Everett Dirksen is one of my heroes. The Senate Republican leader from 1959 to 1969, he pushed strongly for Vietnam escalation and took conservative stands that I’d have strongly disagreed with on economic issues. But he joined Lyndon Johnson in going to the mat to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights bills, and for that I admire him immensely.
Today's Republicans are far from Everett Dirksen, and that’s a shame. Beyond political differences with Obama and the Democrats, they've been making war on reality itself, which should be a major issue of the campaign’s final days. Consider these examples:
The myth of Obama as secret foreign-born Muslim: If 45 percent of Republicans think Obama wasn't born in this country and 57 percent think he's a secret Muslim, there's a reason. It's not just that Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have been spouting crazy lies, but that the overwhelming majority of Republican leaders have been silent, so as not to damp the fervor those outraged at Obama's mere presence in the White House. Yes, a few have bluntly said it’s nonsense, like Hawaii's Republican governor Linda Lingle, South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, and Colorado Senate candidate Ken Buck. But most have responded with a wink and nod, saying Obama’s the legitimate president or that he’s a Christian "as far as I know," or in Senator James Imhof’s words that the birthers “have a point.” They’ve refused to publically challenge a belief that fuels so much grassroots Republican energy.
Denial of Global Climate change: Dino Rossi, Washington State Senator Patty Murray’s Republican challenger, recently told the Seattle Times that he couldn't take a stand on climate change because it's still being debated between “scientists and pseudo scientists." Agreed. On the one side you have the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the British, German, and Norwegian academies of science, the Japanese, French, Indian, Brazilian, Australian equivalents, and the major scientific organizations of every nation in the world, not to mention such dangerously radical groups as the American Chemical Society, American Meteorological Society, and the American Statistical Association, all of whom say that human-caused climate change is a real and unprecedented danger that’s rapidly getting worse. On the side of the skeptics you have a handful of scientists funded by Exxon, the coal companies, the Koch Brothers and other corporate sponsors who want to maintain business as usual. They claim the jury’s still out, and do this in a year when a fifth of Pakistan was flooded, when Russians fled Moscow because runaway forest fires made the air impossible to breathe, and when much of the US suffered both record temperature levels and extreme weather events like massive floods, tornadoes and ice storms. But Rossi sided with the pseudo-scientists, as has practically every other Republican Senate candidate on an issue that should cross political lines. Sharron Angle, Ken Buck, Roy Blunt, Marco Rubio, Linda McMahon, Pat Toomey, Rand Paul, Ron Johnson, Carly Fiorina, Christine O’Donnell, Joe Miller and Rossi—every one of them has questioned the reality of the crisis and therefore the need to act. Even some who once took strong stands, like John McCain, have muted their voices to appease their hard right base. While European conservative parties lambast their more left opponents for not doing enough, the Republicans remain in denial on the ultimate issue of our lifetime.
Denial of our economic crisis and of its roots: The Republicans are certainly talking about the crisis. It benefits them politically. But they’re also denying the urgency of doing anything to assist those who cannot find jobs no matter how hard they try, or to acknowledge the roots of the crash in policies spearheaded by Bush and the Republicans. They focus particularly on the bank bailouts while refusing to acknowledge that they were voted in on Bush’s watch with major Republican support. They also near universally parroted the talking points of the banks in trying their best to stop or gut the Financial Reform Bill that makes such bailouts less likely in the future I’d call a refusal to rein in tax breaks for corporations shipping jobs overseas a similar fundamental denial of the relationship between actions and consequences. Granted, Clinton era deregulation and treaties like NAFTA have helped erode America’s industrial base. But it's still a major denial of reality to pretend to support Main Street while doing the direct bidding of those whose sole interest is protecting their right to make as much as they can off predatory speculation.
Denial of the threats to our democracy by the power of unlimited wealth: You could say Republican stands on this are just a question of opposing government regulation. But it takes some massive level of denial to claim that it does no harm to the public good to allow corporations to buy and sell politicians of either party like baseball trading cards. In an even greater affront to reality, Republicans who've long claimed that transparency solves the problems of opening up the floodgates to unlimited cash have fought unanimously against the barest attempts to impose this accountability through the DISCLOSE Act, a bill that would have at least required ads to list the names of their prime corporate backers. As a result, groups like the US Chamber of Commerce, Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, and new front groups that spring up daily have been flooding the airwaves with commercials paid for by corporate donors whose identity is masked. These ads will elect Republican candidates, or so their backers hope. They will also provide a subtle or not so subtle incentive for Democrats to avoid challenging corporate interests. Yet not a single Republican was willing to vote for the DISCLOSE Act, which remains one vote short of passage.
If there’s an antidote to this denial and to the paid lies that fuel it, it’s citizen participation . If enough of us knock on doors, make phone calls, talk to coworkers and neighbors, and otherwise reach out beyond the core converted (or at least get sympathetic voters to the polls), there's a chance that this denial of reality will backfire, and that the Everett Dirksens of the Republican Party will regain the upper hand. If we're silent, we allow reality itself to become hostage to delusion, and our country and planet to pay the price.
Paul Loeb is the author of the wholly updated new edition of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times (St Martin’s Press, April 2010), and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, which the History Channel and the American Book Association named the #3 political book of 2004. See www.paulloeb.org.