Friday, July 17, 2015

Meet the Death Party

Steven Johnston
is author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics.

Scott Walker’s July 13 announcement that he is running for president brings the number of candidates for the 2016 Republican nomination to fifteen. This is not a sign of party division but an expression of its unity. There are no moderate or reasonable and thus suspect Republicans in the field. The GOP is an extremist party. While Republicans insist that they stand for cherished American ideals of limited government, balanced budgets, individual freedom, energy independence, safe streets, small business, job creation, and states’ rights, they also cherish violence and death. The GOP is a minority party that attacks the conditions of possibility of economic, social, and political life for the majority of American citizens—as a matter of principle. It does not accept the legitimacy of alternative perspectives or parties and will paralyze or shut down government to prevent others from ruling. It thinks that it alone represents the nation and should act on its behalf. It will take actions that effectively cordon, marginalize, silence, subordinate, disempower, immiserate, and kill (sometimes spiritually, sometimes more literally) those it believes oppose or imperil its domain and dominion. The GOP cannot abide having to share a democratic country with others. It’s not that the Democratic Party does not seek to govern on its own terms, but Democratic terms allow for the lives of others to flourish. For the GOP, its terms are the only terms possible or tolerable. Its success is to be measured by its casualties.

When it comes to economics, labor, health care, immigration, education, criminal justice, environmental regulation, voting, and the democratic process itself, the Republican Party is governed by a militarized neoliberal ethos that devours the means of its enactment and threatens to destroy the ends of its ambition. 1) It favors a plethora of violent austerity measures that exacerbate unemployment and reduce or eliminate assistance to those in need, aggravate home foreclosures, worsen hunger and homelessness, all targeting the lower orders and designed to keep them in their impotent, impoverished place. 2) It would dismantle public (and private) unions and roll back the hard-won achievements of generations of workers because they had the audacity to rise above their appointed station and make a better life for themselves and their children. 3) Because it loathes the very idea of a government initiative that might succeed, it works obsessively (and will tell any lie) to deny insurance for basic life-sustaining health care to millions who suffer unnecessary ills and premature death without it. 4) It would uproot and deport millions of hardworking honorable people who come to America seeking a better way of life and tear apart their families because the United States is and can no longer be a mirror of their racial reflection. 5) It starves, kills, and renders unaffordable the greatest public university system the world has ever produced because it is public and also because it teaches students to think critically about the very the country that produced it. It thereby saddles millions of students with inescapable debt thereby subverting their life prospects before they have fully begun. 6) It advocates the routine and gratuitous execution of death row inmates in whatever cruel fashion is available because it must kill them as an expression of its insatiable ressentiment at a world it can’t control. 7) Through its knee-jerk crusades for deregulation and energy extraction, it blithely degrades the earth and poisons the air and water in the name of unbridled capital accumulation and unsustainable consumer appetites, compromising the planet beyond repair and dooming generations to come to unknown hardships and hells. 8) To cement these necrotic ambitions into place, Republicans would deny millions of voters the right to exercise the franchise with bogus claims and hysterical fears of voter fraud that would return many so denied to a condition of democratic racial inferiority. 9) As for elections, Republicans, aided and abetted by an angrily aggressive and activist Roberts Court, would reduce democracy to nothing more than a private check-writing exercise by contending plutocrats who think their arbitrary economic position entitles them to political hegemony.

When it comes to gay marriage, reproductive freedom, religious privilege, and foreign policy, the Republican Party is governed by moralizing reactionary imperatives that require others to conform to its manner of living and codes of conduct regardless of their compatibility with an egalitarian democratic sensibility rooted in mutual dignity and respect. 1) It endeavors to exclude citizens unlike themselves from the enjoyment of life-defining and meaning-giving institutions such as marriage, even vowing to change the Constitution to legitimize discrimination. If you’re like Scott Walker, you’ll wrap this apartheid in professions of love, professions that conceal their anger at the formation of a world that runs counter to your system of values. 2) In its unyielding determination to eliminate abortion and force pregnancy on women, it would deny them access to health clinics for proper medical procedures and care, despite the lethal dangers such denial entails as women are forced to seek other options, where they can exercise fundamental rights to control their bodies and lives. 3) It believes that Christian fundamentalists should be able to indulge any creedal whim they entertain, in any area of life, give it the force of law, and require its intended targets to accept second-class civic treatment and status. 4) It believes the American war on terror across the globe grants it exceptional license to unleash its apocalyptic military power wherever and whenever it pleases regardless of the consequences, whether to regional stability, innocent civilians, or American citizens. Those captured instead of killed on behalf of a new Pax Americana would find themselves rendered to Guantanamo, the inmate population of which should be increased, and possibly subjected to farcical judicial proceedings in kangaroo courts or just left to rot behind bars.

Republican predations involve more than presidential campaign posturing in an election season. In the spring House and Senate Republicans presented budget plans featuring drastic spending cuts coupled with no new taxes in the name of balancing the budget by the middle of the next decade. As Paul Krugman argues, the American right would happily see Greece-style devastation unleashed on the nation they claim to love if it furthers their economic, social, and political goals. They would also, ideally, privatize Medicare as part of their ideologically-driven mission to destroy a successful Federal social program precisely because it is successful. Social Security remains a target of choice for privatization. Hatred of public things is a deadly disease with them, which is also why they refuse to invest in public infrastructure projects and public education. Unless, of course, the spending increases the defense budget, which both enriches American defense contractors and enables America to maintain its imperial will-to-power in a recalcitrant world. And also kill. Republicans seethe at a nuclear arms deal and they very idea of diplomacy with Iran because it takes the military option off the table.

Republican commitment to violence and death expresses itself best not perhaps in austerity measures or its culture wars but in its will-to-kill in the criminal justice system where it enjoys freer rein (though here there is some neoliberal pushback given the absurd costs of capital trials). Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts denounced the Unicameral’s abolition of the death penalty, insisting, against all evidence, that it was a deterrent and necessary for public safety. He seemed to believe that since Nebraska has only 10 people on death row, the legislature had no real reason to act. This supposedly judicious use of the death penalty (it’s only ten lives), a perverse calculation indeed, obviated the need for legislative action of any kind. Despite this clear democratic expression of popular will, Rickets insists that he will kill the ten men who still sit on death row and try to force a referendum on the issue. Ricketts can’t not kill.

Dale Cox, a Louisiana prosecutor in Caddo Parrish, articulates the Republican ethos even better than Ricketts when he argues that “retribution is a valid societal interest.” Society can rejuvenate itself through precision killing. Not content to let this kind of ressentiment speak for itself, Cox does his best to stoke irrational fears, citing an alleged “increase in savagery” in American life that leads logically to, yes, cannibalism (killing and eating babies). Because the death penalty is principally and properly about revenge, the state must “kill more people.” Republicans not only seek to impose their ways of life on others without apology. They also act as if the casualties they leave in their wake are proof positive of the truth of their vision as well as their commitment to it.

Republicans, of course, do not understand themselves as the party of violence and death, but the signs and evidence proliferate. When the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor, Antonin Scalia issued a bitter dissent. It is a remarkable piece of writing—not for its legal acumen but for Scalia’s sense of personal insult. To defend traditional marriage, Scalia complains, is to be deemed an “unhinged member of a wild-eyed lynch mob,” an “enemy of human decency,” and even an “[enemy] of the human race.” Scalia’s complaints amount to an inadvertent projection-cum-confession about how he views his political opponents. Accusing others of hate and of deeming their adversaries “monsters,” Scalia betrays the broader Republican mindset perfectly. In trying to deny, exclude, remove, restrict, impoverish, disappear, and disempower their enemies, they reveal the hatefulness that is at the core of their philosophies. No wonder, then, that compromise in unthinkable and defeat is unbearable. Peaceful coexistence is a condition to be overcome. The very real damage they can inflict on others thus appeals to their constituents. It shows that they are serious and to be taken seriously. The defense of principles, for them, must have consequences—especially for others. They come to life by denying it to them. The melodramatic style in which Republicans advance their causes and pursue their political agendas, positing irreparable world-historical harm to their sacred identities and identifications, to their moral values and their religious freedom, to their Constitution, and their American way of life confirms the dastardly, even monstrous nature of those who won’t let conservatives be and who seek to change the world for their own narcissistic ends. Conservatives must not only protect themselves from the claims (read: assaults) of those who invoke basic rights or equality. In the interim they must find new ways to reverse losses that cannot be allowed to stand. Believing their way of life is in danger; they do not hesitate to place others in like (or worse) danger. The GOP is in a rage. It cannot live any other way. The rest of us, if we’re not determined, will pay a steep price for their deadly ressentiment, as Nietzsche warned.



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