Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"Blame Yourself"

Greg Sargent has a nice item up about the latest GOP debate audience gaffe: cheering Herman Cain's taunt to struggling Americans. As Cain put it, "Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job, and you’re not rich, blame yourself."

Greg did a great job on demolishing the claim that the unemployed are to blame for unemployment (see also Steve Benen), so I'll shift to the other part of it: that everyone who is not rich has themselves to blame. In some ways, this is -- while less insulting and presumably less hurtful -- even more insidious.

Really, though, my question is to those who were applauding it. How many of them think of themselves as rich? If we believe the polling, the answer is practically none of them; everyone in the US thinks they are middle class. So what's the deal here? Do the non-rich conservatives wildly applauding this believe they themselves are responsible for their failure to be rich? Do they think of themselves as having chosen not to do what's needed to become rich because they have other priorities, and so they're upset at others who (supposedly) want it both ways? Do they believe that there are two groups of non-rich: those who play by the rules and would be rich except that they're oppressed by Obama's socialist government (themselves), and another group who just expects the government to make them rich?

There were lots of reporters at the Vegas debate; did any of them ask the audience about it? Seems like it would make a good story.


  1. The John Steinbeck quote is perhaps apt (regardless of what you think of his implied solution):

    “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires”

  2. This may explain it. Per GEOFF NUNBERG (

    "As the story goes, there are only two kinds of Americans — those who are already rich and those who expect to be."

  3. The politics of resentment has dominated the Republican party since it shifted from its northeast and mid-atlantic base to the south after 1964. They ended welfare as we knew it when Bill Clinton recognized the enormous momentum they had built (remember Ronald Reagan and welfare cadillacs).

    It is expression of that sort of resentment that Herman Cain taps with his "it's your own fault" rants.
    Now we have a second locus of such sentiment in the politics of suburban resentment of which Chris Christie is the master practitioner. He has built upon resentment of the court-mandated equalization of school funding and court-ordered zoning changes compelling provision of low income housing in New Jersey's developing townships. Christie has added to that resentment of the pensions and health care benefits of public employees.

  4. There may be other choices, but it's simpler just to go to that "dead" Marxist jargon (zombie jargon, resurrecting as we write?). The Republican base is animated by classic petty bourgeois resentments, patterns of wishful identification, and the violent emotions that burst forth when their affinities and material security are endangered.

    The other factor is that by absolute global and historical, material standards, the average American remains quite wealthy and powerful. Our petite bourgeoisie are still pretty haute, all things considered. Up until recently, we were able continually to use the expanding frontier and expanding opportunity as a social-political safety valve, trading realization of social democracy/justice/equality away in favor of relative material improvement. A stagnant or steady-state America faces the long-deferred confrontation with its own "contradictions," economic and political-ideological, to use another Marxist buzzword that gains new salience in our present historical predicament. It will tend to inform every aspect of our society and culture (and, guess this is my theme at this blog, at some point would turn the assumptions of "modern political science" into obsolete relics of the political-economic epoch that produced them).

  5. You guys are overthinking this. The audience members who cheered don't think that everyone who isn't rich is purely suffering the consequences of their own (evitable) poor decisions, any more than that other audience thought that people who didn't have health insurance deserved not to get health care. They just feel like they're being told what to do by people who don't know them, being told to sympathize with the poor when even their middle-class selves have problems, and so on. Resentment, yes, but not really, or anyway not specifically of the unemployed. Aspirational identification with the putatively hard-working rich, sure, but not because they think they're on track to become rich. More like they look back on the obstacles they've overcome on the way to (now perhaps imperiled) financial security, and feel that they've taken some of the same journey as rich people, whereas poor people haven't. People don't like being told whom to like and they especially don't like being told that they don't have it particularly rough. These are completely normal human reactions. Plus, people will cheer for all kinds of things they don't believe (or don't understand, or can't hear) when they sympathize with the speaker. Blame candidates who say bad things, if you want -- they've been prepping for months and they're doing this full-time. Blame Cain for saying something appalling that it's hard to imagine even he believes. Exploit the bad optics to further your causes. But don't act as though this were something that required special explanation in terms of the unique pathologies of the contemporary Republican base.

  6. Plus, people will cheer for all kinds of things they don't believe (or don't understand, or can't hear) when they sympathize with the speaker.

    The classicist is right about this, and I would further add that what mainly gets a live crowd to react to a public speaker in a certain way (assuming the speaker has been identified as "friendly") is the speaker's tone of voice and expressions of emphasis. The content of the statement isn't irrelevant, but is secondary.

    More like they look back on the obstacles they've overcome on the way to (now perhaps imperiled) financial security, and feel that they've taken some of the same journey as rich people, whereas poor people haven't.

    Also a very good analysis. However, I would be a little slower to treat this view of things as normal or not (politically) pathological. Since there's no good reason to assume that "poor people haven't" also overcome obstacles or worked to improve their lot, the people in the crowd who do assume this are doing so based on some ideological framework that distorts reality and, as I think Ron Paul put it in response to Cain, blames the victims. That is not a good tendency, and if it's not pathological in the form or degree seen here, it can easily become so with a little demagogic encouragement.

  7. A really basic question. How can Republicans attack Obama for the bad economy, and specifically for job losses, and yet claim that the fate of the jobless is in their own hands? If anyone who wants a good paying job can get one, how is the recession even a problem?

  8. wkdewey,

    They can, because you're allowed to say anything; it doesn't have to be logically consistent.

    Mostly, people are going to blame the president for the economy more or less no matter what...the other stuff is just playing to ideologues.

  9. wk, you've put your finger on one of the reasons that libertarianism doesn't fly in actual politics. People running for president can't really say that presidents are more or less powerless and shouldn't be looked to for answers. They would lose to those who promise to use the office, hence the powers of government, to solve problems. And rightly so. Cain's remark was just another reminder that he's a novelty act, not a serious presidential candidate.

  10. the classicist and Jeff make very good contributions to this discussion; I'll go a bit further and propose that, contra the lede, the applauders are not George F. Babbitt-types, chomping on their cigars, safe in their upper-middle class existences, dishing on the less fortunate. (Even if the modern-day Babbitt felt that way, being caught cheering for the misery of those less fortunate would be a serious social blunder for such a fellow). No, the applauders were not wealthy or even aspirational; in many cases they probably weren't even employed. More on that in a minute.

    Sake of argument, let's say that there are two primary groups most damaged by the Great Recession: the first is the undereducated, former factory worker who has seen his post-factory job life go up in smoke. The second is the educated, recently graduated college class, saddled with debts and with job prospects nowhere near what was expected when student loans were taken.

    The first group is the Tea Party; the second group is Occupy Wall Street. The first group are Republicans, the second group are Democrats. Little of this is particularly ideological; most of it is primal, it seems to me.

    So when the Hermanator takes a shot at a particular class of folks down on their luck - a class different from those cheering, and perceived by the cheering class to receive more government largesse (whether that's true or not doesn't entirely matter), well, you get what you saw last night. Not a good thing, for sure, but not in and of itself indicative of the level of social breakdown implied by the hand-wringing in response.

  11. People who applaud Cain's remark aren't necessarily denying their own relative poverty, but they do seem to feel a need to identify with the presumed values of the wealthy, if not with the wealthy themselves. I've long suspected that with many blue-collar Republicans the important thing is not to "whine" when things don't go your way, because that would make you a "loser" and lower than the poor in their minds. By that standard, those who blame society or class for their own poverty are whiners and losers, and those people are the ones Cain is presumed to be addressing, not those who applaud him. His fans do blame themselves in a way, to the extent that they concede that they aren't as talented as the virtuous rich, but so long as they affirm that the rules of the game are fair, they can blame themselves and retain their self-esteem, while those who appear to cling to self-esteem by blaming others look like losers. There's an obvious bias against structural thinking in this attitude, but what else would you suspect?

