Sociopathy, Antisocial Politicians, and Republicans Before Trump (a Dorf on Law Classic)
Note to Readers: For my final "classic" of the holiday season, I continue my theme of looking at the Republican Party in the years before its Trumpian turn. From just over ten years ago (October 26, 2012), this column discusses what it means to be sociopathic in the political context and how the Republican Party had by 2012 already taken a dramatic turn toward antisocial dysfunction.
Calling It As It Is
-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan
In my new Verdict column, published yesterday, I describe the current leadership of the Republican Party -- very much including Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan -- as "sociopathic." Needless to say, I did not do so lightly. This is not a matter of mere name-calling, where (for example) Obama-haters empty their limited thesauruses by calling him a communist, fascist, socialistic Kenyan. All of these words actually have meanings, and sociopathy does as well.
As I explain in my column, sociopaths display extreme anti-social tendencies, being willing to violate norms that apply to others in the self-centered pursuit of their own immediate gain. These antisocial attitudes are manifested in "a pattern of behavior in which social norms and the rights of others are persistently violated," and in a person's "disregard for social norms, rules, and obligations." As I describe in the column, when one starts to look at even a small sample of what the current Party leadership stands for -- often in direct contravention to the wishes of the majority of its own voters, such as (for one of many examples) the leadership's extreme views on abortion -- as well as how it is willing to pursue its ends, the picture of sociopathy comes quickly into focus.
In short, we are not talking about reasoned disagreements over whether, for example, cap-and-trade is a better approach to mitigating environmental damage than carbon taxes (which was, in fact, still a Republican-versus-Democratic point of disagreement only a few years ago). We are now talking about a group of people who have decided that they do not need to engage with reality anymore, who feel completely justified in repeating the most blatant lies in the pursuit of their own advantage, and who show no hesitation in pursuing policies that harm others.
Having grown up in an extended family of Republicans (including my parents, who supported Rockefeller and -- yes -- George Romney at various points), I have been fascinated by the phenomenon that is the modern (essentially, post-1980) Republican Party, and the conservative movement that has taken it over. I keep expecting the party to "jump the shark," each time something especially crazy happens, but the willingness of the party's base to stick with the increasingly sociopathic leadership continues to surprise.
John Dean has reported on research that suggests that about 25% of the country (about half of Republicans) would vote for an out-and-out fascist candidate, because those voters are "followers" in the deep sense that they are more interested in obeying authority (and, more to the point, making othered people suffer under an authoritarian regime) than they are in the content of any particular economic or social policies. Even so, a party that had only 25% support in the country would quickly wither and die.
The continued viability of a party run by sociopaths (but supported in large part by voters who are healthy, functioning people) is thus a mystery. As time passes, some conservatives have simply given up on the party. I do not know what it will take for others to follow, for example, David Frum's lead and say that enough is enough. I do know that -- especially when one considers the openness of the Democratic leadership (and Obama in particular) to blatantly conservative policy ideas, such as cutting Social Security -- this is no longer about liberal-versus-conservative policy differences.
As I noted above, the modern Republican leadership's antisocial extremism can be seen both in its goals and in its methods. As a matter of goals, the economic and social agendas of the Party have become efforts to take things away from "undeserving" others. Women, apparently, do not deserve the right to control their own bodies (not just regarding abortion, but now even with regard to contraception), unless they are economically elite enough to sidestep the laws that would be imposed on other women. I note in my Verdict column that Eric Cantor (the second-highest-ranking Republican in the House, and a co-author of a conservative movement manifesto with Paul Ryan) has specifically insisted that nutrition programs for poor children be cut as part of any budget deal. It is one thing to insist on ideologically motivated cuts to NPR and Planned Parenthood, which would devastate those programs but save virtually no money. We are now talking about harming poor children, just to prove that we can cut the budget, while fighting like crazy to preserve every last dollar of a bloated military budget -- and, of course, to resist any increase in taxes on the rich.
This moral disconnect -- the willingness to engage in policies that would harm vulnerable people, simply to make a point -- has become increasingly clear in the last few years. The immigrant-bashing that Republicans have embraced (even turning on George W. Bush and Rick Perry for daring to worry about being "humane") is another area where it is impossible to ignore the pure cruelty of the Republican leadership. Even military veterans are not safe. Two nights ago, Jon Stewart dedicated his show to a discussion of how budget-cutting zeal by Senate Republicans derailed a bill to spend $1 billion (0.026% of the federal budget) on a program to help veterans use their skills in civilian jobs. In the final Presidential debate, Barack Obama correctly said that Mitt Romney's "five-point plan" is actually a one-point plan: the economic elite get to play by a different set of rules, no matter how much it harms everyone else.
And speaking of that "five-point plan," it is worth thinking again about the change in tactics that we have seen over the years, especially in this election. We now see that Republican candidates no longer bother to try to tether their policies to reality, or to respond to reality-based arguments. Romney's five-point plan is not a plan, but rather (at most) a statement of gauzy goals (supporting small business, improving education, energy independence). When pressed for specifics, he simply repeats himself, or relies on the bizarre idea that he can go to Congress with no specifics and "negotiate bipartisanly," or something.
Paul Ryan's deliberate detachment from reality is especially breathtaking. In a recent speech, he defended a plan that would ultimately (but surreptitiously) cut off poor people from federal support programs as a way to help "restore mobility." It was just the standard "dependency" meme, and he even managed to contradict his own running mate by proposing severe cuts in Food Stamps. Anyone who thinks that the "Moderate Mitt" that has emerged in the last month is the "Real Romney" need only look at Ryan and his sponsors, and their supreme confidence that Romney will just be a puppet who signs what they tell him to sign.
None of this matters, apparently. Ryan and Romney have shown again and again that they do not care what they are saying, so long as it serves an immediate purpose. Those who hoped that Ryan's inclusion on the ticket would result in an "honest debate" between economic libertarians and everyone else have seen, instead, a candidate who simply says (like his running mate) that up is down and in is out, so long as he says what he thinks people want to hear. His message is: "We will help people," even as he outlines a plan to harm people. (In the Vice Presidential debate, he even managed to outdo himself in vacuousness and evasiveness when he said -- twice! -- that the right time to use military force is when "it is in the national security interests of the people of the United States." Thank you for that helpful guidance.)
No one would claim that politics is about truth and purity. There has been ugliness in U.S. politics forever, with hardball tactics and outright fraud across the ideological spectrum. But a party leadership that thinks nothing of the degree and extent of the lies and evasions of the Romney/Ryan ticket, in the service of an agenda that will further entrench the economic interests of a fraction of the 1%, has gone beyond the pale. Their "disregard for social norms, rules, and obligations" has become impossible to ignore.