You’ve Probably Never Heard of “Murc’s Law”, But You’ve Seen It in Action Lots of Times

Murc’s Law is “the widespread assumption that only Democrats have any agency or causal influence over American politics”. In other words, Democrats are responsible for  Republicans being the way they are and doing the things they do, either because Democrats provoked them or failed to control them.

It came up recently because of an opinion piece in the New York Times entitled “My Liberal Campus Is Pushing Freethinkers to the Right”. (This widely-ridiculed article was written by a young man the Times identified as a “senior at Princeton”, not mentioning he’s a Republican activist).

Remember when people who live in the real world, especially Democrats, pointed out that not getting vaccinated would cause more people do die from Covid? And that hearing such a thing supposedly upset many Republicans who then decided not to get vaccinated?

Amanda Marcotte wrote about this peculiar phenomenon for Salon last year:

“Murc’s Law” [was] named after a commenter at the blog Lawyers, Guns, and Money who noticed years ago the habitual assumption among the punditry that Republican misbehavior can only be caused by Democrats. Do Republicans reject climate science? Must be because Democrats failed to persuade them! Did Republicans pass unpopular tax cuts for the rich? Must be that Democrats didn’t do enough to guide them to better choices! Do Republicans keep voting for lunatics and fascists? It must be the fault of Democrats for being mean to them! Even D____ T____’s election was widely blamed on Democrats — who voted against him, to be clear — on the bizarre grounds that Barack Obama should have rolled over and just let Mitt Romney win in 2012:

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Republicans are about to take power in the House of Representatives once again, and so, with exhausting predictability, we return to a Beltway narrative where none of the choices they will make with that power are their fault: It is somehow all because Democrats have failed to manage Republicans properly. Unsurprisingly, the latest example comes from Politico, which pins the blame for the rise of right-wing superstar Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene not on the voters who sent her to Congress or the GOP leaders who indulge her or the conservative media that celebrates her. Instead, Greene’s popularity with Republicans is laid at the feet of Joe Biden and the Democrats.

“Biden World once ignored Marjorie Taylor Greene. Now it’s making her the face of the GOP,” announces a headline in Politico. But of course Biden had nothing to do with that, because Republicans had already done it.

Going back to the Times article, David Roberts of the Volts podcast says it’s a perfect example:

Murc’s Law says, basically: only the left has agency; the right is merely reacting, having its hand forced, being “pushed” or “shaped.”

This is not some quirk, it is central to reactionary psychology. Every fascist (and fascist-adjacent) movement ever has told itself the same story: our opponents are destroying everything, they’re forcing us to this, we have no choice but violence.

It is, at a base level, a way of denying responsibility, of saying, “we know the shit we’re about to do is bad, but it’s not our fault, you made us.” Once you recognize the pattern it shows up *everywhere*. (If you know an abuser, you’ll also find it in their rhetoric.)

It’s one thing for reactionaries to cling to this … but what’s irksome is that right-wingers playing the refs have basically trained mainstream political journalists to echo it. It is laced throughout US political coverage.

One of my favorite examples … is the notion that Al Gore “polarized” climate change and thereby forced the right into decades of lies and demented conspiracy theories….  Why’d you do that to them, Al?!

Another instance is when it’s assumed that Democrats could have stopped Republicans from doing something bad if only they’d tried or tried harder or made stronger arguments. A commentator once joked:

… A few more BLISTERING speeches [from Democrats] and Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan would have totally realized that upper-class tax cuts are wrong!

Headlines that obscure who did what are consistent with Murc’s Law. “Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, ending right to abortion upheld for decades” — no, it was Supreme Court Republicans who did that. “Out of 18 pro-democracy bills in 2022, the US Senate filibuster torpedoed 17 of them” — no, it was Senate Republicans who torpedoed them. “What could happen if Congress doesn’t raise the debt limit?” — no, what could happen if House Republicans don’t vote to raise it?

Likewise, there are events that mysteriously take place. I had one in the blog a few days ago:

The Washington Post said “the [train] derailment [in Ohio] erupted into a culture battle”, as if culture battles simply happen without any help from the people who specialize in starting them and getting them in “the news”.

Here’s an even more recent one. From Investopedia:

Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing refers to a set of standards for a company’s behavior used by socially conscious investors to screen potential investments.

Environmental criteria consider how a company safeguards the environment, including corporate policies addressing climate change, for example. Social criteria examine how it manages relationships with employees, suppliers, customers, and the communities where it operates. Governance deals with a company’s leadership, executive pay, auditsinternal controls, and shareholder rights.

Senate Republicans and two Democrats (Manchin and Tester) voted to kill a Labor Department rule that allows investment managers to consider ESG. From Talking Points Memo:

We talk about this stuff a lot as part of the “culture wars,” but that bestows a legitimizing gloss on it, as if there is some deeper, truer cultural dispute. There’s not. This a Republican tactic, and a highly effective one… It gets treated like these things just happen, as if Democrats or Fortune 500 companies stumble into previously unseen cultural war ambushes because they lack a feel for flyover country….

Note the passive voice here: “The business world has been pulled into partisan politics”…

This doesn’t just happen. Republicans and right-wing activists make it happen. They devote a lot of time, energy and resources to it. 

By almost any measure, Republicans have already won once they’ve “made it a partisan issue.” What seems to get misunderstood is that that’s the actual goal. Corporations and institutions don’t want to pick sides. They want to play it down the middle. So Republicans keep shifting the “middle” farther and farther right. By this point in these controversies, the game is basically over already. What’s maddening is that everyone keeps getting played.

Finally:

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