It’s a responsibility-free world. Or so it is for a Republican Party that governs with the reckless abandon that comes with the conviction that the consequences of matters of consequence are of little consequence.
This has long been the case. In 1980, neo-conservative icon Irving Kristol advocated that his ideological brethren pay little attention to the potentially ruinous effects of supply-side economics. And what if massive deficits resulted, he asked rhetorically? “The neo-conservative is willing to leave those problems to be coped with by liberal interregnums. He wants to shape the future, and will leave it up to his opponents to tidy up afterwards.
Kristol’s guidance, adopted wholeheartedly by the right, runs counter to the narrative that conservatives cherish principles of personal responsibly. But then, for modern conservatism personal responsibility is merely a useful sales pitch, a patina to obscure a pirate’s agenda: looting the country’s wealth. To loosely paraphrase the great Greek historian Thucydides, the affluent will do what they can and the rest will suffer what they must.
Such insight isn’t particularly original. Actually it’s old hat. More intriguing is the degree to which conservatives have embraced what might be called Kristology: a devil-may-care approach to governance as long as certain dogmas are honored. With respect to fiscal policy, facts are irrelevant. Tax cuts (for the wealthy) are a universal prescription in good times and bad, an end in and of themselves. And what if they aren’t a panacea? No matter. Liberals will tidy up the mess anyway.
The showdown over raising the debt ceiling represents the apotheosis of this doctrine. Decades of supply side economics have helped push the US towards insolvency. Yet many GOP lawmakers steadfastly refuse to consider any tax increases, even at the risk of national default. This is all the more astounding given that taxes as a percentage of GDP are at their lowest level since the Eisenhower Administration, bearing out that the country is hardly being “taxed enough already.” (That letting the unaffordable Bush-era tax cuts expire would, alone, solve 75 percent of the deficit crisis over the next five years demonstrates how fanatical the GOP position is).
Republican zealousness over the past few weeks prompted Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson to speculate about the party’s motives. “At its root,” he writes, “I suspect, is the fear and loathing that rank-and-file right-wingers feel toward what their government, and their nation, is inexorably becoming: multiracial, multicultural, cosmopolitan and now headed by a president who personifies those qualities…That’s not a country whose government they want to pay for—and if the apocalypse befalls us, they seem to have concluded, so much the better.”
Meyerson may well be right—all roads lead to matters of race in America—but conservatives’ consequence-free intransigence goes beyond strictly fiscal matters. Kristology has penetrated deep. Consider climate change. Conservatives tend to reject the scientific consensus on global warming: According to a Gallup poll, sixty-seven percent of self-identified Republicans think the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated. Only about a third believe humans are causing rising temperatures.
Republican lawmakers are no more convinced. According to ThinkProgress, 35 of the 47 Republicans in the Senate have publicly questioned the science of global warming. Many of the major presidential candidates are similarly skeptical (with the notable exceptions of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman). Michelle Bachmann even characterized climate change as “Voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax.”
Then there’s Congressman John Shimkus. The Illinois Republican repudiates global warming on biblical grounds. During a House committee hearing, Shimkus quoted the Book of Genesis to justify his view that global warming is no threat since God said he wouldn’t destroy the Earth after Noah’s flood. Shimkus is exceptional only for his candor, not his convictions.
The derivation of Congressman Shimkus’ thinking is clear. If consequences to conservative policies don’t matter, then facts are also superfluous. What does matter is right-wing dogma. This liberation (from responsibility) theology has directly led to the embracement of faith-based governance, including with regards climate change, where God’s word trumps that of climatologists.
Not that any of the dangers of this unthinking worldview is of great concern to conservatives. As Karl Rove reportedly told journalist Ron Suskind, “When we act, we create our own reality.” Rove was speaking about foreign policy, but he might as well have been articulating conservatives’ fact-free, consequence-free ethos. Kristol would be proud.