The Point Of The Resentment Is The Resentment

Bernard Finel writes:

Look, most people do not pay much attention to politics. Even people with extreme views are often (usually) woefully ill-informed. Most people are heavily influenced by anecdotes, by idiosyncratic experiences. These people are the tacit supporters of right-wing fanaticism. The don’t vote Republican because they consciously want to overturn the civil rights movement. They are just people who are concerned about “reverse racism” because their cousin’s friend’s uncle missed out on a job at the DMV because of a quota. Or something. They don’t know the guy. Don’t know the details. It is just something they heard.

They are the sorts of people who become receptive to anti-DC sentiment when their plumber tells them he can only install a low-flow toilet, that, you know, always clogs. The sort of people who get annoyed when their kids come home from school and announces that the school won’t serve chocolate milk in the cafeteria because of some new government rule. And so on.

Earlier, he’d written that “[o]ther examples are low-flow toilets and light-bulbs.”

I don’t think this accurately accounts for how our public discourse works.

At the end of the day here, I think, he and I are both going to be making somewhat unverifiable empirical arguments. His argument, which is plausible enough, is that if we had fewer semi-annoying federal intrusions, e.g. on toilets and light bulbs, then there would be less receptivity to antigovernment rhetoric.

My view is that the Republican Party’s four decades of antigovernment talking points have seeped into our public consciousness. In a large, complex, modern society, there will always be some private or public bureaucracy to be outraged about, if the goal is outrage.

If the antigovernment PR campaign stopped– as it did in the Bush Jr. era– then people wouldn’t really be that mad at the government about their toilet. Or at least, they wouldn’t take their toilet irritation as a reason to write letters, join protests, donate money to politicians, etc. Then, people who don’t pay much attention to politics, who I think are inclined to take a “both sides have some good points but go too far sometimes” view, wouldn’t be hearing about Big Bad Gubmint all the time, and wouldn’t draw any larger political meaning from the demise of chocolate milk at a school lunch than they do from a frustrating interaction with a cable or electronics company.

Now, it’s tough to verify either view scientifically. But the light bulb issue he brought up seems to me to be a telling example.

Pres. Bush signed an uncontroversial, bipartisan bill into law in 2007 that provided for new energy standards, some to take effect in 2012. In the interim, the GOP lost control of the executive, causing them to remember that they hated the government. So we got the customary, massive effort from the GOP to make people mad about something by lying about it repeatedly at high volume:

All major lighting manufacturers, including Philips, Sylvania and GE, currently produce and sell incandescent light bulbs that meet or exceed the new standards (with no compromise in functionality). In fact, the lighting industry helped craft the 2007 legislation with the full understanding that they could produce incandescent bulbs that meet them. … The bulb ban rhetoric is a deliberate misrepresentation of a provision of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (ESIA) that sets efficiency standards for general-purpose screw-in incandescent light bulbs. The new standards—for what the industry calls “medium screw-based bulbs”—are set to take effect in January. Major lighting manufacturers helped draft the new standards so that they could avoid a patchwork of state standards. They are fighting the repeal proposal because it threatens to strand the investments they have made to retool and produce lighting products that meet the standards. …

The reason for the receptivity to antigovernment rhetoric, in my view, is the orchestrated Republican flipout, not the act itself.

As David Jenkins points out in the above-linked article, a large part of the reason that Cong. Joe Barton decided to fearmonger about light bulbs was because he wanted to chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee. His GOP rival for the position, Fred Upton, had helped write the ’07 legislation. Faced with the Barton-led, talk radio- and Tea Party-fueled antigovernment appeal, Upton did just what Dick Lugar and every other Republican have done the last two plus years: he gave into the demagoguery and fought to repeal his own bill [link added]. Because, at the very least at the federal level, a vote for a Republican is a vote for nihilism.

If there weren’t a Republican flipout about a four-year-old, industry-favored, bipartisan bill about light bulbs, there would be a flipout about airline regulations, or tax forms, or shipping wine across state borders, or importation procedures, or the Third Amendment, or the absence of airline regulations, or whatever else could be mined for deceptive, inflammatory demagoguery.

The point of the resentment is the resentment. As Pat Buchanan wrote in his 1971 memo to Richard Nixon, working to heighten whites’ resentment about “the elitism and quasi-anti-Americanism of the National Democratic Party” would “cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half.”

In 1971, that was a tactical gambit. Today, it’s the alpha and the omega of Republican rhetoric, policy proposals, and legislative effort. That’s why the Republican Party’s critique of Pres. Obama’s record on the economy consists entirely of lies, and that’s why GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney’s campaign is premised on telling inflammatory lies about America and the president.

