Conservatives and the Politics of Contempt

by Daniel Foster

Jon Chait, who is not my favorite living writer in the English language, has churned out a bit of political analysis that is at turns baldly speculative and utterly trivial. The reason Mitt Romney seems so awkward on the campaign trail, Chait surmises, is because Mitt Romney hates you:

The Republican primary campaign has highlighted the barely concealed contempt in which Mitt Romney holds the electorate, especially the Republican electorate.

[. . . ]

I find that contempt pretty well-founded, and it is a relief that Romney does not believe the nonsense he spouts during the campaign. But the persistent awkwardness of Romney’s campaign style reflects this basic tension. It’s easy to try to persuade somebody for whom you have basic respect. It’s persuading somebody whom you consider stupid — while you must conceal any trace of your disdain — that’s excruciatingly difficult. Romney’s awkward manner on the trail is the agony of suppressed contempt.

In the ellipsis Chait musters his evidence, such as it is: a 1968 remark from Mitt himself about the American people being “muttonheads”, written on the occasion of his father’s flopped presidential run; and a pair of third-hand comments from anonymous Romney “advisers” that can be read as less than charitable toward tea partiers. But let’s focus on Chait’s conclusion. In the specific case of Romney, his quarter-assed attempt at psychoanalysis gives us no reason to believe one way or another that Romney is basically contemptuous of the Republican electorate. On the other hand, the idea that a candidate for political office could have anything but the highest esteem for his constituents did not exactly spew forth from Jon Chait’s brain ex nihilo. It is in fact the rather mundane assumption of most conservative voters. I’d welcome disagreements in the comments, but I’d venture that the default stance of virtually every conservative voter is that politicians — Republican and Democrats alike — are liars who view their constituents first and foremost as instruments for the perpetuation of their power. Now, we can be brought around on particular politicians — even I have met a pol or two who I have come to think of as a genuinely neat guy — but our opinion of the species will ever be that they have contempt for us. And that the feeling is mutual — there is a reason we call them congress-critters.

To me, the real split among conservative voters is about whether it’s actually important that a politician “loves” us or is “one of” us. Count me with the conservatives who could not care less. Notice this is different from saying character doesn’t matter. Indeed, I look past the basic condescension common to most politicians to other, more important virtues of personal and professional conduct. The point is that, if politicians look at voters instrumentally, then we should return the favor. I don’t care about wanting to have a beer with you, I care about whether you can be compelled or cajoled into enacting conservative policies.