I really like Patton Oswalt; I think he is hilarious. And so when I discovered via NetFlix a movie in which he had starred called Big Fan, I ordered it up immediately. NetFlix describes the movie as a “black comedy” and black comedy – what used to be called “gallows humor” – is my kind of thing. And I have to admit it wasn’t a bad film, but after watching it I felt a little cheated. I found the thing to be so unremittingly bleak that I wouldn’t have categorized it as a comedy at all.
In the film, Oswalt’s character – Paul – lives a life of quiet desperation. He works as a poorly paid parking garage attendant, stuck in a little booth and taking shit from customers. He still lives at home with his mother. He has only one friend, and there is no romance in his life whatsoever. His only real joy comes from his beloved New York Giants football team, about which he is rabid. He scrutinizes the games and players, he is a regular on a local sports talk radio station, and he and his
only best buddy tailgate every single Giants home game even though they are too poor to actually afford tickets. Instead, they watch the game on a tiny, crappy TeeVee while sitting in the stadium parking lot.
Despite starting at such a low point, Paul’s life gets even worse as the movie plays out. He faces several decisions during the course of the story and, each time, he is so afraid of hurting his beloved team that he willingly foregoes opportunities to make his own life better. By the end of the movie – and as a direct result of both his frustration with his own pain and his unwavering devotion to his team – Paul has assaulted his arch-rival (a fan of the hated Philadelphia Eagles), and is in prison.
And yesterday afternoon, whilst talking with a friend of mine, I had an epiphany. The members of the rabid Republican base are all Big Fans. They are all Paul, and the GOP is their team.
Of course, I’m talking here about the unhinged Republican base, the voting base. I’m talking about the millions and millions of working- and middle-class people who watch nothing but Fox News, who listen to Rush Limbaugh religiously, and who keep Regnery Publishing in business by purchasing all of Ann Coulter’s, Michelle Malkin’s, and Newt Gingrich’s books.
As Bill Maher says, I can understand why rich people vote Republican, it is everybody else who votes Republican that always puzzled me. But the Big Fan Theory helps explain it all. I’m actually fairly surprised this didn’t occur to me sooner.
They’ve Chosen Their Team – It’s worth remembering that the word “fan” is just short for “fanatic,” someone possessed of an irrational zeal. And to be sure, sports fans are not always rational about how they choose the team to which they devote themselves. They might choose their team for any of an infinite number of arbitrary reasons: because they like the team uniforms, or their colors, or their mascot, or their name, or they think their cheerleaders are especially good-looking, etc., etc., etc.
Although one would think that – when it comes to politics and public policy – people would vote for the policies and not for the teams, that isn’t really the case. There is a lot of data to suggest that once someone has committed to a political party, it is fairly difficult to convince that person to switch allegiances. So that initial decision, that moment when a voter picks his or her political team, can be extremely important. And I think a lot of the Republican base picked their team for the most irrational of reasons:
Steven Colbert: What appeals to you about the Republican Party?
Porn Star/GOP Gubernatorial
Candidate Mary Carey: I just think Republicans are very, very wealthy people. And, um, if I want to be wealthy and powerful I should hang out with them. If you play with cripples you start to limp. So I don’t want to play with cripples anymore. I want to be up with the NBA players, y’know, which is Republicans.
To be sure, there are a lot of dyed-in-the-wool voters who became Democrats simply because their parents raised them that way, or because the Democratic Party was the political powerhouse in the town/state where they grew up. These voters didn’t pick their political team based on its policies either.
But I don’t think there are a lot of voters who joined the Democratic Party because they “want to be like the Democrats.” As the political party ostensibly committed to inclusivity, it’s hard for me to even understand what that phrase means – Democrats are basically everybody.
But Mary Carey and, I suggest, many others don’t want to be in the party of everybody – they want to be in the party of the wealthy, the elite, the powerful – and that is a fairly good description of the Republican brand. Certainly, that is the only constituency whose interests the Republican Party concerns itself with promoting.
What is truly irrational here is the kind of “logic” that goes into making this decision: (a) I want to be wealthy, and (b) the Republican Party is the party of the wealthy, so (c) if I become a Republican, then I will be wealthy. Go back and read that Carey quote again – this is exactly what she is saying.
In short, I think a lot of people pick the Republican Party to be their political team because, as Boris said: (a) Socrates is a man, and (b) all men are mortal, now therefore (c) all men are Socrates.
The Game is Now a War – There is a qualitative difference between being a “fan” and being a “Big Fan.” A fan roots for his or her team, watches the games, takes pleasure when the team wins and is disappointed when they lose. “Big Fans,” on the other hand, obsess about their team and can work up a genuine hatred not only for whichever opposing team they face on a given weekend but for that team’s supporters as well. “Fans” spend their weekend watching a game, “Big Fans” spend their week waging a war.
