Michele Bachmann defies her caricature at the Oxford Union

Empty-headed? Not even close. Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA

On March 14, in an address to the Oxford Union supposedly about “innovation”, Republican Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann talked about her 2012 presidential run, and went so far as to hint she might consider another bid. She talked somewhat self-deprecatingly about her previous campaign, in which she failed to win a single state primary or caucus after a brief period actually leading the polls. But more interestingly, her talk exposed several myths, both about her personally and about the American right at large.

One such myth is championed by the Republican Party as a whole: the notion that there are significant differences between the GOP and a “weak” Obama on the US response to the Ukrainian crisis. When asked about the situation, Bachmann predictably criticised Obama for his lack of leadership. Yet her lack of any specific alternative policies (for example sending in US troops, or extending NATO guarantees) was striking. The only exception was her call for removing restrictions on domestic energy exploration and using that to weaken Russian economic leverage. But any such policy would of course take years to feed through, even in a best case scenario.

By denouncing Obama’s “weakness” while lacking any alternative policy, Bachmann is entirely representative of the Republican Party, whose widespread attacks on Obama’s foreign policy rarely offer substantive alternative. Even hawks such as John McCain are scarcely forthcoming with concrete suggestions.

Another myth is common to controversial politicians across the political spectrum: the notion that Bachmann is, to quote one of the more polite terms used by her opponents, an idiot. But genuine idiocy is vanishingly rare in as tricky a trade as politics, and to any remotely fair-minded opponent listening in Oxford, Mrs Bachmannn’s widespread reputation as a cretin was shown to be clearly undeserved. She gave a word-perfect delivery with minimal reference to her written text, and included extensive examples which she then ably defended in the face of audience questions.

This is not to say Bachmann’s speech was intellectually brilliant, original or wholly correct; to take one obvious example, her flattering vision of Oxford as a continuous supporter of intellectual freedom over the centuries would be news to anyone who knows the university’s history. But overall, this speech was not one that an “idiot” could have given. Bachmann in fact received a reasonably positive reception, with solid rounds of applause, and at least one reason behind that was surprise that she did not fit her empty-headed caricature.

Bachmann also showed she is not simply a social conservative whose economic ideas are rooted purely in opposition to change (a caricature often used to defame American conservatism in general). On the evidence of Friday’s speech, she is not just a strong supporter of free markets; she explicitly grounded her support in the notion that markets and freedom are valuable precisely because they generate innovation. On this basis, she expressed her support for GM crops and opposition to the EU ban on their use.

Bachmann, to widespread ridicule, has previously claimed to be influenced by the thought of the mid-20th century economic thinker Ludwig von Mises, who emphasised how markets operate as a discovery mechanism for new ideas, and similar thinking formed much of the thrust of her speech. More broadly, the idea that capitalism’s key contribution to society is the freeing of innovative entrepreneurship is a keystone of American conservative ideology. In that sense, it is paradoxically a movement based on the championing of change.

Of course, Bachmann cultivated her own myths about herself during her presidential run, notably her claim to be an absolute free-market “purist”. This is also a widespread myth about the Republican party as a whole. There is no doubt that Bachmann is extremely pro-market, even by the standards of an American politician, but she is by no means a pure economic “conservative”. In response to one question, for example, she made clear her support for government funding for “pure” scientific research. It’s worth noting she has supported other violations of free market dogma, including extending the period of unemployment benefits. And as for the myth of a mainstream right seized by laissez-faire mania, we should not forget that the Republican party as a whole is a good deal less neo-liberal than Bachmann herself.

Overall, Bachmann’s speech reminded me that scholars should acknowledge when their preconceptions have been invalidated. Leaving aside the image of her as an ignoramus, I had been under the impression that Bachmann lacked any sense of humour. On the contrary, her talk was relaxed and amiable, the jokes mostly coming across as authentic and heartfelt, notably the gentle humour about her children (“they all want to be the boss”). By simply expressing humour and transcending the admittedly abysmal expectations of her intellect, Bachmann performed far better at Oxford than many of her enemies must have anticipated.