New America held hostage by Old America

There have been so many essays written dissecting the state of conservatism, the notion that it is in decline has become cliché. But decline doesn’t mean disappearance.

The political place where most conservatives live, the Republican Party, is overrun with the deeply unpopular Tea Party, whose obsession with slashing government programs has locked the country in an austerity clench, which only the well-to-do airline traveler is apparently allowed to escape, thanks to the various footmen and coachmen to the ruling class who inhabit the United States Congress.

Not so, the kid in Head Start, or the senior who relies on Meals on Wheels, or the chronically unemployed dad struggling to feed his kids without unemployment assistance or job prospects. They will suffer the sequester’s full wrath.

The expansion of Medicare under the Affordable Care Act is being blocked by a slew of Republican governors, mostly in the poorest states, in the American South, which means they will continue to lead the nation in such un-First-World-like vestiges as child poverty, while states like North Carolina are following Florida down the path of humiliation through drug testing for people forced to rely on public assistance.

When Republican-controlled state legislatures aren’t passing draconian laws punishing the poor, or attempting to force women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, even in the case of rape, they’re attacking voting rights — the better to prevent the targets of legislative cruelty from exacting revenge in the next election.

The U.S. House of Representatives is hostage to these same forces, who have now bled into the Senate, where Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Libertarian Sen. Rand Paul now represent the leading edge of the GOP in the once-august body — filibustering even the most timid gun reform, and frightening fellow Republicans and conservative Democrats alike out of support even for broadly popular background checks.

We now have a Washington in which conspiracy theories about Benghazi or even the Boston Marathon bombing find their way into congressional hearings, but the deeply personal testimony of gun violence victims softens few hearts and minds on the right.

It’s an ironic twist after a presidential election in 2012 in which a Democratic president was resoundingly re-elected, and in a country which is rapidly becoming more progressive on issues like gay rights and marriage.

New America may have won the White House and the culture wars, but Old America has a gun to our heads.

So it should be no surprise that the runaway cruelty of the right now finds its latest manifestation in what can only be described as a blood-thirsty death penalty law, which Florida’s Legislature passed this week. The law would speed up executions in the state, even as nationally, the use of the death penalty is on the decline. Even Texas, the state that kills more inmates than any other, has seen its use of the death chamber decline by 79 percent between 1994 and 2012, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The killing of prisoners is down 75 percent nationwide in that time, and 44 percent in Florida.

The Timely Justice bill (you’ve got to hand it to conservatives for pithy nomenclature) would dramatically shorten the appeals process, and remove the governor’s discretion when it comes to signing death warrants. No matter that Florida is among the eight states the Innocence Project lists as having seen the most death penalty cases overturned, thanks to DNA and other evidence.

If inhumanity were currency, conservatism would be rich indeed.

I will confess to not understanding where the basic impulses of the right — toward rewarding the rich, damning the downtrodden for their condition and rendering government inert and unable to help the least of these — comes from. More inexplicable to me is how those views are reconciled with a zealous faith. Jesus, after all, eschewed cruelty, favored the poor, and championed mercy.

But I’m cognizant that the right is with us for the duration. They are not going to secede — to take their impoverished, government-dependent states and go. Nor are they going to relent, even in the face of what can only be continued electoral defeat, as New America grows larger in number, and Old America goes into its dotage.

All we can hope for is a revival of pragmatic conservatism, perhaps when the “boogeyman” Barack Obama has finished his term as president.

That, or a wave election in 2014.

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