Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Resolution for Progressives

My father has told me for years that the history of the American Left amounts to this: Whenever the left decides to form a firing squad, it stands in a circle. It's hard to disagree.

I thought about that adage watching the reaction to Obama's choice of Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural convocation. The whole episode, I suspect, will pass after January 20, but the teapot tempest the selection has created among "progressives" does not do us much credit. It suggests that some, at least, on the left are simply going to recourse to the old habits rather than embrace the opportunity we have to change the direction of the country.

A quick, potted history: Since the late 1960s the American left has been defined by two commitments. On the one hand, a politics of personal identity - identity being defined largely on the basis of biological essentialism (race, gender, sexual orientation); on the other, opposition and critique rather than the exercise of real political power. The left fell in love with losing, felt comforted by it, addicted to it. (Winning, after all, suggests power and power corrupts). Not coincidentally, the left has been largely irrelevant to American politics for a generation. (Todd Gitlin, among others, has written quite perceptively about all this).

This was the left I grew up in, through the late 1970s and 1980s, and it all came home to me early in the Clinton administration. As the Clinton health-care plan died an agonizing Congressional death, as welfare "reform" was fought, as Newt Gingrich closed the government not once but twice, and as Congressional Republicans attempted a coup d'etat by impeaching Clinton over a tawdry sexual affair (yes, Hillary was right - it was a vast, right-wing conspiracy) this issue that most motivated grass-roots progressives was. . .gays in the military!

To the best of my recollection, the largest public demonstration to take place during the Clinton years was 1993's gay rights march which was designed, among other things, to generate support for permitting gay Americans to serve openly in the military. I was at that rally - along with several hundred thousand of my closest friends - and I remember having a queasy feeling.

As a kid, I grew up in the anti-Vietnam, anti-military left. I grew up believing that the Pentagon was the problem (I still believe that) and that it needed to be shrunk, not expanded (I still believe that too). I spent my college years talking people of all kinds out of joining up, and yet here I was on the mall with people who wanted in. Meanwhile, health care reform vanished, and Newt Gingrich took out a contract on America.

The lesson of the Clinton years for me was this: Clinton was no progressive, but he was certainly better than the alternative and he got precious little support from us. After 12 years of Reagan-Bush, we had a chance to get some of what we wanted, but we didn't know what to do.

The reaction to Rick Warren feels a bit like that 1993 rally to me. Angry opposition based on the easy reflex to the old identity politics. For the record, I'm disgusted by Rick Warren too, not simply because of his vile homophobia, but because I resent bitterly any intrusion of religion into our public life - whether it is Warren's brand of feel-good ol time Christianity, Lieberman's Judiasm or Scalia's catholicism. Why do we need a religious invocation at all??!!

So here we are, after 8 years that have made the Reagan-Bush years look positively utopian and how will we respond? The question I pose here is not whether Obama will disappoint some on the left - he will. Rather, I wonder if what constitutes the left is prepared to trade purity for victory, compromised accomplishment for lost causes.

I propose this New Year's Resolution for progressives. Say it out loud with me: In 2009 I will not pit "better" against "best." I will concede some in order to achieve more. I will not fall on my sword just because some piece of legislation or some presidential appointment does not score 100% on my ideological purity test. I will enjoy winning, even if the victory is incomplete.

Change was the mantra of the Obama campaign. Were progressives listening? Are we prepared to change as well?

Monday, December 22, 2008

London Calling, Again

Winding up my visit here with a few more observations:

Over the last 10-15 years, London has been blanketed by CCTV cameras. They are almost literally everywhere, and thus it is nearly impossible to walk, or to take the Tube, or to drive without being spied on camera at least once during your journey.

It is a level of surveillance that makes many Americans (including this one) uncomfortable. But it also underscores a real difference between American and Europeans about how the best social order is to be achieved.

Americans profess - Dick Cheney notwithstanding - a deep commitment to individual rights. The rights of individuals trump, in the minds of many Americans, any notion of collective rights, or collective responsibilities. Europeans, on the other hand, have had a more highly developed sense of the common good, and individual liberties have often been asked to take a back seat to it.

The notion of individual freedom hardly needs defending, but perhaps we ought to look at the costs we pay for our commitment to those freedoms. Economically, we view ourselves purely as individuals operating in the market place. When any one of us doesn't succeed in that market, we have always viewed the failure as individual rather than structural: it's my fault that I can't find a job. Government policies for the unemployed and poor have tended to agree.

Likewise, we treat health care as an individual proposition rather than a collective right. The notion that in America one's health is tied so directly to one's employment (and wealth) strikes Europeans as just short of barbaric.

Most absurdly, the Supreme Court has ruled - willfully ignoring all the historical evidence to the contrary - that gun ownership is an individual right, just like the right to speech, not a collective right that can be effectively regulated through the political process. (For more on the history of the 2nd amendment see my colleague Saul Cornell's book A Well Regulated Militia).

In Europe, where collective responsibilities compete more equally with individual rights, the result has been a more lively urban realm - measured by the life on the streets and in the parks and in cultural venues of all sorts. It can't simply be a coincidence that as Americans venerate individual rights, we have retreated further and further from public life - into "gated communities," private transportation, and on and on. We are scared of each other to a dispiriting extent, and for a generation have not been able even to discuss the idea of a commonweal.

Massaging the balance between public and private, between the individual and the group is the very essence of what urbanism means. Cities, after all, are where people come together to pursue their private dreams, but in a way which makes it possible for others to pursue theirs as well. No one in a city gets to do anything s/he wants at whatever time s/he wants precisely in order that we can all do much of what we want to do most of the time.

Londoners have given up some measure of their individual freedom as CCTV cameras have proliferated across the city. The thousands of them that crowd the streets and shops and parks and paths, making this one of the most energetic urban spaces on the planet, don't seem to mind too much.

Friday, December 19, 2008

London Calling

Greetings from London! where I've snuck off for two weeks.

There is nothing so tedious as Americans who come back from Europe moaning about how much better things are there than they are in the United States. So with that by way of begging your pardon, here I go.

I haven't been here in two years, and I'm struck particularly that England is moving so much faster in directions to deal with environmental issues, urban questions, and sustainability than we are in the US.

Take public transportation (which I have been taking since I got here): it isn't simply that the trains, buses and subways are so crowded with users, or that they run so much better than they do almost anywhere in America - that much has been true for a while. But it is clear that in London, the rest of Great Britain (and in Germany where I spent 3 days last week) governments and the private sector are aggressively investing to make these systems even better. Modern buses and bus stops (that tell you what bus is due to arrive when); sleek modern train cars; and most of all speed. London to Paris now in 2hrs 15 min.

By comparison, Amtrak looks positively shabby. When I heard that Barak Obama will travel from Philadelphia to DC for the inauguration, I joked that the inauguration would probably be delayed for several hours because of an Amtrak breakdown. American railroad track can't accommodate high-speed trains, and no one has bothered to invest in upgrading most of that track in about half a century.

Likewise food production. Stop into any ordinary supermarket in London and you will find that locally (or regionally) produced food, organic food, free range meat etc are widely available. What is still largely a boutique niche in the United States is entirely common and mainstream here.

Climate change is an accepted fact here - not something with scare quotes around it as in America - and so the discussion is not whether to act, but how. The winner of the design competition for the next generation of double-decker buses for London, announced today, will be hydrogen-powered. And thanks to the "congestion fee" which charges people who drive private cars in central London, the buses make it around town more efficiently than they used to.

All of which is to say that being here, I can't help but feel in a more palpable way that America no longer leads the world, not at least on these critical issues. We look dated, backward, and thoroughly mid-twentieth century, not twenty-first. When I first came to London in the 1970s it felt quaint and old-fashioned, like it hadn't quite emerged out of the trauma of WWII. Now I wonder if English people feel the same way when they come to the United States. What was it that Ezra Pound wrote about Western civilization in 1920? an old bitch, gone in the teeth.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Abdication of George II

I won't claim that we have been witnessing something unprecedented, but I'm hard pressed to think of any analogy. We have had presidents die in office, one who resigned in disgrace, but I don't know that we've ever had a president who simply abdicated the way George Bush has. More than that, I'm not sure we've ever had such a shirking of responsibility that has gone without much of an outcry.

George began checking out of the White House, without actually leaving it, after the elections of 2006. After the troop escalation in Iraq early in 2007 he simply referred matters concerning the war to General David Petreaus. Nothing could be debated, discussed or assessed without Petreaus weighing in. For most of 2007, the Decider simply deferred to the General. In other countries they have a phrase to describe what happens in an alleged democracy when a General really runs the show.

A year later, after the economy began to tank, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson assumed the job of day-to-day president. He briefed the press and hectored Congress. He became the public face of the administration trying to deal with the collapse of markets. W was replaced with Hank.

In his first address after winning the presidency, Barack Obama reminded the nation that we only have one president at a time. He's quite right, but apparently someone forgot to tell Bush. He has blithely punted all the problems he created to the new administration weeks before that administration actually has the power to enact policy.

