Gimmicks and the GOP

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American History, conservatism, Republican Party

Patrick Ruffini’s article “The Joe-the-Plumberization of the GOP” is as fascinating for what it unintentionally reveals as for what Ruffini argues. Let’s start here –

If you want to get a sense of how unserious and ungrounded most Americans think the Republican Party is, look no further than how conservatives elevate Joe the Plumber as a spokesman. The movement has become so gimmick-driven that Wurzelbacher will be a conservative hero long after people have forgotten what his legitimate policy beef with Obama was.

I’ll leave aside how legitimate Wurzelbacher’s policy beef was, and say that otherwise I pretty much agree with Ruffini. On to the next paragraph:

Since its very beginnings as a movement, conservatism has bought into liberalism’s dominant place in the American political process. They controlled all the major institutions: the media, academia, Hollywood, the Democratic Party, large segments of the Republican Party, and consequently, the government. Liberalism’s image of conservatives in the ’50s and ’60s as paranoid Birchers gave birth to a conservative movement self-conscious of its minority status. As in any tribe that is small in number and can’t fully trust its most natural allies (i.e. the business community or the Republican Party), the meta-debate of who is inside and outside the tribe is magnified exponentially.

Is he saying conservatism did not exist before the 1950s? It’s more accurate to say that the current wave of movement conservatism was born after World War II, rising from the ashes of the conservatism that had pushed back against the New Deal and was opposed to taking sides against Hitler until after Hitler’s declaration of war on the U.S., in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack.

The Right’s climb back to political relevance began with the myth that Roosevelt somehow sold out to Stalin at Yalta (see Kevin Baker’s essential “Stabbed in the Back” from the June 2006 Harper’s). Of course, after the Joe McCarthy debacle had died down the GOP in the 1950s was more or less steered by moderates whose disagreements with Dems were more often in degree than in kind. But you all know the sad story of how the pseudo-conservatives morphed into Goldwater conservatives who morphed into Reagan conservatives, and how these conservatives insist on lockstep ideological purity, so that Eisenhower-style moderates are no longer welcome in the party.

There were, of course, some conservative intellectuals like Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley who managed to slap a veneer of erudition over ideological conservatism. But the rough beast that movement conservatism has become doesn’t know Kirk from mooseburgers, and even Buckley had more or less washed his hands of it before he died.

Ruffini continues,

The legacy of that early movement — alive and well at CPAC and in the conservative institutions that still exist today — is one driven inordinately by this question of identity. We have paeans to Reagan (as if we needed to be reminded again of just how much things suck in comparison today), memorabilia honoring 18th century philosophers that we wouldn’t actually wear in the outside world, and code-word laden speeches that focus on a few hot button issues that leave us ill-equipped to actually govern conservatively on 80% of issues when we actually do get elected.

For whatever reason, conservatives do tend to live in a mythologized past that never actually existed. But I would say that current “movement conservatives” don’t even have coherent issues any more. They have talking points. And the reason they are ill-equipped to actually govern conservatively is that they are ill-equipped to govern at all. “Movement conservatism” is so debased it has no philosophy of government, other than whatever them libruhls is fer, we’re agin’ it.

This culture of identity politics means we get especially defensive about the Liberal Majority’s main lines of attack, because we think of our position as inherently fragile.

There’s a Liberal Majority? Who knew? What happened to the center-right nation?

The truth is, from the 1980s and until about 2006 the Right had thoroughly run true liberalism entirely off the political radar. Genuine liberals, as opposed to ideological centrists who played liberals on TeeVee, were so marginalized in this country we were damn near invisible even to each other. (The Right mistook Bill Clinton for a liberal, but he was not. Clinton never governed as a liberal, but as a triangulator who finessed the Right rather than defeat it.)

But even when they had all the government, all the media, all the attention to themselves, the Right continued to run against the demon liberals they imagined lurked under every bed. Because that’s all they had. Ultimately, when you strip away the rhetoric and the posturing, all they have is resentment of whatever they think “liberalism” is. They have no interest in governing.

