One of the hallmarks of the campaigns being run by candidates in the midterm elections is the utter refusal of the Republican candidates to put forward a governing agenda, or any specific policies or legislation they support. Now you could certainly say, and it would not be inaccurate, that in the real world, none of their larger goals, from reducing the tax burden on the wealthy to eliminating regulation of business and industry to more aggressive wars is in any way popular with the vast majority of the electorate, but it also raises a larger question.
The most fervent, vocal supporters of the most extreme right-wing candidates of this election cycle has been a movement that calls itself the tea parties. One of their overarching themes, perhaps the one definitive theme that shapes all their other views and beliefs (at least if we take them at their word that their worldview is not driven primarily by racial and sectarian fear and hatred) is their dislike, distrust and fear of government. Since Reagan, the conservative movement has sought to take political power because, they say, government is too powerful, too expensive and too deeply involved in the everyday lives of the people.
It is odd, then, that at the very same time they demand so much of government. They want government to control the reproductive health of every woman in the country. They want government to actively manage relationships, love, sex and marriage. They want government to work harder to control who comes to America, what they do here, and to see that many are incarcerated and deported. Strangely, they feel that occupational safety, food safety and integrity and the health care of America’s citizens are areas where the government has no positive role to play. And if you ask them who might rebuild America’s tattered infrastructure or do the goundwork that will transition the US to a less oil-dependent future, the best they can offer is “the market”, even thought there is to this point no indication that the market has any interest in issue beyond next quarter’s profits.
But in terms of the elections, at least, there’s a much greater paradox even than this. These vocal activists, who demand less government, lower taxes and less spending, indeed the very dismantlement of larges swaths of the existing bureaucracy from the Department of Education and Energy to the FDA are, without exception, supporting candidates who simply refuse to say what they’ll do if elected. I don’t know about you, but if the basis for my political ideology was distrust for the government, a candidate who didn’t tell me clearly what he or she intended to do, specifically and with the price tag in plain view would not have earned the right to expect my vote. The fact that they say they’re for lower taxes and smaller government would be somewhat less than reassuring to anyone who has seen the way the Republicans have governed in the past.
While the more mainstream of the Republican candidates go on cable news and offer largely unchallenged platitudes, generalities and outright falsehoods, the more extreme Republican candidates, perhaps chastened by the Rand Paul post-victory debacle, simply refuse to answer questions or speak to news outlets they are uncertain aren’t significantly favorable, even partisan in their own ideology. For someone already suspicious and disenchanted with the people and the processes of public policy-making, how this can be acceptable in a candidate, how that candidate might be trusted after all the rhetoric about the disingenuousness and outright criminality of government is beyond comprehension.
As we have seen again and again, from Reagan to Clinton to Bush to Obama, ideology in a vacuum is meaningless, and the more important questions are specific ones about governing philosophy and specific agendas. Every time I turn on my TV I see Meg Whitman, telling me what an incompetent lying louse Jerry Brown is. Well, ok, but even if I’m convinced, what is Meg willing to tell me about herself? Her commercials assure us that Meg “has a plan”. Have you ever tried to find out what, exactly, that plan is? Good luck. On jobs, the plan is four targeted tax cuts and one tax credit to increase agricultural investment. You know, of the five, I might even agree with two, but nobody seems willing to mention that the Governor does not have the power to enact taxation legislation and the legislature has been hopelessly deadlocked on tax issues for over a decade. Her plan doesn’t mention how she plans to overcome this problem.
If the tea partiers were sincere, they would demand that candidates give them specific information about how they intend to meet the demands of this constituency. In spending issues, particularly with a dogmatic across-the-board refusal to consider any tax increases as part of a revenue/spending package, they should insist that their candidates not only tell them what they’d cut, but how they plan on implementing those cuts. And if that constituency is demanding smaller government, they should be unwilling to support a candidate who refuses to tell them what parts of government he or she would target for elimination.
Alas, they are not sincere. It is clear what they are, just as it is clear what they are not. They are a fearful, hateful, shrinking portion of the American demographic, increasingly geographically isolated and only one more generation from irrelevance. They are lying to us, to each other, and most egregiously of all, to themselves. They don’t care about the things they say they want. They just want to feel safe and powerful again, unthreatened in their supremacy, safe in their social constructs and free to live their lives of public piety, demanding others conform to their outdated social model and bizarre cultural norms.