Friday, October 4, 2013

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Ed Halicki, 63.

Good stuff -- all on one question, today:

1. Why is the Republican Party broken? Regular readers know my answers. But worth considering the alternatives. It's 40 years of frustration!, says Ross Douthat.

2. It's George W. Bush!, says Dan Larison.

3. It's the end of the Cold War!, says Matt Yglesias.

I should say: of the three, I think Douthat's is the most interesting one -- because it dovetails so nicely with mine, which primarily composed of two parts. First, the success of the conservative marketplace; second, the influence of a small group of malevolent influences -- the McCarthy/Nixon/Newt legacy. The former, in that it is not remotely duplicated on the Democratic side, I cannot explain; the latter I consider mostly dumb luck. At any rate, the combined effects of these two things -- perverse incentives that compete with healthy electoral incentives, the conservative closed information loop, the unusual degree of openness to hucksters and frauds -- seem to explain, to me, most of what's gone wrong with the party.

50 comments:

  1. What about Juan Linz's structural explanation: presidential democracy tends toward polarization & gridlock, effects delayed in US more or less by accident but maturing now? (That may not be Linz: all I know is in this Slate article http://slate.me/19Z2Vee .) I also gather, from your enthusiasm for not-entirely-majoritarian democracy, that you'd not subscribe to this.

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    1. I would second that question, and also reframe it slightly as follows: whatever we make of Linz's specific case, what good reason is there to suppose that a system of "dual legitimacy," as he calls it -- i.e. one in which opposing parties can both claim current mandates and can control parts of the government at the same time -- will ultimately be stable, that it won't eventually give way to hostage-taking and the like as we're currently seeing? It seems axiomatic that given any two parties, one of the two is going to be less committed to process-based principles and more determined to get its preferred results without worrying about long-term damage to the political system as such. That party is bound to notice, at some point, that the levers of power it controls enable it to bring government to a halt and to try to extort concessions from the other side. Yes? Why should we expect any "Madisonian" system to avoid this trap, when the design of such systems makes it such an obvious temptation?

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    2. I have been wondering about this as well. There's all this talk about Obama needing to stand firm so that minority rule by extortion doesn't become the new norm, but is there really any way to stop that from happening in the future? If you look back at 2011 when Obama did negotiate with the hostage-takers, part of that may have been naiveté but it also had to do with his own political incentives in wanting to win re-election. He could not actually risk default and Republicans knew that. In the future, what's to stop a party that controls just one house of congress from assessing the situation each time the debt limit comes up, and if it looks favorable for them going the extortion route?

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  2. So Douhat is saying that the real goal is to reverse FDR and return to the days when the poor were left to die on the streets, and the old were dependent on their children for their retirement.

    And every time Republicans get close to this dream, the country is repulsed.

    Why is it hard for Douhat to understand that most Americans don't want to return to that world?

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    1. I think that's the entire "problem" Republicans have.

      They're starting to realize that they can never return to a time where we just let poor people die on the streets. They realize that it's impossible to get back to that with democratic means.

      That's why they're trying to rig things and abuse every bit of power they have to achieve their goals. They don't see any other way to get back to the golden age of the Coolidge administration.

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    2. Yes, this captures a lot. You have core activists who know exactly what they want and they seriously and substantively do want it. Those true believers have various big funders behind them for various (but not all) parts of their serious agenda.

      But then you have a base and penumbras of dedicated but less engaged GOP voters who thrill to the abstract rhetoric and symbolic elements but who would really need to be massaged and carefully messaged through the human fallout that would occur from actually carrying out the policy implications of their abstract ideals.

      That gap creates the space for all manner of hucksters and frauds.

      But it also creates the need for the core activists to cultivate kabuki skills above all else as a means of sustaining grassroots dedication and managing the awkwardness of gap between idea and reality and between substantive ideologue and symbolism-obsessed everyday resenter.

      In this way, I think JB and Kilgore's back and forth about the dynamics of hucksterism (symbolism) and ideological policy (substance) can be clarified and transcended. There's pure hucksterism, yes. But a lot of the "hucksterism" is actually driven by substantive ideologues, for their purposes. It's lucrative, yes, but it's also integral to sustaining the ideological mission of the GOP, managing coalition and leader-follower dynamics.

