The "Critical Asshole Theory" Edition
In which I create a whole new theory of social science—but trigger warning, this one has language!
I held off this edition until I could see the results of the 2021 elections, and maybe have a sense of what was going to happen to what I like to consider the “hard” and “soft” infrastructure bills. But it’s clear now I can’t wait for the fate of the “soft,” “social spending” reconciliation bill, so let’s work with the data points we’ve got.
Not being an expert on domestic politics, I’m not going to delve too far into wondering why certain races turned out the way they did. I would note that the results pretty broadly are what most modelers would have told you given Biden’s polling ratings on election day, so why anyone’s being so shocked by all this is a mystery to me. I’m not happy with how things turned out, but I’m not despondent over it. Clinton and Obama both had similar election experiences in 1993 and 2009, and it worked out okay for them.
For people panicked by Glenn Youngkin’s success in Virginia, I’d flag something I don’t see mentioned enough: he was a very atypical GOP candidate. He wasn’t even elected in a primary! After two disastrous elections running two assholes for governor, Ken Cuccinelli and Corey Stewart, GOP leadership held a convention specifically to select a less polarizing candidate than the base would prefer. Virginian Republicans turned out anyway to stick it to the libs, but this isn’t how most GOP candidates in 2022 will be selected, and they’re likely to look a lot more like Marjorie Taylor Greene or Madison Cawthorn than Youngkin. That helps us.
What bothers me more is a few linked, but different, trends:
Increasing violent authoritarianism of the GOP: from Paul Gosar in the House to the six proud participants in January 6 who were elected to local offices, you hardly need me to tell you the Republicans have just gotten more extreme, more dangerous, and more contemptuous of small-d democracy. The Republican Party, and about 1/3 the U.S. population, is functionally at war with the rest of us.
I’ll have more to say about the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict (I’m tracking some other stuff I’ll want to discuss with it), but what’s far more disturbing than the verdict is the speed with which Rittenhouse is being made into a Republican hero. Tucker Carlson has made a documentary about him! Paul Gosar and Madison Cawthorn have offered him jobs. Violence is right in the mainstream of GOP politics now, and it will be very hard to put that genie back in the bottle without it lashing out—or I should say, lashing out further. Rittenhouse will be running for office as soon as he’s old enough to vote.
Failure of Democratic vision: meanwhile, the Democrats are sleeping soundly. 34 percent of Virginia Democrats didn’t even come out and vote in this election! I get Youngkin looked less Trumpish, McAuliffe is underwhelming, and Dems in DC aren’t wowing anyone, but that over a third of “our side” just hit the snooze alarm is horrifying.
But then, why should they be energized? Their leadership certainly isn’t! Dems in DC are just wandering around as if all is back to pre-Trump normal. We got an infrastructure bill, we’ll get some kind of social services bill that Warlords Manchin and Sinema tell us is right for us, and that’ll make everyone happy, right? Certainly, the filibuster is far more important than the President having the right confirmed appointees in place in our national security positions when our two biggest rivals, Russian and China, are acting more aggressively by the day? It’s got to be more important than ensuring voting rights for all Americans. Because without the filibuster, are we really still America?
We have a Democratic leadership full of Tom Hagens when we need wartime consiglieres.
Failure of media: if Democrats are sleeping through the Republican offensive, the media has surrendered outright. A large amount of American media, or course, actively serves as the fascist propaganda arm in a smoothly symbiotic relationship. But it’s the rest of the media, the so-called “liberal” or “mainstream,” that is defending democracy about as effectively as France in 1940.
The relentless addiction to both-sides false equivalencies in the face of all observable reality has reached the point where it might almost be a form of diagnosable mental illness. If laughing at parody helps you cope, I commend to you @NewYorkTimesPitchbot on Twitter, which regularly produces headlines you’ll sincerely mistake for the real thing. My favorite this past week was, “Whether it’s embracing violent extremists or avoiding getting murdered, Republicans and Democrats both have a gun problem.”
This structure of media was a huge asset to Youngkin in running against McAuliffe in Virginia: he and right-wing nutjobs could drum up the GOP base vote on far-right media like Seb Gorka, while soothing moderates with more reasonable statements on mainstream media, secure in the knowledge a) viewers are totally divided in what they see, and b) the mainstream media was never going to call out his contradictions, and would focus at least half their time on trying to find problems with McAuliffe—who did create one for himself with his gaffe about parental control of schools.
