David Frum was once a member in good standing of the Republican establishment — he was the guy who coined the phrase “Axis of Evil” for George W. Bush. Since Obama took office, however, he’s been questioning the wisdom of the GOP’s hard-line oppositionalism and extremism. For his efforts, he’s been booted from his think-tank sinecure at the American Enterprise Institute and scorned by Republican true believers.
Anyway, Frum is uniquely positioned to diagnose the modern right. Today he’s got a sharp review of the new book from long-time scholars of U.S. government Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein: It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. Mann and Ornstein made a bit of a splash in April with an op-ed in the Washington Post, which concluded that “Republicans are the problem.” Mann and Ornstein are no one’s idea of partisan bomb-throwers. They’ve been studying Washington for decades are are widely respected and quoted on both sides of the aisle. But they can’t deny the obvious reality. (Unsurprisingly, the Sunday cable talk shows have shown no interest in this — it would, after all, explode their entire business model.)
Frum’s contribution is to note that recent GOP extremism can be traced not only to the internal dynamics of DC, but to the economy more broadly:
Human beings will typically fight much more ferociously to keep what they possess than to gain something new. And the constituencies that vote Republican happen to possess the most and thus to be exposed to the worst risks of loss.
The Republican voting base includes not only the wealthy with the most to fear from tax increases, but also the elderly and the rural, the two constituencies that benefit the most from federal spending and thus have the most to lose from spending cuts.
Now, I don’t necessarily agree with Frum that we face a future of dreary disappointment and budget cuts. We could, oh, raise taxes for instance! Then we could have nice things again.
But I do agree that the surge in right-wing extremism is an outgrowth of fear, and in particular, the well-grounded fear of a powerful demographic (roughly, middle-aged and older conservative white men) that its time is past. I said as much in this post, and this one.
As I said earlier today, it’s important to understand that this same dynamic extends to energy. Working-class whites — a core conservative demographic — have been battered for years by the exodus of skilled jobs and the stagnation of wages. The one thing they’ve been able to count on is the availability of cheap energy and its fruits. They can drive big cars, live in remote suburbs, and buy copious consumer goods at Walmart. They can “use more and pay less,” in the immortal words of one conservative activist. Cheap energy provided a kind of facsimile of prosperity in the absence of the real thing.
Now progressives want to take that away to. They’re telling us that cheap energy is running out and that we’ll have to shift to a more efficient, less consumption-based economy. That is just one more bit of the American Way of Life that is being yanked out from under conservative constituencies. And they are reacting out of fear, with denial and rage.
Those who think they can lift energy up out of the scrum, free it from culture-war baggage, are deluding themselves. The only way past the culture war is through it.
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