As John McCain continues to trail Barack Obama badly in the polls, Republicans are reacting in different ways. Quite a few prominent conservatives are openly abandoning McCain, or at least singing the death knell for his campaign. From one perspective, this is just a matter of reasonably intelligent people seeing the writing on the wall, and (at least) distancing themselves from the debacle or (perhaps) acknowledging that they really, genuinely don’t have a good ticket. From another perspective, though, it’s a matter of rats leaving a sinking ship, and these “disloyal” figures are to be excoriated by True Conservatives.
What’s happening is that “movement” conservatives are getting a taste of the anxiety and self-doubt that non-conservatives have been suffering for years, as I wrote the other day. The difference is, they’re not used to it.
And they’re reacting irrationally with the emotions they understand best, the ones that have been the driving force of the movement: fear and anger. On the one hand, they’re forming a circular firing squad, taking aim at people like Christopher Buckley and David Frum who have always been staunch conservatives. On the other hand, they’re also firing blindly out into the world, spewing a frenzy of rhetorical (so far) violence for all the world to see. (As, e.g., with the now widely reported cries of “terrorist!” and “kill him!” directed at Obama during a Palin rally.)
The emerging result is that the ever-present fault lines in the modern Republican coalition are cracking apart—the Chamber-of-Commerce bluebloods and the libertarian types and the Neocons are being made unwelcome in the ranks, and all that’s left are the die-hard, mostly theocratic, ultra-right wingers. Or “the base,” as they’re called these days. The GOP isn’t inviting newcomers into its tent; it’s actively kicking people out.
And here’s the weird thing: a lot of The Base seem to like it that way. They like marking themselves out as the True Believers, in contrast to apostates who are insufficiently faithful to Conservatism—almost as bad as the hated Liberals. Alienating people gives them a sense of power. Some have even deluded themselves into thinking it’s a winning strategy.
Exhibit A in this phenomenon is the truly bizarre opinion piece published last week by Quin Hillyer, senior editor of the right-wing American Spectator, in which he argued (emph. mine):
The way to undermine Obama’s apparent (if unearned) credibility on the economy is to undermine his credibility, period. Make Obama’s worldview in general anathema, and you make his economic worldview anathema. And the way to do that is to place Obama outside the common culture, while rooting McCain firmly within it.
Yes, absent another national security surprise, “culture” is the best, indeed the only potentially effective, battleground available for McCain to fight on. It’s a battleground on which Obama is extraordinarily vulnerable.
Without putting it as bluntly as this sentence does, McCain’s campaign must pound home the message, in a coherent way, that Obama is not “one of us” — meaning that he is estranged from, not part of, middle America. …
Obama is the one who went to Germany and proclaimed himself “a fellow citizen of the world” while apologizing that the United States has “struggled to keep the promise of liberty and equality for all of our people” as “our actions around he world have not lived up to our best intentions.” Somehow, though, middle Americans won’t quite cotton to a presidential candidate assuming the responsibility or right to apologize to foreigners for our country’s supposed sins. …
Also, a person in concert with our culture does not, as Obama did, start his political career in the house of and serve in co-leadership, closely consultative roles on two boards with the founder of a domestic terrorist organization, while using the boards to funnel money to groups that promoted racially separatist and other radical educational causes.
It is not enough to say that the former terrorist had somehow become a respected member of the community — not when that terrorist remains so radical that even to this day…
What’s worse is that Obama would impose his culture on the rest of us, through judges that go beyond the text of the Constitution to give legal status to their own expressions of “empathy.” Empathy for the criminals, like the terrorist Bill Ayers, who go free on a technicality. Empathy for the people offended by a Christmas tree on the public square. Empathy for the 13-year-old who doesn’t want to inform her mother about the abortion she is procuring, even though her mother would have to give approval for any other surgery for the daughter. Empathy for the student so offended by the presence of Army ROTC on campus that he demands that ROTC be banned. Empathy for the father offended that his child is exposed to the Pledge of Allegiance in school. Empathy for the horrible brute sentenced to death for the grisly rape of a little girl.
EVERY ONE OF THESE issues is an indicator of culture. Every one of them is an indicator that Obama himself can’t possibly empathize with most of us as we struggle with an economic crisis, because he not only misunderstands how we feel and how we see the world but also has contempt for our very point of view.
Now, never mind that Hillyer is a political ignoramus if he thinks that the way to win votes is to ignore the issue voters are really concerned about (the economy) and force-feed them something else instead (culture war). (That’s a tactic that’s worked well in the past, after all, when the economy wasn’t quite so pressing, as Thomas Frank explored in What’s the Matter with Kansas.) Never mind that he’s obviously years out of touch with the political zeitgeist (this is a guy who predicted that the GOP would hold on to Congress on the eve of the 2006 elections). What’s shocking is how brazenly he’s willing to shout “anathema!” at such vast numbers of people: blacks. Catholics. Non-Christians. War opponents. Pro-choicers. Immigrants. Internationalists. Lawyers. Judges. Not to mention (implicitly) city dwellers, the college educated, and basically anyone able to read a news article and understand how many lies and distortions he’s repeating. Who’s left, after all that? It can’t be much more than the “bitter” people who “cling to guns and religion” that he excoriates Obama for having observed.
Yet Hillyer has the gall—except to him it’s not gall, he really seems to believe it!—to claim that this angry, fearful remainder constitutes “the common culture,” “middle America”… “us.”
