31 October 2014

Ghost hunter: Ted Cruz and the quest for the hidden majority

I empathize with the despair Senator Cruz of Texas must feel at the thought of a 2016 presidential election contested by a Bush and a Clinton, even though I don't necessarily share his fear that the nomination of Jeb Bush by the Republicans would guarantee the election of Hillary Clinton for the Democrats. The country seems to be in an eight-year presidential cycle that leaves voters disgusted enough by the standard-bearer of one party after two terms to choose the candidate -- any candidate, it must seem by now -- of the other major party. "Clinton fatigue" was blamed for George W. Bush's elections by those who didn't want to blame it entirely on the hanging chads in Florida, and something similar caused by Bush himself contributed to the election of Barack Obama. By now it's clear that many Americans will be quite sick of Obama by the fall of 2016, and their contempt will most likely benefit a Republican -- but Cruz isn't so sure. He worries that Republican primary voters and power brokers will waste the golden opportunity of 2016 if they opt for the latest Bush.  Whatever Cruz thinks of Jeb's brother, he has decided that the former governor of Florida is too much a moderate, too much in the mold of John McCain and Mitt Romney, to win a general election.

Cruz presumably doesn't agree that "Bush fatigue" helped Obama win in 2008. The Senator is one of many Republicans convinced that there remain vast untapped resources of Republican voters who will only come to the surface if the GOP gives them authentically impassioned and ideological conservative candidates. He's a believer in the hidden majority that must exist if his vision of America is to be viable. Like many a reactionary or ideologue, Cruz sees America not so much as what the American people say it is, and not even so much as what the Constitution dictates it should be, but as how Crassus saw Rome in Dalton Trumbo's script for Spartacus: as "an eternal thought in the mind of God." More importantly, he sees the American people themselves that way: not as what they say they are in the evidence you can see and hear, but necessarily as they should be according to Cruz's absolute ideology. There must be a majority out there that affirms traditional values, free enterprise and limited government, in his view, and they will reveal themselves when we use the right words and the right voice to summon them. Or else the America he believes in doesn't really exist.

Reality has disappointed Cruz before. Recall his encounter earlier this year with representatives of the oppressed Christian communities of the Middle East. He seemed authentically stunned that his co-religionists, beset by radical Islam, would not recognize Israel as their natural and rightful ally in the region. He will be disappointed again, in all likelihood, if his argument against Bush is really a plea for his own nomination. As some observers have suggested, a Cruz candidacy is, if anything, more likely to assure Mrs. Clinton's election or that of any Democratic nominee than nominating another Bush. He's simply too polarizing a figure after only a short time in the national spotlight, unless you assume that the hidden majority will tip the balance toward one pole. However, Cruz might be surprised, more or less happily, by the outcome of a Bush-Clinton race. Hillary is sure to suffer for voters' "Obama fatigue," since she served in his administration, while Jeb has always been perceived as the more moderate and smarter Bush brother. More importantly, this is Hillary Clinton we're talking about -- the Devil Herself to a generation of right-wingers. If Republicans aren't motivated to go to the polls simply to vote against her, then they aren't as rabidly reactionary as we assume they are. Maybe this is what Cruz believes -- that the hidden majority isn't driven by fear but needs to hear a positive affirmation of their values, whatever that may sound like, before they'll rise in their majesty and reclaim the country.

Still, Cruz is correct to think of Bush vs. Clinton as a bad choice for the nation, if only because it would reaffirm a disquieting quasi-aristocratic turn in American politics. While both prospective candidates have won multiple elections in their own right, both still embody the clannish idea that virtue somehow inheres in families, and neither may have received a chance at election if not for their last names. This political version of brand-name loyalty has no more place in a working democratic republic than our brand-name loyalty to parties. We ought to hope that there's a hidden majority that would reject both families, but Cruz is right again if does think that any hidden majority needs to hear more than fearmongering before it will assert itself. Cruz's mistake is that his message is something an actual hidden majority hasn't already heard. Our mistake, as I've warned elsewhere, would be to assume that there's a hidden majority that can be rallied behind one platform or vision for the country -- that any hidden majority is essentially centrist or moderate. Saving our country almost certainly won't be that easy.

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