We Cheat the Other Guy and Pass the Savings to You
I'm returning to David Brooks' January op-ed "The Populist Addiction," because it's quintessential Brooks, but also because it provides a useful framework for conflicting political views in America. The full column is here and worth reading for full context (and Brooks' cute plea not to scapegoat poor Goldman Sachs). However, this is my favorite section:
So it’s easy to see the seductiveness of populism. Nonetheless, it nearly always fails. The history of populism, going back to William Jennings Bryan, is generally a history of defeat.
That’s because voters aren’t as stupid as the populists imagine. Voters are capable of holding two ideas in their heads at one time: First, that the rich and the powerful do rig the game in their own favor; and second, that simply bashing the rich and the powerful will still not solve the country’s problems.
Political populists never get that second point. They can’t seem to grasp that a politics based on punishing the elites won’t produce a better-educated work force, more investment, more innovation or any of the other things required for progress and growth.
In other words, for the lower classes: You're getting screwed, but it's really in your best interest. Plus: You populists can't win - you can't change the game. There's also the reverse psychology plea to vanity: The plebes who know their place are much smarter those elitist rabble-rousers. Real Americans don't want a living wage, after all. Those silly populists mostly want to complain about the wealthy, not, say, tax them more heavily and invest that money in the middle class and poor. (And we're spunky America the Exceptional, which is why we can't have nice things, like great social systems and public transportation.)
I'm surprised Brooks admitted the game is rigged. He often uses some planned concession to pivot to some more ridiculous point, something like, 'Yes, Bush should have worked with the Democrats more, but the Democrats should be better than that...' (And enact conservative policies.) In this column, I think Brooks overshot on his calculated concession and gave up the game. Still, I'm utterly unsurprised by the other stuff. Almost every column Mr. Applebee's Salad Bar writes makes one or more of same basic pitches: I'm a man of the people, you're better off with me and my class/party in charge, know your place, real Americans are center-right, the Democrats are just as bad, who is this Bush fellow you speak of, and have your kissed your aristocrat today?...
Matt Taibbi makes similar points in his great dissection of the same column, "Populism: Just Like Racism!" After ripping into Brooks for his faulty analogies and "Leave Goldman Sachs alone!" shtick, Taibbi also notes:
What’s so ironic about this is that Brooks, in arguing against class warfare, and trying to present himself as someone who is above making class distinctions, is making an argument based entirely on the notion that there is an lower class and an upper class and that the one should go easy on the other because the best hope for collective prosperity is the rich creating wealth for all. This is the same Randian bullshit that we’ve been hearing from people like Brooks for ages and its entire premise is really revolting and insulting — this idea that the way society works is that the productive ” rich” feed the needy “poor,” and that any attempt by the latter to punish the former for “excesses” might inspire Atlas to Shrug his way out of town and leave the helpless poor on their own to starve.
That’s basically Brooks’s entire argument here. Yes, the rich and powerful do rig the game in their own favor, and yes, they are guilty of “excesses” — but fucking deal with it, if you want to eat.
Exactly. What Brooks is shilling here is: The game is rigged for the rich and powerful, but we all benefit from this.
That's in huge contrast to the liberal view, which normally goes something like: Of course the game is rigged for the rich and powerful, but they benefit from this, other people get screwed, and we can build a better, fairer system for everybody. (Those few "social contract" conservatives buy parts of this, too.)
Members of Congress with a compromised, corporatist bent have a stance closer to: Sure, the game is rigged for the rich and powerful, but we can't change it that much, so we won't mention it too often - and let's try to get in on some of the action.
Further to the right, whether Democrats or Republicans, there's even less ambivalence. It's considered a breach of etiquette to speak of the game, let alone acknowledge it’s rigged for the rich and powerful. Behind closed doors, the attitude is: Why would you even want to change the game? Give me my piece!
Some Beltway denizens, especially journalists, really do seem to think: Of course the game isn't rigged! I got here (and stay here) solely due to my talents!
