Ted Frier

Ted Frier
April 02
Ted Frier is an author and former political reporter turned speechwriter who at one time served as communications director for the Massachusetts Republican Party, helping Bill Weld become the first Bay State Republican in a generation to be elected Governor. He was Chief Speechwriter for Republican Governor Paul Cellucci and Lt. Governor Jane Swift. Ted is also the author of the hardly-read 1992 history "Time for a Change: The Return of the Republican Party in Massachusetts." So, why the current hostility to the Republican Party and what passes for conservatism today? The Republican Party was once a national governing party that looked out for the interests of the nation as a whole. Now it is the wholly-owned subsidiary of self interest. Conservatism once sought national unity to promote social peace and harmony. Now conservatism has devolved into a right wing mutation that uses divide and conquer tactics to promote the solidarity of certain social sub-groups united against the larger society while preserving the privileges of a few.


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FEBRUARY 2, 2013 8:57AM

GOP A House Divided

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A house divided against itself cannot stand. But that has not stopped David Brooks from trying to build one.

In a column this week, the New York Times conservative concedes it is probably hopeless to expect a regional faction like the Republican Party, rooted in the mentality if not the actual Georgia red clay of the Deep South, to "stop being the stupid party; stop insulting the intelligence of the American people; and start focusing on the least fortunate 47 percent of Americans."

Instead, says Brooks, it's smarter for sensible conservatives "to build a new wing of the Republican Party" that can compete with Democrats in those places Republican ideas now fall like wasted seeds on barren soil in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, upper Midwest and West Coast.

The reason for writing off all hope of real Republican reform as a fool's errand, says Brooks, is the hard reality that people don't change.  

Even when some do make a big, ostentatious show for change they often come off sounding like alcoholics promising to forever foreswear drink -- as Governor Bobby Jindal did earlier this month in what was billed as a "major" speech where Brooks said the possible 2016 presidential contender offered "more calls for change than actual evidence of change."

It was a speech in which Jindal dutifully "spanked his party for its stale clichés" about immigrants and women's rights, said Brooks, but then offered nothing more nourishing than a repackaged assortment of the same stale themes that have earned Republicans their lowly 33 percent approval ratings, namely: "Government bad. Entrepreneurs good."

Change is hard because people "don't only think on the surface level," says Brooks. "Deep down, people have mental maps of reality -- embedded sets of assumptions, narratives and terms that organize thinking."

So, asks Brooks, can we expect Republicans to rethink those unconscious and sub-conscious assumptions and adapt to new realities after failing to win over a majority in five of the last six presidential elections?

"Intellectual history says no," writes Brooks. "People almost never change their underlying narratives or unconscious frameworks."

And ever since Barry Goldwater won their party's nomination in 1964, the central Republican narrative has been what Brooks calls "the Encroachment Story."  

It's a worldview that places the core problem facing American life as a "voracious government" steadily encroaching upon the freedoms and liberties of individuals and local communities. "The core American conflict, in this view, is between Big Government and Personal Freedom," he says.

That same year, historian Richard Hofstadter wrote his famous essay on "the paranoid style in American politics" in which he identified politics in America as "an arena for angry minds," citing in particular the extreme right-wingers who supported the Goldwater "movement" and who "demonstrated how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority." 

Like the Tea Party today, Hofstadter said the radical right from 50 years ago saw politics "in apocalyptic terms"  as they trafficked "in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values." 

And since what was at stake was "always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish," wrote Hofstadter. "Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention."

David Brooks is not the first conservative to notice that politics is not an irrepressible conflict between "government" and "liberty" as the Tea Party right insists since assaults on personal freedom come equally from Big Business and Big Religion as well. 

Nor is Brooks the first commentator to notice that since Obama's election four years ago  -- and even more so since his re-election four months ago  -- the Republican Party speaks with an ever more pronounced Southern accent and with the voice of that region where the Encroachment Story "has deep historic and psychological roots" and where "anti-Washington, anti-urban" sentiments have set Southern culture and the Southern "way of life" apart from the rest of the country for decades.

Whether Republicans ever really believed their own propaganda about tax cuts for the rich paying for themselves is an open question. But at least Republicans back then had the virtue of selling their supply-side economic doctrines to the public based on utilitarian and even "collectivist" grounds - namely that everyone benefits when special privileges are granted to the few, whose capital and investments set them apart as society's "job creator" class.  

Today's conservatism, by contrast, is characterized more by a hoarder mentality of austerity and scarcity and the recognition, as Brooks says, that America is "now at the end of the era in which a rising tide lifts all boats."

Meritocracy is overwhelming the liberal project, Brooks wrote in an earlier column, as the triple-threat of globalization, mechanization and financialization relentlessly grind away, creating social inequalities far beyond the power of the democratic state to minimize or ameliorate on behalf of providing greater opportunities for the growing number of those left behind.

It's this dynamic that is dividing the country. And Brooks is not only at war with the present Republican Party. He also seems to be at war with himself, trying to judge whether these unseen forces of hyper-competition and "creative destruction" are good things that lead to national progress or evils that induce decay.

In the end, Brooks seems to throw up his hands in confusion and despair, hoping his reconfigured Republican Party can somehow paper over its doctrinal and temperamental differences by bringing people together who "recoiled" at President Obama's "excessive faith in centralized power" but who at the same time do not share the Tea Party's "absolute anti-government" animosities.

Would New Englanders and Midwesterners sit easily with Southern Republicans in the coalition Brooks proposes? Who knows, Brooks admits. But that is what political parties are for, he says - creating "coalitions of the incompatible."

Quite true. That's what political parties are supposed to do.  I used to work for the Republican Party, so I know. But wasn't it David Brooks who, just 18 months ago, declared the GOP to be "not a normal party?"

