Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Links-a-go-go: Palin and Democracy, Old White People v. Everybody Else

I need to bear down on book editing this week so my bloggy thoughts will consist mainly of a few grunts toward interesting things I've read. There's a coherence to be found somewhere in these meanderings.

Palin as Democracy's Antimatter 
Maybe Salon should go back to selling subscriptions. Blogger Ned Resnikoff writes that progressives (or, anyone with half a brain) should worry about a Sarah Palin 2012 nomination, not cheer for it. Because Saint Sarah will only excite (and certainly not refutiate) right-wing violence, a Palin presidential campaign is too dangerous for democracy to handle. Because:
democracy, after all, must be founded on broad consensus regarding certain social norms. That does not mean that there is no room for disagreement over policy and philosophy within that broad framework -- indeed, that is an obvious feature, not a bug, of representative democracy -- but that these disagreements, no matter how fervent and profound they may become, must take place between parties that share a mutual commitment to the liberal democratic system
 Ever heard of Barry Goldwater? The Southern wing of the Democratic Party? George Wallace?

If we're talking consensus on social norms as in not shooting people during elections, we've more or less had that under wraps since Reconstruction. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates is Awesome
Speaking of the search for consensus, or even reasonable conversation, here's some great writing on the subject re: race. Getting people just to listen is so damn hard.

Old White America v. Young Diverse America
Coates, in his awesomeness, links to a similarly awesome piece in the National Journal that describes the looming "cultural generation gap" rising between White, conservative Baby Boomers and the generation of Americans under 18 who are the most diverse in the nation's history. Citing terrific work being done at Brookings, Ron Brownstein writes about how the interests of young minority populations, now the majority of people under 18 in many states, are clashing with the political ideologies of Boomers raised in all-white suburbs.

As Brownstein points out, this clash is much bigger than race. It also involves the ways that the experience of growing up in the 1950s and 60s formed Boomers' political consciousness.

Speaking of Generational Insularity...
Look no further for the cultural generation gap than conservatives' recent reactions to mosques. Although it was approved by a planning board with only one dissenting vote, conservatives have taken aim at a mosque and cultural center that will be built two blocks from the World Trade Center cite. Palin's "refudiate" tweet, along with Newt Gingrich's similar criticism, were latecomers to the Islam-bashing bandwagon and a community center whose stated goal is to model the radical epicenter of hate, the 92nd Street Y. 

Over in Staten Island, the proposed sale of a former convent for construction of a mosque I blogged about previously was turned down by a Catholic board of trustees.

In Tennessee, Lt. Governor and gubernatorial candidate Ron Ramsey didn't stop at criticizing a proposed Muslim community center in Murfreesboro (which already has a mosque).  He called the world's second-largest religion a cult (go to the 3:10 mark).

In the buckle of the Bible Belt, it's a safe assumption that folks like Ramsey have never met a Muslim, let alone know anything about the tenets of the religion. [Having been to Murfreesboro, the nicest thing I can say about it is it has a Hardees.] That the same sentiment about Islam publicly thrives in cosmopolitan New York City, however, demonstrates that age and personal history can be just as isolating as geography.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Unemployment Benefits and the American Standard of Living

The debate about extending unemployment insurance benefits another time is coming to a head in Congress. So far, fiscal issues have driven the argument because Republicans have resisted on the grounds that unemployment benefits will add to the deficit. The battle over whether or not to offset the cost of benefits with other spending cuts or tax increases seems to be pretty economically one-sided, so Republicans have resorted to calling the unemployed lazy. Advantage: Democrats.

One thing I haven't seen in the debate, however, is an invocation of how this issue would have been framed a half-century ago. It may be useful for Democrats to revisit that era. A consensus emerged after World War II that there was such a thing as an "American standard of living," tied very closely ideologically and rhetorically to an "American way of life" that the nation had just fought to defend. It was government's role, liberals argued, to preserve that standard of living for all citizens. Pro-growth policies were part of that. But so was a social safety net, which ensured that in such an affluent society the unlucky didn't have to suffer unduly. It became part of your rights as a citizen not to lose everything during economic hard times, as was the case for so many during the Depression. Lifting people up to that American standard of living was the central ethos of the Great Society and the welfare system it expanded.

