Brief thoughts about that Bill Keller op-ed on candidates’ religions, and the kerfuffle that kicked up. But only by way of kicking off in the direction of what’s really going on here. The religion stuff needs a more general frame.
Keller is just being reasonable. If candidates say ‘my faith is a private matter and all that need concern the voters is how I will conduct myself in office,’ fine. But if candidates play up faith, for political advantage; if they announce that their religious views and values inform their political views and policy proposals, then obviously that makes religion fair game. Because in politics, your politics has to be fair game. Keller’s critics suggest that arriving at any such conclusion is tantamount to proposing something like a religious test for public office. Or worse! It’s an attempt to ban Christians from public life! But no. He’s only ruling out one or another of a couple possible norms that are so absurd that no one would ever advocate them explicitly. That you can’t fault politicians for concealing their policy objectives, so long as the politicians favor the policy on religious grounds. Or that you can’t fault politicians’ policy proposals, period, so long as they advocate the policy on religious grounds. Something like that. That’s nuts, so Keller is just being reasonable.
But, like I said, I don’t think this is the right way to think about this issue. For one thing, it misses that the religious case is just a special case of a more general phenomenon. Let me switch over to a question Kevin Drum asked last week: why do Republicans get a free pass? He’s absolutely right that they do.
Here’s what gets me. Perry’s views are getting denounced by all the usual lefty suspects but not much by anyone else. And the reason for this is something very odd: In modern America, conservatives are largely given a pass for saying crazy things. They’re just not taken seriously, in a boys-will-be-boys kind of way. It’s almost like everyone accepts this kind of stuff as a kind of religious liturgy, repeated regularly with no real meaning behind it. They’re just the words you use to prove to the base that you’re really one of them.
Kevin points out that if Hilary Clinton wrote a book about how much she wanted to repeal the Second Amendment and ban hate speech everyone would freak out that she was a radical. So what gives?
But the question answers itself: it’s really true that Perry doesn’t mean what he says. Mostly. As Kevin says, these are just the words he has to say to prove to the base he’s one of them.
By contrast, Hilary Clinton would only write that book about wanting to repeal the Second Amendment, etc., if – against all likelihood – she really wanted to repeal the Second Amendment. Because, since she isn’t a conservative, she’s not going to get a Get Out of Crazy Jail Free card. So there is no profit to her in writing such a book. Turning the point around: given that liberals don’t systematically employ a rhetoric of believing things they don’t, but conservatives do, it makes a great deal of sense to give conservatives an endless supply of Get Out of Crazy Jail Free cards. And round we go.
Really it’s more complicated. If people say crazy stuff long enough, they start to believe what they say, and other people do, too. The Overton Window gets dragged all over the place. (Michelle Bachmann really does seem to mean what she says. So she’s unviable, in the eyes of Republican establishmentarians. Even though she isn’t really saying anything absolutely crazier than Perry is saying at this point, and he’s looking pretty ok.) Having the license to say crazy stuff, without getting called on it, prevents serious debate and allows people to conceal any crazy stuff that really do believe, by hiding it in plain sight, as it were. It’s really true, I suspect, that when most conservatives say that they don’t buy this global warming junk science, what they really mean to do is, simply, signal ‘I’m in favor of capitalism’. If you are a conservative, talking to conservatives, and you say you think the scientists might be right, your audience is going to hear you refusing to send an ‘I’m in favor of capitalsim’ signal. Needless to say, this means conservatives can’t have reasonable discussions of global warming unless they are free from worries about what they are signalling, as opposed to saying. Which they never are, at least if they are politicians.
What to do? It’s perfectly fair, rhetorically, to treat politicians as if they mean what they say, even if you know perfectly well they probably don’t. Politics ain’t beanbag. Hoist on his own petard. All that. A number of critics of Keller’s piece have expressed concern that if reporters ask lots of ‘but do you really believe all this stuff in the religious book that you said was a big influence on you?’ type questions, it will foster paranoid alarmism about Dominionism or whatever might be the radical, right-wing religious flavor of the week. That’s sort of right. It is paranoid to be genuinely concerned that people mean things that a reasonable person can see they probably don’t mean. Then again, it’s sort of weird to blame the reporters – Blame Bill Keller, of all people – rather than the people who say stuff they don’t mean.
But I think these critics are probably right that the Bill Keller strategy – ask lots of embarrassing questions about religion – won’t be a winner for liberals. Because, to repeat: everyone kind of knows that conservatives don’t really mean they want theocracy, even when they say something wild that might be construed as implying that they do, on the stump. Mostly not. So it will seem paranoid to argue that all these conservatives are aspiring theocrats. Getting back to Kevin’s non-religious example: Perry isn’t really going to roll back the welfare state to 1900 levels, or even try to do so. He might really advocate 1 out of 10 of the craziest things he seems to advocate. But that still means that it’s unreasonable to worry too much about any given crazy thing he says.
The deeper question, I think, is why it appeals so much to so many Americans that conservatives constantly say things that they don’t really mean. Let’s go back to that oft-quoted line from Free and Cantril (The Political Beliefs of Americans: A Study of Public Opinion). Americans are “philosophical conservatives but operational liberals”. But, honestly, Americans aren’t really philosophers in a seminar room ‘this strictly implies that’ sort of sense. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that what Free and Cantril found is that when Americans say Big Things about American politics, whose consequences they aren’t really prepared to affirm, in practice, they say conservative things. Whereas when you find out what they really want, in practice, they are liberals. When Americans dream about something ideal, politically, that they kind of know they aren’t going to get, they dream a conservative dream. Since conservatism is, officially, an anti-utopian philosophy, this creates the odd situation of collective dreams of anti-utopian utopianism. But people are funny that way. (It’s sort of the opposite of the famous ‘and a pony’ strategy for wishes. Namely, since wishes are free, you might as well ask for absolutely everything. But, then again, sometimes it’s more appealing to think of being a rugged cowboy, with nothing but your pony, riding off into the Western sunset. Something like that.)
This creates a problem for liberals: they get branded as utopian even when they are not utopian in the least. (Which they never are, in practice.) They can’t use any utopian rhetoric or systematically exaggerate what they intend to do or any of that stuff. If they do, they suffer for it. Intellectually, this is mostly a good thing. But it makes you think small, policy-wise. Because any bold thing you propose, even if it isn’t utopian, will be denounced as utopian. And electorally it’s a source of endless frustration. But the real source of this frustration is not conservative politicians but, per the title of Free and Cantril’s book: the political beliefs of Americans. Or rather, their political beliefs plus their political non-beliefs.
Hilary Clinton is not going to write a book about wanting to repeal the Second Amendment, which she doesn’t want to do, because she has no way to profit from doing so. But this isn’t some sort of ultimate truth about American politics: the ultimate reason why this is the way of the world is that there isn’t a market for books about how we should repeal the Second Amendment, written by authors who don’t want to repeal the Second Amendment, for readers who don’t want to repeal the Second Amendment, but who find it entertaining to entertain – philosophically – the idea that we need to repeal the Second Amendment. ‘Entertain’ being the vastly more operative word than ‘philosophical’ here.