Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Is It Possible to Be a Good Mormon and a Republican?

I thought that might get your attention. Usually this sort of question involves that other political party. But as things in God’s Only Party have gotten crazier and crazier, maybe we ought to talk about the assumption of many (most?) Mormons that the Republican Party somehow has a corner on political correctness (pun and irony fully intended).
First a confession. Toward the end of 2015, I officially gave up my decade-long sojourn in the land of the unaffiliated and signed up for the Democratic Party. I did this because I edited the 2015 Maeser Distinguished Faculty Lecture by David Magleby, which is published in the current issue of BYU Studies Quarterly. No, Magleby didn’t promote the Democrats. He spoke about the necessity of political parties in the U.S. and the importance of compromise. He made such a solid case for becoming politically involved and joining a party that I followed his advice. “So what do you do as a citizen if you don’t like either of the parties?” he asked. “You work to change the one you dislike the least.” Since I pretty much completely dislike what the Republican Party has become, it was a fairly easy choice. There is a secondary benefit for me in joining the Democratic Party. Magleby put it this way: “Having two competitive parties moderates outcomes and reduces corruption.” He suggested that some of the political and governmental problems we’ve been experiencing in Utah may be due to the dominance of one party. So, in my small, insignificant way, I’m doing my part to bring the state back into balance.
But that’s not the primary reason for my decision. The main motivator is that I cannot, in good conscience, support the GOP’s rapidly accelerating descent into madness (both kinds). Before I was unaffiliated, I was a Republican. My exit from the GOP ranks was due to economic issues, but since then the Republican positions on almost everything have had me shaking my head. I sometimes wonder if many of my fellow Utah Mormons have thought much about the array of Republican positions they effectively support by voting straight “R.” I still remember a discussion we had in high priests group one Sunday several years ago, when a good friend of mine expressed what I fear is a common belief among LDS Republicans. “Well, what other issues are there?” he exclaimed, referring, of course, to the two determining issues for many Mormons: abortion and same-sex marriage.
Well, actually, there are a lot of other issues. And since even a Republican Congress and a conservative-leaning Supreme Court haven’t been able to reverse abortion law and have legalized same-sex marriage, these two issues seem to offer rather weak reasons for ignoring all the other pressing problems of the day.

The Purpose of Government
What we have at the core of the two major political parties is a fundamental philosophical disagreement over the whole idea of government. While the Democrats have generally regarded government as an extension of the people, a tool we citizens can employ to help create a more just, equitable, peaceful, and prosperous society, Republicans have taken a strongly negative view. Government, if you believe Republican rhetoric, is evil. It's something to get angry about. It is the source of our problems, not a possible solution to the many perplexities of the modern world. According to GOP dogma, the less government, the better. The flip-side of this particular coin is that the free market (which, by the way, is a total myth) is the solution to virtually every problem we might face, from health care to financial shenanigans. But with all the antigovernment rhetoric spewing from the Republican Party over the past couple of decades, we might profitably ask just what the GOP thinks the purpose of government actually is. If the federal government is evil and intrusive, if it is the problem rather than part of the solution, then what role is the government supposed to play? I’ve been paying close attention to the presidential debates and to rhetoric from the Republican Congress, and, as far as I can tell, Republicans believe government should:
1. cut taxes, especially on the wealthy  
2. increase the size and cost of the military
3. wage wars
4. allow businesses to self-regulate
5. extract and burn as much fossil fuel as possible
6. increase pollution
7. oppose efforts to reverse global warming
8. keep the minimum wage at 1950s levels
9. take away health insurance from the poor and the sick
10. increase hunger
11. make education a function of class
12. allow criminals, terrorists, and the mentally ill to easily procure firearms
13. deport all undocumented workers, even those who harvest our food
14. allow the infrastructure to crumble
15. give handouts to corporations
16. drown itself in a bathtub
You may think I’m engaging in hyperbole. Far from it (well, except for the last one, which was actually proposed by that famous GOP tax scholar Grover Norquist). If you look at the positions staked out by the dozen or so remaining GOP presidential hopefuls and by most Republicans in Congress, these are the predictable and reasonable results of the policies they promote. So let’s look at a few of these policies.

