That’s Wisconsin state senator Glenn Grothman, currently the Republican nominee to replace US Rep. Tom Petri, arguing that there are too many yes-men in Congress. “Glenn Grothman knows when it’s time to stand up and say no,” the ad assures us. Of course, the 113th Congress is on track to pass fewer laws than any in US history. There appears to be an unprecedented number of representatives willing to stand up and say no, but in Grothman’s mind Congress is a handmaiden to the president. His bizarre claim reflects an article of faith among contemporary conservatives: that the United States has somehow become pervasively, oppressively liberal.
By definition, conservatism should not be a countercultural position. The classic message of conservatism is “let’s leave things as they are now.” If you favor established institutions, traditional social structures and the power of business, you should not oppose the broad nature of society. But as conservatism becomes more extreme, the “now” part of “let’s leave things as they are now” moves further back in time. Exaggerated conservatism becomes reactionary, abandoning its trademark caution to call for return to an imagined past.
Lest you think that last paragraph was merely rhetorical, consider that in 2012, Grothman introduced a bill declaring single parenthood a contributing factor in child abuse. The bill, which promptly died in committee, would have required Wisconsin’s Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board to emphasize that single parents were more likely to neglect their children or expose them to sexual abuse.
Here’s Grothman at a public hearing:
I guess as long as this state is going to fund a group called the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board, at least that group could use the money that they have to publicize something that’s politically incorrect, but I think has to be said in our society. It’s a very politically difficult thing to deal with because over time you’re having more and more families that are not old-fashioned families. There are even people who make fun of old-fashioned families.
There it is: the conceit that most of society is arrayed against traditional values. Grothman presents his plan as an idea that people might dislike not because it is mean-spirited and tenuous, but because it is “politically incorrect.”
His weird bill stops being an affront to most people’s idea of decency and becomes an utterance of truth that society forbids, because society, as we all know, is intensely liberal. “There are even people who make fun of old-fashioned families,” he says, evoking the familiar sight of bullies taunting a schoolchild because his father lives at home. We’ve all seen it, or at least accepted it as part of our persecution fantasies.
The genius of this rhetorical strategy is that it removes the stigma from extremism. As with his insistence that we need someone in Washington who knows how to say no to things, Grothman makes a crazy idea seem truthful by erecting a straw man of organized resistance. We don’t hate his single-moms-cause-child-abuse bill because it’s arbitrary and cruel; we hate it because political correctness forbids all but the bravest from acknowledging his truth.
By the same token, “taking this country back” from single moms, welfare recipients, ethnic and religious minorities, unions, people in cities, women, and homosexuals isn’t unpopular because it excludes so many people. It’s unpopular because vague forces conspire to make our society oppressively liberal. The real America isn’t the one that disagrees with Grothman’s extreme agenda. That disagreement is only an expression of the liberal pressure real America has fallen beneath.
Under normal circumstances, a person who subscribed to G. Grothman’s ideas might worry that he was a kook. Certainly, a bill implying that single moms are guilty of child abuse sounds like something a kook might support. Lifelong Republicans might worry that such legislation is not conservative in the traditional sense of the word. Really, though, everybody thinks that about single moms. You just don’t hear it because Obama and the liberal media have made it politically incorrect.
The fantasy of persecution is a powerful thing. Without the belief that government and big business were colluding to brainwash the American people, Students for a Democratic Society was just a bunch of kids throwing bombs. With it, they fought a just war on behalf of those not allowed to speak. Four decades later, different members of the same generation have elevated their resentment of change to a revolt against tyranny. That’s the thing about tyrants: they always see themselves as liberators.