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So Long, It's Been Bad to Know Ya… | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

So Long, It's Been Bad to Know Ya…

My new Think Again column is called  “The Tea Party: Struggling for Political Relevance” and it’s here.

The tsoris that forced me to write last week’s Forward column continues in lots of places, most of them foolish. What I found craziest about the Josh Block/Ben Smith accusations was the notion that there is any relationship whatever between alleged anti-Semitism and the desire to resist a potentially disastrous attack on Iran. Block was quite explicit about his desire to shut down all debate about Iran’s nuclear program with his McCarthyite accusations, even though nobody really knows, including the IAEA and the US Director of Central Intelligence.  But that’s not my point: My point is that both nations are going to be competing for the “Best Foreign Film” Oscar this year, Israel with the truly excellent Footnote, and Iran with the truly great A Separation. And the latter is going to win, despite the fact that Hollywood is approximately a billion times more Jewish than it is Iranian. So Josh Block and his friends might wish to start planning to call all of Hollywood anti-Semitic in preparation.

Now here’s Reed:


The 27 Percenters
by Reed Richardson
Much has been made in the past few months—and rightly so—about how our nation’s political system all too often operates merely as a lever that the 1 percent use to control the other 99. But what’s just as important to understand is that there’s another minority cohort out there exerting an out-sized influence on our democracy. And though this subset of our citizenry can be reliably counted on to be either spectacularly misinformed or willfully ignorant on any particular issue, their opinions are nonetheless being allowed to shift the center of gravity of our country’s discourse. 

Now the notion that some number of Americans will always fail to exercise any intellectual capacity beyond that of a sea cucumber when it comes to politics is admittedly not a new one. “Some of the people,” as Abraham Lincoln famously noted more than 150 years ago, can be fooled “all of the time.” But it wasn’t until six years ago, in an insightful post by blogger John Rogers, that someone finally put an exact figure to this phenomenon. During a discussion of, coincidentally, Barack Obama’s campaign for the U.S. Senate the year before, Rogers notes that Obama’s opponent, the self-immolating, out-of-state, unstable candidate Alan Keyes, was still able to attract 27 percent of the electorate:

They put party identification, personal prejudice, whatever ahead of rational judgement. Hell, even like 5% of Democrats voted for him. That’s crazy behaviour. I think you have to assume a 27% Crazification Factor in any population.

Of course, picking a rather random data point and bestowing upon it such broad political significance sounds very much like the kind of irrational, conspiratorial behavior that Rogers himself is trying to quantify. Except that, like a bad penny, this 27 percent figure stubbornly shows up in our recent political discourse again and again. 

- Remember the level at which President Bush’s free-falling job approval ratings finally had their hard landing in the summer of 2008 and roughly remained through Obama’s election?

- Or how about the number of people who, fully a year into Obama’s presidency, still thought ACORN stole the election for him, despite a victory margin of more than 9.5 million votes?

- Halfway into Obama’s term, that same percentage of people remained stubbornly in the thrall of the “Birther” crowd.

- On the eve of the 2010 midterm elections, there was the number cropping up in a poll that asked registered voters if political quitter and intellectual paperweight Sarah Palin was “qualified” to be president.

- Last month, it was the ratio of Americans who characterized themselves as supporters of the Tea Party.

- Earlier this week, it was the percentage of respondents saying Obama has accomplished “little or nothing” during his term so far.

- And just this past Wednesday, guess how many Americans thought Republicans in Congress were genuinely trying to “work with Obama”, despite countless examples of legislative brinksmanship to the contrary?

Now, it’s not fair to say that all these surveys and polls are capturing the same set of people time after time. But while the demographic composition of all the 27 percenters listed above no doubt varies from issue to issue, the thinking that informs those arguments is very much the same.

Are these people really ‘crazy’ as Rogers asserts? Probably not. But his broader, rhetorical point is made—they are likely to be ‘dead-enders’ and ‘true believers,’ people who simply have no capacity to endure cognitive dissonance or curiosity in learning basic facts. The implication being that if you peel away the rational pulp of our body politic, the one quarter or so that’s left represents the hard, unthinking pit of the American psyche.

In our country’s defense, this ratio of is likely the same all around the world. What’s unique and unfortunate about our situation, however, is that, increasingly, one of our two political parties has decided it is in their and our nation’s best interests to tailor public policies around this irrational, unyielding worldview. Crackpots and conspiracy theorists get to enjoy the same freedoms as the rest of us, but that doesn’t mean they should be afforded the responsibility of crafting legislation and reshaping the whole of society in their image.

Nevertheless, that is exactly the strategy the modern Republican Party is engaging in. What other conclusion can one draw when, for every example from above, there’s a corresponding effort from within the highest ranks of the GOP to embrace it and enact it?

- Re ACORN: The Republicans openly kill the organization in 2010 through intense Congressional bullying, despite no proof of actual voter fraud.

- Re Birthers: Republican lawmakers in more than a dozen states and the U.S. Congress introduce birth certificate-verification legislation since Obama’s inauguration.

- Re Palin: Despite a large majority of the public doubting her fitness as a politician, GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich announces this week that she would play a ‘major role’ in his administration.

- Re Tea Party: Republican lawmakers kowtow to its extreme ideology in this past summer’s debt ceiling fight, pushing the economy to the brink of disaster.

- Re “little or nothing” accomplished: The Republican presidential candidates manipulate this displeasure with Obama among primary voters by counter-intuitively feeding them an apocalyptic taleof a tyrannical second term.

- Re “work with Obama”: The Republican Senate Minority Leader publicly states that making Obama a one-term president is “my single most important political goal along with every active Republican in the country.”

These are but a few of the most notable examples of ‘27-percenter’ thinking driving Republican policy, of course. The ongoing Republican presidential primary can provide almost daily examples of this same phenomenon. And while catering to one’s hardcore political base is part and parcel of a primary campaign, the remaining candidates, including frontrunner Mitt Romney, show little appetite for tacking back to the center policy-wise once the general election begins in earnest later in the spring.

Indeed, just as the Republican-dominated 112thCongress demonstrated yesterday and nearly every other day it has been in session, the extreme goals and detached-from-reality ideals of those hardcore constituents now dominate the party’s orthodoxy. Compromise is simply no longer a part of the current Republican Party’s lexicon because the GOP has thoroughly abandoned its moderate base.

All too often, however, the press and the punditocracy don’t recognize the reality of the GOP’s recent rightward lurch. Consequently, they increasingly accept as reasonable the party’s embrace of the ‘27 percenters,’ which unwittingly pushes the nation rightward as well. But this slow drifting into reactionary seas presents a perilous dilemma for our democracy, because it only further emboldens the entrenched powers that enforce one set of rules for the rich and another for the rest of us. In other words, in this political calculation, taking 27 percent away from the 99 leaves only the 1 percent in charge.  

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.  

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