How a Newt Gingrich Republican ended up at the Democrat Socialists of America organization event yesterday...
“God helps those who help themselves”, Ruth Skeen Bossie (“Grammy”)
Demographically speaking, being a conservative was not a choice in my life. Born into a family of classic American strivers, especially on my mother’s side, growing up in northeast Atlanta, fertile ground from which came Newt Gingrich, Sean Hannity, and other key figures in the conservative movement, and, of course, being white and male, pretty much sealed the deal as to where my head would be politically come my 25th birthday in 1992.
In our world, which always had some sort of financial success (always on my mother’s side, my father’s fortunes cresting, ebbing, and then cresting again), this success was spun as being the result of two things:
1. It was part of God’s blessings for my grandparent’s belief in him
2. It was earned as being part and parcel of the Gospel of Wealth.
Such was the narrative spun by my maternal grandparents, especially Grammy, quoted above. A woman who preached Calvinism with the tenacity of a boot camp drill instructor, to Grammy *everything* was a teaching moment, and what was being taught was the Gospel of Thrift and how God financially rewarded them for living a good life. Even though Grammy was a converted Catholic (to marry Grampy), she was a true fire and brimstone Protestant at heart who could quote Andrew Carnegie and was absolutely certain God was looking down, picking winners and losers by the minute.
I was taught bookkeeping at the age of 8. By 10, my grandfather and I would go over stock reports, tracking his holdings (he had a thing for conglomerates, which weren’t doing so hot in the late ‘70s, IIRC), learning to read balance sheets and income statements. By the time I was coming into awareness, my grandparents had long retired – early, leaving for Florida at the age of 55, Grammy just *despising* West Virginia and the people there, holy Hell she hated that place – but they still owned about 10 homes and a 1/3rd interest in a campground, their share worth apprx $2 million when they sold in 1981, and this kept my grandfather busy until he was in his 80s.
On my father’s side, it was more turbulent. In a five-year span, he went from a successful JC Penney’s executive with a beautiful second wife to a man with his ass in jail, having lost his *second* job to theft. He was able to get his shit together by marrying a woman who had zero problem kicking my father’s ass, starting a business which took off immediately. 4 years after being in jail, he was President of a $6 million firm which specialized in telephone book delivery.
Do not tell me white privilege doesn’t exist people: I’ll just throw my father at ya’. He was able to do this because he looked competent, in that Midwestern executive way:
Even my grandparents, who detested my father as much as they detested West Virginia, allowed that Bob had straightened himself out.
This was the milieu in which I was raised. We were conservative because conservatism worked, conservatism worked because we were conservative. My grandparents saved their money, they invested, and they became wealthy. My father was a successful entrepreneur in the Time of Reagan, thereby validating both my grandparent’s vision as well as the spirit of the new, conservative age.
“A is A”, Aristotle, by way of John Galt, “Atlas Shrugged”
And so I enter the scene, immersed in this atmosphere for about 15 years before I start becoming politically aware myself. Now I’m not going to bore you with details of my conservative beliefs for they really just boiled down to *My family is getting wealthier, therefore what Reagan and Rush and Grammy are saying works, and will always work*. I began to proselytize at this time, just as I do now, but this time for the Reagan revolution, smaller government, lower taxes, more. Unlike my grandparents, I did not care a whit about abortion so was comfortable with the moniker of being “socially liberal, fiscally conservative”, a early-90s way of saying “I’m a conservative who is OK with abortion” without saying “I’m a conservative who is OK with abortion”. But I knew that “we”, the Rationals (for I was about tax and economic policy) still needed the religious people on our side to get the votes, so “we” held our nose whenever abortion came up and let them have their say so we could have their votes. And, it didn’t matter, we would always outnumber them.
As mentioned, I lived in Atlanta, Georgia, from 1971 to 2000 effectively (I did go to college in Statesboro and Athens, GA). I believe that the influence of the north Atlanta suburbs on the 1990s conservative movement cannot be overstated… well, it can, but it’s definitely being understated now, that is for sure. It was where Rush Limbaugh had his first top-10 market breakout. It was where Neil Boortz got his start, going up against an even younger Sean Hannity in the hotly competitive 9am-noon talk radio slot, before Hannity was poached by Fox News. Tales of the “New South” were so dominant and persuasive, no less a figure than Tom Wolfe followed up his scathing indictment of New York City, The Bonfire of the Vanities with a withering treatment of what he called ‘the most underappreciated city in America’, Atlanta, in A Man In Full.
