Tag Archives: GOP

Loyalty Signaling

I’ve posted before about “virtue signaling”-a way of publicly expressing a moral viewpoint with the intent of communicating one’s connection to people of similar, virtuous sentiments. (When I first purchased a Prius, a colleague asked if the purchase was prompted by a desire to “signal” my concerns for the environment to those who would be sympathetic. I guiltily wondered if he was on to something..)

However, I had never heard of “loyalty signaling” until I read a recent column by Paul Krugman.Krugman was  referencing scholarship on the development of cults, and he was particularly impressed by a paper by a New Zealand-based researcher, Xavier Márquez.

“The Mechanisms of Cult Production” compares the behavior of political elites across a wide range of dictatorial regimes, from Caligula’s Rome to the Kim family’s North Korea, and finds striking similarities. Despite vast differences in culture and material circumstances, elites in all such regimes engage in pretty much the same behavior, especially what the paper dubs “loyalty signaling” and “flattery inflation.”

Krugman defines signaling as a concept originally drawn from economics; it describes costly, often pointless behaviors engaged in by people trying  to demonstrate that they have attributes that others value.

In the context of dictatorial regimes, signaling typically involves making absurd claims on behalf of the Leader and his agenda, often including “nauseating displays of loyalty.” If the claims are obvious nonsense and destructive in their effects, if making those claims humiliates the person who makes them, these are features, not bugs. I mean, how does the Leader know if you’re truly loyal unless you’re willing to demonstrate your loyalty by inflicting harm both on others and on your own reputation?

And once this kind of signaling becomes the norm, those trying to prove their loyalty have to go to ever greater extremes to differentiate themselves from the pack. Hence “flattery inflation”: The Leader isn’t just brave and wise, he’s a perfect physical specimen, a brilliant health expert, a Nobel-level economic analyst, and more. The fact that he’s obviously none of these things only enhances the effectiveness of the flattery as a demonstration of loyalty.

Does all of this sound familiar? Of course it does, at least to anyone who has been tracking Fox News or the utterances of political figures like Lindsey Graham or Kevin McCarthy.

Krugman repeats his often-communicated belief that the G.O.P. is no longer a normal political party. (As he says, it sure doesn’t look anything like the party of Dwight Eisenhower). But as he and a number of other observers have pointed out, it does bear a distinct and growing resemblance to the ruling parties of autocratic regimes.

In the U.S., of course, the Trump Party doesn’t (yet) exercise complete control– so Republican politicians suspected of insufficient loyalty to Donald Trump aren’t sent to the gulag. “At most, they stand to lose intraparty offices and, possibly, future primaries.” Yet–as Krugman says, these threats are seemingly sufficient to turn them into modern-day versions of Caligula’s courtiers.

Unfortunately, all this loyalty signaling is putting the whole nation at risk. In fact, it will almost surely kill large numbers of Americans in the next few months….

Republican politicians and Republican-oriented influencers have driven much of the opposition to Covid-19 vaccines, in some cases engaging in what amounts to outright sabotage. And there is a stunning negative correlation between Trump’s share of a county’s vote in 2020 and its current vaccination rate.

Krugman says that hostility to vaccines has become a form of loyalty signaling–which, if accurate, answers a question about vaccine refusal that has confounded most sane Americans. As he says, the G.O.P. has become something having no precedent in American history (although there have been many precedents abroad.)

Republicans have created for themselves a political realm in which costly demonstrations of loyalty transcend considerations of good policy or even basic logic. And all of us may pay the price.

When cult members “drink the Kool Aid,” they typically only kill themselves. Unfortunately, the cult that has replaced the once-Grand-Old-Party threatens to kill us all.

 

The Animosity Coalition

I almost always learn something from reading Thomas Edsall’s “Guest Essays” (formerly known as “Op Eds”) in the New York Times. He usually surveys and cites several academic researchers with expertise in whatever subject he’s investigating, and–as a recent essay demonstrated–he sometimes comes up with a nice turn of phrase.

Edsall’s topic was the “animosity coalition.”

In 2016, Donald Trump recruited voters with the highest levels of animosity toward African Americans, assembling a “schadenfreude” electorate — voters who take pleasure in making the opposition suffer — that continues to dominate the Republican Party, even in the aftermath of the Trump presidency.

Schadenfreude electorate.” Perfect!!

