Must We Act As If They Mean What They Say?

by John Holbo on September 3, 2011

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.

{ 158 comments }

1

chrismealy 09.03.11 at 6:00 am

The last time I tried the “conservatives are all talk” line Bush invaded Iraq.

2

John Holbo 09.03.11 at 6:10 am

“The last time I tried the “conservatives are all talk” line Bush invaded Iraq.”

I think I covered that in the paragraph that starts, “really it’s more complicated’.

3

Bruce Baugh 09.03.11 at 6:11 am

Um, hold on a sec. What is it that the current Republican Party is actually doing that makes you think these folks don’t mean what they say? Because what I see is quite a lot of living up to very evil obsessions, mixed in with the customary dishonesty and general hatred of all others.

4

david 09.03.11 at 6:11 am

The last time I tried the “conservatives are all talk”*, Bush promised a humble foreign policy. Then he invaded Iraq.

* I didn’t actually try that.

5

Sherri 09.03.11 at 6:18 am

Could explain why you think Michelle Bachmann does believe the crazy things she’s saying, but Rick Perry doesn’t? ‘Cause I’m having a hard time seeing a difference.

6

david 09.03.11 at 6:20 am

@Sherri

Revealed preference? Perry has actually had executive power before. He compromised.

7

John Holbo 09.03.11 at 6:22 am

“What is it that the current Republican Party is actually doing that makes you think these folks don’t mean what they say?”

Republicans are constantly doing lots of things that make me believe they are not utterly lacking in instincts of political self-preservation. That makes me think they don’t really mean what they say, when they say they are doing things they would be punished by the voters for doing – but that they will be rewarded by some voters for saying they want to do.

8

grackle 09.03.11 at 6:47 am

“Republicans are constantly doing lots of things that make me believe they are not utterly lacking in instincts of political self-preservation. That makes me think they don’t really mean what they say, when they say they are doing things they would be punished by the voters for doing – but that they will be rewarded by some voters for saying they want to do.”

Forgive me for thinking that it is both more complicated than that and more simple – It is more complicated in that they are setting up a form of negotiation wherein, as you say, they will pull back short of political suicide: a game of double dare that can be taken back to whatever extent necessary; it is simpler, in that the negotiation will inexorably move the stakes forward in the direction they have claimed they stand for, and to whatever extent there is no outcry, they will move a little more. Such has been the case for the last thirty years and we have incrementally less freedom and democracy today because of it.

9

Sherri 09.03.11 at 6:56 am

@David

Rick Perry has compromised as governor so much that he has vetoed more bills than any other governor in Texas history. It’s not just that he’s been there longer, either; he holds the post-Reconstruction record for vetoes in a legislative session, with 82.

10

Cometary 09.03.11 at 7:17 am

The current Republican leadership refuses to give the left the benefit of the doubt in anything, whether hating America, loving terrorists, being socialists who want to kill grandma, wanting to turn your children gay, or even being born somewhere besides Kenya. They’ll only stop sending crazy-signals to their base when the benefits are outweighed by damage done to their reputation among the middle. What did Rick Perry ever do that I need to bend over backwards to be nice to him? Instead of saying “Well, actually if you look carefully at Texas economic statistics during his time as governor blah blah numbers zzzzzz” say “Wow, did you hear? Rick Perry is a flat-earther who wants to take America back to the nineteenth century! What a maroon!”

11

Bruce Baugh 09.03.11 at 7:53 am

John@7: Alternatively, Republicans are doing fine making it harder and harder for potential voters to find out what’s going on, to tell anyone else about it, or to express their disapproval in any way that matters to Republicans wanting more political power for their own ends.

This is Gramsci’s territory, as I see it. The hegemony gets better at defending itself with practice, a lot of the time.

12

Billikin 09.03.11 at 8:20 am

“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.”

Really? I think it’s reasonable to worry. “Don’t worry if he says he’ll shoot you in the left arm. He might only shoot you in the right leg.”

13

Phil 09.03.11 at 9:34 am

say “Wow, did you hear? Rick Perry is a flat-earther who wants to take America back to the nineteenth century! What a maroon!”

I think that’s been tried. (I’m in the UK, and the only way I even know that Perry is a creationist is from sites saying, effectively, lookita creationist maroon!) I think this is an approach with diminishing returns – it doesn’t recruit to the Left except from people who particularly hate religious irrationality, and beyond a certain point it doesn’t even mobilise the Left (because if our enemies are that crazy, what’s the point trying to fight them?)

I like John’s “utopian anti-utopianism” image (possibly because I read Leslie Fiedler at a formative age). The idea that life is hard and we can’t make it any better has a definite appeal on the level of fantasy – you can imbue those statements with a real libidinal energy, particularly if you complete the sentence …so you’d just better damn well look after yourself and your loved ones! Political radicalism always involves an appeal to the sense that the world could be radically different; the novelty here is the appeal to a sense that the world could be much, much harder (but we would triumph over it!).

14

Henri Vieuxtemps 09.03.11 at 10:16 am

Republicans are populists, Democrats elitists. What else is new?

15

Carlos Ferreira 09.03.11 at 10:26 am

So the argument is the American people at large enjoy listening to the extremist drivel coming from a number of Republican candidates, just as they would listening to post-apocalyptic fiction? That, among other things, implies that a lot of people listen to religious messages for mere amusement instead of belief; not sure I agree with the generalisation.

16

ChasW 09.03.11 at 10:26 am

“Perry isn’t really going to roll back the welfare state to 1900 levels, or even try to do so.”

I wouldn’t be be so sure about that.

17

J. Otto Pohl 09.03.11 at 10:48 am

I think this article is confused. Politicians say things to get support that they can not and sometimes know they can not at the time deliver on. But, that does not mean that these promises do not inform their overall ideology and goals. Incrementalism and compromise are pretty much the life blood of democratic politics. Ronald Reagan did not completely end welfare either, but he was not insincere when he supported this goal. It was just not possible at the time given other priorities. I also do not think that conservatives necessarily get a free pass. Certain conservative ideas such as military isolationism have no more political traction in the US than nationalizing industry.

18

Hidari 09.03.11 at 11:04 am

‘Republicans are constantly doing lots of things that make me believe they are not utterly lacking in instincts of political self-preservation.’

a: like what?

b: why is there a necessary contradiction between being honest with the voters and wanting power? You do, after all, admit that the things that they promise are popular with huge swathes of the American population (the ‘base’).

19

John Holbo 09.03.11 at 11:08 am

“a: like what?”

Like controlling the House of Representatives. And maybe the Presidency soon. (Hope not.)

“You do, after all, admit that the things that they promise are popular with huge swathes of the American population (the ‘base’).”

But not if they actually DID it. But it’s fun to think about. (That’s my hypothesis.)

20

JP Stormcrow 09.03.11 at 11:16 am

I know you’re going for the larger point, but Keller’s piece is so tone deaf and labored in such predictable NYTimes ways that I’m having trouble get beyond it*. However, I do think of those tone deaf moments in his piece unintentionally illustrates the larger point with, Candidate Obama was pressed to distance himself from his pastor, who carried racial bitterness to extremes . Don’t mean to re-litigate the whole sorry affair (other than to mention that if there is a Hell, we know which of his own words George Stephanopoulos will hear repeated for eternity) but a neat example of what happens if you even push the rhetoric a little bit when you’re on the other side– he pushed “racial bitterness” to extremes, you see.

*I’m not a huge fan of Jill Abramson, but I’m more than ready to be disappointed by someone new in that role.

21

JP Stormcrow 09.03.11 at 11:21 am

one of those tone deaf moments

22

Hidari 09.03.11 at 11:47 am

‘But not if they actually DID it. But it’s fun to think about. (That’s my hypothesis.)’

You are not making things easy for yourself by picking the specific example of Global Warming in your original post. In this case I simply do not believe that any Republican is joking or trying to mislead anyone. They genuinely don’t believe it, they genuinely don’t care, and if people in 100 years time fry as a result: tough, that’s their problem.

The economic example doesn’t help either. The extreme right have always hated the New Deal (i.e. FDR’s New Deal) they have been trying to gut it or get rid of it for nearly 70 years now, and everything the mainstream Republican party has been trying to do since 1975 has been motivated towards that end.And after that, the reforms brought in by Teddy Roosevelt as well, why not?

Why don’t you believe them? Sure they lie and lie and lie and lie and lie, but why do you think they are lying about this?

23

David Kaib 09.03.11 at 12:13 pm

“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? [snip]

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.”

I think there is a different dynamic going on here. If Hillary Clinton were to write such a book, she would be standing alone in taking those positions, with a large gap between her and anyone else considered legitimate among the Democratic Party elite (let alone the Republican Party elite). When you stand alone, you are a loon. When are are a loon in a group, you are just taking one side of a legitimate debate. Jay Rosen spelled this out clearly a while ago.

“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.)”

I know this is the standard reading of public opinion, but I think it’s wrong. An updated argument can be found in Class War? what Americans really think about economic inequality by Page and Jacobs. They make the same argument – Americans are philosophically conservative but operationally liberal. What does the first part mean? Mostly things like Americans are concerned about government waste or says things critical of government in the abstract. On the other hand, the liberalism part shows Americans supporting a package of goals and policies supporting economic security and opportunity for all. If anything, I’d say this means Americans are philosophically liberal (even social democratic) but they have pragmatic concerns about cost. As for the abstract government thing – if your goals are as I described, you ought to be critical of government, which doesn’t exactly achieve those goals or even try consistently.

So what’s going on here? First, Republicans enjoy an organizational advantage – we shouldn’t point to electoral or policy success and presume it is a product of public support. (Hacker and Pierson make that argument in Winner Take All Politics and Off Center). And second, Republicans convey the sense that they stand for something, when Democrats don’t. (See Halpin and Teixeira, The Politics of Definition). This advantage helps them tremendously, even when Americans don’t agree on the specifics. Beside, Democrats rarely make arguments of the kind I describe above anyway, rarely advance claims about values, instead focusing instead on things like costs, so they are leaving a great deal of potential support lying on the table.

24

Red 09.03.11 at 12:47 pm

If you don’t think Republicans really believe what they say, and won’t act upon it when they’re in office, just look at what’s going on at the state level since the 2008 elections. It IS crazy stuff.

25

Barry 09.03.11 at 12:55 pm

I second Bruce Baugh here.

And as for their recent political successes, note that they trashed the place, doubled down on the crazy, and won. In a sense there’s confounding going on – craziness and corruption trash the place, but the GOP profits.

26

Steve LaBonne 09.03.11 at 12:58 pm

We will learn all too soon that they DO mean what they say. And we will learn it the hard way. As Red mentions, in a number of states that is already happening.

27

Eric 09.03.11 at 1:00 pm

RE: Rick Perry not actually believing what he says.

Perry might have done his share of compromising, but Bachmann has never wielded enough real power to have to compromise, not that she ever would. But Perry has also issued a state proclamation to pray to end the drought and sponsored a Christian revival while sitting as Governor, which seems to show he’s willing to back up his crazy with action. That might not be problematic in Texas, but I’m not sure how that will go over throughout the rest of the country.

28

LFC 09.03.11 at 1:04 pm

Since conservatism is, officially, an anti-utopian philosophy, this creates the odd situation of collective dreams of anti-utopian utopianism.

Conservatism is also a ‘philosophy’ that wants to preserve traditional social arrangements and institutions (defense of the traditional nuclear family, e.g.), but in the U.S. these arrangements have never been esp. stable or unchanging, in contrast to the basic structure of the political system, which, at least in terms of formal institutions, has been pretty stable and could even be viewed as antique. This is a paraphrase of something S. Huntington said some decades ago; he thought it posed a problem for U.S. conservatives. The point might have had more bite, however, in the late 60s, when it was made, than it does now. (I ruminated, perhaps not too coherently, about this in a blogpost a while back called “Does American conservatism have an authenticity problem?”)

29

kth 09.03.11 at 1:06 pm

It’s not that there’s no reason to believe Perry is insincere (there are plenty of such reasons), it’s that there’s no functional difference between his insincerity and Bachmann’s sincerity.

30

Steve LaBonne 09.03.11 at 1:10 pm

Attempting to square the circle may actually add to the electoral appeal of US-style conservatism; it reflects the childish incoherence of most voters’ ideas about the world, and promises to simultaneously satisfy incompatible desires. Any coherent political philosophy will at some point have to tell voters they’ve got to eat their spinach before they can have dessert.

31

jon 09.03.11 at 1:53 pm

Quote from Nixon’s favorite movie Patton:

General Codman: You know, general. Sometimes the men can’t tell when you’re acting.

