Voting Your Anxiety

In light of recent debate surrounding Barack Obama’s comments about rural bitterness being the cause of gun culture and fundamentalist religion, I have been wanting to locate a certain passage from an article and fortunately Kevin Drum turns it up for me (“The Culture Wars,” Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, 15 April 2008). Turns out it was Garance Franke-Ruta (“Remapping the Culture Debate,” The American Prospect, 16 January 2006):

Lower-income individuals simply live in a much more disrupted society, with higher divorce rates, more single moms, more abortions, and more interpersonal and interfamily strife, than do the middle- and upper-middle class people they want to be like. It should come as no surprise that the politics of reaction is strongest where there is most to react to. People in states like Massachusetts, for example, which has very high per capita incomes and the lowest divorce rate in the country, are relatively unconcerned about gay marriage, while those in Southern states with much higher poverty, divorce, and single-parenthood rates feel the family to be threatened because family life is, in fact, much less stable in their communities. In such environments, where there are few paths to social solidarity and a great deal of social disruption, the church frequently steps into the breach, further exacerbating the fight.

We’re still in the realm of arguing that ideology follows material circumstance. People vote their confidence and their insecurity. I loved Thomas Frank’s book, but have had reservations that it’s too facile. He argues that people don’t vote their material interest owing to effective right-wing propaganda, but he fails to take into account certain aspects of people’s material situation.

This also sweeps in the George Lakoff-type point insofar as this interpretation poses problems for the model of liberals chafing for the nanny state and always eager to swoop in and save everybody from everything versus strongly independent conservatives just wanting to be left alone to live their lives. People on the right socially are every bit as eager for the government to prop up their lives and communities and offer all sorts of inducements, it’s just that they want their government support to be punitive and compulsory.

The Destruction of Barack Obama, Part III

Some might characterize Barack Obama’s 6 April 2008 comments as standard What’s the Matter With Kansas sort of stuff. Not William Kristol. For him it rings more reminiscent of Karl Marx (“The Mask Slips,” The New York Times, 14 April 2008):

I haven’t read much Karl Marx since the early 1980s, when I taught political philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. Still, it didn’t take me long this weekend to find my copy of “The Marx-Engels Reader,” edited by Robert C. Tucker — a book that was assigned in thousands of college courses in the 1970s and 80s, and that now must lie, unopened and un-remarked upon, on an awful lot of rec-room bookshelves.

My occasion for spending a little time once again with the old Communist was Barack Obama’s now-famous comment at an April 6 San Francisco fund-raiser. Obama was explaining his trouble winning over small-town, working-class voters: “It’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

This sent me to Marx’s famous statement about religion in the introduction to his “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”:

“Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of a soulless condition. It is the opium of the people.”

This isn’t completely inconceivable. When I read What’s the Matter With Kansas I was struck by a certain Dialectical Materialist tendency, but similarity is not identity. Barack Obama as Marxist dialectician? Can Denish D’Souza be far behind with a comparison between the Senator’s remarks and some musings from one of Osama bin Laden’s videos?

The grounding in sound judgment of the imaginings of the right aside, at this point I would say that whatever crossover appeal Barack Obama once had is gone. The vitriol towards him on the right is now every bit as unhinged and hysterical as that over Hillary Clinton. I regularly get forwards from my tap into the right-wing psyche describing his as “scary” and a socialist with lurid scenarios about how he will wreck everything that is decent about the U.S.

I argued early in the primaries that anticipated perceptions of the right shouldn’t be a factor in Democratic deliberations about their candidates because the right wing mentality is not one with which there can be any negotiation (insofar as the personal characteristics and voting record of a candidate are our negotiating position). The tactic presently on display is not one that takes careful stock of the facts about a Democratic candidate and reacts accordingly, but a stock tactic which, when the facts of the matter don’t fit the stereotypes on offer, simply doubles down on the demagoguery and looks twice as hard for minutia to link candidate to cliché. It was inevitable that eventually Barack Obama would end up looking about as attractive as Hillary Clinton. Lest anyone need any reminding, in 2004 a Vietnam veteran with a Purple Heart and a conscience was made the dishonorable one and a cocaine using draft dodger was lifted up as the one whose record honored the military.

