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Homegrown Democrat, Chapter 2: "We have become the tedious conservatives"

This page is lifted verbatim from a PDF of the first 4 chapters Garrison Keillor's 2004 book "Homegrown Democrat", available here:

It's even better when read by the author. I have the audio (I bought the audio book), but since that doesn't seem to be available online I won't tempt the copyright gods any more than I already am.

This captures well my frustrations with both political parties, but especially the Republicans.  It was written in the heat of the 2004 elections and is therefore a bit dated, but I hope you enjoy it (it you manage to get through it). 


Something has gone seriously haywire with the Republican Party. Once, it was the party of pragmatic Main Street businessmen in steel-rimmed spectacles who decried profligacy and waste, were devoted to their communities, and supported the sort of prosperity that raises all ships. They were good-hearted people who had vanquished the gnarlier elements of their party, the paranoid Roosevelt-haters, the Flat Earthers and Prohibitionists, the antipapist antiforeigner element. The genial Eisenhower was their man, a genuine American hero of D-Day, who made it okay for reasonable people to vote Republican (even in the South), and he brought the Korean War to a stalemate, produced the Interstate Highway System, declined to rescue the French colonial army in Vietnam, and gave us a period of peace and prosperity, in which (oddly) American arts and letters flourished mightily and higher education burgeoned and there was a degree of plain decency in the country. Much too much was made of Alger Hiss and the Hollywood Ten by lefties with a bad case of the yips. Fifties Republicans were giants compared to today’s. Richard-Nixon was the last Republican leader to feel a Christian obligation toward

In the years between Nixon and Newt Gingrich, the party migrated southward down the Twisting Trail of Rhetoric and sneered at the idea of public service and became the Scourge of Liberalism, the Great Crusade Against the Sixties, the Death Star of Government, a gang of pirates famed for bold symbolic forays that diverted and fascinated the media by their sheer chutzpah, such as the misty-eyed flag-waving of Ronald Reagan who, while George McGovern flew bombers in World War II, took a pass and made training films in Long Beach. The Willie Horton ads of 1988. The flogging of the undeserving poor, the barely concealed racism, the drumbeat of diatribes against The Gummint. The Nixon moderate vanished like the passenger pigeon, purged by a legion of angry white men who had risen to power on pure punk politics, nasty, violent, borderline psychopath. “Bipartisanship is another term for date rape,” says Grover Norquist, the Sid Vicious of the GOP. ‘’I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I-can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” The boy has Oedipal problems and government is his daddy.

The party of Lincoln and Liberty was transmogrified into the party of hairy-backed swamp developers and corporate shills, faith-based economists, see-through fundamentalist bullies with Bibles, Christians of convenience, freelance racists, hobby cops, misanthropic frat boys, lizardskin cigar monkeys, jerktown romeos, ninja dittoheads, the shrieking midgets of AM radio, tax cheats, cheese merchants, cat stranglers, taxi dancers, grab-ass executives, gun fetishists, genteel pornographers, pill pushers, chronic nappers, nihilists in golf pants, backed-up Baptists, Crips and Bloods of the boardroom, panjandrums of Ponzi marketing and the grand pooh-bahs of Percodan, censors, spin dentists, Swiss bankers, hit men, body snatchers, mouth breathers and tongue thrusters, testosterone junkies, oversexed hedgehogs, brownshirts in pinstripes, sweatshop tycoons, line jumpers, randy preachers, marsupial moms and chirpy news anchors, UFO scholars, johns, shroomheads, hacks, fakirs, aggressive dorks, wizened aliens, aluminum-siding salesmen, Lamborghini libertarians, people who believe Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk was filmed in Roswell, New Mexico, little honkers out to diminish the rest of us, braying, smirking, scratching on the national blackboard, Newt’s evil spawn and their Etch-a-Sketch president with a voice like a dial tone, who for almost four years has looked as if he were just about to say something smart, not much introspection going on here, no inquiring minds eager to learn about the world, not much chance of anyone picking up a book that isn’t on the official reading list and hearing a still small voice, a dull and rigid man suspicious of the free flow of information and of secular institutions in general, whose philosophy is a jumble of badly sutured body-parts trying to walk, supported by millions of good folks who do not share the anarchist dream but sleep well with this West Texas sphinx for a nightlight. Republicans: the No. 1 reason why the rest of the world thinks we’re deaf, dumb, and dangerous.

