Most conservative political figures break down into one of four broad groups. They are Reckless Addicts, Proud Zealots, Stealthy Extremists and Sober Adults. Needless to say, they do not exist in equal numbers. The first three categories can overlap, but in individual conservatives, one flavor tends to dominate.
I’ll be primarily discussing congressional conservatives (mostly Republicans, plus some Democratic Blue Dogs) and the professional political class, not average Americans (who tend to be more sensible). The full range of American conservatism is better described in a 2009 post, “Diagrams of Conservatism,” which remains depressingly relevant. (There was also a companion piece looking at American politics as a whole.)
The chart above relates to the Stupid-Evil-Crazy diagram (detailed version):
Obviously all these categories are somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but if they help with identifying and addressing the multiple dysfunctions of contemporary American conservatism, great. Let’s take a closer look at the new chart (this time drawn to proportion), and how it breaks down:
Sober Adults make up the smallest portion by far, having been hunted near to extinction by movement conservatives. They believe in the social contract and some form of responsible governance, and can still be found if one looks hard enough, but they do not exist in significant numbers in positions of power. As John Rogers put it back in 2004:
I miss Republicans. No, seriously. Remember Republicans? Sober men in suits, pipes, who’d nod thoughtfully over their latest tract on market-driven fiscal conservatism while grinding out the numbers on rocket science. Remember those serious-looking 1950’s-1960’s science guys in the movies — Republican to a one.
They were the grown-ups. They were the realists. Sure they were a bummer, maaaaan, but on the way to La Revolution you need somebody to remember where you parked the car. I was never one (nor a Democrat, really, more an agnostic libertarian big on the social contract, but we don’t have a party…), but I genuinely liked them.
How did they become the party of fairy dust and make believe? How did they become the anti-science guys? The anti-fact guys? The anti-logic guys?
Tim Dickinson made a similar point in a November 2011 Rolling Stone feature, “How the GOP Became the Party of the Rich”:
It’s difficult to imagine today, but taxing the rich wasn’t always a major flash point of American political life. From the end of World War II to the eve of the Reagan administration, the parties fought over social spending — Democrats pushing for more, Republicans demanding less. But once the budget was fixed, both parties saw taxes as an otherwise uninteresting mechanism to raise the money required to pay the bills. Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford each fought for higher taxes, while the biggest tax cut was secured by John F. Kennedy, whose across-the-board tax reductions were actually opposed by the majority of Republicans in the House. The distribution of the tax burden wasn’t really up for debate: Even after the Kennedy cuts, the top tax rate stood at 70 percent — double its current level. Steeply progressive taxation paid for the postwar investments in infrastructure, science and education that enabled the average American family to get ahead.
As Steve Benen detailed in one of several excellent 2011 posts on the so-called super-committee, “That [Republican] party is long gone.” (The liberal blogosphere has been documenting this for years.)
It’s important to note that the few remaining sober adults in the Republican Party can nonetheless be painfully wrong on any number of issues. (Sincerity and responsibility are valuable, but they don’t automatically translate to wisdom.) However, the faults of this group are typically much less extreme than those of mainstream modern conservatives, and it’s generally possible to work with the sober adults.
Over the past 30 (arguably 50) years, the Republican Party has gradually, publicly moved extremely far to the right, to the point that they do not believe in responsible governance anymore, and they say (or actually believe) things that are demonstrably false on almost every major issue of the day. The corporate media will do its damnedest to deny this is the case. It is considered bad form to call out the Republicans without saying the Democrats are just as bad, no matter how ludicrously false this is. The media also like to anoint certain conservatives as noble, principled or thoughtful, and will continue to maintain this fiction even when the evidence of idiocy or bad faith is overwhelming (consider John McCain, or Paul Ryan).
This highlights another key problem with conservative “sober adults” – they are so scarce, the corporate media will invent them. (This is a staple of Thomas Friedman columns, as it was for the late David Broder, although it’s often sold as ‘sensible centrism.’) As a general rule, any conservative that a Beltway Establishment type praises as a sober adult or Very Serious Person is not.
Similarly, in our current political wasteland, well-intentioned liberals can get caught up in a Diogenes dynamic, so desperate to find sober adults among the opposition that that they’ll seize on any conservative rebellious enough to state obvious truths as a “reasonable conservative.” Some so anointed are indeed decent people and a few are genuinely insightful, but marketing one’s self as a “reasonable conservative” to middle-information, “can’t we all get along” NPR/PBS/NYT types is quite the cottage industry (David Brooks, David Frum, Andrew Sullivan, the late Tony Blankley, etc.). This group of voters, typified by left-of-center, socially tolerant college grads, are so committed to being fair-minded and so desperate for a sane political landscape that they will grade conservative political figures on a curve. Their desire is understandable, but having an open mind entails giving someone a fair hearing, not turning off one’s bullshit detector. It’s important to judge all contenders for “sober adult” status on their actual merits, and not gaze at them through the beer goggles of centrist fetishism (yeah, mull that disturbing mangled metaphor for a sec) nor let hope turn to delusion. To quote a driftglass passage I’ve featured before about good (and sometimes very smart) people falling prey to wishful thinking:
Jon [Stewart]’s problem is that, for all of his formidable comedic and observational skills, he is still in an almost catatonic denial about the country in which he lives. He obviously, deeply wants us to be something more than we are. Something better than we are. A place where people with different but sincere and well-reasoned beliefs can fight hard, come together afterward to figure out a good-enough compromise, and then move on to the next thing.
