Sunday, August 30, 2009

Going Backward to Get Ahead
There's an interesting story in the Washington Post this morning, providing a pleasant reminder that the paper can add something of value when it's not serving as a megaphone for the vilest and most immoral elements in our public life. This piece details the grad school thesis of Bob McDonnell, Republican candidate for the Virginia governorship, written in 1989 while studying at Pat Robertson's Regent University. (My favorite note of the story: at the time, the school was known as CBN University, for Roberton's Christian Broadcasting Network. Says it all, don't it?)

It's the content of McDonnell's thesis that potentially put his gubernatorial prospects, henceforth very strong if polling is any measure, in some jeopardy:

At age 34, two years before his first election and two decades before he would run for governor of Virginia, Robert F. McDonnell submitted a master's thesis to the evangelical school he was attending in Virginia Beach in which he described working women and feminists as "detrimental" to the family. He said government policy should favor married couples over "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators." He described as "illogical" a 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing the use of contraception by unmarried couples.

The 93-page document, which is publicly available at the Regent University library, culminates with a 15-point action plan that McDonnell said the Republican Party should follow to protect American families -- a vision that he started to put into action soon after he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates.

During his 14 years in the General Assembly, McDonnell pursued at least 10 of the policy goals he laid out in that research paper, including abortion restrictions, covenant marriage, school vouchers and tax policies to favor his view of the traditional family. In 2001, he voted against a resolution in support of ending wage discrimination between men and women.

I guess the encouraging part of this story is that McDonnell himself now repudiates some of the more extreme views he held back then, including the banning of contraception and the right of government to discriminate based on sexual orientation. Perhaps he no longer believes that feminism is a "real enem[y] of the traditional family." One would hope.

But what I find really interesting in this particular political moment, when Republicans are claiming to have rediscovered their limited-government roots, is how unapologetically interventionist McDonnell's thesis was. In a sense, it's the usual story: liberal Democrats want to use state power to intervene on behalf of economically disadvantaged individuals and families, while right-wing (I won't call them conservative) Republicans seek the same means to the very different end of regulating sexual and religious behavior. For example:

The combination of faith and public service was on McDonnell's mind, too. His 1989 thesis -- "The Republican Party's Vision for the Family: The Compelling Issue of The Decade" -- was on the subject he wanted to explore at Regent: the link between Christianity and U.S. law. The document was written to fulfill the requirements of the two degrees he was seeking at Regent, a master of arts in public policy and a juris doctor in law.

The thesis wasn't so much a case against government as a blueprint to change what he saw as a liberal model into one that actively promoted conservative, faith-based principles through tax policy, the public schools, welfare reform and other avenues.

"Leaders must correct the conventional folklore about the separation of church and state," he wrote. "Historically, the religious liberty guarantees of the First Amendment were intended to prevent government encroachment upon the free church, not eliminate the impact of religion on society."

He argued for covenant marriage, a legally distinct type of marriage intended to make it more difficult to obtain a divorce. He advocated character education programs in public schools to teach "traditional Judeo-Christian values" and other principles that he thought many youths were not learning in their homes. He called for less government encroachment on parental authority, for example, redefining child abuse to "exclude parental spanking." He lamented the "purging of religious influence" from public schools. And he criticized federal tax credits for child care expenditures because they encouraged women to enter the workforce.

I actually think he's half-right about the First Amendment. It does protect religion from government--but it also protects observers of minority religions from having to live according to the dictates of a majority creed. McDonnell (the 1989 version, at least), like Pat Robertson, favors the most egregious violation of the First Amendment by effectively establishing a specific variant of Christianity as the national faith. And the lack of consistency in his approach to the public sphere (the part I bolded) would be hilarious if it weren't so disturbing: on the one hand, he wants to use the public schools to make up for perceived parenting deficiencies ("character education programs"), but to liberate parents to beat their kids on the other. Left unsaid is whether Jewish, Muslim or atheist parents have the same right to smack the unholy shit out of Junior for mouthing off as do evangelicals.

