Must We Act As If They Mean What They Say? (What did I mean when I said that?)

by John Holbo on September 20, 2011

Two weeks ago I made a post that was as comprehensively misunderstood, relative to my intent, as anything I have written in quite a while. So let me try again. I meant to assert the following:

1) Sometimes Republicans (conservatives) make loud, radical, extreme ‘philosophical’ claims they don’t really mean. Democrats (liberals), on the other hand, don’t ever really do this.

I was interpreted by some as asserting the following:

2) Invariably, whenever Republicans (conservatives) seem to say something crazy or radical, they don’t mean it. They are always moderates about everything. In fact, they are liberals. We can ignore any appearances to the contrary.

Well, I for sure didn’t mean 2. Crikey.

In general, the way to keep 1 clear of 2 is by applications of ‘some’, and appropriate cognates. (I’m saying that sometimes Republicans/conservatives do something that Democrats/liberals never do, not that Republicans/conservatives never don’t do this thing that Democrats/liberals never do.) It may be that my original post was insufficiently slathered with ‘some’. For present post purposes, if I should ever seem to be saying 2), add ‘some’ until it turns into some variant on 1). On we go.

Let me provide an example of the truth of 1 in action: Rick Perry gets into the race, saying he wants ‘government to be as inconsequential as possible’. So Perry is taking anarchism as his regulative ideal. But, of course, he isn’t. He so obviously isn’t an anarchist that it’s obviously a losing rhetorical strategy to paint him as an anarchist. Nevertheless, he did, literally, advocate anarchism, at the level of philosophical principle. If it’s true not just that ideas have consequences but that ideas have implications, then it’s fair to say that, by implication of his ideas, Perry is an anarchist. (Of course he’s not.)

Nor is Perry a minarchist. Nor is he plausibly an advocate of Thoreau-style Civil Disobedience. It is not plausible that Perry actually believes anything like ‘that government is best that governs least’. So it is not plausible to say that his actual statement is a sound-bite simplification of his philosophy.

Let me provide an example of the asymmetry between conservatives and liberals: if Barack Obama had run for office saying ‘government must control everyone’s lives, down to the last, least detail,’ he wouldn’t have won the Democratic nomination, much less the Presidency. Because everyone would have thought he was some sort of communist, or at least a socialist. And, presumably, they would have been right to think that, if he had said that. It is not the case that Democrats/liberals emit wildly inaccurate articulations of their own philosophical positions/principles. If any liberal says ‘we need communism now’ that person would be presumed to be a communist. Whereas when Perry advocates anarchy, he is not thought to be advocating anarchy.

Now let me swat away some irrelevant objections. Of course it is possible to find examples of Perry saying things that he probably means. If he says he wants to order a pizza, he probably wants to order a pizza. If he says he wants to lower taxes, he wants to lower taxes. If he says he would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned (I don’t know whether he has said this) there is a pretty good chance that he would, if elected, nominate Supreme Court Justices who would increase the likelihood that Roe v. Wade be overturned at some point in the future. But sometimes – pretty often, actually – Perry says stuff that he clearly doesn’t mean, at the philosophical level, in the sense that he has no intention – or desire – to realize, in actually existing actuality, the implications of that particular idea. That’s because Perry is a conservative, and that’s what conservatives do. Unlike liberals.

And of course Democrats/liberals sometimes say things they don’t mean. Obviously Democratic politicians are politicians. But they do not exhibit this very distinctive sort of cognitive dissonance, at the ‘philosophical’ level, that pretty much all Republicans/conservatives exhibit. Conservatives sometimes say extreme ‘philosophical’ things that, in an ‘operational’ sense, they don’t mean. Liberals pretty much never do this.

This raises two puzzles. First, why does it work this way, rhetorically? Second, what does Rick Perry – and his target audience – really believe?

In my previous post I advanced some tentative hypotheses. But let’s just stop here for now. Do you agree, dear reader, that there is an asymmetry between Republicans (conservatives) and Democrats (liberals) exemplified by Rick Perry saying things like ‘we want to make government as inconsequential to the lives of ordinary citizens as possible’, which he doesn’t remotely believe. Whereas it is not the case that liberals adopt postures of philosophical extremism, merely for rhetorical effect?

{ 146 comments }

1

Matthew Evans 09.20.11 at 5:35 am

Yes there is a difference. And Republicans have got it right. Because the Republican base punishes candidates who take centrist positions, they get candidates who espouse right wing views. Because Democrats don’t punish people who take an extreme line in defense of liberal positions, they get candidates who espouse right-wing views.

2

Vance Maverick 09.20.11 at 5:56 am

Matthew @1: the point here is not about espousing. I agree with John that mainstream Republicans love to throw extreme right-wing red meat to the crowd, beyond any consistent scheme of belief, in a way that has no parallel among mainstream Democrats. Often there’s Coulter-style “just joking” deniability, but often enough they don’t bother with it. And it’s mysterious.

3

John Holbo 09.20.11 at 5:59 am

There are really two things going on. One, systematic exaggeration. This is a classic bidding strategy. Matthew is talking about this. And it’s important that Republicans tend to be better bargainers because they are serial exaggerators of what they want. But, as Vance says, there’s also a degree of systematic misrepresentation. It’s not just that Rick Perry is a minarchist, so that asking for anarchy is a shrewd bargaining strategy. It’s rather the case that Rick Perry is saying he wants something, philosophically, that is really nothing like what he wants in practice. This calls for some additional explanation.

4

Vance Maverick 09.20.11 at 6:10 am

I think these “misrepresentations” must be understood in some sense. That is, calling for extremely limited government must stand for something, mean something (not necessarily a claim or proposition), which Perry intends and his audience receives. It would be easy to make something up to fill in that blank, but I’d like to do better than that.

5

Vance Maverick 09.20.11 at 6:12 am

(Tangentially, the top headline on Google News for me right now is “Tax plan not class warfare, Obama insists”, which is driving me nuts. Score another rhetorical point for the more ruthless party.)

6

Jacques Distler 09.20.11 at 6:33 am

It’s rather the case that Rick Perry is saying he wants something, philosophically, that is really nothing like what he wants in practice.

But isn’t that the point?

To sell his NASCAR-lovin’ lower-middle-class base a policy agenda strictly at odds with their interests (aligned, rather, with those of his moneyed patrons), he needs to dissemble.

So, you may reasonably ask, why does a (phony) minarchism resonate with his base?

That’s an interesting, but rather different question.

Liberals don’t need to dissemble, in the same fashion, because the policies that the wish to pursue are not, similarly, at odds with the interests of their base.

7

Bruce Wilder 09.20.11 at 7:07 am

In April 2009, Perry got a lot of attention for telling a Tea Party crowd that Texas might, someday, have to secede from the Union, to escape an oppressive government in Washington.

Perry said what he did, referencing “secession”, precisely because it signalled his identification with a core constituency of the Republican Party, white Southerners, whose identification with the South, includes various beliefs about the legitimacy of the Confederate cause.

And, of course, Democrats and the news Media drew attention to these “controversial” remarks, for their own reasons.

The phenomena of Republicans signalling affiliation with various sub-groups is just standard-issue American political tribalism. As is, anyone from the Left drawing attention to the repulsive nature of various elements of the Republican coalition.

The objective “radicalism” of what is said is a function of the beliefs of the Republican constituency group. The subjective and critical appreciation (in a negative sense) of that radicalism is a function of the beliefs and associations of opposing Democrats.

8

Scott Martens 09.20.11 at 7:41 am

Following Bruce at #7, the last Belgian election saw an openly separatist party win the largest number of seats. The NVA is a moderate party in its other politics in general – mainstream European right, not the justly hated and rightly disdained Vlaams Belang. But it won enough votes to make it effectively impossible to form a government without it. And, normally, the largest party in a coalition gets its leader as PM.

The thing that their leader did that should strike people as odd is that he basically refused to be considered for Prime Minister. He said it would be stupid and hypocritical for an avowed Flemish separatist to be PM of Belgium. His party of course still gets the biggest say in the coalition’s policies, and will undoubtedly hold key ministerial positions. But you have to respect a separatist who actually acts like his separatist ideology is meaningful when he has power, instead of only sticking to it when it’s an electoral ploy. As far as I can tell, most developed world separatists don’t.

So, I kinda have to wonder why no one is hammering Perry for wanting to be President of union he doesn’t seem to believe in. I suspect this too is one of those beliefs he says he has but doesn’t actually have.

9

Bruce Wilder 09.20.11 at 8:23 am

In his remarks in April 2009, Perry emphatically declared his appreciation for the Union, and acclaimed his audience, “patriots”.

10

Phil 09.20.11 at 8:29 am

First, why does it work this way, rhetorically?

I think what you’re looking at is the emptiness of populism[1]. All democratic politicians mobilise through speech – they propose to represent the people who assent to certain statements & like to hear people making them. Most of the time, the statements made by politicians and assented to by their audiences are genuine statements of intent. There are disjunctures between rhetoric & programme, which raise issues of different kinds – ‘hidden agenda’ issues (politicians talk about making the NHS more efficient without ever actually saying they mean privatisation); ‘playing to the base’ issues (promising more extreme versions of the programme than they actually plan to implement); ‘tail wagging the dog’ issues (same as previous, except that they end up implementing the extreme version). But there’s some correspondence between rhetoric and policy; policy is what the rhetoric is about.

That’s not how populism works. The pure populist politician is the leader of the people who follow him because he’s their leader – and they believe in him because of what he says. When we look at Berlusconi – and, to be fair, when the Italian Left look at Berlusconi – we see a politician who’s hung on to power despite achieving nothing worthwhile, a crooked businessman and a gratuitously offensive right-wing idiot. His followers don’t just minimise those things – they positively admire him on all three counts. He’s hung on in power despite all that’s been thrown at him! He’s made millions despite being told to play by the rules! And above all, he speaks his mind and tells it like it is, not like all those other politicians!

Second, what does Rick Perry – and his target audience – really believe?

Berlusconi, for what it’s worth, genuinely has fascist sympathies, but that’s not important right now. Berlusconi believes in power and wealth for Berlusconi. Rick Perry believes in power and wealth for Rick Perry. And his target audience believe in… power and wealth for Rick Perry. He’s their guy.

[1] Sorry, I know the word has an honourable history in the US, but it’s the one that fits. I also like to call myself a republican and refer to my politics using the colour red. Let’s face it, we in the rest of the world are just plain weird.

11

Tony Lynch 09.20.11 at 9:06 am

May it not be that that this is the case:

The Dems are concerned with intellectual purity (hence we take them to mean their philosophical claims); the Reps are not concerned with intellectual purity (“elitist wankery”) and so not only may not believe their philosophical claims, but by making such extreme claims be deriding the whole philosophical enterprise.

(And given the divorce between Dem philosophy & practice – and given the Reps more practical sucess(es) – one might well ask: What is the point of this concern with intellectual purity?)

12

ao 09.20.11 at 9:37 am

I agree there is an assymetry.

I think the cause is failure to systematically confront the extreme conservative language. Everytime a conservative wants “no government”, ask if they REALLY accept all the consequences of that view. Keep asking, keep bringing up counterexamples, until they’re forced to backpaddle.

13

maidhc 09.20.11 at 9:51 am

I remember years ago watching these films about anthropology in college. In fact, thanks to the local community college broadcasting them in the wee hours, I may even have copies of them on video tape, if my VCR is still working…

A tribe in New Guinea decides to go to war, so they put on their best feather headdresses and send a challenge to the tribe next door. They agree to meet at a certain place and throw spears at each other until the first blood is drawn.

I imagine most people who have studied anthropology must have seen that series of films at some time.

Now I’m starting to think … those tribes in New Guinea … maybe they are smarter than we are … When it comes to politics, they get right down to business first thing.

And here I am without a yam garden to my name! When the big collapse comes, I am so screwed…

14

Roger 09.20.11 at 9:57 am

It is interesting that the moderate NYT style pundits all seem to believe that the conservatives don’t believe what they say – that they are somehow pandering. This is interesting. Supposedly, one of the great sources of modern American liberalism is cultural relativism – that is, the notion that separate cultures have separate ways of making sense of themselves and the world that are not aligned, linearly, from the Stone Age to Modern European man, but are complex and arrangements with their own histories, technologies, ways of life, etc. Yet, confronting conservative culture, liberals do somehow believe that really, conservatives – or at least their leaders – fall into Holbo’s (2). And thus, liberals come up with What’s the Matter with Kansas stories about why this is true. Conservative politicians, in this view, pander to cultural ‘prejudices’ to benefit themselves and their business patrons, but don’t believe it for a minute.
I find this puzzling on all levels. It seems to me that the liberal heuristic is naive to the point of inanity. Not only are cultural values real values (and not something you trade in for more money – so that Hillbilly Bob should just let his second amendment beliefs go for more cash, a stance which is offensive and puzzling – is a liberal willing to trash gay rights if he can make an extra five hundred dollars per year doing so?), but the mix of cultural and economic interests is not at all badly served by conservative politicians. The rightwing politico who blusters against Social Security is really not a threat to social security – there is more than enough political opposition to torpedo privatizing S.S., as the voters in Kansas know – but that bluster leads to political swaps in which taxes are cut, which is what the people of Kansas, after all, want. There’s no downside to both paying lower taxes and getting farm supports, medicare, s.s. and all the rest. This simple principle seems mysteriously to elude liberals, who can only imagine raising taxes on the wealthy if it is to serve some higher virtuous purpose like shared sacrifice, or lowering the deficit, or something – it never seems to occur to them that it might be used simply to lower taxes on the rest. In fact, the income tax was originally conceived to tax the wealthy class – this was the original Edgeworthian liberal idea. And so liberals continually lose because Kansans see, justly, that if the libs want to extend the social welfare net, for instance, the people who will pay disproportionately for it will be the median income group – because the liberals will never, ever go back to the simple Edgeworthian principle of making the wealthy the tax paying class. Perhaps nothing has been as damaging to the ‘liberal’ project as the inability of the Dems to raise taxes on the wealthy, most recently in the extension of the Bush tax cuts. It was a sign that, when it comes down to it, the liberal project will come out of the pockets of the middle class, and not the rich. In other words, there is plenty of downside for the Kansan, who can well ask: what’s the matter with San Francisco?

