Tuesday, December 9, 2008

To Tide You Over, A Quick Word or Two

First of all, your intrepid columnist apologizes for having once again conducted himself in a manner somewhat less than intrepid over these past few days. It's a desperately busy time around the college where I inflict my sardonic pseudo-superiority on poor unsuspecting middle-class suburbanites who after all just want to go someplace dimly lit and sit in a cubicle for the next fifty years. But this morning as I was browsing my regular stable of political news sites, I came across the phrase "oogedy-boogedy Republicans," complete with a definition. The whole thing inspired me to dash off a quick column, even though I'm already late for a meeting with a student who'd like it very much if I could teach her an entire macroeconomics course in the hour before her test.

The definition of an oogedy-boogedy Republican is, roughly, someone whose religious/moral convictions (one might say hypocrisies, at this point) renders him or her an undesirable face for persuading the low-information middle of the virtues of the conservative movement. Think Haley Barbour meets Jerry Fallwell with a dash of Grover Norquist thrown in, and you've got the three-headed monster of oogedy-boogedeyism pretty well nailed. Or you could just pull up a press-pool photograph of the current President and skip the trouble of hybridizing the view, I suppose. At all events, the collapse in popularity of the modern social-conservative movement, it is argued, is the result of the fact that the oogedy-boogedies have alienated the persuadable middle. This established, the path back to Republican power is supposedly self-evident, in the form of decreased oogedy-boogedeyism. It's a compelling and articulately rendered argument; it only has one small problem: It is unambiguously wrong.

The modern social-conservative movement, as it happens, is the principal benefactor of Republican power over the past forty years. Many people like to think that modern conservatism began with the Reagan revolution in 1980, but in fact the first truly modern Republican was the first Californian who ran for President on a platform of hating media bias and railing against big government, all while manipulating live television addresses and running up a tab in Vietnam even bigger than Lyndon Johnson's--Richard Nixon.

It was Nixon (or perhaps his campaign elite, which we forget were very elite indeed before they started firebombing Brookings Institutions and vandalizing psychiatrists' offices), who first saw that the Republican brand wouldn't win enough votes in any nationwide election on a simple platform of defending the well-to-do from excessive taxes.

In 1968 the Republicans had lost seven of the past nine Presidential elections, going back to 1932, and Nixon's team ingeniously saw how simple the explanation was: the under-educated voters in the lower middle class didn't have to think too hard about policy, to vote Democratic. What Nixon needed was a campaign designed to allow those same people to vote Republican, instead, equally without thinking. In an era when whole cities were being burned they ran ads calling Democrats soft on crime; in an era when doors were first being opened to genuine racial equality they ran tradition-heavy ads aimed at white voters in the south; in an era when the federal budget deficit was exploding with every shell dropped over Pleiku they ran ads suggesting that everyone was going to pay higher taxes if we kept returning Democrats to power. It was a brilliant strategy, precisely because of oogedy-boogedeyism, and it has worked ever since.

The Republican playbook for my entire lifetime has been just this, and until now it has worked in every un-asterisked election of that period: '68, '72, '80, '84, '88, '00, and '04. Only in the aftermath of Watergate, and twice with the unwitting aide of H. Ross Perot in the nineties, have the Democrats managed to wriggle out of the unwinnable trap of winning voters away from oogedy-boogedy voting behavior, without talking down to them and risking dismissal as elitist. Just ask John Kerry.

Better yet, just ask Michael Dukakis--since this one election, 1988, probably serves as the best example of the playbook working to perfection. It happens that 1988 was my first vote, and I didn't know anyone who really wanted Bush Senior to be President, and yet I voted for him--along with rather a large assortment of other people who didn't like him either--precisely because the other guy's positions looked mealy-mouthed, weak, strung across a framework of tortured reasoning, and generally unprincipled. It was all a complete fiction, born strictly of playbook manipulation: drive up the other guy's negatives, shore-up your teetering voters (like me, at the time), push emotional hot-buttons, let everyone off the hook of really having to think too hard about all of this. They say you should never leap at the first opportunity to go to bed with someone, because that person will always be your first. To which I say, ain't it the truth.

Fast-forwarding to more recent times, when the Terry Schaivo matter was front-page news across the entire country (and nowhere more so than Florida). Many of my most politically astute friends couldn't figure out why the Republicans would be so "foolish" as to side with continuing care for Terry, when the general public was coming down 62-38 for having her life terminated with dignity--and I for one saw it as a brilliant move, precisely for its resonance with the oogedy-boogedies. As long as the Republicans could keep those people held together, it didn't matter if 62 percent of the public disagreed with them, because half of those 62 percent wouldn't vote, anyway; the opposition to oogedy-boogedyism was too disorganized.

