Just Win, Baby

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.


bbThe folks at Brietbart.com are advertising a new online magazine by putting up posters around LA. They include one of Nancy Pelosi’s face photo-shopped onto Miley Cyrus doing her tongue-lolling twerk, and another of Mark Zuckerberg adorned with women’s breasts. We can pass over the usual left-wing suspects indulging their hypocrisy with squeaks of “misogynist” and “sexist tropes.” Nothing but progressive crickets have greeted the much more vicious assaults on Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin. More interesting is the reaction of some conservatives, one that suggests why Republicans lose elections.

Over at NRO Jim Geraghty gives a reasoned argument for maintaining civility: “But when do efforts to expose the Left’s double standard reach the point where the Right doesn’t have a standard? At some point we’re going to have to decide what we want: a political culture in which Sarah Palin . . . can be depicted in sexist, humiliating and derogatory ways, as well as Nancy Pelosi and Hillary and anyone else, or one in which that’s considered out of bounds. We can’t say it’s only wrong when they do it.” But is the “political culture” we want one that maintains decorum or wins races? Isn’t it rather the one that endorses the philosophy of Oakland Raiders owner-coach Al Davis––“Just win, baby”?

In any case, civility has always been the exception rather than the norm in democratic politics, and those who worry over decorum in political speech don’t understand democracy. The political history of ancient Athenian democracy shows that once a political culture exists that gives a wide variety of people and interests the right to speak publicly, civility ends up being the first casualty. Democratic speech in Athens was rough, vulgar, and insulting, often at a level far beyond beyond what we today consider acceptable. Politicians were slandered and vilified publicly by name, on stage in comedy, in public speeches in the courts, and in the assembly and council, the equivalent of our Congress. Taking bribes, incest, sordid sexual behavior, and homosexual prostitution were favorite charges. As classicist K.J. Dover writes about comedy, “There is not one [politician] who is not attacked and ridiculed,” and “all these leading men, and many minor politicians besides, are uniformly treated by the comic poets as vain, greedy, dishonest and self-seeking,” and accused of being “ugly, diseased, prostituted perverts, the sons of whores by foreigners who bribed their way into citizenship.”

Nor was early American democratic debate conducted with the powdered wig and silk knee-breeches civility of our idealizations. After George Washington’s first term, the gloves came off. Federalists described the rising Democratic-Republican party as “that horrible sink of treason,­­––that hateful synagogue of anarchy,––that odious conclave of tumult . . . that hellish school of rebellion and opposition to all regular and well-balanced authority.” The charge that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings started life as a political smear. Later, Abraham Lincoln was called the “missing link” and the “original gorilla.” The New York Times’ Paris correspondent called for an embargo on portraits of Lincoln, for “the person represented in these pictures looks so much like a man condemned to the gallows, that large numbers of them have been imposed on the people here by the shopkeepers as Dumollard, the famous murderer of servant girls, lately guillotined near Lyons. Such a face is enough to ruin the best of causes.” And the Times was a supporter of Lincoln. Then there were the jingles about Warren G. Harding’s illegitimate daughter, caricatures of “Tricky Dick” Nixon as a used-car salesman, endless insults of Ronald Reagan as an amiable dunce, and a pathological hatred of George W. Bush that included everything from disparaging his intelligence to fantasizing about his assassination. American political speech has always used invective, personal attacks, and vulgar insult in disputes with opponents. In comparison, the Brietbart posters are actually quite tame, and clever to boot.

This hand wringing over civility, moreover, can have political costs if it encourages ceding the initiative to the opponent. John McCain’s and Mitt Romney’s gentlemanly restraint in their contests with the Chicago political thuggery of the Obama team didn’t seem to change any votes or win any points for decorum and class. Nor have the lies and personal attacks employed by the Democrats kept them from winning. In politics as in football, playing prevent-defense is a good way to lose. And now we have Jeb Bush’s name bruited as a possible 2016 Republican candidate, a respected, classy moderate who said recently, “Can a candidate run with a hopeful, optimistic message, hopefully with enough detail to give people a sense that it’s not just words, and not get thrown, not get back into the vortex of the mudfight?” The answer is no, he can’t. He has to have a coherent, principled program for which he is willing to get in the mud and fight. If not, the Republicans will have another Pyrrhic victory in which they get the prize for classiest loser.

