Notice for Wednesday: Well be posting late in the day.
A discourse where narrative rules: The New York Times does a nice job today explaining how our politics works. On page one, Michael Cooper writes about a widely-avoided topicvoter ignorance:
COOPER (10/19/10): What if a president cut Americans income taxes by $116 billion and nobody noticed?
It is not a rhetorical question. At Pig Pickin and Politickin, a barbecue-fed rally organized here last week by a Republican womens club, a half-dozen guests were asked by a reporter what had happened to their taxes since President Obama took office.
Federal and state have both gone up, said Bob Paratore, 59, from nearby Charlotte, echoing the comments of others.
After further proddingincluding a reminder that a provision of the stimulus bill had cut taxes for 95 percent of working families by changing withholding ratesMr. Paratores memory was jogged.
We liberals will assume that this ignorance belongs to southern folk at rallies with names like Pig Pickin. In fact, Cooper goes on to note a result from a recent survey: In a New York Times/CBS News Poll last month, fewer than one in 10 respondents knew that the Obama administration had lowered taxes for most Americans. Cooper offers some explanations for the widespread ignorancealthough he also notes, in closing, that this has happened before:
COOPER: [Economist Joel] Slemrod said it was not unheard of for voters to miss tax cuts. Just a few years after a 1986 overhaul of the tax system made significant cuts to most peoples taxes, he said, a survey asked people what had happened to their taxes. Most people didnt answer that they went down, he said.
That would have been a Reagan tax cut. Meanwhile, weve often noted how clueless we the people were about the 1993 Clinton tax package. In reality, Clinton raised income tax rates on about two percent of earners. But by the time Rush Limbaugh got through, USA Today reported the carnage: Polls show most taxpayers expect to pay higher income taxes as a result of any budget deal.
A key problem for Clinton, Richard Benedetto pithily wrote in a separate report. Despite claims the wealthy pay most new taxes, 68% believe the middle-class is hit most. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/26/06.
We the people rarely know the facts about public policy. This helps explain why so much of our politics is driven by powerful narrativein effect, by novels. The public comes to believe persuasive novelized tales which overwhelm the role of mere facts. In a more serious world, mainstream journalists would explain and resist this phenomenon. In our world, the mainstream press corps had sold its soul to the Novel Gods by the time of Clinton and Gore.
Novelized belief can overpower reason, fact and knowledge. Also on page one of the Times, Leslie Kaufman describes how this system currently works when it comes to climate change. She writes from Salina, Kansas:
KAUFMAN (10/19/10): Residents of this deeply conservative city do not put much stock in scientific predictions of climate change.
Dont mention global warming, warned Nancy Jackson, chairwoman of the Climate and Energy Project, a small nonprofit group that aims to get people to rein in the fossil fuel emissions that contribute to climate change. And dont mention Al Gore. People out here just hate him.
Saving energy, though, is another matter.
According to Kaufman, people in Salina have purchased the novel about climate changeand about Demon Gore. In the rest of her piece, she describes how Jackson got people to conserve energy anyway. Jackson did this by appealing to certain values and beliefs which these Kansans do currently hold.
Jackson sounds like a savvy political player. She didnt choose to insult these people, who may have bought a novelized tale or three. Instead, she found ways to move forward with them, pretty much as they are.
Progressives like Jackson strive for progress, maddening though this may be.
INTERPRETING THE CRAZY (permalink): Sometimes The Crazy is just The Crazy. In the Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson recalls the time when The Crazy was aimed at President Clinton. A conservative in a conservative journal, Ferguson describes the familiar past attacks on Clinton as insanity driven by paranoiacs:
FERGUSON (10/16/10): Now its 2010, and among his former enemies, Clinton is enjoying a Truman-like renaissance. Even such sweaty anti-Clinton paranoiacs as the investigative journalist Christopher Ruddy and the newspaper proprietor Richard Mellon Scaife have decided he wasnt so bad after all. Its almost enough to make you forget the insanity that gripped Clintons political opponents Throughout the nineties I heard mainstream Republicans describe the president as a shameless womanizer and a closeted homosexual, a cokehead and a drunk, a wife beater and a wimp, a hick and a Machiavel, a committed pacifist and a reckless militarist who launched unnecessary airstrikes in faraway lands to distract the publics attention from all of the above.
At gatherings of conservative activists the president was referred to, seriously, as a Manchurian candidate. Capitol Hill staffers speculated darkly about the missing five days on a trip Clinton had taken to Moscow as a graduate student. Respectable conservatives in the mediaWilliam Safire, Robert Novak, Rush Limbaughencouraged the suspicion that Clintons White House attorney, a manic depressive named Vincent Foster, did not commit suicide, as all available evidence suggested, but had been murdered by parties unknown, to hush up an unspeakable secret from the presidents past.
Weve written about this matter quite often, but Ferguson recalls a valuable point. President Clinton was described as a Manchurian candidate, just as President Obama would be, roughly fifteen years later. (For Jonathan Chaits reaction, click this.)
