Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Joe the Plumber and GOP 'Authenticity'

It's hard to reach out to workers while cracking down on unions.

The conservative movement made its name battling moral relativists on campus, bellowing for a "strict construction" of our nation's founding documents, and pandering to people who believe that the Book of Genesis literally records the origins of human existence.

And yet here are the words of Ronald Reagan's pollster, Richard Wirthlin, as recorded in one of the main Reagan strategy documents from 1980: "People act on the basis of their perception of reality; there is, in fact, no political reality beyond what is perceived by the voters."

The context of Wirthlin's reality-denial, according to the historian Kim Phillips-Fein, who unearths his statement in her forthcoming book, "Invisible Hands," was the larger Republican plan to woo blue-collar voters.

The mission was a success. It worked because Republicans wholeheartedly adopted Wirthlin's dictum. Reality is a terrible impediment when you're reaching out to workers while simultaneously cracking down on unions and scheming to privatize Social Security. Leave that reality to the "reality-based community," to use the put-down coined by an aide to George W. Bush.

The "perception of reality," on the other hand, is an amazing political tonic, and with it conservatives have cemented a factproof worldview of lasting power. It is simply this: Conservatives are authentic and liberals are not. The country is divided into a land of the soulful, hard-working producers and a land of the paper-pushing parasites; a plain-spoken heartland and the sinister big cities, where they breed tricky characters like Barack Obama, all "eloquence," as John McCain sneered in last week's presidential debate, but hard to pin down.

"There are Americans and there are liberals," proclaims a bumper sticker that adorns my office. "Liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God," proclaimed Rep. Robin Hayes (R., N.C.) on Saturday at a rally in North Carolina. Speaking of Mr. Obama on the day before that, Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R., Minn.) expressed deep concern on MSNBC "that he may have anti-American views." And on the day before that, GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin saluted "these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working, very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation."

Foursquare fans of perceived reality must have rejoiced when they beheld, on the hard streets of suburban Toledo, Ohio, that most authentic of men, Joe the Plumber: "the average citizen" in the flesh, according to Mr. McCain; "a real person," according to Mrs. Palin, who deftly ruined Mr. Obama's "staged photo op there" -- a subject on which Mrs. Palin can surely count herself an authority.

Joe the Plumber -- along with his just-discovered supporter, Tito the Builder -- has brought to the GOP what Richard Wirthlin went looking for so long ago: blue-collar affirmation. But consider the degree of reality-blindness it takes to kick out the authenticity like Joe does. The rust-belt metro area in which he lives has been in decline for decades. In 2007, the Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked it 335 out of 369 small metropolitan areas for unemployment; for home foreclosures, according to a 2007 article in the Toledo Blade, it is the 30 worst of all cities in the nation. According to Census numbers, median household income in the Toledo area, measured in constant dollars, has actually decreased since the late 1970s.

Joe's town may be circling the drain, but Joe's real concern, as the world knows, is that he might have to pay more taxes when his ship finally comes in. For good measure, Joe also declares Social Security "a joke": "I've never believed in it," he told reporters last week. Maybe that's because this realest of men knows that Social Security is just a hippie dream, despite the Census's insistence that 28% of his city's households received income from that source in 2003. Maybe all those people would be better off if we had invested Social Security's trust fund in WaMu and Wachovia -- you know, the real deal.

Here is the key to this whole strange episode: Government is artifice and imposition, a place of sexless bureaucrats and brie-eating liberals whose every touch contaminates God's work. Markets, by contrast, are natural, the arena in which real people prove their mettle. After all, as Mr. McCain said on Monday, small businessmen are just "Joe the Plumbers, writ large." Markets carry a form of organic authenticity that mere reality has no hope of touching.

This is not a good time for market-based authenticity, however. It now seems that those real, natural Americans who make markets go also cook the books, and cheat the shareholders, and hire lobbyists to get their way in Washington. They invent incomprehensible financial instruments and have now sent us into a crisis that none of them has any idea how to solve.

If that's nature, I'm ready for civilization.


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