Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Fall Housecleaning

by Sara Robinson

Frank James at the Chicago Tribune's political blog, The Swamp, asks:

So are we seeing the beginnings of the Mark Foley-related backlash at the hands of religious and other conservatives against Republican gays with important Capitol Hill staff jobs?

When I tried to gauge that last week by phoning religious-conservative groups like the Alliance for Marriage and Focus on the Family, they demurred. Even the Family Research Council didn’t get back to me with a spokesman.

Anyway, I'm not taking it personally that Tony Perkins, the council’s president, devoted his Washington Update yesterday to the very matter I wanted to talk with him about.

In an item headlined, “Party of Whose Values?” he essentially seems to be accusing gay GOP staffers of being a fifth column within the congressional Republican power structure, thwarting legislative initiatives dear to social conservatives.

“Sunday's New York Times revealed that a homosexual former Clerk of the House of Representatives, Jeff Trandahl, was ‘among the first to learn' of Mr. Foley's’ messages to pages. The Clerk's job is described as a ‘powerful post with oversight of hundreds of staffers and the page program.’ This raises yet another plausible question for values voters: has the social agenda of the GOP been stalled by homosexual members and or staffers? When we look over events of this Congress, we have to wonder. This was the first House to pass a pro-homosexual hate crimes bill. The marriage protection amendment was considered very late in the term with no progress toward passage. Despite overwhelming popular approval, the party seldom campaigns as the defender of marriage. The GOP will have to decide whether it wants to be the party that defends the traditional moral and family values that our nation was built upon and directed by for two centuries. Put another way, does the party want to represent values voters or Mark Foley and friends?”

So Perkins is essentially accusing gay staffers of willfully sabotaging the gay marriage amendment while greasing the skids for its own hate-crimes legislation. Perkins doesn’t offer an explanation as to how non-gay members of Congress could be bamboozled to the point that they’d go along with legislative moves that would weaken their position with conservative voters.

But American history is littered with examples of powerful accusations being made in the absence of evidence. Think Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare of the 1950s.

The last line of Perkins’ is an unmistakable challenge to congressional Republicans. He is essentially putting the Republican Party on notice, saying it’s either us or them, the religious right’s agenda or that of gay Americans.

Yesterday also saw a column by Cliff Kincaid, editor of the conservative organization Accuracy in Media's AIM Report in which he shouts a similar rooftop warning about the damage gays in the congressional Republican establisment have done to the conservative agenda.

In the column titled "Homosexual Blackmail on the Capitol Hill, he said: "For the sake of honest and open government, not to mention protection of the children, the secret Capitol Hill homosexual network must be exposed and dismantled. But only Republican leaders can do that. Their failure to do so suggests that the network may go higher and deeper—and have more power—than even the New York Times article indicated."

So is this the start of a movement to purge gays from the senior staff positions on Capitol Hill? Such undertakings usually begin with jeremiads such as the ones we are witnessing that are then transformed into action.

The openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.,) in a recent question-and-answer session with the Advocate, a gay publication, expressed fears of such a result.

“This is a real crisis, since before, gays in the Republican Party were willing to be tolerated, but Republicans will now be more nervous having gay people in positions of power. They have been critical of people who are out and gay—there could be a real purge of gays in the Republican Party now. It's probably just enough for people to be perceived to be gay.”

If Republicans wind up losing the House or Congress entirely, and Foleygate comes to be seen as the event that put the Democrats over the top, the probability of such a bloodletting would seem to rise. It would not be the first gay purge in the nation's capital. "

Part of me reads this and thinks: Oh please oh please oh please. There's no shortage of reasons that this might be a very good thing to have happen.

First, the sheer hypocrisy of it all needs to stop. The Republicans have been trying to have it both ways for decades -- the faithful support of dedicated gay staffers in their offices, and the seething hatred of gays they've stirred up in their base to get them into the voting booth. The duplicity here has always been despicable, and the time is long past for them to reckon with the consequences.

