Revised and updated. Tuesday morning, March 5, 2013.
Calvin Coolidge, 30th President of the United States, looking as though he’s on the verge of doing something he’s not remembered for doing much of while in office, smiling. Photo of Coolidge with four men of the Osage nation after the signing of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 courtesy of Wikipedia.
Right Wingers are in the habit of believing whatever they need to believe to justify whatever it is they want to do.
You don’t need me to tell you this, but this is why their attitudes towards science, medicine, history, economics, military and foreign policy, religion, politics, and, well, just about everything, are…flexible.
They are convinced that the world as they see it inside their heads matches the world as it exists everywhere else, including inside other people’s heads, and if they think it, it must be so.
When we liberals flatter ourselves that we belong to the reality-based community, we aren’t claiming---or we shouldn’t all be claiming---that we base our thinking on facts and facts alone and that we have those facts at our fingertips and can explain global warming or qualitative easement or the evolution of the constitutional debates over the Second Amendment or whatever off the tops of our eggheads. Truth is, most of us don’t know the facts and we can’t do the math ourselves. But we accept that the facts are out there, that the math does work, and the world as it exists inside our heads and the world as it actually is can be very different worlds indeed. Reality as we conceive it to be, wish it would be, and are maybe even striving to make it be is not necessarily as the facts show it to be. What it comes down to is that we work from the assumption that there are a lot of people who are smarter than we are, who can do the math and have a better grasp of what’s really going on because their job and their vocation is to study the world as it really is and we’d better take their research into account when we’re trying to figure out how to order and run the country, from deciding what and how to teach our children in school to dealing with a slumping economy to confronting global climate change.
But Right Wing Republicanism, which is basically the only brand of Republicanism left, has become like a religion and it takes its cues from the Fundamentalist brand of religion practiced by most of its base. Right Wing Christians believe in a purely personal relationship with Jesus and Right Wing Republicans believe in a purely personal relationship with reality.
Not surprisingly the two often amount to the same thing.
Things are as I believe them to be because Jesus tells me so.
Trouble arises when reality and belief collide. When this happens to liberals, we (most of us), adjust our thinking to accord with reality. Or we try, at any rate. Right Wingers adjust reality.
Considering how much Right Wingers believe that directly contradicts reality as revealed by the known facts as opposed to what is revealed to them by the God inside their heads, they have to adjust constantly. Must get exhausting. There must be times when they feel too tired to manage any more denial, dark nights of the conservative soul when they are tempted to give in and say, You know, up may really be up and down may really be down, the sky is blue, and the earth probably does go around the sun. No wonder so many of them rely on their media outlets---FoxNews, Rush and other blabbermouths of hate speech radio---and their preachers to pat them on the heads and reassure them that it’s all right, there is no reality but that which they choose to believe in on any given day.
Believe it or not, though, and I’m sure there are facts and figures and the math to back this up, there are Right Wingers who aren’t content to be ditto-heads. They have enough residual respect for education that they accept that facts do matter and that those facts are more likely to be found in books than in the spoutings and shoutings of TV and radio personalities or they are at least aware that other people are impressed when you can tell them “I read this in a book…” So they buy and read books.
Lots and lots of books. Only the biggest blockheads among them are satisfied quoting chapter and verse from Atlas Shrugged. Problem is, despite their good intentions and intellectual pretensions, they’re still Right Wingers in the habit of believing whatever they need to believe in order to justify whatever they want to do, and if you just go wandering off into a library or a Barnes and Noble and willy-nilly start plucking books off the shelves because you like the cover or are intrigued by the title or have heard of the author or, God forbid, read a review in the New York Times, and are otherwise careless or reckless in your reading, odds are at some point you’re going to read something suggesting the reality you need to believe in isn’t reality at all and that might cause you to wonder if what you want to do, which you’ve justified by the exigencies of your alternative reality, may not be a wise or a productive or a moral thing to do.
So, the elders and inquisitors of the church have sanctioned an industry devoted to publishing books that detail and describe alternative realities. The most obvious, and most obviously aimed at the simple-minded, are the ones pushing an alternative political reality in which liberals are doing what Right Wingers are doing in this reality. But there are alternative economics. Alternative science. Alternative religion---somebody needs to show that when Jesus said those things about selling everything to follow him and storing up treasures on earth and rich men and needles’ eyes he meant “Make your bundle fast and let me tell you how!” and when he said suffer the little children to come unto him he meant our children, everybody else’s children can just go suff!
And then there are the alternative histories.
This one is very important since one of the biggest embarrassments conservatives face is that they have been on the wrong side of American history since the Mayflower dropped anchor. How comforting to know that there is another version of American history in which that is not how things went.
One of the popular Right Wing alternative historians is Amity Shlaes, who is not by training, trade, or calling an historian at all. She’s a diligent and dedicated propagandist. Her signature work to date is The Forgotten Man, a “history” of the Depression that proves the New Deal didn’t work by treating the New Deal as a coherent program designed from the get-go to end the Depression, which Shlaes reduces to simply a problem of massive underemployment and depressed stock prices, in short order, and since the Depression hadn’t ended by the conclusion of FDR’s first term and in fact (and here Shlaes resorts to actual facts, although very carefully cherry-picked ones) unemployment went up in 1938 and stocks stubbornly refused to rise to their pre-Crash highs, the New Deal failed. [Editor’s note: See update below.]