Skipping a bit –

This is so different than the psychology of the left. The left assumes that it is culturally superior and the natural party of government and fights aggressively to frame any conservative incursion on that turf as somehow alien and unnatural. (The “Oh God…” whisper being the perfect illustration.) They dominate Hollywood not by actively branding liberalism in their movies, but by coolly associating liberal policy ideas with sentiments everyone feels, like love (gay marriage) or fairness (the little guy vs. some evil corporate stiff).

Well, yeah, people do tend to approve of love and fairness and like to see these things reflected in popular entertainment. This has been true since at least Shakespeare’s time. But it’s not as if liberals get together and plan what values they are going to promote in next year’s films. It’s more a matter of liberalism by nature being more creative, I think. Whenever conservatives try to be creative they come across as either mean or smarmy. Or both. It’s the nature of the beast.

Skipping ahead –

Put another way, Republicans thrive as the party of normal Americans — the people in the middle culturally and economically. This is true of our leadership as well — we have a history of nominating figures who came first from outside politics. Our base is the common-sense voter in the middle who bought a house she could afford and didn’t lavishly overspend in good times and who is now subsidizing the person who didn’t.

That’s how Republicans want to see themselves, but I don’t think that’s been true for a long time. The suburbs didn’t abandon the GOP in the last election because of Barack Obama’s dazzling rhetoric. They abandoned the GOP because the GOP has nothing to offer them except culture war and erosion of the health care system.

This is why Obama’s pitch is fundamentally off-key if framed correctly. People’s first instincts in a recession are not to overspend, but to tighten their belts.

Yes, and a frightened horse’s first instinct is to run back into the stable, even if the stable is on fire. But it is because people are tightening belts that the government has to pump cash into the economy asap.

In these serious times, conservatives need to get serious and ditch the gimmicks and the self-referential credentializing and talk to the entire country. If the average apolitical American walked into CPAC or any movement conservative gathering would they feel like they learned something new or that we presented a vision compelling to them in their daily lives?

A compelling vision is one thing; knowing one’s ass from one’s elbow is something else. The GOP is basically in denial of the nature of the problems we face, which is why they can’t come up with solutions that might work in the real world. The GOP needs to do more than just scrap the gimmicks. It needs to take a deep breath, calm down, and think hard about what government is and what citizens need from it. What is the appropriate role of government? “None” is no longer a viable answer.

This is why I love Newt’s emphasis on finding 80/20 issues and defining them in completely non-ideological terms.

You want to know what “Newt’s emphasis” is? I followed Ruffini’s links and came to this. It’s a bleeping joke. Just a laundry list of discrete right-wing bugaboos like making English the official language and keeping “One nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Please.

Like I said, this is as fascinating for what it reveals as it is for what Ruffini argues.

Update:
See also The American Conservative, Daniel Larison, “Needed: Confidence And Wisdom.”

It seems to me that conservatives and Republicans have assumed the GOP is the natural governing party, at least regarding the Presidency and to some extent as it relates to Congress since ‘94, which is why so many have continued to insist that America is a “center-right nation” in face of mounting evidence that it is not and hasn’t been for a while. Symbolic gimmickry does stem in part from a lack of confidence, but it is more the product of a movement and party that have ceased to understand, much less address, most of the pressing concerns of working- and middle-class Americans. The party assumes that all it needs to do is show up, push the right pseudo-populist buttons and reap the rewards, and for the most part the movement cheers. See Palin, Sarah.

The GOP settles for offering “symbolic, substance-free BS” because enough conservatives are already persuaded that Republican policies obviously benefit the middle class, so there is no pressure to make Republican policy actually serve the interests of Republican constituents. It is taken for granted that this is already happening, but voters have been showing for several cycles that many of them do not believe this. Politically Democrats have been gaining ground in such unlikely places as Ohio and Indiana, which would be inexplicable if the GOP obviously and reliably represented working- and middle-class Americans. Of course, lately these voters don’t see it that way, but instead see the right’s pseudo-populists denounce workers for being overpaid, reject measures that would direct some spending to American industries that their free trade zeal has helped gut and even talk about a spending freeze in the middle of a severe recession.

