Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Explaining Republicans

I'm an advocate of trying to form mental models of people who disagree with me or have totally alien worldviews. It seems like good intellecutal exercise, and it has at least the potential to elevate the discussion, although in practice, trying to understand an enemie's motivations can get you into political hot water. For instance, any attempt to attribute motives other than "evil" to the 9/11 terrorists gets you smeared as an apologist. But so what. The extreme form of this exercise is to try to imagine what it was like to be a Nazi, what the hell could possibly have gone through the minds of people as they commit terrible acts? The assumption as that, to themselves, terrorists and Nazis aren't evil but have some structure of motives and rationales that make sense to them. Understanding how that works seems like a necessary if unpleasant task. There's a large literature on this, which reaches varying conclusions about the nature of evil and the nature of the kind of minds that can engage in it.

Actually, "unpleasant" doesn't cut it, it's creepy journey and it threatens one's own self, as if spending too much time in the company of such stuff can be contaminating.

Anyway, we are not faced with the ultimate evil, but the political situation is evil enough...Digby has an excellent article that starts out "deconstructing" Jane Fonda but ends up doing it to Richard Nixon and the Republican Party he spawned. Actually it's based on an even more excellent article by Rick Perlstein (in turn a review of a book on Jane Fonda -- but enough climbing the citation tree).

It's remarkable how many things that we think of as permanent features of American culture can be traced back to specific political operations by the Nixon White House. We now take it as given, for example, that blue-collar voters have always been easy pickings for conservatives appealing to their cultural grievances. But Jefferson Cowie, among others, has shown the extent to which this was the result of a specific political strategy, worked out in response to a specific political problem. Without taking workers’ votes from the Democrats, Nixon would never have been able to achieve the "New Majority" he dreamed of. But to do so by means of economic concessions -- previously the only way politicians imagined working-class voters might be wooed -- would threaten his business constituency. So Nixon "stood the problem on its head", as Cowie says in Nixon's Class Struggle (2002), "by making workers' economic interests secondary to an appeal to their allegedly superior moral backbone and patriotic rectitude". It's not that the potential for that sort of behaviour wasn't always there. But Nixon had a gift for looking beneath social surfaces to see and exploit subterranean anxieties.

That is the nub of Republican success, whether it was exploiting the sexual anxieties of displaced insecure males in a newly feminized workplace, or convincing conservative evangelical voters that "liberals" were trying to repress their religion and force them to adopt lifestyles they found repugnant. Nixon wasn't the first dirty politician in American history, but he was the most successful at discerning the churning undercurrent of fear and anger in a rapidly changing society and using his personal brand of dark political arts to exploit it. The conservative movement of Barry Goldwater made a Faustian bargain with the Nixonian black operatives more than 35 years ago. The natural result of that soul selling deal is George W. Bush and Karl Rove.
Until we recognize that the modern Republican Party is the party of Richard Nixon and that the allegedly masterful Rovian vision of a permanent political majority is a rather simple outgrowth of Nixon's uncanny understanding of how to exploit the dark side of populist fear and loathing, we will continue to be stymied.

This is a nice glimpse of the dark underbelly of the current political situation, a start an answering the question, "why do people keep voting for these clowns?", or "what's the matter with Kansas and the other red states?".

We see here a kind of protofascism -- a mobilization of individual fear and resentment into poltical power. In this country it hasn't grown into real fascism. Could that happen? I'm guessing not, at least not at a national level, because we have a refreshingly diverse and skeptical population, compared to (say) Weimar Germany. If it happens, it will happen due to economic instability and hardship, as it was back then.

[[repeatedly edited to put back parts that blogger dropped on the floor]]


goatchowder said...

Excellent post. I wasn't paying close attention to my RSS reader and thought this post was from Crooked Timber. I clicked on comments on this (and your Morford one) and was shocked not to find any. Too bad there's no way to point that crowd over here.

Unfortunately I'm not adding anything useful here, except to agree with you. Stepping into other people's "reality tunnels" is an idea I got from reading Robert Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary. Though it is an essential tool of any salesperson, marketeer, musician, writer, performer, mimic, or student of languages, all of which I'd already been to one degree or another before discovering Wilson.

I'm surprised you didn't mention Lakof, nor the person who built on Lakoff to construct the "inherited obligation/negotiated contract" model, which I find the most useful of all of them thus far.

mtraven said...

Thanks! I'm not sure how to drive traffic here...I've done a bit of linkwhoring but it's even more time consuming than plain old blogging.

I probably originally got the meme about different worldviews from Leary/Wilson as well. It doesn't come very naturally to me.

Lakoff is important too, although his approach is a bit too schematic for my tastes...he doesn't quite get at the emotional side of things. I hadn't heard of the "inherited obligation/negotiated contract" model, but I think I tracked it down here.

mtraven said...

Actually the article was completely mangled by blogger; I've reconstructed it so it makes more sense now.