Monday, November 8, 2010

What Republicans Fear

The big victory for the Republicans in the recent midterm elections was predictable and predicted, but still a mystery to me. For a long time I have been trying to figure out why so many people vote against their own economic and social self-interests. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not rational. At first I thought Republicans were just less well informed than others, so they genuinely did not understand what they were voting for. But I decided that can’t be right. There are plenty of well-educated Republicans and plenty (Lord knows) of uneducated democrats. Analyzing Republican rhetoric reveals several consistent themes, and I thought those themes might reveal what the attraction is.

Some of the themes are admired traits of:

  • Plain working folks with common sense, not those Washington elites who tell us how to live
  • States’ rights, not federal government authority
  • Individualism, not collectivism
  • Low, or no taxes, not redistributive progressive taxation
  • Individual effort, not welfare
  • Personal overcoming of problems, without government programs
  • Voluntary charity, not wealth redistribution
  • Strong, aggressive, even bellicose defense policy, not nuanced negotiation
  • Absolutism, not compromise
  • Religion, not secularism
  • Strict morality, not permissiveness
  • Moral interpretation of sickness, weakness, poverty, crime, bad luck
  • Personal toughness, not mood-altering drugs (except for alcohol, nicotine, painkillers etc.)
  • Free market economics, not government regulation or interference
  • Strict, even literal interpretation of the constitution, without reliance on judicial precedent
  • Isolationism not internationalism
  • Uninhibited access to guns and weapons of all kinds, not regulation
  • Racial, or at least ethnic homogeneity, not multiculturalism
  • Tradition, not change
  • Untrammeled business practice, not labor unions
  • Economic growth, not inhibited by environmentalism or land use policy
  • Fear of God, intolerant of atheism or agnosticism
  • Non-acceptance, or intolerance of non-Christian religions
  • Non-acceptance, or intolerance of non-democratic forms of government
  • Heterosexuality only, no other patterns of sexuality
  • Anti-abortion, anti-free choice about conception
  • Merciless on crime, no mitigating circumstances
  • Appearance more than reality
  • Simple rather than complex solutions
  • Intuition or gut feeling, more than reason
  • Small government not large
  • Passive government, not activist
  • Government that spends no money except on constitutionally defined purposes
  • Conformity over creativity
  • American exceptionalism, not ordinariness
  • Low tolerance for and acceptance of different cultures, ways of life
  • Historical amnesia, not connectedness

I think that list hits the main points. These were culled from campaign speeches from the current midterm elections and other speeches going back to the 1950’s, such as speeches by Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and others.

Democratic speeches tend to emphasize the mirror image of those values, but this is about Republicans, trying to understand why, for example, they trumpet the sacredness of the “free market,” which brought us the mortgage crisis, the S&L crisis, the collapse of banking credit, and so on. Why are they so against government programs when their own children go to public schools and they drive on public highways and are glad to have social security and medicare? Why are they vehemently against government regulation which has halved air fares, and helps keep E. Coli out of our vegetables, lead paint out of children’s toys, and poisons out of medicine? Why do they chafe against separation of church and state while worshiping every word of the constitution? Republican values listed above, with a few exceptions, generally act against the economic and social self-interests of most voters. So how do Republicans win elections?

I think I have found the answer. In a word, fear. Republicans are fundamentally, personally, deeply afraid. They are afraid of criticism, ridicule, seeming foolish. They are afraid of appearing weak. It is a mentality of victimization. They feel they are always only a hair’s breadth from being oppressed, ridiculed, hurt, abused, and abandoned. It is a childish, or childhood reaction, not a reasoned adult attitude.

The fear arises from these sources: 1. Childhood abuse and/or neglect; 2. Just bad parenting in childhood; 3. Poverty in early life. 4. Poor early socialization leading to social exclusion, victimization, and low self-esteem.

