This is a collection of my favorite writing about the fundamentals of American politics from around the web; expanding it slowly has been an ongoing project. All of these articles have contributed significantly to my own thinking about how American politics works. Many of them are long, but every one of them has my highest recommendation as a good use of your time.
Note that the quotes I provide here represent more an effort to entice readers to read the whole thing than attempts to deliver the essence of each piece.
I've broken this collection into a few rough sections:
- American political incoherence
- American political media
- The two tribes of American politics
- American conservatism
- More vocabulary from Left Blogistan
- More classics
American political incoherence
It's difficult for politically-engaged people like me to remember that most Americans — even most American voters — don't really have a coherent political philosophy.
even in the heyday of modern liberalism, the 1960s, most Americans agreed with broad statements of conservative principles. At the same time, however, when it came to specific programs addressing societal needs and problems, programs such as Medicare and federal aid to education, Free and Cantril found that large majorities of Americans generally supported activist government.comment on resistance to Obamacare.)
In many ways, the results of the Gallup News Service Governance Poll were strikingly similar to the findings that Free and Cantril reported back in the 1960s. On matters of principle, Americans in 2010 leaned strongly to the conservative side.
Until you examine some of the other results of the same survey — the ones involving government responsibility for addressing specific societal needs and problems.
And it is perhaps even more surprising that 67 percent felt that government should have major or total responsibility for “preventing discrimination,” that 57 percent felt that government should have major or total responsibility for “making sure all Americans have adequate healthcare,” that 52 percent felt that government should have major or total responsibility for “making sure all who want jobs have them,” or that 45 percent felt that government should have major or total responsibility for “providing a minimum standard of living for all Americans” (versus only 33 percent who felt that government should have little or no responsibility in this area).
Almost everyone in Fishtown claimed to be a conservative, and expressed scathing contempt for liberals. So what were some of their conservative ideas? .... nationalizing the oil companies ... government sponsored health care, a higher minimum wage ... massive investments in public transportation ... cleaning up the air pollution — all kinds of radical right wing ideas.
What's going on? I confess I have left out the most important issue that the good people of Fishtown were worried about. In their own words, it was the niggers. They were all on welfare, and they were taking all the jobs. (That's right, I often got that in consecutive sentences. And by the way, I would estimate that 1/4 of the households in Fishtown consisted of single mothers on welfare, or disability pensioners.)
As far as I could tell, the problem wasn't the word “issue”; it was a fundamental lack of understanding of what constituted the broad category of the “political.” The undecideds I spoke to didn't seem to have any intuitive grasp of what kinds of grievances qualify as political grievances. Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief — not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.
In truth, polls may be radically overestimating Americans’ knowledge. Respondents are known to offer strong feelings for policies that do not actually exist. To test the extremes of this fact in the most disturbing/hilarious possible fashion, I conducted a national poll to see how Americans thought about military intervention in an imaginary country.
Instead, what we see in the U.S. is three things: first, the lack of direct experience of domestic warfare that allows for an unchecked militarism untempered by the sobering experiences of Europe and Asia.
Second, the moneyed corruption of a winner-take-all system without publicly funded elections that creates economically conservative laws in spite of a fundamentally progressive populous. Americans want a stronger safety net and higher taxes on the wealthy. That we don't get them is more a product of the corruption of government than of our relative conservatism as a people.
But the biggest problem is the most controversial one, and I'm sure I'll get a lot of flack for saying it. We have a racism problem in this country ....
American political media
Our press isn't liberal or conservative. In truth, it has a weird political outlook all its own.
These form the real ideology of our political press. But we have to study them to understand them well.
- The Church of the Savvy
- The Quest for Innocence
- The View from Nowhere
- Regression to a Phony Mean
- He Said, She Said
- The Sphere of Deviance
We normally think of “High Broderism” as the worship of bipartisanship for its own sake, combined with a fake “pox on both their houses” attitude. But in reality this is just the cover Broder uses for his real agenda, the defense of what he perceives to be “the establishment” at all costs. The establishment is the permanent ruling class of Washington, our betters who know better. It is their rough agenda which is sold as “centrism” even when it has no actual relationship with the political center in a meaningful way. Democracy's messy, in Broder's world, and passionate voters are problematic.
Hullaballoo (my favorite political blog) coined the term “The Village” to describe the news media's brand of elitism. (If you want to follow her dead link to the Aravosis article she mentions, I have it captured by the Internet Archive.)
These elite pundits practice their own sort of intransigent ideology. They insist in every possible instance that The Problem Is Both Sides and that whatever the right answer is, it’s clearly at the midpoint between Both Sides. And they assume that the terms “moderate” and “independent,” so beloved as self-descriptions, correspond exactly with their preferences in both policy and style. Like the proverbial fish who doesn’t know he’s wet, they push deficit-reducing grand bargains that cut the social safety net as though it’s just common sense, not a choice based on political belief. It’s advocacy journalism that imagines itself objective.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, social safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare are really popular and really important to keep people out of poverty. Cutting or privatizing these programs is a fringe position pushed by the kind of “unrepresentative groups” with “disproportionate power” that Brooks pretends to dislike — including Third Way.
It's shorthand for the permanent DC ruling class who have managed to convince themselves that they are simple, puritanical, bourgeois burghers and farmers, even though they are actually celebrity millionaires influencing the most powerful government on earth.
It's about their phoniness, their pretense of speaking for “average Americans” when it's clear they haven't the vaguest clue even about the average Americans who work in their local Starbucks or drive their cabs.
