Streetwise Professor

September 25, 2015

Dying of a Theory, Socialcon Edition

Filed under: Politics — The Professor @ 6:25 pm

This should be a very winnable year for the Republicans. Hillary has more baggage than the hold of the Titanic, and her campaign is careening towards many icebergs to boot: the email fiasco in particular metastasizes daily, with her spokes-drones daily cast in the role of Nixon’s Ron Ziegler, intoning that one previous explanation after another is no longer operative. Waiting in the wings are a socialist loon, Bernie Sanders, and a hair-plugged political lifer loon, Slow Joe Biden. Nominating a non-insane person would result in a near shoeshoo-in for the Republicans.

But that would be too easy. There is a group of single issue ideologues, mainly social conservatives, whose insistence on ideological purity could doom us to further years of a Democrat in the White House. The glee of these people at the resignation of John Boehner as Speaker of the House illustrates the mindset, and the problem. These are people the Republicans can’t win without (because they tend to stay at home with their panties in a bunch if they don’t get their way) but can’t win with (because they alienate people who might be inclined to favor Republicans on other issues, such as fiscal matters, defense, taxes, immigration, and Obamacare).

I am hardly a Boehner enthusiast (or a McConnell one either). He has been uninspiring, and Obama has outmaneuvered him time and again. But I recognize that Boehner is in a difficult position, especially given the media imbalance between Democrats (and the Obama administration especially) and Republicans. But that too is symptomatic of the baleful effects of social conservatives: they provide an unending stream of bulletin board material for the media. If those who have rebelled against Boehner get their wish, and have one of their own supplant him in the leadership, the media-and Obama, and Hillary-will get their wish too.

Think about that. Right now Obama and the rest of the Democrats are probably buying popcorn by the gross to munch while watching the Republicans commit ritual suicide. They probably can’t believe their luck in the draw of political enemies.

Politics is the art of the possible. Consider the example of Lincoln, much reviled in his time, and revealingly much reviled today by many of those who were baying for Boehner’s scalp. The radicals and the ultras were scathing in their criticism of Lincoln for his temporizing on the issues of slavery, and eventually Reconstruction. But if Lincoln had run on the Radical Republican platform in 1864, he would have not been re-elected, and the South would likely have prevailed in seceding, or negotiated a return to the Union on terms that preserved slavery: either way, the slavery that the Radicals so hated would have endured. If  he had run on an avowedly abolitionist platform in 1860, he would not have been elected, and again, the result would have been years of continued bondage.

Lincoln attempted to keep together a fractious coalition in a period of unequaled political stress. He made compromises that drove the radicals wild. But their preferred path was impossible. Indulging them would have driven the bulk of the country into the arms of the reactionaries. The abolitionist/radical nightmare would have continued unabated had they won the internecine Republican  civil war within  a Civil War.

That’s the way it is in a democracy, and in any political system, really. The electorate is a constraint. The tension of leadership is to lead-that is, not merely to capitulate to popular whims-while not getting so far out in front that the electorate rejects you.

The vast bulk of the electorate is not about to join the socialcons in a kamikaze charge, especially on social issues like abortion or even immigration. But by insisting on ideological purity on these issues, these people will empower the left, which will move the country further away from the socialcons’ desired state of affairs, not closer.

To invoke Lincoln’s Civil War antagonist, Jefferson Davis, who said that the Confederacy’s epitaph should be “Died of a Theory”: the ideological and theological theories being advanced by the Rigid Right will will kill any Republican chances at the presidency in 2016, and likely beyond.

The beyond part is realistic, and particularly disturbing. It is realistic because there are many examples of ideological purists putting their dominance of a party and forcing its adherence to their ideology over electoral success. You have to look no further for an example than the UK, where in the aftermath of a stunning electoral defeat, the Labour Party decided not to understand and accommodate the majority. Instead, it indulged its inner Bolshevik, and elected as leader a hardcore leftist (Jeremy Corbyn) who would have been extreme in the 20s, or the pre-Thatcher 70s. Those who are left can take smug comfort in their purity, and are indeed reveling in their intra-party triumph, but shouldn’t be planning on moving into 10 Downing Street anytime soon.

