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October 18, 2013 4:54 PM Self-Delusion or the Will To Power?

By Ed Kilgore

Charlie Cook’s National Journal column today compares conservative faith in the effectiveness of a government shutdown strategy for “defunding Obamacare” to the period late in the 2012 presidential campaign when Republicans went a little crazy in predicting that Mitt Romney’s election was certain despite all the empirical signs to the contrary.

I hadn’t really thought of that analogy, but it’s apt. Then as now, though, I wonder what’s really behind it. It’s most common to think of conservative political miscalculations as being the product of self-delusion, mainly thanks to the “echo chamber” of conservative media that blocks out contrary data.

Cook certainly buys that explanation, throwing in a little abnormal psychology:

I consulted a psychiatrist and a psychologist on this question. Both said there is no formal term for the behavior some Republicans are exhibiting, but one described the groupthink as “hysterical delusional affirmation,” and the other named it “delusional synergy.” One said, “It entails suspension of logical intellectual processes with a selective consideration of only confirmatory input. Paranoid people typically experience ideas of influence and control where they believe that they see things that others cannot. This process is often propelled by delusions of grandeur, quite often messianic in nature.”

Well, maybe that’s it, but I can’t help but wonder if something else is going on that is at least partially attributable to outlandish theories of the tangible value of “enthusiasm” and “narratives” that afflict a lot of people in politics, particularly those (and this does seem especially prevalent on the political Right) who think dominating Twitter for a day or an hour is a bankable asset that moves votes. I definitely got the feeling last year that a lot of Republicans knew Romney was in trouble but thought aggressive self-confidence about his inevitable victory, repeated frequently and loudly, would turn it all around.

I’m not sure this belief is best described as a twentieth-century version of Nietzsche’s “Will to Power,” or as a political application of the 1970s self-help guru Robert Ringer’s “Winning Through Intimidation” strategy, or perhaps the product of prolonged national exposure to what I’ve called Nike Existentialism (Just Do It!) in the sports and business worlds. Certainly the idea of politics as a competition of noise in which the most forceful “team” wins is found across the partisan and ideological spectrum.

Now it might be objected that I’m accusing conservatives of mendacity—of adopting predictions and calculations they don’t actually believe and then seeking to make them real by endless assertion. But hey, at least I’m not having to consult psychiatrists to explain their behavior. And in general, I have a tendency to take conservatives at their word about their values and goals more than most progressive bloggers, and even try to explain much of their strategic and tactical extremism as the product of a sincere belief in the apocalyptic stakes involved in political and policy developments.

In any event, whether the phenomenon is the result of self-deception or of a determination not to show weakness, I doubt the people we are talking about are going to be persuaded by those outside their club to change their habits. Curtis Gans is right: this is ultimately a problem for Republicans and conservatives themselves, and a very big problem for voters.

That doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun mocking those who think they can shift reality by sheer willpower, which I occasionally do by posting this Weird Al parody of Devo, “Dare to Be Stupid.”

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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