Patton: It’s not important for them to know. It’s only important for me to know.

(What happens when Patton even loses track of when he’s acting? You have to make the case by the record of actions taken, not just rhetoric.)

32

P O'Neill 09.03.11 at 2:07 pm

If JQ was here he might point out that talking crazy is very effective when the current White House strategy is pre-emptive capitulation. “Meet them half way” on crazy is still crazy. Don’t rule out that we get “OK, offsetting spending cuts for disaster relief in 2012” as a response to Cantor’s CRAAAZY proposal that we need offsetting cuts right now.

On the other hand, it does affect the personality mix on the Republican side. The intellectual hazing rituals are now so severe that you only get people who like being hazed.

33

Patrick 09.03.11 at 2:14 pm

I’m reminded of that poor Republican politician who was on television being directly asked by an interviewer whether he really, genuinely thought Obama might not be a citizen. He got all frustrated that the interviewer was insisting on treating his assertion’s about Obama’s citizenship as statements of fact that he might actually believe, instead of as professions of faith that everyone recognizes he doesn’t REALLY believe. I wish I remembered who that was.

…I also can’t help draw an analogy between the ongoing skirmish between the New Atheists and critics like Karen Armstrong, who seem to get so upset at the New Atheists for continuing to believe that religious people actually believe the things religious people constantly go around saying they actually believe. I’m not sure what useful inference follows from that comparison, but it does seem that there’s a lot of similarity.

34

William Timberman 09.03.11 at 2:33 pm

It seems to me that President Obama said a carload of things he didn’t mean when he was campaigning, and it worked out fine for him. The fact that what he said didn’t sound crazy — to me — isn’t much of a consolation now that we have deeds to compare with the words.

There’s a tragedy of the commons at work here, I think. If everybody lies for the sake of political advantage, the end result will be the Soviet Union, i.e. nobody will believe a word anybody says about anything. When that happens, it won’t matter whether Global Warming is real or not. Meh! will be the majority position on it no matter who says what about it, nor how often or how loud they say it.

35

David Kaib 09.03.11 at 2:47 pm

I second William’s comment @34. Lots of people have mocked the idea that anyone has a right to be angry with the White House for doing things that contradict what they campaigned on, because that was just the campaign. It’s hard to understand what democracy means when this is conventional wisdom, but it’s hard to deny that it is CW.

There was a discussion a while back involving Krugman and others about the nonsense the Admin was talking regarding the economy. Krugman ultimately concluded that they must believe the nonsense, which explained their policy choices. I think he had it backwards. They made their policy choices within the political constraints as they saw them (for reasons that, whatever they were, were politically unspeakable) and then had to justify them somehow, which is why we got talk about confidence and the rest. That tells us a lot about what they thought would justify their policies, and very little about why they favored them.

36

JRoth 09.03.11 at 2:59 pm

I’d like John to explain that crazy Republicans “don’t mean it” to the homosexuals facing stoning in Uganda because American Dominionists have worked hard to apply their crazy, obviously insincere beliefs in that country.

There is a direct connection between 2 of the top 3 Republican presidential candidates and the death penalty for homosexuality in Uganda. I’m not sure who you think you’re helping by arguing that nobody should talk out loud about this.

Meanwhile, in this country, Republicans are passing law after law requiring that rape victims have sonogram devices inserted inside them before they can get abortions. But no, the GOP isn’t really crazy. They’ll never actually pass laws that the bien pensant would find distasteful. Just as they would never intentionally torpedo the economy for electoral gain, or go to war over lies, or impeach a president for a blowjob. Nope, they’ll play fair, and so should we. Wouldn’t want to dirty our hands, would we?

37

John Quiggin 09.03.11 at 3:29 pm

Clearly, over the past 30 years as a whole, the Republicans have prospered by doing what they do (easier to recognise than to define!), and have repeatedly doubled down on that strategy.

But are they doing so well now? Given the state of the economy, the Repubs ought to be odds-on to win the Presidency in 2012, but AFAICT Obama is seen as a slight favorite. And the general Repub approval rating is below that of the Dems, though of course both are bad.

I think the Repub strategy has long-term costs, as people understand the need for a complex decoding of everything they say, realise that factual claims made with a straight face may be entirely bogus and so on.

38

Cometary 09.03.11 at 3:45 pm

I don’t mean you have to call Perry a creationist, just paint him as anti-rationality. “He said Texas should secede” and “He thinks climate change is a conspiracy created by corrupt scientists the world over” would do fine.

Another possibility could be that conservatives are the Moral Absolutes! and Eternal Truths! and the Athwart History Saying Stop! party, so they are least amenable to admitting their views have changed. Evolved, if you will. So when they elect a divorced Reagan or a taking-farm-subsidies Bachmann or an accepting-of-his-gay-daughter Cheney they have to crank up the crazy a corresponding amount to maintain their distance above the liberals.

39

John Holbo 09.03.11 at 3:48 pm

“I’d like John to explain that crazy Republicans “don’t mean it” to the homosexuals facing stoning in Uganda because American Dominionists have worked hard to apply their crazy, obviously insincere beliefs in that country.”

Sorry, is this addressed to me, John, the author of the post? Just for the record, I’m not arguing that Republican patterns of rhetoric are harmless. Quite the contrary. They are obviously extremely harmful. You have provided an excellent example of the harm caused. But it doesn’t follow that anything I said is mistaken (does it?) I would take this to be a perfect example of what I’m talking about. I doubt that those Republicans, who encouraged this sort of thing with their words, meant for it to come to this. That’s not to excuse them. Far from it. It makes the whole thing more damn tragic, in a bitter, ironic way.

“I’m not sure who you think you’re helping by arguing that nobody should talk out loud about this.”

OK, I give. What’s the argument that no one should talk out loud about this. (Wouldn’t it follow, then, that I shouldn’t even write the post?)

40

nick 09.03.11 at 4:08 pm

Along with many others, I can’t understand the assumption that “they don’t mean what they say.” They can call for everything they want (complete rollback of the welfare state to the 19th century, etc.), while knowing they won’t be able to get everything they want right away. If they are “lying”, it’s mostly that they know immediate radical change will be difficult due to the constraints of the system–but what could be duller, less sexy, more Democratic than lingering, rhetorically, on said constaints?

41

soru 09.03.11 at 4:10 pm

In this case I simply do not believe that any Republican is joking or trying to mislead anyone. They genuinely don’t believe it, they genuinely don’t care, and if people in 100 years time fry as a result: tough, that’s their problem.

That isn’t really contradictory. There is still a gap between the accurate statement of their position (‘who cares if some other people’s grandchildren die; poor people die, that’s how things work’) and the things that are amusing, empowering and effective to say (‘those pointy-haired geeks with their eleven-dimensional mathematical models, who made them the boss of you?’).

I don’t think that, 9 times out of 10, they genuinely believe all the scientists are wrong.

Imagine what would happen if the mainstream scientific consensus changed such that the seas boiling and the atmosphere becoming sulphuric acid was seen as a realistic possibility; something even the rich wouldn’t survive.

I’d predict they would be all over action right now, even if the evidence for it was massively weaker.

42

Hidari 09.03.11 at 4:16 pm

‘Imagine what would happen if the mainstream scientific consensus changed such that the seas boiling and the atmosphere becoming sulphuric acid was seen as a realistic possibility; something even the rich wouldn’t survive.’

Ah yes if that was the case, you’re probably right.

43

John Quiggin 09.03.11 at 4:17 pm

Actually, I think the Obama thing goes the other way. Lots of people (just about everyone her, for example) are really upset that Obama didn’t do what he said he would, and even his defenders mostly say that he would have done much more if it weren’t for Congress, the prevailing wind and so on.

On the right, the prevailing line is that Obama has done much more than he said he would, campaigning on vague uplift then bringing America to the brink of socialist hell within days of taking office.

AFAICT, only the most hackish professional centrists take the line “that was the Campaign, this is Government”

44

Ross Smith 09.03.11 at 4:33 pm

John@39: “I doubt that those Republicans, who encouraged this sort of thing with their words, meant for it to come to this.”

Like pretty much everyone else here, I’m just completely baffled as to why you believe this. You keep saying that the Rs don’t really believe what they say, but you’ve presented absolutely no justification for that claim. Can you actually supply any concrete evidence for it? As far as the rest of us can see, you’re just sticking your head in the sand and refusing to acknowledge reality.

45

William Timberman 09.03.11 at 4:35 pm

AFAICT, only the most hackish professional centrists take the line “that was the Campaign, this is Government”

Should I then infer that Obama is the only constant star of intent in a firmament of lies, whatever we believe about his intent? Sorry, but my brain overheats when I attempt it. From my perspective, what is said afterward about the reasons for the discontinuity between Obama’s words and deeds is just partisan housekeeping. After that flapdoodle subsides, what we’re left with is a man who says one thing and does another, while protesting all the while that he’s doing nothing of the kind. For one of the more egregious examples, see his Nobel prize acceptance speech.

46

christian_h 09.03.11 at 4:41 pm

William, I don’t think JQ is claiming Obama is the “last honest man”. What he’s saying is that his broken promises aren’t simply taken for granted. Still I disagree with him, “objectively” if you will. The last couple threads demonstrate conclusively to me that the liberal left will once again act as if broken promises don’t matter. They may mutter about them, b ut they won’t act on it. So objectively they accept being lied to.

47

phosphorious 09.03.11 at 4:46 pm

I wonder. . . does anyone believe the nonsense spouted by the typical conservative? It’s not too difficult to find examples of conservatives saying something like “I disagree with most of what Candidate X says. . . but they annoy the liberals!” As if that, in itself, is a reason to vote for someone.

Is it possible that nobody actually holds any conservative principles at all, that pundits and politicians are pandering to a constituency that doesn’t exist?

That would suck. . .

48

William Timberman 09.03.11 at 4:53 pm

christian_h @ 46

My question was strictly rhetorical. I understood John’s point, but I think, as you apparently do also, that although irony may well ease the suffering of cognitive dissonance, it doesn’t help disentangle our political discourse, at least not in a way that enables us to act rather than be acted upon.

49

bob mcmanus 09.03.11 at 5:10 pm

41:Imagine what would happen if the mainstream scientific consensus changed such that the seas boiling and the atmosphere becoming sulphuric acid was seen as a realistic possibility; something even the rich wouldn’t survive.

I’d predict they would be all over action right now, even if the evidence for it was massively weaker.

I think the uber-oligarchs do understand. I believe, based on little evidence but on intuition, that they are building an space-ark, an undersea retreat, or something like that.

My reasoning? A) They are not stupid or crazy, and B) the social structures and conditions required to survive, as a society in anything like our present population, global warming and peak resources will be unacceptable to the elites, and C) Those who think they were born to rule and breed rulers do not become servants without pulling the world down around them.

I even think the top elites are accelerating catastrophe, in order to be in the most advantageous position before we egalitarians get organized. It will take too long to inform the masses. I think it will come down in generation, if not a decade.

50

Jim Harrison 09.03.11 at 5:31 pm

I think that part of what’s going on in this discussion is an attempt by people like John Holbo to define or redefine the Democratic party or the left or the left that counts as technocratic in outlook and therefore intrinsically anti-utopian and incrementalist when these attitudes are really characteristic of one definable group and its interests and ideology. The liberal mandarinate just doesn’t like conflict, risk, and democracy: even vigorous rhetoric frightens the professors. It isn’t just Republicans who think that FDR’s methods were dangerously radical.

All that said, I don’t entirely disagree with Holbo’s notion that the Republicans get away with saying outrageous things because nobody (= 37 talking heads in the corporate media) believes they believe them. And bluster sometimes is bluster. The cash value of extremist rhetoric changes with the times, however. The reactionary populists are now pushing against an unlocked door. When Reagan fulminated against Social Security back in the 50s and 60s, it was largely attitudinizing because actually destroying the institution was not in prospect as it is at present. In the absence of an effective opposing force, the right is within sight of wrecking Medicare, eliminating basic reproductive rights, and destroying unions.

It is certainly true that Perry could not fully implement the program he laid out in his recent book anymore than Robespierre could implement his, but the constraints of reality don’t rule out reigns of terror or, in our case, simply the drastic and permanent impoverishment of a large segment of the population.

51

Keith 09.03.11 at 5:41 pm

A lot of people mistakenly believe that the GOP want to maintain the status quo. It’s been clear since at least 2003 that they no longer are satisfied with that tactic and will in fact do quite a lot of damage to the country, the government’s ability to function and even the environment, so long as the the end result is that they gain power. They’re perfectly wiling to hobble this country economically and turn tens of thousands of citizens into surfs if it means they get to sit in the driver’s seat. Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven, as it were. Therefore they will say any old crazy thing they have to to get power.

