Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Wednesday, August 23rd, 2006.

Capture the Flag

American History, conservatism, Democratic Party, liberalism and progressivism, Republican Party

This feature by Ezra Klein in American Prospect points to a trend that bears close watching “populist” or “pro-government” conservatism.

Small-government conservatism is anachronistic, but not because of Newt Gingrich’s failures. Rather, three longer-term factors have deprived the ideology of both intellectual legitimacy and popular support: structural changes in the GOP’s coalition, accelerating economic insecurity, and the empirical failure of supply-side economics.

Of these factors, the first is the most noteworthy. Through its use of cultural and “values” issues — and, since September 11, security concerns — the Republican Party has captured the allegiance of working-class, socially conservative whites and seen its coalition’s center of gravity shift from West to South. But recent research shows that these voters, whatever their views on gay marriage, are quite fond of the stability and protection of the entitlement state. …

… some younger, less tradition-bound conservative thinkers are sketching out a pro-government philosophy that supports conventionally progressive proposals like wage subsidies and child-tax credits but places them in a new context — as rear-guard protective actions in defense of the nuclear family. That is, whereas progressives argue for economic justice for a class or classes, these conservatives are arguing for economic favoritism for families, buttressed by government policies that encourage and advantage them as the central structure of American life. It isn’t hard to see the potential appeal of that approach, and it could corner Democrats and liberals into being the party of the poor, while the GOP becomes the party of parents.

Get this:

Fully 80 percent of Pro-Government Conservatives believe the government must do more to help the needy, even if it means going into debt. More than 60 percent believe that environmental regulations are worth the cost, 83 percent fear the power corporations have amassed, and 66 percent believe government regulation is necessary to protect the public interest.

To which we progressives are left sputtering: but… but … but… that’s progressivism. And liberalism, even. WTF???

The distinction, as Ezra says above, is that “whereas progressives argue for economic justice for a class or classes, these conservatives are arguing for economic favoritism for families, buttressed by government policies that encourage and advantage them as the central structure of American life.” But is essentially the same way New Deal liberalism was marketed to the American public back in the day. For example, in the 1948 presidential campaign, Harry Truman told Americans “All I ask you to do is vote for yourself, vote for your family.” Back then the Democrats marketed themselves as the champions who protected ordinary working men and women, and their families, from the rapacious greed of (Republican) fat cats, big business, and special interests.

So how did progressivism and populism get “conservative”?

A few days ago I wrote about how the Democratic Party lost its historic connection to working-class voters. Two factors in particular caused the ordinary working man and woman to abandon the Democratic Party and vote Republican. One was Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” which provided social and health benefits for the elderly and the poor, including poor African Americans. Earlier New Deal entitlement programs showed favoritism to whites (a concession FDR had to make to southern Democrats). By the 1960s white workers enjoyed a fast-rising standard of living, largely thanks to New Deal liberalism. But most whites resented paying taxes to relieve the poverty of African Americans. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and other Republicans exploited racist resentment to persuade white working-class voters to vote Republican.

The other factor was the New Left. As explained in this essay (scroll down to the American History subhead):

New Deal liberalism had been erected on the understanding that it was the job of government to protect the virtuous people from the rapacious interests. But, asked the new politics liberals of the 1960s, what if the people themselves were corrupted by materialism, imperialism, racial bigotry, and a variety of other malignancies? Their answer, inspired in large measure by the civil rights movement, was to return to a pre-New Deal definition of democracy based largely on court-generated rights. Denuded of its democratic drive, liberalism had become minoritarian.

Beginning with Richard Nixon, the Republicans picked up the “common man” theme and ran with it to victories in five of six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988. Where FDR had spoken of the “forgotten man,” Republicans like Nixon and Ronald Reagan spoke of the “silent majority” imperiled by crime and court-ordered “social engineering.” Conservatives played on the opposition to social policies like busing for racial integration to argue that government, not big business, was the great danger to the average American. By the 1988 presidential election, twice as many voters defined themselves as conservatives than as liberals. Liberals, members of the party of court-protected minorities, had themselves become a minority.

While we’re here, I’d like to quote a spot from the same essay about “Naderism.”

In the 1970s, legal crusaders like Ralph Nader, famous for exposing the safety hazards of General Motors cars, filed class action suits to fill the vacuum created by the collapse of social science. The NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Legal Services Corporation, or one of the many “Naderite” public interest law firms was as likely to sue government on behalf of aggrieved minorities as to defend it. Liberalism became increasingly associated not with a broad majoritarian politics but with a court-imposed politics, whether dealing with racial and gender quotas or with pollution control standards.