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  3. I'm really surprised that Douthat would write that piece, I thought he was usually more self-aware than that.

    The right has been frustrated for 40 years? I'll buy that they are bad for social conservatives like Douthat, but neocons have basically gotten everything they wanted (Soviet Union gone, Osama bin Laden dead, CIA death robots owning the skies, NSA knowing everything), and neoliberalism has weathered it's greatest crisis emerging stronger than ever.

    Unions declining, inequality rising, financial markets deregulated, middle-class wages stagnants despite years of GDP growth, climate change full-speed ahead, and Keynesian economics discredited (in popular imagination if not in reality). Gov't spending/GDP is more or less the same, but great chunks of that go to things that conservative voters now support (defense, social security, medicare).

    The problem is that conservatives aren't congratulating themselves for how much they've gained. They're frustrated that that their enemies still have too much left. It's not enough that inequality grows faster than redistribution can keep up with--they have to completely destroy redistribution.

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    1. The thing is that the real ideological conservatives do *not* approve of Social Security and Medicare--at least not in anything like their present form. Their ultimate goal is to privatize both Social Security and Medicare; things like Bush's private accounts and Ryan's plan for Medicare are just steps along the way. Of course, they know that these programs are popular, so they have to pretend to support them--all their plans to abolish these programs in their present form must be presented as plans to "save" them-- and even use them as political weapons (e.g., Obamacare is bad because it allegedly is a threat to Medicare). But they are disappointed that they have more or less had to leave them untouched.

      Also, that they have not thus far been able to do much to curb food stamps frustrates them.

      I can certainly see how progressives view the past few decades as a conservative era. But I can also see how for conservatives who really want to do away with the New Deal and Great Society--not just trim them at the edges--the past few decades have been frustrating too. The problem of course is that they stubbornly think they can somehow overcome the unpopularity of their ultimate goals.

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    2. The problem of course is that they stubbornly think they can somehow overcome the unpopularity of their ultimate goals.

      I agree with David's comment, although that last line puts me in mind of the anquish in the conservative press over the election results last November. Broadly speaking, The Weekly Standard kept up with the stubborness -- it's really somehow still a center-right country, etc. etc. -- but National Review and some other outlets were a festival of hand-wringing about how, finally, maybe had the right had to face the fact that America was rejecting its goals..... or had reached the point of doing so, anyway, what with the changing demographics and so on. "We've Become Europeans Now" (or words close to that) was one of the headlines and a consistent theme from many commentators. ("America is over" was another formulation, "America" meaning the right's vision thereof). They seem to have gotten past this and are back to fighting the good fight, but the actual fact of their unpopularity has penetrated the skulls of some over there, and it's going to be interesting to watch what happens to that meme as they continue to lose elections.

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    3. But it's not the ideological theorists who are driving Tea Party/Ted Cruz type frustration. Polls show even Tea Party voters opposing SS/Medicare cuts in big numbers. None of these people are showing up at rallies demanding that entitlements are switched to private accounts.

      "But I can also see how for conservatives who really want to do away with the New Deal and Great Society--not just trim them at the edges--the past few decades have been frustrating too. The problem of course is that they stubbornly think they can somehow overcome the unpopularity of their ultimate goals."

      Back up a step and ask--why are those their ultimate goals? Ultimate goals are usually first order things like freedom or utility--we support particular policies because we think they increase freedom or utility.

      So the opponent of the New Deal believes those policies impinge on freedom. That's fair enough. It's frustration about that I cannot understand. Does anyone want to try to pretend that CEOs or the 1% have less freedom today than they did in 1973? They pay less in taxes, they face fewer regulations, deal with smaller-to-nonexistent unions, and they make much more money. If you told Thatcher and Reagan in 1979 what the world would look like today, how could they be anything other than delighted?

      If dismantling the programs themselves is the ultimate goal, with any outcome other than that causing frustration, then Republicans are motivated other than a desire for freedom or prosperity (they've gained plenty of both). They want us to lose, and our projects to fail. They want to say "I told you so", and they're apparently frustrated that they don't get to do that more often.

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  4. JB, I'd love to hear your take on Dylan Matthews' piece the other day. Especially these bits:

    Scholars of comparative politics have shown that presidential systems with a separation of executive and legislative functions, like America's, are considerably more likely to collapse into dictatorship than are parliamentary systems where the executive and legislative branches are merged.

