“President Obama once said he wants everyone in America to go to college,” presidential hopeful Rick Santorum said at a Tea Party rally in Troy, Mich. “What a snob!” The former Pennsylvania senator was enthusiastically applauded.
The populist rhetoric of conservative America has reached a stunning level of vitriol in recent years. Glenn Beck has mercifully drifted into irrelevancy. But others—Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Ann Coulter—continue to comment on the hideous state of modern America.
What they preach is at times hateful, at times hysterical. Occasionally, a gem of sense, owed to an extreme disregard for political correctness, shines through. The rest is often ludicrous.
Progressivism has been likened to Nazism. Intellectualism has been derided as destructive and useless. A college education has been minimized to the point of representing a handicap to one’s credibility.
There is rage in their words, there is frustration, there is anxiety and there is fear. Threats loom at every turn: The United States is sliding toward a socialist welfare state; the Muslims are trying to infiltrate our union with Sharia Law; the Democratic Party is finagling its way into dictatorship through the nefarious machinations of Barack Hussein “Bin Ladin” Obama.
And, of course, there are the liberal “indoctrination mills,” our colleges and universities, that seek only to undermine our values, corrupt our youth and destroy our faith in God.
Ridiculous as the claims may be, this phenomenon deserves a closer look. Why are these pundits, who dwell so crazily in the extreme, so appealing to so many? Is there reason to their rhyme?
The Republican Party, first of all, is a broad ideological group. There are neoconservatives, who champion an assertive foreign policy. There are libertarians, who laud the free-market economy while rejecting all involvement in social issues. And, lastly, the social conservatives/evangelicals, who involve themselves in nothing but.
These three divisions have defined the composition of the Republican Party since the start of the Cold War. It is the third with which we are now concerned.
Social conservatism is something of an enigma in modern American politics. It is an ideology that fashions itself a defender of the working man and an upholder of the values that have been successful in the past. It is traditionalist by nature, skeptical of progress, ever cautious, never complacent.
It tends toward religious fundamentalism, which can mean everything from church on Sundays to extremism. It has little interest in academic nuance or abstract posturing. A little hands-on experience will always come out on top over something as bland and scattered as scholastic theory.
Such is the constitution of individuals like Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Sarah Palin. These are the populist conservatives.
Or better, every big-name Republican to grab the national spotlight in the last four years.
While these folks have never effectively won over independents (don’t spit out your coffee), they continue to shake the foundations of the GOP. Even socially liberal or indifferent Republicans can concede to the fact that, while a bit loony, the populist conservatives can at least get out the vote.
They may polarize, but they also galvanize. There is strength there. In the mean time, the more moderate segments of the GOP have been forced to rethink themselves in order to accommodate this up-swelling in social conservatism. This is bad for both the GOP and everyone else.
This is the new millennium GOP. Never mind the commitment to individual freedom. Disregard fiscal responsibility and austerity abroad. Few are interested in the virtues of capitalism and free enterprise, even if America could use a reminder that such a system works just fine most of the time.
Instead, we have the evils of gay marriage. We have staunch rejection of evolution, climate change and the mere suggestion that America is in any way responsible for the hostility that it receives. What America needs is to embrace its Christian heritage and repopulate its moral wasteland with fundamental Christian values.
And never, never forget that fundamental Sharia law is one of the greatest threats to our freedom.
Then there’s the issue of contraception. I doubt I’m the only one puzzled by the bizarre folly of a handful of men debating the personal rights of women. Apart from that, I have nothing further to add to that debate.
To understand these sentiments, one must look at the situation from a populist conservative perspective. It is a perspective best characterized by distrust and denial.
“There is an impatience with evidence that permeates populist conservatism,” said Portland State Professor David Horowitz, who specializes in American social history and has written several books on the subject.
Evolution is a theory. Climate change is a lie. In his short presidential career, Obama has managed to dabble in socialism, ultra-liberal authoritarianism and radical Islam. Impressive. Though, like the rest, preposterous.
But why villainize higher education? Why the opposition to intellectualism?
“There is some context for this distrust of intellectual and political elites,” Horowitz said. “It’s not, as some historians have said, anti-intellectualism per se. A lot of times, intellectual and political elites have served their own interests. The so-called political and intellectual elites are not blameless.
“A lot of times the academic or intellectual elites are self-serving or self-referencing—invoking a kind of political correctness that really is teaching middle-level managers to have nice manners.”
We as a species rely on what we know when faced with the unknown. In the wake of daunting challenges, we revert to the methods that helped us to succeed in the past.
The Republicans face a daunting challenge. They face a popular centrist president and an American society transforming itself further and further out of their favor. They face a record of dismal performance for the last decade. They show little sign of improvement, to observers both within and without.
Hence, the politics of the late ’70s and ’80s return to us. Vulnerable and frustrated, the GOP has resorted to the old culture war rhetoric that propelled Reagan to power, hoping that the tactics of that era might prove successful yet again.
This is not Ronald Reagan’s America. And Mitt Romney is no Ronald Reagan.
America has changed monumentally since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In order to remain relevant, the Republican Party will have to change, too. Trying a little harder to avoid alienating every voting constituency in America would be a nice start.
The question is: Can they do it?
Predictions can be lethal for one whose words are a matter of public record. Still, I think it’s safe to say that Obama will win the next election. In fact, I think he will win rather handily.
Sad thing is, I’m a Republican.