15

Phil 09.20.11 at 10:25 am

the liberals will never, ever go back to the simple Edgeworthian principle of making the wealthy the tax paying class

Seems to me the current administration has taken an enormous amount of stick for precisely that – see the “x% of Americans pay no tax at all” meme.

nothing has been as damaging to the ‘liberal’ project as the inability of the Dems to raise taxes on the wealthy

Which is why all Dem-sympathising independents are cheering on the Buffet tax, I guess.

Thou trollest, sirrah.

16

Nick 09.20.11 at 10:32 am

I think there is a more obvious assymetry, at least in America, between ‘government to be as inconsequential as possible’ and ‘government must control everyone’s lives, down to the last, least detail.’ One sounds kinda nice but laughably naive and idealistic, especially coming from a policitician. Whereas the other sounds genuinely repugnant, even to modern liberals. This reminds me of a previous Crooked Timber discussion:

http://crookedtimber.org/2009/12/22/i-dont-mind-who-writes-the-laws-of-the-future-if-i-can-write-and-sing-the-theme-tune/

When we are looking at these sort of phrases, we aren’t thinking in terms of policy or even beliefs. We are thinking in terms of ‘mood music’. Perry is playing a couple of chords from Thoreau and plenty of people still like that, even if it means nothing practically at all. Red Flag-style mood music, by contrast, just doesn’t fly at all in most of the US and is pretty divisive elsewhere.

17

Andrew F. 09.20.11 at 10:40 am

He so obviously isn’t an anarchist that it’s obviously a losing rhetorical strategy to paint him as an anarchist. Nevertheless, he did, literally, advocate anarchism, at the level of philosophical principle.

But John, even on a literal interpretation, Perry didn’t advocate anarchism. The problem is your framework, not an American willingness to tolerate dissonance between a Republican’s statements of principle and his policies.

You’re interpreting his promise “to make government as inconsequential as possible” within the framework of political philosophy. But that’s not the context of the speech. “As possible” here does not mean logical possibility, but rather a much more vague “as possible given the basic assumptions and beliefs of most Americans as to the minimum levels and types of order, opportunity, fairness, and livelihood.”

You might argue that “as possible” does mean, literally, logical possibility, but in fact we rarely use “possible” to mean “logically possible” in everyday speech. “Please do this as quickly as possible” has never implied, to me anyway, “do this as quickly as it might be done ignoring all other assumptions of priority, value, and perhaps the physical laws of the universe.” “Get here as quickly as possible” does not mean “run over pedestrians and steal a private jet if you can save a few minutes by doing so.”

The contradiction you perceive between Perry’s statement and what we believe his policy preferences to be is resolved once one takes the notion of political vocabulary, and the context of political speeches, seriously.

18

Roger 09.20.11 at 10:43 am

Phil, you must have missed the part where the Buffet tax is offset against cuts to entitlements.

In fact, you simply don’t engage with the argument at all, as witness your comment about the rightwing meme concerning those who ‘don’t pay taxes’. So far, I haven’t seen one liberal commentor say:and a good thing too! Or point out that the supposed rise in the percentage paid by the wealthy coincides with an enormous increase in their wealth, meaning that they could pay even more, to the benefit of the vast majority, who could pay even less. Name some liberal politico who has made this point and I’ll stand corrected. Otherwise, no.
It seems to you that there is no difference between a president who passively opposes the bush cuts when it was within his power to make sure they were not extended – something of course he, in the end, ‘caved’ on – and a president who has no chance of getting a bill passed by a congress that is now hostile to him asking for raises on the taxes of millionaires.
So no – it isn’t me that is trolling. Alas, it is President Obama.

19

Cian 09.20.11 at 10:43 am

Seems to me the current administration has taken an enormous amount of stick for precisely that – see the “x% of Americans pay no tax at all” meme.

Actually you could argue that this is a Democrat politician not meaning what he will say. Obama has a tax plan, which says the rich should pay more tax. Its not going to pass, and anyone who pays attention to these things knows what and presumably that’s what he’ll tell his funders. However, Democrat voters (and this is the calculation) will think that he tried, but he was stopped by those mean Republicans.

I’m not sure the same thing isn’t going on with Rick Perry. When Rick Perry talks in minarchist terms, I suspect a fair number of those who support him believe him. Part of what is going on is that they just don’t think that deeply about these things (get the government’s hands of my medicare), and partly they do genuinely want a smaller government. Kind of. To the degree that they think about these things, which is not that much.

Now obviously sophisticated folks know he doesn’t mean it, but then its not aimed at the sophisticated.

20

Walt 09.20.11 at 10:58 am

Andrew, you’ve restated John’s question as an answer, and called it “political vocabulary”. Why is the gap between the Republican “political vocabulary” and reality so large?

21

SusanC 09.20.11 at 11:17 am

I think John identified a really interesting type of rhetoric: extreme statements that (a) the politician has no intention of actually carrying out; and (b) that his supporters don’t really want either.

This is quite different from renenging on promises, where the politician’s supporters really did want what he promised to do, and are disappointed when he gets elected but fails to deliver on what he promised to do.

It’s also distinct from people who say extreme/”crazy” things, and really intend to do them.

(I think I need a picture of Heath Ledger as The Joker, and a caption of “Not sure if serious” at this point).

It’s perhaps closer to the sort of threats that are made prior to a fight breaking out, where the rhetorical threats are more extreme that the participant’s likely actions. If someone says “I’ll [expletive deleted] kill you!” they are (probably) not about to actually commit murder, although some lesser violence is quite possible.

22

Cranky Observer 09.20.11 at 11:36 am

> It’s rather the case that Rick Perry is saying he wants something,
> philosophically, that is really nothing like what he wants in practice.

Assumes facts not in evidence.

If you were referring to the James Baker faction that once controlled the Republican Party from Kennebunkport, perhaps, but that’s not the situation today.

Cranky

23

Cranky Observer 09.20.11 at 11:44 am

> Now obviously sophisticated folks know he doesn’t mean it, but
> then its not aimed at the sophisticated.

I’m genuinely a bit staggered by appearance of arguments of this form here at CT. Do any of you live in, or perhaps have family members who are teachers or other government employees [1] in, Wisconsin, Michigan, or Kansas? Are you aware of what is happening in those states? What evidence do you have that a President Perry, backed by a radicalized House, wouldn’t try to implement a Scott Walker program nationally? Do you really think that Republicans, should they control the Senate, would honor Democratic holds and filibusters?

Cranky

[1] or young women who prefer to control their own bodies

24

Salient 09.20.11 at 12:47 pm

Why is the gap between the Republican “political vocabulary” and reality so large?

Because their language use is emotive, rather than descriptive.

Which is also why attempting to put ao’s suggestion into practice just makes one look like an asshole. Treating emotional language as if it is descriptive is the kind of thing deeply uncaring people do. A person who sets out to neglect the emotional content of a speech act in order to address its factual content is not going to become well-liked or supported, even if they’re factually in the right.

Responding to a teenager’s “dear God I swear I just want my mom to die, my life would be perfect without her” with a list of reasons why that person’s statement is absurd and can’t possible be factually true will not win you any supporters; it just causes witnesses to sympathize with the teenager and get upset at you for being hurtful.

(This is why Glenn Beck and John Boehner are on TV crying so frequently.)

25

Salient 09.20.11 at 12:58 pm

Oh, and I should trace back to my earlier point about how Republican policy is crazy precisely because Republicans have confused emotive statements with descriptive statements, meaning they literally attempt to put into office exactly those politicians, and put into practice exactly those policies, which would make them feel better.

When a whole group of people start confusing the content of “I would feel emotionally satisfied if this were true” with the content of “this, when true, will produce the following concrete benefits X, Y, Z,” you get crap like “Let’s build a wall between us and Mexico! F#$% yeah!”

26

Mauricio Maluff 09.20.11 at 1:00 pm

I see this as a remnant of Cold War era rhetoric mixed with the exaggeration bidding strategy. Extreme left positions of all kinds were demonised in the US for a pretty long time, so Democrats are not allowed to use Marxist or anarcho-communist slogans and still get elected to any kind of office. On the other hand, only statist extreme right wing positions (fascism) were demonised in the US, so although Republicans can’t go around citing Hitler, Rothbard inspired extreme right wing rhetoric is fair game. This gives them a bidding advantage, and I think they recognise this (I believe the realisation came around the Reagan era). They’re allowed to go as far right as they want, and claim that something between that and the centre is ‘compromise’. In the meantime, Democrats are confined to the centre-left, so the argument is constantly shifting towards the right. I wonder if there’s a way out of it?

27

Cian 09.20.11 at 1:14 pm

What evidence do you have that a President Perry, backed by a radicalized House, wouldn’t try to implement a Scott Walker program nationally?

But that’s not getting rid of government, is it. He’s still keeping prisons, police, courts and the army.

28

Cian 09.20.11 at 1:16 pm

and for that matter, I imagine the schools in upper middle class districts will be fine. The roads will still be maintained in the nice areas. Its not getting rid of government, its focusing government on the things we think are important.

29

Liam Murray 09.20.11 at 2:07 pm

Nick (16) and Andrew F (17) make the key point here. There is absolutely no symmetry at all between Perry’s pledge to make ‘government as inconsequential as possible’ and your fictional liberal call for ‘government to control everyone’s lives, down to the last, least detail’.

You can apply reasonable context and qualifications to the former that don’t diminish the pledge in anyway but simply explain it more fully; the same can’t be said for your second example.

30

Rob in CT 09.20.11 at 2:09 pm

Because their language use is emotive, rather than descriptive.

Which is also why attempting to put ao’s suggestion into practice just makes one look like an asshole. Treating emotional language as if it is descriptive is the kind of thing deeply uncaring people do.

Apparently I’m deeply uncaring. I will now sit in the corner and hate myself like a good liberal. ;)

Ok, let us assume you are correct about this. The right response to emotive language, then, is more emotive language?

So “the government should stay out of my life!” should not be met with “what, precisely, do you mean and how would that work?” but rather something emotive… like what, exactly? I see Dem pols appeal to emotion frequently – mostly in response to GOP plans to slash this or that social service. There was plenty of emotive rhertoric about uninsured people when the ACA was being put together.

Is it your position that the Left needs more emotive rhetoric? Better emotive rhetoric (example?)?

31

Rob in CT 09.20.11 at 2:11 pm

Gah, more of that should’ve been italicized. Not enough caffeine, sorry.

32

someguy 09.20.11 at 2:18 pm

What Andrew F. said.

Very obviously -> some = as possible. How could you miss that?

But I also agree with a lot of what Salient has said. So, maybe, that is why you missed it.

33

phosphorious 09.20.11 at 2:36 pm

But that’s not the context of the speech. “As possible” here does not mean logical possibility, but rather a much more vague “as possible given the basic assumptions and beliefs of most Americans as to the minimum levels and types of order, opportunity, fairness, and livelihood.”

But what exactly are those “basic assumptions?” It’s a constantly moving goalposts. Some conservatives really are anarchists, and would do away with everything; others would abolish the federal government and make the states infallible. And there are a million variations on the theme of “smallest possible government.”

In other words, I don’t think JH is being uncharitable in his interpretation of Perry’s remarks. Anarchism is a reasonable characterization, as reasonable as any other. This is the problem: conservatives say the craziest damn things you’ve ever heard, and then rely on interpreters to make the case for their sanity.

Which for some reason everybody is willing to do.

34

Rob in CT 09.20.11 at 2:42 pm

Yeah, you cannot actually assume the “basic assumptions” because there is no broad agreement on what they are. There may have once been, but I don’t see one now.

35

bianca steele 09.20.11 at 2:43 pm

If it’s true not just that ideas have consequences but that ideas have implications

I think pretty much everybody believes ideas have implications. The question is who is to be master. So Perry probably has a consistent point of view, splitting the difference, combining the concepts, presto chango: practically no government but not anarchy because [well, I’m not going to guess as to the beliefs of someone whose ideas and politics I abhor, it would be doing him such a huge favor].

I know you go on to say more about it–another interesting post–but I think lots of conservatives would be very insulted if you told them they don’t believe ideas have implications, or suggested they couldn’t draw conclusions from facts.

36

Salient 09.20.11 at 3:06 pm

Apparently I’m deeply uncaring.

What’s especially frustrating about this is, we attempt to engage on a descriptive level precisely because we are caring, because we care about making life better and more flourishing for people generally, not just ourselves or our lefty tribe. It’s such a paradox.

Basically we’re fucked because conservatism is the assignment of emotional and moral value to social behaviors that benefit the individual at the expense of society. How to ‘get ahead’ is celebrated as a de facto good. That kind of upending is accomplished through assignment of emotive force to descriptive statements that would otherwise be manifestly monstrous. (Example: that right-wing crowd that chanted “let him die” in response to the Republican candidates’ debate question of whether a father who had forgone health insurance should be able to receive treatment at society’s expense for a medical emergency that his family cannot afford.)

The right response to emotive language, then, is more emotive language?

Oh god, I have no idea how to solve the problem, or even if it’s currently tractable. Emotive, evocative language from the left would probably be met with hostility and derision. I wish there was an easy way forward.

