Saturday, November 18, 2017

Social Vectors, Part 3: Outrage

     “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake. That's bad manners!” – Napoleon Bonaparte

     In his landmark work The Vision of the Anointed, Thomas Sowell notes that if one spectator at a baseball game stands up, it will enable him to see better (as a certified Short Person, I can confirm this) but that does not mean that if everyone stands up, they will all be able to see better. More directly, there are some tactics that work well in microcosm but don’t “scale up.” This is a particularly important maxim when engaged in the study of political economy.

     It seems to me that it’s equally important in the study of political combat.

     A neologism of relatively recent vintage, the “policy wonk,” refers to a politically engaged person, whether or not in high office or government employ, who has made himself an expert in some realm of public policy. While investigating the origin of wonk, a monosyllable far better suited to onomatopoeia about a digestive-tract noise than to a person of recognized expertise, I found this:

     wonk n 1: an insignificant student who is ridiculed as being affected or boringly studious [syn: swot, grind, nerd, wonk, dweeb]

     Worth a chuckle, isn’t it? Especially in light of the great significance “policy wonks” attained during the political discourse of the Eighties and Nineties. Yet it has considerable import for the political dynamics of our time.

     “Affected or boringly studious.” Not an inspiring picture, is it? It certainly doesn’t conjure up the image of a dynamic leader figure, a Man on Horseback. No, it’s more about desks in dimly lit rooms, hunched over by slightly built young men in glasses, all of them laboring over spreadsheets, footnotes, and speeches to be given to other “policy wonks” at chicken dinners hosted by obscure think tanks.

     The promotion of the “policy wonk” was never about political persuasion, though. It was about inspiring confidence in the supposedly more charismatic politicians the “policy wonks” worked for. “He has the support of the Cato Institute!” “Oh? Well, my guy is backed by the Heritage Foundation!” “Pfui! My candidate is endorsed by the Brookings Institution!” And so on.

     It didn’t work very well. The reasons aren’t far to seek. The general public isn’t really interested in policy technicata, especially when, as former Treasury Secretary William E. Simon put it in A Time For Truth, their prescriptions are aimed merely at making the carriage of State move a little less creakily. As a rule, the mass of voters will gravitate toward one of three attractants. In ascending order of political potency, those are:

  1. Principles,
  2. Promises,
  3. Good Looks.

     And yes, I’m quite serious. John F. Kennedy, a man of approximately no personal achievements, won the presidency largely because he was better looking than boring old Richard M. Nixon. Their debates were the first of their kind to be nationally televised. As Russell Baker noted in his commentary on the subject, while Nixon presented the better arguments, people don’t listen to television; they watch it. (JFK then entangled us in Vietnam and very nearly triggered a world war over the Cuban Missile Crisis, but those are subjects for another screed.)

     Makes you wonder why anyone went to the polls in November 2016, doesn’t it? But only for a moment. While neither candidate was stunningly telegenic, one had a powerful message – Make America Great Again! — while the other had a whiny voice and a sense of entitlement. America made its choice between them on the basis of Attractant #2.

     The Era of the Policy Wonk was clearly behind us.

     “There are those like Norfolk who follow me because I wear the crown; and those like Master Cromwell who follow me because they’re jackals with sharp teeth and I'm their tiger; there's a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves.” – spoken by Henry VIII in Robert Bolt’s screenplay for A Man For All Seasons

     The amount of insight in the quote above is simply staggering. Why do people choose to follow a leader? The principle of legitimacy was the Duke of Norfolk’s reason: Henry was the anointed king of England by its laws of primogeniture. Thomas Cromwell was merely politically ambitions and saw attachment to Henry’s aims as his best chance of ascension. The great mass of English commoners was drawn, if at all, to Henry’s seeming dynamism.

     That casts a revealing light on the contemporary uses of outrage and protests.

     Contrast today’s outrage-vendors with the policy wonks. Which group is more attractive to the great mass of Americans? You, Gentle Reader, might be inclined to spurn them both; I would do so as well. But you, Gentle Reader, are not representative of the great mass. Nor is the great mass uniform in what it looks for in a politician, a promulgator, or a Cause.

     To be blunt, a great many persons, dimly aware of their irrelevance to anything beyond themselves, are most attracted by the appearance of commitment, energy, and sincerity in a spokesman.

     The Establishment Right was confounded by this vector. They put forward a gaggle of present and former officeholders who had much more in common with the policy wonks than with the American electorate. Only one of the candidates seemed to possess significant energy – and he was anathema to the mossbacked strategists and kingmakers of the GOP. Nevertheless, Republican voters chose him, and he went on to defeat the Left’s anointed one in the most surprising presidential election since 1860.

     The Left has drawn the moral; the Establishment Right has not.

     In the above, I haven’t spoken specifically of any of the outrage-powered (or outrage-simulating) “movements” that infest our city streets. There’s no need. The point is the energy and commitment they appear to possess. A substantial number of Americans find it attractive. What they claim to be fighting for is largely irrelevant to their appeal. Fortunately given the ugliness of their purported causes, this has affected only a small minority. The tactic doesn’t “scale up” to the national level, because the various “movements” are tribal and particularist and therefore inherently anti-American.

     The vector is the important thing. The Left is exploring the utility of that vector. Except for the populist current behind Donald Trump, the Right is not. The emissions of Establishmentarian commentators testify eloquently to the inertia of their thinking. Granted that they’re also partly motivated by spite and an abiding dislike of the outsider who showed them up. Too bad for them.

     In closing, have an analysis of how the outrage-powered “anti-white” forces can be confounded by their own orientation, and a taste of what truly elicits the ire of its allegiants, shamelessly stolen from Ninety Miles From Tyranny:

     Lovely, aren’t they?

     I think this should bring the “Social Vectors” series to a conclusion. Gentle Readers are invited to suggest other related sociocultural currents and phenomena, but for the moment I expect to turn to other concerns, mainly fictional ones. Expect posting to be light for the weekend.

No comments: