Daily Howler logo
WHO IS ALEXANDRA PETRI! The analysts came to us with a question: Who is the Post’s newest columnist? // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JUNE 27, 2011

The editors (attempt to) explain the problem with inequality: Last Sunday, Peter Whoriskey wrote a front-page piece in the Washington Post about the enormous growth in income inequality over the past forty years.

Yesterday, the editors discussed Whoriskey’s piece in their featured editorial. We were intrigued by the things they said—and by the things they didn’t.

As they started, the editors voiced their concern about the growth in inequality. “The details never cease to amaze,” they said—although they would soon ignore some of the most basic points Whoriskey made in his piece:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (6/26/11): There’s nothing new, alas, about the increasing gap between rich and poor in America, where the share of national income, including capital gains, claimed by the top 0.1 percent of earners rose from 2.5 percent in 1975 to 10.4 percent in 2008. Still, the details never cease to amaze. In a recent Post report, Peter Whoriskey documented the fact that the average executive’s annual pay has roughly quadrupled since the early 1970s, while average wage income has crept up only 26 percent. No one who cares about the social cohesion of a society premised on the idea that all men and women are created equal can view such statistics indifferently.

The question, though, is what to do about it.

In the highlighted passages, the editors took the progressive position, identifying this inequality as a major concern. For our money, they made little attempt to explain why they find this situation so troubling. But before we ponder that omission, let’s consider a few other things the editors said.

In his piece, Whoriskey focused on a changed corporate culture, a culture in which greed became good over the past forty years. From his first paragraph forward, he focused on this changed culture as part of the explanation for the growth in inequality.

But when the editors summarized Whoriskey’s report, they didn’t mention this thesis at all. Instead, they highlighted a familiar, shopworn explanation—an explanation Whoriskey had explicitly challenged. This was their full second paragraph:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL: The question, though, is what to do about it. Some of the growing income disparity results from long-term social changes or market forces that are either inherently benign or practically irreversible. The statistics partly reflect the spiraling rewards to superstar talent in entertainment and sports. The golden age of U.S. income equality—from World War II to the 1973 Middle East oil embargo—stands out as an exceptional time when American wage workers were still mostly shielded from Asian and European competition.

“The statistics partly reflect the spiraling rewards to superstar talent in entertainment and sports?” Presumably, that is technically accurate. But Whoriskey explicitly said that this explanation has been vastly overplayed; he specifically noted that athletes and entertainers account for only three percent of America’s biggest earners. We thought it was odd that the editors specifically cited this shopworn (and rejected) thesis, without ever mentioning the cultural change Whoriskey highlighted.

Did the editors read Whoriskey’s piece? We’ll let you decide.

As the editors proceeded, they offered a string of wonkish suggestions for governmental action. These suggestions were all focused on reducing upper-end income; none of them addressed the possibility of raising incomes in the middle. But let’s return to a more basic question: How well did the editors explain why this inequality is a problem? They seem to think it’s a very big problem. But again, this was the best they could do when it came time to explain why:

“No one who cares about the social cohesion of a society premised on the idea that all men and women are created equal can view such statistics indifferently.”

Plainly, the income gap has grown. Plainly, the highest earners are now gaining a larger percentage of national income. But why exactly is that a problem?

The editors didn’t say.

Alas! The editors adopted the progressive view—and they adopted a progressive instinct in the process. They seemed to feel their noble view was evident on its face. Unfortunately, we live in a society where corporate interests have spent the past forty years promoting ideas which undercut this progressive view. In the comments to yesterday’s editorial, you can sample the views of many voters who don’t see a problem with inequality.

Our view: If we progressives want to advance the reach of our views, we have to explain their merits.

As the liberal web has grown in the past few years, a great deal of liberal talk has rather clearly been aimed at other liberals. This makes us liberals feel very good. But there is one attendant problem: It changes nobody’s vote.

Why is income inequality a problem? For ourselves, we know where our own explanation might start. But what is the general progressive view? And why exactly is it so hard to answer so basic a question?

WHO IS ALEXANDRA PETRI (permalink): What does Barack Obama think about same-sex marriage?

Like the editors of the New York Times, we have no idea. That said, we were struck by this morning’s scolding editorial on the subject.

This is one of the ways we liberals lose, the analysts sadly said.

The editors believe that Obama should declare his support for same-sex marriage. On the merits, that would be fine with us, but we were struck by the political cluelessness evinced all through their piece. In this passage, the editors explain the politics of the matter as they understand it:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (6/27/11): Why is Mr. Obama so reluctant to say the words that could lend strength to a national effort now backed by a majority of Americans?

