Speaking to Your Enemy

Matt Taibbi’s polemical piece on the self-anointed prophet of tea part evangelism, Michele Bachmann, is worth a read, but suffers for its tone. If half of the facts he’s dredged up about Bachmann are true — multiple, abortive attempts to turn the machinery of state into a proselytizing organization, for example — then the thing speaks for itself, and requires none of Taibbi’s invective to prove just how dangerous representative Bachmann truly is. He makes one exceptionally useful point, though, that deserves its own separate treatment:

Snickering readers in New York or Los Angeles might be tempted by all of this to conclude that Bachmann is uniquely crazy. But in fact, such tales by Bachmann work precisely because there are a great many people in America just like Bachmann, people who believe that God tells them what condiments to put on their hamburgers, who can’t tell the difference between Soviet Communism and a Stafford loan, but can certainly tell the difference between being mocked and being taken seriously. When you laugh at Michele Bachmann for going on MSNBC and blurting out that the moon is made of red communist cheese, these people don’t learn that she is wrong. What they learn is that you’re a dick, that they hate you more than ever, and that they’re even more determined now to support anyone who promises not to laugh at their own visions and fantasies. [. . . .]

All of those people out there aren’t voting for Michele Bachmann. They’re voting against us.

The first paragraph feels like a conclusion; the second is. Views like Bachmann’s are objectively unreasonable. But we live in a country where more than a few of us reject inferential reasoning, and substitute belief, to define the boundaries of their reality. As hard as it is to admit, we can’t win battles like this by disputing first premises. Matt’s right; we’ll lose, and come off worse in the process. We need to understand these beliefs, and be able to articulate not why they’re bad, but why they’re not appropriate to govern a diverse nation.

We may not even be able to win that. It’s been painfully clear for a while now that, for the religious right, faith trumps constitutionalism. But we can try.



  1. Bachman is obviously a joke but the Left is simply not able to make intelligent critiques that aren’t sripping with contempt. A perfect example above is Taibbi assuming that only folks in Los Angeles and NYC are snickering at Bachman. That in itself is the kind of elitist nonsense that continues to hurt the Democratic party.

    The truth is that Democrats are losing rural America at a rapid pace. Eventually I think we will see them become an exclusively urban party while the Right dominates the rural areas and both fight for the swing votes in the suburbs.

    1. That’s probably not a bad strategy, assuming the urbanisation trend is going to continue.

      1. Urbanization where? that’s not a trend in the U.S. that i am aware of.

        1. Sure it is. Since WWII, the rural population has stagnated or dropped, both in absolute and relative numbers, while the urban population has consistently grown. There’s no reason to think that will suddenly change.

          There’s plenty of data here if interested:

          1. That’s a misleading study. It doesn’t factor in suburbs, which is where most of the growth is taking place in the United States. Suburbs and ex-urban areas are diffused with lower population density. This means they are a lot less homogenous (read: a much less dependable voting block for either side).

            The Democratic party relies on urban areas. Big cities with dense population. Unfortunately for them of the 51 major cities in the US only 3 saw the population in their uban core outpace their suburban periphery in the last decade.

            1. Perhaps – but all else being equal, even a trend of moving from right-leaning rural areas to contested suburbs should be viewed as an advantage for the Democrats. And from what I’ve heard, much of the growth is happening in the South, especially Texas, which could threaten the GOP strongholds there.

              Plus, if you combine it with the Republicans’ apparently chronic inability to gain support among Hispanic voters, I must say the long-term demographics don’t really look too bright for them.

              1. You’re mis-interpreting the movement patterns in the United States. The pattern is for urban dwellers to move away from the cities, not for rural populations to move in. Basically the suburbs are growing outward and swallowing up near-rural areas. A good example is where I live. I’m on the very edge of the city (I can literally see the county line from my house). The area I live in is mixed-use where farms are intermingled with neighborhoods of white collar professionals and folks engaged in skilled manufacturing. I’ve got a horse farm a stone’s throw from my subdivision and grain silos in the other direction. Farmer’s markets and CSAs are booming and the most promising social interactions are between suburbanites and their rural neighbors.

                Basically the cities are being left to the Ameses of the world. Young professionals enamored by city life who may or may not stay there when they get married and realize that NYC apartment isn’t so glamarous with a wife and a child.

                So… social and political values will wax and wane in the suburbs but the loud and clear message is that these are not predictable voters (more Independents in these areas than anywhere else).

                Losing the hispanic vote would be a tough blow for the Right. I can only hope we figure out a way to appeal to them. The most tragic thing that could happen to that community is if they become as predictable in their voting habits as blacks. 50 years of voting for Democrats have only guaranteed they would be taken for granted.

                1. The problem with your model is that if people are both moving from rural to urban areas and from the urban cores to the suburbs, the net result is that the suburbs themselves are becoming more densely populated and urbanised, which favours the Democrats.

                  It’s only a PowerPoint presentation, but there are still some interesting observations in this, especially the distinction between “mature” and “emerging” suburbs: http://www.brookings.edu/speeches/2008/0228_suburban_voters.aspx

                  1. There’s no rural-to-urban migration going on. The rural areas are being slowly absorbed by medium-density and low-density suburbs. Or in the best cases the suburbs are intermingling with farms into a new type of landscape we haven’t seen.

