Monday, February 2, 2009

Can We Leave Nixonland Now?

Yet even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America - there's the United States of America.
In this week's Sift ... the theme is partisanship. Barack Obama became famous by calling on America to unite and rise above it. In a campaign based on hope and change, that was perhaps the change that Americans hoped for most, the one that made Obama president. Is there any chance he can deliver on it?
  • The Next Time You're in the Bookstore ... look for Nixonland by Rick Perlstein. In addition to being the best explanation of the partisan divide that I've seen, it's a fascinating retelling of the tumultuous period between Johnson's Democratic landslide in 1964 and Nixon's Republican landslide in 1972.
  • Two Weeks. That's how long it has been since George Bush's last day as president. A brief recap of what we've seen since then.
  • Obama Chooses His Opponent Carefully: Rush Limbaugh. Rush Limbaugh is emerging as the voice and face of the Republican Party. But that's because the Democrats are choosing him, and the Republicans can't afford to offend his audience.
  • Short Notes. Rachel Maddow has no TV. The credit crunch of 33 AD. Blaming God for a Super Bowl loss. And talent appears off the beaten path.

The Next Time You're in the Bookstore ...
... look for Nixonland by Rick Perlstein. Perlstein's key insight is that the rift between Red America and Blue America begins with Richard Nixon. In the Johnson-over-Goldwater landslide of 1964, America seemed to have reached consensus around an idealistic liberal agenda: end poverty, rebuild the cities, give Negroes the full rights of citizenship, and much more. A mere eight years later, Nixon's landslide re-election over McGovern exploited a broad-based resentment of all the groups who supported or benefited from that agenda: liberals, blacks, intellectuals, peaceniks, hippies, feminists, and anyone else whose patriotism was considered suspect. Nixonland is the story of those eight years.

The title is significant and well-chosen. The book isn't called Nixon, because while Nixon is at the center of this change, the book isn't really about him. It's about Nixonland, which Perlstein defines as: "the America where two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coexist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans." The word itself was coined during the 1956 campaign, when Nixon was Eisenhower's vice president and John Kenneth Galbraith wrote speeches for Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson:
In one direction lies a land of slander and scare; the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling, pushing, shoving; this is the land of smash and grab and anything to win. This is Nixonland. America is something different.
One event from Nixon's college days provides a metaphor that stretches throughout the book. When Nixon arrived, Whittier College politics was dominated by an in-group known as the Franklins. Nixon became class president by establishing an out-group, the Orthogonians (literally at a right angle to the in-group), and cashing in on their resentment of the Franklins.
The Orthogonians' base was among Whittier's athletes. On the surface, jocks seem natural Franklins, the Big Men on Campus. But Nixon always had a gift for looking under the social surfaces to see and exploit the subterranean truths that roiled underneath. It was an eminently Nixonian insight: that on every sports team there are only a couple of stars, and that if you want to win the loyalty of the team for yourself, the surest, if least glamorous strategy, is to concentrate on the nonspectacular -- silent -- majority.
Nixonland is the extension of this insight from Whittier to all of America. To pull it off, Nixon needed to properly identify America's Franklins. He did, and his insight sticks today: The resented Franklins are not the rich (like John McCain) or well-born (like George W. Bush), but rather the sophisticated -- the people with silver tongues and Harvard degrees (like Barack Obama). The Franklins are people who think they know better than you, people who make you feel ignorant or stupid. They're elitists. They're celebrities. Orthogonians, on the other hand, don't have a lot of book-knowledge or the kind of experience that comes from foreign travel or from learning other languages and cultures. But they have small-town values. They're hockey moms. Their good hearts (not their legal expertise) qualify them for the Supreme Court.

Resentment against the sophisticated Franklins has been carefully cultivated ever since, and was on display often during the fall campaign.

Nixon's diabolical cleverness was matched by liberal blindness. One blind spot was about Nixon himself: Liberals had to admit that some people agreed with Nixon, but still couldn't believe that anyone liked Nixon. (There's a similar Palin blind spot today.) But the more serious blind spot was this:
It is a lesson of the sixties: liberals get in the biggest political trouble -- whether instituting open housing, civilian complaint review boards, or sex education programs -- when they presume that a reform is an inevitable concomitant of progress. It is then that they are most likely to establish their reforms by top-down bureaucratic means. A blindsiding backlash often ensues.
They/we are too quick to assume that all intelligent well-informed people will see that they/we are right, and that no one else matters. The no-one-else-matters part is a fat pitch that Nixons have been hitting out of the park for almost half a century. Another lesson of the sixties is that liberals do not understand working-class patriotism. Americans identify with their country and will resist anyone who seems to be attacking it. Bad news about America -- whether it's My Lai or Abu Ghraib -- has to be presented carefully, sadly rather than angrily. The perpetrators of such atrocities are an us, not a them.

Nixon's insight crystallized when New York construction workers attacked an anti-war demonstration in 1969. Organized labor had been a key component of the Democratic coalition, and Republicans could not afford to alienate their corporate backers by appealing to workers' economic interests. But if the white working class might vote on identity issues -- short-hairs vs. long-hairs, pro-American workers vs. anti-American hippies and intellectuals -- then economic appeals wouldn't be necessary. That in a nutshell is the red/blue divide.

