Tag Archives: GOP

Are the Seventies Finally Over?

Adam Nagourney had a piece in yesterday’s Sunday Review about the changing political allegiances of the Sunbelt and how those changes might signify “an era’s end.”

The Republican Party has grown used to having “a lock” on the region stretching from Florida through the south, and to Western states like Arizona, Colorado Nevada and California; but with the nomination of Frostbelt candidates Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, the region looks up for grabs.

“Pummeled by the collapse of the housing market,” the Sunbelt suburbs have “soaring” poverty rates; and that, according to Harvard’s Lisa McGurr, “will transform the ability of the Republican party to appeal to suburbanites with private, individualistic solutions.”

What’s more, the Sunbelt’s demographics are changing – to illustrate, Nagourney mentions Latino and Asian “enclaves” in Orange County, and Latinos moving in large numbers to Texas and Arizona – even as Republicans have been pushing an anti-immigrant agenda.

If this week’s Republican convention marks the end of an era, it’s the end of an era that began in the 1970s. Then, a demographic shift from the industrialized Frostbelt to the Sunbelt precipitated the political realignment now on the wane. The northeastern liberal elite lost its exclusive hold on power; the liberal state came under assault. And when the barbarians arrived at the government gate, we gleefully let them in. All across the country, Americans were fed up with taxes, had lost faith in government, and began to disengage from public life. By the end of the 1970s, writes Bruce Schulman:

Americans not only accepted that markets performed more efficiently, but embraced the previously outlandish idea that they operated more justly and protected freedom more efficiently than government. The entrepreneur became a national hero, and suspicion of business, a mistrust of unregulated corporations that had anchored American politics since the 1930s, all but vanished from American political discourse. (The Seventies, p. 249)

Those were the days when Milton Friedman assured us that business had no greater obligation to society than to “maximize shareholder value”. This doctrine went hand in hand with Friedman’s hostility to the liberal state, his contempt for the inefficiencies of government, and his contention that free enterprise, unfettered by regulation and unburdened by taxes, would deliver political freedom and prosperity. What’s most striking is that by the end of the Seventies the majority of Americans had enthusiastically came around to that point of view. We all but abandoned the commons:

The slow march of privatization had pervaded the entire Seventies. It complemented all of the decades’ changes in attitudes: impatience with taxes and centralized authority, experimentation with new forms of community [including self-taxing private entities like homeowners’ associations and Business Improvement Districts, which supplanted and suborned municipal governments], Sunbelt self-reliance, and the fiscal crises that deepened municipalities’ reliance on private funds. (249)

The push toward privatization and “Sunbelt self-reliance” in the Seventies was also a retreat from the idea that we rely on each other – a retreat from the idea of “society” itself.

Hurricanes like Katrina or the one bearing down on the GOP convention this week don’t just threaten Sunbelt serenity; they are crises that heighten and exaggerate the shortcomings of the Sunbelt ethic. The same could be said for the financial tsunami that overtook us in 2008, and forced many people in the Sunbelt from their homes. (Foreclosure rates are high throughout the region.)

Despite the impending hurricane and the financial storm most Americans are still weathering, it’s unlikely anyone on stage in Tampa this week will speak about the limits of Reaganesque self-reliance or the things markets cannot do. But we have obligations to each other markets sometimes threaten, and sometimes simply cannot help us meet.

I’d at least like to think that with the Sunbelt’s eclipse more than the electoral votes of a few states are in play. Maybe, just maybe, the Seventies are finally coming to an end.

What’s Eating American Intellectuals?

I had dinner the other night with a friend who has been worrying about the sorry plight of the liberal elite in the year of the Tea Party. Ivy Leaguers see themselves outflanked by Astroturfers, unsure of their prospects and unable to connect. My friend wondered aloud what liberal intellectuals now ought to do.

The conversation would not really have made much of an impression on me – it’s one of those conversations one is bound to have after an election like the last one — were it not for the curious way it began to resonate in subsequent days.

Walter Russell Mead echoed many of the themes of our dinner conversation in a post about the delusions of the “liberal intelligentsia,” who were misled by the Obama victory in 2008. People really just wanted things to get a little better after the disappointments and troubles of the Bush years, Mead argues; they didn’t want a liberal political agenda forced on them and watched over by the guardians of the liberal elite.

Delusional, disconnected, defeated.

But it’s not just liberals. Soon I found out that even more people were having virtually the same conversation we’d had. For instance, I came across these themes in a lament on Stephen Bainbridge’s blog, about the plight of the intellectual elite on the right. Bainbridge was responding to a post by Nils August Andresen, who has been publishing a series on FrumForum about the role of intellectuals – specifically academics, and even more specifically, Ivy League academics — in the GOP.

Bainbridge, Andresen and others are rightly worried that the GOP is turning over the reins of power to boobs on the tube and anti-intellectual demagogues. The Palin and Beck crowd can easily out-shout the Smart Guys. Populism threatens to make the GOP not just the party of no, but the party of no ideas.

It would be easy to multiply the examples. Intellectuals on both sides feel as if they are under siege, or desperately out of touch, as if they are being pushed out of public life, or – worse – that nobody’s listening.