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20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. moonbat  •  Feb 26, 2009 @4:46 pm

    I got a kick out of Newt’s 80/20 issues. It’s reminiscent of his “Contract With America” from the 90s, only a hundred times more shrivelled and pathetic. These people seem like they’re teleported from the 19th century into the 21st, and this is their horse and buggy list of ideas to improve America.

    Ruffini wrote: Republicans thrive as the party of normal Americans — the people in the middle culturally and economically… Our base is the common-sense voter in the middle who bought a house she could afford and didn’t lavishly overspend in good times and who is now subsidizing the person who didn’t.

    True, but the Republican party hasn’t been in this position since about Nixon or Ford – who, as moderates, would’ve been expelled from today’s party. It’s years if not decades away from representing anything like normal people in this country. The whole Palinist groundswell has to be discharged or marginalized. The monster the owners of the Republican party created has to be dispatched to the dungeon.

    You wrote: For whatever reason, conservatives do tend to live in a mythologized past that never actually existed.

    I knew several conservatives around the time of Reagan who wanted to take the country back to what they saw as its fundamentals, around the time of the founders. Nevermind that they weren’t alive back then, it’s this wishful nostalgia for simpler times, coupled with a belief that this could actually work in today’s day and age, and is preferable to what we have today. This is part of Joe the Simpleton’s appeal. They don’t appreciate or care that the world we’re in is much more complicated, and they resent having to share power or money with those ethnicities or races who came or rose up later. They think living in the past is a great idea.

    The Plutocrats work to simplify or tilt the playing field to their favor, and actively work toward de-complexifying/destroying the system of fair play liberals created, reverting to a simpler form of this country that existed years ago, creating havoc as a result. Liberals build up, Conservatives destroy, in a yin/yang cycle. The last eight years were all about destruction.

    It’s not so much that Conservatives don’t believe in government – they certainly don’t to the degree Liberals do – it’s that they want much, much less of it, and don’t really care if it works or not, nor are they all that capable of making it work. Their idea of it working is not about serving the public, but about enriching their circle of friends, the aristocracy – this is their answer to your question of What Government is For.

    They’re a party full of negative passion – they hate the modern world, they hate modern government, they hate liberals (moderns), they hate anyone not like them – and so there’s no room for anything positive, except for tiny, fifth rate ideas like making English the official language – itself a manifestation of hating the Other. I see a long time in the wilderness for these small minded, hateful people, while we begin the cycle of repair and creation.

    And yes, they’re nothing but the party of gimmicks now. In fact they always were, it’s just that whatever ideas papered over the gimmicks have become threadbare. Barry Goldwater’s honesty scared the rest of the country, and so the Republicans concluded that they have to deceive and gimmick their way into power. This draws the most vile people – the pathological liars who love lying and deception – into their circle – which dramatically ups the amount of delusion this group engages in, and which dramatically extends the time these people will be out in the wilderness.

    Their willingness to believe in their own gimmickry and self-righteousness is just another aspect of their willingness to believe in their never-neverland of the mythic past. It’s childish.

  2. joanr16  •  Feb 26, 2009 @6:15 pm

    Liberalism’s image of conservatives in the ’50s and ’60s as paranoid Birchers gave birth to a conservative movement self-conscious of its minority status.

    Those who cannot correctly remember history are doomed to look stupid.