The real problem is the fact that at least a quarter of the American electorate only engages in politics as a spectator of the sport of crazy rhetoric. It’s become a reality show, “Politicians Say The Craziest Things.” Unfortunately, the winner gets to rule the country and influence world events for the next four years.

52

AcademicLurker 09.03.11 at 6:27 pm

I doubt that those Republicans, who encouraged this sort of thing with their words, meant for it to come to this.

I’m with Ross Smith@44 in being baffled by this sentiment. The line of reasoning seems to be that even though they’re behaving like monsters they can’t really be monsters because we all know that people aren’t monsters.

I’m reminded of the saying about how the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing people that he didn’t exist.

53

Bruce Wilder 09.03.11 at 6:36 pm

I don’t think the politicians get to rule the country anymore. That’s part of what has changed.

There’s an old joke about politics being show business for homely people. But, look at the new Republican House leadership and the most prominent Republican candidates for President. These are not homely people, and that may be instructive. These are not people, who are interested in the actual exercise of power. However fierce and radical the rhetoric, these are not people, who are deeply committed to controlling things. If anything, the Republicans seem to be most deeply committed to letting other people, the uber-wealthy and powerful corporate business executives, run things. These are people, whose ambition is centered on the attention they receive as spokesmodel-politicians.

It looks like a Reality Show, because . . . it is a reality show.

54

Bruce Wilder 09.03.11 at 6:51 pm

Keith @51: I think a voting majority — indeed, voting majorities within each pool of Party identification — wants to “preserve” a political economic structure, which they perceive as crumbling away. The sense that the country is serious decline, on the wrong track as the pollsters put it, is pervasive. And, that sense is accurate and reality-based, even if the wide variety of associated ideological rationalizations and diagnoses of decline may not be reality-based.

What’s not reality-based is the belief that ‘preservation’ is possible. Fundamental reform is (theoretically) possible, but no one among the political elite is offering that. It is not on the ideological menu or, more important, the ballot.

What is on the ballot are different flavors of futile preservation, with the logical entail of increasingly authoritarian repression.

55

Andrew F. 09.03.11 at 6:54 pm

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.

Eh, we discount things Democrats say during primary season as well. Nobody really thought Obama and Clinton were doing anything but pandering when they threatened to force a renegotiation of NAFTA. and of course, more recently, nobody thought Obama was quite as angry at the financial community as he pretended to be.

I think you’re digging too deep on this one. The explanation is the more conventional one that politicians, especially during nomination fights, attempt to appease the various factions within their respective parties. Everyone knows what they’re doing. The leadership of the factions appreciate it (the politician is signalling that he knows their importance), the rest of the country gags, and opponents gleefully use the pandering to create negative narratives.

As for Keller, he’s worried about a problem that doesn’t exist. Politicians do get flak for crazy statements and out-of-the-mainstream beliefs. They do get flak for the beliefs of their mentors and those they mention as inspirational.

It’s probably paranoid to wonder whether Keller’s insistence that we focus more on a candidate’s religion has much more to do with weakening Romney than anything else.

56

William Timberman 09.03.11 at 7:18 pm

Bruce Wilder @ 54

This is the fundamental disagreement among the bien pensant. Can we cobble something together that keeps most of what we’ve gotten used to without inconveniencing anyone who matters, or must we really undergo some painful Umwertung aller Werte?

My reading of history inclines me to the latter, but Larry Summers, Brad DeLong, and Matt Yglesias, not to mention David Axelrod, keep sending out people to stuff old socks in my mouth whenever I attempt to say so. So be it. In times like these, a man who isn’t happiest talking to himself is always at risk of becoming a ridiculous figure.

57

AcademicLurker 09.03.11 at 7:28 pm

Politicians do get flak for crazy statements and out-of-the-mainstream beliefs. They do get flak for the beliefs of their mentors and those they mention as inspirational.

This is flat out untrue when it comes to Republican politicians.

And speaking for those of us in states that elected tea party governors, it turns out they meant exactly what they said.

58

Charles S 09.03.11 at 8:50 pm

bob mcmanus @ 49: The space ark, underwater retreat, etc. idea is simply silly. The world 4 C hotter will remain a vastly more hospitable place for the global elite than would any constructed habitat imaginable. The world can get pretty horrific indeed for the vast majority of the world population and still support a system of production and a social infrastructure to ensure that the rich remain rich by modern standards.

59

Barry 09.03.11 at 9:17 pm

” Clearly, over the past 30 years as a whole, the Republicans have prospered by doing what they do (easier to recognise than to define!), and have repeatedly doubled down on that strategy.”

John Quiggin: ” But are they doing so well now? Given the state of the economy, the Repubs ought to be odds-on to win the Presidency in 2012, but AFAICT Obama is seen as a slight favorite. And the general Repub approval rating is below that of the Dems, though of course both are bad.”

Um, John – do you *remember* 2008? The GOP capped eight f*cking miserable Bush years with trashing the economy, the worst that the USA has been in for several decades.
Two years later, they’ve retake a blocking position in the House, prevented most reforms, and have turned the debate (rhetorically and policy-wise) around onto their terms.

Obama should be a shoe-in for re-election, with the GOP still being in the toilet.

” I think the Repub strategy has long-term costs, as people understand the need for a complex decoding of everything they say, realise that factual claims made with a straight face may be entirely bogus and so on.”

That’s not apparent *anywhere* in the USA.

60

Charles S 09.03.11 at 10:23 pm

John Quiggin,

Adding to Barry’s comment: in 2010, Republicans also took a majority of state legislatures, allowing them to reshape House districts for the next decade. They also took a majority of governorships, and have complete control of 21 state governments (versus 11 under Democratic control). It is very hard to see how that can be squared with the idea that the Republican silly season is past its sell-by date and that Americans are finally waking up to the stench of Republican policy.

61

tatere 09.03.11 at 10:27 pm

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.

Isn’t this something of a self-fulfilling diagnosis? There’s a mistake in treating “the political beliefs of Americans” as if it’s some fixed constant value.

For one thing, the composition of “Americans” is changing. It’s at least possible that the general cultural concepts of what’s possible and what isn’t are changing as well.

For another, Eisenhower. What people thought of as “conservative” in the not-too-ancient past is crazy-eyed liberalism now. That shift didn’t just happen by itself, and I don’t see what makes an opposite shift inherently impossible. Unless you think there’s a ratchet effect towards the right?

62

Uncle Kvetch 09.03.11 at 10:30 pm

John H: I doubt that those Republicans, who encouraged this sort of thing with their words, meant for it to come to this.

Academic Lurker @ 52: I’m with Ross Smith@44 in being baffled by this sentiment. The line of reasoning seems to be that even though they’re behaving like monsters they can’t really be monsters because we all know that people aren’t monsters.

I’ll add my voice to the chorus demanding some basis for this doubt, beyond “what John would like to believe because the alternative is too awful to contemplate.”

Mind you, I have no doubt that if Uganda started executing homosexuals tomorrow, Michele Bachmann would immediately say “Good Lord, no, this is the very opposite of what we want. We love homosexuals. (In fact we love them so much that we want to free them of their ungodly affliction!)”

And Jonah Goldberg would then crap out a couple hundred words in the LA Times explaining that putting homosexuals to death is, in fact, the logical conclusion of “liberal” thought, because Hitler and Whole Foods.

And in this fashion, all asses would be covered in a satisfactory manner. But do you honestly think that either of them would lose a moment’s sleep over it? As long as we’re engaging in mind-reading.

The more interesting question for me is whether there’s a point where the rhetorical one-upmanship becomes counterproductive. I wouldn’t think that a party platform of “Poor People Suck” in a context of profound economic anxiety and downward mobility would be a political winner…but apparently quite a few people in the conservative movement think differently. They may be right.

63

bob mcmanus 09.03.11 at 10:35 pm

56:I am predicting a whole lot of social unrest. How and where could they be safe and secure from the dying billions and their populist leaders?

64

Witt 09.03.11 at 11:18 pm

JRoth and many others are doing yeoman’s work in this thread. It really stuns me that anybody is arguing that Republican elected officials don’t mean what they say.

Here in PA, we elected a Repub governor in 2010. So far he’s done exactly what he said he would do. The $4B in budget cuts imposed because he refused to even consider any revenue increases (taxes, fees, whatever) have already thrown tens of thousands of men and women off of health insurance (goodbye, AdultBasic); laid off thousands more (you were nice while you lasted, government and public university jobs); eviscerated the TANF system (which wasn’t any great shakes to begin with, but is now sending welfare moms in circles because education and training programs have been abolished — recipients are spending 30 hours a week at government offices); destroyed many adult basic education programs (I am personally in charge of maintaining a list of such programs, so I know this firsthand); and put industry executives in charge of regulating the fast-growing Marcellus shale gas drilling business.

As if that weren’t enough, he took the previous governor’s fairly decent record (albeit one prodded by activists) on monitoring and regulating puppy mills, and installed as the top animal welfare official a banker whose only qualification was that she owned a dog.

Here’s how she conceives of her role:

Diehl said she did not view her role as that of an animal-care or sheltering expert.”>

“It’s not about knowledge of animals. If I was an expert, I would have preconceived notions about what is proper. I think it’s an asset that I have no preconceived notions.”

Her boss, Executive Deputy Agriculture Secretary Michael Pechart, said Corbett wanted someone with “no agenda.”

Corbett’s secretary of public welfare has publicly claimed that “busloads” of poor Americans and undocumented immigrants are coming down from New York to get on welfare in Pennsylvania, and is already infamous for issuing an extremely rigid memo regarding office dress code (closed-toe shoes and stockings required for women). His secretary of health has made headlines for bullying a local diner over food freshness, ordering himself an emblazoned windbreaker and a badge, and ordering a bloodmobile to move from his designated parking space.

Republicans get away with saying outrageous things because nobody (= 37 talking heads in the corporate media) believes they believe them.

More and more, I feel as though the people who are paid the most money and have the most public airtime to talk about politics don’t understand that it’s not a game. In the most literal sense, they do not understand that their opinions have actual effects on actual human beings. They talk about the horse race aspects of politics as if that is reality, because in their world that currency — power and status — is what matters. But they never take that half-step farther to examine what the exercise of that power actually looks like.

I could write a laundry list a hundred pages long of things Democratic officials have done in my state that I disagree with. But when somebody starts telling me that the Republicans don’t mean what they say, I start assuming they’re a) exceptionally privileged, b) willfully obtuse, and c) not living in the United States of America in 2011.

65

soru 09.03.11 at 11:35 pm

The space ark, underwater retreat, etc. idea is simply silly. The world 4 C hotter will remain a vastly more hospitable place for the global elite than would any constructed habitat imaginable.

Yes, there is 25 deg C between summer temperatures in Anchorage and Riyadh, to make the planet genuinely uninhabitable from even the poles being as hot as the central Saudi desert would need 40+ degrees. Which you are not going to get over any period from anything like the standard understanding of climatology – the resource-using population would drop too low to keep pumping out that much CO2.

Hypothetically could get some currently-unknown feedback effect that would cause a runaway into Venus-like surface conditions, but that’s not much more likely than the ‘magically, the CO2 does nothing’ scenario.

Thing is, anyone actually thinking that way is not talking about climate science, but Noah. Yahweh never sent a flood that wiped out 20% of a town, and impoverished much of the rest. Virtuous places, that treat sinners appropriately, get good weather. Wicked ones get a warning or two, then annihilation.

66

David 09.03.11 at 11:51 pm

To put it simply, John, the assertion that Republicans don’t really mean what they say has been the operative principle of the Obama administration from day one to day yesterday. We’ve seen where that gets us. They are aided and abetted by free passes from the various media, but if the media are acting under the assumption that Republicans don’t mean what they say, then they are even lazier and dumber than I thought.

67

Charles S 09.04.11 at 12:33 am

bob mcmanus:

“I am predicting a whole lot of social unrest. How and where could they be safe and secure from the dying billions and their populist leaders?”

Behind their state of the art (robot) armies? Certainly, if I were very rich, I’d rather be sitting in Vancouver, BC (not predicted to be horribly impacted by a 4 C temperature change, and not super vulnerable to the near-term 2 m sea-level rise), protected by all the military my money could buy, than hiding out in a space arc.