It’s hard to decide what’s really going on here. Are these just post-election blues, or have intellectuals begun to grasp some greater truth, not just about the intellectual death of the GOP or what’s really the matter with Kansas, but about their own diminished, marginal social position?

This much seems tolerably clear. A society that does not accord a place of prestige to intellectuals hasn’t simply stopped believing in the wisdom of tenured faculty at Ivy League institutions. Professors can earn or lose public face — and the social status and access to power — that comes with it. But a society that excludes, marginalizes or mocks intellectual elites has lost a certain faith.

It has stopped believing in the idea that educated people have any special insight into human affairs, and maybe even that such insight is possible. And so it has stopped believing in the value of education – or at least a certain kind of education: the liberal arts, the study of history, language and society – and the power of ideas to help people make sense of history, the problems of the day, or the future. If this is where we are, or where things are heading, then I’m worried, too.

Character makes a comeback

It’s almost as if Obama was channeling Thomas Frank last night. The President’s remarks on the American “character” in last night’s speech did exactly what Frank said the Democrats had to do: counter the Republican’s appeal to American self-reliance (or just plain selfishness) with the argument that “we are a society,” and position healthcare as a public good. And best of all he couched this principled stand for liberalism in an emotional passage about Ted Kennedy.

“What we face,” [Kennedy] wrote, “is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”

I’ve thought about that phrase quite a bit in recent days — the character of our country. One of the unique and wonderful things about America has always been our self-reliance, our rugged individualism, our fierce defense of freedom and our healthy skepticism of government. And figuring out the appropriate size and role of government has always been a source of rigorous and sometimes angry debate….

[Ted Kennedy’s] large-heartedness — that concern and regard for the plight of others — is not a partisan feeling. It is not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character. Our ability to stand in other people’s shoes. A recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand. A belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.

No doubt about it: Obama won the night. It was no contest. Most Republicans looked dour or sulked throughout the speech; the official response by Charles Boustany was uninspired and didn’t offer a single constructive idea; and Joe Wilson acted like a Town Hall rube. If these are the Defenders of Liberty and Free Enterprise against the Socialist Alien who has taken over the White House, then may God have mercy on all free men.

Joe Wilson has apologized, but of course he’s not really sorry. He just feels like a fool, as he should. I shouted at the television a few times, and though I am not ready to take back everything I said about Obama’s leadership on this issue — or what the squabble over healthcare reform has revealed about Obama’s leadership — I feel contrite. Maybe speeches and appeals to reasonable compromise can actually prevail over finger-biting, shouting and demagoguery. Or maybe there was method in all the summer madness, and it will turn out that the President was more cunning than his opponents. He let them blow off steam, rant and rave, make him out to be a bogey man; and now he can appear reasonable, calming, reassuringly above the Town Hall fray, and inspiring.

The President made a good speech, some say a great speech. Every early indication is that the healthcare debate will continue. The progressives still cling to the public option; the GOP remains entrenched. Last night’s speech may not change much on that front, but it may re-animate the conversation (and boost the President’s ratings).

Now the big unanswered question that remains is not a policy question at all: it’s a question about the American “character.”

I wonder if we’re ready for a debate about “the moral issue” and the content of our character — and if the President is ready to lead us through one.

I wonder if we take ideas like this seriously anymore, whether we can even talk coherently about a character that is uniquely or distinctly American, an American ethos. It’s almost Victorian to talk in this way. Or the word “character” used in this sense seems to have a Harvard pedigree. “The character of our country” sounds like something JFK might say; Obama took it from Ted Kennedy’s letter.

You can’t be scientific about society when you talk about character. Or if you try to be, you will probably have to rely on the notion that there is what Edward Banfield called a “moral basis” to social arrangements, to prosperity and backwardness. Be that as it may, it is a question way beyond the ken of technocrats and wonks. And it may be one of the most important questions of the Obama era.

I wonder, too, if the President has read our character right.

A Specter (Not Arlen) is Haunting the GOP

It would be either paranoid or delusional to think that Daniel Henninger had me in mind as he wrote today’s Wall Street Journal column on the ghost of Ronald Reagan, or that he even numbers me among the “joyful Democratic bloggers” who think it’s time for the GOP to leave Reagan behind. But he has managed to draw me out (and not just because I don’t want to be mistaken for a Democrat, or a blogger, or, even worse, confused with the joyful).

You can definitely count me among those who think that expecting Ronald Reagan to lead the GOP out of the wilderness is not a viable political strategy, but just nostalgia, or more waiting for Godot. I said so in a previous post and in a letter responding to a March 5th Henninger column. The letter ran in the Journal under the title “Can’t Live in the Past” and managed to generate some discussion online among adherents to the cult of Reagan; the Journal ran a response from a young woman who held Ronald Reagan in the highest esteem, even though she was a child when he was in the White House, and who took exception to my view that younger voters who turned out for Obama might not exactly be drawn in by paeans to a dead man. My position wasn’t all that far from Jeb Bush’s own: “I felt like there was a lot of nostalgia and the good old days in the [GOP] messaging. I mean, it’s great, but it doesn’t draw people toward your cause.”