The article later details McDonnell's repeated efforts--not as a grad student, but as an elected official in Virginia--to legislate "covenant marriage" in Virginia. My favorite detail here is that under his bills, "the time of separation for couples with children to obtain a no-fault divorce would have been extended from one to two years." Because, I can tell you from experience, there's nothing better for children of divorced parents than for the wrenching process to take as long and be as painful as possible. He also evidently remains opposed to abortion even in cases of rape or incest, a position so extreme that even former Senator George Allen, R-Imbecile, was quick to denounce it.

That McDonnell is downplaying these positions suggests that extremism is a political loser in Virginia today. But I would bet that he was entirely mindful of the potential political implications when he wrote that paper 20 years ago; he moved back to the state for grad school and ran for office two years after finishing CBN U (hee hee). He was just wrong in thinking that the Old Dominion would continue to drift toward Dominionism. For that, again, we can be grateful, as well as watchful to ensure that the trend doesn't reverse again.

This probably will be it for awhile on AIS... though given how little I've posted this year, it might not even be noticeable depending on just how long I take to return to coherence and/or feeling like writing something.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Quick Thought on Ted Kennedy
I think it's fair to say that in the drama of American public life in the second half of the 20th century--the decades that history will remember as the zenith of American global pre-eminence--four men stood above all others at the intersection of ideas and influence, variously wielding power and building movements. They were, in no particular order, Ronald Reagan, Ted Kennedy, William F. Buckley Jr., and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Very, very few matters of importance over the last thirty years of the century in particular happened without one or more of these men playing a central role. With the probable exception of Moynihan, whom I consider the most idiosyncratic of the four in his journey from New Frontiersman to Nixonian adviser and Cold War hawk to latter-day neoliberal and who viewed himself as a public intellectual freed from the constraints of democratic pandering or even consistency, they're all remembered as partisan leaders par excellence--the president who gave the "Reagan Revolution" its name, the "liberal lion of the Senate," and the "father of modern conservatism." There are nooks on the left where Reagan is still loathed, and crannies on the right where Kennedy remains reviled.

But what strikes me in the wake of Kennedy's passing on Tuesday night is that the caricatures never captured the essences--the men never changed themselves to fit the masks of public perception. Rick Perlstein's remembrances of Buckley painted the National Review founder as an excessively generous and warm fellow, as does his protege-turned-rival-turned-friend Garry Wills. The personal friendship between Kennedy and Reagan was illustrated by Nancy Reagan's classy statement released Wednesday, and the tributes from partisan Republicans of today such as Orrin Hatch (who wrote a song for his late friend) and John Boehner offer more evidence that the political was not personal.

This isn't to paint the Good Old Days in sepia hues. The fact that all four of these figures were white men is almost enough in itself to point up a failing of their era, and it's possible verging on likely that each of the four committed at least one misstep at a key moment in their careers that would relegate them to the sidelines in today's world: certainly no public figure could endure Chappaquiddick today, nor Buckley's championing of segregation in the late 1950s. But that these men and others like them (check out this list of the Senators who were in office when Ted Kennedy took his seat in 1963) were generally able to leave their differences in the world of "just business," and as such often able to overcome those differences to make policy, suggests that we have lost something precious and useful. Republican Senators like Hatch and John McCain both have remarked that Kennedy's ability to "reach across the aisle" would be useful right now as the Senate struggles with the question of health care reform. It's easy, and probably at least somewhat correct, to dismiss this as disingenuous and self-serving on their part. But that doesn't mean there isn't a grain of truth to it. I've written here a few times this summer that we're in uncharted territory as far as trying to enact major reform in a deeply polarized climate; with Ted Kennedy leaving the scene, his former colleagues find themselves that much more dug in.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Medicare: YAY! Government: BOO!
You might have heard by now about those aged but angry protesters at health care town halls warming their elected officials to "keep your government hands off my Medicare!" And, like me, you might have gotten a laff out of the illogic of the demand. But evidently this is a cognitive disconnect not of a few septuagenarian Fox News viewers, but rather a majority of Republicans across the country!
A new national survey from Public Policy Polling (D) illustrates the profound levels of ignorance that currently interfere with the debate over health care.

