Monday, November 1, 2010

Sanity/Fear from this Blog's Perspective

Thanks to our friend Erin scoring Special Guest passes at work, yours truly and my wife had a pretty sweet vantage point for the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on Saturday. From our spot we could not only see the stage pretty well, but more importantly hear the performances -- which seemed to be a pretty big problem given the "Louder" chants from the back.
Any attempt to digest what it all meant on Saturday must first acknowledge that for all but the last 15 minutes of the rally, the point was to put on a performance in the style of Colbert and Stewart's TV shows. The two ping-ponged their sanity/fear schtick's back and forth pretty effectively. Some of the musical content was questionable -- someone I had dinner with last night complained perfectly that they managed to make Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples boring, and then there was the Kid Rock piano ballad (!?!) -- but all-in-all it was pretty fun. Prince of Petworth has some cool pix of the crowd to check out.

What struck me about Stewart's speech at the end was how old-school progressive it was. Instead of partisan noise and hype, he argued, if citizens could only hear reasonable and impartial reporting on critical issues from the media then they would be able to foster the kind of informed decision making that democracy needs. Whereas the people really needed information from mass media, all they really get was a filter that manipulated them. Remove the filter, and the people's innate reasonableness would prevail more often than their raw emotional reactions. Fundamentally, that's what the humor on the Daily Show is all about -- ridiculing the filter. The show doesn't so much lean left as assert over and over, "they are fucking with you -- don't let them get away with it." And that's more or less what Stewart said Saturday.

And it's a message progressives like Mary Parker Follett and even John Dewey were asserting a century ago. Remove the interference from partisan handlers, yellow journalists, and ideologues of all stripe and democracy will function on its own accord. Follett and other reformers thought that nonpartisan, broadly representative forums for face-to-face debate on the civic level were the solution. Dewey believed in the saintly powers of experts to dispense the information the people needed in their deliberations before heading to the polls. Dewey was unique for believing this even after most progressives who had invested faith in the sanity of the American public had experienced the profound disappointment of World War I, when fear had overwhelmingly prevailed. Even after the war, the desire to keep fear alive, whether expressed through the Red Scare repression of radicals and unions, restrictive immigration legislation, lynchings, or the rise of a more mainstream version of the Ku Klux Klan, swamped the forces of sanity. A conservative sense of "normalcy" replaced Wilsonian Progressivism. On Election Day eve, this sounds vaguely familiar, no?

I don't mean to call Stewart naive here, because I fundamentally agree with his criticism of cable news. But for generations democracy has struggled with the sad fact that people would rather hear what they already believe parroted back to them than be presented with impartial reporting of policy debate. Fox and MSNBC are what they are because there's money in it. There's money in what the Daily Show does, too, especially through Stewart's often brilliant interviews of his incredibly-high-brow guests, but only through the hook of comedy.

Saturday demonstrated that mobilizing the sane is possible. But it's difficult, especially when fear can be conducted so masterfully by those whose interests are served by it. A hundred years ago, most progressives responded by taking their marbles and going home from the political game. It looks like the same thing's happening tomorrow, despite Stewart's best efforts.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Us vs. Them

This ad is the perfect closing argument for this election cycle, or perhaps the last year and a half of American politics.

The ad was put out by Ralph Reed's new outfit. The Faith and Freedom Coalition, as reported by Mother Jones, joined with other conservative evangelical Republican groups called the Council for National Policy to meet with Tea Party Patriots officers plan Get-Out-The-Vote operations for Tuesday's elections. They also plotted out, just to be safe, coordinated activities for the next 40 years.

While the depth of direct involvement by Religious Right figures like Reed, Phyllis Schlafly, Tony Perkins, and Richard Viguerie is an important new part of the story, the connection between the Tea Party "movement" and the old culture warriors has been probed for quite some time.

