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.