream. At the San Francisco convention, he embraced extremism and denounced the Republican establishment, whose “moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” His campaign lit a fire of excitement that spread to millions of readers through the pages of two self-published prophesies of the apocalypse, Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice Not an Echo and John A. Stormer’s None Dare Call It Treason. According to these mega-sellers, the political opposition wasn’t just wrong—it was a sinister conspiracy with totalitarian goals…

The insurgents were agents of history, and history was long. To avoid despair, they needed the clarity that only ideology (“the truth”) can give. The task in 1964 was to recruit and train conservative followers… Established institutions that concealed the truth—schools, universities, newspapers, the Republican Party itself—would have to be swept away and replaced or entered and cleansed…  these were not the words and ideas of democratic politics, with its ungainly coalitions and unsatisfying compromises.

During this first insurgency, the abiding contours of the movement took shape… Conservatives nursed a victim’s sense of grievance—the system was stacked against them, cabals of the powerful were determined to lock them out—and they showed more energetic interest than their opponents in the means of gaining power: mass media, new techniques of organizing, rhetoric, ideas. Finally, the movement was founded in the politics of racism. Goldwater’s strongest support came from white southerners reacting against civil rights…. Modern conservatism would never stop flirting with hostility toward whole groups of Americans. And from the start this stance opened the movement to extreme, sometimes violent fellow travelers.

It took only 16 years, with the election of Ronald Reagan, for the movement and party to merge. During those years, conservatives hammered away at institutional structures, denouncing the established ones for their treacherous liberalism, and building alternatives, in the form of well-funded right-wing foundations, think tanks, business lobbies, legal groups, magazines, publishers, professorships. When Reagan won the presidency in 1980, the products of this “counter-establishment” … were ready to take power.

Reagan commanded a revolution, but he himself didn’t have a revolutionary character. He didn’t think the public needed to be indoctrinated and organized, only heard.

But conservatism remained an insurgent politics during the 1980s and ’90s, and the more power it amassed—in government, business, law, media—the more it set itself against the fragile web of established norms and delighted in breaking them. The second insurgency was led by Newt Gingrich, who had come to Congress two years before Reagan became president, with the avowed aim of overthrowing the established Republican leadership and shaping the minority party into a fighting force that could break Democratic rule by shattering what he called the “corrupt left-wing machine.” Gingrich liked to quote Mao’s definition of politics as “war without blood.” He made audiotapes that taught Republican candidates how to demonize the opposition with labels such as “disgrace,” “betray,” and  “traitors.” When he became speaker of the House, at the head of yet another revolution, Gingrich announced, “There will be no compromise.” How could there be, when he was leading a crusade to save American civilization from its liberal enemies?

Even after Gingrich was driven from power, … he regularly churned out books that warned of imminent doom—unless America turned to a leader like him (he once called himself “teacher of the rules of civilization,” among other exalted epithets). Unlike Goldwater and Reagan, Gingrich never had any deeply felt ideology. It was hard to say exactly what “American civilization” meant to him. What he wanted was power, and what he most obviously enjoyed was smashing things to pieces in its pursuit. His insurgency started the conservative movement on the path to nihilism.

The party purged itself of most remaining moderates, growing ever-more shallow as it grew ever-more conservative… Jeff Flake, the outgoing senator from Arizona, … describes this deterioration as “a race to the bottom to see who can be meaner and madder and crazier. It is not enough to be conservative anymore. You have to be vicious.” The viciousness doesn’t necessarily reside in the individual souls of Republican leaders. It flows from the party’s politics, which seeks to delegitimize opponents and institutions, purify the ranks through purges and coups, and agitate followers with visions of apocalypse—all in the name of an ideological cause that every year loses integrity as it becomes indistinguishable from power itself.

The third insurgency came in reaction to the election of Barack Obama—it was the Tea Party. Eight years later, it culminated in Trump’s victory… In the third insurgency, the features of the original movement surfaced again, more grotesque than ever: paranoia and conspiracy thinking; racism and other types of hostility toward entire groups; innuendos and incidents of violence. The new leader is like his authoritarian counterparts abroad: illiberal, demagogic, hostile to institutional checks, demanding and receiving complete acquiescence from the party, and enmeshed in the financial corruption that is integral to the political corruption of these regimes. Once again, liberals … couldn’t grasp how it happened. Neither could some conservatives who still believed in democracy.

The corruption of the Republican Party in the Trump era seemed to set in with breathtaking speed. In fact, it took more than a half century to reach the point where faced with a choice between democracy and power, the party chose the latter. Its leaders don’t see a dilemma—democratic principles turn out to be disposable tools, sometimes useful, sometimes inconvenient. The higher cause is conservatism, but the highest is power. After Wisconsin Democrats swept statewide offices last month, Robin Vos, speaker of the assembly, explained why Republicans would have to get rid of the old rules: “We are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in.”

