We're often having the wrong argument in this cold civil war. The most recent example was the farm bill that came out of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. For the first time in decades, it stripped away food stamps from the legislation. The rationale was to cut federal spending. And yet the bill ended up giving away even more taxpayer dollars to already highly profitable big agribusiness than was proposed by the Senate or the White House. A useful lens for understanding the battles in America might focus on two areas: The bedroom and the commons.
Republicans are obsessed with legislating what happens in the bedroom. Along with their conservative Democrat fellow travelers, they gave us the Defense of Marriage Act and later rode fear of "the gay" to triumph in 2004. Even though the Supreme Court recently struck down DOMA and more Americans are embracing same-sex unions, Republicans keep trying to introduce or defend so-called anti-sodomy laws. One is Virginia's Ken Cuccinelli, who wants to be governor.
The conservative movement is now moving aggressively against abortion in state legislatures, most prominently in Texas and North Carolina. And they are succeeding. No gentle outreach for bipartisanship here: These Republican-controlled statehouses are ramming through draconian legislation, the opposition be damned. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich signed abortion restrictions, placed in a budget bill, surrounded by only men. Kasich is more popular than ever in a state that was once vigorously competitive and he is heavily favored to win re-election.
Polling on abortion is ambivalent. Most Americans probably agree with Bill Clinton that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare." A politically incorrect confession (at least among liberals): I always thought Roe v. Wade was an over-reach, a miscalculation by the left that took an important issue out of the democratic process and revivified the right. But Roe has been the law of the land for 40 years and custom has grown around it. Conservatives today have no respect for custom. But there's more. Behind these red-state anti-abortion bills is an agenda that is anti-birth control, anti-women's health and of course the desire to gut the potent political forces that back choice. As the Washington Post wrote of the Ohio law, "The provisions...will make it more difficult for family planning groups to receive funding for preventive care; require ultrasounds for anyone seeking an abortion; and limit abortion providers’ ability to get transfer agreements with public hospitals."
Republican individualism and the Ayn Rand ideal stop at the bedroom. "Freedom," the favorite trope of the right, doesn't mean the freedom from state interference in a woman's reproductive choices. And don't forget the continued hold of "abstinence education" for young people. Here the control of the party by the Christian fundamentalists becomes most apparent. With anti-gay bigotry losing traction, a legislative agenda aimed at women is the next frontier. It doesn't seem to matter that many Republican lawmakers and entertainers are hardly models of monogamy and fidelity. Nor does the hypocrisy: A rich woman in Texas, Ohio or North Carolina will always be able to get birth control or terminate a pregnancy. Those most hurt are the fading middle class and growing working poor. If these laws hurt people of color, so much the better. If they hurt the white working poor, no price will be exacted at the ballot box. Today, a "moderate Republican" allows the little lady to work outside the home. Not for nothing are the most extreme and backward societies the ones that place strict limits on women's rights.
Once you're born, you're on your own. As Nobel laureate Paul Krugman comments:
Something terrible has happened to the soul of the Republican Party. We’ve gone beyond bad economic doctrine. We’ve even gone beyond selfishness and special interests. At this point we’re talking about a state of mind that takes positive glee in inflicting further suffering on the already miserable.
Nearly 48 million people are receiving food stamps; most of them have jobs and participation levels are very high in red states. This is not surprising given the deindustrialization of the country, the decline of good, secure and full-time employment, and stagnant incomes. But Republicans want to do to food stamps what they desire for every element of our patchwork safety net: Defund, privatize, starve and then drown them in the bathtub. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and disability insurance were painstakingly put in place and strengthened over decades by both parties. A reactionary fringe of the GOP always opposed them; now it is the GOP.
These programs are part of what might be called the commons: The things we do together, the things we do for each other, resulting in a nation that is not only more compassionate, but also stronger in every way. The Republicans are a wrecking crew loose and at war with the commons, opposed to everything from "government schools" to transit, Amtrak, modern infrastructure, city parks and the National Park System, libraries, you name it. Taxes must always be cut. There is no commons in what passes for conservatism. Tribal affiliations will take care of their own in white-right apartheid suburbs and behind the walls of gated properties. Want a library or a museum? Pay for it yourself. The closest thing to a commons for the right is the military, which must always be funded at ever higher levels and never questioned. And highways. Highways are always good.
The American commons is so strong, built up over more than a century — and not just by government action, but by wealthy philanthropists — that tearing it down will take some time. But it is happening. In most cases, it goes on without protest, political price or even a meaningful discussion about the disastrous vandalism taking place. The right could only live its Randian fantasy in a nation with so many complex common things, including subsidies. We're running on fumes. And the way the governance of the republic is set up, legislators and U.S. senators representing a minority of the population in net-taker districts and states can stymie and tear down programs needed in cities and urbanized states. The results of the destruction will be seen in the years ahead.
The bedroom and the commons are battlefields where the right is generally winning, the one exception being gay rights. The big winners are the plutocrats. Rather than engage in productive, competitive economic activity that creates jobs, they engage in what economists call "rent seeking." This is not only tilting public policy to benefit themselves, but also using monopoly and cartel status, even patent law, to gain further riches, stifle competition and destroy jobs.
I'm not sure how this dies out with the white reactionaries. For one thing, the red states have plenty of younger white reactionaries. Also, these conservative-controlled legislatures and the Supreme Court are enshrining reactionary laws that will give the right an advantage for years. I don't know how this ends.