I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The baselessness of defeatism

(Updated below - Update II - Update III)

One particularly toxic effect of three straight national election victories by the Bush movement is the defeatist belief -- pervasive among many Democrats and other Bush critics -- that our political situation is hopeless, in large part because Americans are too apathetic and easily manipulated. Aside from the obvious danger that defeatism of that sort can easily become self-fulfilling, it is also grounded in factually false premises.

This defeatist mindset is typically predicated on the claim that Rovian Republicans have uniquely mastered the art of ruthless political propaganda, that the media either fails to criticize this propaganda or even actively disseminates it, that the worldview of the Bush movement is simpler and more base than its opposite and therefore more easily conveyed, that Americans don't care about anything as long as they are well-fed and entertained, etc. etc. Most typically, this defeatist view relies upon some combination of these pessimistic premises, and is used to draw the conclusion that the so-called "conservative" movement is destined to win because the hurdles to defeating it are virtually insurmountable.

The reality, though, is completely different. John Cole's powerfully expressed post from yesterday, in which he explains why he has abandoned the Republican Party to which he has been so loyal for so long, is receiving substantial attention, and rightfully so. Cole's explanation resonates because there are so many people in this country who have experienced the same transformation -- some slowly and incrementally, others more abruptly -- whereby they have fundamentally changed their most basic political opinions about the President, his policies, and his party.

Over the past three years, there has been a seismic shift in the political views of Americans. Large majorities liked President Bush and approved of his job performance not only in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but for almost two full years afterwards. For the two-year period beginning with the 9/11 attacks through roughly September, 2003 (when serious problems with Iraq became more apparent), the President was liked and approved of by more than 60% of Americans. Throughout this time period, more or less continuously, roughly 2/3 of Americans supported him.

Since September, 2003, huge numbers of Americans have dramatically changed their view. They have turned against not only the President, but also his party and his war. Those who continuously claim that things are hopeless, that Americans are too indifferent and dumb, that the media's dysfunction and/or support for Republicans prevents real change, that Karl Rove can manipulate public opinion with the flip of a switch, etc. etc. have to confront and account for this dramatic shift in public opinion, as illustrated by this graph.

Trends of American political opinion over the last four years can be understood by examining the three groups which, roughly speaking, compose the American electorate: (1) those who disliked Bush from the beginning and still do; (2) those who loved Bush from the beginning and still do; and (3) the John Cole group -- those who began supporting Bush and have now turned against him. What is remarkable is that each group represents roughly 1/3 of the American electorate. That is an extraordinary figure, because it means that, in a relatively short time period, almost a full 1/3 of Americans have fundamentally changed their views about what they think of the President and his movement. From Rasmussen yesterday (h/t: Holden C):

In the final full month before Election 2006, the number of people identifying themselves as Republicans has fallen to its lowest level since we began reporting this measure of partisan trends in January 2004. As a result, Democrats have their biggest net advantage of the past two campaign cycles.

In October, just 31.5% of Americans considered themselves Republicans. That’s a startling decline of nearly six percentage points from 37.2% two years ago.

More important still, Americans didn't change their views because the media suddenly became adversarial or effective in its watchdog function (it didn't), nor because Democrats found a will or a way to provide meaningful opposition (they haven't), nor because the Bush administration's propaganda is now less ruthless or deceitful (it isn't). They changed their minds largely on their own, by simply looking at what is going on around them and using their critical faculties to compare what they see to the claims made by the Bush movement, and they have noticed the gaping disparities. And they are angry about it. Very angry.

For those who long ago and with complete certainty recognized the corruption and dangers of the Bush movement, frustration can easily set in because this change has been slow and incremental. For those who believe that this President and his administration are so plainly corrupt and evil to the core, the fact that this has been such a long, hard slog can lead to despair and has the tendency to affirm the view that the system is hopelessly stacked against real change. But this progress is real and substantial and meaningful.

Our system of government was designed based on the expectation -- really, the inevitability -- that there would be excesses and abuses of power in the future. For that reason, the founders sought, first and foremost, to provide as many safeguards as possible in the form of self-corrective mechanisms which are intrinsic to the system (and they maximized the likelihood that such mechanisms will prevent abuse by ensuring that radical changes will be very slow and difficult to achieve). And the (imperfect though still consistent) history of American public opinion is that it backlashes against extremism and abuses of power. That is clearly what is occurring now.

