Jay Nordlinger raised an issue yesterday at The Corner that is really a fundamental part of American politics that people should make sure to understand:

Many of us have asked a question for many years, and especially in the last few years. It goes something like this: “How can conservatives win elections against Santa Claus, or Robin Hood? Against candidates offering free stuff? Against candidates who blame people’s problems on the greedy rich, keepin’ ’em down?” In other words, how do you beat the socialists?

Obviously, this came up during the 2012 presidential campaign. It’s materially the same as what Mitt Romney was ruminating about in his infamous 47 percent remarks, but it’s also how Romney explained his loss after the fact. To be generous about it, it is somewhat of a disadvantage to run for office promising to do less for people than your opponent.

Mr. Nordlinger enlisted the wisdom of British Education Minister Michael Gove to help conservatives understand how to win with an austere message.

“Tocqueville pointed out — though he wasn’t the first — that, in a democratic system, there’s always a tendency to gravitate to the guy who offers free stuff, or who is prepared to pander to achieve power. But I have more faith in human nature, in that people do want to think better of themselves, people do want to take control of their own lives and make an enterprise of their own existence. People do recognize that being dependent on others is debilitating, and people also have a low tolerance for lead-swingers and others who seem to be taking advantage of their own hard work.”

(“Lead-swinger” is a British term for “idler,” “slacker.”)

“I think the way to win the argument, however, is not just to rely on people’s desire to improve their own lives, and their impatience with those who are not being similarly strenuous, but to make the point that conservative ideas are the best way of achieving the sorts of goals that progressives profess to believe in.”

Once again, we can see how these folks divide the world into a bifurcated land of enterprising strivers and idle moochers. Conservatives have an easy time understanding the world as a “fallen” place where sin is ever-present and perfection always eludes even the best of bureaucratic planners, but they seem to have great difficulty in understanding that the world is also a place with broken people who through genetics, environment, or misfortune are in need of societal assistance. As long as there is some accountability, they are pretty good at forgiveness, but compassion and empathy are tremendous challenges for them.

But, quite aside from all that, we can see that resentment is the key ingredient in their political toolbox. Mr. Gove argues that conservatives have to do more than just appeal to folks’ impatience with people who aren’t as strenuously enterprising as themselves, but he does acknowledge that appealing to that impatience is the starting point.

There are severe problems with this. For starters, the way this tends to manifest itself is in scapegoating and stereotyping certain groups of people who are classified as insufficiently enterprising. In America, this means blacks and Latinos. So, while the political strategy may start out as colorblind, it immediately transforms into racism.

Secondly, this idea that being on government assistance is “debilitating” is an exhortatory argument that, while having merit, is no way to deal with those who are genuinely in need. Public policy is not the same thing as life advice. We give assistance to mothers with dependent children because the children need food and clothes regardless of why the mother is unable to provide these things herself.

Thirdly, this constant appeal to resentment is not morally edifying for the people who are targeted by it. Rather than telling them that they are doing a good thing by contributing to the upkeep of our infrastructure and the needs of the poor, they are told that people are taking advantage of them and that they should be able to keep all the fruits of their labor.

But this appeal to resentment is seemingly an indispensable strategy for the rich, who need it to rally support for policies that will allow them to grow ever-richer and avoid any kind of constraints on their activities, even if those activities degrade the environment, harm consumers, or lead to an economic calamity.

Making people hate each other is at the core of right-wing politics.

[Cross-posted at Booman Tribune]

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com