Republicans went for the short-end fortune, indulging conspirators who would have us believe Barack Obama is (a.) a Muslim, (b.) a sympathizer of terrorists, (c.) a non-U.S. citizen and therefore not entitled to the presidency, (d.) a command-and-control socialist who seeks to destroy the nation or (e.) all of the above.
Along the way Republican politicians twisted themselves into a pretzel. Firm declarations of Obama’s U.S. citizenship were scarce from this lot. All taxes were evil. All government spending was bad. The Tea Party was boiling over by 2010 when the president signed into law his watered-down health care bill, one adapted from a Republican proposal offered two decades ago. The payoff came in fall 2010 when Republicans took the majority in the U.S. House.
Nowhere has the Republican Party’s hard-right swing been more evident than in its presidential campaigning. We’ve seen breathtaking extremism from presidential contenders — and not merely footnote candidates, but those who have at one point or the other been near the top of the polls.
Candidates have: claimed the Obama administration is fostering a “war on religion” (Rick Perry); said a summer earthquake and hurricane along the East Coast was a divine warning against U.S. debt (Michele Bachmann); vowed to dismantle five Cabinet-level agencies including the Department of Education (Ron Paul); produced a so-called flat tax plan that would raise taxes on some middle-class Americans (Herman Cain); seriously discussed eliminating child-labor laws (Newt Gingrich); dismissed climate change as a hoax (Rick Santorum); and in a TV ad so wrenched out of context an Obama quote that it stood out even in a field known for truth-twisting (Mitt Romney).
That’s the field of serious contenders heading into today’s Iowa Caucuses, the official start of the 2012 campaign. Republican voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and other states along the road to the nomination are stuck with little in the way of candidates who would oppose the low taxes/low oversight policies of the Bush administration, the ones that are largely responsible for 2008’s economic collapse. Whatever these policies are, they are not conservatism as the term has been known throughout history.
It didn’t have to be this way.
While U.S. conservatives were belittling Obama’s roots as a community organizer, our British cousins were launching a political movement that might be described as, well, community organizing. Having spent time in the political woodshed, Britain’s Conservative Party emerged with a rebranding of conservatism. In 2010, it took control of the government as part of a coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party.
Prime Minister David Cameron calls the movement Big Society. Government’s role, according to Cameron, is to deliver a “re-imagined state” that creates “opportunities for people to take control of their lives” and then “must actively help people take advantage of this new freedom.”
The New Yorker described Cameron’s notion thusly, “Qualitatively, the Big Society’s goal is to compel a more robust citizenship, in which people must not only pay taxes and refrain from doing ill but actively seek to do good.”
Big Society is not without its critics. Some have suggested it is a pretty package meant to obscure the harshness of the British government’s deep spending cuts. While that critcism is possibly true, the Big Society offers something largely missing from our Republican primary discussion, a positive plan of action as opposed to the uncaring void that would follow candidates’ dreams of nonstop government reduction.