Friday, August 24, 2012

The Lessons of Akin

I've been meaning to write something more about conservative pundit Philip Klein's column yesterday about Todd Akin and the GOP. Klein writes that perhaps the Akin affair will be a "remembered as an important development for the conservative movement." Why?
When Akin took to Twitter this week to blame "liberal elites" for his predicament, it came off as ridiculous, because the harshest criticism was coming from conservatives. When all the dust settles on the Missouri Senate race, the Akin mess could be looked back upon as marking a shift in the standards that those on the Right apply to conservative candidates.
What's interesting about Klein's piece is that instead of treating Akin as an aberration, Klein (quite correctly) lumps him in with Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell, and, yes, Sarah Palin, as examples of conservative heroes who weren't really up to the job (what, no Herman Cain?). Klein notes that in those other cases, conservatives rallied to support their policy-deficient candidates on the theory that if liberals were attacking them, they needed defending. This time, that didn't happen.

As a description of what's happening, I could make several criticisms of what Klein has to say, beginning with how he casts Paul Ryan as some sort of wonkish ideal -- as regular readers know, I'm with those who think that Paul's wonkery is, well, not especially impressive (and see Kevin Drum's pessimism about this).

However, is a work of advocacy, what matters here is the idea that Republicans should aspire to policy competence. And that's been a long fight that smart conservatives have mostly been losing, so I'm very pleased to see the Akin affair framed this way.

That is: I've often talked here about how parties "learn" from their own history, which only means that they interpret what's happened and act on those interpretations. And Republicans have learned two terribly self-destructive lessons in recent decades. Their 1994 landslide was interpreted as a reward for extremism and obstruction, on the one hand, but also as a triumph of Luntzian sloganeering. And the rise and triumph of Ronald Reagan was too often interpreted as a victory over policy expertise.

All of which brought the Republicans to the nomination and (for a while) near deification of George W. Bush, a politician whose policy ignorance and indifference wound up terribly harmful to the nation and, what's more, to the Republican Party. And it also, many have argued, leads to a situation where movement conservatives habitually shrug off basic science, basic history, and other aspects of really if it doesn't fit what they want to believe -- I hesitate to call it ideology, because there's nothing within most flavors of conservative ideology that calls for conservatives to reject the reality of the way things are.

So: for those of us who have complained that there's something seriously wrong with the Republican Party, it would be a very positive sign indeed if they interpreted the Akin affair as a consequence of a longer-term lack of "standards" in GOP candidate selection -- especially if the missing standard has to do with, well, ignorance. Policy-related ignorance. If what matters is how these sorts of things get interpreted within the party, then what Klein is doing here is a very positive step.

All that said...the state of the GOP on policy is in such disarray right now that it's going to take much more than this to make some difference. Remember, this is a party which treated obvious snake-oil salesman and overall fraud Newt Gingrich as a policy expert this year. It's a party which considers Paul Ryan a major policy wonk. In other words, it's a party that doesn't even know what serious policy expertise even looks like. And it's by no means certain that Klein's interpretation is going to be the winner out of all of this. But those who want a better Republican Party should hope that this is a turning point.


  1. Can we take this back to Hofstader? I think Klein is at pains in his piece to claim that the "grassroots" vs. "establishment" fight is an invention of the media rather than a legitimate issue, but as you say (and I agree) the strains in the GOP between the factions between the economic and social caucuses are really showing in the case of this Akin stuff.

    Hofstader's old saw in Anti Intellectualism was about, more or less, how the rising suspicion of elitism/expertism in American public life was easily articulated to rather less proximate fears about powerful beaurcracies that couldn't acknowledge individuals effectively. Consider these insights in world where America's major enemy was an authoritarian state (not to mention a world where America had just defeated in war a fascist country). The consider further how Watergate, Tuskegee, and Vietnam further contributed to a decline in public trust.

    The general anti-government sentiments offered by Goldwater, cannibalized by Nixon, and perfected by Reagan offered the possibility of taking the specter of Big Government and using it to soothe what would otherwise be pretty problematic tensions between the social and economic right. While I don't doubt that there are a lot of conservatives who do genuinely in both sides, we can also acknowledge there are plenty of defense mechanisms (maybe even rhetorical ones) like "the people" "freedom" "liberty" etc. that try and massage away these tensions.

