A “slave” signifies at a St. Paul Bachmann Tea Party rally, 2010
Fibonacci Blue, Flickr.com / Creative Commons
If you have been wondering whether right-wing extremism is afoot on the campaign trail this season, you need look no further than Minnesota’s own Michele Bachmann. Her sly assertion, phrased in the form of a rhetorical question, that we were becoming a “nation of slaves” under Obama hit all the right notes to her intended audience. Speaking to the Western Conservative Summit in Denver last weekend, she drew on a Founding Father, John Jay, co-author of the Federalist Papers and the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, to cast the centrist Democratic administration as a tyrannical government.
The quote she took from Jay was rendered as follows:
“We are determined to live free or not at all. And we are resolved that posterity shall never reproach us with having brought slaves into the world.”
This she spliced with her own takeoff:
“We will talk a little bit about what has transpired in the last 18 months and would we count what has transpired into turning our country into a nation of slaves.”
A nation of slaves. This was, we are to presume, devoid of racial overtones in referencing the agenda of the nation’s first African American president? Let’s say it was. Let’s say she used the term in the same manner as did Jay, who was referencing the tyranny of the British Crown. Jay, an incremental abolitionist, whose dubious strategy toward that end was to buy slaves, hold them until he reckoned his investment was paid off, then freeing them as adults (evidently it took a long time to work off his purchase price)—was employing the familiar “Live free or die” trope.
Live free of the British Crown. Live free of British meddling, repression, and taxation, because, after all, the colonists had no representation in Parliament. Unlike today. Today, even the smallest of the small people have the right to vote—and the obligation to abide by the outcome. This is apparently lost on the recidivist ditz from Minnesota, who thrives on hyperbole and disinformation.
You may think such outbursts would hurt her changes, that the farther to the fringe she drifts, the lower her approval ratings would be. Not so! The most recent KSTP/SurveyUSA poll shows her approval ratings at 48-39 within her benighted district. So much for the “correction to the center” theory of electoral dynamics. This makes extremists more dangerous in the body politic; they don’t self-exterminate politically.
But what is she actually talking about? It all comes down to one word: freedom. Bachmann calls herself a “Constitutional Conservative” but really, she owes more of her political philosophy to Barry Goldwater and Edmund Burke. Goldwater, like his precursor Burke, believed that freedom from legislation was a hallmark of a free people. This came naturally to Goldwater, who grew up in Arizona when it was still the frontier. So it was natural for him to say:
“I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that have failed their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden.”
~The Conscience of a Conservative, (1960) p. 15
Where Goldwater, like Bachmann, fails is in the assumption of some Rousseauean state of unregulated innocence. Beyond the reach of bad men with guns. Beyond the reach of a 12-hour workday for children. Beyond the reach of a gutted Gulf full of oil. Beyond the panic of an $80,000 hospital bill. Beyond the reach of bad meat, bad air, or cars that explode.
Though it may be hard to see at first glance that such hard punchers as Goldwater, Bachmann, and, for good measure, Palin, are naifs—that is exactly the case. And against their wish-upon-a-star sense of “freedom,” throwing around words like “slavery” and “tyranny” comes easily.
E.J. Dionne said recently at the Aspen Ideas Festival, “In a democracy, government isn’t the realm of ‘them,’ it’s the realm of ‘us.’”
This point, so lost on right-wing extremists, belies the whole slavery-tyranny construct. But it makes me suspect the commitment to democratic process on the part of, at least, Bachmann. Democracy works when her side wins; but, apparently, it only works when her side wins. How can that be?
Bachmann tells you exactly what to expect if her faction wins:
“We reform social security, then we reform Medicare, then we pare back welfare to the truly needy, for the truly disabled, because, yes, we can make that determination. Close and secure American boarders, cut the budget, limit our foreign entanglements for America, then we massively cut spending first, then we cut taxes.”
This will take you far past Goldwater’s turf; this will take you back to 1929. The naïve worldview of this, the Paleo-Libertarian-right, exaggerates the threat to freedom posed by the “tyranny” of government-engineered solutions while at the same time it minimizes—even vaporizes—the threat to life and liberty posed by every well-dressed criminal, hard core polluter, and institutionalized form of bigotry out there.
I am more concerned, in a metaphorical way, about the “slavery” of a person who can’t get served by a business than I am about the “rights” of a business owner not to serve, or pay, or refrain from exploiting that person.
I detect a suffocating rhetoric in the air. Morris Fiorina, author of Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, contends that most Americans don’t know and don’t care about politics. He proclaims this as if it were a virtue; it is not a virtue. If we don’t know and don’t care, we have no effective retort to the “nation of slaves” nonsense. Michele Bachmann made the comment in part in reference to health care reform, which, for all its faults, will improve by some degree the health and general welfare of millions of Americans. We need an antidote.
So fine. She has her free speech rights and her improbable bully pulpit of quasi-celebrity. But let’s call if for what it is. She is a demagogue with no legitimate message. She represents a misguided extremism in defense of a bogus notion of liberty. And sorry, Barry, but in this case, once again, it is a vice. And just as it was in 1964, it’s a little scary today.