Why? From left to right and all across the middle, the blogosphere is incredulous. “Why do Republicans hate women?” “Why do Republicans hate sex?” “Why do Republicans hate poor, hungry people?” (And a true mystery: “Why do Republicans hate teleprompters?”)
The words “Republican” and “suicide” are appearing with increasing frequency in the same sentences, often as not penned by worried conservatives.
I have been asking myself similar questions. Why are Republicans requiring abortion patients to recite the Lord’s Prayer, submit to compulsory fisting and have their names broadcast hourly on Fox News? Why is the GOP taking a moral stand against two-child families? Why is it defending Rush Limbaugh? Why in God’s name (a fair question, since Republicans do everything in God’s name) is the party opposing the Violence Against Women Act?
“Do batterers vote Republican?” a San Jose Mercury News editorial asked, capturing the general puzzlement.
But, since bloggers do not puzzle for long, as plentiful as the whys have been the wherefores — the reasons for this seemingly suicidal behavior. Among them: backlash, misogyny, homeschooling, Citizens United, primary politics, Hispanic demographics and — because no explanation is complete without a flashing fMRI — “the Republican Brain.”
I was still puzzled.
Then I had a thought: Maybe a President Romney wouldn’t be so bad.
And there was my answer: When the GOP acts severely psychotic, it is softening us up for merely moderate psychosis.
This theory can explain Mitt Romney’s recent apparent wrist slash — a rah-rah-rah for House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan’s budget, which takes bread from the mouths of babes to put caviar on the tables of the rich. “Why would he embrace the politically deadly Ryan plan?” MSNBC’s “The Last Word” host Lawrence O’Donnell asked political analyst Howard Fineman.
Replied Fineman: It’s just primary-season hyperbole, aimed at attracting the rabid base. He’ll adjust when he’s the nominee.
Then, sure enough, Romney’s campaign adviser told the press that in a race against Obama, the candidate would shake off the conservative dust and start anew, “like an Etch a Sketch.”
The idea is this: Romney takes two baby steps back from the brink and looks like a moderate. Does eliminating Medicaid for 14 to 27 million people in the next decade (the Urban Institute’s estimate of the fallout from Ryan’s proposal) sound cruel? Put forth a plan that drops just 10 or 20 million from the rolls. It’s the sort of bracing pragmatism Romney prides himself on.
This diagnosis-downshifting strategy has been under way for decades, and it belies the notion that Washington is gridlocked because of party polarization. Yes, the edges have moved out in both directions; yes, that has paralyzed Washington, say political scientists Keith T. Poole of the University of Georgia, Howard Rosenthal of New York University and Nolan McCarty of Princeton, who study these things.
But the polarization is not symmetrical. “The Republican Party has been steadily moving to the right since the 1970s,” Poole told Politico. “The Republicans have moved about three times the speed to the right as the Democrats have moved to the left.”
By standing way out there, the GOP forces the Dems to move closer. The Dems keep sidling over until everyone is on one side of the aisle.
The Republicans still refuse to budge. Nothing gets done.
They look crazy. But nothing is precisely what they were sent to Washington to do. It’s nonviolent civil disobedience: a Capitol sit-in to shut down not just business as usual but business altogether.
The results of federal inaction have been “dramatic,” Poole writes, “as real minimum wages have fallen, welfare devolved to the states, and tax rates have diminished.” While devolution allows social programs to languish in the states, its sister spirit of secession unleashes zealous legislators to push their laws as close to unconstitutionality as they can.
That’s what’s happened to abortion. According to a new analysis by the Guttmacher Institute, “over the last decade, the abortion policy landscape at the state level has shifted dramatically” — from moderate to hostile. While 19 states were in the middle ground and 13 on the hostile end in 2000, now 26 states — more than half — are hostile to abortion rights and only nine are moderate. That leaves 15 states whose laws protect women’s right to choice. In 2011, state legislators introduced 1100 provisions related to reproductive health and rights. Of these, 135 passed; 92 restricted abortion.
Often those bills are “watered down” at the last minute, as when self-described “pro-life” Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell withdrew his support of compulsory transvaginal ultrasound procedures before abortions. The law he signed leaves in place involuntary abdominal ultrasounds — to ensure patients’ “informed consent.”
Compared with outlawing contraception, a pre-abortion transvaginal sonogram is bearable; compared with a transvaginal sonogram, an abdominal sonogram is a walk in the park. And 24-hour waiting periods, parental notification, antiabortion propaganda masquerading as counseling? No biggies! At least they haven’t overturned Roe v. Wade!
Spats between establishment and “rogue” Republicans notwithstanding, the psychosis-displacement strategy benefits them all. The radical Right gets more and more of what it wants. The rightward-shifting moderates can condemn the radical Right for ideological rigidity and also take advantage of it. Next to the crazies, they look reasonable, middle of the road. And even centrist Democrats appear to be off on the left shoulder — Obama is a “socialist.”
Then, when GOP rhetoric or policy causes bad things to happen to people, middle-ground Republicans can be as appalled as anyone — and as relieved that it wasn’t worse.
So this month in Texas, the legislature voted to withhold Medicaid funds from Planned Parenthood, depriving 130,000 poor women of birth control, breast-cancer screening and other vital care. Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis vigorously fought the bill. Shortly thereafter, Davis’ office was firebombed.
It was terrible. Psychopathic. But, thank goodness, no one was hurt.
“Poli Psy” is a monthly column by Judith Levine. Got a comment on this story? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.