Legislating Hate

Legislating Hate

Paul Waldman

May 31, 2006

Paul Waldman is a senior fellow at  Media Matters for America and the author of the new book, Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Can Learn From Conservative Success , just released by John Wiley & Sons. The views expressed here are his own.

Election Day 2006 is just over five months away and time is running out for the Republican Congress to pack in a few more accomplishments before heading back to their districts for the final campaign push. So it’s useful to note what have they put on the docket as the last flurry of legislation to show the voters what they’re all about and why they should be returned to office.

There are the competing immigration bills which have gotten so much attention recently. Then there’s the amendment to the Senate bill making English the “national language” (we can all rest easy knowing the creeping tyranny of Esperanto has been arrested). Beyond that, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has made clear he will bring two constitutional amendments to the floor in the coming weeks, one to ban gay marriage and the other to ban flag burning. Though the flags in your neighborhood may have yet to be set aflame by roving bands of anarchists,  Frist assures you that—although it sounds like the most cynical of ploys—he’s actually just doing what the public demands. “It may not be important here in Washington where people say, well, it’s political posturing and all,” said Frist, “but it’s important to the heart and soul of the American people.”

As for another go-round on gay marriage, if gay Americans are looking for a silver lining to being scapegoated again, they can at least find company with their Spanish-speaking neighbors.

What do the flag-burning amendment, the gay marriage amendment, the immigration issue and the national language amendment have in common? It’s not just that they seek to solve “problems” that a month or two ago no one felt required urgent attention. The real common denominator is the lowest one: hatred. If you’ve got hatred in your heart, the GOP has a piece of legislation for you.

Twelve years after its historic victory, this is what the Republican Party has come to. Where are their “big ideas,” their grand visions of remaking American government and society? Abandoned, with some gathering dust and others, like Social Security privatization, soundly rejected by the public. Without much of an argument to make about their rule, they have been reduced to one more nasty campaign, but this time without even a fig leaf of a policy agenda. So with bad news piling on worse and electoral doom seeming almost inevitable, they reach down into the muck for that blunt instrument that has worked so well for them so many times before.

As they slip down the mountainside toward defeat, they can only throw their arms out to grab desperately at roots of hate sticking from the ground. There go racism, homophobia and xenophobia, just reach for them! But what they find is that these roots don’t reach as far as they used to. America is passing them by. The nativists are a smaller and smaller group in a country growing more at ease with its diversity. The John Gibsons of the world (the Fox News host who recently implored white people to “make more babies”  to lessen the impact of the brown tide) look more and more repellent in 21st century America to the rest of us. Meanwhile, the homophobes try to update their views to look more progressive with each passing month. In 2000, George W. Bush refused to support legislation forbidding discrimination against gays in housing and employment. Yet four years later he said if states want to pass civil union laws, it was okay with him.

As America continues its long, slow movement toward a more liberal and open society, and the failures of Republican government become clearer, we should hardly be surprised at the corruption spreading through Washington like a fungus. When the president proclaims that he is under no obligation to obey the law unless he feels like it, when the most powerful Republican in the House resigns under indictment, when an influential congressman literally types up a bribe menu for defense contractors, when the capital’s top Republican lobbyist operates a small but lucrative criminal syndicate, these are dark times for the GOP. They have become like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings , transformed by power into a gnarled, grotesque version of themselves. And with the repossession of that power seeming more likely with each passing day, they grow more and more hideous.

A few weeks ago, there was an article in the The New Yorker  about one man who fell for the Nigerian e-mail scam. It detailed how all of his money was squeezed out of him bit by bit, as the Nigerians kept coming back again and again for another $5,000 here and $10,000 there, and how he turned into a criminal himself to keep up with the scam and lost his own integrity. He gave it up willingly in the hope that great riches would soon be his, long after any sane person would have realized he was being taken for a ride.

“An enduring trait of Nigerian letter scammers—indeed, of most con artists,” the author wrote, “is their reluctance to walk away from a mark before his resources are exhausted.” Today the conservative base, particularly the religious conservatives, is like that mark. They give their money and their time to the Republican Party, offered up in exchange for the firm promise that a pot of gold—the banishment of homosexuality, the criminalization of abortion, the return of a time when life was simpler and everyone knew their place—will be theirs come election day.

Yet election day comes and despite their efforts to ensure GOP success their reward is nowhere to be found. The constitutional amendments languish, gays gain more acceptance every day, people stubbornly continue to have sex and the supposed idyll of the 1950s recedes ever further into the past. Then another election day approaches and the Republicans will once again tell conservatives: this time it will be different. They will stoke their fires one more time telling them: we just need you to come through one more time. Don’t give in to despondency and resignation. No, it is rage you should feel. Rage at the fornicators, rage at the unpatriotic hippies, rage at the dark-skinned horde. Nurture your disgust, sow your anger, let your hate explode in a righteous volcano of votes and small-dollar contributions.

But now even the conservative base may be growing tired, their fires of resentment not so easily stoked. Should they stay home on November 7, the Republicans will truly be left with nothing.