I don’t do political commentary. This piece–a departure from my normal work–will demonstrate why…
When I say brief, I mean 56 words. Here it is:
A Brief Theory of the Republican Party: 2012
In so far as a political party in the United States can “decide” anything, the party decided not to have the fight it needed to have between reality-based Republicans and the other kind. And so it is having that fight now, during the 2012 election season, but in disguised form. The results are messy and confusing.
Given the state of our political discourse, one should expect to be misunderstood with a theory like this. There is no way to prevent that, but I will try to qualify some of the key phrases.
1.) When I say “reality-based Republicans” I mean those who recognize the danger in trying to make descriptions of the world conform to their wishes. By the “other kind” I mean those who don’t. Or: members of the Republican coalition who exhibit certain behaviors F.A. Hayek wrote about in 1960. This quotation was dug up by Chis Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science. It is from Hayek’s essay, “Why I am Not a Conservative.”
Personally, I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it – or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism. I will not deny that scientists as much as others are given to fads and fashions and that we have much reason to be cautious in accepting the conclusions that they draw from their latest theories. But the reasons for our reluctance must themselves be rational and must be kept separate from our regret that the new theories upset our cherished beliefs. I can have little patience with those who oppose, for instance, the theory of evolution or what are called “mechanistic” explanations of the phenomena of life because of certain moral consequences which at first seem to follow from these theories, and still less with those who regard it as irrelevant or impious to ask certain questions at all. By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position.
2.) Readers will want to know what I have in mind when I refer to “members of the Republican coalition who do not recognize the dangers of trying to make descriptions of the world conform to their wishes.” These four examples capture the tendencies I’m talking about, but it’s the tendencies I’m talking about, not the examples! Still, here they are: The Birthers, a relatively “fringe” group who had a nice run for a while, though they were ultimately put down; global warming denialism, which is fast becoming a mainstream Republican position; the debt limit fight in the summer of 2011, which House Republicans started (so it’s difficult to say that was “fringe…”) and the claim that President Obama is actually a socialist, which is so common on the right as to almost sound banal these days.
Now it’s not just that those things happened. It’s that the people willing to believe that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S…. that global warming isn’t happening and the evidence for it has been faked by scientists with a political agenda… that the Congress could refuse to raise the debt limit and thereby send a message about fiscal discipline without wreaking havoc for the U.S. economy… or that the President isn’t a mainstream liberal who believes in a vigorous role for government within an economy dominated by the private sector, but rather a full-on socialist who would if he could dismantle the system of lightly-to-tightly regulated capitalism that presidents of both parties have supported since the close of World War Two… these people vote, they volunteer, they donate money, they form organizations that are part of the fabric of the Republican party, they get elected to office, they hold hearings in Congress to make their points, they talk on the radio and try to influence other Republicans, they attack reality-based Republicans as apostates– and in all these ways they loom larger and larger within the party.
3.) For a representative figure among reality-based Republicans I would go with David Frum, the former speechwriter for George W. Bush and a conservative who cannot stomach what has happened to his party. But rather than become a Democrat or claim some sort of ideological conversion, Frum has taken up his pen, as with: When Did the GOP Lose Touch With Reality? There he writes:
Few of us have the self-knowledge and emotional discipline to say one thing while meaning another. If we say something often enough, we come to believe it. We don’t usually delude others until after we have first deluded ourselves. Some of the smartest and most sophisticated people I know—canny investors, erudite authors—sincerely and passionately believe that President Barack Obama has gone far beyond conventional American liberalism and is willfully and relentlessly driving the United States down the road to socialism. No counterevidence will dissuade them from this belief: not record-high corporate profits, not almost 500,000 job losses in the public sector, not the lowest tax rates since the Truman administration. It is not easy to fit this belief alongside the equally strongly held belief that the president is a pitiful, bumbling amateur, dazed and overwhelmed by a job too big for him—and yet that is done too.
Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics. Outside this alternative reality, the United States is a country dominated by a strong Christian religiosity. Within it, Christians are a persecuted minority. Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he’s a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action phony doomed to inevitable defeat.
Because he wouldn’t stop with this kind of thing (“a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts…”) Frum was dismissed from his position at the American Enterprise Institute, a leading Republican think thank, and dropped from further appearances on Fox News, though the network never announced or explained that decision. Frum is also a despised figure in the conservative blogosphere, where it is assumed that the reason he talks this way is that he wants liberals to love him. My point is that Frum is willing to have the fight that the rest of his party did not want to have.
4.) F.A. Hayek is an intellectual god within the conservative moment. David Frum was a good soldier and solid citizen who worked in a Republican White House. My purpose in quoting them is to underline that what matters about the flight from reality within the Republican coalition is that it’s an internal struggle. What liberal college professors like me think about it is irrelevant to the outcome of that struggle. What happened to David Frum matters; what I say about it does not. Reality-based Republicans will either realize the threat to their existence and fight it out with the other kind of Republican, or… they won’t. So far they haven’t. That’s a mistake. It’s bad for the country, it’s bad for the political system, it’s bad for the Democrats (because it breeds complacency and arrogance in the opposition) and it’s catastrophic for the Republicans as a governing party.
5. So I’m not saying that the Democrats and progressives are the ones who are in touch with reality, while conservatives and Republicans are not. (But I guarantee you some will read it that way.) I’m saying that the tendency toward wish fulfillment, selective memory, ideological blindness, truth-busting demagoguery and denial of the inconvenient fact remains within normal trouble-making bounds for the Democratic coalition. But it has broken through the normal limits on the Republican side, an historical development that we don’t understand very well. That is, we don’t know the reasons for it, why it happened when it did, or what might reverse it. (We also need to know the degree to which it is a global phenomenon among conservative parties in mature democracies, or an American thing.) Political scientists: help!
6. Mitt Romney, the favorite to win the Republican nomination for president in 2012, is a reality-based Republican who cannot run as a reality-based Republican because he thinks he cannot win that way. Jon Huntsman’s campaign is the proof of that calculation. All the candidates, including Romney, have to make gestures toward the alternative knowledge system, with its own facts. Overlaid on this pattern are the normal tensions between more ideological conservatives and what the press calls moderates, the usual conflicts among the libertarian strain, the corporate Republicans and the social conservatives. Journalists feel comfortable talking about these. They have no acceptable language for discussing reality-based Republicans vs. the other kind. So they don’t. The result is a confusing mess.