Sunday, March 01, 2009


I wanted to write something snarky about the CPAC speech Rush Limbaugh delivered last night -- but after reading it I realize that, once you get past the "We're not haters, you're haters" nyah-nyah stuff, and past the occasional moments of improvisatory semi-coherence, the guy is an adroit messenger for his side. The worldview he and his soul mates share is utterly wrong, but it's still fairly widely shared, and he expresses it well. It's still the principal message of opposition in this country; when there's resistance to what Barack Obama is doing, it's going to be along Limbaugh lines. So attention must be paid.

This, I think, is a key passage -- especially one sentence, which is more revealing than Limbaugh realizes:

Let me tell you who we conservatives are: We love people. [Applause] When we look out over the United States of America, when we are anywhere, when we see a group of people, such as this or anywhere, we see Americans. We see human beings. We don't see groups. We don't see victims. We don't see people we want to exploit. What we see -- what we see is potential. We do not look out across the country and see the average American, the person that makes this country work. We do not see that person with contempt. We don't think that person doesn't have what it takes. We believe that person can be the best he or she wants to be if certain things are just removed from their path like onerous taxes, regulations and too much government. [Applause]

"We don't see victims." Of course, that's not really true -- whenever Democrats get even the tiniest bit of power, Limbaugh and his cohort see victims everywhere. In fact, Limbaugh struggles in this speech with a huge contradiction: on the one hand, FDR and LBJ made this country a liberal hellhole (as did, according to Limbaugh's radio pronouncements, Clinton and decades of congressional Democrats and, more recently, Republicans In Name Only, including George W. Bush) -- but on the other hand, Limbaugh and his listeners all grew up in the greatest country in the world, a paradise Barack Obama is intent on destroying.

But to some extent Limbaugh is revealing more than he knows when he says, "We don't see victims." When he's seeing America as Edenic (for instance, in the Reagan years as he mistily recalls them), he doesn't think anyone could possibly be harmed by his version of pure (i.e., low-tax, hypercapitalist) Americanism.

And that, obviously, is the battle line: Do you think America is perfect, or would be perfect if there weren't "too much government," or do you think that, for some people, there isn't enough government? For people such as -- see Frank Rich's column today -- Ty'Sheoma Bethea?

Ty'Sheoma Bethea [is]the junior high school student who sat in Michelle Obama's box on Tuesday night and whose impassioned letter to Congress was quoted by the president.

In her plea, the teenager begged for aid to her substandard rural school. Without basic tools, she poignantly wrote, she and her peers cannot "prove to the world" that they too might succeed at becoming "lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president."

Her school is in Dillon, where the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, grew up. The school's auditorium, now condemned, was the site of Bernanke's high school graduation. Dillon is now so destitute that Bernanke’s middle-class childhood home was just auctioned off in a foreclosure sale. Unemployment is at 14.2 percent.

Governor Sanford's response to such hardship -- his state over all has the nation's third-highest unemployment rate -- was not merely a threat to turn down federal funds but a trip to Washington to actively lobby against the stimulus bill. He accused the three Republican senators who voted for it of sabotaging "the future of our civilization." In his mind the future of civilization has little to do with the future of students like Ty'Sheoma Bethea.

The notion that all problems stem from government is still appealing and seductive, and Limbaugh is still a hell of a Pied Piper. The flip side is, of course, that no problems stem from capitalism, or from GOP tax policies -- no one ever really needs a hand as a result of capitalist "creative destruction," income inequality never results from tax cuts on the wealthy, no one is ever harmed by, say, an underregulated financial system or food-safety system. All harm comes from government.

Right now, it seems clear who's winning this argument. But the argument isn't going to go away, and our side will need to keep battling Limbaugh and his ilk. They're going to keep saying that if government seems not to be solving all problems, then government is 100% of the problem and plutocracy is blameless. And it'll be necessary to keep pointing to GOP policies and capitalists run amok and say: We saw victims. We still see victims.

And no, this isn't a call for overturning capitalism -- it's a call for saving it by limiting its power to do harm. FDR saved capitalism; Obama if he succeeds, is going to do something similar.

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