While that idea of government intervening to lift people out of poverty as part of the wages of their citizenship is a much tougher political sell now days, protecting their standard of living if they were gainfully employed and are no longer should not be. Perhaps resurrecting this old liberal language would be another way to hold the advocates of an "ownership society" to the fires of their own economic disaster.

Links-a-go-go: The Paranoid style found in a strange place; far-right worldview v. GOP street sense

Two links worth checking out from yesterday if you missed them that got me thinking:

Ross Douthat argued that working-class white kids from the flyover states not getting into Ivy League colleges breeds the kind of paranoia that fuels right-wing conspiracy theories about Obama's heritage, socialist takeovers, open borders, etc. 

He makes a pretty fair point that:
Among the highly educated and liberal, meanwhile, the lack of contact with rural, working-class America generates all sorts of wild anxieties about what’s being plotted in the heartland. In the Bush years, liberals fretted about a looming evangelical theocracy. In the age of the Tea Parties, they see crypto-Klansmen and budding Timothy McVeighs everywhere they look.
 But I would venture that there are plenty of highly-educated, elite conservatives (perhaps employed by the New York Times) who have little contact with those same rural, working-class volk resentful of being left off the East Coast meritocratic escalator. Taking up the cause -- a perfectly noble one, I agree -- of a couple of hundred kids shut out of Harvard or Princeton seems like an elaborate way to do what Douthat really wants to do, which is disavow the worldview of the right fringe of the conservative movement as a product of psychological reactions. Condescension is not exclusive intellectual property of liberals.

Over at the New Republic, Jonathan Chait provides a really interesting examination of the tension between the tactical and ideological parts of the GOP brain during this election cycle. It's a great question he's asking: why is the Republican Party choosing far-right candidates and making elections unwinnable rather than running garden-variety conservatives and cleaning Democrats' clocks. Maybe someday we'll get the definitive insider story of the battle between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party fringe - Chait's analysis should suffice for now.

One thing that stuck out to me in the context of my blog that he wrote: "Obviously the conservative movement is intoxicated with hubris right now. Part of this hubris is their belief that the American people are truly and deeply on their side and that the last two elections were either a fluke or the product of a GOP that was too centrist." Bingo. But isn't that hubris connected to a larger worldview about who the "American people" really are and what their historical destiny is? Since the primary system we have can exaggerate the influence of ideologically-driven groups, cracking the mind of the ideological radical seems the key to understanding GOP2010.  

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Utah Illegal Immigrant List -- Echoes of 1919

Vigilantism sometimes can arrive via a keyboard. A group in Utah called the Concerned Citizens of the United States sent a list of 1,300 names of suspected illegal immigrants to Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices and to Salt Lake City newspapers and TV stations. It demanded that the persons on the list be deported immediately. Because the list also included personal information like addresses, phone numbers, and women's pregnancies media outlets have refused the group's request to publish the list.

Concerned Citizens of the United States has offered little to identify itself beyond the anonymous cover letter that accompanied the list. In the letter, its members assert that they not a militia, a cult, or a terrorist organization. "We are not violent nor do we support violence. We love our country. We love our state. We love our government. We love our Constitution." They decry, meanwhile, the "degradation of our country and our state caused in part by the continuing presence of illegal aliens who are allowed to stay in our country."

Part of the degradation Concerned Citizens of the United States cites is the perceived rise in crime, alcoholism, and drug abuse for which it holds illegal immigrants responsible. More forcefully, though, it decries the fact that illegal immigrants have come exclusively to "take advantage of our system" and sop up welfare benefits, free public education, and of course jobs.

In so doing, Concerned Citizens demonstrates the vigilante imagination. With the state unwilling or incapable to enforce law, they have taken it upon themselves to do so. They envision themselves as the bulwarks of law and order. Meanwhile, their targets become something other than desperate people taking a risk for a better life: rather they are a criminal conspiracy made up entirely of individuals intent on gaming the system. Everyone on the list is guilty not only of an illegal border crossing but a particular frame of mind. And that frame of mind makes them unassimilable.