Bush followers are desperate to seize on petty sideshows like the John Kerry comment because they know that Americans have abandoned them with regard to everything that matters. And, as Kos observed and warned against yesterday, there are many Bush critics who have such an ingrained expectation of losing that they are petrified of even plainly inconsequential matters like this one.

But inconsequential distortions and stray gaffes will not save the Bush movement because Americans, in huge numbers, have come to see it for what it really is. The dissatisfaction is deep, profound and fundamental because it is the by-product of the very reasoned thought-process which so many people claim is lacking among the American electorate.

UPDATE: For an excellent case study of the irrational and hollow mind of the Bush follower, see this response to Cole's post from John Hawkins at Right Wing News. The idea that Cole has had a genuine change of heart in his views, or that the radicalism of the administration and corruption of its followers has driven Cole away, never even occurs to Hawkins. He begins with the assumption that Cole is operating with dishonest and malignant motives, and thus proceeds to ignore Cole's points and, instead, attack Cole personally, in order to excuse himself and his readers of the burden of actually having to think about what Cole said.

The only thought which Hawkins' blindly loyal brain permits is the recognition that Cole is criticizing the Bush movement. Hence, and with nothing further needed, Cole is The Enemy, to be discredited and destroyed. Hawkins titles his post "Another Lame Poseur Conservative;" the first line labels Cole an "ex-conservative;" and the post then accuses Cole of having "a real bee in his bonnet about religious people being allowed to have a voice in the Republican Party" and claims that he's only motivated by a desire for more traffic and attention (not because he actually believes what he is saying):

Maybe it's just me, but when I see people like John Cole, Andrew Sullivan, and David Brock basking in praise from the left and criticizing the right for all the same things that their new best buddies do day in and day out, I can't help but think that they're, at least to a certain degree, phonies who're writing things not because they believe them, but because they think it'll pull in more traffic and money for them.

For example, is John Cole's stance on the war what he believes or what he needs to keep his new friends on the left linking him? It could be one or it could be the other. It's hard to say with a guy like Cole. . . . In my book, Cole traded in his party and his ideology a long time ago and the only reason he's still pretending otherwise is because it benefits him to do so.

Hawkins can take some solace in the fact that it isn't "just him." Quite the contrary, it's how Bush followers -- by definition -- think. It's one of the principal attributes that defines them. Criticisms of the Leader and the Movement are a priori invalid and false and no energy needs to be expended to figure out why that is. It is just assumed to be so, and the real task is then to figure out all of the deep character flaws in the person voicing the criticism so that they can be personally discredited, their sincerity doubted, and then everything they say from that point forward comfortably ignored.

UPDATE II: Unsurprisingly, Hawkins' smear of Cole's motives is factually false, and it is easily demonstrated to be such. Throughout the year, as Cole became increasingly critical of the Bush administration (and as he even shared his blog with a committed anti-Bush co-blogger, Tim F.), the traffic for Cole's blog remained relatively stable and, if anything, gradually decreased (the only exception being October, when many blogs experienced increases in traffic due to things like the Foley scandal and the imminent elections). If (as is plainly the case) someone like Hawkins doesn't actually care about whether his accusations are factual in any way, wouldn't he still want check Cole's traffic stats before accusing him of being motivated by the increased traffic he gets -- just to avoid embarrassment if for no other reason?

More to the point, the type of standard personal attack launched by Hawkins against Cole is so ineffective and even a little pitiful because it isn't just Cole, but huge portions of the American electorate just like him, who have abandoned this President and the Bush following movement. Are those millions of Americans also motivated by a desire for more blog links? This illustrates what has become a huge (and self-perpetuating) problem for Bush followers -- how do you continue to use the old reliable demonization tactics against Bush critics and war critics when the vast majority of Americans now fall into those categories?

UPDATE III: Mona (a Bush '04 and two-time Reagan voter) elaborates on the path taken by many, such as herself and Cole, who have abandoned this administration despite their long-term support for the Republican Party. Obviously, she can't really believe what she is saying, so we'll wait for Bush followers like Hawkins to tell us whether she's saying this because she has a book to promote, wants blog traffic, hates religious people, or is suffering from some severe mental illness. In the meantime, though, it is worth reading what Mona describes because it seems clear that many Americans have had a similar political awakening.

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