On October 28th ten GOP candidate hopefuls attended a debate that was ostensibly about economic policy, but quickly devolved to bitter infighting and whining about supposed liberal bias in the media. In the United States today, this is what passes for democracy. The primary concern is with a candidate’s personality, history and ability to zing their opponents on live television. Meanwhile, all the debate bluster distracts voters from the ideological positions that they ought be basing decisions on.
This is happening because Republicans ideology on economic issues doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. Their ideology is like the proverbial man behind the curtain and these vitriolic debates, full of booming authoritative pronouncements and fire-breathing, are here to distract us from looking at him. This is their way of desperately shouting “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” I think the best way to respond to the Republican debates is to defy this order, to look away from the distractions and instead peer through the threadbare curtain concealing the fundamentals of Republican ideology.
The Republican fundamentals in regards to economic policy can be explained in terms of two basic core values: profit motive and fiscal conservatism. The idea behind the profit motive is that people will work harder and do a better job if their work is rewarded. The idea behind fiscal conservatism is that you shouldn’t spend money that you don’t have on things you don’t need. Both of these values sound like common sense, they appeal to obvious universal truths, and they win the support of many voters. The trouble is, they also contradict each other. The profit motive is an excuse for spending money, and fiscal conservatism is a justification for taking it away.
This actually works nicely for the Republicans. Of course a political party is going to frame their core values in widely attractive language that gives them the leeway to justify or excuse policies as needed. That’s how politics works. All politicians understand values differently than the rest of us. For us, values are principles we live by, they demand consistency and inform every one of our decisions. Politicians understand values as tools, weapons in their rhetorical arsenal, which they select and use only as needed.
The GOP platform on education reform for example, states that “[q]uality education is essential to achieving the American Dream.” Combine that goal with the profit motive—the idea that people will do a better job if you pay them more—and you have a compelling argument for increasing teacher salaries. My mother taught elementary school in Wisconsin for decades, and she never saw this happen. Instead, the ascent of Republican ideologues is what dismantled her union, decimating her colleagues’ salaries and benefits, and forcing her into early retirement with a reduced pension, all in the name of fiscal conservatism.
Why doesn’t the profit motive apply to teachers? Why did my mom get fiscal conservatism while the millionaires from the Milwaukee Bucks got a new tax-payer funded arena? To answer these questions, we need to understand that values-as-tools do not actually tell us anything themselves. Clarity comes not from the words of the Republican platform, but from observing which of these tools is applied to what situation. That which Republicans actually value is talked about in terms of the profit motive, while that which they disdain gets fiscal conservatism. The values of the Republican Party are thus exposed: they hate public education.
Of course, they can’t openly admit this, because no one is going to vote for someone who comes out and says they hate smart kids. None of their working class constituents would vote for a platform openly denying working class children educational opportunities, so instead the GOP platform continues: “The Republican Party believes that every child should have an equal opportunity to get a great education—regardless of their zip code or their parents’ income. We support school choice programs that allow students to escape failing schools that raise the standard of education excellence through competition.”
Here is where the core value of profit motive comes back, but with a different target. “Excellence through competition” refers to giving tax payer money to for-profit schools which will compete with the public schools, along a metric of standardized testing. Fiscal conservatism goes back in the toolbox, because Republicans have no problem spending tax-payer money, so long as it’s funneled through billionaire corporations.
You spend money on things that you value. It’s time to look past the rhetorical tool box and accept this simple fact. The Republicans spend more on the military because they value global dominance more than education or health-care or the other basic needs of their constituents. They put whatever money they spend on education through a school choice scheme because they value funneling taxpayer money to their corporate friends more than educating the next generation of Americans. That is their ideology.
Better informed people than I have exposed the damage done by these policies. My mom suggests people read Diane Ravitch or the policy positions of Save Our Schools. These teachers in Seattle also stand out. She shares NPR interviews with me and the rhetoric is always the same and to be honest, I’m not surprised that they’re losing.
The trouble with these criticisms is that they explain Republican education policies as failures. They point out that charter schools and standardized testing fail to educate, erode public education, and leave children behind. They have a wealth of experience, data and information backing their positions up. Unfortunately, conservative voters aren’t paying attention, they’re distracted by the flame-spitting head, jabbering about competition and fiscal responsibility.