And it was where Newt Gingrich came to power.
To me, a political movement which mouthed the same values which my family espoused, those very values which obviously were validated by my family’s own success, was like flies to honey. I drank that shit *up*. I preached the gospel of small government, lower taxes, the Laffer curve, frugality and thrift, the wasteful Democrats who created dependency because of government handouts, the fight against Communism… but not for long, to be fair, Communism ceasing to be a threat when I was in my early 20s (Thanks, Reagan!). I celebrated the Contract With America in 1994, talking to its worthiness on whatever dial-up Prodigy forum I was on at the time. I volunteered for Gingrich, Dole, Steve Forbes, George HW Bush, Bush 2. I adored Rand, read Friedman, Hayek, some book called *The True State of the Planet* which argued against environmental measures, Sowell, others. I studied economics at the University of Georgia. I became more vocal, learning to debate with Scott and Gary, constantly arguing and honing our shared conservative positions. I would time my lunches to catch the best parts of the Limbaugh show. I converted my (now ex) wife, a New Deal Democrat when we met, to being a conservative…
Again, it worked. Just look at my family. A is A. Existence exists. And we were living proof that the now-dominant capital-C Conservative movement… for by 1996, post-war liberalism was in full retreat… was the better way for all of America. And, coming to the end of 1995 or so, I was 100%, absolutely, convinced that America was on the right path with our new Conservative viewpoint.
“To be frank, we make millions off the back of people poor and desperate enough to deliver phone books”, Robert Laird Thornton (“Dad”)
It is the small things which cause big changes for most people, I truly believe that. One may be in an abusive relationship for years, but only commit to leaving because a pitying, knowing, look was cast by a co-worker.
I mentioned this in a memorial discussion: when Rush Limbaugh lied about a character in the movie “Independence Day”, that the questions began. First of him and his accuracy. Yeah, it was a dumb mistake, but easily corrected… and I knew that he was being told that he was wrong about this one thing… but he never corrected it. And then I started asking myself, “well, what else is this guy wrong about?”
So… a lot of things. But let me boil it down to two:
1. The conservative position was axiomatic. For example, the belief that “lowering tax rates increases tax revenues” was not a debatable position. It was, in fact, the axiomatic foundation from which a lot of 1980-2020 tax policy was constructed. Is it true? Does it sound true?* It doesn’t matter, it is true. Just ask any conservative.
2. The conservative position, at least as expressed by Rush Limbaugh, was whiny. Now… this is personal. May not convince a single one of you who have made it this far (thanks), but to me, nothing… NOTHING… is more irritating than a whiny man. And Rush was a whiner who complained about everything, even though he was speaking to the “rugged individualists” (using one of his favorite phrases, at least in the 90s) of the conservative movement. But he just whined. Liberals were doing this. Democrats were doing that. Ebonics (as much a non-controversy as I’ve witnessed in my life). Political Correctness. Monica. Clinton was having donors sleep at the White House. Hillary was female and doing stuff. Just constant, non-stop, whining. Not complaining, not explaining… whining.
But, that was just Limbaugh, right?
Having had a bad 1996, her marriage troubled, Catherine is now worried about having enough money for the boys’ Christmas. She looks in the classified ads of her local newspaper and sees a possible answer for her problem: She can deliver phone books for extra cash!
Excited, Catherine calls the number and is scheduled for a meeting. She goes to the meeting, meets the nice manager with the really thick copy of “Atlas Shrugged” on the desk, and he tells her about the job of delivering phone books. He makes it sound simple, she can do a couple of routes, make $150-200, problem solved. And she can do it in her spare time.
Signs the contract w/o reading it. Gets the route envelope, drives to the back to load 576 telephone directories into her Toyota Corolla. Whelp, she can only get 350 in there, so Catherine gives an embarrassed chuckle and asks if she can deliver these and get the rest later. Of course you can, Catherine! Just get those damn things out of my warehouse!
She immediately drives to the delivery area, her car behaving completely different now that it has 600 pounds of phone books in the trunk and back seat. ‘This can’t be good on my brakes’, Catherine thinks, stopping in a nice neighborhood. Too late, she remembers that the books have to be bagged. So she stands by her car and bags some, and starts walking, taking each book to the door step. And she walks back to the car, bags some more books, and then walk some more in the other way, again to the door step. And after about 30 minutes, tired and a little irked, Catherine tells herself she needs to get home to get dinner on the table.
