Cargo Cult Politics

In the days since the election, recriminations have been flying fast and hard inside the Republican hivemind. Mallet du Pan observed more than 200 years ago that the revolution devours its own children, and a modified form of that adage has applied quite well to the recent “analysis” of just what it is that went wrong on November 6th. Of course, not all of the analysis is scare-quotes worthy; over at The Monkey Cage, John Sides explains with voodoo things like “numbers” and “logic” why this election may not be a realignment, and elsewhere occasionally-sane conservative David Frum has been trying to bring some semblance of reality into the conservative bubble.

Part of the soul-searching, if it can be called that, that is taking place among the more fact-aware members of the Republican community, has involved reflections on the changing demographics of America. Oh, has it ever involved them! It is possible now to finally get Republicans to realize that the demographics are changing, which I suppose is progress of a sort, but there are things that you believe with your head, and things that you believe with your heart; while it seems the head-belief is making inroads, the heart-belief that Republicans can win by changing nothing remains.

This, I hope, makes the title clear. When Richard Feynman first spoke about “cargo-cult science,” he had in mind something that has all the appearance of science but none of its actual content. It’s clear that so far, the Republican strategy has had all the appearance of a strategy, but none of the actual content. Well, that’s not entirely fair. Or maybe it’s too fair; the appearance is the content.

If you read almost any breakdown of future GOP strategy, you find a lot of discussion about how to best communicate the Republican message to Latinos, women, and, well, anyone who isn’t a straight white dude. But as James Joyner astutely observes, the problem is not communication. The problem is that all those people really fucking hate the Republican platform. To understand this, one need look no further than a man who is righter than he knows: Bill O’Reilly. For anyone not familiar will O’Reilly’s post-election pontifications, his surprisingly non-psychotic take on the whole thing was pretty straightforward: the people who voted for Obama want “stuff.”

Let’s set aside the obvious racism (which is even more racist in context) of O’Reilly’s remark. Taking Republicans to task for racist bullshit is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit, and plenty of people have done it. What is more interesting to me is looking at the sense in which O’Reilly is entirely correct in his evaluation.

O’Reilly seems to have discovered the remarkable phenomenon, previously unknown to anyone in American politics, that people are motivated by political messages that promise them some desirable outcome. Just like many rich people are motivated to vote for Republicans by promises of tax cuts, and lots of white people are motivated to vote for Republicans by barely-disguised racist pandering, so are people on the other side of the fence motivated by considerations of what benefits they might reap from electoral outcomes. Of course, far from being some sort of pathology, this is actually an entirely normal thing for people to do, and the only objection that O’Reilly can possibly have to this is that the “wrong” sorts of people want the “wrong” sorts of things. Women with their abortions and gays with their marriage and liberals in general with their welfare state, UGH!

And that’s the basic problem for Republicans going forward: people like what the other party’s offering. They legitimately think that a welfare state funded by progressive taxation and a legal regime in which a woman isn’t forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term are good things. If you offer to dismantle all of that stuff that people like, you can hardly be surprised if your platform ends up being somewhat unpopular. It’s not wildly unpopular, yet, but the trend is headed in that direction; the only age group that voted for Romney was old people, and the younger the demographic gets, the more liberal it is. For all their talk of “communication” and “appeals to minorities” it’s pretty clear that a lot of Republicans think that they can just put a Latino face out there, or possibly a woman (say, how did that work last time?) and run the same regressive policies expecting to win. It’s a strategy of sorts, I suppose, but it’s not a strategy that, despite the ardent pleas of David Frum, includes any sort of modification of actual policies.

Of course, it’s easy to understand the problems that the GOP faces. They’re caught, especially at the Congressional level, between the Scylla of national unelectability and the Charybdis of primary challenges from their socially conservative base. A Republican party that decided to wave a white flag in the culture wars would face a powerful backlash in precisely the places where it’s currently strongest, but a party that continues to prosecute the same culture wars is facing an electorate that’s been progressively souring on that particular message. In a textbook illustration of irony, the truth of that, the truth of the proposition that voters will vote for the “stuff” they want, has been brought home by none other than O’Reilly. And when Bill O’Reilly is the one in your party who most closely resembles someone who understands how politics works, you’re probably deeply fucked.