There is no question that the nation is sick of and embarrassed by George Bush. The Washington press corps left the White House press room for Capitol Hill after the 2006 midterms, and took much of the nation's attention with it. This accounts, I think, for the fact that the 2008 election cycle began so early - we were all so desperate to be done with the Bush fiasco that we wanted to start thinking about his replacement as soon as possible.

Still, Bush's abdication of his job - he was elected for a four-year term after all - verges on dereliction of duty, a Constitutional crisis, small by the standards of the others he has created, but a crisis nonetheless. The nation does only have one president at a time, after all, but now we effectively have none.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Changing the Cabinetry

Fifteen or so years ago, as a new Russia emerged for the wreckage of the old Soviet Union, the American news media used to report of this or that Russian political figure that he "was a former Communist." It was always delivered ominously, in somber tones meant to chill, and to suggest that really the old evil empire crowd had not gone away.

Of course, most in the media failed to recognize or acknowledge that running a country the size and complexity of Russia requires people with some level of experience. In the early 1990s the only people in Russia with that experience were, ipso facto, former Communists. In fact, virtually everyone, except those in the gulag, was a former Communist.

I've been remembering that episode of obtuseness as I've listened to certain of the chatter that has greeted President Obama's (and let's just call him president shall we? He is certainly carrying out the job with more energy than the guy still eating dinner in the White House) cabinet picks: Wait! These people have connections to the Clinton Administration! Obama is abandoning his promise of change because he's bringing to the White House people who already know their way around!

The charge is absurd on its face, and plenty of people have pointed that out. Americans may say they want people "outside the Beltway" but those people tend not to be very effective once they get to DC. Jimmy Carter was elected because a nation hung-over from Watergate wanted someone with no Washington connections. Carter didn't do so well translating that outsider status into effective governing.

But rather than rehearse the obvious need for experienced people, especially at a moment of crisis, let me offer another way to measure change: Compare these nominations with George Bush's eight years ago.

Bush's top picks revealed the extent to which we were all trapped inside the Bush Family Dysfunctional Thanksgiving Dinner. Colin Powell and Condi Rice were selected precisely because of their connections to dad and were designed to bring back dad's friends to the White House. The picks which proved most consequential - Rumsfeld and Cheney - took us even further back, all the way to the Ford Administration, where Cheney helped kill Ford's energy plan among other things.

But perhaps the nomination which best demonstrated just how inept this administration would prove to be was John Ashcroft. You will recall that Ashcroft got the job of running the Justice Department because he lost his Senate seat in the 2000 election. To a dead man. The reward for failing to beat the deceased Mel Carnahan was the job of Attorney General. It was the first example of what became all too common: for Bush, our MBA president, no failure is so great that it doesn't deserve a promotion. (And at the very end of his administration he continues to operate in exactly the same way, giving bailout money to the bank executives who got us in this mess in the first place).

Ashcroft's nomination told us all we needed to know about the coming administration - its contempt for brains, for integrity, for competence, its true-believing zealotry. By comparison, Obama's selections represent an dramatic and welcome change indeed.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Gates Keeper?

As Barack Obama's cabinet has been shaping up, rumors circulate that he may keep current Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his position. More than anything else, Obama has demonstrated a desire to have smart, competent and pragamatic people around him and Gates may be all those things. Many in the media and in Congress have given him high marks for his work at the Pentagon, though honestly, after Donald Rumsfeld a crash-test dummy would have been an improvement.

Keeping Gates in the job would also allow Obama to make real his promise to put aside partisanship in favor of effectiveness, demonstrating to Republicans his willingness to bring them into his process of governing. (Caution here: Bill Clinton made a similar gesture when he made Republican William Cohen Secretary of Defense. That certainly didn't curb the rabid, drooling Republicans on Capitol Hill any.)

What troubles me about keeping Gates on in his current job, however, is precisely this: by keeping a Republican holdover in the Pentagon, Obama would tacitly concede the assertion that Republicans are "stronger" on national security and defense issues. This was the one issue area where McShame held any advantage in most polling. It remains the most stubborn myth of the Republican Party.

In fact, of course, by any and all measures we have, the Bush/McShame foreign and military policy has been a disaster for American security and our global position. We didn't get a chance to talk about this much during the fall campaign, because national security issues - and the war in Iraq - disappeared from discussion, were understandably buried under the collapsing economy.

Just as it is clear that a 21st century Democratic New Deal must come to the rescue of an economy ruined by 30 years of Republican Free Market Fundamentalism, so too we need to have a dramatically new approach to military policy. Robert Gates might well execute such a policy, but Democrats need to take charge of this in order to finally kill the idea that Republicans have kept us safer.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

GM, We Told You So

Most observers agree that the age of Free Market Fundamentalism is now over. With the swirl of events leading up the election, we didn't take the time to pause long enough over Alan Greenspan's Oscar-worthy performance in front of Congress where he did a remarkable imitation of the police lieutenant Louie in Casablanca: He was shocked, SHOCKED that bankers could behave this way.

During the reign of the Fundamentalists, not only were the unregulated markets supposed to solve all our problems - that didn't work out so well actually - but we assumed that the private sector was the source of all wisdom. About everything. The best the benighted public sector might hope for over the last generation was to enter into a "public-private partnership" through which private enterprise would share all its experience, sound judgment and good leadership with the otherwise hapless public realm.

With this in mind, I point out this small irony to GM's Rick Wagoner, and the other auto executives currently shuffling around Washington looking for a bailout handout:

Let's start by giving GM credit for some success. While GM and the others have failed to keep up with the competition from Honda and Toyota in the business of making cars, they have succeeded in lobbying Congress and the Bush administration to keep fuel efficiency standards low. The auto industry couldn't afford that kind of regulation, Congress was told, and Congress has no business telling GM how to run its business anyway.

So now it turns out that no one wants to buy GM's over-sized SUVs and GM doesn't have fuel-efficient alternatives to offer consumers. How 'bout that. Follow this with me. If GM had embraced higher fuel standards, rather than lobby to defeat them, they might have been forced to make better cars? And if they had been forced to make better cars, perhaps they would be better positioned in the current marketplace? And if they had better cars to sell right now, perhaps their financial situation would not be so dire?

I wonder if Rick, hat in hand, now laments those lost opportunities.

The Big 3 may in fact be too big to fail - too many Americans might well suffer if they went out of business. The Big 3 may have to be bailed out in some way. But perhaps we should conclude from this that maybe, just maybe the public has not only the right to regulate the market in ways that advance the common good, but also a wisdom that GM and the others clearly don't. Maybe it is time to recognize that businessmen can learn a few things from the public sector too. Perhaps it is time to say to GM (and AIG, and all the rest): we told you so.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Faithful Citizens? Papal Politics, 2008

Over the course of its nearly 2000 year history, the Catholic church is certainly no stranger to hypocrisy. To review that litany here would take up far too much space, but I think Daniel Goldhagen, in an essay some years ago in the New York Review of Books, explained the source of that hypocrisy persuasively.

The Catholic church occupies a unique position in the world as both a major religion and a nation-state. In the former role, it offers moral prescriptions - or threats - to adherents; in the latter role, it must move in the world of politics and power.

Dancing between these two roles has enabled the church to defend its hypocrisy in one arena by justifying it in the other. So, for example, when people have asked how Pope Pius XII could have, in good conscience, sat on his hands while jews were deported to the camps during World War II, his defenders have insisted that the Pope had an obligation to protect the institution of the Vatican, which might have been destroyed had the Pope spoken out. When, on the other, many wondered what business some bishops had inserting themselves so aggressively into the 2004 presidential campaign by denouncing John Kerry's pro-choice position, the bishops insisted that they had a moral duty to speak out. And so it has gone, deflecting criticism on one front by retreating to the other.

Which may help explain what the Times reports today. Among those already lining up to attack the Obama administration - along with Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and John Boehner - are Catholic bishops. Never mind that the administration is still two months away from moving into office.

The issue, naturally, is abortion, and more immediately the likelihood that President Obama will reverse the Bush ban on stem cell research. (Note: I can't resist pointing out this particular feculant hypocrisy. The bishops believe that to use stems cells in medical research is to destroy a human life. Catholics have always had a testy relationship with scientific research - the Vatican finally repealed its Inquisition ruling against Galileo in 1992! When couples pursue IVF procedures, however, lots of eggs get fertilized and only a few implanted - the rest wind up destroyed. No public call yet from the bishops to close down these "baby-killing" clinics).

In its 2007 voter's guide, "Faithful Citizenship," the church suggests that there are a number of issues, in addition to abortion, that ought shape a good Catholic's vote: poverty, the degraded environment, torture. But abortion trumps them all, and many Catholic bishops instructed their flocks this way.

The Catholic church has become a single-issue operation not, I suspect, because of a moral calculation, but rather because of a political one. The Church in the United States - or at least much of it - has decided to be vocal about abortion because it can make common political cause with conservative Protestants for whom abortion is also the one and true issue. If Church leaders were actually to speak out about the Iraq War, for example, they would risk alienating those Baptists and Pentacostals and Whatever-It-Is-Church that Sarah Palin belongs to.

By fixating on abortion to the exclusion of every other issue of social justice, the American Church made a choice to tether itself to the Republican Party. In so doing, it believed it would have a seat at the table for the Thousand Year Rovian Reich that the Republican Party promised. And now, like the Republican Party, it now finds itself with eggs on its mitre. Catholics voted for Obama by 54%; Hispanic Catholics by an even larger margin.

