What They Say / What They Mean

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Let it be known at the outset that here I will be talking about radical Republicans and their enablers and not everyone who is registered to vote or self-identified as a Republican. It’s easy to stick labels on people, especially when stress trumps nuance, as it does in these times. But there are many Republicans and even capital-L Libertarians who are sore dismayed at what the extremist wing of their parties are saying on their behalf.

Let it also be known that, to me, “revolutionary” is not a dirty word. I do believe, though, that it is so in the mouths of some radical Republicans. The revolution I believe in is the one described by Abraham Lincoln, one of the first great Republicans, in his first Inaugural Address, delivered Monday, March 4, 1861.

This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.

Note that Lincoln said our country “belongs to the people who inhabit it.” Not some people. Not only people who look as though their ancestors came over on the Mayflower, whether they did or not. Not only people who were born here. The people who inhabit it. What a concept.

With that in mind, let’s look at the revolution the right-wing extremists, as exemplified by the likes of Rand Paul, Sharron Angle, Sarah Palin, and the multi-millionaire radio-talk-show pseudo-populists whom I won’t help publicize by naming them, want to force upon this country and the people who inhabit it.

Their principles are

  • Limited government
  • Personal responsibility
  • Individual liberty
  • Free enterprise
  • National security

It’s hard to quarrel with that list, until you read between the lines. Here’s what they say, and what they mean.

Limited government. Translation: Make government so small you can drown it in a bathtub.

This used to be called anarchy, and people were imprisoned and executed for promoting it (or maybe just being accused of promoting it – see Sacco and Vanzetti.)

This is Ronald Reagan’s true legacy: the meme that government exists to take money out of the pockets of the people who inhabit this country, and give nothing in return. The subtext (remember Reagan’s “welfare queen”) is that people who work are being robbed to pay people who choose not to work, and unemployment compensation makes them even lazier. Corollary to this is that anyone who is poor is so because of laziness and general inferiority. People who are ill, frail, with disabilities, or aged just don’t fit into the limited government framework.

Limited government breaks down when it comes to bedroom behavior, reproductive rights, and that sort of thing. There government has the right to tell people what they may and may not do, what they may and may not think and feel. Collecting taxes and spending them to hunt down and punish people for improper private behavior is the government’s legitimate function.

When the limited government people send back their social security checks, I want to know about it.

Personal responsibility. Translation: Hooray for me and forget you.

An extension of limited government, this principle extends the doctrine of inferiority of the disadvantaged. The subtext is that people bring their misfortunes upon themselves, that poverty, unemployment, and homelessness are the result of personal failings and not evidence of a dysfunctional society.

In this view, health, education, and welfare are not proper concerns of government. Right-wing fundamentalists want to stop funding and thus disband the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services – just about any government function not directly related to national security and warfare, or law enforcement.

Individual liberty. Translation: Get the government off our backs.

Defend, for example, the right to put a loaded gun in your pocket and take it into a bar, church, or school, licensing not required. What’s government got to do with it?

Think of the relationship between personal responsibility and individual liberty. The latter principle grants you the right not to carry health insurance, nor wear a helmet on a motorcycle. A true exponent of this principle will assert both rights. If he has an accident and suffers a brain injury, does this belief make him decline to be treated in the emergency room and be admitted to the hospital for medical and rehabilitative care – at government expense? As if.

A recent New Yorker cartoon summed it up. In the drawing, a house is on fire and a firefighter is rushing up with a hose. The owner of the burning house is standing in front of it, his hand extended to stop the firefighter. The caption: “No thanks, I’m a libertarian.”

Free enterprise. Translation: Caveat emptor, which is Latin for Let the buyer beware.

Subtext: make money any way you can, anywhere you can, with no regulation, no consumer protection. Encourage free enterprise by giving corporations tax breaks for moving jobs overseas, where labor is cheaper. Greed is good, stealing from your customers, employees, and shareholders is better, as long as you can get away with it. And most of the time you can, because the government lacks the resources to enforce whatever regulations still exist. (See Limited Government.)

National security. Translation: We’re good, they’re bad. Let’s get them before they get us.

Corollary: Tax revenues go first to the military-industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican president in the days before the radicals took over, warned us about. Cost doesn’t matter. This is the only place where big government is desirable – and nobody knows how big it really is.

A stunning series in the Washington Post revealed in July 2010:

  • Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
  • An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.
  • In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet of space.

Not even the most rabid small-government, fiscal responsibility partisans uttered a peep of protest, so strong is their value of national security.

In this view, immigration is a national security issue. Translation: Pull up the drawbridge. I’m in.

These are the principles that will rule this country if the radical right-wing anarchist faction of the Republican party succeeds November 2. In a democracy, people have the choice not to vote. And in a democracy, people get the government they deserve.

We have some work to do.

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