What gorgeous characters they have given us, a cast worthy of Dickens — the oily and toxic DeLay, the lubricious Lott, the bland and arrogant Dr. Frist, the shabby and devious Rove, the meathead Hastert, the squinty Rumsfeld, the stone-brained Cheney, and the tragic Powell, the Company Man Who Could Have Been Great, who was offered the mantle by all the polls but deferred to the Boss’s Callow Son and vouched for him, the battlefield veteran defending the goldbricker, the bootstrap hero kneeling to the Young Pretender. Rich ironies abound! Lies pop up like toadstools in the forest! Wild swine crowd round the public trough! Outrageous gerrymandering! Districts shaped like orthopedic devices! Pocket lining on a massive scale! Paid lobbyists sit in the committee rooms and write legislation to alleviate the suffering of billionaires! Young Republicans ride the government gravy train! The train is full! More cars are added! Hypocrisies shine like cat turds in the moonlight!

O Mark Twain, where art thou at this hour? Arise, and behold the Gilded Age reincarnated gaudier than ever, upholding great wealth as the sure sign of Divine Grace, railing against the expense of public schools and calling for more prisons. Henry Mencken, you poisoned these boobs and they’ve come back hardier than ever. A whole new strain, more virulent than any previous. Every satirist who drew breath has flung pots of ink at this parade of tooting lummoxes and here it is come round again, marching down Main Street, rallying to the cause of William McKinley, hail, hail, the gang’s all here, ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay.

It’s the natural cycle of life, I suppose, that conservatives become anarchists and liberals conservatives. Once we Democrats were young and rebellious and lobbed eggs at the bewigged and berobed Establishment and now we’re the parents with the thankless job of home maintenance, defending principles that go back to the founding of the Republic, namely, the notion of the common good, the principle of equality, the very idea of representative government. We’ve become the tiresome, repetitive old dad who tells his boys that Progress Depends on Teamwork and All of Us Learning to Pull Together, while the Republicans have turned into the Screw You Party. They tore into the progressive income tax, raked the IRS over the coals for chasing down deadbeats, and succeeded in convincing the American people that they are overtaxed (compared to whom? Albania?), succeeded to the extent that 17% of Americans now believe it is justifiable to cheat on your income tax.

Here in 2004, George W. Bush is running for reelection on a platform of tragedy—the single greatest failure of national defense in our history, the attacks of 9/11/2001 in which nineteen men with box cutters put this nation into a tailspin, a failure the details of which the White House has fought to keep secret, even as it has run the country into hock up to the hubcaps, thanks to generous tax cuts for the well-fixed, hoping to lead us into a box canyon of debt that will render government impotent, even as we engage in a war against a small country that was undertaken for the President’s personal satisfaction but sold to the American public on the basis of brazen misinformation, a war whose purpose is to distract us from an enormous transfer of wealth taking place in this country, flowing upward, and the deception is working  beautifully so far. The top 1% holds nearly half of the financial wealth, the greatest concentration of wealth of any industrialized nation, more concentrated than at any time since the Depression. In 1980, on average, CEOs earned 42 times the salary of the average worker, and these days they earn about 476 times that salary. Since 1980, the rich have been getting richer fast and furiously and hard-working people in the middle are sliding down the greasy slope who never imagined this could happen to them. The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few is the death knell of democracy. No republic in the history of humankind has survived this. The election of 2004 will say something about what happens to ours. The omens are not good.

I am a liberal and liberalism is the politics of kindness. Liberals stand for tolerance, magnanimity, community spirit, the defense of the weak against the powerful, love of learning, freedom of belief, art and poetry, city life, the very things that make America worth dying for. The people who call themselves conservatives stand for tax cuts, and further tax cuts, annual tax cuts, the only policy they know. Cut taxes. Use the refund to buy a gun and an attack dog to take with you when you drive your all-terrain vehicle through the barricades of Republicanville to make a foray into enemy territory to purchase supplies. They are leading this great land toward a Lost New World where Social Security and Medicare will be dim memories and America will be a series of malls connected by interstates, and people will live in walled compounds with moats, like in the Middle Ages.

Other liberals, bless their hearts, are deeply into diversity and thanks to them the public school dasn’t use the word Christmas without mentioning Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Ramadan in the same sentence, but I am far more interested in middleness and centrality and ordinary decency, which we are losing in George W. Bush’s America. He is leading our beloved country down the old plank road toward Plantation Days in Dixie, where you are either landed aristocracy, or a supervisor, or a barefoot field hand in overalls. This is not the America I grew up in.

