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.)

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