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« Dr. Helen Talks Sex and Hooking Up | Main | Politico: "Who IS This Obama Guy Anyway?" »
January 22, 2009

Dick Morris: Here Comes Socialism
Plus, Shocker of Shockers, Ace Agrees With Giuliani's Prescription of Emphasizing Economic and Security Issues

Nineteenth nervous breakdown.

Obama’s record will be similar [to FDR's], although less wise and more destructive. He will begin by passing every program for which liberals have lusted for decades, from alternative-energy sources to school renovations, infrastructure repairs and technology enhancements. These are all good programs, but they normally would be stretched out for years. But freed of any constraint on the deficit — indeed, empowered by a mandate to raise it as high as possible — Obama will do them all rather quickly.

But it is not his spending that will transform our political system, it is his tax and welfare policies. In the name of short-term stimulus, he will give every American family (who makes less than $200,000) a welfare check of $1,000 euphemistically called a refundable tax credit. And he will so sharply cut taxes on the middle class and the poor that the number of Americans who pay no federal income tax will rise from the current one-third of all households to more than half. In the process, he will create a permanent electoral majority that does not pay taxes, but counts on ever-expanding welfare checks from the government. The dependency on the dole, formerly limited in pre-Clinton days to 14 million women and children on Aid to Families with Dependent Children, will now grow to a clear majority of the American population.

All this and more.

I will now segue into Giuliani's statement that the Republican Party must emphasize security and economic issues more than social ones if it wants to win. He is careful to say he does not advocate abandoning them, which I do not either. (In terms of pure political appeal, for example anti-gay-marriage initiatives are electoral winners, so I find it hard to understand when libertarian-leaning Republicans argue we must embrace gay marriage if we want to win again. I think they mean "embrace gay marriage to win me over again," but that's my personal beef with libertarians showing again).

FWIW, I agree with him. What he is saying, I think, is a highly nuanced thing, a nuanced proposition I have tried to advocate myself.

It's not that social issues are net voter losers, though some might be. That's not really the problem. The problem isn't that the GOP pushes these policies. It's that it pushes them in the forefront.

I will try a couple of analogies to explain what I mean. George Carlin observed that when you're driving, anyone who's driving slower than you is an "asshole," and anyone driving faster than you is a "fucking maniac." Basic point: People decide their own preferences are not merely normative, but highly normative, and those who deviate from that normative standard are either "assholes" or "fucking maniacs."

Now, among the most sensitive issues for anyone are sex and religion. People's beliefs about both are well-nigh cast in stone. And neither are they the product of rational thought; they are, by and large, either unexamined personal impulses or the received wisdom of the community with which one identifies. (I say this for most people, not highly philosophical or politically astute people -- most people are like this. You, the reader, are probably not.)

As my new favorite witticism has it: "One cannot reason someone out of a position he was never reasoned into in the first place." Someone who has arrived at his views on gay marriage or abortion through a lot of thinking or philosophy can, possibly, have his mind changed through argument and persuasion, as it was argument and persuasion that led him to his conclusions in the first place.

For most people, however, such attitudes are purely reflexive and nearly inborn. Very little actual searching and inquiry -- they just believe what they believe and don't believe what they don't believe, and that is that.

Now, combine that with the fact that these are among the most sensitive issues, issues that define a person's core identity, and are issues about which one can have extremely passionate opinions without having actually ever thought about the issues whatsoever. These, then, are almost impossible issues to change the average voter's mind on, and, further, the issues that will most irrationally anger him if you even try to change his mind.

And here's where Carlin's observation comes into play: On issues of sexuality and religion, anyone less "tolerant" and "open-minded" than you is a brain-dead troglodytic bumfuck zealot. Anyone more libertine on such matters, on the other hand, is a godless communist free-love atheist freak.

And thus the problem: It is difficult to persuade anyone on these issues. But even if one attempts not to persuade but to build rapport by demonstrating that one "shares the values" of a cohort of voters, the problem is that by identifying with one cohort, you alienate the other cohorts. If you're too pro-sexual-libertinism, you're a fucking pervert. If you're too forward-leaning on sexual restraint and modesty and older, better-tested sexual mores, you're a lifeless, joyless judgmental prude who just wants to ruin everyone's good time, as seen in Footloose.