Had you asked me in 2007, I’d have enthusiastically said, yeah! And in 2008 I mistakenly thought that we’d made serious progress in that direction. Obama’s campaign was about as emotive as it’s possible for a campaign to be (HOPE bumper stickers are the pithy epitome of emotional support). And it seemed like … like it was working. And for a while it sort of did. Like everyone else, I was anticipating conservatives would double down on snarly intransigence in response, but wasn’t expecting it to be so damned effective. The right in the U.S. spent a couple generations fomenting this state of affairs (an assessment of the extent to which this was intentional could plausibly range from conspiratorial or serendipitous depending on how loosely one defines ‘the right’), fixing it might take generations, and I’m not at all sure of how to best get started. (See also Glen Tomkins’ recent posts hereabouts, #3, 24, 40, 49, etc, they seem relevant here)

37

Salient 09.20.11 at 3:09 pm

Edit — the word ‘descriptive’ in assignment of emotive force to descriptive statements should be ‘normative’

38

SusanC 09.20.11 at 3:10 pm

The counterpart on the left might be revolutionary rhetoric.

It’s seems reasonably clear that neither the US nor the UK will have a revolution in the imediate future

39

Uncle Kvetch 09.20.11 at 3:14 pm

But that’s not getting rid of government, is it. He’s still keeping prisons, police, courts and the army.

“Government,” in this context, means two things, and only two things: “taking money from hard-working, decent people and giving it to undeserving layabouts” and “passing all kinds of stupid, pointless rules and regulations that serve no purpose other than to give bureaucrats jobs.” This has been the case at least since Reagan. It very explicitly excludes the military, law enforcement, immigration enforcement, agricultural subsidies, and corporate welfare.

Social Security, Medicare, and infrastructure were also excluded from the dog-whistle definition of “government” until recently, although that may be changing as the Overton window continues its inexorable rightward shift.

Because their language use is emotive, rather than descriptive.

Bingo.

It’s basic Humpty Dumpty semantics: the word means what we want it to mean, no more, no less. It seems to me that we’re wildly overthinking this.

40

Cian 09.20.11 at 3:22 pm

#39 Quite. Its a code, and everyone knows what the code means. Its an effective code, because it gets the base riled up. The problem isn’t that the right get away with this, its that the left have forgotten how to do propaganda. See the left neoliberalism post from a while back.

41

SusanC 09.20.11 at 3:25 pm

… sorry, that got accidentally posted before I finished.

The counterpart on the left might be revolutionary rhetoric.

It’s seems reasonably clear that neither the US nor the UK will have a revolution in the immediate future. (Other countries, like Egypt, might be different). So when a UK or US activist is using revolutionary slogans about domestic politics, they are often not seriously planning immediate violent overthrow of the government. It’s just the kind of thing you say to establish your leftish credentials.

(Of course, there is a certain amount of Direct Action by self-described Anarchists. But the hallmark of this is that they keep quiet about specific plans for reasons of operational security. If some anarchist is telling me about it, it’s a pretty sure sign they have absolutely no intention of actually doing it).

“Come the revolution, these people will be shot” is the kind of thing you just say. (If they were actually planning to assasinate a politician, they wouldn’t be talking about it).

Neither the US Democrats nor the UK Labour party are revolutionary parties, of course. You need to go a little further left that the mainstream.

Other possible examples: The wearing of Guy Fawkes masks. This is an allusion to the origanl Guy Fawkes’s ateempt at blowing up the houses of parliment, via Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta”, via 4chan/Anonymous… Clearly humourous, and purely rhetorical. They people are not about to emulate the original Guy Fawkes, or Alan Moore’s characters.

Another example: The respected/notorious hacker group Chaos Computer Club’s logo is a joke on the logo of the Red Army Faction (Bader-Meinhof). Again, largely rhetorical.

42

Aulus Gellius 09.20.11 at 3:27 pm

Maybe something like the following:
The question of what Perry “really believes” is kind of moot, from a voter’s point of view, because no one seriously expects him to be able to reduce government to nothing. So in practice, people who want the government* reduced just a bit across the board and people who want it reduced to almost nothing are on the same side — they both want to move things in the same direction. So a member of the first group isn’t worried about the second group until politics gets moved past the first groups goals, and that seems a reasonably long way off. Whereas both groups are worried about politicians who might not go far enough, or might leave some aspects of government* untouched. Perry makes the extreme claims to guarantee that he can be held to them as far as can be expected — which is to say, if there’s a limit to his right-wingness**, it is beyond what is plausibly achievable by a president; nobody cares how far beyond.

The Democrats, OTOH, are dealing with a significant chunk of voters who not only don’t have extreme left-wing beliefs, but are worried, in practice, that American politics actually will get farther left than they want it to, at least in some areas. So Democrats do have to promise that they won’t, e.g., raise taxes on the middle class, because there are potential Democratic voters who (a) don’t want them to, and (b) are afraid that they really will. Whereas potential Republican voters might not want Perry to abolish Social Security, but they’re not worried, because they don’t think he’ll be able to anyway (whereas if he said he wanted to keep Social Security, that would increase the risk that he might increase it, or raise taxes to fund it, or whatever).
Of course the effect isn’t total, and there probably are some costs to Perry et al. among people who think he really will cut a little too deeply for their taste. But these are outnumbered (he thinks, anyway), by the people determined to exact a guarantee that he won’t chicken out before going as far as they want him too.

*not including the violent parts of the government, of course. This detail is left out to sound more philosophically coherent.

**and again, “small government” is basically accepted code for “right-wingness.”

43

Barry 09.20.11 at 4:04 pm

John Holbo: “Two weeks ago I made a post that was as comprehensively misunderstood, relative to my intent, as anything I have written in quite a while. So let me try again. I meant to assert the following:”

When a large proportion (majority?) your intended audience infers a different meaning that you meant, perhaps your writing was at fault.

44

Barry 09.20.11 at 4:10 pm

09.20.11 at 1:14 pm

” What evidence do you have that a President Perry, backed by a radicalized House, wouldn’t try to implement a Scott Walker program nationally?”

Cian: ” But that’s not getting rid of government, is it. He’s still keeping prisons, police, courts and the army.”

You forgot programs to shovel large amounts of money at the rich, but this is still a far smaller government than we have now in the USA.

45

bianca steele 09.20.11 at 4:51 pm

There is also the possibility that it serves the interests of “centrists” who think they would like to see a Republican in office now to mollify the business-oriented, libertarian-leaning center, or “independents,” of both parties, in advance–assuring them that they don’t have anything to worry about. When Weld was elected governor of Massachusetts “everyone” said that he was socially liberal and his personal beliefs would trump party extremists, which didn’t exactly turn out to be the case. So maybe Perry is seen as having pro-business, pro-economy policies by that kind of person, and the only thing that would bother them is obviously ludicrous personal beliefs. It worked out pretty well with GWB, didn’t it?

46

js. 09.20.11 at 5:00 pm

Andrew F. in 17 pretty much provides the answer, no? Not sure how this is a case of “restating the question”.

cheers,
js.

47

Bruce Wilder 09.20.11 at 6:07 pm

I have really appreciated the remarks, regarding “emotive” language. People really do like to hear a lot of stuff said, which is not literally true, but which makes them feel good. Anyone, who gives speeches, knows the importance of doing this: you tell the audience that they are the best audience ever, etc. Coaches tell sports teams all kinds of inspiring things, which are literally false, if not downright ridiculous. If you were present, when a companion had an accident, you’d be well-advised to tell your companion that she was “lucky” that it wasn’t worse. Taken literally, it is a ridiculous assertion. But, it rebuilds the person’s healthy narcissism. Think of it as talking to the brainstem.

Darwinian evolution is sometimes held up as an issue, on which Republican politicians are willing to say that they believe things that they don’t. For those in the audience, who promote and defend “creationism”, I don’t think they care at all about the literal biology. They are demanding that their religious narcissism be defended.

48

Bruce Wilder 09.20.11 at 6:24 pm

When Ron Paul was asked that question by Wolf Blitzer about the hypothetical uninsured 30-year-old needing 6 months of medical care, his response was not, as many liberals mis-reported, either that the man should be left to die, or that society should take no responsibility. He recalled that, before Medicaid was enacted, the “churches” took care of such cases — he cited a Catholic hospital in San Antonio, where he claimed to have practiced as a young doctor.

He did not entirely ignore the issue of today’s much higher prices and costs of medical care, but he attributed those high costs to government intervention. And, contra Salient @36, Ron Paul went on to use emotive language, to celebrate both responsibility for self, and society caring for its own (through voluntary and religious organization, by implication).

Now, Ron Paul is exceptional among Republicans in actually having an elaborate and formal philosophy of politics and economics. It is, in its details, fully as crazy as the anarchist philosophy counterfactually projected onto Perry in the post.

Tribalism, though, leads Democrats to exaggerate and misperceive the “radicalism”.

49

Keith 09.20.11 at 6:56 pm

The problem is that Perry’s statement, “to make government as inconsequential as possible” is not a manifestation of political philosophy but a code phrase marking tribal identity. “Smaller Government” has been a tribal marker for the GOP for the last 40 years. We can debate all day long what this code signifies in the existential world, but the point is irrelevant. All he’s saying is “I’m one of the good guys, trust me.”

There is however an interesting sociological phenomenon at play here: the flavor of the GOP’s code phrasing bends towards extremism in almost all cases. The GOP has harnessed the basest impulses of Americans (xenophobia, blood lust, hierarchical power structures, greed, machismo) and rides it to political victory again and again. They will continue to do so, at the expense of good policy, open debate and social grace because they have no incentive not to. The Democrats continue to flog away with reasoned discourse and fail to raise in any of the voters the same passions and so appear week.

50

Kaveh 09.20.11 at 7:03 pm

Salient @24 and AndrewF @17, along with the different uses of emotive vs descriptive language, I think there’s another, related difference, which is that the right promotes and/or lionizes the person and the personality, rather than the policies. The emotive language and absurd propositions signal that the candidate is a certain kind of person, and I suspect that conservatives define policies in terms of what type of person supports them, rather than defining a good person/candidate as one who supports certain policies and believes in certain ideas.

The reason that this doesn’t result in campaigns that consist mainly of stories about chopping down cherry trees is that, in the political field, “character” is defined in more political terms than it would be otherwise. The world is a big battle between Good and Evil, and the goal is to convince people you’re a more devout representative of the Good (conservative) side. There are some policy implications for that (like the whole thing about Perry and gardasil in the debate). So there is the kind of slippage between emotive language and policy that Salient mentioned above (“build a wall…”).

Liberals don’t usually function this way, but when we do, it can be pretty effective–look at how Bush was taken down in his second term. The Democrats could have elected just about anybody in 2008. The Obama campaign capitalized on the same type of rhetoric–emotive language and selling the person. The reason that didn’t result in big liberal successes over the last 3 years is partly that the rest of the party wasn’t in the same place–and maybe liberals in general are conflicted about whether it’s okay to be so emotive–and partly that Obama turn immediately to the right what with the economic team he appointed, so there were plenty of things for his own side to fight each other over from the beginning.

But I think the larger issue within the left is that the cultural turn in the humanities in academia hasn’t resulted in a kind of “Newtonian”-type revolution in popular consciousness. The upsurge in left-ish islamophobia starting around 2003 shows a lot of signs of this simplistic thinking. A lot of people who are basically liberal in outlook seem to operate under the naive belief that people use language in a very literal way, and follow explicit and easily-intelligible scripts. While it’s true that often people do simply mean what they say, it doesn’t deal with the question of under what conditions people pick up a certain set of ideological statements. If some Muslims in the Netherlands and Egypt and Afghanistan are violently upset over cartoons of Muhammad, it couldn’t possibly be about (neo-)colonialism, because the Netherlands isn’t currently a (neo-)imperial power. It must simply be that they think this way because their religion tells them that, so they believe it. Of course a certain type of devoutness, and certain Islamic beliefs, are a necessary condition for these episodes, but the framework in which these people compare them to other episodes is extremely shoddy and selective.

51

phosphorious 09.20.11 at 7:26 pm

Tribalism, though, leads Democrats to exaggerate and misperceive the “radicalism”.

So the problem is democratic tribalism?

:-|

52

Rob in CT 09.20.11 at 7:27 pm

Bruce,

It seems to me that most of the lefty reaction to the Ron Paul health insurance question was not about Ron Paul’s actual answer (though there are issues one can raise w/that too), but rather with the audience reaction/contribution.

53

bianca steele 09.20.11 at 7:48 pm

It was unclear to me whether “churches used to take care of them” meant “churches used to run hospitals for free” or “churches used to make sure they were prudent and saved for a rainy day.

54

bianca steele 09.20.11 at 7:49 pm

Either way, it’s perfectly logical that, having read a book on what churches used to do, we should have faith that they will do the same tomorrow.

55

OCS 09.20.11 at 7:51 pm

@48, 52
I agree, a lot of the liberal reaction was to the audience shouting to let the man die.

But I will point out that Paul’s answer was a bit incoherent. He suggested that the uninsured person take personal responsibility, that freedom was about taking your own risks. When Blitzer pressed him whether the man should be allowed to die he backtracked and said, of course not, churches should step in and help him, and if we went back to letting churches do it health care would be a lot cheaper. Also, we shouldn’t license doctors (at least that what he seemed to imply), and we shouldn’t have inflation.

So he began with a statement of principle — take your own risks and suffer the consequences. Then he backtracked to an argument of mere utility — it would be cheaper for churches to insulate us against the risk of our own choices, rather than government. Then he meandered off into non sequiturs.

On second thought, I suppose there was a statement of principle buried in his wording. When we rely on churches and private charities, that’s an example of us “taking care of ourselves.” But when we provide the same sort of support through government we’ve somehow absolved ourselves of responsibility.

56

steve 09.20.11 at 8:00 pm

I think Republicans are currently making these kinds of extreme statements and Democrats are not simply because the extreme min-archist wing of the Republican party is actually in ascendance. Not dominate mind you but rising. These politicians are simply attempting to co-opt the min-archists from those politicians who do mean these extreme statememts (Ron Paul).

Should a democratic politician obtain a primary showing of %10 calling for outright socialism (the nationalisation of industry), then I expect mainstream Democrats would sharpen their rhetoric in response without any intention of following through. I suspect that during other periods of American history you will find that this was true.

