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America, Its Back Stabbed

Bush Administration

The “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra” post from last week drew a lot of attention, and I’m glad to see someone else make a similar point. Gary Kamiya (who is very sharp, btw; I’m always impressed with what he writes) leaves out the Star Trek reference but writes that George Bush’s entire presidency is based on myth:

Bush’s entire presidency has been propped up by the War Myth. By aggressively presenting himself as a war leader, by wrapping himself in the sacred robes of patriotism, the military and national honor, Bush has taken refuge in the holy of holies, the ultimate sanctuary in American life. He has made criticism of his policies tantamount to criticism of the one institution in American life that is untouchable: the military. He uses the almost 4,000 new crosses in military cemeteries as a talisman against his opponents — notwithstanding the fact that he is wholly responsible for those crosses. …

… What is crucial to understand is that the War Myth can be effective even when reality utterly undercuts it. Myths appeal to transcendental values, shared sacred beliefs. Once we have entered the realm of myth, taboos replace rational discourse.

That irrational power explains the Democrats’ recent humiliating collapse on Bush’s intelligence surveillance bill. It explains why Republican politicians, whose ideology is steeped in the War Myth, have failed to rebel against a doomed war that could cost them their jobs. And it is why the American political establishment is waiting hat in hand for Gen. Petraeus’ predictable report, in which he will say the surge is working and ask for more time.

“Myths appeal to transcendental values, shared sacred beliefs. Once we have entered the realm of myth, taboos replace rational discourse.” A few people who read the “Darmok” post argued that lefties are just as bad about mythical thinking as righties. But I’m not sure these people understood what I was saying. A “myth” isn’t just a made-up story. Myths, whether religious or political, create a context in which we understand ourselves and others. People who are deeply steeped in mythos interpret everything in that context. For example, someone whose understanding of liberals is that they hate America will interpret everything liberals do or say through that filter. It doesn’t matter what liberals might do to prove they are patriots; it will be interpreted as phony. Because, you know, liberals hate America.

For example, yesterday Digby posted some right-wing comments published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Could’ve been a dead body on the stage and no delegate or speaker would have called attention, so desperate are they to appear mainstream. These are folks who think hiding their beliefs is necessary, because you wouldn’t like them if you found out.

Translation: The Democrats are not saying what the writer’s mythos tells him Democrats believe. Therefore, the Dems are hiding their beliefs.

This is the George McGovern anti-war party. Omega Lamont of Peachtree City calls it the “Botox convention.” Any cosmetic to dress up Kerry and his band of ’60s peaceniks as a party that can be trusted to lead in a world in which fanatics are determined to destroy us.

Translation: The George McGovern myth informs the writer that Democrats are “peaceniks” who will not defend America. I’ve written before that the McGovern myth is based on a gross distortion of history. See, for example, “Don’t Blame McGovern” and “Don’t Blame McGovern II.” But the important point here is the writer doesn’t feel a need to justify his claim that Democrats can’t be trusted to handle national security. He just evokes McGovern.

Once we have entered the realm of myth, taboos replace rational discourse. In this case, the “taboo” is entertaining the possibility that a Democrat might want to defend America from enemies and be as “tough” on national security as anyone else. This is in spite of the fact that two Democratic presidents led the nation in World War II, and another saw us through the Cuban Missile Crisis. The McGovern myth overrides all. Democrats are pansies, by virtue of being Democrats. The McGovern myth says so.

Elements of the far Left are not immune to mythic thinking. Alexander Cockburn explains,

These days a dwindling number of leftists learn their political economy from Marx via the small, mostly Trotskyist groupuscules. Into the theoretical and strategic void has crept a diffuse, peripatic conspiracist view of the world that tends to locate ruling class devilry not in the crises of capital accumulation, or the falling rate of profit, or inter-imperial competition, but in locale (the Bohemian Grove, Bilderberg, Ditchley, Davos) or supposedly “rogue” agencies, with the CIA still at the head of the list. The 9/11 “conspiracy”, or “inside job”, is the Summa of all this foolishness.

However, what I think of as mainstream lefties — which includes pretty much all of the leftie blogosphere and the more progressive parts of the Democratic Party — were never Marxists to begin with and barely pay attention to the truthers, except to ban them from our blogs for being tiresome.

But our counterparts on the Right live in the land of myth. And, as Gary Kamiya says, plenty of Democrats are hemmed in by rightie myths, either because they believe them or they think it’s political suicide to argue with them.

When Bush trotted out his highly imaginative version of Vietnam history last week, I realized that the facts of Vietnam were not the point of the speech. He was speaking of what Vietnam represents to the Right, emotionally and mythically. Gary Kamiya continues,

But for Bush, Vietnam’s real relevance to Iraq isn’t the early withdrawal issue — it’s the “stab in the back.”

The “stab in the back” holds that America was only defeated in Vietnam because we lost the will to fight. And those who sapped our will, those who betrayed our fighting men, were cowardly protesters and craven politicians. As Bush told “Meet the Press'” Tim Russert in 2004, “The thing about the Vietnam War that troubles me as I look back was it was a political war. We had politicians making military decisions, and it is lessons that any president must learn, and that is to set the goal and the objective and allow the military to come up with the plans to achieve that objective. And those are essential lessons to be learned from the Vietnam War.”

As Kevin Baker noted in an in-depth analysis in Harper’s, the “stab in the back” thesis is the ur-right-wing credo. It brings together two keystone beliefs: the idea that America is omnipotent and incapable of defeat, and that any war the U.S. engages in must be noble and heroic. Therefore, if America is defeated, traitorous elites — craven politicians, un-American punks, degenerates, longhairs, pinkos and agitators, and the cowardly elite media — must be to blame. Nixon and Agnew’s demonizing of “nattering nabobs of negativism” and Reagan’s claims that war protesters were giving “comfort and aid” to the enemy sprang from this belief.

I’ve written several posts that cite the Kevin Baker article, several of which are archived here; see this post in particular. Baker argues persuasively that in the postwar years Republicans saved themselves from irrelevancy by propagating the “FDR and Stalin at Yalta” myth. He wrote,

A growing chorus of right-wing voices now began to excoriate our wartime diplomacy. Their most powerful charge, one that would firmly establish the Yalta myth in the American political psyche, was the accusation that our delegation had given over Eastern Europe to the Soviets. According to “How We Won the War and Lost the Peace,” an essay written for Life magazine shortly before the 1948 election by William Bullitt—a former diplomat who had been dismissed by Roosevelt for outing a gay rival in the State Department—FDR and his chief adviser, Harry Hopkins, were guilty of “wishful appeasement” of Stalin at Yalta, handing the peoples of Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Baltic states over to the Soviet dictator.

Please do read the Kevin Baker article if you haven’t already. The basic point is that the Vietnam myth and the McGovern myth are really just add-ons to the Yalta myth. And when you’re discussing Iraq with someone whose understanding of American defense policy is entirely steeped in the Yalta-Vietnam-McGovern mythos, you might as well be talking to a tree stump. And a nasty little bugger of a tree stump at that; one who thinks the only reason anyone would want to end the war is to stab America in the back.

Gary Kamiya thinks that most of America is no longer buying the “Bush the War President” myth.

The inescapable truth is that Bush’s war of choice has destroyed an entire nation — and there is no way for the United States or anyone else to control what happens next. The increasingly shaky plight of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shows just how unstable Iraq’s cobbled-together political system is. U.S. dreams of replacing him with a secular strongman like Ayad Allawi are delusional. The war is not winnable, and there is thus only one possible rationale for continuing it, the one Bush raised: preventing an even more apocalyptic blood bath than we have already caused.

