Can American democracy survive the madness?

obama girl lincolnBy Alan Bean

Last Tuesday night, David Dewhurst called for Barack Obama’s impeachment.  Like most politicians on the right, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas sees Obamacare as a kind of socialist overreach, but the “high crime” topping his syllabus of errors is the president’s handling of the Benghazi affair.  Contacted by reporters, Dewhurst elaborated on his outrage:

I’m very concerned about Benghazi, in which all of the national news reporting indicated that live video was streaming into the White House.  That means that there was an overhead platform, probably a drone in the area. At least that’s what it tells me.  And for not mobilizing some response to protect the ambassador and those three Americans is just outrageous to me. Just outrageous.”

It probably wouldn’t interest the Lieutenant Governor to learn that the “live feed theory” was debunked months ago.  Calling for Obama’s impeachment has become an article of faith in southern state politics.  When you’ve got Tea Party candidates running for your job you can’t afford to be out-outraged.  If it takes false facts to gin up the required level of vitriol, Dewhurst will pay the price.

Every so often, American politicians start talking crazy and the American experiment appear to be going off the rails.  We are in one of those periods.

Barry Craig has compared the current mass-hatred for Barack Obama to the South’s animus toward Abraham Lincoln.

Before the voters went to the polls on November 6, 1860, Southern politicians and newspaper editors warned that the slave states would secede if Lincoln won. (Eleven of 15 did; Kentucky, my home state, and Lincoln’s, did not.)

Today, many, if not most, House Republicans, and more than a few GOP senators, hate Obama to the point that they are willing to push the country into default and risk wrecking the economy over the Affordable Care Act, his most important legislative accomplishment. A lot of those Republicans are white Southerners.

Southern Democrats saw Lincoln and the GOP as a dire threat to their “civilization,” which rested on white supremacy and slavery. They were certain that slavery was doomed when Lincoln and the Republicans took charge in Washington.

Likewise, Republicans see Obama as imperiling their version of “civilization,” meaning a country run by conservative, straight, white male Christians who think capitalism is God’s economic system.

The Southern Democrats tried to delegitimize Lincoln’s election because he carried only the northern free states. Lincoln’s name wasn’t even on the ballot in 10 of the future 11 Confederate states, not that he could have carried any of them anyway.

But Lincoln won fair and square in 1860 and again in 1864.

Today, many Republicans – notably those who tilt toward the tea party – don’t really accept Obama’s presidency as legitimate. “Birthers” still claim he wasn’t born in the U.S. He was, of course, and, like Lincoln, won two terms fair and square.

In the end, the Southern Democrats led their region out of the Union and formed what South Carolina, the first state to secede, lauded as “a Confederacy of Slaveholding States.”

Lincoln was so unpopular in the South, Craig notes, that his name wasn’t even on the ballot in ten states.  I didn’t know that, did you?

But if we’re going to confine our discussion to David Dewhurst’s Texas, the closest analog to the present is Dallas 1963.  It wasn’t just Dallas, of course, the John Birch society was just as powerful in Amarillo and scores of other Lone Star communities.  But hatred for John Kennedy was particularly nasty in Dallas because it was fueled by the toxic sermons of W.A. Criswell and the money of oil magnate H.L. Hunt.  When Lyndon Johnson agreed to share the head of the Democratic ticket with Kennedy, he was denounced as a traitor to the Texas way.

H.L. Hunt

In 1960, H.L. Hunt released a bizarre Utopian novel that sketched out the contours of John Birch Nirvana. According to Scott Parks of the Dallas Morning News:

Hunt the novelist revealed that Hunt the oil baron had little use for the ideal

The book, a thinly veiled political manifesto, told the story of Juan Achala, a citizen of “Alpaca” who traveled the world in search of the perfect constitution for his small nation.of political equality.

In his perfect world, the wealthiest citizens — those paying the most taxes — would be given extra votes.

Political discussion would be prohibited on television and radio, and at any meeting of more than 200 people. This was to prevent demagogues from influencing the masses.

