Banana Republicans: The War at Home

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"The War at Home" is the title of the introduction to the 2004 book by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing Is Turning America Into a One-Party State (ISBN 1585423424).


Although George W. Bush campaigned for president in 2000 on the pledge that he would be "a uniter, not a divider," [1] he has actually presided over an increasingly polarized nation. [2] The reasons for these deepening divisions include a deeply flawed voting system that brought him into office, an unsteady economy, soaring budget deficits, tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthy, some of the worst business scandals in U.S. history, a devastating terrorist attack and a warlike foreign policy that has made the United States hated and feared internationally as never before.

These conditions reflect the highly effective political organizing strategy of the conservative coalition that brought the Bush administration to power. The Republican party's hard right views politics as literally a "war by other means." This philosophy has been promoted by figures such as conservative activist David Horowitz, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and Bush advisor Karl Rove. According to Horowitz, "Politics is war conducted by other means. In political warfare you do not fight just to prevail in an argument, but to destroy the enemy's fighting ability. . . . In political wars, the aggressor usually prevails. ... You cannot cripple an opponent by outwitting him in a political debate. You can do it only by following Lenin's injunction: 'In political conflicts, the goal is not to refute your opponent's argument, but to wipe him from the face of the earth.'" [3]

Grover Norquist, described by an aide to former House Majority Leader Dick Armey as the right wing's "field marshal," [4] coordinates the political war through weekly meetings that bring together a coalition of right-wing think tanks, GOP congressional leaders, White House representatives and K Street lobbyists. [5]

Whereas Republicans see politics as a war, strategists for the Democratic Party tend to see politics as a debate. And at that level, they think they have been doing pretty well. Opinion polls show that voters are divided between the two parties, and on many issues, such as health care, abortion and the environment, majority opinion favors Democrats. But whatever advantages the Democrats might enjoy in theory, Republicans have achieved victory upon victory in practice. In recent years they have come to control the White House, both houses of Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, and a majority of state governments, which in turn has extended the party's fundraising advantage with corporate lobbyists. [6] According to Norquist, this "guarantee of united Republican government has allowed the Bush administration to work and think long-term" as Republicans "are looking at decades of dominance in the House and Senate, and having the presidency with some regularity." Although Republicans frequently complain about the "liberal bias" of the news media, conservatives have become increasingly influential within the media, with overwhelming domination of talk radio and a preponderant advantage on cable television, if not on the broadcast networks

Notwithstanding their stated aversion to "big government," now that conservatives have become the government they have expanded its powers in precisely those areas that are most threatening to individual freedoms, through the Patriot_Act_I and other measures that authorize spying on citizens and detentions without trial. The likelihood that those powers will be abused has increased, moreover, as the conservative movement accuses its ideological adversaries of "treason," "terrorism" and "un-Americanism." The direction in which forces in the GOP are moving looks - at times absurdly, at times ominously - similar to the "banana republics" of Latin America: nations dominated by narrow corporate elites, which use the pretext of national security to violate the rights of their citizens.

When one party is able to impose its will without consulting others, the temptation is to run roughshod over the opposition - especially when it sees politics as a form of warfare. The metaphors that guide politics have consequences that affect us all. The notion that politics is a process by which a community governs itself leads to radically different consequences than the notion that politics is a form of war. One assumption leads to civil debate, negotiation and compromise, while the other leads to incivility and a no-holds-barred approach that shreds moral restraints and institutional safeguards. Treating politics as war may be an effective way to win power, but it is unlikely to succeed as a philosophy for wise governance.

Discussion questions

  • Do you agree that America is becoming more like a one-party state?
  • Is it correct to say, "Politics is the continuation of war by other means?
  • What other metaphors can be used to think about politics?
  • What are the reasons for the Republican Party's increasing dominance of American political institutions?