Republicans Can’t Moderate

Scared RepublicansYesterday. Ed Kilgore confronted some of the more reasonable conservative pundits for their reaction to the RNC’s “autopsy report.” People like David Frum and Reihan Salam claim that the document doesn’t skirt the real issues facing the Republican Party. Instead, they say, such a report should only look at messaging and leave the policy ideas to conservative wonks and politicians. In fact, Frum faults the report for even talking about immigration. The problem is that messaging is a small part of the difficulties that the party is having. The party’s policies are their biggest challenge. And if the RNC doesn’t address policies, who will?

Republican Think Tanks

The problem, Kilgore rightly points out, is that left to themselves, the politicians and wonks just move the party further and further to the right. I would add that the main conservative “think tanks” have long ago turned away from policy. These days, the Heritage Foundation focuses almost exclusively on how to sell their long ossified conservative policy preferences. The Cato Institute is only interested in studies that support their given brand of libertarianism. And the Media Research Center is simply committed to finding “liberal bias” in all news that is not Republican propaganda. So the conservative wonks are not really wonks and certainly won’t be pushing the Republican Party in the direction of more widely appealing policy.

Republican Politicians

As for the politicians, Kilgore goes into some depth discussing how Republican politicians are likely to affect the party’s policy ideas. With almost no exceptions, when Republicans run in swing districts, they still race each other to see who can be most conservative. He calls this the “more-conservative-than-thou competition.” As he sums up, “The GOP hasn’t just ‘failed to adjust’; it’s moved hard right.”

It is as if Republican politicians have only one trick: be more conservative. I think there is much to this. On her show tonight, Rachel Maddow presented four recent cases where a major Republican politician made a claim that they immediately had to take back. For example, John Boehner claimed that we should do a background check on all gun purchases. But as soon as the interview was over, he “clarified” that he isn’t in favor of universal background checks. Similarly, John Kasich told News Channel 5 that he was in favor of same sex civil unions. But right after the interview, he released a statement “clarifying” that he is against civil unions. The same thing happened with Rand Paul and Mitt Romney on different issues.

What is going on here? I think it is that Republicans don’t really believe in anything other than tax cuts for the wealthy. So they’ve never given any thought to any other issues. Basically, Republicans believe they are in power to cut taxes. Their positions on all the other issues are just whatever is given by the party or the movement more generally. I’ve run into this a lot with people who are in the Republican base. I find that they often have one or two opinions that are completely at odds with the party. For example, I recently talked with a fanatical Tea Party member who was against the death penalty. She had seen a documentary which convinced her that capital punishment was racist and flawed. She was very passionate about the issue and her thinking was very similar to my own. Of course, it was not an issue that affected how she voted; she was completely accepting of politicians who were rabid capital punishment proponents. But more to the point, she was in lockstep with the party about all other issues—because she’d never thought much about them.

Republicans Don’t Think

When I was much younger, I had an experience of the same issue with a woman while she went through this transformation. I had argued with her a couple of times about her belief in the death penalty, so I knew her arguments and my own. Then she went to see the movie Gandhi. In the film, Gandhi responds to the standard canard with, “If we practice an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, soon the whole world will be blind and toothless.” That turned this young woman into a death penalty opponent. I understand that; sometimes the strangest things make us rethink our beliefs. What I found frustrating was that I had used that same argument against her multiple times. It was as though she had not been listening to me.

This, I believe, is what these Republican politicians are doing. Rob Portman didn’t rethink his position on same sex marriage. He had never thought about the issue in the first place. His party was against it and so he was too. When he learned his son was gay, he was forced to think about it. And he came to the same conclusion that anyone would if they approached it with an open mind and heart. And in a sense, Portman did have an open mind and heart; they certainly weren’t cluttered with clever or complex arguments that justified opposition to same sex marriage. They were only filled with the talking point, “I am against same sex marriage because I believe marriage is a union of one man and one woman.”

Republicans Need to Think

For the Republican Party to moderate its policies, its members would have to think about those policies. But they aren’t operating on that level. Instead, it is “abortion is wrong.” That does not lead to thinking about the competing interests of fetus and mother. Even the idea of the “life of the mother” exception is determined by the conservative movement and not the individual conservative. I doubt one conservative in 20 could explain why an exception for the mother’s life would be ethically justified. So that leads such people to move ever toward the most conservative position. (See my article On Hating Women for a discussion of this.)

