Even if scandal narratives won't win elections, a la 1998, they're better than talking issues and facts for the GOP.
June 18, 2013

In two previous pieces (here and here), I discussed the phenomena of scandal narratives in American politics, first stressing how such narratives reflect a right/left divide—emphasizing mythos (the construction of meaning) on the conservative side and logos (the discovery of facts) on the liberal side—and then showing how even a symmetrical approach to understanding scandals over the past 30+ years still produces evidence of how asymmetrical they actually are.

I now want to conclude my discussion by looking at scandalmania in the larger context of left/right ideology in America over the past few decades.

But first, let's ground that discussion in the recent round of scandalmania, and it what it portends. What does all this mean going forward? Obviously, Obama scandalmania has served to distract attention from severe problems confronting the GOP.

Whether or not it actually succedes is anyone's guess at the moment, so let's start by ticking off what's being avoided—at least three other distinct damaging political concerns facing the GOP: First, the GOP's own severe internal problems in the aftermath of the 2012 elections. Second, the rebounding economy and sharply dropping federal deficit, which further undermine the GOP's economic line of attack on Obama, as well as signalling future political strength for Obama, all other things being equal, Third, the GOP's ongoing unpopular policies, such as (a) the sequester, whose impact is steadily spreading and deepening, threatening the other good economic news, (b) the blocking of universal background checks for gun purshases, and (c) persistent hostility to a path for citizenship as part of comprehensive immigration reform.

The Heritage Foundation urged Republicans to set aside any sort of policy agenda to focus on all scandals all the time, as a way of bypassing all the problems facing the GOP. But others—even including the Nation Review Online—have seen this as a mistaken approach. Recalling the 1998 election, NRO warned that Republicans can't simply be against Democratic scandals, it won't work Specifically, NRO said:

Democratic scandal does not take the place of a Republican agenda. It does not reform the tax code or reduce the debt or ease regulatory burdens on small business. It cannot substitute for a strategy to replace Obamacare.

But this policy list quickly falls apart under even the most cursory inspection, becoming almost self-refuting. “Reform the tax code” and “reduce the debt” are GOP codespeark for cutting tax rates and decimating highly popular government programs—best done after elections, not before—while even small businesses themselves say that regulations are less of concern than lack of consumer demand. Finally, any “strategy to replace Obamacase” must face not one but two inconvenient truths: First, a landslide majority opposes replacing Obamacare with something more conservative. While more Americans disapprove of Obamacare than approve of it, those disapproving include millions who want something more progressive—even though the media almost never even mentions the possibility.

A late-May CNN poll found 54% opposed to Obamacare, compared to 43% supporting it—but, as MSNBC's Maddowblog pointed out, 16% oppose it because they believe it's too conservative, only 35% oppose it as "too liberal". Second—as I'll explain more fully below—virtually all the policy parts of Obamacare are more popular than the whole. That's why “repeal Obamacare” has a lot more appeal than “replace Obamacare” does: repealing Obamacare is an act of mythic resistance to the socialist tyranny of “King Obama”, and recycling zombie lie scare stories like “death panels”, but replacing Obamacare means mucking about in the realm of logos, either reinventing it piece-by-piece, or else choosing even less popular replacement parts.

In short: there's no there there in the GOP's would-be policy agenda, just as there's no there there with the GOP's Obama scandalmania. Smoke and mirrors are all that Republicans have, either way. But smoke and mirrors are quite enough in the realm of mythos. In the realm of logos, not so much. Which is why we should expect that scandalmania may wax and wane in the months and years ahead, but we will never be rid of it so long as Barack Obama is president. The alternative is no alternative at all. The numbers just don't add up. Not on healthcare reform, or on gun control. Or immigration reform. Or anything else you can think of—all of which can be traced back to the mythos/logos distinction. Let me explain.

In 1967, public opinion pioneers Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril published a landmark book, The Political Beliefs of Americans. As I've explained before both at Open Left here, for example and Al Jazeera English (here) before, one of their dominant themes was the disconnect between what they called "operational" liberalism—the support for liberal welfare state policies,, based simply on the fact that they work—and ideological conservatism, identified by agreement with a set of five questions about government interference versus individual initiative. I went on to note that in the final section of the final chapter of the book, titled, "The Need for a Restatement of American Ideology", they wrote:

"The paradox of a large majority of Americans qualifying as operational liberals while at the same time a majority hold to a conservative ideology has been repeatedly emphasised in this study. We have described this state of affairs as mildly schizoid, with people believing in one set of principles abstractly while acting according to another set of principles in their political behaviour. But the principles according to which the majority of Americans actually behave politically have not yet been adequately formulated in modern terms...

