Mugged By Their Own Narrative
As Team Romney continues the process of self-immolation, various journalists have discerned a pattern in conservative reactions to his collapse.
So Romney could present a serious economic plan with numbers that make sense — and then face a revolt within his own party. His solution: to be utterly vague about how he would deal with the deficit. When pressed for details recently, he explained that “the devil’s in the details. The angel is in the vision.” He’s right. Were he to get specific, he would be committing ideological blasphemy. So instead he talks about freedom and capitalism.
And that’s a reasonably good place to start—but it’s pretty familiar ground. Mike Tomasky drives the point home:
What a fantastic last two weeks these have been. I don’t even mean Barack Obama solidifying his lead over Mitt Romney, although that’s perfectly fine. No, I mean the near-mathematically perfect joy of watching these smug and contemptible creatures of the right dodge and swerve and make excuses and, most of all, whine. There is no joy in the kingdom of man so great as the joy of seeing bullies and hucksters laid low, and watching people who have arrogantly spent years assuming they were right about the world living to see all those haughty assumptions die before their eyes. Watching them squirm is more fun than watching Romney and Paul Ryan flail away
I loved the initial reaction to the famous videotape. Problem? Are you kidding? This is just what we’ve been waiting for! This will help Romney, it was said; finally, we have Mitt unchained, Mitt raw, Mitt the truth-teller. Now he can just charge out there and do more of this, and in no time the nation will be putty in our hands! And just you wait for the next polls.
Well, the polls have started to come, and they portend total disaster. Americans don’t turn out to like a heartlessly cruel Social Darwinian articulation of the national condition that by the by calls half the population worthless. Huh. Go figure.
(Cf. Eugene Robinson, in the highly improbable case that you want even more linked reading on this.)
Today’s American Right is so thoroughly immersed in its own, closed world (what sometimes gets called “epistemic closure”) that it frequently finds itself without resources to participate in the common political world. They are dumbfounded at the possibility that an “empty suit,” affirmative action beneficiary like Barack Obama could possibly win one presidential term, let alone two.
That’s why, in the years immediately following the 2008 election, ACORN and shadowy Alinskyite election-stealers were all the rage. This wasn’t just idle chatter on the far fringe, as the proliferation of Voter ID laws soon demonstrated.
It’s also why Republican elites have been salivating at the opportunity to push their gospel of government gutting, even when Americans are skeptical about deregulated markets and sensitive to cuts to social welfare programs.
And, finally, it’s why they’re bitterly helpless to make sense of the unpopularity of their program. Their polling data are terrible and getting worse—for their candidate, for the broader GOP platform, for the substance of the Ryan Budget, for nigh on EVERYTHING conservatives are pushing. Hell, the only worse numbers are the empirical data on Ryan’s debt-detonating budget.
A sensible, empirically-savvy observer attends to these data and suspects that their movement has become unpopular. A powerful segment of the conservative establishment (if not the whole thing) sees these same numbers and instead suspects the data themselves. Worse still, they count it as one more piece of evidence that the bulk of media outlets are powerfully arrayed against conservatism.
They conclude anything, that is, that protects them from having to admit and face the unreal and unpopular aspects of their movement. In this world, it is impossible that the conservative movement could lose in the marketplace of ideas. The problem is either distortion (imaginary vote-stealers, enormously collusive media outlets, etc) or a rhetorical shortcoming (“if Romney just gets specific, we’ll win this thing!”).
In this sense, then, the GOP isn’t so much the Party of Lincoln or the Party of Rand…but the Party of Phyllis Schlafly. In her Choice Not an Echo, Schlafly argued that only a Republican Party purified of its moderates could distinguish itself from the Democrats. In Rule and Ruin, his study of the modern Republican Party, Geoffrey Kabaservice put it this way:
[F]or the persuadable, A Choice Not an Echo offered an all-encompassing explanation of political reality and a powerful stimulus for action…Schlafly also articulated a key article of conservative faith, which was that a “hidden” majority of Americans were conservative but rarely participated in elections since there was so little to choose from between the two parties. If the moderates could be thwarted and a true conservative like Goldwater could gain the Republican presidential nomination, the parties at last would divide along ideological lines, and a newly energized conservative majority would sweep the Republicans to victory.
Schlafly’s book was “all-encompassing.” Her view of American politics was a perfectly self-sufficient system. Like any Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory worth its salt, it left nothing unexplained for acolytes to account for. Part of this, as I’ve recently written, involved claiming that the legitimate mantle of the American tradition that covered her specific political views—and little else. In words that would echo, if they weren’t already being shouted in unison today, Schlafly aimed to take the country back—from the Left and for
(the legitimate Americans) conservatives.
Remember when being labeled a “Massachusetts Moderate” was a dangerous threat to Romney’s candidacy? Remember when other candidates for the nomination (esp. Perry, Santorum, and Gingrich) joined FOX pundits in fretting that Romney wasn’t conservative enough to win in November?
All of this is also why Romney’s chances at recovering his electoral footing grow slimmer by the day. Much as he might like a do-over, Romney can’t really “Etch-a-Sketch” away his comments about the so-called “47%” because his base would see this as treason. Worst of all, should Romney lose, it’s not clear that the American Right is prepared to reflect on why. All signs point to their likely response: doubling down on ideological purity. Check their bench—none of the brightest conservative political stars are moderates. None.
(Random Sidenote: As usual, the League was way ahead on this. We argued this point during the Tod-convened League bull session a few weeks ago in DC . It reminded me of GOP apostate Mike Lofgren’s farewell essay to his party, and I got started on a post along these lines, but almost everything else in my life got away from me and it’s taken me until now.)