Edsall doesn’t mince words about the composition of that electorate, pointing out that Trump played to the dark side of American politics, constructing an “animosity coalition” composed of “the alienated, the distrustful, voters willing to sacrifice democracy for a return to white hegemony.” As he says, segregationists have long been a permanent fixture of American politics, although shifting between the two major parties.

And that brings us to an essential insight that answers what has been a vexing question, at least for me. 

Edsall quotes Liliana Mason for the insight–which is that their solidification of control over the Republican Party has mades White supremacy seem to be  a partisan issue. Mason points out, however, that members of what she calls the segregation faction have been around much longer than our current partisan divide. In fact, she says, “they are not loyal to a party — they are loyal to white Christian domination.” (emphasis mine)

There is a faction in American politics that has moved from party to party, can be recruited from either party, and responds especially well to hatred of marginalized groups. They’re not just Republicans or Democrats, they’re a third faction that targets parties.

Mason’s conclusions are echoed by other researchers, who have found Trump supporters exhibiting attitudes about racial groups, immigrants and political correctness that rival partisanship and are “negatively related to support for mainstream Republican candidates.”

That insight explains something that so many of us have found baffling: why would elected Republican officials and Republican candidates for public office–many of whom clearly know better– dutifully echo Trump’s bigotries and support his Big Lie? 

The usual theory is that this represents a combination of fecklessness and ambition. Among those who do know better are individuals who lack a moral center–who see which way the GOP winds are blowing for GOP primary voters–and who are prioritizing their personal electoral prospects above their moral and patriotic duties. They are “playing to the base.”

What the cited scholarship adds to that explanation is an important insight: the “base” to which these candidates are pandering isn’t even a Republican base–at least, not as political scientists define a party’s base. It’s the voters who were unhappy with Trump, or with their particular House or Senate candidates, but who nevertheless loyally voted Republican, who are members of the base.

In other words, voters for whom an R or D next to a name on the ballot is dispositive constitute a political party’s true base.

That is not a description of the “animosity coalition” that effectively controls today’s GOP. Those voters have shifted parties before and they would do so again, because their allegiance is to White Christian dominance. As a result, Republicans who need their votes can’t rely on the old political calculation (“where would they go? to the Democrats? Not likely!”) because significant numbers of these voters really would desert candidates who they perceive as insufficiently reactionary/racist.

Julie Wronski, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi — a co-author, with Mason and John Kane of N.Y.U., of a just published paper, “Activating Animus: The Uniquely Social Roots of Trump Support” — put it this way in reply to my emailed query:

The Trump coalition is motivated by animosity toward Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims and L.G.B.T. This animosity has no bearing on support for any of the other G.O.P. elites or the party itself. Warmth toward whites and Christians equally predict support for Trump, other G.O.P. elites, and the party itself. The only area where Trump support is different than other G.O.P. support is in regards to harnessing this out-group animus.

For as long as Trump remains the standard-bearer of the Republican Party, Wronski continued, “this animosity coalition will define the party.”

The animosity coalition is composed of folks whose only real goals are to protect White Christian privilege and “own the libs.” 

In Edsall’s felicitous phrase, they are the “schadenfreude” electorate.

 

 

The “Good Republican” Dilemma

Michael Gerson is one of the many prominent former Republicans who are horrified by what the Grand Old Party has become. In a column earlier this year for the Washington Post he wrote that

A political movement will either police its extremes or be defined by them.

Disapproval from opponents is easy to dismiss as mere partisanship. It is through self-criticism that a political party defines and patrols the boundaries of its ideological sanity.

The column was triggered by the overt racism of Senator Ron Johnson and the reaction–really, the lack of a reaction–by Johnson’s Republican colleagues, who (once again) proved unwilling to “patrol the boundaries of ideological sanity.”

There have always been bigots with access to a microphone. But in this case, Johnson did not face the hygienic repudiation of his party. Republican leaders preferred a different strategy: putting their fingers in their ears and humming loudly. Republicans have abolished their ideological police.

The reason is simple. After four years of Donald Trump, Johnson’s sentiments are not out of the Republican mainstream. They are an application of the prevailing Republican ideology — that the “real” America is under assault by the dangerous other: Violent immigrants. Angry Blacks. Antifa terrorists. Suspicious Muslims. And don’t forget “the China virus.”

Gerson concedes that Trump didn’t somehow create those views out of whole cloth. But  he points out–as many others have–the fact that Trump normalized these sentiments to an unprecedented degree.