In the 2008 campaign, when Mr. Obama said he supported civil unions and believed marriage should be between men and women, he may have wanted to appeal to slightly more conservative voters who were wary of him.

After he took office, it became evident that Republicans intended to portray him as a radical, out-of-touch leftist no matter what he did. Supporting same-sex marriage at this point is hardly going to change that drumbeat, and any voter for whom that is a make-or-break issue will probably not be an Obama supporter anyway.

Firm support for gay marriage is, on the other hand, likely to help him among his cheerless base. Mr. Obama opposes the Defense of Marriage Act and is presiding over the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He signed the United Nations declaration on gay rights, and allowed the Census to count same-sex relationships. But he has been absent from the biggest and most difficult drive of all.

Public opinion has swung toward acceptance of gay marriage since 2008; five more states and the District of Columbia have lifted marriage bans. Thousands of gay men and lesbians now possess marriage certificates and many former skeptics have come to realize that the moral foundation of the country has been strengthened. It is long past time for the president to catch up. He often criticizes discrimination with the memorable phrase, “that’s not who we are.” Favoring this discrimination should not be who he is.

“Why is Mr. Obama so reluctant to say the words that could lend strength to a national effort now backed by a majority of Americans?” When our intellectual leaders are so clueless, is it any wonder that we liberals have failed so badly down through the years?

Has support for same-sex marriage become a political winner on a national basis? It’s possible, but you can’t make that judgment by consulting the national poll to which the editors link. To the extent that this may be a re-election concern for Obama, his advisers would, among other things, be looking at polling results among unaligned voters in swing states. They would devote no attention to the numbers from large blue states like New York and California.

Those numbers would tend to tilt the outcome of national polls. But if we’re talking about the politics of this issue, they wouldn’t likely influence Obama’s advisers at all.

Is it possible that a declaration of support might help Obama politically in the ways the editors imagine? Yes, it certainly is—but presumably, a declaration could hurt him on the politics too. It’s typical of fuzzy heads like those at the Times that they can only imagine a good political outcome from a position they favor on the merits. Needless to say, Maureen Dowd was on the same page in her latest attempt to write a political column:

DOWD (6/26/11): The man who was able to beat the Clintons in 2008 because the country wanted a break from Clintonian euphemism and casuistry is now breaking creative new ground in euphemism and casuistry.

Obama is “evolving” on the issue of gay marriage, which, as any girl will tell you, is the first sign of a commitment-phobe.

Maybe, given all his economic and war woes as he heads into 2012, Obama fears the disapproval of the homophobic elements within his own party. But he has tried to explain his reluctance on gay marriage as an expression of his Christianity, even though he rarely goes to church and is the picture of a secular humanist.

Dowd is still eager to let us know what “any girl” would tell us.

For the record, “the country” had already had an eight-year “break from Clintonian euphemism and casuistry” when Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in 2008. But it gets no break from the ongoing plague of Dowdian dumbness. That highlighted attempt to imagine the politics is just astoundingly dumb. (Why would Dowd think that the politics of this issue would turn on the reactions of “homophobic elements within” the Democratic Party?)

Might we make a note about the foolishness of the editors’ eagerness? Let’s consider what Barney Frank recently told the Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg about this type of political issue. In this passage, Frank explains what Obama may have thought about same-sex marriage when we was a candidate:

STOLBERG (6/19/11): The White House would not comment on whether Mr. Obama was ready to endorse same-sex marriage. But one Democratic strategist close to the White House, speaking only on the condition of anonymity, said some senior advisers “are looking at the tactics of how this might be done if the president chose to do it.”

And Representative Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat who is gay, said in an interview that a top adviser to Mr. Obama, whom he would not name, asked him this year, “What would be the effect if he came out for same-sex marriage?”

“My own view is that I look at President Obama’s record, he was probably inclined to think that same-sex marriage was legitimate, but as a candidate for president in 2008 that would have been an unwise thing to say,” Mr. Frank said. “And I don’t mean that he’s being hypocritical. I mean that if you live in a democratic society, it is a mix of what you think the voters want and what you think is doable.”