If we knew that by staying we could avert such a blood bath, we would owe it to the Iraqi people, whom we have harmed so grievously, to remain. But the fact is that no one can really predict whether our departure will cause such a blood bath. Moreover, it is now obvious that the political and sectarian schisms that could lead to it will not heal themselves. As Gen. Petraeus has admitted, it might take a decade to achieve real stability in Iraq. In other words, Bush is asking the U.S. to keep troops in Iraq, possibly indefinitely, in an attempt to forestall an outcome that might never happen — precisely what he argues we should have done in Vietnam.

This is not a scenario that Congress or the American people are going to accept. We are now approaching an endgame in Iraq that has its own inexorable logic, which not even Bush’s appeals to the War Myth will be able to stop.

However, Bush’s “Vietnam” speech may serve other purposes.

In some part of his brain, Bush knows this — which explains his other motivation for invoking Vietnam and attacking war critics as defeatists. As a partisan Republican, still dreaming of Karl Rove’s permanent Republican majority, he wants to ensure that the Democrats take the blame in the coming argument over “who lost Iraq?” By defiantly insisting, contrary to all evidence, that victory is within grasp, he is planting the seeds of a resentful revisionism, a stab in the back II, which he hopes will come to fruition in the future.

But Bush has little credibility with most Americans. “Bush’s attempt to claim he was stabbed in the back is certain to meet the same fate. That notion will live on only where it always has, in the danker corners of the extreme right wing.”

I do believe that we lefties need to create and promote some narratives of our own to counter the Right’s narratives, but I don’t want to copy them and demonize the entire Republican Party, including moderates. I just want the darker corners of the extreme right wing to release its grip on Washington and mass media. Let the wingnuts take their myths and go home.


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Stabbed in the Back

Bush Administration

For more than sixty years the American Right has been fueled by a “stabbed in the back” meme. As Kevin Baker wrote,

Every state must have its enemies. Great powers must have especially monstrous foes. Above all, these foes must arise from within, for national pride does not admit that a great nation can be defeated by any outside force. That is why, though its origins are elsewhere, the stab in the back has become the sustaining myth of modern American nationalism. Since the end of World War II it has been the device by which the American right wing has both revitalized itself and repeatedly avoided responsibility for its own worst blunders. Indeed, the right has distilled its tale of betrayal into a formula: Advocate some momentarily popular but reckless policy. Deny culpability when that policy is exposed as disastrous. Blame the disaster on internal enemies who hate America. Repeat, always making sure to increase the number of internal enemies.

On Sunday, Robert Farley of Lawyers, Guns and Money noted current developments in back-stabbing:

The stab-in-the-back narrative is now in full gear. What Kaus merely abets, Glenn Reynolds, Mark Steyn, and the editors of Investors Business Daily push full throttle; America will lose because of the perfidy of liberals. The Surge is providing the proximate excuse. After four years of disastrous ineptitude during which Reynolds et al happily watched the Bush administration destroy America’s standing in the world and wage the most incompetent conflict since the War of 1812, they’ve decided that opposition to the trivial escalation provided by the Surge is the final necessary indicator of treason in the Democratic Party.

Never mind that, when the surge was proposed, the Joint Chiefs unanimously opposed it. Never mind the advice of Lt. Gen. William Odom

A Congress, or a president, prepared to quit the game of “who gets the blame” could begin to alter American strategy in ways that will vastly improve the prospects of a more stable Middle East. …

… The first and most critical step is to recognize that fighting on now simply prolongs our losses and blocks the way to a new strategy. Getting out of Iraq is the pre-condition for creating new strategic options. Withdrawal will take away the conditions that allow our enemies in the region to enjoy our pain. It will awaken those European states reluctant to collaborate with us in Iraq and the region.

Sooner or later, U.S. troops will withdraw from Iraq. And just as the Right whined that Franklin Roosevelt gave away eastern Europe at Yalta, and that “liberals” in the State Department “lost China” to Mao, and that we could have “won” in Vietnam were it not for the dirty bleeping hippies, the Right will spend the rest of this century pointing fingers at the Left for losing Iraq. Count on it.

But now the Right is in self-marginalization mode, commonly called “eating their own.” For example, Republican presidential candidate John McCain has blamed Donald Rumsfeld for the “mismanagement” of the war. And the True Believers are outraged. One called this a “cheap shot” and declared McCain to be “anathema in 2008.” Another predicted that McCain’s campaign would end in a “well-deserved rout.”

John Hinderaker of Power Line
attempts nuance:

McCain is entitled to editorialize, of course, and I believe he has been consistent in calling for more troops. It seems odd to blame Rumsfeld, though; the administration’s position has always been that it would provide more troops if the generals said they needed them. The military judgment of the generals on the ground has been, up until recently, that they had enough personnel to do the job.

In other words, the “commanders on the ground” didn’t want more troops as long as George Bush didn’t want to send more troops, but now that he wants to send some, they have changed their minds. None of these meatheads can extrapolate from this that Bush doesn’t give a bleep what the “commanders on the ground” think.

My guess is that McCain’s criticism is more about the future than the past. What he really wants is to buy time for the surge to work. As Paul noted yesterday, McCain has acknowledged that if the surge doesn’t work, there probably won’t be sufficient public support for the war effort to try a Plan B. By emphasizing the alleged “mismanagement” of the past, McCain is trying to generate optimism that, if properly run and adequately manned, our effort can succeed.

Slightly off topic, but noteworthy:

While McCain is entitled to editorialize, the AP reporter isn’t. But get this, immediately after McCain’s criticism of Rumsfeld:

    The comments were in sharp contrast to McCain’s statement when Rumsfeld resigned in November, and failed to address the reality that President Bush is the commander in chief.

Apparently it’s a matter of policy at the Associated Press that President Bush be blamed for everything, so the reporter made up for McCain’s omission.

Apparently it’s a matter of policy among rightie bloggers that President Bush be blamed for nothing, in spite of the fact that he claims to be “the Decider.” It’s as if, deep down inside, they know he’s an empty suit and don’t expect anything from him but speeches and ribbon-cutting. For another point of view, see “George Bush as Fifth Columnist: Aiding America’s Enemies” by Doug Bandow at

Back to the marginalization of the Right — there’s an old saying — Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas. The Republican Party stopped being “centrist” years ago, and instead based its power on a coalition of hard-right whackjob factions — Fetus People, Gun People, homophobes, isolationists, neocons, racists, etc. And now it’s flea-bit. As DownWithTyranny asks (and I love the photo), how could any candidate possibly win the GOP nomination by appealing to these mutts and still be marketable in the general election?

But for a real stabbed-in-the-back extravaganza, check out Richard Viguerie’s new book, Conservatives Betrayed. Along with John McCain, entities identified by Viguerie as backstabbers include Congress, Democrats (of course), and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But Viguerie also feels “betrayed” by President Bush. You’ll love the reason why —

Even after being mercilessly pummeled by them time and again on every issue during his first six years as President, George W. Bush has not learned his lesson – he still wants to make friends with the Democrats. Albert Einstein said it best: ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results.’

Naturally, the President of the (entire) United States must shun the majority party, or else he’s a traitor. I guess Viguerie hasn’t noticed Bush’s long-standing pattern of making conciliatory noises even as his actions prove he doesn’t mean it.

An online poll identifies the worst offenders: “Conservative leaders who kept silent while the GOP became the party of Big Government”; corruption, legal and illegal; President Bush (doesn’t say why); “Mainstream media that may have influenced the voters to throw out the Republicans”; “Conservative media that kept silent while the GOP became the party of Big Government”; Sen. Ted Stevens; Sen. Bill Frist; Rep Dennis Hastert; and “Blunders and misstatements by Republican candidates.”

You can see the stabbed-in-the-back mentality all over this list. Republicans didn’t lose in 2006 because they screwed up, or because they are out of step with most voters. They were betrayed.

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Gimmicks and the GOP

American History, conservatism, Republican Party

Patrick Ruffini’s article “The Joe-the-Plumberization of the GOP” is as fascinating for what it unintentionally reveals as for what Ruffini argues. Let’s start here —

If you want to get a sense of how unserious and ungrounded most Americans think the Republican Party is, look no further than how conservatives elevate Joe the Plumber as a spokesman. The movement has become so gimmick-driven that Wurzelbacher will be a conservative hero long after people have forgotten what his legitimate policy beef with Obama was.

I’ll leave aside how legitimate Wurzelbacher’s policy beef was, and say that otherwise I pretty much agree with Ruffini. On to the next paragraph:

Since its very beginnings as a movement, conservatism has bought into liberalism’s dominant place in the American political process. They controlled all the major institutions: the media, academia, Hollywood, the Democratic Party, large segments of the Republican Party, and consequently, the government. Liberalism’s image of conservatives in the ’50s and ’60s as paranoid Birchers gave birth to a conservative movement self-conscious of its minority status. As in any tribe that is small in number and can’t fully trust its most natural allies (i.e. the business community or the Republican Party), the meta-debate of who is inside and outside the tribe is magnified exponentially.

Is he saying conservatism did not exist before the 1950s? It’s more accurate to say that the current wave of movement conservatism was born after World War II, rising from the ashes of the conservatism that had pushed back against the New Deal and was opposed to taking sides against Hitler until after Hitler’s declaration of war on the U.S., in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack.

The Right’s climb back to political relevance began with the myth that Roosevelt somehow sold out to Stalin at Yalta (see Kevin Baker’s essential “Stabbed in the Back” from the June 2006 Harper’s). Of course, after the Joe McCarthy debacle had died down the GOP in the 1950s was more or less steered by moderates whose disagreements with Dems were more often in degree than in kind. But you all know the sad story of how the pseudo-conservatives morphed into Goldwater conservatives who morphed into Reagan conservatives, and how these conservatives insist on lockstep ideological purity, so that Eisenhower-style moderates are no longer welcome in the party.

There were, of course, some conservative intellectuals like Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley who managed to slap a veneer of erudition over ideological conservatism. But the rough beast that movement conservatism has become doesn’t know Kirk from mooseburgers, and even Buckley had more or less washed his hands of it before he died.

Ruffini continues,

The legacy of that early movement — alive and well at CPAC and in the conservative institutions that still exist today — is one driven inordinately by this question of identity. We have paeans to Reagan (as if we needed to be reminded again of just how much things suck in comparison today), memorabilia honoring 18th century philosophers that we wouldn’t actually wear in the outside world, and code-word laden speeches that focus on a few hot button issues that leave us ill-equipped to actually govern conservatively on 80% of issues when we actually do get elected.

For whatever reason, conservatives do tend to live in a mythologized past that never actually existed. But I would say that current “movement conservatives” don’t even have coherent issues any more. They have talking points. And the reason they are ill-equipped to actually govern conservatively is that they are ill-equipped to govern at all. “Movement conservatism” is so debased it has no philosophy of government, other than whatever them libruhls is fer, we’re agin’ it.

This culture of identity politics means we get especially defensive about the Liberal Majority’s main lines of attack, because we think of our position as inherently fragile.

There’s a Liberal Majority? Who knew? What happened to the center-right nation?

The truth is, from the 1980s and until about 2006 the Right had thoroughly run true liberalism entirely off the political radar. Genuine liberals, as opposed to ideological centrists who played liberals on TeeVee, were so marginalized in this country we were damn near invisible even to each other. (The Right mistook Bill Clinton for a liberal, but he was not. Clinton never governed as a liberal, but as a triangulator who finessed the Right rather than defeat it.)

But even when they had all the government, all the media, all the attention to themselves, the Right continued to run against the demon liberals they imagined lurked under every bed. Because that’s all they had. Ultimately, when you strip away the rhetoric and the posturing, all they have is resentment of whatever they think “liberalism” is. They have no interest in governing.

Skipping a bit —

This is so different than the psychology of the left. The left assumes that it is culturally superior and the natural party of government and fights aggressively to frame any conservative incursion on that turf as somehow alien and unnatural. (The “Oh God…” whisper being the perfect illustration.) They dominate Hollywood not by actively branding liberalism in their movies, but by coolly associating liberal policy ideas with sentiments everyone feels, like love (gay marriage) or fairness (the little guy vs. some evil corporate stiff).

Well, yeah, people do tend to approve of love and fairness and like to see these things reflected in popular entertainment. This has been true since at least Shakespeare’s time. But it’s not as if liberals get together and plan what values they are going to promote in next year’s films. It’s more a matter of liberalism by nature being more creative, I think. Whenever conservatives try to be creative they come across as either mean or smarmy. Or both. It’s the nature of the beast.

Skipping ahead —

Put another way, Republicans thrive as the party of normal Americans — the people in the middle culturally and economically. This is true of our leadership as well — we have a history of nominating figures who came first from outside politics. Our base is the common-sense voter in the middle who bought a house she could afford and didn’t lavishly overspend in good times and who is now subsidizing the person who didn’t.

That’s how Republicans want to see themselves, but I don’t think that’s been true for a long time. The suburbs didn’t abandon the GOP in the last election because of Barack Obama’s dazzling rhetoric. They abandoned the GOP because the GOP has nothing to offer them except culture war and erosion of the health care system.

This is why Obama’s pitch is fundamentally off-key if framed correctly. People’s first instincts in a recession are not to overspend, but to tighten their belts.

Yes, and a frightened horse’s first instinct is to run back into the stable, even if the stable is on fire. But it is because people are tightening belts that the government has to pump cash into the economy asap.

In these serious times, conservatives need to get serious and ditch the gimmicks and the self-referential credentializing and talk to the entire country. If the average apolitical American walked into CPAC or any movement conservative gathering would they feel like they learned something new or that we presented a vision compelling to them in their daily lives?

A compelling vision is one thing; knowing one’s ass from one’s elbow is something else. The GOP is basically in denial of the nature of the problems we face, which is why they can’t come up with solutions that might work in the real world. The GOP needs to do more than just scrap the gimmicks. It needs to take a deep breath, calm down, and think hard about what government is and what citizens need from it. What is the appropriate role of government? “None” is no longer a viable answer.

This is why I love Newt’s emphasis on finding 80/20 issues and defining them in completely non-ideological terms.

You want to know what “Newt’s emphasis” is? I followed Ruffini’s links and came to this. It’s a bleeping joke. Just a laundry list of discrete right-wing bugaboos like making English the official language and keeping “One nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Please.

Like I said, this is as fascinating for what it reveals as it is for what Ruffini argues.

See also The American Conservative, Daniel Larison, “Needed: Confidence And Wisdom.”

It seems to me that conservatives and Republicans have assumed the GOP is the natural governing party, at least regarding the Presidency and to some extent as it relates to Congress since ‘94, which is why so many have continued to insist that America is a “center-right nation” in face of mounting evidence that it is not and hasn’t been for a while. Symbolic gimmickry does stem in part from a lack of confidence, but it is more the product of a movement and party that have ceased to understand, much less address, most of the pressing concerns of working- and middle-class Americans. The party assumes that all it needs to do is show up, push the right pseudo-populist buttons and reap the rewards, and for the most part the movement cheers. See Palin, Sarah.

