This post is a bit lengthy, but is essentially composed of two parts. The first is a comment on the implications of the recent Ames Iowa Straw Poll, followed by an examination of how the winner of that straw poll, Michele Bachmann, views certain political issues and what that tells us about her worldview as well as that of similar politicians.
1. Powerful Insignificance
The recent Ames Iowa Straw Poll, won by Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, is of little significance where the 2012 presidential election is concerned. This exercise has been carried out five times previously to the most recent edition, and suffice it to say that it has had a dismal track record of predicting the subsequent presidential election. In 1995, where the poll produced a tie between Bob Dole and Phil Gramm, Dole did eventually secure the party’s nomination only to lose to Bill Clinton in the general election. 1999 marked the only occasion on which the poll produced both the party’s nominee and the winner of the presidential election, George W. Bush. The predictive power of the Ames straw poll is somewhere in between weak and nonexistent.
Despite its horrid track record, there is perhaps something significant that one can discern from the results of the Ames poll. Matthew Dickinson argues, quite rightly I think, that such polls are ideal ways to gauge the opinion of the party faithful and “the base,” and in turn which candidate appeals most to the base and perhaps speaks on their behalf. Dickinson states, “[r]ather than a measure of general support in Iowa, the results instead are a better gauge of the intensity of support among core activists for particular candidates. This is not insignificant, of course, since these intensely committed activists form the shock troops that can be counted on to support a candidate throughout the campaign.”
Indeed, as Dickinson also notes, straw polls operate on a pay-to-play system. Candidates have been prone to pouring money into these events in order to not only bus supporters to the event, but also paying the entrance free required to cast a vote. It is possible then, that given that the Ames Straw Poll attracts many of the party faithful, that it perhaps also provides strong insight into who is commanding the party faithful. Specifically, who has fundraising power and appeal among “the base,” and in turn, whose ideas are resonating with the party faithful?
In addition to the potential insight into the feelings of the base, the outcome in Ames has had another significant implication, no matter how little impact it will likely have on the final outcome of the presidential race. Subsequent to her victory last Saturday, Congresswoman Bachmann made appearances on all five major Sunday morning talk shows. It’s no secret that media coverage of elections is prone to horse-race style analysis, and in the eyes of many major media outlets, Bachmann’s victory in Ames is a major game changer, one which firmly establishes her as the front runner for the GOP nomination, once again despite the fact that a victory in Ames can be essentially purchased. Any shakeup in the race allows for a framing of the race as an American Idol or Survivor-style drama full of intrigue, affecting precisely who garners media attention. Greenwald, with characteristic eloquence and indignation, writes,
From now until next November, chatter, gossip and worthless speculation about the candidates’ prospects will drown out most other political matters. That’s what happened in 2008: essentially from mid-2007 through the November, 2008 election, very little of what George Bush and Dick Cheney did with the vast power they wielded — and very little of what Wall Street was doing — received any attention at all. Instead, media outlets endlessly obsessed on the Hillary v. Giuliani showdown, then on the Hillary v. Barack psycho-drama, and then finally on the actual candidates nominated by their parties.
Thus, we know for the time being that Michele Bachmann will command considerable media attention and maintain significant leverage in determining what issues and ideas are presented to the public, at least until another “game changer” occurs. Bachmann’s media blitz in the aftermath of her triumph in Ames is, however, of some additional interest given her status as the current It-Girl of the social conservative wing of the Republican Party. Furthermore, the congresswoman doubles as a leader and voice of the Tea Party, therefore possessing the ability to speak on behalf of an entire wing of Republicans. Even if she does not gain her party’s nomination for the presidency, and I doubt she will though stranger things have happened, Bachmann is a prominent representative for a particular wing of the party, one which has been particularly prominent as of late and holds significant sway within the broader context of the Republican Party.
So, what’s on Michele Bachman’s mind and what does that tell us?