One question asked: "Do you think the government should stay out of Medicare?" Keep in mind that this is a logical impossibility, as Medicare is a government program, which was signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson, to provide guaranteed health care to the elderly.

As it turns out, 39% of voters think government should stay out of Medicare, compared to 46% who disagree.

Among Republicans, 62% say the government should stay out of Medicare, compared to only 24% of Democrats and 31% of independents who agree.

(As an aside, I'd love to know what percentage of elected Republican officials would have answered yes... when ignorance of basic facts is a political strength rather than a liability, there's a strong incentive to be ignorant.)

I'm not sure what if anything this means for the prospects of health care reform. And I suppose that one possible, though very unlikely, interpretation of the finding is that those answering "Yes" might simply want to see Medicare abolished, as some of the most extreme right-wingers probably do. Or that the program should be perpetually frozen in time--no new benefits, nothing taken away, no adjustment in reimbursements, etc.

But I think it's probably just representative of our deep ambivalence toward "government," and the success that the modern conservative moment has had in painting any positive activity of the public sector as separate and distinct from the malignant entity that Rush Limbaugh and his ilk are always yowling about. A deep concern with and ongoing public debate over government's role is, in my opinion, justified and probably helpful; the reptile-brain hostility now on display is not.

Americans' views toward government have changed over time, but I'm starting to wonder if the default suspicion-bordering-on-rage we've seen for the last thirty years is maybe more historically representative than the faith and trust Americans seemed to have between the New Deal and Watergate. Of course, public views of government began to improve when government, under FDR and Democratic congresses, became more proactive in defense of the public good; attitudes began to sour again through the gross inhumanity and myriad public lies of the Vietnam War, the perceived waste of the Great Society, and the unrestrained and almost serene criminality of Watergate. I've long believed that progressives have to restore government's good name before they can begin to seriously dream of implementing a broad agenda. But there's a chicken-and-egg dynamic here: the way to prove that government can be a force for good in the lives of Americans is to take actions that improve those lives. On the question of health care, for the Democrats, that means simply taking a deep breath, passing something, and then working like hell to make sure it functions as it should.

Then, in thirty years, maybe the sixty-somethings of that time will attend Virtual Town Halls demanding that bureaucrats keep their sweaty hands off our Obamacare.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Invincible Ignorant
I'm starting to believe that much more is at stake in the outcome of the health reform debate than the plight of the uninsured, or the prospect of health costs-driven deficits beyond the horizon, or the political viability of the Obama administration and Democratic congressional majorities. If reform fails altogether, it will represent a triumph of willful ignorance that ultimately could put the entire democratic project in jeopardy.

Most media coverage, even from the better outlets, inevitably fixates on the drama of confrontation--an irate Pennsylvanian promising Arlen Specter that "God is going to judge you!," or some other nut bringing an unlicensed gun to an Obama event in New Hampshire--or (at the behest of too-clever-by-half Democratic strategists) the question of to what extent the protesters are genuinely grass-roots or a product of "astroturfing." This misses the point: sure, they're organized, but the anger is genuine.

The point is that it's almost impossible to imagine how those protesting might be disabused of the entirely mad ideas that "the Obama plan" (which doesn't even exist as such) will kill old people and mandate abortions or sex change operations or homosexual conversion therapy or whatever else their fevered little minds might come up with. Glenn Beck isn't gonna tell them. Sarah Palin's Twitter feed sure won't tell them. Nobody else on Fox News or the Focus on the Family newsletter is going to set out the facts. Network TV news, as noted, is mostly interested in the spectacle--and even if they do point out that there aren't really any "Death Panels," it's an article of faith on the Raging Right that they're all in cahoots with Obama/George Soros/The Gays/the Trilateral Commission/whoever.

In other words, this is a closed system into which no outside information can penetrate--a fact-free zone. It's a mass reflection of what an unnamed Bush advisor, probably Karl Rove, was talking about when he said, "we create our own reality." Not surprisingly, it also reflects the teleological certainty of the fundamentalist religious strain that no doubt inspires many of those resisting reform.