Just for the record, the New Deal wasn’t a program designed to reduce unemployment. It was a whole bunch of experiments and ad hoc and catch-as-catch-can measures put together in haste in order to save the country from complete economic and political collapse. The New Deal became more programmatic as time went on as it was seen what worked and what didn’t and why, but that took until most of the way through FDR’s second term, which brings us to this.
When some conservative tries to tell you the New Deal didn’t end the Depression, World War II did, point out that our war effort was the ultimate New Deal project, run by New Dealers guided by what they had learned from putting the New Deal together and getting it working over the past decade.
But back to Shlaes.
As I mentioned, Right Wing Republicanism has become like a religion, and you can’t have a church without a communion of saints. Ronald Reagan is the rock upon which they’ve built their church, but he’s looking a little lonely in his shrines, not least because the facts of this reality are catching up to his reputation. More saints and martyrs to the cause are needed to distract the skeptical and give doubters reassurance that there’s more to the faith than Reagan-worship. To this end, Shlaes has now moved from writing alternative history to hagiography.
She has just published a biography promoting the canonization of Calvin Coolidge.
Turns out the President usually thought of as the dullest, coldest, least interesting man to hold the office in the 20th Century was a political genius. His genius being in knowing how to keep the government out of the way of rich men out to make a buck.
Throughout the past Presidential campaign, I harped on my reason for fearing and loathing Mitt Romney more than I’d feared or loathed any other Republican who ran for President in my lifetime. Romney, I wrote again and again, was the first person to run for President who believed that the whole purpose of life was the accumulation of wealth. He saw and valued people solely as economic units, including himself, and judged them by how much they contributed to the accumulation of wealth. As far as he was concerned, people were owners or they were employees and from the point of view of the owners employees are either resources to be exploited or costs to be controlled, either things or abstractions, but no matter which still entries on a spreadsheet that must show a profit’s being made.
People, seen like that, are a problem. Not a nice notion on its own but antithetical to a democratic society. Mitt, I meant to imply, as I railed, ranted, and raved, was the first Presidential candidate who was running against democracy.
Maybe I should have given more thought to Silent Cal.
In the reality I grew up in, Coolidge was a minor figure, an accidental President defined by who he was not, the Presidents on either side of him on the classroom walls, Harding and Hoover, famous for doing nothing that made other Presidents great, posing in cowboy hats and Indian war bonnets without cracking a grin, counting the days until he was out of office, assiduously paying no attention as the Roaring 20s roared their way towards Black Tuesday. The great restraint Shlaes presents as his cardinal virtue I understood as a form of moral turpitude. He couldn’t be bothered to care.
But it’s Shlaes’ mission to make us take to our hearts the budget-cutting, tax-cutting, deregulating Coolidge, this embodiment of austerity in all its meanings and applications, this skinflint, this cheap-tipper, this money-obsessed, frigid fogey about whom it can easily be surmised that when he pissed he pissed congealed ice, as a saint and a hero and a political role-model for our time.
Reviewing Shlaes’ book in the New York Times, Jacob Heilbrunn, author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, cautions not to be dismissive of Coolidge himself, whom he calls “a more astute politician than the easy scorn of his contemporaries suggested”. But Helibrunn sums up Shlaes overall thesis as “flapdoodle.”
What makes Coolidge a fascinating character, however, aren’t his bromidic phrases and vapid homilies, designed to reassure a public unsettled by rapid social and economic change; or his loyalty to his vivacious wife, Grace; or his taciturnity or any of his other personal qualities. Rather, it is that he represented the right’s first sweeping counterrevolution against liberal Republicans in a battle that continues down to the present. What Shlaes’s biography underscores is the fantastic tenacity with which the party still adheres to the ossified pre-New-Deal-era economic doctrines enunciated by Silent Cal…
No, Coolidge was not single-handedly culpable for the economic calamity of the 1930s. But neither can he be safely extracted from the ruin that followed his presidency. Quite the contrary. Coolidge was the pre-eminent cheerleader for the economic nostrums that led to the crash. His opposition to regulation allowed Wall Street and the banks to engage in rampant speculation and insider trading, practices that were not curbed until Joseph Kennedy was appointed head of the new Securities and Exchange Commission by Franklin Roosevelt to ban the very practices he himself had employed. So deep was Coolidge’s antipathy to any form of government action that he even viewed his gifted secretary of commerce and successor Herbert Hoover with a measure of contempt, calling him the “wonder boy” because he fell into the progressive Republican camp.