57

Henri Vieuxtemps 09.20.11 at 8:16 pm

Should a democratic politician obtain a primary showing of %10 calling for outright socialism (the nationalisation of industry), then I expect mainstream Democrats would sharpen their rhetoric in response without any intention of following through.

How could this happen when the Democrats agree that ‘socialism’ is a dirty word, and nationalization of industry is simply outside of acceptable discourse?

To foster popular participation one has to practice populist politics. Republicans do it, Democrats don’t. They are simply afraid that their (hypothetical) populist proclamations would be taken seriously and endanger their sponsors, Wall Street speculators. Republican populist excesses don’t endanger their sponsors, they have nothing to worry about.

58

casino implosion 09.20.11 at 9:20 pm

Perry is simply speaking in code. The intended audience understands perfectly well that the government he’d like to do away with is that part of the real government which works to the advantage of poor folks and minorities. It’s not kosher in the USA to blatantly come out and say “No more tax money for the lazy n—–s”. One has to speak in the language of the national myth.

59

Matt McIrvin 09.20.11 at 10:34 pm

@SusanC: I think the usefulness of that tactic was preempted by the general freaking out about terrorists post-2001. Revolutionary = terrorist in the American imagination (going all the way back to Haymarket), and nobody wants to be associated with anything that might be construed as sympathy to terrorism.

60

Salient 09.20.11 at 10:37 pm

the right promotes and/or lionizes the person and the personality, rather than the policies. The emotive language and absurd propositions signal that the candidate is a certain kind of person,

Indeed, and we can specify the certain kind of person: Those who have proven themselves adept at navigating the social/economic infrastructure are morally superior to those who have not; the former are persons to be lionized. (The / there is not quite an equals sign; ‘social conservatives’ preoccupy themselves with one’s success within a particular social infrastructure, ‘fiscal conservatives’ with one’s success with an economic infrastructure).

When Ron Paul was asked that question by Wolf Blitzer about the hypothetical uninsured 30-year-old needing 6 months of medical care, his response was not, as many liberals mis-reported, either that the man should be left to die

Just to be clear and explicitly nonmisrepresentative, members of the audience cheered “yes! yeah!” and applauded when Wolf Blitzer asked, “should society just let him die?”

Ron Paul went on to use emotive language, to celebrate both responsibility for self,

Indeed, that is exactly the horrible thing that I said Republicans do, yes. They praise as morally superior those individuals who navigate the existing social infrastructure most adeptly (as measured by wealth, class status, etc).

and society caring for its own

I’d say no, Ron Paul rejects the principle that we should construct and maintain the social infrastructure through which society may take care of its own.

Society providing for its own and caring for its own is what governance is, or at least, what governance is supposed to be. Society caring for its own is necessarily nonvoluntary (except by some vaguely-defined general consent of the governed).

Of course the feel of it is different. One gets to feel judicious. Generous, even! …if one wishes to be generous, if one decides to be generous. Exerting control over other people’s lives feels nice (I guess — it would just make me feel anxious).

(through voluntary and religious organization, by implication).

Yeah, it’s pretty straightforwardly crazy to denounce mandating something that is essential for society to function while acknowledging it is essential for society to function and encouraging people to do it voluntarily. It’s even crazier to assert that enough people will voluntarily contribute enough resources to charity to make up for the loss of withdrawn public investment — “We’ll pitch in more if you make us pitch in less” is the tipmost height of illogic.

And “individuals in need of social provision not otherwise provided should seek out charity” + unchecked wealth accretion = “be subject to the caprice of we the resource-controllers, Job Creators, and thereby be beholden to us!” Which is, really, the funnest part about being a wingnut conservative: the feeling of power one may derive from asserting judgment and exercising control.

(My favorite response is to suggest, ok, let’s apply the same logic to thievery: nobody should be forced to pay for property protection, especially not other people‘s property protection, we can all assume the risk individually, right?)

61

Red 09.21.11 at 1:10 am

Since this is basically a discussion about whether Republicans are incoherent nuts or actually very shrewd populists, I am not sure pointing out that Ron Paul is both will help us, but on the particular issue of Blitzer’s question and his answer: Paul does argue that healthcare in America will be just fine as long as people take personal responsible and the government keeps its dirty hands out of it, which is coherent, shrewd, populist, and nuts.

62

Witt 09.21.11 at 2:23 am

Salient is making a lot of sense in this thread.

The question of what Perry “really believes” is kind of moot, from a voter’s point of view, because no one seriously expects him to be able to reduce government to nothing. So in practice, people who want the government* reduced just a bit across the board and people who want it reduced to almost nothing are on the same side—they both want to move things in the same direction. So a member of the first group isn’t worried about the second group until politics gets moved past the first groups goals, and that seems a reasonably long way off.

I think this used to be a more accurate depiction of the phenomenon than it is now.

In the last 10 years, and especially the last 3 years, we’ve moved to a world in which a Republican politician may say something which other leading Republicans take to be established name-checking and dogwhistling.

But junior politicians, Tea Party folks, and fundamentalists not only take it seriously, their embrace of it and escalation of the rhetoric and actions then push him (or her) farther than he may originally have meant to go.

In the old world, the message was one-to-many. In this world, the message flows two ways. In some ways Republicans seem to be more successfully riding this tidal wave than Democrats, but I think in a lot of ways Republican leaders themselves are kind of blown away when their audience takes symbolic claims literally.

We can (and should) still hold them responsible for enthusiastically seizing upon the most extreme and hurtful language and ideas of their base, and for building on them, but I think it’s much more an audience-escalated phenomenon than it has been before.

(Jay Rosen says ‘the people formerly known as the audience,’ which I think is a good frame)

63

Glen Tomkins 09.21.11 at 2:29 am

Like the Third Republic

Of course it’s beneath Americans to imagine that the experience of any damn furriners could have anything instructive to tell us about gummint, our specialite de la maison, and to look to the French for such an example is really de trop. But at the risk of being treated real ugly were I ever to visit Texas (as ugly as the English language is treated there on a regular basis), I propose to do just that, solve our paradox by the appeal to the example of the Third Republic.

For most of its 70 years, large numbers of French politicians would regularly be elected to seats in the legislature of a Republic which they very publicly was not a legitimate government. They thought that France was by nature and right a monarchy, and/or subject to closer direction by the Church than the secularist Republic was compatible with. They were even arguably, at least at times, a majority of the electorate and the Deputies. But there were three main different flavors of monarchist, which either prevented them from ever forming an effective majority, or perhaps they divided themselves up into such factions in the instinctive recoil from ever having to actually carry out the quite unrealistic plan of returning any flavor of monarch to power. It’s sort of like the dog who becomes absolutely furious at the trash truck as it speeds away, but is careful to give chase only after it has a sufficient lead, because even a dumb dog knows the worst possible outcome would be to catch up to the thing and have the hollowness of its bloodthirsty intent to destroy the behemoth shown up.

Our own dear Rs are not quite in the same position as the monarchists of the Third Republic. Most of them have always talked as if every function the government has added since the New Deal (except Defense!), and all new jurisprudence since then as well, especially the “judicial activism” that overturned Jim Crow — are clearly unconsritutional and illegitimate. But they’ve been president or in control of one or both legislative chambers often since the New Deal, held “ministerial responsibility” as it would be put in a parliamentary system. In our system, unless you have a sustained control of the trifecta, you’re really just what would be called a caretaker government by most of the world. So they have gone along with not touching any third rails of the form of government put in place the last time the Ds had the trifecta and used it, but they were just biding their time until all was in place and ready for the nation to be led up from the slavery of the New Deal and Civil Rights. Well, that time has arrived. The federal courts are packed with Federalist Society stooges, and they have their cadre of governors out there testing the waters on nullification.

So, no, Perry isn’t a consistent anarchist. But he really is a consistent believer in states’ rights, including secession. He understands perfectly well that asserting the full monty of states’ rights — nullification, secession, the 10th trumping the Supremacy Clause — would probably involve at least the threat of the use of force. He believes that use of force against the federal government would be justified, both in general, and specifically as derived from the 2d and from Art IV, sec 4. He believes, correctly, that Madison and Jefferson agreed with him on nullification, even though that, at the end of the day, means that the conflict between the 10th and the Supremacy Clause gets resolved on the field of battle. That doesn’t make him an anarchist from an abstract philosophical view, because he believes that systematic defiance of government authority is only a right of states vis a vis the federal govt, or individuals and militias that have the approval of their states. This is a pretty limited and narrow “anarchism”, but given that he and everybody else in this country since 1865 has gotten used to having “government” mean to us the federal government and nothing more, the belief that it is as legal as church on Sunday to oppose the federal goverment with the force of arms (as long as your state gives its blessing!) sure feels a lot like anarchism. Frankly, I don’t much care about the difference between the ideologically consistent anarchism and what Perry is selling, because anarachy is what the man truly intends and will accomplish if elected.

I don’t find it at all remarkable that Rs “get away with” saying crazy things about the illegitimacy of the federal government in its present form and reach. It’s what most of them have said very consistently since the New Deal. The fact that political reality has forced them to act little different from Ds in their caretaker government roles doesn’t mean that they have ever given up on going back to a previous form of government some day, when conditions are right. What I find remarkable is the complacency with which we just know that they don’t really mean what they’ve said for these 80 years, that the Federalist Society doesn’t really want to overturn everything decided since FDR, that of course they aren’t serious about states’ rights. Of course they mean this stuff, and of course they plan to act on their beliefs. They’re not going to be stopped because we point out that they’ve spelled “gun” as “gub” on their robbery note, that they aren’t ideologically consistent anarchists, therfore they can’t overthrow the government until we show the note to the bank president and see if he discerns a gun rather than a gub.

We can hope this goes on like the Third Republic, that neither monarchy nor the Church is ever put back on a throne, that this dog never catches the trash truck, and the worst they ever do is bark themselves hoarse against the socialist tyrants and activist judges. I tend to doubt it. But however it turns out, whatever surprising and unforeseen turn reality takes, what is utterly unsurprising is that they continue to rail against the foundations of the system they live in, the system they thrive in. That’s what defines them. What I fear is that they aren’t going to repeat the mistake of their great-grandparents, who acted consistently with their beliefs, seceded, and left the levers of power in the Union to their enemies to use against them. They will instead nullify the federal government at their convenience, but stay in the Union in order to control the response. Unlike monarchy in France, states’ rights in the US is practicable.

64

bad Jim 09.21.11 at 5:16 am

Over at Slacktivist, Fred Clark has been mulling over the disconnect between evangelical rhetoric and sense for quite some time. “Abortion is murder”, they proclaim, but they don’t countenance indicting the women involved for homicide. People on the right routinely say things they obviously don’t believe, and about the only explanation that seems to make sense is that it’s emotionally satisfying.

There’s no point in trying to make sense of any of the inflammatory nonsense coming from the right. After all, their audience thinks we need to keep the government out of Medicare and admires a governor with the guts to execute an innocent man. They’re not intellectually serious.

65

Bruce Wilder 09.21.11 at 6:18 am

But, they’re politically serious.

66

Roger 09.21.11 at 7:56 am

I don’t agree with an assessment of the Republicans that begins with the premise that they are irrational, or emotional – a sort of reprise of colonial ethnography in which the tribes are always primitive and closer to nature than culture. This always made a nice opening for the colonial government to insert their own projects and plans and pay no attention to the tribes – after all, they had no interests of their own.

So, the Republican masses are just deceived primitives, following no strategy, having no sense of their real interest, filled simply with superstition and cruelty. No doubt they kill dogs in barbarous rituals late at night.

It is funny, then, that they seem almost civilized in their daily lives. Why, they even know how to drive complicated twentieth century machines and can perform primitive tasks, before returning to their shanties!

Myself, I’d say these descriptions are mighty emotivist themselves. The GOP, for instance, generally and successfully campaigned in 2010 not on abolishing S.S., but on reversing Obama’s cuts to medicare. And the primitives that responded – people who were retirees – seemed, astonishingly, to be voting for something that we can call “their own interest” in considering that the pig in the poke ACA they were being offered, kicking in in 2200 with a glorious universal care system for all, might not be as valuable as not receiving cuts in the midst of a great recession. Here’s the start of a Krugman column on February 11, 2010:
“Don’t cut Medicare. The reform bills passed by the House and Senate cut Medicare by approximately $500 billion. This is wrong.” So declared Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, in a recent op-ed article written with John Goodman, the president of the National Center for Policy Analysis.

And guess what? By some miracle, when you break down the demographic of Republican voters, you find that retirees – who one would suppose would be ever so grateful to FDR and LBJ for the social insurance net – vote against that party. I wonder if it is because that party, having grown enamored of its ‘rationality’ and centerism, takes it upon itself to be ‘adult’ and makes what Ezra Klein, in a recent, unconsciously scathing analysis of the Obama white house, calls the “tough” decisions. A whole book could be written about the rhetoric of toughness among 21st century presidents – Bush and Obama both use it to mean macho gestures sacrificing those with the least power to benefit those with the most, imagined to be somehow symbolically difficult for the most powerful.

Now, perhaps what a voter in the 50 + demographic that skews most heavily Republican hears when Perry says he wants to make government inconseequential is not a call to anarchy, but a call to the government to ‘keep its hands off my medicare” – in other words, stop the ‘innovative’ government of the Obama neo-libs, who find clever ways to ‘cut the fat’ in medicare and thus make government very consequential in everyday life indeed, as it subjects more people to more uncertainty, less support, and certainly less ability to plan for healthcare and retirement.

I imagine that with the mindset that the rubes are only halfwits who listen to charlatans like Perry because they are incurably uneducated, Dem activists are setting themselves up for another shellacking in 2012. The tribes, I think, do have interests. If the bien pensants keep to a level of analysis of the Republican party and its voters that is a caricature of negative images – even emotive negative images – they will pay a heavy price for their assumptions.

