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Acting like a politician

By       Message William Pastille       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink

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American conservatism is dissolving. The fundamental incoherence of its principal doctrines and its component factions is starting to unravel in the glare of the current election cycle. Mitt Romney continues to put his foot in his mouth by uttering in an offhanded way the actual beliefs of the 1% and the aspiring 1% concerning the 99%. And this attracts the ire of both political camps. The liberal side attacks him for his patent unconcern for the non-millionaires of America, while the conservative side attacks him for giving the liberals a club to beat him with. It is typical that most of the conservative attacks focus on Romney's political ineffectuality rather than the truth that he is revealing about conservative attitudes. Take Jonah Goldberg's assault from Wednesday's National Review Online (http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/289833/what-wrong-guy-jonah-goldberg):

[T]he under-emphasized dynamic in this race isn't that Romney isn't conservative enough (though that's obviously a real concern out there) it's that he's simply not a good enough politician. He may be the most electable on paper. He's certainly a nice guy, decent father, smart, successful etc. But, every time he seems to get into his groove and pull away he says things that make people think he doesn't know how to play the game. That can be reassuring to some, who take it as proof he's not another politician. The problem, for others at least, is that because he isn't a natural politician he breaks the language where it needs to bend. He uses language -- "I like to fire people!" "It's nothing to get angry about" etc. -- that doesn't make him seem like an unconventional politician. Rather his language makes him seem like a caricature of a conventionally stiff country club Republican.

The problem, you see, is not Romney's actual beliefs, not his attitudes toward the less fortunate, not his opinion about the duties owed to our impoverished fellow citizens. No, the problem is Romney's inept use of language. A real politician knows instinctively, Goldberg suggests, how to twist language around to make his own beliefs sound palatable to every audience, regardless of their actual moral value. He doesn't know "how to play the game." And how is the game played? Goldberg isn't precise about that, probably because he does know how to play the game--namely, to use dog-whistles and coded language to communicate the "right" beliefs to those who share them, while at the same time being able to maintain that your intention was entirely irreproachable.

The list of language-twists manufactured by Republicans is very, very long. The "Clear Skies" initiative was a program to nullify all air-quality regulations. The "Workforce Democracy and Fairness Act" is actually a bill to gut the worker-protection regulations of the National Labor Relations Board. The "Protect Life Act" was actually a bill that would let women die rather than permit them under any circumstances to have an emergency abortion. Republicans seem to specialize in choosing descriptions that belie their real ideas. 

Romney himself tried his hand at conservative Orwellianism during the debate in which he introduced the notion of "self-deportation." The largely Republican audience laughed instantly upon hearing the term: it's a ludicrous notion if taken at face value.

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But that's just the thing about these studied euphemisms--it doesn't matter if they're ludicrous, because they just have to be useful. And this one could very well become quite useful as a Republican dog-whistle that signifies making the lives of immigrants as intolerable as possible in the hope they will simply up stakes and go back to their country of origin. The existence of an innocuous term implying voluntary action would make it possible to speak of such shameful behavior in public. Those clued into the code would be able to cheer a slogan like "self-deportation" without being criticized by decent people, to whom it would just seem silly. In this way, reprehensible behavior can receive enthusiastic support openly, while decent people simply disregard the foolish terminology.

That is why some conservative groups are now defending and promoting "self-deportation" as a serious concept. They see yet another opportunity for promoting outrageous attitudes while avoiding condemnation. And this is what "playing the game" means in conservative circles: the ability to utter phrases designed to hide the speaker's true beliefs in plain sight. 

If this seems cynically sophistical to you, that's because it is. It goes along with an attitude toward politics that is equally cynical. This sort of "bending" of language is perfectly acceptable to those who consider politics to be a game of vying for power. If power is the ultimate goal and the naive multitudes of voters stand in your way, then of course any sort of language-twisting that will placate or even receive the approval of the masses is useful to winning the game.

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In such a world view, the relative value of the actual beliefs vanishes. It doesn't matter whether a candidate actually cares about the struggles of the poor, the unemployed, the homeless, the uneducated. It only matters how skillfully he can twist his language so that he can seem to care. And he needs to seem to care only because the masses still hold to callow ethical notions like fair play, straight talk, compassion for the disadvantaged, and level playing fields--and the masses vote. For believers in high-stakes power politics, a politician has to play up to the naivete' of the masses in order to get elected, and that means weaving a language-tapestry that will be acceptable to them, regardless of the truth behind that tapestry.

So when Goldberg complains about Romney's language "makes him seem like a caricature of a conventionally stiff country club Republican," he is not at all concerned with the possibility that Romney actually is the the epitome of a stiff country club Republican. He only concerned that Romney can't stop himself from telegraphing that image to the public. Or, to put it another way, that Romney isn't a good enough actor to play the part of someone who actually cares about people unlike himself. That's what really matters: being able to fool most of the people most of the time.

But why it's so hard for him to stay in character? Well acting is hard, especially for someone who isn't trained at it and has no talent for it. It would be a lot easier for Romney if he actually were the character that he is trying to play. Then he wouldn't have to act at all. It is painfully clear that he has to work hard to try to seem compassionate rather than unconcerned. He has to work even harder to try to seem genuine rather than programmed. And this second act sometimes conflicts with the first act. While working on the genuine character, he sometimes slips and says something in line with his genuine beliefs rather than with the beliefs of the character he is supposed to be playing, That's when we get "Corporations are people too, my friend" and "I'm not concerned with the very poor."

This inability to say in character really sends power-politics conservatives through the roof. They know only too well that the key to gaining power for someone like them is to be able to pretend 24/7 that they share the values of the naive masses. That's the way they behave in real life, and that's the way they behave in politics. Of course when they are among "friends" they can drop the pose. But their real beliefs are so unappealing to the masses that they have to live an act most of the time.

Romney's problem is that he's never had to learn the live the act. He's spent almost all of his life surrounded by people who don't share the values of the masses, so he's used to saying callous things and not having them challenged. It's hard to break the habits of a lifetime, especially if you don't have acting talent. So the result is unbelievable breaks in character, breaks that no one can fail to notice.

The most pernicious development in American politics of the past generation is the studied use of technology to develop the code language of the right. The code allows them to transmit their undemocratic and inhumane beliefs far and wide, in plain view of everyone, while at the same time denying those beliefs and attacking anyone who would challenge them with bad faith and intolerance.

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When will the decent majority wake up to the scam? It better be soon, because if they make the mistake of giving the right another chance at unlimited power, they will certainly run us off the cliff.

 

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William Pastille is a writer, a student of politics, and a long-time college educator.

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