Under Trump’s cover, this has been revealed as the majority position of Republicans, or at least engaged, activist Republicans…

Our country faces many crises. But our nation’s politics has a single, overriding challenge: One of the United States’ venerable, powerful political parties has been overtaken by people who make resentment against outsiders the central element of their appeal. Inciting fear is not an excess of their zeal; it is the substance of their cause.

In the column, Gerson describes the effect this has had on him, personally; he now considers himself politically homeless. As he says, as an Evangelical Christian, he has difficulty with several aspects of Democratic policy goals. Despite his own discomfort, however,

I could not advise an idealistic and ambitious young person to join today’s GOP because her ambition would be likely to destroy her idealism. Most Republican leaders can no longer be trusted with the moral education of the young on the central moral challenge of our history. Elected Republicans who are not bigots are generally cowards in the face of bigotry. And that is a shocking, horrible thing.

Gerson is far from the only former Republican adrift in a political no-man’s-land, confronting a once-typical political party that has embraced anti-intellectualism and abandoned policy prescriptions in favor of waging culture war.

I have many friends with whom I served in a very different GOP, and most of them are struggling with a similar personal dilemma. These aren’t simply people who once voted Republican and have decided to no longer do so–they were what you might call “professional Republicans,” people who spent the greater part of their careers in political activity and public service. They include former office-holders, several of whom were quite prominent, a collection of state and county elected officials, a few former city-county counselors, and a number of high-level Republican lobbyists.

Most no longer consider themselves Republican, and several have publicly announced that fact. Others are convinced that necessary change will only come from within–and although I disagree (I think it’s too late, that the party is too far in the thrall of the know-nothings and bigots) I understand their reluctance to “pull the plug” and pronounce the patient dead.

There are many kinds of homelessness. For good people who are intellectually honest, political homelessness is–at best– purgatory.

What’s worse, however, is that the American political system is deprived of the benefit of principled, reality-based debates over the way forward–debates that require honorable and thoughtful political debaters. The ultimate decisions made by politically homeless former Republicans–create a new party? fight to regain control of the GOP?– will determine whether those discussions can ever resume.

 

Critical Race Theory

I was really hoping I could avoid ever posting about the asinine debate over Critical Race Theory–but the other day, I saw that our bootlicker-to-the-Right Attorney General had entered the fray, a clear sign that the racists and their enablers think they’ve found a winning formula for 2022.

So I guess I do need to weigh in, in a (probably useless) effort to clarify what all the noise is about.

I didn’t encounter Critical Legal Studies and its cousin, Critical Race Theory until I was a college professor. Both approaches were–and are–relatively arcane, primarily the preoccupation of a subset of legal scholars. As Heather Cox Richardson recently explained it,  Critical Race Theory was a theory conceived in the 1970s by legal scholars trying to understand why the civil rights legislation of the past twenty years had not eliminated racial inequality in America.

They argued that general racial biases were baked into American law so that efforts to protect individuals from discrimination did not really get at the heart of the issue. While this theory focused on the law, it echoed the arguments historians have made—and proved—since the 1940s: our economy, education, housing, medical care, and so on, have developed with racial biases. This is not actually controversial among scholars.

While CRT explicitly focuses on systems, not individuals, and while it is largely limited to legal theory classes rather than public schools, Republicans have turned this theory into the idea that it attacks white Americans and that history teachers are indoctrinating schoolchildren to hate America. In the past three and half months, the Fox News Channel has talked about CRT nearly 1300 times.

I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked to discover that people who couldn’t define either “socialism” or “capitalism” if their lives depended on it are having trouble distinguishing between their fear of being “replaced” by Jews and scary Black people and a graduate-level study of how and where racial stereotypes are reflected in the country’s legal system. (I guess they never heard of redlining…)

Assertions that CRT is being taught in America’s elementary and high schools is ludicrous–as I have been complaining pretty much forever, schools aren’t even teaching the most basic concepts required for civic literacy, let alone a theory that requires a familiarity not just with the Constitution and Bill of Rights, but with significant elements of America’s legal structures.

The GOP-hyped hysteria over Critical Race Theory is just another effort to mask garden-variety racism  by pretending that the fight is really about something else. It takes its place beside the party’s rejection of “political correctness” (i.e., I refuse to abide by your social expectation of basic civility) and “cancel culture” (i.e., I should be free to spew my venom but you shouldn’t be free to respond by signaling your disapproval).

