The San Francisco Chronicle recently ran a story about efforts by “moderate” members of California’s Republican Party to re-fashion the GOP as a “Conservatarian” movement. Repeatedly thumped at the polls and driven to the brink of electoral irrelevance, the GOP is working to claw back formal influence in the state it ran for decades from the minority thanks to Prop 13.The Chronicle article cited two potential gubernatorial candidates—Neel Kashkari and Andrew Blount—who embody what is supposedly a fresh, less hostile version of the Republican Party. “Both Kashkari and Blount are 40 and favour abortion rights and same-sex marriage rights”, the Chronicle notes. Political witch-doctors in the party point to Schwarzenegger, describing him as “fiscally conservative and socially libertarian”. Even Tim Donnelly, the GOP’s more traditionally crackpot candidate for governor, told the Chronicle that “he is stressing ‘less government, less taxes and more freedom’—not social issues”.
Socially liberal, fiscally conservative. This is the safe zone in modern U.S. politics. In an era straitjacketed by the economic fundamentalism that emerged during the Reagan presidency, it is a formulation which allows politicians to demonstrate compassion while promising to be fiscally “responsible”.
But think about what this all means. On the one hand, I’m happy that the California Republican Party recognises that it is wrong—or more likely, that it is inexpedient—to focus so many of its efforts on violating the civil rights of same-sex couples. It’s nice to see that a handful of its leading politicians recognise that demonising immigrants is cruel. It’s good to know that the political conflict that has been traditionally referred to as the “Culture War” might be drawing to a close in our state.
But I wonder whether California’s citizens will be able to forgive the GOP. Because the civil rights the party’s leadership is grudgingly willing to concede based on its libertarian leanings count for increasingly little given that the Republican Party has not budged an inch on the overriding economic issues.
The civil liberties associated with the breakthrough around same-sex marriage are diminished by the fact that corporations now have the same rights as citizens, rights which confer on our plutocratic elite a political power all out of proportion to their numbers. The economic benefits associated with the recognition of same-sex marriage are degraded because of cuts to benefits and the roll-back of the public sphere. And the children of those couples will grow up in a society which under-funds its schools, makes its universities inaccessible, and deliberately degrades its workforce so that elites can expand their profits.
The importance of dignity and respect should never be understated, and all civil rights victories should be celebrated. But the legalisation of same-sex marriage should not obscure the fact that too many people in our society are now fighting for more than dignity. They are waging a struggle for survival in a hostile economic climate engineered by these new socially liberal and fiscally responsible politicians.
“Fiscal responsibility” is short-hand for deregulating industries, lowering taxes on the rich, rolling back democracy, and building a system of corporate welfare. “Fiscal responsibility” is code for busting unions, casualising labour, cutting money for schools, raising tuition at universities, relaxing pollution laws, and rolling back public welfare. “Fiscal responsibility” is just a nice way of describing a commitment to undermining the security of working people.
The GOP’s “reinvigoration” is simply a matter of conceding to us things which are already constitutionally-guaranteed: civil rights surrounding things like the freedom to marry whomever one chooses and the freedom of women to control their own bodies. The party is giving no ground when it comes to their economic fundamentalism and their commitment to policies which have a proven record of engineering inequality.
The “freedom” that Tim Donnelly trumpets is the freedom of working people to struggle for survival; to work hard and still fail; to play by one set of rules while the rich play by another. It is the “freedom” to attend over-crowded classes in under-funded schools and universities, taught by under-supported teachers, and maintained by under-paid workers; and to leave that school or university and enter a workforce in which your rights as a worker have been stripped away and you labour at the pleasure of someone with more money and therefore more power than you. It is the “freedom” to live a life governed by uncertainty and fear, in which you do not know what will happen if you fall ill, lose your job, or grow old. It is the “freedom” to know that your children will likely struggle even more than you.No party which preaches this kind of “freedom” has a place in a modern democracy. So long as people like Kashkari, Blount, and Donnelly retain their commitment to “conservatarian” economics, they are just as dangerous as their fanatical predecessors, and deserve the same contempt from voters.