Absurdity as the core of political decision-making; or, why I like borderline bigot Mike Huckabee


Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee won’t put the federal government on a diet, but he may try to feed the poor. Uh…what?


Sometime soon after Chiristmas 2007, I changed my Facebook status to “Kevin likes Mike Huckabee?” Soon afterward, I received a message in reference to it from a friend: “Wait, seriously? Please say it isn’t because of Chuck Norris….” I didn’t understand what she was talking about at the time, a hilarious ad in which Norris endorses Huckabee, Norris touting Huckabee’s better traits and Huckabee telling Chuck Norris jokes: “When Chuck Norris does a pushup, he’s pushing the Earth down,” etc. All things considered, the clever ads alone are not a bad reason to support Mike Huckabee, but here is a better one: Huckabee, in response to a question about taxes from Tim Russert on Meet the Press on December 30, said something astonishing, coming as it did from perhaps the most socially conservative candidate in the Republican running:

MR. RUSSERT: But you raised taxes, and the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, gave you a D and an F for your tenureship as governor. So there have been some legitimate criticisms of you as a Republican for raising taxes and for spending money.

GOV. HUCKABEE: Well, I don’t think they’re legitimate criticisms when you improve education for the children of your state or when you build highways that give you economic incentives and capacities that, frankly, created the lowest unemployment numbers that our state had over a sustained period of time. We saw more new jobs created. That’s what being a governor is about. It’s about creating opportunities for the people of your state.

Being an executive is about improving education, infrastructure, and social welfare? Of course all the candidates are “for” these things, but few of them would publicly assert that improving social services is what being an executive is about. That sounds far more like John Edwardsian populism than like it sounds like anything coming from Huckabee’s Republican opponents. So I checked the Google, and it turns out that—in recent months especially—Huckabee has been called a bleeding-heart by conservative Republicans more often than Ted Kennedy. Many of these denunciations, like most denunciations of politicians, are, with varying degrees of transparency, purely political: they consist largely of disingenuous attributions and attacks; they are more, and more often, strategic than sincere.

But echoing quietly beneath the conspicuously simulated nature of conservative anti-Huckabee sentiment is a murmur of pure terror. Huckabee did indeed raise taxes in Arkansas, and he did put the generated revenue toward improving the state’s social services. He can justifiably be described as the most fiscally liberal Republican candidate. And he can be deemed the most socially liberal Republican candidate, thanks to his unabashed dedication to social welfare—a dedication that grows, for Huckabee, out of his devotion to Christ. That his peculiar liberalism springs from his Christianity—Christianness being a trait that statistically shares real estate with pro-business, anti-government sentiment in the minds of politically conservative American subjects–is dangerous, for though he can be styled socially liberal, he can also claim the mantle of the most socially conservative Republican in the running: he wants, for instance, to ban abortion outright. Huckabee is precisely what socially conservative middle-class middle-country Americans want: a president who will fight to provide them with genuine prosperity and fight for “family values”—one who will get his hands bloody to ensure that every undesired American child is born, one who’ll bust his balls making sure I can’t marry anybody with a penis. Huckabee is a populist humanitarian and a Christian fundamentalist. So behind Ann Coulter’s senseless screeds is a quite sensible motivation: fear that a Republican could be responsible for the biggest expansion of government bureaucracy since the New Deal. Worse, Huckabee is relatively unowned by industry and issue lobbies, making it all the more likely that he can “take on” corporations and the like, repeatedly and sustainedly (for at least four years) loosing his alluring populist rhetoric to fester in the American imagination regardless of whether his populist reforms are realized. So, pondering Mike Huckabee, I changed my Facebook status and soon after received the Chuck Norris message from my incredulous friend. In real life I’m pulling for Barack Obama or John Edwards, in that order; but presuming I had to select a Republican to sincerely support–sincerely: as opposed, say, to supporting a particular candidate based on his forecasted ineptitude against such and such a Democrat in the general election–that Republican would be Mike Huckabee.

