Your Inherent Goodness Will Not Redeem You
The most widely played sound bite from Romney's tepid 'repudiation' of the proposed all-Wright-all-the-time anti-Obama ad campaign is the part where he said "I stand by what I said, whatever it was". And with good reason: that + Etch-a-Sketch = ad that writes itself.
But there was another bit that leapt out at me, beginning at around 2:06:
The purpose of the President's ads is not to describe success and failure but somehow to suggest that I'm...not a good person, or not a good guy. And I think the American people will know better than that, if they don't already. [emphasis added]Sound vaguely familiar? Wondering where you might have heard something like that before? I'll tell you: you heard it from everyone who ever thought he/she was being unjustly accused of doing or saying something racist. Or sexist. Or homophobic.
It's a classic dodge, shifting focus from your conduct (which others can observe and evaluate) to your character (which only you know, and what you know is that it's good). The thought process works like this: I'm not a bad person; therefore, I'm not a racist; therefore, what I said can't have been racist. Or in Romney's variation, I'm a good guy; therefore, I'm not a heartless bastard; therefore, I can't have hurt those people. The point being that one's inherent nature far outweighs anything one actually does.
It's not an exclusively conservative tactic--I've seen plenty of liberals (or more often, 'liberals') use it to try to wiggle off the hook (there's even a specifically lefty variant, commonly known as "I can't be racist, I'm a progressive!")--but the underlying worldview ('character' > conduct) is a powerful strain in modern conservatism.
Thus, the President's record of governing as a centrist Democrat is irrelevant, because at heart he's really a Kenyan socialist Muslim anti-colonialist metrosexual. (The Wright pitch, e.g., is 100% about Obama's character and 0% about his actual record.) Nothing Bush did mattered, because he was always the steely-eyed rocket man (until he wasn't, and then it did). I had a lengthy Twitter exchange with Victor's favorite wingnut (more about that tomorrow) in which he claimed the WaPo story about Romney's bullying was a 'smear'--not because he disputed any of the conduct it described, but because he believed it was an attack on his character.
And I think I know where this comes from.
The modern conservative worldview is dominated by evangelical fundamentalism. (Glibertarians and plutocrats may deny it, but the reality is that they've absorbed much of a worldview they like to think of as on the fringes of conservatism.) Evangelical fundamentalism is, of course, hardcore Calvinist. Calvinism preaches predestination--the idea that God decided ages ago who would be saved (the Elect) and who wouldn't, and that's how it is and nothing anyone can do can possibly change that.
So there are people who are saved, and people who aren't. End of story. And if you believe someone is saved, then anything bad they do is an aberration (and won't affect the outcome anyway) while any good is emblematic of their essential character; conversely, if you believe someone isn't saved, any good they do can be dismissed as phony and any 'bad' they do is evidence of who they really are.
That's where we are today. That's the dominant worldview in one of the two parties that rule this country. The country is divided over the issue of whether conduct even matters. And that, of course, is why we can't have nice things.