By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
Singer/songwriter John Ondrasik (aka Five for Fighting) wrote a great song called “What Kind of World Do You Want?” that warns, “Be careful what you wish for. History starts now.”
For starters, I want a world (and a country) where a lot fewer people see things in stark either-or terms and more recognize that our problems are the result of many factors, not a few scapegoats.
I want a world where uncomfortable and inconvenient facts are accepted, “truth” and “reality” are not our own simply to make up as we wish, and compromise is valued. By “compromise,” I don’t mean watering down an idea or proposal until it is ineffective. I mean taking the best parts of each idea, argument or position to create something that is as strong as possible.
That said, I used to be an independent voter who leaned liberal on social issues, but I have voted for Republicans I thought were reasonable. I can’t anymore. This year, I became a registered Democrat. The Donald Trump-dominated GOP and “modern” conservatives drove me to it.
My parents were Eisenhower Republicans and I grew up during a time (the 1960s and ’70s) when the GOP was the party of staid traditional values, moderation, and personal responsibility. Now it’s a horrifying cauldron of counterproductive extremism, brazen lying and Machiavellian hypocrisy.
I marvel (not in a good way) at a party that fights so long and hard to make sure every fertilized egg is delivered into this world, then does so little to ensure the care and safety of these supposedly precious lives. Programs like paid family leave and child-care credits are seen by the GOP as unearned “entitlements,” if not full-blown tyrannical socialism.
Even in the best of times, I’ve had a hard time embracing the GOP. During my lifetime, the conservatives who dominate it have opposed numerous things I thought were only fair and necessary: the civil-rights movement, desegregation, holidays honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Emancipation Day (Juneteenth), equal rights for women and the LGBTQ community, safe working conditions, consumer and environmental protection, helping the poor, affordable universal health care, gun control that can help reduce the carnage, social programs that meet real needs unmet by private enterprise, honest racial dialogue and understanding, and efforts to ensure public health.
“The most distressing characteristic of the current Republican Party is cowardice,” former GOP strategist Stuart Stevens wrote in his 2020 book It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump. “The base price of admission is willingness to accept that an unstable, pathological liar leads it and pretend otherwise. This means the party demands dishonesty as a trait of membership — unless you are a rare sociopath who defends pathological lying. They do exist. The vast majority of Republican elected officials know Donald Trump is unfit to be president and pretend otherwise.”
I’ve been trying to understand conservatism by reading books such as The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin by political scientist Corey Robin, and Wrath: America Enraged by right-wing anthropologist Peter W. Wood. I’ve learned about its roots in the French Revolution where the terms “left” and “right” were born. (In the National Assembly, supporters of the king sat to the president's right with supporters of the revolution on his left.)
While it champions the wealthy and the status quo even if it is full of grievous injustices to other citizens, conservatism feels like a cold, stiff philosophy that runs counter to nature’s natural tendency for constant change. As it is, I dislike ideology and dogma because it boxes me in as if insisting I always use a hammer even when a job calls for screwdriver or a saw.
The things conservatives are calling for these days are likely to make serious problems worse, but an “Our way or the highway” attitude prevails.
For example, it defies common sense that Republican-led states such Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and West Virginia that have some of the nation’s highest infant mortality, maternal mortality, and poverty rates would be so determined to ban abortions with few or no exceptions. I’m sorry, but private charities and adoption agencies will not be able to competently handle the coming wave of unwanted, neglected children.
It defies common sense that access to guns would be made easier for all by the Supreme Court and Republican-led states when America is awash in anger, mental health issues, and violence committed with firearms. I don’t see how that violence and suicide rates won’t increase. The more available something is, the more inclined people are to use it.
It is said that conservatives long for a past that never existed and often base their policies on old laws and beliefs that no longer apply to modern times. The majority decision to overturn Roe v. Wade included Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion that the right to abortion is not “deeply rooted” in our nation’s history. “Roe’s failure even to note the overwhelming consensus of state laws in effect in 1868 is striking,” he wrote.
News flash: America is vastly different now than it was in 1868, when women couldn’t even vote. It was also easier to view abortion as an egregious crime during times when life expectancy and population were low and every available person was needed. But now? In a world struggling to feed seven billion people? In a wealthy country where too many children go to school hungry?
That the party and its conservative-dominated Supreme Court would even consider outlawing contraception is ridiculous and flies in the face of the GOP claim that it is the party of freedom. But it doesn’t stop there.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his concurrence in the decision to overturn Roe that “in future cases, we should reconsider all of this court’s substantive due process precedents,” including 1965’s Griswold v. Connecticut (contraception), 2003’s Lawrence v. Texas (same-sex intimacy), and 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges (same-sex marriage). “Because any substantive due process decision is ‘demonstrably erroneous,’ … we have a duty to ‘correct the error’ established in those precedents.”
