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Davis, California

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

How low, right-wing?

If we ask people what they think about political rhetoric, they will likely respond that it is baloney and that we shouldn’t buy it. But I think those same people do buy it very frequently. I want to dissect a few recent and pertinent examples. In dissecting them, I think patterns emerge that can inform us about what drives the dominant political discourse — contempt toward the politically disempowered.

To start right in on a relevant case: Fox News Business columnist Steve Tobak recently published a piece which brilliantly displays the moronic and childish misunderstanding of terms that conservative rhetoric thrives upon. His piece “The Real Impact of Political Correctness” attempts to explain why political correctness is a form of collectivism and then provides a straw man version of political correctness, claiming that political correctness necessarily entails praising peoples’ failures.

Why the crusade against political correctness? Well, there’s a great little trick that they can pull. By claiming that political correctness is really just a method of trying to make the society too nice, they can preemptively stop criticisms that would devastate their views. That is, when they demonize women and minorities, our criticisms don’t mean anything because we’re just a bunch of whiney, overprotective wimps who can’t allow anyone to be criticized.

I mean, what else could they do anyway? They can’t admit that women or ethnic minorities are politically disempowered. And they certainly couldn’t admit that their views are filled to the brim with implicit misogyny and racism. Because, as we all know, we simply must accept that everyone has a fair chance in America. If we started to think something so extremely radical, that people do not have equal access to success, well, then we might want to take the most dangerous step of all — moving from talk to action.

The trick with that piece of rhetoric is that it is stopping the issue as early as possible. That is a successful rhetorical move that the billion-dollar per year public relations industry has beautifully refined. The politically powerful want to stop any action that would decrease their power, and their best weapon is the public relations machine, which they can use to nip dissent in the bud. If the most obvious criticisms of their institutions can’t be made because the surrounding speech is muddled and confused, then voila, problem solved.

Another right wing favorite is “personal responsibility.” Man, that sure sounds good. So nice. No one in the world is going to say that personal responsibility is bad. So they’re saying nothing. But, just like in the “political correctness” case, there is a dubious implication.

To put it very briefly, when our favorite conservative pundits so frequently tout personal responsibility, they are really saying “poor people are poor because they aren’t taking responsibility for their lives, and we should not implement social programs to help them, because they are responsible for their circumstances.”

Searching conservative websites for “personal responsibility” can lead to a fun and face-palm filled afternoon. The move that they make is actually rather brilliant. By accepting “personal responsibility” as used in their context, one unwittingly adopts a view of the society in which everyone’s circumstance is their fault. And since you believe in personal responsibility, you believe in what it entails. The trick is that they have a very particular concept of personal responsibility with extra stuff added on, and people just buy the whole package.

“Family values” is a double whammy. It implies that puritanical, Christian morality is the right value set, and if you’re against it, you’re against families. Demonizing everyone else’s values is a clear form of disempowerment. The second part is that it helps to push the right-wing conception of charity, that people’s families are responsible for them, not the government. But, you know, you’re supposed to forget about cases where the entire family needs help or someone has no family.

We could go on case by case, but it’s clear that the right-wing discourse operates on sneaky tricks in order to blame and vilify the already disempowered. They just don’t have real arguments.

BRIAN MOEN finds Steve Tobak’s argumentation to be so sophomoric that it’s embarrassing. He can be reached at bkmoen@ucdavis.edu.


  1. Rightly stated, even if it tells only half the story.

    The right likes to espouse ‘personal responsiblity’ and the like; the left likes to espouse ‘social responsibility’ (usually called ‘social justice’). The idea behind social responsibility is just as noble as that behind personal responsibility. Members of a community have an obligation to help preserve that community, and those communities lucky enough to have high rates of contibution tend to be very strong indeed. Why would anyone argue against this? (Notice how this question immediately shuts down any opposition, just as illustrated in the article)

    Well, the truth is, no sane person would. However, where a problem arises is in taking the idea of social responsibility (or justice) to mean that everyone is supposed to get the exact same outcomes from life via compensatory social programs. This extension of the idea is the impetus for expanding social programs, which is fine if done intelligently. Where we find ourselves today is the result of that expansion done with a minimal degree of intelligence–there are now so many social programs that have become so large that the government machinery built to run them cannot sustainably do so. Welfare, a noble program which has helped millions of people, has grown so much that it is now a tumor on the budget. It is abused by its benificiaries and handed out almost willy-nilly as if no one would ever think to abuse the system. It has gone from being socially responsible to socially irresponsible, causing more harm than good.

    This is where personal responsibility is supposed to come in. The people who really need help from a program like Welfare are, theoretically, supposed to receive benefits only until they are able to be self-sufficient. A lot of people do not take that responsibilty, however, and so they stay poor and dependent on the federal tit. That is their own fault. The circumstances of their birth is not, but whether they strive to rise above those circumstances is a matter of personal strength and responsibility (‘strive,’ not succeed; we all know how easy it is to put our all into studying for a test and still bomb it).

    This illustrates where I see the counterpoint to Mr. Moen’s assessment of right-wing rhetoric: left-wing rhetoric, which is equally manipulative, emphasizes the idea of “social responsibily” (justice) to the near exclusion of personal responsibility. The left is so occupied with helping “disempowered” groups that it fails to adequately address problems which affect ALL groups, regardless of their empowerment. For instance, people are worried about low test scores among ethnic primary schoolers and so advocate for special programs to help them, when a more egalitarian (and more effective) solution would be to advocate for better funding and staffing of the whole school. You can bet that a school in a shitty LA neighborhood is going to do poorly by the white students just as much as the non-white students; why exclude them? If they’re living in the same neighborhood, they probably have many of the same challenges as their peers (that was my childhood experience, anyway–it turns out, oddly, that the disadvanteges of being poor do not discriminate by ancestry).

    Mr. Moen is not wrong in his position; however, he is only telling half the story. The Left and the Right both use manipulative, subversive rhetoric that is designed to delegitimize opposing arguments before they’re even made. They both extend their ideologies to harmful lengths. In the end, the thing to remember about our binary political landscape is that it doesn’t matter if one is Left or Right–the leadership on both sides is made up of a bunch of rich old dudes who couldn’t give a half a shit about you and me. Leftists’ and Rightists’ main goal is to accumulate more wealth and resources and power, and to disguise their avarice with blame-games and convoluted rhetoric that keeps us, the serfs, too busy attacking each other for political ideology to realize that it doesn’t matter which side wins because WE lose either way.

  2. Another term used is “identity politics,” such as in the über-disgraceful article that appeared in the Weekly Standard in April 2007 titled: “Identity Politics Gone Wild.”


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