We need to stop using words like “failure” and “ill-fated” when describing the Republican party’s line. Those words assume Republicans intend to offer working class families access to the American dream through education, that their hearts are in the right place, and it just doesn’t ever quite work out as they planned. These words allow voters to believe right wing policies might work, if only everyone got on board.
When the Democrats holler back about the people left behind, they sound like whiners. They feed into the populist, racially coded anti-entitlement clap-trap that Republicans use to whip up their base. The open secret about Republican ideology is that the man behind the curtain is a raging, bile-spitting white supremacist. Everyone knows it, but we allow him to code his language through talk of entitlement, reverse discrimination, and “playing the race card.”
This is part of the strategy. The Republicans benefit when the “failures” of education, health-care and welfare policies are felt most acutely and most visibly by the most marginalized populations, the urban poor and people of color. When liberals complain about these people being neglected and left behind, working class whites hear their words through the Republican framework, which insists first that the victims are undeserving and second, that the ideals of public education, healthcare or a social safety net are feel-good dreams of liberal elites. Conservative voters hate elitism, they hate people telling them how to feel for folks who are different from them. They’d rather stick with their down-home republican conservatism.
If the Republicans’ opponents shifted their rhetoric, they could cut through this racially-coded bluster, this constant refrain about liberal elitism, and get to the heart of the matter. They could help Americans understand that Republican-led policy initiatives have not failed. They have worked very well at achieving Republican goals. School choice and standardized testing are not failed attempts to improve education in the US, they are successful projects of destroying public education and jeopardizing all working people’s future. Of course, the Republicans want to channel tax-payer money through the siphon of private corporations. Everyone knows that. What we don’t talk about is how Republicans want to maintain a glut of desperate uneducated poor people who are willing to work for less, but who’ll continue voting to the right.
That is the Republican vision of the future. It is clear and consistent, and every single one of their policy platforms helps to pursue it. The Republican solution to every social problem is that working class people should work more, for less pay. This is not just a knee jerk reaction to entitlement, but a vision of the future in which well-connected oligarchs amass greater fortunes by further exploiting a mass of increasingly disposable working class people. There is no accident, no negligence or failure involved here. Working people suffer most when Republicans succeed.
America needs a rhetoric that recognizes the project Republicans are pursuing and calls the Republicans – and especially the Tea Party hardliners – what they really are: the most elitist political movement in America.
Unfortunately, the American left is too polite for this. For all their mud-slinging and attack ads, the Democrats don’t distance themselves from this fundamental ideological position of the Right. They only engage with rhetorical tools, rather than spending priorities, because they are not different enough. They are paid off by the same corporations. They are part of the same consensus that capitalism is the only option for American political economy. When it comes down to who should suffer for whose gain, the Democrats side with the elites and against the working class no less than their Republican counterparts. They just put a different spin on it, a different set of distractions.
Bernie Sanders comes to mind as an alternative, someone who is at least pushing the rhetoric, but really, he’s not a Democrat. He’s a socialist riding a wave of street protests that attacks capitalism at its root. Sanders only has a dog in this fight because people have been calling out White supremacy and the myriad atrocities of the American police state on the internet and in the streets in impolite and direct terms for the last few years.
Sanders is outsider, and like all of the outsiders in this election cycle, his surprising turn-outs and approval ratings indicate that the rhetorical consensus of the Right and Left is losing credibility. If Bernie Sanders is the little dog pulling the curtain off Republican ideology, Donald Trump is the coat-tail of a racist millionaire hanging out for all to see.
Both tell us the same thing: the illusion is fading, the flashing lights and booming voice of the election system isn’t working on us anymore. People are looking outside of the pro-capitalist, corporate controlled messaging of both parties for some sense of ideological truth.
Ben Turk is a dedicated prison abolitionist and the co-founder of the anarchist theatre troupe Insurgent Theatre (insurgenttheatre.org). His prisoner support work focuses on the survivors of the Lucasville Uprising (LucasvilleAmnesty.org).