The headline on this post isn’t intended as a double-entendre; fundamentalism is, admittedly, disconnected from reality, empiricism, science and (often) common sense, but the disconnect I’m referring to is the one highlighted in that recent roundtable published by the New York Times that I’ve been referencing.
The discussion centered on the takeover of the Republican Party by its fringiest elements, and it began by considering the vast difference between Democratic and Republican strategic foundations. The Democrats–according to the Opinion writers participating in the Roundtable–are operating on the belief that political success means trying to enact widely popular policies and then running on that basis. As the moderator noted, that certainly isn’t the Republicans tactic.
The thing that strikes me about these Republican bills is that they’re staking ground on some things that are not necessarily popular with the majority of voters. That would seem to suggest to me that there’s political risk in doing them, but instead these laws have been copied from G.O.P. statehouse to G.O.P. statehouse. Why do you think that’s happening, in your view?
To which Ezra Klein responded, I think accurately:
So I think there are a couple of levels you can think about these bills on. One is to think about what you might imagine as the modal Republican strategy for a year like this. Every Republican could spend the next couple of months just saying, “Huh, gas prices are pretty high, aren’t they?” And that would be it. They would win the midterms. It would be done.
And instead, the Republican Party, in part due to the incentives of modern media, in part due to the example offered by Donald Trump and how he shot to prominence and then ultimately to the presidency, has become extraordinarily attention-hungry among its rank-and-file legislators. And so if you can create the next culture-war kernel by passing a really brutal piece of legislation — and these are brutal pieces of legislation that will hurt a lot of very just ordinary kids who need some help — then you can catapult to the center of the national debate.
So I don’t think Mitch McConnell wants to be having this conversation. I don’t think Kevin McCarthy wants to be having this conversation. I think they want to talk about how Joe Biden is a failure. But the Republican Party doesn’t have that kind of control over its own structure and its own institutional members now. And so at a time when there’s a lot of tailwinds for them, they are nevertheless pulled along by the more extreme and attention-driven members of their own caucus.
Pete, who often comments on this platform, has pointed to the powerful role of entertainment in American politics and governance, and the “attention” hypothesis would seem to confirm his observations. As Jamelle Bouie observed, it’s a strategy supported by the huge media infrastructure of the Right–not just Fox, but as he says, ” a broad constellation of outlets and different modes of delivery that allow them to, if not shape a message from its inception, then shape how its supporters receive any given message or any given piece of information.”
I used to tell my Law and Policy students that most of what I learned in law school could be reduced to a single axiom: He who frames the issue wins the debate.
Implicit in the above Roundtable analysis is a big question: can Republicans’ hysterical attention-getting frame and win the midterm debate? It’s hard to disagree with Klein and others when they say that running on policy–no matter how popular–no longer works, if it ever did.
So what should those of us horrified by these unhinged people do?
I live in a bubble populated mostly by thoughtful, sane people. We have our policy disagreements, but if–and it is admittedly a big if–the people in my bubble represent majority opinion in America, perhaps Democrats should accept the GOP’s framing, and run against that. After all, look at what the GOP stands for in 2022: pushing gays back into the closet, forcing births, banning books, rejecting accurate history, racism (insulting and maligning an eminently qualified Black female jurist and preventing Black folks from voting)….basically, today’s GOP stands for the embrace of QAnon conspiracies, rejection of science, and strengthening the hegemony of fundamentalist White Christian males.
If the folks in my bubble are representative of the majority of Americans–and survey research says they are–let’s accept the challenge. Let’s fight the midterm battle on the grounds the attention-getters have staked out. For once, the bottom-feeders who have framed this debate are unlikely to win.
If I’m wrong about that, we’ve really lost America.