In defense of sincere wingnuttery as a real phenomenon
Melissa Harris-Perry went on Rachel Maddow last night and was in heightened ass-kicking form. The topic was the overt way Republicans are cruising for the bigot vote this election—right when I’d argue they would get the bigot vote no matter how subtly they played that card—but Melissa brought it around to the most important point of all. The Democrats, she argued, need to actually bother to build a coalition. “Not as racist/homophobic/sexist as those fuckheads” is a weak strategy, and it demoralizes progressive voters who might otherwise turn out in droves like they did to elect Obama. I agree with her, and I think the reason the Democrats are more interested in picking off some of the bigot vote instead of turning out the progressive vote is that they believe that the traditional progressive voting bloc—minorities, young people, the working poor—just don’t vote as much in midterm elections. They don’t ask how their actions might make that more true, though.
But I don’t want to talk about that, because I have nothing to add to the truth bombs Melissa dropped all over the place. I just want to quarrel a little with the premise that brought the discussion to that point. And that premise is that Republicans are going full bigot this election cycle for rational, politically minded reasons. Repeatedly, Rachel suggests that this is a political calculation, to try to win the white bigot vote by sacrificing everyone else’s vote, and hoping the former is a bigger group of voters than the latter. I would like to offer a counter-narrative: Maybe they know that indulging overt bigotry is bad politics, but they just can’t help themselves. Maybe the stress of keeping it bottled in for so long is finally getting to a lot of conservatives, and electing a black President has sent them around the bend.
I think there’s a long-standing tendency in political punditry circles, including the blogs, to cynically assume calculation in every move politicians make, and to assume that there’s no real person lying beneath the exterior. So all the various “macaca” moments that Rachel collects are interpreted at a bold strategy to bring the bigots to the polls, instead of just the routine gaffs of people who are just fucking sick of bottling up their racist impulses. That some politicians are seeing success just being themselves in this way doesn’t change the facts. On the contrary, my inclination is to think a lot of successful politicians are successful—at least with their base—because they just do what they want to do, and that inspires their people. Sarah Palin does a bang-up job of getting attention, at least, by just saying whatever the hell she thinks. Later on the Maddow Show, she and Ana Marie Cox analyzed the image of Christine O’Donnell grinning when her blatantly false assertion that the Constitution doesn’t require separation of church and state was audibly gasped at. Cox pointed out, rightly, that O’Donnell is a straight-up bully, and therefore she’s equally happy when she causes people to gasp in disapproval as in approval, and maybe even more so. But what I thought was important in this is that O’Donnell’s shit-eating grin was quite sincere. She really is proud of being a dumb fuck. That’s no calculation.
I think liberals want to believe that conservatives are just being really calculated when they say bigoted or stupid things, because we don’t want to believe people actually believe this shit. Of course, to assume the leaders are pandering when they’re saying this stuff is to accept that actually, the base believes this shit. So why can’t the leaders, as well? The fact that some on the right are clearly insincere all the time, like Karl Rove, or just some of the time, like John McCain, doesn’t mean they’re all just fronting all the time.