Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Of Politics and Mockery

Just over a month ago Michael Steele was elected Chairman of the GOP. In most western democracies party officials are largely ignored in the public debates, but in the USA due to the convoluted (or lack of) leadership roles in American Political Parties (other than the President & for 4-5 months every 4 years his nominated opponent) it remains a major position. Yet already calls for his resignation are coming through. Ross Douthat makes the obvious point that the RNC-erred in assuming Steeles charisma was the ship that would restore their balance.

Both Steele and Palin are extremely charismatic, as American politicians go, which is a big reason why Republicans of different stripes – moderates for the Marylander, conservatives for the Alaskan – have been so excited about them. But they’ve both attempted (or been asked) to chart a new direction for the Right on style alone, and they’ve floundered as soon as they’ve been pressed for substance. Steele has responded by telling his interlocutors whatever they want to hear, Palin responded by telling her interlocutors next to nothing at all – and the results, in both cases, are and were unfortunate

But whilst right, this doesn’t fully explain why Steele is under attack. Plenty of politicians, especially in the media driven atmosphere of US politics lack the substance required for their job, but fill it with charisma and certainty (See Bush, George.W). Steele’s problems relate in part from the mistake that led to his election, and from what he has attempted to fill that intellectual gap with.

First, though most are reluctant to ever say it, the African-American Michael Steele was in large part elected because the Republican party has a race issue and they assumed skin colour would override ideology and lead black americans back to the party. Just as McCain had a gender issue and tried to fill it with Palin, such identity politics however doesn’t work:

Women strongly preferred Obama to Senator John McCain (56 percent for Obama, 43 percent for McCain), unlike men, who split their votes about evenly for the two presidential candidates (49 percent for Obama, 48 percent for McCain). Defined as the difference in the proportions of women and men voting for the winning candidate, the gender gap was 7 percentage points in 2008, with 56 percent of women versus 49 percent of men voting for Obama. The gender gap this year is consistent with other presidential elections, where gender gaps have ranged from a high of 11 percentage points in 1996 to a low of 4 percentage points in 1992. There
was a similar 7-point gender gap in the final vote in 2004.

Republicans made the mistake of assuming that they could counter the first african american president with one of their own, but this was a mistake and the RNC is only now starting to realise this. Steele is not responsible for this mistake, (though he certainly benefited from it) but he will be hung for it.

Friedrich Nietzsche

- Friedrich Nietzsche 1885

The second error however is one of Steele’s making, and in it lies the heart of his true problems. Steele has made himself a target for mockery, and nothing in politics kills you faster than being laughed at. Politicians can be disagreed with, despised, denounced and degraded. But make them a joke and the veneer of authority disappears. Modern democratic society is built upon the presumption that the people willingly accept the authority of people who lead political parties, or merely participate in the debate. These are not people who can in any way coerce us to accept their authority (unlike the President who has the military & law enforcement to sustain his rule), and yet we accept that because someone is a “Chairman” of a political party they have some authority. Become a punch line and that acceptance of authority instantly vanishes. (There remains an opportunity for a great book to be written on politics and humor. The two go so naturally together)

From his call for republicans to have a “hip-hop makeover” to his insult & then next day public apology to Rush Limbaugh, Steele has been a boon to comedians and wanna be wits everywhere. Democrats could attack him on any issue from abortion (though there he contradicts himself) to economics to torture with as much vehemence as they could muster and it wouldn’t have half the impact of your neighbours joking aside about Steele turning the GOP into the Gangsta’ Only Party.

Unless Steele can find a way to return his image to one of seriousness and solid common sense (which Bush somewhat achieved over his last two years, after the left had got bored of its jokes) then he is not long for the position, and will drag the GOP -further?- down with him. Yet like many politicians in a similar position the expectation is that as he flounders he will keep retreating to what worked before, his natural charisma, and ignore the substantive issue which is killing his reputation. Insisting on party dogma more and more feverently so as to keep the base happy wont help either. The media know all the old reasons why GOP’ers are against abortion and for lower taxes, Steele needs as Douthat notes to have “something intelligent and fresh-sounding to say”.

(As an aside, I wonder how many people are suddenly linking to and reading Douthat now that he has been named the next big thing, via his selection to the New York Times Opinion Pages. I’m not sure if my own actions are from a blogger like pile on, or the old Australian habit of going after the tall poppies, or just resentment that he got such a position at 29, and at 25 I’m yet to be offered anything like it :P. As I forgot to do so last post, I should congratulate Douthat on his new position. A very strong choice by the NYT over that old hack William Kristol who, appropriately for our theme of the day, made an embarassment of himself with his repeated corrections for wrong information and utterly predictable columns.)