The thing that struck me most about the Republican National Convention is the extent at which they were preaching to the converted. They are missing a chance to recast themselves as the hope for the future. Whereas four years ago President Obama chose “hope and change,” the Republicans seem to be running on “fear and loathing.”
I believe the reason for this self-inflicted wound is groupthink. There are two variants. Activists have become convinced that Obama is a dangerous radical threatening the core values of the democracy and thus see it as a kind of moral imperative to remove him. The second variant is that the establishment has become convinced that anger at and disillusion with Obama is enough to win them the election. They realize Obama isn’t some kind of threat to the Republic, but are willing to go along rhetorically with the extremists.
Groupthink, as described by Dr. Irving Janis, includes a few attributes. First is an over estimation of group power, along with a view that the group itself is inherently moral. All politicians play fast and loose with the facts, but the Romney camp has taken this to new depths. Moreover, there seems to be no reflection on the ethics of voter suppression; in Ohio the Secretary of State first tried to increase early voting in Republican counties while decreasing it in Democratic ones, and now is saying he’ll ignore a judge’s ruling to reinstate early voting the weekend before the election. What’s the law if you are sure you’re cause is morally pure?
A key aspect of groupthink is an “ends justifies the means” mode of thought.
Read the blogs and pundits on the right, and a narrative emerges amongst activists: Obama is evil and dangerous and the Democrats want to institute some kind of collectivist hell. That is delusional thinking. It ignores problems in their own strategies and Obama’s essential centrism.
A second symptom of groupthink is closed mindedness. That includes discounting warnings or any dissonant information that might suggest they are on the wrong track, as well as a strereotyped view of the opponent as weak and vulnerable. The polls that show Obama leading? Meaningless, blogs and pundits on the right say, because bad job numbers, a crash of the Euro, and increased public attention to the election will change everything. In the summer the narrative painted Obama as desperate and scared. The Democrats have been dismissed as out of touch collectivists, incompetent, and even with authoritarian predilections.
A third symptom of Groupthink is pressure for conformity. Don’t question the group consensus, don’t stray from the message. Look at the vitriol against one of Romney’s advisers when she suggested Romneycare in Massachusetts was a good thing.
Think of it, what if at the GOP convention candidate Mitt Romney said, “The Romneycare I put in place in Massachusetts is working. It is popular, holds down costs, and assures that all citizens of the state have insurance. I believe President Obama’s heart is in the right place on Obamacare, but it is a mistake to try to do this at the federal level. It will create too many rules and regulations, and too much power in Washington. States will be left to follow the dictates of DC bureaucrats. As President I’ll work to make it easier for states that want to pursue something like Romney care to do so, with the federal government not putting obstacles in the way, while those who are happy with the status quo may keep it.”
Wow. People would see that Romney is not some ogre who cares only about his tax shelters but actually has worked to assure all people in his state get health care. That would have been independent voters in the bank.
Of course, he can’t do that. Or, at least, he’s afraid to do that. When he ventures from the harsh attacks on all things progressive, his base bellows. And, since in a close election you need an enthused base, he’s afraid to lead, afraid to veer from a mix of vagueness and hollow slogans. This self-censoring by otherwise reasonable establishment Republicans is a result of thinking Obama is weaker than he is.
Groupthink creates fiascoes – a bad decision where: a) people should have known better when they were deciding; and b) they stick with the decision and a disastrous course of action even when it should be clear that they made a wrong choice.
In this case the fiasco is that the Republicans have chosen a strategy that plays into the hands of the Democrats, and have refused to veer from that strategy, even though it should have been clear during the summer that it wasn’t working. The fiasco could be large in scope — they may lose a Presidential election that should have been easy, and they could blow the chance to gain control of the Senate. Given that the Democrats are defending 23 seats and the Republicans only ten, most people thought the GOP could easily shift power in the Senate. As it is, the Republican majority in the House may even be in danger. None of that had to be.
The Republicans could have run a positive campaign. They could have chosen a theme that set them apart from both the Bush era and its policies as well as from the Democrats. They could have argued that Obama and the Bush era economic policies were taken from failed playbooks, too ideological and rigid. They could have explained why Obama’s policies were not doing the job, offering alternatives while differentiating themselves from Bush era policies.
They could have had an optimistic message that was inclusive. They could have embraced immigration reform and the Dream Act — positions they inevitably will have to adopt anyway to remain viable as a party. They could have spoken not just to the fears of Americans, but also to their hopes and dreams. They could have put forth a positive vision, not a narrow “the economy is bad, I’ll fix it — trust me, I’m a businessman — and that’s what your families need.” We’re choosing a President for a country, not a CEO for a company!
Granted, with all money in the race and the economy still in a funk Mitt Romney can still win. He might actually decide to lead to veer to the center after all, rather than fear his base. But at this point in time there is no explanation why the Republicans haven’t embraced a positive change message and have instead relied on anger at Obama to give them the election. The only reason I can figure is that Groupthink has taken hold and they are truly surprised that they do not have a big lead.