It has been a fascinating experience to watch the GOP self-destruct over the last decade. What was once the party of Lincoln has now devolved into the party of fundamentalist ideologues in search of more and more wealth and power. We can situate the origins of this self-destruction to the presidency of Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) and his signature philosophy of trickle-down economics, which has been proven time and again to be, not just ineffective, but destructive to the overall economy and well being of the state of the union. What trickle-down economics has successfully contributed to is the widening gap between the rich and the poor, creating a spectacularly small population of ultra-rich individuals seeking to immortalize themselves in castles of solid gold located in tax havens.
The recent Republican debates have shown us just how tragic and out of touch with the general population the party has become. It has been suggested that not even Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of contemporary Conservatives, could win his party’s nomination, much less the general election, today. Reagan has receded into the background, only to be brought out on special occasions like heirloom China. The current atmosphere surrounding the GOP is one of hate, negativity, and finger pointing. At least Reagan’s message (“Morning in America”) was uplifting. Today’s candidates spread doom and gloom. Take the commercials currently being run by Chris Christie, the gist of which claims that the only way to a world-wide peace is to strike fear into the hearts of other nations by building up an already swollen military to supra-gargantuan proportions. For the Republicans, fear sells. Fear is also at the heart of the party’s political strategy and its ideology. “I have things,” the Republicans seem to be saying, “and I’ll be damned if I let them (it’s never quite clear who “they” are, but most likely it is illegal immigrants and the poor) take those things away!” Of course, the “things” people of a certain income have are as vast and wondrous as riches of Aladdin. What’s troubling is that the middle class seems to think that if it works hard enough it too can have more things. In the GOP mindset it’s every man for himself and this carries a particular resonance with the middle class, that group of hopeless romantics.
The GOP is the party of the particular, which worships at the altar of the individual. What is missing from the rhetoric and the actions of the Republicans is an interest in the common good, in the community writ large. Individualism in the United States will always be at odds with community because self-interest is the American value. Any notion of “the people” is adulterated by a mythology of stern American independence. Let’s take social security as an example. Social Security works in that the younger, working generation pays into the system to care for the older, non-working generation. Social Security does not work like an investment program. In other words, the money you pay into the program is not stored away for you at some later date. When one retires one is entitled (a concept Conservatives despise, by the way) to a monthly monetary number that a new generation is now subsidizing. There are a lot of things wrong with the current system concerning Social Security today, and the chief among them are an aging population that is living longer and the skyrocketing costs of American health care. However, Social Security should be viewed as a social contract between generations, one where the agreement is to care for the aging population. This logic, it seems to me, epitomizes what is best about humanity: our desire and need to care for one another.
The Conservatives are not interested in the welfare of the general population. I would argue that they are not even interested in the overall wellbeing of the nation. Instead, they have focused on the particular, on increasing individual wealth and prosperity at the cost of communities and the greater good. Welfare has become a target for Conservatives, but they have forgotten the meaning of the word: well fare—the overall health of the nation. Promoting individualism, the particular over the general will only increase the already high degree of economic and social instability plaguing our nation today. What is needed is a return to community values, where people are willing to sacrifice for the health of their communities. It’s high time that the Conservatives re-think the meaning of wealth and the individual’s place among the people.