I am not someone who ordinarily compares my fellow human being to insect pests. However, in using this, for me, extreme metaphor, I want to counteract a trend in the media and among the Democrats, of dignifying the extreme Republican right-wing and their ideas with respectful attention and even praise. I realize that there are right wing crazies on Fox News who have used far worse labels with far more abandon; with this insect metaphor I may be inviting comparison with these people for whom I have almost nothing but contempt. I can say in my “defense” that I am stopping short of calling them termites, saying that they are “like” termites; there is hope for them that they could repent of their termite-like ways.
Now to the gist: Why are Rep. Ryan and the majority of the Republican caucus on Capitol Hill (as well as many Republican state lawmakers such as Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin) “like termites”? The “termite” label is not simply a put-down but a fairly accurate condensation of what is going on currently in American politics and also, alarmingly, elsewhere. The Republican “termite” ideology has also inspired “termite-like” actions in Democrats who have seen in this destructive behavior a virtue that is wrong-headed from both an ethical and an economic perspective.
The American economic and social system that during the 20th Century produced great wealth and success for the nation as a whole and for American individuals was built by a combination of private initiative and government efforts. It was built, in some respects like a building is built, though it is an enormous, complex and unfinished building that is always in the process of being built or renovated. Some of the goods and services necessary for that building to continue to be constructed or to even remain standing are supplied by the government. Other goods and services are provided by a combination of the efforts of private and non-profit actors. The latter could be called “the market” plus the voluntary sector.
While both parties unfortunately too slavishly serve the interests of their biggest political donors, in particular large corporate interests and the wealthy, there is a still a critical difference between the two parties: the Republicans are operating within the fiction that much of the work that government has done and does, especially for the domestic economy, is unnecessary. By contrast, the Democrats attempt to be defenders of the notion that government delivers critical services that keep the “building” of American civilization standing, albeit, for the most part, including the President, they are very weak defenders of this idea. Lately Democrats have fallen under the sway of Republican ideology that government is optional and a hindrance to the further development of American civilization.
The Republican Right, since Ronald Reagan’s triumph in 1980 has campaigned vigorously to undermine the positive role of government in building and maintaining American society, even as they have sought in private to maintain the benefits of government for their political patrons and some key constituencies. Decrying government in general, they exempt farmers and farm subsidies, military contractors and, defense spending, and the actual bailing out of their political patrons while decrying the idea of “bailouts”. While both political parties show some breath-taking duplicity in their political behavior, especially as regards the interests of large donors, the Republicans are almost breathtakingly consistent in the falsity of their politics, which sound populist yet benefit almost exclusively the most privileged.
The post-1980 American Right fundamentally misrecognizes the tasks involved in maintaining and growing a civilization in which they and we want to live. The radical Republican Right does not recognize that government provides the “glue” of society and the economy. Caught up in the juvenile conception that markets alone create modern economies, the Republicans have campaigned against the public provision of goods that enable private and public enterprises to flourish. They attack what they don’t understand or don’t want to understand, the many supports and services which make a complex society work and liveable. Or alternatively they take for granted that which pleases them, ignoring that tax-funding often plays a role in its provision.
Rep. Ryan’s budget proposals, in which for instance Medicare would become a voucher program, are a critical piece in the efforts of the Republican Right to undermine the government-provided aspect of American prosperity, in this case social insurance that the private sector is unable and unwilling to provide. Additionally, his Republican counterparts in various statehouses and governor’s mansions are trying in an equal manner to gut the protections offered by government which the private sector cannot profitably provide. The resurgence of the Republican Right in 2009 and 2010 has yielded some of the most extreme and far-reaching efforts of the Right to undermine “the hand that fed them (and us)” as American prosperity would be unthinkable without the efforts of government throughout the years to protect and to serve the American public. Risk takers and entrepreneurs are exactly the people that need a social safety net to “catch them when they fall”; few people are willing to gamble if one of the likely outcomes is illness and death.
The thin rationale for these attacks is that we must have fiscal austerity now despite most economic indicators suggesting that austerity now will only further damage the economy. Alarmingly, supposedly “responsible” centrist Democrats have bought the austerity line as conceived by Republicans ignoring the good sense of most well-grounded economic analyses of the current macroeconomic situation. There is now a race to show who is the most virtuous cost cutter at one of the worst times for the real economy in which most Americans live.
Tragically, we are facing with climate change an irreversible degradation of the earth’s climate for us and co-evolved species. Additionally we are rapidly exhausting irreplaceable fossil fuels upon which most of economy is based. To combat either crisis it would be necessary for many governments to be able to spend on deficit to build clean energy infrastructure. However the rage for austerity pushes likely programs in this area to the furthest back burner
Republicans’ suggestions in these areas are based not on reasoned analysis based on fact but on premises often fashioned from whole cloth woven by the novelist Ayn Rand. One of the more laughable ideas put forward by Ryan and his crew is that older people will be able to buy insurance on the private market by use of these Medicare vouchers. This notion displays such an astounding degree of ignorance or presumed ignorance by the American people about how the insurance industry works. Insurers cannot make money by providing older people with private health insurance without government guarantees, a result which a simple glance at actuarial statistics will reveal. Ryan and his crew, supposedly champions of business, display that they don’t know the first thing about business. In this and other proposals, Republicans are building “air castles” based on faulty or fallacious analysis while undermining the real edifice that supports the well-being of most Americans.
In this, then, the Republicans are like termites, eating away at the real supports of American prosperity and future development, while providing no new “structure” in which most Americans could actually live. Like some termites, they build their own “nest” that is appropriate for them and few others, often out of the scraps of what they have eaten. Like termites they don’t “care” about the damage they are doing, feeling that they themselves are taken care of or will be taken care of, by short-sighted private interests that fund them and erroneously believe that government undermines private wealth. Like termites, they are creatures of short-sighted drives rather than long-term perspective and careful analysis.
To combat this “termite infestation” in government, the American people and their political representatives of good will need to recommit themselves to those aspects of government that hold together our society. Also they need to expose without mercy the cruelty and foolishness of the Republican plans to cut government services. This includes spending on social insurance and vital infrastructure with, in downturns and in the face of existential threats, temporary disregard for incurring budget deficits. Spending on education and even the arts is all part of the vital work of government in creating a civilization that is well worth living in Also in the short term and more so in the longer term, a commitment to fund existing and future government services via fair progressive taxation is absolutely critical.
Otherwise the edifice of American civilization and prosperity will crumble.