Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Assholes and Idiots Theory

First, a personal of achievement: this is my 1,000th post. Something of a milestone. Of course, that's about how many posts Andrew Sullivan writes in, oh, say, a month, but still, it's nice to realize I've been writing that much.

To mark the occasion, I am going to write about something that I have been thinking about for a while: the Assholes and Idiots Theory. The Assholes and Idiots Theory says that, in any sufficiently large political organization, i.e a party, movement, or coalition, there will be a certain number of assholes and idiots, and one of the key roles of the leaders of said party, movement, etc., is to contain the assholes and idiots. The A&I Theory makes no distinctions as to ideology; there are just as likely to be assholes and idiots on the left as on the right.

It's not hard to define, for the purposes of theory, "assholes" or "idiots," because everyone has met plenty of both. They're like pornography; you know them when you see them. But, as a philosophy major, I can't resist the urge to define my terms.

There are two kinds of "asshole" for the purposes of this theory. The first is someone whose political activism involves influencing the political system so as to reward members of a group that he or she belongs to with grossly disproportionate resources relative to their numbers and accomplishments. Everyone tries to influence the political system to reward their own group; assholes do so with no regard for anyone else. The second kind of asshole is someone who crosses legal or ethical boundaries in pursuit of their political agenda. Lots of people come close to ethical or legal boundaries; many people blur those lines, intentionally or not. Assholes cross lines knowing full well what they are doing. Real assholes enjoy it.

Of course, just about everyone involved in the political system is trying to influence the political system to reward their group, and just about all of those people would deny doing so in any disproportionate way. Assholes are the ones who refuse to compromise. They tend to deny that their group is in any way privileged or the recipient of generous rewards, and often claim to actually be victims rather than beneficiaries of largesse. On the right, the people who demand cutting taxes for themselves, without accepting simultaneous cuts in services for themselves, are examples of this group. On the left, there are a number of unions who could fit this bill, particularly the ones who demand absolute job security and exorbitant pensions.

An "idiot" for the purposes of this theory is someone who believes that their ideas about how the world should work should be imposed on society, without taking into account how the world actually does work. These people tend to develop grand theories with little empirical evidence. They also tend to have highly refined defense mechanisms that start working as soon as they are presented with evidence that their theories will not or do not work. They often hold positions which do not force them to come to terms with whether or not their theories actually do work. On the right, fundamentalist Christians who believe the Bible is to be taken literally are fit this mold. On the left, academic social critics who spend most of their time arguing with other academic social critics are in this group (I define an academic social critic as someone who sits alone in a room so they can write long, boring essays blaming society for the fact that they are lonely).

There are lots of people who fit in these groups who are neither assholes nor idiots. There are many fundamentalist Christians and union members who are wonderful, upstanding people. There are lobbyists for the banking industry who are very generous with their personal charitable contributions. There are animal rights activists who are great neighbors.

On the other hand, many assholes and idiots are motivated by the best of intentions. Many of them do not seem to be either assholes or idiots. There are many passionate people who are unwilling to compromise, and see their own righteousness as a virtue, while others see it as being judgmental or argumentative. There are many brilliant people who simply do not have a strong connection to reality, and are not interested in getting outside of their own heads, because they are more comfortable there than the real world.

The dangerous assholes and idiots are the ones who are professionally involved in politics and are committed to influencing the political system with little or no interest in compromise. On the contrary, they often have an interest in stoking the fires of partisan combat.

It is crucial for any movement or party for the leader and/or leaders to contain the assholes and idiots. Presidents are particularly important in this respect. Clinton and Reagan were both good at this; LBJ, Nixon, and our recent Bush were not. Bush was a great example of failure in this respect. Bush couldn't contain the assholes and idiots in his party and his movement for one specific reason: he was an asshole and an idiot. Republicans are not alone in this; Lyndon Johnson wasn't an asshole in terms of domestic policy, and he sure wasn't an idiot in that regard, but he definitely was both an asshole and an idiot in foreign policy. Nixon, of course, was just an asshole and an idiot all the way around.

It's easy for presidents to fail at fulfilling this key but unspoken executive political responsibility; success is much harder. Reagan's and Clinton's successes were based on opposite strategies. Reagan had a great deal of credibility as a conservative, so when he disappointed the assholes and idiots on the right, he was insulated from accusations of selling out or compromising. Of course, the fact that he was a really nice guy and was popular with the American people (except me and my friends) didn't hurt.

Clinton didn't have much credibility among the more partisan and liberal Democrats, but they were so thrilled to win back the White House after 12 years that they were willing to cut him some slack. Clinton also had several advantages: extraordinary charisma, a brilliant political mind, both strategically and tactically, and a voracious appetite for policy. Clinton was also blessed with a great enemy in Newt Gingrich and the Republicans in Congress. Clinton was able to contain the assholes and idiots by claiming that he was their best defense against a resurgent GOP. Also, most of the real assholes and idiots on the left had done their greatest damage in the '60's, and the Democrat party had spent the years since containing the worst of the assholes and idiots.