What I find interesting is the uniting of minds that would produce a message like the one above. The Culture Wars have roiled politics for so long because they have been sustained by a quasi-Calvinist elect that sees its controversies not as policy debate among reasonable people but the division between the holy and the nonbelievers. Because of its Constitutionally-mandated secularism, the Government is part of the "them" for such zealots. If Tea Partiers do not embrace this idea personally -- and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that many do -- they carry the same mindset in their Constitutional originalism and fixation on idealized Founding Fathers. While the Tea Party may steer clear of cultural issues at the present, it has erected its own version of "Us vs. Them" since last summer's health care debate.

Because political commentary so often focuses on policy outcomes and not ideology, progressives have underappreciated how intertwined the religious and political strains of the Us vs. Them narratives are. Hints of that interconnection are squirting out in strange places. Take Glenn Beck's assault, for instance, on Wilsonian progressivism and Woodrow Wilson himself, one that has some currency among Tea Partiers. As Dana Milbank, David Greenberg, and Media Matters have detailed, Beck's historical interpretation of the Wilson presidency is little more than historical ignorance borrowed from Jonah Goldberg. For Beck and like-minded conservatives, Progressivism's original sin was allowing the ideas of secularism into the Constitutional garden. Belief in the secular state's power to improve the lives of its citizens is what defined the Them. Beck is simply laboring to give that categorization a rickety historical narrative.

For many of us, this narrative seems positively bizarre. As Greenberg puts it in Slate,
it's telling that these Progressive Era reforms have enjoyed such an enduring and uncontroversial place in our sense of what government should do. Their long-reigning acceptance shows better than anything else just how deeply reactionary Beck and company are.
 But Wilson is merely a useful, if poorly utilized example of the larger critique not just of the "welfare state" but of secularism in toto. If you read or listen to Beck carefully, he is echoing an argument made by the Council for National Policy's founder Tim LaHaye. Yes, the same Tim LaHaye who wrote those Left Behind novels you are too much of an elitist to have read. Before he got into the business of commercializing one of the more troubling aspects of Christianity, LaHaye wrote political tracts decrying the pervasive influence of secular humanism in American government and intellectual life. His first book, The Battle for the Mind, came out in time for the 1980 elections, and leveled fantastic charges at the welfare state, public education, international organizations, and government agencies as being part of an interconnected atheistic conspiracy to overturn a Christian nation. He rehashed the same arguments in time for the 2000 election.

If the state represents the sinister Them against the godly Us, then what do we do with the fact that people elected that state to do those sinister things? That voters election after election, generation after generation have chosen to support fairly strong regulatory and redistributive policies? Are all of those people the Them, too, or have hundreds of millions of individual votes been the product of a grand and unholy plot? Of course not, just as Harry Reid and Barack Obama are not Them. They are not space aliens in a bad flick. They are Americans -- Us. And so are the people who voted for them and will vote for them again on Tuesday.

This sentiment is what Nancy Pelosi may have been getting at when she called those Tea Baggers who crashed Congressional Town Halls "un-American" last summer. They were un-American in their rejection of democracy. If I can channel one of my Founding Fathers here, James Madison first made the point that the minority has right to have their opinion voiced, but not the right to overturn electoral results. This kind of ad, this kind of sentiment does exactly that.

For all the hand-wringing on the Left about what the Tea Party stands for and where it came from, the Us vs. Them dynamic is the most critical to understand and counteract.


Monday, October 25, 2010

The Politics of Sports: Jimmie Johnson Edition

My graduate advisor went to prep school with Jeb Bush and then went on to graduate from Harvard and Johns Hopkins. But the two of us probably talked about college football more over the years than my dissertation. During one such conversation I revealed that I had, squirreled away in a dresser in my parents' house, a pristine Bernie Bar - a chocolate bar bearing Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar's likeness and endorsement. I had owned said candy bar since relatives in Cleveland had sent it to me in the mid-1980s. I hadn't even removed it from the plastic shopping bag they had sent it in, let alone ever dreamed of unwrapping and consuming it, for fear that doing so would dishonor the man or even risk him bodily harm through product-endorsement voodoo. I'm sure the chocolate sucked anyway. My advisor, a huge fan of University of Miami football, at which his father had taught music and Bernie had starred, straightened up upon my report of owning such a lost idol of past football greatness. He offered to buy it off me. I'm sure if I'd named a dollar amount he would have whipped out his checkbook right then and there.

