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Tilting at Windmills

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April 23, 2010

THE CONSEQUENCES OF INTELLECTUAL BANKRUPTCY.... Long-time readers may recall a discussion we had back in December, about the quality of the debate over health care reform. It was obvious at the time that the meaningful, interesting disputes weren't between conservatives and liberals, but between liberals and other liberals.

It's not that the right remained silent; it's that they offered arguments that no serious person could find credible. Consider, just off the top of your head, the most prominent concerns raised by opponents of the Affordable Care Act. What comes to mind? "Death panels." "Socialism." "Government takeover."

It was the biggest domestic policy fight in a generation, but most of the policy debate was spent debunking transparent, child-like nonsense. The left approached the debate with vibrancy, energy, and seriousness. The right thought it was fascinating to talk about the number of pages in the legislation.

Making matters worse, the quality of the discourse on health care wasn't especially unusual. We endured a mind-numbing debate over economic recovery efforts because Republicans weren't prepared for a serious argument. We can't discuss Wall Street reform because Republicans keep saying "bailout" for no reason. We can't discuss a climate bill because Republicans reflexively reject the science.

Every major issue has strengths and weaknesses, and every major piece of legislation is subject to legitimate criticism. In 2010, however, the right seems fundamentally unprepared to even have the conversation.

Given all of this, Marc Ambinder asks today whether the right has "gone mad."

Can anyone deny that the most trenchant and effective criticism of President Obama today comes not from the right but from the left? Rachel Maddow's grilling of administration economic officials. Keith Olbermann's hectoring Democratic leaders on the public option. Glenn Greenwald's criticisms of Elena Kagan. Ezra Klein and Jonathan Cohn's keepin'-them-honest perspectives on health care, the civil libertarian left on detainees and Gitmo. The Huffington Post on derivatives.

I want to find Republicans to take seriously, but it is hard. Not because they don't exist -- serious Republicans -- but because, as [Julian] Sanchez and others seem to recognize, they are marginalized, even self-marginalizing and the base itself seems to have developed a notion that bromides are equivalent to policy-thinking, and that therapy is a substitute for thinking.

Ambinder ponders various explanations -- the habit of conservatives to take entertainers seriously as political actors, the "incentive structures exist to stomp on dissent and nuance," the epistemic closure problem in which conservatives ignore news outlets that might tell them what they don't want to hear -- but doesn't draw a clear conclusion.

In a way, that's a shame. I was really hoping he'd help me understand how one of the nation's dominant political parties and the ideology it embraces chose intellectual bankruptcy.

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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"In a way, that's a shame. I was really hoping he'd help me understand how one of the nation's dominant political parties and the ideology it embraces chose intellectual bankruptcy."

I'll settle for an explanation of why half of this country wants to follow the party of intellectual bankruptcy.

Posted by: m on April 23, 2010 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK

What abou that fella that does the "Little Green Footballs" website? He's a sane conservative.

Posted by: johndri on April 23, 2010 at 3:13 PM | PERMALINK

"..the habit of conservatives to take entertainers seriously as political actors"

Are you kidding me? Have you ever listened, I mean really listened to Chuck Norris? The man's a freakin' philosopher!!! I stayed with him through postmodernism, but he spun me off in metaphysical solipsism; I just couldn't keep up. Brilliant.

Posted by: Mark on April 23, 2010 at 3:17 PM | PERMALINK

Whom the gods would destroy...

Posted by: ral on April 23, 2010 at 3:17 PM | PERMALINK

Steve Benen wrote: "Consider, just off the top of your head, the most prominent concerns raised by opponents of the Affordable Care Act. What comes to mind? 'Death panels.' 'Socialism.' 'Government takeover.'"

With all due respect, the repeated assertions by some liberal bloggers, including yourself, equating a bill that established some modest regulation of the for-profit insurance corporations' worst abuses at the cost of subsidizing their profits at public expense, with Social Security and Medicare, which established government-run, nonprofit programs under open, accountable public administration, were every bit as disingenuous as the right's claims that it represented "socialism" and a "government takeover".