  3. c u n d gulag  •  Feb 26, 2009 @6:34 pm

    moonbt,
    Right on!
    My favorite was number 6: Congress should make it a crime to advocate acts of terrorism, violent conduct, or the killing of innocent people in the United States. (83 to 12).
    Anyone watch Glen Beck? He’s OPENLY telling people to get ready for a Civil War against the Liberal’s.
    Ever hear of Timothy McVeigh? Not exactly a LIBERAL terrorist.
    Listen to Rush? Uh, he’s openly flirted with sedition.
    Watch as the number of neo-Nazi, pure Nazi, and KKK groups increase with every day.
    The conservative movement is nothing more than the extension of the Confederacy. From state’s right’s, to the anti-Civil Right’s, anti-women, and anti-gay movement’s (basically, what we call Civil Right’s…), this is what these people stand for. It’s a return to the late 18th Century in American politic’s and state’s right’s; and back to the 17th Century for politic’s and religious co-governing.
    It scares the shit out of most of the country. Always has and always will. Give them credit for the last 40+ years of making something so hateful and disrectful of peoples civil and economic rights sound appealing to the rest of the nation – through fear. It is their only tool. Their ONLY TOOL!
    And now, like the boy who cried wolf, or Chicken Little, those in the county who aren’t openly laughing at them, are ignoring them.
    How does a party with such a narrow focus come out of its corner? I have no clue. And, further more, I hope they never do.
    A party bereft of new idea’s, and with no guiding light, can do nothing to illuminate the future. It think this country is finally awakening to that.
    Hopefully, in time…

  4. Daphne Chyprious  •  Feb 26, 2009 @7:46 pm

    What a terrific rebuttal. Please assure me you mailed or will mail it to Ruffini.

  5. khughes1963  •  Feb 26, 2009 @9:47 pm

    Excellent commentary-well argued.

  6. Craig  •  Feb 27, 2009 @12:38 am

    Just to add some more perspective on Republicans in the 1950s, the John Birchers were the offspring of the China Lobby of the 1930s and 40s, the clowns who tried to sell the autocratic and corrupt Chiang Kai Shek as democratic, Christian and the great hope of China. The idea that the Chinese had to choose between the extremes of Mao or Chiang still has its echoes (or caricatures) in the American politics of today.

    Another note: the press of the early 1930s bent over backwards for the China Lobby. A famous and truly absurd headline went something like: Chiang Sends 500,000 troops to Quell Hill Bandits. The hill bandits were the communists, most of whom had been allied with Chiang only a few years earlier. This was civil war, not a local action against a band of thieves.

  7. self exile  •  Feb 27, 2009 @1:27 am

    Very coherent line. There is very little left that Republicans will not do to the United States. Anything for power. They have totally abandoned any claim to morality or decency in the last 40 years. Anyone with a claim to be conservative is now about two inches from a fascist and I have never used that word as an description of a conservative before. I am afraid that they may just push each other off of the cliff and we will have dead and dying in the streets.

    I weep for my country.

  8. farang  •  Feb 27, 2009 @1:52 am

    cun d gulag:

    While I would agree with virtually all of the comments and this article’s points about Republicans and Conservativies, I have to take exception with the statement that the Republican party is a “nothing more than an extension of the Confederacy.”

    You mean to tell me that the Republican Lincoln was a Democrat???? THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT RUSH LIMBAUGH ALLEGES. That “today’s Conservatives were yesterdays Liberals.” Hog.Wash. I’d reconsider that statement of yours.

    As a life-long Liberal, and a person who grew up three miles from Robert E. Lee’s home (and D.C.), and I can state quite easily that I fully support State Rights, like not having the Federal government overrule the voters of a state and raid medical marijuana outlets. Like not taking a $1.00 in California taxes, and return 79 cents, while West Virginia pays $1.00, and gets back $1.10.

    Perhaps you desire a central government over local rule.

    I do not.

    I’d suggest reading the Articles of Confederation, the predecessor of our Bill of Rights and Constitution for further enlightenment on our history. Perhaps you can just plead ignorance on that subject?

    These TWO parties, Democrats and Republicans, are Lobby-owned and controlled Corporatists, better known as Fascists.

    Period.

    And disparaging the men who died defending their RIGHT to self-determination over a centralized government by comparing them to modern day fascists makes YOU the ignorant fool. 90%+ of those fighting owned no slaves.

