We are numbed by Charleston; by its irrefutable proof of our still virulent racism and violent, gun-crazed culture, by being made to stare once again into the face of evil. Yet when the families of the slain stood up in court to voice forgiveness of Dylann Roof, we were startled and suddenly it was harder to divide us. Our politics is small to begin with; next to such staggering grief, it seems smaller still.
Like everyone on Facebook, Roof told us his life story in pictures. Absent the shots of him sporting the insignia of the Confederacy, apartheid and Nazi Germany, it’s hard to conceive of the Confederate flag being banished from Wal-Mart, let alone the ground of his state Capitol. Some may fly it out of mere nostalgia, but its core messages, now as always, are racism and sedition. It’s the flag of those who loved slavery more than their country; who sent hundreds of thousands to die rather than let one slave go free. A hundred and fifty years after Appomattox it is at last coming down. Long indeed is the arc of the moral universe.
The victory is more than symbolic. Fifty years ago as part of their post-Civil Rights Act national membership drive, Republicans began beaming coded racial messages to white voters. That code just got easier to crack. Fifteen years ago they began to amp up voter suppression under cover of absurdly inflated claims of voter fraud. If challenged on their motives or their facts they hurl furious denials. They can hurl all they want now. Debate has shifted. We’ve seen the pictures.
The slaughter of the Emanuel innocents was the most savage in a line of white-on-black slayings that pricked the nation’s conscience. The list of martyrs is long: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and countless others, known and unknown. Their deaths, though tragic, were not in vain. America is at last sifting through the evidence. A decade ago, most whites rejected every claim of racial disparity in our law enforcement and criminal justice systems. Now sentencing reform and cameras on cops are popular policies amongst all voters. We’ve a long ways to go, but there’s less doubt about where we’re headed.
President Obama has spoken eloquently of the millions of young black men in crisis in America. The chilling saga of Dylann Roof reminds us that millions of young white men are also in crisis. We can’t pretend to know its full nature or all its complex causes. We do know that, like young black men, young white men need better education and better jobs, better mental health services and better parenting. It’s probably time for someone to talk to them and their families as Obama spoke of and to young black men. For sure, it’s time we stop talking to them the way we do.
The right has long charged liberalism with fostering alienation, dependency, isolation and addiction among the poor -- and leading minorities to reject traditional values and to see themselves as victims and whites as culprits. Now consider Dylann Roof: a jobless, stoned, opiate-abusing high school dropout who rejects such traditional values as law, order, hard work, sobriety and tolerance to vent his rage and blames his problems on a racially denominated ‘other.'
The right blames all social pathologies on the left but would howl were anyone to imply that it helped spawn Dylann Roof -- or that its anti-intellectualism led any young man to forgo college or that its economic policies left anyone without the chance for a decent job at decent pay. How does a young man so ensnared rationalize his fate? Roof got many of his theories from the website of the Concerned Citizens Council—“We oppose all efforts to mix the races”—headed by the lovely and vivacious Earl P. Holt III (“Black people are the laziest, stupidest, most criminally inclined race in the history of the world”). He was a donor to at least five current or former GOP presidential candidates. But the problem isn’t confined to the dark demimonde of far right hate groups.
Young white males are dropping out of college, high school and the workforce in droves. In the reddest of states many turn to crime and drugs. They deserve better than a steady diet of racially coded conspiracy theories; better than Rick Santorum calling college a liberal trap or Mike Huckabee calling their centrist black president a “tyrant”; better than being taught each day to despise those who think different thoughts or blame those who don’t look enough like them. The toxicity of right-wing politics seeps steadily into the larger culture. It runs on infantile rage and so must infantilize white men. We must find a way to reach even the ones who seem a danger only to themselves.
Some Republicans must feel shame, or at least sense risk. Late last month was full of historic happenings and at every one Republicans seemed out of sync or ill at ease. On Wednesday the Senate sent Obama the bill authorizing fast track approval for the Trans Pacific Partnership. It was a big win for them and a bigger one for him. Passage pleased both parties’ big donors, who are after all the same people, more or less.
Some say the fight left Obama with wounds to heal but many of the wounded were Democrats in Congress, a group whose health he seldom asks after. Labor was mad but no one recalls the last time a union went off the reservation. Democratic voters tend to dislike trade deals, but if Obama’s happy they’re happy.
