It’s a trite observation, but bears repeating—what the GOP debate reveals more than anything else is that the American Right, despite all their protestations to the contrary, is enthralled by the language and posturing of identity politics.
The candidates on the stage, as well as their cheerleaders both inside and outside Quicken Loans Arena, betrayed little concern for the real-life effects of the policies they were selling or buying. The platforms in question, after all, have been debunked time and again, even by the most trusted intellectual venues on the right. Go to Forbes to see why scare talk of an “out of control” national debt makes zero sense; why teacher unions and high performing schools go hand-in-hand; why Medicaid expansion is wise and necessary. Go to the Wall Street Journal to learn why increasing the minimum wage, even as high as $15, is preferable in some of our wealthiest cities and states. Go to Koch-backed Reason, of all places, to understand the hypocrisy and idiocy of Scott Walker’s “Right to Work” laws; the market-oriented merits of Obamacare; the case for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) or workplace democracy. Stay at Reason to discover why endless war (particularly our latest drone war), a Stasi surveillance state, racial policing, racial disenfranchisement, and mass incarceration are all antithetical to any “small government” philosophy worth a damn. Go back to Forbes to discover much of the same thing. Go to the influential Catholic conservative journal, First Things, to be greeted with pieces extolling the virtues of Pope Francis, especially his indictment of capitalist excess. Go to Fortune to be confronted by a harrowing indictment of the very right-neoliberal agenda the Republicans are still shoving down on our throats, the very agenda responsible for so much of our contemporary woes.
But again, all of this presumes right-wing voters care enough about the most decisive policy debates of our time to even examine such materials. Alas, they do not. I’ve been reminded of this fact regularly on Facebook, where such inconvenient brain dumps have been answered with nothing more or less than the blank stare, the absurd non-sequitur, or the nasty ad hominem retort. No, serious policy debate is not what the contemporary American right is about. Rather, and as is often (but not always) the case, it is a reactionary movement. And it is a reactionary movement undergirded by identity politics. It speaks on behalf of those who are angry that they can no longer talk about (and treat) black people, women, Mexicans, and Muslims in the same way our ancestors once talked about (and treated) the Irish, the Italians, the Catholics, the Japanese or the Chinese, and the Jews. It speaks on behalf of those who are angry that their love for guns might have to be modestly curtailed by the majority will of a people not interested in living in a 21st-century Wild West. It speaks on behalf of a people who are angry their hallow, Hollywood-inspired, and violence-obsessed notions of manhood and manliness are no longer (if they ever were) worshiped by a large portion of the population. Finally, it speaks on behalf of those understandably resentful of an urban, culturally liberal elite that has won the majority spoils of the nation’s wealth, and all the allegedly elitist trappings that come with them…particularly their respect for the scientific method, rigorous scholarship, and book-learning of any substantive kind.
This is all tragic. And poisonous. And sad. And I look forward to the day when the right salvages its capacity to speak to each other and the rest of us like intelligent, informed adults. I look forward to the day when the common tongue of the right is no longer the stuff of identity-based gesticulations. But until that day arrives, the rest of us do a disservice to both ourselves and our opponents by pretending, in impeccably centrist fashion, that the other “side” is just as concerned with a grownup approach to policy as we are. They are not. Deep down inside they know this. And they don’t give a fuck.