2. The Tea Party Stranglehold
The cause célèbre of Bachmann’s career provides a basic overview of how the congresswoman, and the wing of the party which she leads, or at least on whose behalf she often speaks, thinks about major political questions. This can be shown through any of number positions that a politician like Bachmann holds, whether on matters of the economy or even foreign policy, but I’ll zero-in on this particular issue given how prominent the candidate has made it throughout her career.
There’s no question that the issue of gay rights and homosexuality has been a cornerstone of Michele Bachmann’s career, or at least the opposition to such things. Ryan Lizza writes in a lengthy but worthwhile profile in the New Yorker that, “Bachmann said in 2004 that being gay is ‘personal enslavement,’ and that, if same-sex marriage were legalized, ‘little children will be forced to learn that homosexuality is normal and natural and that perhaps they should try it.’ Speaking about gay-rights activists, that same year, she said, “It is our children that is the prize for this community.”
On a recent appearance on Meet the Press, part of her post Ames media blitz, Congresswoman Bachmann was asked about those same previous statements, but backed down from explaining or adding to them, instead claiming that she was not campaigning to be anyone’s judge. (The exchange starts about 30 seconds in to the video below and there is a full transcripts here).
The important takeaway from these statements, and that which illuminates Bachmann’s thinking, is that it is not for merely political reasoning that Bachmann is opposed to the idea of same-sex marriage or equal protection of the law for LGBT persons. Rather, Bachmann seems to find an entire group of people to be inherently morally suspect, perhaps wilfully deviant or suffering from some sort of pathological defect. It is not just that some people are different and want the same thing though in a slightly different way, but that some people are bent on ravaging the moral fabric of society.
Those candidates closest in social views to Bachmann, namely Rick Santorum, have espoused similar viewpoints as the folks at Spreading Santorum have steadily documented (you can look of the etymology of Santorum on your own time). Even Rick Perry, a supposedly unrelenting federalist, has voiced support for a federal amendment banning same-sex marriage. The exception, it appears, was due to the gay marriage issue being a moral one. Perry stated, “The Constitution does not empower Congress to make decisions about morality for the American people.”
Once again, the viewpoints of these individuals essentially divide the population starkly between those who wish to uphold morality and the family, and those who want to alter the basic foundation of America by deviating from the undeniably correct one woman-one man standard. Gayle Rubin referred to such thinking as stratified sexuality, essentially privileging one group as normal and healthy while stigmatizing any other, without consideration of “how partners treat one another, the level of mutual consideration, the presence or absence of coercion, and the quantity and quality of the pleasures they provide.” Rubin notes that in creating this hierarchy of relationships and lifestyles,
Individuals whose behaviour stands high in this hierarchy are rewarded and certified with mental health and respectability, legality, social and physical mobility, institutional support, and material benefits. As sexual behaviours or occupations fall lower on the scale, the individuals who practice them are subjected to a presumption of mental illness, disreputability, criminality, restricted social and physical mobility, loss of institutional support, and economic sanctions.
We’ve come a long way from the riots in Stonewall and the days when homosexuality was categorized as a disorder in DMS, but such thinking is what underpins the views of Bachmann, Santorum, and to a lesser extent Rick Perry. A certain kind of behaviour or lifestyle, as far as they are concerned, is inherently sinful and cannot be acknowledged in any positive way.
This brings us to the second major takeaway of this type of worldview, namely that it is simply wildly out of touch with reality and in no way addresses any of the countless issues encountered by a significant portion of the American populace. While politicians of a certain ilk who are now commanding considerable media attention have refused to acknowledge that families come in a greater variety of forms than they ever did, the reality is that gay people are and have been raising families for decades as was plainly seen in the court battles that led to legalization of same-sex marriage in states like Massachusetts, or in those cases where federal legislation causes a person living with a disease to lose their only caregiver. It matters not that there are people of various sexual orientations that have been effectively and nobly serving in the American military but have risked termination due to the mere fact of sexuality, a fact to which Congress and the President had only recently wised up.