    Slavery was not the issue of the Civil War. Good PR made it that during the conflict. Read what the Democratic president Lincoln (your allegation, not mine) stated about African-Americans before the War between the States began. But you like Lincoln,, don’t you?

    Frankly, I have a “Fist Amendment” awaiting the fool who tells me Southern Civil War soldiers were fighting FOR Republican values.

  9. maha  •  Feb 27, 2009 @8:12 am

    farang — the Republican Party of the 19th century no longer exists. It morphed into something else entirely, and in the 1950s through 1970s the old Dixiecrats who had once been Democrats switched their allegiance to the GOP. Whenever today’s Republican Party claims Lincoln as a member, it’s a joke.

    So although what c u n d gulag said might be an over-simplification, it’s essentially correct. Much of today’s “movement conservatism” that inhabits the GOP is the ideological great-great grandchild of the old secessionists.

    Even as recently as a century ago, the Republican Party was the more liberal and progressive of the two parties. A century ago, Dems were mostly for states’ rights, isolationism, and tax cuts. But then the two parties did a slow do-si-do and switched places, and by the 1970s the switch was complete. Particularly as the Democrats moved Left on civil rights and embraced desegregation, voting rights, and LBJ’s Great Society, the Republicans moved also and took over the Dems’ abandoned territory on the Right.

    You can see this most clearly in voting patterns. Fifty years ago, “solid south” meant that the southern states reliably voted for Democrats. Now it means they vote for Republicans. The voting pattern didn’t change; the parties did.

    I don’t know if Lincoln would be a Democrat today, because our times are so alien to Lincoln’s times that it is foolish to assume how his 19th century views would function in today’s political landscape. However, in the context of his own times he would have been considered moderately liberal.

    If you want to know why southern states seceded in 1860 and 1861, you really ought to check out the declarations of causes documents drawn up by the secession conventions of the seceding states. Their primary reason, stated clearly, was to protect the institution of slavery. They supported states’ rights only as far as it supported their arguments in favor of slavery.

    In short, dear, you have no idea what you are talking about.

  10. erinyes  •  Feb 27, 2009 @9:05 am

    Wow!
    Clearly, Farang is VERY passonate about the cival war and the south.
    ‘Gulag is a regular friendly commentor at this site, please don’t be so snarky with him.
    Interesting post, Maha.
    I remember getting annoyed with the “erudite” Buckley, it seemed his philosophy was that if you used language that sent the masses scurring for a dictonary you were the all-knowing sage. Sadly, Buckley was followed by a group that thought winning a debate is based on who screams the loudest and hurls the most insults.

    I think it all goes back to the neo-con daddies, Leo Strauss and Irving Kristol; the myth of American exceptionalism. Get the masses immersed in worship of military, God, and power; get them to love authority and be wary of dissent.
    Divide and conquer.

    When I hear all this nonsense from the right about the irresponsible louts who bought homes they knew they couldn’t afford, I wonder about the irresponsible real estate agents who worked the deal, the appraisers who “fudged” the numbers, and the mortgage brokers who spun reality to get the deal through while the overlords were too busy kissing the asses of “their base” of the” haves and have mores”. Then , when things went south, they trained their guns on the UAW, and Joe Sixpack bought it!

    The sad reality is that barely a week before the media broke the story of our financial armegeddon, John McCain announced that the “fundamentals” of our economy are strong, Sarah Palin claims Obama “Pals around” with terrorists, and the caracature know as “Joe the Plumber” was hailed as the new Republican base model.
    The child born of “creative destruction” and “creating new realities” stands naked for all to see.

  11. joanr16  •  Feb 27, 2009 @9:16 am

    I can’t really follow farang’s comment. For instance, the statement

    You mean to tell me that the Republican Lincoln was a Democrat???? THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT RUSH LIMBAUGH ALLEGES

    suggests that the present-day Right is disowning Lincoln, when in fact the opposite is true. What they are claiming is that they’re still the same sort of Republicans as Lincoln, which is obviously, laughably untrue.

    farang starts off by misquoting c u n d gulag, who actually wrote:

    The conservative movement is nothing more than the extension of the Confederacy.

