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Windbags Beneath Their Wings

August 17, 2010

Here’s another, more practical methodological problem faced by liberal politics: by directly engaging right-wing ideas, many liberals fruitlessly attempt to fight illogic with logic. For lack of a more accurate descriptor, let’s refer to the opposing political movement–the one that used to be conservative but is now just mindlessly sentimental and staunchly anti-administration and partly described as the Tea Party–as “the right-wing.” Though let me be clear that not all people who disagree with liberals or might be described as “right-wing” will fall into this catch-all.(1)

This version of the right-wing doesn’t need to convince anyone of the logical rigor or ideological consistency of their platform. They are only concerned with the act of pure selling, team-playing, and tribalism. Their battle is not a search for what is the best or highest good we can achieve. Instead, the right-wing casts policy in terms of a realpolitik of Us vs. Them. The Familiar vs. the Other. The heuristic appeal is clear: “if only everyone else would listen to Us, we’d all be a lot better off.” No amount of logical combativeness by liberals will affect how right-wing audiences perceive some ambiguous Them that creates all of the problems for Us.

For example, Ann Coulter has made a lucrative career out of being outrageous and “controversial” without the need for any substance; she vigorously and consistently contends her side is correct regardless of what ideas she is advocating. She appeals to her audience through manipulated passions and teasing the “other.” Consider the fact that she’s headlining Homocon, a convention for gay conservatives, despite her history of insensitive slurs and support of policies of repression. She claims to be proud to be “the right-wing Judy Garland” largely because it allows her to claim “our gays are more macho than their straights” (emphasis added). This is all because her bias is entirely irrespective of ideas; her bias is in favor of lightning-rodism. If all she does is attract attention, she has won because that conversational focus galvanizes her team against the Other and reminds them to remain agitated and supportive of whatever direction the headless chicken that is their political phalanx has decided to run.

In their own words, the Teabaggers often claim to be anti-nationalist (“Those interviewed reject the idea of national leaders or centralized organizations running things.”), but then will be the first to wrap themselves in American flags or deride those who are anything but the utmost “American patriots,” considering their unquestioning loyalty to their particular conception of the Constitution nearly holy.

‘The normal thing that people are looking for is some sort of organized structure, driven from the top down,’ says Mark Lloyd, chairman of the Lynchburg Tea Party in Virginia. ‘But … it’s more of an attitude, and the attitude is of course just visceral patriotism, and a focus on limited government, fiscal responsibility, constitutional government or governance and personal liberties.’

And this nationalism-as-religion self-contradiction can be made all the more apparent with a simple juxtaposition of the words of the lionized punditry and political talking heads with the image of Jesus, like the Tea Party Jesus tumblr purports to do. But the converse point is even more evident: demonstrating the inconsistency of these people’s beliefs is futile. They are double-thinkers of the highest order. Many are likely anosognosics: brazenly certain of their rightness and purity of their beliefs, factually incapable of second-guessing themselves, their methods of inquiry, or the authorities they hold in esteem.

Contrast Coulter’s strategy with Stewart and Colbert, whom have similarly made careers out of sniping at the other team, in a way. Stewart and Colbert almost always appeal to the insanity and inconsistency of the content of the various ideas on the table, rather than sheer team-playing taunting and name-calling. You’ll never hear Stewart or Colbert make self-serving, broad-brush characterizations or equivocations like “those greedy Republicans” or “trigger-happy warmongering Neoconservatives,” even though such hyperbole could easily serve their ostensible comedic purpose. This is plainly evident by the fact that Stewart and Colbert are also willing to address inane political positions (of which there is an inexhaustible supply) regardless of the political party because ideas are the focus, not the persons or parties.

Stewart and Colbert therefore obtain a natural appeal to individuals who consider themselves liberal because liberals are similarly concerned with ideas and are willing to chastise their team in order to attain the best position for that team. The natural interplay of the political parties over ideas and not simply power is what helps us arrive at these higher and better truths, as Brink Lindsay points out in an excellent interview advocating classical liberalism for our overall political project:

[Look] at contemporary liberalism and its great triumphs in the 60s and 70s – pushing for civil rights and backing the feminist movement. Those triumphs also had excesses and mistakes mixed in with them. We had problems with growing welfare dependency and the crime explosion, problems with runaway divorce rates and family breakdown, all of which summoned up a conservative movement to respond to those wrong turns. So we see the conservative revival of the 70s and 80s basically making the world safe for the liberal social revolutions of the 60s and 70s. Putting aside where libertarianism fits in, you can see the interplay of left and right correcting each other, fixing each other’s excesses and deficiencies in a way that neither side ever intended but works out better than either side ever would have done for itself.

This competition in the market for political acceptance of ideas is precisely the reason why the ad hominem, partisanship-as-proxy-for-ideology style of politics cannot produce a transcendent polity capable of attaining the Good. To use a metaphor that would probably infuriate right-wingers, liberals would have Mohammed seek the Mountain, right-wingers try to move the Mountain to Mohammed.



(1) People involved at the highest levels of the Tea Party organization usually do not characterize the Tea Party as a social movement, and confine its mission to fiscal objectives. Indeed, that is why I characterize the self-contradictions occurring on individual heuristic levels rather than a self-contradictory movement. This effect serves to mask the clashes between the beliefs held by the individuals who populate the movement and assists the double-think by requiring each individual to find their own inconsistencies, which of course requires an act of critical self-reflection that will almost never be undertaken.

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