Friday, May 18, 2012

Q Day 1: Why the Crazy?

Let's get it rolling. Matt D. asks:

I know you talk about how dysfunctional the GOP caucus is, but what do you think is causing it, and what can be done about it?
Why do you think polarization has been so asymmetric? Why would one party become so extreme while another becomes less extreme?
I don't know the answer to this one, and I don't think anybody does. I have two basic answers to "why the crazy?" on the GOP side, but I'll stress that they're quite speculative.

Factor one is the conservative marketplace: there just seems to be a lot of consumers for right-wing crazy, whether it's the success of Glenn Beck in his many platforms, or the conservative books that dominate the NYT best seller lists, or...well, no need to go through it all. As far as why that is, I don't really know; I've seen some smart-sounding speculation, but nothing that was conclusive at all. Regardless of where it comes from, the effect is that it creates all sorts of bizarre incentives for embracing the crazy.

Factor two is the perverse influence of a handful of Republican leaders over the years who were particularly destructive in their political styles. I'm mainly thinking of Nixon and Newt. Both parties have had shrewd and sharp partisans, but Nixon and Newt were different; they were institution-destroyers, and their success (which at least in Newt's case had little to do with his institution-destruction) made it likely that they would be emulated. As far as I'm concerned, that's just luck. I might, even more speculatively, talk a bit about Reagan. Reagan wasn't exactly anti-intellectual, but I do get the sense that his success (and of course especially his perceived success among Republicans) may get his semi-known-nothing style emulated as well. Note, though: this is all speculative, and it's easy to see holes in the argument! Reagan wasn't an institution-destroyer; Nixon had, and projected as having, detailed factual knowledge at his command at all times. So in wondering if Republicans have emulated the worst in them, well, I can see someone saying that it's unlikely.

As far as how to dig out of this, I have no idea.


  1. Perhaps, more structurally, it has more to do with big business buying/creating a party to serve its (in many ways diverse) interests. In Supercapitalism, Robert Reich posited that Darwininan global competition, ramped up largely by technological forces in the 70s, drove businesses to seek advantage via lobbying as ferociously as they must do in every other arena, in a self-reinforcing spiral that drove each to offset legislative favors won or sought by competitors. Along with diverse, competing interests, there are the broad shared interests: deregulation and low taxes -- and also the attendant institutional corruption as one party is consistently even more responsive than the other. Ideology is just ginned up -- or vacuumed up, the ideas are always out there and even believed by those whose interests they serve -- to justify the policies that serve business interests, whether directly, by low reg and taxes, or indirectly, by tying a set of social policies to the helpful economic ones and thus pulling in a broad base of evangelicals.

  2. I think it starts with the broad ideologies. American conservatism takes "small government" as an end in and of itself; even if a smaller government means worse health care for Americans, it's still worth having, because larger government is ipso facto bad. American Liberalism, though, in the modern era, is not so convinced of any one premise. It's more results oriented. Obamacare will help people, so it's worth pursuing. But airline deregulation helped people to, so Ted Kennedy and Stephen Breyer worked on it.

    You've just got one broad strain of political thought that's committed to an ideal, and one that's committed to results.

  3. I think that we have both answers (why the crazy continues, and the way out) right here.

    Jonathan, unlike nearly every "serious" pundit across the pundit-sphere, is willing to call a spade a spade. The rest of them take the crazies seriously. WaPo, NYT, Politico, ABC, NBC, all refuse to acknowledge that the right-wing crazies are embraced by the Republicans, while the Democrats do not embrace the left-wing crazies. This is a prerequisite to being invited to the "serious" shows, etc. And until mainstream pundits get some balls and are willing to identify right-wing craziness, our political atmosphere will continue in its idiocy.

    1. I have a way out for you.

      Have the FTC compel cable companies to create an "unsubscribe" function. Consumers could unsubscribe to a small number (maybe 10?) cable channels and receive a small rebate. Information about levels of unsubscription would be made publicly available.

      Currently, advertisers don't care if people find shows offensive, because they can't shut down the ad network, and you're going to see their ads as you channel surf past the nasty shows. Unsubscription would drive two separate and compatible behaviors: reduction of offensiveness, and inclusion of more diverse shows.

      Why? I'm only going to go to the trouble of unsubscribing to channels I find offensive, and that have no other redeeming value to me. And if no one else in my household objects, none of us are going to see any ads on that network. Networks would thus have an incentive to either purge offensive shows, or to provide other content that I would find interesting. Thus, individual networks would have a reason to provide a diversity of work to their viewers.

      Let's say I'm a grandma, and I think that the modern cartoons on Cartoon Network are all stupid. I unsubscribe. Cartoon Network would likely react by re-introducing old classics, to lure Granny back. Similarly, in a household with a partisan and an independent, the partisan would unsubscribe to networks that were almost entirely offensive to their viewpoint. As ad revenue declined for those groups, they would have a reason to branch out.

      Heck, it's worth a try. I think the rise of cable network bundling is really the problem.

  4. I think you are letting Reagan off too easily here. Reagan was, after all, the speaker of the famous line that "Government IS the problem," which became the rallying point for the institution destruction that Newt et. al. fomented. And we cannot avoid the influence of the AM radio and Fox, as well as the overall segmentation permitted by the cable TV revolution. So, with the Right Wing Noise Machine re-defining reasonable journalism as "left wing," it becomes impossible to maintain any reasonable discourse. I think, as purusha above, the "responsible" media let us down by acceding to the RWNM.

