American politics have shifted to the right over several decades. Footage of Ronald Reagan talking about unions or pollution proves that positions once viewed as centrist are now found only among Democrats and to their left. The anti-war rhetoric that swept Obama past Hillary Clinton is now little more than nostalgia, a common fate for promises that modern, corporatist Democrats make to peaceniks or environmentalists.
Because the political center has drifted so far right, Republicans have been pushed against the barriers of respectability. State legislators break those barriers often to gain rightward ground. While this is a source of amusement for many, particularly those outside Tennessee's borders, the joke grows tedious when the state and nation are facing dire threats and mounting problems.
Last year's Republican campaigns stressed budget discipline and job creation, but the reality has been attacks on laughably insignificant, ideological spending targets. Instead of creating jobs, Republicans are abusing unions and making employment more fragile and insecure.
Their inability to take their duty seriously is exemplified in men like Sen. Stacey Campfield, who said last week of a bill he and Rep. Frank Niceley introduced, "It's not a bill that either of us are planning on moving [through the Legislature]."
The bill would equalize pay for county mayors and school superintendents—which means it could theoretically give a big raise to County Mayor Tim Burchett, who used to hold the Senate seat Campfield now occupies. (Burchett has said he has nothing to do with the bill.) Campfield now says it was only meant as a placeholder, a "caption bill," because "you never know what may come up that our county mayor might need."
Never mind that a home-rule county should not be subjected to Nashville's whims. Never mind that the balance of power should not be toyed with on a contingency basis. Why are there so many frivolous bills in Nashville when there are serious problems with health care, employment, drug addiction, pollution, budgets, and more that need attention?
Sen. Bill Ketron and Rep. Judd Matheny introduced a bill so flagrantly unconstitutional they should have resigned for dishonoring the oath of office. Instead, they took a big eraser to the bill, scrubbing references to Sharia law and Muslim religion that were peppered throughout their definitions of organizations that support terror. Now that the Klan and Operation Rescue fall under the legislation, risking votes, this bill is likely to fade away.
Knox County Rep. Bill Dunn introduced a bill with its religious aims carefully hidden (see Citybeat, p. 10). He thinks science teachers should teach the controversy surrounding "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning." With language that sounds like a committee of lawyers talking themselves off a ledge, the bill reads:
"This section only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion."
Often, declarations of what something is not best explain it, and Dunn's bill is part of a national strategy by creationist groups hoping to mask their targeting of evolution by including other controversial topics in legislation. Bills nearly identical to Dunn's have been introduced in several state legislatures in the past couple of years.
There is no scientific controversy around evolution, which has guided more than a century of fruitful and validating inquiry. Darwin's ideas led to the discovery of the genetic material, deciphering of genetic code, and the development of ecology, organic chemistry, and statistics.
Controversy about evolution is partly religious but mostly deceit, a sales pitch for those who make their living on DVDs, home-school textbooks, and church-based lecture circuits. They depend on the gullibility that weak science education leaves in its wake, and Republicans like Dunn are natural allies.
Republicans know you can't fool all the people all the time, but 51 percent is good enough in politics. Anti-evolution churchgoers and angry bigots vote. Republicans willing to cater to the right-wing fringe now dominate the party, but Tea Party heroes lack the aptitude and imagination it will take to cure our country's ills.
Where our governments need leaders and solutions, there are only ideologues making a mockery of democracy.