I’m still not exactly sure what any of this had to do with the purported subject of Henninger’s original column, which urged Republicans to start talking about economic growth and develop a political platform around growth, but I was delighted to discover that I had managed to hit a nerve.

I’m not out to be a scourge or a gadfly, or simply to irritate. I’d wanted to start a conversation about history, and its claim on the present. Nor am I out to be a mythbuster. There’s nothing wrong with having heroes and stories of the great deeds of great men to inform and guide your politics. In the classical world, that was considered one of the functions of history. I would only caution that you had better not look too closely at those men, because they are after all, men. Even saints err, as one saint (Thomas More) pointed out after studying another (St. Augustine): homo erat, errare potuit. The longer people accept and embrace the fabled past uncritically, the denser the cloud of nostalgia grows, and the further removed your politics will be from history and what really happened.

Again, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with all that. Myths and fables have value, not just cultural but real political value. We believe — or at least we used to be brought up believing — all sorts of things about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln that won’t stand up to very close scrutiny. We even learned them in school; they were moral tales, and they taught us things about the country and about the kind of people we were, the people we should strive to be. Those stories sacrificed some precision about how things really were to tell us how things ought to have been and ought to be.

Being a Reagan Republican may eventually involve the same trade off, and require less in the way of historical knowledge of Ronald Reagan’s presidency or critical interpretation of the past twenty-five years of American political and economic history and more in the way of catechism and fairy tales. To that end, I suppose, Henninger has taken steps in today’s column to start spelling out the articles of the faith, which the late Jack Kemp reduced to a Reaganite trinity: work, save and invest.

The full Kemp phrase, of course, was “incentives to work, save and invest.” Those incentives were to be the result of a government willing to admit the social benefits of modesty — in taxation and regulation of the economy. For now, the American public has elected an immodest government.

Leave aside for the moment that work, save and invest is not exactly a battle cry on the order of we are the change we have been waiting for. Solving that problem is just a matter of working with the material. Consider, instead, the claim for Reagan’s “modesty” and the social benefits it delivered. There are probably less charitable ways to describe Reagan’s approach to taxation than modesty; and modest regulation is really a euphemism for deregulation. But for Henninger the real difference lies in the fact that the new Obama budget sets out a full blown industrial policy; and that makes Obama the enemy of entrepreneurial capitalism:

Mr. Obama’s document genuflects to “the market economy,” then argues that it won’t endure unless we “sacrifice” (through tax increases) to make “overdue investments” (which literally only means public spending) on four explicit goals: green energy, infrastructure, public health care, and education.This calls to mind the way Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry guided that economy from 1949 to 2001. The Obama-Rattner strategy for GM and Chrysler — a rescue if the companies agree to the government’s desire to build more small “green” cars, presumably sold with a large tax credit — is industrial policy. Why be postwar Japan?

It is not conceivable that a Reagan or Kemp would have directed the U.S. economy’s legendary energies into building hybrid cars, windmills and bullet trains.

Republicans these days seem to paint themselves into corners very easily, and this passage proves that the wily Henninger is no exception. Criticize, if you will, the making of industrial policy; but restrain yourself enough so that you don’t start to sound like the enemy of health care reform, or the anti-environmentalist, anti-alternative energy, anti-education party. Why, instead, aren’t we discussing positive Republican ideas and contributions in those areas?

To put it another way, the Republicans would probably benefit handsomely right now from some greening (evangelicals already have), some distance from Big Oil, a serious commitment to education and research, and the honesty to admit that the American healthcare system is broken. But they’re not going there. After all, can you imagine Ronald Reagan or Jack Kemp going there? No, you really can’t. And that’s why it’s time to move on.

What’s more, the notion that Ronald Reagan was a great champion of entrepreneurial capitalism who did not and would never have indulged in setting industrial policy is a Reagan myth — a story constructed by Ronald Reagan himself. The truth is much more complex. As Robert Reich pointed out in an editorial he wrote for the Times in 1985, Reagan may have steered clear of the phrase “industrial policy,” but in the course of his first term he had initiated “a major experiment in economic planning,” and he had done so with “a heavy hand.”

Viewed as a whole, Mr. Reagan’s budget deficit, tax plan and military buildup comprise an extraordinarily ambitious plan for shifting America’s industrial base. This is industrial policy with a vengeance. But because Mr. Reagan is who he is – avowed defender of the free market from the depradations of big government -there are no voices to his right, vigorously denouncing Washington’s vulgar intrusion into the temple of the marketplace. As only Richard Nixon could open relations with Peking, so only Ronald Reagan can make economic planning respectable.

Reagan lives on and continues to haunt — and, I would add, hinder — the Republicans in part because he knew how to tell a good story about himself. He surrounded himself with good storytellers. All good leaders do that; it’s called soft power. And it’s a sign of the GOP’s intellectual poverty and lack of good leadership that they are still telling this same old story, and trying to frighten us from the future with a specter from the past.