On Thursday night I accompanied a pal to a debate at Trinity College just as the government announced free cheese for its citizen mice and Met Éireann breezed on about an approaching hurricane. Most definitely the start of winter: clouds skirted by much too fast, cobbles were drenched in drool, the wind did its Kate Bush thing and the LaDiDa of prospective academia darted about in dickie-bows and rough silk dresses. I met a young woman applying quantum physics to the mechanics of decision-making on the Iraq War and a guy who belittled as foolish, all forms of modern poetry. In the Commons Dining Hall – with tables of free Guinness, wigged men on walls and prayers bellowed out in Latin – Terry Pratchett sat with a tall hat surrounded by a Praetorian Guard of cloaked Professors. It was time to breathe deep and carry on blinking.
A Canadian student put forward a few general pointers to get the, errrr, mud throwing. The United States, she said, is probably the world’s most successful democratic experiment. Its political system has been allowed to luxuriate in discourse, a party system laced in freedom of expression, political processes that allow for pragmatic policy making, etc., all hugely successful. However, when a party subverts that balance through the abuse of this political system, it undermines the very principles it claims to defend. The Republican Party (RP) has constructed a system that can only lead to systematic disadvantage for America’s working class…it is guilty of bringing class back into politics. Uncontrolled trade with China, reckless borrowing, low wages, mortgage debt, are also laid squarely at its door. The speakers on the night included politics students, visiting academics, journalist, human rights campaigner, political activist, and several fuzzy heads with strong opinions. Below is a much abridged version of what the gobs had to say:
Gob One: It’s not about where the Republican Party (RP) say they were at the time of Abraham Lincoln or even 15 years ago, it’s about where they are now. They are trying to turn back the clock, it has become a party of incessant “no no no”. You need more than ‘no’ to run a country. You need to put forward viable ideas, to show that you’re willing to work with the other side, etc. The party’s policy on illegal immigrants is grotesque, its members have openly said gays are an abomination, it is riddled with hypocrisy and is sinking America further and further into the abyss.
Gob Two: The Republican Party’s tactics are necessary, it is a party of genuine principles trying hard to simply bring those forward. However, as an opposition party, they don’t have the Presidency, the Senate or the House this time, which means it has not been able to put forward any policies in practice. It is also a party of widely varying views, a huge coalition of business people, crazy Evangelicals, and people who just pathologically hate Democrats. A Republican in Maine will probably have more in common with a Democrat in Maine than he would with a Republican in Alabama. This is what makes the current state of play so complex. America is a large enough country to accommodate such diverse viewpoints. This debate is also not about the Democrats. Barack Obama is not a Republican, he can’t control what the Republicans do and don’t do, and vice versa. What this debate is about: the main criticism of the party in the last two years is directed at their instruction. The RP had to shout and shout and shout in order to stop the Democrats bringing forward certain ridiculous legislation. Democrats did the exact same thing when they were in the driving seat too, for instance, speaking out against Bush. No-one had a problem with how the political system [speaking out in opposition] worked then.
