Saturday, November 06, 2010


Republicans are already talking about 2012 - and they should - but I would like to inject a word of caution. In 2008 the Democrats believed they had finally turned the country to the right way, and were on their way to further victories. Had you asked experienced political observers at the time, they would have acknowledged that some losses in the midterm elections would be according to precedent and likely. They didn't expect anything of this magnitude, but they would not have been shocked to learn that some retrenchment was necessary. And they would still have been confident.

Momentum feels as if it will go on forever. But there is always some element of fashion and getting on the bandwagon to it. Nonliberals have made much of the fact that the ideas of Democrats have been fashionable among elites rather than well thought out by most of them. So too with the Tea Party. There are certainly some profound thinkers and able reasoners among them, but there are also some who have come along because of impressions.

Don't get me wrong, I think the fact that smaller government is suddenly fashionable outside the Beltway is a wonderful thing. But now that being impressed with Obama is so 2008, we do well to remember that the Tea Party might be so 2010 next time around. I worry about this especially because progressives are generally better at appealing to people's sense of fashion and coolness than other groups are. Not everyone inhabits the same blogosphere world of the wars of ideas that we do. Listening to and reading interviews with voters before and after the election - any election - I am always appalled by how nonrational factors affect people's choices. Even those who purport to be operating from reason often show only superficial understanding of the issues.

We hope, in a representative democracy, that the cumulation of ordinary folks' gut feelings has the wisdom of crowds in it, and brings us pretty near the mark in elections. The survival and prosperity of America, combined with its expanding freedom for individuals over time suggests that this is so. We might make small errors in course but correct them next time around. Yet we elected Roosevelt by large margins in '32 and '36 - a triumph of impression over reality that changed our country. The hardy American self-reliant spirit decided that having government take care of us a lot more was a good thing. Maybe it was a good thing; perhaps we had underestimated the amount of government safety net we needed and had to correct it. But it was certainly a dramatic shift in attitude that has increased rather than ebbed since that time.

We tacitly recognise that all candidates are not only running on their arguments and logic, but on the narrative and impression they can create. I worry that the latter may be more important.

I don't single America out as being especially bad or shallow in this way. I think everyone else is much worse, actually, and Americans are more rational than other nations. There is a belief among liberals that all those Other Americans are much the inferior of Europeans in this regard. It is an article of faith that all those obese, McDonald's and Wal-Mart building, noisy religious people in America are not the equal of the witty and philosophical Europeans, who go every day to museums and drink excellent wine over leisurely meals. That is of course an absolutely insane impression for liberals to have, given the events of the 20th C, but it has been believed by our elites since...well, since 1800 actually - and no amount of evidence has persuaded them otherwise.*

No, Americans, for all their following of foolish enthusiasms, are about the best at rationality, and I don't apologise for us in this regard. Yet it is the lot of all mankind to be swayed by subrational appeals, and we are only better by comparison. The next election cycle will have its own fashions, and it may be that having slowed the growth of government somewhat will be enough for the American people, who will decide that they again want the government to give them stuff we can't afford.

I confess I feel a bit helpless in this. The wars of ideas is the only electoral battlefield I dare fight on. I have no confidence in my ability to convince anyone that smaller government is cool, or that liberal candidates are "out of touch" or "don't care about people like me," or any of the other things pollsters measure. I have decided that those questions the surveys ask are indeed better predictors of elections, however much I think that they should not be. I hope we hire better PR guys than they do. I hope even more that we have the better arguments and candidates, and deserve those good PR guys, but the reality is that elections won't hinge on that.

*I give the Brits, and perhaps the Danes and Norwegians, credit for having just enough people connected to reality to be exempt from this generalised criticism. The Swiss have recognised reality well enough to act sensibly as well, but their solution has been an enormously cynical one.


Der Hahn said...

It depends on how you look at the momentum.

I did a back of the envelope calculation a little while ago summing years of control of the Presidency, House Speaker, and Senate Majority Leader over a thirty year period. Between 1950 and 1980, the Democrats held those positions for a combined total of 70 years to 20 for the GOP.

Since 1980, the numbers are 49 for the GOP and 41 for the Democrats.

terri said...

I am always appalled by how nonrational factors affect people's choices. Even those who purport to be operating from reason often show only superficial understanding of the issues.

Me too. I am sure that I could fall into that group, also....but so often I hear people say things that make no sense, or that seem to fly in the face of the way they would normally operate and treat people and make judgements in real life...that I am at a complete loss to understand it.

