Thursday, September 02, 2010

Republicans Get the Game. Democrats Still Don't

There's a bit of a kerfuffle going around the blogosphere today after Yglesias slammed Kos' new book, American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin, and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical Right. I have zero interest in reading that book. It doesn't sound particularly revelatory. But then I'm probably not really the audience. However, Yglesias I think really misunderstands what is happening in American politics today.

There are scenarios in which tagging your political opponents with smears can be effective, but I don't see any evidence that the particular apocalyptic "my enemies are totalitarian madmen" strain of Birch/Beck/Goldberg conservatism has helped anyone win any elections...
This stuff doesn't win votes anyone because, after all, it's a form of preaching to the choir. Which is fine-the choir needs some sermons. But there's no real upside in lying to the choir. Political movements need to adapt to the actual situation, and that means having an accurate understanding of your foes. You need to see them as they actually are so that you know the right way to respond. Either underestimating or overestimating their level of viciousness and evil can lead to serious miscalculations. Which is just to say that getting this stuff right is more important than coming up with funny put-downs.

No actually. That's completely incorrect. Jay Stevens at Left in the West really nails it:

Can you think of any "crazy lies" being discussed in mainstream discourse? Obama as socialist? As Kenyan? As Muslim? Health care reform as "socialized medicine"? The Tea Party isn't racist, Obama is? Climate change is a conspiracy theory? I'm sure I could reel off a half-dozen more if I put half a brain towards the exercise. The point here isn't that these are accepted, it's that the crazy lies sow doubt and uncertainty, and suddenly we're not debating Keynesian economics and strategies to extract ourselves from economic recession, we're debating whether Obama's a Muslim - which would grossly irrelevant even if he were. Which he isn't.  

Yes. Yglesias and a lot of the other young progressive policy bloggers seem to believe that factual knowledge, rational discussion, and policy somehow matter in American elections. And I see very little evidence that this is so.

I can see why Yglesias doesn't like Markos' style--I don't either in a lot of ways. Screaming from the rooftops, painting your enemies in shades of black, making fun of the other side, taking emphasis away from policy and toward personality--all this stuff makes me want to shoot myself.

It's also what wins elections. Stevens provides tons of evidence for the truth of this--health care only matters as policy in this election in the sense that it represents foreign ideologies for people who don't understand what socialism even is. Discussions over actual racism have been replaced by Republicans screaming that Obama is a racist.

The Republican strategy since the 2008 elections has proven tremendously successful. They are going to win the House and quite possibly the Senate. Republicans understand a great deal about American politics, even if they have no ability to govern. They know that demagoguery works. They know that screaming about your opponents' lack of patriotism works. They know that fear works. They know how to use the levers of the Senate to shut down the government. They know how to employ powerful rhetoric.

The Republicans are awe-inspiring masters of politics.

What's sad is that even our best and brightest young writers, politicians, and intellectuals don't seem to understand what the Republicans instinctively know. It's not about policy. It is about a general sense of the economy, but most people have no desire to go specifically into the details. If they are doing OK, then things are probably OK. It is very much about perception, personality, and painting your opponents as evil. If you can do that, you are probably going to win.

Just like in November 2010.