Posted by: SecularAnimist on April 23, 2010 at 3:18 PM | PERMALINK

It's easy. They are preying on the stupidity and laziness of the American public.

Americans in general are not interested in educating themselves on matters of public policy, just look at the polls re: the health care bill. A majority of the respondents didn't care for the package, that is until they found out what was in it.

Republicans rely on this laziness and the uninformed to push their bullshit on the American people. It's a lot easier to rail against killing grandma than it is to debate the finer points of actual policy.

Posted by: Brad on April 23, 2010 at 3:19 PM | PERMALINK

The success of Ronald Reagan ruined the Republican Party.

It taught them that the way to power was by simple-minded soundbites, empty figureheads and shadow governments.

They perfected this approach with the lawless reign of George W. Bush. A handful of people made lots of money and gathered lots of power to themselves. Since modern conservatives don't believe government has ANY role in society, that was enough.

But since their very premise was faulty -- "Government only exists as a way to fleece the rubes" -- things started to fall apart. The military, finance, international relations, food & drug safety, all started to unravel.

That's where we stand today. Conservatives are locked into a "philosophy" that says the very institution of government is evil and to be avoided. By definition now, if you do not accept that premise, you can't be a conservative.

But in the 21st century, the smooth functioning of government is more important than ever. How much or how little, and in what capacities, might be debatable; but any group that argues against the very existence of government is well-night irrelevant.

And those are the only people left on the American right.

Posted by: Gummo on April 23, 2010 at 3:22 PM | PERMALINK

Don't worry, Jonah Goldberg has read Ambinder's piece and responded with a thoughtful, detailed counterargument.

I'm kidding of course. He responded with fact-free snark that can be shortered as, "Ambinder is wrong! There are a lot of conservative outlets saying stuff! Also!"

Posted by: Jeff Fecke on April 23, 2010 at 3:24 PM | PERMALINK

Don't knock intellectual bankruptcy! That is were our base exists.

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Posted by: wyhdhdq on April 23, 2010 at 3:31 PM | PERMALINK

It's certainly true that "they're preying on the stupidity and laziness of the American people" as Brad says, but there are long-term consequences for that: it's not very attractive. Which is why there's been a republican brain-drain. The most educated and intellectually curious people do not vote Republican. And then they talk about the "elitism of the academy," but that's just a slogan, as any intellectually curious person will soon discover if they actually look behind the label.

Posted by: ulrich on April 23, 2010 at 3:33 PM | PERMALINK

I'll assume that's a rhetorical question, Steve. The explanation for what's happened on the Right is fairly simple, seems to me.

Our right-wing authoritarians have been headed in this direction for 40 years. It's been a long slide, but it was pretty much inevitable.

Once you grant that right-wing domestic policies get zero traction with any average citizen who actually understands them--the GOP has been lying about what they really stand for, for at least 30 years now--our right-wing has NOTHING TO RUN ON.

They haven't for a long time. They can't tell the actual truth about what they stand for, because when they do, most independent voters head for the hills. So they don't. They just lie. And lie, and lie some more, because that's all they can do.

When people understand that our GOP is run by oligarchs and plutocrats who really believe in a Hobbsian-nightmare-world of survival of the fittest, they don't have much interest in voting for that. Oh, a big miniority does, most of them deeply deluded about what they're actually voting for I suspect.

Simultaneous with this, once the Dixiecrats went over to the GOP after Civil Rights legislation, and Lee Atwater began to really flesh out the Southern Strategy, the GOP has been in the position of re-fighting the Civil War for the last 30 years at least. That's a recipe for intellectual bankruptcy if ever there was one. Combine that with the need to lie about your basic political philosophy--and its practical consequences--it seems clear that the GOP could not do anything other than land where it has.


Posted by: LL on April 23, 2010 at 3:35 PM | PERMALINK

Despite not making any sense the GOP is ahead in the polls. Why?


Great re-branding Bush out, Tea Party in. Same funding sources, organizers etc. New name.

Money - they still have lots of big donors.

Fox - Murdoch is a good propagandist.

On the attack. They have relentlessly attacked, while the Obama people haven't. And it worked.

