Democratic Underground

Ask Auntie Pinko

April 14, 2005
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie Pinko,

There's lots of evidence out there that since the Reagan days the Republican agenda has been to deliberately run up huge deficits so that there will be no money left over for social programs. The Republican agenda also favors huge tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans with crumbs or nothing for the rest of us.

My question is this: what kind of society do the Republicans envision if they get their way? Are they seeking a return to the Middle Ages with some sort of modern-day equivalent of serfs and vassals serving a hugely wealthy few on bended knee? This is a serious question, by the way!

Bennington, VT

Dear Stephen,

Auntie doesn't doubt your sincerity! Similar questions have occurred to me on occasion, usually under the stress of anger or sorrow about some new legislative assault on non-wealthy Americans. It's very easy to wonder if everyone who supports the current Republican agenda honestly believes that they, themselves, will be on the "winner" end of this equation, and not on the much, much larger "loser" end.

It's possible that a small number of Republicans who are already firmly embedded in America's economic elite do, indeed, see such a vision as desirable. After all, we know that there are illegal sweatshops operating underground in many of America's large cities; and there have been many instances of factory farms exploiting undocumented workers severely enough to make medieval villeinage look like a luxury lifestyle. Anyone so blinded by greed that they can rationalize such actions would probably be comfortable with a neo-feudal economy.

However, that doesn't account for the millions of Republicans who consider themselves "middle class," and who support the Republican agenda for a variety of other reasons. I don't think that they seriously envision neo-feudalism as the end product of their agenda. If you examine the cultural and ideological visions that reflect their values, something else appears. From my perspective, the "ideal America" they describe looks like the result of a cross between Little House on the Prairie and Horatio Alger, with a touch of Donna Reed thrown in.

Self-reliance and moral clarity are key to this vision, and neither of these values is inherently evil or undesirable. The narrative of someone who struggles to overcome unfavorable circumstances to achieve success has always been an essential part of the American ideal. Respect for that which is respect-worthy is a source of strength for communities, families, and individuals alike. The brave and noble pioneer who is always willing to lend a hand at a neighbor's barn-raising, but who conscientiously ensures that their family's needs are met and they are never dependent upon others is one of the most appealing characters in the American gallery of mythic archetypes.

The Republican Party appeals to these values in advancing their agenda. After all, who can quarrel with Pa Ingalls? Who doesn't love a rags-to-riches success story?

The problem Democrats have with this vision is threefold:

1. First, many legislative and regulatory initiatives are advanced by the Republican leadership in the furtherance of this vision, yet their actual effects not only do not yield this utopian result, but actually damage the well-being of American families;

2. Second, the vision is overly simplistic, and unrealistic. The clock cannot be turned back to a time when everyone shared a common understanding of moral correctitude (even had such a time really existed in American history). The economy is too complex, too vulnerable to uncontrollable factors for laissez-faire capitalism to assure a level playing field. And,

3. Finally, even if the vision were achievable, it is deeply flawed. Incomplete, at best, na´ve definitely, and possibly even destructive. It ignores the reality of what life was really like during the Little House on the Prairie and Horatio Alger eras. Large segments of the economy were dependent on a vicious and exploitive racism, the genocide of indigenous peoples, and a robber-baron mercantilism that rendered life nasty, cruel, brutish and short for vast numbers of people. The moral clarity that looks so attractive was based on a rigid conformity that would require near-totalitarian repression to achieve today.

Yet the vision remains unbelievably potent. Ideal simplicity is always easier to embrace than the messy chaos of reality. No one wants to accept the limitations and sacrifices imposed by guaranteeing equity, especially when we disagree with, dislike, or despise those who are different from ourselves.

I am not saying that all Republicans consciously embrace this vision in cheerful ignorance. There are as many factors that determine a person's support for the Republican Party and its agenda as there are for supporters of the Democratic Party/agenda. And the liberal vision, too, has its flaws and unrealistic aspects. But when I look at how each Party chooses to communicate, something becomes clear: Republicans are very, very good at communicating their message; Democrats have more trouble doing so. We frequently get lost in a mass of complexities and details. Republicans rely on simple messages - images, slogans, sound bites, talking points.

Generalization and simplification have their uses; they are not always a bad thing. Indeed, it would be impossible for Auntie Pinko to confine my columns to readable length without some use of these tools! Nevertheless, I'm fully aware of how distorting and deceptive they can be. Over-reliance on generalizations and simplification not only distorts the truth, it can be a form of lying. Such communication relieves the listener of the responsibility of thinking critically, of absorbing and analyzing information, seeking out additional information, and making fully matured judgments.

A very wise friend of Auntie Pinko's has a saying that I think should become part of the Democratic Party's arsenal in responding to the communications of the Republican Party: "Any time it looks like a no-brainer, it's a brainer."

Feel free to pass that one on, Stephen, and thanks for asking Auntie Pinko!

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