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Walt 09.21.11 at 11:13 am

Christ, Roger, that was the single most emotivist post on the thread.

I can’t imagine an empirical fact better established than the fact that the voters are dumb bastards. If you really think that the Republicans succeed in politics by thinking of the voters respectfully, then I encourage, nay beg you to become a highly-placed Republican operative.

68

Anon 09.21.11 at 11:53 am

Mustn’t We Say It When They Act Mean?

69

Roger 09.21.11 at 12:09 pm

Walt, I don’t even know what this means: “I can’t imagine an empirical fact better established than the fact that the voters are dumb bastards.’ I do know that it fits in with the Republican idea that we should limit voting privileges, and so I’d have to give you back your advice to me: you seem more aligned with Governor Scott Walker than, say, Martin Luther King Jr.
In fact, of course, there is no such empirical evidence because there could not be any. There’s no social science survey of any type, anywhere, that has shown this supposed ‘empirical’ fact. And if there was, the category of “dumb” would itself be so laced with dumbness that I imagine the surveyor would be hoist by his own petard.
Thanks, though, for noticing the emotion on my part. It is disgust with a conversation that is as conceptually dumb as the claim that “I can’t imagine an empirical fact better established than the fact that the voters are dumb bastards.” That has the true ring of a barroom truism.

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Barry 09.21.11 at 12:50 pm

Bruce Wilder @48:

” When Ron Paul was asked that question by Wolf Blitzer about the hypothetical uninsured 30-year-old needing 6 months of medical care, his response was not, as many liberals mis-reported, either that the man should be left to die, or that society should take no responsibility. He recalled that, before Medicaid was enacted, the “churches” took care of such cases—he cited a Catholic hospital in San Antonio, where he claimed to have practiced as a young doctor.”

Ever heard of Ron Paul’s chief fundraiser, and what happened to him?

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Walt 09.21.11 at 1:00 pm

Surveys show that a significant fraction of the American public is uninformed about basic facts about politics. For example, according to the most recent Pew survey, less than half the respondents knew who John Boehner is, and only 38% know which houses of Congress is controlled by the Republicans. And dumb bastardry cuts across all social classes — there was a survey (that I can’t find at the moment) that the more educated you were, the more likely you were to think that the deficit is the most severe economic problem.

Telling me that I’m aligned with Scott Walker instead of Martin Luther King is upping the emotiveness, though. Kudos to you.

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Salient 09.21.11 at 1:06 pm

I don’t agree with an assessment of the Republicans that begins with the premise that they are irrational, or emotional

There’s a huge difference between “making emotive statements / receptive to emotive statements” and “being emotional” in the sense of being hypersensitive or whatever.

So, the Republican masses are just deceived primitives, following no strategy, having no sense of their real interest, filled simply with superstition and cruelty.

A linguist would almost surely react to this characterization of emotive statements with genuine disgust.

A whole book could be written about the rhetoric of toughness among 21st century presidents – Bush and Obama both use it to mean macho gestures sacrificing those with the least power to benefit those with the most, imagined to be somehow symbolically difficult for the most powerful.

No argument here. I’d point out that Obama’s political success is very likely to be directly tied to his exceptional use of emotive language.

a call to the government to ‘keep its hands off my medicare” – in other words, stop the ‘innovative’ government of the Obama neo-libs, who find clever ways to ‘cut the fat’ in medicare and thus make government very consequential in everyday life indeed,

Right, this is exactly the frustration which that set of emotive statements conveys. What you describe is, on a factual level, completely distinct from what is being said. The statement is almost entirely divorced from its literal meaning, and the speech act only makes sense if we consider it an expression of frustration (specifically, frustration with how Obama has tinkered with the health care provision system).

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Walt 09.21.11 at 1:12 pm

And how could I forget? Apparently Americans (on average) think that 25% of the US government budget goes to foreign aid.

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Roger 09.21.11 at 1:15 pm

That is not showing dumbness, Walt. That is showing ignorance. And ignorance is easy to spot. When the Democratic candidate running for the Senate against Brown in 2009, Martha Coakley, when asked what the National Debt was, missed the amount by 10 trillion dollars. So did recent Democratic candidate Weprin in the New York 9th district. Big Deal. If you think Martha Coakley, the attorney General of Mass, is dumb, that’s your privilege. But I, on the contrary, think the standard you are using is dumb, has little to do with the tacit knowledge needed to vote or the interests that one sees in the result of votes (which is of course what my emotive comment was about), and still aligns you with Scott Walker and against MLK. That you have a reactionary position, here, which, if honestly pursued, would make you admit that you don’t believe in democracy is a matter of not being able to follow the logic of your position to its conclusion. I know that there’s a name for that! It has something to do with evaluating the intellect, and it is on the tip of my tongue….

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Walt 09.21.11 at 1:33 pm

No, your comment is about how you’re outraged, simply outraged that we’re saying mean things about the voters. Unlike Republican strategists, who I’m sure are saying behind closed doors, right now, “The voters are just so smart that we have to just rely on their tacit knowledge to do the right thing in the voting booth.” (Come to think of it, there must be at least one David Brooks column that claims exactly that.)

Voters don’t vote on tacit knowledge. They mostly habitually vote for somebody, unless they’re pissed off about something, and then they vote for the other guy.

You’ve completely confused yourself about the objective situation by your emotional commitments. My position may or may not be “reactionary”, as you call it, but it has the advantage of being true. But you’re too busy evaluating things on the Walker-King axis to know it. This is how we ended up being ruled by an oligarchy — the middle class forgets its self-interest, while the rich never do.

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Salient 09.21.11 at 1:39 pm

That is not showing dumbness, Walt. That is showing ignorance.

+1 to that, and the rest of that post, really.

Republican voters are mostly low-information voters. Democratic voters are mostly low-information voters. When a Republican politician makes an emotive statement, the median Democratic voter comprehends and feels sympathetic to the content of the statement, even if the factual/descriptive content of the statement is nonsense or false.

For whatever reason, the breadth of emotive statements with cultural salience align with, and encourage adherence to, a frame of reference that was introduced by Republican operatives and is particularly receptive to the Republican agenda. Everything from “support the troops” to “adult conversation” to “ye almighty Job Creators” to… I’m too tired to make a list.

Obama’s completely emotive “yes we can” stood out in part because it was so unusual for a Democrat to be willing to engage emotionally at the expense of making sense descriptively.

I am unjustifiably retaining the hope that folks like Elizabeth Warren and Chris Hayes can change that, and provide coherent alternative frames of reference through which a low-information voter can engage in politics through a framework receptive to social democracy.

Somehow ‘emotive’ became an adjective for ‘bad’ in this thread, though a better synonym might be ‘sympathetic’ or ‘emotionally in tune.’

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Walt 09.21.11 at 1:50 pm

Okay, ignorance then. They’re ignorant bastards. We regret the error.

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OCS 09.21.11 at 1:54 pm

Roger @66

I agree that “What a bunch of morons!” is rarely a useful political analysis. On the other hand, I’m surprised your example of voter rationality is +50s voting Republican because that’s the party most likely to protect Medicare. On the face of it, I’d say that’s a prime example of how emotive language (“Keep the government’s hands off my Medicare!”) can lead people to vote against their own interests, in this case for the party most committed to cutting social services, including Medicare and Social Security.

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Bruce Wilder 09.21.11 at 4:49 pm

Pervasive ignorance is a capital fact of American politics.

Politics, like any other activity, entails a high-degree of specialization. Most people have lives, and do not have time to spare to pay attention to politics. I suppose, ideally, an educated populace should have sufficient rudiments of knowledge — basic frameworks of institutional and philosophical knowledge — that they can in a few weeks before an election absorb the arguments about specific issues and candidates, pro and con.

Of course, to have any hope that that happens, there are many pre-requisites, including the preparatory civic education. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, must be answered, institutionally, by the careful division, and opposition, of power into process, as well as served, one would hope, by ideologies and idealism.

Political institutions are as subject to entropy as any organic system, and must find renewal in reproduction, or die out. One possible source for renewal are events that motivate the mass of people to pay a good deal more attention to politics than is normally healthy.

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engels 09.21.11 at 4:58 pm

In terms of the War on Terror, who do you think should be the next country to invade?

(Could have posted this in the ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ thread above…)

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geo 09.21.11 at 6:20 pm

Roger: “I can’t imagine an empirical fact better established than the fact that the voters are dumb bastards.’ I do know that it fits in with the Republican idea that we should limit voting privileges

The logic here:

1) Voters are dumb bastards;
2) Dumb bastards shouldn’t be allowed to vote;
3) We should limit voting privileges.

But there’s an alternative syllogism:

1) Everyone’s entitled to vote, since in a democracy everyone is entitled to a say in decisions that affect them;
2) Democracy won’t work well unless everyone with a vote know how to reason and to find necessary information;
3) Everyone should be taught to reason and find necessary information, preferably before leaving school, but if necessary afterwards, whatever it costs.

This allows one to believe that most voters are dumb bastards and still believe ardently in democracy. It also means, however, that one confront the fact that the ruling class doesn’t actually want democracy to work well, which is why education is so underfunded and mass culture so degraded.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 09.21.11 at 6:24 pm

On the face of it, I’d say that’s a prime example of how emotive language (“Keep the government’s hands off my Medicare!”) can lead people to vote against their own interests, in this case for the party most committed to cutting social services, including Medicare and Social Security.

For one thing, people outside big cities and near-city suburbs probably don’t have much use for federal social services. In any case, which party is not committed to cutting social services, including Medicare and Social Security? Which party does work for their interests? Who should they vote for?

At least with the Republicans in control they can hope to pay less taxes, and that’s something.

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AcademicLurker 09.21.11 at 6:28 pm

For one thing, people outside big cities and near-city suburbs probably don’t have much use for federal social services.

Right. Those farmers get absolutely nothing from the federal government…

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steve 09.21.11 at 6:39 pm

“Pervasive ignorance is a capital fact of American politics.”

I think it is less ignorance and more like rational disinterest. Rarely do politicians make good on more then a few of their dozens of campaing promises. Often, they lie and do the opposite. Looking at their past produces no more then a general idea of what they will do since most long time politicians have numerous flip-flops on the record.

In other words, why bother to examine things to closely it doesn’t help much anyway. Personally, I do examine the record, listen to the speeches, read the books, etc. I was personally convinced Obama would end the wars. I was wrong. Instead he started a third.

So much for informed voting. Hardly worth the bother.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 09.21.11 at 6:51 pm

Only 2% of the population are farmers. And what they get is money, not social services. and I don’t see why it would be stupid to vote for lower taxes and higher subsidies.

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OCS 09.21.11 at 7:01 pm

Henri @82

I was responding specifically to the argument that older voters made a reasoned decision that voting Republican was the best way to protect Medicare. I recognize that Obama is putting Medicare cuts on the table, unfortunately. But is there really any question about which party is most committed to cuts to social services, and is most likely to make the deepest cuts? I mean, is anyone voting Democrat because they want to shrink government and end the entitlements?

About rural voters, I’d just like to point out that a) the majority of the US population is urban, and has been for a long time now, and b) rural people also get old and sick, and need Social Security and health care.

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Salient 09.21.11 at 7:20 pm

I think it is less ignorance and more like rational disinterest.

Rational disinterest is a very plausible cause of ignorance.

I was personally convinced Obama would end the wars. I was wrong. Instead he started a third.

And provided the military for a fourth (Libya) and seems to be maybe-contributing to noisemaking about starting a fifth (Syria). Wasn’t ‘intervention’ in Syria the main thing we were all terrified Cheney would try to accomplish in the second Bush term? FFS.

But there’s an alternative syllogism:

Indeed:

1) Everyone’s entitled to vote, since in a democracy everyone is entitled to a say in decisions that affect them;
2) Democracy won’t work well unless the preferences of the polity are legitimately and fairly represented;
3) The existing parties don’t provide that representation and reinforce institutional barriers to entry for parties that would do so;
4) I have a pitchfork you can borrow, and we can share a torch.

This idea that voters are mostly low-information and that’s a bad thing is quite a bit like the idea that Christians are mostly low-devoutness and that’s a bad thing. We should work to build a system that treats low-information voters fairly and attends to their needs. It’s not necessary that they become the slightest bit more wonky or interested.

We CT commentariat are ‘into’ politics as a hobby, and claiming that we catch up on our BBC reading out of some noble devotion to duty is highly disingenuous. We do this stuff because we get into it. Most other people won’t. Same with car manufacturing. We don’t try to teach every driver in society how to spot engineering flaws in a model of car; we set up a system in which they can trust their desire for a fairly reliable automobile is attended to.

Someone like me could sit here and disparage you bastards for not spending years learning the ‘basic’ mechanics that would be necessary to make a high-information choice in preferred/purchased automotive… or I could demand a system of governance which penalizes malfeasance among car designers and sellers, so that low-information buyers don’t get utterly screwed. (They might not get an ‘optimum’ deal, whatever that would be, but they get something that attends to their reasonable expectations fairly well.)

So, fellow politics-engineers, let’s not ruminate over how we should attempt to teach Civics 101 to every last damn voter (though to achieve something approaching our own level of political sophistication, it’d be more like a three-year intense Civics sequence).

Instead: how do we identify and penalize political malfeasance? And how do we insulate those regulations from destructive meddling?

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Salient 09.21.11 at 7:24 pm

(Above, ‘bastards’ is meant entirely as a term of endearment, with a side of self-deprecating acknowledgement that I geek out about stuff that other people don’t geek out about and that is probably just an idle time-sink for me. In a reread that didn’t come across nearly as playfully as I’d intended; apologies; you are all dearly loved.)

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Henri Vieuxtemps 09.21.11 at 7:26 pm

Look, this is a simple cost/benefit analysis. You pay the government, you get something from the government.