"There is little doubt that the time has come for a restatement of American ideology to bring it in line with what the great majority of people want and approve. Such a statement, with the right symbols incorporated, would focus people's wants, hopes, and beliefs, and provide a guide and platform to enable the American people to implement their political desires in a more intelligent, direct, and consistent manner."

There are several different ways to understand this disconnect, each of which highlights different aspects of what's involved. One way is in terms of the mythos/logos distinction. The conservative ideology Free and Cantril uncovered was rooted in the ideal of an unfettered free market as an expression of individual freedom, despite the fact that wildly fluctuating market economies, with repeated crashes and depressions, have never really worked that way for working-class or middle-class individuals for more than a few years at a time at most. The historical reality is that modest government planning, counter-cyclical Keynsian spending, and a variety of welfare state programs, from Social Security to the GI Bill to food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid, were all instrumental in producing the most broadly prosperous decades in American history, when countless millions of Americans experienced a level of economic freedom and opportunity never seen before in the history of the world. This was not ideology, it was cold, hard fact. But—as Free and Cantril noted—this historical reality, created by the logos of economic policies worked out in the early and mid-20th century, was never translated over into a comprehensive worldview, a mythos, to make sense of the world in a way that matched how the economy was actually functioning, as well as the specific policies that supermajorities of the American people supported.

This split between operational liberalism and philosophical conservatism is not limited to economic matters, however, particularly as other issues have become more closely aligned with and polarized by the liberal/conservative divide. This can be seen quite clearly in two major issues at play in the first half of 2013—health care reform, which Republicans are still trying to block or reverse by any and all means, and gun safety in the aftermath of Newton Massacre. In both cases, high-level abstract ways of issue framing present a far more conservative picture of public opinion than questions about specific policies do.

For example, when people are asked, in the broadest terms, using various formulations, whether they favor more or less restrictive gun laws, the answers tend to be decidedly mixed. Pew polling from 2007 through early 2013, for example found that support for "conrol[ing] gun ownership" versus "Protect[ing] the right of Americans to own guns" varied from a high of 60-32 in 2007 to a narrow range of 4-point pluralities either way during Obama's first term, before widening slightly after the Newton Massacre. At this level, many Americans identify gun ownership with freedom—just as they also identify “free market” economics. But—just like the economic realm—when the questions are posed in terms of specific policies and legislation, a very different picture emerges: the answers shift sharply towards landslide support for a broad range of gun safety measures, and solid majority support for others. As I've noted in a previous Al Jazeera English column, “The gun-owners' Gun Safety Act of 2013: A blueprint for sanity?” this can be seen in polling of gun-owner attitudes, and even members of the NRA. It's also been seen in post-Newton polling, most notably with support for background checks in the 60-90% range, even in deep red states.

Scandal narratives—such as the failed scandal narrative around the botched Fast and Furious operation—fit very neatly into abstract framing of “gun rights” advocates vs. “gun grabbers”. But they have little or nothing to do with actual gun-safety policies—that is, with the world of logos.

A similar pattern can be seen regarding health care reform. Support for Obamacare is decidedly mixed. This is partly because a substantial unreported minority of Americans think that Obamacare is too conservative. Even so, a March 2013 tracking poll from the Kaiser Foundaiton found the public slightly negative on Obamacare, 37/40, at the same time that landslide majorities (roughly 2-1 or more) supported key provisions such as tax credits to small businesses to buy insurance (88% support, 83% among Republicans), closing the Medicare “doughnut hole” (81% support, 74% among Republicans), creating health insurance exchanges (8% support, 72% among Republicans), extension of dependent coverage (76% support, 68% among Republicans), subsidy assistance to individuals (76% support, 61% among Republicans), Medicaid expansion (71% support, 42% among Republicans), guaranteed issue (66% support, 56% among Republicans) and medical loss ratio (65% support, 62% among Republicans). Two more provisions had 60% and 57% support, the only provision with minority support was individual mandate/penalty (40% support, 21% among Republicans), which was originally a conservative Republican idea developed by the Heritage Foundation in the 1990s as a counter-proposal to Clinton's health care reform effort.

In both these issue areas, conservative opposition to popular policies has only been maintained by concerted and disciplined lying. In regards to health care reform, the “death panel” lie was the most prominent example. In defeating background checks, perhaps the most important lie was claiming that the government would establish a database of gunowners—even though the proposed law explicitly banned that possibility, making it a felony to do anything of the sort. These were both social lies—lies promoted by discinplined in-groups of like-minded political actors, which demonized outgroups as threatening to life and liberty, Most importantly, the internal discipline involved intense pressure to prevent any ingroup members from breaking ranks and telling the truth. It was, in short, a total triumph of mythos over logos, of shared meanings over cold hard facts.

From this perspective, conservative scandal narratives are perfectly in keeping with conservative issue framing more generally.

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