The Year in BS #1: Unpopularism
Republicans want your vote, but won't stoop to giving you what you want for it
[This is the last of my 2023-in-review posts. You can see #5: “The Potemkin primaries” here, #4: “Gone kill-crazy” here, and #3 Bibi’s bombs and #2 Free-speech freefall here. Hope your New Year’s Eve was rockin’ and your 2024 exceeds every expectation (and I mean that in a good way!)]
I’m not sure how aware most Americans are of national politics (or any other kind, especially since local newspapers that might reliably inform them of what’s going on in their own city and state are receding into history). In my life and in this newsletter, people talk about it a lot, but we’re a self-selecting and unusual community: I assume the people formerly known as Joe Sixpack or John Q. Public (Dylan and Cody Netflix?) are much less interested.
And who could blame them? Politics has always been a grim business, but in the modern era (2012-present, as described in my year-ender #4) it’s gotten downright ugly. MAGA has revealed itself a no-fooling fascist movement, and Il Douche promises to rule as a dictator if he gets back in.
And the prestige press keeps other-handing and lobbing softballs, trying to make it all look like business as usual, and even encouraging us to prepare for the reign of the Reichwing.
Newspaper polls, as well as their content, reflect this paradigm — yet, at the same time, whenever actual voters are actually heard from, they show MAGAfied candidates and propositions exceedingly unpopular. The 2022 elections were a famously damp squib for the Republicans, who’d been expected to swamp both houses of Congress in a “red wave” but only managed a thin, non-productive majority in one.
And the Democrats did great in the 2023 election, too — so much so that the prestige outlets warned us not to make too much of it: “Off-year elections do not necessarily predict the following year,” choked Sabato’s Crystal Ball; “a respite,” said NBC, “for nervous Democrats who have started to question whether President Joe Biden can lift the party to victory in next fall's presidential election.”
Ah, yes, Sleepy Joe the presumed loser. He’s even further behind his Republican opponent in polls than Obama was at the end of 2011. Yet the Democrats’ mid-term and odd-year results are actually better than Obama’s were. (Obama almost lost the whole damn Congress!)
Why are Republicans blowing the traditional advantage of a party out of power? The answer is that the very thing making Republicans frightening is also our best hope of keeping them out of power: They’re no longer even pretending to care about the will of the voters.
I talk a lot about abortion rights here for a bunch of reasons, but the relevant one here is the lengthening string of goose-eggs Republicans have suffered in the repro rights referenda that came after they destroyed Roe v Wade. Even in Kansas and Ohio they couldn’t win.
Conservative factota like Megan McArdle at the Washington Post try to explain this away as a tactical rather than a fundamental error: Anti-choice activists are being “inflexible,” McArdle says, and she claims to be surprised by this because they “used to be good at picking strategic battles” — referring to the less sweeping laws they used to push for, back when Roe kept them from pushing for anything more.
McArdle made her name as an Iraq warblogger, yet she seems never to have heard of taqiyyah — the practice of lying about one’s faith to gain practical advantage. That’s what pro-lifers did in the run-up to Dobbs, because they knew voters weren’t with them. And they know voters still aren’t with them — which is why they’ve been working to keep the kind of referenda they keep losing off state ballots.
In the face of popular resistance a few Republicans have shown signs of panic. Kellyanne Conway, for example, tells her comrades to pivot to a pro-birth control message. And I suspect Ohio Govenor Mike DeWine recently vetoed his legislature’s loony anti-trans bill, not out of personal conviction (come on, we’re all grown-ups here), but because he knew what the voters were seeing in his party — a bunch of nuts who wanted to force through laws that put the state (despite longstanding Republican boilerplate against “Big Government”) in charge of their personal moral choices — and decided, for the good of his colleagues who still have elections coming up, that discretion was the better part of valor.
But that’s the exception, not the rule. Neither DeWine nor Conway has turned on abortion — in fact DeWine is leaving the door open for his lege to try and overturn that referendum he just lost. And the rest of their party won’t turn, either, because they are solidly, one might say mortally, committed to this unpopular position.
Their pro-life palaver started as a sop to one specific religious constituency, but over time it has become the symbol of the Republican Party’s whole anti-choice, anti-consent, anti-democratic ethos.
Look at how hard they fight to preserve gerrymanders, to stop early, drop-off, and mail voting, and to disenfranchise any voter group that is likely to defy their wishes (as opposed to trying to convince new voters to join or even get their old voters to turn out). Look at how (again, despite years of libertarian bullshit) they repeatedly overturn local authorities and plebiscites that deviate from wingnut orthodoxy. Hell, look how they keep coming for Social Security and Medicare!
Republicans still have a lot of tricks in their bag, but their most effective line used to be that they were advocating for the will of the people versus the busybodies, black-robed masters, and buttinskis of the Democrat Party. They used to invite voters to laugh at the gag about how the most frightening words in the world were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”
Well, look who’s the busybodies now. (They’re not totally hypocritical, though — since they aren’t even pretending to be “here to help you.”)
Why, you may wonder, do they double down on these unpopular policies and just count on the message that Sleepy Joe Democrats are woke-trans-groomer-inflation to win, rather than give the voters a little something to vote for?
We could cite their rich donors’ demands, or the perverse incentives which lead political consultants to recommend radical positions. But I think that, like much in human life, it comes down to psychology. Republicans have been led by certain minoritarian features of the American electoral system and Bush v. Gore to believe that they can get whatever they want without the consent of the governed — and decades of operating under this assumption has led to a membership (speaking of self-selecting communities) that prefers it that way.
In other words, they’re sadists and bullies. And if we can keep that fact in front of the voters, we might stand a chance.