Members Only | October 9, 2018 | Reading Time: 6 minutes
Don’t Believe (Your Party’s) Hype
Republicans, and some Democrats, are telling themselves tall tales.
President Obama said often that sensible people can gather to devise solutions to our country’s most pressing problems. He said partisan interests, in the end, would give way to reason, the national interest and the common good. That’s what he said.
His problem: he believed it.
At least, he did in the beginning of his presidency. By the end, he realized the opposing party had no interest in the national interest. Indeed, the Republicans decided their interests were predicated on being anathema to the common good.
Since then, I’ve made a habit of reminding people that in politics, there are two levels of meaning operating at the same time, though not equally: what politicians say they believe, and what they really believe (if anything). Sometimes they are the same. Most of time, they’re not. Sometimes one (morality) must prevail over the other (rhetoric). In any case, we should never allow ourselves to believe our own spin.
The Republicans are telling a story of an uncompromising radical Democratic Party that maligned a decent man whose only purpose in life is serving freedom, justice and the rule of law. They are rationalizing to themselves why they voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh. They are telling themselves that outrage provoked by his confirmation will juice up the Republican base before the midterms, thus saving the Senate.
This isn’t meaningless spin. Odds of controlling the Senate are still in the Republicans’ favor. But that has nothing to do with the new associate justice. That has everything to do with numerical advantage. The Republicans, however, are selling this spin to gullible reporters not because the evidence compels it—they want it to be true.
To be sure, the “Kavanaugh effect” with respect to the Republican base might become apparent in a week or two. Even then, there’s a lot time until November. And to be sure, there is risk to standing up for women’s rights, as liberals did during the Senate hearings. The risk is sparking a backlash among reactionary forces that constitute the whole of the Republican Party. But that risk is a couple of things: worth it, and small.
Remember that Kavanaugh’s new job is the result of an unpopular president whose campaign is under investigation for ties to Russia, which, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, almost certainly tipped the scales in favor of Donald Trump.
Remember, too, that Kavanaugh unmasked his true partisan self. Pretty much anything he does now that results in a 5-4 conservative decision will be seen by at least half the electorate as compromised and illegitimate. For this reason, Kavanaugh is not popular: a majority of Americans believe that the Senate should not have confirmed him.
Given all the above, we shouldn’t put much stock in the idea of Republican backlash saving the Senate. Again, if the GOP holds, it will be due to numerical advantage.
Even so, the Republicans surely want credulous reporters to believe their tale. They might even believe it themselves. But for such claims to be credible, Kavanaugh would need majority approval. He may have that as memories fade. Not now, though.
Dems need a bigger tent
The Republicans aren’t alone. Democrats believe spin, too.
To be sure, the numbers aren’t the same. While most Republicans really do believe their own nonsense, a small faction of Democrats tends to swallow baloney whole.
We can see this in the reaction to Joe Manchin’s vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh. He was the lone Democrat to do so. Some say there’s nothing good in the party having a Republican-lite. Others have called for him to be purged. Others still say the Democrats don’t need the likes of Manchin. Sarah Jones, in New York magazine, said:
Manchin’s vote should call old party strategies into question. If the Democratic Party can’t count on its own senators for votes as morally pivotal as the Kavanaugh confirmation, its big tent might just be too big.
I’ll get to the “big tent” point in a minute. First, Manchin.
The senator voted after Susan Collins did. His vote was irrelevant to Kavanaugh’s confirmation. It was symbolic. It had enough meaning to hold back criticism back home. Yes, he alienated some West Virginia liberals. That was the risk he took.
But liberals are a small minority in that rural mining state. The majority consists of Republicans and independents: voters who are not going to give a Democrat the benefit of the doubt. In any case, anti-Trump sentiment is probably going to bring Democrats back to him, even if he offended them. That’s the power of party.
I can’t disagree more with the idea that the Democrats’ tent is too big. Frankly, I’m stunned to see such thinking in public view. It fundamentally misunderstands Democratic history. The party has always been majoritarian, and it has always had to tolerate, and referee, diverse and opposing points of view, because it must.
The imperative to remain open is even greater now. A number of voters who supported Republicans are discovering that conservatism is a byword for sadism. They didn’t believe liberal criticism of GOP race-baiting. They didn’t believe the purpose of conservatism was inflicting cruelty. Things are different now. As Max Boot wrote.
In 1964, the GOP ceased to be the party of Lincoln and became the party of Southern whites. As I now look back with the clarity of hindsight, I am convinced that coded racial appeals had at least as much, if not more, to do with the electoral success of the modern Republican Party than all of the domestic and foreign policy proposals crafted by well-intentioned analysts like me. This is what liberals have been saying for decades. I never believed them. Now I do, because Trump won by making the racist appeal, hitherto relatively subtle, obvious even to someone such as me who used to be in denial.
Yes, Boot should have known better. So what? Now he does. Democrats should make room for people like him, even if he doesn’t see any room for center-right views. Fact is, liberalism is broad, so broad that conservatism can’t exist without it. It is the hegemonic ideology, as the Marxists say. So there’s plenty of space for center-right views, as long as they privilege and demand full political equality for all.
Because, really, that’s the difference between liberals and conservatives, right?
For the former, liberty comes through equality. For the latter, liberty comes through authority—or the affirmation of the “natural order” and the punishment for deviation from it. As long as there’s an enforceable consensus on what full equality means in 21st-century America, the Democratic Party can contain multitudes. It must.
On post-Kavanaugh narratives
Roll Call’s Stuart Rothenberg and I are on the same page (mostly).
The tendency to draw dramatic conclusions from fragments of data, whispers of alleged movement in polling or supposed anecdotes from a particular campaign is almost uncontrollable in the final few weeks before an election. Both experts and the casually involved are looking for any sign that things are changing, since change is bigger news than continuity.
Republicans won the Kavanaugh fight, and they now have complete control of the federal government. Traditionally, anger, frustration, disappointment and fear are stronger motivators than satisfaction, relief and euphoria. Democrats and liberals simply are more desperate than are conservatives and Republicans, which is one reason I doubt GOP turnout will match Democratic turnout.
But there are other reasons why the Democratic grassroots advantage should appear on Election Day.
On Max Boot’s apostasy
Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of the National Interest, reviewed Boot’s book, The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left The Right, for the Washington Monthly. Boot differs:
from the many other NeverTrumpers who often fail to recognize that belligerent policies have led to disaster at home as well as abroad. He issues a scorching indictment of the GOP: “I am now convinced that the Republican Party must suffer repeated and devastating defeats. It must pay a heavy price for its embrace of white nationalism and know-nothingism. Only if the GOP as currently constituted is burned to the ground will there be any chance to build a reasonable center-right political party out of the ashes.” Indeed, he concludes, “having escaped the corrosion of conservatism, I am a political Ronin, and will swear allegiance to no master in the future. I will fight for my principles wherever they may lead me.”
There’s a whiff of grandiosity in this declaration. Like Whittaker Chambers, who pioneered the breaking-ranks genre in Witness, Boot takes an apocalyptic view of politics. But his readiness to reexamine his old convictions is admirable. If it ends up prompting him to sign up as a Democrat, then his neocon journey will have come full circle.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.