Presidential race theme: The will to punish

The more the Republican presidential candidates joust among themselves, the more incongruent and downright alarming their positions sound. What kind of America are these people jockeying for? To judge from their rhetoric, its central features would be austerity, pain and punishment.

They strongly avow to being pro-life, and yet show equal determination to disregard this sacred value when they choose. This attitude was on grim display in a recent debate when Texas Gov. Rick Perry all but bragged about how well he sleeps at night, content with the fact that his administration has put to death 234 death row inmates. Evidence suggests that at least one of those put to death, Cameron Todd Willingham, was innocent. Perry used his power to shut down a subsequent Texas Forensic Science Commission inquiry into the case.

But in the debate, Perry stuck to his guns as the unflinching decider of life and death, and audience of Republican faithful went wild cheering.

Another favorite theme on the GOP campaign trail has been to decry the sinister influence of the welfare state. Aid to the poor and the unemployed is understood not as corporal works of mercy (to use a phrase from Christian social teaching) but rather as a prime cause of the predicament these unfortunate people find themselves in. Want to get people back to work? Take back the extended unemployment benefits.

Meanwhile, new Census figures are rolling out reflecting historically high rates of poverty, with 46.2 million Americans now labeled poor, the highest since 1993. More than 15 percent of the U.S. population now fits that designation. The Census Bureau also reported that last year 50 million Americans went without health insurance, an increase of 900,000 people from the year before.

Do these dismal trends merely show that more and more people don't want to work, or want to shirk responsibility? Or do they tell a different story: that jobs and household wealth have been wiped out for millions, and wages have eroded for those lucky enough to still work? All the Republican candidates have pounded the pulpit to denounce President Obama for not magically raising the country out of economic doldrums. Yet, in the same breath, they preach that the federal government needs to be small, small, small and simply "get out of the way" of the prosperity that will surely return just as soon as government regulations, environmental laws, the Department of Education and the dreadful 'Obamacare' are consigned to the dustbin of history ... oh, and as soon as we cut taxes for the wealthy some more.

Undergirding all this campaign rhetoric is the ideology of every man (and unmarried woman with a child) for himself. The less fortunate -- well, apparently they will be looked after by churches and neighborly goodwill, as they were in the mythical youth of perennial candidate and crank Ron Paul.

But admixed with this ideology is a constant pandering to the mean-spiritedness of the mob. A fanning of false outrage that strikes a chord in these uncertain times.

This we saw in the attack Rep. Michele Bachmann launched against Perry for having supported a program that inoculated girls against a virus that can cause cervical cancer. Rep. Michele Bachmann kept clucking about "the innocent little girls," as if the state were offering them up as sexual sacrifices. Not content to stop there, Bachmann even suggested the inoculation led to mental retardation.

Perry, defending himself, said, "I am always going to err on the side of life." As unseemly as some of the candidates' rhetoric has been, it pales in comparison to the militant and often downright vile discourse heard on talk radio and seen on placards at tea party demonstrations. This angry faction of the conservative movement is giving marching orders to the entire Republican Party, make no mistake about it.

The charm of these people was evident at the CNN debate, which the network obsequiously termed 'The CNN/Tea Party Republican Debate,' when Wolf Blitzer posed a hypothetical question about what should be the fate of a 30-year-old uninsured man with life-threatening (and very expensive to treat) injuries.

"Are you saying that society should just let him die?" Blitzer asked. Before Paul could answer, someone in the audience blurted out "Yeah!" More cheers of approval rang out from the mob. The candidates sat there, dumb.

What kind of country do these people want to have? And will any but the true believers want to live in it?