Legal reformers initiated what, in regulatory terms, was almost a second New Deal between 1964 and 1977. Ten new regulatory agencies were created. Regulatory battles over everything from product safety to energy conservation took the shape of class conflict but–fatally for post-New Deal liberalism–without mass support. Without that support, the new liberalism, an alliance of lawyers and other professionals with minorities, was politically vulnerable.

The decoupling of liberalism and populism is still hurting us now.

Ezra continues(emphasis added),

An early template came last November in The Weekly Standard, which featured an article by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam arguing that the GOP is “an increasingly working-class party, dependent for its power on supermajorities of the white working-class vote, and a party whose constituents are surprisingly comfortable with bad-but-popular liberal ideas like raising the minimum wage, expanding clumsy environmental regulations, or hiking taxes on the wealthy to fund a health-care entitlement.” They identified a new breed of “Sam’s Club Republicans” and urged GOP politicians to take the economic fears and anxieties of their constituents seriously. Doing so “would mean matching the culture-war rhetoric of family values with an economic policy that places the two-parent family … at the heart of the GOP agenda.” They even admitted that such a program would “begin with the recognition of a frequent left-wing talking point — that over the past few decades, returns to capital have escalated while returns to labor have declined, and that the result has been increasing economic insecurity for members of the working and middle classes.”

There is both peril and opportunity here, for both parties. It’s hard to imagine the GOP making a genuine effort to help the working class without alienating the other factions that support it. On the other hand, in the minds of white middle class voters the Democrats still are the party of the poor and minorities, not them. Ezra concludes,

For Democrats, being boxed in as the Party of the Poor while the GOP assumes the mantle of the family is an electoral nightmare. A conservative progressivism primarily for the middle class and discriminating against the underclass, while less just, will be politically potent, promising downscale whites all the benefits of redistribution without all the subsidization of urban blacks. Call it the rise of the Republicrats. Call it a disaster.

For another perspective on where liberalism went wrong, see yesterday’s E.J. Dionne column — “A Wrong Turn Led to the ‘L-Word‘” Dionne argues that liberals gained a reputation for being elitist snots because of the influence of historian Richard Hofstadter.

David S. Brown’s “Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography” offers us the life of one of our country’s most revered historians. Hofstadter, the author of such enduringly popular works as “The American Political Tradition” and “The Age of Reform,” shaped modern liberalism in ways that we must still grapple with today. …

… Hofstadter may have misled the very liberal movement to which he was devoted. There was, first, his emphasis on American populists as embodying a “deeply ingrained provincialism” (Brown’s term) whose revolt was as much a reaction to the rise of the cosmopolitan big city as to economic injustices.

Many progressives and reformers, he argued, represented an old Anglo-Saxon middle class who suffered from “status anxiety” in reaction to the rise of a vulgar new business elite. Hofstadter analyzed the right wing of the 1950s and early 1960s in similar terms. Psychological disorientation and social displacement became more important than ideas or interests.

Now, Hofstadter was exciting precisely because he brilliantly revised accepted and sometimes pious views of what the populists and progressives were about. But there was something dismissive about Hofstadter’s analysis that blinded liberals to the legitimate grievances of the populists, the progressives and, yes, the right wing.

The late Christopher Lasch, one of Hofstadter’s students and an admiring critic, noted that by conducting “political criticism in psychiatric categories,” Hofstadter and his intellectual allies excused themselves “from the difficult work of judgment and argumentation.”

Lasch added archly: “Instead of arguing with opponents, they simply dismissed them on psychiatric grounds.”

This was, I believe, a wrong turn for liberalism. It was a mistake to tear liberalism from its populist roots and to emphasize the irrational element of popular movements almost to the exclusion of their own self-understanding. FDR, whom Hofstadter admired, always understood the need to marry the urban (and urbane) forms of liberalism to the traditions of reform and popular protest.

Hmm. Dionne makes a persuasive argument, but I think there’s more to this story.

Blogger Todd Mitchell discusses Hofstadter’s 1962 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, beginning with a quote from a New York Times book review by Sam Tanenhouse:

    Tanenhouse: “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life”” includes many brilliant pages. There is a discussion of early American evangelism and its attack on learned clergy, the eggheads of their day. And there are justly celebrated passages on “the revolt against modernity”” that occurred in the early 1900’’s – ““the emergence of a religious style shaped by a desire to strike back against everything modern – the higher criticism, evolutionism, the social gospel, rational criticism of every kind.”