She heads home. Her kids are there. She has them unload the books. She drives back for the rest of them. Goes home, kids unload, makes dinner, and her kids get a nasty surprise: They get to help mom bag up 500 damn phone books! So that’s what the three of them do for 2 hours, putting the books in Catherine’s car.
She goes out the next morning, 300 books loaded. All residential books have to go to the door, all businesses need to be walked in, people who advertised in the book need to sign for it (no, you don’t get extra money for signatures), this takes about 6 hours for her to do. Kids, dinner, sleep, and it is the next day.
She does the remaining 200 books on day 3, returning to the office around noon with 13 books remaining in her car, the car which is now making some weird noises and just this morning developed a slight shudder as the brakes were pressed.
Goes to the nice manager, telling him the route is done.
“Great! You took out 576 books, came back with 13, that gives you 563 delivered. At $.13/book, that will be $73.19!”
“I worked 3 days on this. My car has been run ragged, and all I get is $73? Don’t you even have a gas allowance?”
“No, we do not.”
Catherine signs the completed contract, bitterly complaining the entire time. What else is she going to do? She’s not going to do another route, but that doesn’t matter to the manager, the kid with the *Atlas Shrugged* book – all he cared about was she did one route, got 563 books delivered that he doesn’t have to worry about anymore. It wasn’t his fault she earned herself $73.19 on 18 hours of work (including her kids bagging the books), or $4.06/hour.
After all: God helps those who help themselves, right?
And the company? Well, we made $365.95 in revenue, paid Catherine $73.19 of that, netting… prior to all other expenses of course… $292.76. And given our profit margins tended to hover around 12-14%, my parents made $43.92 by paying Catherine $72.19 to do their physical labor for them.
A is A, Catherine! You should have read that contract before signing it! Caveat Emptor!
At our peak (2006) we delivered about 30,000,000 books a year via this manner, profited about $.08/book, raking in about $2.4 million in profits. And we went through approximately 10,000 Catherine’s… and their cars… every year. For 30 years.
Conservatism works, guys. Unless you’re Catherine. For her, a belief system where she has little value beyond the monetary, one that even tells her that her poverty is the result of her personal failures… (“Why did she have kids if she can’t afford them?” “She could have asked for help. Fact that she didn’t, eh, that’s on her.” “Hey, she signed an agreement. She should’ve read it.”)… provides cold comfort for her giftless children.
Good news is coming for people, like Catherine, who may start to wonder about the economic structure ruining their lives! FOX News is coming online to tell the Catherine’s of the world that their poverty isn’t caused by exploitative people like my family and I, no, God no, that would be silly! Why, their poverty is caused by all those others who were also delivering our phone books! Immigrant others. Islamic others. Mexican others. Black others. Welfare others. And, eventually, Liberal Others.
But not rich others. Not conservative others. Not the wealthy, white, conservative others who have enslaved you to years of debt, Catherine, just to have a car that breaks down while doing work for other wealthy, white, conservative others delivering their dumb phone books.
Not them, Catherine, they’re not to blame. The other others are to blame.
You know who they are.
Out of Control
“When reality does not match your assumptions, check your assumptions.”, Long-forgotten University of Georgia philosophy professor, 1989.
My ex-wife told me a number of times that the thing which bothered me the most is when things weren’t “fair”. Now, I’m perfectly fine with lopsided battles – Michael Spinks got paid well for his 91 seconds against Mike Tyson, for example – but unsportsmanlike conduct. That’s a “no”. Changing the rules of the game in the middle of it. Fuck that, the rules are the rules. Even changing the very nature of the game in your pursuit of winning – no.
There was something troubling about how easy Dubya won the 2000 Republican nomination. He was anointed, anointed early, and that was that. Eh, swallowing my pride and all that, I gladly voted for Bush and, later that night, I, too, was outraged by the unfairness of Al Gore withdrawing his concession, and eagerly awaited the recounting of the votes to determine the real winner.
And what I saw, on my side, was just… disgusting. Limbaugh ramps up the hate to levels where I effectively turn him off for good, only listening when major events occurred like 9/11, Obama’s 2008 win, etc. The lawsuits to stop the recount and just declare Dubya the winner. The actual design of the “butterfly ballot” itself, obviously designed to confuse the voters for the purpose of drawing off Al Gore votes, giving them to Pat Buchanan. Not many voters, but maybe enough, and in 2000, enough people were, (imho), *purposely* confused by this design to throw the national election.
Not that it mattered because the Bush team committed the gravest sin of all: They stopped the vote count and had the Supreme Court of the United States declare him the victor. At the time I was OK with this… it was ugly, but the nation needed to “move on” (lol, sound familiar?) When the FL Supreme Court ordered a recount (there were up to 61k uncounted votes), the Bush team immediately petitioned Scalia, who strong-armed the USSC into stopping the count, with Stephens dissenting, noting that “counting every legally cast vote cannot constitute irreparable harm.”
But it does if you’re a Republican. Which, of course, was, and is, the point.
Well, that’s just great. My guy won, but under shitty circumstances, with the courts showing me they are willing to overturn democracy for the technocratic demands of the law. The *principle* is to count every vote, but technically, the law says votes have to be certified by THIS SPECIFIC date, so principles be damned – there’s a deadline! It’s right there! In paper, and everything!
Hopefully, this was an aberration and Bush and his team of crack, experienced advisors will be able to continue the 90s record of peace and prosperity, right?
I do not need to go into the problems of the Bush Presidency, they are well documented, having occurred in the Internet age. 9/11. Iraq, where thousands of American troops were introduced to PTSD’s and crippling injuries, all while destroying a functioning society by the means of killing over 100,000 civilians, in revenge for an attack Iraq did not plan, in search of weapons of mass destruction which never existed, this madness supported by the conservative, Republican establishment. The Great Recession. The growing reliance on whipping up social and cultural issues to drive civic engagement, like the insane debate re: Terry Schiavo.
And all this I watched, with growing disillusionment and a dawning sense of horror - Is this who we conservatives are? It seemed as if the worst elements of the party, the ones I thought we “rationals” could control, were infecting otherwise solid men and women. The whining of Rush became the party platform as people who listened to him for a decade + started getting into office, echoing his grievance politics.
And the intellectual underpinnings I relied on began to buckle. Bush’s economy sputtered at best, then crashed, causing me to wonder about the efficacy of those conservative economic solutions put into place:
… Perhaps getting rid of Glass-Steagall wasn’t the greatest idea in the world?
… Perhaps deregulated financial markets are not necessarily self-correcting?
… Perhaps capitalism, despite the arguments of Ayn Rand, Hayek, and others… perhaps it really isn’t a moral system which demands honesty in all transactions, but… maybe it’s just another con?
… And, you know, the United States… rapidly turning into a post-industrial hyperstate… perhaps it really can’t be run like a New England town hall, no matter how romantic the notion sounds?
… And, holy shit, if you look around the country, it really is falling apart, with a lot of people suffering – perhaps we should address this obvious problem?
“We’re going to do everything… and I mean everything… to kill it.”, Republican House Majority Leader John Boehner discussing blocking Obama’s first term agenda, 2010
The conservatism I grew up with died on November 4th, 2008.
I didn’t realize it then, despite having cast my first vote ever for a Democratic candidate, and I don’t think most Americans understood it either. And, of course, ‘old time conservatism’ – that of small government, low regulation, fiscal and personal responsibility, and a dedication to fairness – it didn’t die immediately, no, it stumbled around for a while, akin to an opera diva who caterwauls for 20 minutes after having been stabbed in the chest.
For a week or two, I was actually intrigued by the Tea Party. I had deluded myself that it was a reaction to Bush’s handling of the economy (it hurts to admit I was this stupid, but it may be good to get it off my chest), but it did not take long to realize that the party had nothing to do with economic justice, the group existing solely so the Republican establishment could use the TP to wipe their ass with Obama hate.
To me, the Great Recession is when conservative economics lost any pretense to validity. Not only had this problem been caused by policies reflecting the conservative viewpoint, the solutions… or lack of… proposed by the GOP did nothing but inflict pain on the very people they were to elected to help. And it was obvious that, despite conservative opposition, the Obama programs did work, at least, as much as they were allowed *to* work. GM didn’t go under. We didn’t enter a vast, long Depression ala 1929-1935 or 1873-1878 though there was every expectation we were about to do so. (I lost a job because of that PowerPoint presentation!)
