Ken Burns’ new PBS documentary The Roosevelts, among many things, should remind us just how radical and extremist the Republican Party has become since the turn of the century.
It’s not difficult to imagine how the progressive politics of Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican president from 1901 to 1909, would be greeted today by conservative politicians, who advance the cause of states’ rights and corporate greed over the welfare of their country.
Roosevelt eventually wanted his “Square Deal” for people, arguing, “The effective fight against adequate government control and supervision of individual, and especially of corporate, wealth engaged in interstate business is chiefly done under cover; and especially under cover of an appeal to States' rights . . . “ That’s simply the antithesis of the Republican Party today.
Burns’ documentary is a fascinating study of Theodore, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. Republicans must hate it because it exposes the contemporary paltry platform of this country’s right-wing reactionaries, who in their paranoia always see sinister motives in their country’s government. Theodore Roosevelt’s political philosophy was much larger than that.
Oklahoma’s Republicans, who dominate state government right now, are especially anti-federal government as evidenced by Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s legal actions against the Affordable Care Act and any number of recent legislative actions based on supposed intrusion.
The war here on the federal government always has its negative consequences. When the legislature and Gov. Mary Fallin recently scrapped some Common Core standards for schools because of supposed intrusion, for example, the federal government announced the state would lose its “No Child Left Behind Waiver” and may have to reassign some $29 million federal funding.
The most recent mess to come to light because of paranoia over the federal government involves state driver's licenses. In 2007, lawmakers passed a law banning the state from participating in a federal program called the REAL ID Act, which was implemented as an anti-terrorism measure. Now, we’re finding out that Oklahomans starting in 2015 won’t be able to use their state licenses to get through a federal government security checkpoint. Starting in 2016, Oklahomans also won’t be able to board an airplane by showing their state license. Instead, a federally approved document, such as a passport, will have to be used.
Obviously, the paranoia and resulting hassle and contradiction are not limited to Oklahoma. An article this week in The New York Times points out that despite the success of the Affordable Care Act in Kentucky, some residents there—even those who have benefited from so-called Obamacare—are supporting Republican politicians who want to do away with the new health care law.
It’s tempting to file all this anti-federal government sentiment here and elsewhere under “stupidity” or just argue that it’s Republican and corporate manipulation of low-information voters, but Burns' documentary reminds me that something more fundamental has changed among a major segment of the electorate.
More than ever, it seems impossible to me that we can bridge through words or arguments the great partisan divide or educate voters in some meaningful and large-scale sense. Perhaps, only incremental demographical developments—an increase in minority voters, for example, who reject racist politics—will make a difference and advance progressivism in the twenty-first century.
Theodore Roosevelt’s Republican politics at the turn of the twentieth century started this country on an enlightened course and his cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, showed us how government can be a humane force in our lives. They were two significant politicians from the country’s two largest political parties in agreement with the pressing issues of their time. They were united under the philosophical idea of progressivism.
It bears repeating that Oklahomans continue to elect Republican politicians that work against their economic and health care interests.
Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican who is expected to win reelection in a landslide this November, recently signed a bill into law that would ban cities from raising the minimum wage and requiring specific vacation and sick leave time. That, of course, impacts virtually everyone who is paid on a per hour basis in the state because any boost in the minimum wage would have a trickle up effect on paychecks.
Meanwhile, some Republicans here—Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt comes to mind—have pretty much devoted their entire political careers to bashing President Barack Obama over his Affordable Care Act, which is fast becoming one of the great worldwide economic success stories in the last few decades while providing health care to millions of people.
Higher wages and better health care? That’s not what a majority of Oklahoma voters seem to want, the reason for which defies logic. Sure, some low-information voters here are swayed by cultural wedge issues over guns and abortion, and that’s their right, but wouldn’t it be better to fight under the right-wing flag with more money in the wallet and in better health?
Fallin’s decision to sign the new bill into law, which has drawn national criticism, seems to be a direct retaliation against an ongoing initiative petition drive that is trying to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour in Oklahoma City. I’ve written about that here. But, more importantly, it symbolizes the state GOP’s utter disregard for the working poor in a state that has a high number of minimum wage workers.
New York Times columnist Charles Blow calls Fallin’s decision “callous.” He writes:
. . . it should be noted that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “In 2012, Oklahoma’s proportion of hourly paid workers earning at or below the prevailing federal minimum wage ranked third highest among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.”
Meanwhile, Paul Waldman, writing in The Washington Post argues, “She [Fallin] isn’t just saying No to a minimum wage hike. She’s saying No with a sneer — adopting an unusually mean-spirited and overtly ideological stance.” Again, this is a governor that is expected to easily win reelection.
