Andrew Bard Schmookler’s new book is called What We’re Up Against: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World — And How We Can Defeat It. I’ll spare you some suspense; the evil force he has in mind is the Republican Party. Here’s a video of a speech the author gave when he was running for Congress as a Democrat in a district gerrymandered Republican. As in the book, Schmookler calls out Republicans in the speech as promoting an unprecedented evil force in U.S. culture.
He has in mind wars, torture, environmental destruction, racism, sexism, promotion of plutocracy, defense of gun proliferation, widespread dishonesty, and the valuing of partisanship above all else. Republican cap-and-trade is denounced by Republicans as socialism. Corporate healthcare schemes developed by Republicans are attacked as death panels, once they’re advanced by a Democrat.
Schmookler traces the problem to the joining of racism and corporatism in a single political party since the civil rights movement, to the growth of corporatism, and to the ability of affluent people working short hours to get into trouble. I find the last point unconvincing, as so many countries have greater economic security, shorter working hours, and less crazed rightwing politics than the United States.
In fact, I’m unconvinced by much of the book, including the conflation of general cultural trends with a political party. I don’t accept the author’s contention that the United States is more important than the rest of the world. I’m not persuaded by his demand for a “war” against the evil Republican force (even as his complaints with Republicans include their having turned politics into a “war” and their having waged actual wars). I find little value in all the mythologizing of the “founding fathers” and past actual wars. As for the endless Good-versus-Evil talk, if it gets some people off their butts I’m fine with it, but I’m more interested in the case for the evil of the Republicans that motivated this book than in the 90% of the book that consists of pondering the nature of “good” and “evil.”
Are U.S. politics, culture, and the Republican party more evil than ever before? Or just more passionately partisan? Well, I don’t know about ever before. This is a country built on slavery and genocide as mainstream acceptable institutions. But certainly the Republican Party has moved rightward in the past 40 years, and many have said, like Lincoln Chafee in the recent debate, that they didn’t leave the party, it left them. Others have stuck with the party and left behind basic standards of decency, integrity, fairness, and toleration.
I give a lot more blame to major media outlets, which get the barest mention by Schmookler. I don’t think blaming propagandized people is exactly blaming the victims, and Schmookler does point out that people choose to consume the worst media. But the Republican Party would be nothing without the media, the educational institutions, and the wider cultural trends that overlap with its agenda. Neither would the Democratic Party.
I also think Schmookler misses some major trends that have very little to do with partisanship. One is the planet’s destruction as a process that has advanced over the decades and centuries. We haven’t become more destructive so much as we have become more numerous and — even more so — we’re simply living in a time that must face up to many years of past destructive behavior. Similarly, many white Americans have not exactly become more racist, they’re simply living in an age in which the demographics of the United States are turning them into a minority — something their pre-existing racism views as a problem.
Then there’s war, which has so permeated our culture that Schmookler praises real and metaphorical wars even while lamenting both real and metaphorical wars. He dislikes torture, not murder. He’s upset by Republican wars, but Obama’s drone murders don’t cause any concern. The toxic impact of war on U.S. culture, including in a rise of mass-shootings, is not considered. We have a country very well trained in despising other groups, through its collective disvaluing of 96% of humanity (something Schmookler promotes in his Introduction). We have racism and violence and the erosion of civil liberties imported from distant U.S. wars, and we’re not supposed to see that trend as contributing to current evil?
I think part of the trouble in seeing the evil of militarism is that it’s bipartisan. It brings peace and harmony to the halls of Congress. When we imagine that bickering in Washington is a more serious problem than, say, the death of the oceans or the slaughter of Yemeni children, that little item known as military spending that eats up over half of Congressional spending every year, has to be set aside as an exception to the important trend of partisan conflict.
Are Schmookler and the millions who agree with him right that the Republicans are evil, while the Democrats are good but weak? Up to a point perhaps. I think the author’s desire for the United States to “lead” the world is part of the problem. I think it’s just dumb to claim that U.S. torture programs are unprecedented or a political party in the United States opposing science is unprecedented. I think it’s simplistic to claim the Republicans are always wrong and the Democrats always right. What about when partisanship overcomes even militarism and Republicans oppose President Obama’s proposed bombing of Syria (in 2013)? I think it’s a straw man to argue that the two parties aren’t working together in a pretense of opposing each other. Democrats don’t pretend to more populist and progressive positions as part of a Republican plot, but in order to please voters (and themselves) while actually serving funders and insiders.
I think the danger, although Schmookler does not intend this, in literally urging us to think like Star Wars movies in terms of good and evil forces, and in claiming that an evil force started the war on Iraq, is that we miss individual agency. Bush started that war. Many helped. Chafee, for example, didn’t. If we blame a force we may end up blaming millions of people who call themselves Republicans, many of whom could be talked out of supporting the next war in 30-minutes of television-free conversation.
I think the value in screaming at the top of one’s voice for 250 pages that there is a serious goddamned threat, and it isn’t coming from Iran or Russia but from the rightwing madness of Washington, D.C., can hardly be overstated. If calls to metaphorical arms to rise up and denounce Good Americanism before it’s too late might move you to become active in working for peace, justice, and moral decency, then please read this book.