Some people's only exposure to nihilism comes from the German gang in The Big Lebowski who said things like “We are nihilists, we believe in nothing” and “Tell us where the girl is or we cut off your johnson, Lebowski.” Or the nihilist humor of comedian Brother Theodore, who liked to say things like “I looked at the void, the void looked back – and neither of us liked what we saw.”
That's exactly how I feel when I watch the Republican Presidential debates.
The void that looks out through their eyes is the absence of any underlying principle, ideology, or ideas, especially on economic issues. It's not that their beliefs are different than yours or mine. It's that, as now seems clear, they don't actually believe in anything – anything, that is, except greater power for themselves and greater wealth for their financial backers.
Nothing in nihilism's long intellectual history has prepared the world for its latest incarnation as the 21st century Republican party, or in its ultimate flowering in the likes of Mitt Romney and Herman Cain.
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Void, Meet Void
ni*hi*lism a: a viewpoint that traditional beliefs and values are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless.
– Merriam-Webster Online
Matt Bai has a piece in today's New York Times Magazine subtitled “The G.O.P. Elite tries to take its party back.” It's well worth reading. But it doesn't point out that neither side of that struggle represents a coherent worldview. Today's G.O.P. has no core beliefs. In both its policies and its politics it has devolved into a set of actors without core beliefs, fighting for domination on the ruthless and bloody stage of soulless nature.
We're not nostalgic or sentimental or naive. The pursuit of power has always driven politicians on both sides of the aisle. But there was once an underlying ethos, and it's gone. Once Republicans believed in certain things, like the importance of business as part of society, a smaller role for Federal government, and states' rights. But the new Republicans are nihilists. They believe in nothing.
And when it comes to Medicare and other Great Society programs, they're even willing to cut off the country's “Johnson” to prove it.
Whatever It Is, We're Against It
ni*hi*lism b: a doctrine that denies any objective ground of truth and especially moral truths
The Tea Party was built around burning rage, which billionaire-funded Republican operatives channeled for their own uses like it was geothermal energy. It's possible to sympathize with their anger while recognizing that the movement's only ideology is destruction – of government, and of anyone or anything it believes to be its enemy.
But the party “establishment” Matt Bai writes about doesn't have an ideology either. It did, back in the Reagan days. But then came Newt Gingrich, whose pole star was the use of language to win elections. His ascension to the Speakership in 1994 marked the beginning of the end of Republican ideology.
From that moment on, winning was the only thing that mattered.
Whatever Democrats propose, Republicans oppose. Republicans passed and signed a $286 billion infrastructure spending bill under George W. Bush. (Boehner's predecessor, Denny Hastert, was on hand to celebrate the spending for bridges, roads, and mass transit.) Today they oppose all such spending. Why? Because it's proposed by Democrats.
The GOP abandoned states rights when it began overriding states on social issues, and then when it pushed to strip the states of the ability to regulate businesses. It abandoned free-market principles when it pushed for bank bailouts and other corporate subsidies.
And balance-sheet executives like Mitt Romney and Herman Cain are even willing to abandon the inexorable logic of numbers when it suits their purposes.
Less Than Zero
Cain chaired the Board of Governors for the Kansas Federal Reserve and has an undergraduate degree in mathematics, so he's capable of performing basic arithmetic functions. Yet his “9.9.9” program (in German that's “Nein! Nein! Nein!”) is, among other things, bad arithmetic. It doesn't reflect a different economic philosophy than yours, or mine, or Joe Stiglitz's. It's just gibberish.
Ten years after George W. Bush dropped our highest tax rate to 35%, the country's in shambles. The combination of lost tax revenue, upward distribution of wealth, and the stagnating wages and buying power of the middle class has most of the country locked in permanent recession. In the midst of this chaos, Cain's proposing to drop the top marginal tax rate to 9% – which is 1/10th of what it was at one point under Republican President Dwight Eisenhower.
Maybe he just really, really hates taxes? No. He wants to raise them dramatically on some people, by imposing the same 9% Federal tax rate on those people the goofy, would-be “53% movement” complains about – people who don't pay Federal income tax, like the working poor.
A radical tax cut for the wealthiest Americans can't be offset by imposing a taxes on our lowest earners. It doesn't add up.
Republicans For Higher Taxes
Cain also wants to add a 9% Federal sales tax to … well, everything. That's economic insanity, since our crisis was brought on by a lack of demand which this would make much worse. But it's not just insane – it's also a tax hike. Sure, wealthy people would have a net cut, but everybody else's taxes would go up.
The Republican front-runner would raise taxes for most Americans.
His 9% corporate tax rate is staggeringly low. But corporations are already sitting on $2 trillion in cash. What would make them spend that money? Demand. And what would kill demand even more than it's been killed already? A Federal sales tax – like Herman Cain's.
