Chapter 2: Looking back at 2009
The intense outrage against any form of progressive agenda that Rush Limbaugh articulated early in 2009 did not abate. On the contrary, it intensified throughout the first year of the Obama presidency, as a new set of right-wing luminaries joined Sarah Palin, Bill O’Reilly, Newt Gingrich, Michael Steele, the House Republican leadership and Senator Jim DeMint in denouncing each aspect of the domestic agenda of the new administration as un-American, potentially socialist, and profoundly destabilizing. Railing against first the stimulus package, then the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, and latterly the health care reform packages proposed by Democratic-lead committees in both the House and Senator, the Republicans regularly called on the President to honor his commitment to bipartisanship when simultaneously refusing to met him in half-way settlements that would breach the free-market anti-government principles so dear to the active sections of their electoral base. The Republican Party spent 2009 as the ‘party of no’, losing the occasional liberal senator to the Obama camp (permanently in the case of Arlen Specter, only temporarily on health care in the case of Olympia Snowe), but otherwise making life inside the Republican Party progressively more difficult for moderates like David Frum, who argued that a Limbaugh-led party would end up permanently out of office (see his “Why Rush is Wrong” piece in Newsweek, March 16 2009)
Hysteria mounted upon hysteria throughout 2009, stoked by the rising popularity of Glenn Beck on Fox News, the anti-immigrant posturing of Lou Dobbs on CNN, and the never-ending fascination of the conservative media with the stridency of Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn). The grass-roots mobilization of American conservatives that had been fired by the vice-presidential run of Sarah Palin was sustained throughout 2009: first in the birther movement (claiming that Obama was born outside the United States and could therefore not be president), through the tea party protests of the late spring against the scale of the Obama stimulus package, into the angry town hall meetings of the August recess, challenging the proposed health care reform, and culminating in the 50,000+ tea-partiers mass rally in the capital in September and the 10,000 strong protest rally against the Pelosi health care bill in Washington DC in November. Add to that, the tenthers, libertarians convinced that the tenth amendment makes virtually everything the federal government does unconstitutional, including Medicare, federal highway programs and the regulation of industry! Most of the conservative opposition to health care reform rarely went that far – preferring to defend Medicare rather than scrap it – but the level of popular confusion on what was and was not under attack by the Republican base was well captured by the town hall protester in August who told one liberal congressman to keep the government out of his Medicare, not apparently realizing that Medicare was already a government program!
Each phase of this protest was characterized by anger and intolerance: with liberal arguments shouted down, guns carried to protest rallies, and the President caricatured as Adolf Hitler and his policies as either socialist or fascist. The intemperance even erupted onto the floor of Congress itself when, in the middle of the President’s address to a joint session, Rep. Joe Wilson shouted out that he was a liar. The fears expressed in the text about the dangers to an informed democratic dialogue that this anger constituted seem even more pertinent now, at the end of 2009, than they were in March as the text went to press. White supremacist and extremist libertarian militias lurked amidst the mass protesters throughout 2009, invoking warnings from the Obama administration about the dangers of right-wing violence (On this, see The Guardian, April 16 2009); and former president Jimmy Carter went on record in the fall, seeing elements of racism in the blanket resistance of the Republican party base to all aspects of the Obama administration’s program (September 16 2009).
Built into that right-wing anger were the usual range of ridiculous claims – about the liberal agenda being inherently socialist, a threat to American values and a danger to American freedoms. The libertarian wing of the Republican opposition focused on the latter, seeing in the expansion of government action an unconstitutional breach with the Bill of Rights. More sanguine but fiscally conservative Republicans put the emphasis of their anger on the costs of the programs being proposed, the tax burden they would trigger, and the debts they would leave behind. But amid the cacophony of anger new and even more bizarre claims received widespread dissemination too: that the President was a racist (this from Glenn Beck in August); that the Pelosi health bill would take away the rights of those already insured (this from Michele Bachmann); that rationing and “death panels” (the ultra-right’s label for end-of-life counseling) would seriously erode the health cover available to seniors; even that the “crisis of US health care” to which the new legislation was a response was either wildly exaggerated or a complete fiction (Virginia Foxx). The most outlandish of these new claims were recorded and critiqued in Joshua Holland, 10 of the Nuttiest Statements…, alternet.org, November 7 2009)
The cumulative effect of all this renewed stridency, and the inability of the Obama administration to meet it with a mass mobilization of the kind that had swept Barack Obama to the presidency, was a revival in Republican electoral and popular standing. By late October a Gallop Poll found 40% of those polled labeling themselves conservative, as against 20% labeling themselves liberal. In the November off-season elections, Democratic Party candidates for the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia fell to their Republican opponents. Yet those opponents were on the pragmatic/liberal wing of the party; and when Republican activists in New York’s 26th district forced a liberal Republican out of the race in favor of an ultra-conservative candidate claiming Glenn Beck as his inspiration, a district that had been Republican since the Civil War fell to the Democrats. The Republican Party remained in the hands of its ultra-conservative base – the self-styled “Conservative Underground” (HumanEventsOnline.com, April 2 2009))– and only one Republican lawmaker voted for the Pelosi health bill that was passed on November 7; but the country as a whole remained more solidly centrist than that.
Two late developments in 2009 were worthy of note:
- Lou Dobbs resignation from CNN and subsequent “outreach” to Latino voters as he pondered the possibility of either a senatorial or presidential run in 2012. Mr. Dobbs assured the Spanish language network Telemundo (in an interview, November 20 2009) that he now supports a plan to legalize undocumented workers, a stance he previously attacked as an unfair amnesty.
- The poll by Rasmussen Reports (December 2009), indicating a marked preference among Republican voters for Tea-Party candidates over mainstream Republican ones. Tea-Party activists were reportedly heavily involved in the GOP primary for the Florida Senate seat, supporting Marco Rubio against Charlie Crist.
For a representative sample of the ultra-conservative case, see the website of The Center for Individual Freedom. For its dangers, see Bob Cesca, “Glenn Beck and the Consequences of Crazy Talk”, The Huffington Post, April 9 2009; Paul Waldman, ‘Glenn Beck’s Party”, The American Prospect, September 22 2009; and Michelle Goldberg, “Tea Party Movement Returns Christian Right to Its Racist Past”, The American Prospect, October 2 2009. For Glenn Beck in his own words, see Glenn Beck’s Common Sense (Threshold Editions 2009) and his Arguing with Idiots (Threshold Editions, 2009). On the whole right-wing show, see Michael Tomasky, “Something New on the Mall”, The New York Review of Books, September 22 2009.
David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.
He writes here in a personal capacity.