The Republican National Convention created a strange impression, painting a peculiar picture of the US economy and its citizens’ woes. Not only the present was distorted, but history, too. I listened carefully to what the speakers and party-sponsored commercials praised, and compared it to the nation and the realities I knew. There was a huge gap between the two.
America is at a cross-roads for many reasons, among them the fact that several enormous historical advantages we’ve enjoyed are waning. The nation that once enjoyed an immense over-supply of land and relative scarcity of labor has matured into a nation where resources are becoming more precious and the population is more and more exposed to underemployment and fierce competition. Global change is reinforcing the trend. Yet rather than acknowledge or adjust to the change, Republicans have decided to dismiss it and argue that a flawed president is to blame. Only bad people stand between us and the restoration of the nation’s former glory.
No credit was allowed to the great federal structure that allowed us to flourish in the first place, nor to the amazing natural inheritance that sustains the US—superior natural resources that should be husbanded rather than squandered or spoiled.
The vast historic role of the state in nation-building went unacknowledged—was belittled, even. Rand Paul jeered at the idea that infrastructure investment creates prosperity, insisting the opposite was somehow the case. Try telling that to the great 19th-century railway magnates, who depended entirely on land grants and laws enacted by Congress to create their lines. Or to the era’s land-speculators, who knew that towns would grow mainly where railroads were placed. Or to the first telegraph companies, whose networks piggybacked on the railroad rights-of-way that federal legislation had so thoughtfully made. Without the federal government, states would have built useless networks of dead-end roads.
Even America’s private enterprises might have remained small had it not been for the protection that early Supreme Court decisions gave them. Without such protection, all corporate entities would have been stymied, including those that built the nation’s first roads, bridges, and schools.
The Republicans committed other disturbing elisions. I listened to the praise for families; I admired the attractiveness of Jenna Ryan and Ann Romney; their picture-perfect children were impressive, too. The world of the 2012 Republicans is a world of stay-at-home mothers who don’t need to worry about limiting their family size or figuring out how to feed an additional mouth. It’s a world where there’s plenty of time for charity, because the fortunate people in it somehow have plenty to spare. And that’s good, because in this Republican world, government help is bad. All we want, Paul Ryan tells us, is to be left alone.
Absent was any acknowledgment of the demographic trends of the last several decades, which have seen the rise of delayed child-bearing, increased family limitation and planning, and the rise of two-career couples working outside the home. The party celebrated its female members—but these women apparently never needed a student loan, never needed protection from workplace bias, never needed family planning or contraception while single. One must suppose this, because the Republicans have been active in opposing, attacking, and weakening the structure of support that has enabled more American women to gain education, control reproduction, contribute more to the family economy, and earn decent livings.
Without such support, how are young women supposed to take care of themselves and their families? Implicit in the worldview paraded at the convention is that marriage in itself provides wives and mothers with adequate financial protection. Yet the number of women living the dream that the beautiful Republican spouses embody is painfully few.
The Republican convention’s treatment of race was perhaps most astonishing. The party sought to promote itself as a “brand” friendly to minorities, despite the fact that it has been working hard in states such as Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to raise voting requirements, restrict early voting, and redraw districts in a way that make it harder for minorities to vote or gain representation.
I was agog at efforts to depict President Obama as a lazy, do-nothing character who did not understand struggle, success, or hard work. It was a “dog-whistle” portrayal of a super-high-achieving guy that played off of deeply engrained racial stereotypes. The topper came when Clint Eastwood re-imagined the president as someone who was anti-social and vulgar, enacting a racist fantasy (perhaps unwittingly) at the close of his imaginary dialogue with the president by encouraging the crowd to chant “Make My Day.” We all know what happens to low-lifes who dare to mess with Dirty Harry.
It was a shameful spectacle spelling a new nadir for the G. O. P.
The Map of Federal Benefits, Our Polity.