Like many a political observer, until I read this, I thought of DC as being more like a European Court filled with jesters and courtiers and grey eminences advising in the shadows. But Versailles could never be this hypocritically provincial — and proud of it. DC is America, through and through — America, ca. 1690. The Reverend Broder sentences the heretics to the stake while Sally Goodwyfe runs around screaming “burn them, burn them!”
The larger message of This Town is the sad-eyed truth that, ultimately, everyone sells out. The money quote for Leibovich is former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s honest explanation, “Washington is where the money is. That’s generally what keeps people here.” That comment meshes with my favorite aphorism about dewy-eyed young aides “coming to Washington to do good and staying to do well.”Rotten Elites and Matt Bai's New York Times Magazine story How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics.
At the time, I remember thinking this:
- How interesting that the DC press corps knows grimy details about lots of politicians but only chooses to tell the great unwashed when they decide it's appropriate.
- How interesting that the DC press corps feels it's their place to make decisions for the rest of America; i.e., rather than laying out the evidence that Hart was weird, flaky, etc., and letting Americans decide whether they cared, they decided run-of-the-mill citizens couldn't be trusted to make the correct evaluation.
- How interesting that Cohen felt it was appropriate to tell all this to a small group of fresh-faced, ambitious, grotty Yale youths, but not to the outside world. And how interesting that we were being socialized into thinking this was normal.
If the parties fail to agree because one party is being unreasonable and the other party is failing to cater to their unreasonable demands, then the apparently reasonable party is in fact failing to be serious. After all, a serious proposal is one that stands a chance of passing. Reasonable proposals will not pass a Congress in which one party is being unreasonable, so by definition the Principle of Seriousness allocates the blame equally to both sides.
The essence of the false-equivalence mindset is the reflexive assumption that “reality” is halfway between whatever two contending sides assert. Maybe that reflects early immersion in the Goldilocks saga. (“This one is too big. That one is too small. This one is just right!”) Maybe it's a holdover from the age of Walter Cronkite. Perhaps it's the D.C. worthy-person's mantra, familiar from conferences and talk shows, that “partisans on both sides” are the main threat to progress. Whatever. We see it all around us now.
The Two American Tribes
Between looking into history and looking at recent events, I have become a perennialist about the split in American culture. Most Americans' thinking about politics is muddled, yes, but it springs from two great cultural wells with profoundly different ideas about the American project, what society should mean, and how our politics should work. This is not a new division but one that goes back to the beginning.
The parties act differently because they are different
- There are more conservatives than liberals but more Democrats than Republicans
- Republicans prefer purity, Democrats prefer compromise
- Democrats are under more pressure from interest groups to pass policy
- Policymaking has a liberal bias
For me, one of the most poignant effects of the ignorance of metaphorical thought is the mystification of liberals concerning the recent electoral successes of conservatives. Conservatives regularly chide liberals for not understanding them, and they are right. Liberals don't understand how anti-abortion “right-to-life” activists can favor the death penalty and oppose reducing infant morality through prenatal care programs. They don't understand why budget-cutting conservatives should spare no public expense to build prison after prison to house even non-violent offenders, or why they are willing to spend extra money to take children away from their mothers and put them in orphanages — in the name of family values. They don't understand why conservatives attack violence in the media while promoting the right to own machine guns. Liberals tend not to understand the logic of conservatism; they don't understand what form of morality makes conservative positions moral or what conservative family values have to do with the rest of conservative politics. The reason at bottom is that liberals do not understand the form of metaphorical thought that unifies and makes sense of the full range of conservative values.
Ault’s insights about fundamentalist families give a clue as to where Lakoff went wrong. The right distinction isn’t between the conservative nuclear family and the liberal nuclear family, but between two completely different ways of experiencing family. Those two modes of experience may express themselves in families that are not nuclear at all.
The key distinction in Ault’s account is not strictness vs. nurturance, but the Given vs. the Chosen. What, in other words, is the source of your responsibilities to other people? Are you born with obligations? Or do you choose to make commitments? As with strictness and nurturance, every actual person experiences some combination of obligation and commitment. But emphasizing one or the other makes a striking difference.
When you’re expecting a compassionate response and don’t get it, it’s tempting to write people off as selfish or hard-hearted. But many of them aren’t. Some people who look at the world this way are quite generous. They give money away. They put themselves out for others. They volunteer. But the model they put on this behavior isn’t justice, it’s charity. Justice, to them, would mean keeping what is theirs. Giving it away is charity.
ultimately the difference between the right and the left is this; the right thinks you get more out of people by treating them badly, the left thinks you get more out of people by treating them well.TED talk on this is also wonderfully clarifying.
In several large internet surveys, my collaborators Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and I have found that people who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, and they largely reject statements related to ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. People who call themselves strongly conservative, in contrast, endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally.
For conservatives, a just society ensures that people who are moral and responsible prosper, while people who are immoral and irresponsible do not prosper, suffering consequences for their actions. A good social order delivers rewards for virtue and punishments for vice.
For liberals, a just society provides for people's needs and allows personal freedom, and this depends upon equity. Liberal conceptions of personal freedom include both negative liberty (freedom from constraints) and positive liberty (resources which enable one to act). A good social order is one in which everyone is free and equal.
On opposite sides in the English civil war, and then in the US civil war, the Yankees and Cavaliers have always been on opposite sides in US politics. For generations, the moralism of Protestants in New England, such as Cotton Mather and John Adams, has clashed with the worldly honour code of renaissance country gentlemen in the south, such as Thomas Jefferson and Robert E Lee. In New England, the politics of reform was organised around the town meeting; in the coastal south, the politics of deference and patronage was based on the courthouse gang. “Good government” is a New England idea. So is the idea of American exceptionalism, of an American mission to set an example to the world, or to save it. The ancestors of the New England Yankees emigrated to the American colonies in order to found a perfect Calvinist commonwealth. By contrast, the ancestors of the southern elite emigrated to the colonies in order to get rich quick by lording it over Indians, blacks, and poor whites. For New England, the US is — or should be — a New Jerusalem. For the south, the US is simply the successor to the British empire. The southern oligarchs, like their cousins who once ran imperial Britain, think in terms of profit, not providence.