Similar lists were complied after World War I of "alien slackers," or those immigrants who had supposedly took unfair advantage American conscription and naturalization laws to avoid military service. Alien slackers drew the ire of similar vigilante groups because they, too, had gamed the system -- filing naturalization papers in order to remain in the country to work but not filing for the draft to remain on the job. Self-appointed native-born patriots like the American Legion collected lists of alien slackers and sent them to local newspapers, so that employers would feel compelled to promptly fire the men named. In the economic downturn that followed World War I, the jobs that alien slackers supposedly occupied were precious. Unlike today, these lists were published, either by newspapers or by organizations themselves.

Just as Concerned Citizens of the United States didn't feel compelled to compile a list of native-born citizens of Utah guilty of tax evasion, those publicizing alien slackers did not reveal the names of American-born draft dodgers (who, some historians now estimate, represented about one in ten eligible men). And, of course, the accuracy of either list is suspect.
I raise this historical parallel not simply to say "same as it ever was," but because it's striking how consistent the vigilante imagination remains, even after vigilantism itself has fallen well out of favor. This narrative that claims that "we" the pure must defend a weak or incompetent state from "them," the inherently criminal is among the most insidious ideas in American political culture. It is so not simply because it calls for the deportation of those guilty of breaking American immigration law (and surely the list contains at least some of those), but because it destroys a capacity to perceive immigration through the context and contingencies of millions of individual lives. 

Monday, July 12, 2010

"One Nation" or, Why the Right can Unify and the Left Cannot

Spooked by the Tea Party, a coalition of progressive, labor, and civil rights groups have founded their own umbrella organization called "One Nation," as the Washington Post reported today. The coalition is designed to unite the disparate agendas of the Left for the midterm election battle and to hold the Obama Administration to its progressive campaign promises.

Apparently, even coming up with a name like "One Nation" took some heavy lifting. It gives just a subtle whiff of a national rallying cry -- and, unfortunately, echoes unintentionally the name of a right-wing nationalist party in Australia. The challenge of uniting the American Left around an activist or electoral agenda has a history as deep as the emergence of the labor movement in the late 19th century. The United States has no labor party for a reason. The periodic assembling of the armies of reform has a similar history -- pick your favorite Progressive Party, for instance.

Putting aside the potential for success or failure of this latest round of coalition building, the explicitly antipodal nature of the One Nation effort in response to the Tea Party demonstrates some interesting differences in the political imaginations of the left and right. One of the most striking things about the Tea Party is its invocation of representing "the people." What holds it together is less an ideology (at least one that can be broken down into bullet points) than a feeling of community. The "We" is less about people interested only in gun rights, or taxes, or immigration but in restoring the political primacy of a particular kind of American -- suburban or rural, middle or lower-middle class, white, non-mainline Protestant.

Americans on the Left find their community in a more fractured. They gather around particular issues with similarly impassioned activists. Environmentalists or free speech advocates or those looking to Save Darfur may all think and act the same way in the election booth, but they are not good at thinking collectively as a "we." I found this to be true even on the local level of left-of-center politics during my graduate student days. We were trying to organize a response of students to the Daisy Lundy hate crime incident and the usual cast of characters assembled to talk strategy. The kid from the Living Wage campaign insisted that his cause was fundamental to racial harmony and should be made a priority of the response. We tried not to slap our hands to our foreheads.

Why the modern Left is so bad at claiming it speaks for the best interests of the nation, or that its political tradition represents the best of American democracy is a question too big for a Monday morning blog post. It would rather invite people to its cause to defend the specificity of their needs and wants (good wages, equal opportunity, gender equality) than to be heard as the "real" America or as "the people." Meanwhile, the Right drifts from the specific to the general and generates if not grassroots energy than at least disproportionate media attention. We don't need to start a Talmudic study of the 14th Amendment or the Civil Rights Act to counterbalance the Tea Party's nationalistic embrace of the Constitution. But, as the Obama campaign so grandly demonstrated (and the Hillary campaign did not), something more evocative would help.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Blog news

A variety of events kept me away from blogging two weeks ago and this past week I just wasn't feeling the writing mojo, so forgive the long hiatus. Fresh content is coming up shortly.

I've also asked my friend and fellow historian Chris Loomis to join me in writing the blog. Chris and I share an interest in the history of citizenship and civic engagement but he comes at it from a focus on media, so he'll provide a fresh perspective. He'll also provide damn good writing, which is the more important thing. I'll leave it to him to introduce himself further.