Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Stupid Peoples' Party

The other night, during a break at an evening rehearsal of the choral group I sing with, a friend told me he'd decided that there were three kinds of Republicans: (1) the stupid, (2) the ignorant, and (3) the evil. After some discussion, he agreed with me that "evil" was too loaded and absolutist a term, and we substituted "selfish." He also agreed that "ignorant" was a bit too close to "stupid," so we settled on "uninformed." In the end, we settled on defining the Republican electorate as a triumvirate of the stupid, the uninformed, and the selfish.

Now, as a (retired) lawyer, I can really get into obsessing over fine verbal distinctions. Thus, I could happily argue the subtle differences between "uninformed," "misinformed," and "incurious" for hours. I actually prefer the term "misinformed," because it removes some ethical taint from this large category of Republicans--which happens to include some of my best friends and family members. The term "misinformed" conveys the truth that the errors of the Republican electorate are not actually entirely their fault, but rather are largely the result of a deliberate misinformation campaign. It also gives hope that this large group may ultimately be persuadable. After all, somebody's going to have to do the tough work of saving the two-party system in this country by converting today's authoritarian "Republican Party" back to the true spirit of its founders. As for the term "selfish," although it is preferable to the absolutist label of "evil," it nevertheless doesn't quite convey the combination of moral depravity and banality that my friend and I were trying to describe. I'm currently debating between and "greedy" and "venal." (For related discussion of individuals and groups fitting these various description, see here and here.)

But I have no problem with the first term in this list--"stupid." Whatever else they may be called, a large percentage of Republicans can only be described as just plain dumb. So (with a hat tip to Paul Krugman) I have decided that--at least in its current manifestation--the Republican Party should be known as "the Stupid People's Party."

It was John Stuart Mill who said: "Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative." Mill's dictum rings true for today's Republican Party. For every intelligent, honest, honorable Republican (Senators Richard Lugar, Chuck Hagel, and Olympia Snowe spring to mind) there are hundreds of Republicans who appear to have abandoned critical thinking as an annoying hindrance to maintaining blind faith in a deeply reactionary, top-down authoritarian ideology. Rather than applying critical analysis in an effort to solve the catastrophic problems facing this country, Republicans consistently exhibit a knee-jerk preference--sometimes approaching almost theological dimensions--for imposing a simplistic, black-and-white philosophical template on every issue, invariably resulting in rigid adherence to an ideologically predetermined result in defiance of facts, evidence, history, or reality. (For a classic discussion of this phenomenon in action, see here.)

Here's another great Mill quotation: "
Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think." (Mill, On Liberty, Ch. 2) In other words, it is better to exercise one's critical intelligence and reasoning even if it leads to an erroneous conclusion, than to accidentally avoid making a mistake while blindly trusting to one's "gut instinct" in defiance of critical thinking and analysis.

Mill's paradoxical dictum is based on a profound insight.
In a recent article in Salon, neurologist Robert Burton described how, with the decline in critical thinking, the average American voter is becoming increasingly unable to make informed decisions about which candidate or political party to support. The problem is that a person's awareness of his or her own competence (or lack thereof) appears to vary inversely with that person's actual intellectual ability. In other words, the more intellectually unskilled a person is, the more unaware of it he or she will be. As a corollary, a person who has difficulty recognizing his own incompetence will often have an inflated self-assessment of his own abilities. Thus, incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill; fail to recognize genuine skill in others; and fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy. As a result, the least intellectually competent people tend to overestimate their own cognitive abilities, and simultaneously believe they are smarter than individuals who are demonstrably of far superior intellect and ability. Conversely, even though they can more accurately assess their own abilities, intelligent individuals tend to overestimate the performance of others, and believe that everyone else "gets it" just as they do. As Burton notes, this phenomenon "should serve as the epitaph for the Bush administration: 'People who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact. That is, the same incompetence that leads them to make wrong choices also deprives them of the savvy necessary to recognize competence, be it their own or anyone else's.' " (Burton, "My Candidate, Myself," Sept.22, 2008.)

As with the political leaders, so with the voters who elected them to office. An electorate of incompetent voters will tend to favor incompetent politicians. Such voters will
overestimate their own ability to make reasoned choices, fail to recognize genuinely able politicians when placed before them, and ultimately fail to recognize the extremity of their inability to distinguish between competent and incompetent politicians. The political history of the past 30 years is studded with real-world examples of this phenomenon in practice. Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry were all clearly more intellectually competent than the men who defeated them in their respective presidential contests. Yet the sliver of the American electorate that actually determines elections in this country decided differently. Time and again, the lesser candidates were adjudged by swing voters to be "more Presidential" than the superior ones. What does this say about the critical intelligence and competence of those swing voters? The catastrophic results are clearly evident today, as the second Bush Administration stumbles to its ignominious end.

For 40 years, the standard Republican political strategy
has been a toxic brew of subtle racism and blatant appeals to class and cultural resentment: the so-called "wedge issues." This has manifested as support for so-called "states rights," vicious attacks on affirmative action, "welfare queens," expanded civil rights, and "voter fraud," and demonization of liberals as weak-kneed pacifists who will "raise your taxes," take away your guns, turn your children into homosexuals, abort your babies, and somehow do away with your (fundamentalist Christian) religion. As such, Republicans have successfully defined liberals--and by extension, the "Democrat Party"--as a failed political philosophy wedded to issues unpopular with a majority of Americans and out of touch with mainstream American values and interests. It goes without saying that this simplistic approach to all issues has channeled political discourse away from reasoned analysis of the actual problems facing the country, and toward simplistic labeling and name-calling based on appeals to fear and greed. In short, all the characteristics that have made the Republican Party a haven for the stupid, the ignorant or misinformed, the venal and the greedy.