  12. Samuel Wilson's explanation jibes very well with some of Corey Robin's arguments about right-wing ideas in his recent book "The Reactionary Mind." It's an appealing analytical perspective because it doesn't simply wish everything away as a form of Marxist ideological mystification, in which fake ideas cloud real material concerns. Rather, many right-wing ideas -- although immoral in my particular opinion or yours -- do provide a set of values about self-worth that have very real cultural and psychological value. Cain offered a clear statement of individualist right-wing values, which have a very long pedigree, and a bunch of people in the audience expressed approval. Maybe some had no idea what he was saying, but I'm sure some knew quite accurately what he was saying and they rationally approved.

  13. I wonder if there's a part to be played in this story by that old (and largely out-of-favor) theory: the authoritarian personality. The applauders have an authoritarian personality in that they see themselves as holding the middle ranks of a valid hierarchy. They applaud the argument that those who they see as "below" them are such because they deserve it. And, moreover, a major reason why those above them have to make their middle-ranked lives bad is because of the bad behavior of those below.

    This doesn't seem too far off from the applauders. Rich people can't create jobs for folks like them (who would then drive up housing prices and get them above water) or bring their because they're overtaxed to pay for welfare queens.

    Again, the theory is largely out-of-favor these days (although there's one psychologist in Canada that makes some decently persuasive arguments that it's actually better thought of as right-wing authoritarianism.) But, I dunno, it seems semi-plausible to me.

    But there are some good ideas floating around this whole thread.

  14. We're all probably over-theorizing here from too little data, but nonetheless, a very interesting discussion all around.

  15. Cain didn't say that the non-rich are to blame for not being rich. He said that if you don't have a job, AND you're not rich, blame yourself.

    i.e. if you've got millions in the bank, I guess you don't need to work. But if you aren't independently wealthy, get a job - and it's your fault if you can't.

    I would suspect that the cheering members of the audience would say something like:

    "We mostly aren't very rich.
    We mostly aren't talented enough to be very rich.
    But we'd be richer than we are if we didn't have to support moochers with our taxes."

    So, it's basically your last option.

  16. Matt Jarvis,

    The authoritarian personality has had something of a come-back lately. "Political Psychology" devoted an issue to it a couple of years back, and there have been several books on the topic, such as "Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics," "Personality and the Foundations of Political Behavior," and "The Authoritarian Dynamic" (all from Cambridge).

  17. Booing, and blaming, the victims of some frightening phenomenom is a way of asserting and assuring yourself that you, because of greater virtue, won't, can't, become a victim too. Their behavior is fear based. For many it's better, that is less frightening, to believe (attempt to convince yourself) that those who have lost their jobs "deserved" what they got than to believe that the same fate could be in your future too. It may reveal the audiences' cruelty, but more than anything it reveals their disquiet and insecurity.

    I worked in advertsing for decades -- a field in constant flux where job mobility has always been high and client changes, recessions, etc., can all have instant and sometimes quite far reaching affects on staffing (not one of the agencies I worked for still exists in this city, although 3 were, in the era in which I worked for them, dominant players in the region and the world. (The largest, McCann-Erickson, Coke's agency, still has some kind of "boutique" office, under a different name, I think). Anyway, the psychology of layoffs was always the same -- there were always a significant number of people who became very angry at, and critical of, those who were leaving. Even though they may have been those individuals big boosters just shortly before. It was as if their condemnation of those whose jobs were in danger would in some way help preserve their own jobs (and endear them to the powers that be). Of course, quite often, if things got worse, they discovered very differently. (More than once key people, unusually productive, talented, and, unfortunately, highly paid, were let go and the fate of the agency declined further. In one instance the dismissal of a key play led, in large part, to the agency closing its doors just one and half years later.)

  18. Thanks for that story, Anon 9:27. To be prickly and defensive is human: to empathize, divine.

    Seriously -- when a conservative talk show host says liberals are mama's boys who envy and fear success and power and therefore want to keep down the successful and powerful, we don't just think he's incorrectly diagnosing liberals. We think he's being disrespectful to liberals qua human beings who deliberate and have reasons for action. And (because we're in fact really bad at figuring out what's relevant to our deliberations) hearing that makes liberals want to dig in and even up the ante. Because pathologizing ordinary people because they disagree with you over fundamentals and sometimes say stupid things pertaining to those disagreements is not only not okay, it's also a really dumb strategy for persuading anyone.