Voodoo Economics
Supply-side economics has had over thirty years to prove its merits. So, what are the results? Well, it has been so thoroughly discredited by actual experience that even George H. W. Bush’s snarky label has proved to be too tame. It’s really more like zombie economics. Every time you think it’s finally been killed, it rises from its grave to plague us for another election cycle. Even though it has given us 1920s-style inequality, deficits through the roof, and increasing poverty, it is still the universally accepted economic dogma of the Republican Party. The economic plans promoted by the current GOP presidential candidates simply double down on trickle-down. Tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation of our rogue financial sector, resistance to raising the minimum wage, and cuts to benefits for the poor and elderly. We know where this leads. It’s the trajectory we’ve been on for thirty years. We can do the math. Is this really the future the Republicans want? Apparently so. The problem is that the Republicans haven’t had an original economic idea since Reagan, and his idea was a long-term disaster that is still wreaking havoc. The official Republican economic philosophy, unbelievably, is still that if you cut taxes on the wealthy, deregulate business even more, and cut Social Security and Medicare and food stamps, then the economy will magically grow at unprecedented rates and produce grundles of high-paying jobs. Unfortunately, the math just doesn’t work out. But facts have simply stopped mattering to the GOP. They invent their own and repeat them inside their little bubble until they convince themselves that black is white.

Guns, Science, and Socialism
Two of the hot issues (pun again intended) in recent years that shed light on the state of the GOP are global warming and gun control. The arguments Republican politicians and government leaders offer regarding gun control are so specious they aren’t even worth rebutting. The top GOP dogs simply shrug their shoulders and say there’s nothing we can do to stop the carnage. Nothing. It somehow doesn’t register that almost all other civilized countries have figured this thing out. Only America is exceptional, but in the wrong way. Unfortunately, the NRA controls the GOP on this issue. That Congress refuses to close obvious loopholes in the screening process and even rejects a bill to deny guns to individuals on the terror watch list is simply mind-boggling. There is not a word in the English language to describe this sort of stupidity.
And what about global warming? The Republican response is to deny a virtual worldwide consensus among scientists, ignore subtle signs such as our rapidly melting glaciers, mutter unintelligible hints of a scientific conspiracy, and fight against all reasonable efforts to prevent this crisis before it is too late. This should not be a political issue. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger sees this. It should be a human issue. But because the Democrats have accepted the science and proposed measures to reduce our greenhouse emissions, the Republicans feel obligated to take the opposite position.
This is the same sort of thinking that made Obamacare the GOP’s favorite boogeyman. So what if it was based on conservative ideas, including Mitt Romney’s signature accomplishment as governor? It was promoted by President Obama, so it had to be opposed. If the Republicans had really taken the best interests of the American people to heart, they would have learned from our foreign exemplars in this matter and pushed for a single-payer system. But that is, gasp, socialism. So what if “socialized medicine” in many countries provides quality health care to all members of society at a significantly lower cost than our chaotic market-based system? (Yes, their systems are not perfect, but they are far better than anything we’ve concocted.) But no, we can’t learn from other countries. Ideology always prevails over common sense in the GOP.