Your theory is that rich people are looking at the current situation and thinking, “No, we shouldn’t take steps that would cut our profits somewhat now in order to prevent a world-wide anti-rich pogrom 50-90 years from now, instead we should devote trillions to secretly building space arcs or under-sea colonies (either of which are more vulnerable to attack than anywhere on the surface of the earth), so our children can live in conditions of dire misery (worrying about where your air is going to come from and eating your own reprocessed shit for food strike me as pretty lousy way to live) in space or under-sea.”

That strikes me as unlikely.

I suspect that most rich people are thinking, “My children will be dead and my grandchildren will have lived rich lives before any of this gets so bad that it affects people like me,” and very few of them are expecting a global anti-rich people pogrom any time in the foreseeable future.

Yes, if the 4 C temperature rise leads to a global anti-rich person pogrom (I’m unconvinced it would), then the rich people of 50-90 years from now may well think poorly of their predecessors. But I don’t think they will be cursing them for not building space arcs and under-sea colonies, rather for deciding that a small decrease in immediate profits was not worth preventing a 4 C temperature rise. The rest of us (rather, our descendents or analogs) will be cursing them for the same thing, global anti-rich pogrom or not.

68

parsimon 09.04.11 at 12:59 am

But when somebody starts telling me that the Republicans don’t mean what they say, I start assuming they’re a) exceptionally privileged, b) willfully obtuse, and c) not living in the United States of America in 2011.

I have to agree with Witt’s conclusion upthread. While it may, arguably, have been the case in the past that Republicans didn’t mean what they said, today, now, they do. There’s a reason we’re so shocked: the recent spate of Republican governors in half a dozen states have executed exactly the plans and worldview they outlined while campaigning.

Certainly, the ongoing battle between the Republican establishment — which doesn’t mean what it says, quite — and the true believers is a real one.

69

soru 09.04.11 at 1:43 am

To put it simply, John, the assertion that Republicans don’t really mean what they say has been the operative principle of the Obama administration from day one to day yesterday.

The flaw is thinking that just because someone doesn’t mean what they say, what they _do_ actually mean instead is necessarily something rational and morally acceptable. What they do mean is probably not actual cartoon super-villianry, just something that tends to enrich people like them at the expense of the general welfare.

But a plan rarely spoken out loud is hardly going to have all the kinks worked out…

70

Tony Lynch 09.04.11 at 1:44 am

Bernard Williams in “Truth & Truthfulness” argued that truthfulness consists of two virtues – accuracy and sincerity. These virtues – and so truthfulness – have a history. They – and so truthfulness – are deeply contingent in this way. I suggest that those we are talking about here are those who – for reasons I don’t claim to know – have shorn truthfulness of accuracy and replaced it entire with sincerity. These people are sincere. But do they “believe” what they say? Well, they believe – they know – that they are sincere.

(The thing is, in part, that accuracy is a hard and presently unfashionable virtue – consider the assaults on science. But sincerity is neither. More than that, sincerity IS a virtue of/in “signalling”. )

Might we perhaps need to distinguish “belief”from “sincerity” here? I think those we are talking about are – genuinely – sincere

71

Tony Lynch 09.04.11 at 1:46 am

Ignore last unfinished para (self-editing is a bitch).

72

Tony Lynch 09.04.11 at 1:46 am

So much for my virtue of accuracy…

73

John Holbo 09.04.11 at 1:55 am

“The flaw is thinking that just because someone doesn’t mean what they say, what they do actually mean instead is necessarily something rational and morally acceptable. What they do mean is probably not actual cartoon super-villianry, just something that tends to enrich people like them at the expense of the general welfare.”

My thesis in the post is that mostly when conservatives say crazy stuff it turns out that they believe something more moderate. But occasionally they actually believe the crazy thing. And an environment in which everyone says crazy stuff allows you to hide genuine crazy beliefs ‘in plain sight’. And saying crazy things over a long period of time makes you actually believe crazy things.

I should have added that the one thing you can always count on the Republican party to do is seek lower taxes on rich people. That’s not liberal, so the Republican party isn’t the crypto-liberal party. What I meant which I said that when you scratch a conservative you get a liberal is that people say things like ‘keep your government hands off my medicare!’ That slogan is a perfect expression of the ‘philosophical conservative, operational liberal’ approach to politics.

I didn’t address the further question of: what to do about it. But I did note that treating people as if they believe things that actually they don’t (probably), although perfectly fair in every possible sense, may not be particularly winning, rhetorically. That’s as far as I got.

I hope this clears up at least what the post itself says (or what I wanted it to say anyway.)

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John Holbo 09.04.11 at 2:32 am

“I’m with Ross Smith@44 in being baffled by this sentiment. The line of reasoning seems to be that even though they’re behaving like monsters they can’t really be monsters because we all know that people aren’t monsters.”

Well, let’s take the Uganda case. Consider a Salon piece about this:

http://www.salon.com/news/politics/war_room/2011/05/11/uganda_republicans

“Engle’s mass rallies in Uganda have, predictably, included calls for the assembled crowds to save their nation from witchcraft and homosexuality. I’m sure he’s shocked that Ugandans took him so seriously, and proposed locking up gay people for life.

Rick Warren has repeatedly affirmed that he doesn’t support the bill, but he also has a history of telling Ugandans that homosexuality is not a human right, and that it’s comparable to pedophilia. Pastor Warren may sincerely be horrified by the thought of the government rounding up and executing homosexuals, but he’s the one whose organization and African mission were and are deeply involved in training the anti-gay religious leaders leading the charge for this bill. It’s his allies in Africa who are directly responsible for this.”

Now there’s two ways to take the “I’m sure he’s shocked” “may sincerely be horrified” lines here. One way is to think: obviously this is exactly what they wanted, but they will deny it if asked by American reporters. Another way is: there’s a pretty good chance that they really are shocked/horrified by the fact that their African audiences took what they were saying literally. They are used to it all being ‘just talk’, just a way of affirming group identity/a ritual cultural dominance display. Admittedly there’s no way to know for sure, but I suspect the latter is more likely to be the case.

So the point is not to excuse them. Engle and Warren bear great responsibility for the harm and injustice they have encouraged. (How not?) The form of their monstrosity, if you want to call it that, is living a rhetorical fantasy life, and letting all that slop over into reality in a toxic way.

75

Salient 09.04.11 at 3:11 am

The right wing is trouncing our asses because they’ve perfected exploiting the ambiguity of emoting.

You ~can’t~ treat an emotive statement as though it’s descriptive. You can try, but anyone with half an ear for passion will intuitively ~sense~ how hollow your response is. They may know, in a descriptive sense, that you haven’t said anything factually incorrect. But the narrative that intuition would pick up from any such exchange is “that right-wing person is trying to sincerely express some beliefs they strongly feel, and that arsehole left-wing person is trying to trip them up on their wording.” We can’t effectively fight emotive language by identifying emotive statements as descriptively bullshit.

(This might also be why leftist folks who despair at Obama and center-leftist folks who despair at people despairing at Obama spend quite a lot of time exasperatedly emoting at one another and calling one another out for various forms of descriptive incoherence in one another’s emotive statements.)

But not if they actually DID it.

I’m stuck feeling that after Iraq and torture-rendition, what’s left that could possibly be more heinous? All that seems left to me is doing different kinds of heinous things to different and possibly larger subpopulations of people. I’m not sure there are very many “a huge enough group of potentially gameswinging voters will punish this if it gets accomplished” lines left to cross. There are many nightmares yet to be made from the same horrors dredged up against new victims, and it’s possible that the wrong nightmare against the wrong populace will be their undoing, but the worst horrors have been unboxed already.

I just don’t have any confidence anymore in the ‘if they enact something horrible enough the voters will trounce them for it’ hypothesis. They could round up everybody with Mexican ancestry to be deported southward, make abortion categorically illegal, require that contraception be quasi-prescription and thus only be made available to anyone who has a driver’s license, they could impose draconian tax law that puts financial penalties on anyone with more than two children, they could repeal all forms of social welfare… … …and while most of us here would be up in full-throated arms about it, I don’t trust there’d be enough people rising up against any of it to turn back the tide.

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Salient 09.04.11 at 3:18 am

Case in point. It might be fun for right-wingers to talk about how they’ll solve the drug problem by forcing addicts to dry out and come down off withdrawal in cells.

If the US actually implemented a policy of sending the FBI into targeted communities, locating and locking up all nonwealthy drug users, forcing them to suffer withdrawal without any medical attention, can you say with any confidence that the public outcry would be worse here than in Russia?

“To put someone in handcuffs, it calms them psychologically.”

…I think it’d be not only fun for them to talk about enacting, but also not protested upon enactment any more severely than the invasion of Iraq was. There’s just no evil at which the right wing or even the general population would balk, at this point, provided it’s an evil done mostly to the right sort of ‘deserving’ people.

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John Holbo 09.04.11 at 3:37 am

““that right-wing person is trying to sincerely express some beliefs they strongly feel, and that arsehole left-wing person is trying to trip them up on their wording.” We can’t effectively fight emotive language by identifying emotive statements as descriptively bullshit.”

I agree with that. Except it’s not really adequate to say that it’s ’emotive’, although that’s a big part of it. It’s function is to assert cultural dominance/superiority for a favored group, in a case in which it is not considered socially acceptable just to flatly assert that cultural dominance/superiority. Why it’s then considered socially acceptable to say something even more wildly radical instead is a nice question. But here we are.

I agree that the dynamic is very harmful, and getting worse. So if the post sounded complacent, that’s not what I intended. I just don’t exactly know what to do about it. Because it’s not just something that opportunistic politicians are doing, so gotcha questions to politicians won’t address the problem, only treat the symptoms (and possibly exacerbate them). It’s a thing that goes deep into the political psyches of a lot of Americans. A kind of conservative utopian escapism.

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Bruce Baugh 09.04.11 at 3:37 am

Witt wrote, More and more, I feel as though the people who are paid the most money and have the most public airtime to talk about politics don’t understand that it’s not a game. In the most literal sense, they do not understand that their opinions have actual effects on actual human beings.

I think this is absolutely right on. And I don’t know what can change it short of inflicting a whole lot of misery on them as a class – mass arrests and capital punishment for unauthorized leaks, or something like that.

79

Sherri 09.04.11 at 5:51 am

Here’s the reflections of a long-time GOP Congressional staffer who just retired about whether the GOP believes what they say:

I have a friend I’ve know since high school, who is Republican and conservative. I used to think he couldn’t possibly believe what he said, when he would say things like the way to solve the drug problem was to poison the drug supply. After 30 years of knowing him, I’ve come to realize he really does believe it. He knows that it’s politically impossible to achieve (poisoning the drug supply, that is), but he really does think it would be a reasonable solution to the problem.

80

Sherri 09.04.11 at 5:51 am

81

Matthew Evans 09.04.11 at 6:15 am

The only way liberals will have an impact is the Clintons and Obamas of this world get punished for NOT saying left wing things. There’s nothing effective can be done to change the fact that you have to say crazy things to get the support of the Republican base. But you can do something to change who gets to be the Democratic candidate. It’s because Obama runs after the the right-wing that they are so powerful. Even at the cost of enduring 4 years of Republican government it’s worth teaching Democrats the lesson which Republicans learned years ago. A leadership which betrays its base is worse than useless.

82

bad Jim 09.04.11 at 7:07 am

Sure, the right-wingers don’t believe everything they say; they aren’t advocating the death penalty for women who have abortions, for example. Short of that, though, they do believe their own bullshit. Even George Bush, the “compassionate conservative”, made a substantial effort to do away with Social Security and Medicare. Now Perry is calling it a Ponzi scheme. They sincerely believe that global warming is a hoax and sharia law is a threat. Their rejection of everything we’ve learned in the last hundred years is entirely sincere.

Worse, they actually believe that the economy would be improved by slashing federal spending, reducing taxes on the wealthy productive and raising taxes on the working “lucky duckies”. There’s no question what they’d do once back in power with a compliant Congress. It would be ugly.

It’s true to a point that the media treats the craziness with excessive delicacy; there’s a general deference to the right, and there’s also the zeal for “balance”, such that settled questions like evolution and global warming have to be treated as deferentially as political controversies. However, some of the current crop of candidates have gone so far that even network personalities have pushed back. Governor Perry went too far with his implicit threat of assault upon the Fed chief for debasing the currency, although it was the suggestion of violence rather than his economic ignorance that disturbed the talking heads.

Since the tea party is less popular than atheists or Muslims according to a recent poll, and only slightly more popular than the religious right, I’m hopeful that we’ll be spared another Texan next year, but not entirely confident.