GOP voters really hate fast track, so House Republicans didn’t take any victory laps. Passing the bill meant breaking their sacred vow not to let Obama do anything. His continued low standing would help them in 2016. But business wanted the bill and they figured Obama’s last months in office would offer him few chances to gild his resume.
Wouldn’t you know a big one got dropped in his lap the very next day? By a 6-3 vote the Supreme Court again upheld the Affordable Care Act. The TPP was a big win for Obama but this was huge. When the case was filed, few took it seriously. When the Court took it up, opinion shifted. Why would it go to the trouble of yet another review if five justices weren’t at least thinking of voting for the plaintiffs?
The case came down to four words. Under the law the federal government may subsidize consumers buying insurance through exchanges “established by the states.” But only 13 states set up exchanges. The rest use the federal exchange. The IRS ruled that Congress meant to provide subsidies to those purchasing via the federal exchange. The Court ruled that the IRS ruled correctly.
In a rude dissent, Justice Scalia called Justice Roberts' majority opinion “quite absurd… interpretive jiggery-pokery” that undermined the Court’s reputation for “honest jurisprudence.” The right exploded. Among GOP presidential candidates, Mike Huckabee outdid even Scalia, calling Roberts’ ruling, you guessed it, “an act of judicial tyranny.”
Only men as frivolous as Alito, Thomas and Scalia could fail to see it truly was a frivolous case. As loud as Scalia screamed that those four words could mean just one thing, Roberts was right to rule that the act’s 381,113 other words meant just the opposite. Courts give agencies wide berths to interpret statutes but as Roberts took care to emphasize, here it didn’t need to. Congress' intent was clear.
John Boehner vowed another repeal vote—it would be the 57th— but voters want to fix the law, not kill it. Republicans keep promising an alternative plan, but in the narrow confines of their ideology there is none. Obamacare, nee Romneycare, started at the Heritage Foundation. Heritage now denies paternity but when Romneycare was signed into law, its president attended the christening. GOP dead-enders are alone now on health care. In the TPP fight their donors stood at their side, but here the insurers, hospitals and docs are all with Obama.
On Friday the Court dropped the other shoe, voting 5-4 to recognize the right of all same sex couples to marry. The Republican response to Justice Kennedy’s heartfelt opinion was predictable enough. Scott Walker said he’d amend the Constitution. Huckabee called it tyranny. Ted Cruz, sounding increasingly unhinged, preached nullification, if not outright sedition. But Jeb Bush and even Ben Carson said it was time to move on. They knew they were on the wrong side of not just history but demography, a bad place to be with an election coming on.
Watching Friday’s joyous celebration in front of the Court, it was hard to imagine anyone not wanting to join in. For decades Republicans fought same-sex marriage on religious grounds. Watching those revelers I felt as I did hearing the families who forgave Dylann Roof -- glad to bear witness to such a powerful expression of love. I wanted to be there and wondered if any Republicans wished they were, too.
Later that day Obama flew to South Carolina to deliver a eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney of Charleston’s AME church. For six years even some of his staunch supporters had wanted him to address issues of race more forcefully and directly. On Friday he did all they’d asked and more. That he did it in Pinckney’s honor -- and in his church -- made his words more powerful still. Early on, he evoked the history of all black churches,
…‘hush harbors’ where slaves could worship in safety… rest stops for the weary on the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement.
He then called the shootings what they were, “not random, but … a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress.” He cited a policy or two -- gun safety, voting rights -- but mostly he preached about prejudice, duty, grace, forgiveness and love. The camera often cut to Boehner. who couldn’t help looking out of place. Asked once on "Meet the Press" if he believed Obama was a Christian, Boehner replied tartly, “I take him at his word.” Meaning, of course, that he didn’t. Hearing Obama preach the word, I wondered what Boehner had to say now.
It was a historic week, though to pilfer a thought from Justice Kennedy, perhaps in ways we don’t yet see. Kennedy's and Roberts’ opinions will mean more or less depending on who our next president is. The Charleston tragedy changed us all, but in ways that will be hard to measure and impossible to prove. What seems most certain is that our politics is changing, perhaps even in a fundamental way.
