The Republican Party in 2018 is historically bizarre. It's voters are a coalition of white people who would hate each other: rural non-college whites, especially Evangelicals; suburban and exurban college graduates who don't hate minorities, they just don't want to spend any money to help them, either; people who identify as businessmen, small or large; and white military veterans. If members of the party talked to each other about policy, they would find that they don't agree on anything except low taxes. And even then, they'd argue about whose taxes should be cut. [Ronald Brownstein here and here.]
- The Republican Party views the United States as a zero sum game where some will win and some will lose.
- The Republican Party elites lie to its voters about their plans for legislation.
- Republican Party elites lie about the content and/or effect of actual legislation.
These things are real and really weird:
- Nationhood’s fundamental premise is that cooperation means everybody wins. The modern Republican Party rejects this foundational element of nationhood, unheard of for a group not advocating secession. Tons of examples: Gay marriage will hurt straight marriage. The ACA will give poor people insurance but take away your job. Funding for public universities creates people who look down on rural Americans. Feeding the hungry makes them dependent on your taxes for life. [See, Michael Gerson on Evangelicals' journey from the confident founders of his alma mater Wheaton College to the anxious minority supporting Trump out of fear that they are losing a zero sum contest, The Last Temptation. Note 1.]
- Do all politicians lie? Actually, no. But for almost a decade Republicans have said they were going to replace the ACA with something better. This was an obvious lie because they never came up with something better. They barely even pretended to try! Imagine if Obama ran on universal health care and then Democrats passed a law abolishing Medicare! It makes no sense!
- Orrin Hatch thinks tax cuts for the corporations help the little guy by growing the economy and creating opportunity. But he doesn't say that! He says the tax cuts are for everyone, not just the rich! Some think Hatch actually doesn't care about helping the poor and knows that these tax cuts won't do anything for them. I think he believes his own party's bullshit about what grows the economy and how that helps everyone. He just doesn't trust poor people to get it, so he lies.
How did the GOP get so strange? Who made this thing we call the 2018 Republican Party?
Passing the Civil Rights Act in 1965 cemented the relationship between the Democratic Party and African-American voters. Democrats were now the party of black people. Southern whites were appalled. There are many ways to demonstrate this, but I stumbled on this from Mother Jones showing the dramatic reaction to JFK's televised endorsement of civil rights in a major speech on June 11, 1963:
The charts [below] show one specific data point: JFK’s televised civil rights speech of June 11, 1963. Among Southern whites, approval of JFK plummets right at that moment (top chart). And in the Gallup polls, racially conservative Southern whites leave the party in droves (bottom chart). This is not a steady decline. It’s a sharp, sudden exodus at a specific moment in time.
The GOP took the obvious step of going after Southern Democrats who would leave the party of black people. To have not gone after racist whites would have been political malpractice on the part of Republicans. We can’t blame a political party for not wanting to go extinct. We can blame them, however, for their choice to take the morally repugnant and strategically limited path of least resistance: racist appeals. From the start, this was bad for the country. It almost certainly heightened the animosity and violence of the second half of the 1960s by giving reactionary Southerners the false sense that they might win. Even in the purely self-interested perspective of the GOP, racist appeals would pose long-term problems in generating support for the non-racist aspects of their policy program. But in the short term racist appeals made sense, especially if the use of not so subtle dog whistles (like someone was confused about "States Rights") meant that the press didn't call them on it.
One of the truly radical ideas from Marx was that a party should be ideological. The word "ideology" didn't even exist in English for the first 50 years after the Constitution. If Karl Marx had been less influential, advocates for the working man might have remained pragmatic and policy oriented. The Chartists in England, for example, where named after the People's Charter: simply a list of six changes that would give political power to men without property. William Jennings Bryan and FDR are American examples of non-ideological, policy-oriented political actors who sought to improve the lot of the working class.
But the identity of an academic is unlikely to be satisfied advancing practical improvements. Their whole identity is tied up in the idea that they can find deeper truths through scholarship. As a young scholar in the 20th Century, what better way to flatter your sense of independence and erudition than to adopt a radical philosophy opposed to rich people? Marxism pissed off your parents and revealed endless new research opportunities as everything ever written in human history could now be subjected to an economic analysis or other revisionist take. Charles Beard led the way with An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (proving that any set of facts can be rendered into class conflict) and Marxian thought became the cool new thing in American universities after the Russian Revolution. A truly terrible thing happened in 1933. Sidney Hook, a student of John Dewey and American Pragmatism, became a sensation with and effort to join Pragmatism to Marxism in Towards The Understanding of Karl Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation. John Dewey was tied to the giant pile of cinderblocks known as Marxism, doomed to sink right along with it when, inevitably, people realized Marxism was nonsense.