83

Ross Smith 09.04.11 at 7:12 am

John@74: “Admittedly there’s no way to know for sure, but I suspect the latter is more likely to be the case.”

And there you go again John, asserting purely on the basis of your own belief, without a shred of concrete evidence, that “they can’t really be monsters because we all know that people aren’t monsters.” While all the actual evidence (see e.g. Sherri@79/80, and any number of other reality based comments above) points to the fact that, yes, they really do mean it, they really are monsters.

Is there any way we can persuade you to wake up and smell the fertiliser? Or will there come a day when the subversive elements are rounded up, with you in the back of the cattle car explaining condescendingly to the other passengers “of course they’re not really going to hang us all from the Brooklyn Bridge, they were just saying that to pander to the base, how could you be so silly?”

84

John Holbo 09.04.11 at 8:11 am

“John@74: “Admittedly there’s no way to know for sure, but I suspect the latter is more likely to be the case.”

And there you go again John, asserting purely on the basis of your own belief, without a shred of concrete evidence, that “they can’t really be monsters because we all know that people aren’t monsters.”

Sorry, where did I assert or imply – even once, before we get to any ‘there you go agains’ – that ‘they can’t really be monsters, because we all know that people aren’t monsters’?

85

Thomas Jørgensen 09.04.11 at 8:24 am

Much, much simpler point: As the last several presidencies have demonstrated, the presidency has the de-facto power to take america to war. Giving any of the applicants for the job of being in charge of the biggest war machine on the planet – including the nuclear arsenal – a free pass on saying crazy things is itself a completely insane thing to do.
It does not matter if you think it 90% likely that they are just mouthing of. The job they are applying for should not ever pass into the hands of someone who comes across as anything but the very essence of sanity. Even if they *are* just mouthing off, if they continue to do so while in office, that is going to have very real, and very negative diplomatic consequences. Given some of the things that have been said on the campaign trail, if certain of these people take office, you are looking at a world where half the British and French nuclear detterrent might very well end up being pointed at washington. Is that a outcome you want?

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John Holbo 09.04.11 at 8:28 am

“Is that a outcome you want?”

Obviously not. But what’s the best way to approach the problem, given that just saying ‘he’s nuts and here’s why’ will have the opposite effect from the one you want. Namely, a whole lot of the people you are trying to influence will think you are just trying to trip him up in some tricky way, when all he is doing is trying to express ‘good values’.

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Hidari 09.04.11 at 10:31 am

I’m wondering if I can almost literally turn this debate upside down by linking to this article on Salon. It deals with something called Vadum which has made a living from exploiting the American public’s seemingly limitless tolerance for watching fat morons making fools of themselves on TV. Anyway Vadum has ‘written’ an ‘article’ for a ‘magazine’ called American Thinker (no jokes please!) in which he ‘argues’ that the poor should not be allowed to vote.

As Salon puts it: ‘When you write that you actually just oppose letting poor people vote, you’re giving the game away. You’re never supposed to openly state the goals of the conservative movement, because no one but a small cadre of sociopaths actually supports them.’.

Now I know this is a ‘comic’ article and the writer is kinda sorta joking. But let’s face it, he’s also kinda not and I know this because the GOP is in fact trying to stop poor people from voting.

So my point is, given that this is in actual fact a goal of GOP politicians but one which they could never actually state: perhaps the evil, stupid, fascist, psychotic things Republicans say are indeed a bluff, but not because they ‘actually’ believe less evil stupid things. Perhaps their real beliefs are even more evil and psychotic, and its all a highly elaborate charade to convince us that they are only 85% evil whereas in fact they are 1 gazillion% evil.

Just an idea.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 09.04.11 at 10:58 am

It would be very difficult for someone with strong convictions to become a successful politician. And that’s a very good thing too.

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Thomas Jørgensen 09.04.11 at 11:12 am

You are simply overcomplicating this. When they say crazy shit, you call them on it. With quotes and citations. Some faction of the audience will not want to hear that good-old-boy-bobbit is in fact talking complete lunacy, but that faction of the voting public is the core of the republican base – nothing you can possibly say will sway them, so they are of zero relevance to the question of how to craft an effective political message.
All that pulling your punches does is confer legitimacy upon the politicians who preach insanity way outside the relatively small circle of hardcore belivers. Because if they are taken seriously, and addressed with respect by their opponents, they must be serious and respectable politicans, right?

TLDR: When your opponents say foolish things in front of microphones, quoting them on it is both legitimate and wise tactics.

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Uncle Kvetch 09.04.11 at 12:43 pm

Sorry, where did I assert or imply – even once, before we get to any ‘there you go agains’ – that ‘they can’t really be monsters, because we all know that people aren’t monsters’?

John, you’ve stated twice in this thread that you don’t think Ric Warren and those of his ilk really wanted the Ugandan government to put homosexuals to death. You’ve been asked what you base that belief on, and you just keep dancing around. So again…if it’s not a case of “we all know that people aren’t monsters,” exactly why do you think what you think?

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Uncle Kvetch 09.04.11 at 12:45 pm

However, some of the current crop of candidates have gone so far that even network personalities have pushed back. Governor Perry went too far with his implicit threat of assault upon the Fed chief for debasing the currency, although it was the suggestion of violence rather than his economic ignorance that disturbed the talking heads.

Feature, not bug. The Very Serious People clutched their pearls while the Republican base lapped it up with a spoon.

And that’s kind of the crux of this whole discussion. “Going too far” isn’t a gaffe, it’s a strategy.

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John Holbo 09.04.11 at 12:46 pm

“You are simply overcomplicating this. When they say crazy shit, you call them on it.”

I guess I think it’s more complicated than that, insofar as that strategy is reasonable and right, in an argumentative and journalistic sense (see my post: Bill Keller is quite right). But it doesn’t seem to have as much political impact as one would like (per Kevin Drum’s post). I worry about having a political impact as well as being reasonable and right, in an argumentative and journalistic sense. It may well be that you are just saying ‘do the right thing, call them on it, and let the chips fall where they may.’ That is, you aren’t addressing the issue of what’s likely to work in a partisan sense. If so: fine. I’m not advocating NOT doing what Bill Keller suggests (see my post: Bill Keller is quite right). But I don’t expect it to do much good. It’s quite likely to backfire. On the other hand, if no one even pointed out this stuff, the Overton window would be shifting right even faster. So maybe every strategy is going to backfire. I wonder how to do any better.

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Main Street Muse 09.04.11 at 2:15 pm

“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. “

What makes people think conservatives do not want a theocracy? I see several issues where religious belief guides to the discussion to the point of paralysis. Abortion and gay marriage are just two of these hot button topics. Our culture does not recognize miscarried cells with life affirming things like names or birth certificates or funerals – cultural traditions that we use with the living human – yet conservatives, fueled by God, want such cells to be considered as “life” when discussing abortion.

Likewise, conservatives policy views of gay marriage are very much driven by the Bible – in a culture with such a high divorce rate, there is no real rational reason to prohibit same-sex couples from enjoying the privilege of pledging eternal devotion to each other in front of friends and family, but for the prohibitions on gay relationships found in the Bible.

Newt Gingrich, who criticizes gay marriage, is a man whose eagerness to shed the first wife so he could marry the second compelled him to serve divorce papers to the first wife when she was in the hospital being treated for cancer. Such are the very disturbed values that drive conservatives in their policy choices. And yes, American public policy is being dictated by such madness.

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James Wimberley 09.04.11 at 2:25 pm

Keith # 51: “They’re perfectly wiling to hobble this country economically and turn tens of thousands of citizens into surfs…”
The utopian liberal hope is that they will turn the citizens into smurfs instead.

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Brett Bellmore 09.04.11 at 2:34 pm

in which he ‘argues’ that the poor should not be allowed to vote.

Strictly speaking, no. Seriously, read the essay, set down the secret decoder ring for a moment, and parse the actual words he actually set to paper. He does not argue that the poor should not be allowed to vote. He argues that nobody should be going out and encouraging them to vote.

Now, perhaps it seems a reasonable extrapolation from “don’t encourage them, don’t help them”, to “don’t let them”, but it’s not an extrapolation HE made. It’s one that’s been attributed to him, in the teeth of his actual words. And you should generally attack people on the basis of what they have actually advocated, rather than putting words in their mouth. Even if you don’t view this as a moral imperative, attacks on things people haven’t said are rather less effective when addressed to folks who aren’t already in agreement with you.”

Vadun’s position is that, if the poor, on their own initiative, drag themselves off to a government office, and jump through the generally applicable hoops that everybody else has to jump through to register, they should be registered. Subsequently, if they drag themselves to the polling place on election day, and again, comply with generally applicable rules to establish that they really are the person whose vote they want to cast, they should get to vote. But that nobody should be trying to make it especially easy for them.

Now, I can see why Democrats would want voting to be as easy as humanly possible. You rely on votes from a lot of constituencies which are, to put this politely, under-motivated. People who don’t actually care enough about voting to register to vote, unless you bring the forms right to them, hand them a pen, and pester them to sign. People who find actually going to the polling place, and maybe even standing in a line, too much trouble.

So you need registration drives, you need easy access to absentee ballots, you need to spread voting over several days… Because even the slightest inconvenience impacts your vote totals.

But this does not make a minor inconvenience “disenfranchisement”. It does not erase the difference between “not helping”, and “not letting”. And Vadun simply, unambiguously, did NOT say that the poor should not be allowed to vote.

He said that nobody should help and encourage them to.

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denim 09.04.11 at 2:34 pm

I believe in taking the rebut position. You see, it is much easier to nail a liar in his lies than a nutcase in his insanity. If the candidate claims to be a follower of Jesus, I simply look up what Jesus said he should be doing. Then I nail the lying hypocrite point by point verse by verse. As an example: “And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say”? Jesus, Luke 6:46. A good list can be found in Matthew chapters 6 and 7.

“And I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger from his right, and fear not me, saith the LORD of hosts.” Malachi 3:5

I think that followers of Jesus owe it to their master to uncloak these liars.

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Jim Harrison 09.04.11 at 4:25 pm

@95

Mr. Bellmore talks to different Conservatives than I do. The ones that I’ve known all my life certainly don’t believe that the poor should be allowed to vote. The bit about simply making it difficult for them to vote is merely a concession to the political reality that you’re supposed to favor democracy in public.

Universal suffrage is a recent innovation. Even in the U.S., it didn’t become law until 1919; and in the U.K. it also came in after World War I, Lloyd George having promised it in the dark days of 1917 in order to mollify the masses at a time when they were needed as cannon fodder and war workers. That was then, not even a hundred years ago. Why would anybody think that limiting the franchise on a de facto or even de jure basis is impossible now, especially granted that countries no longer field mass armies? It remains an article of political piety to praise democracy, but who actually believes that the wishes of the majority should have a decisive voice in running things? Not the plutocrats, surely, though they’ve proved far more adept than the others in using populist methods when it suits ’em, but not the technocratic left either. The low level of political participation in American elections is at least partly a result of the unwillingness of either party to mobilize real majorities. All of which is why I think it’s pretty odd to think Vadun was kidding.

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Sherri 09.04.11 at 4:34 pm

If we don’t believe they mean what we say, if we discount what they believe, then I fear we don’t take their incremental steps as seriously. ‘Oh, they don’t really want to eliminate Social Security,’ but we’ll agree to raise the retirement age and the payroll tax and the cut the benefits and they chip away at it and convince the next generation that it won’t be there for them anyway, so why should they be paying for it? They play the long game.

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SamChevre 09.04.11 at 5:08 pm

For another, Eisenhower. What people thought of as “conservative” in the not-too-ancient past is crazy-eyed liberalism now.

Not on sex, not on religion, and not on policing. Eisenhower presided over a country with explicitly Christian prayers in schools; contraception wasn’t available even to married couples in some states, and no information about it could be sent through the mail; homosexual activity was entirely and enforcedly illegal; and forget about militarizing the police–he just used the army to suppress dissent.

100

parsimon 09.04.11 at 6:08 pm

Sherri at 98 gets it absolutely right. The way to combat the phenomenon is to fight the incremental steps in a two-fold manner: ask, always, not just for a further elaboration and justification of any crazy shit that’s been said, but also what ultimate vision for society is motivating it; and provide an alternative vision.

This doesn’t come as news. A variety of Democrats/liberals have been attempting it, and no, it doesn’t seem to be working, in part because the mainstream media is inclined to let its gaze wander if things seem to get too complicated, which is to say, complicated at all, and in part because a large portion of the American electorate has the attention span of a flea as well.