You know who else wants that? Every fucking Liberal I know.
But this simply is not that country: not some feisty middle-brow Camelot with a couple of equally wacky, equally flawed and equally honorable political philosophies contending in an arena with rules and referees. Instead, this is a country where one political party is ruled by loathesome men with grotesque motives on behalf of a tiny clique of plutocrats and bulwarked by an electoral army which is kept constantly tweaked to the point of near-riot by a carefully-cultivated media cocktail of rage, ignorance, bigotry and God.
What Jon cannot face is that he will never have the country he wants — that we all want — by clevering and cajoling and joking and reasoning it into existence.
We’ve tried that for the last 30 years..
We’ll return to this theme, but for now, let’s not grant “sober adult” status too eagerly, and move on to the other categories.
Reckless Addicts make up the largest portion of conservative political figures by far. (Substitute another term if you like; I considered “drunken teenagers,” but that sounded too innocuous.) Picture a teenage addict, with no sense of responsibility or concern for others’ well-being. He’s just after his fix. Perhaps he has well-to-do parents who are overly indulgent or just befuddled – either way, they’re not intervening strongly enough. They just can’t believe that their once sweet kid, who surely means well, would act this way. But he will lie, cheat, steal, and spend without concern for consequences. He’s just having a good time, and cleaning up the resulting mess is someone else’s problem. (The adults will take care of it.) Bankrupt his parents, burn down their house, screw over other people – none of it matters to him. Alternatively, think of an adult addict, abusive to his wife and children, recklessly blowing through all their savings and going deeply in debt, all to feed his habit. He doesn’t care about the future; the welfare of others, even those he is supposedly responsible for, simply does not matter. Whatever conscience he has is deeply buried, and he will never stop his behavior voluntarily, without intervention.
The key difference between this type of conservative and an actual addict is that the conservative chooses this behavior, and does so eagerly. Addicts do make some initial choices, but some forms of addiction entail changes to brain chemistry and other physical symptoms. Overcoming addiction is not solely a character or psychological issue. Recovery lingo is largely true; enabling their behavior does not help addicts, but tough love can; most addicts need to hit rock bottom before they’re willing to change. Then, with support, if they choose the path to recovery, they can achieve it (but it’s not easy). Our conservative “reckless addicts” deserve far less sympathy, being mostly a mix of stupid and evil (“reckless” on the Stupid-Evil-Crazy diagram). They are hardly victims (although they victimize others) and “recovery” would be easy for them to achieve at any point. Basically… they’re assholes. None of this means they’re utterly irredeemable, but anyone expecting them to change their behavior voluntarily is painfully naïve. Being reckless addicts, they will only change with forceful intervention, when the consequences of their behavior become so harsh they absolutely must stop.
How does this look in practice? Well, the debt ceiling hostage-taking last year was a perfect (and dismaying) example of reckless behavior (examined at length in “Extremism in Defense of Nihilism Is a Vice” and a couple of other posts). Congressional conservatives took an unprecedented, extreme stance, far to the right of their own party members, and even rejected a deal that favored them by 87 to 13 (the percentage of spending cuts to tax increases). The same recklessness can be seen in muted form in the many conservatives who once supported infrastructure spending as a wise investment in America who then suddenly opposed it when a Democrat became president. It’s prominent in Dick Cheney’s conscious rejection of fiscal responsibility because “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter” and in the deliberate fiscal recklessness of the conservative Starve the Beast strategy.
Conservatives also have a decades-long history of bad faith on health care. Early this month, Chris Wallace asked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell about Republican plans to address the 30 (plus) million Americans without health insurance. McConnell lied and said he’d get to it, tried to run out the clock, and finally when pressed basically admitted that the Republicans had no plan and didn’t really care. (This goes in line with the Republican habit of releasing budgets without numbers or staying vague about key details of their “plans,” such as where $700 billion a year is coming from.) Similarly, Republicans have a habit of running for and against Medicare, depending on the situation. Earlier this month, Jonathan Bernstein noted that Republicans voted to repeal Medicare cuts they voted for and are campaigning against. (The New York Times covered these flip-flopping, bad faith efforts poorly, leading John Cole to exclaim, “It’s Not a Pivot, They are Shamelessly Lying and You Are Helping Them.”)