Gob Three: One of the salient facts about the Democratic Party is that we beat the alternative. Let’s remember what the RP has done in history: it opposed Medicare, the highering of the minimum wage, social security, the Clean Water Act, basically any piece of progressive legislation. It’s not a pretty legacy. What do they favour? This idea of ‘freedom’, the rugged individual. It sounds great, but let’s look at the downside of that so-called freedom and limited government. You lose your job and you need an extension of unemployment benefits: tough luck, that’s freedom. You don’t have health insurance but you get sick and incur huge medical bills: tough luck, that’s freedom. You get over your head in credit card debt, tough luck, that’s freedom. On the plus side, if you earn over $200,000 a year and you want more tax cuts, sure the RP can help, that’s freedom. If that’s their version of freedom, I’d rather be a slave. The second theme that runs through a lot of the RP’s invective is Jesus Christ. At a debate when George Bush was seeking RP nomination, he was asked who his idol was and he said “Jesus Christ”. A man who hasn’t lived on the planet for 2,000 years. Very useful. Such a Christian man, allegedly, but Bush’s war doctrine has done huge damage to America. Thousands and thousands of lives lost and trillions of dollars in debt. The American people turned against Bush due to their frustrations with incessant war and the dire state of the economy. They took a chance on someone new − Barack Obama − who came to office with ideas of hope and change, exciting people not just in US but around the world. In the past two years, what’s happened? Unfortunately the US is in grave difficulty, it looks like for the first time in America’s history, kids are destined not to have a debt-free progressive life that their parents enjoyed. People are frustrated and scared. What do the Republicans do in response? They play to people’s worst fears and expectations. They destroy Obama’s record on spending, and also his reputation on healthcare. They are calling him a socialist, saying he wasn’t even born in US, and so on. When you have a prominent Republican who will constantly give succour and comfort to the ridiculous allegations that Obama is not a true American, it starts to catch hold. It’s a hate campaign that’s going on 24 hours a day. A disgusting dangerous senseless tactic.
Gob Four: The proposition here is that the RP is hurting America. Firstly, we have ‘primaries’ which is a very open democratic process and out of that comes a mix of people who are umbrella’d under the RP. Opinions differ on almost everything from state to state, as do opinions on the current Tea Party malarkey for instance, which is being solely associated with the RP and not as an entity on its own right. So this is all important. Secondly, what have we done? We’re responsible for virtually every boom era since the 1950s, the internet revolution, technological advancement, etc. OK, so 9/11 happened on Bush’s watch and that was dealt with as he saw fit, with a huge surge of support from the American people at the time. He also managed to avoid a repetition of those events, whether you agree or not! The current breakdown in social programmes, infrastructure, and so on, is directly related to how the Democrats are handling and implementing policy. Thanks to last Tuesday’s results, the Republicans can now have a lot more say in the shaping of these policies. We need to start agreeing on our real problems. We need to put a halt on the political logger-heading and get the important work done to restore faith in America for Americans and in our reputation worldwide.
Gob Five: When Barack Obama took the presidency in the middle of global meltdown and a budget deficit that was spiralling out of control, he said one thing to the opposition: “I will shake your hand if you will unclench your fist.” That call which was made after Bush’s many failed policies, has still not been met. Instead of helping to clean up the mess caused by the RP, the opposition continues to exploit the pain, anxiety and fear of the American people. Every ounce of energy goes on opposing absolutely everything, some pieces of legislation argued against up to 112 times. The damage is the likes of my father’s job, which he lost earlier this year. Ordinary citizens like him are finding themselves in unimaginable situations at a time in life when things would’ve been secure. The vitriol that they spout, making politics an arena for the angry mind, a place where hatred can incubate. This is an apt description of RP’s contribution in recent times to political dialogue. Bigotry, hatred, prejudice, scaring Americans into thinking that the country is under attack. The leader of the Tea Party called Obama a ‘Indonesian turned Muslim welfare thug!’ The party, hideous and hilarious as it seems at first, has managed to raise tens of millions of dollars to support its hateful outcry. We need to stop this type of hatefulness if we’re going to move forward. The stakes are too high, the problems are too big, the divides are too great. Abraham Lincoln once said: “We’re not enemies but friends”. So why is it that my country is now a house divided? The RP stands in the way of progress.
Gob Six: What have the RP done I hear you ask? We ended slavery, opposed segregation, founded the environmental movement…oh God, do I really need to stand here and list off all that the RP have achieved or can I assume that you all know it already, even begrudgingly? Yes we did oppose Medicare as it was an intensely flawed piece of legislation. We believe that the RP serves a real purpose, it represents the real views of the American people, such as freedom, yes, even unpopular rights like guns and religion! It’s the Democrats who stoke the fires of class war and racism constantly accusing RP members of being anti-black and anti-hispanic, and so on. They are obsessed with race! When Democrats were in opposition they talked endlessly about war mongering too and fear, and yet we are being accused of the same thing now. We don’t think the government should be telling you what to do, taking your hard-earned cash and spending it on what they want to do. We believe that you should be able to hold onto your money and so what if that means reducing taxes!
