Serious question for Jim Geraghty re: “The Nasty GOP?” [UPDATED: Jim responds]
Why is it that conservative “contempt” for many in the electorate is so often posited as a reason why the GOP loses, while progressive vituperation and outward contempt — indeed, widespread mockery — of conservatism doesn’t seem to cost them many votes and lead to a lot of naval-gazing about how their messaging?
One answer, naturally, is that the left, by way of the media and the academy and popular culture reinforce the caricature of conservatism, while treating the most vulgar attacks on conservatives and conservatism from the left as a necessary corrective to the right’s awful hateyness.
But let me posit another answer, one that operates in conjunction with the first to bring us to the point you describe in your column: rather than being asked to fight back against the caricature, we’re consistently counseled to moderate our tone, massage our messaging, and sell ourselves in ways that the left can’t find offensive — to the point of scapegoating our own –even though the offense they take is largely feigned and mostly driven by rhetorical cynicism.
I’ve long detailed why I believe this is a faulty strategy provided you want to do more than merely win elections, creating the vicious cycle whereby even when you win you must do so by the left’s rules, and to keep power you most certainly can’t risk moving rightward, lest you open yourself up to charges of extremism (which, incidentally, is a state of being you already occupy by way of being to the right of progressives). At which point you’ve managed a Pyrrhic victory — one that creates absolutely no mandate for serious change and merely protects the status quo of big government.
The only difference is the speed by which we move left. And the tax rates we pay while doing so.
At least, that’s what I argue. I’m curious to hear your response.
update: Jim offers a response, which I greatly appreciate. Now to parse it for areas of agreement and disagreement:
Jeff Goldstein asks a couple questions in response to today’s piece, focusing upon, “Why doesn’t progressive contempt cost them many votes?”
First, are we so certain it doesn’t? Would anyone argue the Left’s constant mockery and sneering at rural America, and characterization of the South as a bunch of ignorant hicks, contribute to why Democrats usually run poorly in rural counties and in the South?
I suppose this is a fair point if we wish to bracket the fact that Democrats long ago gave up on such folks, and having been largely unsuccessful at buying them off or winning them over on substance, feel it is safe to taunt them — that taunting of such a demographic helping to shore up their credibility with the soi dissant set, who ironically group identify based largely on a willingness to sneer at those who won’t vote for them or with them. That is to say, this is less a chicken and egg question than it is a result of having first lost the demographic, then taking that loss and, by way of caricaturing those who rejected them electorally, winning the support of those already predisposed to believe in such caricatures.
I wholeheartedly endorse Goldstein’s call to “fight back against the caricature.” But don’t conform to it, either. Part of the problem is that the Right has given the Left and its allies just enough examples to further those caricatures.
If the average voter is hearing from the Democrats that folks on the Right are racist, we cannot afford to have anyone associated with our causes advocating genuine racism (as opposed to the insane insistence that “golf” and “Chicago” are code words for racism). If the average voter is hearing from the Democrats that folks on the Right are ignorant, we cannot afford to have a Senate candidate justifying his position on abortion by completely misunderstanding Biology 101.
Here, we run into problems I’ve addressed before. If we find actual racists on the right, then we should loudly and resoundingly reject them; if we find instances of candidates who believe dinosaurs roamed the earth 6000 years ago, we need to decide if that belief — as opposed to, say, the belief in seance or the healing power of crystals — precludes them from voting for conservative principles or being an effective legislator. However, what Jim is citing specifically here, without mentioning it directly, is the idea that women who are raped are less likely to conceive — an assertion grounded at least partially in the idea that trauma / anxiety is often a detriment to successful pregnancies even among those who are actively trying to conceive. As I wrote at the time, the answer to Todd Akin’s assertion was to query him on the dubious science and perhaps engage in an intellectual conversation that may have yielded a useful reversal on the matter — a sign that even social cons can learn, and aren’t the hidebound extremists they are often portrayed to be. Too, a follow-up that went to the substance of the assertion — rather than one that played out as a game of Who on the Right Can Show The Most Outrage — would have had the positive effect of suggesting that the problem with soundbite politics is our tacit acceptance that, once the statement has been made and caught on tape, there is no way to expound on it, amplify it, discuss it in an intelligent way, etc., which is of course only the case if you listen to consultants and immediately issue your perfunctory apology.
Refuse to accept such conditions, insist upon your right to clarify, and apologize only for the misunderstanding of those in a hurry to make superficial condemnations for political purposes.
One of the frustrating and predictable responses to the piece was the characterization that I’m saying “be nice to Democrats” (which is not quite how Jeff describes it). No, I’m saying be “nice,” or at least respectful, to those who you want to persuade, or recruit into our movement, or vote for our candidate.
Point taken. But we Hobbits and Visigoths and “purists” sometimes lack the social graces that many more pragmatic Republicans exhibit when trying to woo moderates and independents — and yet don’t seem to apply to the very base they count on to carry the often moderate nominee across the finish line.
That being said, Jim is talking about tone and rhetorical approach here, and I would answer that there is a time to be respectful and a time to be indignant. Being respectful of those you are hoping to win over on the merits of your principles is one thing; being respectful to those who declare you racists and nativists is quite another. We need to stop accepting that we’re always and forever consigned to the posture of defensiveness — and this begins politically by being willing to refuse to play in the left’s sandbox. Reject the premises of questions. Point out the bias. Romney ran by noting he would not go after the press. But it was exactly Newt Gingrich’s willingness to do so that for a moment propelled him into the lead in the primaries.
Of course, some of those folks may be Democrats at the moment, or have voted for Obama in 2008 or 2012. Do we want to persuade these folks or do we want to berate them? Do we want to demonstrate to them why our ideas and policies look better, or will we just feel better about ourselves if we dismiss them as hopelessly lazy and selfish and incapable of much better?