    ...

    It's important to be very clear about what's scary here. It's not any one instance of disagreement or brinksmanship. It's the emergence of the sustained, structural problems that have harmed other countries with similar presidential systems. To believe that the U.S. won't eventually face terrible consequences from the mixture of polarized parties in a presidential system is to believe that the clear trends in our political system will, for reasons that are currently unclear, reverse themselves. That would be nice, but as they say, hope is not a plan.

    Thanks,
    Adam

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  5. Maybe the most interesting thing about Douthat's column is that he lays at least a little bit of blame on Ronald Reagan. Don't recall seeing that before.

    Personally, I lay most of the blame on the toxic mid-1990s combo of Gingrich and Limbaugh.

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  6. I think Douthat has an interesting point, not as advocacy but as a description of how conservatives understand the situation. It can be generally useful to understand how others see things and not fall to the temptation of making things up and imputing those things to them (as they do with liberals just "wanting stuff"). It's true that Reagan, for instance, promised to eliminate whole cabinet departments (I think it was Energy and Education--perhaps there was a third) and didn't do it. You also have the Republicans' approach to regulation. In practice, they have cut the funding, hired industry lobbyists to oversee their own industries, and then admonished them not to try to hard. The Bush administration Interior Department didn't even bother collecting the royalties due for using government land. But they left the basic structure of the regulatory state intact. Many conservatives will see that and think nothing has changed (despite the mines collapsing, oil rigs blowing up, tainted food being recalled, and oh yes, the global economy falling apart). And, indeed, those sophisticated enough to see that regulation was undermined can see that the infrastructure to revive it is still there (if you could just get Congress to do it). And you can see something similar today. They have achieved quite a bit in imposing austerity on the US government, but the don't seem to realize it. Now maybe the leaders do realize it; maybe they purposefully win demands for cuts and then turn around and complain about how there have been so many tax increases and no spending cuts (when the opposite is true) as some sort of diversionary tactic. Even if that is the case, however, the base still thinks there's been no progress (as they define progress) and will be frustrated, and that will come out in future voting.

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    1. I think one explanation for this is that their ideal America is so far away from the real America that even when they make tons of progress, they still don't see it as being worth anything.

      They think we've gone off the deep end, and they think the country is ridiculously liberal. Cutting some regulations here and there might be a bit better, but they don't think that it really makes much of a difference. It's still unbelievably liberal in their minds.

      Until huge swaths of the government are outright abolished, not just corrupted or weakened, they don't think they've won anything.

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    2. Personally, I think they're trying to solve the wrong problem.

      In their ideal America, everyone knows their place and does what they are supposed to. Sort of an idealized 1960's TV show - Father knows best, Mom puts up with everything, work is rewarded, everyone you know believes in things you believe in. No need for the government to support people, or regulate anything, because the invisible hand takes care of it all!

      The more they work to make this utopia come to pass, the less the world looks like they expect it would.

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  7. Regarding Larison, I think everything the Bush administration touched turned to manure, but I think Larison misses something about conservative goals. (Yes, I realize that there's a tremendous conceit hidden in that claim, but I'll continue anyway.) He seems to reduce conservative goals to "small government," and Bush violated that by growing government. In part though, many conservatives', or at least Republicans', values also include big defense and a heavy dose of law and order. The small government aspect, for them, is largely limited to the economic sphere (taxes and regulation) and reducing social services. So, quite apart from Bush's particular imperfections, there's a lasting tension there that is going to crop up time and again.

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    1. The point still has merit though, because Bush did do things like Medicare Part D, which expanded economic services to people.

      So yes, most of the government expansion that Bush did was the kind that conservatives actually approve of, but there were some things that go against conservative ideology that Bush did.

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    2. Scott, I think Larison's view is a minority one among conservatives, although it is gaining adherents. He's trying to promote that particular narrative, in the hopes that it will change political behavior going forward. If we're honest with ourselves, much of what we'd call our "analysis" has some element of this in it.

      SNF makes a good point, which I'd take even further by observing that Obama has continued to nurture Bush's security state and assertive foreign policy. Many of the perceived differences between Bush and Obama are based more on rhetoric than reality.