In places like France or Denmark, you get free medical care, free higher education, free child care, unemployment benefits for at least two years with occupational training, public transport, retirement at 60, etc. It makes sense to agree to pay higher taxes to make sure services are not cut.

In the US, OTOH, the taxes are only slightly lower, but the services are virtually non-existent. Everything is spend on ‘defense’, to defend ‘our way of life’. Well, I believe under these circumstances it’s not unreasonable (let alone stupid) to opt for lower taxes.

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MPAVictoria 09.21.11 at 7:27 pm

“Only 2% of the population are farmers. And what they get is money, not social services. and I don’t see why it would be stupid to vote for lower taxes and higher subsidies.”
Henri this is an indefensible position and if you think about it for a second you will realise it. For starters the interstate highway system and rural electrification. Other examples include federal funding for rural hospitals, medicare, medicaid, education funding, etc. The list is endless.

“What have the Romans ever done for us?”

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MPAVictoria 09.21.11 at 7:29 pm

“We CT commentariat are ‘into’ politics as a hobby, and claiming that we catch up on our BBC reading out of some noble devotion to duty is highly disingenuous. We do this stuff because we get into it. Most other people won’t. Same with car manufacturing. We don’t try to teach every driver in society how to spot engineering flaws in a model of car; we set up a system in which they can trust their desire for a fairly reliable automobile is attended to.”

Brilliant. Simply brilliant. I forget this way to often.

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OCS 09.21.11 at 7:49 pm

Salient @87

Someone like me could sit here and disparage you bastards for not spending years learning the ‘basic’ mechanics that would be necessary to make a high-information choice in preferred/purchased automotive… or I could demand a system of governance which penalizes malfeasance among car designers and sellers, so that low-information buyers don’t get utterly screwed.

I agree with you. In a sense, I’d say almost all of us are “low-information voters,” since to be a high-information voter is pretty much a full-time job. In fact, I think that’s what representative democracy is based on — this stuff is complicated and time-consuming, and we need to elect people to government who can devote themselves to it.

So I think what we all do, more or less, is try to pick the candidate or the party that generally shares our world-view or our values or seems to have our interests at heart, and then vote that way and forget about it until either the next election, or some issue or event (a war, a recession, an election) thrusts politics back into our attention.

The problem is that if you’re too low-information you can’t actually make a good choice. In fact, you can get fooled into voting for the party that wants to cut taxes for the wealthy and cut services for you, thinking all the time that you’re voting for a tax cut for yourself and service cuts for other people who don’t deserve them. Or maybe that you’re voting against a foreign-born radical Muslim socialist who hates America.

I’m not sure there’s a way for a democracy to engineer out the effects of low-information voting. How do you think it could work?

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OCS 09.21.11 at 7:56 pm

Or maybe that you’re voting against a foreign-born radical Muslim socialist who hates America.

I should have added:

“Or that you’re voting for a reform-minded champion of the middle class.” Conservatives aren’t the only ones who can get fooled.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 09.21.11 at 8:01 pm

Highways and power lines are already there, and I hear aren’t being maintained too well. Another reason to be skeptical the famous ‘services’. If you’re not fixing potholes, why should I pay you?

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Bruce Wilder 09.21.11 at 8:37 pm

Salient @87

I’ll second (or third?) MPAVictoria’s “Brilliant. Simply brilliant.”

I watched Glenn Beck on Fox a few times. I’ve listened to Rush Limbaugh and some of the other right-wing talkers. I’ll venture that they are serving an audience that feels itself starved for understanding. They don’t just push buttons, in the Frank Luntz style of politician talking points. They offer bits of esoteric information, apparently latent with revealing meaning, and models of analytic thinking. A lot of this is just offering models of effective water-cooler poses, for people, who want to express themselves and win arguments during breaks at the office — Keith Olbermann’s Countdown made this function of cable-news commentary-heavy “news reporting” explicit. But, on the evidence, I think it would be a fair assessment to say that there are lots of politically ignorant people, who are genuinely motivated to be less ignorant. As well, of course, of people such as Steve @84 describe, who, frustrated in their starvation of information and power, don’t pay attention, because they’ve given up.

Blaming the ‘ignorant bastards’ seems, in the present moment, blaming the victim. The victim of what, though, other than their own ignorance?

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Bruce Wilder 09.21.11 at 9:21 pm

@94

I don’t think people, generally, vote against their economic self-interest. I would say that the collective problem of voting is more existential than that. What is economically “best” or better is always emergent. Better politics and better policy is the result of the political process fumbling its way toward (we hope, idealists that we are) a better-informed, better-understood “enlightened” sense of self-interest. The less enlightened may still aim, using their sense of self-interest, but their aim will be poorer, their target ill-chosen.

The U.S. is committed by its politics to an economic policy of disinvestment. It’s a kind of cannibalism or vampirism — choose your metaphor for full horrific effect — but it has been politically stable, because 1.) the first people being eaten are the poor, the less-educated, the young and the wage-earners at the bottom of the political-economic pyramid; 2.) clear, authoritative and emphatic statements about what is going on have been largely absent from the mainstream public discourse.

The moral capacity to vote for “enlightened” self-interest clearly exists among the People at large. That’s why politicians use the rhetoric of “shared sacrifice”. But, they use that rhetoric to justify destructive policy, because most people have no way to really understand what is being done, and what the consequences are likely to be.

I’m one of those people, who spend way too much time reading the econblogs. Mainstream economics seems like a conspiracy to obstruct understanding.

Without the power of an “enlightened” understanding of economics, I think people are very, very near-sighted about their “self-interest”. George W. Bush’s popularity was famously inverse to the price of gas. That’s what most people used to judge politics: the price of gas.

I think there’s an excellent case to be made that the U.S. should reverse course on a whole range of economic policies, but at the center of that reversal would be radical reductions in the consumption of oil and natural gas. The price of gas would go up. It is not possible to sell the price of gas going up, without an elaborate superstructure of popular understanding of how the price of gas going up serves the shared self-interest.

You can cast this political problem in other frameworks, and come to the same conclusion. Mancur Olson might explain the politics of rent-seeking and regulatory capture, for example: how political interests with large economic rents pay to organize politically and to dominate the political process. It is the same story, with more institutional detail.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 09.21.11 at 9:34 pm

If you’re a statesman, I don’t think you sell the price of gas going up by creating understanding. You build and subsidize trains, buses; free bike-sharing in the cities.

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William Timberman 09.21.11 at 9:36 pm

Salient @ 87

Please add me to the list of readers who applaud your defense (implicit and explicit) of democracy and the common man. I’d also like to say that if we could elect you President, I’d be pretty confident that you’d walk it the way you talk it — unlike some people we know, God love ‘em.

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Bruce Wilder 09.21.11 at 10:08 pm

@97

It is no accident that the current crop of Republican fascist governors in Wisconsin, New Jersey and Florida went after high-profile transit and rail projects, and defunded them. Those governors represent the resentments of people, who are mad about the fading of a certain vision of the American Dream — one that involves the freedom to drive an SUV and hates the preaching of tree-huggers.

I think it’s a near-sighted resentment, but you don’t meet that resentment by an unexplained proposal for a bike lane.

100

piglet 09.21.11 at 10:32 pm

“I think it’s a near-sighted resentment, but you don’t meet that resentment by an unexplained proposal for a bike lane.”

Here’s an example: in Jonesboro Ark., TP lunatics showed up at a city council meeting to speak against a bike trail on the grounds that construction of such a trail would destroy American freedom (http://bluearkansasblog.com/?p=4894). They seemed to be afraid that gubmint was going to force them to ride bikes.

Your diagnosis fits that incident very well but still, this is a minority. Why do the resentments of that minority carry so much political weight? And why is it politically profitable for the Republicans to play to those resentments? It seems that we are no closer to an answer to that question.

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Bruce Wilder 09.21.11 at 11:44 pm

In politics, as in life, just showing up is 80% of success.

I didn’t know that there was any mystery to why the Republicans play to the resentments of crazy people? (Hint: rich, greedy folks are a minority, too, and the Supreme Court is yet to enfranchise business corporations.)

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Anthony 09.22.11 at 1:03 am

It seems to me you’re describing the mechanics of the Overton Window.

In order to move that window to the right, the right says some crazy-ass stuff (e.g. “Social Security is a ponzi scheme”). Meanwhile, the left says doesn’t say anything really crazy (at least not that I can recall, the closest I can think of in recent memory is Obama’s “Spread the wealth” comment to “Joe” the “Plumber”).

So the repetition of said crazy-ass stuff moves the window to the right.

103

piglet 09.22.11 at 1:37 am

Here’s what Holbo and most commenters here are missing:

The question is not what politicians believe but how they act once in power. And anybody who doubts that Republican crazy talk can and will translate into crazy policy action is irredeemably naive.

Take again Perry. Does he really believe that Global Warming is a hoax invented by greedy scientists? Maybe, maybe not. Somewhere between 30 and 50% of Americans genuinely believe this to be true and I’m sure that at least some Republican leaders do but probably not all. But is there any doubt that as president, he would act *as if* Global Warming were not real or didn’t matter? There is absolutely none. Whether he really believes in crazy conspiracy theories or just doesn’t give a damn about the future of mankind doesn’t politically matter – the policy outcome will be the same. So what is the point of debating whether or not he means what he says?

It reminds me of the discussion about whether Bush really believed there were WMD in Iraq (in which case he was incompetent) or not (in which case he lied). It doesn’t matter. He said those crazy things and he did those crazy things. That’s what matters. And what also matters is that the political system and the mass media environment function in a way that legitimizes both the crazy talk and the crazy act.

And here we need to stop and ask, how is this possible? How can a system that generally favors self-preservation give rise to that kind of political lunacy? Of course, Republican policies are rational from the point of view of some actors but even the plutocracy has (one assumes) a long-term interest in maintaining the social contract, maintaining the public infrastructure and basic government services, investing in education and research, and preventing ecological disaster. What makes the crazy talk we are hearing from Republicans so scary is that whether or not they believe what they say, they *are* intent on sacrificing their own long-term interests for whatever short-term advantage they hope to gain. They *are* willing to trash the country, they *are* willing to trash the planet. They *are* behaving as if they were genuinely crazy. And liberals *are* not getting it. And I just want to keep banging my head to the wall when I read the kind of nonsense Holbo comes up with.

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Lee A. Arnold 09.22.11 at 3:11 am

John Holbo, I agree with you and as I wrote on your previous thread it is because, in the main, the Republicans are sending an emotional vibe, not an intellectual one. And this always beats the opposition, in an arena (politics) which proceeds by rhetorical (and therefore predominantly emotional) principles and among a species (human) which largely operates by emotional intuition.

They are also hoping to win marginal voters who have swallowed the “free market” as an aspirational intellectual or historical goal rather than as a theoretical nicety (on which, by the way, see the two-parter just finished here, wherein I have done my level best to present the textbook argument:)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BZQFIn5xCyA&list=PLCAE3CA6D964BFC8E&index=22

But I think it is very important to understand something else which is happening. The Republicans have entered an historical cul-de-sac. Essentially, the Republican Party is following an avenue they MUST follow, or else they will cease to exist. They have progressed to an historical moment where they cannot, in any way, shape or form, accept a long-term tax increase to help cure the budget deficits, nor acquiesce to any provision which preserves any part of the welfare state. If they do, they will not have any reason for being; they will be no different from the Democrats.

Basically, this is all the logical outcome of Reaganism. What is happening now, was programmed in the 1980 election. They may do very well in the next election (indeed it is likely), but in the long term, the Republicans are up against the welfare state, and they will lose. The welfare state is going to grow larger, large enough to cover medicine, until medicine starts to come down in price, if ever.

105

Bruce Baugh 09.22.11 at 4:59 am

Piglet gets at the point that I really wanted to in this: whether or not they actually believe all the stuff they’re saying, given the opportunity, they will do a great many crazy evil things that line up with the words.

106

John 09.22.11 at 5:09 am

Lee is correct – it is about emotions and vibe.
I think everyone should read the book by Linda Kintz – Between Jesus and the Market: The EMOTIONS That Matter in Right-Wing America.
Emotions trump well reasoned arguments every time.

107

Understudy 09.22.11 at 7:40 am

“It is no accident that the current crop of Republican fascist governors in Wisconsin, New Jersey and Florida went after high-profile transit and rail projects, and defunded them. Those governors represent the resentments of people, who are mad about the fading of a certain vision of the American Dream—one that involves the freedom to drive an SUV and hates the preaching of tree-huggers.”

No, most republican opposition to mass transit I’ve seen is based on cost-benefit analysis. And a suspicion that the unionized workforce that build and operate the transit systems funding democratic politicians are operating under THEIR self-interest, not some greater love of the planet.

The US isn’t Europe, and I suspect with cheaper gas prices, more Europeans would be driving, but that is a policy trade off.

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Walt 09.22.11 at 7:41 am

Piglet, where are these liberals who don’t get that the Republicans are crazy, and are going to destroy the country? I sure don’t know any.

Part of what enables them to be crazy is this double-standard where the Republicans can say things way outside the mainstream consequence-free, while Democrats are required to never deviate more than 0.5% to the left from the exact middle without the media turning on them. John simply wants to know how they manage the trick.

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Walt 09.22.11 at 9:18 am

Salient, who is this “we” you’re talking about? Are you part of a secret cabal that runs the world? Then yes, I suggest you bring up your ideas at the next meeting. I also suggest you bring up the ideas of ending war, and feeding the hungry.

Or are you a spokesperson for a new Philosopher King Party that I’m not aware of? If you’re on the ballot on my state, I’ll definitely take a look. We could use a party of benevolent philosopher-kings eager to design a system that automatically reflects the interests of voters, whether or not they pay attention.