Posted by: Samuel Knight on April 23, 2010 at 3:37 PM | PERMALINK

And if you're winning without making sense, why bother with all that hard work of making sense?

Posted by: Samuel Knight on April 23, 2010 at 3:38 PM | PERMALINK

They're not just preying on stupidity and anti-intellectualism, they're promoting it. So that too becomes a cycle: if you want to go into politics on the right, you're going to have to embrace the stupid. On the left, you're going to have to get used to spending most of your time fighting the stupid. So the only people who go into politics are people who do not throw up every time they hear Glenn Beck speak.

And of course this is useful to the right wing because they tend to win when most of the populace is turned off by politics. It's just another kind of voter suppression.

Posted by: paul on April 23, 2010 at 3:39 PM | PERMALINK

"In a way, that's a shame. I was really hoping he'd help me understand how one of the nation's dominant political parties and the ideology it embraces chose intellectual bankruptcy"

Because it wins them election. They're spoon feeding a gulible audience the nonsense they want to believe.

Posted by: SaintZak on April 23, 2010 at 3:45 PM | PERMALINK

The left approached the debate with vibrancy, energy, and seriousness.

You omitted fiscal responsibility and accurate accounting.

Posted by: MatthewRMarler on April 23, 2010 at 3:47 PM | PERMALINK

As the great American philosopher Colbert observed, "Reality has a liberal bias." The inclination on the right is to believe. That is in part a result of the GOP's strategic alignment with the religious right. In order to believe in whatever, one must suspend one's own critical thinking. It is a lazy man's politics. Toe the party line, don't ask questions, and repeat, repeat, repeat your hand-me-down talking points.

The trouble is that when it doesn't work (as in creating a gigantic economic collapse), it doesn't get self-examined. They just go back to believing, only this time harder so that success will be more likely the next time.

They are post-modern flat-earthers. In spite of the evidence around them, they continue to choose to believe something that is provably wrong.

There is no hope for them.

Posted by: shivas on April 23, 2010 at 3:48 PM | PERMALINK

People hate thinking and responsibility. This is why Republicans win more often than they lose.

Posted by: JMG on April 23, 2010 at 3:51 PM | PERMALINK

Mr. Lincoln opined that the nation could not long survive half slave and half free. I have to wonder how long it can survive half sane and half raging, lunatic insane.

Posted by: SusanP on April 23, 2010 at 3:52 PM | PERMALINK
Because it wins them election[s].

DING! DING! DING! SaintZak is the winnah!!

The GOP isn't a governing party. It's a "We must win elections!" party.

They aren't into policy. They're into PACs.

They aren't into well-crafted legislation. They're into corporate and crony handouts.

They aren't into truth. They're into talking points.

This is why they rely on wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage, why they claim tax cuts will fix every economic issue, and why they don't even try to come up with any type of domestic agenda (other than "HATE TEH GEHY!") or foreign policy (other than "BOMB THE BROWN FOLKS!").

The sad part?

While conservatives hope and wish and pray for a world without liberals, almost every liberal I know wants sensible conservatives; e.g., conservatives interested in actual governance.

But you can't find those folks when the one and only focus for them is simply to win. And winning elections takes too much ideological purity to appease the base.

Basically, they've created a destructive feedback loop.

I'm just not sure upon what that destruction will be unleashed ...

Posted by: Mark D on April 23, 2010 at 3:55 PM | PERMALINK

It could certainly be said that any party that allows itself to be dragged around by Rush Limbaugh and makes superstars out of mediocrities like Sarah Palin is, by default, intellectually bankrupt.

Posted by: electrolite on April 23, 2010 at 3:58 PM | PERMALINK

I like SusanP's observation . It may bear repeating but if Nate Silver is able to count Alfred E. Neuman may not need to worry .

Posted by: FRP on April 23, 2010 at 4:00 PM | PERMALINK

In America there is no liberal party; the Democrats are the conservative party; and the Republicans are the party of pure greed.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on April 23, 2010 at 4:04 PM | PERMALINK
I was really hoping he'd help me understand how one of the nation's dominant political parties and the ideology it embraces chose intellectual bankruptcy.

The lowest common denominator has come to dominate.

See Sue Lowden and chickens coming home to roost.

Posted by: MikeBoyScout on April 23, 2010 at 4:06 PM | PERMALINK

Where Steve Benen and Mark Ambinder (who doesnì't have 1% of Benen's integrity but does know a lot) fear to tread, I'm just drunk enough to stagger in.

I blame petroleum. If it wasn't such a wonderfully useful substance which has done so much to improve the human condition, Mellong Scaife and Koch wouldn't have so much money. A few extremely rich extreme reactinaries have financed and caused the epistemic closure of the right. The fact is that there is a whole pseudointellectual class which lives off wingnut welfare. They know who pays the piper and they play the tune.

Now that doesn't explain how Republicans win elections or why people listen to Limbaugh and watch Fox, but it does explain the intellectual bankruptcy. I promise you, the economics department of the University of Chicago isn't intellectually bankrupt. However, they won't say what Scaife and Koch want to hear so they just don't exist in the conservative bubble.

A few rich people who know what they want to hear can kill intellectual life among those who don't totally disagree with them.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on April 23, 2010 at 4:12 PM | PERMALINK
In America there is no liberal party; the Democrats are the conservative party; and the Republicans are the party of pure greed, clinical insanity, and weapons-grade stupidity.

Fixed for great accuracy!!

Posted by: Mark D on April 23, 2010 at 4:17 PM | PERMALINK

@ Paul: "They're not just preying..., they're promoting it". Bingo. Very well put. I find myself spending a lot of time thinking about how best to effectively counter stupidity. It's actually a very difficult problem!

Posted by: ulrich on April 23, 2010 at 4:27 PM | PERMALINK

Newsmedia like shiny. Crazy people = shiny.

Posted by: Cazart on April 23, 2010 at 4:27 PM | PERMALINK

The Republicans are an easy target for ridicule, but instead of their prospects looking incredibly bleak in 2010 and 2012, they seem to be holding their own if not gaining ground. The general public just doesn't get it. That doesn't speak well for our future.

Posted by: qwerty on April 23, 2010 at 4:33 PM | PERMALINK

following on from robert waldman...and a lot of the wingnut welfare crowd are "legacies"...j-pod, jonah "liberal fascism: two words i don't really understand but that sure sound neat in the same sentence" goldberg, and billy "the bloody" krystol..and mark d beat me to it...movement conservatism isn't about ideology, it's about power...winning is the only point...anyone who strays outside the agreed upon taking points gets excommunicated [see parker, k. or buckley, c. or the fellow that took on mark stein over global warming yesterday].....add in fauxnews' successful business strategy of keeping their viewers in a perpetual state of misinformed and riled-up and no intelligent life can actually exist

Posted by: dj spellchecka on April 23, 2010 at 4:33 PM | PERMALINK

@ Robert W: "The fact is that there is a whole pseudointellectual class which lives off wingnut welfare. They know who pays the piper and they play the tune." That's what I was trying to get at earlier: there are no right intellectuals anymore, only manipulators (Kristol, Limbaugh, Beck, et al) and hacks. But are we smart enough to figure out how to defuse their very real threat to sane government? Maybe it's that all they care about is winning, and we get distracted by our interest in the process...

Posted by: ulrich on April 23, 2010 at 4:35 PM | PERMALINK


Jan Brewer signed AZ anti-immigrant bill this afternoon. Another tragic day for Arizona. I cannot say I'm suprised, though (I had expected her to just let it become law). I am suprised at how in the last 20 years the viewpoints which were considered bizzare in the Arizona Republican Party, have become mainstream in the Republican Party. To wit: instituting a quasi-martial law in our state generally focused on people with brown skin.

Posted by: KurtRex1453 on April 23, 2010 at 4:41 PM | PERMALINK

The success of Ronald Reagan ruined the Republican Party.

It taught them that the way to power was by simple-minded soundbites, empty figureheads and shadow governments.


Reagan completed the debasement cynically begun by Richard Nixon and John Mitchell and Edwin Meese and Spiro Agnew. He taught the Republicans that self-delusion and outright lies and plausible deniability were the way to power.

