Class Politics

When I was in college, I dated a young woman who used to express horror that if we stayed together we might actually have labor leaders for breakfast. She was expressing a class prejudice. Republicans could comfort themselves that they were the party of the captains of industry, the respectable business leaders, the country’s high society. Democrats, as people like my date saw them were low class, people who worked with their hands and were paid by the hour or the piece. It didn’t matter to people like her that Democrats had always also counted among their number many of America’s great writers and intellectuals. Indeed Republicans have attacked Democrats for just that connection.

The national Republican Party over the last several decades took steps that have been a severe embarrassment to just that class of Republican. By focusing on the “social issue” and distaste of gays, blacks, immigrants, and those who speak another tongue, they horrified what we in New York called Rockefeller Republicans, fiscal conservatives but tolerant and welcoming toward all of God’s children. As the Bush Administration took on what has been called “muscular patriotism” it steered the Party toward a careless and simplistic treatment of serious issues with enduring consequences. No longer a satellite of the national Republican Party, some of Wall Street’s best are working with the Democratic Party and many on the street have joined those ranks.

Now the rowdy groups that have been shouting down speakers and crowding out the locals at town hall meetings have allied the Republicans to a form of muscular politics reminiscent of the disreputable days of the big city machines.

And polls have revealed that more than half of Republicans have bought into conspiracy theories and patent nonsense like the claim that Barack Obama was not born in America. There is even the fringe group that denies the citizenship rights of anyone whose citizenship has been recognized as the result of the Fourteenth Amendment which declares that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” They would rather go back to a time when blacks could not vote.

All of this is profoundly embarrassing for a party which traded on its respectability. The Party has gone to bed with its own extremists. And that’s not where the more respectable elements of the Party want it to go. It’s also not a recipe for success. The leadership of the New York Republicans understand that their chances to advance in 2010 depend on presenting voters with candidates who are not extremists.

The penetration of crackpot claims is partly a result of the splintering of American media. Many of us now watch or listen to sources which don’t present conflicting opinions and don’t reach people with differing views.

That is a challenge to democracy itself. Compromise has become a term of criticism rather than an expression of democratic citizenship. Political opponents are cast as disloyal, un-American, foreigners masquerading as Americans, selling America out to foreign agents, or against our troops. That kind of rhetoric is profoundly dangerous to a democracy. And language like that has led to the failure of democracy in other parts of the globe.

So we need a rebirth of the Republican Party, a party that sees its role, as it once did, in a two-party system in which political opponents could nevertheless be embraced as loyal fellow Americans, and in which all Americans of all races and origins were entitled to respect and concern, a party that scorns crackpot claims and respects those who are judicious and careful in what they say. That kind of Party could help to unite America and it could also help to lead America. It would also have a much better chance of success.

– This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 29, 2009.

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