Friday, March 4, 2011

When You've Got a Hidden Shame

Paul Waldman has a very interesting point about movement conservative pundits:
It's great that The Daily Show is around to heap some scorn on these blowhards, but it won't really do them much harm. One thing they understand very well at Fox, and in the conservative movement more generally, is the political value of shamelessness. As long as you say what you're saying with conviction, it doesn't matter how absurd or hypocritical it is. You may not get the majority of the public to agree with you, but you can get a good number. And among the functions Fox serves for the right (along with conservative talk radio) is the rapid dissemination of arguments and a model of argumentation. They tell conservatives not just what they should say, but how they should say it.
I think that's just about right. However, I can't agree with Waldman's conclusion:
As a result, conservatives may not win every argument, but they almost never get routed completely.
Really? Think about sexual orientation for a minute. To be sure, conservatives have won some battles, but the writing is on the wall: what's not a complete route yet is coming soon (granted, marriage in Alabama may still take a while, still). It's turned out that the power of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove, and -- far more impressively -- decades of belief was no match for political power of individual gays and lesbians coming out, one by one.

Of course, most issue areas do not wind up with complete routes, but that's true for both sides. It's true, as Waldman says, that the current budget plans considered by Congress and the president don't sort well with polling that shows tax increases on the rich and cuts in military spending are popular. But, first of all, tax increases on the rich were on the agenda just a few months ago and will be again next year; and, second of all, this is clearly one instance in which election results are trumping public opinion polls as cues to lawmakers. That's not a Fox News effect; it's exactly how one would expect the political system to react to a landslide election, for better or worse. But liberals aren't completely routed on taxes or spending. It's just (for better or worse) a tactical retreat.

My guess would be that as an overall effect the FNC/shameless strategy is a net minus. When pundits can pick up and drop arguments at the drop of the hat without worrying about long-term consistency, it may make it easier to appear to be winning at any moment, but at the cost of actually fighting for policies they believe in. I don't know; perhaps most of this stuff is only surface-deep and doesn't really have any effect beyond really efficiently conveying to people disposed to agree with conservatives what it is that they're suppose to agree with right now. But the idea that it's a major net plus for conservatives, I think, is unproven and highly unlikely.


  1. One point worth considering - when you're fighting against something, there is no need for consistency. Throw it against the wall, see if it sticks. Sooner or later you'll get a winner, and all previous silliness will be forgiven, because you've just saved us from a fate worse than death.

    So FNC will be forgiven 98% of their insanity, as long as they manage to trigger genuine fear once in awhile. And as long as they are in opposition (or can portray themselves that way).

  2. What I think the right is up to is a Gramscian war of position. It is evident from the style and tone of their arguments that the goal has been to delegitimize anything and anyone on the other side--liberals, government, academics, public sector workers, Planned Parenthood, Common Cause, etc., etc. This approach can be traced back to origins of movement conservatism in the late 1970s/early 1980s, or at least as far back as the Republican revolution of the 1990s (when candidates were urged to 'talk like Newt'). Any assertion/argument in a storm is their standard MO.

  3. 'rout' not 'route'

  4. The style of "argument" strikes me as similar to the style of argument of the Protestants of Northern Ireland [facing Irish Catholic demographics] and the Apartheiders of South Africa [facing Black South Africans]. That of a frightened minority; holders of privilege perceived to be soon ending; unable to count. They perceive that their "world" is ending and, as the desperate seem prone to do, they delude and aberrate more strongly. Tie with a religion with a built in Armageddon and there are the ingredients needed. Add an exterminationist history [White America's policy toward Native Americans] add that somewhere between 10 and 20% of any human population tends towards nuttiness and you have the Fox viewing public. Set it in a political structure with only two parties and one party starts out with the 10-20% nuts plus another 20-30% that are contrarians by nature and you have a in the neighborhood of 40-45% of the potential voters. Any relaxation or loss of morale by the other side in terms of enthusiasm to participate and you have a dead heat. Humans are a differentially evolving species so the population is headed in several directions at once.

  5. First off, great song allusion in the title. Johnny Cash's version is just fantastic.

    As to the point, I think conservatives are perfectly happy with things as they are.

    You wrote that "it may make it easier to appear to be winning at any moment, but at the cost of actually fighting for policies they believe in."

    But conservatives don't have policy preferences. They just like winning.

    Consider how irate conservatives are whenever a Democrat is in the White House, and how elated they are when one of their own is in charge:

    And recall that, even though there is no principled conservative defense of George Bush Jr.'s economic policy, foreign policy, or domestic policies, Republicans revered him throughout his presidency. They treated him to a 75 percent approval rating as he left office (compared to 28 percent from independents):

    And as we've seen lately, Republicans argue that views they formerly advocated, like a health insurance mandate, Keynesian stimulus, Section 8 housing, the EITC, cape and trade, etc. etc., are not merely objectionable, but are tyrannical & unconstitutional when proposed by people outside the tribe.

    Sure, there are conservatives who aren't like that-- people like Mickey Edwards & Bruce Bartlett. But they've been excommunicated from the GOP & its affiliated institutions like the WSJ and Heritage.

    If your point is that there are no conservatives in the Republican Party, I agree 100%. But if we take the GOP to be the "conservative" party in the US, all evidence indicates that they're 100% happy with appearing to be winning at any given moment, because they have no policy-based political preferences.


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