So the fighting among the Bishops now meeting in Baltimore to plot their attacks on the Obama Administration looks much like the civil war erupting among angry Republicans. Should the Church double-down on its bad bet, threatening even more divine retribution for anyone who supports abortion rights and family planning? Or should it try to soften its position to appeal to alienated parishoners/voters?

Either way, the choice will be a political calculus masquerading as moral certitude.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Buckeye Blue(s)

Ohio was called early on Tuesday night! Most of us assumed we'd be waiting until midnight to figure out just how many ballots the state GOP had stolen. But the race turned out to be less close than some polls predicted - 4 points. A convincing and triumphant performance, and a relief to those of us who have felt like pariahs for the last four years, being personally blamed for the 2004 results.

That all said, a few other things to notice: Buckeyes bucked the national trend and turned out in lower numbers than they did last time. Strange because the weather was stunningly beautiful all across the state and in 2004 it was 48* and rainy all day.

In a post here some weeks ago I suggested that the turn-out key might be not how many Obama voters came out but how many Republicans stayed home. That seems to have been the case. Obama got about as many votes as Kerry did -roughly 2.5 million though this time that amount to 51% of the total. What that also means that McShame's 2.5 million was nearly 350,000 votes less than Bush got.

Obama clearly did well in the urban areas of Columbus, Toledo and Cleveland. Most stunning, he took Hamilton County in the southwest corner of the state. Hamilton includes Cincinnati, but is otherwise deeply conservative. Bush won the county with 52.5%; Obama won it with 52.1%. That may be the most dramatic percentage switch of any county. Likewise, Obama nibbled away at the margins in some rural areas as well. These counties are filled with Pavlov's Republicans - Heinrich Himmler could run as a Republican in these area and be guaranteed about 55%.

Yet, even in this I suspect that Obama ate into these margins largely because Republicans stayed home. Here in Greene County Bush won with 61%; McShame with 58%. That's three points. But Bush got about 45,000 votes here; McShame got 39,000. Kerry got 29,000; Obama 27,000. I haven't looked at too many other counties yet, but it wouldn't surprise me if this pattern repeated itself in several other places. The punch line, I think, is that we have a rare instance when a lower voter turn-out helped the Democrat.

I bring all this up because I think it raises an interesting question about campaign organization. There is no question that Obama built an amazing machine even in these parts of the state. I was a part of it and it was truly inspiring. We also know that Kerry built very little and relied on a slap-dash effort by Move-On. Yet, at least in Greene County Kerry got more votes. I'm not sure what to conclude from this except perhaps to say that Ohio may still be an essentially Republican state, despite the 2006 elections and the triumph of Tuesday night. They just didn't want to vote for McShame.

In other news, the state flipped 2 House seats, which is a major accomplishment given the near-perfect gerrymandering engineered by the GOP in the last round. In a previous post I suggested people watch the OH-7 where I thought Sharen Neuhardt had a chance to win a seat vacated by a long-time Republican incumbent. David Hobson was sent to Washington for 18 years and made absolutely no impression there at all. Neuhardt lost - big - to a Steve Austria who had been term-limited out of the State Senate. He was described by a local paper as never having had an idea that didn't come straight from the GOP headquarters. He is now Congressman Austria. Ah well.

So perhaps the most interesting news of the election here is that the Democrats took control, just barely, of the State House. The districts get re-drawn in 2 years with a Democratic governor and a Democratic House. It's gerrymandering time!!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Parents Beware! You May Regret Obama

Much has been made of the youth vote, which turned out in big numbers for Obama. Less has been made of the youth vote of those too young to vote. Like my children.

My 9yr old daughter was the first in our household to get on the Obama bandwagon. Back in February, well before the Ohio primary, she posted a sign on her bedroom door anouncing that no one could enter unless they supported Obama. She was joined shortly - about 15 minutes later - by her younger brother.

This posed problems for their mother since she was still leaning to Hillary. Undecided still, I kept my mouth shut, and my daughter went to sleep every night in Obama Pyjamas provided by her grandparents.

All seemed fine through the summer and fall as all four of us worked hard for Obama. My children turn out to be very effective door-to-door canvassers. I woke my daughter up late last night so she could see Obama's speech, which moved both her parents to tears.

Then this morning I began to see it all going bad. I was greeted by several requests - demands really - involving candy, parties and puppies and each punctuated with "Yes We Can!" I could only counter with: "No you can't!" which really doesn't have the same bumper-sticker resonance.

Parents beware: Obama's election has created empowerment run amok, at least on this domestic front. The rebellion has begun here - it must be squashed.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Power of the Conservative Brand, or A Glass Half Empty

It's the day before the election, Obama is still up in the polls,  and he even made a Halloween visit to my hometown (Highland) in the really-red Rust Belt state of Indiana.  (This was big news--the last president or presidential candidate to come to Highland was Calvin Coolidge.)  But it is not difficult to see the glass as half empty.  No matter what happens tomorrow, I can't help but think, the Democrats have already lost. 

How can one be so glum in this time of potentially historic victory?  Because the Left still seems to be losing the branding battle.  What is astonishing about this election and these past few years is that "conservative" is still a label of pride in mainstream American politics--and "liberal" remains a pejorative.  That this is so remains a testament to the power of Republican marketing and branding.  

Consider this:  it is certainly not difficult to make the case that a (neo)conservative ideology led to a war in Iraq that was (by the standards of the war's early advocates) a colossal failure and managed to destroy America's standing in the world.  This debacle could have banished conservatism to the sidelines of American politics for a generation.  But it hasn't. 

Consider also that it is not difficult to make the case that conservative principles have not only wrecked the nation's foreign policy, but have also brought the nation's economy to its knees.  A de-regulated market preceded a credit crisis and conditions that many are comparing to the Great Depression.  

And yet conservatism remains, for the most part, untainted.  

Don't believe me?  Look at the presidential debate transcripts.  Yes, it is true that McCain has run from the Republican party, and has emphasized his past bipartisanship.  The "Republican" brand has suffered greatly from the damage to the foreign policy and especially the economy.  

But in the debate, McCain could still believe he was scoring political points by calling Obama a "liberal."  And Obama defended himself by saying--proudly--that he has worked with Tom Coburn, who Obama bragged was "one of the most conservative Republicans."    

In other words, the economy is in ruin and we are bogged down in an endless war (or at least an apparently endless nation-building project), but Obama is up only 7 points--and the "conservative" brand remains popular and amazingly blemish-free.  

If Obama wins on Tuesday, I will certainly celebrate.  But I'll also be thinking about the remaining battle:  a re-branding effort for liberalism so that a destroyed economy and/or a disastrous war are no longer necessary for a Democratic victory in a presidential campaign.  

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Obama the Mugwump

As I have listened to McShame/Moosehead (Geezer/Dingbat in a yard sign I saw recently) attack Barack Obama for being a closet socialist something didn't seem quite right. No, it isn't that the charge is ludicrous on its face - what, after all, does one expect from a woman who has said that god wants to us to build more pipelines in Alaska (god is so mavericky, isn't she??!!)

Rather, I found myself asking: Is this the same Barack Obama that McShame accused of being a secret Hooverite in the second presidential debate?? How did the man compared to Herbert Hoover, who staunchly defended his vision of free-market, "associative" capitalism even as it spiraled down the drain, suddenly become the love-child of Che Guevara?

Perhaps McShame has spotted something here the rest of us have missed? Perhaps Obama really can contain the contradictions of being both Herbert Hoover and Eugene V. Debs? Does this mean that under an Obama administration we will get capitalistic socialism? or socialized capitatlism? Gads!

Or does it really mean that the McShame/Moosehead campaign has fallen so far off the rails that they can't even keep their sleazy smearing "on message." I understand that over the weekend McShame will accuse Obama of being a Dreyfusard. Or a Jacobin, I can't remember which. And neither can he.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


The 2008 election has messed with the conventional wisdom on race and American politics. The photo above, taken in Martinsville, Indiana, a longtime stronghold of the KKK, is a sign of how the times are a' changing. At least some white voters, who have a distaste for African Americans, who don't live or work near them, and who romanticize the old Confederacy will nonetheless be pulling the lever for the first time for a black candidate.

For at least some voters, interest trumps identity.

H/t to Rustbelt reader Bryant for this one.

Monday, October 27, 2008


Sometimes common sense trumps all. While some voters continue to be attracted to Sarah Palin because of her "aw shucks," if expensively coiffed, persona, Joe Plumber types just aren't buying it. Listen to one western Pennsylvania white voter, quoted in today's New York Times.

“She’s always talking about the ‘Average Joe,’ ” Jeremy Long said. “Average me! I don’t want myself in the Oval Office. I want someone smarter.”