The problem for Republicans is that reality is catching up with the fantasy world they have created for themselves, and in which they have forced the rest of the country to live for the past eight years. In the face of the massive catastrophes caused by the Bush Administration's monumental incompetence, corruption and arrogance, the majority of people in the center--the growing segment of the population calling itself "independent"--is catching on to the fact that the entire Republican ideological construct is both a scam and a sham. The Republican "brand" is rapidly collapsing under the weight of its own failures, and losing its selling power.
As the bubble bursts, the Republican bubble-heads who have been living inside it have been thrust into the much harsher conditions of the "reality based community." As a result, the more educated and intellectually honest of them have been deserting the Republican Party in droves. This trend--particularly visible among members of the professional classes--has been noted by conservative commentators like David Brooks (here) and David Frum (here).

Lately, with the polls appearing to show the Republican Party
in increasingly dire straits, the news has been full of reports of deep divisions within Republican Party ranks, indeed within the entire so-called Conservative Movement itself. Libertarians, Neoconservatives, Christian fundamentalists, evangelicals, social conservatives, authoritarian corporatists, old-line free-market types, and main-street business people are all pointing fingers at each other in a veritable circular firing squad of blame. Let us hope that the fast-approaching election will mark the final collapse of the old Stupid People's Party. Can we then hope for the return of the original "Grand Old Party"--the Party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Earl Warren, and the Rockefellers? Only time--and the election returns--will tell. But it may be that the ghosts of those worthies have long since deserted their old haunts, and become ethereal Democrats.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Political Realignment

Today (October 21) the Washington Post/ABC poll reported that "first-time voters" favor Barack Obama over John McCain by a margin of 73 to 26 percent. This is an astounding margin of 47 percent in Obama's favor. By way of comparison, in 2004, first-time voters favored Kerry over Bush by 53 to 46 percent, or a margin in Kerry's favor of only 7 percent. Similarly, the poll shows that Obama is up 12 points over John McCain among white voters under 30, a complete reversal from 2004 when Kerry lost these voters by 10 points. These poll numbers are of tremendous significance. They mark a generational paradigm shift. In my opinion, they presage a major political realignment of the sort seen this country approximately every 30 to 40 years.

The last political realignment in this country occurred between the elections of 1968 and 1972, in which Richard Nixon used the now infamous "Southern Strategy" to steal conservative southern votes from the Democrats and cement a new working center-right political majority for the Republican Party. We have been living in a conservative political world in this country ever since, broken only by the two Democratic administrations of Carter (an accidental product of the Watergate scandal) and Clinton (a conservative Democrat elected on a plurality vote with the third-party assistance of Ross Perot).

The recent polls indicate that this conservative hegemony may well be coming to an end. Of course, it is still too early to break out the champagne. There are two weeks left until the election--a lifetime in politics. Although recent polls show Obama considerably ahead nationwide and in the battleground states, McCain may yet succeed in his effort to eke out a Rovian 50.1 percent victory through his campaign of fear and loathing about "socialism" and Obama's "otherness," along with Republican operatives' incipient efforts at voter intimidation and suppression.

But win or lose, it is not too late to make one prediction. We are witnessing a major sea change in the American electorate. With numbers like those reported in today's Washington Post, the Republicans have lost the next generation of voters--big time. Voters under 30--the leaders of the future--are turning decisively away from the Republican hegemony that has dominated American political culture since Nixon, and even more from the rigid right-wing ideology that has controlled the Republican Party since Reagan. The "culture war" issues that have so exercised the electorate since the 1960's--abortion, guns, gays, "family values," flag burning, prayer in schools, etc.--no longer carry much weight with the rising generation. Liberal and progressive ideas once dismissed automatically out of hand are being embraced by young people who have little use for the tired old doctrines that for so long have been used by Republicans to beat Democrats into submission and defeat them time and time again. The toxic tactics used by Republicans to win elections ever since Richard Nixon simply aren't working any more.

As a result, we are on the cusp of historic change. I believe the mid-term election of 2006 marked the beginning of a political realignment like the historic realignments that occurred in earlier transformational elections, like those of 1932, 1968 and 1980. That realignment will burst fully into flower with this transformational presidential election.

I'll go out on a limb. I predict this election will be seen historically as at least as significant a political earthquake as the election of 1932, which ushered in a generation of liberal/progressive dominance with the defeat of the old-guard Hoover/Coolidge Republicans and the accession of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. Indeed, we may be witnessing an even more historically significant moment. Eight years of George W. Bush's arrogance, incompetence, hubris and unprecedentedly authoritarian overreaching has left this nation in perilous straits on every front, and at the same time more deeply divided than at any time since the Civil War. The election of 2008 may well be the most important election since those of 1860 and 1864. Not since Lincoln became President has the fate of our nation hung so perilously in the balance of a divisive electoral contest.