This is perhaps the central point that Democrats need to learn about the operation of the right today. It doesn’t matter what candidate we choose: the resultant smear campaign will be the same. The thing is that the Republicans are a one trick pony, so you might think that Democrats would have caught on and developed a counter strategy by this late date. Apparently we don’t even have one trick.

The Second World War, Fascism and Social Learning

The Second World War is an anomalous war insofar as it doesn’t easily fit into any standard international relations theory explanation. To explain the Second World War the most obvious tact is to turn to social psychology. Explanations about security or territorial gain make less sense than the idea that an entire nation was made a cult to a single man, Adolf Hitler. The problem to which the Allies set themselves and for which warfare was the solution was to destroy the madman and disabuse the citizenry of the captivated nation of their enthusiasm for him.

It is anomalous in that it is a war whose circumstances are unlikely to be repeated and hence the study of the large issues of the war offer few lessons to future generations. Looking forward from the war to today one finds little of use by way of general principle, but looking backward from the war is another story. One can see a number of modern developments converging to a nexus and culmination in the Second World War. The emergence of the nation-state, the view of the ruler as embodiment of the will and the wellbeing of the nation, the rise of mass communication and its opposite, the mass audience, the emergence of the mass movement.

Graham Robb in his recent and acclaimed The Discovery of France puts a pleasant, sentimental face on the story of how in Nineteenth Century, France underwent the transformation from parochial to mass society. One does not tell a similar story of Germany with the same quaint geniality. There it’s all Bismarck and blood and iron and Prussian militarism. The record of the Terror, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and the words of The Marseillaise should give Francophiles pause.

The Second World War came about owing to the naivety of people in the face of the developments of mass society. The motivating ideas were still new and, at least from the standpoint of the majority, unblemished. With little experience with them, they could be embraced with great élan. And people accustomed to a more simple, intimate world were enchanted with technology and the scale of society. Their enthusiasm carried them away.

But nations learn and peoples have a historical memory. Around a historical experience a society will build a series of institutions, both official and unofficial or informal, they compose narratives that emphasize certain experiences or perspectives or ideal types over others and whose telling passes on certain values. The most outstanding example is that the First and Second World Wars seem to have legitimately taught the Western world something about the nature of industrialized great power war. One finds very little of that vitalist dialog about war being the health of the state or of soldiering as a proving ground and refinement of the manly virtues of honor, bravery, uprightness, et cetera, so common before those wars.

Another outstanding, if smaller scale example is peoples’ constant evolving immunity to new marketing strategies. It’s well observed within the advertising sector that a new advertising strategy has a shelf-life, after which people start to see through, tune out or even hate the particular tact on display. When the iTunes commercials, each featuring a really great song, first hit the airways I loved them. I downloaded each song and listened to it to death like I had been commanded by the group unconscious. And being so featured could make an upcoming artist. But as of Sara Bareilles’s “Love Song” in the ad for cable radio, I find it annoying. I’m still totally addicted to the song, but I have identified the tactic as a tactic and it has grown a little long in the tooth. I imagine that soon enough only the downscale marketers will use the tactic and rather than being a leg up for an artist, will be the kiss of death. Call it the anti-Thomas Frank thesis a la The Conquest of Cool: rather than giving the capitalist marketing machine an in, the nomadic nature of cool prevents it from ever getting too firm a foothold.

And so one of the positive outcomes of the Second World War is that people in the Western world have inoculated themselves against the tendencies of modernism that were once so captivating and allowed the likes of Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini to transfix nations.

Everyone can smell propaganda when we’re exposed to it and the clumsiness of the grey-hairs in government and corporate bureaucracy tires us. Jokes to disarm any propaganda spring up almost immediately. Think here of how much humor was spawned by the “This is your brain on drugs” campaign. For us, new technologies are an entitlement: we’re not overawed by them, we expect them. And we’re all adept at using them so no one is about to get an asymmetric advantage. In fact, the early adopters tend to be subversives, with the bureaucracies of management only catching on too late. Some denigrate the internet as nothing but a medium for juvenile jokes, but juvenile jokes serve a public good: they cut down all the tall poppies. Witness the frustrations of the anti-war movement: we find the spectacle of mass demonstrations to be a snoozer today. Monumental architecture can impress, but we’re all familiar with big buildings by now and to some extent architecture has taken to making a mockery of itself. Increasingly monuments are seen not as reputation-enhancing but as another opportunity for a busybody clusterfuck.

