Political Strategy: Are History & The Future A Zero-Sum Equation?

Paul Krugman argues that the GOP is the same as it ever was. His recap of the history of the GOP will not insure success for the Democrats nor will it preclude the GOP from rapidly revising its message and accessorizing it with seemingly edible accoutrements. Democrats may be justified in believing that history illuminates our heritage and therefore our destiny…but if they get caught flat-footed, they run the risk of being duped by the GOP’s documented dance of dexterity.


Commentary By: Daniel DiRito

Paul Krugman has an interesting opinion piece in today’s New York Times in which he argues that, despite assertions to the contrary, the GOP (conservatism), under the tutelage of George W. Bush, “is the same as it ever was”.

Generally speaking, Krugman makes a number of convincing points. While one could argue that some of his citations may have represented the actions of fringe figures who did not, at the time, actually denote conservatism, they did, in retrospect, assist in shaping our understanding of how it is presently defined. As such, it may well be reasonable to suggest that the tail wagged the dog. Regardless of the process, it is what it is.

There have been a number of articles recently that portray President Bush as someone who strayed from the path of true conservatism. Republicans, these articles say, need to return to their roots.

Well, I don’t know what true conservatism is, but while doing research for my forthcoming book I spent a lot of time studying the history of the American political movement that calls itself conservatism – and Mr. Bush hasn’t strayed from the path at all. On the contrary, he’s the very model of a modern movement conservative.

For example, people claim to be shocked that Mr. Bush cut taxes while waging an expensive war. But Ronald Reagan also cut taxes while embarking on a huge military buildup.

People claim to be shocked by the Bush administration’s general incompetence. But disinterest in good government has long been a principle of modern conservatism. In “The Conscience of a Conservative,” published in 1960, Barry Goldwater wrote that “I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size.”

People claim to be shocked at the Bush administration’s efforts to disenfranchise minority groups, under the pretense of combating voting fraud. But Reagan opposed the Voting Rights Act, and as late as 1980 he described it as “humiliating to the South.”

People claim to be shocked at the Bush administration’s attempts to equate dissent with treason. But Goldwater – who, like Reagan, has been reinvented as an icon of conservative purity but was a much less attractive figure in real life – staunchly supported Joseph McCarthy, and was one of only 22 senators who voted against a motion censuring the demagogue.

The above excerpts give the reader a taste of Krugman’s argument but I highly suggest you read it in its entirety to garner the full flavor. My goal today isn’t to focus upon the specifics of Krugman’s piece. Rather, I will attempt to put forth a theory as to why the GOP has been so successful in its efforts to portray conservatism favorably and to paint liberalism as an unseemly scourge.

The short answer, which I intend to expand upon, is that the GOP has adopted the view that elections are best approached with little more than a strategy for success; relying upon current considerations to craft a palatable message which will garner the most votes. Part and parcel of this strategy is a willingness to maximize the visceral while not emphasizing the erudite. In so doing, they portray the opposition as pedantic elitists who revile the regular in favor of all that is highfalutin. In essence, they do not seek to elevate the electorate; they elect to engage it where it resides.

As such, they have demonstrated that intellect, while a requisite tool, should not be presumed to be singularly sufficient to secure success. Instead, it is more likely the subtle segue. Those with intellect must therefore be mindful of the needs of those they seek to enlist and enroll. Hence, the GOP has determined that intellect must be utilized to first manufacture the message and then apply history as an effective embellishment.

I contend that the Democrats suffer from a belief in the reverse; whereby they ascribe to the threadbare theory that the message is revealed through an understanding of history which will then also provide the reasoned rationale to embrace it. This might be effective if voters were content to discern their decisions accordingly. I’m not convinced they do.

We generally think that intelligence is a measurable trait and we purport to have the tests to prove that assertion. Little did we know, the equation is far more complex because we frequently equate success with intelligence even though the two are arguably not one and the same.

At the same time, the effort to divorce success from intelligence is far more difficult than the effort to marry the two. In acknowledging as much, perhaps the notion of a zero-sum equation is better suited to understanding intelligence than economics…or perhaps in all human interactions, they are both essential integers in an elaborate formula which will always lead us to a sum of zero.

If one accepts that premise, and I contend the argument is compelling, then success and intelligence are clearly dependent upon each individual’s stated objectives. Alas, one must therefore conclude that the moment individual objectives (arguably read as the pursuit of power in politics) become the relevant considerations, everything suddenly becomes subjective…and the slippery slope of sagacity is exposed. Notwithstanding, it is arguably the mechanism by which the human experience unfolds. Success, power, and prosperity may all flow from intellect…but how each is defined may be different for each one of us. More importantly, how they are achieved is no doubt a function of countless formula’s.

For example, a scorned spouse who elects murder over divorce may well equate intellect and success with ending the life of their partner. The fact that we have law enforcement suggests the formidability of the criminal mind…wrong as its objectives may be. Despite the fact that faith may tell many of us that death isn’t a zero-sum equation, some individuals operate as if it is; therefore believing that accelerating it’s occurrence meets with their notion of success.

Conversely, one could also argue that premature death equates with a form of success…albeit one that shifts the individual to a new reality which many of us embrace in the abstract but rarely as a matter of choice. While this is an extreme example, it clearly illustrates that success and intellect are difficult to define…and we haven’t even touched on the millions of other definable constructs. With regard to politics, this exercise ought to tell us that there are numerous definitions of success.

Coming back to the Krugman piece, yes, there is little doubt that the GOP is in trouble. At the same time, the argument herein points to the risks associated with all efforts to simplify our understandings of where they’ve been, where they’re at, and where they’re going. Without knowing how other’s define and pursue success, little can be unequivocally discerned. The fact that the players change over time serves to minimize our predictive capacities even though it creates our history.

Krugman’s ability to trace the history of the GOP to this moment in time will not insure success for the Democrats nor will it preclude the GOP from rapidly revising its message and accessorizing it with seemingly edible accoutrements. Democrats may be justified in believing that history illuminates our heritage and therefore our destiny…but if they get caught flat-footed, they run the risk of being duped by the GOP’s documented dance of dexterity…a dance found in countless iterations throughout all of human history.

That would seem to suggest that today’s “successes” are destined to be defined as some expression of intellect in the future…if for no other reason than they influenced it. Nevertheless, only one thing is certain – history remains uncertain so long as the future arrives. Isn’t it possible that should lead us to presume that the sum is zero because the equation remains infinitely incomplete?

Cross-posted at Thought Theater

Monday, October 8th, 2007 by Daniel DiRito |

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