Monday, September 10, 2012

Republican Ideologies and Narratives

As the Republican National Convention was getting under way, Timothy Synder posted an analysis to NYRBlog, the blog site for The New York Review of Books, addressing the nature of the “specter of ideology” that would be “haunting” the week’s activities. The piece was entitled “Grand Old Marxists” and developed the thesis that the prevailing ideological standard bearers, Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek both worked from assumptions that could also be found in the philosophy of Karl Marx. It is unlikely that Synder would be read by much of the electorate that subscribes to Republican ideology, since those subscribers tend to equate his advocacy of social democracy with socialism, which is then equated with communism and thus needs to be shunned, if not pilloried.

For the rest of us, however, Synder offered up a fascinating summary position:
Rich Republicans such as Romney are of course a small minority of the party. Not much of the Republican electorate has any economic interest in voting for a ticket whose platform is to show that government does not work. As Ryan understands, they must be instructed that their troubles are not simply a pointless contrast to the gilded pleasures of the man at the top of the Republican ticket, but rather part of the same story, a historical drama in which good will triumph and evil will be vanquished. Hayek provides the rules of the game: anything the government does to interfere in the economy will just make matters worse; therefore the market, left to its own devices, must give us the best of all possible worlds. Rand supplies the discrete but titillating elitism: this distribution of pleasure and pain is good in and of itself, because (and this will not be said aloud) people like Romney are bright and people who will vote for him are not. Rand understood that her ideology can only work as sadomasochism. In her novels, the suffering of ordinary Americans (“parasites,” as they are called in Atlas Shrugged) provides the counterpoint to the extraordinary pleasures of the heroic captains of industry (which she describes in weird sexual terms). A bridge between the pain of the people and the pleasure of the elite which mollifies the former and empowers the latter is the achievement of an effective ideology.
That use of the noun “instructed” makes it clear that the foundation of the Republican campaign will have to be propaganda, which has become the manipulation of public consciousness (particularly among those more concerned with getting by from day to day than with analyzing the position statements of candidates) on an industrial scale. Snyder’s parenthetical remark stresses both the urgency and the delicacy of such manipulation, which is why the investments from both parties toward such manipulation are likely to be the real determiners of the November election.

That “historical drama” noun phrase is also important. People still turn to narrative when other diversions from their problems (such as access to affordable food and health care) are beyond reach. In this respect it has always amused me that Rand’s command of narrative has tended to be, to put it politely, unwieldy. Those who would question this claim can consider the great saga of frustration behind the effort to turn Atlas Shrugged into a feature film. Part of the problem concerns matters such as her description of the general public as “parasites;” but there is also the problem of the extent to which the plot line tends to get overwhelmed by the ideology.

In 2008 during the Nevada primary, I got the impression that Barack Obama managed to score a lot of points with one particular punch line:
Folks, they don't tell you what they mean!
This was a way to let the electorate know that they were being manipulated by the consciousness industry, delivering the message with a folksy rhetoric that was both direct and humorous. My guess is that any number of Republican strategists remember that moment and have chosen to confront it with a popular variant on Murphy’s Law:
When in doubt, use a larger hammer.
In other words, when the opposition tries to let the electorate know that they are being played for suckers, the simplest reply is to shout down the opposition. My guess is that this is what we are likely to see in this year’s excuse for campaign strategies.

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