  19. Again, I mostly agree with the classicist but would slightly qualify the point. For scientific purposes, we need to be open to any and all explanations of people's motives that fit the facts -- confusion, stupidity, selfishness, miseducation, faulty toilet training, unresolved Oedipal conflicts, brain damage, or whatever. For political purposes, though, it's best to assume that most people are potentially persuadable, and that the pathologies holding them back from fellow-feeling with those in need are not in their heads or hearts, but in socio-political arrangements that encourage them to stigmatize victims and identify with oppressors and exploiters. The political goal is to attack those arrangements and replace them with better ones. It's difficult, but over time, most people can be brought around to the view (and eventually, the reflex) that attitudes like Cain's are just uncool -- much as they've been brought around, over the past three or four generations, to a reflexive understanding that Cain isn't a threat to them just because he's black. (Indeed, I think what started this whole discussion was the anomalous quality of the audience reaction to Cain's remark -- because for the most part, in America, it's already pretty uncool to blame the unemployed. What the GOP debate reveals is the mopping-up operation that remanis ahead.)

    Speaking of Cain, he is toast. He's pro-choice, as he's now revealed in multiple interviews and just re-emphasized:

    He just doesn't know enough about the issues before the public to understand that the question isn't personal preferences but outlawing abortion by law. But social conservatives know this, and they're active in the Iowa caucuses. Bye, Herman! Thanks for the laughs.

  20. To offer some pretty data-free guessing, I think there may be something more to the cheering of this point. I think it's tapping into a pretty central belief in many conservative's minds: that people get what they deserve, and the market is a fair and just way to determine that.

    To me the #occupy movements and example of unemployed people who are suffering for no fault of their own are problematic counter-examples to this a priori belief, and conservatives seem eager to believe that they're not true in order to preserve the fantasy. Cain's categorical dismissal, then, is something of a heroic defense of the conservative values they desperately want to believe in and the cheers can be read as relief more than anything.

    More of my thoughts on this:

  21. I agree mostly with what the classicist and Jeff said, but would add that the OWS mostly have the appearance of the Left, so the Repub/conservatives are not going to sympathize with them, even if they might have grounds for agreement. The animosity is so strong now. We didn't see leftists going to Tea Party events though some probably agreed that TARP was giving a boat-load of money to bastards.

    So the first reaction of the group was along the lines of Us vs Them (OWS being lefties). But Ron Paul, in his usual iconoclastic way, ignored the Us. vs. Them aspect, and cut to the principle of economic accountability. The crowd was silent at first and then cheered Paul. After that, Herman Cain backpedalled.

    If this election is just going to be Us vs. Them, I can't predict who is going to draw more people. If the election is about who has the better plan, I still can't predict, because the best plan so far was Simpson-Bowles, and no candidate has taken it up.

  22. Scott,
    Thanks, maybe one of those will have to become holiday reading!
    I've always thought the theory got roughly treated due to the poorly constructed measure rather than the core of the theory. Maybe one of those books will redeem my faith!

  23. That element of pure partisanship would make sense, ModeratePoli, except Cain's statement wasn't that the OWS protestors were Democrats/socialists/communists/leftists, which would have been a simple enough statement to make. It would have also been relatively more accurate and probably also generate a big cheer. It was an available option to him.

    Instead, and instead of even going for some form of ambiguity, he quite clearly chose to highlight that he thought unemployed protestors had themselves to blame for their own unemployment -- that's a statement couched in terms of personal responsibility for individual condition. And people in the audience cheered that remark.

    Now this could still be about the partisanship dynamic that any old insult will do. But it doesn't explain why the moment of frisson between Cain and the audience occurred around such an actively provocative statement, rather than many other options.

  24. (ModeratePoli, just to be clear that I'm not making this about a big disagreement: I do take note of how your point was only in addition to your agreement with the classicist and Jeff.)