Other Villagers may or may not think the game's rigged, but what really gets them angry is if anyone denounces it. (Don't trash their place!) The Very Serious People are establishmentarians, and like their pal David Brooks, they know their ways are the best ways, and that things are the finest when they're on top. (How could it be otherwise?)
The Randians are similarly convinced of their superior talents, and have their own ideas about the game, but the defining attitude for them is simply: I got mine, screw you!
The truly callous and evil (the Catfood Commission and Estate Tax Repeal Club come to mind) believe: Sure, the game is rigged, and sure, many people are getting screwed – Now let's rig this sucker even more!
The teabagger rank and file, the target of the Southern Strategy, believe: The game is rigged, alright – to favor liberals, women and minorities! In many cases, they are being screwed, but they're blaming the wrong folks and not the people they voted into office for the past 30-40 years. Their ringleaders mostly know better, but they've got a good racket going. (And as Pat Buchanan and Lee Atwater might say, "You do not talk about White Club.")
(Feel free to improve on these breakdowns - I'm not entirely sold on all of them myself.)
A few other points bear mentioning. Generally speaking, liberals are focused on being fair while conservatives (movement conservatives at least) are focused on power. They're simply not playing the same game. (The same goes for wonks versus hacks.) This can make for some serious misunderstandings and cross-talking, most of all when liberals try to be fair-minded with people seeking their destruction. (Offering the olive branch is fine, Dems, even admirable, but after they smack you in the face with it, wise up.) While reasonable, wonky conservatives do exist, if you can't tell that Andrew Breitbart, Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove are hacks and extremely dishonorable men, it's time to recalibrate your bullshit detector.
Liberals generally embrace a cooperative paradigm, while conservatives are more likely to see things as a zero sum game. There's a huge difference between trying to make the game more fair for everybody and trying just to win it personally (or trying to control it completely and rig it further for your side). Movement conservatives are further likely to see things in terms of dominance, submission and humiliation. It's one of the reasons that trash talk is so important to them, and why they're such bullies when in power yet so ridiculously whiny when criticized. Check out Rush Limbaugh or any of the far right for long and you'll encounter that weird mix of asserted superiority alongside deep victimization. Reagan supposedly regretted calling the Soviet Union "the evil empire," but the far right loved it, just as they loved Bush saying "axis of evil." The language might have been juvenile and hurt international relations, but for the far right, insulting one's opponents is itself a victory. They see diplomacy as the failure of war, not the other way around. (To be fair, some of this is standard imperialist narcissism, and hawks in both parties share much of the same idiocy even if comes in a slightly different flavor.) Remember, Sarah Palin became a right-wing darling overnight, not for any cooperative, inclusive vision for America or command of policy (hahaha), but because she delivered a single attack dog speech at the RNC in 2008.
In contrast, while "foul-mouthed" liberal bloggers may swear and insult their conservative counterparts, they generally don't seek their destruction. Eliminationist rhetoric is pretty common on the right, and pretty rare on the left. Liberals may say mean things (preferably, true things, whether harshly put or not), but they also want their political opponents to have health care so they and their children, friends and family don't die unnecessarily. It comes with the bleeding hearts. Policy does matter, and it's not incidental to someone's world view.
These world views do clash, and sometimes get revealed in small exchanges. Betsy McCaughey, during her epic dissembling about death panels on The Daily Show, was flailing occasionally, and at one point tried an odd attack on Stewart. If you can stand watching it, it's in the Extended Interview Part 2 (1:55 in), but here's a transcript (they talk over each other throughout):
McCaughey: Well, you know, Jon, you're so rich –
Stewart: That is absolutely -
McCaughey: (to audience) He's got a great big penthouse –
Stewart: That is absolutely right, I can –
McCaughey: You are so rich, you can provide care for anybody in your family -
Stewart: That's right.
McCaughey: Whatever they need -
Stewart: That's right.
McCaughey: (to audience) But you -
Stewart: And that's why I don't mind being taxed a little more to help people who are not in as favorable a situation.