Besides holding opinions that one of his fellow Governors considered “in step with Fed policies of the time,” Cain was a successful CEO. He didn't get that successful by misreading financial information. So when he wrote that “Current projections indicate that Medicare will go bankrupt by 2017” he almost certainly knew he was lying. Killing or gutting Medicare would be a symbolic emasculation of Lyndon Johnson, but it would also relieve a source of government spending that's increasing the demand to raise taxes on the wealthy.
There's no internal logic to Cain's economic positions except this: They would benefit the wealthy and corporations, and they're handy gimmicks for getting publicity. That's not ideology; it's cynicism.
59 Ways to Leave Your Values
During the last debate Cain asked Romney if Romney could list all 59 points in his economic plan, and Romney laughed. He's not expected to know what's in his own proposal – or to care.
Romney begins his proposal by observing that “In 1947, the year I was born, unemployment was 3.9 percent. In 1968, when I turned 21, it was 3.6 percent.” What he doesn't say is that the top marginal tax rate in 1947 was more than 86%, and that in 1968 it was 75%. Today it's 35%, and Romney wants to drive it down even more.
The Romney plan would make it even easier for companies to send jobs overseas. It would lower their taxes and remove the regulations whose removal led to the meltdown of 2008. It would accelerate the destruction of the middle class by taking away collective bargaining rights and cut all government spending – include the kinds that create jobs and keep us safe on the highways and in the air.
Economically, Romney's as radical as Cain. He just hides it better.
ni*hi*lism c: a doctrine or belief that conditions … are so bad as to make destruction desirable for its own sake, independent of any constructive program or possibility
When Republicans rejected Obama's jobs act last week, their alternative proposal was … nothing. Their sole motivation appeared to be not letting Obama succeed, even if millions of Americans suffered as a result. Obama's infrastructure proposal was much more modest than the one signed by George W. Bush, during a period when it was much less needed. But they rejected it anyway.
There's no common thread here except self-interest – and the fact that they all help wealthy individual and corporate donors. This dovetails nicely with the Tea Party's “Disco Inferno” attitude toward government: “Burn the mutha on down.” That's smart, from a purely opportunistic point of view. But it leaves no room for negotiation.
As for Romney and Cain, they both understand numbers. They can both read a spreadsheet. And they have the added advantage of not being trained economists, so never undergoing what my friend Mike Konczal calls ” by far the most ideologically indoctrinating class I've ever seen” – an introduction to graduate-level macroeconomics.
That's why I'm so certain they know they're speaking nonsense. As good business people,they know how smart it would be to borrow money at today's historically low rates and then invest it in jobs, growth, and infrastructure. But that wouldn't serve their interests or those of their patrons, so they're not going to tell you that.
Who trusted God was love indeed/And love Creation's final law/Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw … shriek'd against his creed.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
A creed – any creed, however flawed – has as its base the greatest good for all. Without that, people are just reflecting that bloody side of nature that is without belief or principle. And there's no point negotiating with people whose sole objectives are their own pursuit of power, which involves your destruction, and to serve their paymasters' interests as efficiently as possible.
The “values” party has none – certainly none that would be recognizable in any religious tradition.
The “bipartisan” school of political thought finds this kind of thinking heretical. Everybody has their point of view, the thinking goes, so we just need to find “common ground …” But when your opponents' sole goal is to win, that becomes impossible. There's no common ground on scorched earth.
Sure, the Democrats have often been weak and vacillating, diluting their own values and echoing some of thir opponents' nihilistic anti-government rhetoric. And there's a raging ideological war in that party, too, between those who believe in the role of government and those who support the right-leaning Clinton/Obama economics represented by Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, and Tim Geithner.
But the Democrats still seem to have, or at least want, a core set of beliefs. The natural (and usually admirable) desire to negotiate and find peace is one of them. But it conflicts with another value, one that's even more central to our democracy: to point out the differences between you and allow the public to choose. If the Democrats aren't up to the task, another group will step in – or democracy will fail.
“Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada as it is in nada.”
Ernest Hemingway, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place
For what it's worth, I wish things were different. I wish there was an honorable if misguided GOP to be dealt with like the Republicans of old. Whatever their faults, those Republicans managed to build the national highway system (under Eisenhower), proposed a guaranteed national income (under Nixon), and negotiated honestly if conservatively over Social Security (under Reagan.)
You could negotiate with those Republicans because they had an ideology. They had beliefs and values. Half a loaf was better than none for them, because compromise served a greater goal. It would be a better world if today's Republicans were like that. But today's Republicans can't be negotiated with. They can only be defeated. Defeated, or forced to change by intense political pressure.
The problem is that these Republicans don't have a greater goal. Their actions are simply reflections of a baser nature, red in tooth and claw and shrieking against any creed that seeks the just and the humane. They live only to serve their wealthy and powerful sponsors. They believe in nothing.
They are nihilists.