Democracy Under Assault
Theopolitics, Incivility and Violence on the Right

Michele Swenson

Losing Democracy in Inches


Like a frog boiled in gradually heated water, American democracy is being incrementally eroded. The right-wing political machine has harnessed money and power, recast the meaning of our founding documents, and bent language in service of their agenda. Church-state separation is "a lie of the left," a "communist invention," pronounced Pat Robertson, a leader of the crusade to install theocratic government. Promotion of "faith-based" and "charitable choice" initiatives has further fractured the church-state divide. Faith-based policy enacted by Bush administration executive order funnels public monies into the coffers of sectarian groups like Robertson'sóthe recipient of $500,000 in taxpayer money in 2002 (to total $1.5 million by 2005). No longer is there protection against recipients proselytizing or discriminating in hiring.

At the 2004 Republican Convention, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Ks) invoked the culture war, calling for reduction in separation of church and state. Religious right culture wars target not only minority and women's gains, secularism and Democrats, but also mainstream Christians and adherents of other religions. Christian conservatives are heirs to the nineteenth century Nativist movement, which regarded immigrants other than Anglo-Saxon Protestant threats to "God's intent" of a Christian America. Traditional values frequently serve as code for idealized nineteenth century moresóa strict hierarchy of God and man over women and children, the standard of "one-family-one-vote" invoked by Christian Reconstructionist Howard Phillips, and survival-of-the-fittest capitalism advanced by corporate plutocrats.¬†Biblical literalists¬†preach that only white Christian males should vote or hold office.

At the very moment neo-conservatives profess to sow seeds of democracy in the Middle East, U.S. representative democracy is grievously challenged. Seeking bypass of the constitutional separation of powers, the right targets the independent judiciary as the last protection of minority rights against temporary majorities. On the heels of Rep. Tom DeLay's professed intent to impeach "activist" judges in the '90s, Robert Bork proposed rescinding parts of the Constitution to eliminate judicial review of laws, and the override of judicial decisions by a two-thirds legislative vote. Congress in 2004 sought removal from court oversight cases involving the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, mirroring Jesse Helms' 1980s attempt to strip federal court jurisdiction over school prayer cases. Six of George Bush's first 11 court nominees were Federalist Society members, a group whose vision of "new federalism" tends to roll back twentieth century law surrounding the environment, civil rights gains, workplace health and safety, the minimum wage, welfare, social security, and more. Founded in 1982 and mentored by Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia, some within the group seek attainment of critical mass within the court system toward re-characterization of government regulations and labor protections as unlawful government "takings" under the Fifth Amendment.

Rights are often selectively invoked. David Horowitz's expressed intent to seek "more tolerance on campus" through his Academic Bill of Rights, is belied by the attempt of his group, Students for Academic Freedom, to ban from the University of North Carolina reading list Barbara Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. A chronicle of the working poor, the book is scorned by conservatives as "anti-Christian" for its allusions to anti-poverty liberation theology, and "anti-capitalist" because it "blames corporations for the hardships suffered by the poor." Horowitz himself called it a piece of "Marxist trash" during a 2003 Denver appearance. The long arm of censorship extends beyond the campus, as a producer reported on NPR in 2005 a foreboding call from a corporate backer who termed the theater production of Nickel and Dimed "counterproductive."

Moral Majority co-founder Howard Phillips is a leader of the religious mission to "defund the left" and eliminate "anti-biblical" social programs. Public policy driving the vast shift of wealth and power that seeks eradication of all social programs dating to the New Deal, is engineered in tax-exempt, corporate-financed think tanks. Huge Reagan and Bush budget deficits have been calculated to justify slashing social spending to the bone, even as anger is deflected away from corporate looters of the treasury toward single mothers on welfare. 1996 Welfare Reform targeted $67 billion of total social spending, leaving untouched $167 billion in corporate welfare. Marvin Olasky (The Tragedy of American Compassion) provided the theme for the Republican holy war to end aid to the poor, citing biblical justification for starvation (Thessalonians 3:10): "...if a man will not work, neither let him eat." Opponents of "supply-side" economics were dubbed by Newt Gingrich "socialists." Any mention of financial inequity or the increasing tax burden on the working poor and middle class draws accusations of "class warfare." The world's second richest man, Warren Buffett, observed of class warfare, "My class won," noting that his receptionist pays a tax rate proportionately 10 times higher than he does.

Gingrich's "opportunity society" quickly morphed into government-of-the-highest-bidder, abetted by Tom ("The Hammer") DeLay whose "Pay to Play" ethos strong-arms corporate lobbyists for contributions in exchange for industry deregulation, privatization and large corporate subsidies. Medicare Reform became a multi-billion dollar windfall for the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, rewarded with the push to privatize Medicare and the prohibition of negotiation of bulk medicine prices. The 2003 pork-laden Energy Bill pumped $20 billion in tax subsidies to the oil and gas industry, relieving them of responsibility for the cost of environmental cleanups, also subsequently dumped on taxpayers.

A principal architect of George W. Bush's annual tax cuts for the rich, Americans for Tax Reform's Grover Norquist eagerly anticipates the prospect of states' fiscal chaos, expressing hope that at least one of the states "goes bankrupt." The goals of anti-tax activists and corporate oligarchs merge perfectly with the ambitions of religious nationalists. Once public services and schools are financially squeezed, corporations will privatize them. So, too, do religious nationalists anticipate economic and social turbulence as precursors to the establishment of theocracy on the ruins of U.S. democracy.