(Cheers from the audience.)
Stewart: I don't mind that. In fact, I welcome it, because it's a way for me to, to give back to the country that has allowed me to come this far.
Stewart's remarks completely shut her down. McCaughey clamed she agreed, and tried to move on to her next piece of bullshit. What's interesting is that she seemed to be trying to depict Stewart as a rich, hypocritical elitist, unconcerned about others, and herself as a populist champion (a classic Rove reversal). This was a planned "out" or trump card for McCaughey, but it didn't work as intended. She should have known that to Stewart's audience, those characterizations – especially the one of Stewart – would be laughable. McCaughey had a brief "curses, foiled again" moment of course, but it seems like it was more than that, because it looks as if she really hadn't anticipated that sort of response. The idea that Stewart would be rich, and would also support higher taxes on himself, and would also support some sort of governmental, universal health care to help everyone else, seemed to genuinely flummox her. (I could be wrong, and reading in a response I've seen elsewhere.) Yet while Stewart's extremely sharp, his stance in the clip is pretty standard for rich liberals: Yes, I want to take care of myself and my family, but after that, of course I'll tend to a favorite cause, the community, my city, my state, my country.
This strikes a certain breed of conservatives as bizarre, a foreign concept, a violation of the rules. Why the hell would you give up a personal advantage in the game? Occasionally this comes up in political discussions. It did during the 2004 presidential election season - shockingly, wealthy Bush wanted to continue or add to the tax cuts for the wealthy, while wealthy Kerry and Edwards didn't. It came up with the "Joe the Plumber" circus in 2008 and again with Joe Biden's remarks about paying taxes being patriotic. The Republican pitch, echoed by some political reporters, is that there's something awfully suspicious about a rich man who promises he'll raise his own taxes – never mind if it's for the good of the country - and something somehow trustworthy about a rich man eager to lower his own taxes and increase his own wealth. Vote for the upfront scumbag, I guess. The idea of being civic-minded has become viewed as utterly foreign and un-American to the party that claims to be more patriotic.
Back in his day, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was denounced as a traitor to his class – he had battled against the code David Brooks still peddles. FDR named his enemies and declared that he "welcomed their hatred." Obama, whatever his other faults and merits, isn't as "lucky" as FDR in the hatred he receives from the right. He's not denounced as a traitor to his class – he's attacked as wholly alien to America.
It's been astounding to see the petulant rage that's erupted from conservative politicians and their far right base in reaction to Obama's election and presidency. After ignoring or even cheering on all the abuses of the Bush administration, suddenly under Obama they started attacking even those policies more conservative than Eisenhower's or Nixon's or of the Republicans of 10-20 years ago as socialist. It may be because Obama broke the biggest unspoken rule of the game they thought they owned: You're not supposed to win. A similar dynamic drives all the reflexive hippie-punching and "center-right" blather from Beltway reporters. Liberal activists are very familiar with this rule, and have unfortunately seen plenty of it over the years, including during the current administration. Sensible policies have been denounced as too radical or "liberal" over and over again, watered down or completely eliminated. The conservative critique of Obama is that he's radically changed all the rules and is rigging the game against them – which might be poetic justice, but isn't true. The liberal critique varies, but it's generally that Obama has made some changes and improvements, but also has been too timid about changing the rules of the game, too accepting of how badly the game's rigged. The more sympathetic would argue he simply can't change things that much with an obstructionist GOP and other obstacles. The more critical think he's happy with a rigged game, or is making it worse, or is just too establishmentarian by nature (as with his economic team). If so, he's far from alone in Washington, more's the pity. But beyond any character assessments, the fact remains that good governance is not encouraged by the current rules of the game. Contrary to Brooks, the present set-up does not benefit us all, or anything remotely resembling a majority of Americans. When the dominant attitude in the Beltway is that liberals must always lose - and more importantly, that sensible, effective policy shouldn't guide decisions, especially if it's supported by the wrong sorts of people - it's time to challenge the rules, or change the game.