Welcome August, one of my favorite months, really. It stretches out for a nice long time, the weather is wonderful, I usually visit my folks around mid-month (and such will be the case this time around), and at the end of this week are things like 88 BoaDrum and an Indian Jewelry show. I’m plotting more recipes with the summer harvests, catching up on some good reading, all that.
I would have been doing this anyway, but given the presidential race, the need for it has increased.
A little under a month back, I talked over the idea of trying to zone and not think about things too much in the middle of a presidential election year as being good for all of us — not in the sense that there’s nothing to think about, or shouldn’t be thought about, but that there’s an overwhelming exhaustion at work that needs to be addressed. Needless to say that wasn’t ever going to actually happen, though I’ve been looking idly — very idly — at things like the Obama world tour and proposals to allow drilling and all that with a relaxed eye. (As ever, I’d recommend the crew over at Balloon Juice for keeping a much closer — and duly suspicious — look at all the day by day moves.)
The conventions feel further and further away the closer we get to them, and the election itself? My lord, an eternity. White heat intensity has shifted to savage torpor, which is probably a good reason why the elections aren’t held in summer anyway (though this is perhaps why I should read up on my constitutional history a bit). If there’s a distinct downside to all of this, it’s a sense of complacency, which I think has infected both sets of supporters to one extent or another. I think it’s a bit rich to talk about ‘future president Obama’ right about now, but the idea that McCain supporters (whoever they are — it’s more accurate to say ‘not Obama supporters but who vote for a major political party’) need to do little but rest assured that they’re going to be seen as in the right eventually is laughable. It’s been all the more interesting since one of the two big issues that I thought would define this year — Iraq — has been taken off the table to a large extent, for the moment if not for good. As soon as American troops stopped dying in large amounts, rather than this becoming a rush for McCain, it just seemed to be a way for a larger sentiment of ‘oh great, so we can go home now!’ to bubble up even more.
A different sort of complacency suggests itself in Greg Anrig’s Washington Post piece from the other day, though — all the more appealing because it’s the kind of complacency I can be prone to. To quote some key parts:
As I listen to leading voices and thinkers on the right pondering the condition of their ideology, it is increasingly clear to me that they face a fundamental dilemma — one that cannot be resolved anytime soon and that might well leave the conservative movement out to pasture for as long as we progressives have been powerlessly chewing grass. That choice is whether to stick with rhetoric and policies wedded to free markets, limited government and bellicose unilateralism, or to endorse a more robust role for the public sector at home while relying more on diplomacy and international institutions abroad. Either way, conservative Republicans seem destined to have a much harder time winning elections for the foreseeable future. Just ask McCain how much fun he’s having.
So now what? In new books, two conservative stalwarts, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and the anti-tax guru Grover Norquist, don’t even bother wrestling with such failures. Instead, they argue for an even stronger dose of the medicine that has, so far, produced mainly toxic reactions. They owe their fame to denigrating the government, so one can hardly blame them for sticking with the program. For conservatives to abandon the arguments that have served them so well politically for so long would be akin to a Fortune 500 company dropping its core business when it recognizes that the market for its product is rapidly disintegrating.
Running away from something that has made you successful, even after the public is clearly no longer buying, is extremely difficult to do. Business-school curriculums are filled with case studies of long-prosperous companies that went bankrupt precisely because they were unwilling or unable to shift to an enterprise better suited to changing times. Future political science classes might some day teach a similar story about conservatism.
[Complaints about the GOP ‘brand’ come from] the point of the view that the product doesn’t suck, of course. The whole point is that it can’t suck, it’s not supposed to suck, that it is the correct product for the job at hand. And confidence in one’s own product is certainly mighty handy in order to sell it, if one has to reduce down something minor as the fate of the nation and the society to questions of buying and selling.
But what if the product, in fact, sucks?
There’s a great Peanuts strip that illustrates this key point which I can’t find right now, but at a summer camp meeting which turns out to be a theological one, the kids are all being harangued by a speaker about something (Schulz, wisely, leaves things a bit unclear as to what). Linus raises his hand to ask a question, prefacing it with the words “I don’t want to offend or anything…” which prompts first Charlie Brown and then the others to leave before he completes the question. At the end of the strip, Linus is alone facing the unseen speaker, doggedly going forward with his question: “Have you ever considered that you might be wrong?”
It’s not surprising that ideologues don’t consider that they might be wrong, on the right or on the left, but the ones on the right are a bit more tiresome of late. Going into all the reasons would take a while, but you can see examples above here — if you’re obsessing over branding rather than the product, that means you’re obsessing over how it’s being sold rather than the product itself. There’s no consideration that they might be wrong.
I could debate the differences in language and emphasis here but I think they’re evident enough. But there’s a larger point which I hope I’ve apprehended — I hope — and which I’m not sure Anrig has. We both obviously feel that the right is, in fact, wrong, and that there’s a position of their being stuck on something which is crippling at least and mortally damaging at worst. But Anrig is convinced of complete collapse and rejection — he starts his article with the words “At long last, the conservative juggernaut is cracking up,” and while I’ve had my thoughts on that in the past, I think now I’ll believe it when I see it, no sooner. (My recent reading, about which more later in the week, covers in part the Democratic Party crack-up in 1860, which was in fact an honest-to-goodness infrastructural collapse revolving around slavery and states’ rights; in comparison the GOP is still rock solid.)
Anrig needs to keep in mind what I advised earlier — he might be wrong in turn. Wish fulfillment is seductive but flatters the self and one’s own conceptions — I believe in something, ergo it is right and it will happen. In that I think there’s an increasing incoherency in what can be termed mainline GOP thought and action, I’m pretty confident in that analysis. In that I think it will result in inevitable electoral failure and GOP collapse, no — Anrig may not be going that far, admittedly, but he seems to think it’s en route, for reasons more emotional than logical.
In respects this all comes down to narratives and how they are presented and digested. A conversation a couple of weeks back with friend Matt M. illustrated the idea of preset and competing narratives more thoroughly — how once a victory one way or another is achieved, then the past year or two will be completely reworked to show the inevitability of one side’s triumph and the other’s defeat. And this will become the standard line, when right now things are much more mushy, unclear, unsure.
Time stretches out and there is still a long while to go. Keep informed, be aware…hope, yes. But do not skip ahead to the ending you know is going to happen, you can’t read what hasn’t been written yet.