Dinesh D'Souza is no one's idea of a thoughtful participant in the nation's public conversation. Still, his tweet on Wednesday morning may have set a new low for the right-wing rabble-rouser. Commenting on a widely circulated image of President Obama taking a picture of himself with selfie stick, D'Souza tweeted the following message: "YOU CAN TAKE THE BOY OUT OF THE GHETTO... Watch this vulgar man show his stuff, while America cowers in embarrassment."
The tweet has created quite a stir, especially among people who think it demonstrates D'Souza's racism. But I think it reveals something that might actually be worse: his willingness to pander shamelessly to racists in order to increase his own power and influence.
And really, isn't that what's most outrageous about the contemporary Republican Party — how ready and even eager it is to go slumming for support in the fever swamps of white cultural resentment?
Yes, even worse than its lamentable enthusiasm for prostrating itself before the super-rich. For one thing, while money can certainly influence the outcome of an election, it's unclear how much or in what way. Just ask the notorious Koch brothers, who spent over $400 million during the last presidential election cycle with decidedly mixed results. Then there's the fact that the Democrats have their own super-rich donors, showing that money doesn't directly translate into a fixed ideological agenda. This is true even among the most reliably Republican donors, whose policy commitments can be as unpredictable as anyone's.
Far greater civic damage is done by the GOP pandering to (and flattering the prejudices of) right-wing cultural populists.
It all began with Barry Goldwater's 1964 bid to catapult himself into the White House on the backs of states-rights segregationists and Orange County conservatives. Goldwater lost in a landslide, but 16 years later Ronald Reagan succeeded with a similar strategy, combining culturally alienated Southern white voters with disaffected blue-collar northern Democrats to form a winning electoral coalition for the Republican Party.
As the size of that coalition has slowly shrunk over the intervening decades — due to a mixture of demographic attrition and changes in the ideological configuration of the Democratic Party since the early 1990s — the GOP has had to work ever-harder to motivate the coalition's remaining members to show up at the polls on Election Day. And that has turned the Republican primaries into contests over who can pander to them the most egregiously.
That's what's inspired such sparkling policy gems as Mitt Romney's proposal that undocumented workers "self-deport" and Herman Cain's 9-9-9 tax cut gimmick. It's also given us Sen. Ted Cruz — a politician whose every word and action seems driven by the singular desire to transform himself into an archetype of the median Fox News viewer.
And then there's Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who's already in the lead to win this election cycle's award for Achievements in Pandering.
Exhibit A is a form of groveling that these days just about every Republican engages in when asked if he or she accepts the truth of Darwinian evolution. Walker played this sorry game on his recent trip to London, when the question was posed to him by a reporter and he chose to "punt."
When members of the right-wing media dismiss such questions as exercises in confirming that conservatives belong to a different cultural "tribe" than liberals, they have a point. A president's views on evolutionary biology are in almost all imaginable circumstances irrelevant to his job, and most liberals who scoff at Republican expressions of evolutionary agnosticism probably know no more about biological science than their ideological opponents.
Yet there is still something more than a little pathetic about the abject refusal of Republican candidates for high office to defend the reigning scientific consensus on the matter, at the risk of offending the most stridently fundamentalist Christians. Why not be similarly non-committal about whether the sun orbits the Earth or vice versa? Just because these believers have arbitrarily decided that it's acceptable to defer to scientists on one issue but not the other?
A politician less terrified of antagonizing scientifically illiterate voters might respond to a question about evolution like this: "Yes, I believe life evolved on Earth, not because I'm a scientist but precisely because I'm not. Scientists study these questions, they revise their views in light of new evidence, all the evidence gathered today points toward evolution, and that's good enough for me. As a Christian, I have faith that God played a role in evolution that we can't fully grasp through science, but that doesn't mean the science is wrong."
A statement like that would take the faith of religious voters seriously while not pretending that ignorance is acceptable or treating it as something positively admirable. But of course it might also alienate a few Know Nothings, and that's apparently not something Walker is willing to risk doing.
He is not only unwilling to risk offending fundamentalists, but also seems actively committed to wooing people who think that what America really needs in 2015 is to stick it to university professors.
That's Exhibit B: Walker's effort to cut $300 million from the budget for the University of Wisconsin system — coincidentally at the precise moment he's gearing up to compete in the notoriously far-right GOP Iowa caucuses.
I have no idea if Walker actually believes professors are parasites on the Wisconsin state budget — or if he's merely ingratiating himself to those who do. What matters is that in taking this stance he's allied himself with the forces in American society that consider Advanced Placement history courses to be a problem rather than a plus, and who know so little about university life that they actually think professors are coddled wards of the state instead of richly educated researchers and teachers who work endless hours for modest pay and (thanks in part to slanderous statements by public figures like Scott Walker) precious little social esteem.
Is this really what America needs now — a scramble to nail down the stupid vote? That is the spectacle the Republican Party seems once again poised to provide.
Add it to the list of reasons I won't be voting for the GOP anytime soon.