Culture-War Candidates Aren't 'Victims' Just Because People Hate Them

Conservatives are already complaining that liberals will detest Rick Perry. But if they do, won't that be because of his anti-liberal politics?


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The editor of National Review, Rich Lowry, has introduced preemptive strikes into the culture war: The subject of his latest column isn't unfair attacks suffered by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the newly minted presidential candidate -- it is the imminent threat of unfair attacks. Liberals will burn with hatred for him, Lowry writes. "He'll become a byword for Red State simple-mindedness in the New York Times and an object of derision for self-appointed cultural sophisticates everywhere."

This isn't the best precedent. Do we really want hand-wringing untethered from actual insults? Hand-wringing is tiresome as it is. But that shouldn't stop us from discussing another aspect of Lowry's claims. Explaining why Perry will be attacked, he runs through a long list of the Texas governor's attributes: He's an evangelical Christian from rural America who prays in public, seeks a drastically smaller federal government, enthusiastically executes people, and reminds everyone of his fellow Texan, George W. Bush, the ultimate enemy of the left. "It'd be almost impossible," Lowry writes, "to come up with a background and cluster of affiliations so provocative."

Fair enough.

Perry possesses attributes that lend themselves to igniting the culture wars, in the same way dry brush in California is prone to catching fire. But flammability quotients are beside the point given that Perry is everywhere with his can of gasoline, souvenir pistol-shaped lighter, and every intention of fueling the culture war's flames. That's what Lowry leaves out of the column. The main reason Perry is likely to draw the ire of liberals isn't that the leftists are sitting around in Manhattan looking for a cowboy to sneer at. It's that they're going to react when expertly provoked by a pol who knows what GOP voters want: someone who drives liberals crazy.

It isn't lost on Perry that Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin draw adoring crowds and endless media coverage, while Ron Paul and Gary Johnson are dismissed among Republicans and media types alike. Why is that? It isn't because Paul and Johnson aren't loyal to the avowed principles of the tea party. They're more substantively uncompromising than Palin or Perry and more accomplished than Bachmann.

Their defect is that they don't serve up red meat or conform to the cultural cues that a segment of the base demands. I'm not just talking about small-town Republicans in red states either. Here's what Washington, D.C. resident and GOP establishment insider Michael Goldfarb has to say about Perry: "He's a cowboy. You have to assume he'd shoot first and ask questions later." (He means that as a compliment.)

Columns like the one that Lowry wrote are read by conservatives around the country, who come away aggrieved because National Review makes it seem as though the rest of the culture is antagonistic toward people like them. In fact, they're being made to feel more disdain than is justified by reality.

That's how you rile up the base.

Perry "may not become as despised as Sarah Palin," Lowry writes, "but that's because he'll never be a pro-life woman -- the accelerant for the conflagration of Palin-hatred." That's nonsense. What fueled Palin-hatred, more than anything else, was the fact that shortly after being introduced to the nation, she was made the designated attack dog of the McCain campaign. She proceeded to divide the nation into "real America," with its good people in small towns, and fake America, where the coastal elites and the "lamestream media" live. Is it any wonder that journalists and coastal-dwelling residents of blue states wound up disliking her? Could it be denied that she leveraged her talent for polarization into a multimillion dollar TV contract, or that in public life generally she has doubled down on rhetorical slights and combativeness at every opportunity?

It is the same with Perry.

If liberals start mocking his rural Texas roots in 2012, I'll publicly say that they're wrong to do so. Our politics shouldn't be about cultural cues and identity politics. But any insults will come two years after Perry, in his 2010 book, pointedly mocked residents of California and Massachusetts for their cultures and values. It is too much for Perry or his sympathizers in conservative media to now come along and cast themselves as victims, or even to suggest, as Lowry does, that it is Perry's identity, rather than deliberately combative constructs, that makes him controversial.

He knows exactly what he is doing, every time he plays up his drawl, goes on about the superiority of Texas, mocks a blue state, holds a politically timed prayer rally, or regales reporters about the laser sighted pistol he carries while jogging. It's all a transparently calculated show that is best ignored, and insofar as it disadvantages the right in a way that has nothing to do with substance, it is only because so many conservative voters demand, as a condition of their support, candidates who go out of their way to antagonize non-conservatives.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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