Prediction Markets in Republican Spin, continued and branched out from

by John Holbo on May 15, 2008

Way back in January I speculated about how Republicans would spin McCain as their candidate, given the violent opposition to him as ‘unconservative’, a maverick liberal. I proposed a few possibilities, of which the first has been more or less borne out: McCain as unconservative is down the memory hole. I think we all pretty much expected that, although it will be interesting to see whether, as McCain is forced to try to swing towards the middle in the general, any of that is dredged back up again. Will he be undermined by his own base? (I doubt it.)

But one thing I’ve noticed, in the months since, is that – in an electoral environment in which Republican stock could hardly be lower, and Democratic stock is looking good – there is a great deal of clutching at the brass ring of ‘conservatism’ on the right. No real urgency to claim the mantle of ‘liberalism’ on the left. Republicans are sure they want to be ‘conservative’, above all, even though many admit they aren’t sure what that would even mean at present. And even though they are standing behind a candidate who was, until recently, not a conservative, in their eyes. They have a meta-desire for there to be such a thing as conservatism.

Seriously, I think maybe the main plank of the Republican party should be: We’re not really Republicans, we’re conservatives who have to put up with all these other jerks.

By contrast, Democrats seem unusually unified in broad-brush policy terms, without there being any temptation for either candidate – Obama or Clinton – to say ‘I’m the true liberal. My opponent is peddling false liberalism.’ They’ve thrown a lot of stuff at each other, but not that, I don’t think.

You could argue that, with Democratic stock so high, why bother to call yourself ‘liberal’. And with Republican stock so low, why not pretend you aren’t really a Republican – you are a ‘conservative’, first and foremost. But that argument doesn’t actually fly in a primary environment.

When liberals like Krugman write books with titles like The Conscience of a Liberal, they are usually writing books that are mostly about how awful Republican policies are. Which is true, and important. But not exactly the same thing. But Krugman pretty clearly has a liberal philosophy. And yet, even when he writes a book about what he thinks liberalism is, he doesn’t think it’s worth spilling so much ink over.

In short, liberals and conservatives are a bit like the walrus (liberalism) and the carpenter (conservatism), eating oysters (ideas). The carpenter can’t swallow many, but he eats as many as he can. The walrus eats many more, but with a bad conscience. So which one is more dedicated to ‘ideas’?

Bad conscience is too strong. I think we’ve actually gotten over the point where Dem candidates want to avoid being ‘liberal’. But we haven’t gotten to the point where being perceived as ‘liberal’ is a feather in your cap. Democrats care about whether Clinton’s or Obama’s health care plan is better, not whether it’s ‘a truly liberal way of coming to grips with the problems facing us’. And Democrats who decide without really knowing much about policy proposals still don’t seem to care about which candidate is more ‘liberal’. By contrast, every Republican who writes about health care seems to insist that ‘we need to find a conservative way to deal with these problems.’

I’m not really sure whether I care who is more ‘liberal’ either. But I’ve been reading Matthew Yglesias’ book, Heads In The Sand – which is, of course, a very sensible book. (Buy it! [amazon]) I have to post about it, you see, because my wife very sensibly points out that if I post multiple times about Jonah Goldberg’s book, then don’t say word one about Yglesias’, I’m doing my part to define intellectual decency down. So: read Matt’s book!

The trouble is: I pretty much agree with it, so there’s not so much for me to say. But here’s a thought: he thinks the Dems have pretty much lacked a coherent foreign policy philosophy. That seems right to me. But: is a prerequisite for having an effective foreign policy philosophy – say, ‘liberal internationalism’ – that you first build up ‘liberalism’ as a brand (to be crass about it). Do you have to get to the point where a critical mass of people will think, ‘well, if that’s the liberal thing to do, then it must be the right thing to do, so I’m for it.’ I mean: rhetorically. As the Republicans amply demonstrate, there is no automatic intellectual advantage in having such a thing. But maybe it is a practical requirement all the same. A winning philosophical hook to hang your policies from.

{ 37 comments }

1

jcasey 05.15.08 at 3:16 pm

It seems to me that “my policies are better because of x, y, and z” is a much more effective kind of argument to make than “my policies are more truly liberal.” The second forces one to defend (a) liberalism and (b) one’s interpretation of liberalism, both of which are distractions from what would probably be the more pressing matter, like a general election, a vote in Congress, or support for some wonderful military intervention. If those arguments of yours happen also to be liberal, then the good people in the Liberal Media (TM) can say that for you.

