We recently visited Eastern Europe. In Berlin we saw the “Typography of Terror” exhibit, in Poland we toured the Auschwitz Death Camp and the new exhibit at the “Schindler’s List” factory, in Prague we viewed with sorrow the Jewish Museum collection that the Nazi’s forced Jewish religious leaders to assemble and curate as “a tribute to a vanished race” before sending most off to be murdered at Auschwitz.
Why didn’t the Jews resist? One theory – no one could believe that a German nation intent on winning a war would also deliberately go to great expense to murder so many people. They need the workers, don’t they? No one would be so extreme! Work camps, yes. Mass murder, no! As Tony Judt observes in Thinking the Twentieth Century, it took years for the reality of the Holocaust to be absorbed and to influence scholarly and everyday thinking.
Is there now a similar refusal to believe Republican plans for the American middle and working classes? Can ordinary Americans refuse to believe what right-wing politicians are promising? See the Daily Kos July 19 story (The Obama Strategy: Bain Softens Up Romney For The Real Blow: the Ryan Budget). Many low-information voters simply cannot believe how radically different the Republican plans for the middle class are this time.
The public did not view Romney as an extremist. For example, when Priorities informed a focus group that Romney supported the Ryan budget plan — and thus championed “ending Medicare as we know it” — while also advocating tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing.
What became clear was that voters had almost no sense of Obama’s opponent.
For more details on Priorities USA Action goals and game plan see the NY Times Magazine article (5 July 2012) “Can the Democrats Catch Up in the Super-PAC Game?”
A friend recently purchased fruit from a neighborhood patch and noticed the seller had a Romney sign in his front yard. When asked why, he responded that Romney had pledged to keep Medicare and Social Security intact while Obama and the Democrats were dedicated to destroying them.
This is the opposite of each group’s published plans, but he was convinced that Romney could not possibly mean what he has said, and that no politician would really do what the Ryan Budget Plan commits to, even though the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has repeatedly voted for such plans. These plans are no more secret than Hitler’s plans were. However both are so extreme that both Eastern European Jews and now many middle-class Americans do not believe such extreme actions are possible.
As Tony Judt observed, “Those who got the twentieth century right, whether in anticipation—like Kafka—or as contemporary observers, had to be able to imagine a world for which there was no precedent. They had to suppose that this unprecedented and ostensibly absurd situation was actually the case—rather than supposing with everyone else that it was grotesquely unthinkable. To be able to think the twentieth century in this way was extraordinarily difficult for contemporaries.”
Can the same be true of Republican radicalism in the twenty-first century? Will medical care, retirement and education be totally privatized, ending social welfare as we know it, vastly strengthening the power of the rich? Is the Ryan Budget proposal the equivalent of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, laying out the unimaginable?