Cross-posted at Colorlines.com.
There can be no more doubt about what today’s GOP stands for. From mosques and birthrights to lazy laid-off workers, the Republican Party has concocted one way after another to pander to the most reactionary emotions of its base. But if Republicans win back Capitol Hill, they will have Democrats to thank. Because the Dems’ timid rejoinder to the GOP’s summer of demagoguery similarly reveals how afraid they are of debating our defining values. And like all fears, theirs is ultimately self-defeating.
The orchestrated absurdity surrounding a Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan is but the latest, if most bald example of the GOP’s attempt to conquer by division. The "debate" Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and House Republicans have stirred couldn’t be more divorced from reality. The center is neither a mosque nor located on Ground Zero. And local authorities, to whom conservative ideology professes deference, have resolved zoning issues to their satisfaction. But the facts don’t matter. Republicans are building a cultural consensus, not making policy.
On the stump, candidates have dressed up their objections in sensitivity to the 9/11 families. For that logic to work, one has to assume both that no 9/11 families are Muslim and that Islam is defined by terrorism. It’s an easy slide from either notion to Gingrich’s comparison of the community center’s developers with Nazis—a slur that defied both reason and decency.
Democrats have responded by pointing to the Constitution. But the mosque mania is no more about constitutional law than is the Republican leadership’s sudden interest in the Fourteenth Amendment. Nor, speaking of constitutional law, did the Republican bashing of Thurgood Marshall during Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings have a thing to do with weighing her judicial philosophy. Rather, all of these "debates" are successful attempts to turn policy questions into referendums on our national identity—who we are and what we value.
A CNN poll last week suggested the referendum results are lopsided. Nearly seven out of ten respondents opposed plans "to build a mosque two blocks from the site" of 9/11. Nearly half favored rewriting the Fourteenth Amendment in order to deny citizenship to the US-born children of undocumented parents. Half also said they don’t think gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marriage.
What do all of these questions have in common? They concern issues Republicans have hammered and Democrats have dodged. On issue after issue, the Republicans’ divisive ideas for America’s core values win out because Democratic leaders refuse to articulate a set of progressive American values.