The speed with which we denounce one another for fascist tendencies is perhaps not indicative of rhetorical laziness so much as a society in a heightened state of guard against fascist tendencies. And we are all policing each other every day, hoisting our widely accepted norm upon all minor deviations. Social satirists may refer to Goodwin’s law, Jonah Goldberg may decry the speed with which people (liberals in his book) reach for the fascist epithet and national greatness conservatives like David Brooks may decry what they call the coarsening of political debate, but cynicism, anti-joinership, a disinclination to take ideas seriously, obsession with the trivial (e.g. Hollywood) and a lack of civic capital are quite possibly the antibodies that our society has developed as an immunity against future fascism.

Which is not to say that we’ve got the authoritarian tendency beat. Our bulwarks against fascism were not intelligently designed. They are the result of a large number of experiments carried out by the disparate groups of society without any overarching design or intelligent coordination. A writer decides upon his next book, a teacher chooses a lesson plan, a producer chooses this script over that, coworkers at the water cooler opt for a particular rhetorical strategy in a political discussion. Through meme evolution in an environment shaped by the widespread encounter with fascism, some tendencies survive, strengthen and multiply, others wither. But the process is blind.

And just as people’s resistance to authoritarianism is learning and evolving, so the tactics of would-be authoritarians is evolving as well. They’re shouted down and humiliated in debates and, smarting, go home to hit the books and refine their rhetoric. Or having learned from numerous failed frontal assaults on the citadel, the tactic of a feint or a Trojan horse is adopted. Or the experiential environment shifts in the face of great events.

In some ways the very characteristics that inoculate us against fascism threaten to become the ones that could enable a renewed authoritarianism, more savvy to Twenty-First Century society. For instance, the widespread obsession with the trivial has allowed the Bush administration to fly beneath the radar on a lot of its authoritarian power grabs such as the abnegation of the Geneva Conventions, the attacks on the writ of habeas corpus, the advancement of the theory of the unitary executive, the proliferation of presidential signing statements and the packing of the Supreme Court with Article II worshiping justices. Media balkanization has allowed each team to have its own set of admissible facts and has enabled the return of the big lie, this time on a new foundation.

And so at least for now, in part owing to out knee-jerk tendency to resort to ad homonym attacks on anything bearing even a superficial resemblance to authoritarianism, we occupy a polity with a widespread and severely anti-authoritarian norm.

Law and Order and the Southern Strategy

Matthew Yglesias produces a graph of homicide rate and political party and makes, I think, two killing points about the relation between the Republican “law and order” rhetoric in the 1960s through 1980s and the Southern strategy (“The Crime Issue,” The, 20 November 2007):

  1. … if a move to the right was really the consequence of rising crime rates, one would expect the most conservative groups in the electorate to be those most afflicted by violent crime — low-income African-Americans. But of course that’s not how it works at all.
  2. … if the appeal of “crime” messaging was really about crime, its effectiveness should have diminished in years 1972, 1988, and to some extent 1984 when GOP leadership failed to address the issue …

This is a pretty tough indictment that the law and order issues was in fact a ruse for something else.

Point two seems especially damning in light of subsequent cultural wars and the whole “what’s the matter with Kansas” critique. Economically insecure white men could have blamed globalization-catalyzing modern day robber barons for their newfound economic peril, but instead had their anger trained by an effective political rhetoric on blacks and women. Today all that would-be class warfare is being poured instead into a culture war mold. And on neither occasion — in the 1970s and 80s on crime and today on the culture war — are Republicans at all effective. They just turn around the white flight and culture war votes into increased lower middle class white economic insecurity.