To manage this deep-seated fear, Republicans, unconsciously, engage in “reaction formation,” a defense mechanism that emphasizes and exaggerates strength, fearlessness, prosperity, membership, high esteem, moral probity, social status. Of course everyone would like to enjoy those attributes, but when they arise from a psychological defense system, they become unrealistic, highly exaggerated, grotesquely inappropriate, because they are based on deep, unconscious emotion. These desired values are displayed bigger and louder than is necessary or even reasonable, because they have the impossible burden of keeping the lid on fear.

Defense mechanisms are ultimately not completely effective, however. The unconscious fear will still get out. The reaction formation is only a loose fitting lid over a seething cauldron of unconscious emotion. Consequently, Republicans still deeply fear the poor. Why? Because they know (unconsciously) that they themselves are just inches away from that pathetic, weak, morally suspect condition. For the same reason they fear the sick and are not much interested in reaching out to alleviate that suffering. Not because they lack compassion, but because psychologically, they simply cannot afford to contemplate what it means to be sick, weak, a helpless victim of Fate.

Big guns, big military, bellicose policies? Of course. It covers up the weakness that might be evident in nuanced negotiation. Big business and wealth? By all means. That means strength, not weakness. Government regulation? None needed. Regulation is like mom or dad telling you what you can or cannot do. It is victimization, and that cannot be tolerated. Taxes? The fewer the better, because paying taxes is victimization, giving up your hard earned money/strength/respectability to a tyrant. States’ rights? Yes! Submitting to mandates of the federal government is just like being sent to your room. It is victimization. Leave us alone.

How do Republicans win elections? They appeal to fear, and that works especially well when people are in fact afraid, for their job, their house, their retirement, their health, their safety against terrorists. It’s immediate, and it's not rational, so people will vote for the perception or even promise of strength over any economic or social reality.

How can Democrats win elections? By minimizing fear, providing safety and prosperity. By convincing ordinary voters that they are OK, and that everything is going to be alright. Just the way you calm a child who is afraid. What you do NOT do is try to explain to them the tax codes or Fed policy, long term strategies for reducing the debt, or the subtle chess games of international politics. That is not what elections are about. It is not a rational issue. It is all about fear, and overcoming it, despite the campaign rhetoric that tries to focus attention instead on rational, intellectual, policy debates. That’s all just cover talk for the real issue: fear.

People hate negative “attack” ads because they are irrelevant ad-hominem messages. They miss the point. They do not address the issue of fear. Except when they explicitly do: “Candidate X will ruin your life, raise your taxes, embrace the terrorists, confiscate your retirement, eliminate your job, send you to your room.” But of course you must be able to prove those claims to get away with them (because of government regulations). The anti-Goldwater "Daisy" ad that showed a nuclear bomb going off behind a little girl was a perfect campaign ad.

Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs were only possible because, despite the Vietnam war, it was a time of prosperity. People (most voters) were not personally, psychologically afraid.

Another move is that, when circumstances are so bad that fear turns to literal panic or outrage, the fear becomes conscious, explicit, no longer the unconscious childhood fear that Republicans can cover up (more or less). In that case, voters will look for realistic, rational solutions. This happened for FDR and Obama. But unless actual safety and prosperity are then forthcoming, voters will quickly revert to the difficult task of tamping down irrational childhood fears and rationality is no good for that, so Republicans will win again. Voters can’t help it because the underlying fear is not conscious.

Are Democrats immune from this unconscious fear-driven approach to life, most of the time? Not entirely, but there is a difference. In brief, Democratic psychology is bimodal. There is a hump of poor, undereducated, badly socialized, socially marginalized, but communal-living people at the low end and a highly educated, self-aware, critical thinking hump at the high end. The low mode are the likely beneficiaries of Democratic compassion and government largess, but they are also exactly what a Republican unconsciously fears. Republicans eschew the unwashed masses but they can draw votes from them when people feel the fear.

This is a story that satisfies me, after many years of thinking about why people vote against their own self-interests.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Is Obama Threatened in 2012?