    “In the boom years of the 1920’’s, for instance, millions of small-town and rural “native stock”” Americans, alarmed by the ascendancy of the country’s pluralistic urban culture, had embraced the organized bigotry of the Ku Klux Klan and flocked to the punitive crusades of anti-evolutionism and Prohibition. The pattern was being repeated in the 1950’s…”

And of course, today. That’s why I was so surprised, upon re-reading a few passages from the book, why no one is talking about Hofstadter. His piercing analysis and dissection of conservatism, including its obvious anti-intellectualism, is more relevant now, probably, than it was in the 1960’s.

So I scratched my head and wondered, how come no one is talking about this Times review? Why haven’t a few of the more enlightened blogs I read mentioned Hofstadter’s work?

The answer, Mitchell says, is that Hofstadter was as hard on the New Left as he was on the Right.

Hofstadter’s comment that “the progressive movement is the complaint of the unorganized,” is devastating and true. He also highlighted the “thread connecting McCarthyism to popular left-wing dissent,” which had been visible for some time.

    “Little did Hofstadter suspect that a year after the publication of “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,”” attacks on autonomous liberals far more damaging than any inflicted by the right would come, as Brown writes, “from the children of the liberal class itself.”” University-based militants of the New Left began echoing the criticisms of the liberal establishment the right had been making for years.”

The subject of Hofstadter’s influence on liberalism is too complex to take up today. But I think Dionne is barking up the wrong tree if he thinks Hofstadter primarily is to blame for the demonization of the “L” word. He may have played an unwitting supporting role, but that’s it.

I do think the problem of anti-intellectualism is worse now than in the 1950s, and this is another factor working against liberalism, because it’s part of the myth of the “liberal elite” — the cabal of wealthy latte-sipping lefties who, according to rightie mythology, secretly run everything and are the source of all evil in America.

The “liberal elite” myth was in part the creation of Joe McCarthy. McCarthy liked to pose as the protector of the common man; his opponents were “eggheads” who didn’t understand the real world. Then Richard Nixon picked up the “egghead” theme and ran with it, even though Nixon was no more “the common man” than I’m an aardvark. (Nixon called Adlai Stevenson an “egghead” more than once. To which Stevenson responded, “Via ovicipitum dura est.” Or, “the way of the egghead is hard.”)

Today the VRWC has persuaded a big chunk of the electorate that there’s something suspicious about people who are smart and knowledgeable, as Stevenson was. Instead, the electorate is told, we’re supposed to prefer a politician who is likable, a politician we’d like to have a beer with, instead of a politician who is an intellectual. Forget intellectual; a politician who can find Peru on a map and speak in complete sentences as an “egghead” these days. So now we’ve got a grinning idiot for a president. (And we liberals are supposed to apologize for that, Mr. Dionne?)

And may I say that I’d vote for a guy who can ad lib in Latin over a grinning idiot, any day.

But it’s becoming more and more clear to me that liberals and progressives must, somehow, recapture the flag of populism that we dropped back in the 1960s, and we must do this without abandoning our commitment to justice and equal opportunity for all.

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Tweety Scores

Bush Administration, Democratic Party, Iraq War, News Media, Republican Party

I missed Hardball last night, but by many accounts it was a real barn burner. Dday of Daily Kos writes,

Chris Matthews just pummeled, PUMMELED Van Taylor (only Republican Iraq War vet running for Congress on the Republican side, in Texas), and Paul Hackett piled on, calling out Taylor as nothing but an apologist.

Crooks & Liars has the video.

John Amato, Huffington Post

Tonight on Hardball we got a rare glimpse of what a debate between a Republican Iraq War Vet and a Democratic Iraq War Vet looks like. Or should I say the Republican Iraq War Vet, at least as far as candidates for Congress go.

It was Republican Van Taylor, who’s running against Democrat Chet Edwards in TX-17.

He’s one of a tiny number of challengers the NRCC says they’re supporting, and they’re already going low against Edwards — you’ll hear Taylor accuse Edwards of not “supporting the troops” even though Edwards is beloved by the military community for work on national veterans issues and his work with the local vets community on things like PTSD. It’s a big part of why he survived Tom DeLay’s redistricting garbage. …

…The contrast between Taylor’s regurgitated Ken Mehlman talking points and Paul Hackett’s heartfelt, passionate outrage is just shocking. And you’ll see the same kind of sincerity from Tammy Duckworth and Patrick Murphy on our side. If you’ve never seen Paul Hackett before, you’re in for a real treat and will soon realize why he instantaneously gained so much respect in the blogosphere.

See also Bob Geiger.

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