Democrats spend a lot of time wondering whether they’re giving the public the right messaging, while missing the reality that no one gets their messaging. People either a) don’t follow politics, b) get their political information from right-wing sources, or c) get their political information from so-called “mainstream” sources that will only report Democratic messaging through a critical lens and with time for a rejoinder by the Right. Dems have long lamented that there isn’t a Democratic FOX, and we can argue why that is so and what, if anything, can be done about it.
But if the “Fourth Estate” really does believe it has its own special and distinct role in our system of government, it’s time to fucking act like it and face the fascist challenge head on. That doesn’t mean compromising standards or shilling for the pro-democracy side, but it does mean not treating the other side as if it’s equivalent. Look at the BBC’s performance in WWII: it never hid Allied failures from its listeners, but it didn’t go out of its way to dwell on divisive issues among the Allies, and it certainly didn’t invite Goebbels to phone in with the Nazi view on the implications of events.
The Big Idea
The Virginia election has had people making hay of “Critical Race Theory” as a millstone around Democrats’ necks—something its progressive wing of younger and more diverse voters demands be acknowledged, but at the cost of alienating more affluent, college-educated, white voters who have been trending Dem for years but can be brought back to the GOP by a Mitt Romney, Larry Hogan, or Christine Todd Whitman. I don’t want to say that there’s nothing to this argument, but I think it’s simplistic, and there are more important factors to consider that Democrats are well-positioned to exploit.
First, just what is CRT? Basically, it’s an effort to explain why certain inequities persist in our country’s—or any country’s, really—social, political, legal, and economic life. As a Marxist critique would tell you inequities exist because people with capital build systems to protect their capital and keep the workers working to generate more, and a Feminist critique would say it’s all about the patriarchy, CRT argues the racial in-group does what it does to keep itself in power over out-groups. Although it’s invented in the context of America’s racial history, it’s a perspective you could apply in any multi-racial or multi-ethnic country.
Is it right or wrong? Yes! I spend a lot of time analyzing socio-economic-political systems, and I’ll tell you if you aren’t doing at least part of your analysis through class, gender, and ethnic/racial perspectives, you’re absolutely doing it wrong. All can yield valuable understanding and generate great ideas for improving societies; any of them, taken alone or too seriously, can lead you in very stupid directions. So consider all of them, and embrace none of them.
And forget about all of them now, because I want to roll out for you an even more important social theory I’ve developed that explains a lot, and prescribes for Dems a path to survival against the fascist onslaught: Critical Asshole Theory.
My uncle once said it was important to be aware that, every time you meet someone new, there’s a roughly one-in-three chance they’re an asshole. He was using the term too loosely, and I need to emphasize that assholes are neither jerks, nor the gendered forms of jerks known as dicks and bitches. Taken together, these groups might comprise one-third of the population, as my uncle hypothesized. But for CAT’s purposes, “assholes” are a smaller quantity within the larger array of jerks/dicks/bitches, and the distinction is important.
Jerks, dicks, and bitches, for the most part, aren’t aware that they’re jerks, dicks, and bitches. They can’t help it. They’re like Michael Scott from “The Office:” if you call them out on their behavior, they’ll stop it—though they’ll regress eventually because they’re socially inept. They’re even capable of acts of friendship and kindness, on their good days.
Assholes, however, glory in the role. They know exactly who they are. It’s performance art for them that lets them feel superior to others, both through the damage they inflict and the relative impunity they seem to always benefit from. Denis Leary wrote an entire song about this phenomenon all the way back in 1993.
Historically, assholes held roles in all three major American political parties:
· In the Republican Party, assholes were the “malefactors of great wealth” who built fortunes as well as corrupted political systems to preserve their fortunes;
· In the Northern Democratic Party, assholes ran the machines that managed the big city ethnic votes;
· In the Southern Democratic Party, assholes… well, that one’s pretty obvious, right?
Good, decent people also were distributed relatively evenly across the parties. The Progressive Era had both Democratic and Republican champions. Along the way, progressives weakened and all-but-eliminated the assholes of the big city political machines, which today are shadows of their former selves, leaving a two-pole Axis of Assholes between Republican plutocrats and Southern Democrats.
I won’t recount the oft-told story of how Nixon conceived the Southern Strategy to woo Southern Democrats into the GOP, but what’s often missed in the tale is that it isn’t simply about racism, it’s about assholes, because while not all assholes are racists, all racists are assholes, and if you start your campaign trying to recruit southern assholes, before long you can bring in northern and western assholes too. Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich doubled down on a two-front campaign of performative assholery culminating into the election of the biggest asshole in modern American history as president. How does this avowedly-racist asshole manage to actually gain support among people of color? Easy: there are plenty of assholes of color, too, and they know just what will piss their neighbors off.
