Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

12 November 2012

Denying Reality, or Why the GOP’s Internal Reform Will Take Some Time


My father was a Hollywood screenwriter. He used to tell a droll story about the arrogance that comes from manipulating “reality.”

A half a century or so ago, the New York Times used to pick the books on its best-seller list by tallying sales at a handful of New York City bookstores. Those stores’ identities were supposed to be secret, but a few New York literary agents found out.

Some of these agents offered their author clients a special service. For a small fee, they would surreptitiously buy enough books from the right stores to make any book a best seller.

One well-known author wrote a dog of a book. It didn’t sell well, so he hired an agent to perform this ploy. After the book became a “best seller,” he tried to hawk it to movie producers in Hollywood. No one bought.

In frustration, the disappointed author made a personal visit to one of the legendary Hollywood producers of the era, someone like Louis B. Mayer. The producer was patient. He listened to all the author’s arguments about how good his book was. Then, after the producer finally rejected the dog yet again, the author screamed, “But it’s a best seller!”

That story came to mind as I read various accounts of the GOP’s desultory and cursory “reviews” of its recent electoral loss. Intransigent GOP operatives keep pointing to their party’s continued control of the House as reason to avoid serious party reform. It’s not our message, they insist; we just need a better messenger than Romney. But like the dog-book’s “best-seller” status, that “win” came from manipulating the system, not honest competition.

Today everyone knows the vast majority of House seats are uncompetitive. The fraction of “safe” seats for one party or the other varies between 90% and 95%, depending upon what report you read and when.

The reason is simple: rampant gerrymandering of House districts. Over the last two decades, one or the other party, upon gaining electoral power in a particular state, has carved out “safe” districts for its partisans. Often both parties conspired to construct safe districts for their respective partisans, leaving only a handful of “swing” districts in which candidates from either party might win. The result has been a vast winnowing of our population—House district by House district—into red and blue. (Senatorial districts are generally too large to permit the same manipulation.)

The GOP has been by far the most successful of the two parties in gerrymandering. Why? Because operatives like Karl Rove have understood for years that policies favoring angry old white men were not America’s future. Lacking attractive policies, they turned to manipulating the system with gerrymandering and vote suppression. Meanwhile, the Democrats naïvely sought to win by making districts fairer and expanding voter participation, because they are the right things to do.

So now, after voters have decisively rejected GOP candidates in two presidential election cycles, so-called “mainstream” GOP “thinkers” point to their durable majority in the House as evidence of the attractiveness of their program. Isn’t that like the author of the dog-book screaming, “But it’s a best seller”?

I haven’t made a complete analysis of the GOP’s gerrymandering efforts over the last two decades. But I have looked at John Boehner’s district in southwest Ohio. It’s a decidedly odd shape, self-evidently designed to pick up various conservative far suburbs of Cincinnati. It also has a grotesque pseudopod that envelops Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and its housing communities. This gerrymandering has enabled Boehner to survive a challenge by a superbly attractive young Democrat.

Another prime example of denying reality is climate change. The massive devastation wrought by Sandy came so soon after Irene, which came so soon after Katrina. Then there was the rare Colorado-like powder snow that partially buried New York City’s urban canyons last winter. All these weirdly devastating weather events, coming in such historically quick succession, are starting to convince many people that there is something to this theory of global warming after all.

But Fox and its shouting bullies continue to deny it. They spout odd, irrelevant and often erroneous “facts” from a complex science about which they know nothing. Mainstream American thought is eroding the ground out from under them, if only because our nation’s media, which are largely headquartered in Manhattan, don’t want to see their home battered yet again.

I could do on and on, but you get the idea. Rupert Murdoch’s vast media empire, with willing complicity from much of our own native media, has converted our television into a vast fictional forum filled with gossip, distortions and lies. (This, among other things, is why Mitt took so long to concede the election; his GOP handlers believed their own lies.)

As a result, vast segments of the US public, especially those that rely on Fox for information, have no clue what is actually transpiring in their own country, let alone the world.

But our youth—the so-called “Millennials”—increasingly don’t watch TV much at all. They text and get their “news” from the Internet, social media, and each other. As a result, Fox’ Empire of Lies is contracting, and with it the GOP’s capacity to delude itself and voters fruitfully.

The past and present state of affairs has allowed Republicans to win a number of House elections with a cartoon ideology. They’ve done so, in large part, by relentlessly bashing government, while ignoring the very real incompetence and oppression that big business inflicts on helpless customers. The result is people—and districts!—that vote Republican reliably, but whose “thinking” involves such gems as “Get your government hands off my Medicare!”

True believers are always hard to dissuade. And so it is with the true believers that Fox has brainwashed and the GOP has exploited. Fox and the GOP have spent decades propagandizing people to believe in simplistic abstract ideology, bashing government, exploiting waning racism in the South and irrelevant “social” issues everywhere, and manipulating the system for their own benefit with gerrymandering and vote suppression. And now, after two successive losses to a super-competent “black” man have thrown their whole direction into question, they shout “But it’s a best-seller in the House!”

Intransigence, hubris, vanity, and refusal to introspect are hardly attractive human qualities. But they have one “advantage”: they are durable. When they infect a whole political party, they produce something like the Communists in the Soviets’ heyday or our GOP today.

It might take a long, long time for the GOP’s so-called “thinkers” to come around, let alone its brainwashed rank and file. It took the Soviet Communists some 74 years, from 1917 to 1991. Many Russians are still Communists at heart, long after their system morphed into an authoritarian form of state capitalism.

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