Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Response To Douthat: On the Incommensurability of GOP Economics and Populism

Eric Cantor’s shocking primary defeat last night dealt a blow to the conventional wisdom that this would be the year of the Republican establishment. Cantor, a key and visible voice on the right, was not the sort of politician who falls victim to a primary challenge. His position high up in the Republican leadership structure should have implied that he was almost untouchable, certainly in a year where midterm elections would mean major gains and victorious consolidations amongst Republicans, rather than defeats. And yet Cantor lost.

For those of us keeping our eyes in the levels of partisan intensity in Washington, this was not reassuring. Certainly, David Brat’s victory came as good news to many on the populist right: Cantor, despite his conservative bona fides, is certainly an “Establishment” figure, while on the left, many progressives took to social media to crow about how Cantor, who often comes off as unnecessarily snide, got what he deserved. Yet, Cantor’s record as a voter was solidly conservative. His primary challenge owes more to the generally totalizing character of the conservative base over the last few years than any real policy decisions. Cantor was a big-time conservative, he acted pretty conservative, and his flirtations with immigration policy were overblown. So, what does his defeat mean?

Ross Douthat writes in today’s Times in a piece titled “After Eric Cantor” that Cantor’s loss suggests a problem Cantor the politician, no conservative politics per se. Perhaps Cantor just couldn’t bridge the gap between the populist sentiment driving Obama-era conservative politics and populist policy that aims to enrich the “middle class” of America’s Main Street rather than those much reviled fat cats on Wall Street. If only, Douthat holds, conservatism could coalesce around a “good” economic populism rather than a “bad” populism. Douthat outlines what these dynamics are in an earlier op-ed, where the good populism consists of channeling Rand Paul on anger at government surveillance and security overreaches alongside tax plan’s like those of Utah Senator Mike Lee, which encourage increased tax relief for families. This also includes some kind of policy of real regulation to punish Wall Street for cronyism, corruption, and financial loss.

Douthat opines that, perhaps this victory is a good sign that the Republican Party is moving in the right direction. Or, at the very least, he hopes that it is. But I think Douthat’s assumption, which holds that there are two kinds of potentially agreeable populisms that are fighting for the soul of the Republican Party, is wrong in my estimation. In fact, it is a battle between the real populist sentiment of a conservative base (who take as their animating ethos anger and resentment at the 2008 financial collapse and the resulting bailouts (and who have, to some extent, matriculated some of that intensity to President Barack Obama and issues like Obamacare and the stimulus package) versus the traditional economic wing of political conservatism which focuses on generating freer markets by having a presumption against thick regulation in many areas of policy.
What these factions don’t necessarily share are goals. For example, Mike Lee’s tax plan aimed at boosting and stabilizing the American middle class might, in fact, do so, but at the expense of the deficit. . Lee’s goal is economic stability in the sense of making things easier for households. Rising budget deficits are, of course, a total non-starter for many on the traditional conservative side, who see the need to control spending as a political cudgel that can be used to facilitate connections in the minds of voters between their own economic anxieties and federal budget issues. Others, who come from the trickle down school, certainly claim to want to increase the economic welfare of the middle class as well but set certain federal baselines for this: hence the need to protection against budget deficits at all costs, demands for balanced budget amendments to the Constitution, and what have you.

None of this discussion within the realm of economic policy even begins to address cultural conservatives, who were already alienated at a formal level by the Tea Party’s insistence that they focus not on cultural issues but only on economics. While in practice the Tea Party’s broad opposition to government still allowed traditionalists conservatives to align themselves with the movement, what their role is in the current legislative majority in the House (and soon, lets face it, probably in the Senate) remains murky. Are conservatives angry about legalized gay marriage going to be placated with a tax credit for families?