Gob Seven: The media in America is very anti George Bush. They quoted him! A couple of those quotes are worth mentioning again. ‘The problem with the French is they do not have a word for entrepreneur.’ Another one: ‘I think we ought to raise the age at which juveniles can have a gun.’ Or how about: ‘I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family’. These folks, were real statements. They are a symbol of the RP, of idiocy, division, hatred. When I started in politics in 1965, the Democrats supported gay, lesbian & transgender rights, the farm workers of Central Valley, environmentalism, multi-cultural society…we were the first to talk about a global village with Robert F Kennedy. It was the Democrats that took leadership on domestic issues. But I am ashamed to admit that we sold ourselves short with Republicans on foreign policy, engaging in several illegal wars. Yet I’m proud to be a Democrat, they at least have a look into the future. By contrast the RP is concerned with promoting division, hatred and anger. When will we learn that US foreign policy cut the world into units from sub Saharan Africa to new nations in Eastern Europe that we now control: a bully policeman mentality, the world has stood by idly. Shame on the EU and Ireland, for not speaking up. America has invaded a sovereign nation every nine months since its 200 year history. Republicans and Democrats are both responsible. But I do think that at least the Democrats represent passion, hope, cohesion, not constantly dividing by class, bank account or education. The RP victory of last Tuesday is worrying, yet they can no longer blame the Democrats when it comes to the next general election.
Gob Eight: Quite a few people here tonight have made reference to RP’s so-called woeful foreign policy. And yet I think back to moments such as Ronnie Reagan standing at the Berlin Wall and insisting it be torn down years before it was. George W Bush liberated Iraq too, however unpopular you may feel that is. But in any case, this proposition put forward tonight is unfair because it questions democracy. It’s arrogant. The people have voted, there is also now a huge surge of RP support. There are vital issues ahead too. The Obama administration is fundamentally naive re: global security issues. We now face the most serious global threat we’ve ever faced: Iran’s nuclear capability. The leader of Iran is the most dangerous politician the world has ever seen. That regime has a maniacal drive towards arming itself with nuclear weapons. We need more Republican might in Capitol Hill to inject some reality into this issue. I believe the alternative is far too dangerous. On domestic issues, let’s just look something closer to home: the Northern Ireland power-sharing coalition − it would not exist without the RP. In 2006, it was the Bush administration and Mitchel Reece’s (US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland) hard-headed realism that brought our country forward into a new era of workable peace. They insisted that the agreement would not be signed without the important issue of policing being included. The DUP would never have got into government with Sinn Féin unless these issues were thrashed out. The RP played a very important benign part in this process and that shows me what they can do. The RP is an integral part of America, it complements the Democrats, and should be taken more seriously.
The night’s essayist concluded by saying: “I don’t think it’s arrogant to question a party’s right to exist: that’s how democracy works. I question if a party is really upholding the principles they defend. The democratic process is a great thing and in the US it’s starting to break down. The summation of this debate has been an awful lot of mud throw. We’ve basically concluded that Democrats and Republicans have screwed up at least five times. However, it’s not about proving one another wrong. The strength of a political system comes from the idea that most successful legislation that has ever gone to the American house or senate, has been put in place by compromise. An idea being put forward by one party and supported by another. I take issue with the Republican Party because it is undermining this very process by creating policies that are manipulative.”
The motion was carried. We drank a rake of Bavaria beer, crawled home.
June Caldwell is a writer, who after 13 years of journalism, is finally writing a novel. She has a MA in Creative Writing and was winner of ‘Best Blog Post’ award at the 2011 Irish Blog Awards. You can read this post on her own blog here: