THE POLITICIZATION OF EVERYTHING: These were a few of his favorite words!


Part 2—Traitors were already us: In our view, Frank Bruni just plain doesn’t get it.

Why does Newt Gingrich seem to be on his way to the GOP nomination? According to Bruni, Republican voters have grown accustomed to his face! They’ve grown accustomed to the tune he whistles night and noon!

“In politics, familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt,” Bruni writes in his new column. “Sometimes it breeds resignation and a grudging respect.” So with Gingrich, Bruni opines—at least for Republican voters:
BRUNI (12/6/11): How many [voters], at least on the Republican side of the aisle, have grown accustomed to Gingrich? Republican strategists who were never persuaded that Michele Bachmann posed a credible threat, and who maintained a similar skepticism about Cain, say that the Gingrich challenge is different, and that he could really be the one to ruin things for Romney.

For Democrats, that would be a godsend. The benefits of familiarity wouldn’t work as well for Gingrich in the general election, where he’d be a more polarizing figure than Romney, whose blandness and ideological squishiness have an upside. Swing voters itching to abandon President Obama can ascribe to Romney the genuinely held (as opposed to opportunistic) views they prefer, mixing a moderate position from one moment in Romney’s past with a conservative one from another, arranging the candidate of their liking.

Although Gingrich has gone through his own policy contortions, his image and personality are more sharply defined: petulant, truculent, arrogant.

If voters supporting him in the primaries were going to be turned off by that, wouldn’t it have happened already?
According to Bruni, “the benefits of familiarity” are helping Newt with Republican voters. He may be “petulant, truculent, arrogant.” But by this time, they’ve grown accustomed to his traits.

We’re speaking of millions of voters here. Presumably, different Republican voters see Gingrich in different ways. But Bruni never considers the possibility that Gingrich’s “truculent” ways may be attractive for many Republican voters. He marvels at the idea that GOP voters aren’t “turned off” by Newt’s alleged excesses. It never seems to enter his head that, in a highly politicized era, the traits which seem excessive to him may seem like a virtue to highly tribalized voters.

Surely, everyone is able to see that we live in highly tribalized (politicized, polarized) times. For better or worse, Gingrich played a leading role in creating this tribalized culture.

Yesterday, we recalled the time, in 1994, when the gentleman blamed three murders by a disturbed young mother on the other tribe’s horrible values. Gingrich’s approach to these murders was “grotesque opportunism tarted up as sociology,” George Will recently said. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/5/11.

Today, let’s go back to 1990, four years before that grotesque incident. For better or worse, let’s recall a few of Newt’s favorite words.

For better or worse, how tribal was Gingrich’s outlook by this point in time? In September 1990, a memo sent under Gingrich’s name leaked to the national press. The memo had been sent by GOPAC, a conservative group which Gingrich served as general chairman. In the House, Gingrich was already Republican whip at the time—part of the GOP leadership.

The memo was designed to help conservatives learn how to “speak like Newt.” More specifically, the memo listed 63 words conservatives should use when describing fellow citizens who didn’t see things the same way conservatives did.

In the New York Times, Michael Oreskes described the way the memo urged conservatives to talk about liberals. Enjoy a bit of dark humor as a GOPAC officialwalked back one suggestion:
ORESKES (9/9/90): The Gopac mailing says candidates often say plaintively, "I wish I could speak like Newt."The mailing continues, "That takes year of practice." But to help aspiring Gingriches on their way, the list is being provided.

"So often, legislative candidates are not used to speaking and not used to putting together phrases with sound-bite words," said Kay Riddle, executive director of Gopac.

Last week, after the group's efforts became known and were criticized by some Democrats, Mrs. Riddle conceded that suggesting the word traitor might have been a bit much. "What I'm going to do is send out a letter to everyone who got the original," she said. "Traitor was inadvertently used. It was in no way meant to imply patriotism or lack of patriotism. When we do use it, we would mean it more as traitor to the district, someone elected as a moderate who became a liberal."