Much is being made of the fact that this year, 2010, the midterm elections also happen be in a census year. After a census, congressional districts are redrawn (“gerrymandered”), a highly partisan political process led by the winning party and its governor in each state. Districts are drawn so that they are “pure” Republican or Democrat, so there is virtually no chance for dissent in any district, and therefore no serious competition for legislative seats. If, as expected, Republicans win more governorships and House seats this year, they will control the gerrymandering process, eliminating much competition for the next ten years, and that includes 2012.

The President will need, as always, 270 electoral college votes to win in 2012. The number of congressional seats in each state determines how many electors it gets. Republican states in the south, such as Texas, are expected to gain more electors after the census. So according to some sources (e.g., http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2010/10/23/midterm-races-hold-key-white-house-congress/) this will make it especially hard for Obama to get re-elected.

This is a spurious argument, I believe. Electors cast their vote according to the popular vote in their state. It is not illegal for an elector to ignore the popular vote and cast a ballot arbitrarily in a partisan way, but to my understanding that is extremely rare. So the census is not a direct threat to Obama.

A more serious threat is that the GOP will have some new Governors elected in 2010 and among them, there might be some credible presidential candidates, although two years is not much time to build an organization sufficient to mount a successful presidential bid. Still, their stable is awfully sparse now, and would benefit greatly from an emergent figure.

It’s true that Obama will have a difficult time governing if he loses the House majority to the GOP, as seems possible. However I think there are two silver linings in that scenario. One, the republicans will have to put their necks out when they are in charge. If they really want tax cuts for the rich and do not believe in health care for the poor, they will be forced to say so, and vote so. They no longer can throw stones from the sidelines without any responsibility. I believe the GOP has become so extreme that their bizarre ideas will be illuminated for all to see and that will be good for Democrats in 2012.

Secondly, I am not so sure that congress will be gridlocked for the next six years. Unless the Republicans really are delusionally detached from reason, some of them are going to have to realize that it will look bad for them in 2012 if they continue to act like petulant children. The more reasonable among them, and there must be some of those, will be forced to talk reasonably about reasonable legislation and make reasonable compromises, to get reasonable things passed. It could happen.

It is almost inconceivable that Obama could fail to get re-elected in 2012. By then, people will be more familiar with the Health Care act and maybe the Financial Reform act too, and will appreciate those. The economy will almost certainly be better by then, although probably still limping. Both wars should be essentially over. Guantanamo should be closed. And, I think Obama will compromise on letting the Bush tax cuts expire, renewing them even for the rich for two more years, so that in 2012, it will be the Republicans who have to explain why it is good for America for the richest 2% of the population to get an enormous tax cut. That’s a tough sell even for wing nuts. However, most Americans consistently vote against their own best economic interests by electing Republicans, I think because of a lack of critical thinking ability, which is my fault (I am an educator).

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Republicans in the Ascendant?

Senator Kit Bond, Republican from Missouri, sent a letter to the Economist magazine, published July 3, 2010. I thought it was noteworthy in revealing a lack of critical thinking, and conversely, a penchant for rhetorical fallacies, especially imprecise metaphors and emotionally loaded modifiers. Both sides of the political divide indulge this kind of phatic speech but this is a particularly interesting example because it seems like he is trying to be even-handed and facts-based, but just can’t manage it.

The new Republican agenda
SIR – Your analysis of what is wrong with the Republican Party hit one right note: voters expect solutions, not just rage (“What’s wrong with America’s right”, June 12th). President Barack Obama and his party in Congress came to power by riding the powerful tailwinds of discontent; Americans were rightfully angry that some on Wall Street had caused a financial crisis that left many families with a pink slip instead of a pay cheque.

The Democrats have taken advantage of this anger to force their agenda through Congress, while blocking Republican bipartisan solutions. Democrats have steamrollered through both chambers their policies of expanding government, increasing spending and swelling our debt. It is no surprise that American voters are once again angry, sick with bail-out fatigue, government overreach and runaway spending. Americans feel like Washington is no longer listening to them.

[My Comments: Is any majority vote a “forced agenda”? Did the Democrats “steamroller” their proposals through congress? I recall plenty of debate. But the Republicans lost. The majority rules in this country. That cannot be a novel concept for the senator. So what is his point? That he is a sore loser?