2

notsneaky 05.15.08 at 3:17 pm

For some reason I read the title of the post as “Prediction Markets in Republican SPAIN” and though “only on Crooked Timber”.

3

Grand Moff Texan 05.15.08 at 3:20 pm

They have a meta-desire for there to be such a thing as conservatism.

That’s because they’re in the business of selling the image of a conservatism that never seems to make it into actual policy. Government became larger, more expensive, and more invasive during the administrations of the last five Republican presidents and during twelve years of Republican congressional control.

For American conservatives, therefore, talking about ideological purity serves the same purpose as talking about Baby Jesus. It’s a distraction.

Democrats are talking about policy because times are finally bad enough that the Republicans’ usual message of “government isn’t the solution” doesn’t sell very well any more. People would wonder why you’re running for office if you don’t think it’s good for anything. When times were easy, this kind of politics made for a kind of spectator sport. Now it’s deadly serious.

Democrats don’t need to rehabilitate the word “liberal” right now. Better to spend every erg of their political capital getting the the greatest number of seats out of the Republicans’ collapse.
.

4

Dan Simon 05.15.08 at 3:30 pm

Careful, John–once you start considering the possibility that wisdom, rather than partisan purity, is the true measure of a policy, you’ve put yourself on a slippery slope. Pretty soon, you’re noticing that partisan labels like “liberal” and “conservative” have no value except as substitutes for thought, and that neither “liberalism” nor “conservativism” represents anything like a coherent philosophy, as opposed to an amalgam of the current interests and beliefs of an ever-shifting coalition of disparate constituencies.

And once you’ve figured that out, how are you going to be able to keep contributing in good conscience to a mindlessly partisan hackfest like Crooked Timber?

5

McJulie 05.15.08 at 3:48 pm

There’s a historic dimension to the “liberalism” vs “conservatism” fight that also explains this: movement conservatism (as opposed to a mere tendency to be resistant to change and therefore somewhat conservative) arose in the 60s and 70s specifically as a reaction to the historical norm of American liberalism. Liberalism was seen as a given, and conservatism a self-consciously reactionary stance.

6

HH 05.15.08 at 3:49 pm

Pragmatism was the great unlamented victim of the American ISM wars. The TV propaganda technicians have learned that the most intense emotional responses come from repudiating compromises and selling violence and militarism. That is why even the Democratic party is now a party favoring weapons and war.

We have wandered very far from our years as a nation full of constructive energy. We now look for victims of our military power, and enfeeble ourselves in grotesque theatrical wars that accomplish nothing. Obama will preside over further increases in the “defense” budget, and sputtering conflicts in the Mideast will continue to bleed us of resources. Then the great petroleum depletion and climate crises will hit.

Only the collapse of our economic power will break our addiction to war. No American political party has the strength to redirect a people intoxicated by the television propaganda of violence. The poison of societal decay has entered the body politic of America, and we will suffer its consequences.

The tombstone of American Democracy will read: Born in 1776 and killed by the Farnsworth Device in 2001.

7

Demosthenes 05.15.08 at 3:55 pm

Well, Dan, the problem there is that nobody in their right mind, with any knowledge of political history or political philosophy, would be so clueless as to say something like “partisan labels… have no value except as substitutes for thought.” They are, at least at their best, distinct political philosophies that can guide ones’ policy choices far better than a narrow technocratic viewpoint can.

After all, sometimes “better” depends on how you define it, and those definitions come from political philosophy.

(Whatever their faults, neither liberalism nor conservatism is as unseemly as the bizarre Cult of Centrism in the United States these days. Though Conservatives are better at exploiting it.)

John: this is a pretty old problem. It’s easy to find ways to disagree with something, but it’s more difficult to agree without just saying “me too.” It does require more thought.

And, yes, it does come down to philosophy; liberals have been a bit too quick to jettison it in favor of an “objective” style of analysis and evaluation that does not, alas, actually exist. Part of that is due to the influence of neo-liberalism, which seems to enthusiastically eschew anything like political philosophy in favor of this perceived objectivity. But it also seems just sort of intrinsic to the breed.