There are a lot of ways to cut at this, including its relevance to the philosophical questions with which every democratic society must grapple: how do you tack between mass public participation and mass public ignorance? How much deference does expertise really merit? Is it ever fair or just to impose change on those who would not welcome it, "for their own good"? Is it more unfair or unjust to deny progress in recognition of that wish? Are we forever stuck at the lowest common denominator of community spirit?

For now, though, I just want to win the fight--and I'm not sure Democrats know how to do that. Yesterday in New Hampshire, Obama asked that "we disagree over things that are real." That sure would be nice, and there are plenty of grounds for disagreement. (I think part of why there's such a gap in intensity between opponents and supporters of reform is that many on the reform side have been put off by this or that ugly bit of legislative sausage-making to such an extent that it's almost not seemed worth it to stand up for whatever emerges from Congress.) But Obama's request presupposes agreement on what is and isn't real... and the whole point of a closed information system is that it rejects the premises of any outside voice.

Republican officials--some of them, I'd like to think most of them, probably not all of them--know better than to believe that death panels are in the legislation, or that the administration is compiling "enemies lists" of reform opponents. But most of them are either egging on the know-nothings or keeping quiet because they figure it's worth using the mob to defeat legislation they oppose on the merits. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), who wrote the language that Palin characterized as a "death panel," has defended his work in strictly limited terms, but has pretty much said that since he opposes health care reform anyway, he doesn't want to see his words used in its defense.

How does it end? As I've said a few times recently, I fear that if it's proven that government is incapable of addressing big problems in its current form, popular sentiment will crest toward changing the forms--people will demand simple answers, and fall behind whoever promises them. At that point, I suspect that many of those now decrying "tyranny" will be cheering it on--whereas if we pass health care reform, and nothing much changes (it being perhaps too much to hope that the weak reforms contemplated will actually add value to the lives of those most opposed to them), they'll just have to find another pretext for what is at bottom identity-politics rage.

Monday, August 10, 2009

I Heart Aaron Boone
A story I was happy to read from baseball's minor leagues Monday night:

Aaron Boone is back playing baseball, appearing in a minor league game in Texas less than five months after open-heart surgery.

Boone batted second Monday night for the Corpus Christi Hooks, a Double-A affiliate of the Houston Astros. He swung at the first pitch and popped up to the first baseman in foul territory.

He was scheduled to play five innings at third base against Midland. The 36-year-old Boone had an operation in late March because of a congenital defect in his aortic valve.

I find this of interest not primarily because of any particular warmth toward Aaron Boone--by all accounts he's a good guy, but I don't know him personally, he never played for the Phillies, and I was if anything mildly disappointed from a rooting standpoint when he made his mark on baseball history--but because three weeks from tomorrow, I'm scheduled to have a similar surgery to the one from which he's now fully recovered: aortic valve replacement.

Like Boone, I have a bicuspid aortic valve--you're supposed to have three--that contributes to "aortic insufficiency," or aortic regurgitation. If you listen to my heartbeat, it sounds like someone walking through about six inches of standing water. Like him, I've known about it for awhile--not quite as long as he did, which was evidently since college--and had it monitored, but the condition didn't require surgery until fairly recently. Like him, I'm asymptomatic; I was at the gym today, as I am most days, and did pretty much my full workout, which is about an hour and ten minutes, without feeling any more tired than usual (and it was damn hot today.) And like him, I'm 36. It's a deeply strange thing: you feel perfectly fine, and you know that you have a problem that, if unaddressed, probably would kill you within ten years.

What I'm nervous about isn't really the surgery itself; the mortality rate for this procedure is pretty much as low as possible, around one percent. ("If you absolutely have to undergo one kind of open heart surgery, MAKE THIS THE ONE!!!") The procedure takes about three and a half hours, and I'll be zonked for all of it. The recovery, however, sounds like a bitch and a half: four nights in-patient, which itself is upsetting, and one to three months for full recovery. My surgeon suggested that six weeks wa a reasonable guess for me. Here Boone's example is both comforting and distressing: I found this footage of him on an Astros broadcast about six weeks after his procedure, and he sounds pretty good, but he makes reference to feeling better "in the last couple weeks." The thought of spending all of September in relative physical misery--and the concern that if it took a professional athlete a full month to feel decent again, it stands to reason that a guy who's probably 30 pounds overweight will require more time--is less than delightful.

