There is a reflecting pool between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial in our nation's capital. Stretched out between the memories of two presidents, the water reminds us that politics are merely a reflection of American society, for better or worse. The best of our society was on display 48 years ago when hundreds of thousands of Americans stood in scenic unity along the reflecting pool in support of civil rights. Today, the 2012 presidential elections reflect a nation still plagued by bias and inequality. Troubled and ugly waters indeed.
The following is a guide to use when you consider casting a vote for one of the 2012 Republican presidential candidates. You may be among the Americans who have lost faith in Obama or the Democratic Party and pondering a step to the right. Faulty as the Democrats may be, read this guide and remember that liberals still believe abolishing slavery was a good idea and that women should not be confined to the kitchen--which is not something you can say about all of the Republican contenders.
Rick Santorum, Former Senator from Pennsylvania
In 2003, then-Sen. Santorum conflated being gay with bigamy, incest and having sex with farm animals, then said, "That's not to pick on homosexuality." Really?
Later, Sen. Santorum actually copped to his prejudices, but spun them as a positive trait. "You can say I'm a hater, but I would argue I'm a lover," Santorum said. "I'm a lover of traditional families and of the right of children to have a mother and father.... I would argue that the future of America hangs in the balance." Sounds like a hater to me.
In 2008, Santorum tried to manufacture liberal angst about then-candidate Barack Obama, saying Democrats feared Obama "may go to Indonesia and bow to more Muslims." That's not to pick on Muslims, right? Still, the one thing I can say about Santorum is at least he's openly and consistently bigoted. There's something oddly old fashioned about that.
Michele Bachmann, Representative from Minnesota
Bachmann signed the infamous "black kids were better off under slavery" pledge and ushered in a real high point in the campaign season as pundits struggled in-artfully to talk about the nation's ugly racial history. Then Bachmann demeaned President Obama's economic policies by alleging he's tying the U.S. economy to Zimbabwe.
But Bachmann is not all rhetoric--she takes it to the streets. In 2006, then State Sen. Bachmann hid behind a bush to spy on a gay rights rally, crouching with her husband Marcus who runs a cure-away-the-gay reparative therapy organization of which she is "extremely proud."
Speaking of her husband, Bachmann's gender does not make her a feminist. She once told wives "to be submissive to your husbands" like she was when Marcus told her to go to grad school and run for Congress. "I was going to be faithful to what I felt God was calling me to do through my husband," Bachmann said.
Herman Cain, Former CEO of Godfather's Pizza
I hate to suggest that an otherwise ridiculously under-qualified black conservative is only a contender for the Republican nod because mildly self-aware conservative voters think they can cover up their profound racial resentment toward the current black president by endorsing Cain. So I won't suggest it.
Rick Perry, Governor of Texas
Gov. Perry has some extreme beliefs. "Social Security is a Ponzi scheme," and "Medicare needs to be changed or potentially abolished" are two that have gotten lots of attention since he joined the race. But it's his constant embrace of "states' rights" that has me most worried, given that "state's rights" was a pro-segregation refrain when white southerners wanted to preserve the right to own slaves. And taking "state's rights" to a whole new creepy level, Perry has actually endorsed the idea of Texas seceding to become a separate nation. Maybe the Confederate flag can be re-appropriated?
There's more. Activists and bloggers are now digging into Perry's relationship with David Barton, a pseudo-historian and close ally of Glenn Beck who has argued that the California wildfires and Hurricane Katrina were "God's punishment for tolerating gays." Barton also argued that Martin Luther King, Jr., doesn't deserve credit for civil rights because "only majorities can expand political rights"--in other words, Barton thinks white people in power should get all the credit. If Obama got flack for his ties to Jeremiah Wright, Perry should be scrutinized for his embrace of Barton and his extremism.
Ron Paul, Representative from Texas
The libertarian member of Congress has said plainly that he would have voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And a newsletter Paul published in 1992 says the Los Angeles riots only stopped when blacks went to "pick up their welfare checks." Another Paul newsletter alleged that black children "are trained to hate whites, to believe that white oppression is responsible for all black ills, to 'fight the power,' to steal and loot as much money from the white enemy as possible." Paul has denied authoring these newsletters, though they were published by him and called "The Ron Paul Political Report." Perhaps for Paul--or whoever he let write under his name--libertarianism means government shouldn't stop people like him from being racist.
Mitt Romney, Former Governor of Massachusetts
In April of this year, Romney said conservatives have to hang something called the Obama Misery Index "around [the President's] neck." In the same speech, Romney tried to step it back, saying "We're going to hang him--uh, so to speak, metaphorically--with, uh, with, uh--you have to be careful these days, I've learned that." It was either an idiotic choice of metaphors or a revealing slip of the noose--I mean tongue. In the past, Romney has used the racial epithet "tar baby" to demean government programs.
And if Obama has Jeremiah Wright and Rick Perry has David Barton, some wonder whether Romney should have to answer for the racist history of the Mormon Church, which until 1978 did not allow blacks to become priests or lead certain ordinances. In 1963, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was quoted in Life Magazine defending his religion's racism, saying, "Darkies are wonderful people."
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney was for marriage equality before he was against it. Now, to prove his homophobic bona fides, he's signed an anti-gay marriage pledge by the National Organization for Marriage. Santorum and Bachmann have also signed.
Jon Huntsman, Former Governor of Utah and Ambassador to China
Last but not least, there's Jon Huntsman. But the fact is he is far too knowledgeable, experienced and, above all, reasonable to have a shot at winning with the increasingly fringe Republican base. Huntsman has far too few overt or even veiled racist, sexist or homophobic rants under his belt to gain popularity with today's influential right wing voters.
Oh, and I've skipped Newt Gingrich, because he's a joke even to Republicans.
Whether it's a reflection of actual values or of the values that GOP candidates feel they must project, all the people above oppose abortion rights. All except Ron Paul favor amending the United States Constitution to prevent two men from getting married. All have engaged in feverish anti-immigrant rhetoric and complained that the Obama administration, which has deported more Americans than the Republican president before him, isn't doing enough to persecute immigrants.
Republican voters say that jobs are their number one concern. Do they think aborted fetuses and gay couples are stealing their jobs along with blacks and immigrants? How else can we explain such persistent pandering to manufactured culture wars, even in the midst of very real and ominous economic disaster that is affecting all of us?
A friend told me that the reflecting pool on the Mall rippled during last week's earthquake. Unlike Michele Bachmann, I don't think it was a message from an anti-government God, but I do think the symbolism is stunning in the context of these candidates--all of whom have a shot at becoming the next president. The ripples in the reflecting pool were not ripples of hope and change that echoed from 1963 all the way to the election of Barack Obama. Rather, they were ripples of fear emanating from the GOP candidates and targeting our nation's most vulnerable communities.
The recent earthquake also cracked the Washington Monument. It was as though, already destabilized by centuries of racism and bias, the tremors of politics unearthed the structural cracks. If we brush off hateful views as political theater, we face a deepening of the cracks that threaten to fracture our entire political system and society.
Then again, as Mitt Romney said, one has to be careful with metaphors.
Sally Kohn is a grassroots strategist and political commentator. She is the founder and chief education officer of the Movement Vision Lab.