Friday, February 27, 2009

Layers of Feedback

Daniel Larison takes Patrick Ruffini to task here and asserts that the problem with the political right isn't messaging but the message itself. Ross Douthat offers the helpful metaphor of the layer cake: part of the right's problem is messaging; part of it is the message itself.

I think there can be a slightly different way of conceptualizing this relationship between messaging and message: I think sometimes for the right rhetoric can get in the way of policy rethinking---that tendencies for the messaging block new ways of reformulating the message. Part of what I was getting at with "code words" was the way in which the use of code words can suck up all the air in a space that could be used to debate more substantive ideas, policy, and so forth.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Don't Mess with Adam Smith

Patrick Ruffini warns conservatives and the GOP against succumbing to a type of bitter identity politics:

The legacy of that early movement -- alive and well at CPAC and in the conservative institutions that still exist today -- is one driven inordinately by this question of identity. We have paeans to Reagan (as if we needed to be reminded again of just how much things suck in comparison today), memorabilia honoring 18th century philosophers that we wouldn't actually wear in the outside world, and code-word laden speeches that focus on a few hot button issues that leave us ill-equipped to actually govern conservatively on 80% of issues when we actually do get elected.

This culture of identity politics means we get especially defensive about the Liberal Majority's main lines of attack, because we think of our position as inherently fragile. The one that spawned the Cult of Joe the Plumber was the meme that Republicans want tax cuts only for the rich and that we don't stand for working Americans. When find a highly visible figure who contradicts this notion, we swing into action. And we go on to press the argument to the point to absurdity, replete with plungers and custom "Joe" yard signs to prove our working class chops. These are the not the marks of a movement that assumes it operates (or should operate) from a position of political and cultural supremacy.

Perhaps for a moment we could hone in on that "code word," a virus which especially seems to infect and hinder those on the right at the moment.

The code word functions as an esoteric device, a means of marking those in the know apart from the ignorant. Through announcing certain ritual words---innocuous or incomprehensible to the rest of society---one gains an entrance into club, speakeasy, or other select society. Those in the group have their own private meaning for the code word.

However, politics is not only a question of private meaning: it also involves public ones. Here is where a political group can be crippled by its reliance on code. To many in the "base" of the right, terms like "San Francisco Values," "pork," "earmarks," "elitist," and a whole host of other terms tap into a certain cultural nexus and portray a certain political meaning. This code serves to strike up the partisan and---dare I say it?---ideological band. While these terms do tap into this set of meaning for the right, many on the center and the left have very different, if not uncertain, senses of what these terms mean. For many in the persuadable center facing this current economic crisis, terms such as "pork" seem out of touch if not outright distractions. For the right, saying these terms is the note of a true believer; for many others, these terms do not seem to respond to the pressures currently felt.

If it wants to gain traction in the public, the GOP's going to need to address public concerns with clear, focused, and innovative policy measures. It can't afford to be stuck in the union hall bound in a knot of secret handshakes.

However, there is a serious point of disagreement between Ruffini and me here: mocking pins celebrating an 18th-century philosopher---now that's a step too far! If there's one thing conservatives need more of now, it's a serious engagement with the history of ideas; through this engagement can come political renewal. Now maybe one could argue that pins celebrating Aristotle might be a little better...

(Ruffini might have more of a point if you consider the fact that wearing these pins might serve, for some, as a substitute for a serious engagement with philosophy. One of the last things conservatives need to do now is use ideas as mere rhetorical props.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Failure of Principles

I'll have to quarrel with the Governator's take on the current political situation here:

“You've got to listen to the people. If the nation is screaming out loud, ‘We need health care reform. We want to have universal health care. We want to have everyone insured. We want to bring the costs down. We want everyone to have access.’ I mean, that's what they want; that's what you do...Even though it maybe is against your principles or philosophy, you still have to go, because that's what the people want you to do...”

If anything, this is not how a representative republic is supposed to function. Holders of public office and those interested in public affairs should certainly take the range of public opinion into account, but they should not avoid bringing their own voices to bear in this wider public debate. They need to meet this opinion honestly, but if one believes that a majority of the public (at least as this majority is measured through polling) is mistaken on a given issue, the solution is not to roll over and surrender one's own ideas but to try to persuade more people to support different policies.

This is Governor Schwarzenegger's own position. Though the public of California ultimately voted against same-sex marriage, he has still expressed his opinion against the banning of same-sex marriage. That's his right as a citizen. Members and allies of the GOP have their own rights to advance their own arguments. It is, in many ways, a failure of civic responsibility to give up one's own ideas due to their mere seeming unpopularity.

Those in government can look at public demands in order to see what issues need to be addressed (that's one of the strengths of a democratic system), but the crafters of policy should strive to find the best and most workable solution and not lose all critical judgement in the face of polling.