I begin my “Introduction to American Government” courses at Cal Poly Pomona by teaching students about the ideological spectrum. I discuss the political chess game of ideology. This quarter it was quite confusing for my students to understand Conservatism v. Liberalism because the traditional descriptors for each perspective seemed to flip-flop.
For example, the new tax deal that was signed by President Obama is peppered with ideological contradictions. The bill passed with a 277-148 vote in the House and an 81-19 vote in the Senate.
Traditionally advocates of the underdog, Democrats voted to give the wealthy tax breaks with this bill. Republicans, traditionally advocates of reducing the deficit and adamant opponents of stimulus strategies, voted for this bill. The animated opposition to this bill came mostly from liberal Democrats that were, ironically, afraid of what the $858billion price tag would do to the soaring federal deficit. Many conservative Republicans, who define themselves as “deficit hawks,” voted for this bill.
What was more confusing to my students than these ironic twists by politicians is the practical ideological contradictions embraced by the average American. For instance, one of my conservative students who opposes the president’s “socialist” agenda was laid off from his job several months ago. I asked him in class how he was surviving.
He said, “I’m surviving on unemployment benefits,” not really conscious of the
contradiction. I told him that conservatives fought against extending the “socialist” unemployment benefits that he was receiving. It was Obama and the Democrats who fought for this student’s well-being and the millions of others in his situation.
In continuing to make my points about ideological paradoxes, I told my class of how my NASCAR-loving high school classmates in McDonough, Ga., are anti-elitist at their core. I asked, “Why would my former classmates oppose a tax on people who make $250,000 or more? Why would my rebel-flag-and-camouflage-wearing friends be against an estate tax levied on the very wealthy – the same country club types that they despise?” My puzzled students had no responses to these questions. The candid answers explain the tragedy of ideology in this nation.
Overworked and perpetually busy, Americans do not have time for nuance or detail. We have become reactionary and robotic in the way we respond to our politics du jour. Without introspection and a careful examination of why we support some policies and oppose others, Americans wait for ideologues to tell them what to think.
Imagine Rush Limbaugh telling one of my former classmates, who has been laid off from the Snapper Lawnmower factory in McDonough, that he should not take the president’s socialist unemployment benefits; he should refuse government-sponsored health care benefits for his three kids; and that he should support giving tax breaks for the wealthy and super-wealthy (like Limbaugh).
Rush and his proteges spout these instructions to naive followers on the airwaves daily. With the mesmerizing influence of a charismatic demagogue, Rush inspires his followers to passionately fight against their own best interests – metaphorically encouraging them to drink poisonous grape Kool-Aid.
The landslide congressional wins by Republicans in the midterm elections taught (or reminded) the president that the average American is not interested in a nuanced deconstruction of public policies. Instead, they are susceptible to manipulation by venomous sound bites and unflattering labels. Given this refresher, the president has masterfully retreated. He has compromised and given the Republicans the ideological leverage to expose their own glaring contradictions.
Obama has outmaneuvered his opponents on health care reform, finance reform, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the START Treaty. Now that he has given Republicans their tax cut, what else do they have on their limited agenda? He has effectively taken this trump card off the table. After adding $858billion to the federal deficit, Republicans will soon get back to discussing fiscal discipline. This will sound contradictory.
In order to significantly cut the deficit now, Republicans are forced to tinker with one of the “Big Three” – Social Security, Medicare or defense. Each Republican understands the political consequences of tampering with Social Security and/or Medicare. As conservatives they understand the consequences of fiddling with the defense budget.
In the game of political chess, by taking taxes off the Republican agenda, Obama has effectively taken their queen. And by time he is inaugurated for a second term, the president will utter, perhaps under his breath, “Checkmate.”
Renford Reese, Ph.D., is a professor of political science and founder/director of the Colorful Flags program at Cal Poly Pomona. Earlier this year, Reese lectured as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five books.