Posted by: joel hanes on April 23, 2010 at 4:44 PM | PERMALINK

I say good to the immigration bill . It is unconstitutional and shows how the republicans have driven off the crazy cliff. They will rally around it (we likes us some law and order) thus ailienating and dissmissing any hope of hispanic or brown people votes

Posted by: John R on April 23, 2010 at 4:51 PM | PERMALINK

"In America there is no liberal party; the Democrats are the conservative party; and the Republicans are the party of pure greed."
Posted by: SecularAnimist

In Canada, until the 1990's, our party on the right was the Progressive Conservative Party. Some had difficulty and thought it an oxymoron.
But it was a happy amalgam of our equivalent of liberal republicans with the right wingers. The resulting blend of conservatives believed in government as a positive force and in fact were the initiators of a government owned railway, airline and broadcasting corporation. I used to think of your rightwingers, not as conservatives but as 'Manchester liberals'- the 19th British party that thought govt should do as little as possible.

Then the oil barons of Texas North (Alberta), destroyed the party and have substituted a pale imitation of your Republican Party. The whole Canadian spectrum is significantly to the left of USA (Obama was favoured something like 75% to 15% for McCain with 10% undecided) so our current Conservative Prime Minister Harper (read Bush-lite)accepts our universal health care system as a right not a privilege.

Posted by: Johnny Canuck on April 23, 2010 at 5:10 PM | PERMALINK

One of the things that enabled the right to be so successful over the last three decades or so -- its powerful infrastructure of think tanks, interest groups, media outlets, tight messaging, party line voting, and so on -- is now precluding it from changing with demographic and electoral circumstances. Any voice suggesting even modest change is hectored out of the party, and the party marches ever rightward. Less structured parties find it easier to change. The very real strengths of the GOP, as obnoxious as I usually found them to be, have become a powerful drag against normal party responses to changing circumstances. This is the real revenge of Reaganism.

Posted by: David Lowery on April 23, 2010 at 5:26 PM | PERMALINK

Nobody "chooses" bankruptcy. One is led to bankruptcy through a series of bad decisions. With the GOP it began in the late 1960s when they decided to build an electoral coalition around disaffected white southern voters, and accepted a deep seated racism as the core philosophy of the party in order to win their support. It followed in the 1970s when the party built an intellectual infrastructure around a concept of ideological purity and demanded their intellectuals hew to the party line and start with their conclusions and construct their arguments to support those conclusions. Next came the 1980s when they added in the evangelical Christian community. Along the way they lost their real strength, the Country Club Republicans who believed that a small government could be effective and serve the needs of the people, so now they are left to chase after the Tea Baggers who merely want Government to leave them alone (except to send out their checks on the first and fifteenth of each month), a barely recognizable charicature of the old Rockefeller Republicans.

Posted by: majun on April 23, 2010 at 5:43 PM | PERMALINK

Has he right has "gone mad?" Or just stupid. Registered Republicans are about 1/3 of the electorate. Add in right-leaning independents (half of self-identified independents, ~32%/2=16%)and you get about 49%.

By definition 50% of the population has an intelligence level below the median. I will let you draw your own conclusions.


Posted by: Bob on April 23, 2010 at 6:16 PM | PERMALINK

As others have said, so far, they've paid no price for these choices. Why would they stop? My friends, my family, people that vote every two years, but otherwise pay no real attention to politics and civil affairs...? They still think the two partys are roughly equal in their seriousness and their behavior.

Most people voting for Congress in 2012? They'll based on the attractiveness and elocution abilities of the two candidates and think that means they're better than those "partisans"; they choose based on the candidate!

Posted by: sherrold on April 23, 2010 at 8:40 PM | PERMALINK

The GOP is so far gone that's it's not coming back. How can it? Who among its current ranks could defy its insane orthodoxy, even were they so inclined? What outsider could muscle their way in, and right the ship?

Thank you, Newt Gingrich. And take my word for it, those are words of gratitude I never dreamed I'd utter.