Still, when I step back from it, I feel more lucky than anything else. A hundred years ago, this simply would have killed me by age 50 at the very latest. Thirty years ago, it was considerably more dangerous, and I probably would have required a metal replacement valve rather than the cow tissue one they'll fashion and install. (I sometimes just moo to Annie these days.) I have a wonderful support system, starting with my wife. We're insured. My work arrangements are such that I can weather what I'm assuming will be a month without income in fine shape.

Here's hoping Boone and I will both be celebrating our recoveries and baseball triumphs this fall--him a resumption of his big-league playing career, and me a second straight Phillies title. Hearing about his return to action tonight does buoy me up some.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Lost in the Jobs Numbers
Good news for the Obama White House yesterday as the July jobs report turned out better than expected: the number of jobs lost was less than 250,000, and the unemployment rate actually fell one-tenth of a point. Now, anybody who knows how that measure is calculated understands that reason was fewer people even bothering to look for work--discouraged jobseekers aren't counted in the labor force. So, since a bit less than 250,000 Americans found themselves newly out of work, some slightly larger number essentially concluded, "screw this--I'm gonna stop sending out resumes and interviews for awhile." Still, the lack of depth and detail in most news coverage means that the message will boil down to "unemployment dropped in July"--which, while untrue, works to the advantage of the President and the Democrats. And even those who do somewhat know what's up can argue with some justification that we're hitting the bottom of the recession, or that we've already done so; employment is, famously, a lagging indicator of economic health since businesses wait until they're confident of rising demand to resume new hiring. So by the time we actually start seeing employment increases, in all likelihood "growth" will have resumed months earlier. In more good news, average hourly wages went up, and the work week for those who have jobs got a bit longer.

Still, one piece of information buried deeper in the jobs data should be of much greater concern to economic policymakers than I expect it is. New York Times financial correspondent Floyd Norris sets it out:

Fewer people are losing their jobs. But long-term unemployment is higher than ever.

The number of unemployed people who have been unemployed for 14 weeks or less was 6.79 million in July, the lowest figure for that group since December. But the number unemployed for 15 weeks or more was 7.88 million, up 74 percent since December and the highest figure ever.

For the first time ever — or at least since the government started counting the figures in 1948 — more than a third of the unemployed have been out of work for at least 27 weeks. The average unemployed person had been jobless for less than 20 weeks at the end of last year. Now the figure is over 25 weeks.

A few months ago, I had a conversation with Anthony Carnevale, an economist at Georgetown and former Clinton administration official who has been one of the leading voices on the interrelationships between educational attainment, the labor market and the economy for more than twenty-five years. I've been a huge admirer of Dr. Carnevale for a long time, and the two occasions I've had to speak with him have been among the most enjoyable and enlightening professional conversations I've had. He was kind enough to let me put a partial transcript of our discussion online, but one thing he said that day came back to me as I was reading Norris's note about the long-term unemployed:

A New York Federal Reserve Bank study pointed out that 30 percent of the increase in unemployment prior to the 1991 recession was temporary. The view now is that from now on they’re always going to be structural: given the way the global economy works, by and large the low-skill low-wage jobs you lose won’t come back. The Federal Reserve Bank argues that there’s almost no temporary unemployment anymore; when you come out the other side, you’re looking at a different distribution. And one of the characteristics of it is that it’s more human capital-intensive. That’s a big reason why a lot of people never recover their earnings.

I don't know for sure (and I'm not sure it's possible to know for sure; I guess it depends on just how detailed is the information the Bureau of Labor Statistics collects), but I'm guessing that many/most of the nearly eight million long-term unemployed Americans are those with the least educational attainment and fewest transferrable skills. I have seen numbers on those who have lost jobs in this downturn, broken out by educational attainment: going by memory, I think about eight percent of those who had less than a high school education and were working at the start of the recession have lost their jobs, compared to about four percent of those with a high school degree or equivalency, and less than half a percent of workers with a four year college degree or a post-graduate degree.

