by Massimo Pigliucci
That the GOP base is obsessed with its own peculiar definition of “family values” is also well known. They — allegedly — care a lot about the right of fertilized eggs, as well as the “sanctity” of family and marriage. But, peculiarly, other obviously relevant issues often don’t blip on their moral radar, for instance war, access to health care, or poverty.
Whence, then, Newt Gingrich? The former Speaker of the House is currently the frontrunner in the Republican group of Presidential hopefuls and — bearing in mind the caveat that predictions in politics are usually as good as those of psychics — appears to have a very good shot at facing Obama in the general elections, but it’s not clear why.
The Newt question has been asked recently in the New York Times by Frank Bruni: “How does an ostentatious know-it-all fare so well in a party supposedly hostile to intellectuals and intellectualism?” How indeed. Well, I have a theory.
First, let us refresh our memories with a sliver of the ample record on Newt’s deeds and misdeeds. The guy, you will recall, led the Republican charge to impeach then President Clinton for lying about an affair with a much younger intern — at the same time that Newt was having his own affair with a much younger intern (though, to his credit, he later made her his third wife, which in turn reminds us of the ugly episode of Newt serving divorce papers to his first wife while she was in the hospital with cancer. Compassionate conservatism!).
Gingrich also thought, at some point, that global warming is real, though he has conveniently flip-flopped on the issue recently. He also supported a provision in the Obama stimulus package that promoted the use of electronic health care records, since apparently big government is good when it comes to benefiting clients for which he was consulting, like Allscripts and Microsoft. Newt was also positively fuming at the big government bailout of Freddie Mac, one of the two giant federally-sponsored mortgage companies — conveniently neglecting to note that he made $1.6 million to $1.8 million as a “historian consultant” of big Freddie.
I could go on, but I think I have established that Newt is not: a) anti-science (unless it’s convenient for him); b) a particularly family-value oriented guy; c) an enemy of big government (at least when it comes to him making profit from bloated bureaucracy). So why is he the current darling of the anti-science, get the government out of my Medicare, family values above all, base of the GOP? Because that base isn’t really about any of those things. It is a hate group that relishes a confrontational son of a bitch who can stick it to whoever they delude themselves is the anti-Christ of the moment.
This isn’t cheap demonizing of one’s opponent at all costs. There used to be a time when I would have gladly had a conversation with Republican politicians, or with a Republican friend (I still have some of the latter). We would have disagreed on many issues, but there would have been a sense that we were talking to each other, and that political compromise was possible on a number of issues (as indeed has been the case on and off throughout the history of the American Congress — just think of the fact that Nixon and Reagan would look like liberals by the standards of today’s right wingers).
But these days the Republican base (and therefore the politicians they elect) is simply not interested in dialog or compromise. They are not even particularly interested in their own self-avowed values. They just want to kick Obama (or any Democrat, for that matter, but particularly the Black-ish Barack Hussein Obama) out of the White House. That’s the beginning and the end of their political wishes. Consequently, they simply want a confrontation, they want to punch the other guy in the stomach, at least metaphorically (well, many of them do show up armed at politically rallies, so who knows). They even relish their own candidates engaging in an unusually high number of unusually bloody debates, because they enjoy the spectacle of kicking an opponent — any opponent — in the teeth.
That is also why Faux News is so popular, and why its abrasive, ultra-partisan approach has rubbed off on other networks and has turned political analyses into shouting matches. Fox isn’t just partisan, it has no sense of coherence whatsoever, as demonstrated over and over by Jon Stewart, whose comedy for a while has often consisted simply of showing a clip of someone saying something on Fox, immediately followed by another clip of the same person arguing exactly the opposite — the only thing in common between the two occasions being that the commentator in question was attacking the Democrats for either X or ~X, depending on the specifics of the moment.
Some are now anticipating with gusto the stark contrast that we might see during the general campaign, when a notoriously introspective and calm Obama might face off with an abrasive and aggressive Gingrich. It will make for good spectacle, but it is really a sorry commentary on just how low the self-professed best democracy in the world has sunk.
There are ways out of this situation, of course, but none of them is a quick fix, or particularly likely to happen. To begin with, we could have some meaningful election financing law passed, so that our politicians aren’t going to be picked from the ranks of millionaires (the entire US Senate and many Representatives) or beholden to billionaires and their corporations. Or perhaps cultural and demographic shifts may finally relegate the moral majority to permanent immoral minority status, as evidenced from nationwide trends on issues ranging from the death penalty to gay rights — all moving in a progressive direction. Or maybe we could finally have a viable third party whose candidates can get on the ballot in all 50 states. Someone is trying for the 2012 cycle, though frankly the idea of a “moderate” party that strikes a middle way between completely crazy (the current GOP) and sold out to Wall Street (the current Dems) isn’t exactly one to get excited about. But hey baby, small steps first...