The GOP settles for offering “symbolic, substance-free BS” because enough conservatives are already persuaded that Republican policies obviously benefit the middle class, so there is no pressure to make Republican policy actually serve the interests of Republican constituents. It is taken for granted that this is already happening, but voters have been showing for several cycles that many of them do not believe this. Politically Democrats have been gaining ground in such unlikely places as Ohio and Indiana, which would be inexplicable if the GOP obviously and reliably represented working- and middle-class Americans. Of course, lately these voters don’t see it that way, but instead see the right’s pseudo-populists denounce workers for being overpaid, reject measures that would direct some spending to American industries that their free trade zeal has helped gut and even talk about a spending freeze in the middle of a severe recession.

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Fear Is Not an Idea

American History, big picture stuff, Bush Administration, conservatism, Democratic Party, Republican Party

I’m so grateful to E.J. Dionne for writing that insensible column dissing Richard Hofstadter. Otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered to find and read Hofstadter’s work. Truly, the man was a genius (Hofstadter, I mean). This morning I want to look at something Hofstatder wrote more than 50 years ago and then add to it to something I read in today’s Washington Post.

In the mid-1950s Hofstadter embarked on some lectures and essays about pseudo-conservatism. To understand this fully, keep in mind that in the mid-1950s the New Deal coalition was the establishment. New Dealers had been in power for 20 years. Moreover, Hofstadter wrote, the “jobless, distracted and bewildered men” of the Depression had become comfortably middle class — well fed, well clothed, well housed — thanks to the New Deal, the GI Bill, postwar mortgage subsidy programs, and solid economic growth.

Hofstadter quotes Adlai Stevenson:

The strange alchemy of time has somehow converted the Democrats into the truly conservative party of this country — the party dedicated to conserving all that is best, and building solidly and safely on these foundations.

Yet in those days there were dissenters. We recognize that dissent now as the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy in fetal stage. Here is how Hofstadter described them — note I am adding some boldface and breaking up the long paragraphs into smaller bits to make it easier to read —

Representing no more than a modest fraction of the electorate, it is not so powerful as the liberal dissent of the New Deal era, but it is powerful enough to set the tone of our political life and to establish throughout the country a kind of punitive reaction. The new dissent is certainly not radical — there are hardly any radicals of any sort left — nor is it precisely conservative.

Speaking of what is or isn’t radicalyou must read this new post by Billmon. (If you want to read to the end of this post first, I’ll remind you about Billmon again later. But do read that post and this one together.)

Unlike most of the liberal dissent of the past, the new dissent not only has no respect for nonconformism, but is based upon a relentless demand for conformity. It can most accurately be called pseudo-conservative — I borrow the term from The Authoritarian Personality, published in 1950 by Theodore W. Adorno and his associates — because its exponents, although they believe themselves to be conservatives and usually employ the rhetoric of conservatism, show signs of a serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions, and institutions.

Sounds familiar, eh?

They have little in common with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism in the classical sense of the word, and they are far from pleased with the dominant practical conservatism of the moment as it is represented by the Eisenhower administration. Their political reactions express rather a profound and largely unconscious hatred of our society and its ways — a hatred which one would hesitate to impute to them if one did not have suggestive evidence both from clinical techniques and from their own modes of expression.

I haven’t read John Dean’s new book on authoritarian personalities and the “conservative” movement, but if any of you have, let me know if this sounds familiar —

From clinical interviews and thematic apperception tests, Adorno and his co-workers found that their pseudo-conservative subjects, although given to a form of political expression that combines a curious mixture of largely conservative with occasional radical notions, succeed in concealing from themselves impulsive tendencies that, if released in action, would be very far from conservative.

I like the part about “concealing from themselves.” One of the most consistent traits of rightieness is their utter blindness to where their own ideology is taking them. And us, too, of course.

The pseudo-conservative, Adorno writes, shows “conventionality and authoritarian submissiveness” in his conscious thinking and “violence, anarchic impulses, and chaotic destructiveness in the unconscious sphere… The pseudo conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”

Hofstadter tries to identify exactly who these pseudo-conservatives were. Pseudo-conservatism appealed to people across social classes, “but its power probably rests largely on its appeal to the less-educated members of the middle classes” (many of whom, please note, wouldn’t have been middle class were it not for Franklin Roosevelt). Further,

The ideology of pseudo-conservatism can be characterized but not defined, because the pseudo-conservative tends to be more than ordinarily incoherent about politics. The lady who, when General Eisenhower’s victory over Senator Taft had finally become official in 1952, stalked out of the Hilton Hotel declaiming: “This means eight more years of socialism,” was probably a fairly good representative of the pseudo-conservative mentality.

Compare/contrast something Joe Scarborough wrote (yeah, I know, it’s Joe Scarborough, but it’s not that bad) about right-wingers calling Bill Clinton a Marxist.

Hofstadter continued,

The restlessness, suspicion and fear manifested in various phases of the pseudo-conservative revolt give evidence of the real suffering which the pseudo-conservative experiences in his capacity as a citizen. He believes himself to be living in a world in which he is spied upon, plotted against, betrayed, and very likely destined for total ruin. He feels that his liberties have been arbitrarily and outrageously invaded. He is opposed to almost everything that has happened in American politics in the past twenty years. He hates the very thought of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He is disturbed deeply by American participation in the United Nations, which he can see only as a sinister organization. He sees his own country as being so weak that is it constantly about to fall victim to subversion; and yet he feels that it is so all-powerful that any failure it may experience in getting its way in the world — for instance, in the Orient — cannot possibly be due to its limitations but must be attributed to its having been betrayed.

This ties in to what I wrote in this post, about how the Right usurped the Left’s credibility on national defense and foreign policy through lies and hysteria. And it ties very nicely into “Stabbed in the Back!” by Kevin Baker in the June issue of Harper’s.

Hofstadter goes on for several very rich paragraphs about the social-psychological elements of pseudo-conservatism, and this essay is followed up by two more in this book. Right now I’m going to skip over several pages and quote one more paragraph, from the essay “Goldwater and the Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” which Hofstadter wrote in the mid-1960s.

Writing in 1954, at the peak of the McCarthyist period, I suggested that the American right wing could best be understood not as a neo-fascist movement girding itself for the conquest of power but as a persistent and effective minority whose main threat was in its power to create “a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.” This still seems to be the true potential of the pseud0-conservative right; it is a potential that can be realized without winning the White House, even without winning the Republican nomination.

The Right did indeed create “a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.” Unfortunately, once they had accomplished this they were able to seize political power as well. And now the very people Hofstadter wrote about 50 years ago have seized both the White House and Congress and have refashioned themselves as the mainstream, the center, the true patriots, the defenders of the American ideals they undermined and all but destroyed in order to gain power.

The pseudo-conservative movement started out as an intellectually incoherent reaction to the New Deal and the ideals and values that were mainstream 50 and more years ago. It was based on a complex of fears — fear of foreigners, fear of Communists, fear of the powerful forces in the world that they didn’t understand. Most of all, they were beseiged by doubts that they fit into a world that was rapidly changing but which they didn’t understand. They feared they were being pushed out of what they saw as their rightful place in American life. Exactly what that place was, and who was pushing them, cannot be clearly defined. Often they lashed out not at real enemies but at the very institutions that protected them and enabled social and economic stability. Theirs was an irrational attempt to erase the previous several years of world history and go back to an earlier time — before the Depression, before World War II — when they had felt more secure. It didn’t sink in that that old feeling of security had been delusional.

At some point, however, the Right managed to invent an ideological facade in which to hide their fears. In the 1950s they seized upon scholar Russell Kirk — I’m not sure Kirk was really One of Them, but they seized upon him, anyway — and William Buckley. Under Goldwater’s influence the pseudo-conservatives increased their influence within the Republican Party, which they re-invented as the “Party of Ideas.” Their “ideas” were the standard pseudo-conservative agenda of dismantling the New Deal while somehow becoming both more aggressive and more isolationist in foreign policy — neoconservatism is, at its core, proactive isolationism — but through their growing infrastructure of “think tanks” they figured out how to package their incoherent agenda to make it look like ideas.

But their “ideas” are all based on the conceit that if they could just brush away all the liberal crapola — dismantle the New Deal, deregulate everything in sight, and lower taxes to shrink government in order to drown it in a bathtub — that we would find ourselves living in Utopia. Somehow.

And this takes us to Harold Meyerson’s column in today’s Washington Post.

Wasn’t it just a couple of years ago that Republicans were boasting that they were the party of ideas? They would privatize the commonwealth and globalize democracy, while Democrats clung to the tattered banner of common security in both economics and national defense. The intellectual energy in America, it seemed, was all on the right.

That, as they say, was then. In 2006 the campaigns that the Republicans are waging in their desperate attempt to retain power are so utterly devoid of ideas that it’s hard to believe they ever had an idea at all.

With fewer than 60 days remaining before the November election, the only two Republican strategies left standing are to scare the public about the Democrats collectively or to slime the Democrats individually. There’s nothing new about these strategies, of course, but this year they exist in a vacuum. Having run both the executive and legislative branches for the past two years with nothing but failure to show for it, the Republicans can no longer campaign as the party that will balance the budget, reform entitlements, lower energy costs, fix the immigration problem, create a more secure world or find a suitable way out of their endless war of choice in Iraq. What’s left is a campaign of scaring and sliming, with the emphasis on the latter. ..

…What’s a party to do when its high road leads nowhere but down? The Republicans tried privatizing Social Security, but their numbers never added up. They tried spreading democracy with unilateral, preventive war but instead unleashed a sectarian bloodbath. So the party of big ideas, of Milton Friedman and the neoconservatives, is now just one big Swift Boat flotilla, its ideas sunk of their own dead weight, kept afloat solely by its opposition research. For their part, the Democrats still champion common security; they call for a government that can build dikes and reduce the costs of college and medication and that knows that remaking the world becomes more plausible when some of the world is actually willing to go along with us. Those are, in the campaign of 2006, just about the only ideas in play.

We lefties are pragmatists who think that nothing is ever perfect, but through democratic government We, the People, can at least make improvements. (Bill Clinton spoke about this at length yesterday, but I want to wait until I get the transcript to quote him.) But pseudo-conservatives are utopians who have long believed that, if they could only have their way, they could create a perfect America and a perfect World.

Well, folks, they got their way. And they failed. That’s because their “ideas” were never really ideas at all; just fantasies that grew out of their fears. And fear is not an idea.

The Right can’t see that yet. As Richard Parker wrote here,

For America’s ”party of ideas,” it is still only their opponents’ ideas which have failed. To the fatal contradictions inherent in their own utopian principles, they seem to remain impervious.

But the facade is crumbling, fast.

I want to hop over to the Billmon post I mentioned above.

I see no reason to doubt the ultimate aim of Rovian politics is to dismantle the remaining framework of New Deal/Great Society liberalism. But most Rovians understand it’s a long-term project. And if offering the seniors a third-rate drug benefit (and greasing Big Pharma in the process) helps the vanguard party tighten its grip on power here and now, so be it. A revolution is not a dinner party at the Cato Institute.

Of course, such compromises (for the good of the movement, you understand) are also how radicals gradually morph into reformers and refomers turn into comfortable establishmentarians. And the Rovians, particularly the congressional branch, are obviously pretty far down that road. But there’s a difference between betraying your principles and not having any, and I think most conservative cadres within the Cheney Administration, like their brethren on K Street, are still loyal — in their hearts, if not their wallets — to an explicitly radical agenda.

Maybe the best way to put it is that the Rovians are radical reactionaries — so reactionary their aspirations to turn the clock back to circa 1896 actually sound like something fundamentally new, in the same way that “globalization” sounds so much more hip and modern than good old Manchester Liberalism. The conservative “Great Leap Backwards” probably isn’t attainable (and, considering the death toll from Mao’s attempt to jump in the opposite direction, thank God for that) but I’d be willing to bet there are Cheney Administration staffers who will be scheming, or at least dreaming, of “the day” until the day they die.

Unfortunately, as Billmon concludes, just throwing the bums out will not solve our problems. We will still have to deal with the pseudo-conservatives’ chief accomplishment — the political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety are impossible. I’m not sure even where to start.

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Losing China Again

American History, Bush Administration, Democratic Party, Dick Cheney, National Security, Republican Party, Terrorism

Awhile back I wrote a post that explained how, during the Cold War, Republicans claimed credibility as the “war-national security” party when it was three Democratic presidents who had led the nation through World War I and II.

In a nutshell, it was through a campaign of hysterical charges and bald-faced lies.

In the 1930s it was the American Right, not the Left, who thought Hitler was an OK guy who could be appeased into leaving us alone. Before World War II conservatives were staunch isolationists who opposed any move by Franklin Roosevelt to send aid to Europe or prepare for war.

Here’s just a bit from “Stabbed in the Back!” by Kevin Baker in the June issue of Harper’s, which I urge you to read if you haven’t already.

In the years immediately following World War II, the American right was facing oblivion. Domestically, the reforms of the New Deal had been largely embraced by the American people. The Roosevelt and Truman administrations—supported by many liberal Republicans—had led the nation successfully through the worst war in human history, and we had emerged as the most powerful nation on earth.

Franklin Roosevelt and his fellow liberal internationalists had sounded the first alarms about Hitler, but conservatives had stubbornly—even suicidally—maintained their isolationism right into the postwar era. Senator Robert Taft, “Mr. Republican,” and the right’s enduring presidential hope, had not only been a prominent member of the leading isolationist organization, America First, and opposed the nation’s first peacetime draft in 1940, but also appeared to be as naive about the Soviet Union as he had been about the Axis powers. Like many on the right, he was much more concerned about Chiang Kai-shek’s worm-eaten Nationalist regime in China than U.S. allies in Europe. “The whole Atlantic Pact, certainly the arming of Germany, is an incentive for Russia to enter the war before the army is built up,” Taft warned. He was against any U.S. military presence in Europe even in 1951.

Baker explains the whole sorry episode very nicely. Briefly, in the late 1940s the former appeasers of Hitler got worked up over the Soviet takeover of eastern Europe and Mao Zedong’s takeover of China. One of the catchphrases of the day was “Who lost China?” as if China had been ours to lose. Right-wingers were convinced these things would not have happened except for (liberal) traitors in the government who either allowed them to happen or arranged for them to happen. (They seemed unable to consider that people and events in the USSR, eastern Europe, and China may have been factors.) And the Right put up such a stink about this that by the 1960s Dem politicians were challenged to prove they were as “tough on Communism” as Republicans, never mind that Democrats had a much longer and stronger record on foreign policy and as protectors of national security than Republicans at the time.

I bring all this up because Glenn Greenwald’s post of this morning makes me wonder if we’re just replaying old tapes.

Glenn’s post documents that during the Clinton Administration, Republicans in Congress downplayed the threat of terrorism even as President Clinton urged more aggressive counterterrorism measures. “[T]o the extent Republicans spoke about Clinton’s anti-terrorism efforts at all, it was to criticize them for being too bellicose, too militaristic, and just unnecessary,” writes Glenn. Particularly during his second term Clinton urged Congress to become more pro-active about terrorism. With a handful of exceptions, Republicans in Congress ignored the warnings.

During his first presidential campaign George W. Bush ignored terrorism as an issue even though he offered other specific criticisms of Clinton policies.

Get this:

The 2000 Republican Party Platform contains 13 specific criticisms of the Clinton Administration’s foreign and military policies. Not a single one mentions or refers in any way to Al Qaeda or terrorism generally. After that, there is an entire section entitled “The Middle East and Persian Gulf” that deals extensively with Iraq and the alleged threat posed by Saddam Hussein, but it does not say a word — not a single word — about Islamic extremism, Al Qaeda, or Osama bin Laden.