Of course, there's always some hiring even in periods of overall job loss, and I've been hearing anecdotally about people taking what are called "survival jobs" that pay less than they made before the market plunged and for which they are, in terms of education and work history, overqualified. But that's not a new phenomenon of recessions, and presumably as aggregate job growth resumes those folks will move on to positions more in line with their past earning power and true level of skill. When that happens, just by virtue of having decent work histories and solid personal references/networks, many of those who now fill the ranks of the long-term unemployed probably will get rehired.

My concern is for their successors—the millions of Americans who are nearing or have entered early adulthood without learning or skills, and who are finding themselves totally unable to find even lousy jobs right now. If Carnevale is right and the "low-skill, low wage jobs don't come back"--and he's not the only one who thinks this; former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has written repeatedly that the post-recession economy will look very different from what we knew in 2007--those folks are probably pretty much screwed unless we can reconnect them with educational opportunities and, no less important, socialize them for the world of work.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Dirty Hands
Over the weekend I read a loooong (25,000 words or so) essay by historian Sean Wilentz (whom I wrote about earlier this summer, and probably at least once or twice before that) in The New Republic discussing (not so much reviewing) a handful of recent books about Abraham Lincoln, released to coincide with the bicentennial of his birth. As usual when I read Wilentz, I appreciated his insights even as I was put off by his refusal to Get Over It with respect to the 2008 Democratic primary race; at this point, he's more Catholic than the Pope when it comes to defending the Clintons and taking shots (though now more veiled than explicit) at Barack Obama.

His essential contention in the essay is that the recent trend of Lincoln scholarship has put the 16th president on a pedestal above "mere politics," presenting him as a literary man, a mystic, or a philosopher--where the truth is that Lincoln's greatness was largely if not entirely bound up in his talents as a politician. I'm sympathetic to this view, as it aligns with my own belief that all our most successful political leaders have been master tacticians above all else. Anyone who read Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals (which Wilentz briefly mentions, mostly to take a passing shot at Obama and his admirers--of which more in a minute) takes the point: in how he maneuvered for the Republican nomination in 1860, how he assembled his Cabinet largely from the ranks of those he'd defeated for that prize, and how he utilized and even manipulated its members, Lincoln showed political mastery on a level probably unmatched in American history.

But at least within historical circles--and a big part of Wilentz's critique of the authors he discusses is that, at bottom, they are not historians--none of this is much in dispute. His other salient point, which unfortunately he can't help but fold into yet another poke at Obama, is that the scholarly inclination to remove Lincoln from the political realm mirrors something else, something more insidious and even dangerous, in the character of the American liberal:
Despite their differences in methods and conclusions, much of the new wave of books on Lincoln reflects a common mood among a portion of the liberal intelligentsia, one that cannot be ascribed simply to Lincoln's bicentennial. The mood might seem political, but this is imprecise: it cares about politics only so as to demote it and repudiate it and transcend it. The mood to which I refer is in truth profoundly anti-political. It runs deeper than conventional election loyalties, touching what has become a ganglion of contemporary liberal hopes and dreams about America, about its past, its present, and its future.
Historically considered, the Obama phenomenon battened on the high-minded Mugwump disdain for "politics as usual" that has become such a central feature of contemporary left-liberalism--and which, in a twisted way, has become associated with the iconic Lincoln. Two of the major objects of enmity in this current of reformism are the political parties (with their dark hidden forces, the professional politicians) and the money-drenched system of campaigning (with its dark hidden forces, the corporate donors). If only the hammerlock of the two major parties--or, alternatively, that of the bosses within each party--can be broken, the true will of the rank and file, and ultimately of the people, will be unleashed, and principled government will be restored. And if the intrinsically corrupting (or so it is claimed) contributions of big money are ended, and something approximating public financing of elections installed in its place, then something closer to Lincolnian government of the people, by the people, and for the people will emerge. Right?
The candor of Lincoln's language, the ease with which he accurately describes his real vocation, is refreshing. He saw no shame in the practice of politics, and experienced no priggish discomfort about what it takes to get great things done. He was never too good for politics. Quite the contrary: for him, politics--ordinary, grimy, unelevating politics--was itself a good, and an instrument for good. Lincoln knew who he was. He knew that his colleagues knew who he was. He would never renounce who he was. It would take the earnest liberal writers of a later age to do that for him--or, taking him at his word, to slight his eventual achievements while vaunting their own radical heroes. In misunderstanding Abraham Lincoln, these writers misunderstand American democratic politics, in Lincoln's day as well as in our own.