This kind of thinking is blind allegiance to ideology, regardless of the social havoc and suffering that will result.
Recently retired Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer lamented — in his dissent of the court’s recent ruling in the gun law case New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen — the “rigid, history-only approach” of the court’s conservative majority when it should be thinking in terms of current factors and situations. A fierce defense of absolute gun rights would be fine if America was still as it was in 1791.
Another great example is the court’s June 30 decision limiting the power of the Environmental Protection Agency. If ever we needed a coordinated, consistent national effort to combat manmade climate change — the way we needed (but didn’t get) an effective national effort to combat Covid — it is now. But no, it is going to be left up to each state. We know how that will go.
Returning to a strict states’ rights approach may be in keeping with conservative principles, but in our current condition of dysfunctional polarization and dire environmental degradation, it only adds to our existential peril.
Another great peril is gerrymandering, partisan intrusion into the election process, and the drive to give state legislatures and courts the right to determine the ultimate outcome of voting . The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that could bestow that right and result in a creeping coup that succeeds where the Jan. 6 insurrection failed.
In states where 2020 election deniers are gaining influence, there’s no saying if our votes (unless they are Republican) will really matter.
I feel certain that if the GOP takes back the House, Senate and presidency (especially with Donald Trump), it will lock itself in power with the Electoral College and Supreme Court acting as a bulwark that ultimately prevents Democrats from ever regaining any significant national authority. You can see it happening already in states like Wisconsin, where the state’s supreme court has approved yet another move by the Republican legislature to limit the Democratic governor’s power.
Meanwhile, we have the GOP’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement, working to “return” us to halcyon days (for mainly wealthy, heterosexual, Christian white people) but it is proving to be a monstrous assault on our country’s stated ideals and democracy.
The GOP’s MAGA wing sees violence and destruction of federal property as an outrage when committed at Black Lives Matter protests, but defensible and excusable when used to illegally overturn an election result it doesn’t like.
It defends its sacred Constitution by defying it, and supports cops until they, like the U.S. Capitol Police on Jan. 6, enforce laws that obstruct MAGA’s goals.
That so many people and the Republican Party feel Donald Trump is still a viable presidential candidate after all that happened before, during and after that horrific day, fills me with dread.
As I see America falling apart in its increasingly dangerous division, I’m trying to envision the country that MAGA Republicans want. I see hints of it in the Texas GOP’s platform, which includes possibly seceding in order to create a separate, purely conservative nation.
Missouri Rep. Josh Hawley’s vision of positive (for his party) polarization in America is worrisome to say the least.
“More and more red states, they’re going to become more red, and purple states are going to become red, and the blue states are going to get a lot bluer,” Hawley said to reporters on June 24. “I would look for Republicans, as a result of this in time, to extend their strength in the Electoral College. And that’s very good news for those of us who want to see Republican presidents elected, that want to see a Supreme Court that remains conservative.”
So, what would the GOP agenda add up to?
I see a country of everyone for themselves where the dollar reigns supreme while individuals, companies, and religious institutions have more freedom to neglect or prey on the vulnerable.
Conservatives complain about paying taxes to help people they don’t like or feel are undeserving, and government intrusion on their lives. But we wouldn’t need so many costly social programs and laws, regulations, and mandates if enough citizens and corporations acted out of concern for others and the overall well-being of local and national communities.
Maximum personal responsibility and freedom are perfectly fine until too many people stop giving a rat’s caboose about others, especially those who are different. That’s where we are now.
Even with all of this horror on the horizon, there are still Republicans I like, such as Governors Phil Scott (Vermont), Larry Hogan (Maryland), and Charlie Baker (Massachusetts), who manage to stay clear of Trumpian madness and actually govern responsibly. Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, who is running for Congress in New York’s Hudson Valley (where I live), is a thoughtful man who has championed the cause of special-needs individuals.
Though I disagree with many of their policy positions, I admire Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for courageously standing up to their party and thoroughly investigating the attempt to overturn the 2020 election, even though it will almost surely cost them their political careers.
But I can’t vote for any sensible Republicans because I fear they will ultimately be forced to go along with the extreme and often detached-from-reality dictates of the Trumpian/MAGA wing of the party. Until that specter and the threat it poses has passed, I will vote only for Democrats, even though I have my reservations about all politicians.
Those gripes won’t change until big money is removed from politics and the focus of government turns to genuinely promoting the best interests of all citizens. For now, though, Democrats are the lesser of two evils … by a very, very wide margin.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.