Those who are pushing Trump (though it is beyond me how any social conservative could seriously consider him a fellow traveler), or Cruz, or Huckabee, and who will sit out the election if a Rubio, Fiorina, or Bush are nominated better place a high value on making sure that their purity of theory and ideology is unsullied by compromise, for that’s all that they will have to console them. Politically and legally the country will move further away from them, not closer, because they will extend the Democrats’ hold on the White House.

The perfect is the enemy of the good, especially in politics. The problem is, some people are too self-righteous to figure that out.

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  1. Well said. Surely Ted Cruz understands this. He is a smart man, but the problem is that he may think that Trump’s popularity demonstrates a revolution is afoot and the electorate is really ready to reject politics as usual. I fear when it comes time to vote a majority will not take the chance of pushing themselves or Grandma over the cliff while in the wheelchair. Safety/security represented by the status quo will be the choice.

    Comment by Margaret Aten — September 25, 2015 @ 7:20 pm

  2. The problem is that politics have become for many the way to express their individuality. One more experience to share. Not a way to negotiate interests.

    Comment by Krzys — September 26, 2015 @ 10:28 am

  3. @Krzys-Agreed for the most part. My main reservation about “expressing individuality,” is that it is also a way of expressing loyalty to the tribe. Maybe a way of reconciling these points is that politics has become a form of self-identification and signalling. I would further note that social media has greatly contributed to this development. It reduces the cost of narcissistic display relative to the cost of negotiating interest, and leads to people substituting away from the latter and towards the former.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — September 26, 2015 @ 12:05 pm

  4. Doc, you misspelled “shoo-in.” Figured I’d let you know…

    Comment by Jay Teigh — September 26, 2015 @ 10:00 pm

  5. Perhaps you could criticize Sanders on his policies, instead of just calling him a “loon”. Don’t particularly see anything too nuts there.

    Comment by mr mcknuckles — September 28, 2015 @ 7:19 am

  6. This is one of the few times I think your analysis is off target. There is a broad coalition on the right, not just socialcons, who want the Republican leadership to at least occasionally fight. Carly Fiorina is the leading spokesperson now for fighting planned parent hood funding. Is she a “socialcon”? I think not. I completely agree that there is an optimal degree of taking a stand vs. negotiating what you can get in politics. In my view, the current Republican leadership misled the troops on how much they would be willing to fight. A better analogy would be Boehner = McClellan.

    Comment by Scott Irwin — September 28, 2015 @ 1:29 pm

  7. Professor, like Scott Irwin, I am surprised to find myself disagreeing with something you’ve written. You’re right about Lincoln but ask yourself, who built the anti-slavery constituency that Lincoln led to victory? It wasn’t built by moderate Whigs like Lincoln. It was built by the uncompromising ‘theory’ people, like Wm. Lloyd Garrison and the people who attempted to apply his anti-slavery ‘fanaticism’ in uncompromising ways in the political arena. It was built by the people who graced the ranks of the Free Soil Party, the Liberty Party and, eventually, the ‘radical’ wing of the Republican Party into which they coalesced. If the ‘theory’ people had continued to support the Whigs though the 1840s, 1850s and beyond, instead of revolting and insisting on ‘ideological purity’ or nothing – destroying the Whig Party in the process – slavery would not have been overthrown in the 1860s. The problem with the GOP establishment today is that they’re all a bunch of Millard Fillmores and we need a Lincoln.

    Comment by Carmichael — September 28, 2015 @ 3:00 pm

  8. The first time I saw Bernie Sanders on television I thought it was a KFC commercial and they said Colonel Sanders. Are they related?

    I looked through his policies and thought maybe 75% were loon and 25% had merit. He is Obma+delta on most issues.

    Comment by pahoben — September 28, 2015 @ 3:42 pm

  9. maybe 95%/5% rather.

    Comment by pahoben — September 28, 2015 @ 3:45 pm

  10. @Scott & Carmichael. No one disputes that combatting Obama, and the left, is desirable. But you have to choose your battles, and the ground you fight on. Fighting on the size of government, or taxes, or defense, or Obamacare, or a host of other issues would likely be electoral winners, as well as principled and justified. But these are precisely the grounds on which the most pugnacious on the right are not fighting. The Trump supporters are for fighting the establishment for the sake of fighting the establishment, and as a result are supporting a candidate who is liberal on many issues and a protectionist to boot. The socialcons have made abortion and gay marriage their battlecries, and this is a recipe for electoral disaster. What’s more, the socialcons have made these issues litmus tests, and demonstrated the sincerity of that by largely sitting out in 2012.