And here, too, the “Big Fan” explanation seems to hold. I’ve spent a good deal of time – years, now – participating in the liberal blogosphere, listening to liberal podcasts/talk radio, reading books with decidedly liberal points of view, etc., and never have I seen conservative voters demonized by the Left. Nobody on this side of the divide seems to believe that the Republican voting base is out to destroy the United States, probably because we believe they recognize that the destruction of the US would destroy them as well and nobody here thinks Republican voters are all suicidal.
(Note – this doesn’t mean that I don’t also think that the Republican Party leaders and the 1% for whom they toil aren’t out to plunder and hollow out as much of our country as they can, but that is because I can understand why they think doing so makes sense for them. They are sure they personally will be fine no matter what the future consequences of their actions, just so long as they can get their hands on some sweet, sweet lucre right now.)
But for the Coulter-reading, Limbaugh-listening, Fox News-watching Republican base, all liberals – not just liberal political leaders, but every single one of us – are driven by a perverse desire to destroy the United States of America. These are people who will say with a straight face that liberals who support bike paths are advancing a plot to place the United States under UN subjugation, that liberals secretly slaughter Thanksgiving turkeys in a way especially designed to help impose Sharia law on America, and that we "hate freedom." This is why they write books about us with titles like Slander, and Treason, and Guilty (Coulter titles all).
Of course, this has been well known for a long time, but the “Big Fan” theory better explains why the rabid Republican base believes this stuff. The conventional wisdom is that the Republican Wurlitzer simply ensnares these voters, sucks them into a funhouse-mirror world, and fills their heads with emotionally charged lies until they are no longer operating from the same set of facts as the rest of the world.
All of that is true, of course, but I would suggest something else is going on as well: the people who are most susceptible to the Republican Wurlitzer are the people who are attracted to the rabid irrationality of fanaticism to begin with. These people want to be engaged in a war, and not a political contest, because – for them – war, conflict, and besting others gives their lives meaning.
As Corey Robin writes in his book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin:
Exactly why the strenuous life should be so attractive is anyone’s guess, but one reason may be that it counters what conservatives since the French Revolution have believed to be the corrosions of liberal democratic culture: the softened mores and weakened will, the subordination of passion to rationality, of fervor to rules. As an antidote to the deadening effects of contemporary life – reason, bureaucracy, routine, anomie, ennui – war is modernity’s great answer to itself. “War is inescapable,” Yitzhak Shamir declared, not because it ensures security but because “without this, the life of the individual has no purpose.” (emphasis added)
For those of a reactionary bent, conflict – and winning – is itself the point. Such people cannot find meaning or satisfaction in debating policy, in reaching a mutually beneficial, rational compromise, but only in proving their own worth by crushing their opponents. Such people cannot take joy in a sporting – or a policy – contest, but only in flat-out war, waged against The Evil Other.
They Think They’re Part of the Team – Anyone even passingly familiar with the Big Fan knows that these people think they are actually somehow a member of the team. They might feel that unless they watch the game and root loudly for their team – even in the privacy of their own living rooms – the team won’t be “inspired” to play as well. They have “lucky” shirts, or pants or underwear that they insist on wearing “to help the team.” If their team makes the playoffs, they may refuse to shave to “show solidarity.” If the team wins a game they’ll tell you “we won,” and if the team wins the championship they’ll tell you that “we did it.”
For me, this is the final piece of the puzzle. I’ve long wondered about, say, the Teabaggers who actively root for corporate America, who rose up complaining not when the big winners in America – the banks, the investors, the 1% -- were bailed out, but when President Obama suggested doing something for auto workers, or to help out average American homeowners. I’ve long wondered about the Republican base voters who disdain the Occupiers bringing attention to the enormous disparity between the lives led by the 1% and the lives led by the rest of us – including them.
But now I think I get it. I think they’ve simply succumbed to the final stage of irrational fanaticism, what George Santayana described as “redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.”
Having picked their team – the Wealthy Republican Elite – by the worst of all possible reasoning, and having embraced that team so violently and completely, the Big Fan Republican base can now only derive satisfaction from watching their team succeed – no matter what that actually means for them personally. These Big Fans’ original, largely unformed plan may once have been to somehow join the Wealthy Republican Elite team themselves, but having realized they are to be denied that joy they have learned to take solace in watching the Wealthy Republican Elite roll over its enemies.
So completely do they identify with their team, they – like Patton Oswalt’s Paul – can never quite face the fact that they are sacrificing their own happiness for the benefit of the few people who actually get to play on Team Wealthy Republican Elite, the real players who don’t know these people’s names and who never think of them at all. Like Paul, they will happily choose again and again to screw themselves over if the Wealthy Republican Elite tell them it’s necessary “for the good of the team.” And they’ll cheer every time Limbaugh or Palin or DeMint or Kyl or McConnell or Cantor sacks the other side’s quarterback . . . even though they’re watching on a crappy Teevee in a parking lot because they can’t even afford tickets to the stadium in which their team plays.
Because they are all such Big Fans.