When a Southern conservative talks about “losing his liberty,” the loss of this absolute domination over the people and property under his control — and, worse, the loss of status and the resulting risk of being held accountable for laws that he was once exempt from — is what he's really talking about. In this view, freedom is a zero-sum game. Anything that gives more freedom and rights to lower-status people can't help but put serious limits on the freedom of the upper classes to use those people as they please. It cannot be any other way. So they find Yankee-style rights expansions absolutely intolerable, to the point where they're willing to fight and die to preserve their divine right to rule.
Once we understand the two different definitions of “liberty” at work here, a lot of other things suddenly make much more sense.
It's true that those who say that the 1960s presented a very specific, unique challenge to the aristocrats who reacted with new tools and coordination against what they saw as a serious political and cultural threat. But nonetheless I still see this as a continuation of the battle that has raged in our country since its inception, a battle between the two warring American tribes. Those two tribes originally broke down on geographical lines, North vs. South, but have since evolved into something much more complex, beyond just class or region or race, although it has elements of all three. Underlying all the “issues” of any given era is the notion of moral righteousness and inferiority, ressentiment, that stemmed from the original sin of slavery and created two American “tribes” which operate reflexively under certain recurring impulses.these and the third one of Spain must have been much like this.)
But this phenomenon can't simply be explained today as North vs. South or the liberal elite vs "heartland values" or whatever it's called this week. This is a battle between two American tribes, defined by human themes of resentment, morality, wealth, class, power, race and family. It is not specific to any particular issue or even any region anymore (even if its political boundaries might fit more or less within the original lines) and history suggests that it's unlikely there will ever be a final reconciliation through politics. Even a bloody civil war couldn't settle our differences. It's hard to believe that something as pedestrian as electoral politics could do it.
reading of Hamilton compared with Jefferson with interesting similarities and differences, Billmon comments inspired by that, but Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns & Money calls the discussion silly.)
If I had to boil our modern kulturkampf down to two words, they wouldn't be blue and red, they would be “traditionalist” and “modern.” On one side are the believers in the old ways — patriarchy, hierarchy, faith, a reflexive nationalism, and a puritanical, if usually hypocritical, attitude towards sexual morality. On the other are the rootless cosmopolitians — secular, skeptical (although at times susceptible to New Age mythology) libertine (although some of us aren't nearly as libertine as we'd like to be) and less willing to equate patriotism with blind allegiance, either to a flag or a government.
.... the modern American political dialectic is superimposed on older but still extant divisions: geographic (North and South), religious (Catholic and Protestant), ethnic (WASPs and everybody else) and of course class (with the great divide in American politics usually falling between the middle class and the poor.)
These geological layers of conflict — some still active, others now almost dormant) vastly complicate the political landscape and create major headaches for partisans on the opposing sides ....
The problem is not so much that there are two Americas, but that each of them — particularly “red” America — believes they constitute the only true America. Thus all the talk on both sides about “taking back the country” ....
Simply put, Hamilton was a proto-capitalist New York banker who wanted to see the country embrace a commercial model. His vision would require a strong central government to invest in infrastructure and regulation.
Jefferson was a Southern plantation owner who wanted a republic of small landholders where each was practically sovereign on his own property. His model required almost no central government. It was simple and in the beginning it was dominant, especially in the South.
At the current time, among the nation in which I live, there are three distinct political theories in competition for the minds and souls of the next generation.
Each theory is based on a distinct view of the character of the nation and of mankind; each theory identifies a different discontent with civilization in general or our current laws and customs in particular. That is, the reason why there are three theories is because there are three general opinions as to the main danger facing mankind in general and the nation in particular.
Those who value civilization are called conservatives. For them the enemy is barbarism.
Those who value equality are called liberals. For them the enemy is exploitation, that is, the abuse of the free market by the rich or by the many to oppress the poor or the few.
Those who value liberty are called libertarians. For them the enemy is slavery, that is, the abuse of the authority of the sovereign to oppress the citizen.
The reason why political discussions between partisans of these theories are so often futile is that their goals are unrelated to each other, and the fears of one seem highly theoretical, if not ridiculous, to the other.
So, what kind of thing is liberalism? You can treat it as an ethical creed, an economic picture of society, a philosophy of politics, a capitalist rationale, a provincial Western outlook, a passing historical phase, or a timeless body of universal ideals. None of that is strictly wrong – but all of it is partial.
At its broadest, liberalism is about improving people’s lives while treating them alike and shielding them from undue power. Four ideas in particular seem to have guided liberals through their history.
The first is that the clash of interests and beliefs in society is inescapable.
Secondly, human power is not to be trusted.
Liberals also hold that, contrary to traditional wisdom, human life can improve.
Finally, the framework of public life has to show everyone civic respect, whatever they believe and whoever they are.
The Nature of American Conservatism
My own intellectual and political reflexes reflect such a deep-seated American progressivism that I have devoted significant energy in recent years to trying to understand what drives American conservative thinking.
movement conservatism Before The Storm and Nixonland writes in Rolling Stone about how the American hard right we see in the form of the Tea Party today is far from a new phenomenon, and should be understood as the latest manifestation of a school of American thought that goes a long way back.
City councilwoman Jan Martin says she hears this all the time. That it's become a matter of faith in the city that private is better. And she tells us a story. In the dark days, after the tax measure was defeated, city council was having another meeting about slashing government.