The War Party
It’s no secret that the GOP is the war party. Although they preach deficit reduction because it attracts votes, they really want to spend a lot more on the military—and then not fund these expenditures. Even though America has, by far, the most expensive military in the world. We spend more on our military than the next ten countries combined. In 2012, we spent $682 billion. China, Russia, the UK, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy, and Brazil combined to spend $652 billion. The Pentagon is one of the largest landholders on the planet, with 662 military bases in 38 countries, according to Politifact and the Pentagon. But these numbers may be low because some countries prefer not to disclose a U.S. military presence. Ron Paul claimed in 2011 that the U.S. had 900 bases in 130 countries. The truth may lie somewhere in between, although some of these bases are admittedly very small. But still, 662 is a rather impressive number. Do we really need 40,000 troops in Germany, or 50,000 in Japan? Which war, exactly, are they fighting?
So what are we going to do with this massive military? Well, I listened to the recent Republican presidential debate. Good grief. Except for Rand Paul, it sounded like a roomful of teenage video game players bragging about all the ways they were going to create mayhem and carnage. They made Dick Cheney sound like a Girl Scout. Most of their boasts were reckless and some were either senseless or illegal. But that’s what it takes to get votes from the GOP base. Would I trust any of these warmongers to be commander in chief of the largest military by far in the world? Would I trust them to deal with ISIS? Hardly. If we have learned anything from the Iraq debacle, it is that usually the more bellicose we are, the bigger the mess we create. Oh, and by the way, the latest news is that under President Obama’s more measured response, ISIS has now lost 30 percent of the territory it once held.

The Trump Mirror
Many Utah Republicans support Donald Trump. But not as high a percentage as in the nation as a whole. This is not surprising. Most Utahns probably find his crassness and his absurd policy ideas off-putting. But let’s look at the Trump phenomenon and what it means. I would suggest that The Donald is not an aberration. He is the destination the GOP has been heading toward for some time now. He is not the face of the Republican Party. He is the mirror of the GOP. For so long now, Republicans have been told by their leaders that government is evil; it is the problem. And compromise is a sellout. The subtle undercurrent of this message, which most Republicans haven’t been perceptive enough to recognize, is that if you denigrate the messy democratic process of our republican form of government, which often produces less-than-optimal results for either political extreme, you are opening the door to dictatorial methods and leadership from circles that are not used to engaging in the give and take of democratic negotiation. In other words, you open the door to Donald Trump, a blowhard billionaire bully.
But The Donald is actually doing the GOP a big favor, even if he doesn’t win. He is showing Republicans exactly what they have become. Look at the percentage of the party that supports even his craziest, most unconstitutional ideas, such as the ban on Muslims entering the country. If you don’t like Donald, don’t blame him. He’s not inventing these wacky positions. He’s not the source of the anger. He’s merely echoing back to the party faithful what they have come to believe and feel over the past several years of tea-party hysteria and Faux News misinformation. His views on Hispanics, on women, on Muslims, on other politicians? He only spouts them because he is shrewd and understands how much they resonate with the Republican base. If you don’t like The Donald, maybe you don’t belong in the Republican Party, because he is merely reflecting its real values, what it has become.

Not Enough Navel-Gazing
After the thrashing Mitt Romney received in the 2012 election, the GOP party bosses did some serious navel-gazing. They even commissioned a study to identify what they would need to do to win the presidency in 2016. The results were predictable. Demographics in the country were changing. Older white males, who represent the GOP base, were a shrinking segment of society. They would have to find ways to appeal to ethnic minorities, women, and younger voters. They would have to choose a candidate who was not so far right that he would turn off the moderate independents. So, how did this little exercise in self-analysis go? Obviously, there was not nearly enough navel-gazing.
Look at the roster of candidates the GOP has fielded. Not a moderate in the bunch. Well, maybe John Kasich. On some issues. But who are the leaders at this point, as we head into the first primaries? Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and a rapidly fading Ben Carson. Ted Cruz? Seriously? He’s the best hope for beating Trump? Cruz couldn’t get 10 percent of the moderate vote. He annoys even his fellow Republican Senators. So much for the GOP learning anything from its own self-study. This is a party that is totally rudderless and is searching in all the wrong places for its soul.
Well, maybe more right-leaning LDS voters ought to look at the party they support and recognize it for what it has become—and reconsider how they vote.
Bernie Sanders, anyone?