According to Waldman, polls are now showing 65 to 75 percent support for raising the minimum wage across the country. But here in Oklahoma, we elect politicians like Fallin that actually “sneer” at the working poor and other low-income workers.
Meanwhile, virtually every Republican candidate for office in this state is running on an anti-Obama platform, using the supposed failure of the ACA as the number one reason for their sanctimonious discontent.
Yet despite the problems with ACA rollout, the numbers are beginning to show its success. According to an article in the New Republic, “Eight million people have signed up for private insurance plans through the new federal and state marketplaces. And within the federal marketplaces, 28 percent of enrollees are ages 18 to 34. This is good news—very, very good news.”
So as the good news about Obamacare pours in, Oklahomans continue to elect politicians such as Pruitt, who has literally made his entire political career about suing the federal government over the ACA. Pruitt is so popular here he didn’t even draw an opponent in his reelection bid.
Progressives like me have long lamented the growing income inequality between the wealthiest 1 percent or so and everyone else in this country and around the world. Surely there is a breaking point and just as surely the extremely rich and their surrogates will take it to the breaking point. It’s an unfolding drama that might take another generation or two to resolve.
What is clear is that far too many Oklahomans have been tricked into voting against their interests by GOP political rhetoric and the right-wing media here. Decent wages and health care access are pretty basic to living a life with some sense of security and happiness.
The fact that no prominent politician on the left has yet to step up to run against Gov. Mary Fallin in the 2014 election shows the somewhat precarious state of the Democratic Party in Oklahoma these day.
There’s no one Democrat or one segment of the party to necessarily blame for the circumstance. What I referred to as the “Obama effect” back in 2009 still applies today. President Barack Obama is wildly unpopular here, especially now because of misinformation and fear mongering doled out daily about the Affordable Care Act by Republican politicians and the conservative media here. It’s difficult for any Democrat to run for a statewide office given the party association with the president.
Republicans captured every statewide office in 2010 and remain on target to do so again in 2014. The GOP has super majorities in the Oklahoma House of Representatives and Senate. The state’s entire Congressional delegation is now Republican. There’s been some interest among Democrats in the State Schools Superintendent race, but that just shows how irrelevant Democrats have become in a state where they once ruled supreme. Maybe Democrats have a shot at State Schools Superintendent. Maybe not.
For years now, some people have claimed that Democrats don’t have a message or a brand that resonates with voters, but that seems too simple. It’s just basically true that low-informed voters, manipulated by crafty GOP politicians and the conservative noise machine, have been seduced into voting against their own economic interests for visceral reasons related to wedge issues, such as abortion or prayer in school. This will not change anytime soon. When you look at Oklahoma’s low college graduate rate and the sheer size of the myopic religious right here, the picture becomes clearer and more depressing.
In other words, it’s not something that a Democratic political operative or party official can do much about. I’ve been guilty of it in the past, but I think it’s unfair to blame the state Democratic Party for the situation. Who in the world would want to run against Fallin given her approval rating, name recognition and campaign money? No amount of messaging or branding is going to make that reality go away.
Fallin, the state’s first female governor, announced her reelection bid last week at stops throughout the state, but there was no opponent to challenge her statements about what a great job she’s done for the state during her first term. Patrick, over at the popular The Lost Ogle blog, probably said it best:
. . . [Fallin] could cuss out Andrew Speno, dye her hair pink and get caught doing coke with Wayne Coyne in the Blue Note bathroom and still coast to an easy victory.
A conservative friend once told me a few years ago that the GOP will control Oklahoma politics for at least a generation. Political realities can change quickly under pressing circumstances, but I’ve come to accept the fact that this is a long-term issue and that there’s no magic candidate or message that can immediately change things on the state level here in Oklahoma. Democrats need to continue fighting, of course, but to say it’s a discouraging situation is, well, an understatement.
R.J. Harris, who describes himself as a Libertarian Democrat, has indicated he will run for governor, but is he really a serious candidate? Can he raise millions of dollars in campaign money to match Fallin? How do his political stances contrast with mainstream Democratic political views?
Progressives CAN make a difference, however, in local elections. For example, local physician and Oklahoma City Councilman Ed Shadid is running for mayor on a platform that includes improving public transportation, making neighborhoods safer, citizen equality and government transparency, issues that progressives can absolutely support. We can continue to move our specific communities forward even as the conservative juggernaut continues unabated on a state level.