Jan Martin: And a gentleman came up to me and actually thanked me for the adopt a street light program. He had just written a check to the city for $300 to turn all the street lights back on in his neighborhood. And I did remind him that for $200 if he had supported the tax initiative, we could have had not only streetlights, but parks and firemen and swimming pools and community centers. That by combining our resources, we as a community can actually accomplish more than we as individuals.
Robert Smith: And he said?
Jan Martin: He said he would never support a tax increase.
But are right-wingers scarier now than in the past? They certainly seem stranger and fiercer. I'd argue, however, that they’ve been this crazy for a long time. Over the last sixty years or so, I see far more continuities than discontinuities in what the rightward twenty or thirty percent of Americans believe about the world. The crazy things they believed and wanted were obscured by their lack of power, but they were always there — if you knew where to look. What's changed is that loony conservatives are now the Republican mainstream, the dominant force in the GOP.
Over fifteen years of studying the American right professionally — especially in their communications with each other, in their own memos and media since the 1950s — I have yet to find a truly novel development, a real innovation, in far-right “thought.”
It’s time, in other words, to consider whether Romney’s fluidity with the truth is, in fact, a feature and not a bug: a constituent part of his appeal to conservatives. The point here is not just that he lies when he says conservative things, even if he believes something different in his heart of hearts—but that lying is what makes you sound the way a conservative is supposed to sound ....
I think the evidence show that the conservative movement was bound for corruption from the get-go. The modern Republicans, from their earliest incarnation in the 60's, starting with still active operatives like Morton Blackwell and Karl Rove to the next generation of Abramoff, Norquist and Reed, have always operated as dirty tricksters, and corrupt power brokers. The modern Republican Party is not, and never has been, the party of Ronald Reagan, not really. It's the party of Richard Nixon.
They have come to represent the three most important wings of the modern conservative movement --- the Christian Right (Reed), the movement ideologues (Norquist) and the big money boys (Abramoff.) They are the Republican party. And they are all corrupt.
Off with their heads! Eric Cantor, the Tea Party guillotine, and the certainty of conservative sell-outThomas Frank at Salon makes an observation about a tension which drives conservative politics.
The clash of idealism and sellout are how conservatives always perceive their movement, and what happened to Eric Cantor is a slightly more spectacular version of what often happens to GOP brass. That right-wing leaders are seduced by Washington D.C., and that they will inevitably betray the market-minded rank-and-file, are fixed ideas in the Republican mind, certainties as definite as are its convictions that tax cuts will cure any economic problem and that liberals are soft on whoever the national enemy happens to be.
And so the movement advances along its rightward course not directly but by a looping cycle of sincerity and sellout in which the radicals of yesterday always turn out to be the turncoats of today; off to the guillotine they are sent as some new and always more righteous generation rises up in their place.
That first principle is the matter of procedure versus norms. As I wrote in a 2003 review of Eric Alterman's book What Liberal Media?We Americans love to cite the “political spectrum” as the best way to classify ideologies. The metaphor is incorrect: it implies symmetry. But left and right today are not opposites. They are different species. It has to do with core principles. To put it abstractly, the right always has in mind a prescriptive vision of its ideal future world—a normative vision. Unlike the left (at least since Karl Marx neglected to include an actual description of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” within the 2,500 pages of Das Kapital), conservatives have always known what the world would look like after their revolution: hearth, home, church, a businessman’s republic. The dominant strain of the American left, on the other hand, certainly since the decline of the socialist left, fetishizes fairness, openness, and diversity. (Liberals have no problem with home, hearth, and church in themselves; they just see them as one viable life-style option among many.) If the stakes for liberals are fair procedures, the stakes for conservatives are last things: either humanity trends toward Grace, or it hurtles toward Armageddon.
A very important point. It has to do, too, with the almost opposite definitions liberals and conservatives affix to the word “principle.” For liberals, generally speaking, honoring procedures—means—is the core of what being “principled” means. For conservatives, fighting for the right outcome—ends—even at the expense of procedural nicety, is what being “principled” means.....
In short, if you're a conservative, isn't the point of an election to win, so you can bend the world to your will, no matter the means it takes to get there? Even if you don't necessarily have the majority's support?
Conservatives believe in individual responsibility alone, not social responsibility. They don't think government should help its citizens. That is, they don't think citizens should help each other. The part of government they want to cut is not the military (we have 174 bases around the world), not government subsidies to corporations, not the aspect of government that fits their worldview. They want to cut the part that helps people. Why? Because that violates individual responsibility.
Freedom is defined as being your own strict father — with individual not social responsibility, and without any government authority telling you what you can and cannot do. To defend that freedom as an individual, you will of course need a gun.
Liberals in the United States have been losing political debates to conservatives for a quarter century. In order to start winning again, liberals must answer two simple questions: what is conservatism, and what is wrong with it? As it happens, the answers to these questions are also simple:Q: What is conservatism?These ideas are not new. Indeed they were common sense until recently. Nowadays, though, most of the people who call themselves “conservatives” have little notion of what conservatism even is. They have been deceived by one of the great public relations campaigns of human history. Only by analyzing this deception will it become possible to revive democracy in the United States.
A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.
Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.
This is supposed to sound sober and sensible. If cultural conditions are functions of economics, you can’t change the culture without altering the economics. So conservatives must keep up the titanic, colossal, epic, probably cosmically doomed and tragic economic struggle to keep government small … so people will not dress funny or wear their hair in hairy ways? Sort of wimpy, as ragnaroks go. Notable disproportion here between means and the wished-for end. Even if you are the sort of person who feels deeply offended by funny, ethnic clothes (we're off the deep end) – even if you think it is anything like your business to dictate fashion sense to everyone around you (we're so off the deep end) – how could you possibly think it was so important as all that? And yet immediately we are off and running about after the bourgeois virtues, all dying out: thrift, diligence, prudence, sobriety, fidelity, and orderliness. I won’t bother to quote. Why can I not exhibit all these virtues beneath and/or behind a beard, kente cloth and/or keffiyeh? Frum seems to find it too obvious to bear arguing that the trick is impossible. (Yet he can’t actually think that.) Does Frum seriously believe there are no shrewd, sober businessmen in those parts of the world where businessmen wear beards and keffiyehs and kente cloths? (Obviously he doesn’t. That’s crazy.) So what does he think? I think he just has a powerful feeling that: things ought to be a certain way. And if they are that way, everything will be all right.Dead Right, almost as instructive as the original.
He's a seething mass of potent preferences and aversions, which are after all merely customary observances: some reasonable, most groundless and arbitrary or outdated. But it is intolerable to him to check and see which are which, because he is powerfully attached to the whole set – even the teeny, tiny aesthetic ones. (Cut your hair, damn hippies!) Yet it is necessary for Frum to produce reasons, because he is also powerfully determined others should share his preferences. And he is averse to authoritarianism. He does not wish to impose his mere private preferences tyrannically. As Dostoyevsky's Underground Man puts it: all should be compelled to bow down before me voluntarily. This entails tortuous, self-deceptive mental gynmastics.
The core idea is most clearly expressed by Rush Limbaugh:We really live, folks, in two worlds. There are two worlds. We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap. …
The Four Corners of Deceit: Government, academia, science, and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That’s how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.
The right’s project over the last 30 years has been to dismantle the post-war liberal consensus by undermining trust in society’s leading institutions. Experts are made elites; their presumption of expertise becomes self-damning. They think they’re better than you. They talk down to you. They don’t respect people like us, real Americans.
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites .... “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
Those words soon became legend—quoted in both screeds (The GOP-Haters Handbook, 2007) and scholarship (Corey Robin's 2011 classic work of political theory, The Reactionary Mind). Google Books records its use in ten books published so far this year alone. Curious about the remarks' context, Carter, who learned Lamis had died in 2012, asked his widow if she would consider releasing the audio of the interview, especially in light of the use of race-baiting dog-whistles (lies about Obama ending work requirements for welfare; “jokes” about his supposed Kenyan provenance) in the Romney presidential campaign. Renée Lamis, an Obama donor, agreed that very same night. For one thing she was “upset,” Carter told me, that “for some time, conservatives believed [her] husband made up the Atwater interview.” For another, she was eager to illustrate that her husband's use of the Atwater quote was scholarly, not political.
So what does the new contextual wrapping teach us? It vindicates Lamis, who indeed comes off as careful and scholarly. And no surprise, it shows Atwater acting yet again in bad faith.
Thinking Like A ConservativePerlstein unpacks the underlying logic of key elements of conservative rhetoric in this series of posts at The Nation.
- mass shootings and gun control
- biding time on voting rights
- shutting down government
- goalpost moving
- epistemology and empathy
- government dependency
Allow me to remove this rhetorical club I keep in a sheath alongside my waist and beat some of my liberal friends with it, because I’m getting frustrated, frustrated, frustrated, and I can’t hardly take it no more. Despite a continuous flow of examples to the contrary this spring, summer and, now, autumn, our side keeps on wishfully, willfully and rather ignorantly denying the plain evidence in front of their faces about how conservative politics works. Namely, I keep seeing predictions that this, that or the other signal from polls or the political establishment or a traumatized public will “finally” “break the spell” of right-wing extremism on a certain issue, or even on all issues—and then we see that prediction spectacularly fail.
We can’t keep on going this way, my friend. You have to finally come to terms with how conservatism works. Now, that guy in the White House, Obama—I’ve given up hope that he’ll ever get it. I still have faith in you, though. Stop judging conservative by the logic of “normal” politics, or by the epistemology of the world as you, a liberal, understand it. Or as Poli Sci 101 understands it. Every time you do that, you denude us of strength for the fight. Grasp the right on its own terms. Stop trying to make it make sense on your own.
How did so many seminaries and so many preachers and so many authors get converted to this false gospel? What deal did they make with Satan himself, and why? What did they think that they were doing? These aren't rhetorical questions. I've met one of the people who “signed” that deal and helped enforce it. He was quite proud of his achievement, and years later told many of us about the meeting where that decision was made. It is only recently that I came to understand just who the other side in that deal really was, as opposed to who the fundamentalists in that room thought they were dealing with.
One of the most durable myths in recent history is that the religious right, the coalition of conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, emerged as a political movement in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion.
But the abortion myth quickly collapses under historical scrutiny. In fact, it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools. So much for the new abolitionism.
Indeed, this has been a problem since the dawn of the republic. And it isn't a problem that will be solved by the Red States gaining and maintaining power. They have held power many times throughout our history and they were still filled with resentment toward “the north” (now “the liberal elites.”) And, it won't be solved by adopting different stances on “moral issues,” or telling the current Democratic southern constituencies to suck it up. Maybe it's time we looked a little bit deeper and realized that this tribal problem isn't going to be solved by politics at all.
The “liberal elites” will no doubt be making more compromises in the direction of heartland values for pragmatic reasons. But, judging by history, it won't change a thing. Neither will Republican political dominance.
Wherever resentment resides in the human character it can find a home in the Republican Party. This anger and frustration stems from a long nurtured sense of cultural besiegement, which they are finding can never be dealt with through the attainment of power alone. They seek approval.
The question recurs, what will satisfy them? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.