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parsimon 09.04.11 at 6:10 pm

There’s always politics by bumper sticker. That’s the ticket.

102

Tangurena 09.04.11 at 6:10 pm

David Neiwert wrote about this stuff. His blog, Orcinus, has become dormant, but his past essays on eliminationism among right-wing media are still there (on the left hand menu).

Must We Act As If They Mean What They Say?

Yes. Because they mean it. They fool some folks with the “boys will be boys” or “just joking” lines, but deep down, they absolutely mean what they say.

Flyers are sent out with bullseyes and crosshairs marked on a number of Democrat politicians. Gifford, one of the targets on this flyer, gets shot, and those flyers get whitewashed away as “jokes”. The eliminationist rhetoric is meant exactly the same way that “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” was meant: I want someone to kill them for me.

We are heading towards a country with 2 different tribes. One that says “we’re going to kill the other guys” (optionally with “because they are traitorous babykilling infidels”) and the other one who refuse to see it coming. I don’t think it will be quite as bad as Burundi and Rwanda, but it will be at least as bad as the former Yugoslavia.

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Brett Bellmore 09.04.11 at 6:17 pm

“Mr. Bellmore talks to different Conservatives than I do. The ones that I’ve known all my life certainly don’t believe that the poor should be allowed to vote.”

I rather suspect, were you to bother to get down to details, that they do not, in fact, think “the poor” shouldn’t be allowed to vote. They might very well think “those on the dole” shouldn’t be, but it’s possible to be both poor and self-sufficient.

104

Brett Bellmore 09.04.11 at 6:24 pm

Tangurena, surely you’re not going to pretend that “eliminationist rhetoric”, as broadly defined has you have defined it, is the exclusive province of conservatives?

105

parsimon 09.04.11 at 6:28 pm

it’s possible to be both poor and self-sufficient

It’s very difficult, particularly if you’re undereducated, overworked, in danger of losing your job if you take time off to go to the polls, and so on. This describes quite a few people in this country. I honestly don’t see how what you’ve been saying on this topic avoids being anything but “Only those who can bootstrap themselves into a basic position allowing them the time and resources to vote should be encouraged to vote.”

106

Andrew F. 09.04.11 at 6:33 pm

I find this entire discussion fascinating as much for its acceptance of certain premises as anything else. I don’t think Republicans “get a pass” on crazy statements in general elections. Crazy statements on climate change? For most of the electorate that’s not an issue that will swing votes. Those who think climate change is a pressing issue which must be urgently addressed else catastrophe will result, aren’t voting Republican. Everyone else either views the debate as pretty far down the list on issues of concern, or agrees with the crazy statements.

I also don’t quite understand the idea that Perry somehow will “get away with” some of the things he’s said. Perry’s statements are a big reason why he is an easier opponent for Obama than Romney. Perry is a great fit for a negative Democratic campaign. Getting a pass? We’re not in general election season yet and the last thing Democrats want to do is derail Perry’s fight for the nomination. Once we’re in that fight, Perry’s views on social security will be front and center.

Even if we grant the premise that Republicans DO get away with crazy things they say, the appeal to an American cultural bias towards conservative values won’t help us as an explanation. This is because the “crazy things” we’re talking about are specific policy statements – not merely statements of general values. Perry’s “crazy statements” are specific ones, as are Bachman’s, as are Ron Paul’s, as are others.

I’m not worried about this, because I reject the premise. If you don’t, though, I think you’ll need a better explanation.

107

Bruce Wilder 09.04.11 at 6:33 pm

I think the movie, the Help, is quite useful as a model for how the rich want to think about the poor. And use them. And, treat them.

The fantasies of the rich, and self-satisfied middle-class, about the poor tend to be rather more lurid or fantastical. I watched a movie on television about a very white family, where Dad died three years before, and Mom, the waitress, is unable to support the family, even with the teenage son working after school, and they are about to lose the house to foreclosure. There’s one mention of food stamps, when a fellow waitress advises overcoming pride and getting them. Later, we see the cupboard is bare and the kids are ill-fed by overworked mom. The central crisis, though, is that the teenage son may not be able to play basketball, because his English teacher is about to flunk him.

An angel and a handsome handyman drifter, who moves next door, intervene, and, after the angel lets the teacher miraculously live for a couple of imaginary days as the waitress-mom, the teacher decides to donate her vacation money to give the waitress and her family a year of mortgage-payment-free living.

This is the conservative utopia.

108

Lee A. Arnold 09.04.11 at 6:39 pm

They mean what they say, but only in an emotional sense. The fundamental issue is not class war. There is certainly a minor class war, though it involves lots of money, but that is the plutocrats piggybacking on rotten politics. The conservatives’ undying war is really over something like a rhetorical attitude, in order to gain political power. The Repubs want your attitude to be that government can’t fix things. They will increase gov’t spending (Reagan); do Medicare Part D without funding (Dubya); they use lots of gov’t money to get their own economies and supporters thriving (Perry); and moreover they are heading into an historical cul-de-sac because the U.S. Repub Party as a whole is forcing itself into a position against the welfare state (something that is never going away so I think it is a position they should be fully welcomed to arrive at) — so it is all nonsense, but it is only intellectual nonsense. Emotionally, their attitude must be that gov’t can’t fix things. The ways to counteract and to destroy this gibberish ought to be crystal clear by now.

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parsimon 09.04.11 at 7:02 pm

Emotionally, their attitude must be that gov’t can’t fix things. The ways to counteract and to destroy this gibberish ought to be crystal clear by now.

It would certainly be awesome, as the kids these days say, if Obama could hold forth with a bunch of charts showing each and every way that a majority of persons in this country has benefited from government programs. Bank account (yes, FDIC)? Mortgage (yes). Student loan, Social Security, Medicare, just, you know, driving around on roads and bridges, not dying from easily prevented disease, poor air or water or food? Yes. Ability to fly — on a plane! — without crashing? Yes, pretty much.

Perhaps our Senators and Representatives could push this message in their town hall meetings and whatnot.

110

Bruce Wilder 09.04.11 at 7:05 pm

Did I mention that the Dad died, heroically, in Iraq, and the handyman is a combat veteran, who is able to bond with the teenage son, by answering his questions about war and death?

Oh, yeah, the waitress mom drives a broken-down SUV with terrible gas mileage, and the handyman drifter guy has a really awesome muscle truck.

A Walk in My Shoes

111

AcademicLurker 09.04.11 at 7:10 pm

@104
surely you’re not going to pretend that “eliminationist rhetoric”, as broadly defined has you have defined it, is the exclusive province of conservatives?

Is blurting out “Liberalsdoittoo!!!” anything but pure reflex at this point?

112

bianca steele 09.04.11 at 7:42 pm

John Holbo @ 74
Great post. I have a lot to say but I’m not sure most of my response actually addresses your real argument in a way that’s suited to a comment box. So I’ll comment on one point you make later, near the end of a comment

They are used to it all being ‘just talk’, just a way of affirming group identity/a ritual cultural dominance display.

Unless I’m radically misunderstanding you here, the first and second possibilities aren’t compatible. There are huge, visible differences between “just talk” and “affirming group identity.” If it were “just talk,” you would expect to hear both points of view. If it were “affirming group identity,” you would expect to hear only one point of view. If anyone were confused about which it was, you would expect to see conflict.

Also, I’m not sure you caught the significance of something the Salon writer says in the passage you quoted: that Warren can say whatever he wants because he has already proven he supports (materially, etc.) a group that is already understood to support government violence against homosexuals. Yet he doesn’t go farther than to say that he agrees that legislation goes too far and is undesirable.

I’ll add one other thing: I’m not sure your explanation, toward the end of the OP, of the differences between what’s allowed of conservatives and what’s required of liberals, makes complete sense. It seems like it should apply to similar situations, say, the workplace, but you run into problems when you try to apply it there. For example, it’s entirely reasonable to fire a liberal who, for purely secular or rationalistic reasons, doesn’t like his boss and refuses to work for him. However, a man who won’t work for a woman, because his religion says women should be subordinate to men (much less a woman who didn’t manage the men in her group–whatever she did with the women–because she believed women should be subordinate), in your scenario, shouldn’t be fired, because his choices were based in religious beliefs. Yet something like that would be enormously disruptive, and no corporate management would permit it. The fact that religious people in such a situation would hide their beliefs is proof that religion doesn’t get a free ride.

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Brett Bellmore 09.04.11 at 9:15 pm

Is pointing out Republicans doing something you don’t like, and complaining if anybody notes that Democrats do it, too, anything more than pure reflex? Surely the point of mentioning that Republicans do something bad is to suggest that Republicans are somehow worse that Democrats, right? Which makes “Liberalsdoittoo” entirely relevant.

It’s like saying, “Republicans shit!”, as though it were some kind of indictment. EVERYBODY is using martial metaphors, clip art bullseyes, and the like.

114

parsimon 09.05.11 at 12:27 am

I see that this thread has retired itself for the most part, but is

EVERYBODY is using martial metaphors, clip art bullseyes, and the like

honestly true? I would need to see some evidence, to be honest, that Democrats/liberals are doing this.

115

Brett Bellmore 09.05.11 at 1:40 am

Hyperbole, of course, (Must be some pacifist out there who shrinks from using “bullet” points.) but see this.

The left routinely uses “eliminationist” rhetoric, if you’re so crazy as to call the bullet in a bullet point list that sort of thing. Indeed, it wasn’t 24 hours after calling for a new civility, that the President was urging Democrats to “Bring a gun to a knife fight”.

The idea that violent political rhetoric is somehow a thing of the right is flatly absurd, it’s hard to understand how anyone who didn’t live in a cave could take it seriously.

116

John Holbo 09.05.11 at 2:28 am

“And Jonah Goldberg would then crap out a couple hundred words in the LA Times explaining that putting homosexuals to death is, in fact, the logical conclusion of “liberal” thought, because Hitler and Whole Foods.

And in this fashion, all asses would be covered in a satisfactory manner. But do you honestly think that either of them would lose a moment’s sleep over it? As long as we’re engaging in mind-reading.”

No, of course they wouldn’t lose sleep, because they would think to themselves that they never intended for that to happen, so it’s someone else’s fault – liberals’ fault, probably. I see now that my thesis that conservative rhetoric is substantially a function of cognitive dissonance is not winning universal acclaim, but is there any evidence that it is wrong? Admittedly, I can’t prove it is right.

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Justin 09.05.11 at 2:55 am

I haven’t the time to read through all the comments, so someone may have already noted this, but it seems that today’s liberals actually adhere more to the true conservative principles of being realistic and pragmatic, while today’s conservatives are the ones with their heads buried in the sand, only concerned with their ideological view. Of course I’m not saying that the ideological views of liberals are same as true (or Burkean) conservatives, but I feel that they act similarly in their political method.

118

Omega Centauri 09.05.11 at 3:08 am

I think we need to tout, that they do mean to do what they say, regardless of the fact that many candidates say what they do based upon pure opportunism, rather than conviction. In the present field, Perry looks to me like an opportunist, and Bachman, like a true believer. But, what will an opportunist do if given power? Will he defer to his better judgement? Or, go with the solution that the identify politics that brought him to that position dictates.

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Barry 09.05.11 at 4:11 am

Uncle Kvetch 09.04.11 at 12:43 pm

” John, you’ve stated twice in this thread that you don’t think Ric Warren and those of his ilk really wanted the Ugandan government to put homosexuals to death. You’ve been asked what you base that belief on, and you just keep dancing around. So again…if it’s not a case of “we all know that people aren’t monsters,” exactly why do you think what you think?”

I second this – John, cough it up, please.

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John Holbo 09.05.11 at 4:36 am

“I second this – John, cough it up, please.”

COUGH: I base it on their speech and behavior. Look. One of two things is true: either Warren and co. secretly want to commit genocide against all homosexuals (presumably in the US and Africa) – which they don’t say they want to do – or they don’t actually want genocide against homosexuals (in the US and Africa) – that’s what they say. But they also say other things that sure make it seem like they should think that other thing. If you really think homosexuals are as evil as all that, and so totally dangerous and destructive to society, you really ought to want to lock them all up at the very least. And maybe execute them as terrorists. I think there is a systematic mismatch between the rhetoric and the political behavior. My hypothesis is that there is cognitive dissonance. Your hypothesis is that they say the extreme stuff because they perfectly well know what it implies – and they affirm that. What makes you so sure you are right?

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Sebastian H 09.05.11 at 5:56 am

“John, you’ve stated twice in this thread that you don’t think Ric Warren and those of his ilk really wanted the Ugandan government to put homosexuals to death.”