The 2016 presidential election will be critical for addressing the debt, deficits, slow growth, bloated government, job-killing regulations, and general statist lunacy engineered by the Democrats. The Republicans will have to play to win, not play for the “best sportsmanship” award. They can’t hold back against likely candidate Hilary Clinton out of some fear of being branded “sexist” and conducting a “war on women.” That is going to happen no matter what Republicans do, because that’s who the left are these days: intolerant cultists convinced of their righteousness and the carte blanche it bestows on them. And Republicans can’t worry that there exists millions of swing voters who agree with Republican principles and policies but find their tone objectionable. There likely will be many more who are glad to see them discard the preemptive cringe and fight back, as long as it’s clear what they stand for.

In the end politics is about winning, and just as in any fight, rules of engagement only work when both sides honor them. The “political culture” America needs is the one in which conservatives win. And if they’re going to lose, then to quote the Sopranos’ Chrissy Moltisanti, 2016 should be “Scarface, final scene, bazookas under each arm, ‘say hello to my little friend!’”

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  • UCSPanther

    Leftists are impervious to logic and respect and have no honor. Their intellect has a net level of zero, and the only thing they respond to is mockery and contempt.

    We need in respond in kind. Mocking them, laughing at their misfortunes and rubbing their own hypocrisy in their faces is a good start.

    • Larry Larkin

      They get very precious when you start calling them stupid, moronic, hypocritical, nuffnuffs, leftards etc, but have absolutely no problem at all calling conservatives such things as racists, sexists, “deniers”, flat earthers, and so on.
      So I take great delight in abusing the living daylights out of them and hurting their feelings. Because they don’t think, they feel, and the only way to get through to them is to attack them on an emotional level.

      • hiernonymous

        Why would you being abusive hurt anyone’s feelings?

    • justquitnow

      Yeah and all you need to know is who “they” are and you are justified in whatever you want to say or do to them. And it’s not cultic at all…you guys sitting around describing “the left” and giving it all the attributes you want to.

      • UCSPanther

        Offended? That just makes you a target…

  • cxt

    Excellent article
    In many ways the Left DEPENDS on the “civility” of the Right. They can rest secure in that although they might be fighting under MMA/Street fight rules the Right is going to fight “fair” and under the rules of the Marquis of Queensberry. ;)
    They can, so to speak, stick their thumbs in peoples eyes, hit below the belt and bite………while never having to fear their opponent will do the same.
    Their bullies and the only way to get them to behave is to fight them the same way.

  • Habbgun

    The best way is to fight them tooth and nail, win and then try to go back to a more civilized political life. It was done after the Civil War and it could still be done now. You can’t however fight the corrupt with handshakes. The corrupt have too much to lose and to fear and their greed always drives them. A thief is a thief and must be treated like one.

  • Lysander Spooner

    Establishment Republicans permit only the politest of protestations as liberty is raped and the country gets driven into an abyss. The epitome of this political stupidity was the campaign of Mitt Romney.

    Is it worth pointing out that obama’s birth certificate and selective service registration card have been called out as forgeries by duly-sworn law enforcement officials? Is it worth pointing out that allegations of felonies are being ignored by the establishment because of “civility” and politeness? When the entrenched powers of both parties simply ignore such alleged crimes, there is no vulgarity vulgar enough to besmirch them properly.

  • rsilverm

    Good article. And so true. I do like Romney, but he is too accommodating. Not sure Jeb Bush is even a conservative. Chris Christi is tough enough, but is he really a conservative? I doubt it. Maybe Scott Walker, because although Walker has a mild demeanor, he has taken on the radical left and won.

    • pete

      last i heard, walker was pretty lenient and tending towards some kind of amnesty lite which would eventually become full citizenship via dems demands

  • Jacob Greenwood

    Where did this attitude of “Winning at all costs” come from? From the Dada Manifesto, 2nd line, “you have to want: A.B. & C., and fulminate against 1, 2, & 3,”

    Its been happening for 100 years. If you ever wondered why anti-art is accepted as art and how this was the trigger for a civilizational takeover by the communist-socialist-anarchists learn more at http://www.StopTheBull.info

  • American1969

    An excellent article. While voters do get turned off by nastiness, it’s time to stop trying to be “nice” about it and take the gloves off. It’s not as if there isn’t plenty of ammunition that any conservative candidate can use! There’s just a treasure trove of stuff to point out to voters!
    A good candidate with a good team can do graphs, charts, layouts—-whatever—to demonstrate that the current policies haven’t worked and that something else needs to be done, utilizing his/her opponents’ own record against them!
    Personal attacks are worthless. Focus on the issues and whether or not the candidate displays any integrity, honesty, etc., or whether they’re just another scumbag. Whether political consultants want to believe it or not, honesty, integrity, and character DO matter.