Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > The Myth That Makes the GOP Suicidal

Oct 9, 2013

The Myth That Makes the GOP Suicidal

tags: Republicans,Tea Party,liberals,conservatives,myth

"These voters think they are losing the country,” and they are very scared. That's how prominent pollster Stan Greenberg summed up his recent intensive study of Republicans.  Nothing new there. Many others have said just the same thing.

What is new is that the GOP is no longer interested in fighting to regain control of the country through the political system. They'd rather bring the whole system down, even if their party has to go down with it.

Tea Party stalwart John Culberson, the Congressman from Texas, made that clear right after the GOP House caucus voted to shut down the government unless the Obamacare program was put on hold. Culberson recalls that he "said, like 9/11, ‘let’s roll!’”  

So supporters of Obamacare are like hijackers trying to crash a plane into the heart of America? And right-wing Republicans are like the passengers of flight 93, who chose to crash and die heroically rather than let the hijackers have their way? Let no one say that the American political scene is devoid of symbolism. Of course we already knew the Tea Party had a real knack for symbolism when they chose their name.

But Culberson occasionally lapses into prosaic and surprisingly honest language, revealing what's at the heart of the GOP's suicidal impulse. Just two days later he told an interviewer: "We need to get the federal government the heck out of healthcare. ... It’s a violation of our most sacred right as Americans to be left alone."

When the interviewer asked how that squared with Culberson's support for Medicare, the legislator replied: "That’s not even relevant to the conversation."

OK, so we don't get logical reasoning here. But we do get powerful symbolism and a crystal clear explanation of the symbolism: Since right-wingers can no longer control the country, they want to be left alone, isolated from and thus unaffected by the country. They believe it's their right.

Obamacare is the most recent symbolic message that the rest of the country won't leave them alone. So the right-wingers have decided that their only option is to commit political suicide and bring down the whole political (and perhaps financial) world with them. It's a crusade to defend every American's "most sacred right."

Which suggests that the Tea Party chose the wrong symbol as its emblem. The original Tea Partiers, who threw all that valuable cargo into Boston Harbor, weren't demanding to be left alone. They wanted to reform the structure of their government, give the colonists equal rights and an equal voice in it, and be part of it, not destroy it.

Extreme right-wing Republicans like Culberson should actually have called themselves the Fence Party. What they really want, symbolically speaking, is a fence -- in fact, as many fences as possible --  to protect them not only from government but from all the disturbing messiness of the world out there that they can't control.

"The Fence Party" could evoke deep echoes of American history. Fences have played an important role in the nation's symbolic life. There's the white picket fence surrounding the home of the American dream; the stone fences that Robert Frost told us make good neighbors; the barbed wire fence surrounding the north 40 in all those cowboy movies; the electrified fence along sizeable stretches of the U.S. - Mexican border; and all the other fences we share as part of our cultural store.

They always have a similar symbolic meaning. It's best expressed in a myth -- a story that, whether true or not, expresses a whole worldview and gives meaning to life for those who believe it. The tale has innumerable variants, but the plot always goes something like this:

"I have worked hard to get a space -- a physical, economic, social, and cultural space -- to call my own. I have a right to be in charge of that space. So I'm determined to keep my space surrounded by a sturdy fence. I alone will control the gate, deciding who gets in and who doesn't. As long as my fence stands strong I can control all of my space. I can keep it secure, in good order, well protected from the chaos that threatens just beyond the fence."

The chaos has taken on different faces from one era to the next. The faces it wears today -- "big government," unwelcome foreigners, sexual freedom -- all have a long, distinguished pedigree in American political myth and symbolism. In every era they have inspired fear, worry, and an impassioned drive to keep symbolic fences strong and well-mended.

As many commentators are beginning to note, though, there was only one time in our past that the fear and passion rose high enough to inspire a suicidal urge to destroy the whole system. Yes, today's far right conjures up, in this respect, echoes of the Old South, which chose to risk its own destruction rather than yield to Washington's dictates.

I wouldn't push the parallel too far. This isn't 1860. But it has been 153 years since we've seen a political movement desperate enough to say "Give me a fence or give me death" and powerful enough to push the entire country to the political brink.

And now, as in early 1860, no one can say just how it will end, because there is apparently equal determination on the other side. It's hard to see where there's room for compromise. In the short run that's because the Democrats got suckered so often in Obama's first term, and now they say they won't get fooled again.

But there's a deeper long-term impasse here. Liberals see the conservatives' symbolic fence as a myth in the conventional sense of the word -- an illusion with no basis in fact. In the modern world, liberals say, we have all become so interdependent, so enmeshed in large (often global) institutions, that the idea of controlling the gate to your own space is perhaps a nice fantasy, but surely nothing more.

For proof, just consider the very air we breathe and the water we drink, the salaries we earn (or don't earn), the health care we get (or don't get); indeed, everything that determines whether our lives are secure and orderly. It all depends on choices made by people (perhaps millions of people) that we will never know or even see, choices that are beyond our control. None of those people can be kept from affecting our lives deeply, no matter how earnestly we work at building symbolic fences. 

It is far more realistic to recognize that we are all parts of a community -- in fact many communities, extending around the world -- and we should all share in taking care of everyone in those communities. That's the essence of the liberal myth. Liberals can't compromise on it because they can't deny the evidence of their eyes, their ears, and their reasoning minds.

This debate has been an important part of American political life, in one form or another, for as long as there has been a United States of America. Today its symbolic platform is Obamacare versus a federal government shutdown and perhaps default. Soon enough, it will be some other policy conflict. But the clashing myths driving the debate are likely to remain the same.

What liberals can and should offer, by way of compromise, is a recognition that political positions depend on much more than evidence and logic. All of us are shaped by the mythic narratives we embrace (or, perhaps more precisely, that embrace us). What we see, how we see it, and how we think about it are all filtered through the lens of the symbolic myths we hold. And every myth enshrines a worldview and values that are the foundations of people's lives. No one likes to see their foundation threatened. That's always a scary feeling.

Liberals should acknowledge that the conservative myth of the fence is more than mere illusion. It's a matter of the heart. It expresses powerful human emotions and longings that are deeply rooted in American history. They're understandable enough and deserve to be respected -- even when the policies that serve as their symbolic vehicles should be resisted. If liberals are as open-minded as they claim, they should be able to take this step toward engaging in some constructive, though surely contentious, dialogue with their political foes.  

It's a crucial step that can open up room for the debate we really need in this country: a genuine, thoughtful debate about the myth and symbol of the fence. It will turn out to be a complicated affair, involving many other myths and symbols that will have to be interpreted with the same care and sensitivity. But no one ever said democracy would be easy. At least we would be following John Culberson's lead and talking honestly about the heart of the matter.   



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