Want to win over votes in the Arab-American and Sikh community? Don’t use the term “raghead” and when someone does, loudly emphasize that it’s an un-American, un-Republican, and un-conservative thing to do.
Want to win over gays and lesbians and members of their families? Don’t compare their relationships to bestiality, and object when someone does.
Want to win over women? Don’t begin the discussion of the abortion issue by declaring that if you had your way, rape victims will carry their attacker’s child to term. Don’t begin your objection to a legal mandate to force religious institutions to cover the cost of contraception by arguing that the primary problem is the promiscuous sex life of young women.
First, let me say that if you’ve voted for Obama twice, you are not interested in conservatism, and the persuasion you receive will come in the form of the proverbial mugging by reality. As someone who espouses the benefits of liberty, the free market, individual autonomy, and the necessity of a stable rule of law nearly daily, I don’t think I have to defend having made positive, intellectual, and politically cogent arguments for classically liberal principles.
Having said that, the facts are what they are. Not everyone who requires some form of government subsidy is lazy or useless, and I know of no conservatives or classical liberals who would make that case or would deny a social safety net for the truly needy. Still, the instances of people gaming the system, of fraud, abuse, and the growing of entitlements and expanding welfare roles, is a very real, statistically provable thing. And we shouldn’t run from that truth because it will offend those who, just because they are poorer, don’t of necessity get to lay claim to nobility. This is, again, a leftwing trope, a romantic nod to Rousseau’s noble savage, and it is a political expedient that requires us to avoid truth in order to save feelings.
The other examples are all straw men. Those who compare homosexuality to bestiality, though they are outliers (and many may be Democrat voters, given how the black community seems to feel about homosexuality), don’t often do so to suggest that homosexual sex is akin to having relations with your bull terrier. Rather, they bring up the example to suggest that gay marriage opens up all sort of legal issues — many of which are talked about openly by same-sex marriage proponents. For instance, conservatives long ago brought up the arbitrary number of participants in a legitimate marriage as allowed by the state, noting that a redefinition of marriage may give rise to attempts to promote the legality of polyamory or polygamy. And in fact, Jonathan Turley is making that case now in the courts. And ironically, Peter Singer (and others) are beginning to broach the interspecies love that hitherto would not speak its name.
Interestingly, I find the kinds of question that go to consensual arrangements to be libertarian in bent — and I may be inclined to support such arrangements as polyamory among consenting adults were they merely given the status of civil contracts, and were steps taken to protect the children of such unions — but that’s not at issue here. What is at issue is the role of the state in re-defining marriage. As one of my late (and brilliant) readers would say, you don’t get to call a hamburger a carrot and then call yourself a vegetarian for eating only carrots. Which is to say, the issue of gay marriage to some conservatives is not about homosexuality per se. It’s about a fear of the courts and a tendency of judges to extend precedent beyond its immediate subject matter, and that potentiality is amplified by a definition of marriage that is broader and less specific than the traditional one.
On the question of winning over women, the pro-life position is what it is. Followed to its natural intellectual conclusion, of course a committed pro-life advocate would declare that the “baby” is an innocent and shouldn’t be terminated as a result of the sin of the parent. Knowing this, the media likes to draw out such extreme positions, and we in turn run from them — even when they appear in our Party platform. And yet the real extremist position we can use to juxtapose against the suggestion that “rape baby” support is fringe crank kookiness is one held by the current President: that a baby who survives a botched abortion should not be given medical care.
I assume that, in addition to old white men, some women may come out strongly against infanticide. But the case has to be made. Just as the case has to be made that, even were Roe magically overturned, abortion isn’t outlawed. The question of what is or isn’t legal is then returned to the states. That is, the abortion question has implications for more than merely social conservatives. It has to do with bad law, federalism, and the tricky question of when life begins and who the law must necessarily protect.
The Lilly Ledbetter act did nothing to promote workplace pay equality; contraceptive rights are already established law; the “slut” comment was taken out of context intentionally and used cynically, and there is no way to guard against that in a soundbite culture other than to adopt the later Beckett aesthetic and just say nothing.
The GOP, because they spent so much time denying they hated women, didn’t take the time to sell women on liberty — instead opting to again fight for the demographic on the left’s terms alone.
Jeff seems to suggest that these sorts of rules — “don’t compare homosexuality to bestiality,” “don’t use the term ‘raghead’”, “don’t call women ‘sluts’” are some sort of liberal trap to cut off discussion and force us to have the debate on their terms. I think they’re just a basic reflection of how we ought to treat people, left, right and center. Dare I say, looking back over the tradition of Reagan and Buckley, this is a very conservative approach.
Well, Jeff suggests no such thing, aside from providing a caveat that there are rhetorical situations in which such constructions might prove very persuasive and useful (irony or parody or comedy or prosopopoeia being what they are), and so I of course wouldn’t preemptively rule out such phrasings as in and of themselves untoward. Context is an aid here — and it is precisely what is often left out of the soundbite culture that I DO suggest forces us to have a debate on the left’s terms.
How we ought to treat people will often be determined by how they treat us. After all, we only have so many cheeks and so much time to turn them. And I need not remind Jim that while he’s looking back over the tradition of Reagan and Buckley, he might stop for a moment to consider “evil empire” and “listen you queer, stop calling me a crypto Nazi or I’ll sock you in the face, and you’ll stay plastered.”
To everything there is a season. And we are not in the season, I submit, for getting into a bidding war over votes, or adopting a defeatest posture while we beg to have our arguments heard.
Instead, we need to beat back the gatekeepers who foil us, and if that requires calling them out forcibly, we need to be willing to do so. No matter that it might prove offputting to those who detest confrontation.