I resemble this remark, and it stings me. I am painfully, almost laughably susceptible to exactly the tendency Wilentz is talking about: I seriously thought Mike Bloomberg would make a good president (and I'm still not entirely convinced he wouldn't), largely because I bought the story he told about being "above politics"--which in his case only meant, and means, a repudiation of party politics. I even briefly considered voting for Ross Perot in 1992, for the same reason. And I voted for Ralph fucking Nader in 2000, out of some deeply misguided belief that there was no meaningful difference between the two parties. AND I WAS ALREADY WORKING IN PUBLIC POLICY BY THEN.

(I don't, however, think that I had this delusion about Obama himself, at least not in the way Wilentz describes. In fact, I strongly believed that it was his political talent--the same knack for discerning where the country was, knowing where he wanted to take it, and understanding how best to do so that powered the successes of FDR and Lincoln himself--that could render him a great president. I won't deny being somewhat taken by the persona of the man--Obama was the first candidate I've voted for whose literary talents I particularly admired, and the first one with whom I felt any cultural or generational simpatico--but I thought of him more as an exceptional practitioner of political arts than as someone who might transcend them.)

The problem I still have--and this arguably relates to the less melodramatic points of my last post, about the degradation of American politics to the point where it might be even money that we see a country-wrecking demagogue pop up in the near future--is that there's no satisfactory middle ground. You can take yourself out of the game with the high-minded yet simplistic "pox on both your houses" perspective shared by Nader and George Wallace... or you can march in one of the competing armies now in the field, run by Howard Dean and David Plouffe on the left and Dick Armey and Steve Forbes on the right, where they're mostly interested in your money and your physical presence. (No, I'm not claiming equivalency--other than in how much any of these groups values the individual as anything more than a wallet or a body.)

I hate both options, but the result is that I default to the first.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Waiting for Stillson
Stephen King hasn't written all that much about politics in his fiction, but as with any great storyteller in just about any genre or medium, he has a tremendous intuitive grasp of psychology. In The Dead Zone, he presented a character named Greg Stillson, a salesman turned politician whom the psychic protagonist comes to understand will be elected president and begin a nuclear war. Within the course of the story, Stillson gets as far as the House of Representatives, winning office on the strength of a highly emotional, not to say irrational, political persona that fed on voters' grievances and anger. (The hero ultimately ruins his political career when, in a failed assassination attempt, Stillson picks up a toddler to use as a human shield and a photographer captures the image.)

Of course we need not turn to fiction to find examples of politicians who leveraged public fear, frustration and anger into advancement. Joe McCarthy is probably the most famous American example, though he's hardly the only one. To some extent, they all do it--but in America, such appeals as the sole or main message of a candidate have never quite managed a majority. What I worry about now is that we're approaching a tipping point at which a Greg Stillson type could really come to power.

Why are we more susceptible to this now than might have been the case fifty or a hundred years ago? Three reasons.

First, I fear we are about to be faced with a truth we've never before had to confront: the American system is no longer equal to the problems that confront it. From addressing global warming to moving the federal budget back toward balance, we don't have the stomach to do what must be done--and we don't even really understand the problems. But more than anything, we refuse to accept the notion that you can't get something for nothing. Maybe this is the fault of leaders who refuse to speak to the public as adults. Maybe it's an inevitable consequence of a political system that actively and harshly punishes any actor who proposes a policy that would trade short-term pain for long-term gain and consistently allows small, focused interests to have their way against large, unfocused and inattentive majorities. (As Matt Taibbi recently put it when discussing health care, "Our government doesn’t exist to protect voters from interests, it exists to protect interests from voters.") Maybe it's the culture itself, a culture now mostly driven by advertising messages that relentlessly promise only ease and pleasure.