Even though the Times finds a lot of voters out in Pennsylvania steel country who are uncomfortable with Obama because he's black, they also respect that he's smart. And for once, brains seem to be trumping race.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Voting and American Decline

It has become an increasingly common topic of conversation: Are we watching the end of the American Century? Is this what the collapse of empire feels like? Several recent books address this notion directly or indirectly -- Alan Ryan reviewed five of them in the October 23 issue of the New York Review of Books (good essay). A colleague of mine who specializes in Roman history nods his head sagely and says: Yes, this is Rome in the late days, complete with the beer and circus that has characterized so much of our politics over the last generation.

These conversations tend to focus on The Big Picture: American geo-military position after the Iraq debacle; the rise of emerging economies; the consequences of borrowing so much money from China; the failure of the United States to respond to the climate crisis.

As the election enters its final (thank god) week, however, I'm struck by a smaller but no less dispiriting symptom of American decline. More and more of us, to judge by what I'm reading, hearing on the streets, and watching on the internet, simply assume that our elections are corrupt and dishonest. When early voting in Florida began, one late-night comedian quipped: "Early voting has begun in Florida. You know what that means? Florida has probably already screwed up the election and we won't know it until November 4." Scroll down here and you'll see that Tom posted a funny Simpson's clip. When Homer tries to vote for Obama and he registers six votes for McCain instead. Funny stuff.

And as Homer said once, in another cartoon context: It's funny because its true. Or true enough. There is no question that the 2000 election was stolen; there is compelling evidence that the 2004 election in Ohio - at least - was also swiped. And by god if there aren't reports of voting problems already in Florida.

This all went under-reported in the press, and Americans largely shrugged their collective shoulders and took it for granted. It is a sorry commentary on the state of The Greatest Democracy on Earth that we are largely resigned to stolen elections.

We should be clear. American elections have always been two parts democratic process and one part three-card monte game. The wonderful painting by George Caleb Bingham of the "County Election" from the 1850s is enough to dispel the idea that our elections were once pure. (The painting features drunkenness, debauchery and voter intimidation.) For several generations black Americans had their votes taken from them for the crime of being black; women couldn't vote at all until 1920. American elections have never been models of democratic probity.

Still, rather than cracking jokes, we should be demanding better. The first responsibility of any real democracy - before invading other countries, or bailing out its investment banks - is to make sure the democratic process works. That citizens are permitted to vote, and that each and every vote is counted honestly. It is a fundamental failure of our democracy, therefore, that we can't provide enough ballots or machines that work, that we can't keep polling places open so that working people can vote, that people wait in lines so long that they look like the third world simply to exercise their most basic right in our society.

It has become the stuff of jokes of the sort we used to make about banana republics. Now, however, we are laughing at ourselves.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Day Late, Dollar Short

For this year's F. Scott Fitzgerald "There Are No Second Acts In American Life Award," I nominate. . . Colin Powell!!

Powell, of course, endorsed Barack Obama for president a few days ago. Rumors had been swirling as long ago as February that Powell would make this endorsement - now that Obama is up by double-digits in some major polls, I guess the former general felt the time was finally right to shock and awe us with his official blessing.

I'm delighted that Obama has received this endorsement, and I hope it has some effect on people's perceptions of Obama's foreign and military policy cred. Perhaps it might even prompt the press to notice that John McShame served as Enabler-in-Chief in the Senate for the Bush foreign policy, arguably the most disastrous in American history. I suspect, though, it won't matter much beyond the Sunday morning network bloviators.

But we should be clear: this endorsement is not so much about Obama as it is about Powell trying to rehabilitate himself -- re-positioning himself for some sort of second act, after the self-imposed exile he has been in since the debacle of his career in the Bush White House. This endorsement marks Powell's official re-entry into American political life.

Powell had his moment. Several of them, in fact, when his opinion might have mattered, might have made an important difference. Let's review: After stealing the 2000 election, Bush chose Powell to be his Secretary of State. Powell was universally respected and admired. His choice served, more than any other cabinet appointment, to give legitimacy to an otherwise illegitimate administration. Powell could have said "no" to being used in this way, but he didn't.

Then Powell allowed himself to be used again when he gave that now-infamous speech to the United Nations justifying the invasion of Iraq. Once it became clear just how badly he had been used, Powell said nothing. He might have resigned before the 2004 election; indeed, he might have endorsed John Kerry exactly four years ago. Either act might have changed the outcome four years ago. But Powell said nothing. Hell! He even could have challenged Bush in the Republican primary in 2004, which would have left him as the odds-on favorite this year. Instead, channeling his inner Hamlet, he skulked quietly out of power, and did not even have the courage to join the chorus of critics of the war.

Who knows whether Powell's authoritative voice could have helped changed the direction of policy over the last 4-5 years? We do know what happened without that voice, however, and Powell stands guilty of silence when silence was unacceptable. The pattern repeats itself even with this endorsement. If Powell's benediction matters at all, it would have mattered a lot more in August or September, not two weeks before the election. Imagine what impact it would have had if it had come in Denver?

Like Robert McNamara a generation ago, Powell wants us to forgive him the dreadful mistakes he made without ever really having to admit that he made them. By jumping on the Obama band-wagon so late in the game, Powell hopes that he can resume the role of elder-statesman he seemed destined to play before he let his loyalty to the Bush family supercede his loyalty to the nation, leaving him in utter disgrace.


A recurring theme in the Republican end-of-days campaign is that the GOP base represents "real America." As candidate Palin put it in Greensboro, North Carolina:
We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.

Statistical whiz kid and political analyst Nate Silver offers this graphic insight into the "real America" that the McCain/Palin campaign is mobilizing. It's a very, very white place, much like the Republican Party itself. The above chart, which Silver assembled, lists the 44 cities where Sarah Palin has held rallies and their racial composition. America's population is 72 percent white; the "wonderful little pockets," by contrast are 83.3 percent white. It's no surprise that in these homogeneous places, the angry Republican base has let loose with accusations that Obama is a terrorist, a Muslim, and a radical who will bring Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Jeremiah Wright into his cabinet.

Directly above is Silver's chart of the cities where Obama has held rallies. Not surprisingly, they are, in the aggregate significantly more diverse. The average white population in Obama rally towns is almost 70 percent, fairly close to the national figures. But Obama is also rallying in places with larger black populations than the national average. Here we can see a glimpse into the two-pronged Democratic strategy: to drive up turnout among African American voters, while appealing to the independent, white swing voters who are essential to victory. The strategy seems to be working.

Friday, October 17, 2008


It's not often that a Wall Street Journal editorial is worth reprinting in its entirety. But this one is. The WSJ editors are convinced that America is about to enter a New New Deal or another Great Society. I will calm the WSJ's fears by noting that there is not a particularly vigorous left flank in the Democratic Party as there was in 1933 or 1964. It will take more than just an Obama presidency and a sizeable Democratic majority in the House and Senate to accomplish real change. The Social Security Act of 1935 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to name two landmark pieces of legislation, resulted from a combination of legislative and bureaucratic innovation and grassroots pressure. If the WSJ is right and we have a Democratic supermajority in place in January, it will up to those of us on the left to do what our predecessors in the Great Depression and in the 1960s did best: to put pressure, pressure, and more pressure on the new administration and congressional majority.

But if half of what the WSJ fears comes to pass, America will be in better shape than we have been in decades.

If the current polls hold, Barack Obama will win the White House on November 4 and Democrats will consolidate their Congressional majorities, probably with a filibuster-proof Senate or very close to it. Without the ability to filibuster, the Senate would become like the House, able to pass whatever the majority wants.

Though we doubt most Americans realize it, this would be one of the most profound political and ideological shifts in U.S. history. Liberals would dominate the entire government in a way they haven't since 1965, or 1933. In other words, the election would mark the restoration of the activist government that fell out of public favor in the 1970s. If the U.S. really is entering a period of unchecked left-wing ascendancy, Americans at least ought to understand what they will be getting, especially with the media cheering it all on.

The nearby table shows the major bills that passed the House this year or last before being stopped by the Senate minority. Keep in mind that the most important power of the filibuster is to shape legislation, not merely to block it. The threat of 41 committed Senators can cause the House to modify its desires even before legislation comes to a vote. Without that restraining power, all of the following have very good chances of becoming law in 2009 or 2010.
[Review & Outlook]

- Medicare for all. When HillaryCare cratered in 1994, the Democrats concluded they had overreached, so they carved up the old agenda into smaller incremental steps, such as Schip for children. A strongly Democratic Congress is now likely to lay the final flagstones on the path to government-run health insurance from cradle to grave.

Mr. Obama wants to build a public insurance program, modeled after Medicare and open to everyone of any income. According to the Lewin Group, the gold standard of health policy analysis, the Obama plan would shift between 32 million and 52 million from private coverage to the huge new entitlement. Like Medicare or the Canadian system, this would never be repealed.

The commitments would start slow, so as not to cause immediate alarm. But as U.S. health-care spending flowed into the default government options, taxes would have to rise or services would be rationed, or both. Single payer is the inevitable next step, as Mr. Obama has already said is his ultimate ideal.

- The business climate. "We have some harsh decisions to make," Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned recently, speaking about retribution for the financial panic. Look for a replay of the Pecora hearings of the 1930s, with Henry Waxman, John Conyers and Ed Markey sponsoring ritual hangings to further their agenda to control more of the private economy. The financial industry will get an overhaul in any case, but telecom, biotech and drug makers, among many others, can expect to be investigated and face new, more onerous rules. See the "Issues and Legislation" tab on Mr. Waxman's Web site for a not-so-brief target list.

