I consider myself a center-left individual. Interestingly, I considered myself a center-right individual for many years. However, as the right moved further from the center, my self-identification had to move with it. As a center-left, white male over 40 in ruby-red Alabama I guess I am somewhat of an anomaly. I have always been a fan of self-examination, and this series is an attempt to decipher what factors, internal and external, make me believe and vote so differently from so many of my contemporaries.
Part III: Questioning Everything
The early 2000s, for myself and every American, are defined by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. So much changed in American domestic and international politics in those few hours it is still being calculated, and in many ways still in a transformative process. There is so much there, it is difficult to remember that the United States had a legitimate constitutional crisis less than one year earlier.
Having been elected in a contested, and a still debated, election in 2000 ultimately decided by a Supreme Court decision, George W. Bush ran a presidential campaign based around broadening the Republican Party. He conducted massive outreach programs to African-American and Hispanic Americans with something he called “compassionate conservatism”. The philosophy, in a nutshell, was based around using Republican-favored tools such as corporate tax breaks or the easing of regulation to encourage investment in poverty-stricken areas, while also investing heavily in education. In truth, it was a fairly impressive move for the GOP to recognize that, even in a good economy, pockets of poverty devalue all of us. The Pat Buchanan/culture war types were pretty unhappy about this because it represented a further acceptance of the deterioration of the white majority rule. I honestly believe that George W. Bush had sincere intentions in the building of this “compassionate conservatism” campaign. However, that was not to be.
From my own perspective, like most people, I agreed with the decision to invade Afghanistan for aiding and harboring Osama Bin Laden. Also, like most people, I was hesitant about the Iraqi invasion, which seemed more like an exercise in region-building and settling unfinished business from the 1990s. Ultimately, Bush’s focus on military operations allowed the domestic policy to fall into mismanagement. Karl Rove and the GOP machine focused on a wartime campaign in 2004, while banking regulation, irresponsible tax-cutting, and runaway spending, were destroying the United States economy from within.
As the wars, and the resulting debates, raged on a storm was building in the financial sector. Years of irresponsible banking deregulation, along with shaky fiscal policy and exploding debt, led to an economic crash in the spring and fall of 2008 the likes of which had not been seen since 1929. John McCain, a good and honorable man, was forced in the 2008 election to reach out to the culture-warrior types if he was going to have any chance at winning the 2008 election. I believe that when historians write of that period, it will be McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin that marked the beginning of the GOP’s takeover by extreme elements and ultimately led to the alliance between hard-right conservatives and alt-right conspiracy groups. Her combination of a lack of concern for truth, and the high-volume screaming of ridiculous diatribes about government embedded conspiracies – all designed of course to support the American left-wing – was a direct forerunner of Bachman, Jordan, Gaetz, Meadows, etc. It was stunning and sad to watch John McCain try to remain dignified when so much of what little support he had was of the very insanity that he had spent a career arguing against.
At the end of the day, what happened was historic and uplifting. America elected its first black president on a platform of actually improving people’s lives through health care initiatives and the reinstitution of responsible capitalism through regulation.
As a former Republican-turned-independent, it was a sea-change moment for me. It was obvious to anyone studying issues that he was the right man for the job. It was obvious that the policies of the GOP in the 2000s had squandered a five trillion-dollar budget surplus and healthy economy built under President Clinton. Additionally, in a time when people were genuinely afraid of the future, Barack Obama brought a sense of peace and hope through his words and actions. He represented a belief that we could fix the seemingly insurmountable problems in the American economic system and create a more just and equitable society in the process.
Furthermore, the Republican Party (and their lapdogs on Fox News’ evening lineup) had taken to descriptions of the incoming President as the worst kind of extremist. They accused him of lying about his birth certificate, of lying about his religion, of lying about anything that literally came out of his mouth. It was at this point that Sean Hannity, who has never met a fact…much less let it influence his opinion…began to embrace the full-on, half-cocked, insanity of the Palin, Bachmann, extremism that was boiling under the surface in the wake of Barack Obama’s election. Suddenly it was no longer about policy, but about a “war on America”, or “America in crisis”, or those wacky left-wing groups trying to ban hamburgers and hot dogs, or whatever other nonsense the Fox News evening lineup could create.
It had become painfully obvious that the foundations of what I had grown up in politics believing were built on shifting sand. Religious conservatives began to demonstrate and spread the kind of angry, hateful, vengeful, borderline violent rhetoric that used to be reserved for cult leaders. Republican leaders like McCain, who fought against spreading extremism, were relegated to the backbench while those willing to spew literally any untruth in the interest of winning saw their profiles bolstered by Fox News and fringe right-wing media elements like Breitbart. Furthermore, and most disturbing, the obvious racial overtones in the vitriol against President Obama could not be ignored. People who I had not known to harbor racist feelings were suddenly sharing (and supporting) some truly shocking views.
It would have been an embarrassing capsule of time for the Republican Party and conservatives in general, had it not gotten worse.