I think that Finel is quite right that most people don’t pay much attention to politics. (I don’t begrudge anyone that, either.) For a long while, I thought that “the science is uncertain” about climate change, because I just heard the rhetoric from “both sides”, and figured they both had a point. Then I looked into the data & the scientific consensus, and was shocked at how one-sided the facts were. The media is terrible at reporting the news, viewing journalism as the act of typing down the two sides’ talking points without any effort to ascertain facts. So unless you go digging into the facts of the case yourself, you’ll walk away with the vague idea that “the truth is probably somewhere in the middle” on light bulb regulations, climate change, and everything else. The confusion over climate change, like the resentment of light bulb laws, comes from the PR campaign, not from the issue itself.

There didn’t appear to be all too much antigovernment resentment during the Bush Jr. presidency, as the GOP pushed for Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, the executive’s asserted power to wiretap and to detain & torture US citizens without charges or a warrant, surpluses turned into deficits, the right in Raich v Gonzales to imprison folks for activity legal under state law, and the invasion for bogus reasons & failed occupation of an arbitrarily selected Middle Eastern country.

The cause of the receptivity to the talking points is the right wing’s efforts to gear up the resentment machine, which then trickles into the public consciousness. It’s not the result of anything that the government has done.

(LATE, LATE UPDATE: Finel is convinced by my argument. Victory!)

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15 Responses to The Point Of The Resentment Is The Resentment

  1. dedc79 says:

    With regard to the light bulb issue, what’s interesting is that there are a ton of entirely uncontroversial (at least uncontroversial to the general public) efficiency standards for products that we all use. So people can talk all they want about government encroachment, but the issue is really that some people didn’t like this specific requirement and that some politicians saw an opportunity to capitalize it by railing against the intrusive federal governmetn.

    • the issue is really that some people didn’t like this specific requirement and that some politicians saw an opportunity to capitalize

      I disagree.

      I think the issue is really that some people wanted to stir up resentment for political gain, and glommed onto this specific requirement. The resentment followed from the politicians’ demagoguery, not the other way around.

      • mike says:

        To some extent, both sides have been guilty of doing this. I can think of a couple of issues – abortion and immigration come to mind – that are dug up and paraded about periodically to get activists on both sides to resurface and fight with each other. Of course in the past, this wasn’t much more than a sideshow that both parties participated in more or less equally. Today, however, it’s the GOP party platform.

        I go back 6-7 years and think about how the Democrats behaved during the Bush Administration. As is the case with any movement, there were people who took things way too far and just made themselves look stupid (Cindy Sheehan and Kanye West pop into mind). However, regardless of your feelings about the party as a whole at the time, one inescapable fact is that they were generally protesting actual things that were actually controversial, the war in Iraq, FEMA’s incompetence, Guantanamo Bay, etc.

        • That’s true. And just to add to that, Cindy Sheehan and Kanye West may well have made intemperate remarks, but they were private citizens with no particular affiliation with the Democratic Party. Whereas “death panels” and “socialism” and “Kenyan anti-colonialism” and whatnot all come from leading figures in the GOP.

          As you point out, the stuff that folks were protesting in the Bush era was actually outside the norm of American politics, like invading countries unprovoked and torturing people. (I supported the Iraq invasion at the time, but have come to believe that I was mistaken at the time to have trusted the Bush administration and the MSM as they made the case for invading; and that things turned out pretty much exactly as predicted in this prescient piece that should have appeared in every major American newspaper).

          In 2004, the Democrats nominated for president someone who had supported the controversial, disastrous, deeply immoral invasion of Iraq, which went on to result in the deaths of 4400 Americans, about 100,000 Iraqis, and cost us three or four trillion dollars. In 2012, the Republican Party has no one anywhere who supported the ACA, which was based on a Heritage Foundation plan and on RomneyCare, and which the CBO projected will decrease the deficit. Also, unlike invading Iraq, it won’t kill people; it will, instead, keep people alive. The GOP will nominate Romney, but only because he promises to “repeal ObamaCare” (which Jonathan Bernstein addressed in the post I linked here)– even though it’s based on his plan in Mass., which he formerly said would be a good idea for the whole country (as did Jim DeMint). Our discourse is disastrously skewed to the right.

          It’s not even accurate to call the GOP “extreme”, because that implies that they have beliefs that they take to an extreme. They don’t care about policy. They just experience deep, wildly erratic emotions.

          So, yeah: there’s no equivalence between the two parties. It hasn’t always been true, and won’t always be true, but for the time being, allegiance to the GOP can only be explained by sociology & psychology, with no reference whatsoever to beliefs about policy.

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