On the off-chance that you’re neither of those things, and that you’re a basically powerless citizen like myself, then what “we” should do is not really relevant. What’s relevant is what they, the ones with actual power, are going to do to us, and how we can stop them. We’re the objects being acted upon, here, not the subjects acting. The only way we’re going to change that is part of a political movement. If it’s too much to ask people become informed about their own self-interest and participate in a political movement, then there’s no way to change it at all.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 09.22.11 at 9:40 am

hates the preaching of tree-huggers

No, I think it’s just that country is very big, conditions are very different, different constituencies have different interests. People in a town in Wyoming got no use for expensive mass-transit projects connecting east coast cities; driving SUVs probably makes more sense for them. The country is too big, government too centralized. Difficult to find a compromise, easy to play on contradictions.

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Tim Wilkinson 09.22.11 at 10:42 am

Yes, as people are making clear, the most important criticism in the earlier thread wasn’t that JH claims that the sizable sheaf of cigarette papers separating Rep from Dem doctrine is illusory, i.e. that Reps are really secretly Dems.

Instead the criticism was that JH seemed to be joining the press and the Dems in indulging this kind of rhetoric, even when taking it at face value could be advantageous vis a vis undecided or swayable voters.

This ‘class war’ stuff, for example. The complacency – or justified confidence – involved in the Reps going out of their way to bring the issue up is remarkable. Surely it would be possible to start pointing out that the Reps seem to be accepting the ‘class’ bit and opposing only the ‘war’ bit. You start debating some moron Republican and get them to admit this in some suitably lurid terms, keep banging away with suitable catchphrases and you might get a few more to make the break with the dominant narrative and take up a left-populist one – outriders in the propaganda campaign could perhaps manage to hold their noses and use the ‘New World Order’ catchphrase, even.

There’s a huge constituency of so-called ‘conspiracy theorists’, most of whom are not especially wacky, not particularly right-wing, and often reasonably close to the mark on most issues, but whose vocab triggers allergic reactions among VSPs. That vocab could be subtly adopted by a left party and some of of that constituency won over to the lesser evil of the Dems. All you have to do is agree about the GWOT and not ostracise people on the basis of the largely irrelevant detail of their views about Republican political conspiracy. How hard can it be to point out just where the Reps money, ideas and Tea Party come from?

So instead of guiltily denying that they’re engaged in class war, the Dems should ask – What class war? What is this war you are taking sides in, and whose side do you take us to be fighting for? Why you always going on about class – always about class with you aristocrats, isn’t it. Not for us this class war, but a war on class itself, etc.

Bringing up the issue of class ought to have been a bad move for the Reps – the myth of a classless society is really the foundation stone of the whole culture of hypocritical right wing bullshit in the US. A left wing opposition would be very pleased that the enemy has put it on the agenda. Just keep repeating class, class, class. The convenient conventional US terminology that only acknowedges one huge middle class, into which almost everyone falls, is not really taken seriously at a fundamental level – the term ‘working class’ ought to be a very positive and salient one and could be reintroduced without people feeling particularly insulted, couldn’t it?

Class rhetoric ought to be ramped up – it’s not a death tax, it’s anti-aristocracy protection. The Ron Paul thing – class genocide. Quietly inveigle Max Keiser into a TV slot. There’s shurely plenty of appetite for opposition to the aristocracy/plutocracy once its existence is actually acknowledged and suitably framed.

BUT (as HV et al have pointed out) actually existing Democrats don’t want to do anything of the sort, of course because those cigarette papers don’t actually add up to a very thick sheaf, many of them are a touch on the patrician side themselves and, oh yeah, the whole system is based on corrupt funding and lobbying.

And presumably Dem voters – whose self-definition in the absence of any real substantial political differences is based on being nicer and saner and more reasonable capitalists – would be turned off by such ‘extremism’ and generally being indecorous. Like the Dem senators sitting on their hands in 2001 after the bent election, because it was thought impolite to make too much of a fuss. Thanks for that, chaps.

In other words the reason why the Reps are allowed to get away with this stuff is because boldly exaggerated claims of being more right-wing than thou backfire only so far as being right-wing is regarded as a bad thing. But in US mainstream political rhetoric (leaving the floating labels of ‘moderate’ etc to one side) there is only one wing – the cowboy-capitalist right wing, still defined in opposition to the phantom ‘commy’ left. The slogan ‘Capitalism, watered down’ is not an inspiring one.

US mainstream politics, in yet other words, is Hannity and Colmes writ large.

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SusanC 09.22.11 at 11:41 am

I can’t help thinking that there might be something in Baudrillard relevant to this… along the lines of modern politics being like violence at a football match, and that arguing about the literal meaning of what people are saying is completely missing their point.

(Sorry I don’t have a reference. Baudrillard ought to have said something along those lines, even if he, in fact, didn’t…)

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praisegod barebones 09.22.11 at 12:26 pm

It’s been touched on once in comments, but I guess I have to say it:

When Democratic politicians get up and say that they believe in the rule of law, or distributive justice, or in moblising and empowering the disengaged and powerless they are making radical philosophical ones claims which they (clearly) don’t really mean.

There are plenty of asymmetires between Republicans and Democrats. But the John Holbo has identified isn’t one of them.

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Barry 09.22.11 at 1:09 pm

Piglet: “The question is not what politicians believe but how they act once in power. And anybody who doubts that Republican crazy talk can and will translate into crazy policy action is irredeemably naive.”

By now, I’d suspect dishonesty over naivete.

Understudy: “No, most republican opposition to mass transit I’ve seen is based on cost-benefit analysis. And a suspicion that the unionized workforce that build and operate the transit systems funding democratic politicians are operating under THEIR self-interest, not some greater love of the planet.”

Most lay republican opposition is based on Faux News, Limbaugh, et cetera. They wouldn’t know cost-benefit analysis if it bit them, and they don’t have a clue as to the costs.

Republican politicians are not employing cost-benefit analysis, save as they count the benefits to their cronies and their own campaign funds. They will be honestly opposing mass transit the day that they stop funding crony projects.

And in the case of Christie, he turned down large amounts of money to build something which is (1) desperately needed, (2) would yield benefits for decades and (3) would give a short-term direct stimulus.

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Roger 09.22.11 at 1:41 pm

I think Bruce’s economic self interest point is a good one. How do people understand their economic self interest?
Interestingly, everybody so far seems pretty convinced that the GOP conveys the message that, for instance, they are going to destroy Medicare. And thus, the only reason the chief immediate beneficiaries of medicare – the over 55 group – has moved very much into the GOP column is because they are either dumb or ignorant.
That’s one hypothesis.
Another hypothesis would be pavlovian, and it would go something like this. The great domestic accomplishment of the Bush administration was to push through an enormously expensive and corrupt pill bill, the MMA. This, it turned out, took – from what I gather, the constituency for it, medicare beneficiaries, approve of it heartlily. Why? to quote Wikipedia, “Among other benefits, the senior gets an immediate financial boost, as many plans let them skip paying Part B and Part D premiums, waive usual deductibles, and waive copays, all while covering preventive physicals and providing a prescription drug benefit.” The plan went into affect two years – not four years or five – after it was voted through.
Contrast this with the ACA, which – while confirming the corrupt part of the Bush deal with Big Pharma – was heralded as a compromise solution – pleasing a narrow D.C. constituency, but nobody else – and, to get by the Centrist pundits and to satisfy the president’s own Chicago School heart, cut the ‘fat’ from Medicare. The Republicans immediately seized upon this latter fact, which simply confirmed the plus 55 impression that the Dems would happily cut them off. As for the rest, they have an uncertain impression of being shouldered with yet another financial burden, mandatory insurance, while having no real benefit to offset it – and yes, they may in time, although they will also surely face higher wait times as well, every one of which will be blamed on the Democrats.
So, do they mean what they say? Well, they – politicians – say different things at different times. Apparently, the fact that the GOP in 2010 criticized the cuts in Medicare over and over – I’ve quoted from the opening salvo in February 2010, when Gingrich criticized the cuts – simply escaped the notice of the “well informed” liberal voters and analysts, who thought instead that Obama was appealing to independents by being fiscally prudent.
Here’s a link about those 2010 attacks: http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/12/how-to-run-against-medicare-cuts-see-the-2010-campaign/

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Earwig 09.22.11 at 1:45 pm

“When Democratic politicians get up and say that they believe in the rule of law, or distributive justice, or in moblising and empowering the disengaged and powerless they are making radical philosophical ones claims which they (clearly) don’t really mean.”

This.

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piglet 09.22.11 at 3:36 pm

“Piglet, where are these liberals who don’t get that the Republicans are crazy, and are going to destroy the country? I sure don’t know any.”

Obama, for one? What about the liberal part of the media punditry? There’s Krugman but hardly anybody else who dares speak it out loudly. And what really is Holbo’s point? Maybe I’m still missing it but if he thinks what you thinks every liberal thinks then he does a good job hiding it.

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Dr. Hilarius 09.22.11 at 9:49 pm

I’m gratified that some prior posters have recognized tribalism as a force in American politics. Tribal identification results in working people voting to support Wall Street elites even while denouncing Wall Street. It’s more important to belong to the right tribe than to advance your own tangible interests. I recall an early National Lampoon piece in which leftists were attempting to destroy George Wallace by spiking his chewing tobacco with granola; even accidental granola consumption would remove you to the other tribe. Pickup trucks in the north bear just as many Confederate flags as in the south. It’s tribal identification.

Casino implosion is dead on with recognition that speeches by Perry et al. are dog-whistle tunes. Right-wing voters divide the world into those deserving of governmental benefits (themselves) and those who don’t (blacks, immigrants, gays, academics and so on). Calls for the dismantling of government is to dismantle benefits for the un-deserving. Working in a county hospital, I often heard rural whites express entitlement to health care they could never pay for because they “worked hard their life.” It’s the other guy who should die in the street.

Henri V. makes some points about rural areas needing fewer social services than urban. This is not true, at least in Washington State. None of the rural counties have tax bases that even come close to meeting their needs. Schools are supported by tax revenue generated in the three urban counties. It’s the same for most basic services including police and fire protection. If these counties had to self fund they would simply blow away. And they do get a lot of money for road repair while urban roads fall apart. Grant County has beautiful roads that carry almost no traffic. 55% of Washington’s poor live in rural areas. These rural poor use TANF and social security disability at rates almost identical to the urban poor. But these counties vigorously reject any suggestion that they are welfare cases and overwhelmingly vote for politicians with extreme right positions.

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Dr. Hilarius 09.23.11 at 12:07 am

Why moderation? I don’t think I’ve done anything bad and have not been held up since signing up.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 09.23.11 at 12:41 pm

None of the rural counties have tax bases that even come close to meeting their needs. Schools are supported by tax revenue generated in the three urban counties.

That’s fine, but still, what they have is local schools and local police, financed, in part, by state money. So, what about federal services? Do people in these rural counties ever meet any federal g-men: FBI agents, someone from FEMA, FDIC, department of education, GAO, a federal judge? Probably at most an army recruiter or a tax man.

There are hundreds of federal agencies, and, if you live in a small town, some probably still affect you, but most not very directly at all. I can easily understand how one could get the impression that the government is too big.

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piglet 09.23.11 at 2:26 pm

“Do people in these rural counties ever meet any federal g-men: FBI agents, someone from FEMA, FDIC, department of education, GAO, a federal judge?”

Do people in cities meet FBI agents all the time? And who ever meets somebody from the department of education? FEMA? People in rural areas are probably more likely to need FEMA assistance.

Your argument is a bit spurious. The point is precisely that most rural areas are kept alive by transfers from both state and federal governments but they aren’t aware of it. It’s a perception issue, akin to the 40% or so Medicare recipients who aren’t aware that they are benefiting from federal programs.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 09.23.11 at 3:15 pm

In a city you’re much more aware of the complexity of modern life, and the idea of 500 federal agencies doesn’t seem as ridiculous as it probably seems to someone living in a trailer park in the middle of nowhere, where you don’t even have any traffic lights.

I remember talking to a colleague from New Hampshire once (a libertarian, of course, they all are), and his anti-government allegory went like this: ‘sometimes the traffic light where I live stops working – and what happens? Do cars start crashing into each other? No, somehow people do manage to cross the intersection.’ See, this is how a person from a low population density place thinks. Very much different from anyone living in New York city.

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Salient 09.23.11 at 3:39 pm

Salient, who is this “we” you’re talking about? Are you part of a secret cabal that runs the world?

Yes, “We CT commentariat” are indeed a cabal of world-rulers — didn’t you get your parcel of the New World Order with your CT subscription papers? :)

On the off-chance that you’re neither of those things, and that you’re a basically powerless citizen like myself, then what “we” should do is not really relevant.

…relevant to what? I think it’s ok for us to talk about ideas, even in circumstances where ‘we’ have very little power to enact them. You can mentally insert “if ‘we’ somehow could” into these various assertions, if that makes it more palatable. But such conversations, about ideas that we’re powerless to enact, are vital. For one thing, such a conversation (hopefully) helps us avoid pursuing bad ideas! For another thing, it helps us converse with the people in our community about what we want for ourselves, our community, our country, etc. For another another thing, we might discover in the course of inquiry that there is a coherent way to work with others in the community to push for improvement in the direction of some particular idea, or at least, we might see ways to help get the ball rolling. And, we find discussing somewhat-impracticable ideas fun.

(And remember for example, as recently as 1990, the idea that the US would ouster Saddam Hussein by force and occupy Iraq indefinitely was fairly impracticable, it was a fringe idea. Now it’s reality, and it seems to be reality because people who felt it was a good idea somehow caught the ear of a guy who would become President, and they probably earwormed his ear a long time before it seemed plausible that he would become President…)

What’s relevant is what they, the ones with actual power, are going to do to us, and how we can stop them.

Isn’t “stop them” a thing that “we” should do? I feel like this contradicts your position of one sentence ago. Feel free to re-interpret–

how do we identify and penalize political malfeasance? And how do we insulate those regulations from destructive meddling?

–as a variation on “how do we stop them?”

