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    The Tragedy of the Will

    Twenty years ago, while I was talking politics with my friend Mike, he said that Reagan's great achievement was what he called "the Nietzschification of the Right." I didn't grasp what he meant at first, since I typically encountered Nietzsche quoted by leftist literary critics. Mike's point was that Reagan had transformed American conservatism from a stodgy, rationalist enterprise into an emotional, charismatic movement like the New Left of the 1960s. Main Street conservatism gave way to Movement Conservatism, founded upon passionate emotion and conviction. I've thought of that conversation a lot over the last two decades, through the rise and fall of Newt Gingrich, the second Bush Presidency, and the flood tide of the Tea Party. Mike's case has gotten stronger year by year. Mike himself has been furloughed in the government shutdown; he's now a government regulator.

    Part of the right wing's Nietzschification has been its emphasis on the will as the decisive force in events. The current version of conservatism has become convinced, more and more thoroughly, that any reality can be reshaped by a sufficiently powerful imposition of one's will. Nothing is impossible if you just believe. But this turns out not to be true. In the actual world, reality takes belief's lunch money on a regular basis. Movement conservatism as practiced by Reagan was still largely the art of the possible; he was empowered by his movement's fervor, but mostly did what he could get through Congress and what his military forces could manage. When he did unrealistic things, like raising the deficit sky-high with tax cuts that were sold as likely to pay for themselves, the consequences either got shunted to the future (because Reagan's huge national debt would eventually be someone else's problem, i.e. ours) or borne by people without any political muscle to fight back, such as the mentally ill or the homeless. He ignored the consequences he could afford to ignore. But when he lost some Marines in Beirut, he pulled the Marines out. He didn't try to will the situation to his preferred result.

    By the second Bush presidency, much of the Republican party had lost its ability to make that distinction. The Iraq War is nothing if not the disaster of policy makers who felt they could reshape the world simply by willing it. This is the period during which a White House source talked derisively about the "reality-based community" and ranted about how the Administration was "creating new realities." That's the force-of-will worldview right there. And you heard an enormous amount about will during the Bush II years. Military strategy was often cast as about demonstrating sufficient amounts of will, as if once our enemies realized we were serious, nothing else would matter. (This of course leaves out the possibility that our military enemies might themselves bend intense willpower toward achieving their goals. Since our primary enemies were hardened religious fanatics, that was more than a possibility.) This led Matt Yglesias to coin his phrase "the Green Lantern Theory of Foreign Policy," after a comic book superhero who could do anything with sufficient willpower. The last decade demonstrated just how poorly that theory worked.

    Now the conservatives in the House are not merely trying to impose their will over policy realities, but over the reality of the political process itself, as if they could guarantee a victory over Obama simply by being more committed to the goal. They have made demands and not gotten what they demanded, and they have no plan but to stick to those demands. That's it. They ultimately believe Obama will cave because the power of their belief itself will make him cave. They don't have any other plan, and they have no endgame. Recently, some Republican senators from swing states angrily asked Ted Cruz what his strategy was, and he answered, apparently unconcerned, that he did not have a strategy. When this provoked his fellow Republicans to vocal rage, Cruz allegedly responded by calling them "defeatists." Think about the mindset that reveals. Someone with no game plan at all, someone who has no idea of how to try to win, takes the suspicion that he will therefore not win as a sign of a character flaw. Those who expect to lose simply because they cannot see any possible way to win are defeatists. Winners, evidently, do not need plans in Cruz's view of the world. They just need to believe in themselves.

    That the Republicans, and especially the Tea Party wing of the Republicans, might actually suffer a political defeat seems to strike them as inconceivable. Their plan is to will themselves to victory. The fiscal and political health of our nation is in the hands of people too unrealistic even to calculate their own selfish chances. They are not unrealistic by chance, but by design. They are not simply poor gamblers, bad at estimating their odds. They are opposed to realism on principle. Realism is just defeatism. They are committed, more than anything, to the primacy of will over reality. That is the beating heart of their value system. To accept facts that they cannot change would be a betrayal of their most important principle. To do so would leave them lost and rudderless. Of course they can't make concessions to reality, let alone to Barack Obama. They cannot bring themselves to concede that "reality," as we know the term, even exists.



    I think this is spot on and that it first manifested in the 90s with the repeated attempts to undo Clinton's election victories.  They first targeted Clinton because he didn't win a majority of the popular vote, due to the presence of Perot as a third party candidate.  They felt robbed and acted that way.  Notice the difference between how Democrats treated Bush in 2000, after a far more controversial win.  We dealt with it.  They spent 8 years trying to undo it.  They have not mellowed since.  That's why no issue ever dies with them.  They'll be trying to repeal the ACA five decades from now at this rate.

    The Republicans know one reality. On many cultural, demographic and political levels, America doesn't 'work' for them anymore. The GOP is fading into the political wilderness.

    'Victory' for these self-proclaimed patriots might be destruction of the very system they so pretentiously pretend to protect.

    There is no compromising with the Republicans;  the American  equivalent of “Al-Shabaab” ; they only understand one objective ..... RULE OR RUIN 

    It is more like religion to them.  Take everything as faith.  The Last Word on MSNBC last night, Lawrence had an interesting take on the Republicans.  When Bush II took office they created the imperial presidency thinking and believing that they had achieved a permanent Republican majority.  But they were wrong and now they are trying to create a imperial speakership because they realize demographics are against them.  The only power that they can possibly hold is the House.  Like you said, they are trying to do this with the force of will. 

    I like the Nietzsche allusion here, and I agree with the gist, but I'm more charitable to the strategy. The Republican "will to power" has worked, in fact, and it has worked very well. Reagan was connected with this strategy, but he was not an exemplar.

    The quintessential will-to-power folks from the old days include Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, Jerry Falwell, Joseph Coors, Paul Weyrich (founder of the Heritage Foundation and the Moral Majority). They were just as unrealistic as their Tea Party heirs are today.

    When they launched the "culture war" against abortion and gay rights, GOP operatives told them the Republican business community would never stand for it. But these guys pursued their quixotic quests and eventually exerted their wills over the party, so that now people just like them have brought Washington to its knees.

    Even the strongest will has limits, of course, and these folks may have overreached this time, but to dismiss their seeming impracticality because of a battle that they're likely to lose is to ignore all the battles that they've won with precisely the same strategy.

    One might say people like Gandhi and ML King also brought their followers' wills to bear against what seemed like overwhelming odds. Someone else might counter that the situations were malleable enough that change was finally possible.

    How does one assess the "malleability" of a situation except in hindsight? Radical change always requires leaders to be "unreasonable"--to ignore the long odds and aim for what most people think is impossible. When it works, we honor those leaders as visionaries. When it fails, we dismiss them as pipe-dreamers. But I think it's difficult to tell the difference between a vision and a pipe-dream until it's over.

    PS I really, really hope this is a pipe-dream.

    Especially when the dream is about a pipe.


    I think the key distinction is the ability to evaluate short-term, as opposed to long-term goals. Successfully visionaries have believed that they could do the impossible in the long-term. The ones who succeeded tended to be extremely hard-headed about their immediate prospects, and strategize accordingly.

    The Tea Party would not be delusional to believe that they will ultimately reshape American politics in their image. Even if they're wrong about that, it's not delusional. But the Tea PArty are now unable to make realistic evaluations of what is going to happen next week. That is when things stop being visionary and start being delusional.

    George Washington believed that he could ultimately defeat the world's most powerful military and force their withdrawal from the original 13 states. That is a long-term vision, tied to a set of long-term strategies. But Washington was often keenly aware that his troops could not survive a frontal assault on the British forces. His short-term evaluations were hard-nosed and realistic. He believed that he could *eventually* beat the British, if he kept his army together long enough and gave himself time to keep building it. He did *not* believe that he could will himself to victory in a pitched battle against superior numbers and firepower. He retreated, again and again. His will to win was about the big picture, not the tactical situation.

    Saying, "this company will make us all rich someday if he stick together and believe in it" is not crazy. Saying "the money for next week's payroll will show up if we just believe" is completely crazy.

    The Tea Party has gotten to the point where they don't just believe they will win the war someday, but that they will win every individual fight along the way, no matter the circumstances. That's the difference between being Ronald Reagan and being Ted Cruz.

    That's a good distinction, but the fledging nation was also lucky to be up against the English while they were busy with bigger wars.

    Of course. But that just goes to the point that you need more than willpower and belief. Washington ultimately won because of larger historical conditions. Gandhi won because the British were generally losing their grip on their empire after World War II. MLK achieved many goals that previous, equally determined, black leaders could not, because the environment was finally right, and left other goals unachieved because the time for them was still not right.

    Vision and willpower help. They might even be necessary ingredients. But they're never the whole story.

    I agree with Donal, good distinction. But I would add a caveat. In politics, as opposed to war, short-term losses are often part of the long-term strategy. Many visionary leaders have engaged in battles they were certain to lose in order to build support for their cause.

    While there may be many plenty of congressional dopes/dupes who think they can pull this off, the real strategists behind it--Heritage et al--are experienced movement builders. They've been doing this for decades. I expect they have no illusions that this campaign will eliminate ACA this month. What it will do is:

    1) Continue the battle so that the public does not treat ACA as a done deal

    2) Make ACA a litmus test to eliminate moderate Republicans

    That doesn't mean they'll get it right. If they overplay their hand, they could create a backlash. But I do think there is method to the madness.

    Sure. But how successful have those movement builders been lately? How did 2012 go for them?

    I was thinking primarily about the actual Congressional Republicans. But it's not clear that the unelected movement conservatives are thinking clearly. The Koch Brothers are not going to advance their agenda if the US defaults.

    According to the distinction you yourself just drew, it's the long game that's important. As with most political movements, long-term growth has been inconsistent--two steps forward, one step back. I certainly wouldn't conclude from one off year that the movement has peaked. (I also don't think 2012 was all that off, they stayed more or less steady in national government and gained in the states.)

    THEY do not want a plan at all.

    THEY wish to shut down the Federal Government.

    THEY wish a civil war and we have no Grant or Sherman around to do anything about it.

    I say, let THEM secede and not succeed.

    We still have California and NY besides twenty or more states that would stick with US.

    Our new Congress of course would be forbidden to allow any defense contracts or any other types of governmental contracts to be allowed to businesses doing business in those new Confederate States--EVER by the guidelines put in place by our new Constitution.

    Screw em.

    There are no moderate repubs or they would have signed on to the House Democratic proposal that would put forth a CR onto the House Floor.

    The repubs do not wish for Blacks or Hispanics or the downtrodden to vote.

    The repubs no longer wish to pay taxes.

    The repubs hate this country with a vengence.


    Also, many of these people believe that their will is God's will. So, what appears to most people as trying to dig their way out of the hole they've dug themselves into. That makes about as much sense as clapping harder for Tinkerbell; but for them it's  logical to double down on their faith until God gives in or something--- I don't know--- it doesn't really make any sense.  Meanwhile they can nurse their aggrieved feelings and resentment by pretending to be martyrs serving God by <strike>suffering for their faith</strike> reveling in the suffering they cause others.

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