Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Right's Worst Fear
No, it isn't that Barack Obama will prove to be a madrassa-attending Manchurian Candidate, or that Hillary Clinton (or John McCain) will discard their putative disguises of moderation and theoligarchical conservatism, respectively, once in office. It's that government, now partly under Democratic control after last November's elections, might actually do something constructive that improves the lives of everyday Americans.

It's pretty much a given by now that the right is largely defined by what, and who, they hate. And with the Conservative Political Action Conference this weekend, the movement types are getting their hate on in a big way. But while anti-tax fanatic Grover Norquist isn't quite as viscerally offensive as the Dartmouth crypto-Nazi crowd, he's far more dangerous. He was at CPAC too, and his message was a simple one: don't let anything happen over the next two years.

This is vitally important. Norquist's movement has been premised on a two-word concept: Goverment Sucks. It's worthless; it does nothing well, and accordingly shouldn’t be allowed to do anything. The New Deal, in his eyes, was a blow from which it took the country more than 50 years to recover--because it was, at bottom, an affirmation of the idea that government could add value to people’s lives, and it did. Whenever government succeeds, when it functions the way the Founders and their best successors imagined it should--as the democratic expression of popular will, designed to increase overall utility in the country through consensus-based action--this dismal view loses credibility.

With the Republicans in total control for the last four years, Norquist's vision of Hobbesian corporatism--a world of unfettered companies and unlimited profits, with all negative externalities borne by the poor saps who can't afford to buy a voice--seemed almost at hand. Obviously, neither the administration nor the bought-and-paid-for DeLay/Frist majorities were about to do anything to expand economic opportunity, redress the inequities of various tilted markets (like health care or housing), or really strengthen families or communities by seriously investing in schools, infrastructure, wealth-building tools, or social insurance. Indeed, Norquist's top priority during this time was the dismantling of Social Security--the biggest New Deal legacy, and the most successful social insurance program ever. Advancement of the You're On Your Own Society--accelerating the erosion of collective institutions--was the goal. They fell short, of course, in part because the idea was so obviously a bad one and in part because, for once, the Democrats beat them on the political blocking and tackling.

Then something unexpected happened: Norquist's goal of helpless, inept government manifested in more explicit form than ever before, in the horribly botched response to Hurricane Katrina. Then there was the Iraq war, prosecuted with equal ineptitude, and the unprecedented convergence of record corporate profits and stagnating real wages. The Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Mexico and the gulf between the wealthy and connected and everyone else all pushed people to wonder if competence maybe didn't have some value after all.

Everybody agrees that the Democrats didn't so much win last year as the Republicans lost. The "Six for '06" agenda didn't hurt, but it didn't change many minds either. Where it has potential to do so is going forward. If the Democrats can expand access to affordable health care (or even get Medicare Part D--a weird Republican initiative that did expand government, but in the most bloated, inefficient and private profits-maximizing manner possible--to work better), if they can make it easier to pay for college, or make progress toward energy independence, Grover's got a big problem. The Right must make "Government Sucks" a self-fulfilling prophesy. The rest of us must not let them.

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