Such politics offers absolutely no pragmatic or sensible approach by which to confront such issues. This is because the beliefs outlined above have no basis in political decision-making. It says nothing about why DOMA or DADT is actually good policy or is in the public interest. A certain wing of the Republican party, represented by the likes of Michelle Bachmann, has shunned any sort of critical or thorough assessment of empirics in favour of empty talking points. Simple condemnation passes as policy.
The same logic applies to a myriad of issues. Taxes are bad, even the slightest increase. Government involvement in health care or any social program for that matter is bad and puts society on the road to serfdom. It is not clear what the alternative is in the face of an increasing number of uninsured Americans, mounting deficit, and crumbling infrastructure. These are the non-negotiable tenets of this wing of the party. It’s not quite politics, which implies thoughtful decision-making and compromise, but doctrine that refuses to bend in the face of reality.
While the Tea Party may secure certain electoral victories and media attention, the biggest victim of their political sabotage is perhaps the Republican Party or conservatism itself. While the Republicans are meant to serve as the conservative alternative to the Democrats, they are now beholden this new strange new doctrine of conservatism that is so wildly out of touch with reality.
While I may lean to the left on many issues, I know and respect a basic tenet of conservatism that goes back to its roots in the likes of Edmund Burke, namely a solid grounding in reality and a desire for pragmatic and sensible solutions to current problems, all while realizing that there are limits to what we as mere humans can achieve. Essentially, we cannot ignore where we are and where we have been in drawing up our plans for where we are going. A certain wing of the Republican Party, however, which is sadly the loudest at the moment, does just this, electing to be wilfully deaf to certain realities and absolutely refusing to even address them. Instead of asking how we incrementally and sensibly address the plight of certain portions of the population, or how we can actually employ government effectively and within limits in an attempt to solve problems, we have instead a clinging to doctrine.
Conservatism is meant to be realism, an alternative to utopianism, a realization that we can only gradually move forward from the past, but that we must. As certain groups of people become more visible and prominent in a society, it is important that they are accorded certain rights and that we strike a balance between this and existing values. They cannot simply be ignored. When a deficit looms, perhaps a nation’s approach to taxation, without giving up market fundamentals, becomes necessary.
Change is inevitable and necessary. We can be naive and think that we will completely alter the society we live in toward some utopian vision, or we can cautiously assess reality and make the change that is feasible. This is the brand of conservatism that anyone can respect and admire but is nowhere to be found in the Republican Party that is now controlling the broader political discourse. This is a movement that is likely to maintain traction into the near future in the media circus that is electoral politics, and it paints a disturbing picture for politics, one in which big government scaremongering and stigmatization of entire groups of people trumps statesmanship and thoughtfulness.
This is what Michelle Bachmann’s victory in Ames brings to light. Not that she will be the party’s nominee or that any significant change in the race for the GOP’s nomination has taken place, but that a certain faction of politicians have lost, or perhaps never had, touch with reality and in the final analysis inhabits a delusional utopia all its own, one in which gay families do not exist, where the market is infallible, and where government serves no realistic purpose and has only sinister intentions, whether that be punishing success and stealing wealth or indoctrinating your children.
That’s hardly conservative. It’s certainly not patriotic. If anything, it’s farcical. Perhaps, as we’ve become a culture so immersed in a mass media that’s obsessed with farce and spectacle, it’s only fitting that that those who are inherently farcical, without thoughtfulness or nuance, would reign supreme, but that’s a topic for another day.
Andrew Sullivan, a Conservative, discusses why he feels alienated from the Republican Party. Well worth reading and touches on many of the points I made in this piece.
The complete citation for the Gayle Rubin piece I quoted:
G. Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” in H. Abelove, M Barale and D Halperin, eds., The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. (New York: Routledge. 1993 )
Robert Putnam and David Campbell crash the Tea Party. A blunt and honest exploration of the beliefs of this movement in American politics. Good for further reading.