So there are no important players in the Republican Party who can work to moderate their policies. And let’s not forget: the issue is the policies. Republicans have not been losing races because the electorate doesn’t understand their positions. They have been losing elections because the electorate understands their positions only too well. When Todd Akin discussed “legitimate rape,” he was expressing his actual belief that it is common for women to falsely report rape. When George Allen had his “Macaca moment,” he was expressing his actual belief that Caucasians are the real Americans and other cultures are strange and suspect. And when Mitt Romney said that 47% of the people won’t take responsibility for their lives, he was most definitely expressing his actual belief that the poor are morally inferior to the rich.

What Way Forward?

In order to improve their electoral fate, Republicans will have to rethink their policies. But there is literally no institution of the party that is capable of doing this. The Republican Party has systematically purged itself of anyone and anything that doesn’t work to strengthen the existing dogma of the party. In that way, they are more like a cult than a political party. I honestly don’t know how they move forward in this regard. I think it will be a long and painful process.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Republicans Can’t Moderate

  1. You’re on to something very important here; why average, reasonable (in most respects) people buy into "conservative" (e.g., GOP-sanctioned) beliefs. I get the sense you’re close to a breakthrough about it.

    It isn’t just the omnipresence of their propaganda. That helps, but if propaganda always worked through sheer force of repetition we’d all be drinking New Coke. Propaganda only works if it manages to hit a nerve. Republicans have spent a lot of time and money figuring out which arguments of theirs hit nerves with the most accuracy; they’re pretty good at it. Why does the stuff they hit a nerve with always amp people up to support their vastly unpopular and unlikable "Worship The Rich" mantra?

    The best explanation I can come up with has something to do with reciprocity. Humans are designed to maximize opportunities for individual inspiration in order to help the group figure out a useful way of killing that mean leopard outside or cave. We’re both selfish and communal; it’s what we are.

    Republicans turn that "be original, be unique, find a clever way to kill the mean leopard for everyone’s benefit" programming back-asswards. They provide the emotional comfort of groupthink (why, all good Americans agree!) with the intellectual satisfaction of individuality (why, if you’re told behaving in such-and-such fashion benefits the community, you should be a rebel and look out for yourself!)

    Where reciprocity comes into play is the simple sense that if you wouldn’t want someone to do it to you, you shouldn’t do it to anyone else. This is a profound moral concept and deeply hard to grasp. We tend to think that fairness is all well and good until the other side cheats, then the gloves come off. But this is wrong; Responding eye-for-eye is what leads to arms races and wars. Standing up for yourself is one thing; sinking to the level of your inferior opposition is another.

    In one of his Christian apologetics ("The Abolition Of Man," I’m pretty sure) C.S. Lewis claims that humans have been guided by an invisible hand, as it were, towards higher moral awareness by his God. He cites, as an example, Confucius’s dictum not to do unto others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself and suggests that the Bible’s "do unto others" as a moral advance.

    He’s wrong. "Do unto others" is a fantasy. Nobody walks around handing out $100 bills and free oral sex. Since no-one could ever do unto everyone what they’d love others to do unto them, contingencies and qualifications naturally are derived to account for why we shouldn’t feel guilty ignoring our fellow human beings’ desires for free $100 bills and fellatio.

    Confucius’s "do not do" rule is much more sophisticated, because it is much more achievable, and hence more difficult. It requires an endless sense of self-examination; we’ll always, if we’re honest, realize ways we haven’t lived up to that very reasonable code.

    In a way, I suspect that liberalism (at its best) is about the Confucian code, and right-wing thought is about the impossible, therefore easily qualified, Jesus version. That’s maybe a start at explaining why right-wingers have "road to Damascus" moments when they realize the policies they support could actually harm people they like . . .

  2. @JMF – That’s a great distinction. I haven’t heard it before. It’s profound.

    The problem as it applies to modern politics is that the rich don’t have to think, "There but for the grace of God…" They don’t think, "What would I want the society to do for me if I were poor?" They know that people like them are always taken care of. (Lack of empathy is perhaps the best predictor of conservative political leaning.) We live, after all, in an aristocracy. Scooter Libby didn’t have to worry that his shame would lead to life on the margins of society. The rich take care of their own.

    The biggest propaganda aspect of the media is how it defines the [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overton_window]Overton Window[/url]. I think the biggest part of this comes from journalists thinking that they are liberal and trying to compensate for it. Thus, they treat the most loony right wing ideas as the right margin of debate. But then they treat only their own rather moderate policies as the left margin of the debate. In terms of budgets, there is Ryan (right), Senate Democrats (center right), and the Progressive Caucus (left). But the media define the debate between Ryan and Senate Democrats. In such a world, the Republicans win decisively even when they lose.

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