Until the second term of Bush-II, that is. And here at last we come to the point: Low-information voters who might be tempted to reject oogedy-boogedy tactics are also, by that very combination of traits, extremely unlikely to drag themselves to the polls in an ordinary election cycle. The mistake the Republicans made, in the second term of the Bush-Jr. White House, was to give them an excuse to do so. Between the fruits of bone-headed deregulation of the financial markets, the shockingly ham-fisted response to Katrina, an all but universally discredited folly in Iraq, repeated and callous disregard for civil liberties and constitutional due process, and everywhere the smug impunity--not of oogedy-boogedyism at all, but of power--the current administration forgot that the oogedy-boogedy is about winning low information voters who would otherwise vote Democratic. Having made the mess too obvious, in other words, the administration made even oogedy-boogedy voting behavior pointlessly abstruse. The reason to vote for McCain was as clear as it had been to vote for Nixon; the reason to vote for Obama was even clearer.

Much will be written in the next few months and years about how the Republicans will win their way back to power in this country. Some will say that the Republicans have to move to the center, and those who believe this will throw their support behind someone like Mitt Romney or George Pataki. Others will say that a lack of fire in the belly of the oogedy-boogedies is precisely why Mr. McCain lost, and will throw their support behind a certain, turkey-pardoning Governor from the great state of Alaska. Both sides are wrong. The path back to power for the Republicans will be to disconnect oogedy-boogedy voting from the arrogance of power, by picking someone who can be oogedy-boogedy without actually scaring the shit out of everybody in the process. That's Bobby Jindhal, or, perhaps even more effectively, Mike Huckabee.

But something else has to happen if the Republicans are to return to power anytime soon, too--something that hasn't happened in the aftermath of elections that superficially look like the one we've just had. This vote that we've just finished casting looks, to your author and to a great many people smarter than he, like a "realignment election," in which people find new, low-information excuses to back the opposite party from the one they've been supporting up to that time. In this century, it's happened twice before: 1932 and 1968. And on both occasions, it took a lot more than decreased arrogance and a less scary candidate to reverse that election's effects.

Fortunately for us, the kind of opening that a Mike Huckabee would need, to reassert the success of Republican oogedy-boogedyism, seems unlikely to be handed down to him on a silver platter. Mercifully, the long-term prospects for Republican ascendance will for a time not rest with Huckabee, Jindhal, Romney, Pataki, or anyone else with an (R) after his or her name, but rather in the capable hands of a certain skinny guy from Chicago--a skinny guy from Chicago who will very soon be getting down to the very, very hard work of erasing all of the oogedy-boogedy playbook's diverse and ugly consequences.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

PS: I did promise you this would be a short column, didn't I?


Anonymous said...

Welcome back, we've missed you.
This is a very relevant column, one that many of us have struggled to elucidate, but haven't succeeded.

The R's had a couple of resonant lines: "Tax and Spend Liberals" and "Baby Killers". Hopefully, everyone has learned to reject those irrelevant lines.

I am happy to report that even my mailman stopped today to chat about and gloat over the election of Obama. However, more disturbingly, another friend told me that at work they have a "football pool" on the day Obama is assassinated. Oh gosh.

Dave O'Gorman said...

Thanks so much for your encouraging feedback! Whenever I go to ground for more than a day or two, I always worry that nobody will ever see these columns again, afterward.

Would you (or anyone else) care to comment about the inclusion of travel narrative or movie reviews? So far pretty-much deafening silence on the issue, pro or con.

Anonymous said...

In answering your question, I'll digress a bit, but in the interests of explanation. I applied to a local paper to do an unpaid man-about-town column. The editor averred that I would have to be more than a "one-trick-pony". Unfortunately, I am only the aforementioned, and am interested in mostly politics, government and economics. You seem to have such an erudite grasp of the above that it seems a waste to diverge.

Dave O'Gorman said...

I think the mistake -- more or less unavoidable, given the timing with which this column was introduced -- was to do forty or fifty political topics in a row, followed by a travel narrative. It would have been a little bit like John Malkovich quitting his acting career to take up puppetry, I suppose.

Maybe the thing to do is learn enough html to place the different types of posts in their own "departments," so that readers may *elect* to read about travel and movies, or not.

A. Gordon said...

Hooray! Dave's back! We missed you.

I could help you with the HTML if you want, I'm a software engineer and do web application development. Alternatively, it might just be easier to set up another blog (it's free) and have a link to it in this blog.