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How America Can Avoid Ending Up Like the Roman Empire

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Timothy Patrick McCarthy is core faculty and director of the Sexuality, Gender, and Human Rights Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. He also served as a founding member of Barack Obama's National LGBT Leadership Council.

This interview took place in March, when Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were still in the Republican presidential race.

MATT BIEBER: You wrote recently that you were "disgusted" with the GOP candidates. Two questions: First, do the things that disgust you surprise you? And second, do you think that expressing that disgust is useful strategically?

TIM MCCARTHY: Great questions. This is what happens when you're someone like me who posts aggressively on Facebook as a way to vent my spleen!

My principal source of disgust stems from the fact that I don't believe for one second that any of these men have the nation's best interest at heart during a very difficult trial in our nation's history. Now, as a longstanding member of the "democratic wing" of the Democratic Party, I will fully acknowledge that I am biased when I look at them and listen to them and try to interpret what they're saying and gauge what they're doing. I'm just not in their camp -- never have been and never will be.

That said, when I look at the current crop of Republican candidates, I don't see a lot of positive, proactive -- to say nothing of progressive -- kinds of policy solutions being laid on the table that a broad sector of the American people can actually entertain as legitimate alternatives and suggestions to move us forward. I think that they are motivated in different ways by a kind of ideological purism (which I think Santorum represents), a kind of egotistical megalomania (which I think Gingrich represents), and a kind of elite entitlement (which is what I think drives Romney). I just don't see them offering up a set of policy proposals and alternatives that can be seriously debated and considered by reasonable people.

MB: What kind of issues are you thinking about in particular?

TM: Certainly on social issues, they're so far outside where the country has moved on women's reproductive rights, birth control, gay rights, immigration, and these kinds of things. They even want to get rid of the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency -- which, by the way, are never going to be abolished! So let's stop all this ridiculous pandering to the worst kind of anti-government hysteria.

We can talk about education reform and immigration reform; we can talk about different approaches to climate change, global warming. But let's talk about the research and science that's on the table, let's debate it, rather than just reject academics and scientists because they teach at so-called "elite universities." Let's talk about their research, and if you don't agree with it, then tell me why you don't agree with it. What research have you done? What are your hypotheses and methodologies? Who on your team has done serious research that arrives at different kinds of findings? Let's have that conversation. Likewise, if you don't like teachers' unions, let's talk about different models for education reform, rather than simply call for the abolition of the Department of Education, which is doing really important work in a whole range of areas. We need to replace this silly scapegoating with serious debate. There's too much at stake.

And when it comes to foreign policy, I don't think they can beat Obama. Now, I have a longstanding critique of Obama's foreign policy agenda -- his failure to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, the slow pace of withdrawal in Afghanistan, the reprehensible use of drone attacks, among other things -- but I am nonetheless relieved that he seems to be less of a knee-jerk "hawk" than his Republican predecessors and even many of his fellow Democrats. But the GOP strategy is to ignore the things that President Obama has done well to advance an indiscriminate war cry for endless engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now, another hasty, preemptive military strike against Iran. Politically, financially, morally, that's an untenable set of positions. It's warmongering at its worst, ideologically driven, an attempt to say that everything President Obama does is wrong.

So that's why I'm disgusted from a policy standpoint. The second piece of the disgust for me is that in the process of running for president, these folks have reinvigorated a pernicious kind of "dog-whistle" politics around race and class that I find to be absolutely insidious, and frankly ancient. Most of us, many of us, have gotten beyond the point where a candidate can invoke the claim that Barack Obama is "the best food stamp President in American history" and think that reasonable citizens are not going to see that for what it is. It's the classic racialization of poverty, which had its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, now being projected onto America's first black president. It's a deliberate strategy of trying to denigrate poor people and black people, equating poverty with blackness and blackness with poverty (which are two different, if interrelated things).

To me, this smacks of a kind of ancient race-baiting that this country needs to move beyond. If you are going to make a legitimate claim to the presidency of the United States in the 21st century, when we have just elected the first African-American president, then you have to put an end to this. You have to do as John McCain tried to do during the 2008 campaign, to his credit, and dismiss this kind of race-baiting. I mean, McCain had surrogates, including Sarah Palin, who sometimes did it for him. But he himself did not engage in this kind of petty "dog whistle" race-baiting.

[Note: The rest of this interview is available at The Wheat and Chaff.]