These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly — done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated - we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas' new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.
Orcinus and other work covers the far right in America, lays out a description of what fascism is, how it works, and what it does and does not have to do with American conservatism in a very long essay built around the central figure of Rush Limbaugh. It's long, so you may want the PDF.
If the Napoleonic Wars were your model, then it was obvious that the Confederacy lost in 1865: Its capital fell, its commander surrendered, its president was jailed, and its territories were occupied by the opposing army. If that’s not defeat, what is?
But now we have a better model than Napoleon: Iraq.
After the U.S. forces won on the battlefield in 1865 and shattered the organized Confederate military, the veterans of that shattered army formed a terrorist insurgency that carried on a campaign of fire and assassination throughout the South until President Hayes agreed to withdraw the occupying U. S. troops in 1877. Before and after 1877, the insurgents used lynchings and occasional pitched battles to terrorize those portions of the electorate still loyal to the United States. In this way they took charge of the machinery of state government, and then rewrote the state constitutions to reverse the postwar changes and restore the supremacy of the class that led the Confederate states into war in the first place.
So Lincoln and Grant may have had their mission-accomplished moment, but ultimately the Confederates won. The real Civil War — the one that stretched from 1861 to 1877 — was the first war the United States lost.
Rush Limbaugh likes to call himself “the most dangerous man in America.” He offers this epithet tongue in cheek on his radio program, but the truth is, he isn't kidding. Over the decade and more that Limbaugh has ruled America's talk-radio landscape, it has become inescapably clear that he is, if nothing else, certainly the most dangerous demagogue in America, maybe in history.
One of the problems with the easy bandying of the term “fascist” nowadays is that, by being loosely attached to figures who are only conservative — including people like Rush Limbaugh and George W. Bush — it obscures the actual mechanism by which genuine fascism manifests itself. It also lends itself to a hysterical assessment when clarity and focus are what's really needed.
The line between right-wing extremists and “the conservative movement” has been increasingly blurred in the past 10 years. The distance between them now has grown so short in some cases as to render them nearly indistinguishable.
This, in addition to sloppy thinking, is why some on the left will offhandedly label Rush Limbaugh or George W. Bush “fascists.” I'm here to explain why, despite all appearances, they aren't. Yet. And how we'll know when they are.
Movement conservatives are getting ready to write the history of this era as liberalism once again failing the people. Typically, the conservatives were screwed, as they always are. They must regroup and fight for conservatism, real conservatism, once again. Viva la revolucion!
There is no such thing as a bad conservative. “Conservative” is a magic word that applies to those who are in other conservatives’ good graces. Until they aren't. At which point they are liberals.
Get used to the hearing about how the Republicans failed because they weren't true conservatives. Conservatism can never fail. It can only be failed by weak-minded souls who refuse to properly follow its tenets. It's a lot like communism that way.
Historically, the conservative has sought to forestall the march of democracy in both the public and the private spheres, on the assumption that advances in the one necessarily spur advances in the other. Still, the more profound and prophetic stance on the right has been to cede the field of the public, if he must, but stand fast in the private. Allow men and women to become democratic citizens of the state; make sure they remain feudal subjects in the family, the factory, and the field.
No simple defense of one's own place and privileges, the conservative position stems from a genuine conviction that a world thus emancipated will be ugly, brutish, and dull. It will lack the excellence of a world where the better man commands the worse. This vision of the connection between excellence and rule is what brings together in postwar America that unlikely alliance of the capitalist, with his vision of the employer's untrammeled power in the workplace; the traditionalist, with his vision of the father's rule at home; and the statist, with his vision of a heroic leader pressing his hand upon the face of the earth. Each in his way subscribes to this statement, from the 19th century, of the conservative creed: “To obey a real superior ... is one of the most important of all virtues—a virtue absolutely essential to the attainment of anything great and lasting.”
Conservatism is dead because it lives. It has triumphed. It may lose elections, but its basic assumptions, going back to the reaction against the New Deal, now govern both parties. The economist John Quiggin calls it Zombie Economics, and it has never seemed a more appropriate metaphor. The dead walk among us. They are us.
Still, the more profound and prophetic stance on the right has been Adams’s: cede the field of the public, if you must, stand fast in the private. Allow men and women to become democratic citizens of the state; make sure they remain feudal subjects in the family, the factory, and the field. The priority of conservative political argument has been the maintenance of private regimes of power—even at the cost of the strength and integrity of the state....
At heart the entire Republican Party is made up of winners and losers and they are united in just one thing: they think that money is the only way to tell who is who. If you have money, you use that to distinguish yourself from the losers and to demonstrate your superiority by punishing them further. If you are a loser—a worker, for example, or have no health insurance (say) your job as a Republican is to take your status as a given, accept it, and turn around and get your jollies kicking someone else farther down the line.
The right boundaries for workers are that they know their place, that they can be fired capriciously, and that they exist primarily to make the employer feel good about himself and, further, that like waiters in a restaurant and prostitutes with their johns their job is also to make the employer believe that he is receiving an extra good form of treatment not accorded to others diners or johns.
The overall thrust of this state legislation is to create workers who are docile and employers who are empowered. .... High schoolers should learn workplace virtues, says the conservative commentator Ben Stein, like “not talking back.” Early exposure to employment will teach 12-year-olds, as the spokesman of an Idaho school district put it, that “you have to do what you’re asked, what your supervisor is telling you.”
Proponents of austerity, however, were lying about their motives. Strong words, but if you look at their recent reactions it becomes clear that all the claims ... were just excuses for an agenda of dismantling the welfare state. That in turn helps explain why the intellectual collapse of their supposed arguments has made no difference to their policy position.