What happens to us when we become so invested in a particular candidate/party/issue? Why are we so easily pulled along?

My mother-in-law is a wonderful person. Salt of the earth. Generous. Kind. Thoughtful. Careful not to offend.

Yet some of the things I have heard her say unflinchingly over the last election cycle have just floored me. She joined a Women's Republican group in her community and ever since then she tries to drag me into political conversations that always culminate in a vocal hatred for Obama and democrats. She'll actually use the word hate.

Once she referenced an internet story about how Obama was probably sexually abused as a child and therefore psychologically damaged and a sociopath.

This from a woman who had been sexually abused in her own childhood.

Sorry for rambling...I wanted to post about these impressions but won't do it on my own blog because I would be horrified if my mother-in-law ever read me describing her unfavorably because I love her too much to risk that.

My point is only that I don't understand how this happens to us.

Anna said...

Europeans have been anti-American since Jamestown. They thought Americans were bumpkins and criminals (hey, sounds like some people's impression of the South...)

I also hope the right hires good PR people - with a small caveat. A lot of PR people think that liberalism is "cool" (which it kind of is), wherein "cool" means "in". So to achieve good PR they paint the right wing as being liberal. Can you say, PR Fail! I hope that does not happen.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Der Hahn - 1958 was the big switchover year.

Terri, I the sane with my father-in-law who is a Democrat. I tell myself it was ever thus.

jaed said...

Terri - I wonder whether there was some precipitating event or provocation for your MIL that might explain the heatedness of her feelings. (With a lot of Bush-haters I think it was anger over the closeness of the 2000 election, which then got transmuted into "He stole the election!" and "pResident" and much viler things over time. But the emotional shock, I think, was what started the process for a lot of people, and I wonder whether your MIL identifies some specific event.

On the other hand, sometimes people just egg each other on half-consciously. A group can start out at "I'm worried about some of President X's policies" and gradually, over time, end up at "We hateses that nasssty Fake-President X, we do! Wicked! Tricksy! False!" without quite realizing how far they've gone.

terri said...


I can't think of anything in particular that sparked this. At least she hasn't pointed out one thing. I generally just hear all the anti-Obama talking points: he's a socialist, he might be a muslim, there's something wrong with him...yada, yada, yada.

My only theory at this point is that everyone needs a "safe" enemy to aim their anger and vitriol at. It's a release and a socially permissible way to funnel frustration at someone who you no longer view as a person, but who mainly serves as an object for all that you think is wrong with the world.

She sends me emails talking about all the bad stuff Obama is going to do and tells me how worried she is. One had something to do with a 3.8% sales tax on real estate transactions. The e-mail stated this was based on the full price of the house.

This freaked her out because we were trying to get my husbands parents to move closer to us because my father-in-law has Parkinson's. Within two days she had her house up for sale because she wanted it sold before this tax deadline because she didn't want to have to pay this tax.

However, here's the thing. The e-mail that had been sent to her from one of her Republican buddies completely misunderstood the tax. It only applies to capital gains. So, if you buy a $200,000 house and then sell it for $220,000, you are only taxed on the extra $20,000....not the entire price of the house.

The difference between scenarios is $8360 for the entire price, only $760 for the profit you made.

What's your point, O rambling one?

My point is that I find this kind of grave misunderstanding in so many of the things she sends me and repeats as talking points.

She and many others operate on opinions that have no verifiable basis in reality sometimes. And that drives me crazy.

I know that it happens on both sides.

But it is amazing how many people, and even elected officials don't have a rudimentary understanding of the things they are talking about.

terri said...

Just one more

My Mother-in-law, while also being a very good person, is actually quite bright. So I don't want my comments to make it seem like she isn't smart enough to understand the issues....because she is.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

terri, same here. Both my uncle and my FIL are very intelligent people. I don't think it provides immunity. We play chess against ourselves, amping up our rationalizations until they are good enough to soothe us. Therefore we look down on others who required dumber rationalizations.

She may also be sending you things because she senses you are not convinced, and wants to find that one thing that will be the tipping point.

I think your point about the safe enemy is a good one, but I think having a group to identify with is stronger. We are by nature social and need reinforcement. We crave it. Noting the relative conservatism of Jack and Bobby Kennedy originally, when the Irish Catholic vote was still conservative in many ways, the unions anticommunist, and the Boston Brahmins rather WASP-y and Republican, a wag once said that if Ted had moved to Montana as a young man, he would have been a raging conservative to get elected.

It is difficult to stand alone