                    1. That seems like a pretty fine distinction. Whether there’s actual migration happening or the case is that rural areas are being absorbed (my guess would be a combination), the end result is the same. Certainly there will always be a somewhat fuzzy “interface” area between the urban and rural, but that will also be pushed outwards as the urbanisation of the inner suburbs increases.

                    2. I disagree. When people migrate from one area to another, especially in the US, they tend to adopt the attitudes of the area they move to. When areas change slowy through outward expansion that is where you get cultural blending. That’s what I am talking about when I say that we are seing new landscapes that are different han anything else in US history.

                    3. Possibly, but the point is that when the suburbs are growing, even if their residents were originally absorbed rather than migrants, their kids are still going to grow up in a more urban environment, which disposes for a more liberal orientation. This isn’t just about 2012 or 2016, but about the impact maybe 20-30 years down the line.

                      Another thing is that people are moving between cities as well, especially from north to south, which also in the long run could shift the balance between D and R in the South. I believe Austin is a primary example of that effect.

                    4. I don’t know that growing up in a suburban area represents any significant leftward pressure. I’m curious how you believe urbanization liberalizes people.

                      I think perhaps you are confusing current cities with he cities of old. In the past, say, during the Great Migration of blacks into northern cities, there were vast political machines already in place that gobbled up newcomers. Tammany Hall and the Daley Machine made sure these folks were funneled directly into the Democratic party. It’s not like thay anymore, especially in suburbs. Suburbs are becoming increasingly Independent. In light of that I just don’t see how that means their kids will all be liberals.

  2. A perfect example above is Taibbi assuming that only folks in Los Angeles and NYC are snickering at Bachman. That in itself is the kind of elitist nonsense that continues to hurt the Democratic party.

    But MIke, only folks in those cities (and to a lessor extent here in DC) ARE snickering at Bachmann. No one in “rural America” is challenging her in any way. Certainly none of the local commentators in the MSM in her home state are doing this.

    And as to Democrats loosing rural America – what makes you think Republicans are ultimately going to triumph? If, as you have suggested, we city folks underestimate the intelligence and critical thinking skills of others, do you really believe that the Party that has consistently voted against the economic interests of those rural Americans will somehow manage to keep their vote, just because Democrats insist on calling spades spades?

    1. Phillip,

      I’m not sure who you are looking for to ‘challenge her’ other than maybe the Minnesota press. Typically the national media does that kind of stuff and they are all based in big cities. What I am talking about is average citizens. It’s not as though New Yorkers or Los Angelenos have better BS detectors than the people in the middle of the country. They just happen to be mostly Democrats which means they are going to give Bachman more scrutiny. In much the same way Democrats seem amazingly willing to ignore the kind of nonsense that comes out of people like the new head of the DNC or, a couple of years ago, people like Alan Grayson.

      Additionally, that whole “What’s the Mater with Kansas” line about “…voting against their economic interest” is getting pretty tired. I just read an article yesterday (which I cannot find now) discussing how condescending that view is. You know the one where you all basically suggest that rural America is so stupid they shoot themselves in the foot in favor of God and guns.

      And just one example of what the GOP is doing right, the CRP program is losing funding. This will be a good thing for rural towns as much as it pains me to say as a hunter.

      1. Mike,
        I don’t believe that the so called “values voters” in the Republican party are stupid. I do, however, believe that they make a decision to vote for people who have a track record of virulent rhetorical support of certain social issues (often with tepid track records of actually voting for change), and either ignore the large economic records of these candidates/politicians, or decide the greater issue is social, not economic. In good economic times, that is as good an approach as any to making political decisions, but it does have the outcome of putting people in office – in the name of social issues – who support economic policies that are, at best, antithetical to middle and lower class Americans (where many conservatives and right leaning independents find themselves economically). When the economy turns down, the gaps created by those economic policies do, in fact, hurt the constituents of these politicians, and they find themselves in a cognitively dissonant place. As I have written here and elsewhere many times, we have a demand side economic problem, to which your party proposes supply side issues. And many of the proposers got where they are because they ran on social issues.

        1. Phillip,

          As a rebuttal I would point out the cities int he US that have been under Democratic controll for decades. Chicago is filled corruption. NYC has huge income ineqaulity. Detroit is dead. How can you say that those voters haven’t been voting against their own interests?

        2. New York has an income disparity issue, but it’s actually quite well-run, for the being largest city in America, and one of the largest the developed world. Ditto Chicago. I don’t think it’s entirely fair for you to give your subjective value judgment of how big cities are run, with little more than a feeling, and draw conclusions about voting on that basis…

          1. And I’m quite sure that all of these rural areas where voters are harming themselves economically (according to Phillip) are also ‘well run’. Being able to get your trash picked up is micro-level stuff that has nothing to do with the macro point of ‘voting against your own economic interests’.

            The truth is that when you look at economics – none of the cities I mentioned are ideal.

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