Violence is another of the book's running themes. The sixties are remembered largely for left-wing violence, but Perlstein carefully documents the much more pervasive right-wing violence. Left-wing violence had a man-bites-dog quality that made it newsworthy. But the race riots, for example, were usually touched off by some egregious example of the everyday police abuse that was taken for granted in that era. One of the later Watts riots began when a black man was stopped for speeding and killed in front of his wife because he argued too vociferously. The speeding and arguing had a simple explanation: the wife was in labor and Watts had no hospital. White-on-black violence was often provoked by an "aggressive" act like moving into a white neighborhood or sending a child to a white school. The Walker Commission later characterized the violence at the 1968 Democratic Convention as a "police riot". Nonetheless, the "law and order" theme that developed was conservative code for cracking down on blacks and peaceniks, not on police, lynch mobs, or construction workers -- much less on state governments that defied the law's promise of equal protection for citizens of all races.

Perlstein himself (born in 1969) has no personal memories of this era, but his book is steeped not just in the political history, but the social history as well. Apparently he has paged through every relevant copy of Life, watched all the movies, and listened to all the songs. (Occasionally, as George Will's review notes, he gets something wrong. Straw Dogs, for example, was not a western.) For someone who did live through the era -- I had just turned 7 when JFK was assassinated and had a precocious interest in politics -- the book provides a continuous shock of recognition. It's easy to forget how many events got packed into a small space, and even today the memories still come with a soundtrack: Vietnam (both pro and con), the Summer of Love, the King and Kennedy assassinations, Woodstock, antiwar demonstrations, Kent State, the Chicago 7 trial, the backlash against it all, and much, much more.

The question Perlstein never answers is: How can we leave Nixonland? That seems to me to be the key question of the Obama administration. Will further attempts to polarize America start to fall flat now? Or will we just run the script again, with a new generation of Franklins telling a new generation of Orthogonians that their country is bad, and that their feelings and beliefs and opinions don't matter, because the facts (if they would only bother to learn them) are on our side?

Two Weeks
Believe it or not, this is the first Sift of the Obama administration. I took last week off, and two weeks ago George Bush was still president. Let's recap.
  • The House and Senate have both passed expansions of the S-CHIP program that provides health insurance to children. Bush twice vetoed similar bills; Obama is expected to sign it any day now.
  • He already signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to send a message "that there are no second class citizens in our workplaces, and that it's not just unfair and illegal - but bad for business - to pay someone less because of their gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion or disability."
  • Blackwater's contract to protect U.S. diplomats is not being renewed. Bye-bye, trigger-happy mercenaries.
  • Executive orders will lead to an increase in fuel efficiency standards for the 2011 model year, and will allow states (like California -- whose request Bush had blocked) to tighten emissions standards on cars.
  • Obama rolled back a Bush executive order that allowed past presidents to keep their papers secret, and instead assigns the responsibility for secrecy decisions to the National Archivist.
  • Lobbyists will have to wait longer before taking government positions related to companies who paid them.
  • Obama called for a 120-day freeze on the show trials at Guantanamo, giving him time to figure out better system.
  • He asked his generals to plan for "a responsible military drawdown" in Iraq.
  • He gave an interview to the Al Arabiya network telling Muslims that "America is not your enemy."
Right now the focus in on the stimulus bill, which (despite many compromises) got zero Republican votes in the House, but passed anyway. Basically, the debate comes down to this: Democrats want to stimulate by having the government spend money; Republicans want to stimulate by cutting taxes, particularly rich people's taxes (because we haven't been trying that already for eight years).

The Republican plan is based on supply-side economics, which boils down to the idea that lower taxes motivate people to try harder to make money. The problem with this theory is easy to explain: Economics has two main motivators -- greed and fear. Booms are dominated by greed; busts by fear. Supply-side economics is greed-based economics, and it describes pretty well how an economy will behave during a boom: Investors and entrepreneurs are just dying to buy more stocks and start more businesses, so if you give them an extra dollar, they'll use it as collateral to borrow three more and invest it in something.

But in a bust, supply-side economics doesn't work at all, because fear is dominant. Investors aren't even trying to make money, really. They're just trying not to lose their shirts. Cut the capital gains tax and most of them will say, "Blast from the past! I remember capital gains."

That's why the studies Republicans cite now to support a tax cut are all inverted in one way or another. The study shows, say, that raising taxes costs the economy jobs -- so they draw the conclusion that cutting taxes will create jobs in an equal and opposite way. Hidden in that mirror-image reasoning is the assumption that greed will magically replace fear. But it won't. Fearful people will sit on their tax cut, and do nothing to stimulate the economy.

Obama Chooses His Opponent Carefully: Rush Limbaugh
In this period where the Republican Party seems rudderless and faceless, Democrats are happily promoting Rush Limbaugh as the opposition's true leader. It's a little like what the Republicans tried to do with Michael Moore a few years back. Obama himself kicked it off January 23rd. In addition to a number of carrots, Obama's plea for congressional bipartisanship on the stimulus bill contained this hint of a stick: “You can’t just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done.”