One interesting point, which Wren-Lewis gets at and I’ve mentioned on other occasions, is that the austerity side of this debate isn’t just disingenuous; it doesn’t seem to comprehend the notion that other people might actually argue in good faith. No time to do the link right now, but back when we were discussing stimulus many people on the right, economists like Lucas included, simply assumed that people like Christy Romer were making stuff up to serve a political agenda. And now I think we can see why they made this assumption — after all, that’s how they work.
The basic elements of contemporary right-wing thought can be reduced to three: First, there has been the now-familiar sustained conspiracy, running over more than a generation, and reaching its climax in Roosevelt’s New Deal, to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism or communism. A great many right-wingers would agree with Frank Chodorov, the author of The Income Tax: The Root of All Evil, that this campaign began with the passage of the income-tax amendment to the Constitution in 1913.
The second contention is that top government officialdom has been so infiltrated by Communists that American policy, at least since the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, has been dominated by men who were shrewdly and consistently selling out American national interests.
Finally, the country is infused with a network of Communist agents, just as in the old days it was infiltrated by Jesuit agents, so that the whole apparatus of education, religion, the press, and the mass media is engaged in a common effort to paralyze the resistance of loyal Americans.
10. Conservatism EXPLICITLY aims for rent-seeking, social fracture, systemic externalities, and elite capture.
23. (Neo)feudalism is essentially the event horizon of modern conservatism. Where it comes full circle, and regresses into lunacy.
Conservative Republicans ... hate compromise in general. By an 82-14 margin, liberals want their elected officials to make compromises. By a 63-32 margin, conservatives want elected officials not to compromise. Republicans simply don’t trust bipartisan deals.
I assume that just about everybody in this room agrees that the Democrats are wrong on just about every issue. Well, I'm here to propose to you that it's not “just about” every issue; it's quite literally every issue. And it's not just wrong; it's as wrong as wrong can be; it's 180 degrees from right; it is diametrically opposed to that which is good, right, and successful.
What I discovered is that this is not an accident. This is part of a philosophy that now dominates the whole of Western Europe and the Democratic Party today. I, like some others, call it Modern Liberalism. The Modern Liberal will invariably side with evil over good, wrong over right, and the behaviors that lead to failure over those that lead to success.
But if they're not stupid and they're not evil, what's their plan?
More vocabulary from Left Blogistan
Having introduced the terms “High Broderism” and “The Village”, here are some more whimsical terms from left-leaning bloggers that teach a lesson about American politics.
useful snark trope.
It's like when you can't decide whether to daydream about being a famous Hollywood star or having amazing magical powers. Why not — be a famous Hollywood star with amazing magical powers! Along these lines, John has developed an infallible way to improve any public policy wishes. You just wish for the thing, plus, wish that everyone would have their own pony! So, in Chafetz' case, he should not only wish that Bush would say a lot of good things about democracy-building and fighting terrorism in a speech written for him by a smart person, he should also wish that Bush should actually mean the things he says and enact policies which reflect this, and he should wish that everyone gets a pony. See?
According to Brendan Nyhan, the Dartmouth political scientist who coined the term, the Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency is "the belief that the president can achieve any political or policy objective if only he tries hard enough or uses the right tactics." In other words, the American president is functionally all-powerful, and whenever he can't get something done, it's because he's not trying hard enough, or not trying smart enough.
Wingnut welfare refers to jobs or deals offered to conservatives on the basis of ideological purity rather than talent or experience. The term was coined in 2005 by blogger Jane Hamsher, who used it in reference to Pajamas Media. It has since become a popular term among liberal bloggers.
Wingnut welfare typically describes positions at conservative publishing houses, opinion journals and websites. However, not all such positions are considered wingnut welfare. The term is generally applied to those positions or deals which are divorced from free-market business principles. Put simply, wingnut welfare recipients are not expected to generate profit or even make any money at all. Such operations are heavily subsidized by wealthy benefactors such as William Regnery Jr. and Richard Mellon Scaife and organizations such as the John M. Olin Foundation.
The Balloon Juice LexiconA witty guide to numerous other common refrains used on political blogs. Useful as a reference, but also well worth browsing. In three parts:
A grab bag of other invaluable blog posts which help explain What's Going On in American politics.
A few years back I had an argument with one of my brothers. I said that right-wing disinformation had a whole lot more money and organization behind it than anything the left had to say. He said no, it didn’t. I said yes, actually; it did. He again said no it didn’t, so I saw there was no use in talking about it, at any rate not with him. But it’s true. Corporate America doesn’t just buy airtime and put together slick ads for its products. It also uses its money to generate some of the slickest disinformation on the planet.
We think we’re so clever, we think we can cope, we think we’re on top of the problem. We don’t just take any old advice off the Internet. We think we know where to find the good stuff. We know to think twice before listening to corporate spokesmen. We give extra credence to private netizens who, out of the kindness of their hearts, are giving us the straight dope on something. We’ve done it a hundred times before. We’ve done the same when someone asked a question we could answer, and felt good for being able to help them.
It’s different now. There’s too much money at stake for that frontier to stay open. Deceiving us has become an industrial process.
- Hamiltonians who “open foreign markets and ensure freedom of the seas, cultivating allies where necessary”
- Wilsonians who “strive to make the world safe for democracy”
- Jeffersonians who “fear that the very instruments necessary to spread democracy (especially a big military, an activist federal government and the high taxes needed to pay for both) could pose threats to domestic political and economic freedoms”
- Jacksonians who are pro-military but isolationist ... until insults to national honor make them decide that “America's enemies must be brought to their knees, if necessary through the application of overwhelming armed force”
Racism is the original sin of the American experiment and progress in expunging it is slow going, especially in its ground zero, the south. It may even be that some of our most cherished beliefs about ourselves — individualism and self-sufficiency — are partially grounded in an ugly reaction to slavery and the fallout from it. White Supremacists and neo-confederates are exactly what they appear to be and more subtle aspects of their philosophy play themselves out in the multitude of ways that people rationalize their beliefs about government social programs and many other things in American culture.