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    3. Point taken on Larison, but I think the underlying tension between the goals, which will be favored by different factions, will remain. If anything, the growth of the Libertarian wing would bring it out even more.

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    4. Yes, Scott, I agree completely. In fact, that's exactly the ideological battle that Larison is engaged in.

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  8. Though he was a high-school dropout, Don Draper did quite well for himself...in 1960s America. We all know that same guy, in 2013, is maybe a manager in the electronics department of the local Wal-Mart,,,if he's lucky! That, right there, is your crisis in the Republican Party. You don't need to look much deeper than that, it seems to me.

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    1. What? Your answer is a non-sequitor.

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    2. Pat - check out the subsequent development of this thread: out came the ubiqutous 'racist' meme. As Don Draper, and those like him, have gone significantly downscale in the past half-century, other races have - comparatively - improved in the American pecking order.

      The animus from the Draper-types is pretty much directed at the races that have been on the proverbial up escalator over the past 50 years, while his fortunes have sunk.

      You can see a connection there, or not, as you wish.

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    3. If you read much Coates, you'll see a strong description of how African Americans were systematically deprived of a lot of the benefits of the New Deal, especially the benefits given to soldiers after WWII. I believe that your argument is that white people are no longer being elevated over people of color, and that that makes the racists among them angry.

      Probably so.

      It doesn't explain why that angst gets to drive the Republican party, and why after years of implementing Republican reforms, conservatives are still angry.

      Because they have to share buses? Are you sure your people are that shallow?

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    4. Pat, you're of course welcome to judge the bitterness of the retrograde "white right"; I'm not endorsing their view, just trying to understand it in a way that doesn't require throwing them under the (shared) bus.

      Fortunately, I don't have much in common with the folks I identify here, beyond party affiliation and race I guess. My grandpa, 10 years deceased, did. My grandpa was a big WFB/Solzhenitzyn/human freedom guy, worked for 70 years as an accountant in various capacities, not a CPA, not even a BSc, but like Don Draper he did pretty well for himself anyway and ended up with the big fat Cadillac and the appropriate club memberships, etc. If he had been born two generations later his journey, given his lack of pedigree, would have been by-
      (lack of) degrees more difficult.

      Was it "fair" that he was the beneficiary of the largesse directed toward those of his race? Well, of course not. I am in a bible study group where a common theme is that we are all the recipients of undeserved blessings.

      We don't talk about it in the group, but we'd all be pretty disappointed if those blessings were taken away. So it goes with humans, I think.

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    5. So then I'll interpret your argument as being that individuals without specific training, who work hard and play by the rules, are no longer able to get ahead in this society. And if those individuals are white, then they blame the fact that benefits are being given to everyone, white and black and Hispanic and Asian, for the fact they aren't getting ahead.

      Emotionally, sure. But there isn't any logic to it! If working hard doesn't get you anywhere anymore, how is that the fault of health care reform, which will help you as much as "them?"

      The Democratic rank and file are just itching to go after the guys who offshore jobs - why don't today's Don Drapers join forces with them?

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    6. This cultural roadblock is why it seems like the only solution is for time to pass, and for a generation with ingrained beliefs and anxieties to gradually and naturally (and peacefully, not vindictively) winnow away. Also the more Democratic legislators can help support economic growth and job creation, the better; that too will help mollify sociocultural "ressentiment," as the generational/demographic changeover occurs. In short, there's no short-term solution to ease the tensions. Only a medium-term one.

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    7. Any solution that involves, "and we'll wait for the old guys to die" isn't much of a solution to me.

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    8. It's either that, which I agree is not much of a solution, (more like a grinding uncertain resolution). Or Democrats get more of their voters to vote in midterms and off-years, especially for local and state offices. And -- even more of a longshot -- Democrats get a slightly greater number of nonvoters to vote.

      A whole generation of Republicans are simply not going to become 'Obama Republicans'; admitting to themselves that their party has screwed up and continues to be reckless and incompetent is too painful for them, and the cultural-identity shift to accepting a Democratic Party is apparently too great for them. Maybe it's more realistic to hope they just become dejected and don't vote.

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  9. Success of conservative media is because it's the only safe place for racists to bask in racist discourse. link

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    1. Nice link, thanks.

