Tuesday, November 21

Conventional Wisdom Tuesday II: That Sounds Oddly, and Tediously, Familiar

Matt Bai, "The Way We Live Now: The Last 20th Century Election?" New York Times Magazine, November 19, 2006:
Since Bush’s disputed victory in 2000, many liberals have been increasingly brazen about their disdain for the rural and religious voters; one popular e-mail message, which landed in thousands of Democratic in-boxes in the days after the 2004 election, separated North America into “The United States of Canada” and “Jesusland.” The populist author Thomas Frank won widespread praise for his thesis that unsophisticated rural types had been manipulated into voting “against their economic self-interest,” while the celebrated linguist George Lakoff posited that conservatives had rewired the brain synapses in these unsuspecting voters. Two eminent liberal political scientists, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, wrote a more scholarly book, arguing that Bush could govern as an extremist without paying a price, because Republicans had gamed the electoral system and deceived voters.

Matt Bai, "The Excluded Middle" review of Off Center, by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, New York Times Book Review, December 11, 2005:
Over the last few years, in this time of Democratic despondency, there has emerged a new genre of comfort books for liberals - books that seek to expose the nefarious means by which conservatives have amassed power, while at the same time reassuring urban liberals that they bear none of the blame. Thomas Frank's best-selling "What's the Matter With Kansas?," for instance, advanced the premise that rural voters just aren't sophisticated enough to vote in their own interests. In "Don't Think of an Elephant!," the linguist George Lakoff took a slightly different angle, suggesting that these voters weren't dumb, exactly, but that their brain synapses had been rewired by the Republicans' skillful manipulation of language. Now come Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, political science professors at Yale and the University of California, Berkeley, with "Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy." Hacker and Pierson offer a variation on this same theme: voters can't make the right choices, they contend, because our system of government itself has dangerously malfunctioned.

Forget that Bai bills the Times twice for the same two-hundred words; they should be glad he didn't steal 'em. But notice how nothing changes despite the intervening sea-change of an election except the frame. Formerly, the Dems were seeking comfort food; now their very success condemns their earlier words:
But this election, in which conservative incumbents in states like Kentucky and Indiana went down to defeat, should discredit such alarmist (and elitist) theories. As it happened, despite all these neurological and structural impediments, ordinary voters proved perfectly capable of recognizing failed governance when they saw it, and seemed plenty capable of defending their own interests.

Both of these, by the way, were front page stories in their respective sections. Thus the liberal New York Times! And it should be noted that Hacker and Pierson fairly demolished Bai's critique the first time around, which accounts for the not-quite-identical description this time.

Bai's problem is obvious--he's too smart for either party, which requires a hard-edged sneering version of Cokie Robert's Both Sides Do It approach--but his editors' problem is a whole 'nother question. Hang on:
After the midterms, that tidal resentment has now washed away both of our old governing philosophies: the expansive and often misguided liberalism that dominated American politics up through the 1970s, as well as the impractical, mean-spirited brand of conservatism that rose up in reaction to it.

You know me--I can't get enough of people characterizing characterizations of things they know nothing about as if such an exercise explains something. Bai is no doubt completely unaware that he's mouthing a "conservative" argument in the guise of a history lesson.

But there's no excuse for lacking common sense, even if you won't pursue history beyond your own nose: is it reasonable to assume that liberalism "rose up" in reaction to anything? Is it too much to ask that twenty-somethings in this country show some familiarity with, say, McCarthyism? Say it again: I challenge any of you to go back and actually live under the social, cultural, and sexual repressions of the 1950s and come back and report which side you're on. The only thing that "rose up" in conservatism in response to the "domination" of our politics by liberalism--a bogus concept to begin with--is a few reactionary positions of the cultural right wing and an ever-increasing zest for tax cuts for the wealthy. Real conservatism, as opposed to the lumpy Jonah Goldberg variety which is all you seem to know, was just as impractical and mean-spirited sixty years ago, although I'd object that those are more euphemisms than descriptions.

It may be, then, that we have just witnessed the last big election of the 20th century; the question now is what kind of different, more relevant ideologies might rise from the ruins. Or, as Simon Rosenberg, the Democratic strategist, recently put it in making much the same argument, “Like two heavyweight boxers stumbling into the 15th round of a championship fight, the two great ideologies of the 20th century stumble, exhausted, tattered and weakened, into a very dynamic and challenging 21st century.” The era of baby-boomer politics — with its culture wars, its racial subtext, its archaic divisions between hawks and doves and between big government and no government at all — is coming to a merciful close. Our elections may become increasingly generational rather than ideological — and not a moment too soon.

First, to Mr. Rosenberg: when the DLC, in either its old-school or its spiffy new sci-fi version, wins elections, or when it figures out the base wins elections, or when it speaks for anyone outside one of its conference rooms, then maybe your insights will mean something. Second, if you believe that culture wars, racial politics, or the "archaic" divisions between hawks and doves is a mere blip on the electoral radar rather than real-world responses to real-world problems, then God help you and the Future, and God grant you a populace with an endless tolerance for rectal smoke receptivity, just as soon as I'm dead and buried. In the meantime:

Where are the fucking answers if you're so smart? How is it that all the DLC types--those forward-looking 21st Century Culturnauts who've managed to transcend the old dichotomies, marched in fucking lockstep with the Bush administration into Vietnam II?

[T]he new Democratic majority in Washington may fare no better in addressing the nation’s modern preoccupations than the Republican majority that preceded it. At week’s end, Democrats were preparing to name two 66-year-olds, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, as Senate majority leader and House speaker. In the House, Pelosi will be supported by new committee chairmen including longtime liberals like Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Charles Rangel of New York. They are, most of them, honorable public servants, warriors steeped in the battles of the last century. But the party remains reluctant to make room for its next generation, a pragmatic and talented group — led, perhaps, by Rahm Emanuel, the chief strategist behind the House elections

Yeah, and with damned good reason, sonny boy. Give us the answers, bright boy, or shut up and learn something. This, at least: those repugnant Boomers are just entering their sixties. They're gonna be voting for another twenty-five years. And old fucking people vote, homey.


RobW said...

Haven't any of these people actually read "What's the Matter with Kansas?"?

Anonymous said...

"...the two great ideologies of the 20th century stumble, ..."
This guy is an ahistorical asshat. The two great ideologies of the 20th century were fascism and communism. Neither of which made it out of the 20th century. Maybe he could find a history book and read it, instead of listening to talk radio all day.

ifthethunderdontgetya said...

...led, perhaps, by Rahm Emanuel, the chief strategist behind the House elections.

That was Rahm, running pro-war candidates, and concentrating on a small number of races? I believe 8 of his 22 came through. I credit Howard Dean's 50 state strategy at least as much, but it is no surprise that the Kewl Kids and beltway insiders want to give it all to Rahmbo.