September 27, 2015

What Are the Representatives That Gave Boehner Grief?

Congressman John Boehner
Congressman John Boehner
This past week was notable for its profusion of big news stories. (I’ve already written about one of these, the Volkswagen scandal. See What Can VW Do?”) One of these stories was the announcement by Speaker of the House John Boehner that he will resign from the House of
Representatives at the end of next month.

As might be expected, there was a good deal of commentary in the media about the Boehner news. Much of that commentary involved conflicts between the Speaker and members of his own Republican Party in the House. For example, NPR’s Renee  Montagne noted, “The Republican speaker has battled with conservatives in his party for years.” Other NPR stories (e.g., this one today) have noted Boehner’s conflicts with his party’s “conservative base.”

Such rhetoric seems to suggest that John Boehner is some kind of liberal, a conclusion that could not be further from the truth. By any measure, Boehner is conservative—very conservative, in fact. His problem with members of Congress from his own party is largely about tactics, not about fundamental objectives. The conflict in the House was nicely characterized (again on NPR) by David Brooks:
And John Boehner is an institutionalist and a politician. He believes in politics. You’ve got a Democratic president. There’s only so much I can do; I got to compromise here; I got to adjust there. A lot of his opponents don’t believe in politics. They believe in self-expression. They just want the pure stand. And so they hated him because he didn’t do the pure stand. But he was practicing politics as it is conventionally practiced.
(The above quotation is from a transcript. I’m sure Mr. Brooks would edit it if given the chance.) Those representatives who are more interested in self-expression than in politics are not simply “conservative.” They are radicals, and calling them “conservatives”  does not adequately distinguish them even from the mere right-of-center. They are more extreme than even the likes of John Boehner, and they are more about dismantling the government than governing. They long for a time—perhaps a mythical time—that lacked taxes, government regulation, social welfare programs, and actual facts, a time when women and niggers knew their place. The 1870s might do the trick. The 1880s might be better still.

We need a name for such people. They are sometimes described as tea partyers—read this essay if this spelling disturbs you—but this too seems inadequate for a number of reasons. It suggests an antipathy toward taxes, perhaps, but the philosophy (or philosophies) of these folks is much broader. The term suggests that there is such a thing as the Tea Party, but there isn’t, possibly because these people are wary of organizations generally. They are individualists that don’t give a fig about any wider community. Among them are nativists, racists, narcissists, religious fundamentalists, anarchists, hysterics, anti-intellectuals, science skeptics, homophobes, misogynists, anarchists, and political reactionaries. Of course, not all right-wingers exhibit all these pathologies, but you get the idea.

So, how should we refer to Republicans who are beyond “conservative”? This is a bit of a tough question, because the group is not homogeneous, and decency requires a name that is descriptive without being blatantly insulting, tempting though that might be. (“Political terrorists” comes easily to mind.) My word choice would be “reactionaries.” No doubt, many would prefer a term like “traditionalists,” but there are, of course, many traditions to which one might or might not want to return.  “Reactionary” simply implies returning to the past.

Does any reader have a better idea?


  1. Another good alternative is “far right,” a characterization used on today’s Diane Rehm Show.

  2. The term 'lunatic fringe' sometimes comes to mind, but the size of the support is more than a fringe. (See e.g polls concerning numbers of citizens who believe that Obama is a Muslim, and the New Yorker's coverage of white hate groups that support Republican front runners). There are broader historical movements at work, as a wise old and well educated German related to me about his deep worries concerning America. As the German pointed out to me, the size of the U.S. and the wide reach of its empire will cause the emergence of a fascist dictator to have repercussions around the world. Therefore, some sound historical terminology is needed to highlight the re-emergence of unwanted historical movements, rather than allowing old anti-democratic movements to be disguised by new labels, simply to be polite.
    Setting aside the anti-Catholicism aspect of the "Know Nothing" Party, I find that the label of "Know-Nothings" is much more descriptive than "Tea Partyers". As Lincoln once said, if the Know Nothings came to power, he would prefer to live in a land such as Russia with no hypocritical pretense to love liberty, but rather accepted pure despotism for what it is. In many respects, we have been experiencing a revival of the Know-Nothing party.
    The amalgam of outliers can also be called the F.A.R. right, which to my mind stands for an alliance of Fundamentalists, Anarchists and Racists. The many varieties of the FAR right if they continue to flourish, will result in the emergence of a popular Strong Man or strong corporate party, in order to control them. Hence Stephen Colbert's joke that his interview of Trump was an interview of the last president of the United States.
    The Atlantic magazine this month has a fascinating short column about government structure and function. In short, the writer sees American style democracy, with separate centers of power in the Executive and Legislative, as requiring the art of compromise in order to survive. The militant Tea Partyers are therefore a very destructive force as past threatened and actual government shutdowns have already proven. The writer sees the 17th century English Civil War as the outcome of the historical precedent for this form of dual-power centered government, and points out that the modern parliamentary form of government is the only type of democracy which has succeeded in modern times elsewhere in the world. The analogy to the 17th century English Civil War and the governments that followed, is very powerful. Insofar as labels are concerned, the terms from the English Civil War (aka the"Great Rebellion") were 'Roundheads' and 'Cavaliers' but those terms are not illuminating.
    In my old age, I have been finding more and more historical roots to 20th and 21st century conflicts in the events of the 17th century beginning with the Thirty Years War.
    If you ever get a chance, you should take a look at a book entitled "Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism" by Sheldon Wolin, a retired Princeton professor. The book has considerable descriptive power in its analysis of the problems of our modern form of government, and its potential to be just another predecessor to a totalitarian dictatorship. The writer waited until he was retired and his pension was in place, before he published the book. You might find some more labels in that book but not all of them will be polite.
    A final postscript: As far as I am concerned, you can throw Duncan and his splinter church in with the Know-Nothing crowd. One of the cornerstones of his church is homophobia, which is simply another name for pure, unadulterated bigotry. Like the Know-Nothings, homophobes do not believe that all men are created equal. I no longer have any patience for homophobes. I am fully convinced that if Jesus was here today, he would be standing with gay people, and standing against the Pharisees of the modern churches.


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