12 November 2012

The "conservative media" confidence game and the conflicting impulses of Republicanism

For many disappointed and disgruntled Republicans, the image of Karl Rove impotently defying Fox News's own clinching call of the state of Ohio for President Obama last Tuesday seems to symbolize a feeling that the American right has been conned. Rove himself, not just as a Baghdad Bob-like dead-ender on television but as the impresario of the American Crossroads SuperPAC, has come in for extensive vituperation for somehow having ripped off Republicans by getting them to donate to a losing campaign. While Republicans may deny that campaign donations are meant to "buy" elections, we're definitely hearing from a lot of disappointed customers this week. Adding to the confusion is Joe Scarborough, the former congressman who serves as MSNBC's house conservative, who today denounced the "conservative media establishment" for lying to people about Mitt Romney's prospects. Scarborough's charge is a strange one. He contends that the CME enticed conservatives into donating further to a lost cause by telling them that Romney was winning or would win the "battleground" states. In particular, he claims that the CME "knew all along" that Romney would lose Ohio, yet kept lying about his certain victory in order to keep people donating. I'm not sure this makes sense. But that's because I'd assume that, were the CME assuring everyone of Romney's success in Ohio, the people writing checks would have less reason or incentive to donate. If they really wanted to keep the cash coming in, wouldn't they have said something like: Romney's barely holding on there and needs fresh funds in order to remain competitive? Yet Scarborough says "guys [kept] writing checks" because they believed Romney would win.

Scarborough's charge might make more sense if he used different verbs. If the suckers donated because they thought Romney could win, and if the CME knew he could not, Scarborough might have more reason to perceive a big lie. Let's remember, however, that Ohio was no landslide. Given the actual numbers, it'd be hard to prove that it was impossible, as Scarborough now claims, for Romney could take the state. Nevertheless, Scarborough and many like him feel conned, and it's probably a conservative habit of mind to feel that way.

This round of recrimination exposes a sort of philosophical fault line among Republicans resulting from the overlap of Reaganite optimism over the territory of traditionally pessimistic conservatism. Reaganism is the conservatism of entrepreneurs concerned mainly with their freedom to do business with as few regulatory constraints as possible. Confidence is an imperative for entrepreneurs; they need to remain confident and, more importantly and dangerously, they must inspire confidence in others. The danger is enshrined in our language in the term "confidence game" -- con game for short. By comparison, traditional or philosophical conservatives are skeptical toward innovation in a way that should extend to entrepreneurship, but Reaganism strives to suppress that skeptical, pessimistic impulse because confidence is what keeps the economy going, some might say, when the money runs out. Before the election, Republicans complained of a pessimistic streak among their comrades, a glum assumption that Romney would lose. Those pessimists are probably angry this week as well, but for different reasons, and at different people: Romney himself, the Obama majority, etc. Scarborough's anger is different. It may be a belated recognition of the con in confidence, or it may be conservatism rebelling against the alien element of optimism in its midst.

It may be something else, too. For some observers, the easiest explanation of Scarborough's complaint would focus on his claim that people donated more the more they believed that Romney would win. I questioned the logic of this above, but that was because I wanted to focus on donations as a utilitarian device to get Romney elected. Why donate if victory is assured? An obvious answer, despite all the provisions permitting secret donations, is to be remembered by the victor. Donors to Romney and his allied PACs have no reason to complain about being conned if their donations, as they often claim defensively, are simply expressions of their political opinions. No use of our constitutionally protected right to speak on political matters is a waste. It might seem a waste, however, if you spent the money in the expectation of getting anything more in return than the sight of a Republican in the White House. So when Joe Scarborough and others denounce fellow Republicans for ripping them off by soliciting donations for a lost cause, are the whiners really denouncing themselves?


Anonymous said...

My theory is that the repugnicans lost because Romney is a Mormon. My premise is twofold.

1) From the view of right-wing "orthodoxy", Mormons are not christians. They follow a man who claims to be a prophet, who claims to have received divine revelation. Since this happened after Jesus died, it is heresy. There can be no prophet after Jesus. These people would refuse to vote for Romney, and probably didn't vote at all.
2) From the left, it wasn't so much which religion Romney followed as much as it was the fact that he made a big deal about religion to begin with. People on the left who might have voted for a less "spiritual" leader; or those who might not have voted at all, except for his "religiosity" would make it a point to vote for his opponent just to ensure a separation of church and state for another 4 years.

Samuel Wilson said...

I don't really agree with you on this, but I find it curious that hardly anyone else in the media has suggested religion as a factor in the result. My perception was that Romney, for obvious reasons, didn't make as big a deal about religion as another GOP candidate might have. And my hunch is that, as a member of a self-conscious religious minority, Romney would have been less of a threat to the left on the church-state front than any other leading Republican -- unless you think he would have turned the country over directly to the Mormons.