But that still leaves 63 other words that Gopac recommends ''to define our opponents'' and ''create a clear and easily understood contrast.'' It continues: ''Apply these to the opponent, their record, proposals and their party.'' A few of these words are: decay, sick, unionized bureaucracy, greed, corruption, radical, permissive, bizarre.
It would take years of practice to learn how to speak like Newt, the memo comically said. But uh-oh! According to GOPAC’s executive director, conservatives probably shouldn’t refer to the other tribe as “traitors.” Instead, they should use words like “decay,” “sick,” “bizarre” when describing this vile, awful tribe.

The other tribe was sick and bizarre, but they might not be traitors! But then, why should we restrict ourselves? Here’s the full list of words which would help conservatives speak like Newt. To peruse the full memo, click here:
GOPAC MEMO (9/90): Often we search hard for words to help us define our opponents. Sometimes we are hesitant to use contrast. Remember that creating a difference helps you. These are powerful words that can create a clear and easily understood contrast. Apply these to the opponent, their record, proposals and their party.

decay... failure (fail)... collapse(ing)... deeper... crisis... urgent(cy)... destructive... destroy... sick... pathetic... lie... liberal... they/them... unionized bureaucracy... "compassion" is not enough... betray... consequences... limit(s)... shallow... traitors... sensationalists...

endanger... coercion... hypocrisy... radical... threaten... devour... waste... corruption... incompetent... permissive attitudes... destructive... impose... self-serving... greed... ideological... insecure... anti-(issue): flag, family, child, jobs... pessimistic... excuses... intolerant...

stagnation... welfare... corrupt... selfish... insensitive... status quo... mandate(s)... taxes... spend(ing)... shame... disgrace... punish (poor...)... bizarre... cynicism... cheat... steal... abuse of power... machine... bosses... obsolete... criminal rights... red tape... patronage
Along with being sick bizarre traitors, the other tribe was pathetic, corrupt, a destructive disgrace. The other tribe was anti-flag, anti-family, anti-child. Even back then, anti-jobs!

More than 21 years ago, this is the way the reigning House whip told his tribe they should speak. For better or worse, this is one of the defining documents of the current political age, in which everything is politicized—in which all politics is tribal.

For better or worse, this has always been part of Gingrich’s approach. Having said that, some conservatives—and some liberals—may welcome this war of the all against all. They may feel we need a good cleansing fight, a war which defines our values.

For ourselves, we would say this: You simply can’t run a modern nation if its people are encouraged to split into tribes and view The Other in these ways. We would also suggest that such tribal division will almost always help plutocrats conquer.

Can we talk? Gingrich isn’t the only player who has created our tribalized culture. Indeed, some conservatives will be inclined to say that this approach was forced upon the right by tribalized conduct coming from elsewhere in the society. As of 1990, for example, a certain judge had already been "borked;" a “high tech lynching” was one year away. Or did the tribal warfare from the left begin with the war of the eastern elites against Nixon?

As on the playground, so in our politics: Different people have different ideas about who started the warfare. But Gingrich’s highly aggressive ways go back a very large number of years. In a world where everything has gone tribal, tribal voters may admire the man who led the way in defining the fight. Only columnists at our most famous newspaper are too clueless to know this.

In our view, a modern nation can’t survive such a tribalized culture. That grotesque document from 1990 helps define the way we all got here. In truth, though, many people on our side are now playing this stupid game too.

Tomorrow: Big Ed, Big Brother


  1. I think the demonization of the other party goes 'way back. I once saw a film from the 1952 Republican Convention. I was surprised to see Eisenhower -- likeable Ike -- red-baiting the "soft on Communism" Democrats. Apparently all the Republicans were doing it at that time.

    Later the Dems retaliated by faulting Nixon for his McCarthyite role in exposing supposed Communist Alger Hiss. Soviet material has now confirmed that Hiss was indeed a secret Communist, but I hever a Democrat apologize for the false accusation.

    I'm no historian, but my impression is that polarization goes back much farther than that. Obviously the polarization was far greater than today at the time of the Civil War and during Reconstruction. My impression is that polarization goes back even farther than that, but I don't know enough history to confirm that impression.

  2. David in Cal - no, no Soviet archive material has ever - EVER - confirmed Alger Hiss was an agent for the Soviet Union. The documents to which you refer, I believe, are related to VENONA, a program the US ran to cover potential security threats. They basically tapped Russian phones, opened pouches, etc. The problem with the VENONA materials is no one is ever named. Various historians, usually with axes to grind, have tried to puzzle out whether this or that person was or was not a spy for the Soviets. To my knowledge, there has yet to be conclusive evidence that any of the code-named individuals in the Venona transcripts has been conclusively identified.

    Including, most especially, Alger Hiss.

  3. Oh, for heaven's sake. Somerby: you are dredging up Gingrich's documents and actions.

    Who cares? Frankly, not Bruni! Bruni prefers to tell us how Bruni's fantasy of a Republican will feel in the future toward Bruni's fantasy of a Gingrich.

    No opportunity to analyze documents and actions there. There are opportunities for projecting and generalizing and navel-gazing. But things from outside Bruni's head are not of interest.

    We'd be better off if Bruni played The Sims all day.

  4. There have been quantitative studies of polarization in Congress.

    Here is one: The Decline and Rise of Party Polarization in Congress During the Twentieth Century, Kenneth Poole of UCSD. Let me draw your attention to Figure 4, which shows that there was noticeable overlap between Democrats and Republicans in the 93rd Congress (1973-4), and almost none in the 108th (2003-4).

    The paper is interesting: among its major claims is that we had a 3 party system (Southern Dems, Northern Dems, Repubs) up until the 70s. And after that polarization just keeps increasing. The analysis comes from a kind of latent trait analysis of congressional voting patterns.

    For me, the personal realization that we were living in an era where the tribalism had reach suicidal frog-and-scorpion levels came during the 1993 budget revision. This was Clinton's changes to the budget that raised taxes, cut a lot of spending, included some economic stimulus, and resulted in the balanced budget a few years later.

    It was a sprawling bill. It stepped on everybody's toes (liberal and conservative) with budget cuts, it contained special sweeteners all through it so as to garner enough votes. Logically, it should have passed congress with approximately the middle half of the votes. But actually zero Republicans voted for it in the House. Exactly zero. And it was because Gingrich took a street gang approach. I called it the Gingster Disciples.

    It was much more important to Gingrich to be seen in opposition to the new president, and to possibly hand him a defeat, than to support ANY policy goals or methods, no matter how much they overlapped with his own. And he forced the entire Republican side of the aisle to go along with that.

    Prior to that vote, more exactly prior to Gingrich taking over as Whip, it was pretty unusual for a "party line split" to mean zero votes except perhaps on some very specific narrow bill. Something like a big budget bill, which affected all sorts of consitutencies, would get votes from both parties.

  5. These back and forth rantfests are the reason comments sections can be awful. We get your point, Walter Wit Man, the first time through. But you're wrong to suggest that all Democrats (or Republicans) for that matter are "evil." That is a sign of unhinged, Manichean thinking. It's also the kind of black-and-white extremism that has caused so much damage and destruction in the past. Yes, Obama is flawed. Yes, whatever Republican elected to the presidency would be worse, at least borne out by the history of the last 50 years. But that doesn't mean everything Obama has done is bad or "evil," or that every move of his is on behalf of the "fat cats," including the loud, blustery billionaire boob Cooperman who's attacking him nonsensically. You also miss Bob Somerby's point, which is that it's people like Sorkin who make things worse, much worse. Without an oppositional press, offering facts, challenging "gross obfuscations" or whatever the term of art is, refusing to serve as stenographers and hack novelists for whatever the party and establishment lines are, how can we hold those in power accountable? Labeling everyone in power as "evil" is not going to do it, and it's just plain wrong.

  6. Interesting that the conservative Wall Street Journal blog Opinion Journal pretty much agrees with Bob Somerby:
    (Scroll down to second item.)

    Newt comes closest to possessing "the [Paul] Ryan Factor." is that skill set or specialized knowledge needed to do hand-to-hand policy combat with an incumbent president who represents a once-and-for-all assertion of Washington's primacy.

    Of course, the difference is that Opinion Journal thinks this is a good thing.

  7. different people have different ideas about who started this? you might want to read your own columns about the perils of "some say".