  25. "...that's a statement couched in terms of personal responsibility for individual condition. And people in the audience cheered that remark.

    Goodness! Heaven forfend we should encourage personal responsibility!

    I think you lefties are waaaaaay reaching here.

    First, for whimpering about debate audience reactions (again). Second, for inferring some deeply nefarious meaning to the road groupies' Jaws-like response to one of the debate gabsters' lines.

    Only the geeks are paying attention to these debates, and only you lefties amongst those geeks are paying attention to debate audience reactions. People are only barely paying any attention to the OccupyWhatever folks for example, and for some weeks now don't even bother forming opinions of them, let alone some Nevada collection of gabfest road groupies that you all seem to find worthy of endless commentary. Blend in some balance and reality to your analysis, is what I'm saying here.

    Now, if you are interested in assigning deeper meaning to the gabster's line, and the audience reaction to it, I'd suggest you hew more to classical and historical public opinion trends, such as those spoken by JFK decades ago, "Ask not... etc."

    There was once a time when the Left hewed to those lines and those trends, and "Ask not..." was embedded in their philosophy. How times have changed. My, how they've changed. And not for the better. JFK couldn't be nominated president today... not by the contemporary Left. 50 years ago, those words were well in the mainstream, as they (admittedly precariously) are in today's mainstream. But as we see in this discussion, they're not even in the contemporary Left's vocabulary. And from the looks of this discussion... those words are even anathema. They are cursed words. You read that right. For the contemporary Left, calls for personal responsibility are to be cursed. They are not to be addressed... they are to be cursed. And those who would welcome such words... are to be cursed.

    This will not end well for the Left. We can hope it ends well for the country, but the fractional 20% of the country represented by the posters in this discussion must surely understand that they are not in the mainstream of this country, not today, and certainly not 50 years ago. "Ask not..." is surely gonna win out, for fiscal reasons if nothing else. Would probably be best if you embraced this, else watch the "Cain Democrats" walk off the reservation, similar to 30 years ago.

    This ain't the hill you wanna die on. The day the Left rejects the call for personal responsibility, is the day the Left dies as a political force. It's only a mob, at that point, and in a short while, Bloomberg is gonna show us what happens to mobs, and he's ostensibly one of your own.

    And I like the OWS movement. I just recognize it ain't gonna catch on amongst a tangled bunch of hard leftists, who are busy sparring with their evil Faux News enemies that were obvious members of an evil Nevada debate crowd who were caught evilly welcoming calls for personal responsibility. The OWS is finished, not because of evil Faux News, but because the contemporary Left has embraced the same crony corporatism that the OWS crowd is decrying.

    "Ask not...", unless you're Solyndra, Government Motors or a Wall Street bankster. Then ask, and you shall receive.

    I don't think you lefties recognize what's going on here, not with OWS, or with the Tea Party. This is how you arrive at political irrelevancy.

  26. This is a different Anonymous than Anonymous at 5:19pm.

    Anonymous at 5:19pm:
    No one's against the idea of accepting personal responsibility when appropriate. The jarring feature of Cain's remark was that most people, even casually and without much consideration, don't think the current economic situation and high level of unemployment was due to a rapid increase in the number of poor employees who deserved to be fired. If people simply like an affirmation of personal responsibility irrespective of its relationship to reality, then the cheering makes sense. But otherwise, the disconnect jars. (Even many conservatives seek to find responsibility in poor federal government policy, not in fluctuations in the character of the population.)

  27. Anonymous at 5:19: No where in the post or in the comments did I read or infer that "the Lefties" are eschewing personal responsibility.

    You have just committed a basic logical fallacy:

    A or B,
    Therefore not A.

    A: Being unemployed is not about personal responsibility.
    B: Being unemployed is about personal responsibility.
    You then assert that "lefties" say A and then conclude B.

    Correction: Deleted the exclusive terms "always" and "never".

  28. I didn't assert anything. I'm commenting on the posts in this discussion, and their implications for the Left. And few of them are good.


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