-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan
Earlier this week, I noted some hilariously misguided statements posted on a comments board responding to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. That article had quoted me, in support of my prediction that upcoming federal budget talks would result in yet more damaging cuts to funding for higher education, saying this: "Other than football teams, universities are not popular with tea-party-type voters."
As I noted in Tuesday's post, this assertion seems not just obvious but uncontroversial. Movement conservatives, even before many of them united under the banner of the Tea Party movement, had been going after higher education for years, with a combination of anti-intellectualism and attacks on the academy as a haven for lefties. This is hardly something about which conservatives have been coy.
Just to add one more example to the quick list that I included in my post on Tuesday, one might recall that during the 2012 Presidential primary season, President Obama was quoted at one point saying that it should be a goal of American public policy to see that every child gets a college education. He offered the statement as an aspiration, not a policy proposal. One might imagine any of a number of plausible arguments in response to that goal, and we might even have ultimately concluded that the aspiration is not literally achievable. That might have been a fair discussion.
That, however, is not how the Tea Party's favorite candidate responded. The leading arch-conservative Presidential candidate at that time was former Senator Rick Santorum. Speaking to a Tea Party group in Michigan, Santorum reportedly went out of his way to quote the President's comments and to respond as follows: "What a snob!" He raised the specter of "some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate" people, and he said that Obama wants people to go to college so he can "remake you in his image."
It is all rather bizarre, then, to make an obviously true statement and see the level of vitriol that I saw on the comments board for the Chronicle article. But my larger point in Tuesday's post was not about the vitriol itself, but that the comments were so humorously confused. The commenters, in trying to defend themselves against an imagined attack on their intelligence, proceeded to demonstrate their incapacity to think clearly.
I then offered an alternative explanation for the broader phenomenon of embarrassing conservative rants on internet comments boards. (See the comments board for almost any political book on Amazon.com, just as one of a multitude of online mosh pits.) I linked to a comment by Paul Krugman, who had linked to a report that Fox News had spent years ordering its employees to set up dummy, untraceable accounts so that they could act as "sock puppets," posting pro-Fox rants on any comment board where anything had been written about Fox (even non-critical comments). Krugman's surmise was that there was/is an affirmative strategy on the right to get not-necessarily-stupid people to flood the internet with stupid comments supporting right-wing claims.
In an email, Professor Dorf asked me a follow-up question: Why would it be sensible for any political organization (and Fox News is nothing if not a political organization) to convince the world that its adherents are stupid? What is to be gained from paying employees to make bad arguments, rather than good ones?
The answer, I think, can be analogized to an interlude in the history of Professor Dorf's favorite basketball team, the New York Knickerbockers. In the late 1980's, the Knicks were coached briefly by Rick Pitino (now the coach at the University of Louisville). Before playing the Celtics one night, Pitino specifically said that "his team's only chance to beat what was obviously a better team was to create chaos."
This brings me back to an argument that I have made in a number of different contexts, which is that the conservative movement thrives when it undermines the rule of law, and especially when it undermines the institutions that can serve as counterbalances against the exercise of raw power that the wealthy and their right-populist supporters could otherwise exercise.
For example, after last year's Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, I questioned whether movement conservatives should have been grudgingly happy with Chief Justice Roberts, despite his vote upholding the ACA under the taxing power, because his vote had preserved some shred of credibility of the Court as a nonpartisan institution. Although some very good commentators had made that claim, my suggestion was that conservatives would actually want to undermine the Court's legitimacy still further, because the courts can be a countervailing force that restrains the powerful from getting their way.
Similarly, many others have pointed out that conservatives have an incentive to make the government run badly, even when they are in charge. The most recent version of this, of course, is not just to underfund and undermine federal agencies (and then complain when they make mistakes), but to make all of Congress look bad, even when it is only the Tea Partiers in the House who are really being crazy. The press and public tend to draw the conclusion that "they're all nuts."
So, even though I can understand why it is counter-intuitive to engage in a specific strategy that is based on having people say and do stupid things, the strategy seems to be to degrade the conversation always and everywhere. One does not need good arguments to shut down what might otherwise be a productive conversation. One need only make it impossible to have a conversation at all.