That doesn’t make much superficial sense, in that I publicly find morally repugnant many of the positions Huckabee wholeheartedly supports—or more generally, in that many of his positions are objectionable to most all the individuals for whom I have any moral or intellectual respect. But this contradiction between my views and my hypothetical vote points up an important and importantly ignored blind spot in the way politicians are typically assessed. Namely: is the degree to which we agree or disagree with the candidate on particular issues the principal criterion we should use in awarding our support? Agreement on issues does seem to be the default criterion for everyone, including myself; it is why I support John Edwards, and to a lesser extent, why I support Barack Obama (whose superficial differentness would ultimately be more productive for the country than would his rigorous intelligence or even his policy efforts). We must ask, though, what justification we have for this criterion. We must ask ourselves what precisely it is that leads us to believe that supporting a given candidate with such and such positions on such and such issues is the most efficacious way to put into place policies that are the natural execution of those issue-positions.

The CNN-YouTube Republican debate provided an illustration of this phenomenon at its most naked, when a young man from Klamath Falls, Oregon, asked the candidates to characterize their personal firearm collections. This boy loves his guns—how much, he asks the candidates, do you love your guns? His implicit assumption here, of course, is that the extensiveness and lethality of the contents of a given candidate’s home gun cabinet is positively correlated with the propensity of that candidate to make it easier to legally own and operate the extraordinarily dangerous firearms that the NRA is tirelessly fighting to make more readily available. The assumption can actually be split into two assumptions: first, that a candidate who boasts of having many large guns will necessarily tend to oppose stricter gun control, and second, that the more opposed a candidate is to gun control, the more effective he will be at fighting firearm regulations. (This is, of course, assuming that the boy understands himself to be participating in a series of events that will help relax regulations—it’s assuming that the boy’s motives are what they appear to be, that he feels he is engaging in earnest in the political process.) We can all agree that someone who opposes gun control is more likely to institute pro-gun policies than someone who supports gun control. But can we confidently say that a candidate’s dedication to an issue has a consistently positive correlation with the effectiveness of that candidate’s policies designed to address that issue? Can we, in other words, feel confident that voting for someone who supports lax firearm regulations is our best chance to see firearm regulations relaxed?

I have no empirical data on this question at the moment (if anyone can point me somewhere, please do), but I don’t believe we can hold that confidence and remain intellectually honest. We as critics of political processes can and constantly are pointing out correlations between issue rhetoric and policy implementation, but I’m unconvinced that those correlations are more than the wishful product of broad homologies between the two spheres. If the inter-sphere causal relationships pundits intuit were as solid as political discourse routinely implies they are—if espousing a position were often enough correlated with success in implementing that position’s complementary policies—the political scene would look far different and have no need of pundits in the first place.

My point here is not that politics is unpredictable. My point is that despite widespread acknowledgment of the unpredictability of politics, we, as decently intelligent, politically informed citizens, for the most part continue to act as though politics were eminently predictable, as though voting for someone who agrees with us gives us the best chance of seeing what we want to see happen happen. Little weight is given, comparatively, to analyses of candidates’ potential effectiveness if elected under one of a large but manageable number of sets of concomitant circumstances.

Now, we tend to identify someone we agree with and support him. Would we not perhaps have more success in effecting policy change through voting if we looked shrewdly and apolitically at the likely ramifications of the election of such and such a candidate and those of the elections of each of his peers, then worked backward from those conjectures to select the candidate whose election seems the most likely to reshape the United States into the country we want it to be? What if, even if only for a change, we foregrounded the indeterminacy of the political process in a radically substantial way, not simply professing that anything in politics is anybody’s game, but taking that ubiquitous profession seriously enough to dispense with political prognostications—or at least to forcibly and forcefully confine our inevitable prognostications to questions of potential policy outcomes?

This, I’ve come to realize, is something like what I’ve done in explaining my support of Mike Huckabee to myself, and although my thoughts on what might happen if he were elected may be entirely off-base, my motivation for thinking those thoughts in the first place—the absurdity of how Americans go about making electoral decisions, and a desire to turn that absurdity on its head to see what happens—is one that deserves further attention regardless of the relative ignorance of my predictions.