Little more than a week ago the press portrayed Obama as reeling from a minor dust-up with House Dems over trade. Today he bestrides the town like a colossus. Politics is a tough game; he may be back on the skids shortly. But what happened to Republicans this week feels more lasting. Less than a year after their triumph in the 2014 midterms they seem suddenly to be in more than just cyclical trouble. There are, I think, three reasons for it.
The first reason is that the culture wars that have raged since the 1960s are at last winding down, at least as we’ve known them. Such historic changes don’t happen overnight, but the week showed America at or near at or near a tipping point. Race ignited these wars. Issues of gender and sexuality fueled them. America is taking a harder look at all who seek to foment or exploit racial anger or fear, even as it continues to be transformed on issues of sexual preference and identity. We don’t need to prove Republican complicity in the culture wars. They deny ever stooping to such tactics. Fine; if so, they’ve nothing to worry about.
The second reason is that religion is—there’s no better word for it—evolving. If the GOP can’t keep pace it will pay a steep price; we all know what evolution does to those who fail to adapt. Its response to Pope Francis’ masterfully composed encyclical on climate change is a case in point. Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, and Jeb Bush, heretofore three of the showiest Catholics in all of Christendom, told His Holiness quite bluntly to mind his own beeswax. It seems they don’t see how a threat to the survival of our species has a moral dimension. They don’t listen to scientists either so one wonders whose advice they do take. (Oh, right.)
It was strangest coming from Bush, whose strict Catholic faith compelled him to hand Terry Schiavo’s body over to Congress for disposition. Since "Catholic" and "Reagan Democrat" are near synonyms, dissing the Pope should come with fallout, but Republicans don’t see it. James Inhofe, the moron who brought a snowball to the Senate to prove global warming’s a hoax--he also chairs the environment committee--went on a Family Research Council radio show to say Francis unwittingly fulfilled a dark biblical prophecy, which would, technically speaking, make him an instrument of Satan. The Holy Father will be here in September. Republicans underestimate how happy we’ll all be to see him; it's another event they’ll wish they could attend in good faith.
The third reason is the absolute dearth of anything remotely resembling a real GOP policy agenda, unless you count corporate tax cuts. It turns out they can’t have one, partly because their base is so crazy and partly because they are. For six years Obama tried to sell them Mitt Romney’s healthcare reform and George Bush’s immigration reform. They couldn’t even meet for coffee. More than once he tried to sell them one of their own fiscal policies, but when word got out Obama was for it, they no longer could be. Their defense hawks’ favorite remedy is more tough talk. What’s their alternative to a nuclear deal with Iran? Best possible answer: do nothing and hope the sanctions regime holds. Likeliest answer: leave it to Bibi.
For a while now we’ve known and they’ve known that time’s running out on the politics of racism and sexism or as they call it, traditional values. What we learned last week is how fast the sand is running through that hour glass. With those cards harder to hide up their sleeve and with no agenda to peddle, Republicans wandered all week from press conference to press conference looking dazed and confused.
The smart ones felt the ground shift beneath their feet. It isn’t just the tyrant Obama staring them down now on healthcare. It’s a 6-3 majority of a Republican Supreme Court, their friends in the medical and insurance industries and a majority of voters. On discrimination they have to beat not just "the radical gay lobby" but another likely Supreme Court majority and an even bigger popular one. For 20 years they ridiculed Al Gore for reading, knowing and caring so much about our environment. They’ll find Pope Francis a tougher target. As for race, at Rev. Pinckney’s service we saw love’s power to heal and unite. If they watched, they saw it too.
Last week made Republicans easier to see through. My favorite Republican is Donald Trump, who can’t open his mouth without giving away the game. Trump used his campaign kickoff to deliver a rant so offensive to Mexicans it forced Univision to cancel its broadcast of his tasteless beauty pageant. To retaliate he banned Univision employees from his golf courses, a move sure to help GOP outreach. Then NBC pulled out of his pageants and kicked him off "Celebrity Apprentice." It’ll be interesting to see how many relationships he can torch before he feels he’s reaped enough publicity to declare victory and get back to the links.