Presidents are only the most visible of any A & I containment strategy. Institutions as large as movements and parties develop their own strategies for containing assholes and idiots. The best - but most expensive - weapon in doing so is usually time. Assholes and idiots, left to their own devices, usually fail, somehow or other. Assholes fail by alienating moderates and others outside their own immediate coalition. Idiots fail because eventually their theories are exposed as inadequate because they don't work. Thus does accountability work in democracy.

The most visible anti-asshole and idiot containment strategy on the left was the Democratic Leadership Council. It's still around, but I have the feeling that it has mostly outlived its usefulness. Another great tactic that the left has for containing idiots in particular is tenure. Tenure at the college level keeps people who have bad ideas for how to change the world insulated and isolated, so they are rendered, in the worlds of Douglas Adams, "mostly harmless." There are lots of brilliant but misguided people with Ph.d.'s who waste huge amounts of their personal time and energy arguing with each other, instead of trying to tell the rest of us what to do. This is a side benefit of the ivory tower.

Republicans currently have a problem because they do not have a working strategy for containing their assholes and idiots. They also do not have anyone who can execute any such strategy, even if they had one. Such is the legacy of Bush.

They are also cursed with an opponent who is holding a a damn good hand when it comes to containing the assholes and idiots. Obama has everything Clinton had: he has just as much charisma as Clinton, he's just as smart as him, both politically and in terms of policy, and he has one of Clinton's most powerful weapons - Hillary - at his side. While Clinton was not an asshole at the policy level, he was one on the very domestic level. Obama does not have that problem. And Obama, of course, has built-in credibility, and a very large base, as the first African-American president.

Obama also has an even better enemy than Clinton did. Clinton was blessed and cursed with a great enemy; Gingrich was obnoxious and rude, which served him well as a guerilla political warrior, but not so well when he was Speaker of the House. But Gingrich did lead a very effective rebellion when he led it. When he and the Republicans took over the House in 1994, the Democrats were blown away - they had no idea what hit them. Clinton scrambled and managed to adapt, but the rest of his presidency was not what he thot it was going to be. Obama, on the other hand, faces a fractured, demoralized, and seriously weakened GOP. There is virtually no chance that the Republicans will control either house of Congress while Obama is president, even if he wins two terms. Demographics are moving decisively in the Democrats' favor.

Obama has four other advantages over Clinton, all personal: Obama is patient where Clinton could be impulsive; decisive, while Clinton agonized over decisions; disciplined, whereas Clinton could be sloppy. Most important, Obama has a reputation as being motivated and guided by principle, where Clinton was seem as waffling. I thot Clinton's reputation as a compromiser was somewhat undeserved; he was very committed to abortion rights, gun control, and free trade. Part of Clinton's problem was that some of the things he was committed to, like welfare reform, were not popular with the left wing of the Democratic party. Disagreeing with the assholes and idiots about basic principles makes it harder to contain them. Obama is discovering this as he compromises on investigating the use of torture by the Bush administration. On this, many people - some conservatives, notably Andrew Sullivan, as well as many liberals, including me - feel that there can and should be no compromise. But Obama has also done some things right, like banning torture and trying to close Guantanamo Bay.

Tactically, probably the best contain-the-assholes-and-idiots move by Obama early on was naming Hillary Secretary of State. Not that Hillary is either! Not that her supporters are! But putting her in such a high position healed a lot of wounds left over from the campaign very quickly and very effectively. A lot of anger dissipated instantly.

Dealing with anger is key to any good asshole containment strategy, because many assholes are addicted to it. I mean that quite literally; I think anger is addictive. Anger is like cocaine: it distorts your perception, makes you paranoid, and is addictive. Assholes often look for reasons to be angry, and very often have pushers, dealers who feed their addiction.

Idiots may also be addicted to anger, but they are also addicted to their own theories, their own sense of self-righteousness. Of course, assholes and idiots are often interchangeable; one person can easily be both, if they are dysfunctional enough. Which many are.

Ultimately, Obama's asshole-and-idiot containment strategy comes down to one thing: getting things done. Nothing dissipates anger like solving problems. Choosing Hillary as Secretary of State wasn't just a brilliant move because it mollified her supporters; it was a brilliant move because she is absurdly well-qualified. She isn't just doing a good job; she loves it.

Right now Obama's great challenge is reforming health care. Whatever bill passes through Congress will make many people unhappy. It will not be perfect; it will solve problems, but create others, which, in turn, will have to be solved. It's a huge project, with lots of potential for error. But Obama is calm, focused, in command of the details, and determined. Apart from all his other qualities, Obama is also a very, very good street fighter. He knows how to rally the troops and, more importantly, how to focus them. He knows how to get his supporters fired up, and then give them something to do. That's a great way to deal with the A/I problem - get them on your side, and focus their energy and anger on your mutual opponents.

Republicans are terrified of Obama, but the feeling is not returned; he is not afraid of them. That must drive them nuts. When in doubt, go with the guy who can laugh in the face of danger. If Bush utterly failed to contain the assholes and idiots in his party, Obama's great advantage in containing his is that he is neither.

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