Of the Republican candidates, Huckabee is the most straightforward in presentation and generally the most rigorous in his analyses. Like the other Republican candidates, he’s not only admitted his faith but boasted of it. I certainly do not concur with the majority of the political positions that stereotypically come with his fundamentalist Christian system of belief, but I am clear on what he believes and can respect his convictions to those beliefs for their principled consistency. Huckabee is a profoundly known factor. He is predictably an evangelical, but is also a genuinely compassionate Christian—compassionate, that is, in the way Bush and Co. claimed to be compassionate: he actually cares about, wants to fix, and has a track record of working hard to fix massive and scandalously ignored gaps in social programs. Why should I care if Huckabee’s motivation for getting rid of poverty is the injunction to care for the needy that he feels Christianity places upon him rather than my motivation, which is ultimately just an abstract, academicized, secularly-framed incarnation of the same impulse—and, anyway, might not Huckabee’s election bring about the result we both desire, a concerted, sincere national effort to end poverty? I’m optimistic that his election could well have that result. Huckabee has made no bones about the fact that he believes it is the government’s responsibility to ensure all its citizens a basic quality of life—a quality of life that in description sounds more socialist than conservative, compassionate or otherwise. And because Huckabee is a Republican, he’d likely face far less opposition than Edwards or Obama (or Clinton, but I don’t see her even attempting massive reform, much less succeeding in it) in his efforts to improve social services—so perhaps if we really want a chance to fix these massive social ills and end up with Hillary as the Democratic nominee and Huckabee at the top of the Republican ticket, maybe we should pull for Mike?

But what, you’re asking, about the nightmarish religiously-based conservative policies that a President Huckabee would try to push to strengthen our nation’s moral fiber by, for instance, forcing impoverished 15-year-olds to have children they can’t provide for (or forcing them to find black market providers, coat-hanger clinics stuffed unpleasantly in attics and basements), or forcing gay men and women to live their lives under threat of being fired or worse because they land on a side of the pussy/cock divide that offends Mike Huckabee’s religious convictions?

My answer is unsatisfying, but still, I think, essentially correct: Mike Huckabee will fail if he attempts to enact most of the reforms demanded by the religious right. If, for instance, President Huckabee somehow succeeded in actually banning abortion, or even in significantly restricting it (say by restoring the right to make abortion laws to the states through any number of processes, the most likely, of course, being nominations to the Supreme Court), within, oh, ten years, there’d be a progressive backlash the likes of which this country has never seen, one that would send GOP underground for 30-50 years and perhaps suffocate it altogether. Huckabbe is similarly, unequivocally repulsive in his attitudes toward homosexuality, but on the whole, the Republican party is undeniably moving to the left on this, however sluggishly, and even if President Huckabee somehow succeeded in banning gay marriage nationally or in doing something similarly drastic, that ban have will have eroded within that same 30-50 years anyway under the collective generational weight of our increasingly empathetic children, by which time statistics suggest that simply not enough of us will care enough about who fucks whom to do much as poke presidential politics in one ideological direction or another.

What’s more, the “failures” of a Huckabee presidency that such a progressive insurgence would imply would be History’s fault, not Huckabee’s, and would thus ultimately benefit Huckabee, who’d be remembered for the populist good he did or at least tried to do, but whose moral missteps would be attributed to the lamentably slow march of progress. He would be remembered as the president who brought a principled, inspired, truly compassionate Christianity to bear on burdensome societal problems, and whether or not one thinks he succeeded, one won’t be able to help but acknowledge his role in putting social welfare back on the national agenda. Luckily for Huckabee, his borderline bigotry will be explained away by the very forces of tolerance he helped to ignite. “Sure okay Huckabee had problems” your daughter says to her freshman roommate, c. 2030, “like his support of…”—and here she picks words, choreographing the political performance required of her by her identitarian, multiculturalist, newly hyperprogressive society. “Like his supporting denying homosexuals the right to marry,” she’ll begin again, “and to serve in the military, and of course that abortion thing he tried…ugh”; and caesura will slide mechanically into disclaimer as she begins to enact individually our collective way, even now, of explaining away the moral fact of moral relativism: “Yeah,” she’ll say, “it was the times, you know? Like, almost everybody was homophobic then, especially Southerners and places like that, and some really socially conservative people had heartfelt but irrational beliefs about how and how much their religious beliefs should impact the country’s whole welfare. Some American Christians then, well, you know, it was a lot less tolerant of people who maybe didn’t stick to all the arcane Judeo-Christian stuff“—and she says stuff almost happily, a Christian herself and proud and still reeling from maturing during her faith’s turn back to humanity. (Somewhere is a very old Žižek, celebrating Christianity’s liberation from the “fundamentalist freaks” he sees as its hijackers.) Your daughter’s roommate Ria, a Muslim but of more or less the same mind in these matters, agrees with your daughter’s assessment of the late President Huckabee. So does the Malcolm, the quiet Asian Jew from Silicon Valley who lives down the hall, you find out that evening over dinner, and so does Tony, Malcolm’s roommate, the big blingy black guy from Chicago, and so does Tony’s bio lab partner Samantha, the Episcopalian, donut-powder-white post-op MTF native of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Huckabee wasn’t perfect, you all agree. But who was? “I mean come on,” Samantha says between sips of Diet Coke, “how mad can anyone really be at the guy? You know, Jefferson had sex with his slaves—and, hah, right, had slaves—and we’re cool with that, sort of, like in retrospect or whatever…?”

Huckabee will be excused for his bigotry and moral presumption much as Grant is excused for his drinking and his reconstruction follies, as the first Roosevelt is for his imperialism, as and the second Roosevelt is for his xenophobia and philandering—the latter of which is also forgiven to, well, nearly all of our nation’s presidents. Conrad is pardoned on his supposed racism precisely because he understood racism well enough to show it to us as we’d never see it; Shostakovich and Lindbergh and Pound and Eliot and Heidegger and Grass are largely forgiven their sundry shades of association with 20th-century authoritarianism and fascism and anti-Semitism because in our collective judgment, in the judgment of time, their societal and cultural contributions—and the artistic, historical and psychological lessons we continue to draw from their tortured lives—warrant forgiveness; the just-dead Mailer will, one would think, be vindicated soon enough on the charge of misogyny—or at least on the charge that his particular misogyny is too gratuitous and too pernicious to be productive. George W. Bush—even among this artsy bunch the most skillful fabulist on the scene—will probably be similarly forgiven his ignorance, his arrogance, and his misplaced faith in the virtue of consistency, all of which were worth it, because hey, the guy did prosecute a global war on an abstract concept, which we all must admit is a difficult thing to do. Whatever our posited President Huckabee’s glaring flaws, his administration would surely, barring a freak war or something along those lines, be far less objectionable to the inhabitants of a progressive 21st-century United States than would the administration of George W. Bush, a president who deliberately took measures that predictably would ruin and have ruined and will continue to ruin our country’s legal and moral standing with the rest of the world and set back the clock by at least a decade on American economic and cultural development. But western society is if only gradually, tolerating less and less of the intolerance rooted in fundamentalist religious dogma, making it ever more likely that attempts to divide us along religious lines effect the precise opposite. So President Huckabee, despite espousing out wrongheaded “family values” proposals similar to those of George W. Bush, could find himself with a cultural legacy diametrically opposed to that of our current president. Such a legacy would be inadvertent, that of a president who made our a more pluralistic and empathetic society by revealing to the religious right and the secular left, entirely by accident, that their core beliefs are versions of one another, that they are and always have been animated by a shared injunction to humanitarian charity that finds roots in the classical and the Christian alike.

Huckabee’s efforts to expand Christianity’s moral mandate would accomplish nothing—nothing, that is, save hastening the widespread adoption of progressive values. Such a prediction is perhaps absurd, but it is no more absurd than those reached through faith in the factors that are uncritically presumed to govern political decision-making—no more absurd, that is, than our bankrupt convention of stabbing blindly at accounts of causality in the disarrayed, disingenuous sphere of the political.


A few hours after finishing this post, I received an email informing me that my boys on both sides of the aisle absolutely owned today’s Iowa Caucuses. (Eat shit Hilly and Mitt.) Don’t look now, but if these dudes with funny names stick it out for the next couple months, today might just become the first pinpointable day of our generation’s populist revolution.

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