When the core beliefs of the “Culture Wars” produce more suffering for people living in Red States
According to a popular meme, comedian Noel Casler asked, “How come everything the Republican Party stands for involves other people dying?”
He then went on to note GOP support for assault weapons, opposition to masks and vaccines, opposition to saving the environment, and their all-out war on Obamacare and Medicare-for-All. Casler may have just been being glib, doing the written equivalent of a standup routine, but his question deserves a serious answer, so we should examine the evidence.
It is undeniably true that Republican-controlled “Red” states, almost across the board, have higher rates of: spousal abuse, obesity, smoking, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, bankruptcies and poverty, homicide and suicide, infant mortality, maternal mortality, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault, dropouts from high school, divorce, contaminated air and water, opiate addiction and deaths, unskilled workers, parasitic infections, income and wealth inequality, COVID deaths and unvaccinated people, federal subsidies to states (“Red State Welfare”), people on welfare, child poverty, homelessness, spousal murder, unemployment, deaths from auto accidents, and people living on disability.
But are all these things, along with widespread GOP support for Putin, happening because Republicans hate their citizens and worship poverty, death and disease? Or is there something in the GOP’s core beliefs and strategies that just inevitably leads to these outcomes?
It turns out that is very much the case: these terrible outcomes are the direct result of policies promoting greed and racism that the GOP has been using for forty years to get access to billions of dollars and win elections. Using racism as a political strategy while promoting and defending the greed of oligarchs always leads to widespread poverty, pollution, ignorance, and death regardless of the nation it is done in.
We have seen it over and over again around the world: it is happening today in India, the Philippines, Brazil, and Hungary, for example. And the GOP has spent the past 40 years marinating itself in both. Here is how it happened here in America:
The GOP first openly embraced racism in 1964 when the party’s presidential candidate that year, Barry Goldwater, proudly refused to support the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It was a huge shift for the party of Lincoln, and when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964, the South did a collective “what the hell?!?”
As LBJ told Bill Moyers, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come.”
So the newly publicly proclaimed belief in White Supremacy became an official part of GOP ideology in the 1960s, leading directly to Richard Nixon’s explicitly racist 1968 “Southern Strategy.”
It was later replicated by Reagan speaking about “states’ rights” at his first campaign speech near the scene of the murder of 3 civil rights workers, George HW Bush’s Willie Horton ad campaign, and Donald Trump’s rants about Mexican rapists and people from what he called “sh*thole countries.”
But racism alone cannot explain everything. There had to be something else. The second element embraced by the GOP that filled out the rest of problems happened in 1980 when they hooked up with religious grifters and greedy rich people.
Prior to that election year, George HW Bush and his wife Barbara were big advocates for Planned Parenthood and a woman’s right to choose an abortion. Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, had signed the nation’s most liberal abortion law and was also an outspoken supporter of Roe v Wade and Planned Parenthood.
Similarly, the White evangelical movement prior to 1980 was largely supportive of abortion rights. They were furious, however, when the Supreme Court banned preacher-led school prayer and in the late 1970s Jimmy Carter pulled the tax exemptions of segregated schools run by White evangelicals.
Jerry Falwell had started his “Moral Majority” in 1978 and uber-Christian Paul Weyrich (co-founder of The Heritage Foundation and the guy who famously said, “I don’t want everybody to vote!”) signed up for the Reagan campaign.
As Donne Levy writes for George Washington University’s History News Network:
“Weyrich and Falwell realized that the tax exemption issue based on racial discrimination had limited value, but opposing abortion was a moral issue cutting across racial and religious lines. That was their thinking on the eve of the 1980 elections.”
The election that year saw the first major merger in American history between a political party and a religious movement largely run by grifters. Republicans started talking about God (the word appeared in their platform for only the second time since the Party’s formation in 1856), and preachers and televangelists began to openly push GOP candidates from the pulpit in defiance of nonprofit law and the IRS.
The GOP also adopted Falwell’s call for a return to school prayer, hostility to sex education, rejection of women’s rights, assertion of patriarchy, and open hatred of homosexuality.
Championing what today we would call the “culture wars,” Republicans fully embraced the anti-science perspective of Falwell and his colleagues, questioning for the first time the theory of evolution and scoffing at concerns about pollution causing cancer and other diseases.
Within a decade they were even claiming, as Mike Pence wrote in a 2000 op-ed, “Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.”
As the GOP went deeper down their religion-induced rabbit hole, their hostility to science was logically accompanied by a hostility to education and educated people. George HW Bush and Rush Limbaugh began talking about “pointy-headed liberals in ivory towers,” openly trashing higher education to bring blue-collar voters into the party.
That was followed by a sustained Republican attack on public education itself by pushing for-profit privatized “charter schools,” an ironic position in that Republican President Dwight Eisenhower had probably done more to advance public education than any president in the 20th century.
Thus was set up the GOP’s 2020 hostility to masks and Covid quarantines and their 2021 attacks on vaccination. The other big turning point for the GOP in 1980 was Reagan’s open embrace of America’s oligarchs.
Just four years earlier, in their Buckley v Valeo decision, the Supreme Court ruled that when a rich person showered so much money on a politician that that politician pretty much only voted the way the rich person wanted, that was no longer bribery but, instead, First Amendment-protected “free speech.”
In 1978, in a decision written by Lewis Powell (of Powell Memo fame), the Court extended that right to buy politicians to American corporations – it was extended to international billionaires and corporations in 2010 by Citizens United.
President Jimmy Carter had championed the average person and the rights of working class people: he even walked from the Capitol to the White House after his inauguration rather than take a limousine. Reagan not only brought back the limousine, he turned his inaugural balls into a lavish celebration of wealth and economic power.
The Democratic Party was still, at that time, mostly funded by labor unions; the GOP, however, picked up the opportunity offered them by the Supreme Court four and two years earlier and put up a “for sale” sign, inviting into the party any wealthy person or corporation who would put up enough money for a Republican candidate to win an election.
The result of this whole sad history is that Red states have been turned into sacrifice zones for Reagan’s racial and religious bigotry and the neoliberal raise-up-the-rich and crap-on-unions economic policies he inflicted on America.
The TV preachers have become multimillionaires with private jets, their parishioners have slid deeper and deeper into poverty and addiction, and the unholy alliance of church and state that Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton warned us about is now arguably — behind great wealth — the second most powerful political force in America.
Turns out Noel Casler was right, but the story is a bit more detailed than the GOP just embracing death and disease. Those same policies also make the morbidly rich — from oil barons to televangelists — vastly richer, and those rich people and their businesses and churches return the favor by pushing their followers and cycling part of their profits back toward Republican politicians.
© Thom Hartmann, used with permission. Originally published on The Hartmann Report as Why Does Everything the GOP Touches Cause Poverty, Disease & Death?
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