But of course you understand that the Bernie Bar is not for sale.

As the nation approaches the midterm elections and the zenith of the "Tea Party Movement," I raise this story in frustration with a common narrative, raised over and over again in recent months, that the "elite" is out of touch with "real America" for reasons like the sports we watch. In keeping with the general editorial gestalt of the Washington Post's opinion page, Charles Murray offered up boring and patronizing rendition of this refrain on Sunday, taking the assumption that elites don't know who Jimmy Johnson (the NASCAR driver, not the coach/Survivor contestant) is as a sign of their undemocratic out-of-touchness. This is a somewhat ironic argument for someone with a degree from Harvard who wrote a book claiming a biological connection to intelligence to make - and whose recent output as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, bastion of common-manhood, was a column about golf.

Characterturing the tastes of the nation's best and brightest has been en vogue at least since Joe McCarthy made fun of Dean Achenson's wardrobe. It's a tired act, but one that clearly has some juice in it. That said, it's time to retire the sports part of the act.

For starters, NASCAR has carefully courted its fan base of "real" Americans for generations because it is an upstart operation. Its promoters knew it couldn't just break into big media markets and compete with football or baseball. Its success has depended on its ability to work around the ways other major sports have developed fan bases through geographic and media advantages. The biggest race of its season takes place in the sports dead zone of February. Its biggest stars are marketed and promoted as local guys to fans far removed from ever getting to see their favorite team sport franchises in person. We may live in a nationalized media marketplace, which allows the kid from Alabama or Indiana or even New Jersey to grow up rooting for the Cowboys -- but that doesn't mean sports fans don't still yearn for the proximate. Hence, the popularity of high school and college football far away from NFL franchises and of NASCAR in flyover America.

Conservatives who want to exploit the high/low divide, furthermore, treat NASCAR fandom as some kind of exclusive lifestyle choice. People who care about one sport usually care about more than one, and being a NASCAR fan does not come at the exclusion of other sports that are popular on the coasts. 
College football is a perfect example of the interplay between high and low status or culture in the nation rather than its division. The rise of college football as an obsession in the South happened in response to Elite America's dominance of the sport in the first half of the 20th century. Catching up to the Harvards and Yales was a motivating force, and the success of that motivation still shapes the competitive landscape today.

Finally, let's just all agree that it's stupid to think that all the "elite," who number a few hundred thousand people in Murray's definition anyway, care about niche activities and not major team sports like the rest of the country. It's just not true. They might not care about NASCAR, but that's because NASCAR isn't chasing their dollar -- the NFL and Major League Baseball already has that locked up. Also, because car races are boring until someone crashes. The rabid Red Sox fan made so by a stint in Cambridge is practically a cliche among the sports-loving intelligentsia. And it's not even just a guy thing any more -- the Red Sox and Phillies lead sales of pink hats. So, in the interest of truth and national unity, let's just stop using sports in the "elites are out of touch" narrative.      

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Tea Party and Goldwater

Leave it to me to bash political science and then link to something written by a political scientist about polling data. Well, anyway, over at Salon, Alan Abramowitz parses some data on Tea Party self-identification and reports that the movement is essentially an intraparty movement within the GOP and not an independent force:
Eighty percent of Tea Party supporters were Republican identifiers or independents who leaned toward the Republican Party, and 54 percent were strong Republican identifiers. And 96 percent of Tea Party supporters reported voting for John McCain in the 2008 presidential election.
Fully 84 percent of strong Tea Party supporters described themselves as conservative and 54 percent described themselves as very conservative while only 41 percent of all members of the public described themselves as conservative and only 20 percent described themselves as very conservative.
here's some fun with maps for the sake of comparison:
1964 Election returns by county:

Tea Party Membership per 10,000 (June 2010)

Throw out the Deep South results because of lack of voting rights in 1964.  