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    2. I'd agree that's a good link, and I'd just add that there is a subtle, but important, difference between "rooting for folks like me to win" and "supporting systems ensuring folks like you lose". There's a common, and mostly uncontested, strain back in these hallowed liberal halls that politicians, like all people, are essentially selfish assholes and that manipulating said selfishness is key to making the political system work.

      Selfishness = "wanting folks like me to win".

      When folks like me start to lose, as a selfish asshole (otherwise approved in Plain Blog liberal world) I am unhappy. In a racial context, there is no distinguishing between said unhappiness and donning the white hood. Thus the issue.

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    3. I don't know, seems like an extremely facile apologia for racism. Surely there's a difference between a lynch mob and rooting for the home team.

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    4. purusha, there's no doubt that some who consume right wing media would grab the pitchfork in a nanosecond if the lynch mob organized. It hasn't yet, though, has it? Others who consume right-wing media are just rooting for the home team. How do we determine which is which? Sort of impossible, since everyone in the former group swears they are in the latter.

      In re: those who root for the home team - that's sort of a human universal, no? No doubt such behavior goes down easier among those who represent minorities, especially minorities with a history of being on the business end of oppression.

      Still, even if we don't sympathize with the homerism of those among the fading, formerly-dominant part of the majority culture, we must be able to find a better descriptor for them than the one we use for the KKK. Taste dictates as much, it seems to me.

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  10. I would second purusha's recommendation (while perhaps phrasing it in a slightly less inflammatory way). That's a really interesting study that I think you'll appreciate.

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  11. This is a very interesting and useful conversation -- both the series of posts by Bernstein, Kilgore, Douthat, etc, and the comments on this post. I'd draw everyone's attention to PF's post at 12:09 PM. I think he's on the right track.

    Two quick points to add:

    The dichotomy between the "cut government spending" mantra vs "don't cut my Medicare" has to be a key factor in explaining the GOP. "Cut government spending" is certainly a key selling point for GOP voters. As is "I pay too much." But when push comes to shove, they also don't want their benefits cut. I think this dynamic helps explain GOP dysfunction, and also their 50 year frustration.

    Second, any explanation of the GOP from 1968 - 2013 (or 20xx?) is incomplete without mentioning racism. I don't mean to imply that racism is the prime motivation of the GOP, or the prime explanation of its behavior. But it's a thread that runs through it, and it can't be ignored.

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  12. JB,
    Do you know of a good edited volume on this question? Right now, it seems to me like this is one of those things being done BETTER by blogs than by our standard academic publishing methods.

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    1. There's Skocpol's book on the Tea Party. And you probably have to turn to the discipline of History for fine grained accounts of the rise of the GOP and the various strains of the conservative movement.

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    2. I suppose that 'better' should not have been in caps.
      I didn't mean to imply that blogs doing it better was a surprise; rather, I meant to imply that it feels to me like traditional academic publishing is falling down on this one. (and possibly to goose you into doing all the work of putting together such a volume!)

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    3. Thanks for the ideas, Anon. Familiar with Skocpol's book, but haven't had time to read it yet. I've read some stuff in history, too (really just Suburban Warriors, which I thought was really interesting). I was kinda hoping for competing persepectives in short form, though. Get some APD scholars, some party scholars, some Congress scholars, etc.

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    4. It's not poli-sci, but here's an article-length historiographical overview of scholarship on American conservatism:
      http://jah.oxfordjournals.org/content/98/3/723.full

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  13. "the success of the conservative marketplace ... in that it is not remotely duplicated on the Democratic side, I cannot explain"

    It's pretty simple. Progressivism has generally enjoyed support from the public institutions of academia, the media and government bureaucracy. For those who oppose the progressive agenda, a conservative marketplace arose to meet their demand. One result of this has been that there is less institutional mediation of the conservative message (ironic, in the party of Burke!) than the liberal message.

    Of course, progressives don't have complete dominance of public institutions. On issues of crime and national security, policy is guided by a distinctly illiberal bureaucracy. On these issues, the liberal instinct to 'leave it to the experts' does not serve them well. Nor has the contradiction between policy and principle created such an obvious social crisis, as we saw with race, that liberals have yet been spurred to action.

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    1. Just to be a little snarky, Couves, I think that for progressives, things are supposed to change. We're supposed to entertain new ideas, new analysis, new ways of working out old problems. Academics build tools to do just that.