Limbaugh, naturally, is doing what he does, saying things like: "We are being told that we have to hope [Obama] succeeds, that we have to bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever, because his father was black, because this is the first black president." And: "So I shamelessly say, no, I want him to fail."

The American people are (justifiably) scared right now, and most of us don't want to hear stuff like this. So Republican Congressman Phil Gingrey tried to distance himself from it, telling Politico: "it’s easy if you’re Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or even sometimes Newt Gingrich to stand back and throw bricks. You don’t have to try to do what’s best for your people and your party." But the next day "because of the high volume of phone calls and correspondence received by my office since the Politico article ran" he had to back down: "I see eye-to-eye with Rush Limbaugh ... Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, and other conservative giants are the voices of the conservative movement’s conscience."

I don't remember Michael Moore getting any similar apologies. Maybe Rush Limbaugh is the leader of the Republican Party.

Now, after House Republicans voted 177-0 against the stimulus bill (and Fox News gave Limbaugh credit), Americans United for Change has upped the ante a little: They're running ads targeting Republican senators: "Will Senator ____ side with Limbaugh too? ...
or will he reject the partisanship and failed economic policies of the past, and stand up for the people of ____."

Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker interprets all this as Obama taking Limbaugh's bait, and warns: "Never let rabble-rousers get under your skin -- especially those whose popularity in some circles compares favorably with your own and whose earnings make bailed-out bank presidents envious."

But Obama knows exactly what he's doing. The "some circles" where Limbaugh is more popular than Obama are all on the far right. The secret of Republican success the last few decades has been to court these extremists in ways that the general populace wouldn't see. But if Limbaugh becomes the face of the Republican Party nationally, they will lose big -- and they know it.

The lesson here is that Obama realizes he can't just unilaterally disarm in the red/blue wars. It remains to be seen whether he can wind the battle down. The Limbaugh gambit isn't a direct attack on Republicans, it's a shot across the bow. "Don't go there," he's warning them. But what if they do anyway?

They Don't Make Male Chauvinist Pigs Like They Used To. Another candidate Democrats could push as the face of the Republican Party is former House Majority Leader Dick Armey. Near the end of a discussion (about Limbaugh's influence) with Salon editor Joan Walsh on MSNBC's Hardball Wednesday, a frustrated Armey said: "I am so damn glad that you could never be my wife, 'cause I surely wouldn't have to listen to that prattle from you every day." (A bonus on that clip: You get to hear a tape of Rep. Gingrey groveling on Limbaugh's show.)

Young people won't remember, but this kind of remark was actually considered a clever comeback around 1970, when the patriarchs figured that the Women's Liberation fad would burn itself out before long. They were sure that (deep down) successful women like Joan Walsh really wanted to trade it all to marry powerful men like Dick Armey. Pointing out that this dream could never come true was supposed to be devastating. (Walsh seems strikingly undevastated.)

A new poll shows that Republicans believe their party has been too moderate these last eight years. Good luck with that, guys.

Jon Stewart summarizes the conservative reaction to the first day of the Obama administration.

Limbaugh's appearance on Sean Hannity's show (transcript part 1, part 2) included many other noteworthy quotes, including this Nixonlandish one:
We're a country comprised of human beings that the Democrat Party and the left have attempted to arrange into groups of victims, and that's who [Obama] appeals to ... You put people into groups then you victimize them and give the victims power over the majority because they, they have grievances that ... have been made up, and the majority gets cowed into fear because they don't want to be complained at.
So, America, don't be cowed. Join Rush and strike back at those so-called "victims" and their made-up grievances.

Short Notes
It's no big secret that I'm a Rachel Maddow fan. I love the interview that 60 Minutes host Lesley Stahl did with her. Especially this part:
LESLEY: I have to ask you something that is apropos of absolutely nothing. But I did hear that you do not own a television set. It’s true, right?
LESLEY: Yes. So before we get very far, I want to ask you if you have the foggiest idea who the hell I am.
RACHEL: I’ve Googled you extensively. Don’t worry.

Here's a parody of the athletes who thank Jesus for their victories: Kurt Warner: "God is to blame for this loss."

Thomas Ricks recalls how the Emperor Tiberius handled the credit crunch of 33 A.D. Part of his program is very familiar -- he loaned the banks a vast sum of money. But he raised that money in a novel way: by trumping up an incest charge against a very wealthy man, seizing his assets, and having him thrown off the Tarpeian Rock. "It makes me think Wall Street is getting off easy," Ricks comments.

One of the big myths of our society is that talent is scarce. So whenever I travel it does my heart good to pick up the local free papers and remember just how much good writing is hidden in small venues. Last week I happened across Flagstaff Live, where I found an engaging account of fighting crime with cans of beer, and a mother's meditation on her daughter's (false) complaint that there's no food in the house. I also liked the Slowpoke cartoon: "First they came for the record stores, and I said nothing, because I could download for free. Then ..."

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