April 7, 2010

Rightwing Populism and Unintended Consequences

Among those unclear on the concept of democracy and the consequences of elections, anti-government fervor is boiling away at a level not seen since the Clinton Adminsitration.  Last week, for instance, Congressman Ron Paul - a leading light among self-styled libertarians - declared that the passage of health care reform meant gun-toting federal agents will be showing up to shoot people who don't sign up for medical coverage.  Or something:
16,500 armed bureaucrats [are] coming to make this program work.  If it was a good program and everybody liked it, you wouldn’t need 16,500 thugs coming with their guns and putting you in jail if you didn’t follow all the rules.
This sort of baseless, paranoid stupidity would be amusing if the overheated rhetoric from the leadership of the American right wing wasn't demonstrably fomenting genuine acts of violence by its extremist rank and file.  In the immediate aftermath of the health care bill's passage, for example, Mike Vanderboegh, the former head of an organization calling itself the Alabama Constitutional Militia, decided he and his followers needed to send a message:
Vanderboegh posted the call for action Friday on his blog, "Sipsey Street Irregulars." Referring to the health care reform bill as "Nancy Pelosi's Intolerable Act," he told followers to send a message to Democrats.

"We can break their windows," he said. "Break them NOW. And if we do a proper job, if we break the windows of hundreds, thousands, of Democrat party headquarters across this country, we might just wake up enough of them to make defending ourselves at the muzzle of a rifle unnecessary."
The result? Vandalism to multiple Democratic party and congressional offices across the country.  Mr. Vanderboegh, the avowed libertarian militiaman behind this action was unapologetic, despite the fact that - wait for it - he lives on government disability payments.

Representative Eric Cantor, the House Minorty Whip tried to claim that "both sides" were behind violence directed at legislators when a bullet hole was found in his office window.  Washington, DC police however, established that it was a random shot fired from a considerable distance and not directed at the Virginia Republican, but that didn't stop Mr. Cantor from trying to blame Democrats for talking about the fact that they're being victimized, rather than blaming the people actually smashing windows.

Meanwhile, a group called the Guardians of the Free Republics sent letters to more than 30 governors stating that if they didn't leave office voluntarily within 3 days, they would be "removed."  No direct threat of violence was reported in the language of the letters, but law enforcement authorities are concerned that they \might be used to justify attacks or intimidation by others.  As if to put that risk in sharp relief, just days later, eight members of a Christian extremist group known as the Hutaree Militia were indicted and jailed for plotting to murder local, state and federal law enforcement personnel, and hatching a follow-up plan to attack the funeral procession of any officer they killed.

All of this amounts to little more than a fevered hatred of being out of power, and a misunderstanding of the function served by elections; it is - despite grandiose rhetoric - unlikely to lead to widespread upheaval that actually threatens the country.  That said, the increasingly eliminationist tone struck by leading Republicans like Sarah Palin, who urged "common sense Americans" to "reload," is deeply irresponsible, and it will be unsurprising to me if there aren't acts of more serious violence in the weeks and months to come that lead to either death or serious injury.

Amidst these causes of concern, however, there is a small ray of, if not sunshine, at least schadenfreudeTea Party panderers and lowest common denominator public figures like Congresswoman Michelle Bachman have been speaking out against the census, ranting that, despite it being a legal requirement spelled out in the Constitution, it is a tool of totalitarianism and citizens should not participate.  Ms. Bachman, apparently unconcerned that she was advising her constituents to break the law, warned that information collected in the census had been used to intern Japanese-Americans during World War II, and boasted that she wouldn't be filling out her own 2010 form.

While this might be great populist fodder, the law of unintended consequences is now rearing its head.  (Not that any of these short-sighted conservative rabble-rousers have ever been accused of planning for the future.)  The Houston Chronicle is reporting that residents of Texas, that conservative bellwether, are completing the census at a rate far below the national average.  As a consequence, the Lone Star State, which has enjoyed dramatic growth in the past decade is in the process of shooting itself in the foot, thanks to hysterical rightwing propaganda:

Texas is counting on the 2010 Census to deliver four new congressional districts, four new Electoral College votes in presidential elections, and millions of dollars in additional federal aid. But, as some elected officials are starting to worry, Uncle Sam can't deliver anything to the rapidly growing Sun Belt state unless Texas residents deliver their forms back to the government.

As of Friday afternoon, only 27 percent of Texas households had filled in and returned their census forms — well below the national average of 34 percent — according to computer data from the U.S. Census Bureau. In Harris County, the response rate is 23 percent. Houston's returns are running at 21 percent.

Contrary to historical trends, some of the toughest challenges facing the agency responsible for measuring the nation's population are not from counting the traditionally undercounted groups such as African-Americans and Latinos. Instead, a new and growing threat to an accurate national head count is coming from anti-government conservatives who may not fill out their forms to protest against “Big Brother” in Washington.
All of this would be funny if it weren't so tragic.

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