Tuesday, July 9, 2013

I Doubt Republicans Have a Divine Doctrine Problem

Ed Kilgore:
In all my writings on this subject, I’ve stressed the fact that the contemporary conservative movement—and particularly its increasingly dominant “constitutional conservative” wing—is unusually resistant to changes in its ideology, policies and messaging, for the rather obvious reason that they believe in a fixed, timeless government model located somewhere in the 1920s that reflects not only the Founders’ design but a divine imperative communicated through the Declaration of Independence, natural law, and scripture. So of course they will look high and low for evidence that they don’t have to “change to win,” and even if that pursuit fails, they’ll argue for holding out for a perfect electoral storm to avoid any compromise in their “conservative principles.”
That's one theory. I think, with all due respect to Kilgore, who is a long-time smart political observer, that it's wrong.

I'm not convinced, to tell the truth, that Republicans are unusually resistant to change. I think they are unusually resistant to moderation -- that is a particular type of change.

And my explanations for it are structural and institutional, rather than based on something inherent in conservative ideology. Specifically, I think that what matters are (1) the conservative marketplace, which is driven more by resentment than by ideology; and (2) a series of examples/historical accidents/mythology that have allowed people to convince themselves that purity is a better general election strategy.

What I believe about the "fixed, timeless government model located somewhere in the 1920s that reflects not only the Founders’ design but a divine imperative" is that the fixed model is constantly undergoing revisions, and that most of the adherents to that model are extremely open to even very large revisions, as long as they are always presented as part of a fixed, timeless, government model.

Now, what I don't have is any way to show that I'm right and Kilgore is wrong. Or maybe we're both correct, or both partially correct. But I'm fairly convinced of it -- Republicans will move on policy when they think it's in their interest to move on policy, and at that point the divine origins of their former policies won't stop them.


  1. Yes, if you want an example of this after the GOP Congressional takeover in 94 they rolled out a big plan to get rid of the FDA and privatize approval of pharmaceuticals. Drug companies had been complaining since time immemorial that those evil bureaucrats in the FDA where keeping their great new drugs from the American public.

    But after the GOP rolled out it's plan the drug companies flipped and started pushing to stop the GOP because they were worried that without an FDA seal of approval American drugs would be at a competitive disadvantage with European and Japanese companies. And the push to end the FDA was quietly dropped.

    Once the interest groups changed their tune, the GOP had no problem rewriting their own.

    1. If I'm remembering it correctly, my favorite moment in that transition was when they were arguing that the FDA should simply issue approvals, but it shouldn't actually test the drugs first because consumers don't want that kind of government interference. I couldn't help thinking: if you really think the consumers are resistant to government involvement, why are you planning to print the fake FDA approvals on the bottle?

  2. One needs to go back only to the Medicare prescription drug benefit, an unpaid-for entitlement expansion that was supported by such born-again deficit hawks as Paul Ryan, to see how quickly the GOP can turn. Or John McCain's support for cap and trade. Or Romneycare vs. Obamacare.

    The modern conservative moment has as its sole ideological principle lower marginal tax rates. Everything else is up for grabs.

  3. "the fixed model is constantly undergoing revisions, and ... most of the adherents to that model are extremely open to even very large revisions, as long as they are always presented as ..."

    ... moving even further to the right.

  4. In fairness, GOP/Conservatives are not the only ones that are open to big changes as long as they are presented as part of a timeless model. Continuity of rhetoric and cultural shibboleths with flexibility in practical policy is found across the political spectrum and across many different time periods. There is, after all, a reason that "revolution" means both "radical change" and "one iteration of a circular motion in which an object returns to its starting place." It is very common for revolutions to claim that they are simply expressing tradition/timeless principles/long held belief, even when those revolutions actually are about big changes.

    You can see this with the Democrats as well, although perhaps not as clearly. After all, rhetoric around national health care reform was used in 2010 to defend a law that ... contained many of the provisions that the same rhetoric had been used to argue against in 1993. The rhetoric of the family was used to justify DOMA and DADT, and to justify repealing DOMA and DADT, often by the very same Democrats. In other countries, Gorbachev used the rhetoric of communism to defend glasnost and perestroika, and (to reach waaaaaaay back) Imperator Caesar Augustus used the rhetoric and language of the Roman Republic to establish the Roman Principate.

    To bring it back to the present, maybe one reason that surveys showing where voters rate the two parties on the left/right spectrum have shown no movement in 40 years is that the avowed language and symbology of the two parties (at least the language and symbols they use when the general public is looking) has not changed much, even as the substance of policy has. Since most people sort of vaguely pay attention to rhetoric and symbols (and we are talking very vaguely at that) and almost none to policy that does not affect them directly, it would make sense that most people don't notice much change. I am guessing on that one, and I am sure there is some work on political psychology that would illuminate the point, but I am too lazy to look it up. Still, it's worth noting that Eisenhower gave way to none on his praise for private business and individual initiative, even while pursuing policies very different from the modern GOP.