    Akin, Angle, O'Donnell....all of these were candidates who not only were suspicious of discourses of expertism, but more clearly when confronted with their issues chose often to double down on that suspicion rather than reflexively interrogate or reform their beliefs. And to the extent that a portion of their supportive base identifies with them on the basis of their shared suspicion of elitism (and here a nod to the persecution complex of a certain strain of anti-intellectual Republican is noteworthy) candidates like Akin are going to feel like they have a constituency of true believers waiting in the wings.

    Klein's article is a real watershed, I think: someone who more or less is calling a certain portion of the GOP policy illiterate. I agree with you that he doesn't quite say it the way we'd like but, in sum, its a positive move.

    1. We should add Bachmann to the list of Akin, Angle, and O'Donnell. That's how we responded to questions about her facts.

  2. Forgive me if I'm missing something here, but what in the world does the Akin affair have to do with "policy competence" or expertise?

    The Republicans who are clamoring for Akin to drop out (and who failed to do the same for Angle/O'Donnell/Palin) are doing so because they don't think he can win the general election - period. It's not because they disagree with what he said (although they might), and it's certainly not because they view what he said to be an indicator that he's not sufficiently wonkish!

    In other words, it's the campaign incompetence - not policy incompetence - that sunk Akin.

    Don't get me wrong; it's certainly good for the Republican Party that their leaders are starting to realize that error-prone politicians shouldn't run for office. But I don't think Akin-gate says anything about whether the GOP has a newfound appreciation of policy expertise. They just want to win.

    1. The point is that whatever "really" caused Republicans to act as they have, what matters in the longer run is how they interpret how they acted.

      Ronald Reagan beating Jimmy Carter didn't really prove that it's better to have solid ideological beliefs than to understand public policy -- but GOP belief that Reagan beat Carter and became (in their view) a great president because he was an ideologue who didn't get distracted by factual details made it a lot more likely that they would nominate GWB in 2000.

  3. I didn't interpret Klein's piece in anything like the same way you did. For me what he's saying is that Republican voters are right that there is "a double standard in the way the media treats mistakes by Republicans and Democrats," and that the way Palin, O'Donnell and Angle were treated exemplifies that.

    But what he's also saying is that Republicans need leaders who are savvy, and that Republican voters realise this. So he's drawing a distinction between the bogus criticism of Palin and Angle, which Tea Party supporters rightly ignored, and the justified criticism of Akin, which he claims is mostly from conservatives.


    1. What bogus criticism of Palin and Angle, which Tea Party supporters rightly ignored, are you talking about? The only reason why Tea Party supporters ignored criticisms of their candidates, real or imagined, were strictly based on the persecution complex of people that can't, or won't look at issues from an factual based framework. Ideology trumps logic and rational thought every time.

    2. Yes, keep insisting over and over that conservatives/Republicans are divorced from reality. The echo chamber is nearly completely. Soon you will have driven away any even remotely thoughtful commentator who dares to think otherwise.

  4. I still think Akin's basic problem was that he used his "inside" argument with an "outside" audience, and thus he revealed how he and his faction have talked all along to their base supporters. It's a good thing if this essay marks the beginning of the end of the "war on reality," but the GOP will still have the problem that the business elite is way too small to be an electoral base for a winning party. In recent years (decades), they've bolstered that base, in part, by pandering to the ignorant, the paranoid, and the resentful (not to sound too elitist or anything), even if they really didn't offer them much in the way of policy. It appeared to me that the Bush administration basically governed on behalf of the business elite; then every two years, in the summer before an election, they'd submit a bill to ban flag burning or gay marriage or what-have-you, knowing that it would never pass but also knowing that its failure would rile up the base in time for elections. Over time, their success in mobilizing that part of the base has brought it into the party itself, and it threatens to take over. If they're going to end the war on reality, then they're going to have to reform the thinking of a certain subset of their voters or else find a new base.

  5. My view is similar to Scott Monje's above; I'd put it as follows: Akin's gaffe was the ideological equivalent of leaving the secret access code to the fever swamps on a Burger King counter; in addition to changing the code, the gatekeepers of the swamps have to pretend they've no idea what was found at the fast food joint.