    I would also note that Cruz in particular has been obnoxious and small in a way that is extremely off-putting to all but the true believers. He gloated over Boehner’s demise, when some graciousness was in order.

    Rubio has spoken up on these issues in a classier and more measured way.

    So by all means fight. But fight winnable battles, and battles that will win the electoral war. That’s the intended point of the post, which apparently I did not write well enough to make that clear.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — September 28, 2015 @ 6:57 pm

  11. Sorry Professor but immigration is not an ideological issue like gay marriage or abortion, nor is immigration off the table due to SCOTUS rulings.

    Immigration is a real present danger driven by lawless behavior on part of the Executive and cowardice on part of Congress.

    All three are issues that go to the very heart of our constitutional government. Immigration because Congress refuses to commit to an hugely unpopular open borders policy, knowing that such a vote could mean losing office. Abortion and gay marriage are unpopular issues imposed on Americans by an unelected Supreme Court on bogus interpretation of the Constitution. That power looks illegitimate to all but the minority ideologues on the Left.

    Trump and Cruz speak less for “socialcon” faiths but address real concerns on the legitimacy of governance in Washington.

    The processes of federal government are the fundamental issues.

    Comment by Whitehall — September 28, 2015 @ 8:07 pm

  12. Boehner seems to have won some big spending cuts. Republicans won the Senate and prevented (along with UK parliament) Obama’s blowing Syria wide open for JAN and ISIS

    the number of abortions is trending downward. so is crime

    we won some state houses and R2work in Michigan and Wisconsin. it will take our credibility a while to recover from Bush 2. personally, I would like a R in charge of the regulatory agencies, but I don’t think that our present equilibrium is so bad

    Comment by Dots — September 28, 2015 @ 11:25 pm

  13. Looking forward to the future development of political science and there are game changing possibilities. If artificial intelligence research does reach a certain level then possible to have an AI simulation of any historical figure run for president. My personal choice will be King Leonidas.

    Many current political figures are running simulations now. You have the Ivy League Intellectual Liberal Archetype and the Social Conservative Archetype simulations as examples. Evidence that the rhetoric is from simulation is provided by the gross difference between what they say and what they do in their private lives.

    Comment by pahoben — September 29, 2015 @ 2:51 am

  14. I hated Cruz’s long speeches detailing how he was fiendishly tricked by Boehner to vote for something he never would have voted for otherwise. If that drunk could trick him into doing something fundamentally opposed to his values then God knows what Putin or a stage hypnotist could accomplish.

    Comment by pahoben — September 29, 2015 @ 3:08 am

  15. I am afraid maybe a Libertarian Archetype simulation is under development in DC.

    Comment by pahoben — September 29, 2015 @ 3:12 am

  16. Wow, I’m surprised at the harsh response to the professor. I’m a D and I agree 100% with what he said. Nailed it in one. Hillary is an AWFUL candidate, flawed doesn’t even begin to describe it. Yet you stand her next to some of the truly nutty people on the Republican side and she starts to look palatable (Fiorina was so bad for HP they had to pay her millions to leave! The American people don’t have that option. She’s qualified to be president how?? Because she lost a Republican Senate primary? At least Obama won…). And no, social issues like gay marriage and abortion don’t motivate anyone, but the Republican base. The rest of us have moved on. Watch less Fox News. You might not agree with it, but it would give you a more balanced view as to what the other 75% of the country is thinking.

    Comment by Pat — September 29, 2015 @ 2:05 pm

  17. The professor misunderstood and misrepresented the motivations of many conservatives. I don’t consider myself a “socialcon” for example but find these issues are deeply disturbing in the WAY that government action was decided.

    They were decided FOR us, not BY us.

    My hunch is that the professor made some social/class inference from the context of issues and expanded that unduly to the supporters of various conservative candidates.

    That extrapolation was unfounded and seemed a bit haughty.

    Comment by Whitehall — September 30, 2015 @ 5:24 am

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