Seeing their limp diversification plans so easily thwarted makes Republicans more desperate to rev up the base. They’re always on the lookout for new ways to divide and conquer and lately they think they’ve found one. It’s called xenophobia. If you want to know more about it you can visit the same websites Dylann Roof frequents or those of any far right European political party. As you may know, all are on the rise. Their métier is immigration but they traffic in every species of nativism.
Republicans paint with a somewhat broader brush but clearly their new culture war focuses on the foreign ‘other’; a mix of ISIS and immigrants, of Putin, China and Iran; of anyone and everyone who is or can be made to look scary. The world’s a scary enough place but they know how to make it feel even more so. That they do it so well is one reason why Obama’s foreign policy grades lag behind all his other grades by eight or more points in polls.
With no viable or salable domestic policies to run on in 2016 Republicans will complement their xenophobic neoconservatism with rehashes of various schemes to cut taxes on the rich and slash spending for the old, the poor and the sick; that and a vicious assault on the Democratic presidential nominee. It’s a strategy anyone can see coming, so defeating it should be no problem, right? Wrong. There are in fact two problems.
One is that Republicans always nominate their least crazy candidate. Every four years Democrats pray they’ll pick a Pat Buchanan or Michelle Bachman, a Ted Cruz or Ben Carson, but they never do. We hope the far right will rise up and win it all but it turns out even Tea Partiers vote tactically. In the end the party always goes with a Dole, a Romney or a McCain. Even George Bush didn’t look like a guy who’d bankrupt the nation or lie his way into a catastrophic war. Granted, in a huge 2016 field only two or three fit the bill of not seeming crazy, but they’ll find a way to thread the needle. Anyway, Democrats have a bigger problem: themselves.
Hillary Clinton runs ahead of her field even as Bernie Sanders puts up impressive numbers; in the size of his crowds; in his small donors--200,000 of whom have already ponied up $8 million—and in state polls. Thus far it isn’t enough to get old liberal lobbies to take a serious look. Everybody’s read a poll that told them, as polls always do, not to rock the boat. The smart money’s been wrong so often it’s a wonder they still call it that, but labor and environmental leaders still think and talk like political consultants.
Democrats’ resistance to open debate is jaw dropping. You’d think they’d have learned from their experience with Obama. When he disappointed them early on, they held their tongues. Looking back, do they still think their silence did him any favors? Most think their mute loyalty to Hillary is helping now, but it isn’t. Her strategy is clear. Like Obama in 2008, she hopes to break big-dollar fundraising records while giving speeches laced with populist metaphors. On national security she’ll run to Obama’s right, where she thinks it safest for the country and herself. She’s a liberal on social issues and for once it may help.
The two issues that matter most to voters are the twin slow motion collapses of our democracy and our middle class. On both Clinton will do as she always does: preach the glories of growth and technology while nodding to political reform. The TPP vote showed us once again that she, Obama and most elite Dems march in lockstep with global capital, which runs on corruption. It’s the wrong strategy for her and us -- but absent a real contest and an open debate, just try moving her off it.
It was an amazing week. America shed bigotry even while mourning its victims. We saw a glimpse of a possible new politics. The country and the Court said loud racism and homophobia are no longer traditional or Christian values. A Republican Party that trafficked in bigotry and looked suddenly cornered. Many of its most easily identified leaders—Scalia, Trump, Cruz, Huckabee, Walker, Santorum, the list goes on—acting like infants, gave the lie to the whole enterprise. Still picking fights with their chosen cast of villains-- terrorists, immigrants, gays, liberals, Obama—they saw the list of their foes suddenly lengthen to include Walmart, Univision, NBC, the Pope, the Supreme Court, the Constitution, the union and the rule of law. It was the future itself and it was circling them like a shark.
Perhaps most unexpectedly, the week brought the coming elections into focus by exposing the choice toward which we drift: between GOP supply side economics and xenophobia and the Democrats’ neoliberal economics, pay to play politics and social liberalism. There’s no question which is the better choice, but neither one will save us. With our environment, our democracy and our middle class all at their tipping points, we need something better. The most amazing thing about this week was that it reminded us of how to get it. The heroes of Emanuel church and the same-sex marriage movement know. So did Frederick Douglass: “If there is no struggle there is no progress.” We can choose progress, but never quietly.