What liberals must conserve is the middle class: the stable family who can afford to enjoy music and theater and take the kids to Europe someday and put money in the collection plate and save for college and keep up the home and be secure against catastrophe. This family has taken big hits in payroll taxes and loss of buying power and a certain suppressed panic about job security. Its optimism and good humor are not boundless and if Democrats don’t defend it, it could be washed away along with-the old-fashioned notion of the common good that was strong back in my youth in the Fifties when we thought of this as one nation. We learned it in public school from the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. America is predicated on an idea, which is equality, and the equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are not a herd of woolly mammoths united only for self-preservation, nor a gang of mercenaries, nor the United Federation of Caucasians or the Church of the Sacred Banner, we are a noble political experiment and when Lincoln rose on that November afternoon in 1863, after a man with three names had blown hard for two hours, he summed up in two minutes the great cause: what could be the Lord’s purpose in allowing the green fields of Pennsylvania to be soaked with blood and gore if not to consecrate these United States to the ideal of government of and by and for the people?

Nothing in literature moved me so much in my youth as the Civil War, the popular Bruce Catton histories, the letters of soldiers, the Brady photographs, Whitman’s Specimen Days, the biographies of Lincoln, the story of our own First Minnesota that charged forward to plug a hole at Gettysburg and save the Union line from folding — the whole epic sweep of the War and the cavalier arrogance of the South that pushed the nation to conflict and that almost put to rout the muddling patriots of the North, the stubbornness of Grant, the cult of Lee, the woozy romantic twaddle of the Lost Cause, and the mystical sense of Union that rose from the slaughter. Union: a house divided cannot stand. Slavery was a gross insult to the national ideal; we could not tolerate it and still be the United States.

If the powerful have free rein to stomp on the weak, then the Union itself is weakened: to tolerate injustice will corrupt politics and leach away public happiness and darken public places; walking in the darkened streets we will regard each other with suspicion and feel the need for locked gates, private security guards, moats, towers, motion detectors, prisons in which to keep the vengeful, and circuses and spectacles to distract us from what is happening.

The Union does not rest on strength of arms or financial wealth but on the common faith of American people that their children have a fair chance to thrive, that the iron gates have not slammed shut on them, that there is justice, that the Bill of Rights has not been privatized. This is the bottom line in America: we have to feel that our kids stand a chance — otherwise, there’s a civil war brewing.

We are one country, and I remain a proud Unionist, happy to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and pledge allegiance, sing about the amber waves of grain, wish I was in the land of cotton, pick my teeth with a carpet tack, be in the kitchen with Dinah, hate to see the evening sun go down, take myself out to the ball game, walk that lonesome valley, and lean on the everlasting arms. I LOVE this country. This is one of those simple dumb discoveries a man makes, like the night I came out of the New York hospital where I, a bystander at my wife’s travail, had held my naked newborn six-pound shining-eyed daughter in my two hands, and I walked around town at midnight stunned by the fact that what I had seen was utterly ordinary, everybody comes into the world pretty much like that. In the same spirit, I walk around St. Paul and think, This is a great country and it wasn’t made so by angry people. We have a sacred duty to bequeath it to-our grandchildren in better shape than however we found it. We have a long way to go and we’re not getting any younger.

The Union is what needs defending this year. Government of Enron and by Halliburton and for the southern Baptists is not the same as what Lincoln spoke of. Not even close. This gang of Pithecanthropus Republicanii has humbugged us to death on terrorism and tax cuts for the comfy and school prayer and flag burning and claimed the right to know what books we read and to dump their sewage upstream from town and clear-cut the forest and gut the IRS and promote the corporate takeover of the public airwaves and to hell with anybody who opposes them. Their crusade against government has given patriotism a bad name. And their victory has been accompanied by such hubris as would choke a goat. One Republican columnist wrote that Democrats should give up opposing tax breaks for the rich because working people don’t vote their self-interest, they vote their aspirations and are happy to give big gifts to rich people because they hope to become rich too. A little TV Republican named Tucker Carlson wrote a column saying that if Democrats want to win, they need to (1) talk tough, (2) start their own think tanks, and (3) get a sense of humor. — (3) Got one, Tucker, (2) got plenty of think tanks, except we call them colleges, and (1) shut your piehole, peabrain, or I’ll set fire to your loafers.

Democrats have changed America in simple basic ways in the past fifty years that have benefited everyone. Race has become less and less an issue in people’s lives and racism has ceased to be socially acceptable anywhere. Women have moved into every realm of society and this is everywhere accepted without much comment. Equal opportunity in education, employment, housing. There is general agreement on the right to a dignified old age, guaranteed by the state. Democrats led the way in bringing these things about. It’s one thing to get into power and do favors for your friends; it’s quite another to touch the conscience of a nation. The last Republican to do that was Teddy Roosevelt.