The danger is that Democrats could cause the economic downturn to last longer than it otherwise will by enacting regulatory overkill like Sarbanes-Oxley. Something more punitive is likely as well, for instance a windfall profits tax on oil, and maybe other industries.

- Union supremacy. One program certain to be given right of way is "card check." Unions have been in decline for decades, now claiming only 7.4% of the private-sector work force, so Big Labor wants to trash the secret-ballot elections that have been in place since the 1930s. The "Employee Free Choice Act" would convert workplaces into union shops merely by gathering signatures from a majority of employees, which means organizers could strongarm those who opposed such a petition.

The bill also imposes a compulsory arbitration regime that results in an automatic two-year union "contract" after 130 days of failed negotiation. The point is to force businesses to recognize a union whether the workers support it or not. This would be the biggest pro-union shift in the balance of labor-management power since the Wagner Act of 1935.

- Taxes. Taxes will rise substantially, the only question being how high. Mr. Obama would raise the top income, dividend and capital-gains rates for "the rich," substantially increasing the cost of new investment in the U.S. More radically, he wants to lift or eliminate the cap on income subject to payroll taxes that fund Medicare and Social Security. This would convert what was meant to be a pension insurance program into an overt income redistribution program. It would also impose a probably unrepealable increase in marginal tax rates, and a permanent shift upward in the federal tax share of GDP.

- The green revolution. A tax-and-regulation scheme in the name of climate change is a top left-wing priority. Cap and trade would hand Congress trillions of dollars in new spending from the auction of carbon credits, which it would use to pick winners and losers in the energy business and across the economy. Huge chunks of GDP and millions of jobs would be at the mercy of Congress and a vast new global-warming bureaucracy. Without the GOP votes to help stage a filibuster, Senators from carbon-intensive states would have less ability to temper coastal liberals who answer to the green elites.

- Free speech and voting rights. A liberal supermajority would move quickly to impose procedural advantages that could cement Democratic rule for years to come. One early effort would be national, election-day voter registration. This is a long-time goal of Acorn and others on the "community organizer" left and would make it far easier to stack the voter rolls. The District of Columbia would also get votes in Congress -- Democratic, naturally.

Felons may also get the right to vote nationwide, while the Fairness Doctrine is likely to be reimposed either by Congress or the Obama FCC. A major goal of the supermajority left would be to shut down talk radio and other voices of political opposition.

- Special-interest potpourri. Look for the watering down of No Child Left Behind testing standards, as a favor to the National Education Association. The tort bar's ship would also come in, including limits on arbitration to settle disputes and watering down the 1995 law limiting strike suits. New causes of legal action would be sprinkled throughout most legislation. The anti-antiterror lobby would be rewarded with the end of Guantanamo and military commissions, which probably means trying terrorists in civilian courts. Google and would get "net neutrality" rules, subjecting the Internet to intrusive regulation for the first time.

It's always possible that events -- such as a recession -- would temper some of these ambitions. Republicans also feared the worst in 1993 when Democrats ran the entire government, but it didn't turn out that way. On the other hand, Bob Dole then had 43 GOP Senators to support a filibuster, and the entire Democratic Party has since moved sharply to the left. Mr. Obama's agenda is far more liberal than Bill Clinton's was in 1992, and the Southern Democrats who killed Al Gore's BTU tax and modified liberal ambitions are long gone.

In both 1933 and 1965, liberal majorities imposed vast expansions of government that have never been repealed, and the current financial panic may give today's left another pretext to return to those heydays of welfare-state liberalism. Americans voting for "change" should know they may get far more than they ever imagined.

To the Wall Street Journal editors: Amen!


The wingnutty declension of the National Review continues. In response to Barack Obama's defense of reproductive freedom, NR blogger Ed Whelan suggests that the Democratic candidate (whom he calls a "former fetus") would have been aborted had he been born twelve years later, after the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision. Such bizarre counterfactual history is yet more evidence that the right-wing intellectual is an endangered species.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Joe Wurzelbacher is now America's most famous working-class guy. The 34-year old plumber from northern Ohio is enjoying his Warholian fifteen minutes. Fox News is doing an exclusive interview with him tomorrow night.

I'm not sure what Joe makes, but it's surely nowhere close to $250,000, although plumbers are among the best paid construction workers, in part because nearly one third of them belong to trade unions.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides detailed data on plumbers in its annual occupational employment statistics report. "Median hourly earnings of wage and salary plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters were $20.56," reports the BLS. The middle 50 percent earned between $15.62 and $27.54. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $12.30, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $34.79. The annual median wage for plumbers in the Toledo area is $62,070. Not bad, but nowhere close to the Obama tax threshold of a quarter million. And he probably never will be. There aren't many plumbers making hefty six digit salaries.

But even if Joe makes $62,070 (and he probably does not, because his company isn't unionized, he doesn't have a plumbing license, and he does mostly small home repair jobs), what's clear is that Joe's taxes are not going up in the next four years, unless John McCain taxes his health insurance benefits.

The Republican tactic has long been to play to people's fears--and that's just what's going on with Joe. The poor guy, whatever his politics are, is becoming a tool of the right-wing. But whether or not the now-famous Ohio plumber supports McCain or Obama or even bothers to vote, let's hope that the rest of the electorate gives the Republican ticket the flush.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


For forty years, our national elections have been referendums on 1968. The first campaign against 1968 began in 1968, when Richard Nixon exploited fears of urban riots, countercultural love fests, and campus disorder to win the hearts and minds of the Silent Majority. Nixon ramped up the efforts in 1972, when he managed to paint relatively strait-laced George McGovern as the candidate of acid, amnesty, and abortion. In 1976, both Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford ran against the 1960s. And in 1980, Ronald Reagan promised to make America great again by rolling the clock back to the antediluvian 1950s.

As the 1960s grew more distant, the period remained a useful political foil. George H.W. Bush promised to undo the "Vietnam syndrome," and marketed the Persian Gulf war, complete with its careful stage-management of news reporting from the battlefront, as the anti-Vietnam War. In 1992 and 1996, Republicans lambasted the moderate Bill Clinton as a "counterculture McGovernik" who joined anti-American protests, smoked pot, and lived the Dionysian life of the love-ins right up through Gennifer and Monica. Even Al Gore and John Kerry, both of whom actually served in the military during the Vietnam War, faced accusations of 60s-ish treason, despite the fact that their Republican opponent and his running mate both dodged the draft and avoided service in the quagmire of Southeast Asia.

This year, the Republicans have once again played the Sixties card--in fact they has played the whole Sixties deck. Remember McCain's advertisement "Love," which introduced McCain's love of country motif with stark contrasts between hippies and the captive Vietnam veteran? Remember McCain's humorous jibe about "being a little tied up" when Woodstock happened? And now it's all Ayers all the time. Fox has become the Weathermen Channel.

McCain's evocation of the "bad 1960s" has utterly failed. For one, a rapidly dwindling segment of the population was even sentient during the Summer of Love. Think about this: graduates of the class of 1968 are 62 years old. McCain's reprisal of the debates of the 1960s might still be meaningful to the population of aging boomers, but for younger voters (especially from my age on downward), the 60s are history, not memory. The McCain campaign's obsession with the Weather Underground, a group about which few Americans know anything anymore, is a reminder of the Republican candidate's age. Only the wingnuts can (dangerously) envision Barack Obama plotting to blow up the Pentagon or holding up a Brinks armored car. The association is preposterous.

Voters, even those with a strong sense of history, are more concerned with the here and now. And those without a strong sense of history have been won over by a campaign that is talkin' about their generation. The 1960s, my friends, are over.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


I've never been much of a hockey fan, despite my Midwestern heritage. Everything about hockey is white: the season, the players, the fans, the culture.

When Ed Snider, the owner of the Philadelphia Flyers invited Sarah Palin to drop the first puck at last night's Flyers-Rangers game, Republicans and Democrats alike assumed that this would be a celebratory moment for the Pitbull with Lipstick to rally her Rustbelt white middle-class base.

Instead, the Flyers fans booed. (The Republicans should have known that Philly sports fans are infamously hostile, especially when they smell blood.)

It was a proud moment for this adopted Philadelphian. The pitbull with lipstick has been defanged by her own kind, hockey moms and hockey dads. If the GOP can't win them, their effort to take the White House is on thin ice.

Kooks 'r Us

In an essay posted recently on The Daily Beast, Christopher Buckley -of the Connecticut Buckleys - announced that he is voting for Barack Obama. The essay is engaging and, at a stretch, even thoughtful.

In the essay, Buckley fils quotes Buckley pere who once told him: “You know, I’ve spent my entire life time separating the Right from the kooks.” It's a good line, and it serves to encapsulate Buckley's change of electoral heart.

The problem with it, as a piece of political analysis, is that it is a classic example of creating a distinction without a real difference. Kooks - and by kooks I think we mean zealots, demogogues, fanatical true-believers etc - have been at the center of the Republican party for about half a century now.