8

Dan Simon 05.15.08 at 4:06 pm

Well, Dan, the problem there is that nobody in their right mind, with any knowledge of political history or political philosophy, would be so clueless as to say something like “partisan labels… have no value except as substitutes for thought.”

Hmm–I wonder why you left out the most important four words of that sentence…

After all, sometimes “better” depends on how you define it, and those definitions come from political philosophy.

I don’t dismiss the value of political philosophy (although it can easily devolve into dogma if one is not careful). I’m merely pointing out that political philosophy has absolutely nothing to do with partisan labels like “liberal” and “conservative”.

9

MattF 05.15.08 at 4:27 pm

There’s the added weirdness that right-wingers are, supposedly, skeptical of abstract political philosophizing– and left-wingers are, supposedly, addicted to sectarian disputation over practical politics. But not, I guess, here and now.

10

abb1 05.15.08 at 5:15 pm

But maybe it is a practical requirement all the same. A winning philosophical hook to hang your policies from.

Not even a philosophical hook, just a word associated with you that induces a pleasurable involuntary reflex of some sort.

11

Barry 05.15.08 at 5:18 pm

demosthenes: “Well, Dan, the problem there is that nobody in their right mind, with any knowledge of political history or political philosophy, would be so clueless as to say something like “partisan labels… have no value except as substitutes for thought.” They are, at least at their best, distinct political philosophies that can guide ones’ policy choices far better than a narrow technocratic viewpoint can.”

It’s amazing how often right-wingers do that, while frequently denying that they’re right-wingers.

12

Matthew Kuzma 05.15.08 at 5:44 pm

I thought Bill Clinton had a very solid liberal foreign policy philosophy: international prosperity saves American lives. He very clearly believed that people who had hope, economically, wouldn’t become terrorists or rebels or anything else that we’d later have to fight.

I think you’re right that this philosophy hasn’t been adopted as the de facto Democratic foreign policy outlook, but I think it is more relevant today than it was during the Clinton administration, and I personally believe Obama is likely to continue implimenting it whether he vocalizes it or not. There may be no branding going on, but it seems like there’s some tacit consensus building around that idea.

13

noen 05.15.08 at 5:46 pm

Kucinich ran as an unabashed liberal and look where that got him. Gravel ran as a post-modern conceptual artist. Which only endeared me to him.

14

Dan Simon 05.15.08 at 6:11 pm

It’s amazing how often right-wingers do that, while frequently denying that they’re right-wingers.

It’s amazing how often idiots say that, while frequently denying that they’re idiots.

15

lemuel pitkin 05.15.08 at 7:45 pm

I read the title of the post as “Prediction Markets in Republican SPAIN”

Me too! — and was very disappointed when I started reading….

16

Mrs Tilton 05.15.08 at 8:13 pm

notsneaky and lemuel,

me three! And before I began reading, I thought either I have, for the first time in a very long time, grounds for real excitement, or those are going to be some absolutely rock-solid predictions.

17

Glen Tomkins 05.15.08 at 8:14 pm

Not wanting a foreign policy philosophy is the beginning of wisdom

Our first president gave us the best possible advice about foreign policy, which is not to have any. Since then, we have become a much more materially strong nation, which, while it leaves us in an even better position to implement Washington’s sound advice, it unfortunately has given us the irresistable temptation to hallucinate foreign dragons to slay.

18

abb1 05.15.08 at 8:47 pm

Our first president gave us the best possible advice about foreign policy, which is not to have any.

That is, in fact, a foreign policy philosophy, and a pretty common one. No friends, no enemies, only interests.

19

lisa 05.15.08 at 8:50 pm

I’ve spent…well, not a long time but a certain amount of time trying to understand that walrus and carpenter analogy.

Can you explain it? I have a feeling it’s going to haunt me.

20

abb1 05.15.08 at 9:01 pm

Nobody can explain it.

21

Geoff Robinson 05.16.08 at 12:02 am

Christopher Ellis says conservatism more than liberalism is less about specific issues than a general disposition:
http://www.publicopinionpros.com/features/2005/nov/ellis.asp
Because of its nonpolitical connotations and the way in which it is used by political elites, the label “conservative” is both more popular and more multidimensional than the term “liberal.” Conservatives can thus approach conservative self-identification for reasons that have little to do with preferences on the main dimension of political conflict.
Plenty of these voters in MS-1?