Even the section of the Platform entitled “Terrorism, International Crime, and Cyber Threats” makes not one reference to Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, or Islamic extremism. It does not contain a single claim that the Clinton administration was insufficiently aggressive towards Islamic terrorists, nor does it advocate increased militarism in the Middle East or against terrorists. In fact, to the extent Republicans advocated a new approach at all, it was to emphasize the need for the very “law enforcement” and “domestic preparedness” approaches which they now claim to disdain.

During his debates with Vice President Gore, George Bush was asked to explain his views toward the Middle East. He said not one word about Islamic terrorism. He did say things like “I’m worried about overcommitting our military around the world. I want to be judicious in its use. . . . It needs to be in our vital interest, the mission needs to be clear, and the exit strategy obvious.” And also, “And so I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war.”

Condi Rice also
showed no interest whatsoever in al Qaeda or bin Laden.

When George W. Bush became President, one of his first acts was to kneecap the Hart-Rudman Commission recommendations then before Congress and assign the task of forming national security policies to Dick Cheney, who as of September 11, 2001, had not yet made a start. In spite of the warnings of outgoing Clinton officials that al Qaeda was a terrible threat, in April 2001 the Bush Administration’s first annual terrorism report left out Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden had been discussed extensively in Clinton-era reports. A senior State Department official told CNN the Clinton Administration had made a mistake by focusing so much on bin Laden and “personalizing terrorism.” The Bush Administration planned to focus on governments that sponsored terrorism, not on stateless terrorist organizations like al Qaeda.

And, of course, through the summer of 2001 the Bush White House blissfully ignored warning after warning that bin Laden was determined to strike in the United States.

Yet no sooner had the dust settled at Ground Zero that the Republicans declared themselves to be the All-High God-Appointed National Security Honchos, rightie fingers pointed at Bill Clinton, and Prince Pissant persuaded the American people that he, and he alone, could protect them from terrorism.

ABC’s controversial 9/11 film
has inspired many other bloggers to write about actions Clinton had taken against terrorism, and al Qaeda in particular, before he left office. Here’s an old article by William Rivers Pitt that provides details, plus there are a wealth of good links in the comments to Glenn’s post.

You could argue that Clinton could have done more. But you cannot argue, based on their own record, that the Republicans or President Bush have more credibility in national security and counter-terrorism than Democrats do. If facts are our guide, Republicans ought to have less credibility in national security and counter-terrorism than Democrats do.

The only reason the Right gets away with claiming credibility in national security is through a relentless campaign of hysterical charges and bald-faced lies — just like the bad old days, when Joe McCarthy was shrieking about traitors in the State Department who lost China.

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How the Democrats Lost, Period

American History, Democratic Party

This is a follow up to the last post, which reviews how the Right took the foreign policy issue away from the Left after World War II, as well as the “Don’t Blame McGovern,” “Hey, Hey, LBJ,” and “Countercultural” posts from last week. I’m afraid this post is long even by my standards, but there are a lot of pieces to be pulled together. Even this post is barely just an outline.

I’m walking through this old stuff because I think it’s important to clarify how the Democratic Party was eclipsed by the Republican Party, to the point that it went from being the dominant party to being the triangulation party. Today the Democrats have a big, fat opportunity to regain political momentum if they can present a clear alternative to the floundering Republicans. But the Democratic Party has been stumbling along for years with no clear self-identity. Emptied of cohesion and purpose, at times the party has seemed little more than a catch-all receptacle for politicians who are not Republicans, exactly.

For years Conventional Wisdom has said that the Democratic Party crashed in the 1960s and 1970s because Democrats were opposed to the war in Vietnam. And ever since, says the CW, voters just haven’t trusted Dems to handle foreign policy. Now the Lamont Insurgency and other signs of uppitiness among the Dems has the punditocracy wagging its fingers and warning of the dire consequences of “McGovernism.”

I’ve already argued in the previously cited posts that the “McGovernism” charge is bogus. But I think that before the Dem Party can find itself again it needs to clearly understand what did strip the party of its soul. Then, perhaps, the Dems can reconnect to the best of the core principles that made the party strong in the past and reaffirm those principles in the present.

Essentially, what happened in the 1960s and 1970s was that the New Deal coalition came apart, and no new coalition stepped in to take its place. What was the New Deal coalition? From Wikipedia:

The 1932 election brought about a major realignment in political party affiliation, and is widely considered to be a realigning election, though some scholars point to the off-year election of 1934. Franklin Delano Roosevelt set up his New Deal and was able to forge a coalition of Big City machines, labor unions, liberals, ethnic and racial minorities (especially Catholics, Jews and African Americans), and Southern whites. These disparate voting blocs together formed a large minority of voters and handed the Democratic Party seven victories out of nine presidential elections, as well as control of both houses of Congress during much of this time.

A great many factors eroded the coalition, and Vietnam was one of those factors. Other factors included the decline of the city machines and the decreasing influence of labor unions. But I think if there was one factor that stood out from the rest, it was not Vietnam. It was race.

From the end of Reconstruction (ca. 1877) to the mid-nineteenth twentieth century, southern whites were Democrats. Although Franklin Roosevelt pushed the Democratic Party overall in a more liberal direction, he compromised with southern white supremacists to get his programs passed in Congress.

1948 saw a prequel of party divisions to come: In January President Harry Truman integrated the military by executive order, and that summer at the Dems’ national convention Hubert Humphrey urged the Dems to add an anti-segregation plank to the party platform. Humphrey’s speech so inflamed some southern delegates that they walked out. After Truman’s endorsement of and the party’s adoption of the anti-segregation plan, some of the southern Dems split off and formed the Dixiecrat Party, which nominated Strom Thurmond for president. On election day the Dixiecrats won in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina.

On the other hand, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision got a tepid response from both parties. Racial issues played little part in the 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns of Adlai Stephenson and Dwight Eisenhower. The Dixiecrats returned to the Democratic fold, for a time. National politicians tried to ignore the Civil Rights movement, although in 1957 circumstances (i.e., Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus) forced Republican President Eisenhower to send the 101st Airborne Division to protect African American students attempting to attend a newly integrated high school in Little Rock. In the late 1950s Congress went through the motions of addressing racial issues by passing some toothless civil rights laws. The essential point, however, is that neither national party was closely associated with desegregation in most peoples’ minds in the 1950s.

But in 1960, when Martin Luther King was sentenced to a four-month prison term in Georgia, presidential candidate John Kennedy called Coretta Scott King to express sympathy. That may not seem extraordinary now, but in 1960 it was a major breakthrough. As president, Kennedy expressed support for the Freedom Marchers and introduced the bill that would become the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Again, Kennedy’s contributions to racial equality were small, but they encouraged Democrats outside the South to more openly support civil rights.

President Lyndon Johnson kicked Democratic Party support for racial equality to new levels. Overall, Johnson’s record as a champion of civil rights is, um, mixed. But IMO Johnson’s Great Society program was at least as big a watershed moment for the Democratic Party as Vietnam, if not bigger. The Great Society was wildly unpopular among white Americans. In their minds, it amounted to taking tax money from whites and giving it to blacks. (Remember, as I explained here, entitlement programs were fine with the white folks in earlier times, when it was understood whites were the principal beneficiaries.)

It was the Great Society that popularized the myth of the tax-and-spend liberals, IMO. The Right may have said the same thing about FDR and the New Deal, but the New Deal was popular. The Great Society wasn’t. In fact, Johnson was reluctant to raise taxes. But in 1967 Johnson’s economic advisers persuaded him that taxes had to be raised to pay for Vietnam, and he struggled for most of the rest of his administration to shove a short-term tax surcharge through Congress. Republican politicians successfully coupled the tax surcharge with welfare programs in white voters’ minds, forming the basis of the “tax-and-spend” charge embedded in the public mind for the past forty years.