Kinsley on Brooks

I don’t want to seem as if I started a blog solely to rant about David Brooks, but Michael Kinsley’s very clever review (“Suburban Thrall,” The New York Times, 23 May 2004) of Brooks’s new book, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and Always Have) in the Future Tense warrants a few remarks. First, Kinsley points out how easily liberals have been duped by Brooks:

For several years, in the world of political journalism, David Brooks has been every liberal’s favorite conservative. This is not just because he throws us a bone of agreement every now and then. Even the most poisonous propagandist (i.e., Bill O’Reilly) knows that trick. Brooks goes farther. In his writing and on television, he actually seems reasonable. More than that, he seems cuddly. He gives the impression of being open to persuasion. Like the elderly Jewish lady who thinks someone must be Jewish because “he’s so nice,” liberals suspect that a writer as amiable as Brooks must be a liberal at heart. Some conservatives think so too.

There is a prize for being the liberals’ favorite conservative, and Brooks has claimed it: a column in The New York Times.

Lay off, Kinsley. I admit it: I thought that he seemed cuddly too. I was excited by the New York Times column. I am five posts into this thing and already I’m airing opinions this easily lampooned.

The problem that I am having with Brooks it that the humor serves to weaken, or at least confuse the critical faculty. I don’t know how to read Brooks. Is he a political humorist like P.J. O’Rourke or Al Franken? But I don’t have trouble reading O’Rourke and Franken: they are sure to be clear about when they are interjecting a joke or two and when they are making a serious point. Is he a sociologist who employs a snappy commercial shorthand instead of the dry phrasing of academia? But Brooks seems to want an undue amount of hyperbolic license to make his case, to the point where his exaggerations becomes simply misleading.

Citing Sasha Issenberg’s fact checking of Brooks (“Boo-Boos in Paradise,” Philadelphia Magazine April 2004; to be filed right next to Thomas Frank’s essay and my earlier post), Kinsley spends some time on the essential unseriousness of Brooks’s analyses: “Brooks does not let the sociology get in the way of the shtick, and he wields a mean shoehorn when he needs the theory to fit the joke.” This is a more genial version of Frank’s criticisms, which recognized the insidiousness of Brooks’s under the radar take on class in America:

The tools being used are the blunt instruments of propaganda, not the precise metrics of sociology. The “two Americas” commentators showed no interest in examining the mysterious inversion of the nation’s politics in any systematic way. Their aim was simply to bolster the stereotypes using whatever tools were at hand …

Even if his chosen style makes a muddle of it, Brooks is correct to point out the deep divides separating Americans. As his structuring metaphors of consumerism call out, much of this has to do with materialist factors. Here is Kinsley’s attempt to make sense:

… our defining — and uniting — characteristics as Americans, according to Brooks, are that we’d rather leave than fight, and we’re always thinking about the future instead of dwelling on the past. That means the enormous gulfs in values, aspirations, understanding of the world and food preferences he outlines so wittily in the first part of “On Paradise Drive” don’t turn Americans against one another … We all prosper in our various cultural cul-de-sacs (or as Brooks puts it, much better: “Everybody can be an aristocrat within his own Olympus”), and we don’t trouble ourselves about what the folks in the next cul-de-sac might be up to.

I bookmark this phenomena because I will have a lot more to write about it in some future posts on micro-fame and the technological changes that drive and structure it.

Okay, now I’ll lay off Brooks for a while.

What’s Wrong With David Brooks

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who thinks that David Brooks is lost in la-la land. Thomas Frank, whose book, What’s the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America is currently receiving a good deal of liberal acclaim, writes the following in an excerpt thereof published in Harper’s (“Lie Down for America,” April 2004, p. 37):

David Brooks, who has since made a career out of projecting the liberal stereotype onto the [red and blue map of the 2000 election], took to the pages of The Atlantic to admit on behalf of everyone who lives in a Blue zone that they are all snobs, toffs, wusses, ignoramuses, and utterly out of touch with the authentic life of the people:

We in the coastal metro Blue areas read more books and attend more plays than the people in the Red heartland. We’re more sophisticated and cosmopolitan — just ask us about our alumni trips to China or Provence, or our interest in Buddhism. But don’t ask us, please, what life in Red America is like. We don’t know. We don’t know who Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins are … We don’t know what James Dobson says on his radio program, which is listened to by millions. We don’t know about Reba and Travis … Very few of us know what goes on in Branson, Missouri, even though it has seven million visitors a year, or could name even five NASCAR drivers … We don’t know how to shoot or clean a rifle. We can’t tell a military officer’s rank by looking at his insignia. We don’t know what soy beans look like when they’re growing in a field.