These contortions may be most evident in the virtuoso incoherence of then Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele (back in 2009 in an Washington Post op-ed and subsequent NPR interview). Steele inveighs against the evils of a “government-run health-care system” while simultaneously praising government-run Medicare, simultaneously argues for and against cuts to Medicare, simultaneously decries waste but opposes efforts to curb waste, and simultaneously attacks intrusive government regulations and points to them as a necessary solution (to the abuses of private insurance companies). If you listen to him (and the NPR interview is unintentionally hilarious), his pitch is that Americans should vote for the Republicans over those awful Democrats… but he can’t give a coherent reason why to save his life.
While nothing should be taken away from Michael Steele’s stunning individual incompetence as a bullshitter (his performance is a personal favorite of mine), he’s hardly an outlier. Conservatives have been allowed to get away with this crap for decades, and America has suffered for it. Given the dominant two-party system, America really does need both major parties to be somewhat responsible. They are not, and while the Democrats have plenty of faults (a subject for other posts), the two parties are not equally to blame for the current mess. (As I’ve said before, if both parties merely competitively pandered to the middle class, we’d be in much better shape as a nation.)
Consider: the American Republican Party is really the only major party in any industrialized democracy that denies the existence of global warming and opposes universal health care. Republicans are far to the right of their major international counterparts. Broadly speaking, American conservative policies do not work (except for a select, privileged few), conservatives do not care about responsible governance, and the system simply would not survive if they actually got their way. The entire political approach of the reckless addict depends on other people stepping in and being the adults. The classic pattern is for a conservative to rail against government spending (and often vote against it) in D.C., then go back to their home state or district… and take credit for the government spending that was often provided over their objections. In one of Rachel Maddow’s all-time best segments (from 2010), she chronicled damning evidence of this:
That last section transcribed:
Republicans, right now, do not care about policy — by which I mean, they will not vote for things that even they admit are good policies. On policy terms they have been caught bragging on the stimulus as good policy. I have no doubt that some of them think that health reform is good policy. We know they think that things like a deficit commission or cap-and-trade or PAYGO are good policy, because they’re on the record supporting them.
But they’re not going to vote for them because … screw policy. Screw what even they believe is good for the country. Screw what even they believe is good for their own districts. They are not voting ‘yes,’ for even things they agree with. For anything substantive. They are not going to vote ‘yes’ for anything substantive that this president supports. It’s not going to happen.
You’re not going to earn Republican votes for a second stimulus, for example, by pointing out that it’s good policy that creates jobs. We know they already know that. They concede that in their home districts. And they’re still not voting for it.
And they are unembarrassed about this fact. They are not embarrassed. Charging them with hypocrisy, appealing to their better, more practical, more ‘what’s best for the country’ patriotic angels is like trying to teach your dog to drive. It wastes a lot of time, it won’t work, and ultimately the dog comes out of the exercise less embarrassed for failing then you do for trying.
(Especially when it’s a junkie dog. They’re the worst.)
It would be great if both parties would cooperatively work to solve problems, and shared in the attendant glory, but that doesn’t happen. Bill Kristol, Frank Luntz, Rush Limbaugh, Mitch McConnell, Karl Rove, Grover Norquist and pretty much the entire conservative base (occasionally rebranded as the supposedly independent tea party) have explicitly rejected responsible bipartisanship in favor of destroying their perceived political rivals. Instead of working with their counterparts, discussing issues, and making compromises, conservatives have demanded near or complete capitulation… and for policies that do not work for the nation as a whole.
These people are not responsible adults, they are reckless addicts, and they are being enabled by a (mostly) gutless political opposition, a craven press insisting that “both sides are equally to blame,” and well-intentioned but low-and-middle information voters who follow the media’s lead. Mostly, American citizens just want everything to work well and for politicians to be responsible, but they don’t follow policy or votes, and the press is little help, covering most political disputes as he said-she said gossip. Voters are largely clueless about how extreme and irresponsible the Republican Party has become, and pearl-clutching about “civility” and “bipartisanship” displaces any serious, adult discussion of what works policy-wise and who is to blame (and to what degree) politician-wise. That’s a huge problem, since it turns out that making informed decisions as lawmakers and voters is kinda essential to democracy.
It really is unconscionable that large numbers of Republican politicians demonize and vote against measures they know work, and that help (or would help) the constituents they supposedly represent. Their constant, unrelenting bullshit makes our national political discourse dumber and less accurate, which is a serious problem. There’s added irony in that conservatives are prone to use Ayn Rand’s language about “producers” versus “moochers,” which in their minds means that good, conservative, tax-paying real Amurcans are unfairly forced to pay to support those lazy, snobby, dastardly minorities and other librul types who vote for the Democratic Party. The truth is that most red states get more federal funding than they pay in taxes, while for most blue states, it’s precisely the opposite. Conservatives demonize the very people and the philosophy that is helping them. And they feel entitled to that aid – which they would deny to others – leaving them completely full of crap. As we’ve observed before, when most conservatives say “freedom,” they really mean privilege. Reckless addicts, and the constituents who support them, are the real “moochers,” parasites and free riders of the system. The further crisis is that the number of reckless addicts in power has grown substantially over the years. In the political ecosystem, reckless addicts depend on a larger number of responsible, sober adults to keep things running and protect the reckless addicts from the negative effects of their own bad behavior. When reckless addicts grow too plentiful, there’s a risk that they will derail the entire system. The added trouble is that they’re not the only group throwing things off-balance. Reckless addicts (and stealthy extremists) have been telling lies for decades – and as a result, many of their listeners actually believe them.
