Monday, November 28, 2011

Candidate Whack-A-Mole

The current crop of GOP candidates is characterized by one constant: it is a two-person race between Mitt Romney and someone else. The parade of figures thought to be capable of challenging Romney's hegemony (shall we say "Romgemony"?) has been a cavalcade of characters: first Michelle Bachmann, whose commitment to the base for a while allowed her to evade showing her warts: then Rick Perry, who took Bachmann's base but whose campaign has been so disastrous that "Hindenburgesque" would be an understatement: then Herman Cain, who ended up on rocky shoals not because of the incoherence of the 9-9-9 (now just 9-9) plan but instead from a combination of foreign policy blunders and accusations ranging from sexual harassment to sexual assault: and now we have Newt Gingrich, the zombie politico of the last great anguish of the angry white male, who is in most ways more accomplished as a politician than any of these other potential Romney enemies, but has considerable personal and professional baggage himself, having overseen the government shutdown in the mid-Nineties which was regarded as a catastrophe for the GOP.

To what do we owe this parade of prospects, each one opposing Romney before being hoisted on their own petard? It has to do with the sincerity of the demands for freedom, liberty, and smaller government emanating from the Tea Party, and the relationship that does demands have with the ideology of conservatism. One does not need to venture too far into the world of political and national identity to know one key precept: people define themselves through an imaginary relationship with other people. In the case of American politics, this mechanism for identification cannot shake free of a central recalcitrance: American political culture and discourse so thoroughly value the idea of the free individual that opposition to individualism manifests itself in any number of ways. Chiefly, support of the managerial liberal state (here I refer broadly to statist basics, like social safety nets, which by reductio the Tea Party and conservative base oppose as anathema) is coded as an intrinsic opposition to the power of the liberal individual, because it operates enthymematically by following that assumption that, freed to act, the liberal individual will do good. The other end of this proposition, which is that for some to rise others must fall, tends to be disavowed with the deployment of particulars that undermine the legitimacy of those participants in the system without challenging the aegis of liberal individualism itself: the failure of some is a result of their intentional choices, but the overall primacy of the "idea" of individual choice is not challenged.

We are only slightly more than a year removed from a midterm election cycle at which the belief in the goodness of this sovereign individual was thoroughly supported at the ballot box. Indeed, while progressives were quick to jump on the failures of figures like Sharon Angle in order to chortle that the Tea Party had undermined itself, such rumblings were of little comfort to those who saw the historically unique shift in the 2010 midterm as, if not a paradigm shift, at least a serious retrenchment in American politics.

Recently, New York Magazine had a little bit of Point/Counterpoint fun with two articles, one by Jonathan Chait and another by Bush-era conservative stalwart David Frum. Chait retroactively rereads Obama's election not as some major paradigm shifting signal in American politics, but instead the business as usual result of practicing a palatable-to-the-mainstream liberalism. Frum agrees by way of a critique of the new-radicalism of the conservative base: the remaining strains of Rockefeller republicanism have been evacuated, he argues, in favor of a new conservative strain which virulently argues for small government at all costs, even at the expense of reason itself. Frum of course is no progressive hero: he made his bones as a neocon under George W. Bush, but he is unique amongst conservatives in his stalwart repudiation of the shift in the conservative base following Obama's election. As he points out, Obama passed a health care bill modelled after a conservative proposal from the 90's: and the response is "down with socialism!"

What seems to be at stake for Chait and Frum is the idea of principle: for Chait the Democrats need to get over worrying about having a pure ethics, and for Frum the GOP needs to have some ability to cooperate and moderate because politics is the art of the possible. What does this have to do with Mitt Romney and "Conservative Candidate X?" Chiefly, Romney appears to be a conservative palatable to folks like Frum: a conservative whose own record (reasonable defenses of gay rights, a statewide health care bill) belies his red campaign rhetoric. This is in contradistinction to say, Bachmann, whose rhetoric and legislative record both play very well to the conservative base. I've long suspected that one of the great achievements of the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama was the way in which his candidacy moved simultaneously in ways that allowed it to appear both centrist and leftist: centrist to the great moveable "swing voters" while leftist enough to both appeal to the Move.on crowd and goad conservatives into time honored tactics like Communist scaremongering and feting the wealthy.

The constant dance with the "not-Romney" figures in the race to me indexes a certain kind of crisis within conservatism: a legitimation crisis based on attempting to reconcile the intense pseudo-libertarian demands for limited government with the absolute desire to see Barack Obama (and make no mistake: while Harry Reid and more so Nancy Pelosi find themselves as targets of conservative ire, Obama seems to uniquely ignite this fire). I really doubt that the conservative base will throw electability concerns to the wind, (but I don't own a Magic 8 Ball, and posts like this may betray me) because the negative characteristics of identification I referenced earlier are chiefly important in the construction of political identity. To the extent that Obama successfully stands in for "Big Government" its much less about the particular policies he supports (Healthcare, for example, which tends to poll quite well in pieces is one good example. Another is how polls consistently show the public associates TARP with Obama although it was passed by Bush) and much more about how these particular policies serve as condensation points for opposition to Obama. Romney has his warts, but especially given the economy's continued fragility, conservatives will probably remain focused on the "bad" of Obama rather than inconsistencies in their own political advocacy. There is little real drama in the battle between Romney and the "no-chancers:" we seem to have much more an electoral Kabuki theater of sorts than a meaningful primary. But I do think fundamentally that eventual settling upon Romney indicates conservatives will argue by way of the situation rather than by way of principle: they'll attempt to weigh down Obama with his four years rather than producing a charismatic and complex plan of action for the next four years.


  1. Nice analysis. I think you can go deeper. The Kabuki reference is interesting but I don't think you've fleshed it out enough here. Kabuki is much more complex than how you reference it. Kabuki can be about highlighting the skills of an actor, without regard for plot or continuity. Although with this crop of actors, it may be more about making themselves available for prostitution after the show, which was part of the original kanji for Kabuki. You may want to take and use the Kabuki theme throughout rather than simply gesturing to it.

  2. Your post is for the most part right on, but you seem to be missing the elephant in the room which is religion and rhymes with Mormon. I think that the tea party could look past Romney's sins of liberalism if he was "one of them." Compare that to Herman Cain who is ideologically "one of them" and provides the added bonus of providing inoculation against the persistent claims of racism by serving the function of their token black friend. Mormonism is the one position Romney hasn't changed. If he walked down the road to Damascus and became born again, I think that's one flip-flop that the ideological right would get right behind, though of course this would mean losing his wealthy Mormon donors.

  3. The part of the post that I find most interesting is the description of the "liberal individual". The people supporting Bachmann, then Perry, then Cain, and now Gingrich seem to suffer from a fundamental internal contradiction on this point. If, left to his own devices, the free individual will do good, why assert the power of the state to ban drug use, abortion, prostitution, or any other consensual act?

    Also, it seems to me that the opposition to basic government services flies in the face of the "liberal individual." If humans, left alone, will inherently do what is right, why the assumption that people without jobs aren't looking hard enough? Why the assumption that people on welfare are just lazy or are committing fraud? It's always struck me that conservatives, from the perspective of most of their policy positions, make the opposite assumption, that people left to their own devices will do wrong. I suspect that at least subconsciously, what they actually believe is that the upper-middle class and up, if left to their own devices, will do good, but the lower-middle class and down, if left to their own devices, will do wrong.

  4. One last thing. Michael Mario is right, I think, that Mormonism plays a significant role here. Gingrich has taken positions just as liberal as Romney, and for now the base is behind him (although it remains to be seen what will happen when someone starts running that Gingrich/Pelosi global warming ad in primary states.)

  5. I'm not so confident that the GOP will remain a unified theater by the end of the primary season. I think it's quite possible that we will see a situation vaguely similar to the 1996 election; A flawed Democrat incumbent countered by a split Republican electorate that includes a vanilla mainstream candidate (Dole/Romney) and a more populist ticket (Perot and the Reform Party/Gingrich-Cain and the Tea Party). I don't think the Tea Party and similar strains of the Republican Party are simply looking to oust Obama. I think they are also looking for a champion of conservative values - a role that Romney is unlikely to fill.

  6. @Jolie: the metaphor does oversimplify. No idea about the prostitution angle before your does wonder how Romney feels about everything on some days, after his moderate stances as Massachusetts governor...

    @Mike I think the religious angle is one worth pursuing, and sadly remains underthought by me at this point. I'm always wary of over-attributing religious motives to politics, because I see a tendency in many liberal critics of conservatism (think Max Blumenthal) to read the socio-religious roots of conservatism to the detriment of the policy side of things. Not that the separation can be that neat, but its important to allow for a more nuanced reading. That said, if folks could suspect Obama of being a Muslim, they could easily betray Romney at the polls out of a fear of Otherness.

    @Chris: The contradictory tendencies you identify between straight libertarianism and a more politically palatable version of conservatism are crucial. I think what we're seeing here is the spectre of Goldwater: real libertarianism with principle is not though to be a meaningful political option. Coopting elements of libertarianism for a conservative politics is a path to victory, but requires a discourse capable of smoothing out the rough edges. At the end of the day, argumentative success isn't detemrined by consistency, its about creating an effect upon an audience. Whatever cognitive dissonance between "small government" and "the gays are coming for my marriage" can be resolved, as you say, with reference to individual choice: small government for those who can choose right, big government for those who choose wrong, and no government for those whose choices mark them as economically incapacitated.

    @TheReal: The question is just "what are conservative values." Conservative values tend to be defined outrightly negatively: less government, less taxes, less change. Each of these negatives denies the ability of any political avatar to stand in properly for it. Look at Reagan, conservatism's patron saint. Most cultural and social critics acknowledge that the one power of Reagan was his ability to see like anything to anyone: a wholesome American to the middle, a real Biblethumper to the base, and an anti-Communist warrior to others. When you consider how Obama is directly articulated inextricably to signifiers of movement (hope, change), you might see how I come to my position about negativity. But I mean, all bets are off if a Gingrich gets the nom...