The most significant political development of the Obama era – or, more precisely, its most significant backlash – has been the rise of a grassroots conservative movement that pines for a nirvana
that never actually existed.
Joe Miller, the tea-party Alaskan who snatched the GOP senatorial nomination away from incumbent Lisa Murkowski, articulated this nostalgia quite nicely yesterday during an appearance on Fox News Sunday. When asked to explain why he thought that unemployment benefits were unconstitutional, he said this:
“The Constitution provides enumerated powers. And I guess my challenge is to anybody that asks, ‘Show me the enumerated power.’ And then look at the Tenth Amendment that says, if it’s not in the Constitution, it’s a power that belongs to the state and the people. And I think we have to stop being disingenuous about what the Constitution provides for. It does not provide for this all-encompassing power that we’ve seen exercised over the last several decades.”
Translation: Because the U.S. Constitution doesn’t literally contain the phrase “unemployment benefits,” this means that Washington has no business helping the jobless. In fact, since the Constitution doesn’t literally enumerate anything about “Medicare,” or “Medicaid,” or “Social Security,” this means that Washington shouldn’t have any safety net for the old or infirm, either.
In other words, when tea-parters like Miller say they want to “take the country back,” what they actually mean is that they want to turn back the clock to the now-distant Darwinian era that predated civil rights laws, child labor laws, retirement security laws, minimum wage laws, labor protection laws, age discrimination laws, and the various other 20th-century pillars of a more egalitarian society. That’s the fundamental truth at the heart of their Constitutional fundamentalism.
For instance, it was hard to miss Miller’s reference to the Tenth Amendment. Nothing new there. Over the years, foes of progress have repeatedly invoked that language about state’s rights, in order to make their obstructionism sound more high-minded. Witness what happened in 1956, after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Dixie senators and House members signed a defiant manifesto, asserting that the court’s ban on racism “encroach(ed) upon the reserved rights of the states.” And why did they believe that the federal government was going too far? Because, in their words, “The original Constitution does not mention ‘education.’ Neither does the 14th amendment or any other amendment.”
There it is, the logical extension of the current tea-party argument, as articulated yesterday by Miller: If it’s unconstitutional for the feds to provide unemployment benefits, then it’s certainly unconstitutional for the feds to enforce laws that put blacks and whites in the same public accommodations. After all, It’s the same Tenth Amendment principle.
Rand Paul, the GOP/tea-party senatorial candidate in Kentucky, recently had to distance himself from previous statements in which he had questioned our civil rights laws, because his attempt at philosophical consistency clashed with today’s political realities. But if tea-party candidates are people of conviction (as they purport to be, and as their followers purport to be), why not invoke the Tenth Amendment across the board, and condemn all the historic laws that have improved quality of life since the New Deal?
Most grassroots tea-partiers, if injected with a truth serum, would probably concede that America 100 years ago was no nirvana, that indeed they probably have no intention in the future to send back their own Social Security checks as a point of constitutional principle. But neither are they interested in teasing out the dire implications of the Tenth Amendment argument. They’re largely motivated by anger at “the establishment” (as are many independents), and they’re basically prepared to back tea-party Republican candidates as a manifestation of that anger.
And that’s Lisa Murkowski’s key hurdle in Alaska. On Friday, the deposed Republican incumbent announced that she’ll try to keep her job by running against Miller (as well as against Democrat Scott McAdams) by conducting a write-in campaign. On CNN yesterday, she said: “What I look at is, do you represent the values of the state of Alaska?…Joe Miller simply does not represent that. He is suggesting to us, in my opinion, and in the opinion of many, many Alaskans, some pretty radical things. You know, we dump Social Security. No more Medicare. Let’s get rid of the Department of Education. Elimination of all earmarks…He has taken an approach that is just, plain and simple, more radical than where the people of the state of Alaska are.”
Can she win? Murkowski hails from a famous Alaska political family, so her name ID is virtually universal – high enough, at any rate, for a sufficient number of voters to spell her name correctly on the ballot (a requirement for a legally-cast vote). And she has ample leftover campaign funds, enough to shower Miller with negative ads. But only one senator in history – Strom Thurmond in 1954 – has ever won an election via the write-in route, and two high-profile Alaskans have tried and failed during the past four decades.
Even if she fails, however, her autumn campaign will continually expose the fundamental tensions between the tea-partiers and the GOP establishment (as she did yesterday), and that alone would be a public service.
Meanwhile, in other tea-party news, we do have that new wrinkle in Delaware senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell’s biography, courtesy of a 1999 video: “I dabbled into witchcraft. I never joined a coven. But I did, I did…I dabbled into witchcraft. I hung around people who were doing these things. I’m not making this stuff up. I know what they told me they do…One of my first dates with a witch was on a satanic altar, and I didn’t know it. I mean, there’s little blood there and stuff like that…We went to a movie and then had a midnight picnic on a satanic altar.”
After seeing that footage, a ’50s ring-a-ding ditty came to mind. Over to you, Frank Sinatra:
Those fingers in my hair That sly come hither stare That strips my conscience bare It’s witchcraft
And I’ve got no defense for it The heat is too intense for it What good would common sense for it do
‘Cause it’s witchcraft, wicked witchcraft And although, I know, it’s strictly taboo
When you arouse the need in me My heart says yes indeed in me Proceed with what your leading me to
It’s such an ancient pitch But one I wouldn’t switch ‘Cause there’s no nicer witch than you
On second thought, that sounds way too lusty for O’Donnell. Delaware’s Christian conservative voters will surely sort out the witch angle for themselves.