Obamacare did not have any of the problems forecast by conservatives – job losses, productivity losses, losses in US competitiveness, inflation – and, while problematic, did achieve goals it set out to achieve, and all for the general betterment of mankind, not the specific betterment of some.
The conservatives? They did nothing. Absolutely nothing. Spent the entire period from 2009-onward without forwarding a single policy idea other than hating Obama, tax cuts, and voter suppression. Regardless of the issue, regardless of the need, regardless of the pain, their answer was always “no”. We can’t do this. We can’t afford that.
This wasn’t leadership. 340,000,000 people, 150,000,000 represented by the Republicans, and for the past 12 years, they have done not a single bit of work, not a single notable policy success other than a $1.5 trillion tax giveaway to billionaires in 2017. That’s it. 13 years since Obama was elected, and the conservative response from 2009-onward was to literally stop governing and focus on economic austerity, nihilism, and white cultural grievance.
And then the inevitable happened: Fueled by a growing disassociation from the main society via the creation of internet bubbles, in a country where structural racism is in our very framework, every person to whom racial animus is their #1 issue… every one of them started going to the Republicans, a party which was already having problems attracting minorities.
Slowly, at first, brought in by the Tea Party, whose supporters understood the underlying racial message better than I did, these new conservatives were not interested in traditional economic conservatism but in the anger fueled by their TP congressman, with Limbaugh, always Limbaugh, but now buttressed by Boortz, Savage, Hannity, Carlson, more, all talking in the background fueling the white cultural grievance machine, aided and abetted by the internet and social media.
And this was when the GOP officially left me. While I voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, there were tons of R votes on my down-ballot. But the people I voted for didn’t care about any of that old time conservatism and, by now, I didn’t either. It was bullshit. We weren’t going to get rid of any departments. We weren’t going to get any term limits. We even went to war with the wrong people after 9/11! Hell, you could build arguments showing the Repubs sucked at economic policy compared to the Democrats and have done so since 1869.
In the end, conservatism is a philosophy which overlooks cruelty for profits – you can ask my Dad: just read his quote above. He wasn’t happy when he said this, back in 1998. But he didn’t stop. And neither did I.
This is where things stood in 2014: The conservatives/Republicans had largely shed any pretense of Reagan-era conservatism, except to mouth them at rallies and speeches, and were quickly pivoting to a political party focused on cultural grievance and white identity politics.
“I don’t take responsibility at all.”, Donald Trump, March 13th, 2020.
I do not think I need to waste a lot of words about the last five years, its impact on the Republican party, and the complete and utter rejection of Reagan-era principles for white-grievance nationalism which is so acute the country is in the greatest danger of breaking up since 1860, another banner year in American white-grievance nationalism. I think a photo montage does the trick nicely:
“We have met the enemy and he is us.” Pogo, Walt Kelley.
In my life I have seen the Republican party, the party which defines conservatism in this country, go from exhibiting some of the best qualities of the American identity to rejecting the Founding Fathers for a New York real estate hustler whose incompetence killed 500,000 more people than needed to die. The purposeful, malicious cruelty. Their nihilistic, helpless approach to life. The *open* racism. The subjugation of the citizenry to the financialization of everything, from mortgages to minerals to even housing stock. Societal control via the imposition of debt. And all of this overlaid with a malignant philosophy which claims that failing in an obviously rigged game is the moral fault of the person, not the system, all this driven by people *still* making arguments recognizable and morally acceptable to the slavers of 1860, up to and including armed Insurrection.
And my grandparents? What about their teachings? Well, yes, saving money helped. Do you know what helped more? Having a mentor who was the third richest man in town. Do you know what helped even more?
To me, it wasn’t that conservatism changed. I mean, it did, yes, but what happened is conservatives have shed all pretense about what they want and what their philosophy truly stands for: domination of people via economic subjugation and cultural disillusionment.
A political party with no moral principle other than power is not a political party: It is a mob. And I regret every argument I made, every person I may have converted, for the purposes of promoting conservative ideals, and I will continue to regret it to my dying day.
And, so, in many ways, I’m a conservative who remembered the world exists, morals matter, and we may have to answer for our lives. Too bad the rest of the party, hell, the entire ideology, forgot this.
The Journey was not me moving to the left, but the Right moving to authoritarianism.