Second, the mass media has gradually revealed itself to be, from a civic perspective at least, much more an instrument for harm than for good. I've been reading this long David Halberstam profile of CBS News from the mid-1970s, in which he traces the development of the division from its heyday in the 1940s and '50s through the Watergate period, explaining how the new medium of television both shaped and was shaped by the political scene. What Halberstam describes is a mutually parasitical relationship between the top echelons of political and corporate power; can anyone argue with a straight face that, on balance, this hasn't gotten worse, rather than better, over the last 30-plus years?

(This isn't to say that there are no honest and independent voices out there, or that the Internet hasn't furnished them a platform and an audience. But for every Dan Froomkin, Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan, there are probably a dozen Jake Tappers, David Gregorys and Mark Halperins--and they have much bigger megaphones, much better access, and much more margin for error on factual or even stylistic grounds. As one example, Sullivan has taken far more crap for his continued inquiries about Sarah Palin's pregnancy on his blog than Gregory did for essentially offering Mark Sanford a free shot to explain himself on "Meet the Press." For more on why this is so important, just check out Greenwald's stunning post today about the end of the feud between Keith Olbermann of MSNBC and Bill O'Reilly of Fox News--that both broadcasters essentially were silenced by their corporate bosses, for reasons having nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with corporate profits.)

When Joe McCarthy was wrecking lives and driving public policy in ever more twisted directions in the '50s, Edward R. Murrow stood up to him--first by inference, then directly. As Halberstam's account details, top CBS executives first took credit for Murrow's journalistic bravery--then made sure that no on-air personality could ever put him- or herself in a position to do anything like that again. Today, the two guiding principles of news coverage are access and "balance": as Greenwald details better than anybody, top correspondents and reporters see their primary responsibility as protecting their sources, and their second duty as "reporting both sides." It's impossible to imagine a high-profile reporter reacting to the transgressions of the Bush administration--from the misinformation leading up to the Iraq War, to the outing of Valerie Plame, to the U.S. Attorney firings and the systemic violations of the Geneva Conventions--with the righteous outrage of Murrow to Tailgunner Joe and the Red Scare. (As the Obama administration has continued many of the worst Bush policies, the acquiescence of the media has reminded us that its true bias isn't liberal or conservative, but simply deference to the powerful.) The best it gets is that one or two skeptical reporters for a dying newspaper might raise a question or two in a story buried on page 18.

Whether you consider Barack Obama a hero and Sarah Palin a villain or vice-versa, they're covered in largely the same way: as personalities rather than exemplars of a worldview or champions of a set of policy priorities. When Greg Stillson comes, be certain that he or she will be presented in the same manner. Nobody of any note, outside from probably a blogger or two who will quickly be dismissed as an ideologue or an eccentric, will offer a fact-based view to offset the tabloid-type coverage.

(At this point, I consider Palin a failed prototype for the Stillson figure whose emergence I fear. Her political appeal at the national level was entirely grievance-based: an incoherent roar of anger and fear and pain at a changing national landscape, a blind reaching out for villains to string up. She fell short, at least to this point, in part because she mismanaged her own public image through a lack of self-discipline and anything remotely substantive, and in part because we in this culture still judge attractive women more harshly than we do attractive men. The next person in this mode will have learned from her mistakes, and will be ready for the Katie Couric interview.)

The third reason I worry that the stage is set for a true demagogue in the presidency is that Americans at every point on the political compass are grasping for answers and certainty in a world that increasingly provides neither. We feel that things are far beyond our control: the forces that control our lives and can wreck them at any point are almost impossible to identify, much less confront. To an extent, this is true--our institutions are far beyond accountability, and some of them (the Federal Reserve, anyone?) are almost beyond explanation. The committed citizen can educate him/herself--that's the great benefit of mass media--but probably not to any particularly useful end, and very few will even do that when there's always some more pressing responsibility or easier entertainment option. That a large minority of Americans believes, in the face of all the evidence and even almost unanimity from political and cultural elites, that Obama wasn't even born in this country suggests just how powerful a hold irrational ideas can have when they provide an emotional answer.

Human nature and history alike suggest that when things get bad enough and someone eventually comes to provide such answers and certainty, he or she will find a very receptive audience.