One is tempted to dismiss Brooks’s grand generalizations by rattling off the many ways in which they’re wrong: by pointing out that the top three soybean producers — Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota — were in fact Blue states; or by listing the many military bases located on the coasts; or by noting that when it came time to build a NASCAR track in Kansas, the county that won the honor was one of only two in the state that went for Gore. Average per capita income in that same lonely Blue county, I might as well add, is $16,000, which places it well below Kansas and national averages, and far below what would be required for the putting on of elitist or cosmopolitan airs of any kind.

It’s pretty much a waste of time, however, to catalogue the contradictions* and tautologies** and huge, honking errors*** blowing round in a media flurry like this. The tools being used are the blunt instruments of propaganda, not the precise metrics of sociology. The “two Americas” commentators showed no interest in examining the mysterious inversion of the nation’s politics in any systematic way. Their aim was simply to bolster the stereotypes using whatever tools were at hand: to cast the Democrats as the party of a wealthy, pampered, arrogant elite that lives as far as it can from real Americans; and to represent Republicanism as the faith of the hard working common people of the heartland, an expression of their unpretentious, all American ways, just like country music and NASCAR. At this pursuit they largely succeeded.

* Consider what we might call the snowmobile dilemma. David Brooks insists that one can trace the Red-state/Blue-state divide by determining whether a person does outdoor activities with motors (the good old American way) or without (the pretentious Blue state way): “We [Blue state people] cross country ski; they snowmobile.” And yet in Newsweek’s take on the Blue/Red divide (it appeared in the issue for January 1, 2001), a “town elder” from Red America can be found railing against people who drive snowmobiles precisely because they signal big city contempt for the “small town values” of Bush Country!

** In the selection printed above, David Brooks tosses off a few names from the conservative political world as though they were uncontroversial folk heroes out in the hinterland, akin to country music stars or favorite cartoonists. But the real reason liberals don’t know much about James Dobson or Tim LaHaye is not because they are out of touch with America but because both of these men are ideologues of the right. Those who listen to Dobson’s radio program or buy LaHaye’s novels, suffused as they are with Bircher style conspiracy theory, tend to be people who agree with them, people who voted for Bush in 2000.

*** The central, basic assertion of the Blue state-Red state literature is that the Democrats are the party of the elite while the Republicans are the party of average, unpretentious Americans. Accordingly, David Brooks asserts in his Atlantic essay that “Upscale areas everywhere” voted for Gore in 2000. As a blanket statement about the rich, this is not even close to correct. Bush was in fact the hands down choice of corporate America: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Bush raised more in donations than Gore in each of ten industrial sectors; the only sector in which Gore came out ahead was “labor.” In fact, Bush raised more money from wealthy contributors than any other candidate in history, a record he then broke in 2003.

Nor is Brooks’s statement valid even within its limited parameters. When he says “upscale areas everywhere” voted for Gore, he gives Chicago’s North Shore as an example of what he means. And yet, when you look up the actual 2000 voting returns for those areas of the North Shore known for being “upscale,” you find that reality looks very different from the stereotype. Lake Forest, the definitive and the richest North Shore burb, chose the Republican, as it almost always does, by a whopping 70 percent. Winnetka and Kenilworth, the other North Shore suburbs known for their upscaliness, went for Bush by 59 percent and 64 percent, respectively.

And there were obviously many other “upscale areas” where Bush prevailed handily: Fairfax County, Virginia (suburban D.C.), Cobb County, Georgia (suburban Atlanta), DuPage County, Illinois (more of suburban Chicago), St. Charles County, Missouri (suburban St. Louis), and Orange County, California (the veritable symbol of upscale suburbia), to name but a few.