The speech restrictions were odd, given that Hunt spent the previous decade using TV and radio to push his political views through Facts Forum, a propaganda outlet masquerading as a “public service” program. Hunt was baldly pro-business and anti-regulation. He despised communism, the United Nations and John F. Kennedy.

As Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, was pursing the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960, Hunt secretly financed the printing of 200,000 copies of an anti-Catholic sermon by the Rev. W.A. Criswell, the influential pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas. Criswell argued that if a Catholic became president, the pope would dictate American policy.

This Dallas-based blend of sick religion and big business idolatry is reincarnate in the Tea Party movement.  The Republican Party may have been reduced to a 26% approval rating, but their wholesale assault on government has captured the imagination of white America,  particularly in the South.

Oddly, conservative southern Republicans are effective because the demographic winds are against them.  Another of David Dewhurst’s beefs is that the president hasn’t taken care of border security.  The fact that the deportation rate has soared since 2008 isn’t important because Tea Party people have no interest in facts that deflate their baloon.  More Americans are entering Mexico than vice versa, but that doesn’t matter either.  Dewhurst just wanted to signal to the crowd that he was as committed to white hegemony as his Tea Party opponents.

Southern conservatives are doubling down on Tea Party orthodoxy, even if that means writing off the Latino vote.  If you have to offend and alienate every non-white voter in America to hold onto your position, men like Dewhurst are prepared to do it.  And they do it so very well.

David Dewhurst

At the national level, the consequences of this bigot-coddling behavior could be disastrous for the GOP; but at the regional, state and local levels, the strategy could keep southern white conservatives in power for at least another decade.  In political terms, that’s an eternity.  So what if we can’t win the presidency; we’ve in with the only folks that matter.  The Tea Party may have only a 25% approval rating nationally; but in North Texas, where Dewhurst committed his rhetorical outrage, they control the primary process.  Last night, a woman from Grapevine, Texas, told me she wouldn’t dare put out a yard sign for the president for fear someone would key her car.  I believed her.

Can America democracy survive a crew of craven politicians who pander to fear and hatred?  Like the men who scorned Abraham Lincoln in the 19th century, Barack Obama’s opponents question the legitimacy of the sitting president.   The Union survived the madness of the 1860s, though perhaps at too high a price.  And the nation survived the Dallas-driven paranoia of the early 1960s, or so it seemed.

Will we survive the madness of this present moment?  Probably.  But our survival is not inevitable.  Unless weak men like John Boehner can place principle before politics (a lot to ask, I realize), America will become as ungovernable as it was when Abraham Lincoln captured the White House in 1860.

2 thoughts on “Can American democracy survive the madness?

  1. Recent political turmoil and government shut down calls to mind the comment by Winston Churchill that The United States always does the right thing after trying everything else first. The title of this column asks if American Democracy Survive This Madness. That is a good question. With media and the publlic focused on the sound and fury of the most visible conflict of the moment, in my opinion, a more dangerous trend continues, namely, more and more power being abdicated by Congress to the executive branch with presidents exercising arbitrary powers. A case in point is President Obama altering provisions of the Affordable Care Act, legislation passed by Congress and signed into law, doing so without legislative process. There are other such actions. The Constitution assigns enforcement of law to the Executive branch. The President has chosen not to enforce laws, such as those governing immigration, for example. It did not start with this President, Others, incluiding George W Bush have taken similar action. Meanwhile, Congress supinely acquieses in the process.

    Historian Edward Gibbon describes how Roman Senators, more interested in enjoyment of position and luixury, piece by piece, handed over power to Augustus Caesar until he was absolute sovereign. Rulle by Emperor was born and ended about 400 years later by invasion of Barbarians from Northern Europe when Rome was sacked without serious opposition. I am haunted by the proposition that those who do not study history are bound to repeat it.

  2. “If it takes lies to gin up the required level of vitriol, Dewhurst will pay the price.”

    Fixed that for ya! (And lying — at least in Texas Rethuglican politics — seems to be a feature rather than a bug.)

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