Another by the way here. Now they don’t like Hoover either and not because of his failure to deal swiftly with the Depression. Back in the 80s there was an attempt by conservative historians---and back then there were some conservative historians. Conservative scientists too.---to rehabilitate Hoover’s reputation. But that attempt turned up the fact that, despite his stubborn resistance to act progressively as President when faced with the Depression, mostly because he couldn’t bring himself to imagine just how bad things were and how much worse they were getting, over the course of a long and successful career in business and public service he showed himself to be more of a progressive than a good church-sanctified Republican is allowed to be. So he’s been excommunicated for the same sins as Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, thinking that government might be an effective tool for making people’s lives better.
Back to Heilbrunn, Coolidge, and Shlaes. Heilbrunn concludes his review of Shlaes hagiography with this:
With yet another tribute about to appear — “Why Coolidge Matters,” by the former Claremont Institute fellow Charles C. Johnson, will be published in March — Coolidge will surely continue to enjoy a comeback on the right. Yet his actual record shows that he was an extraordinarily blinkered and foolish and complacent leader, no less than George W. Bush before the stock market plummeted in 2008. The bogus nostrums that Coolidge touted have directly led either to enormous deficits during the Reagan era or to outright catastrophe during the Bush era. Shlaes never stops to ponder the abundant literature chafing at and exposing the conformity and avarice of the Roaring Twenties, but the prosperity offered by Calvinism has always proved as elusive as the promise of the green light that Jay Gatsby watches at the end of Daisy’s dock. Conservatives may be intent on excavating a hero, but Coolidge is no model for the present. He is a bleak omen from the past.
The current Republican Religion divides, not neatly, into three sects, united by the paranoid belief that liberalism is the Whore of Babylon intent on taking away their freedom.
There are the Tea Party crazies, whom it would be better to call Right Wing Reactionaries. These are the self-flagellants out to protect their freedom to cut off their noses to spite their faces as long as it means those people won’t benefit from any good the government might try to do.
There are the Right Wing Fundamentalist Christians who want the freedom to hate whomever they feel God tells them to hate and to deny themselves and all the rest of us any joy we might find in life outside a church pew.
Then there are the Right Wing Corporatists. These are the orthodox and establishmentarians of the Party. They aren’t the loudest and they don’t get the attention they deserve, but they run things because they have the money. And that’s what they’re about. Money and the freedom to rake it up by the sack-full. They want the freedom to make as much money as they can any way they can without having to give a damn about anybody else.
And they might be the least reality-based of the three.
All three believe that world works by magic. The Right Wing Reactionaries believe that all the benefits of a living in a liberal society are just there to enjoy without their having to pay taxes to maintain them. The Fundamentalists believe God is among us right now, working his will, arranging things to work out for the best according to His divine plan. But the corporatists believe that if we’d just let the greediest, most selfish, most rapacious, and most ruthless among us do whatever they want to make a buck, a just, ordered, secure, and prosperous society will inevitably result and thrive to the benefit of all.
The Republican Party was founded as an anti-slavery party, of course, but it was also, and not incidentally, a pro-labor and pro-farmer party as well. In northeastern cities, the white working class, who were mostly Democrats, tended to fear the prospect of freed blacks as a threat to their jobs and wages. But in the west (which included that part of the country we now think of as the Midwest), working men and women and small farmers saw slavery itself as a threat. Not only couldn’t they compete with slaves when it came to wages, people understood that anyone depraved enough to find a moral justification for enslaving black people wouldn’t have to stretch their thinking much to find a justification for enslaving white people too. But still the protecting and privileging of wealth and the promotion of the owner class as the nation’s natural ruling elite were a part of the party’s DNA from the beginning. East Coast capitalists and industrialists joined right up, some motivated by their heartfelt hatred of slavery, some by self-interest, many by both, but as a group they began to throw their weight around from the get-go. Wasn’t long before they were running the whole show. And it wasn’t long after that before a rivalry began between those of the elite who thought having lots of money obligated you to take care of people who had very little and those who thought having money obligated you only to making more money.
We know which faction won out.
Took them about a hundred and twenty years.
But they’ve pretty much run the Theodore Roosevelts, the Eisenhowers, the George Romneys, and the George Herbert Walker Bushes out of the party. The corporatist wing is a church of latter day little Mitts.
It’s way, way, way too early to waste time speculating on who will be either party’s nominee in 2016. But I’m willing to bet that the Republicans won’t be nominating Chris Christie, for a variety of reasons, one of the chief ones being that in his response to Hurricane Sandy he showed that he thinks that government exists to make people’s lives better, a heresy that will cost him the favor of the bishops of the corporatist wing of the church.
Whoever gets the Republican nomination, though, will be a true believer. He or she will try to portray themselves as a second-coming of Ronald Reagan, of course, but what will really send the white smoke billowing up the chimney is if the supplicant has demonstrated a habit of fervent prayer before the shrine of the newly canonized Saint Calvin the Silent.
Updated to better reflect the history of this reality: I’ve oversimplified Shlaes’ attempt to rewrite the history of the New Deal in The Forgotten Man. Eric Rauchway, an actual historian, does the necessary in-depth and reality-based analysis and debunking in this article for Dissent, New Deal Denialism.