As Bertolt Brecht wrote of East Germany’s ruling party:

Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

The Battle of the Bands

Brian Wilson has a website. On that site, there are music lovers who have been playing a game for the past nine years. It’s called “The Battle of the Bands”. Someone posts videos for four songs. Usually there is a theme that ties the songs together. People then rank the four songs. They also post their own videos. There is discussion. It’s almost always very polite. Each battle lasts one week. You have to register on the site in order to participate. It’s free and nobody will bother you with annoying advertisements or solicitations. The whole thing is kind of fun.

Oh, one of the four songs has to have a connection to Brian Wilson or the Beach Boys. 

This week’s battle is called “It’s Over”. These are the four songs.

The Everly Brothers — “Crying inthe Rain” (1962). Co-written by Carole King.

The Miracles — “Ooo Baby Baby”(1965). Co-written, produced and sung by Smokey Robinson.

Neil Young — “Like a Hurricane”(1977). This is a live version from 1982. The studio version is equally long. 

The Beach Boys — “I Just Wasn’tMade For These Times” (1966). Co-written with Tony Asher. It’sthe end of innocence? optimism? faith in one’s fellow human beings?


In case you’d like to visit and maybe even participate, please go here. The people who do participate are very nice and will thank you for showing up.

(Plus, we rarely discuss politics. Although it’s sometimes hard to resist, considering the present situation.)

The Election, and More Democracy in Chains

It’s taken almost a month to count almost all the ballots. We now know that the Democrats did extremely well in November’s election. Nationwide, Democratic candidates received 59.5 million votes against 50.5 million for the Republicans. A 9-million vote margin is the largest in the history of midterm elections. Winning 53% of the vote against 45% for the Republicans was the biggest percentage difference in a midterm election since 1974, the year Nixon resigned.

As a result, the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives, winning 235 seats to the Republicans’ 200. They also won many state and local races. One result is that most Americans will have Democratic governors starting in January. The Democrats might have taken the U.S. Senate but for the fact that they were defending 26 seats in this election vs. 9 seats for the Republicans. Ten of those Democratic seats were especially vulnerable, representing states that voted for the candidate now known in various indictments and plea agreements as “Individual-1”.

What nobody knows is how well the Democrats would have done if Republican efforts at voter suppression hadn’t been so successful. The Center for American Progress published a long article two weeks ago on “Voter Suppression in the 2018 Midterm Elections”. The authors discuss voter registration problems, voter purges, strict ID and ballot requirements, misleading instructions, malfunctioning equipment, intimidation, harassment, poll closures and long lines, as well as gerrymandering. The authors are too polite to say so, but Republican officials were responsible for each example of bad behavior they cite.

An article from Vox describes what went on in two large southern states:

For example, in Georgia, Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp used his position as secretary of state to purge an estimated 107,000 people from the voter registration rolls just because they had not voted recently — with the majority of counties purging black voters at higher rates than whites. He put another 53,000 voter registration applications “on hold” — 70 percent of which were from black Georgians. And when people showed up to vote in predominantly black counties, they faced impossibly long lines produced by the closure of 214 polling places since 2012, as well as faulty voting machines. Later, we would learn that 700 voting machines were left wrapped and unused in a nearby warehouse in Atlanta.

All of this happened on top of Georgia’s existing strict voter ID law, which imposed an additional barrier to voting that disproportionately disadvantaged black voters. Nationwide, 25 percent of black Americans lack government-issued photo ID, compared to only 8 percent of whites. A variety of systemic barriers make it harder for people of color to obtain a photo ID. For example, many older black residents lack birth certificates or other required documentation to get an ID. As a consequence, strict voter ID laws like Georgia’s have been shown to significantly and disproportionately reduce turnout among black and brown voters.

Similar issues were reported in Florida, where in addition to purges and polling place closures, there were widespread reports suggesting thousands of voters never received the absentee ballots they requested, and absentee ballots that were submitted by black and Latinx voters were rejected at higher rates due to “signature mismatch”.

Was it a coincidence that the Republican candidates for governor won close elections in both states last month?

The fact is that voter suppression has been official and unofficial Republican policy for decades. I just finished reading Democracy In Chains, a book I wrote about two weeks ago. The key sentence in its 235 pages of text is the one in which the author quotes a Nobel Prize-winning economist named James Buchanan. The late Mr. Buchanan deserves to be known as the intellectual godfather of today’s Republican Party. He is quoted as saying that what we Americans need to do is to get rid of “the sacrosanct status of majority rule”. Minority rule, assuming it’s the right minority, would be much better. That sums up today’s radical Republican Party.