  5. I'd respectfully disagree with purusha. The audience for "mainstream pundits" is actually quite small. Our news environment is so fragmented that people frequently cocoon themselves in ideas that "feel true". For example in Arizona, if we're lucky, our Republican representatives get their news from Fox News and maybe a little CNN. If we're not lucky, they get it from Rush, Levin, crazy conspiracy websites. So I would say "epistemic closure" is definitely one of the main causes

  6. It's been long in the development, beginning with "Nixon's Southern Strategy". Right-wing media (Faux News, Limbaugh, et al) promote madness for profit. The plutocrats (e.g., Kochs) promote madness to advance their social/political goals, often via far-right propaganda groups like AFP.

    The madness is a tool

  7. Anyone know where/when the idea that the mainstream media is liberal became widely accepted? I know it's at least the 80s (because that's when I heard it as a kid from my dad, who while not particularly political just accepted it as true), so I don't think we can blame that on the modern "RWNM".

    Another clue that this occurred before the fracturing of the media is that when I learned this, it was not the "mainstream media" that was biased, but the "media" period.

    1. Anon, I think that idea became current in the Vietnam era. The right back then was angry with the TV networks and major papers for accurately reporting what a disaster the Vietnam War was, and also for covering antiwar protests and leaking the Pentagon Papers. When Nixon campaigned as the spokesman for the "silent majority," he meant the Americans who weren't out protesting and therefore weren't getting attention on TV. Nixon also chose a vice president, Agnew, whose stock in trade was slamming the media as "nattering nabobs of negativism" (the last time anyone has used the word "nabob" in an English sentence). Then, when both Nixon and Agnew were found out as crooks, that too was blamed on news reporting, so by the early '70s at the latest the "liberal media" meme was fully in place.

    2. @Jeff:
      That is simply not true. I use the word "nabob" all the time. Of course, every time is in reference to Agnew, but still......


    3. I know, we owe him (and William Safire, his speechwriter) something at least for keeping that great tradition alive. :)

    4. isn't it "nattering nabobs of negativity?" anyway, I'd think much worse of Safire's ear if it were really "negativism"

    5. Sorry, "negativism," according to WikiQuote. Maybe he felt that "negativity" didn't scan.

  8. The anti-government rhetoric and ideology, which grew and simplified over the years, essentially turned the GOP into an institutionalized populist/protest party, courting an audience on expressive terms -- even the supposedly sophisticated elite business class. The Democrats did not go this route, systematically snuffing out and ostracizing populist instincts, which for the left-of-center would have gone in the direction of anti-private power/capitalist excess. Democrats indulged this side of itself intermittently, but they actively worked to purge it as part of their central identity. What I wonder is to what degree these evolutions were rational political strategies by the respective parties' elites in pursuit of securing power? Were they the optimal responses to what coalitional possibilities existed in late-20th-century America? Or is it better to see them as contingent, autonomous choices by the actors that could lead down relatively rational or irrational paths?

  9. All political ideologies must have noble and base versions; were it not for the misleading connection to "high Broderism", you might label this "High" and "Low" Conservatism, The most familiar example in this community is probably Libertarianism, where the 'High' Libertarian has a particular vision of the social compact relying heavily on individual rights; the 'Low' Libertarian just doesn't want others to take his shit.

    While the 'High' Conservative may have a Hayekian/Burkean view (similar in some respects to the 'High' Libertarian), the 'Low' Conservative, like his Libertarian brethren, just doesn't want you to touch his shit. Closing the loop, the 'Low' Liberal might be the caricature of Socialist/forced equality/stick-it-to-the-Man that liberals here often mock.

    What separates the conservative from the liberal in this regard is that the 'High' Conservative, though never admitting it, probably sees the masses in their tent more as useful idiots than the 'High' liberals do the masses in their tent. If the media seems to be 'Low' Conservative-oriented, that's probably a reflection of the fact that the mass of men, who used to live lives of quiet desperation, now have a voice in this consumer-friendly, frenzied media environment.

    Its tempting, especially if your biases are in the other direction, to interpret from the zeitgeist (the 'low' Conservatives) what's really going on in the party. I don't know the answer, but consider: that party is about to nominate for President, and thus as spiritual leader of the party, a man that those 'low' Conservatives deeply and profoundly despise.

    When the circus comes to town, we shouldn't necessarily overstate why its here.

  10. Oh, wow.

    What separates the conservative from the liberal in this regard is that the 'High' Conservative, though never admitting it, probably sees the masses in their tent more as useful idiots than the 'High' liberals do the masses in their tent.

    The difference is that Conservatives have contempt for their supporters?

    Is that why they don't want to pay for their health insurance?

    1. I tend to agree with CSH's comment, except that I would say that High Liberals are aware that there aren't really any masses in their tent. The masses are outside the tent, getting played for suckers by demagogues like Robertson, Limbaugh and Beck.

  11. Why Americans Hate the Media and Why it Matters.

  12. You folks here are a pretty closed circle of liberal Democrats. There is not much craziness in the Republican Party, it is just that starting with Reagan the party became a fairly effective force for the material interests of private sector middle and upper class white voters. In the Eisenhower-Nixon-Ford days, Republicans were a much more politically amorphous group, and now we're a party that fights as effectively for the interests of people who earn above average incomes in the private sector as Democrats fight for their black, Hispanic, poor, union and social service provider base. American politics has become a battle between net payers and net consumers of tax dollars, and Republicans since 1980 have fought much more effectively for the net payers than they did before that date.

    1. So to explain, then, when we liberals talk about "the crazy" in the Republican party, we mean things like:

      End of Days talk
      The desire to return to the gold standard
      The belief that governors should select Senators
      The belief that Obama was born in Kenya
      The belief that they are currently paying more in taxes than they did during Reagan's or Clinton's administration
      The belief that the Obama administration has enacted a huge amount of regulations
      The belief that health insurance for others is tyranny for them


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