      But for conservatism, there should be continuity. Tradition has a real value, and change is destabilizing. New faces gain power and influence, and if they don't look your own, then they may well be feared. The people you know and trust are the only ones you can count on.

      Conservatism is driven by emotional needs. Fox Media, and Rush Limbaugh, meet emotional needs.

      Liberalism is driven by the pursuit of novelty. We have a much smaller media empire - Stewart & Co, and they're pretty darn funny. But everyone sees them as entertainers. What happened the last time someone called Rush Limbaugh an entertainer?

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    2. I think the institutional answer is more convincing than some all too pat notion that conservatism is simply emotional and liberalism is not. For every emotion you can name undergirding the practices of conservatives, I can name you one undergirding a practice of liberals.

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    3. I did say it was a little snarky? There is a tribalism among conservatives that dwarfs the similar emotional attachment in progressives. Rush Limbaugh, or more famously Fox News, can factually contradict themselves multiple times in a single show, but it doesn't register among their viewers. Progressives make fun of conservatives shouting, "Keep the government out of my Medicare," but it doesn't make any difference.

      The words that Rush says, or the words that Fox News hosts say, meet a tribal, emotional need among their followers. The facts they present are irrelevant to filling that need. The same was true for George Bush II, while he was still useful.

      We are all governed by emotion, much more than fact, by the things we wish to be true. That's what's keeping the House of Representatives from fulfilling their constitutional duty to authorize the funds for the budget.

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    4. Pat, conservatives are generally less accepting of change. But if racial discrimination is a large part of that, then how do you explain the Republican governors of LA and SC?

      I will, however, say this -- politics does seem to elicit the darker side of the tribalism that's inherent in our natures. Reading political comments on the web, I get the impression that a large proportion of our most politically-engaged citizenry believes that everything wrong with their lives is caused by the malevolence of the other party.

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    5. > But if racial discrimination is a large part of that, then
      > how do you explain the Republican governors of LA
      > and SC?

      Voting for Indians who have southern accents, who were born in America, and who espouse some pretty extreme anti-poor policies (Jindal, don't know about Haley's policies) ain't the same thing as accepting black people.


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    6. Allen West is popular with the tea party. And then there's Michael Steele, another high profile black Republican (who was somewhat controversial, but not because of his skin color).

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    7. When Sarah Palin was a national figure, mainstream conservatives complained that liberals looked down on her because she was a heartland hockey mom, instead of a pointy-headed intellectual like the elites who allegedly despised and "persecuted" her. (J-Ru famously said that Jews didn't like her because they're intellectual snobs.) I would argue that this was overblown, but there was enough material for Continetti to write a whole book about it, and enough to launch a thousand conservative opinion pieces. However much evidence there was to support the thesis, I think you'll agree that there's at least as much evidence that that tea-partyers hold African-Americans in less than high regard.

      I would also add that talk radio shouters and others are open in their hatred for liberals - it's their very raison d'etre. It's hard to separate this hatred from hatred toward a group as closely tied to liberals, and comprising mainly liberals, as African-Americans are. Which is part of the problem. If Coulter hates liberals, and Olbermann hates conservatives, that's just normal, if somewhat immoral, politics. But, hating African-Americans, like hating Jews, has a deeper resonance; you're simply not allowed to hate them, and in fact have to moderate your discourse. Portraying Bush as a monkey is different from portraying Obama as one (though it's wrong and stupid to call W a monkey); calling Donald Trump a rapacious businessman is different from referring to Michael Bloomberg that way. Mel Brooks gets to make fun of Nazis, but if a Nazi made a film making fun of Jews, there'd be massive outrage.

      Which I think is something else tea-partyers don't like, and that feeds their resentment toward liberals of all stripes. They feel that they are the brunt of a lot of criticism from the mainstream media, while blacks have to be handled with kid gloves. If we had a liberal Jewish president, the same dynamic would be going on. It would be a far better world (and has been a better world in the past, when there was not a Democrat usurper in the White House) if there was less hate and vitriol from all sides. But, as long as we have the vitriol, it's going to be less acceptable to mercilessly pummel blacks and Jews than it is to pummel the ones pummeling them.

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    8. Well, conservatives didn't mind that Sarah Palin was basically incoherent. She otherwise pressed a lot of buttons that made them feel good.

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