    Specifically, how do Republicans fire up their supporters to continue fighting the (increasingly hopeless) fight for abortion restrictions encompassing rape? Even in the fever swamps it must be clear that prohibition of abortion in rape cases is a non-starter in the larger, mostly secular society. The way you fire your people up is to convince them that there's no such thing as a rape-related pregnancy.

    If memory serves, there's no comparable incident where a Palin or Angle or O'Donnell (why all women, by the way?) pulled back the curtain to reveal the little man from Kansas. If they had, I'm sure the machine would have rushed to close said curtain in a similar way to their response to Akin.

  6. The complicating factor in all of this is that Mitt Romney could very well be our next president, and Mitt Romney obviously does not give two-fifths of a crap about policy. Look at his position(s) on Medicare: Obama is gutting it! Obama is not cutting it enough in the future! We'll save Medicare! My running mate has a plan to phase out Medicare!

    I see no reason to believe that Romney knows or cares anything at all about Medicare, or much of anything else other than taxes. And I doubt anyone in the GOP is going to denounce him for that.

  7. Several states just enacted state-sponsored mandated vaginal penetration for women (previously raped or no) seeking abortions, and the House passed over 50 abortion-related amendments this session. Really, you couldn't go wrong in the Republican party one-upping each other on being tougher on abortion. It's all about making sure that somebody can't challenge you on the right in the primary.
    Then the Democrats starting calling it "a war on women." Aren't we 52% of the population? So the talking points people said to cut it out for now. Nonetheless, it's the heart and soul of their platform.
    I think it was a television thing. Seeing that nasty man say those judgmental things about rape victims just shook them to the core. Even though they've written the very thing themselves....
    It must be pure cowardice.

  8. You can't write this post without talking about religion.

    I think there's a huge part of the new Republican party that would absolutely put religious competence (for a small set of religions) as far and away the most important test. To them, your article is, at best, deceptive nonsense. If you Walk the Path, then what you would call "policy competence" is a natural side effect. Having "policy competence" as a goal by itself is just not something good people would do.

    In their world, your article should be rewritten to talk about _important_ issues, like how candidates will get Right with God. If you get that, everything else follows.

  9. "...because there's nothing within most flavors of conservative ideology that calls for conservatives to reject the reality of the way things are."

    Sure there is. Trickle-down economics ignores every lesson America was supposed to have learned since pre-War era. The GOP deregulation fetish does the same thing. Both totally reject reality.

    And if you do not see that rejecting "basic science, basic history, and other aspects of reality" is at the very core of modern conservative ideology, then I have to kind of worry about you.

    Conservatives today are NOT conservatives of the 1950s or even 1980s. The ideology is not the same as it was under Ike, for example. Hell, Nixon was instrumental in the creation of the EPA. Reagan presided over tax increases. Do either of those things fit into most flavors of conservative ideology these days?

    Reading this, it seems as though you think that conservatives learned the wrong lessons and are somehow rejecting conservative ideology. From all I can tell, their ideology itself has changed in a terrifying direction.

    It is not merely that they lack knowledge of policy; they reject the need to even have such knowledge. Policy is the tool of Big Government, and therefore evil. Period. They do not need even the most basic knowledge of the real world at all.

    They have become a faith based movement. Logic, facts, reason and reality have little to no place at the conservative table.

    To me, this is utterly terrifying. Because faith based movements do not learn; they already have the answers. They cannot negotiate or work with opposing ideologies; that is pure heresy. They cannot tone down their rhetoric; that would be a betrayal of their faith.

    And, historically speaking, faith based movements only grow less extreme after they have gained ultimate power, and inevitably turn upon themselves in an exponential downward spiral of purity enforcement.

    They are not fools; they are True Believers. And that makes them more dangerous than you seem to realize.

  10. What's with all this lefty navel gazing... in the OTHER guy's navel?

    The Left just got electorally plastered ... 21 months ago... at the local, state and federal level. They're on the precipice of another pasting, or stalemate at best, and yet they're giving the other guy advice? Please.

    The other guy is an idiot... no doubt... but that doesn't mean he should be taking advice from another idiot... fresh off a shellacking... and poised for another.


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