Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Wither the GOP

I have promised a lot of blog posts on various topics, but before I get to those I want to write a quick post on my view of the 2012 presidential election.  This isn't meant to be an explanation of why Obama won, to the exclusion of other theories—I don't pretend to have any expertise in that area.  It's just an observation that I think has some force.

It comes down to this:  the conservative movement is remarkably dickish.  I am not making a substantive point about their policies, though I think many of those policies fit the description.  I just mean that conservatives seem to take particular glee in saying hurtful or outrageous things, and I think this costs them dearly when actual Republican politicians have to ask for actual votes.

The tendency is not entirely surprising when it is observed in conservatives who aren't running for office.  If Ann Coulter delights her audience by saying a bunch of reprehensible things, and then this causes Republicans to lose their races, Coulter still gets to keep the money.  Coulter is then functioning as a parasite on the conservative movement, and in fact I think a lot of conservatives view her as such.  What is particularly pathological is when the parasites end up in an influential position in party primaries, so that candidates have to pay obeisance to the very parasites who will later undermine their electoral chances.  I think that is a fairly accurate depiction of the way the modern conservative movement works.  (In fairness, the conservative media establishment also does non-parasitic work promoting the conservative movement.  Whether it is a net positive for conservatism is debatable.)

But here's the surprising thing.  Dickishness seems to have spread to the candidates themselves, which makes it harder to view them as victims forced to endure their party's parasites.  Many of Romney's attacks on Obama were essentially dickish gimmicks.  "You didn't build that."  "Voting is the best revenge."  Both of those lines of attack were basically bullshit, depending on a tendentious and dickish misinterpretation of Obama's (admittedly clumsy) statements.  They were cheap attacks that seem better-suited to amusing conservatives than to persuading undecided voters.

More strikingly, I think, Republican primary debates basically look like contests to see who can deliver the most vicious attack lines against Democratic constituencies.  This is hard to explain, since these are candidates who will have to face the consequences of their actions!  One way to square this with the "parasites" story above is to say that candidates have to be dickish to get the endorsements of the parasites.  So Republican candidates are like those rats with toxoplasmosis who cuddle up to cats—their parasites are not only feeding off them, but driving them to political suicide.  But I'm not sure that's right.  I think it's possible that dickishness has become intertwined with the conservative movement in a fundamental way.  To some degree, conservatism is a mood, and in the United States, that mood often encompasses gleeful dickishness.

To shift gears a little, I think dickishness is generally practiced from a position of privilege.  People who are not operating from a position of power generally can't afford to antagonize other people with wanton cruelty. And so this may give a partial answer to a longstanding question of American politics, which is why practically every minority group votes overwhelmingly Democratic despite having divergent interests, beliefs, and backgrounds.  (The paradigmatic example is the coalition of Jews and blacks in urban politics, but there are many others, including the huge Democratic advantage among Asian-Americans.)  In addition to the many substantive reasons for these people to vote Democratic, maybe we can add a stylistic one:  they are not privileged, and so they are not amused by the Republicans' inveterate dickishness.  If that's true, the Republican Party's problem is both shallow and deep.  On one hand, it should be able to improve its performance without abandoning its principles.  But on the other hand, abandoning its dickishness may be virtually impossible to do.  And so the final irony:  the very people who love to castigate "black culture" have a deep cultural problem that will cost them not just the votes of blacks, but the votes of anyone who isn't predisposed to laugh when the powerful pick on the weak.


Blogger Grobstein said...

I don't agree with all the observations in this post, but it occurs to me that "dickishness" may be related to the growing(?) left-right gender gap. Republicans got a solid majority of men, I think, and Democrats got a solid majority of women. A lot of factors other than dickishness go into explaining this gap, but it seems at least plausible that different-gendered constituencies might prefer different flavors of political rhetoric on average.

A converse story, by the way, says that Democratic politicians campaign on and are rewarded for "niceness" even where there isn't a lot of policy daylight between them and their opponents.

3:02 PM  
Blogger James said...

Is there a particular observation you don't agree with? Maybe you think I'm exaggerating the degree of dickishness in Republican rhetoric? I'm (somewhat) willing to dig up examples, but maybe those will never be persuasive because possibly cherry-picked.

Sure, the Democratic Party is by no means substance-over-style, but can anyone really object to a bias toward "niceness"? It's not as though Democratic leaders are nice when it isn't called for. In fact, the current Democratic leadership includes several great political knife-fighters.

3:09 PM  
Blogger James said...

Oh by the way, I think you cannot possibly argue that the conservative media establishment isn't intensely dickish. I stand by that without reservation.

3:10 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

Yeah the "Dems campaign on niceness" line seems like something inferred from the gender gap thesis rather than an actual effect that anyone's noticed.

I also think that (as a general rule) when gender differences track racial differences (as here), the presumptive explanation is that they are both due to a privilege gap. The idea that dickishness is a demonstration of privilege/strength seems plausible to me. (Though of course open exhibitions of privilege are probably correlated with some notion that the privilege is under threat -- the present-day GOP coalition makes no sense in a culturally homogeneous country.) But I suspect that dickishness is what attracts most of the poorer GOP-aligned voting blocs to the GOP.

3:37 PM  
Blogger Grobstein said...

It seems to me that "the 'Dems campaign on niceness' line" is actually more-or-less logically equivalent to the "Republicans campaign on dickishness" line, no? Niceness is roughly the opposite of dickishness; James says Republicans lose votes by being dickish; and to a first approximation votes lost by Republicans are gained by Democrats.

5:15 PM  
Blogger Grobstein said...

But yeah I think the privilege-dickishness thesis is hard to defend as stated. The "backlash"-style story Sarang is hinting at has somewhat more plausibility.

5:22 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

"It seems to me that "the 'Dems campaign on niceness' line" is actually more-or-less logically equivalent to the "Republicans campaign on dickishness" line, no?"

I don't think so: "dickish" and "nice" are both defined against norms from ordinary life, not norms internal to politics, so it is logically poss. for politicians of both sides to be either dickish or nice, or (as in most cases) just "normal." I mean, sure, you could say that Joe Donnelly or Claire McCaskill won for being "nice" but this seems quite wrongheaded: "not making unacceptable remarks about rape" is not "being nice."

7:12 AM  
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