Monday, July 24, 2017

Is the Republican Party Stuck in Adolescence?

There's a famous quote of Mark Twain's about the illusions of adolescence:
"When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."
The adolescent mind assumes that adults are clueless, have nothing to offer, and tests the adults to the breaking point. In that respect, the Republican mindset is adolescent in nature, assuming that Democrats, who are adult enough to acknowledge fiscal, healthcare, and climatological realities, have nothing to offer. Through the Obama years, the Republican Congress expressed itself through resistance, defining itself by being against anything Obama was for. This is essentially the posture of a rebellious teenager, as in this quote from an article in Psychology Today entitled "Rebel with a Cause: Rebellion in Adolescence",
"Although the young person thinks rebellion is an act of independence, it actually never is. It is really an act of dependency. Rebellion causes the young person to depend self-definition and personal conduct on doing the opposite of what other people want."
It is only when Republicans take the helm--essentially are forced to enter the adult world of responsibility, with no one else to blame--that the Party's simplistic, easy moralism crumbles in the face of complex realities. With the concocting and rejection of each new Trumpcare bill, Republicans are now confronting the consequences of that long-held adolescent certainty that Obamacare must be repealed and replaced. The rebellion was as emphatic as it was empty, based on the Republican Party's needs rather than the nation's, with no coherent alternative in mind. The cathartic glee of total rejection of all things Democratic worked well to motivate voters on election day, but proves disastrous when applied in the halls of Congress.

For telltale signs of the adolescent posture described by Mark Twain, there was Trump's assessment of his first 100 days ("I thought it would be easier.") and a new cabinet member's surprise at discovering that there actually are some able and dedicated public servants working in his agency. Though it may prove debilitating for the government's functioning, it's no surprise that Trump would appoint cabinet members ideologically opposed to the departments they will lead. For an adolescent defining himself through rejection of the adult world, such upside down behavior makes sense:
"The young person proudly asserts individuality from what parents like or independence of what parents want and in each case succeeds in provoking their disapproval. This is why rebellion, which is simply behavior that deliberately opposes the ruling norms or powers that be, has been given a good name by adolescents and a bad one by adults."
There is, in the rebelliousness of adolescence, and in the radicalization of the Republican Party, an insecurity, a need to define one's identity in a negative way, by creating distance and resistance. 

Obama lost a great deal of time during his presidency entertaining the illusion that Republicans would ultimately work constructively with him. That illusion is understandable, given that the country has problems that need to be solved, but "working together"--a slogan also used by Hillary Clinton--is seen by Republicans as political suicide. Instead, the Republican tendency has been to shift rightward as Democrats offer to meet in the middle. The Republican Party's need to define itself as a rejection of Democrats has motivated its radicalization, and can also explain why Republicans appear to lack any real solutions to real world problems. 

Donald Trump is the ultimate manifestation of this permanently adolescent political stance. He is a master at creating enemies that we must hate, exclude, or destroy, yet offers only the vaguest or most impractical of solutions, like bubbles that pop at the slightest touch. 

One can point to the many initial steps that the Republican Party took in this direction. There was Reagan's drift from fiscal realities, submitting fantasy budgets rather than risk his popularity by making the tough choice to raise taxes or cut popular programs. There was Gingrich's shift in the use of language from denotation to connotation, as he hammered away at liberals as people not only to be disagreed with, but despised. To gain electoral advantage, he encouraged Republican candidates to use words that evoke emotion rather than thought. And, as Communism receded as a threat, there was the unspoken choice by the Republican Party to redefine government as the substitute threat, thus commencing this protracted auto-immune reaction, in which our own government, and anyone who seeks to make it function well, is viewed as the enemy. 

The Republican Party, having so long defined itself by its rejection of government and all things Democratic, is now in a real bind. It can stir enough discontent to get elected, but lacks the reality-based maturity to govern. It has learned how to gain control over a government it has no respect for. The more it demonizes government and Democrats, and gains electoral advantage by opposing tax increases of any kind, the fewer options it has for governing well. The more it denies that tax cuts reduce government revenue, or that climate change is a profound threat, the more it must demand strict loyalty from its members, lest the house of cards collapse and the Party's fraudulence be exposed. This suppression of free, reality-based thinking is the opposite of the freedom Republicans pretend to embrace. As totalitarian thought control takes hold, American victories in World War II and the Cold War, like the planet's climate, appear increasingly vulnerable. 

When I was in my adolescent stage, I tested my father's endurance to the breaking point. Eventually, I found a way to forgive him for what he couldn't give, and to define myself not by rejection of him but by what I could do in the world. That forgiveness opened my eyes to all that was good and wise and generous in him. What I've noticed is that, when it comes to government, all people have complaints, whether Democrats or Republicans. Some regulations, and some programs, are more effective or better administered than others. In a singular way, the Republican Party appears stuck in a rebellion stage that prevents it from acknowledging government's legitimate role. Now, as Trump and his Republican followers sabotage government, embrace lies, undermine trust in the news media, and ignore the gathering disaster of climate change, I see our institutions and planet--the pillars of our shared world--being tested to the breaking point. 

It's a risk for Republicans to, in a political sense, grow up--to define themselves by what they can do, rather than by all they tell us to fear and despise. Electoral pressures have fed this retreat into adolescent rebellion. There is no easy way out of the bind, for the nation or the Republican Party. A kid, if emotionally healthy enough, will eventually grow up, as the parent waits it out, offering the "gentle pressure of positive direction relentlessly applied"--a phrase from the above quoted article that could also refer to Obama's patient but futile overtures to Congress over the years. But that progression is not a given for a political party rewarded for feeding the electorate's appetite for empty rebellion. For now, the Republican Party continues to lift itself up by tearing our institutions down.

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