Editor’s Note: This article resulted from disgust at the way Republican demagogues in Congress (as well as our beloved president) vilified Michael Schiavo over his decision to pull the plug on his poor, brain-dead wife. Once the autopsy report was released in June 2005, a lot of people owed Schiavo an apology, but, like bullies everywhere, none of them gave him one. The Republicans’ attitude toward Schiavo is typical of their whole approach — that of a powerful majority that hammers its opponents, while pretending to be persecuted victims.
Most Americans claim to love the underdog. But more to the point, we love to be seen as underdogs, even when it isn’t even remotely true.
Conservatives have rarely championed the downtrodden and typically accuse liberals of nurturing a “culture of victimhood.” Although bullies create victims, they often like to portray themselves as potential victims to justify their own bullying. To this end, Republicans have gained a new appreciation of victimhood, especially when it’s their own, and especially when it isn’t true.
As America has swung to the right, conservatives control the executive branch, the Supreme Court, both houses of Congress and most of the country’s statehouses, enabling them to run roughshod over the opposition. At the same time, they’ve begun to validate their agenda as a defensive response to some vast left-wing conspiracy of activist judges, liberal media and rampant secularists.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has threatened to outlaw the filibuster, which has been around for more than 200 years, because the big, bad Democrats have delayed a handful of judicial nominations. Of course, he never mentions that 208 of the president’s 218 federal court appointees (95.5%) had already sailed through unimpeded.
Why were these few nominees so important that right-wing ideologues vilified those Republicans who eventually brokered a compromise? Because conservatives don’t yet dominate the judiciary as thoroughly as they do the rest of government, and the filibuster is one of the last remaining weapons for the Democratic minority in Congress.
The threat of the so-called “nuclear option” is a warning shot across the Democrats’ bow prior to Mr. Bush’s first Supreme Court appointment. The current justices, most of whom were nominees of Republican presidents, have been painted by the far right as a band of liberal activists run amok, who need to be replaced before they destroy traditional American values.
Bullies like Tom Delay began stepping up attacks on the judiciary following the Schiavo circus, which demagogues exploited to stir up fear of “activist judges” and the liberals’ “culture of death.” Never mind that it was Republican lawmakers and the president who became judicial activists when Florida judges enforced the letter of the law, resulting in an outcome right-wingers didn’t like. (By the way, with Terri Schiavo’s autopsy released, will Bush, Dr. Frist and Delay be apologizing to her husband, who was right all along?)
As the noose tightens around opponents of the Bush agenda, the right is moving to target what GOP pundit Bill O’Reilly calls the “elite media” (i.e., non-Republican journalists). This is the same press corps that CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour accurately characterized as “self-muzzled” due to its intimidation by the Bush administration and the Fox News Channel. (If Deep Throat wanted to expose corruption today, he’d probably have to cross the Atlantic and talk to the BBC.)
Fox News operates as a nonstop partisan mouthpiece. The networks can’t do the same, because a ubiquitous army of GOP spokesmen — from Joe Scarborough to Pat Robertson to Tucker Carlson — dominates the cable channels, and pretends there’s no such thing as a conservative bias. The right also controls talk radio and most newspapers’ editorial pages, bludgeoning left-leaning pundits whenever the increasingly rare liberal opinion surfaces.
The GOP has also set its sights on public television and radio, portraying the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as another secular/liberal threat to traditional right-wing values. The Republicans’ official goal is to protect taxpayers’ wallets, but the budgets involved are relatively infinitesimal. Besides, who are they kidding?; these are the same “deficit doves” who’ve run up unprecedented debt to finance tax cuts for the rich.
Bullies always need new bete noires, hence the demonization of the “secular humanists” in pagan Hollywood. Conservatives have even attacked “Star Wars” as being anti-Bush, because it deals with the dangers of dictatorship in a time of crisis. Of course, they’re equally concerned about the liberal cabal that kept “The Passion of the Christ” from winning an Academy Award. In a country where the god-fearing are an overwhelming majority, can a few filmmakers be all that dangerous?
Republicans aligned with the Religious Right wring their hands over liberal “Christian bashing.” But how the 10% of Americans who consider themselves atheistic/agnostic are persecuting an enormous Christian majority remains a mystery.
This is a country where the son of a mediocre one-term president can increase his electability by calling himself a “fundamentalist,” while the son of conservative icon Ronald Reagan concedes he can never run for office because he doesn’t believe in God. Christians’ fear of secular-humanist oppression is about as realistic as the Catholic League’s campaign to protect its hugely wealthy and powerful sponsor from the dubious specter of “Catholic bashing.”
Will the United States end up as some sort of Iranian-style theocracy? Religious right extremists may hope so, but we’re probably too diverse a country for that. What’s more likely is what’s evolving now — a one-party, right-wing democracy, with a press that’s free to support the administration, and too cowed to do much else.
Power corrupts. How much it corrupts will be an interesting development to watch.
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