In the 1950s, the Republican establishment, embodied by figures like Senators Robert Taft and Prescott Bush, found Joe McCarthy distasteful and vulgar. But they also found him very useful. They did little to stop the McCarthy phenomenon until McCarthy accused the Army of harboring communists and President (formerly General) Eisenhower decided enough was enough.

In the 1960s, as the Republican party wandered the electoral wilderness, the Southern racists, especially in the Senate, began their migration to the Republican party. By the 1970s the Republican party counted among its most powerful and senior leaders Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms. They don't come any kookier (or nastier and more bigoted) than that. In 1968, of course, Nixon chose the raving Spiro Agnew to be his Vice President. Spiro brought his own particular brand of hate-mongering to the national stage.

All the while, the Republican establishment - the Wills and the Buckleys - fooled themselves into believing that they could keep these attacks dogs on a short leash, that they could trot the kooks out when needed but otherwise keep them under control.

By the 1980s, however, that was no longer true. Dog and master had traded places. Reagan - a kook in his own right - cemented the deal that put the Religious Right at the heart of the Republican party. Jerry Falwell became a trusted White House advisor, and the Republican party became hopelessly addicted to the votes of the religious nutjobs. Reagan's geniality made it easy for some people to ignore that, like they ignored Reagan's reliance on Nancy's astrologer for foreign policy advice.

Reagan also chucked the core principles of the Right establishment, though they could never really bring themselves to admit it. Reagan turned out to be a buster of budgets, a ballooner of deficits, a big-time, big-government conservative.

Some of the Right breathed a sigh of relief when George I took over - how good it must have felt to those guys from Connecticut to have a guy named "Poppy" back in charge. But George I won that election largely because of Lee Atwater. Shortly after that election Atwater contracted some gruesome cancer and spent the last few months of his life on a mea-culpa tour, apologizing for all the terrible things he had done. George I, it should be noted, never apologized for Willie Horton.

And so it has gone. The Republican party is now the party where Rick Santorum can rise to be the #3 guy in the Senate, where James Dobson is regarded as a king-maker, and where Sarah Palin could be plucked from tundra obscurity by none other than William Kristol, another of those "up by your bootstraps lad!" conservatives who inherited it all from his dad.

The vicious Brown-shirt displays we have seen in the last week at the McShame/Moosehead rallies aren't the kooks; it is the Republican party - heart and soul - unabashed, unashamed, unhinged. It may make it easier for dyed-in-the-wool Republicans like Buckley to vote for Obama if they tell themselves that their party has been hijacked by the kooks. In fact, the Republican party has been the party of kooks for a long time.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


The Republicans are whipping their wingnut base into a frenzy about Barack Obama and his scary otherness. The results are not pretty. But Obamaphobia has reached new levels of absurdity among the once formidable conservative intelligentsia. For the last few days, they have wrangled over whether Obama is a Maoist, a Stalinist, or a Democratic Socialist. The discussion is truly absurd.

The correct answer for you students of American political history: none of the above. Obama is a neoliberal on economic policy. He favors the public-private partnerships that have been the staple of bipartisan governance for the last forty years. There is nary a whiff of socialism among the Democratic candidate's advisors. Obama's foreign policy toward Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, and Russia is, in every respect, mainstream. Were Dwight Eisenhower or John F. Kennedy to return in 2008, they would find little to challenge in Obama's resolutely centrist views on American international relations.

If you have the stomach for it, or if you want a good laugh, check out the lengthy exchange on Obama's supposed leftism at the Power Line and the National Review Online. William F. Buckley, Jr. would, no doubt, be appalled at the intellectual degradation of the journal that he founded, the National Review. Usually dead wrong, but often very smart in its heyday, the NR has fallen into an abyss of partisan foolishness. Rather than standing athwart history and yelling stop, as Buckley once described the conservative intellectual mission, the National Review's current stable of hacks, and their counterparts in the wingnutty blogosphere, are stuck in the mud. Let's call it the "Palinification" of the G.O.P., a substitution of bilious sloganeering for intelligent, if dangerously wrongheaded analysis. For those of us on the political left, the disappearance of an intellectually rigorous right wing is a good thing over the long run. But listening to wingnuts hurling spurious charges of terrorism, treason, and leftism is excruciating in the short run.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


Salon has given the chronically vapid Camille Paglia thousands of words to pontificate on all sorts of issues that she knows nothing about, such as Obama's views on foreign policy. Paglia argues somehow that Obama's resolutely centrist foreign policy is rooted in campus radicalism. "The university culture at Columbia and Harvard through which Obama passed has been drenched in a reflexive anti-Americanism for several decades. Armchair blame-America-first leftism is the default mode. Disdain for the military is rampant, and conservative voices are rarely heard." Had Paglia actually read Obama's foreign policy statements and had she actually examined Obama's by now well-known record at Columbia and Harvard...but well that would actually require fifteen minutes of research. For Paglia, logorrhea substitutes for logic.

But that's not the worst of it. Paglia continues her month-long swoon over Sarah Palin. And she reveals a new infatuation with Todd. She hails the Alaskan couple as Sarah "powerful new symbols of a revived contemporary feminism." Here's the clincher: "That the macho Todd, with his champion athleticism and working-class cred, can so amiably cradle babies and care for children is a huge step forward in American sexual symbolism." If only Paglia had watched the gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Republican convention, she would have observed a fascinating bit of political theater playing out. Bristol Palin (whose shotgun wedding Paglia would surely manage to interpret as a step forward for feminism) was the primary caretaker for little Trig. Cindy McCain rocked the sleeping child for a few minutes, no doubt in an effort to soften her sharp edges. But then, when the prime time cameras came on, Todd took over. Until the cameras were on, the baby got passed about among the womenfolk. As a feminist dad, I can say that my "cred" came from cradling my babies out of the limelight at two in the morning. A few minutes of theatrical parenting on prime time TV is not a blow for equal parenting. And anyhow, who watches the Palin clan when Todd is zipping about the tundra on his snowmobile?

To top it all off, Paglia throws in a good dollop of racial essentialism. "When I watch Sarah Palin, I don't think sex -- I think Amazon warrior!" So gushes Paglia, as her analysis degrades even further. She goes on: "the questions that keeps popping up for me is whether Palin, who was born in Idaho, could possibly be part Native American (as we know her husband is), which sometimes seems suggested by her strong facial contours. I have felt that same extraordinary energy and hyper-alertness billowing out from other women with Native American ancestry -- including two overpowering celebrity icons with whom I have worked."

And finally, Paglia defends Palin against charges that she's a dim bulb: "On the contrary, I was admiring not only her always shapely and syncopated syllables but the innate structures of her discourse -- which did seem to fly by in fragments at times but are plainly ready to be filled with deeper policy knowledge, as she gains it..." Palin as empty verbal vessel waiting to be filled by Republican policy knowledge. Hmm. I'll leave it to my friends in cultural studies to interpret that one.

Two pieces of advice: Salon, it's time to can Paglia. And America, it's time to can Palin.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Joe Biden is right. Paying taxes is patriotic. For speaking an unpopular truth--indeed for being a true maverick--Biden has taken flak from the wannabe mavericks Senator McCain and Governor Palin. Our tax dollars support infrastructure improvements, medical care for the disabled and elderly, public education, national parks and recreation, and much more. Sometimes that money is misspent: I don't like how my tax dollars have been used in Iraq. Along with every other American citizen, about ten cents of my federal tax dollars went to pay for a recreation center in Wasilla, Alaska, that Sarah Palin funded through earmarks. A waste of my money--perhaps. But my responsibility as a voter and as an engaged citizen is to challenge elected officials to spend my money more effectively--not to dodge my responsibility and evade paying my taxes. (For those of you who weren't reading this blog back in April, check out my post on taxation, published on April 15.)

Unfortunately, Sarah Palin has shirked her responsibilities as a tax-paying citizen. To put it most bluntly, she and Todd Palin are tax dodgers. I can think of few less patriotic acts than that. Tax attorneys have been poring over Palin's tax returns for the last two years. They are not pretty. Palin did not pay taxes on $43,490 that the state of Alaska gave the family to cover travel expenses for Mr. Palin and the Palin children. I travel a lot for work--and like most who do, I get my legitimate business expenses reimbursed or deduct them on my taxes. As much as I would love to bring my wife and kids with me on speaking gigs, their presence is not a legitimate business expense. Palin owes taxes on that unreported income (not to mention on her dubious state per diem payments for working at home). This is not a technical matter or an accounting glitch. It gets to the core of Palin's sense of duty and responsibility. It gets to her character. And that character is, as revealed on the tax returns, deeply flawed. And it gets to one of the core ideological flaws of the anti-tax philosophy of the Republican Party: they want the benefits of government--such as a strong military, Social Security, and pothole free highways--but without paying for them.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The South Rising Again

I'd like to tag-team with John's excellent essay on the "southernification" (huh?) of American politics. There is no question that southern-ness has expanded well beyond the borders of the Old South, and it has re-shaped American politics from the presidential level down to the level of local school-board elections.

Some of this, I believe, is demographic. While much has been made over the last generation of northerners moving to the Sunbelt, less has been reported about Southerners moving North. In a post a few weeks ago, I pegged the new Mason-Dixon line at I-70 - which runs across the middle of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois on its way to Denver.

