…and Republicans lost sight of it a long time ago.
In her Washington Post column last week, Catherine Rampell asked, “What ever happened to the ‘personal responsibility’ we’ve so often heard Republicans prattle on about?” She then went on to recount the GOP’s lame and at times seditious responses to the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol, responses that expose the hypocrisy of a party that has long since abandoned this core principle. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” Republicans once told us. “Live within your means.” “Be a man.” But in perhaps the most vivid sign of how completely Republicans have abandoned this principle, Sen. Josh Hawley, one of the instigators of the violence at the Capitol, has insisted in a Fox News interview that he, in fact, is the victim.
For me, this question of the GOP’s long-held personal responsibility stance is personal, and it’s something I’ve reflected on a great deal in these years of Republican Party’s descent into fascism. This will roam slightly off track for a moment, so bear with me.
One of my greatest passions, outside of politics and journalism, is basketball. And I’m not talking about basketball fandom, though I am a long-time Golden State Warriors fan and season ticketholder for their G-League affiliate, the Santa Cruz Warriors. No, I’m talking about playing basketball, as in years of adult league experience, a shooting court in my backyard, and osteoarthritis-riddled hips and knees. Back in the day, when the presidency was passing from George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton, I, an avowed liberal Democrat, was playing on an adult league team with three friends who were all long-time Republicans. Being weekend warriors in our thirties, we inevitably followed our games with lengthy margarita-fueled sessions at a local cantina, where discussions quickly moved from post-game backslapping to politics. Again, I was a single liberal in among a hive of conservatives, debating 1990s-era topics like trickle-down economics, taxation and deficits, and work requirements for welfare. There were never winners or losers in these debates, but always moments of clarity and conviction and, I must admit, moments of hesitation as well. It was abundantly clear to me, for instance, both from pre-Reagan history to the results of the Reagan experiment itself, that trickle-down economics was a complete fallacy, and I think the intervening years have borne this out. On the other hand, when my Republican friends confronted me with the question of personal responsibility, I had to pause. At a time when the federal dollars spent providing Food Stamps, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and the Earned Income Tax Credit had been rising steadily, my conservative friends made a fair point in saying the country just couldn’t afford the status quo. I was forced to educate myself to make counterarguments — to go out before the age of the ubiquitous internet and learn that, in fact, safety net programs make up a small portion of the federal budget, most beneficiaries are children, most families receiving benefits are working families, and the majority are white, as opposed to people of color. In fact, during those years of adult league games and tequila-fueled debates, the Clinton administration agreed to reform AFDC, which led to the steady reduction in participation and benefits we’ve seen in the decades since. The wisdom of that policy change, even decades later, is certainly open to further debate, but what is clear to me is, personal responsibility is a valid concern. Policies should promote it where possible, and penalize those who abdicate it.
When my friends and I were having those debates, the Republican Party had a soul, and at the core of its soul was personal responsibility. Debates similar to the ones we were having in that cantina were also happening in the White House and in Congress. Policies were reviewed and changes were devised, and whatever you might think of the results of those changes, at least they were based on some degree of analysis and honest debate. Whether we supported the changes or not, we liberals had to be on our game. We had to be ready to address grievances that had some degree of merit. But now? Not so much. There is absolutely no shame in today’s GOP. A Senate Majority Leader who declares that his party’s primary political goal is to ensure that a duly elected U.S. President is unable to win a second term has absolutely no shame. A Georgia Secretary of State who continues to run his state’s election apparatus while running for governor, then actively suppresses the vote to ensure his own razor-thin victory, has absolutely no shame. A Senate that gleefully holds up a Democratic president’s U.S. Supreme Court nomination for 10 months, then just as gleefully rushes a Republican president’s nominee to a vote in 8 days, has absolutely no shame. And Senators and Representatives who join their party’s president as he incites a violent assault on the U.S. Capitol — literally threatening their own lives and those of their colleagues — and then vote in support of both the violent mob and the president who incited it, have absolutely no shame.
And without a personal sense of shame, how can one claim the mantle of personal responsibility. Republicans at some point realized the only path to victory available to them is a barrage of fear-mongering, audacious lies, conspiracy theories, and general ignorance. And if you don’t believe this, if you think the call to personal responsibility is anything but a faint and distant echo in the ears of rank-and-file Republicans, just watch this up-close-and-personal video of the seditious marauders who stormed the Capitol on January 6th. These are people who have long since abdicated all responsibility for their actions to Donald Trump. They are no longer interested in inconveniences like understanding basic civics or becoming informed participants in the democratic process. Their only interests now are the grievance and mindless opposition they use to replace any sense of self-esteem they may have had.
I used to pine for the days of those thoughtful debates with my basketball teammates, when one could wear one’s political leanings proudly and engage in the great, challenging exercise of bar table democracy. But I don’t anymore. My hope now is for an end to the GOP, for its cynical, opportunistic fealty to Donald Trump to destroy it from the inside out.
We can only hope.