22

greensmile 05.16.08 at 12:53 am

Only two elections ago, the “L” word was the pox. I do not expect it to recover from the job Rove did on it all that soon.

23

greensmile 05.16.08 at 12:56 am

A room full of Conservatives is a lynch mob waiting to happen. A room full of liberals is a hundred arguments waiting to fall apart.

24

Matt Weiner 05.16.08 at 2:24 am

The job done on “liberal” goes back long before Rove. The first time I ever heard “liberal” used as (something assumed to be) a pejorative was in The Logical Song by Supertramp.

25

AYY 05.16.08 at 5:30 am

“I thought Bill Clinton had a very solid liberal foreign policy philosophy: international prosperity saves American lives. He very clearly believed that people who had hope, economically, wouldn’t become terrorists or rebels or anything else that we’d later have to fight.”

Well, that pretty much proved not to be the case.
Clinton didn’t see that people can be motivated by ideology. If he had, we might have been better off today.

26

notsneaky 05.16.08 at 7:29 am

You know that by the time of the Battle of the Ebro they were down to like five cents per share.

27

Barry 05.16.08 at 11:30 am

Me: “It’s amazing how often right-wingers do that, while frequently denying that they’re right-wingers.”

Dan Simon: “It’s amazing how often idiots say that, while frequently denying that they’re idiots.”

Oh, a rejoinder of cutting wit!

28

jon 05.16.08 at 11:59 am

Matt: For an earlier & much more trenchant use of liberal as a pejorative, try this.

29

Q 05.16.08 at 1:23 pm

Why is this hard to understand? Liberals talk about why their policies are good because there are good arguments for (almost all of) their policies. Republicans talk about how their policies are Conservative(TM) because “what’s good for rich people is good for the country” isn’t really that good of an argument.

30

Matt Weiner 05.16.08 at 9:48 pm

jon — I guess the difference is when “liberal” became a slur from the right — it wouldn’t make sense for Ochs to say “a radical, a liberal, fanatical” the way history’s greatest monster did. Hodgson doesn’t subscribe to that critique, but that makes it even more potent — he takes it as generally accepted that other people view “liberal” as a curse word for fanatics.

31

Dan Simon 05.17.08 at 12:33 am

I guess the difference is when “liberal” became a slur from the right

How about this, from Christopher Guest in 1975? The fact that it’s a dead-on parody of Pete Seeger suggests strongly that it’s not a critique from the left…

32

Matt Weiner 05.17.08 at 1:36 am

That reads to me like a critique from the left: Guest is making fun of liberals for condescending to those they claim to help. “Middle-class” isn’t part of the right-wing critique of liberals; if anything, they’d call them “limousine liberals” (which was coined before 1975, anyway).

33

Righteous Bubba 05.17.08 at 2:07 am

It reads like a critique from the funny. National Lampoon spared nobody but you’d be hard-pressed to find the writers waving the flag for Nixon.

34

AYY 05.18.08 at 7:45 am

“Why is this hard to understand? Liberals talk about why their policies are good because there are good arguments for (almost all of) their policies.”

Okay, then let’s see what liberals support. Immediate pull out from Iraq. Nope, that won’t work. Higher taxes. That won’t work either. Affirmative action. That doesn’t work. Abortion on demand. That’s no good. International Criminal Court. That’s no good. Kyoto. That’s no good either. National health care. Like England? Gun confiscation. As the proverb says “More guns less crime.”

“Republicans talk about how their policies are Conservative™ because “what’s good for rich people is good for the country” isn’t really that good of an argument.”

But that’s not the argument, unless you define “rich” as anyone in the middle class.

35

abb1 05.18.08 at 9:21 am

I agree that abortion on demand is no good. Sorry, liberals, that’s just too much, reservation should be required, at least 2 days in advance.

36

Dave 05.19.08 at 3:10 pm

Why “more guns less crime”? Why not “armed criminal, assuming victim is armed, shoots guy in head, takes wallet from corpse; bystanders spray bullets around, miss the criminal, kill other bystanders, are mistaken by the police for criminals, and are shot dead; the criminal escapes in the confusion”?

Seems at least as likely to me.

37

abb1 05.19.08 at 5:33 pm

Bystanders shooting other bystanders by mistake and the police shooting them by mistake are not crimes. That’s merely collateral damage.

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