Reckless addicts are bullshitters by nature, not caring about what they say as long as it gets them what they want, but the Proud Zealots are sincerely crazy. Reckless addicts may rail against the evils of government while enjoying its largess, but the proud zealots really, truly believe all that propaganda. They probably need the least discussion, since they should be familiar as the targets of mockery on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and many liberal-leaning blogs. They can be found in greatest percentage in the conservative base, but an alarming number hold actual power. I’ll use Danny Goldberg’s elegant summing up again:
Almost half of the public is either misinformed or subject to unanswered right wing narratives. If I believed that there was a chance of Sharia law being imposed in the United States I too would be gravely concerned. If I believed that most Europeans and Canadians had inferior health care to that of average Americans, I too would be against health care reform. If I believed that man-made global warning did not exist or that there were nothing we could do about it and that environmental efforts were responsible for unemployment I’d be against cap and trade. If I believed that prisoner abuse would make my family significantly less likely to be killed by terrorists, my thinking about torture would be different. And if I believed that the problems with the economy had been caused by too much government instead of too little, that my personal freedom was threatened by the government instead of large corporations, I’d probably be in a tea party supporter and a Republican.
Large numbers of rank-and-file conservatives believe things that are factually false – and they believe those because their leaders lie to them.
Unfortunately, when opinions do shift among the conservative faithful, it’s usually for the worse. Jamelle Bouie summarized a recent Pew poll that found that “among conservatives, 30 [percent] say that [Obama] is a Muslim; among the most conservative voters that jumps to 34 percent. When Pew first surveyed this question, in 2008, only 16 percent of conservatives believed that Obama was a Muslim.” A Tobin Project poll found that 62.9% of Republicans believe that the U.S. found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when it invaded in 2003; 63.6% of Republicans also believe that Barack Obama was born in another country (8% used to believe he was born in the United States, but now think otherwise), while a further 14.7% don’t know. Meanwhile, a, different, far-ranging Pew poll found that:
For the first time in a Pew Research Center political values survey, only about half of Republicans (47%) agree that “there needs to be stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment.” This represents a decline of 17 points since 2009 and a fall of nearly 40 points, from 86%, since 1992.
These numbers are depressing but not surprising, considering the hyperpartisan opposition to Obama declared by conservative leaders from the very beginning (covered above) and the constant lying by Fox News and conservative figures. Regardless of the exact mix of reasons, it’s bad news for responsible government.
Connoisseurs of wingnuttia will have their personal favorites: Orly Taitz’ Birther meltdowns, Louis Gohmert’s dire warnings about terror babies, or any of the many unlovable scamps featured in Roy Edroso’s weekly Village Voice pieces (which you really need to be reading if you aren’t already). Still, Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) may be the quintessential proud zealot. She is indeed an extremist, and will lie about many of her more radical views, so a case can be made that she’s instead a stealthy extremist who often fails badly on the stealth part. Still, she says things that are factually false and seems unaware of it; she also seems unaware at times of how fringe her views are. It’s hard to ignore that she’s nuts, and it remains her defining trait. In a piece on Bachmann, Matt Taibbi warned to take her seriously, but also wrote:
In modern American politics, being the right kind of ignorant and entertainingly crazy is like having a big right hand in boxing; you’ve always got a puncher’s chance. And Bachmann is exactly the right kind of completely batshit crazy. Not medically crazy, not talking-to-herself-on-the-subway crazy, but grandiose crazy, late-stage Kim Jong-Il crazy — crazy in the sense that she’s living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she’s built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies…
Bachmann’s entire political career has followed this exact same pattern of God-speaks-directly-to-me fundamentalism mixed with pathological, relentless, conscienceless lying. She’s not a liar in the traditional way of politicians, who tend to lie dully, usefully and (they hope) believably, often with the aim of courting competing demographics at the same time. That’s not what Bachmann’s thing is. Bachmann lies because she can’t help it, because it’s a built-in component of both her genetics and her ideology. She is at once the most entertaining and the most dangerous kind of liar, a turbocharged cross between a born bullshit artist and a religious fanatic, for whom lying to the infidel is a kind of holy duty.
Proud zealots can accomplish a great deal for the conservative movement, but they’re most effective firing up the conservative faithful. Problems arise if they’re too honest with the general public. Bill Moyers and others called out the shameful McCarthyism of Representative Allen West, but West’s remarks didn’t make as much news nationally as did Michele Bachmann’s accusations that anti-American Muslims had infiltrated the U.S. government, and that they included a key Hillary Clinton staffer, Huma Abedin. The Daily Show justifiably mocked this, and some leading Republicans were forced to distance themselves from Bachmann’s insanity, with a few being honest enough to condemn her… while others chose to defend her.