Did democrats “block” Republican solutions? I am not aware of any serious proposals from Republicans on Health Care Reform or Financial Reform. Republicans attempted to obstruct every single legislative proposal and not a single Republican voted for Health Care Reform. Republican proposals were invited but were not forthcoming. But let’s assume there were some proposals that I am not aware of. Were they bipartisan? Declaring that an idea is bipartisan does not make it so. If no Democrats accept a particular Republican proposal, in what sense is it bipartisan?


Do Democrats have “policies” of expanding government, increasing spending, and swelling our debt? These may be short term consequences of Democratic actions, but there is no policy that Democrats hold these as principles. The national debt tripled under George W. Bush. (Wars are expensive. Tax cuts are expensive.) Was it therefore a “Republican policy” to increase spending and swell the debt? I doubt the senator would agree. The senator conflates selected, short term consequences of legislation with general political policy.

Some Americans, perhaps including the Senator himself, may be “angry, sick with bail-out fatigue, government overreach and runaway spending.” However polls do not support that characterization of the majority’s views. I myself, for example, do not feel that way. I think the Democrats pulled the country back from the precipice of disaster with the bail-out, then used its majority power to extend health care to millions of Americans. There is no evidence that the spending was, or is, “runaway.”

It may be true, however that “Americans feel like Washington is no longer listening to them.” But that is always true. Politicians in Washington live in a bubble world, regardless of what party is in power. Hardly any information gets in or out. So this objection is not germane to the Senator’s complaints.]

[The senator continues...]
This new wave of anger offers the Republican Party an opportunity to promote its policies, which reflect the philosophy that America’s future depends far more on empowering individuals than empowering big government. These pro-growth solutions, such as Paul Ryan’s sound plan to deal with the deficit, include tax relief for individuals, families and small businesses, a comprehensive American energy bill and real health-care reform that lowers costs and improves care. Common sense solutions will not only sate voter anger and erase economic uncertainty, but bring sanity back to Washington policies.
Senator Kit Bond
Washington, DC


[My Comments: The first sentence of the senator’s final paragraph is a legitimate proposition and is well-stated. The Republican party should promote its policies. However, the next sentence begins by characterizing Republican policies as “pro-growth.” But growth for whom? History would suggest that Republicans favor growth of wealth and power for those who are wealthy and powerful. Democrats, on the other hand, are concerned more with economic prosperity for the lower and middle classes. “Pro-growth” is thus a vague generalization. In political speak, it is generally code for pro-business.

The senator endorses Paul Ryan’s “sound plan.” What is that? It is, roughly, a House bill (HR4529) that would cut medicare benefits for millions of Americans. Is that a “sound” idea? Yes, in the sense that it would significantly reduce the government’s entitlement burden, the main factor that must be addressed to “bend” the deficit curve. However, what about all the millions of people who have no other form of health care? Let them eat cake?

Ryan proposes that people be given vouchers with which to buy private insurance, which would take them off medicare. We must assume that these vouchers would be worth much less than the parallel value of medicare costs over a person’s lifetime, for otherwise there would be no savings to the government. So essentially, the plan is to undo the Democratic health care reform, not by repeal, but by replacing all those newly covered millions by millions of others kicked out from the full coverage umbrella of medicare. Is that sound policy? Depends on whether you think government is to serve all the people, or just the rich ones.

I also notice in the senator’s last paragraph that he speaks of “tax relief,” instead of “tax cuts.” Apparently Republicans have become aware that their favorite slogan is mindless and subject to ridicule. But who could object to tax relief? Everybody wants relief.Nevertheless , I would rather have “relief” from the two wars started under Republicans that have drained the treasury, rather than “relief” from mass transit, hospitals, green energy, financial regulation, education, and health coverage. “Tax relief” without a discussion of what taxes buy, is not a proposal, but a specious shibboleth.

Are common sense solutions the best as the senator asserts? It depends on whose notion of common sense you mean. I don’t trust Senator Bond’s. It’s up to him to persuade voters that his idea of common sense is in our own best interests. He, and other Republicans, may be able to do that, because most voters are not able to exercise critical thinking any more than the senator is. It’s all about emotion, personality, and innuendo.]