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Tea Party and Political Science

Hoover Institution senior fellow Peter Berkowitz put up something of a good argument in his October 16th Wall Street Journal column about liberals' fundamental misunderstanding of the Tea Party movement. By liberals, of course, he means a select few liberal pundits whose scribblings he takes as synecdoche for "vast numbers of other highly educated people" who agree with them. There is something to the idea, as he puts it, that
for the better part of two generations, the best political science departments have concentrated on equipping students with skills for performing empirical research and teaching mathematical models that purport to describe political affairs.
Left-of-center commentators have missed the best way to understand the political heart of the Tea Party movement: the central narrative of re-establishing the nation's "tradition" of "limited government" in the myriad of ways that desire had been expressed since last summer. The trappings of the Revolutionary War era, the language of "isms," the self-righteous and overtly revivalist spirit of its people-power rallies all point to a powerful, if intellectually shallow, attachment to an ideal of American national identity. Much of Political Science, and some parts of my own discipline of political history, are ill-equipped to take ideology seriously and to disentangle its strands. As for liberal pundits generally, I've harped on the Hofstadter fixation enough at this point.

For Berkowitz, the Tea Party carries on the vision of the Constitution as described in the Federalist Papers, an ideology Tea Partiers simply derive from the ether of American life since most of them haven't read the essays themselves. No bother, says Berkowitz, they love the Constitution and that's enough -- even if they haven't read the First Amendment very carefully.

There is something going on here, and it's not that the folky heroes of the Tea Party understand the Constitution better than Woodrow Wilson and generations of PolySci majors at elite institutions (the kind one might lie that one attended in the middle of a senatorial run, perhaps). What Wilson (PhD, Johns Hopkins, Political Science) and other progressives (and liberals since) understood about their political age is that limited government could no longer protect the individual liberties Tea Partiers claim to defend. Corporations, industry interests, and regionally-build party machines (i.e., the states) had broken American politics so thoroughly that concentrated wealth could threaten the liberty of all Americans anywhere. Monopoly, graft, greed could literally ruin the lives of individuals clear across the continent from centers of power. Government, through a more expansive reading of the Constitutional powers granted the legislative and executive branches, had to step in where the people were powerless. This was not statism: it was democracy, a word that saturated the Progressive Era and is almost meaningless in our own.

The brilliance of the modern conservative movement is not a rediscovery of the Constitution as much as a annihilation of the idea that the interests of private individuals and large concentrations of wealth are frequently at odds with one another. Conservative supporters of the Tea Party movement have pulled an even more impressive feat by getting most of the public, liberal pundits included, to forget that this modern conservatism now afoot isn't so modern even. As Sean Wilentz detailed in the New Yorker (an essay I'll get to later), the powerfully anti-government opinions of one Glenn Beck have been around since the late 1950s. Conservative corporate leaders' attempts to bring down the New Deal with an ideology of Constitutionally-mandated "limited government" are decades older, as Kim Phillips-Fein and Nancy Wall have tracked in their excellent books. Contemporary resistance to "the State" or "statism" or whatever ism once chooses to dollop on Obama on a poster has nothing to do with 1787 and everything to do with 1945, when Readers' Digest first published excepts of Road to Serfdom.