If you want to read more about Democracy In Chains, an almost unbelievable description of Republican efforts to install minority rule, please go here.

Krugman on 3-D Politics

Paul Krugman wrote about the opposition today:

Some thoughts on the midterms and the political future: The GOP [the Republican Party] has a fundamental political problem: its policies are unpopular. It wants to cut taxes on the rich and slash social benefits; voters want the opposite. So how can it win?

The answer has long been … a 3-D strategy: deception, distraction, and disenfranchisement. We saw all three this year.

Deception: We’re going to protect preexisting conditions! Really! Just trust us and pay no attention to what we’ve actually done! And to be fair, this approach probably blunted Democratic attacks on [the subject of] health care — but not enough to prevent big losses over the issue.

Distraction: Look over there! Evil caravan! For a while this looked as if it was gaining traction, thanks to a disastrous performance by the mainstream media, which bought fully into an obvious ploy. But in the end it basically fell flat.

But disenfranchisement — throwing people off the voter rolls and making it hard to vote — almost certainly got Republicans governors’ races in Georgia and Florida, plus the Florida Senate seat and some state legislatures.

It’s really shameful that this is how U.S. politics works now. And given the results, Republicans will do it even more aggressively next time. The logic of the situation is turning the GOP into the enemy of democracy, and we should all be very worried.

But also vigilant and active. When we vote, we win.

Democracy in Chains

Publishers and book critics sometimes say a particular book is one that every American, or every thinking American, or every American who cares about such and such, should read. I’m reading one of them now. If you want to understand U.S. politics, you should read Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. It’s by Nancy MacLean, a professor of history and public policy at Duke University.

MacClean explains how a small group of libertarian and conservative academics began a movement in the 1950s that eventually led to the rightward shift in American politics. So many on the right are so deeply committed to low taxes, privatization, deregulation and making it hard (for some people) to vote because, to borrow a phrase from John Maynard Keynes, they are “the slaves of some defunct  economist[s] … distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler[s] of a few years back”.

This radical right-wing agenda favors property over democracy. They hate the idea that a majority of voters can elect politicians who will interfere with a rich person’s right to accumulate and keep as much stuff as possible. As a result, they look  for ways to dilute the majority’s ability to effect change.

MacClean discusses one case in which the right’s “stealth program” was implemented. The key figure in her book, a Virginia Tech economist named James Buchanan, helped transform Chile after Gen. Augusto Pinochet led a military coup in 1973:

For it was Buchanan who guided Pinochet’s team in how to arrange things so that [Chile’s] capitalist class would be all but permanently entrenched in power….

If Jim Buchanan had qualms about helping to design a constitution for a dictatorship or the process by which [it] was ratified, … he did not commit them to print…

What’s perplexing is how a man whose life’s mission was the promotion of what he … called the free society reconciled himself … to what a military junta was doing to the people of Chile. The new Chile was free for some, … the same kind of people who counted in Virginia in the era when [Buchanan fought desegregation]. It was also, always, a particular kind of freedom the libertarians cared most about. One Chilean [rejoiced] that “the individual freedom to consume, produce, save and invest has been restored”.

… Chile emerged with a set of rules closer to his ideal than any in existence, built to repel future popular pressure for change. [The new constitution] was a “virtually unamendable charter”, … radically skewed by the over-representation of the wealthy, the military and the less popular political parties associated with them. Buchanan had long called for binding rules to protect economic liberty and constrain majority power, and [the constitution] guaranteed these as never before”.

Among the right-wing “reforms” instituted by the Pinochet dictatorship were lower taxes for corporations and the wealthy, devastating restrictions on unions, privatization of the social security system, privatization of health care, a less independent judicial system, limits on the government’s ability to issue regulations, school vouchers in place of funding for public education and forcing state universities to become “self-financing”. If this list of “modernizations” sounds familiar, it should. It’s the public agenda of today’s Republican Party.

Since it isn’t good public relations for a political party or government to say it’s against majority rule, however, the right’s intention to install and maintain minority rule isn’t publicly stated. But after seizing power, Pinochet ruled as a dictator for years. In the U.S., the right-wing justices on the Supreme Court have given more political power to corporations and the rich, while undermining the 1965 Voting Rights Act; and Republican politicians in states like Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin have made it less likely that poor people and certain minorities will vote, all the while claiming they are only interested in fighting a phenomenon, voter fraud, which they know is extremely rare.

The good news is that the resurgent Democratic Party is dedicated to making voting easier and more representative. In addition, there are efforts underway in a number of states to eliminate gerrymandering of congressional districts and to make the undemocratic Electoral College irrelevant. Others are calling for the citizens of Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia to be given full voting rights. Changes will come eventually, since the majority still has some power. Meanwhile, if you want to understand our current politics, read Democracy in Chains