    Nothing untrue about that statement. In the 19th Century, the Democrats were the conservatives. Over the last 100 years, they’ve become increasingly more liberal than the Republicans, who are now, and have been since before the Great Depression, the “conservative movement.”

    Other than that, I get the strong feeling farang’s claim to be “a life-long Liberal” should have read “a life-long Libertarian.”

  12. joanr16  •  Feb 27, 2009 @9:19 am

    Must add, I’m pleasantly amazed that Daniel Larison’s spot-on comments are published in something called The American Conservative.

  13. c u n d gulag  •  Feb 27, 2009 @10:14 am

    maha and joan,
    Thank you for the help :-)

  14. maha  •  Feb 27, 2009 @10:40 am

    I remember getting annoyed with the “erudite” Buckley, it seemed his philosophy was that if you used language that sent the masses scurring for a dictonary you were the all-knowing sage.

    Buckley was always more about intellectual shtick than insight. I remember watching him on television back in the 1960s, when he often “won” debates with liberals by picking apart their syntax or vocabulary instead of discussing the substance of their arguments.

  15. erinyes  •  Feb 27, 2009 @2:46 pm

    maha, your photo is too cute for words. (does spell check work in haloscan?)

  16. Doug Hughes  •  Feb 27, 2009 @8:12 pm

    Farang “90%= of those [confederates] owned no slaves.”

    I think you know your history, so you are presuming we don’t. Slaveowners with more than 3 slaves were exempt from the Confederate draft. So they fit right in with those Republicans who never served – the clowns who thought up the Iraq war. That decision – the rich do not have to serve in the war – made the Civil war the rich mans war, the Southern Aristocracy making the poor bleed for their riches & privilege. The Republicans did (under Bush) and are still trying to protect the current aristocracy.

  17. maha  •  Feb 27, 2009 @8:50 pm

    I think a Confederate had to own 20 slaves to be exempt. The majority of whites in the South did subsistence farming and didn’t own slaves, but they supported the status quo mostly out of racism.

  18. muldoon  •  Feb 28, 2009 @12:43 am

    Wow, loved your post, Maha, and thoroughly enjoy and appreciate the responses to it. No snark. No put downs. Just civilized and mutually respectful discussion. What a breath of fresh air!

    My thanks and appreciation to all.

  19. Crazy for Urban Planning  •  Feb 28, 2009 @11:54 pm

    I sometimes don’t get around to reading this great blog until the end of the week and I have expressed my general confusion about these people in the first essay. While Barbara and the commentators have added meat to the bone, the new information only adds to my confusion. Why are the conservatives so angry? Haven’t their politicians been elected in five of the last eight elections? Is it really just a bunch of small minded people who want to live in a simpler life with no government? It brings up so many questions for me: Do they know how they would drive down the street to work without roads? Would health care improve with no government regulations? How would they ever buy meat or other food products with no safety inspections? Do they think private industries ought to sort out natural disasters such as Hurricanes or volcanoes? Wouldn’t conducting commerce agreements become more difficult with no government to set the rules? I see government as something that does so many things that make people’s lives easier, but these “conservatives” don’t appear to acknowledge that fact.

  20. CabinInThe Woods  •  Mar 1, 2009 @11:51 am

    Conservatives: The older we get, the better we were.

    In my opinion, the main reason the Repugs are adrift is that “the people” have never really mattered to them. They have “voters” and they have “constituents.” The former is a token term used in pandering; the latter (in their minds) refers to their major donors.

    Usually, “the people” kind of take care of themselves, so all the conservatives did was complain that they wanted something from their government that they didn’t really need and didn’t deserve. They could still be ignored (and simultaneously screwed).

    Now that “the people” actually need something from their government (much of it reparations), the Repugs are at a loss because they cannot even get to Step 1, which is to acknowledge their existence (aside from their usefulness as fodder).



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