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Who is Running Israel?

Israel is receiving international condemnation of its raid on a ship bringing supplies to Gaza. The Wall Street Journal reports Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has argued that “the blockade of the Palestinian territory is necessary to prevent missile attacks against Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.” (“Israel’s Isolation Deepens,” http://online.wsj.com/article, 6/2/2010). That may be true, but it is not at all relevant to the criticism that Israel used inappropriate force in stopping the ship and killing ten civilians.

How many ways are there to stop a blockade-busting attempt? You can warn the invaders; apparently that was done to no avail. You can physically block them with other ships, or rafts, or other barriers. You could allow your own boats to be damaged by the invader, demonstrating provocation. You can tow the other guys away. You could tear gas the crew. You could ram their boat. You could tangle their propellers with nets.

Is it necessary to board the ship and kill everyone? What kind of thinking is that?

This incident betrays a far deeper problem than a diplomatic “incident” from a mishandled operation. It may demonstrate that the Israeli military is not really under civilian control. The military seems to be blinded by bloodlust, (as demonstrated by inappropriate use of force this time, and in the past), so let’s hope it is not generous to assume that cooler heads exist in the civilian government.

From Netanyahu’s remarks, there is some doubt about that. Naturally, it is his job to defend the action. But if we take his irrelevant defense at face value, it shows that he hasn’t got a clue.

He refuses to apologize “for defending ourselves.” He blames the Obama administration for encouraging others to gang up on Israel. He blames Hamas for shooting rockets into Israel. He says Israel has a right to inspect cargo going into Gaza. He reiterates his claim that there is no shortage of food or medicine and no humanitarian crisis in Gaza (http://www1.voanews.com/english/news/middle-east/Israel-PM-Defends-Deadly-Raid-on-Aid-Convoy-95435204.html) . He asserts that this is not an issue of human rights and not even an issue of right vs. wrong.

Can he really be that stupid to not understand what the international outrage is about? I don’t know anything about him personally, but it is hard to believe that he is stupid. So the alternative interpretation is that he is boxed in by the military and can say nothing else. I would rather have a stupid person in charge than nobody in charge, or worse, have an autonomous military in charge there.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Nancy Pelosi, National Hero

I say three cheers to House Speaker Pelosi for shepherding the Health Care reform bill through the house this weekend, to get it to senate reconciliation. Just a couple months ago the bill was all but moribund after the senate lost its Democratic majority.

Pelosi is a fierce partisan, much reviled by Republicans, but that’s exactly what was needed in this case. She is often criticized, even by Democrats, for not being more accommodating to the other side in her work. But I think that is na├»ve. Not a single Republican voted for the health care bill. Not one. They are apparently against health care for all Americans, satisfied that the affluent have care. Nor did Republicans propose any serious alternative, or engage in any serious debate of the substantive issues. They behaved merely as petulant obstructionists and continue to do so.

People who say Pelosi should have been more accommodating of Republicans to avoid the brinksmanship of this past weekend are not aware that we are in the era of “Fuck You politics.” There is no cooperation. There is no possibility of compromise. Conversation is not even possible. Pelosi knew that from the start and played her cards accordingly.

Some Democrats criticize her for being greedy. They say she wasted a lot of valuable time and political capital trying to get American health care grounded on a public option, rather than on private industry. Had the house supported a more moderate bill, the deal would have gone through earlier, more easily, and without the political fallout that some representatives will now suffer. But that is the fallacy of hindsight.

Pelosi had a large majority in the House and there was a narrow majority in the Senate, and Democrats were in the White House, so why NOT go for the brass ring? I would have done the same. It was not unreasonable to set the sights high. It was Republican propaganda that killed the public option, that, and Democrats’ characteristic inability to sell their ideas. Pelosi was not wrong going for the whole garbanzo. And she was smart enough to rein in her aspirations when the reality on the ground changed.

