Politics & Law

How to never win another election

Robin Lakoff

Suppose you have just been defeated in a tough political contest. Suppose further that it was one that, in your heart, you expected and felt entitled to win.

Suppose in addition that most serious analysts attributed your loss, to a significant extent , to your antagonizing several key groups of voters: African Americans, women, Latinos, the young, and the non-rich. And still further, that many of these groups were likely to grow in numbers before the next election.

Suppose you are intelligent and foresighted. What do you do? More importantly, what don’t you do?

The answer to the second question is simple: exactly what Mitt Romney and his fellow Republicans are doing: insult, scare, and demean the members of all of these groups (just as they did during the campaign, but at least then they had an excuse). There was the notorious 47% comment; the unending “birther” blather; openly racist remarks by John Sununu; suggestions that Latinos “self-deport”; and, of course, the truly vile comments about Sandra Fluke, and the Republicans’ demonstrated lack of sympathy for women’s issues as disparate as equal pay for equal work and contraception.  And much more.

Romney-Ryan merchandise

Romney-Ryan merchandise

Why would members of a political party repeatedly antagonize potential voters?

One reason: in their hearts they really do not believe that members of these groups are, or have any right to be, included as active participants in the political conversation of this country. They are not us – active makers of the conversation – but them –those we tsk-tsk about and blame for everything we don’t like.

Two: they absolutely don’t want to win an election ever again. The second explanation may seem  absurd — of course parties want to win! Sometimes their strategies misfire and they lose. But then they figure out what they did wrong, and stop doing it. But the Republicans’ rhetorical behavior post-defeat forces that conclusion.

At first, post-election, the Republicans seemed to be going in a rational direction. Several spokespersons opined that it would be necessary, in the light of election results, to “tweak” their “message.” I don’t think this assessment was really  satisfactory: what had gone wrong with Republican campaign rhetoric was not curable by mere “tweaking,” because it was not really about a mere “message.” It went beyond and beneath language, reflecting deep presuppositions and stereotypes about “them” and their proper role in the electoral process. Tweaking the message could at best result in the creation of new euphemisms for embarrassing and antiquated attitudes – codes that could quickly be broken.

So even these early relatively rational assessments offer a dubious strategy to a party that wants to win in the future. But the problem gets worse: rather than follow through on their first analysis, the current rhetoric of high-level Republicans can only make their future worse -– much worse. Consider a couple of recent examples.

First, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have been making unjustified and spiteful statements about the U. N. Ambassador, Susan Rice (who happens to be both female and African American).  Among his many vilifications of Ambassador Rice, McCain remarked that she wasn’t “very bright.” Just for starters, Susan Rice is (among other things) a graduate of Stanford, where she was the recipient of a Truman Scholarship, a prestigious and partly grade-based award (it requires a minimum GPA of 3.6). Senator McCain, by way of contrast, graduated fifth from the bottom of his Naval Academy class.

But it has been traditional for white males to disparage both women and people of color as not very bright, absent any evidence. So McCain’s statement may well have seemed unremarkable to him and his colleagues. But “normal” as it may have been, it is unlikely to reconcile either women or African Americans to the Republican cause.

Secondly, there is Mitt Romney’s assessment of why he and Paul Ryan lost. It was, he said, because those who had not voted for him were beguiled by “gifts” from the Democrats – a demeaning and divisive claim. (One peculiar thing about it is that it seems to ignore the fact that, in a democracy, candidates always make promises in exchange for support. This may not reflect the highest standards of human nobility, but it’s a fact that has been true since the time of Pericles.)

Suppose that some voters did, in fact, vote Democratic in the hope of getting something if they won. But it’s still odd that Romney ignores the fact that he and his party made gift offers too — to their supporters. Just for instance: tax cuts for the rich; deregulation of many industries; the end of Obamacare; loosening of environmental protections; giving the Catholic Church control over government decisions.

But perhaps these are somehow not seen as “gifts,” while available contraception is a “gift” to the oversexed young and uppity women; being included in their family’s insurance is a “gift” to the young; the Dream Act is a similar “gift” to the Latino community. Our “gifts” (they believe) are legitimate government programs; theirs are bribes. To see the electoral process in this one-sided, divisive, and antidemocratic way is to be politically unsophisticated and dangerously naïve.

Even if they agree that the latest Republican rhetoric is mean-spirited, divisive, and profoundly undemocratic, some will argue that ideals don’t matter in the hard-knuckled world of campaign rhetoric: it’s not about ideals, it’s about winning. But McCain’s and Romney’s effusions are unfortunate even from that perspective.  The Republicans’ bitterness, small-mindedness, and arrogance render them incapable of acting in their own best interests. They prefer to nurse their resentment with superstition, and they would rather feel superior than win. Winning is not, for them, the only thing or even the most important thing. The only thing that matters is to protect their ancient privilege. They would rather lose elections than lose face.

Once upon a time, when women, African Americans, and Latinos were unable to vote, it was safe to demean and insult them to beef up the egos of those who could. That time is no more. If Republicans really never want to win another election, they are doing just what they need to do to achieve that desire.

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Comment to "How to never win another election":
    • Avi Rosenzweig

      I lean Left, so it pains me when I see fellow Progressives reduce the level of discourse to broad-brush oversimplifications and the kind of insufficiently discriminate mudslinging that the regressive side often engages in.

      UC Berkeley liberal arts courses deserve credit for teaching me about the ‘fundamental attribution error’, a foundational principle of social psychology which observes that people tend to attribute personal or temperamental causes to both individual’s and group’s behavior in a way that distracts us from the contextual (and social) origins of that behavior.

      Many conservatives have indeed managed to misunderstand and misinterpret this year’s elections, but to attribute that misunderstanding to white men’s traditional denigration of other people’s otherness is to reduce a rich, complex set of reactions to a cartoon — much like the right-wing media echo chamber did this past year to the majority of the electorate.

      I’m not saying that Prof. Lakoff shouldn’t focus on what she wants to focus on; I am saying that when the favorite tool in your toolbox is prejudice, everything starts to look like racism and sexism.

      [Report abuse]

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