Or perhaps it is how I learned to start being concerned about “manufactured” outrage. It depends on how you look at it, I suppose.
After all, when I read generally conservative columnists like Matt K. Lewis or John Podhoretz disdaining “manufactured” outrages from different angles — even when the GOP may enjoy some temporary advantage from the kerfuffles of the current campaign — I am not entirely unsympathetic. Indeed, I am already on record arguing that institutionally, the GOP should not engage in these controversies, but note that Democrats have been generating them to distract from the anemic economy and the Obama administration’s record on the issues Americans care most about. I think that’s pretty close to Podhoretz’s position, if I’m reading him correctly.
On the other hand, I recognize at least two problems inherent in the position of disdaining these distractions entirely.
First, there is at least a whiff of condescension involved. I do not think those upset by the Obama administration’s plans to infringe on religious liberty as part of Obamacare are just pretending to be upset. I doubt the progressives who seem so passionate about increasing access to abortion and birth control are playing make-believe (beyond the notion that such access is “free” in terms of money or overall liberty). People who denounce a Democratic honcho who let her mask slip to suggest stay-at-home mothers don’t really work are not entirely engaged in hype. I may think economic growth, exploding public debt and the entirety of Obamacare to be bigger issues, but it would be elitist to deny there are real issues at the heart of most of the supposed sideshows of the campaign so far.
This is even arguably true about this campaign’s dog tales. Admittedly, whether Mitt Romney once transported his family dog atop his car or Obama ate dog as a child in Indonesia (with little apparent regret as an adult) has no direct policy consequences. On the other hand, Podhoretz admits Democrats became interested in the Romney dog tale because of the effect it had on Mitt’s favorability in focus groups. Moreover, the intersection of moral psychology and politics is a hot topic these past months. And in this regard, it is notable that when asked whether it would be wrong for a family to eat the family dog after it was killed by a car, it turns out that the only group that thinks it alright is college-educated liberals. The swingiest of swing voters are almost by definition not particularly moved by policy arguments, or they would be partisans. America is still a free enough country that we get to tell this key bloc that dog tales are unimportant, but they don’t have to listen.
The second major problem with ignoring campaign sideshows is Utopianism. As Podhoretz notes, opposition research is democratized in the Internet Age. And Lewis concedes that ceding the field to Democrats on these issues may be necessary to win elections (and thereby address those “real” issues). There is nothing in American history, let alone the history of the Internet Age, suggesting that a handful of pundits — or even concerted efforts by candidates and their teams — are going to stop these controversies. To rhetorically shovel against this tide is in one sense noble, but also unconservative to the degree that it pretends human nature is so easily molded by the political realm.
In short, while I still think it helps the GOP to use these kerfuffles to say Democrats want to avoid discussing the economy and Obama’s record, there is probably a role for those who want neutralize or reverse their effect.