The Method of Madness

It isn’t that Obama has the wrong policies or writes the wrong numbers into his budget proposals. It’s that he belongs to the wrong tribe.

In the shutdown/debt-ceiling fight, the Tea Party Republicans put President Obama in a position where compromise was a practical impossibility: They demanded concessions in exchange for a resolving a crisis that they created, and that they could recreate at will. To give them anything at all would invite an endless series of crises that drop-by-drop would bleed the administration dry. The election of 2012 would effectively have been nullified.

So Obama held firm and the non-Tea-Party Republicans blinked. The deal did not resolve the crisis, but it did buy time. The government is funded until January 15 and the debt ceiling is raised until February 7. Obama didn’t win anything in terms of policy; he just got the metaphorical hostages released for a few months.

Now, presumably, we should be negotiating about the budget and other government policies, so that January and February don’t hit us the way October did. But increasingly we face the question: Negotiate about what?

The essence of negotiation is to figure out what you where you would be willing to compromise with the other side and where they might be willing to compromise with you. It presumes a desire on both sides to reach an agreement.

But increasingly, liberals like me are becoming skeptical. For the Tea Party base, the point of this last fight seems to have been the fight itself. It accomplished nothing, and (by one estimate) cost the economy $24 billion, reducing the growth rate in 4th-quarter GDP from 3% to 2.4%. But that leads Ann Coulter to say, “We should be proud. Tea Partiers should be standing tall after the last few weeks.” And Ted Cruz went home to a victory tour, reportedly getting standing ovations of eight minutes and 14 minutes.

What’s up with that?

So often, when you try to grapple with the issues the fight is supposed to be about, they evaporate. The national debt is supposed to be an apocalyptic threat to America. But the fact that the annual deficit is dropping does not seem to mitigate the urgency. The prospect of going back to the tax rates that produced a surplus in the last years of the Clinton administration is off the table. No tax increase of any kind can be part of the solution, no matter what spending cuts it might be coupled with. Not even egregious tax loopholes can be closed, unless that money is used to lower taxes somewhere else.

So we have a problem that is destroying America, but you can’t consider paying any money to solve it?

Some on the Left have begun talking about “post-policy nihilism” — Republican opposition for the sake of opposition, even when Obama offers their own ideas back to them. Or passing a budget whose cuts they themselves won’t vote for when they’re spelled out.

What are we to make of bizarre irrationalities, like Ted Cruz shutting down the government, and then protesting that the national monuments are shut down? With a confederate flag in the audience and sharing the podium with a guy who called on President Obama to

leave town, to get up, to put the Quran down, to get up off his knees, and to figuratively come out with his hands up.

Ryan Cooper comments:

these tea partiers were absolutely incandescent with rage at Obama that the national parks are shut down. This was the plan, don’t you remember? Guys? The only operating principle at work here seems to be “If X is bad, then X is Obama’s fault.”

The total disregard for even the simplest details or logic here, even according to the Republicans’ own frame of reference, underscores again that this crisis has nothing to do with actual policy differences. This is nothing but the politics of reactionary grievance.

Mike the Mad Biologist elaborated by referring to a piece he had previously written about Sarah Palin:

Her policy ignorance isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Palin is conceptually and intellectually poor because her politics are not about policies, but a romantic restoration of the ‘real’ America to its rightful place. The primary purpose of politics is not to govern, not to provide services, and not to solve mundane, although often important, problems. For the Palinist, politics first and foremost exists to enable the social restoration of ‘real’ Americans (think about the phrase “red blooded American”) and the emotional and social advantages that restoration would provide to its followers (obviously, if you’re not a ‘real’ American, you might view this as a bad thing…). Practicalities of governance, such as compromise and worrying about reality-based outcomes, actually get in the way.

And that, I think, gets to the heart of it. The root motivation of the Tea Party isn’t the deficit or ObamaCare or any other policy it’s currently focused on. The root motivation is tribal: a feeling that People-Like-Me used to own America, but it is being taken away by People-Like-Them and needs to be taken back.

That’s why nothing Obama can do is right. It isn’t that he has the wrong policies or writes the wrong numbers into his budget proposals. It’s that he belongs to the wrong tribe. Who that tribe is, exactly, varies from person to person and situation to situation. Sometimes it’s racial and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s cultural — the whole guns-and-religion thing. Sometimes it’s the Makers vs. the Takers. But what unites them all is a sense of tribal grievance. People-Like-Me used to own American and need to take it back.

I am in debt to Jonathan Korman (a.k.a Miniver Cheevy) for making the connection between the Palinist rhetorical style and the “Duckspeak” of 1984. After rendering an apparent word salad into free verse, Korman finds the structureless structure:

You may have trouble following Palin not only because of the way her arguments jump around, but also because they are almost all incomplete. To decode them, you need to know that they are allusions to right-wing talking points. … I submit that this is not just clumsiness. This is a method, if not necessarily a conscious one.

The point is to remind the initiated of feelings and conclusions and frames without providing any actual facts or ideas that could be thought about or disputed. Orwell noted the usefulness of this technique in “The Principles of Newspeak“.

For the purposes of everyday life it was no doubt necessary, or sometimes necessary, to reflect before speaking, but a Party member called upon to make a political or ethical judgment should be able to spray forth the correct opinions as automatically as a machine gun spraying forth bullets. His training fitted him to do this, the language gave him an almost foolproof instrument.

…. Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centers at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak, meaning ‘to quack like a duck’.

This is a common speech pattern on the Right. You just quack “Benghazi” or “out-of-control spending” or “religious freedom” or “the Constitution” and whole narratives of misinformation click into place. And because they need not be spelled out, they cannot be challenged.

I’m not sure where we can go from here. A group with policy goals can be negotiated with. A aggrieved tribe with identity issues really can’t be.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Mike Ignatowski  On October 28, 2013 at 9:37 pm

    I remember the first time I went to see a Tea Party demonstration just to see what was going on. The two most common signs I saw were: “This is not the country I grew up in”, and “I want my country back”. Tribalism seemed to be the center of it all. I also think the Tea Party accomplished exactly what they really wanted to accomplish with the government shutdown – and that is to express unfocused rage about a different tribe controlling the government.

  • Alan Miles  On August 24, 2014 at 3:02 pm

    When I get into any argument with a Tea Partier (or Tea Party sympathizer) about the deficit, I ask them what they are willing to sacrifice for the good of the country to reduce the deficit that they see as America’s biggest problem. I have yet to meet one who offered to sacrifice something themselves (as opposed to demanding that other people make sacrifices)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: