The GOP Is Stuck on 'Stupid'

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell walks to the podium after the Senate Republican policy luncheon. (Mark Wilson/Getty)
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell walks to the podium after the Senate Republican policy luncheon. (Mark Wilson/Getty)

(The Root) — We recently heard former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and current Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, both Republicans, use the word "stupid" in reference to their own party. Although they had in mind comments about rape and pregnancy like those made by losing GOP senatorial candidate Todd Akin, the problem, to me, goes much deeper.


Indeed, the relation of today's right-wing politics and news media to social reality often reminds me of a remark made by Alberta Roberts during an interview by anthropologist John Langston Gwaltney for his classic book Drylongso, when she said, "Now, the biggest difference between [black people] and white people is that we know when we are playing."

Of course, truthfulness is not a black or a white characteristic. Right beside Lance Armstrong, one could also point to Marion Jones, and so on. Still, Roberts' comment seems especially pertinent in light of some of the derision heaped on President Barack Obama's second inaugural address from some quarters.

That this speech I characterized as the velvet-glove approach can be construed as openly partisan or divisive — which a number of commentators on the right have now done — I find astonishing. Such comments, however, are wholly in step with a pattern in today's conservative politics and media of embracing distortions, half-truths and sometimes outright lies, while always adopting a posture of outrage.

I won't appeal to easy targets here. So let's set aside the claims of a liberal "war on Christmas" from Fox News. Let's also table for the moment the endless bellowing and attendant implication from conservatives that somehow there was a conscious Obama-administration failure and deception in the tragic deaths of U.S. personnel in Benghazi, Libya. Take all of that off the table.

I'm not making this up. Dan Froomkin quoted Ornstein as saying of the 2012 presidential campaign, "I can't recall a campaign where I've seen more lying going on — and it wasn't symmetric." Democrats don't deserve a pass on this charge, but as Ornstein went on to say, "It seemed pretty clear to me that the Republican campaign was just far more over the top."

Of course, there are those who will claim that MSNBC — the cable news network of the left — is at least as biased as, if not even more biased than, Fox News. They can even point to a Pew Research Center report, "Winning the Media Campaign 2012," that shows that the "tone" of MSNBC coverage of Romney was more negative than Fox News coverage of Obama. One has to wonder if this is because the basic accuracy or truth quotient from the Obama campaign itself was higher?


There is a deeper problem of delusion here, fed by a closed, self-reinforcing sound bite universe of howling distortions that span television news (e.g., Fox), radio (e.g., Limbaugh) and the right-wing Internet (for example, Public Policy Polling shows that half of GOP voters believe that ACORN stole the 2012 election for Obama). Ironically, the depth of this problem is revealed by the suggestion from Jindal and Barbour that stupid comments alone are what got the Republicans in trouble and is keeping them in trouble. I don't think so (though this doesn't help).

The tectonic plates of American politics are in motion. Some wish to stop, perhaps even reverse, the tilt of this movement, wherein the Obama coalition seems intact and increasingly confident. Part of that mission for the right has involved creating an anti-liberal, often anti-minority, anti-women, anti-gay and especially anti-Obama maelstrom of claims.


The whole drama impresses me as a symptom of the right's weakening grip on power in a diverse democracy. Intolerance and presumed entitlement are the bedrock of the distorting and unhinged quality of right-wing politics today, which routinely sustains a delusional analysis of what is happening and sparks extreme claims and even fits of outrage in response to the least of things.

The right wing might take heed of the homespun black wisdom of Alberta Roberts, who went on to tell Gwaltney: "Play is pretending that what's out here is not really out here. If you are black you just cannot make it like that because we can't buy our way out of things or make somebody say square is round." I suppose when you're accustomed to having power and then that grip starts to weaken, it's harder to keep track of when "you're playing."


Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.