In sum, the choice is not between good or bad populism. On one side is a populism, as The Weekly Standard hopes, that might offer various economic benefits for middle Americans by tax breaks on the middle class, the preservation or perhaps mild extension of social safety nets, and real regulation of white collar and financial crime. On the other side is a conservative populism of negativity which rages against Obamacare, budget deficits, and the denigration of the Constitution, but offers little in the way of a governing strategy to pair with these frustrations. Indeed, it is these conservatives who most often seem prone to engage in language about “makers and takers” or “economic losers,” suggesting the remedy comes not at the policy level but instead at the level of individual behavior. I do not think this gap between various conservative groups can be bridged, but instead will require some kind of at least medium term movement that will alienate the latter to strengthen the former. Cantor’s defeat signals prolonged partisanship, not a new political dawn with more action at hand.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Proliferation of Emptiness: Indexing Politics in Party Platforms

This blog post is third in a series of posts focusing on looking at conservative messaging and ideological documents from 2009-present.

Pundits and critics tend to regard party platforms with something between and eye roll and a vague nod of the head. During every presidential election season the major political parties in the U.S. refine and produce their platforms but these documents are often thought to have little consequence. Willard Oliver and Nancy Marion, for example, pick up the work of Murray Edelman to suggest that these platform statements serve symbolic rather than practical functions.

The standard line goes something like this: party platforms are empty pabulum, stuffed chock full of the least controversial and most conventional set of beliefs possessed by a party. In turn this suggests that one might find in a platform are a set of no-brainers pitched to the party’s base: policies and ideologies that are, for the party membership, easy points of consensus. Given that the role of the party has intensified in American politics, especially since the end of the Sixties, it should come as no surprise that these documents tend to be full of red meat for the base.

Of course things might also change given whether or not a particular party holds a position of leadership in government, especially the presidency. When a party is outside of power, there is a tendency for party leadership to craft a platform that contains criticism of existing policies, and promises to roll them back. Negativity is easier than positivity: criticism is simpler, and less politically fraught, than criticism combined with a policy alternative.

If one looks at the 2004 Democratic political platform, one might begin under the presumption that the document might be full of negative criticism of the administration of George W. Bush, whose foreign policy adventurism was the chief issue in that year’s presidential election. However, a read through of this platform shows a number of specific policy proposals on matters foreign and domestic. Ranging from increased fuel efficiency standards for cars to eliminating federal subsides for predatory college lenders, and all the way to more Arabic language training for military translators, the 2004 platform is full of policy prescriptions. While the document is certainly critical of the Bush administration it pairs this criticism with many specific policy proposals.

An examination of the 2012 Republican platform, then, is a study in contrasts. The stage of course is a bit different from 2004. Following the 2008 presidential election and the legislative victories of Barack Obama, including the passage of a stimulus bill and major health care reform, a wave of conservative populism exploded onto the American political scene. Marking the first explicitly populist conservative movement in America (contrasted with the implicit populism of Nixon’s “silent majority” and Reagan’s “Morning in America,” the TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party movement rode a wave of economic anger and existential anxiety to a robust showing in the 2010 midterm elections. Of course, the visibility of this movement belied one of its origins: demographic concerns. The 2008 election results foreshadowed what Barack Obama’s non-white figure underscored: the changing makeup of the American electorate might push politics further and further from the field of the familiar for many conservatives. The anti-Obama sentiment animating much of conservatism thus diverges from what Charles Krauthammer identified in 2003 as “Bush Derangement Syndrome” not because of the different figure chosen: indeed, cults of personality manifest themselves in many ways. Instead what is key is the stylistic difference in the response, that is, the response to Bush took the form of a political campaign routed through the organs of the Democratic Party along with traditional anti-war protests (albeit on a much smaller scale than during, say, Vietnam) while opposition to Obama took the form of highly visible protest movements framed in a language of populism (“the people”) rather than a language of humanism, as was the case with much anti-militarist agitation.

The 2012 Republican platform has four striking characteristics indicating its roots in oppositional negativity. First, the document contains more than sixty references to the figure of “the people” or “the American people,” and especially includes a vast number of references to their intrinsic value as workers, thinkers, and producers. This is an enormous number of references. For comparison, there are roughly 10 such references in the 2004 Democratic platform, so it is not simply a matter of anti-incumbency politics. Second there are over fifty references to the values of the American constitution. Third, the platform contains an abundance of references to issues that are so common sense that they perhaps lose all sense of partisan meaning. For example on page 43 there is a reference to ensuring that the votes of troops serving abroad are counted. No doubt, the votes of America’s soldiers are important. Military voting issues, however, are rarely the subjects of political sniping, so why list them here? Similarly, the domestic policy section supports “a national registry for convicted child murderers.” Well, who doesn’t? Who even knew that was a thing? Fourth, the document at many moments simply asserts Republican support for various economic and societal institutions, as opposed to recommending policies in regards to them. They say, for example, that the mortgage interest deduction taxation credit must be defended. No one is threatening it. They state their support for English as the nation’s official language, and emphasize with regards to immigration that the government intensify its enforcement of existing laws rather than creating more comprehensive reform. Indeed the “enforce existing laws” trope reappears often through the document.[i]

