Here’s a drink I would never order: an Everybody’s Irish. It calls for despoiling Irish whiskey with green Chartreuse, green crème de menthe, and an olive. Ugh. There are any number of reasons to shun this drink. It tastes awful. The name incites me to resentment. Everybody’s not Irish, and three of the four ingredients in the drink aren’t either, though they are green, which is the only reason they are in the drink. I resent that color, not taste, should determine what goes into a cocktail. Moreover, if you go to Ireland and actually look at it, you quickly realize its dominant hue is emerald gray. Thus the relentless, tired equation of Irishness with bright green is not only a cliché but a lie. I resent the attempt to cash in on the supposedly universal appeal of those wonderful, whacky Celts regaling us with their charming whiskey-drinking ways right out of the pages of Angela’s Ashes. Oh, wait, that book was about abject misery. Whatever. People with last names like mine were raised on sentimentality about The Old Sod. It’s hogwash, of course, but “Everybody’s Irish” not only tells an objectionable lie—that the Irish are fun drunks and people want to be like them—it tells the lie flimsily. It tells a Made in China lie, oversimplified and oddly threatening, with its conformist absolutism. “Everybody’s Irish” should be a curse, not a cocktail. As rhetoric, it resonates with the “You’re all individuals!” bit in Life of Brian. CROWD: “Yes! We’re all individuals!” INDIVIDUAL: “I’m not..”
In David Foster Wallace’s excellent essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” he notices that sometime in the 1980s, advertising had shifted away from the appeal of belonging to a group (drink this soda and you can join these happy people) to the appeal of avoiding a group (drink this soda and you’ll stand out from the dull. gray herd). The group became the villain. Everybody’s not Irish. Wallace points out a commercial motive behind this. Salespeople know the lone customer is an easier mark than one who shows up with friends, family or clan in tow. It makes sense for companies to vilify company, in the hope that you’ll go shopping by yourself. But Wallace also rattles off any number of larger sociological explanations for this, including the rise of the political right in the US.
If you think about one group in particular, what we call government, the right is definitely Vilifier in Chief. It makes perfect sense for a party proclaiming itself on the side of the individual. Republicans have been systematic in redefining government as a villain—Big Government, it’s called, never “good government,” and rarely just “government.” Other collective nouns in the right’s diction also get pejorative adjectives: The biased media. The liberal Elite. One-size-fits-all education. Singular words, words for people in groups of one, meanwhile, are mated with other positive words—personal freedom, faith-based initiative, individual liberty.
Why, then, are the freedom-loving folks on the political right so conformist? “We’re all individuals,” they cry in unison, and no one over there ever pipes up, “I’m not.” Of course, Republicans don’t describe themselves as conformist. They are “disciplined,” they are “principled,” they are “sensible.” It’s the left that uses words like “lockstep” to describe the monolithic voting history of the 242 Republicans in the House and 47 in the Senate. Facts support the left’s conformity theory: witness the record-breaking number of filibusters in the Senate back when Republicans had only 39 or 40 Senators. So do GOP practices like litmus tests on abortion, no-tax pledges, and threats of denying leadership positions, which got Olympia Snowe and Chuck Grassley back in line when they showed the rare independence of mind to consider working with Democrats. What’s next in stifling dissent? Reeducation through labor?
I would point out here several disturbing things: First, the GOP, for all its professions of freedom-loving individualism, behaves like a totalitarian regime. Secondly, in a functioning democracy, government is supposed to be the locus where we act out our collective will, but for the right, the political party is the collective locus, not the government as a whole. And third, Democrats are in the majority, so to thwart them at every turn is to thwart the voters who put them there, which in turn is to thwart the fundamental principle of democracy, which is that the majority rules, not an ideologically pure cabal of insiders who think they know better than the voters. Hence blocking the routine business of raising the debt ceiling. “But this is the only leverage we have,” says the minority, forgetting the obvious alternative, that Republicans try standing for ideas and policies that are popular with voters. (BTW, the ones who won in the 2010 mid-term elections, where “The American people have spoken,” did it with 40% of voters participating, hardly the stuff of a representative democracy, and with nearly half of that 40% voting against the winners. Amend that statement to “Two out of ten American people have spoken.”) I have little hope that Republicans will try my small-d democratic suggestion that they be more appealing to voters. It takes too long and would involve what is anathema to The Party: loosening up on the rigid ideology.
What these three trends suggest to me is that the right seeks power, not individual liberty, and certainly not democracy. When they don’t have power, they are willing to trample on principles—including their own—to get it back.