As became painfully evident during the Bush administration, some conservatives will defend absolutely anything their movement does. As also became evident during the Bush years, the press struggles with this, and tries to deny how extreme the Republican Party has become. News junkies can provide a plethora of examples both past and recent, sadly enough. One of the most grotesque examples for me remains the sliming of then 12-year old accident victim Graeme Frost in 2007 by Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives. (I sometimes refer to it as part of The War on Compassion Itself, as well as the War on The Social Contract.) With depressing predictably, many in the press contorted themselves to avoid calling out the rabid rightwingers. Supposedly objective media critic Howard Kurtz stayed silent for a long time, before finally issuing a piece that downplayed the conservatives’ viciousness and featured some appalling “both sides do it” false equivalencies.
When most conservatives say “freedom,” they really mean privilege, and proud zealots believe they are fighting for what they perceive to be the natural order, which of course entails themselves at the top. That ‘natural order’ might be an existing, unfair status quo, the unfair hierarchy of a past era, or a mythical hierarchy that never existed (as with theocrats’ false belief that the U.S. was founded as a “Christian nation”). Proud zealots will lie (it’s permitted or even encouraged with infidels), but they still can be more honest in their way than the reckless addicts and stealthy extremists. (They’re certainly more easy to spot.)
It seems that the proud zealots have significantly increased in numbers over the past decade or so, and there may be some truth to this. But Rick Perlstein provides important context in “Why Conservatives Are Still Crazy After All These Years”:
But are right-wingers scarier now than in the past? They certainly seem stranger and fiercer. I’d argue, however, that they’ve been this crazy for a long time. Over the last sixty years or so, I see far more continuities than discontinuities in what the rightward twenty or thirty percent of Americans believe about the world. The crazy things they believed and wanted were obscured by their lack of power, but they were always there – if you knew where to look. What’s changed is that loony conservatives are now the Republican mainstream, the dominant force in the GOP…
The reason [Reagan] didn’t effectively fight tax increases was because, with a Democratic Congress, he didn’t have the power to do so. Every time he actually had to sign one he made his preferences perfectly clear, blaming wicked liberals for forcing his hand and adding that this was why liberalism had to be defeated — so that he wouldn’t have to sign one again.
This was “reality based.” But so, politically at least, is the obstructionism of today’s supposedly non-reality-based conservatives: They block all tax increases because they can. And it’s worked, hasn’t it? That’s because as conservative power has steadily increased since the 1960s, more and more of what conservatives actually believe — and have always actually believed —has come to shape American society and its institutions.
In some cases, the proud zealots of today are the stealthy extremists and fringe crackpots of yesteryear; they’ve just achieved more mainstream acceptability. (An additional factor could be authoritarian followers reacting to more extreme leaders.)
Mocking the extremism and incoherence of proud zealots can be very effective politically (not to mention fun), but it’s important to take them seriously enough to prevent them from acquiring actual power. They long to inflict their batshit on America. Proud zealots make the American corporate media very uncomfortable, because the usual media blather that “both sides do it” is exposed as false, and more painfully than usual. The media is frantic to pretend that the Republican Party has not become extreme or crazy, so it will desperately anoint conservative hucksters as sober adults and pretend that the proud zealots of conservatism aren’t both crazy and commonplace (rather than outliers).
The Stealthy Extremist tends to be severely ideological and often very radical, but hides his or her true beliefs and intent from the public. (Audiences of the faithful can be spoken to more sincerely.) Stealthy extremists come in different flavors – theocrats, anti-abortion activists, hardcore bigots – but plutocrats seem to be the most popular strain these days. Stealthy extremists are typically the most dangerous type of conservative, because they’re smart enough to realize that their extremism will not be viewed kindly by the public, and so they will lie shamelessly. Proud zealots seeking to outlaw abortion will make fire and brimstone speeches about baby-killing, but stealthy extremists will instead look at backdoor ways to legislatively restrict it. The inattentive might mistake them for sober adults, and the shallower members of the chattering class are often quick to laud stealthy extremists as Very Serious People (because praising a conservative gives them centrist cred).
In office, Dick Cheney was a stealthy extremist. Barton Gellman, author of the superb book Angler (which you should read if you haven’t) observed that Cheney was “a rare combination: a zealot in principle and a subtle, skillful tactician in practice.” Cheney was happy to work the back channels to achieve his goals, and his office aggressively worked to keep their dealings secret. He didn’t want any glory, at least not immediately; he wanted results. Stealthy extremists do not want any honest, full, contextual discussion of their plans, and generally feel contempt for public opinion.
Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) is the best current example of a stealthy extremist praised by pundits as a Very Serious Person. Paul Ryan has a mild manner, but his policies are plutocratic and extreme (not surprising, given that he’s a big fan of Ayn Rand). Needless to say, most of the pundits praising Ryan haven’t bothered to read his budget proposals in any depth, and certainly not with a critical or expert eye. (Some surely haven’t read them at all.) It’s not that Ryan’s policies are different but honorable; as Paul Krugman has pointed out repeatedly, Ryan’s plans are fraudulent. But Paul Ryan’s tone is pitched perfectly for centrist pundits, with his talk about sacrifice and responsibility (for the middle class and the poor, naturally, not the rich). And Ryan isn’t just popular with pundits; his policies have been broadly adopted by Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate.
It would be hard to go through all the pieces dissecting and debunking Paul Ryan’s plans on the federal budget, taxes, and Medicare, but each variant of his plan would give huge tax cuts to the rich and cut programs for lower-income Americans (despite America’s already severe and increasing wealth inequity). For the diligent, there’s plenty to read on Paul Ryan’s plans from Paul Krugman, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Jamison Foser, Matthew Yglesias, Steve Benen, TPM and the CBO, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Jonathan Chait, Matt Taibbi, the Tax Policy Center, Citizens for Tax Justice, and I’m sure many more.
(If that weren’t enough, government funding (Social Security survivor’s benefits) helped Paul Ryan go to college, yet he wants to restrict Pell Grants that would help others do the same, and told a financially struggling student to work three jobs. He’s made misleading claims about student grants and loans, favoring more expensive private loans and for-profit education. There’s also the issue of his donors.)
“The Legendary Paul Ryan” by Jonathan Chait is one of the sharper portraits out there, and a good overview. After going over some details of Ryan’s budget, Chait points out:
This is not a moderate plan. As Robert Greenstein, a liberal budget analyst, summed up the proposal, “It would likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history.” And yet, Ryan has managed to sell it as something admirable, and something else entirely: a deficit-reduction plan. This is very clever. The centrist political Establishment, heavily represented among business leaders and the political media, considers it almost self-evident that the budget deficit (and not, say, mass unemployment or climate change) represents the singular policy threat of our time, and that bipartisan cooperation offers the sole avenue to address it. By casting his program as a solution to the debt crisis, by frequently conceding that Republicans as well as Democrats had failed in the past, and by inveighing against “demagoguery,” Ryan has presented himself as the acceptable Republican suitor the moderates had been longing for.
Whether Ryan’s plan even is a “deficit-reduction plan” is highly debatable. Ryan promises to eliminate trillions of dollars’ worth of tax deductions, but won’t identify which ones. He proposes to sharply reduce government spending that isn’t defense, Medicare (for the next decade, anyway), or Social Security, but much of that reduction is unspecified, and when Obama named some possible casualties, Ryan complained that those hypotheticals weren’t necessarily in his plan. Ryan is specific about two policies: massive cuts to income-tax rates, and very large cuts to government programs that aid the poor and medically vulnerable. You could call all this a “deficit-reduction plan,” but it would be more accurate to call it “a plan to cut tax rates and spending on the poor and sick.” Aside from a handful of exasperated commentators, like Paul Krugman, nobody does.
The persistent belief in the existence of an authentic, deficit hawk Ryan not only sweeps aside the ugly particulars of his agenda, it also ignores, well, pretty much everything he has done in his entire career, and pretty much everything he has said until about two years ago..
As Matt Taibbi points out, Ryan is merely the latest in a long line of hucksters:
Every few years or so, the Republicans trot out one of these little whippersnappers, who offer proposals to hack away at the federal budget. Each successive whippersnapper inevitably tries, rhetorically, to out-mean the previous one, and their proposals are inevitably couched as the boldest and most ambitious deficit-reduction plans ever seen. Each time, we are told that these plans mark the end of the budgetary reign of terror long ago imposed by the entitlement system begun by FDR and furthered by LBJ.
Never mind that each time the Republicans actually come into power, federal deficit spending explodes and these whippersnappers somehow never get around to touching Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. The key is that for the many years before that moment of truth, before these buffoons actually get a chance to put their money where their lipless little mouths are, they will stomp their feet and scream about how entitlements are bringing us to the edge of apocalypse.
The reason for this is always the same: the Republicans, quite smartly, recognize that there is great political hay to be made in the appearance of deficit reduction, and that white middle class voters will respond with overwhelming enthusiasm to any call for reductions in the “welfare state,” a term which said voters will instantly associate with black welfare moms and Mexicans sneaking over the border to visit American emergency rooms.
The problem, of course, is that to actually make significant cuts in what is left of the “welfare state,” one has to cut Medicare and Medicaid, programs overwhelmingly patronized by white people, and particularly white seniors. So when the time comes to actually pull the trigger on the proposed reductions, the whippersnappers are quietly removed from the stage and life goes on as usual, i.e. with massive deficit spending on defense, upper-class tax cuts, bailouts, corporate subsidies, and big handouts to Pharma and the insurance industries.