    1. There is, after all, a reason that "revolution" means both "radical change" and "one iteration of a circular motion in which an object returns to its starting place." ...

      I like this thought. And it's true that the "re-" prefix can mean "back" -- revolution as a rolling back to some imagined past purity or justice -- or "again" -- revolution as rolling around again to the same place. I do wonder however how robust the posited connection is. (Like, "revolting" can mean "participating in a revolution" or "repulsive," but that doesn't seem significant.) Some defenders of any given revolution will be using "moderate" language -- stressing continuity -- others will be using "radical" language, talking about how massive a change is needed to fix things, or about how massive a change has taken place. These are cultural, not political examples, but think of the 19c utopian groups, from Mormons to Fourierists, all talking about how the world was about to change drastically and irrevocably. But the groups that succeeded and became embedded, within a generation or two started stressing continuity (exemplified in the transition from Joseph Smith to Brigham Young). And the people who write about it are writing later, from the perspective of successful integration, and then you get waves of revisionist histories showing how Martin Luther wasn't challenging Christianity (the way it seemed to a lot of people at the time) but purifying it and returning it to its roots, and the Reconstruction Amendments were really fulfilling the promise of the original Constitution (even though it seemed to a lot of people on either side at the time that they were doing something radically new), and so on. Do you see what I mean, that maybe in retrospect we emphasize the rhetoric both of return and of continuity, because we've experienced the aftermath and not the change? -- is this even relevant?

      Incidentally, in Latin, the way you say "revolution"-radical change isn't at all related to our word (which took on that meaning much later): it's "res novae," which just means "new things." I wonder whether that affected (or reflected) different perceptions of continuity and change to ours --

    2. Yes, I do see what you mean. It is always dangerous to read back from our current understanding of events about how people in the past experienced things, and it is doubtless the case that it varied with different situations. My own take on "revolution" was stolen from an old professor of mine, Joyce Chaplin, now an Early Americanist at Harvard, who argued that one cannot understand the nature of the American revolution without realizing that the dual meanings of the word "revolution" were well understood at the time and often discussed.

      For what it's worth, I think the rhetoric around "rights of an Englisman" that was so entwined with the developments leading up the the American revolution certainly point to this "restorationist" character, at least for some people. As you are the classicist, I bow to suggestions regarding Augustus, but many seem to believe he represented the clearest example of a radical revolution in conservative guise in Western history.

  5. "driven more by resentment than by ideology"

    What is the nature of this distinction? One might say that you need an implicit ideology or at least not totally incoherent set of beliefs to know who or what groups to resent...

    1. Well, I think it's a marketing thing. There's basic emotions that can be manipulated to get people to buy things. Sex is obvious, but resentment is good too. It plays into the "us vs. them" mindset. It's not a specifically conservative thing - I pick it at Kos all the time. But there's some research to suggest that the conservative mindset is pretty vulnerable to this kind of marketing.

      Fox's genius is to stroke the resentment all the time. They use facial expressions and vocal intonation, as well as associations and outright judgemental language, to let you know who is "us" and who is "them." Benefits that accrue to "us" are deserved and earned; benefits that accrue to "them" are at the expense of "us".

      What's really killer about it is that people can belong to the uninsured and still nod their heads at their emotional description, because everyone at heart knows that they are one of "us."

    2. I agree this is not really a hard distinction, but I would put the point the other way around: a lot of what has historically been called ideology has fundamentally been based on resentment (hat tip: Nietzsche).

      But that semantic quibble aside, I think Bernstein's main thesis still stands. Even if you think the underlying resentment dynamic equates to some sort of consistent "ideology", in terms of, say, specific policy implications, such an "ideology" is going to be inherently unstable.

      Basically, a trusted in-group leader just has to switch from saying "Policy X is the best way to stick it to THOSE PEOPLE" to saying instead "Actually, Policy Y is the best way to stick it to THOSE PEOPLE," and the folks with this sort "ideology" will swap their policy preference from X to Y, including in cases where Y is the opposite of X. And others commenting in this thread are fleshing this point out with specific, recent examples.

      So yes, it is an "ideology" of sorts, but it is one easily subject to manipulation when it comes to specific policy issues.

  6. I think that JB's little paradox -- "the fixed model is constantly undergoing revisions, and that most of the adherents to that model are extremely open to even very large revisions, as long as they are always presented as part of a fixed, timeless, government model" -- is true of all fundamentalisms. Every "literal" reading of the Bible is extremely selective. But that hard frame still matters. It distorts change as it occurs.

  7. I believe you are closer to the mark than the usually on target Ed Kilgore. But I would like to see you include in your analysis the effect of technology on the Republican acceleration to the right.

  8. Dr. B,

    I believe you wanted a comma between "that is" and "a particular type of change". Otherwise, another great post.


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