They came - late as it turned out - for jobs in those Northern factories. They kept coming even after those jobs disappeared to occupy the lowest rungs of the low-wage service sector economy. In Columbus, OH the person checking you out at the supermarket, or drawing your blood at the doctor's office, or cleaning your office late at night is probably from West Virginia, Kentucky or Tennessee. Dayton, though the factories are all closed, remains a hot-bed of bluegrass music.

Likewise, I-75, a boulevard of broken dreams if ever there was one, connects what was once the center of the auto industry with much of the south. Follow it south from Detroit, through Toledo, Lima and Dayton and eventually to the Gulf side of Florida. The traffic between the south and the rustbelt is heavy on this road.

But it is more than demographics. This phenomenon is sadder, in its own way, and deeper.

In the first episode of Ken Burns' series on the Civil War, novelist and historian Shelby Foote tells a story about General Patton. Exhorting his troops during some battle during WWII, Patton reminds the troops that Americans have never lost a war. At that point Foote smiles and says: Southerners know what it means to lose a war.

But almost immediately, and certainly by the turn of the twentieth century, that defeat had been recast as noble. The Glorious Lost Cause. Defeat turned, like straw into gold, into some kind of victory. And that continues right to the present moment. Americans remain fascinated by the southern side of the Civil War - at battle re-enactments it is not uncommon that twice as many people show up portraying Confederates than show up to play Union soldiers. We still use words like "honor" and "valiant" to describe soldiers who, when all is said and done, were fighting to keep 4 million people enslaved.

That cultural memory of the Civil War, I think, and the valorization of the Confederacy helps explain the Stars 'n Bars that John (and I) have seen across the midwest. Those white working class (especially) men whose horizons have shrunk with their non-union wages are the losers in our Darwinian economic struggles. Their hold on the American dream grows ever more tenuous and they know it. Waving the Confederate flag allows people both to reject the America that has rejected them, and to identify with a different, more genuine America.

Theirs is a sense of failure, not necessarily of oppression, and for that reason their politics tends toward the bitter rather than the aspirational. Some of them may not vote for Obama for purely racist reasons. In fact, I suspect, they didn't vote for Kerry either (or for Gore).

Rather, Democrats make them angry because Democrats tend to remind them of the things that hurt the most - their lack of good jobs, their lack of health care, the lousy education their kids are getting. Republicans, on the other hand, work to deflect their anger at scapegoats and trivialities. In that way, in much the same way that big plantation owners convinced poor farmers to fight for slavery, Republicans allow the white working class to identify with the losers out of whom our culture has made the biggest heroes: Johnny Reb and his brothers.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Southernization of the White Working Class?

(This essay was originally published the San Diego Union-Tribune on October 1.)

The current battle between the presidential candidates for the votes of the white working-class requires an understanding of the culture of these voters. There are signs of a decline of an old Rust Belt culture, and the adoption of Southern culture – and both campaigns are responding.

The changes first struck me in an unforgettable moment several months ago when I saw what had become of the Rust Belt, white working-class voter. I was standing on the platform of the East Chicago, Ind., station for the local commuter train to Chicago. It was chilly, and the young man near me was wearing a jacket with a union local's name emblazoned on the back and above the left breast. But what he had on his head surprised me: he also wore a black baseball cap with the flag of the Confederacy on it.

Several months later, in a visit to my hometown of hyper-segregated Highland, Ind. – a neighbor of majority-black Gary – I witnessed a large Ford pickup truck cruising through what is left of our old downtown. And there it was again: flying proudly from the rear corners of the truck were a pair of Confederate flags.

These are only two simple observations, but both, I believe, are indicative of major changes taking place in the culture and identities of white working-class voters in the urban north.

The novelist and essayist Dave Eggers – himself a product of the Chicago suburbs – once wrote that the Midwest can be found 25 miles outside of any American city. But I think what is happening, and it is something with important implications for American politics, is that we are finding the American South all over the country. There is a “Southernization” of American politics.

Consider the ways that politicians used to court the white working class in the Rust Belt. The Nixon administration, which pioneered the strand of Republican populism that we see today, sought to appeal to them in three different ways.

First, it sought to “cultivate” (its word) relationships with union leaders. It would not do much for union workers economically, but it would stroke its union identities through words and deeds such as the appointment of Peter J. Brennan, head of the New York Building Trades Council, as secretary of Labor.

Second, it would appeal to working-class voters' identities as Catholics. The way to do this was to laud their institutions, particularly parochial schools.

Third, it celebrated these workers' ethnicity. The Nixon team fanned out across the Rust Belt and made appearances at Polish Pride Parades, Italian American Picnics and Serbfests.

Do we see any of these strategies today? Hardly – and with good reason. The work force in the still-unionized steel mills of Gary is only about a quarter of what it was in its heyday. It just does not make as much sense for the Republicans to tap pride in union membership. Appeals to Catholics are still common, but they come in a very different form. Rather than talking about what is distinctive about Catholics, Republicans appeal to what Catholic conservatives share with evangelicals: opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Religious conservatives of many different faiths, as James Davison Hunter pointed out in “Culture Wars,” share more in common with each other than with the liberal wings of their own faiths. And rather than appeal to these voters'identities as Poles or Italians or Irish, they appeal to the cultural symbols of the American South.

And this strategy makes sense. The sociologist Richard Alba noted years ago that white ethnicity was being severely attenuated by intermarriage and migration to the suburbs. But what may be happening now is that the working-class voters across the country – even in Alaska – are gravitating not toward some bland or empty “whiteness,” but toward the cultural symbols of the South.

Of course, even Nixon used “Southern strategies” to appeal to the Rust Belt. But now these Southern-style appeals are all that are left. In 2008, Republicans appeal to the white working class across the country by stoking and responding to fears of racial change. According to The Washington Post, this year the Republicans' convention reversed its convention trend toward celebrations of diversity and hosted the fewest black delegates (36 out of 2,380) since the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies began keeping track. And we hear tough talk appealing to nationalism and insecurities about American power, we have a vice presidential candidate who is an avid hunter and gun owner (and who is culturally a snow-bound Southerner), and we hear strong defenses of Christian values.

This is a trend in the wider culture – not just politics. The death-knell for the distinctiveness of the old Rust Belt working class may have sounded when comedian Jeff Foxworthy, a native of Georgia wildly successful for his “you know you're a redneck when – ” comedy theme, appropriated the phrase “blue collar” for a show about the zany antics of himself and some other wacky hillbillies. “Blue Collar TV,” as it is called, is not about unions or white ethnics.

The Southernization of the working class is a perilous trend for Democrats. Obama chose an old-school Catholic, Joe Biden, for his running mate, ignoring the fact that the Democrats have not won the White House without a Southerner on the ticket since FDR. But they at least seem to be cognizant of the trend and are being strategic. For example, Barack Obama ended his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention as Brooks & Dunn's country music smash, “Only in America,” played triumphantly. The Obama campaign can only hope that the Rust Belt voters took note.

My former classmate, fellow Rustbelt Intellectual, and NPR/PBS reporter Rick Karr sent me the following after reading the above piece:

One small empirical quibble: Since WWII, in particular, the (Northwest Indiana) Region has been heavy with migrants from the Deep South. Your comment on hyper-segregated Highland takes on another meaning in this context: Those southerners tended to live in places like Griffith, Calumet Township, outlying and unincorporated Gary (Black Oak, e.g.), and in South County -- Cedar Lake and so on.

Note the socioeconomic correlation: Highland High "ranked" higher than any of those schools, though not as high as Munster, where, iirc, very few southern migrants lived.

And I recall strong anti-souther bias in my extended family -- the only word used more derisively than "Czarny" ("blacks" in Polish, spat out with the vehemence of "nigger") was "hillbilly". When my family lived in a mixed working-class and lower-middle class neighborhood, many of the neighbors (the Bashums, the Stewarts, the Cartwrights -- note the names) were denigrated as "hillbillies" -- not only by my parents, but also by the Zemkoskys, Suklaks, and so on. Oh, and my family loathed Bill Clinton -- not because of his politics alone, but because, according to my mother, he "looks like a hillbilly".

Seems to me it's a classic migration pattern: We Eastern Europeans got their first, so we disdained those who followed us during and immediately after WWII.

Indiana as a whole has also long had a strong affinity for southern symbolism and politics -- moreso, I think, than the surrounding north-of-the-Ohio states. Neither Illinois nor Ohio ever sent a Grand Dragon of the Klan to the U.S. Senate.

Bottom line: Your conclusion feels sound to me, though citing the Region as evidence seems odd.

Rick is certainly right--and those folks displaying Confederate flags I witnessed could have easily been transplanted Southerners rather than culturally lost ethnic Catholics. I would still maintain, however, that the old political appeals to Rust Belt working class voters emphasizing union membership, Catholic institutions and white ethnicity have mostly disappeared, leaving only Southern-style political appeals in their place.


I'm thrilled to introduce the newest contributor to Rustbelt Intellectual, John David Skrentny. John is currently professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, but don't let the fact that he grades papers and writes lectures sitting in a lawn chair under the bright blue skies of the Torrey Pines delude you into thinking that he's not a Rustbelt Intellectual through and through.