Slowly but surely, well funded and well organized Conservatives pushed their ideas from unthinkable, to radical, to acceptable, to sensible, to popular, and finally into policy, in a process described as The Overton Window. As surely and ruthlessly, progressive ideas were marginalized, and then silenced altogether. And spending what it took, the winger billionaires used the Conservative Movement to restructure politics, and having restructured politics, economics. To their economic benefit.
Lewis Powell felt compelled to assert, in a memo that was to help galvanize business circles, that the “American economic system is under broad attack.” This attack, Powell maintained, required mobilization for political combat: “Business must learn the lesson ... that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.” Moreover, Powell stressed, the critical ingredient for success would be organization: “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”
But one should not postpone more direct political action, while awaiting the gradual change in public opinion to be effected through education and information. Business must learn the lesson, long ago learned by labor and other self-interest groups. This is the lesson that political power is necessary; that such power must be assidously (sic) cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination — without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.Original Sin by Sam Tanenhaus at The New Republic offers another telling of this tale.)
If you’ve seen the Lincoln movie, maybe you’re still walking around with this bit of cognitive dissonance: In 1864, the Democrats are the party of slavery and the Republicans the party of emancipation and racial justice. What’s up with that? How did we get from there to here?
Here’s the way I’d put it: Today, the national Democratic Party contains everything from the center-right to the far-left. Economically its proposals tend to be center to center-right. Socially, its proposals tend to be center to center-left. The national Republican Party, by contrast, has now been almost entirely absorbed by the far right. It rejects the basic social consensus among post-war democracies and seeks to return to a pre-New Deal form of governance. It is hostile to social and economic equality. It remains committed to fossil fuels and sprawl and opposed to all sustainable alternatives. And it has built an epistemological cocoon around itself within which loopy misinformation spreads unchecked. It has, in short, gone loony.
Racial diversity in individual states is correlated with the generosity of welfare. For instance, the authors find that in 1990 Aid to Families with Dependent Children ranged from over $800 per family per month in mainly white Alaska to less than $150 in Alabama and Mississippi, where almost one-third of the population is black. Even after adjustment for inter-state differences in average incomes, the correlation with race remained strong. Across countries, too, racial diversity goes with low government spending on poverty relief.
The reason, argue the authors, is that “race matters”, and they marshal statistical evidence, much of it from opinion surveys, to back this up. People are likely to support welfare if they live close to recipients of their own race; but are antipathetic if they live near recipients from another race. The divergent attitudes of Europeans and Americans to the poor are underwritten by the fact that the poor in Europe tend to be ethnically the same as most other folk. In America, their skin is often a different colour.
The authors say that “political entrepreneurs”, eager to use race as an excuse to turn the poor against redistribution, shape attitudes to race and to poverty.
Today’s Republican extremism owes more to the Constitution that established the Union than the secessionists who sundered it. It’s Hoover’s party — and Madison’s — not Calhoun’s....
The notion that this brand of Southern Democratic politics prefigured modern-day Rush Limbaugh-style Tea Party Republicanism is fallacious. If, today, there are modern-day equivalents of Russell’s genre of Southern Democrat – on issues other than civil rights – they are not Eric Cantor or Ted Cruz, but rather Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, John Breaux, or Claire McCaskill. In other words, the closest modern-day equivalents of the conservative Democrats of the 1940s are modern-day conservative Democrats.
As for the process by which those traditional Southern Democrats were eventually displaced by an ever-expanding Southern Republican Party – a process Judis attributes to Goldwater and his fellow conservatives “seiz[ing] the mantle of states’ rights” – it was a gradual, uneven, and complex one. What is notable, though, is that over the long run it represented a process of convergence with the rest of the country – not a retreat into some moonlight-and-magnolias particularism. And for good reason: during those decades, the South’s social structure was converging with the North’s at a stunning pace. Once a poor, rural and agricultural backwater, the South emerged as a suburban, postindustrial growth region. In almost every aspect of its society – including its new forms of racial stratification – it increasingly resembled the North. And the same was true of its politics.
After two centuries laboring under a Constitution crafted by principled opponents of democracy, who saw as one of their central goals the suppression of any chance that concerted majorities might ever use the state for positive ends, how can anyone be surprised that this country is hospitable to anti-government extremists?
Those ideas are not related to each other in any logical sense, so it would certainly be possible to believe a few of them without the others. But they originated together in the defeated South and have spread through the same channels ever since. As a result, although lots of people believe one or two of these ideas, if you hear more than a few of them from someone, probably you’ll eventually hear all the rest. When well-armed white men are rabidly opposed to the federal government and talk at length about their love of their own freedom, chances are excellent that they will eventually start waxing nostalgic about slavery, as Cliven Bundy did.
Yes, there is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose. My analysis of this phenomenon is not an exposé of a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day. Nor can this other government be accurately termed an “establishment.” All complex societies have an establishment, a social network committed to its own enrichment and perpetuation. In terms of its scope, financial resources and sheer global reach, the American hybrid state, the Deep State, is in a class by itself. That said, it is neither omniscient nor invincible. The institution is not so much sinister (although it has highly sinister aspects) as it is relentlessly well entrenched. Far from being invincible, its failures, such as those in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, are routine enough that it is only the Deep State’s protectiveness towards its higher-ranking personnel that allows them to escape the consequences of their frequent ineptitude.