The first problem, then, is by being perceived as too closely identifying with any particular cohort along the pious/atheistic and libertinism/restraint axes, you have pretty much alienated all other cohorts.

How do Democrats consistently win on the "shares my values" question? Simple: They're vague and claim to agree with just about everything. Ask them about gay marriage, for example: They're for it. They're also against it. Brilliant. Conservatives can't quite do this because our voters are a bit more demanding about getting genuine answers, but this does demonstrate the basic problem with running on values first and foremost. The more specific you are, the more votes you lose.

This is sort of true about most issues, particularly any that is based, ultimately, not on facts and reason but on temperament and psychology and spirituality and "gut." Patriotism is another example of such an issue. However, I submit that there are few other issues that inspire Carlin's asshole/fucking maniac dichotomy more than the Big Two.

The next problem -- and the one we now face, alas -- is that it is impossible to be seen as "winning the argument" on such issues. Ever. Because at their heart, these are eternal questions that have vexed the human imagination since time immemorial without any real hope of facts stepping into the arena and resolving the contest once and for all. One can never "prove," in any real sense of the word "prove," that one's own outlook on religion and sexuality is correct and right. Facts and circumstances really cannot win the day.

Now contrast these issues -- which will never be resolved, even if temporarily -- with questions about national security, war, foreign policy, and economics. First of all, these questions, while of course inspiring political passions, do not have the talismanic power of, nor do are they central to one's core identity, like the Big Two do. And, crucially, on such questions, facts and circumstances can indeed win the day.

Reagan's supply side/economic libertarian worldview was vindicated, at least for a time, by his wild economic success in the mid-eighties.

Bush the Elder's recession lost some points for Reagan's vision (even though Bush himself had greatly departed from it).

Later, Clinton's soft liberal/centrist approach to the economy was vindicated, at least in the public's imagination, by the superbubble of 1998-2000.

Bush the Younger has made semi-Reaganite economics almost toxic due to the huge crash that happened on his watch.

I can go through the rise and fall of the public's belief in the efficacy of muscular foreign policy and military force as well, changing as facts and circumstances change.

The point is on these matters, there is, it seems, genuine winners and losers, at least in terms of practical effect, and how well something worked trumps pure ideology.

One can never really have a winner or loser as far as religion/values/sexuality as there is simply no real metric to determine whose agenda seems to have worked the best.

Americans are both politically fickle (bad) and politically pragmatic (good, on the whole). As far as national security/foreign policy/economic issues, their minds can change, not really purely by argumentation, but by observing the actual outcomes of such policies when put into practice. Of course, they frequently miss the whole story and their knowledge is both spotty and shaped by a determinedly liberal media, but they have -- or at least it seems to them that they do have -- the facts necessary to determine if a policy has worked or not. (Or "worked" or not, since there is always room for debate, even when there are some metrics by which success can be judged.)

This is a long, long way to explain my basic belief that the best way to advance a social conservative agenda is by having success on the "persuadable" elements of the conservative agenda -- the economic/foreign policy/national security ones. When Reagan's economic, foreign policy, and national security policies succeeded, the public became far more amenable to his prescriptions as to social policy. If he was right about all that other stuff, why not this social stuff too?

Now, to some extent, social conservativism also brings on board some voters who might not be economic or foreign policy conservatives, but similarly embrace those latter elements of the program because those they trust on social issues also advocate for them. But this is only true to an extent; most social conservatives who vote primarily on social conservativism are going to vote GOP anyway, whatever their thoughts on economics or foreign policy, because, well, where else are they going to go?

But for getting the big, mushy-headed, unexamined-life-is-yet-worth-living independents... no argument about the sanctity of life advances the pro-life cause with anywhere near the impact of a conservative president succeeding on his economic and foreign policy programs. While such thorny issues of the spirit and the flesh cannot be resolved due to a lack of agreed-upon metrics, they can be kinda-sorta resolved by proxy metrics -- again, if a conservative president is right on the other stuff, maybe he's not so crazy about prayer in school and abortion and gay marriage and family values and so on.

This relates back to Dick Morris' article about the coming socialism. It's not just socialism that's coming -- it's social liberalism, too. Social liberalism also can't grab new votes very much -- social liberals are "fucking maniacs," in Carlin's term, as compared to the average, middle-of-the-road independent -- but it now succeeds on the coattails of Obama's economic success. Or, rather, the repudiation of Bush's economic plan.