It just isn’t so. I grew up in Ohio. I live in Chicago. You don’t get more middle-American than that. And I can relate to Obama with absolutely no problem whatsoever. My family came from a working-class background, like his. I got into good schools on merit, not connections, like he did. I went to law school hoping to help people, not just to line my pockets, like he did. And my politics are in the proud, progressive, populist American tradition of speaking truth to power, of valuing empathy, of using government as a tool to help one another and level the playing field. Of seeing war only as a last resort, of pursuing justice in the form of equal treatment for everyone. Of embracing diversity, not division. A tradition exemplified by FDR, by Martin Luther King… and by Barack Obama.
It gets even worse. Consider Exhibit B, an op-ed (.pdf) written by Bobby May, a longtime Republican operative and (until this story broke) chairman of the McCain campaign in Buchanan County, Virginia. Written locally but picked up by the L.A. Times, May’s piece—by way of a painfully wrongheaded attempt at humor—offers a “(clarified) platform of Barack Hussein Obama,” including the following items (among many others):
ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION: Learn to speak Spanish
TERRORIST THREAT TO AMERICA: Learn to speak Arabic
HOMOSEXUAL MARRIAGE: Raise taxes. And coddle sexual perverts. Give tax breaks for NAMBLA membership fees.
DRUG CRISIS: Raise taxes to pay for free drugs for Obama’s inner-city political base.
THE WHITE HOUSE: …Taxes to be increased to buy enough paint to [paint it black] plus spray-paint for graffiti.
THIRD WORLD COUNTRIES: …Send [tax money] to Africa so the Obama family there can skim off enough to allow them to free their goats.
U.S. FLAG: Replace 50 stars with a star and crescent logo; red stripes changed to green to represent Obama’s tree-hugging radical environmentalism and his lack of experience.
The problem here isn’t that the piece is brazenly ignorant, racist, and xenophobic. The real problem is that May obviously didn’t see any problem with putting this little screed in front of the public in the first place. He clearly imagined that most people think like he does. In the narrow circles he moves in, most of them probably do.
These right-wing die-hards, the 24% who still think Bush is a credible president, have brainwashed themselves into believing that they’re not a fringe but the mainstream, that their painfully narrow worldview really is “the culture of the majority,” indeed that they and they alone represent America. They have nothing but disdain for anyone different from themselves… even as that circle grows ever smaller. They represent a movement that’s dying—a long-overdue and richly deserved death, as it’s brought this country to the brink of disaster on multiple fronts—but they’re in deep denial about that fate, and their behavior reeks of desperation and self-delusion as they spin into ever-higher levels of fear and anger.
As John McCain has submerged himself deeper and deeper into the ranks of the far right, he has embraced more and more of the kind of strategies espoused by Hillyer, and no doubt by Steve Schmidt, McCain’s senior campaign strategist and a Karl Rove protégé. (Not to mention by his own running mate.) Not entirely, perhaps: for instance, he had the wisdom to resist advisers’ pressure to bring up Rev. Jeremiah Wright during his latest debate with Obama. On the other hand, he did raise cries of “Ayers!” and “ACORN!” in the apparent hope that his opponent would somehow be unprepared to address them. Further evidence that he’s living in a bubble were visible in other odd moments—his disdain for women’s health, his dismissal of concerns over nuclear safety, his conviction that “spreading the wealth” would somehow be an unpopular idea with the American people.
He’s grown accustomed to speaking only to crowds comprised exclusively of The Base—people who cheer and shout in response to cues like these. Indeed, some of his remarks were such right-wing-only dog-whistles that they passed right over the heads of the mass audience (e.g., the passing shot at trial lawyers).
What the mass audience is picking up on is the fear and anger. And that’s why the personal attacks, the cheap shots, the culture-war vibe, isn’t working—why, in fact, it’s counterproductive. The more of this stuff that gets tossed around, the more those little audience reaction dials on CNN dip downward, and the more the polls show growing positives for Obama and growing negatives for McCain. Aside from the incurably stupid or hateful, most people are instinctively turned off by the politics of viciousness.
The right wing can and did win a few elections with a classic “fool the people some of the time” strategy, but that’s not the same as winning over hearts and minds. Bottom line, Americans as a whole just aren’t as conservative as the right wing, including the McCain campaign, has convinced itself we are. Those who have done the serious social science research, such as the Pew Research Center and the American National Election Studies, have found clearly that regardless of what political labels people choose to self-identify with, when it comes to their views on actual issues, majorities or pluralities of Americans tend to be liberal and are growing more so over time. As Pew summed it up in 2007, the political landscape shows “increased public support for the social safety net, signs of growing public concern about income inequality, and a diminished appetite for assertive national security policies.”
McCain will certainly get the votes of the True Believers. The Base buys what he’s selling—or at least (perhaps even worse) they have genuine enthusiasm for Sarah Palin. Beyond that narrow demographic, though, the modern Republican brand isn’t winning over anyone new. It can’t even hold on to its own long-time loyalists.
I don’t mind the desperate flailing around, the paranoid attacks and culture-war memes, insofar as they serve to alienate reasonable people and thus increase Obama’s margins and coattails in November. Indeed, it’s crucial that this dangerous, divisive, angry minority and their discredited ideology be not merely defeated but repudiated on November 4th, as decisively as possible. What we need here—and it’s looking ever more likely—is a realignment year on the scale of 1980 or (more positively) 1932.
Because what really matters is what happens after the election. America and the world are facing perilous times, both short-term and long-term, and there’s a lot of hard, serious work to be done—by the government, and by all of us as citizens.
From November 5th forward, we can either be a polarized, divided country, squabbling over trivia, paralyzed into inaction—or we can take a sincere, pragmatic approach to finding common ground and solving the dramatic problems before us. The more influence exerted by the diminishing but still loud voices of the radical right, the more likely we’ll find ourselves on the former road—and we’ll all pay the price.Tags: conservatism, Election 2008, McCain, Obama