The Republican prison experiment: How the right-wing conquest of the GOP altered political reality

How a stodgy, mainstream party was reinvented as a den of lunatics and monsters -- and why it was no accident


Andrew O'Hehir
July 18, 2015 8:00PM (UTC)

Every so often I conceive the bizarre desire to help save the Republican Party from itself. This is futile even by the standards of futile campaigns launched by columnists, given the obvious fact that Republicans do not want my help and have good reason to mistrust my motives, and that if anyone in the GOP leadership actually read my advice, they would immediately do the opposite.

It isn’t that I feel some fervent nostalgia for the good old days of moderate Republicanism, although it’s true that the Nixon-era GOP was only microscopically to the right of today’s Democratic Party on most major policy questions – and decidedly to its left on healthcare and social spending. (Which United States president actually proposed a nationwide, single-payer healthcare system? Well, I’ve already given you the answer.) Go back to Dwight Eisenhower, who presided over a more progressive and redistributive tax code than anything seen before or since, and sent federal troops to desegregate the schools in Little Rock, and in relative terms it looks like Lenin and Trotsky trying to out-radical each other. (The top marginal tax rate on the wealthiest Americans in 1960 was 91 percent. Just try to convince your Fox News uncle of that one.)

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All of that is amazing and incomprehensible today, as is the fact that the first African-American elected to the U.S. Senate was a Republican (Edward Brooke, in 1966), and so was the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress (Margaret Chase Smith, elected to the House in 1940 and the Senate in 1948). But the real point lies a little deeper. It isn’t so much that the old Republicans were awesome, but at least they existed in the real world and practiced real politics. They had vigorous internal debates about numerous issues and represented a broad coalition of interests, holding to a reasonably coherent ideology of limited government, social order and support for business.

Those words are still used, of course; they are closely identified with the Republican brand. But thanks to the Matrix-like magic of our altered political reality, they do not mean what they used to mean. “Business” refers only to the infinitesimal ruling caste of multinational capital. “Limited government” means a limitless, borderless police state with low internal taxes and little or no social safety net. “Social order” means the stealth revocation of citizenship rights, first for blacks and women, to be sure, but ultimately for everyone else too.

There is no silver lining to the fact that one of our nation's two political parties has disappeared into a self-concocted ideological fog of delusion and denial that has cut it off from political reality, American history, basic economic facts, international law and even its own past. The evil zombie sock-puppet condition of the GOP is the most gruesome single symptom of our failing democracy, and one that has inflicted immense harm not just on our country but the entire world. It didn’t happen by accident.

I would contend that the Republican Party has been the subject, willing or otherwise, of a version of the Stanford prison experiment, conducted on a grand scale. I wrote about that famous 1971 simulation, now the subject of a new feature film, earlier this week: A group of normal, middle-class California college students eagerly embraced roles as sadistic guards and abused prisoners, submitting almost immediately to the social order of an entirely fictional institution they knew had no real power. Properly understood, the Stanford experiment is not about prisons or schools or other overtly coercive social institutions, although it certainly applies to them. It is about the power of ideology and the power of power, about the fact that if you change people’s perception of reality, you have gone most of the way to changing reality itself.

The Republican Party did not organically evolve into a xenophobic, all-white party of hate that seeks to roll back not just the Civil Rights movement and feminism, but the entire Enlightenment. It did not accidentally become untethered from reality and float off to the moons of Pluto. Those possibilities were already present, but they had to be activated. Partly as a result of its own ideological weakness and internal divisions, the GOP was taken over from within and from above: In the first instance, by a dedicated core of right-wing activists, and in the second by the ultra-rich, super-PAC oligarchy epitomized by the Koch brothers. The two forces sometimes worked separately, but ultimately the first was funded and sponsored by the second.

One key element of this ideological conquest was that the party’s understanding of itself and its place in American politics and American history was reshaped to conform to a fictional narrative that is now widely believed to be true. Ultimately the Republican prison experiment has replicated itself on an even larger scale, remaking not just the GOP but American political reality.

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Among other things, the GOP’s flight to Crazytown has permitted leaders of the Democratic Party to crawl ever more cozily into the pockets of Wall Street bankers and to become ever more intertwined with the national security state -- while still proclaiming themselves, in all innocence and with considerable plausibility, to be less noxious than the alternative. So we see millions of well-meaning people getting ginned up to vote for Hillary Clinton, despite the nagging sensation that the political universe in which she represents the best available option is a cruel hoax. Pay attention to that feeling! It’s the reality we have discarded, banging on the door.

It’s true that the re-engineered Republican Party, with its counterfactual and frequently contradictory worldview, appeals most strongly to a shrinking minority of Americans, most of them white and male and rural or Southern. But despite that, or in some sense because of that, it has been an enormous success. Not only has the zombie GOP driven the Democrats much further to the right that at any point in their history, it has paralyzed the legislative process, driven electoral participation to historic lows and turned the deep American current of political apathy and mistrust into a majority sentiment. Whether or not the Republican prison experiment was consciously intended to produce a period of oligarchic rule in which political parties and elections become increasingly irrelevant and increasingly ignored, that has definitely been the outcome.

Some participants in Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 experiment began to believe, after just a few days, that they were real prisoners in a real prison, and that the outside world no longer existed or mattered. At any rate, they began to behave as if that were true, which in functional terms is much the same thing. Zimbardo himself became so engrossed in his fictional role as the prison warden that he lost all perspective on the morality and ethics of his experiment. Is it any wonder that after 30 to 40 years of sustained psychological warfare, most Americans who consider themselves conservatives believe that the current Republican Party represents undying, bedrock American principles that have never changed and never will? Freedom isn’t free, chump. These colors don’t run.

Any discussion of what those bedrock Republican and American values might be, beyond jingoistic clichés about freedom, is to be avoided at all costs. That might pierce the veil of unreality and reveal things that have been declared to be untrue, including that the Republican Party was not always anti-immigrant, not always opposed to socialized healthcare, not always committed to a fundamentalist reading of the Second Amendment and, for the love of Christ, not always obsessed with abortion.

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Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak had to remind me about that one, in her discussion of the recent right-wing attack video purporting to show a Planned Parenthood employee discussing the sale of fetal body parts for nefarious purposes. Planned Parenthood is constantly and unanimously vilified by today’s Republicans as a Satan-worshiping, baby-killing feminist cult. But in 1970 it was granted federal funding by none other than the guest star of today's show, President Richard Nixon. Furthermore, here's what Nixon said at the time: “No American woman should be denied access to family-planning assistance because of her economic condition.”

I know: Mind blown. Read that quote to any of the 97 current Republican candidates for president and watch their heads explode. That Communistic rhetoric coming from the lips of Tricky Dick strikes me as noteworthy in several ways. Many leftists of my gender, it must be said, have a hard time focusing on how far the political climate around reproductive rights has eroded in the last 40 years. There were prominent pro-choice Republicans as recently as the mid-1990s, but the party’s official ideology on abortion has been reshaped by an activist minority just as the party itself was, through the use of emotionally charged symbols and images and the banishment of such wussified abstractions as facts, logic, history and context. Did Ronald Reagan need that kind of crap when he personally tore down the Berlin Wall, shot Hitler and freed the grateful slaves? He did not.

Lastly, there’s the most unlikely part of Nixon’s startling pronouncement: Its direct reference to economic inequalities and the need to address them. No Republican would say any such thing today, of course, and even for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, the commitment to equality comes surrounded by an ideological hedge: Healthcare for women, sure, but we’ll have to find a way for the market to provide it. I do not delude myself that Nixon cared about poor women or their health, but in the political climate of the time he was obliged to say he did. That political climate was exactly what had to be changed, from the point of view of the overlords who designed the Republican prison experiment, because it posed a long-term threat to their economic and political supremacy.

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Social wedge issues like abortion and guns and immigration have been important elements in consolidating a more extreme Republican ideology and in firing up its core supporters. (Gay marriage worked that way for a while but has now been pitched overboard, except by poor, sad, sincere Rick Santorum.) But the powers behind the Republicans’ terrifying metamorphosis either don’t much care about those things or are being actively duplicitous, as with the immigration issue. They’re OK with pouring endless billions in wasteful deficit spending into the empty theater of border security (hey, at least it’s not going to poor people!), but they have no intention of cutting off the flow of low-wage labor, which benefits Big Capital in any number of ways.

Does anyone suppose that the Koch brothers, a pair of globetrotting culture-vultures whose names are carved in marble on the front of every New York fine-arts institution, give a single solitary fuck about all those Megachurch Dad-Pants Yahoo Apoplexy issues at the supposed heart of the supposed Republican ideology? Unless and until it impacts the bottom line, that stuff is just the icing on the delicious cake the Kochs are baking, a rich and eggy batter of soft corporate fascism inside a candy shell of imitation democracy. Can you smell it? It’s in the oven right now.

Progressives often view the zombified 21st century GOP with an understandable mixture of apprehension and bewilderment: How the hell did this happen? Can it really be working? The answers to those questions are that it was the result of a brilliant long-term strategy to alter the dynamics of American politics – to change perception, and then to change reality -- and that it’s working much better than most people perceive. As Phil Zimbardo can tell you, when you’re inside the experiment it’s hard to see how much it has shifted your perspective.

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Furthermore, those who comfort themselves with statistics about the dying Republican voter base, or political-science bromides about “the emerging Democratic majority” (which we have been promised for at least 20 years) are whistling past the graveyard. No doubt the Koch brothers will do their damnedest to get their boy-toy Scott Walker elected president, and I’m sure their dislike of Hillary Clinton is sincere. But they are shrewd enough to understand that it might not work, and also that the real prize is much bigger than one candidate or one party. They have redrawn the playing field of American politics and rewritten the rules of the game so effectively that even when they lose, they win. To put it another way, what good are the Democrats without democracy?


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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