There are truths that we only acknowledge in jail or on the gallows, glaringly obvious facts which we ignore in pursuit of ambition. Todor Zhivkov governed one of the Warsaw Pact’s most brutal regimes from the mid-50’s until the collapse of Communism. He gave an interview to the New York Times in 1990 while under house arrest in Bulgaria. He explained, “If I had to do it over again, I would not even be a Communist, and if Lenin were alive today he would say the same thing.”
He went on to explain, without apologies or any sign of remorse:
“I have been a soldier, I have been a Communist, it is my deep belief and conviction that I served my people and my country, but I must now admit that we started from the wrong basis, from the wrong premise. The foundation of socialism was wrong.”
Now he tells us.
Allegiance to ideology, team or tribe makes people do stupid things, things they know are wrong, things they know will come to disastrous ends. Deliberate ideological blindness gave Soviet Communism the willing collaboration it needed to crush Europe for generations. The same willful ignorance destroyed the Republican Party, reducing it to the toxic cult it is today. What Republicans wrecked in their race to the extremes was a problem-solving philosophy that might have ended poverty as we know it, tamed carbon emissions, and created a new era of personal freedom and prosperity. We may not recover in our lifetimes the future that once seemed within our grasp.
The end of the Cold War brought a rare opening for change. The US was alone atop the world. We were the only nation capable of waging a war across an ocean. Ours was the world’s de facto single currency, the currency in which every global commodity was priced and traded. We could isolate and strangle any country on the planet by unilaterally cutting them off from our system of banking and electronic payments, a nuclear option wielded with a pen.
At the end of the 80’s, the future of the world was placed in the hands of the Anglo-American political right. It sounds crazy now, but at the time they had some smart people attacking stubborn problems in innovative ways. With the Communist threat eliminated, we were free to address our own internal issues and build a smarter, faster, healthier, more prosperous America. That would have been nice, but that’s not the world Republicans built.
What conservative thinkers saw in the early 90’s was a world growing too complex, dynamic, wealthy and free to be centrally managed. They recognized the communist command economies as mere canaries in the coal mine, the first to fall as this dynamism spread. The future would belong people capable of maintaining the basic collective-action capabilities of government through lighter, more flexible mechanisms than our old-fashioned command bureaucracies. They were right then, and they’re even more right now.
The Montreal Protocol, ratified in 1989, is probably the most successful environmental treaty in history. It was crafted by Republicans using free market ideas to save the ozone layer from CFC pollution. Reagan had used the same cap and trade strategy a few years earlier to phase out leaded gasoline.
Meanwhile, Republican Congressman Jack Kemp was looking for ways to liberalize the social safety net. He took over the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1989 when the agency was in crisis. Centrally planned, centrally managed housing developments had devolved into a nightmare of crime and decay. His proposal was simple, allow residents of housing projects the same rights of control and ownership we grant to condominium owners.
In addition to granted new rights to project residents, Kemp promoted a new plan to grant needy families vouchers, allowing them to live anywhere they wanted. They could even apply that subsidy toward the purchase of a home. Kemp presented the world with the strange spectacle of a white Republican earning cheers from black residents of the projects in the center of America’s most troubled cities.
Conservative policy-makers, influenced by economic thinkers like Friedman and Hayek, built our first right-wing plans for universal health care. Borrowing from the experience of places like Switzerland and Singapore, Stuart Butler, head of policy at the Heritage Foundation, wrote a pamphlet in 1989 called “A National Health System For America.” He proposed a system of health insurance mandates, funded by tax credits. It was the Affordable Care Act, only far more generous, practical and comprehensive. And it would have worked.
To achieve the goals of the social safety net without the stifling layers of bureaucracy and distortion, policy makers on the right began to revisit Friedman’s idea of a universal basic income. Properly implemented, it could replace the work of tens of thousands of federal bureaucrats, solving problems ranging from workplace discrimination to safety with a massive shift in power toward workers. It was, and is, a cheap, easy and radically powerful way to increase freedom and entrepreneurship while addressing a compassionate concern.
On immigration and trade, Republicans were promoting a level of human freedom never before considered. Reagan explained his vision for our borders in a 1980 Republican Presidential debate, proposing to “open the border both ways.”
Like Republicans of the era, Reagan embraced an expansive vision of America, an optimistic and confident understanding of our place in the world. Reagan saw our border as an obstacle limiting the reach of a colossus, not a castle to protect vulnerable cowards. The man who stood at the Berlin Wall and taunted a dictator believed a world with fewer barriers was a world Americans would dominate. Before the term “globalism” came into common use, the same process was more commonly derided as “Americanization.” Fears of this shrinking of the planet were reserved for those whose values and ideals could not survive in an atmosphere of individual freedom. The main opponents of the freer world arriving in the wake of globalization were religious radicals, cultural isolationists and those terrified by women’s rights. Sound familiar?
A freer, more open immigration policy wasn’t just a way to attract more immigrants, it was a way for Americans to gain greater access to the world. The collapse of communism changed the landscape of international work and travel. When Reagan spoke of opening the border “both ways,” he wasn’t just talking about accepting immigrants, he was expressing a Republican vision of expanded American physical presence beyond our borders.