I bump into people today who think the definition of liberal is “someone who wants to raise your taxes and increase government spending.” See also this Heritage Foundation commentary claiming our current Congress’s reckless spending means it is turning “left,” never mind that the money is being drizzled away on war and pork, not expanded social programs. Today spending alone is what defines “left,” not the purpose of the spending. The fact is that Republican Administrations over the past 25 years have run bigger deficits and spent more as a percentage of GDP than the Democratic Administration. Yet you still hear “pundits” claim that Democrats spend more.

Back to civil rights — in the 1960s, as the national Democratic Party became associated with civil rights and racial equality, the old Dixiecrats bolted the Democratic Party and became Republican. Thus it was that “solid south” went from being solid Democrat to solid Republican. There is more background on the significance of the Dixiecrat Revolt here. See also this Wikipedia article about Richard Nixon and the Southern Strategy.

But also in the 1960s the issue of race became subliminal. It was no longer socially acceptable (accept on a local level) for white politicians to openly advocate white supremacy. Even Strom Thurmond toned down his rhetoric. George Wallace may have been the last prominent politician to wage an openly racist campaign to run for national office. For this reason the impact of race on politics in the 1960s and 1970s might not be obvious today to someone studying the speeches and editorials of those years. For example, as I explained in the “McGovern” post, most of the first half of Richard Nixon’s 1972 nomination acceptance speech amounted to an appeal to white racist voters, even though Nixon didn’t use the words race (except in the context of arms race), racial, equality, integration, or other words directly associated with racial issues. Believe me, everyone listening at the time knew exactly what he meant.

What about the New Left? As explained in this essay (scroll down to the American History subhead; emphasis added):

Liberalism in the Truman era seemed to be simple self-interest to most families who benefited from the G.I. bill and veterans’ mortgages. Campaigning in 1948 on the slogan “All I ask you to do is vote for yourself, vote for your family,” Harry S. Truman not only defeated challenges from his left and right, but triumphed despite drawing only limited support from the top tiers as measured by wealth, education, or occupation.

New Deal liberalism’s final political victory came in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson once again defeated Hoover’s ghost in the form of the outspoken economic libertarian Barry Goldwater. Johnson went on, in effect, to complete much of the New Deal’s agenda by expanding its social and health benefits for the poor, the elderly, and African-Americans who had earlier been ignored. …

… By the middle of the decade, New Deal liberalism was in retreat, routed initially not so much by its conservative opponents as by new forms of liberalism, which had emerged in response to the cataclysms of those years. In the next quarter century, its reputation declined until in the 1988 presidential race “liberal” became the “L word,” an epithet.

New issues, such as racial justice and the misuse of a now powerful presidency to fight a morally untenable war in Vietnam, destroyed the New Deal political coalition. At the same time a renewed fear of government as a threat to individual moral autonomy, defined in terms not of property but of lifestyle, undermined the social and cultural assumptions of the New Deal’s mild collectivism and authoritative institutions. Both civil rights and lifestyle liberalism were moral critiques of meat-and-potatoes majoritarianism and both pursued their goals through the courts, the “undemocratic” branch of government the New Deal had, in large measure, defined itself against.

The legacy of the New Left was that liberalism in America splintered. “Identity politics” and single-issue advocacy groups have been the main focus of American liberalism since the 1970s. This may have been therapeutic, but it’s way ineffective. And as the Left came apart, the Right got its act together. During the 1970s a number of wealthy conservatives began to build the media and political infrastructures that dominate U.S. politics today. Kevin Baker’s “Stabbed in the Back!” article discussed in the last post explains how Nixon expanded his campaign against the antiwar movement and counterculture into permanent cultural war.

This takes us to Ronald Reagan, who was still pandering to racism with his “welfare queen” remarks in 1980. Reagan was brilliant at playing the role of a strong, big-hearted representative of the common man while appealing to the meanest instincts and prejudices of voters. As explained in this Wikipedia article, by Reagan’s time white working-class voters no longer saw the Democrats as champions of middle-class issues and aspirations, as they had during the heyday of the New Deal coalition. (Note: I disagree with Wikipedia that these same voters saw “gains” during the Reagan Administration; I remember just the opposite. But that’s another post, maybe.) Working class whites came to believe Dems were working only to benefit other people, who happened (ah-HEM) to be black. See also this article by William Schneider in the July, 1992 Atlantic Monthly. Writing about the 1992 election campaigns, Schneider wrote,

Democrats have been talking about “the forgotten middle class,” and for good reason. For the past twenty-five years the Democrats have forgotten the middle class. And they have paid dearly.

One could debate whether the Dems actually forgot the middle class, or whether they were only perceived to have forgotten the middle class. But the damage was done. The Republican Party had become the party of both Big Money and the working class it exploits. The Democrats had become the party of … who, exactly?

OK, this post is already too long. If you’ve read this far … bless you. I’ll finish in another post.

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How the Democrats Lost Their Spines

American History, conservatism, Democratic Party, Republican Party

E.J. Dionne writes in today’s Washington Post that “The Democratic Party has a self-image problem.”

Talk to Democrats at every level about the strong position the party is in for this fall’s elections and the conversation inevitably ends with a variation of: “Yeah, if we don’t blow it.” Karl Rove’s greatest victory is how much he has spooked Democrats about themselves.

From there Dionne discusses Democrats and fundraising, but I want to dwell longer on the “self-image problem.” The fact is that the self-image problem didn’t start with Karl; the Dems have had a self-image problem for many years. Karl is brilliant at exploiting it, but he didn’t create it.

Conventional wisdom says that the Dems lost their edge as a party because they went all mushy on foreign policy. Peter Beinart certainly has bought this view:

When John Kerry lost in 2004, I started in my despair reading about the late 1940s, the first years of the Cold War. That was the last time America entered a new era in national security. It started very fast in 1945 and 1946. And it was the last period where the country trusted liberals and Democrats to defend it.

As Will Marshall has pointed out, if you look at all presidential elections since the Vietnam War, the disturbing reality is the Democratic Party has only won in those moments when the country turned inward. Carter won in 1976, when the country turned inward after Vietnam. It was the first election since 1948 when national security was not the issue that people told pollsters they were most concerned about. Then Clinton won in 1992, in the aftermath of the Cold War.

The truth is this: Unless the Democratic Party can change its image on national security, its only realistic hope of winning the White House is the hope that the war on terrorism is a passing phenomenon that will be over in a few years.

There’s some truth to what Beinart says, but it’s not the whole picture. Last week I took apart the conventional wisdom that says George McGovern lost to Richard Nixon by a landslide in 1972 because McGovern was anti-war. As I explained, opposition to the war was possibly one of the least important factors in McGovern’s defeat. The same conventional wisdom says that it is the Dems’ delicate sensibilities about war and the military, and their Neville Chamberlain-like tendencies to appease enemies rather than confront them, that gave Republicans the edge in foreign policy issues ever since. And this, “pundits” like Beinart propose, is why voters flock to Republicans whenever national security is a prominent issue. And it’s why, other “pundits” declare, the Dems must avoid association with antiwar types if they expect to win elections.

As Beinart says, the Narrative that Dems are soft on security goes back to the late 1940s and the beginning of the Cold War. But isn’t it odd that, so soon after World War II, Democrats were under fire for being soft? After all, two Democratic Presidents had just led the nation through World War II. And before WWII, it was right-wing isolationists who wanted to ignore or appease Hitler, while Franklin Roosevelt argued that Hitler was a threat who must be confronted. (There are echoes of this old argument in today’s paleoconservative revisionist history that the war in Europe was unnecessary and that FDR knew about Pearl Harbor in advance and didn’t stop it.)