Duh. Frank understands the way American politics works. More specifically, he understands that it doesn’t all come down to the question of what Daddy (the president) says on some issue. In fact, gay rights groups have made tremendous progress in the past few decades without the support of major national Democrats on same-sex marriage. We can think of few major social movements which have had smarter leadership; part of this movement’s leadership smarts has involved the understanding that social progress comes from the efforts of an extended village—a village which may not include the president at every juncture. Gay rights leaders have been very skillful and very wise in the ways they’ve negotiated national politics. On the other hand, progressives are also stuck with the low-IQ instincts of society’s most visible clowns:

DOWD: Still, Obama’s reluctance to come out for gay marriage seems hugely and willfully inconsistent with what we know about his progressive worldview. And it is odd that the first black president is letting Andrew Cuomo, who pushed through a gay-marriage bill in Albany on Friday night, go down in history as the leader on the front lines of the civil rights issue of our time.

But for the president, “the fierce urgency of now” applies only to getting checks from the gay community, not getting up to speed with all the Americans who think it’s time for gay marriage.

Really? Dowd can’t understand why Obama, who must appeal to a national electorate, might defer to Cuomo, who is the governor of a socially liberal blue state? In similar ways, these savants often wondered, in Campaign 2000, why Candidate Gore sometimes took less progressive positions than Candidate Hillary Clinton, who was running in New York only. But then, this gang’s capacity for understanding nothing at all has long been its most obvious trait.

(Some readers will be old enough to remember when this same sort of analysis was adopted with respect to the death penalty, a killer for national Democrats as late as 1992.)

This brings us to today’s basic question: Who is Alexandra Petri?

Last Saturday, the analysts had finally had it! It had become fairly clear that Petri is now a regular Saturday columnist at the Washington Post. The analysts wailed when they read her latest analysis of the 2012 race. Once again, this was just fatuous:

PETRI (6/25/11): A candidate whose name I haven’t already heard a dozen times? Are you crazy?

Forget people. People can change. We don’t want change, in spite of what we said during the 2008 election.

Instead, we want brands.

[…]

The biggest complaint about the Republican primary field, so far, has been that people don’t already know what they think of the candidates. “I don’t have any preformed opinions about them,” they mutter. “Can’t we draft Giuliani?”

But it’s hard to blame us. Everywhere you turn, you can customize your settings. Don’t like Hillary Clinton? There’s an app for that. Don’t want any opinions from the wrong side of the aisle? Just click a button or flip the channel.

[…]

Palin’s flagging now—not because she’s changed but because she’s stayed the same, and we’re getting tired of it.

But old habits die hard. If the brand fails, we produce a shinier wrapper. Don’t retreat! Reboot! Rebrand! Mitt Romney unbuttons his collar. Miley Cyrus removes all her clothing and dresses up as a bird. Even Osama bin Laden bought into this; some of his e-mails suggested that al-Qaeda should just rebrand itself to build appeal. How about putting Jihad back into the name?

It would be hard to overstate the fatuity here. For starters, no one is trying to draft Giuliani; this notion came and went a few weeks ago in roughly a New York half-minute. Meanwhile, two relative no-names—Bachmann and Cain—have been the growth stocks in the GOP polls. Beyond that, is Palin flagging “because she’s stayed the same, and we’re getting tired of it?”

Good God, the analysts cried. Where do they find these people?

They were thinking back to one of Petri’s recent columns, in which she got all over Mitt Romney for his hair and his clothes (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/8/11). The analysts came to us with a question: Who is Alexandra Petri? they demanded. Where did the Post ever find her?

We thought the answer was interesting. The Post found Petri—where else?—at Harvard, from which she graduated in June of last year. Presumably, she has shot to her current status as a weekly columnist because of her fatuous take on political news, not in spite of it.

Petri is the daughter of a Republican congressman. In 2001, at the age of 11, she got a poem published in Highlights for Children. (Someone should have seen the problem coming.) Before too long, she was writing generally pointless columns for the Harvard Crimson (so what—she was just a college student) and doing stand-up at Boston’s Comedy Connection (no one is good when they start.) By the summer of 2009, she was interning at the Post.

By the summer of 2011, she was writing fatuous columns in the paper’s Saturday edition. She was reciting standard drivel about one of the candidates’ wardrobes; she was offering absurd accounts of why “we” have judged the GOP candidates in the ways “we” have done.

Can we talk? Thinking back on her earlier piffle about Romney, we were surprised by Petri’s youth. At one time, young people couldn’t get his fatuous this fast. It took a few years among the swells before they developed a nose for the inanity which constitutes mainstream discourse—before the natural spirits of youth gave way to the rigid demands of scripted political nonsense.

Petri has made it to fatuous very fast. For decades, fatuity has been the soul of the nation’s political press corps. Dowd advances the culture at the Times—and the Post has now found its own star.

Can a modern society run on The Stupid? Actually no, it really can’t, as we’re all finding out at this point. That said, the nature of this death-dealing problem still seems quite elusive.