Social issues are important. They motivate the base. They do, in fact, even attract a fair number of independents -- true moderates are not nearly so turned off to notions of convention sexual morality and religion as the liberal media, and libertarians, would have you believe. And in many cases, their policy prescriptions are actually right... as if that matters in politics, which it frequently does not.

Nevertheless, when push comes to shove, it is usually the practical, pragmatic issues -- war, crime, taxes, etc. -- that animate the center, send them veering from one party to the other, not the philosophical ones. Only in extreme cases -- the hangover from the sexual excess of the seventies, and the plague it spawned -- does the center really elevate philosophical issues on to the same plane as the practical ones, and even then, the vie for supremacy.

All of this is a long-winded attempt to say that in practical terms -- and in highly nuanced terms -- Giuliani is right. If Obama is defeated in 2012, it will not be because he has governed as a social liberal. It will be because he failed on the economic and security issues. And, if we take power, we can advance and implement our social agenda, but only because of the trust we have been temporarily allowed on the economic and security issues. The credibility we will hopefully gain on those issues will allow us greater latitude on the social ones.

Pretty much every election can be predicted by the strength of the economy in the year before November's voting. That is the key variable. That, and whether the nation is at peace, or if at war, winning that war. The nation's appetite for socialism and pacifism, or economic liberalism and muscularity in foreign policy, fluctuate, and relatively quickly, too. The nation's moral compass is more constant, more steady, and only changes, if at all, slowly and by generation.

There is no point of concealing the GOP's social agenda -- it's well-known, and not really a net-vote loser, anyway. But the GOP must remember that it will never actually win on social issues. It will win on coherent, plausible plans on the issues the public can actually change its mind on, plus the ever-necessary element of luck. Something both Bushes lacked, and which the Democrats capitalized mightily on.

It's not a question of abandoning the social agenda, or of diluting it, or of hiding it. It's a question of making sure that the GOP is mostly talking about the issues that can actually change people's minds, and putting down markers -- such as opposing further bailouts and budget-busting "stimulus" packages -- upon which we can (and just might) be vindicated upon as the facts trickle in. It's a silly semantic point to make, but it's not so much de-emphasizing the social agenda as re-emphasizing the economic and security agendas. Push the "hard" issues, the issues for which there are facts and metrics and winners and losers and predictions proven out and predictions proven false, and hope for some luck.

Pushing the "soft" issues in the forefront really can never get you more voters than you actually have. God will never step down from the heavens to resolve such questions once and for all. (Unless, of course, he has sent his newly begotten son, Barack Hussein Obama, as his proxy.) You really can't expect a lucky break to make the social agenda, whether liberal or conservative, more appealing than it already is.

Finally, I should say that I personally am turned off by someone like Mike Huckabee, not just because he's running on social issues per se, but by running on issues I consider "soft," he's demonstrating, at least in my mind, a lack of confidence and clearheadedness about the issues I consider "hard." And this therefore advances the unfair stereotype that "Conservatives don't care about people losing jobs or how the economy's doing, the just want to peep through keyholes and argue about abortion."

I should also say I have this bias when it comes to liberals. A liberal like Roseanne Barr, as daffy as she is, I give a bit more respect to because she's talking about the economy a lot, a "hard" issue. Sure, she's talking nonsense, but at least she's grappling with a tough issue. On the other hand, when a liberal like Mike Farrell or Robert Redford can't talk about anything but the "soft" elements of liberalism -- the enviiiironment, gay marriage, "social justice," etc. -- I dismiss them as not just wrong but fundamentally unserious.

I think a lot of people have this bias. The "soft" issues, pretty much anyone can have a defensible opinion about, even without giving them much thought. The "hard" issues require a certain level of expertise the general public doesn't have -- and so they respond to leaders who can convince them they have such expertise.

It's a walk and chew gum at the same time sort of thing, but the emphasis should be on the walking, which might actually get you somewhere politically, and not on the chewing gum, gum being capable of being chewed for pretty much an infinite period of time without producing much more than exertion of the jaws.

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posted by Ace at 03:55 PM

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