The notion that Republicans are, somehow, traditionally the party of war and Democrats the party of wusses seems particularly odd when you consider that Poppy Bush (41) was the first Republican president to take the nation into a war worthy of the name since William McKinley . Except for the Gulf War, the big wars of the 20th century — World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam — were joined under the leadership of Democratic presidents — Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson.

In fact, when I was a child the old folks often said that Democrats liked to start wars because wars are good for the economy. I haven’t heard that one in a while.

To understand how Dems went from being warriors to wusses, you must understand how Republicans went from isolationism to imperialism. For background, I urge you to read “Stabbed in the Back!” by Kevin Baker in the June issue of Harper’s. A snip:

In the years immediately following World War II, the American right was facing oblivion. Domestically, the reforms of the New Deal had been largely embraced by the American people. The Roosevelt and Truman administrations—supported by many liberal Republicans—had led the nation successfully through the worst war in human history, and we had emerged as the most powerful nation on earth.

Franklin Roosevelt and his fellow liberal internationalists had sounded the first alarms about Hitler, but conservatives had stubbornly—even suicidally—maintained their isolationism right into the postwar era. Senator Robert Taft, “Mr. Republican,” and the right’s enduring presidential hope, had not only been a prominent member of the leading isolationist organization, America First, and opposed the nation’s first peacetime draft in 1940, but also appeared to be as naive about the Soviet Union as he had been about the Axis powers. Like many on the right, he was much more concerned about Chiang Kai-shek’s worm-eaten Nationalist regime in China than U.S. allies in Europe. “The whole Atlantic Pact, certainly the arming of Germany, is an incentive for Russia to enter the war before the army is built up,” Taft warned. He was against any U.S. military presence in Europe even in 1951.

Of course, by 1951 Republican Senator Joe McCarthy’s “red scare” campaign was in full swing, and McCarthy ranted about the Soviets often enough. But Baker argues persuasively that in the postwar years Republicans saved themselves from irrelevancy by propagating the myth of Yalta. The Yalta agreements forged by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin in 1945 met with widespread approval at first. But then along came Alger Hiss, who had been a junior member of the U.S. delegation at Yalta. Accusations that he was a Soviet spy first emerged about eight months later

[T]he exposure of Alger Hiss as a Soviet agent followed, in relatively rapid succession, by the fall of Czechoslovakia’s coalition government to a Soviet-backed coup, the Soviet attainment of an atomic bomb, and the victory of Mao’s Communists over Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang regime in China, cast the entire policy of containment into doubt. Never mind that the right’s own feckless or muddled proposals for fighting the Cold War would not have ameliorated any of these situations. The right swept them into the memory hole and offered a new answer to Americans bewildered by how suddenly their nation’s global preeminence had been diminished: Yalta.

A growing chorus of right-wing voices now began to excoriate our wartime diplomacy. Their most powerful charge, one that would firmly establish the Yalta myth in the American political psyche, was the accusation that our delegation had given over Eastern Europe to the Soviets. According to “How We Won the War and Lost the Peace,” an essay written for Life magazine shortly before the 1948 election by William Bullitt—a former diplomat who had been dismissed by Roosevelt for outing a gay rival in the State Department—FDR and his chief adviser, Harry Hopkins, were guilty of “wishful appeasement” of Stalin at Yalta, handing the peoples of Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Baltic states over to the Soviet dictator.

The Right became obsessed with the notion that Hiss had somehow manipulated the conference so that the agreements would favor Stalin. Exactly how a young junior delegate accomplished this feat was never clear, and although righties persist in calling Hiss a spy he was never, in fact, convicted of espionage, but of perjury. And Baker argues that a close look at the Yalta negotiations reveals the myths about Hiss to be absurd. No matter; Yalta became a symbol for perfidy and weak-kneed appeasement on the part of Democrats. From there the Republican Party launched a full-court-press campaign — a “compilation of hysterical charges and bald-faced lies,” Baker writes — against the “weakness” of Democratic foreign policy. Events such as Truman’s dismissal of General MacArthur became new chapters in the Narrative of the Spineless Democrats — charges that fall apart under even moderately casual scrutiny, but which took hold in the American public conscious nonetheless.

The charge from the Right that traitors in the State Department “lost” China to Mao — as if it had been theirs to lose, and the people of China had nothing to do with it — led to a purge of Asia experts. This purge had serious consequences; Henry C K Liu wrote for Asia Times:

Robert McNamara, defense secretary under Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, attributed the Vietnam debacle to the thorough purge of China experts by McCarthyism. He wrote, “The irony of this gap – Asian experts – was that it existed largely because the top East Asian and China experts in the State Department – John Patton Davies Jr, John Stewart Service and John Carter Vincent – had been purged during the McCarthy hysteria of the 1950s. Without men like these to provide sophisticated, nuanced insights, we – certainly I – badly misread China’s objectives and mistook its bellicose rhetoric to imply a drive for regional hegemony.”

And by the 1960s the old charge about “losing” China had taken a toll — “Democrats in particular, like Kennedy and Johnson, feared a right-wing backlash should they give up the fight; they remembered vividly the accusatory tone of the Republicans’ 1950 question, ‘Who lost China?'” Andrew J. Rotter wrote.

So Johnson made the catastrophically bad decision to send combat troops to Vietnam. The war was such a disaster that Johnson chose not to run for a second term in 1968 (as had Truman, because of MacArthur and Korea, in 1952). In the Humphrey-Nixon campaign it seems to me that Nixon was the “peace” candidate, since he was the candidate who promised to end the war. Yet somehow Democratic defeats in 1968 and 1972 are attributed to Democrats taking an antiwar position.

Baker discusses the way the Right “processed” Vietnam at some length. It was, he says, a war the Right had been clamoring for. When it went sour, the Right did not admit that the war in Vietnam had been, fundamentally, a bad idea. Instead, the Nixon Administration and the Republican establishment successfully turned the antiwar movement and “liberal elites” into scapegoats. The antiwar protesters were traitors who were aiding the enemy. That Nixon made this charge stick at the same time he was stumbling around looking for a way out of Vietnam is a testament to his political genius.

Baker also argues that Nixon escalated the Right’s foreign policy campaign into permanent cultural war. Which takes us to our current problem —

On domestic issues as well as ones of foreign policy, from Ronald Reagan’s mythical “welfare queens” through George Wallace’s “pointy-headed intellectuals”; from Lee Atwater’s characterization of Democrats as anti-family, anti-life, anti-God, down through the open, deliberate attempts of Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove to constantly describe opponents in words that made them seem bizarre, deviant, and “out of the mainstream,” the entire vernacular of American politics has been altered since Vietnam. Culture war has become the organizing principle of the right, unalterably convinced as it is that conservatives are an embattled majority, one that must stand ever vigilant against its unnatural enemies—from the “gay agenda,” to the advocates of Darwinism, to the “war against Christmas” last year.

This has become such an ingrained part of the right wing’s belief system that the Bush Administration has now become the first government in our nation’s history to fight a major war without seeking any sort of national solidarity. Far from it. The whole purpose of the war in Iraq—and the “war on terrorism”—seems to have been to foment division and to win elections by forcing Americans to choose between starkly different visions of what their country should be.

Again, I urge you to read the entire Baker article, because it is excellent, and because it puts our current political mess in an entirely different light.

I’m planning another post to tie together Baker’s article with some ideas in my “Don’t Blame McGovern” post from last week to say more about the Democrats’ self-identity problem. I hope to have that post published by tomorrow. Maybe this evening.

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