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Salient 09.23.11 at 3:48 pm

Oh, forgot to insert a phrase — talking amongst ourselves helps us converse with the people in our community specifically because it provides us a pre-community-conversation opportunity to brainstorm (so that when we’re in discussion with folks in our community, we don’t need to come up with ideas on the spot), rephrase our ideas intelligibly (so that by the time we’re in a general discussion forum, we have already ironed out potentially confusing wording issues), and receive common objections (so that we may anticipate them in other conversations). I hadn’t meant to be tautological.

In a world where any U.S. citizen can catch the ear of their House representative once or twice a year in town-hall type meetings and quite possibly ask them a question or make a statement to them in-person, we actually have a nontrivial chance of inciting nontrivial change, so it seems pretty damn important to sort out what to say, what to demand, what to push for…

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Walt 09.23.11 at 4:29 pm

There’s the present, which sucks. There’s the Future, where we have successfully implemented change, where we have created a future where everything works sufficiently well that the voters can go back to not paying attention. People are congratulating you on the beauty of your Future.

But there’s the intermediate step, where we actually obtain enough power to implement change. Since you and I have zero power, we have to convince other people — probably lots of other people — to pay attention. That means the one thing we can’t tell the voters is that they shouldn’t need to pay attention.

And some ideas can be implemented by vocal enough advocacy — gay marriage is something that seems to be coming about in that way. But the kind of change you want simply can’t come about in that way. You can run into your House representative and say “gays should be allowed in the military,” and this might make a difference. You can’t run into your House representative and say “you should have less of a free hand to take bribes from lobbyists, and be more responsive to the wishes of the voters, who in turn will give you nothing,” and hope to have any chance of his listening to you. The only way that can matter is if he knows you’re speaking for lots of voters, and the only way that can be true is if you have roused lots of voters to pay attention. Which is the exact thing that you are saying the voters shouldn’t need to do. Maybe they shouldn’t need to, but they still do.

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Bruce Wilder 09.23.11 at 4:57 pm

The posts immediately following this one are titled, “Collective Wisdom” and “Contradictory Beliefs”, but like the present one, they are gentle exercises in meta-level detached contemplation of consensus reality. Rightly or wrongly, I detect a strong presumption that logic and analysis of function should dominate meaning and narrative rationalization.

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Bruce Wilder 09.23.11 at 5:52 pm

In American politics, the last 30 years has been a story of the Left being blind to the critical importance of institutions, while the Right pursues a far-sighted program of selectively building, destroying and re-making institutions.

I read Salient @87 as recognizing the central, critical importance of institutions, but, maybe, I was wrong. Institutional change requires institution-building. If you don’t want the Media to mindlessly adopt a narrative such as, “Excessive gov’t debt drives economy into toilet” right after the banksters’ fraud and incompetence have tanked the world economy, then, you need at least some prominent organs of news production and distribution, which are not controlled by giant Media conglomerates dependent on gov’t IP, licenses and franchises, and financed by business advertising.

In small towns and rural areas, I don’t think the issue is that people feel themselves independent of government. Government is as pervasive there, as anywhere. The issue, it seems to me, is one of local v. remote. The local elite is likely to have an interest in promoting a degree of political hostility to “remote” government. That’s long been a theme in American politics — going back to the Anti-federalists, who were often notables with a local powerbase.

The New Deal, informed by an institutional economics which no longer exists, was often quite clever in addressing this problem. The WPA built magnificent local post offices. Programs usually included elaborate schemes for status-enhancing, ceremonial local administration (think Draft Boards, or Agricultural Extension).

By contrast, say, environmental regulations coming from the Nixon-era EPA thru State Fish and Wildlife or Natural Resource agencies, are the fiats of non-local technocrats, and they come into direct conflict with the interests of local landowners and developers. That’s the kind of thing, which generates resentments and motivates local notables with money to promote an extreme conservative philosophy.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 09.23.11 at 6:49 pm

The local elite is just business people; they are just as hostile to the government as those Koch brothers, for obvious reasons.

Government is as pervasive there, as anywhere.

C’mon. Let’s take an extreme example, some liver-eatin’ Johnson trapper guy, who comes down from the mountains once a year to trade some fur for shotgun shells and tobacco. What’s his relationship with the government? Does it make sense for him to pay taxes? What party should he vote for? Well, no party, of course, but if he is forced to choose?

And from this extreme case, to the other extreme (say, NYC resident), there is, I believe, a monotonically increasing function of the government being useful to the citizen. No?

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Salient 09.23.11 at 7:12 pm

I read Salient @87 as recognizing the central, critical importance of institutions, but, maybe, I was wrong.

Nah. Your interpretation sounds right to me, and I happily endorse everything you said subsequently. I would say that institution-building is a principal means through we act on good ideas once we’ve gotten them hammered out and refined via discussion forums like this one, and I’d point to Steven Attewell and Lemuel Pitkin and plenty of other CT regulars as paragons of this, building up institutions like the Working Families Party. I’d also point to the folks who built various environmental-protection institutions, e.g. Greenpeace. (There are local examples of institution-building in which I’m involved, but as a pseudonymous commenter I’m testy about listing these and thereby publicizing my precise location in the world.)

I guess instead of “the central, critical importance of institutions” I would say “the central, critical importance of mass coordination” but that seems like just a semantics difference between us. Maybe by later saying “you can catch a Representative’s ear” in order to win Walt over, I took away from that centrality. Wasn’t intentional. In fact, the best way to catch a Representative’s ear is to coordinate with others in sufficient number to act as a clearly defined cohesive group that claims to speak for, and attempts to speak for, a swathe of the population (which is to say: form institutions! And of course, that’s not the only reason to build institutions, etc, etc.)

That means the one thing we can’t tell the voters is that they shouldn’t need to pay attention.

The phrase ‘pay attention’ is sliding around all over the place.

What do we need to do on voters’ behalf (as much as we can)? Clarify who they should be jawclenchingly mad at, who they should be sigh-inducing irritated by, and who they should fist-pumpingly appreciate, and for all of these, give a general impression why you’re right, with sufficient emotive content to resonate and stick.

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piglet 09.23.11 at 7:27 pm

Henri, your last post is becoming ridiculous. Like taking Sarah Palin mythologizing seriously (didn’t Alaska get more federal subsidy per capita than any other state?)

“In a city you’re much more aware of the complexity of modern life”
Maybe to some extent, but didn’t they just elect a Republican in New York City, one who if I remember correctly campaigned on abolishing the Department of Education although he couldn’t answer the question how much money the DoE actually cost?

It is certainly true in general that population density is highly correlated with liberal political views (as we define the term in the US context) but your explanation for that – that government is less visible in rural areas – to me isn’t very plausible (or, more to the point, it’s factually wrong). Moreover, I notice that our discourse (judging from your and some other comments here) falls into the trap of accepting the right-wing narrative about “small vs big government”. It is completely bollocks. Liberals are not pro-government and conservatives are not anti-government. They prefer different functions of government. Liberals want public goods and some redistribution, conservatives want the military, prisons, and roads. The right-wingers have managed to identify public goods and redistribution with “government” and to vilify “government” understood only in that sense. Liberals should simply reject that right-wing frame of reference instead of buying into right-wing mythologizing of self-sufficiency.

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piglet 09.23.11 at 7:43 pm

Also, this recent Nation article offers an interesting perspective:
http://www.thenation.com/article/162922/democrats-rural-rebellions

Perhaps most remarkable is where the Democrats are winning. Most of the recall elections in Wisconsin, as well as many of the special elections in other states, have taken place not in cities but in rural areas. Of the forty Wisconsin counties that were entirely or partially in Senate districts that saw recall races, twenty-three voted Democratic, and four more gave the Democrats 49 percent or more of the vote. Democrats were not just winning counties that voted for Walker in 2010; they even won several counties that voted for John McCain in 2008. That’s a big, big deal, because the national Democratic setbacks in 2010 came overwhelmingly in rural areas, with thirty-nine US House seats in the most rural Congressional districts flipping from the Democrats to the Republicans. That represents two-thirds of GOP Congressional gains, and it parallels patterns that tipped gubernatorial elections and control of legislative chambers…. “Schools and services are what keep small towns strong,” says Wisconsin Senate Democratic leader Mark Miller, who represents a number of rural communities. “If the fight is between Democrats who want to defend public schools, public services, and Republicans who want to sacrifice them in order to give tax breaks to the rich, that’s when you’ll see rural voters shifting back to the Democrats.”

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Henri Vieuxtemps 09.23.11 at 8:02 pm

How is it “factually wrong”? Is the federal government more visibly useful in a rural trailer park than in Manhattan?

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Bruce Wilder 09.23.11 at 8:48 pm

You mean on the day the disability checks come in the mail, and you can drive down the U.S. highway past the U.S. Forest to take your kid to the U.S. Army recruiting office? Or the day the hospice care lady comes to look in on grandma? Or, was it the day, you lost your house to Fannie Mae, and had to move to the trailer park?

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Henri Vieuxtemps 09.23.11 at 9:13 pm

Well, I don’t think disability checks are sent disproportionally to trailer parks; people in suburbs probably use highways more, and the “U.S. Forest” thing doesn’t seem very meaningful.

Anyway, what I was saying, it seems real obvious to me, but hey, it’s good know that it’s not obvious to everybody.

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piglet 09.23.11 at 10:47 pm

“Is the federal government more visibly useful in a rural trailer park than in Manhattan?”

Excuse me but you made the claim that it is *less visible in rural areas*. The burden of proof then is on you to reject the null hypothesis. Also, “visibly useful” is quite subjective. Measured in dollars per capita, the federal government is very present in rural areas but whether it is “visible” and perceived as “useful” is a different matter and it has been precisely my argument that perception and reality differ significantly.

“Well, I don’t think disability checks are sent disproportionally to trailer parks; people in suburbs probably use highways more, and the “U.S. Forest” thing doesn’t seem very meaningful.”

Hand-waving. “probably”, but you don’t know. Anyway I thought your comparison was with Manhattan, not with the suburbs. There’s a lot of literature about policy intervention and indirect subsidies favoring suburbanization over cities. That might be interesting for this discussion but it doesn’t really look that that is what you want.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 09.24.11 at 7:38 am

The proof seems obvious: the more complex/concentrated the system, the more management it requires. Power goes off in NYC – it’s a disaster, power goes off in a trailer park – it’s an inconvenience. A near-suburb is, of course, an integral part of the city.

Also, initially, this was about “government services”, and so I’m not impressed by the argument about dollar amounts being shifted around; it misses the point.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 09.24.11 at 9:31 am

…incidentally, these famous farm subsidies, it’s not like they are there to help the farmers. They are there to address the particular market failure that threatens the urbanites much more than it does the farmers.

Remove the subsidies, see prices collapse, farmers go bankrupt, no food produced next year. The farmers will certainly have enough to survive, but urbanites will starve. So, if I was a farmer, I don’t think I would’ve felt any gratitude at all. Why? You don’t do it for me, you do it for yourself.

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ron 09.25.11 at 2:46 am

Bwa-ha-ha-ha!!!! Without farm subsidies urbanites will starve!!!!

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piglet 09.25.11 at 4:17 pm

“Also, initially, this was about “government services”, and so I’m not impressed by the argument about dollar amounts being shifted around; it misses the point.”

You are welcome to provide evidence for a lesser importance of “government services” in rural areas. I haven’t seen any yet. I actually know people who have lived near self-sufficient lives in remote areas. Back-to-the-land hippies. Some of them even lived without electricity. What you say may apply to some of these people but these are vast outliers. Most rurals today do not fit that self-sufficiency myth any more than Manhattanites do. Also, many of those living in rural areas (as defined by Census) are really sub/exurbanites.

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Patrick 09.25.11 at 10:02 pm

I think that a lot of liberals may read some coded language in the Obama election. Where Obama was saying “I want to govern as a moderate,” I think that a lot of voters interpreted that as meaning “I want to govern as a liberal.” It turns out that Obama didn’t mean that, but the fact that he was interpreted that way is interesting nonetheless. It was almost the opposite phenomenon. People thought he was saying something moderate and meaning something radical.

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JanieM 09.25.11 at 10:20 pm

The farmers will certainly have enough to survive, but urbanites will starve.

Right, because there are so many farmers in the US who grow subsistence foods for their families….

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Henri Vieuxtemps 09.26.11 at 2:03 pm

You are welcome to provide evidence for a lesser importance of “government services” in rural areas.

I already provided some, but you don’t care to respond, and keep asking for evidence. I get the feeling that you’ll never be satisfied. What are you looking for, some peer-reviewed, government-approved index of the importance of “government services” by population density? Sorry, I don’t have that, and I guess this means that your absurd doctrine is safe.

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piglet 09.26.11 at 3:10 pm

“I already provided some, but you don’t care to respond”

Henri, you started this side thread with the remark (82) “For one thing, people outside big cities and near-city suburbs probably don’t have much use for federal social services” and multiple commenters have questioned that claim. Note that the comment you replied to (78) explicitly referred to Social Security and Medicare. The suggestion that rural areas don’t “have much use” for these is just baseless and as was pointed out, there are numerous other federal and state government services (or shall we say interventions) that rural areas rely on.

Since then you have responded by citing anecdotes, constantly shifting goal posts, and making all kinds of unsubstantiated claims, some of them just ignorant (rural counties never have contact with FEMA?). So to claim that you provided evidence but nobody responded is a bit rich, frankly. It’s time for you to either drop your “rural areas don’t need government” theory or revise it into something more defensible.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 09.26.11 at 3:20 pm

You can question whatever you want for as long as you want, but it doesn’t erase common sense, you know.

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piglet 09.26.11 at 11:15 pm

So your statement is that it is common sense that rural people have no use for Medicare and Social Security. Well, sometimes common sense is just common nonsense.

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Harold 09.27.11 at 12:27 am

What people say and what they do (in rural areas as elsewhere) are two different things. They certainly use these services when they are stricken with serious illnesses as I know from personal experience.

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