This is a political game that gets played out in the media over and over again, and everyone in Washington knows how it works. Which is why it’s nauseating (but not surprising) to see so many commentators falling over themselves with praise for Ryan’s “bold” budget proposal, which is supposedly a ballsy piece of politics because it proposes backdoor cuts in Medicare and Medicaid by redounding their appropriations to the states and to block grants. Ryan is being praised for thusly taking on seniors, a traditionally untouchable political demographic…
Stealthy extremists provide important cover for the reckless addicts. But it’s all a very cynical con game, and with potentially dire consequences. For most of the chattering class, cosmetics trump substance by a wide margin. Forgive me for quoting it at length, but this Paul Krugman post from 2011 nails the problem:
I’ve been reading various “news analyses” of the Ryan plan, and I’m feeling depressed. In the past, I’ve complained about false equivalence — of “views differ on shape of the planet” type reporting. But what I’m seeing here is worse: supposedly objective, even-handed reporting that actually prejudges the issue according to current conventional wisdom.
The stories I have in mind say things like this: “There are those who criticize the Ryan plan, saying that it’s too radical/goes too far.”
As a card-carrying member of Those Who, I protest. This is just wrong.
People like me don’t say that the Ryan plan is too radical; we say that it’s a fraud. The spending cuts are largely fake, either because they’re just magic asterisks or because they wouldn’t survive politically; the revenue estimates are fake, because they combine huge tax cuts with vague assurances that extra revenue will be found by closing loopholes. There’s no there there — except for big tax cuts for the rich and pain for the poor.
All I can think here is that reporters are so deep into the Beltway conventional wisdom that this is a Bold, Serious Plan that they just tune out the people saying that no, it’s not.
And what makes this especially bad is the fact John Cole points out, that the people praising the plan don’t seem to have actually read it:
The plan is bold! It is serious! It took courage! It re-frames the debate! The ball is in Obama’s court! Very wonky! It is a game-changer! Did I mention it is serious? The math demands it! We need to have shared sacrifice! This puts us on the right course! It’s serious and bold!
Read any one of their pieces the last couple of days, and it was like conventional wisdom/villager mad libs. Actually reading the bill, realizing it isn’t serious, it isn’t bold, that it won’t set us on the right path because it gives away as much in taxes as it cuts from the needy, realizing the only people sacrificing are the poor while the well-off are lavished with trillions in tax cuts- well, doing that and actually thinking, like Bruce Bartlett, James Fallows, Paul Krugman, Dean Baker, and others managed to do, that would be just way too much work.
I like that phrase, conventional wisdom mad libs.
Anyway, no, I don’t think the plan goes too far. I think it’s disingenuous and fraudulent. And the reason I think that is that I have actually done the math.
Stealthy extremists such as Ryan benefit from a pundit class that eschews policy analysis, and ironically, extremists also benefit from their very extremism. Ryan’s plans should succeed or fail on their merits (rather, their severe lack thereof), but their radical nature means that rather than rejecting them, the public just doesn’t believe they could be real. Democrats running a super PAC ran into this when trying to raise funds (emphasis added):
Burton and his colleagues spent the early months of 2012 trying out the pitch that Romney was the most far-right presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater. It fell flat. The public did not view Romney as an extremist. For example, when Priorities informed a focus group that Romney supported the Ryan budget plan — and thus championed “ending Medicare as we know it” — while also advocating tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing.
The same dynamic also protects rich extremists such as the Koch brothers. An accurate accounting of who they fund and what positions they support sounds like something out of a conspiracy thriller. It’s unfortunate but not terribly surprising that some business owners hate unions (as do the Kochs), yet the public would be more shocked by the many Koch-funded attacks on the Commons, including public libraries, public media, public schools, and public roads.
Other stealthy extremists bear mentioning, including the many American theocrats and anti-abortion activists. Foreign policy has its share, particularly the war porn crowd. And while almost all Republican officials practice fiscal irresponsibility or fiscal recklessness, for the extremists, it’s all part of a deliberate, long-term starve the beast strategy (see also the Two Santa Claus Theory). Karl Rove and Grover Norquist have sought to permanently crush the Democratic Party through the K Street Project and other measures.
Still, Paul Ryan is probably the single best current example. His policies are extreme, he lies about their consequences, he is praised by pundits who either don’t analyze his policies or agree with their radical (and cruel) aims, and his positions are so excessive that even when they are accurately described to members of the public, they don’t believe anyone could be so extreme. Nor is the press liable to set them straight. These dynamics are extremely troubling. The reckless addicts and proud zealots may do more damage in the short term due to sheer numbers, but the stealthy extremists are typically the most dangerous and do the greatest long-term harm.