The reason David Brooks is so exasperated with the current GOP - and the reason Brooks has proposed improving Republican fortunes not by trying to change the existing party but by overlaying a more moderate and sensible layer on top of it - becomes evident when you consider the hysterical reactions by conservatives to President Obama's second inaugural address last week.

In that speech, the President began a paragraph with the word "together" three times and with the phrase "We the people" four times. So, quite naturally, right wing polemicist Charles Kruathammer scolded Obama for his "uncompromising left liberal manifesto," thus proving fellow Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne correct when he says what we are witnessing from today's Republican Party is "the rise of a radical form of individualism that simultaneously denigrates the role of government and the importance most Americans attach to the quest for community."

One thing is clear from the president's speech, added Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: "The era of liberalism is back."

And it was such contentious, outside-the-mainstream ideas like these that finally led McConnell to declare the President's speech "unabashedly far-left-of-center:"

• "Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, schools and colleges to train our workers;"

• "Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play;"

• "Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life's worst hazards and misfortune;"

• "We the people understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it;"

• "We the people still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity;"

• "We the people still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity;"

• "We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war."

"Man the barricades!" Those are the heresies McConnell said were designed to bring back "memories of the Democratic Party in ages past" and to lay out an agenda that was "not designed to bring us together" or to deal with the "transcendent issue of our era" -- which McConnell identifies as the deficits and debt that Republicans doubled in less than a decade when the American people chose them to run the government.

It's for the idea that "a great nation must care for the vulnerable" that leads Charles Kruathammer to anoint Barack Obama as "the apostle of the ever-expanding state."

The President's speech, says Kruathammer, "was an ode to the collectivity" in which "nothing lies between citizen and state" but a "desert within which the isolated citizen finds protection only in the shadow of Leviathan."

Obama, he says, means to "change" the trajectory of America in ways that "redeem and resurrect" the half century of American history before Ronald Reagan halted America's "liberal ascendancy" in 1980.  

Krauthammer further accuses Obama of being "ideologically unapologetic and aggressive," by which he means the President disagrees with Krauthammer and Krauthammer's unbending rightest dogma - thus proving my own contention that Ronald Reagan ruined conservatives for democratic politics forever when he tempted them into believing the temporary triumph of their right wing dogmas 30 years ago established America as a "center right country" for all time, where only conservative ideas and values are legitimate and "American."

Krauthammer's is silly, pedantic nonsense. But it's the raw material out of which David Brooks hopes to forge a new national, governing party. Good luck with that, David. You're better off abandoning the GOP altogether. Like the rest of us.

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History tells us that there will always be people willing to fight and die for the right of the king and his barons to rule over the common man…and throughout history, the BEST the common man could hope for was a benevolent monarch.

The Republicans are, in effect, hoping history is predictive; the Republicans are counting on the masses to support the right of our brand of kings and barons to rule over us…and are promising us, in effect, a benevolent monarchy.

It is worth noting that the common men of the south, whose labor value was lessened almost to the point of worthlessness by the inclusion of slaves into the southern economy, were willing to fight and die to protect that institution. So the southern twang to the Republican Party is not surprising.

The fact so many outside the south are being taken in by this charade is more disturbing to me.

Brooks pleasantly surprises me at times, but he seems always to go back to being part of the deception.
Thanks Frank, Brooks is a mystery isn't he. He reminds me of someone who knows things have to change but refuses to let go. He seems to say the GOP is hopeless but then keeps trying to put humpty dumpty back together again.

You've also anticipated my next piece, which is the 200 year struggle in this country between democracy and aristocracy. It divided the Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans back at the turn of the 19th century and still separates us today in new form.
The immigration issue is going to be the test. Don't you think?

Will their ideological hatred overcome their own need for survival? Many immigrants are easily seduced by whoever reaches out to them--not understanding the historical situation.

On the other hand, a mere look at a GOP convention, or audience at a rally should convince most immigrants of who their friends are, except of course if they are liberals, and have dellusions of grandeur about the extent to which they are accepted by the party as presently constituted.

It could be that the presidency, at least, is something for the Democratic party to lose if they mess up, or circumstances are such that gross disatisfaction ensues.

I think what the Democratic party has to look at is the districting problem that has led to the GOP dominance of the house. That would make for an interesting new PAC while Citizen's United is still on the books.
I suggest the Republicans just let Obama have his way, wait for the consequent collapse, and then take over all three branches of government, assuming, of course, that Obama hasn't obliterated the distinctions by then.

As for Krauthammer being silly, well, what can I say, except that a bit of respect for one's intellectual superiors wouldn't be totally out of place.
In the first place Brooks is wrong about people not changing. Oligarch billionaires don't change because they are too terrified of doing anything to jeopardize their wealth and status. Normal people are amazingly resilient in adapting to changing conditions. Look how the majority of Americans have adapted to the calamitous financial collapse - somehow the majority have been resourceful enough to stay on their feet.

One comment he made earlier surprised me:

"Meritocracy is overwhelming the liberal project, Brooks wrote in an earlier column, as the triple-threat of globalization, mechanization and financialization relentlessly grind away, creating social inequalities far beyond the power of the democratic state to minimize or ameliorate on behalf of providing greater opportunities for the growing number of those left behind."

This seems unusually perceptive for a Republican ideologue. Normally they're only interested in finding ways to line their own purse.

Meritocracy is overwhelming the liberal project, Brooks wrote in an earlier column, as the triple-threat of globalization, mechanization and financialization relentlessly grind away, creating social inequalities far beyond the power of the democratic state to minimize or ameliorate on behalf of providing greater opportunities for the growing number of those left behind.
I kind of like seeing them squirm and waffle. Maybe they'll never figure it out.