We need some quotes. What *exactly* did Warren say that makes you think he really wants the Ugandan government to put homosexuals to death. I haven’t seen anything that even hints at that.

You’re using a standard that you wouldn’t accept if it were “socialists may or may not have really *wanted* the gulag, but their rhetoric is easily employed by those who do, and therefore socialists are responsible”. Or even more fun: “leftists created an atmosphere of hatred against captialist and middle class workers/intellectuals that is responsible for the Chinese Cultural Revolution even if they *say* that wasn’t their intention”.

When employed against your side, it is self-evidently ridiculous, right?

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Sebastian H 09.05.11 at 6:01 am

And actually, much closer to home, are we supposed to believe the hyperbole from leftists *who comment regularly here* when they say they want to see the end of the capitalist state? When they say they want to see banks and money institutions all around the world fail? When they pretend to want to destroy everything about the corporate structure as if we could go back to partnerships being the major source of employment?

Hell they don’t even give up their computers.

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Uncle Kvetch 09.05.11 at 1:30 pm

Your hypothesis is that they say the extreme stuff because they perfectly well know what it implies – and they affirm that. What makes you so sure you are right?

Um…I’m not, John. In fact I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a “hypothesis.” And to the extent that it is one, it’s much closer to “They don’t particularly give a shit what their rhetoric implies, because they don’t particularly give a shit about whether gay people are subject to violence, because if they did they wouldn’t say the things they do. Because we live in a world in which gay people are subject to violence on a regular basis — and not just in Uganda, but right here in their own backyard.”

If the Ugandan death penalty case is just too extreme, how about the 17-year-old kid getting dragged by his parents to Marcus Bachmann’s ministry so he can be exorcised of the demons of same-sex attraction? I would say the lines of causality and intention are a wee bit easier to trace there, wouldn’t you? Can you still say “they don’t really mean it”?

Look, you made a claim — “I doubt they meant for it to come to this” — and you were asked to support it. That’s all. Neither you nor I nor anyone else in this discussion can look into Ric Warren’s soul and see what dwells there. So there’s no really no call for petulant tu quoque’s here (Brett and Sebastian H already have that angle covered).

Now then: I’ve avoided bringing this up so far, but I keep coming back to the exchange I had with Belle on your blog some five years ago. If my buttons are being pushed here, it’s because your willingness to give someone like Ric Warren the benefit of the doubt is stirring the same kind of queasiness in me. This is not angels on the head of a pin territory. So maybe I should just step aside and cede the floor to people for whom Ric Warren’s statements are completely inapplicable, and therefore inconsequential.

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Barry 09.05.11 at 1:39 pm

John, if Rick Warren doesn’t want to kill homosexuals, why the crap in Uganda?

Please remember that Rick is in the ‘respectable’ faction of the Right, not the faction which can publicly froth at the mouth.

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SamChevre 09.05.11 at 1:43 pm

Rick Warren has repeatedly affirmed that he doesn’t support the bill, but he also has a history of telling Ugandans that homosexuality is not a human right, and that it’s comparable to pedophilia. Pastor Warren may sincerely be horrified by the thought of the government rounding up and executing homosexuals, but…

I don’t see how this is either unclear or inconsistent. I’m certainly opposed to pedophilia, and I’d also certainly be horrified if the government, or vigilante groups, began killing anyone convicted of statutory rape. I don’t see that as a position that involves any cognitive dissonance whatsoever.

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John Holbo 09.05.11 at 1:48 pm

“your willingness to give someone like Ric Warren the benefit of the doubt”

Sorry, I’m not trying to give him any ‘benefits’ of the doubt. I’m not concerned to excuse him or lessen his degree of guilt. I don’t have some impulse to find out that everyone is peachy-keen on the inside. I’m just trying to form the most reasonable view I can of how his mind works. And I am saying that I doubt he’s thinking “YES! genocide now!” Even though he’s saying things which, were one to believe what he is saying, might reasonably make you conclude that gay people should all be killed or locked up. Now you yourself seem actually to agree that he’s not thinking ‘YES! genocide now!” It’s more a case of not caring about the implications of what he is saying. But that’s actually what I’m saying, more or less. So if I’m guilty of giving Warren the benefit of the doubt – and if that is causing you queasiness – then why isn’t the fact that you are doing the same thing also causing you queasiness? (Just out of curiosity.)

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understudy 09.05.11 at 2:05 pm

“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. “

Late to the thread, but this is a bad example IMHO. It is worse – Hilary, and most democrats, and the ACLU, don’t want to repeal the 2nd amendement, rather they want to pretend it just doesn’t exist, or if it exists, it means something completely different than what it says. Personally I find it more crazy to listen to liberals talk about “reasonable” gun laws, when I find most of them really mean nothing short of the UK ban in 99% of circumstances. That is crazy talk, far crazier than the throw-away lines of Perry, or even better Ron Paul.

I can’t think of a single thing that the Brady Center, the Democratic Party or Hilary would do different, legislatively, if the 2nd amendment were repealed than if it weren’t. That is crazy in my mind.

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Cranky Observer 09.05.11 at 2:32 pm

> I think there is a systematic mismatch between the rhetoric and the
> political behavior. My hypothesis is that there is cognitive dissonance.
> Your hypothesis is that they say the extreme stuff because they
> perfectly well know what it implies – and they affirm that. What makes
> you so sure you are right?

As of this date there are still some basic restraints on the operation of the US political, legal, and police systems. Not as many as there were post-Watergate or pre-9/11, but there are still some restraints. Then I look at what is happening in Wisconsin and (perhaps more to the point) Michigan and at that point I find it quite reasonable to ask if the only reason they aren’t putting the most radical of their beliefs into practice – killing homosexuals being a good example – is because they haven’t finished their 30-year project of dismantling all constraints which prevent them from doing so. Not only is that a fair question but one I think you are gliding over more than a bit.

Cranky

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Uncle Kvetch 09.05.11 at 3:00 pm

I’m just trying to form the most reasonable view I can of how his mind works. And I am saying that I doubt he’s thinking “YES! genocide now!” Even though he’s saying things which, were one to believe what he is saying, might reasonably make you conclude that gay people should all be killed or locked up. […] It’s more a case of not caring about the implications of what he is saying. But that’s actually what I’m saying, more or less.

Much clearer now — thanks, John.

We are, indeed, in agreement, and I think the problem may have been a misinterpretation on my part. When I read “I doubt they meant for it to come to this,” I took it to mean that you accepted Warren’s post hoc protestations at face value — i.e., he sincerely regretted the fact that his words were leading to this outcome. Which really would constitute giving him the benefit of the doubt. But you didn’t actually say, or even imply, that.

Accusing Warren of not caring about the implications of his words, in this particular context, is essentially an accusation of what the lawyers call depraved indifference. So I was wrong to read you as letting him off the hook in some fashion.

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John Holbo 09.05.11 at 4:11 pm

“We are, indeed, in agreement”

I think we actually disagree a bit. When Warren says he disapproves of the Uganda law proposal, I think probably he is sincere but in denial as to the degree to which he and his fellow missionaries bear responsibility for fostering an atmosphere in which things like this happen. He probably doesn’t think of himself as having preached THAT. I don’t doubt that he thinks this outcome is a bad thing. But I agree that if he really cared about this stuff he would preach loudly that it’s not not not ok to persecute homosexuals for their homosexuality. My impression is that he didn’t exactly set the pulpit on fire with words to that effect.

We are shaving the psychology too fine at this point for my level of knowledge to justify doing so. I’m not Warren or Engle’s psychoanalyst or mind-reader or anything like that. (I listened to several stories on the Rachel Maddow show about the Uganda law business several months ago. That hardly qualifies me as an expert.) I just think that, in general, conservatives suffer from rhetorical disconnect of the sort of I have tried to characterize.

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John Holbo 09.05.11 at 4:15 pm

“It is worse – Hilary, and most democrats, and the ACLU, don’t want to repeal the 2nd amendement, rather they want to pretend it just doesn’t exist, or if it exists, it means something completely different than what it says.”

How so?

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Uncle Kvetch 09.05.11 at 4:31 pm

I think probably he is sincere but in denial as to the degree to which he and his fellow missionaries bear responsibility for fostering an atmosphere in which things like this happen. […] I don’t doubt that he thinks this outcome is a bad thing.

OK, you’re right…we do disagree, a little, sort of. You don’t doubt it…and frankly I do. I certainly don’t know one way or another.

As you say, it’s really getting into mind-reading territory, which isn’t very productive. Anyway, I was wrong to infer a defense of Warren in your comments when that clearly wasn’t where you were going.

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Brett Bellmore 09.05.11 at 7:37 pm

“Then I look at what is happening in Wisconsin and (perhaps more to the point) Michigan and at that point I find it quite reasonable to ask if the only reason they aren’t putting the most radical of their beliefs into practice – killing homosexuals being a good example – is because they haven’t finished their 30-year project of dismantling all constraints which prevent them from doing so. “

It’s funny; I look at the events in Wisconsin, and think, “The only reason they didn’t burn the capitol building to the ground, is that they still thought they’d be in control of it again someday.”

Well, no, not really, but that’s probably what I’d have thought if my thought processes were similar to yours.

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I, Kahn O'Clast 09.05.11 at 10:33 pm

I think the point that the electorate — or the conservative base in this case — does not believe that the politicians believe the things they say nor do they, themselves, believe it is absolutely incorrect. You have a huge number of people who believe in young earth creationism, the veracity of the Ark 2 by 2 the animals story, and in pro-wrestling. Yes, many seasoned pols on the right don’t believe the worst of their talking points but they know that the base does.

This is the problem with Tea Party newbees in the House. They DO believe their own rhetoric which is why they were so willing to drive to — and maybe over — the cliff during the debt ceiling debate……

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Barry 09.05.11 at 11:05 pm

John Holbo: “It’s more a case of not caring about the implications of what he is saying. “

Considering that he’s the head of a very large megachurch, is nationally famous, etc., you’re assuming a lot of cluelessness on his part about his words, networking and implications.

BTW – something that I’ve meant to mention to you. Have you ever thought of updating your post on Frum and ‘Dead Right’? Because the GOP is now in the territory that Frum said was too extreme, and seems to be exploiting that territory quite happily.

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Meredith 09.06.11 at 4:31 am

On the question whether conservative politicians actually believe (in) many of the crazy things they say…. I think the important thing is that they are treated by the MSM as if they couldn’t really, not most of them most of the time, believe those things. And so, the MSM give them that free pass. No fan of Keller (god forbid), I still want to go back to his focus on the role of the messengers in this fiasco we’re living in.

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VV 09.06.11 at 10:26 am

John, the strategy of “calling them on their crazy bs” hasn’t really been tried consistently. The strategy of “oh, they don’t believe most of the crazy shit they say, so let’s focus on the substance” or some such, has been tried repeatedly, and the effect is the movement of the Overton window over to the sidewalk, as someone pointed out in a different thread. So, from an operational standpoint, you seem to be arguing in favor of a tried and awesomely losing strategy/tactic, yet dressing it up as “reasonable”, “probably more effective” and other such. Why would you say that is?

As for your #2, this is a pretty pathetic copout for a pretty damning rebuttal of your central thesis. The paragraph that starts “really it’s more complicated than that” goes in circles around the point that they don’t mean to enact what they say, yet Bush enacted many of the things he and Darth Vader said.

In fact, over and again, there is proof that the “conservatives” (aka batshit crazy teabaggers) really want to go at least half-way to their crazy rhetorical positions. Isn’t that crazy enough for you to call them on?

Moreover, your post doesn’t seem to be able to deal with your own argument in favor of calling them on their crazy stuff: not calling them on it allows them to hide their political positions, so no debate can take place. It’s all emoting, all signaling, all the time. All tribal identification. Plus some crazy positions at least (even by your admission) *will* be genuine, and when it comes time for implementation, they can claim “but I even campaigned on this issue and people voted for it”.

By the way, the claim that Perry doesn’t want to roll back the safety net to 1900 and won’t is completely baseless. There are few programs in the US that are key. Privatizing Social Security and limiting Medicaid will have gone halfway to 1900 for a *large* number of people. Do you care if the rollback only affects a few million but not the whole population? Does it matter if the rollback to 1900 only affects say the bottom 15% of the population? What if the rollback was to 1940? (ie, roll back Great Society gains). Is that acceptable craziness for you?

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VV 09.06.11 at 10:33 am

” I don’t doubt that he thinks this outcome is a bad thing.”