Posted by: JW on April 23, 2010 at 9:19 PM | PERMALINK

Short answer: Yes. But do not be too quick to laugh and snort in derision of the Republicans. Note the first two words in that first sentence: "Serious thinkers".

The Republicans, with their endless string of mindless sound-bite arguments are not aiming their comments at "thinking" people. They are not appealing to reasoned thinking; they are aiming at eliciting negative emotional responses, not at reasoned thought about issues, and, as we have seen, truth is their enemy.

And such playing to reflexive emotional responses from the gut works.

See those Tea Party party people out there parading around out there with there silly signs, giving credit to the likes of Glenn Beck for their opinions?

Laugh not. Counter. Aim at eliciting positive emotions. The Republicans have been working on pushing for negative emotional responses for over 30 years; we've got a long road ahead of us to retrain the emotional responses of the American public.

Posted by: Claimsman on April 23, 2010 at 10:22 PM | PERMALINK

I remember back in the eighties when a conservative boss told me people ought to have to take a test before being allowed to vote. Yes I replied, ask them if it makes sense to radically increase military spending, cut taxes, and balance the budget simultaneously. Needless to see he didn't appreciate my answer. Conservatives have been irrational for over 30 years, and will have to get at least a bit worse before they get better.

Posted by: J. Frank Parnell on April 23, 2010 at 10:27 PM | PERMALINK

Republicans haven't gone mad, they're just learning from wall street -- taking a highly risky leveraged bet on the crazies for short term gain. Anyway to buy a default swap on the implosion of the teabaggers?

Posted by: P-Dog on April 24, 2010 at 1:36 AM | PERMALINK

The Republicans are following the course they are following because they believe it will help them win elections. The real question is why this could be a good strategy. I think the answer is that the media and the Democrats are unwilling to point out that the Republicans are a bunch of cynical liars who are only interested in making Obama fail, no matter how much damage done to America. If the Democrats could make that the issue this fall, they would win hands down.

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The RNC mistakenly sent their fund-raising letter to our house, part of which is a poll on Obama's performance, etc. The infantilism of it is so striking. The GOP is clearly the party of infantile no-nothingism.

Posted by: bob h on April 24, 2010 at 5:35 AM | PERMALINK

I was really hoping he'd help me understand how one of the nation's dominant political parties and the ideology it embraces chose intellectual bankruptcy.

not so difficult and very understandable.

republicans are first and foremost plutocrats: power to a small number of wealthy individuals; take government largess and power and use it for their personal ambitions.

you can't sell that in democracy. Therefore, all republican effort is put into hiding their true nature. They do it with distractions, lies, appeals to ignorance, appeals to violence, and most of all with mis-information.

republicans control probably 95% of the information Americans receive. 5 firms: fox, ABC Disney, Comcast (NBC), Viacom (CBS), and Time-Warner control all of the TV and large amounts of radio and print news. Each firm is controlled by a handful of plutocrats comprising their board, each board is run by a plutocrat chairman.

Americans hearing views contrary to the interests of plutocrats on the big 5 is nearly impossible: Shultz, Obermann, and Maddow being the only opportunity; the rest is rife with pro-plutocrat (republican), anti-progressive subversion and mis-information.

What appears to be republican madness, is in fact on purpose and is the continuation of the distraction and mis-information campaign that is the reagan legacy. beck, limbaugh, and the rest of the violently insane whores on republican infotainment media are by design.

Posted by: pluege on April 24, 2010 at 8:58 AM | PERMALINK

In America there is no liberal party; the Democrats are the conservative party; and the Republicans are the party of pure greed.


Posted by: pluege on April 24, 2010 at 9:13 AM | PERMALINK

There is no need for a sane Republican party. Sane Republicans now have the Democrats to pass their well crafted legislation/competently run the government and the screamers to move the country even more to the right. If the Republicans capture one chamber this fall, look for a bi-partisan "solution" to entitlements on the horizon.

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Basically, the Republicans are anti-government period. The whole "for the people by the people" idea is bullshit in their minds. The way the world works is whoever has the most money wins and God should determine that not some bureaucrat. As long as there are Mellon-Scaifes, Kochs, and Andreases they can ignore all evidence contrary to their beliefs.

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