Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains-----
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Todd Epp changed his political party registration from Democrat to Independent. I have thought of doing it for some time, particularly since the 2004 election. We are by no means unique in our time. And it would not be the first time for me. I changed my registration when I came to South Dakota. In Illinois, I was a registered Republican. I identified with a faction of the party that referred to themselves as Lincoln Republicans. When I became old enough to vote, the party of segregation and oppression of minorities and of people in the lower economic categories was the Democratic Party. The Republican Party offered sound moral grounds for opposing it.
My parents were born 30-some years after Lincoln was assassinated. They grew up immersed in the politics of Abraham Lincoln, and they transmitted their deep admiration and appreciation of Lincoln to their children. They kept a bust of Lincoln on a lamp table in our living room.
The veneration of Lincoln is a deep and complex matter. The Lincoln Republicans were more a cultural group than a political one. There were Lincoln Democrats, too. Scholars from the small liberal arts colleges in the region, such as Knox College in Galesburg, Grinnell in Iowa, Augustana in Rock Island, Nothern Illinois in DeKalb (it is now a huge university) made the study of Lincoln and what he stood for a force in the region that could not be defined by party affiliation. During the 1950s and 1960s when the civil rights movement took form, the Republican Party that descended from Lincoln was the major intellectual force against segregation and racial and class oppression in that part of the world.
By 1964 when Barry Goldwater challenged Lyndon Johnson, the Republican Party in Illinois had been taken over by the industrial conservatives. During that campaign, the Illinois Manufacturers Association held rallies with its affiliated business groups that preached the message that if something was not done about "those people," they would take over the country. I lived in a heavily Democratic district with the laboring people who worked for the five manufacturers of agricultural equipment that had huge plants in the area. However, the district elected a Republican congressman, a graduate of Grinnell College, whose Lincoln-like philosophy pulled together the labor, farm, and small business vote. He saw the necessity for taking measured but definite steps in bridging the racial divide in the nation.
The congressman did one thing during his time in office that made him a target of the Republican hierarchy. He was on the House Judiciary Committee and voted to impeach Richard Nixon. The corporate Republicans never forgave him and worked to displace him. The district has had a Democratic congressman ever since.
That background provides some motive for my changing parties. The other motive was a speech by Bill Janklow that I heard on the car radio as I drove to South Dakota to begin a new job. From that speech, I realized that the Republican Party of South Dakota was not something for which I could have any intellectual or moral tolerance. At that time, a young congressman, Tom Daschle, represented an active opposition to the Republican policies for which I have thorough disapproval. The Brown County Democrats also had a history of leading the state in progressive politics. It was one of the few areas in the state that lent active support to the old Non-Partisan League's struggle to give control of Dakota politics to the people. There were other factors, such as Vietnam, also, and so I registered as a Democrat.
The old line Democrats in Brown County are getting thin in numbers. Their children, for the most part, have been part of the vast outmigration from this 14-county region that has led the nation in the numbers of people leaving the area. For people with a historical perspective, it is hard to miss the fact that the state is being taken over by that political philosophy of the railroad barons of old, of the grain dealers who ruled poltically from the state house in St. Paul, of the corporate schemers whose ways of doing business caused the massive failure of the agricultural economy in the mid-1980s.
The politcal party now in power is governing according to a play book that is cribbed straight out the writing of George Orwell. His descriptions of totalitarian regimes and their tactics have been replicated in our country. The Republicans are masters of electronic propaganda that conditions people to thinking that they will have security by giving up civil liberties, they have instituted an apparatus of surveillance that can monitor every citizen (but it can't be used to find bin Laden), and they have conditioned the majority to regard any expression of opposition to the commanding party as unpatriotic, even treason.
An aspect of the propagandic subversion of free thought and free speech is buried in the term "culture wars." We live in a time when liberalism is portrayed as the political vehicle of moral decay. Conservative America is replaying the game of Savonarola of the Renaissance, who gathered up all the books, paintings, and other cultural items in Florence and burned them in huge bonfires. He thought the culture of his time was subverting people away from the faith. The extreme rightwing has declared war on the liberal culture as the enemy of faith. Democrats are being lectured both from within and outside the Party that they need to reconnect with the faith and values of the red state people.
When Tom Daschle spoke on the Senate floor against the mindless rush into the war on Iraq, the Republican propaganda machine portrayed this as a lack of support of our troops, an emboldening of the enemy, and an obstruction to the forces of right. Democrats did not rise up to denounce the cheap and mindless propaganda ploy and expose the essential dishonesty of the Republican message. They cowered in fear that they would be regarded as unpatriotic as we plunged into what must be one of the most obscenely stupid wars in world history. They join the war-mongers in putting yellow decals on their cars to honor the troops who would be best honored by trying to prevent their slaughter from an Islamic furor that the war on Iraq created. We live in an age of Orwellian absurdity and the people seem too wimped down by false accusations and false patriotism to mount any kind of a resistance.
A majority of Americans now disapprove of the war. A majority do not think George Bush knows what he is doing or is good for the country. A majority is looking for a coherent plan of leadership that can lead us out of the demoralizing morass we find ourselves in. Republicans and ill-informed Democrats are trying to find compromises that will bring Democrats into the Republican fold without having to change parties. Some Democrats are buying the message that we have to follow the Republican lead in appealing to the red state voters. Other Democrats feel that such nonsense is a gross betrayal of the principles that they support the party to uphold.
The lines at the county auditors offices may be growing as Democrats withdraw their support from the party that is betraying them. But most people will not bother to stand in line. They simply will not vote. Why vote when no one on the ballot represents you? Time and effort is better spent looking for a place where America seems to be working in the way it was intended.
The Democratic Party may have lost elections, but it also seems to be losing its intellectual and moral reason for being. The fight is for freedom, equality, and justice for all. The Democrats are giving up that fight in order to make peace with those who portray, as Savonarola did, all liberalism as decadence.
Those Democrats who are so fearful of being called traitors and agitators for speaking up for our democratic principles should not expect much but contempt for their betrayals. Those who have not supported the people who have spoken out against the wash of totalitarianism closing over us under the name of War on Terror should not expect much sympathy for their loss of freedom, equality, and justice. The fighters for those qualities of democracy will be trying to bring democracy to America, not condemning fellow citizens to death in Iraq.