Many prominent and influential Republicans in the years after the Cold War were exploring ways to solve difficult problems with light, market-oriented systems. They weren’t trying to destroy government, but looking for ways to make it effective in a faster, more dynamic world. They were optimistic and hopeful, often described as “happy warriors,” confident in their values while willing to see the world in real terms. It sounds absurd now, but thirty years ago it was the right who held the lead in both political pragmatism and political innovation.
There was a time when America had conservatives in influential positions who weren’t idiots. However, as it turns out, many if not most of them were cowards. When a new wave of Neo-Confederate Republicans showed up from the South to enforce Soviet style-ideological blindness on the American right, almost all of these influential conservatives buckled. Like Zhivkov adapting to life under Soviet domination, they what they had to do to keep their position and their influence.
Men and women who’d spent their lives fighting the ideological blindness and ethical nihilism of Soviet Communism lacked the courage to wage the same fight at home. Turns out, the Soviets were a convenient, distant enemy, unable to reach them in any way. Once they faced the smallest potential inconvenience from dissent, these bold free market thinkers melded themselves into enthusiastic apparatchiks, competing to be the bootlicker who claps the loudest at party meetings.
There were exceptions who should be noted. Bruce Bartlett broke loose under the second Bush Administration, preserving his honor and his dignity at the price of his career. David Frum got fired from a nice job at the American Enterprise Institution for stating a few blatantly obvious facts about the Affordable Care Act. Jack Kemp was relegated to the sidelines of Republican politics in the late 90’s, as the party was overwhelmed by racist Dixiecrats. Having noisily described immigrants as “a blessing, not a curse,” he fought a Republican effort in California to demonize immigrants. The effort marked him for hostility from the new racist right. After the failed Dole Presidential bid of 1996, Kemp never regained his position in the party, but he never compromised in his fight against “Buchanan Republicans.”
One of Kemp’s last major roles still resonates. He worked with Democrat John Edwards on a 2006 report warning of the rising power of a new Kleptocracy in Russia.
When McCain was defeated in 2008, there were no credible figures left who could influence the GOP base. Sarah Palin was the new face of Republican thought leadership. It only got worse from there.
Fast-forward thirty years from the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the US is governed by a Third World Kleptocrat. The crime-family don in the White House is shielded from justice by Banana Republicans funded and supported by foreign dictators. This thing didn’t work out the way we’d hoped.
Saving America now means placing it in the hands of Democratic leadership. For the near term, that ends our hopes for a lighter, smarter government. Democrats have rejected the universal basic income in favor of job guarantees, a choice that makes perfect political sense if your goal is to preserve partisan political power. Cap and trade is replaced with a “Green New Deal,” basically a return to the governing philosophy of the 1930’s. Instead of a lighter, more agile private universal health system like we see in France, Holland or Singapore, we’ll get probably Medicare spread out over everybody. Racist Republican MAGA nostalgia now has its match in similarly retrograde Democratic plan, force-fitting outdated solutions over new problems.
We will have to go backward before we get our chance to go forward, if ever. While we struggle with our demons, the rest of the world gets its chance to catch up, overcoming our previously commanding lead. The Chinese, Russians, and the EU have their own preferences for the shape of a new globalized world. We lost our chance to build the future. Those opportunities don’t come along every day, and we may not see another.
Former House Speaker, John Boehner gave an interview in 2017 in which he described his Republican colleagues as assholes, idiots and anarchists. Unlike Zhikov in ‘90, Boehner isn’t under arrest, at least not yet, but he’s far enough from power to start being honest.
Boehner’s 25 years in Congress began at the peak of Republican power and promise and ended with the party devolving into a cult. Like Zhikov, across his career Boehner guided his colleagues into one dark compromise after another to preserve his own power and position. He retired to escape the pitchforks of the racist nutjobs who’d consumed the GOP.
Regarding two of the party’s more extreme members Boehner said, “Fuck Jordan. Fuck Chaffetz. They’re both assholes.”
He had more to say about Ohio Republican Jim Jordan, describing him as “a terrorist as a legislator going back to his days in the Ohio House and Senate. A terrorist. A legislative terrorist.”
Regarding the death of real thought in conservative think tanks “Heritage was a respected conservative think tank, and he [Jim DeMint] turned it into some half-assed political operation.”
And the Trump White House? “A complete disaster.”
Is he happier now that he’s free? Maybe. Maybe not. Asked about his suddenly erratic performance on the links after being one of Congress’ best golfers, Boehner explained, “That’s my biggest problem in golf these days. I just can’t concentrate. I could always concentrate on what I had to do. But these days … I just can’t concentrate.”
So, in this era after the GOP and the conservative movement have squandered their leadership, what can bring the country together? How do we bridge the divide in that Boehner helped create?
He explained, without apology or remorse, “It’s going to take an intervening event for Americans to realize that first, we are Americans. Something cataclysmic.”
Now he tells us.