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Divided We Stand

Divided We Stand
New book about the 2020 election.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Rattled Liberals

Do liberals think that there is a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” or is it just a boogeyman that they exploit in order to raise money? Recent evidence suggests that a good number of them really believe it. First came the leaked Journolist emails, where leftist writers shared their concerns about the right, with one saying that he was “genuinely scared” of Fox News. Then came the Shirley Sherrod story, where the Obama administration forced a USDA official to quit because of what conservatives might say about her comments on race. When the administration had to walk back her ouster, the White House press secretary denied that the right had rattled the administration.

When you need to say that you’re not rattled, you are.

What gives? Anyone who really knows conservatives and Republicans has to laugh at talk of their unity and ruthless efficiency. The two groups — which are not identical and are in tension with each other — are both deeply factionalized. As for “ruthless efficiency,” I have only two words: Michael Steele.

There are two main reasons for liberals’ exaggerated fears.

The first is generic to political battle. Political scientist Robert Jervis has shrewdly observed: “Domestic groups in conflict see the other side as more unified than it is. In local labor-management disputes each side is apt to believe incorrectly that the other is controlled from above. Both Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives see the other party as the one that is more organized and disciplined.” In his excellent book, The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, Steven Teles refers to this phenomenon as “the myth of diabolical competence.” (And yes, it works both ways: conservatives sometimes overstate liberal unity and power.)

The second reason is that many liberals think that the other side is not just mistaken, but illegitimate, even evil. In 2006, as Naftali Bendavid reports in The Thumpin’, then-Congressman Rahm Emanuel told staffers why they had to beat the Republicans. “Because these are bad people. And they deserve a two-by-four upside their head.” The Journolist emails are full of such talk. Folks with this frame of mind think their foes could not possibly win without mass hypnosis or some other unfair advantage. A few years ago, we saw a spate of books attributing Republican success to the demonic powers of Karl Rove and Frank Luntz. Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008 temporarily muted the “evil genius” theme, but now it seems to be back.

Unfortunately for liberals, there is an element of self-fulfillment at work. In politics, as in sports and warfare, it’s hard to win when you let your opponents get so far inside your head.