Whether or not the Tea Party is racist, or an astroturf movement, or a conspiracy fronted by the Koch brothers (and I suppose I would say yes to all three) is less important than why the bunch of recycled truisms its members have heard since their grade school days still have currency: that free enterprise alone drives prosperity, that the private sector is destroyed by taxes, that state services only make people lazy, and that government has no place in regulating the economy. They probably heard it when their moms and dads (or they) voted for Goldwater, or maybe Reagan. Why has the left allowed such obvious falsehoods and such modern political inventions to stand for timeless national tradition? Maybe Berkowitz is right -- because we've been building too many mathematical models and reading too many polls.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Paranoid Style Never Goes Out of Style

I risk beating a dead horse here, but it's still deflating to see Richard Hofstadter's "Paranoid Style in American Politics" cited over and over again by present-day pundits and writers. Yesterday on Salon, Laura Miller proclaimed that the essay "never seems to get old." The current up-swing in anti-Muslim sentiment, she writes, is another manifestation of the paranoia cycle Hofstadter describes. Journalist Will Bunch's new book on the Tea Party movement similarly relies on Hofstadter in its analysis of the movement's rank-and-file.

I am not dismissing "The Paranoid Style" as a piece of work -- it is an excellent essay. Furthermore, I admire its author a lot. Hofstadter was the kind of public intellectual that is rare today, unfortunately. But working historians moved beyond his psychologically-centered analysis of the Right decades ago. Why? First, the value of Freudian analysis has dimmed considerably in the humanities. Let's just leave that issue alone for now. More importantly, scholars like Hofstadter had a particular way of looking at American history that has fallen out of favor within the profession. He was among the "Consensus school" of historians of the 50s and early 60s who believed the country was on a historical path toward becoming an ever-more just, tolerant, and liberal society. Its recent triumph over fascism was a validation of that belief, and the nation's conflict with Communism would bear it out once again. What the right-wing anticommunist fringe of Hofstadter's era didn't appreciate was that Communism was dangerous to the nation only if it failed to live up to its liberal democratic ideals, enshrined in a post-New Deal political order. As the United States became a more equitable society, such conservatives lashed out at the process of leveling out of their own personal insecurities.

The problem with this mode of analysis, as scholars like Michael Rogin, Leo Ribuffo, Michael Kazin, Alan Brinkley, and a whole host of contemporary historians of post-1945 conservatism have pointed out, is its assumption that the nation truly is on a developmental arc in the first place, let alone a liberal democratic one.  It obscures powerful contra-narratives created by conservatives out of their own understanding of American history, which have co-existed with those of liberals for decades. These are the narratives about personal freedom, limited government, and human imperfection that the Tea Party or other hard-Right conservatives are tapping into to attack the Obama Administration. These narratives include tacitly (or actively) racist and classist interpretations of American history and individualism, echoes of the Reagan-era critique of Cadillac-driving Welfare Queens. But these narratives are constructed not out of anxiety, but from the impressions and personal experiences that form the world views of everyone, no matter their politics.

The reason to dispense with Hofstadter "status anxiety" crutch is because it encourages progressives to see the Tea Party and their ilk as freaks. They are not a spectacle at the end of the American political boardwalk for the rest of us (who know so much better) to gawk at. If we read American history from outside the friendly confines of the Consensus School, we discover something very different indeed about progressive or liberal values -- that the belief in racial and gender equality, economic justice, an active government that intervenes on behalf of individual rights and the greater good, and a social safety net are the outlier ideas through much of our existence. In many ways, we are the freaks.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Does America Need to Commemorate 9/11?

On Saturday, college football coaches whose schools have shoe contracts with German-based Adidas will don specially-designed shirts and hats featuring the Stars and Stripes to commemorate the 9th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Notre Dame, not to be undone, will also sport special patriotic logos on the back of players' helmets as they take on Michigan and its star-spangled coaching staff. The Cincinnati Reds, meanwhile, will commemorate the anniversary with a Navy SEAL team demonstration -- but only after honoring the anniversary of Pete Rose's record-breaking 4,192nd hit.

The folks at a local Lubbock, Texas bank decided to tone down their usual 9/11 tribute this year and will plant only 1,000 American flags in a local field instead of the usual 3,000 - approximately one for every victim of the attacks. "We wanted to get away from the sadness of a memorial and make it sort of a field where you can come and remember our loved ones, police officers, firefighters, veterans," a bank employee explained.

So that's where we are nine years later. While the gesture of burning books draws all the attention, the more mundane, if not outright militaristic commemorations continue on. So, too, do the claims and counterclaims of politicizing the anniversary, or sullying its memory by not politicizing it in just the right way through the requisite spirit of detached reverence.

Like the public commemorations of the attacks on Pearl Harbor in the 40s and 50s, the nation is compelled to make some public acknowledgment of enormous human losses. 9/11 shares with Pearl Harbor Day the sense as well of simmering revenge. Because the attacks were perpetrated by foreigners, it is a moment to reflect on what they did to us. In this way, the historical memory of 9/11, just like Pearl Harbor, has become inherently political. They could do this to us because people in charge failed in some way -- either to fully appreciate the strategic ramifications of the American oil embargo on Japan, or to apprehend an international criminal syndicate on a suicide mission. They became inherently political also as a rallying cry to avoid similar calamity the next time, even in vastly different international contexts with different foreign players.

But loss and revenge do not a patriotic holiday make. I couldn't even tell you the date of the Battle of Antietam or the sinking of the Maine. We remember the Alamo as a John Wayne movie. And we no longer commemorate Pearl Harbor Day. In due time, September 11th may become just one more historical factoid morning TV show anchors mention before kicking it over to the weather guy.

I actually want that to happen. No important message about national community will come out of Rich Rodriguez wearing a red-white-and-blue shirt. It will simply acknowledge that people died and other people are fighting because of it. Perhaps it will go a step further and celebrate heroic American manhood in the form of firefighters, cops, and soldiers, and oblige fellow citizens only to offer their ill-defined "support" for such figures. But these kinds of gestures, far from the scenes of the smoldering wreckage of that Tuesday morning, merely enable those who pour their own political meaning onto the day and appropriate the site of the World Trade Towers as a perverse hallowed ground -- a site too valuable to leave free of commercial redevelopment it must be acknowledged, as Jack Shafer brilliantly does. Most of America should just let it go.

Letting go will be especially hard for the New York City area (where I grew up) and DC (where I live now). Hundreds of people in my native Morris County, New Jersey, died in the attacks, and many people in the DC area knew Pentagon victims personally - like my wife's old youth soccer coach. I'll never forget watching F-15's circle over my girlfriend's (now wife's) apartment in Arlington at low altitude weeks later, guarding Washington from further attack. Nor will I forget the different meaning the American flags seemed to have on the overpasses and in people's yards in New Jersey than in central Virginia, where I was living at the time. The Jersey flags seemed so much more personal. They said "we are the America you attacked -- the lovers of a vibrant, brash, and heterogeneous megalopolis. And we are still here. And in our sorrow, we will endure." Elsewhere, the flag seemed so much more jingoistic, a flag-by-Toby Keith, "Let's Roll" banner. Still, even in the cities that suffered anger persists and will persist. In heading to the ATM machine in Providence two August ago I was surprised by the sign "Closed for Victory Day" on the door. The state of Rhode Island, its proud maritime tradition leading so many of its young men to watery graves in World War II, still commemorated the defeat of the Japanese. It did so, however, not on the day Japan surrendered but on the anniversary of the obliteration of Nagasaki. Some grudges last a long time.

As I was researching the commemoration of Armistice Day in the 1920s and 30s for my book, something an American Legionnaire in Iowa wrote about the day having a complicated meaning for veterans struck me in this vein of thought. He mentioned that for the veteran, Armistice Day had two meanings -- a public celebration of victory, and a more somber, personal, and private reflection on the comrades lost. The two could not be reconciled in a way the public would understand, at least in the American context of World War I in comparison to say, France, or Germany or Great Britain, whose losses were astronomically higher. Those personally affected by 9/11, even those who are simply natives to the metropolises attacked, probably feel the same way. Their local-level commemorations have an important meaning to their communities. Their dead remain absent. But the rehashed patriotism of the rest of the country does little any more to foster national unity and simply enables the further politicization of the event --as veterans of the Great War were careful to do themselves annually on November 11th.