Even though Mitt Romney is the clear Republican presidential nominee, both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich vow to pursue the nomination until the party’s national convention. The question that baffles most people is: why is the Republican party continuing to drag out a divisive nomination process which is alienating large sections of the electorate?
There are two factors at work here: the rightward drift of the party base, encouraged by the Tea Party campaign; and the consequences of the Supreme Court’s Super PAC decision. Santorum and Gingrich are acting as surrogates for plutocrats who fund them to get a national platform for extremist conservative views. Las Vegas casino tycoon and supporter of right-wing Israeli groups Sheldon Adelson, for example, has given more than $16 million to the Gingrich Super PAC “Winning Our Future.”
Gawker notes that Gingrich and his supporters are well aware that he has no chance of becoming presidential candidate, but he continues to campaign. “Perhaps most strangely, his events are still well attended. The Newt fans who come to see him aren’t hoping for a miraculous victory, but they do like hearing what he has to say.” Gingrich himself told the Washington Post that his aim was “to make sure Mitt Romney runs as a conservative in the general election, as he has promised, rather than tacking back to the center, as his campaign has suggested he might.”
Right-wing Republicans have built a movement that exploits the resentment of the white middle class at their declining status amidst the redistribution of wealth to the top. The Post described Santorum’s supporters as “traditionalist Americans. They yearn for an age when America was run by white Christian men, when husbands went to work and wives stayed home and raised as many children as they could handle.” When Santorum refers to “the integrity of family,” he is evoking an era “when abortion was illegal and gay marriage was a schoolyard joke.”
People may laugh at some of his remarks, but they contain messages for a specific audience, albeit a narrow segment of American society, which is increasingly agitated by the Great Recession. Sara Robinson writes in Alternet that while political commentators have derided Santorum for getting his facts wrong – for example, when he attacked California state universities for not teaching American history, when in fact 10 out of 11 universities in the system do – they miss the point.
She explains: “Even though right-wing narratives are often factually wrong, they are absolutely never content-free. Stories like this are always about something. … Santorum’s brief comment, incoherent as it seemed, communicated a great deal to his audience by artfully triggering a vast universe of essential right-wing memes. … The University of California may have 11 campuses, but in the right-wing mind, ‘UC’ is code for just one of them – UC Berkeley, the first and still-flagship campus, which holds a mythic position as Ground Zero for all of Dirty Hippiedom in the conservative imagination. … Oblique as this already is, invoking UC and Berkeley also calls forth the ghost of Ronald Reagan [who abolished] UC’s free tuition – which is still remembered by the faithful as the first historic salvo in the long war to defund all public services.”
While at first sight it seems that by targeting the Californian university system Santorum was simply appealing to the prejudices of his base, he is also laying the ideological groundwork for cuts and privatization. It’s an extreme vision but one which elaborates the funding cuts for state higher education that have been made in most states, including Democratic strongholds like Massachusetts.
Despite this rightward trend in political rhetoric, there is a rising tide of opposition growing within American society. In the movement for justice for Trayvon Martin, initiated by the steadfastness of his parents, we can see a drive for popular sovereignty which has succeeded in ousting Sanford police chief Bill Lee, instigating a grand jury investigation of the shooting and a federal investigation of the entire police department. It has also energized important segments of American youth to demand equal justice under the law.
Tampa Bay 10 News reports that: “College students from across Florida are marching to Sanford this weekend as part of a movement titled the ‘The Dream Defenders.’ They started marching on Friday from Daytona. They plan to arrive in Sanford this Easter Sunday to protest the handling of the Trayvon Martin case. The Dream Defenders are calling for the immediate arrest of Zimmerman and they want Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee and Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. permanently removed from office.” Their network started out as a conference call organized by former student leaders of Florida state universities with the idea that students and young people must come together to defend the dream set out by Dr. Martin Luther King.
In a video interview, Florida A&M University alumnus Phillip Agnew explained why he was marching: “What baffles me is that America is the biggest police force on earth. We chastise other countries for human rights violations, we sanction countries that don’t treat their people fairly, we rush in and rescue people and set up a democracy, but here in our country our people are killed, incarcerated at record rates and nothing happens. … some young people care about what goes on with their brothers and sisters, their black and brown brothers and sisters, and some white people are here with us today showing solidarity, and that’s the most important thing; the next generation of people are going to change the world.”
Universities are still a catalyst for protest against injustice. That’s why Santorum singles them out in his remarks and why they have become the target of cuts by both Democratic and Republican-run states. As the Occupy movement highlighted, both major parties limit access to political power on behalf of the plutocratic one percent, and so are truly bipartisan in their opposition to dissent.
When the Supreme Court recently judged that prison officials may carry out strip-searches for anyone arrested even for the most minor offense, their decision was encouraged by Obama’s Department of Justice. Glenn Greenwald points out in Salon: “the Obama DOJ formally urged the Court to reach the conclusion it reached. While the Obama administration and court conservatives have been at odds in a handful of high-profile cases (most notably Citizens United and the health care law), this is yet another case, in a long line, where the Obama administration was able to have its preferred policies judicially endorsed by getting right-wing judges to embrace them.”
Greenwald quoted civil rights lawyer Stephen Bergstein, who said: “At oral argument, a lawyer for the Obama Justice Department told the Supreme Court that ‘[p]rotesters…who decide deliberately to get arrested… might be stopped by the police, they see the squad car behind them. They might have a gun or contraband in their car and think hey, I’m going to put that on my person, I just need to get it somewhere that is not going to be found during a patdown search, and then potentially they have the contraband with them’.”
It’s the Obama administration itself which wants to give prison officials the power to humiliate and intimidate protesters arrested on the flimsiest of charges: so much for Obama’s adoption of populist rhetoric for the sake of his re-election. In this assault on the rights of protest, his administration has taken a position indistinguishable from the Republicans.