In fact, John is the original Rustbelt Intellectual. A native of Highland, Indiana, a near suburb of Gary, John grew up driving past the steel mills along Cline Avenue, fishing in the befouled waters of Lake Calumet, and visiting his grandparents in Gary's old Hungarian neighborhood (pictured above). Nearly twenty years ago, when John left his home state to attend graduate school at Harvard, he found himself in the orbit of the last great New York Intellectuals, notably Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell, who had taken up residence in leafy Cambridge. The children and grandchildren of immigrants, the New York Intellectuals grew up in the heady but intensely fractious world of the city's Jewish socialists, where apartment buildings were controlled by one or another leftist sect and where arguments over Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin were as common as street brawls and fought with the same intensity. But by the late 1980s, many the surviving New York Intellectuals, still brilliant and argumentative, had moved to the political right.

John and I attended Harvard at the same time and, after the fact, we discovered that we had many friends in common and even attended a few memorable parties together. But we never met there--or if we did, neither of us remember. It wasn't until we were both assistant professors at another Ivy League institution that we found that our shared Rustbelt roots gave us a shared perspective on politics didn't quite fit in with the elitism of many of our East Coast colleagues.

Attracted by the cosmopolitanism of the urban East Coast, but repelled by its pretensions (what we called the "Harvard-o-centric view of the universe"), we found ourselves having to explain the quirky politics of our families, our relatives, our neighbors, the people we grew up with to our East Coast friends. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Midwestern "Reagan Democrats," a term that described many of our relatives, became the subject of intense scrutiny by pollsters, pundits, and political scientists--and derision in our own circles. But so many of those commentators treated blue-collar and middle-class Midwesterners as an exotic species. John and I found ourselves having to explain the politics of race, rights, and justice--the everyday notions of fairness and difference--that shaped and sometimes distorted the politics of people like those in our extended families.

Back then, in the self-satisfied precincts of Harvard Square, John rebelliously coined the term "Rustbelt Intellectual," describing an identity that captured the two-ness of coming from modest Midwestern origins but finding ourselves in the self-proclaimed (if greatly exaggerated) Athens of America. Like the New York intellectuals, we were products of the disputatious politics of our white ethnic families. Just as the New York Intellectuals leaned right, away from their socialist backgrounds, we Rustbelt Intellectuals leaned left, away from our Reagan Democrat roots. And just as the New York Intellectuals could never fully escape their origins in Brooklyn and the Bronx, even as they thrived in the goyische precincts of Cambridge, so too were we the products of Gary and Detroit, shaped by the Catholic sensibilities of our families, deeply tied to our troubled home towns, attracted by the economic populism of some of the Rustbelt's more compelling political figures, and, at the same time, battling against the demons of race and unacknowledged white identity politics that colored the politics of Michigan and Indiana.

I hope you find John's distinctive political voice a refreshing addition to this blog. We don't always agree politically, but John is one of the most thoughtful analysts of contemporary American politics and culture. It's great to have him aboard as an occasional contributor.

Talkin' 'bout their generation

Last week my wife got an email from Orrin. You know, Orrin Hatch rabid right-winger from Utah. She gets a lot of emails from his these days - she's apparently his new BFF.

This one was tagged "Hanoi Jane" and warned her that "Hanoi Jane is out stumping for liberal Democratic senate candidates." She - and they - must be stopped.

Poor Orrin, I thought, this is the best you can do? Hanoi Jane? Who remembers Hanoi Jane anymore? Who cares? More people probably remember Jane Fonda for that old exercise video than for her politics. The whole thing had the whiff of desperation.

Then I pick up the Times this morning (why, I don't know) and the lead story is about Obama's having crossed paths with Bill Ayers. You know, the guy who founded the Weathermen and spent a decade living underground.

Fewer people remember Bill Ayers -or the Weather Underground for that matter - than remember Hanoi Jane (and in the great sweep of American history both are about as trivial) but the Times apparently felt this was the most important story we needed to know here in 2008.

On September 12, 2001 a wise friend of mine said to me: Well, at least the 1960s will finally be over - this means we have to move on from that into a new world.

Sadly, he was wrong. The last seven years have been nothing if not a re-hash of the politics of Vietnam. McSame has made his years as a POW a central part of his campaign - asked recently about the health care crisis, he responded that he didn't have any health care in prison.

Obama, of course, post-dates the 1960s. He was about 8 in 1968 so he doesn't have a personal connection to (or perhaps any stake in) the tired political fights of that era. And so it is that Orrin Hatch dredges up "Hanoi Jane" and the Times resurrects Bill Ayers. The babyboomers in the media and elsewhere want to continue fighting those fights, and they need to link Obama to them somehow, however absurdly. You could tell how good it made BFF Orrin feel to use the phrase "Hanoi Jane" - like a smoker who hasn't had a puff in a while taking a long, slow drag.

I was 2 when the Democratic convention in Chicago exploded in 1968. My memories of it are foggy, but I don't recall that people spent too much time re-visiting the political intrigues of 1928. I don't think the ghost of Al Smith visited the scene very often. Yet here we are forty years after all that and people won't let go. I suspect that political debates in 1968 focused on the chaotic present and the uncertain future; in 2008 we keep one nostalgic eye firmly on the past.

Friday, October 3, 2008


Homer's plight at the ballot box offers a humorous riff on a deadly serious issue. Voter intimidation is not a joke this year. As the Republicans grow increasingly desperate to win a majority in swing states, we can expect attempts to violate voting rights. The Michigan GOP (at least before McCain decided to throw in the towel there) promised to disenfranchise foreclosed homeowners. Similar plans are afoot in Ohio, thanks to the Buckeye State's Republican Party.

And this week, flyers have been circulating in North and West Philadelphia attempting to intimidate voters by stating that those who have outstanding arrest warrants or unpaid traffic tickets may be arrested at the polls on Election Day.

Expect to see a lot more of this activity, especially in swing states where a large black turnout might be enough to defeat McCain and Palin.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


I have long loved poetry. My tastes are quite diverse, ranging from the Rustbelt intellectual Philip Levine to the ruminative Susan Stewart. I am now reading the extraordinary experimental, lyric reflection on Detroit, The Straits, by the immensely talented Kristin Palm. And I encourage you to visit Mirabile Dictu, the brilliantly polymathic Canadian blogger and poet, who intersperses verses with informative posts on feminism, human rights, and politics.

After reading this piece by Hart Seely at Slate, I am now convinced that Sarah Palin is America's most innovative poet. Step aside Levine and Stewart. What I thought were rambling, inarticulate answers on foreign and domestic policy are actually powerful examples of what Seely calls an "arctic-fresh voice" who composes "intensely personal verses, spoken poems that drill into the vagaries of modern life as if they were oil deposits beneath a government-protected tundra."

I have taken the liberty of posting Seely's transcriptions of Palin's extraordinary verse:

"On Good and Evil"

It is obvious to me
Who the good guys are in this one
And who the bad guys are.
The bad guys are the ones
Who say Israel is a stinking corpse,
And should be wiped off
The face of the earth.

That's not a good guy.

(To K. Couric, CBS News, Sept. 25, 2008)

"You Can't Blink"

You can't blink.
You have to be wired
In a way of being
So committed to the mission,

The mission that we're on,
Reform of this country,
And victory in the war,
You can't blink.

So I didn't blink.

(To C. Gibson, ABC News, Sept. 11, 2008)


These corporations.
Today it was AIG,
Important call, there.

(To S. Hannity, Fox News, Sept. 18, 2008)

"Befoulers of the Verbiage"

It was an unfair attack on the verbiage
That Senator McCain chose to use,
Because the fundamentals,
As he was having to explain afterwards,
He means our workforce.
He means the ingenuity of the American.
And of course that is strong,
And that is the foundation of our economy.
So that was an unfair attack there,
Again based on verbiage.

(To S. Hannity, Fox News, Sept. 18, 2008)

"Secret Conversation"

I asked President Karzai:

"Is that what you are seeking, also?
"That strategy that has worked in Iraq?
"That John McCain had pushed for?
"More troops?
"A counterinsurgency strategy?"

And he said, "Yes."

(To K. Couric, CBS News, Sept. 25, 2008)


I am a Washington outsider.
I mean,
Look at where you are.
I'm a Washington outsider.

I do not have those allegiances
To the power brokers,
To the lobbyists.
We need someone like that.

(To C. Gibson, ABC News, Sept. 11, 2008)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


The next administration may have the occasion to nominate as many as four Supreme Court justices according to the right-wing Judicial Confirmation Network. So as a warning to America, they have put together a bland ad that provides judicial cover for hurling the mud of "God damn America," the Weathermen, and a corrupt developer back into the public sphere. After a few days respite from wingnut slime attacks, we are back to the dubious politics of character assassination and guilt by association.

What is missing from the ad is an evaluation of the sophisticated legal mind that McCain has chosen as his running mate. We now know that he regularly consults her for foreign policy advice, so it's likely that he'll also tap her for her legal acumen, on display in all of its glory here.

Whose Supreme Court justices do you want?