If this isn’t giving him *more* than the benefit of the doubt, I don’t know what is. You believe he thinks this outcome is a bad thing.

OTOH, why should that affect the political resp0nse? Why is the fact that he doesn’t want to implement what he says relevant to the political discussion? Why do you deem this psychological discussion about the soul of the politician relevant? Even if he doesn’t mean it, it seems appropriate to explain in very vivid and clinical terms to people who listen, what it is they’re applauding. You have to combat the cognitive dissonance, make people see what they don’t want to see about what they’re supporing. That doesn’t mean making Warren see. Who cares about him. It means making his supporters see.

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VV 09.06.11 at 10:45 am

Sorry for third in a row:

Even if Warren thinks locking up or killing homosexuals is a bad thing, that doesn’t say anything about whether he deems it
– necessary (victims on the road to a better society)
– better than alternatives (e.g., societal decay, corrupting children, what have you)

In other words, did Mao think the famines in China caused by his policies were a good thing? Or a bad thing? Probably a bad thing, but necessary on the road to communist utopia.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 09.06.11 at 10:49 am

One could argue that rolling back the safety net is actually a function of the Democrats. Republicans act crazy and cut taxes, then Democrats roll back the safety net, because raising taxes or reducing military spending is unthinkable. Of course they do it with nice rhetoric; no craziness there at all. It breaks their hearts, but they have to do it, they have no choice.

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Brett Bellmore 09.06.11 at 10:52 am

The only thing I really draw from this discussion is that a lot of people just love the thought that people who disagree with them are evil. Why? Perhaps it elevates a mundane political fight into an apocalyptic battle of good vs evil, lending a bit of excitement to their lives. Perhaps it licenses them to shed their moral scruples about means employed. Perhaps they’re just so sure of their selves, and the rightness of their own views, it’s the only explanation they can grasp for why anybody would disagree with them.

Whatever the reason, I don’t think it’s a very good thing for civil society.

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VV 09.06.11 at 11:51 am

You know what’s not good for civil society? Advocating torture isn’t good for civil society. Advocating disenfranchising poor and/or homeless people isn’t good for civil society. Advocating “I got mine, now screw you” is not good for civil society. And hearing about civil society from people advocating the above positions is not good for civil society either, whatever John H. thinks.

If your opponent talks about raising (or lowering) the tax rate by a few points, that a disagreement. If they talk about cutting food stamps or Medicaid, then that’s not a disagreement, that’s a call to arms. I hope you understand the difference.

By the way, most people on the left don’t care if the carrier of the idea is evil (I don’t know why John H. is so hung up on whether people in their heart of hearts believe those things, or what). It’s the idea that’s being characterized, and its consequences. Moralistic bs about character and moral fiber are a staple of the right, at least in the US

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Brett Bellmore 09.06.11 at 4:31 pm

Yeah, I wouldn’t advocate torture. You might want to take that up with the President, not me; I’m not the one with the extraordinary rendition flights and people spending months at sea in a legal limbo.

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Ragweed 09.06.11 at 4:35 pm

I ran out of steam around comment 105, so this may have been said already, but here are a few examples:

Bush says: We need to “reform” Social Security and reduce entitlements.
Bush gets: Medicare plan D.

Every conservative since Reagan says: “We need to balance the budget and cut government spending.”
Every conservative since Reagan gets: Bigger deficits, larger US debt.

“Get the Governments hands off our medicare” – even the Ryan plan, while it proposed essentially eliminating Medicare, had to bake in a time delay so that the cuts would not hurt the current large pool of voting (and disproportionately Republican) current seniors who depend on it.

When someone like Perry talks about succession from the US, they are not seriously considering trying to break their state away from big vats of federal largesse and try to make a go of it as an independant nation. They are staking out a particular rhetorical position on “states rights” and the civil war which resonates with southern conservatives. It is a modern version of “Save your Confederate money, the South shall rise again.”

But it is equally true that what conservatives do want is different and perhaps as extreme as what they say they want but don’t really – eg. they say the want a balanced budget, when really all they care about is tax-cuts for their rich friends. But “tax cuts for rich people” is not particularly popular among even the broad republican base, so they frame it as deficit reduction, or tax cuts for everyone (just some more than others).

And on some issues, I think they do mean what they say. When they say they want to ban abortion, I think it is clear they want to ban abortion, and try to pass laws to that affect (and get conservative judges nominated et al).

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Barry 09.06.11 at 6:25 pm

“But “tax cuts for rich people” is not particularly popular among even the broad republican base, so they frame it as deficit reduction, or tax cuts for everyone (just some more than others).”

In many cases, they can’t simply say openly what they mean; they set things up both in rhetoric and reality. E.g., for decades they’ve been saying that Social Security is doomed, the obvious goal is to set that into people’s heads; they deliberately spend a lot of money on what they want, and then say that ‘we’ must make sacrifices, where ‘we’ are not the guys who get the goodies.

BTW – Medicare plan D was not something that Bush (or the GOP) ‘got’; they deliberately created a plan which would maximize pharmaceutical company profits.

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SusanC 09.06.11 at 7:12 pm

I was trying to think of an example of a political group that isn’t the (U.S.) right saying crazy things that they probably don’t mean.

The best I can come up with so far for the UK left: the people who are saying that the “bankers” should be killed for the destruction they have brought on society. They probably don’t really mean it: it’s a rhetorical expression of anger. I also don’t recall anyone senior in the Labour party saying this – you have to look further left than the mainstream, to those of a more anarchist persuasion.

So yes, it’s an interesting question why this rhetorical style should be mainstream in the US right, but marginal in the UK and US left (and possibly marginal in the UK right, too?)

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Ragweed 09.07.11 at 6:40 pm

@Barry – Agreed, but that is the point. They say they are against entitlments, but when it actually comes to putting together a plan, they don’t end up cutting Medicare, they end up bolstering it at the behest of the corps. that will benefit.

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piglet 09.08.11 at 2:08 pm

Holbo: “It is paranoid to be genuinely concerned that people mean things that a reasonable person can see they probably don’t mean.”

“Any reasonable person can see that Hitler’s antisemitism is just rhetoric he uses to fire up his base.”

As I hope you all know, plenty of people, including Jews, convinced themselves of something along these lines back in the 1920 and 30s.

This post is just amazing. It’s bad enough that the right half of the American people lives in a fantasy world. We can’t afford the other half to also go nuts. And this post, John Holbo, is truly nuts. It is nothing but an appeal to liberals to not trust their eyes and ears, to live in cloud-cuckoo-land and ignore reality and pretend that bad things will never happen in the U S of A.

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bianca steele 09.08.11 at 2:29 pm

I actually don’t find it difficult to believe that Rick Warren doesn’t support the legislation in question. It’s not unlikely he doesn’t believe in legislating religion. That’s not to say that I think he would necessarily be surprised to find that his talks resulted in private efforts to exclude or disenfranchise, etc., homosexuals, or disapprove of them (short of presumably unforgivable things like murder). That’s not to say either that he should not have seen that it is irresponsible of him to give those talks to people who would be very, very likely to conclude he was giving them reasons to do things he would strongly disapprove of.

This is the issue–that his goal was to change their minds, he would not have had an opportunity to speak unless he promised to change their minds, and he should have considered what would change their minds in what direction–and not whether we should be suspicious or conspiracy minded.

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bianca steele 09.08.11 at 2:35 pm

@SusanC
I don’t know the answer to your question, but I agree with the OP that it has something to do with liberals’ concluding that it would be a bad idea for them to use any utopian rhetoric or systematically exaggerate what they intend to do or any of that stuff. Again, I don’t know what would make American liberals and leftists conclude that thinking that way is bad, when the same is not quite true in England.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 09.08.11 at 3:05 pm

short of presumably unforgivable things like murder

Who was the guy who said that once you indulge in murder, it’s only a matter of time till you stoop to really unforgivable behavior, like rudeness and procrastination?

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piglet 09.08.11 at 3:17 pm

Ragweed 144 makes a good point. Republicans do say a lot of things that they manifestly don’t mean. They don’t really mean that they want to balance the budget. This is one of the things that they need to say to hide what they really want (shift the tax burden further from the rich to the poor and middle class). Of course balancing the budget is not a crazy idea although balancing it without raising revenue is mathematically impossible. So this is an example of a propaganda strategy where you hide your true – unpopular – intentions with something more reasonable sounding. That is standard political practice.

But what Holbo is talking about is Republicans saying stuff that is truly crazy. I still haven’t seen him put forward any argument as to why we should assume that they say this stuff without meaning it. Social Security is extremely popular. Why would Perry use crazy anti-SS rhetoric if he didn’t mean it?

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bianca steele 09.08.11 at 6:29 pm

Do “conservatives” at the federal level care about things like paving roads and the equivalent? That’s where you really get to rock bottom. Schools, okay, traditionally, they are handled by private organizations. Taking care of the poor, traditionally, is handled by private organizations and “communities.” But paving the roads has always been handled by the state. How does it get to be immoral to ask people to pay taxes and to approve plans for fixing potholes? That is what I don’t get. It’s just not reasonable, that can’t be what they mean, can it?

Most of the evangelicals I’ve known have been far, far from irresponsible. So it’s difficult to decide whether it’s better to call those who speak in public irresponsible or insincere or unreasonable.

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Barry 09.09.11 at 1:50 pm

Bianca: “Most of the evangelicals I’ve known have been far, far from irresponsible. So it’s difficult to decide whether it’s better to call those who speak in public irresponsible or insincere or unreasonable.”

As individuals, yes. As a group – well, 75% of white self-described evangelicals voted for Bush in 2004. I don’t know what percentage voted for McCain, and the GOP in 2010, but I’ll bet that it was way over 50%.

As a group, they support evil policies, and are satisfied with disaster and destruction.

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Barry 09.09.11 at 2:13 pm

piglet: “This post is just amazing. It’s bad enough that the right half of the American people lives in a fantasy world. We can’t afford the other half to also go nuts. And this post, John Holbo, is truly nuts. It is nothing but an appeal to liberals to not trust their eyes and ears, to live in cloud-cuckoo-land and ignore reality and pretend that bad things will never happen in the U S of A.”

I second this. And add:

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Martin Luther King, ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’

Substitute ‘centrist’ for ‘moderate’ above.

I really shouldn’t say ‘centrist’, because the people in question are not real centrists; they are accommodationists. The further the right goes in rhetoric and actions, the more they shift their position over to accommodate the right.

Every time the right doubles down on the crazy, the accommodationists tell us they don’t mean it. When they carry out a surprising amount of their crazy, the accommodationists tell us they don’t mean it.

In the end, the accommodationists are people who look out at reality, and deny it.

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bianca steele 09.09.11 at 5:02 pm

@Barry
Well, people who think of themselves as responsible and think anyone who’s responsible votes Republican then do it. And people who think public statements from members of the clergy are literal truth and mandatory prescriptions also do that. But people who have a warped idea of responsibility and an inability to handle external criticism presumably need to externalize the cognitive dissonance somehow. So it’s difficult to see how responding to them by saying, “I’m sure they’re reasonable and only mean what I would mean,” is helpful for people who disagree with them and think the disagreement is important. Plausibly all that would happen is the latter people would end up feeling compelled to agree that “responsible people vote Republican” (and then we’d have to ask whether we must act as if these latter people mean what they say).

I think we’re in agreement that the important issue is whether we can figure out what they mean from what they say. But obviously this only applies to a small percentage of the people in the US. Most people do the same thing they did last year regardless of what rhetoric’s the flavor of the day in political theater, and the number of people in extreme groups is not in proportion to how loud they are.

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politicalfootball 09.09.11 at 5:04 pm

Seriously, read the essay, set down the secret decoder ring for a moment, and parse the actual words he actually set to paper. He does not argue that the poor should not be allowed to vote.

Seriously, Brett, here’s what he says:

Welfare recipients are particularly open to demagoguery and bribery.
Registering them to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals.

I thought he was using “burglary” perjoratively, but now that you’ve explained it, I see he probably doesn’t even think burglary should be illegal – just like he doesn’t think voting for welfare recipients should be illegal. Now that I understand the author’s pro-burglary inclinations, I am able to read the article as you do.

Likewise:

Registering the Poor to Vote is Un-American

Again, now that I understand the author’s acceptance of things Un-American, I know how to read this piece.

All I can ask, Brett, is that you be tolerant of those of us whose powers of discernment don’t match yours.

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bianca steele 09.09.11 at 5:49 pm

@politicalfootball
Maybe he just thinks he’s being an example of “demogoguery” and that anyone who takes him seriously proves his point. Bleah.

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