The reaction of the "bourgeoisie" was equal and opposite: laissez-faire went from an empirical conclusion drawn by self-consciously empirical philosophers to an ideology and moral “ought.” The left stipulated that parties should have theoretical foundations. The National Review took up the challenge: we can find as many big brains who like the way things are as you can find that want to change it. Even better: claiming to have an abstract theory justifying our policy preferences is a great way to paper over racism!
Most accounts of movement conservativism locate its start with the publication of The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot by Russell Kirk in 1953. It's very clear who gave him the idea that he needed a system of ideas:
To review conservative ideas, examining their validity for this perplexed age, is the purpose of this book, which does not pretend to be a history of conservative parties. This study is a prolonged essay in definition. What is the essence of British and American conservatism? What system of ideas, common to England and the United States, has sustained men of conservative instincts in their resistance against radical theories and social transformation ever since the beginning of the French Revolution?
The Conservative Mind, Page 1.
Richard Posner would go on to fortune and fame by turning Beard on his head and claiming to demonstrate that a thousand years of Anglo-American legal history—as syncretic a body of thought as has ever been collected—is a coherent strategy to implement the deductive conclusions drawn by Neoclassical economists with Economic Analysis of Law in 1973. They still teach this nonsense! Scholars in "the field" of law and economics graduate from U of C Law School every year, join the Federalist Society, and start ruining lives. Beard's economic interpretation of history is long dead, but the reaction is still with us. Dumb ass.
3. The Press
The Post War Media business model of “balance = truth” was designed to appeal to broadest possible audience.
Confused journalists turned it into a religious faith known as High Broderism and taught it at prominent seminaries like Columbia. See Note 2
It was begging to be hacked. The obvious vulnerability: shameless liars. If Democrats tell the truth and Republicans lie, then a post war newspaper will print one truth, one lie, and suggest that the truth is a combination of the two. This builds a conventional wisdom that is not just always false, but also one which is always false in a way that favors Republicans.
Humans are naturally inclined against it, but normal people will resort to lying when in a corner. The danger comes when one gets away with lying. Like the child of an indulgent parent, a political party that learns it can lie without negative consequences becomes more and more corrupt over time because lying is by far the easiest way to deal with any problem.
What solution does the press have? Their business model cum ethics says they must present a fair picture, defined as both sides of every story. But fairness between two sides is no guide to truth when one side lies with impunity. At bottom, fairness, however defined and no matter the parties, has no necessary connection to the truth whatsoever. Even fact checking is useless, because people don't read newspapers to learn facts. People read newspapers for the stories. We learn through narratives and newspaper “fact checks” literally exist outside of the narrative on a separate page by a separate author who is charged with ignoring the narrative.
But our human need for narrative doesn't forever damn the public to a hell where no one can see that the GOP lies. That would be like saying that our need for a narrative arc in movies means we can't learn that Darth Vader is bad! Of course he's bad: he's the villain. The trick to telling the truth about Republicans is to make it part of the narrative!
But journalists consider it ethically wrong to portray one political party as the villain. Or at least they did from approximately 1950 until November 8, 2016. Trump may be the best thing that ever happened to a public hoping to learn the truth from the news.
Racist appeals are by their nature zero sum. The press allows GOP to get away with lies. They start small but then get out of control. Why stop? And they need to lie to keep racists and Wall Street in the same party. There's no truth that those two can agree on. There must be a lie. The lie was ideology, a gift from "the left." If we defined parties by their platforms (The Whigs were 1. Opposed to Andrew Jackson, 2. For the tariff, 3. For internal improvements) then the GOP would be exposed as the party of 1. Tax Cuts for the Rich, 2. Military Spending, 3. Segregation of schools through vouchers and/or religious public schools with prayer, ten commandments, etc, 4. Prison for women who obtain an abortion, 5. Poisoning the environment when it's cost effective, 6. Low wages, 7. High immigration, 8. Hatred of immigrants. Yuck!
But according to academics, parties are supposed to have an intellectual component, a coherent ideology. So the GOP can lump a bunch of contradictory messages together and call it conservatism. Then, because they can lie, they describe conservatism as one thing to Wall Street and as something else to racist whites in the South. If they ask each other, they we'll find that they agree: "The US needs to be more conservative."
1. This is a splendid paragraph by an Evangelical (Gerson) who admires Catholics:
In practice, this acts as an “if, then” requirement for Catholics, splendidly complicating their politics: If you want to call yourself pro-life on abortion, then you have to oppose the dehumanization of migrants. If you criticize the devaluation of life by euthanasia, then you must criticize the devaluation of life by racism. If you want to be regarded as pro-family, then you have to support access to health care. And vice versa. The doctrinal whole requires a broad, consistent view of justice, which—when it is faithfully applied—cuts across the categories and clichés of American politics. Of course, American Catholics routinely ignore Catholic social thought. But at least they have it. Evangelicals lack a similar tradition of their own to disregard.
2. I linked to it above for the term “High Broderism” but this post by Jay Rosen is full to the brim with thoughts and observations that are seriously helpful in understand the press: On The Actual Ideology Of The American Press.