 One of the biggest disappointments of my adult life has been my reluctant recognition of the extent and depth of American racism, and the degree to which it infects our politics. That said, despite the evidence of the past few years–the hysterical reaction to Obama’s election, the subsequent election of an ignorant blowhard willing to demonize the “other”– I  still refuse to believe that the majority of Americans are in thrall to hate and fear.

The problem is, the rabid racist minority–thanks to gerrymandering,  vote suppression (and let’s be honest, voter apathy) and the Electoral College– has seized outsized control of America’s government. And when it comes to turnout, rage is a great motivator. If dishonest and dishonorable politicians can drum up fear and anger by emphasizing culture-war issues like the “threat” of a mischaracterized CRT, they may yet overwhelm the majority.

We live in an incredibly dangerous time.

The GOP Ditches Property Rights

For those of us who used to belong to a very, VERY different Republican Party, the most bewildering–and infuriating–feature of the cult that has replaced it is its blatant hypocrisy. A political party that used to favor free trade, fiscal prudence, individual liberty and property rights has cheerfully abandoned its devotion to those–or for that matter, any– principled approaches to civil liberties.

Granted, rational folks in both parties understood that your liberties aren’t absolute, and that concern for the public good–public health, national security and other social requirements– will necessarily constrain your ability to do whatever you want whenever you want. But once upon a time, the arguments between serious folks tended to be about specifics: when is it legitimate for government to limit certain liberties?

Thanks to the devolution of the Republican Party, virtually all of its once-sacrosanct principles have become disposable.

Free trade? When Donald Trump decided to impose tariffs–long considered unthinkable by the Grand Old Party–the cult jettisoned its prior beliefs and embraced them.

Fiscal prudence? These days, fiscal responsibility–not necessarily balancing the budget (the preference of a fringe unwilling to understand why such a constraint could be dangerous) but a commitment to imposing taxes to pay for government programs is long gone. The party that recoiled from Democrats’ perceived willingness to “tax and spend” became the party opposed to any and all taxes, especially on those most able to pay them. If the government really has to “do stuff,” today’s GOP favors”borrow and spend”–put it on the national credit card and let the next generation pay for it.

Individual liberty? That principle has been rewritten too. Now, it’s highly selective. Republicans are all for your “liberty” to act in ways with which they agree. They believe you should have the “liberty” to ignore public health mandates and decide for yourself whether to wear a mask (i.e., the “liberty” to infect your neighbor), but they remain adamantly opposed to a woman’s liberty to control her own body. They support your liberty to communicate racist sentiments, but not your liberty to voice your disapproval of those sentiments–that’s “cancel culture.”

And of course, they support the liberty of anyone and everyone to “pack heat,” but oppose even the most reasonable constraints to protect public safety.

And what about property rights? The GOP long defended property rights, arguing (I believe properly) that the government that can confiscate your property poses a danger to other civil liberties. After all, if the government can infringe your property rights in retaliation for the exercise of  your right to freedom of speech or religion, how likely are you to exercise those rights?

Apparently, property rights are also old school. As an article from The Week put it, the GOP no longer believes a man’s cruise ship is his castle.

“Texas is open 100 percent,” Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said in a Twitter video Monday, “and we want to make sure you have the freedom to go where you want without limits.” To that end, Abbott said, he signed a law banning any business or government entity in the state from requiring documentation of a COVID-19 vaccination or recovery for entry (commonly called vaccine passports).

Abbott cast the legislation as a bold strike for freedom, but it’s nothing of the sort — not in the sense the American right has traditionally understood the term, anyway. Though it may be said to enhance consumer choice, it is a betrayal of private property rights, which have long been core to visions of small government in the United States.

The article quotes James Madison’s 1829 address, in which the father of our Constitution explained “that the rights of persons, and the rights of property are the objects for the protection of which Government was instituted. These rights cannot well be separated.”

Abbott begs to differ. Evidently, Texan business owners have no right to determine what happens on their property. Abbott isn’t the only Republican governor to  ignore property rights. Florida’s Ron DeSantis has banned vaccine passports, including those required by cruise ships departing from Florida.

Ironically, as the article notes, reliance on property rights allowed  the right to win many battles purportedly over religious liberty.

On questions like whether Catholic employers should be made to pay for employees’ birth control, whether conservative bakers should be forced to bake for a gay wedding, or whether Christian adoption agencies should be required to place children with same-sex couples, the right’s religious liberty position has long been buttressed by property rights: If you own the business, the argument goes, you should be able to make these calls as your conscience directs.

These days, however, only when your conscience points you in a GOP-approved direction.