Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The purists attack!

Chris Orr on the new Republican purity tests:
Beyond its exceptionally dubious prospects as a national political strategy, a few things about the document leap out. First, it demands that adherents oppose President Obama’s health care reform twice, but nowhere requires opposition to abortion (only the government funding of abortion), which is either a shocking slap in the face to social conservatives or, more likely, evidence that the compilation of this list was exactly as careless and haphazard as its stilted language suggests. [...]

Second, in a hamfisted effort to avoid the “Party of No” label, the ten points are all framed in terms of what Republicans are expected to support. The problem is, in seven of those ten cases, they explicitly define what they support in terms of opposition to President Obama. If he’d endorsed a Senate resolution on the innocence of kittens, the document would probably have included an item on the superiority of puppies. But don’t call them reactionary!

Finally, the authors have named this document “Reagan’s Unity Principle for Support of Candidates,” drawing on the former president’s semi-famous line, “My 80 percent ally is not my 20 percent enemy.” In their reading, 80 percent agreement is the floor of what Reagan would have tolerated, so if you fail more than two of their ten criteria, you’re out. Of course, this is the exact opposite of the sentiment the line--which is a plea for inclusiveness, not expulsion--was intended to convey.
And, of course, Reagan himself would easily have failed the test.

But this is all beside the point. These sorts of lists are the inevitable culmination of turning politics into a theater for cultural debates. It was smart for Richard Nixon to appeal to a very specific cultural identity and to really begin to frame politics as a sort of grudge match for public morality--after all, it got him elected handily two times. And it's true Nixon wasn't completely unprecedented, and that all politicians define their opponents and try to differentiate themselves from their opponents in different ways. In-group loyalty is one of the strongest pulls on human behavior. It's why Washington journalists who likely disdain Fox News stand up for it when it's being attacked, or why Hollywood rallied for Roman Polanski despite the fact that not everyone in Hollywood is an amoral hedonist. (Just most of them, I'm sure, even though I know some people in that group who meet the description and some who don't.)

So, it's smart to appeal to this loyalty, but this sort of thing has to be played delicately, or else literally everybody outside the group will be alienated and they won't join you. It seems like you want to keep the group united, while appealing to persuadable people on the outside by making the whole operation look appealing, to make it look like something they should want to be in on. This is precisely what Reagan did, despite starting his career as very much an identity politics maven and then maturing into something different. Ultimately, though, today's problems are rather different from what they were in the 1980s and the only thing holding Republicans together is increasingly that cultural identity. Everything else constantly changes--during the Bush years, spending was no problem, and now it's evil?--but it's that identity that still keeps them going. And the returns diminish every election cycle as America continues to look less white, less Christian, and less Southern, essentially.

And this is fundamentally why I disagree with people like Erik Kain who seem to think that after some further losses and disillusionment, the Republican base will finally start listening to reformist conservatives that care about fixing problems in the near future. The GOP is based more on cultural identity now than anything else, and so long as people believe things simply because Fox says them or disbelieve things because Barack Obama says them--in other words, so long as the truth of a statement is based on whether they're a member of the "club" rather than their track record of telling the truth--I think there's little hope of change within the Republican Party for a while. That will change in the long run, and in a decade or two the GOP will likely be completely unrecognizable from what we see today. My guess is that it will be a lot more the party of Ron Paul than the party of Jim DeMint, as the former happens to be the only person to present a conservative vision that resonates with significant numbers of young people. But that's decades off, and we're stuck with the party of DeMint for some time to come. It's going to take the most ardent culture warriors dying off before we start to see a real shift in Republican attitudes toward politics, but considering that the average Fox News viewer is in his late 60s, there is reason for long-term optimism for sensible conservatives.

P.S. Sully has a particularly good take on this as well.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.