We, Robot
August 16, 2011, 8:00am

By KURT ANDERSEN – New York Times.

“The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” and “30 Rock” were all repeats, so on Thursday night the most entertaining first-run comedy in prime time was on Fox News. And it was live!

What’s not to enjoy about Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty bickering over which of them behaved more cynically in an obscure Minnesota legislative struggle six years ago? Or Representative Ron Paul delivering a full-throated defense of the Iranian regime’s nuclear-weapon ambitions. Or Herman Cain saying he hadn’t meant to cast “a dispersion” on Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. (I’m waiting for Mr. Cain, an African-American, to point out that Mormon theology once taught that black people are the accursed descendants of Adam and Eve’s evil son — wait for it — Cain.) And then there was Newt Gingrich raging twice at his Fox News interrogators for asking “gotcha questions.”

Actually, the most surprising, heartening thing about the Republican presidential debate was the Fox News panel’s questioning. It was substantive and tough, actually fair and balanced.

And the most surprising, depressing moment was when former Gov. Jon Huntsman, along with the seven others, raised his hand after being asked if, as president, he’d reject a hypothetical deal on debt reduction that increased tax revenue by $1 for every $10 of spending cuts.

The things about Jon Huntsman that make him the most admirable and arguably electable G.O.P. candidate are the heresies that make him a highly unlikely nominee. His current odds in London at Ladbrokes are 12-to-1 — versus, for instance, 7-to-1 for Bachmann.

He’s the only Republican candidate who didn’t slag the debt-ceiling deal for being insufficiently draconian on spending. He buys the scientific consensus on climate change and says he’s “not ashamed to be a conservationist.” At the debate, he reiterated his support for same-sex civil unions and says that concerning state laws allowing gays to marry, he “would respect the state’s decision.”

And he has declined to sign the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which made his raised hand so disappointing. That pledge commits officials to opposing any increase in federal tax revenues under any circumstance. “I don’t sign pledges,” he explained, which in these lunatic days passes for bracing political courage.

All of his fellow candidates have signed recently or in the past. Most of them have also signed the Pro-Life Presidential Leadership Pledge, promising to appoint anti-abortion cabinet members and withhold federal funds from hospitals that perform abortions. Several have signed a marriage pledge that swears them to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act and support an amendment to the Constitution outlawing same-sex marriage. Another pledge, a sprawling 700-odd-word manifesto called The Marriage Vow, has signers agree to “personal fidelity to my spouse” and “rejection of Shariah Islam.” Bachmann and Rick Santorum have signed.

At least abortion and marriage are moral issues. A certain fanatical absolutism is inevitable. It’s not completely crazy to reduce one’s political sentiments about them to monomaniacal pledgespeak.

But revenue levels and tax rates and deductions? The bizarre alchemy accomplished by Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform, the group behind the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, is to have turned a particular level of federal tax receipts into acrypto-religious black-and-white no-compromise moral absolute.

I find ideologues creepy because they’re like robots, built to respond to the fluid, complicated world in simple, unchanging ways. What these pledges do is make the robotic quality of politicians more transparent and explicit by installing in each one a few crude lines of code that can’t be overridden or rewritten. And with the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, signed by more than 270 of the 287 current Republican members of Congress, we’ve lately witnessed the spectacular political power of an unreasoning, unpersuadable robot army. But, in fact, my metaphor does a disservice to state-of-the-art software, which can weigh competing variables, adapt to changing circumstances, customize responses. Sophisticated computers are more humanoid than ever before, whereas robo-pols are becoming more primitively machinelike.

In a recent Daily Beast article by the moderate-Republican politico Mark McKinnon about pledge-mania, he referred to “the pledge by Democrats in the House of Representatives to oppose any cuts to any social welfare program in any budget or in any bill.” But it turned out that there is no such crazily expansive pledge — apart from the fictional one in a spoof newspaper article published a few days before McKinnon’s piece claiming that “every single Democrat in the House of Representatives has signed a pledge to never, ever vote in support of spending cuts on any social welfare program in any budget or bill.” (McKinnon told me that “any similarity in language was certainly not intentional.”) However, there is the Social Security Protectors Pledge, whose signers vow to “oppose any cuts to Social Security benefits, including increasing the retirement age.” A majority of House Democrats are signatories. And so the robotification of American politics proceeds.

Kurt Andersen, the host of public radio’s “Studio 360” and the author, most recently, of the novel “Heyday,” is a guest columnist.