So I say, when it comes to the toughest, most junkyard-dog of a partisan legislator around, I am grateful she is on the right side.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Hail Mr. Moderate

Senator Chris Dodd unveiled his financial reform proposal today – alone. No one else would stand with him at the podium to announce it.

The proposal is deeply unpopular with all Republicans, who favor laissez-faire economics, despite the historical evidence that such policy is absolutely devastating to the country. They're not much on history, Republicans. Dodd can probably expect zero support from them on his bill.

On the other side, the bill is not popular with Democrats either, at least the radical left wing. They favor iron-fisted, almost Stalinistic government control of every aspect of the economy, an approach that is not only impractical, but dangerously disruptive and historically destructive. For example, many Democrats would like to expand again the size of government bureaucracy to create a consumer financial protection agency. That is the Nanny Government at its worst. Caveat emptor is a better policy. How about we take all the money we would have spend on administering a new government agency, and instead spend that amount on financial education for high school students?

Dodd’s bill is well summarized at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/economy/dodd-unveils-financial-overhaul/article1501089/

It is a down-the-middle approach that will curtail some of the most egregious financial offenses without trying to remodel the entire financial system. In that it is reasonable, moderate, and safe.

Whether he can get it passed is a whole different question. There is no middle ground any more in American politics.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Support Palin in 2012!

Sarah Palin told FoxNews.com she "would be willing" to challenge Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential race. http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2010/02/07/palin-willing-obama/.

This is tremendously good news. Anyone with any political sense should start contributing to her political campaign, now and continuously.

Likely Republican candidate Mitt Romney is also not a bad choice to support, since his religion probably makes him unelectable to the far right. Huckabee is also a good choice, although he could be a surprisingly dangerous populist. But Palin is so completely over the top that all Democrats should enthusiastically support her political ambition, to keep her ambition alive for two more years, and to block the path for any reasonable Republican candidate (if there is such a thing).

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Google's High Horse

Google is posturing and harrumphing these days. It says it may decide to pull out of China because of continued censorship of its search engine. According to The Economist (“Flowers for a funeral” Jan. 16, p. 41), a report by Google’s chief legal officer says the company is “reviewing the feasibility” of doing business in China because of ever-tightening limits on free speech there.

Memo to Google: There is no free speech in China. They are communists over there.

It simply cannot be the case that Google has not been aware of this fact, so what could they be thinking? Some writers (especially those from Baidu, the number one search engine in China) say that Google is just looking for a cover story to leave China without admitting economic defeat. Naturally, Google Denies this.

Google also cites recent hacker attacks on its Gmail service as a reason to leave. The hackers have been traced back to China and apparently targeted individuals critical of the government.

Memo to Google: One may not criticize the government in China. It is against the law.

And today, the New York Times reports that Google has postponed the release of its new smart phone in China (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/20/technology/companies/20phone.html). The phone uses open source Android software but has been highly customized to work well with Google applications.

Why would postponement of the phone be germane at this time? Google says only that its current controversy with the Chinese government would put a pall of bad publicity over the phone’s release (NYT article). That argument, however, conveniently overlooks the fact that said controversy is censored from Chinese media, so there would be no bad publicity. One can speculate that the real issue involves the phone’s ability to easily record pictures, video, and sound, and upload such information to Google sites. Likewise, there are probably slick interfaces to social networking sites. All of that would be feared by the Chinese government, which wishes to control all the information its citizens receive. That’s my guess.

The Chinese government is on the wrong side of history on this argument, and sooner or later (probably sooner than they would like), it will become infeasible to maintain effective censorship in an age of global communications. I worked with a fellow once who had escaped from Bulgaria (pre-wallfall), and defected to the U.S. He told me that there was an armed guard at every copy machine in the country, the state’s effort to control even the most primitive methods of communication. We know how that turned out. It will be the same in China.

However, until that day, the Chinese government has every legal and moral right to censor anything they please. They are not a democracy. They do not have a Bill of Rights. There is no right to free speech. It is illegal to criticize the government there. They have a different system than we do. So Google should get off its high horse and either comply or get out.