If this list is to be believed, the GOP may have enough gay staffers that a public purge could functionally cripple the party, creating the kind of chaos that would take years to recover and rebuild from. At the same time, it would totally discredit the party in the eyes of religious conservatives. The party would have to re-write its entire "moral values" storyline from nothing, find and train a whole new generation of footsoldiers, and try to muddle by in the future without support from either the church folk or the right-wing gays.

This is squeamish stuff, to be sure. It's sure as hell not something either the Democrats or the press should have any truck with. But if a pissed-off religious right is bent on this kind of mayhem, I'm not sure we should try to stop them, either. Consider this: If they found the switch to a death trap that would throw the Democrats into total disarray for the next 20+ years, do you think they'd hesitate for one minute to throw it? Politics is war, and this could be the moment of self-immolation that ends the battle and wins the peace for a very long time.

Second, this could be a prime opportunity to get fundamentalist Christians out of government for the foreseeable future. American fundamentalists have always had a very uneasy relationship with politics. Deep down, they regard it as the devil's business, inappropriate for Godly people. Getting them over this notion and getting them mobilized in the late 70s was a striking political coup, in large part because it went so hard against their historical and theological grain.

Whenever religious conservatives have been moved to get involved in public issues, the effort typically lasted 20-30 years -- and usually came to an ignomious end, as some tremendous public humiliation shamed back into silence. After the Second Great Awakening, it was the Millerites -- and the subsequent defeat of the Confederacy -- that drove them out of politics from the 1860s through the early 1900s. Though they emerged briefly into the early 20th century, the Scopes Trial in 1926 shamed them so badly that they went home and shut up for another 40 years -- a total abdication that opened the way for the liberal rise from FDR through Carter.

This history suggests that we may be due once again for that kind of profoundly deep shaming -- an event so traumatic that it will discourage fundamentalists from returning to the political scene for a good long while. Finding out that the entire edifice of the party they worked so hard to build -- specifically so they'd be safe from the gay menace -- is shot through with gays would be enough to disillusion them for a couple generations. Frustrated and betrayed, they may simply pack up, go home to their churches, and cease political action. Think about how much easier our lives could be for decades to come.

(It is, of course, possible that this time could be different. Now that they've tasted power, the combination of frustration and betrayal could push them beyond the reach of any political force, and over the edge into violence. We've often discussed the possible outcomes of this here, so I'm not going to go over the possibilities. Suffice to say that it could end with the right being shunned by all right-thinking Americans -- or the rise of a new brownshirt class, depending on who chooses to support them and how.)

Third, it might, in the end, also be a very healthy thing for DC (and America) as a whole. Louis Bayard recently argued at Salon that political closets in general are incredibly archaic. Most other American institutions abandoned them long ago, or at least are well along in the process of leaving them behind. It's beyond high time for politics to catch up with this trend. We're almost 40 years post-Stonewall, and the vast majority of Americans under 60 support gay rights. We need to acknowledge the huge presence gay people have in our public life, get over it, and move on.

A good old-fashioned McCarthyite witchhunt that outs the GOP's gays could move that process along very quickly. While fundamentalists may be horrified, and the party as a whole crippled, most Americans would likely welcome the change. For them, the GOP's purging morality play would only reveal, in an unmistakable way, the deep hatred, intrusiveness, and hypocrisy at the core of the party's value system -- and its irrelevance to the real social priorities of the country's majority. The purge would be excruciating for those now in the closet (though there's a good argument that every gay person working for the Republicans should have known the risks when they took those jobs); but there's a real possibility that the spectacle would be so repugnant to Americans' basic standards of privacy and fairness that the very idea of closets and outing would vanish from our culture for good. (The Kenneth Starr Chamber, Part II.) If the religious right goes ahead with this purge, these could be among the last gay people outed anywhere in America.

If the nation's moral scolds are so hell-bent on having their Inquisition, let's not get in their way. Open up the GOP's big walk-in closet, and let the fall housecleaning begin.

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