Time is a duplicitous agent, slowing and speeding at its own irregular speed and will. Point in fact when it seems like only yesterday that we were suffering through a Republican Primary race, otherwise said, a pantomime of conservative dogma. And yet here we are again, four years removed, and once more on the cusp of a show that is so unbelievable that it is often mesmerising. It will not be long now until the armada of media outlets inundate our palates with HD analysis and re-analysis of debates and speeches; not long until all the candidates line up and get the opportunity to pitch their ticket and value to the American voter. As I say, time is duplicitous, and has a mood all of its own.
Earlier this month it was Ted Cruz, the first of the herd of hopefuls to open the saloon doors and announce his candidacy for the Republican nomination. Launching his campaign to cheers and applause at Liberty University - founded by the late evangelist leader Jerry Falwell and touted as the world’s largest Christian college - Cruz, the red-meat Texas senator, spoke directly to his Bible-thumping base, nailing all the key conservative issues. In a country in which politics takes no prisoners, and in which there is no room for fence sitting, every issue abound with sensitivity while candidates squeeze against each other as they mark out their particular political domain. This will no doubt be especially true in the race for the Republican nomination, with a field expected to exceed a dozen hopefuls. A direct consequence of the narrowness of the political terrain is an observable shift towards increasingly conservative stances. And with the conservative religious right and its feverous quarterback in the guise of the Tea Party straining the political debate to incredulous limits, the left - and I use the term loosely - breaks at its tether just to frame a sensible discussion. It is here that the cowboy preacher figure enters the stage, with his quick shooting politics, Bible thumping and nostalgic American dream speeches, and evokes a once upon a time frontier America.
Leading the charge upon his noble steed, this figure operates in a political Colosseum of complex democratic institutional frameworks and often inefficient workings which is increasingly populated by extremism - the controversial usage of the term is certainly not lost on me. Extremism, packed and marshalled by a Republican Party whose ranks are whipped and checked for conformity on a regular basis, is no doubt encouraged and amplified by a 24-hour news cycle that is constantly in need of breaking news. However, therein also lays the greatest obstacle, or better said, juggling act that faces a Republican candidate seeking nomination, as whilst they strive to please hard-liners within their own party, they must remain within the limits of mainstream appeal. And yet, listening to their Primary campaign speeches it would seem that the more enthusiastically a candidate expounds upon his conservative values the more he is adored by the party’s faithful core.
Part-cowboy part-preacher, Cruz cuts a well-practiced figure, and though he will not be the most conservatively faithful of the gang, his speech meanwhile contains clues as to what the tent pole issues of the race will be: faith, climate change, the economy and foreign policy1. Case in point, when Cruz told the Texas Tribune that people who believe global warming is real are “the equivalent of the flat-earthers”, his message found resonance with his army of conservative followers. He continued by explaining that “it used to be [that] it is accepted scientific wisdom [that] the Earth is flat, and this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier”. This pronouncement is certainly astounding given the scientific world’s unanimous verdict on this issue, noting that “global warming is not a political problem – it’s a scientific problem”2. Mind you, Cruz is not alone as most of the potential Republican candidates either at best offer general obfuscation on the subject or at worst claim that they are not scientist and thus prefer to stay on the side of disbelief. Curiously, the bar and burden of proof remains respectively low when it comes to matters of religiosity, whilst the bar and burden of proof for climate change remains singularly high. Cruz, a free-market loving, gay-marriage hating, climate-change denying and evolution-should-be-presented-alongside-religious-education-in-schools advocate certainly tows the ultra-conservative line - even adding spice for good measure. Given that Cruz is simply the first of many3 similarly inclined candidates to throw their hat into the presidential ring, it is worth considering America’s love affair with the cowboy/preacher figure.
The imagined quintessential American man is a cowboy, a lone warrior who on his trusty steed dispenses imperfect justice. He is a maverick character, who speaks little, and even less of love, for he is the epitome of an emotional pragmatist. His is a gun-slinging, bravado walking character who wears rough-edged scowl. Ah the cowboy, whose appeal seemingly never fully retires. Etched in the American imagination, his coarse outline is full of an ageless charm that cannot be outdone, even by his own crass demeanour. There is of course the coolness of his personality, for deep down we envy his hip-shooting straight-to-the-point politics. Arguably, it is our tender sentimentality to reform this character’s gruffness that protects him against the usual public venom and intellectual scrutiny. Perhaps even, it is pity that stirs us to ignore his reluctant intelligence, and emboldens us to give him the benefit of the doubt - even when doubt has exceeded all standard patience. He is a brazen barely literate fellow whose composure is as flimsy as his gunshot-wounded knee. He is the product of a romanticism born on the adolescent frontier fields which somehow has remained impervious to time and slipped into the mainstream of the modern political arena. And well, if you thought a double dose of Bush was bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet! This latest model named Cruz is an even more saintly individualist, whose only charm preys on the fatigue of usual politics that has been marinated in economic despair. Beware, a cowboy’s timing is always immaculate, each time riding in from somewhere - usually Texas - gun in hand, radical tax reform in mind, he starts shooting at anything that does not wear an American flag - and these days that includes very little! Energized by a support base whose desperation for immediate relief has made them drunk with fear, those prairie-hat Tea Party settlers line up in droves ready to cast their vote in support of their saviour.
There is of course an unmistakable religiosity to the figure, his every word and syllable laced with religious righteousness, a politician whose views, stances, political persuasions are guided by God himself. Certainly it is fair to speak of the age of the digitalised messianic politician, and though they are not the first of their kind, in an age of science and progress, arguably we should steer away from democratically elected leaders whose faith both informs and dictates their political decisions. For this look no further than Bush’s explanation for the invasion of Iraq as “God’s will”. The undeniable truth of the Republican Party and its legions of followers is that the louder a candidate pronounces their rigid adherence to the Party line then the more electable and pleasing they become. But it is those very same hardline conservative characteristics and qualities, that are a pre-requisite of gaining the Republican nomination, which later turn achilles heel, as they make candidates unappealing to the mainstream voter. This is of course the inherent dilemma of democratic politics around the world - satisfying your political base whilst remaining in line with general voters.
For all of Obama’s Presidential failings and unfulfilled promise - and make no mistake about it, Republicans will be framed as such - one cannot simply abandon sensible judgement and patient authority to a cowboy-turned-pastor figure, whom once striped of his charm is revealed to be a scary fellow indeed. In this period of uncertainty, what is required are cool rational heads, for only they, along with cross-partisan support, can steer away from these perilous seas. If America is to successfully navigate said seas, then its love affair with the cowboy preacher figure must end, and in this regard the onus is squarely placed on the shoulders of the American electorate.
1 Perhaps even in that order, though no doubt each will be framed under the umbrella of security.
2 Note, Cruz is not arguing that mankind is having an impact on climate change, instead his argument is that climate change is simply not happening.
3 Cruz was the first, though since then Rand Paul and Marco Rubio have also announced their candidacy. The field is expected to include Republican heavyweights Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabe, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum.