It seems that Republican presidential candidates are very unhappy with the debate questions. It’s indicative of the insular nature of the conservative movement in this country that they think any non-laudatory questions from the press are a clear example of the bias of the “liberal media.” I was especially struck by Ted Cruz’s question during the debate, “How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?” And what would those substantive issues be? As Brian Beutler made clear, the moderators at CNBC asked very substantive questions. By and large, the Republicans dodged them.
Let’s think about this for a moment. CNBC is a conservative network. During the whole debate, the only question about inequality was given to Mike Huckabee, because he claims to want to do something about it. Trump, Bush, and Rubio were never asked about the huge increase in inequality that their budget proposals would increase. There were no hard or “gotcha” questions for these candidates. What’s more, they were allowed to not answer the questions they were asked. So if they wanted more “substantive issues” to talk about, they could have talked about them and no one would have minded.
Well, one group would have been unhappy: the people who Cruz claimed wanted to hear about the substantive issues. The main things that got the audience excited were attacks on the media. They weren’t interested in hearing about economics or foreign affairs or much of anything. And that’s nothing new. They love Trump and Carson because they are bigots. And they love it when the media is attacked. But that’s the extent of it. It comes back to Corey Robin’s idea that conservatism isn’t so much a positive movement as a negative movement: it is defined by what it is against, not what it is for.
Being aggrieved is the primary motivator for conservative voters. This is why it is so frustrating to argue with conservatives. I’ve talked a lot about this, and I have come to think that this aggrieve mentality is the basis of it. I can usually convince a conservative of anything about economics — and most things regarding social issues. (Exceptions: death penalty, Islam.) But when it comes to voting, they always run back to the Republican Party because they know that it represents their anger at the world. The GOP may push policy that they don’t like, but they know that it will do everything to hurt the right people.
So all this business of pretending to be hurt by elites is just pandering to the base. The Republican Party has a dual constituency. They have the angry base that must be pandered to — but not in a substantive way. So they need to complain that the media are not asking about “substantive issues” even though no one involved is interested in that. And then they have the rich base that must be pandered to in a very substantive way: with policy meant to line the pockets of the rich. So now we have to listen to the Republicans whining about how badly they are treated and how well the Democrats are treated. If I hadn’t been raised on American politics, I would consider it unbelievable.