Sober adults are usually the easiest to spot, because they don’t spout obviously crazy shit. The other three types can be tougher to distinguish, because they tend to make similar statements to one another. (You’ll notice some names were mentioned in more than one category above.) However, their underlying beliefs differ, and over time, they tend to reveal themselves. Feel free to come up with your own, more extensive breakdown, but this may help:
Liberals, moderates, independents – anyone who is not a conservative – should definitely support and encourage conservative sober adults against their more extreme, reckless and zealous brethren when possible. Irresponsible conservatives should be offered opportunities to become sober adults. However, some proportion is in order; they already have those opportunities, every time they vote, or give a floor speech, or do an interview, or meet with constituents, or huddle with lobbyists. They can choose to be (at least marginally) honorable or not. Plus – addicts need to want to change. It can’t be done for them. In the long run, it doesn’t do America any favors to grant irresponsible conservatives sober adult status they don’t deserve, or accommodate their extremism, or bow to their zealotry, or enable their addiction. Conservatives should be given the benefit of the doubt to begin with, but their nature should become clear as they establish a track record of votes, positions and statements. (For instance, if Newt Gingrich hasn’t set your bullshit detector off yet, it needs recalibrating.) Some small commitment to responsibility is all that’s really necessary to join the good government club; running things well is hard enough without letting the raging assholes rule the roost. Effective representative government depends on accountability. Assessing the consequences of policies is essential so that things can run better. Sometimes, that means assigning blame. Capitulating to extremism out of some painfully misguided sense that “civility” trumps honesty and responsibility isn’t honorable – it’s immoral.
Offer the scoundrels a way out, offer them chances to quit their addictions, their zealotry, their extremism. But if they choose not to go that route – and sadly, that’s been the trend pretty relentless for years – cut them off. Make it cost them. Banish them to the political wilderness for a few elections (or generations – they’re a stubborn lot). Addicts need tough love. Zealots need to be kept away from power. Extremists need to be challenged. It’s not “civil” or “serious” to ignore a track record of disastrous policies, inaccurate statements and bad faith – it’s immoral and irresponsible. People of good faith who want America to run better need to make more of an effort to learn what the hell is going on and who is to blame – and they need to challenge that crap. Sometimes, that means they need to pick a side.
The “four types of conservatives” mostly apply to the Republican Party, but also to Democratic Blue Dogs, and arguably to “centrist” Democrats on a number of issues, including imperialism, corporatism, and plutocracy. The faults of the Democratic Party compared to the Republicans is a longer discussion we’ve had before and will again, but for this post, I’d just suggest that different reform efforts often reinforce each other rather than being mutually exclusive or counterproductive. For instance, efforts to opposes imperialism are important, as are efforts to develop independent media. But it’s hard to sell the notion of a general social contract and decent treatment in international relations, sell the idea of not hating and fearing foreigners, when roughly half the country not only hates and fears foreigners, they hate and fear their fellow Americans. It’s hard to discuss more subtle issues (blowback, and the failures of bipartisan imperialist attitudes) when our national political discourse refuses to call out even glaring misconduct by one party. Challenging stupidity, craziness and evil in one arena generally has a positive spillover effect. And as Thomas E. Man and Norman J. Ornstein point out in It’s Even Worse Than It Looks:
The second [of two sources of dysfunction in current American politics] is the fact that, however awkward it may be for the traditional press and nonpartisan analysts to acknowledge, one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the center of American politics, it is extremely difficult to enact policies responsive to the country’s most pressing challenges.
I wish it were otherwise, but we do not live in a country where decent folks in Al Franken’s “mushball middle” can frolic happily in the fields of moderation, secure in the knowledge that everyone in political power values responsible governance, shared prosperity and the basic idea of a social contract. Movement conservatives have been waging an all-out war on all of that for decades, and the true zealots never, ever stop voluntarily.
Personally, I would rather not spend so much time on politics, and sympathize greatly with my friends in “I just want to be left alone” camp. The problem is, as the saying goes, even if you don’t care about politics, they care about you. (The aggressive Bush campaign in 2002 for an unnecessary war with Iraq was the wakeup call for many, but the insanity predated that, and it’s hard to keep track of all the callousness, irresponsibility and batshit craziness of the past decade or so.)
My plea to anyone who covers politics (particularly the corporate media) would be this. Please try to judge political figures and policies on their merits. Please recognize that policy matters. Please call out corruption and bullshit whenever it occurs and no matter who spouts it. (Liberal and independent bloggers try to call out the Democrats frequently, not just the Republicans and conservatives.) But also, when one side’s rap sheet grows much, much longer and more egregious, please don’t panic and succumb to efforts to work the ref. Don’t traffic in false equivalencies and insist that both sides are equally to blame when it just ain’t so. Please don’t grade conservatives on a curve, and please actually read and analyze the damn policies of stealthy extremists before you praise them as “Very Serious.” Please supply useful information versus gossip, and help voters make more informed choices. Add nuance, complexity and detail rather than offering bland centrist generalities and comforting establishment clichés. Making informed, qualitative judgments is essential for good governance and thoughtful voting, and political commentary should encourage that process instead of shutting it down. Obviously, there are many reasons the corporate media won’t listen – but then, addicts, extremists and zealots never stop voluntarily.