The outcome today is that we have a deep asshole imbalance between the parties, and there’s little hope of rectifying it. In the GOP, being an asshole is a positive asset—maybe even a prerequisite at this point. Dems, meanwhile, are actively rooting out the assholes in their ranks—sorry, Andrew Cuomo. Concentrating assholes in one party creates two serious problems: a) they’re not a small constituency; and b) they’re comfortable with violence. Yes, they tend to be bullies and cowards, but they’re still willing to sucker-punch, and that’s pretty deadly when the sucker-punch involves an AR-15.
What can Democrats do about this? I think the answer is women. Of course there are female assholes out there—I’m looking at you, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert—but the male/female asshole ratio is really skewed, 60/40, maybe even 70/30. The majority of women find assholes incredibly annoying and don’t want them in positions of authority.
I’m not saying Democratic politicians should start saying “asshole” a lot—though they should think about it—but however you put out the message, get it out there. “My opponent is an asshole. Look at what he supports: not capping the price of insulin! Not offering universal childcare! Not punishing the attempted overthrow of the U.S. Government! What kind of asshole doesn’t support these things?”
Critical Asshole Theory lets us analyze how different public policies are created by, and sustained for, the enjoyment of assholes. Policies that help women are the surest counter to pro-asshole policies, and can gain the bulk of female support. If we guys aren’t total assholes, enough of us will get aboard with pro-women policies to push our side across the finish line.
Next edition, I expect we’ll take another look at political violence as we see how post-Rittenhouse/Arbery trial events evolve.
Looks like I have to revive the “Welcome to the Party, Pal!” section of MSU just to say hello to Max Boot’s “Republicans are fomenting a violent insurgency in America. It may have already started.” May have, Max???
Security Sector Reform
Ryan Busse is an ex-gun company executive who now supports gun control. He’s got a great Bulwark piece on the mobilization of the GOP “Shock Troops,” as I warned about last year.
A lot of people have talked about the aspiring Stormtrooper who queried Charlie Kirk about killing people. It’s important to read Kirk’s response—it’s not incitement, but it’s not helpful either.
The assumption that ending our model of policing would hurt public safety assumes cops prevent or solve most crimes. That is not true in Minneapolis.
It’s vitally important to fight the assumption that our military as a group leans Trumpist. The communities around military bases swung Democrat in 2020.
Prisons are notorious for heightening radicalization, and the DC jail is doing the same for the 1/6 prisoners. I don’t have a sure solution for this, but I can tell you it requires focused thought and planning.
Miami has a great display of how police unions basically are organized crime networks, in this case a syndicate backing a particular local warlord who appears far more powerful than any elected official.
Bad cops easily can move between small, strapped police forces. The result is groups like this criminal gang, the Fairmount, MD Police Department.
Harvard’s Nieman Lab publishes a report indicating that, unlike Liberals or other Conservatives, so-called “Low-Conscientiousness Conservatives” are more likely to spread disinformation online, even when told it’s disinformation. I dunno, “Low-Conscientiousness Conservative” sounds like a pretty fancy-pants way of saying “asshole” to me…
Europe’s biggest asshole, Viktor Orban, also proves my point, saying the Left is trying to destroy the West through “gender ideology.” Assholes like Orban, Mike Pence, and Ted Cruz—all featured here—need white women at home focused on pumping out babies to prevent us all from being subsumed by brown people, basically.
Alan Abramowitz posits a harsh truth: there’s no bringing back “working-class whites” to the Democratic Party. We’ve got to find our votes elsewhere. Also important to remember: in America, educational attainment characterizes class status more than income does.
Who would have expected that counties with more Confederate monuments might also have experienced more lynchings? It’s awesome when social science researchers pick fun proxies.
Civil Servants were an important guardrail against Trump’s worst abuses, and the GOP noticed. The next Republican president will try to follow through on Trump’s project to turn large parts of the Civil Service into at-will employees.
It is to your fortune if you’ve never encountered anyone flying an all-black knit American flag. If you have, keep a close eye on them.
Even though Republicans have gained voters in high-turnout elections like 2020 and 2021, and even though voter suppression doesn’t seem to work, count on them to keep doing it, because it’s an article of faith that GOP defeats must be theft.
It’s a... special… kind of company that knows its product hurts its consumer. Drug lords. Tobacco companies. Facebook.
NPR has a quick take on how the demise of local journalism hurts local democracy. Let me tell you, democracy does not trickle down.
Anne Applebaum watches Tucker Carlson’s disinformation-umentary Patriot Purge so we don’t have to. Carlson is attempting some audacious, and really dangerous, disinformation here.
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