The platform’s focus on reassuring its audience that it has faith in the American “people,” fealty to the Constitution, a commitment to common sense policies, and a commitment to enforce existing regulations rather than promulgate new ones suggests a document in search of a very broad audience. Indeed, these four bullet points, reframed as rhetorical questions, produce what one might call an almost universal audience of American voters. Politicians almost never question the rationality of “the people” in either explicit or implicit terms. Many regard the Constitution as an unimpeachable document. Laws are made under the assumption that they will be enforced.

Audiences, and their identities, do not exist in a vacuum. To have a sense of who one is politically also requires one to have a sense of who one is not. When writers like Michael Warner talk about how audiences are created over and against negativity, they mean that there are supposedly opposed audiences who do not share the interpretive frame, or perhaps ideology, of a text’s “main” audience. So while one might support concepts like “freedom” and “liberty” one does so operating on the presumption that, somewhere out there, there are people who do not share this presumption, and their existence warrants one’s own need to commit to a program in defense of such concepts.

Many have commented on recent reports like those of the Pew Foundation suggesting that partisanship is at historical highs. I want to argue that the hyper-general content of documents like this platform indicate that at least one cause of the intensity of said partisanship is the relative emptiness of political discourse at the moment. Where one sets out to affirm seemingly universal precepts like “the people” and the Constitution, one also images opponents who do not share in supporting these concepts. Rather than splitting constituencies on the basis of policy differences, such imagination splits the constituencies on the basis of community membership: one is against “the people” or the Founders.[ii] Where a gap between support for say, a single payer health care bill or a market oriented solution might be bridged, the gap between individuals who consider themselves part of a community and those who constitutively are not part of the community is much more difficult to traverse. This is double true in the case where one confirms one’s membership of the “in” group by imagining that those who are outside of said group (or nation) do not share ways of living or thinking with those who are included. To build a public around empty concepts such as “common sense” or “the people” still exiles those who do not share these beliefs but marks that exile as a natural outcome of the two populations being different rather than a product of rhetoric and identification.

In sum, while party platforms might be thought of as risk free statements of basic philosophies, they are worth examining precisely because they attempt to pen these basics. And where one finds a document such as the 2012 Republican platform, which is laden with platitudes, ideals, and concepts rather than concretizable policy goals, one also finds evidence of a political party in the midst of a crisis. When a document has to first start by reaffirming that those reading it are committed to the taken for granted parts of national belonging, the authors of that document see that there maybe a long way to go before stating completely a political vision for achieving what are, almost definitionally, empty ideals. The document affirms to an audience primarily that they exist, and does not tether this existence to a set of realizable political goals. What this implies is that the mission of politics is precisely coincident with the identities of the actors hailed by the platform. If one sees in contemporary conservative populism a kind of positive feedback loop wherein people participate in politics to confirm that they matter, documents like this may play a role in the inwardly focused and repetitive political demands emerging from the Right: less taxes, less government, more Constitution.

[i] The document is not content free, I want to mention. The section addressing energy policy makes some noise about ending the Environmental Protection Agency’s “war on coal” and smoothing the runway for Keystone XL along with opening more federal lands and waters for drilling and resource exploration. Environmental policy compared to economics and social policy is not generally a huge driver of turnout, and thus might stick out as an area where more substantive policy proposals might be enunciated.

[ii] Clearly I should note that there are many who are quite skeptical of the Constitution and “the people.” These tend to be people who produce and subscribe to theories that are heavily skeptical of the American nation on the basis of its creation through structural violence. There is merit to this. I do not think Republicans are targeting such voters.