A conservative in a conservative journal, Ferguson trashes Dinesh DSouzas new book. In the process, he refers to previous assaults on President Clinton as a form of insanity. But alas! Many liberals slept in the woods during the wars against Clinton, then Gore. When this same sort of kooky behavior was later aimed at Obama, they knew what this behavior must be:
It had to be a form of racism! Lets be candid: For many of us in the liberal world, this is the only political concept found in our tiny small brains.
Ferguson helps us recall an important point: Sometimes, The Crazy is just The Crazy; it isnt The Crazy and Racist. Presumably, racism still exists in the landthough many liberals are so promiscuous in their use of this term that we ourselves rarely use it. Presumably, some opposition to Obama is built out of racial feeling; Candidate Obamas white vote in several Deep South states was remarkably small, for example. But President Clinton was visibly whitepainfully so in the summer monthsand he was savaged as a Manchurian candidate too! He was a cokehead and a serial murdererand a major drug runner. Presumably, these ludicrous, hotly-advanced beliefs were not bruited due to his race.
Sometimes, The Crazy is just The Crazyexcept when certain types of top-shelf progressives start discussing the conduct and thinking of The Great Unwashed. We pondered this undying problem when we reviewed this recent Digby post. The post includes videotape of a recent discussion of the so-called Tea Party by a group of high-minded liberal folks.
Digby was working from a survey which may be a bit misleading (or not). In this poll, likely voters in battleground districts see extremists as having a more dominant influence over the Democratic Party than they do over the GOP. (So wrote Alexander Bolton in The Hill. Click here.) Please note: This survey isnt a national poll; its a poll of ten congressional districts. And it isnt a poll of all adults in those districts. Its a poll of likely voters, which probably tilts it toward conservative Dems and Republicans.
That said, this result led us to wonder what those voters would have said, had they been asked to explain their view about which party is driven by extremists. This thought didnt occur to Digby. Instead, she linked to that tape from GritTV and offered this, her full post:
DIGBY (10/17/10): Extremism For Dummies
Rick Perlstein, Richard Kim and Rebecca Traister talk about the Tea Party with Laura Flanders:
They discuss the obvious fact that the right is predictably batshit insane and the Democrats are predictably lame in response. And so it goes.
But Rebecca Traister made the observation that despite the all the right wing political power, much of their anger and vitriol stems from liberal successes civil rights particularly. This is true. And it occurred to me it could explain the jarring and bizarre responses in this recent poll asking which party is more extremist. (I won't ruin it for you. But you might want to have a stiff shot of Tequila handy before you read it.) If that's not it, I'm afraid we are so far down the rabbit hole there's no going back.
To Digby, there was no need to speak to those voters, to ask them what they actually think. She already knew what they thinkand she knew why they think it. According to Digby, their jarring and bizarre responses stem from liberal successescivil rights particularly. This was the full statement by Traister to which Digby referred:
TRAISTER: I think that what the right has is an extraordinarily capable and powerful media, and justthe left just doesnt seem to be able to come up with either the message or then the mechanism to disperse that message as effectively as the right has. But one thing I would say is that, despite the fact that we havent been as good at constructing the message, there are undeniable strides on the side of the left that we cant ignore when we talk about whats instigating this kind of rage and multi-faceted rage on the right. We have an African-American president right now. The speed at which we are talking about and beginningslowly, but fast in the scope of historyto come to terms with issues of gay rights, for instance. The number of people in this country who do not speak English that is growing as, are the bedrock of this nation. The kind of stuff that inspires the violent anti-immigration stuff, the violent homophobia, the racism and the anti-Americanism, that stuff is being inspired in part by great strides that are, even with the lack of a message about which Im very frustrated, are spelling the end of a certain kind of old American way of life and I think what were looking at in part is something you called the bacchanal, I think of as a kind of death rattle. And it doesnt mean that its not threatening and wont have an impact, Im not suggesting that its harmless, Oh, this is just an old way of culture dying. It can have a tremendous and a dangerous and a powerful impact. But I think the reason why were seeing it with the intensity that we are right now is because its a response to a larger set of progressive victories.
We agree with several things Traister said. Mainly, though, we were struck by how tribal Traister ishow lacking in generosity, how politically foolish. Within this particular tribe, the nations powerful advances in gay rightsthe fact that the nation now has a black presidentcant in any way reflect evolving instincts or advancing views by anyone in the center or on the right. All Traister is able to see on the right is this kind of rage and multi-faceted ragethe violent anti-immigration stuff, the violent homophobia, the racism and the anti-Americanism. Its tremendously threatening and dangerous.
Truth to tell, there really isnt a lot of violent anti-immigration stuff or violent homophobia going on in the wider society. But when progressives like Traister sit to stroke one another and chat, these demonic forces are said to be widespread. Weirdest of all, Traister is such a reflexive tribalist that she even describes the rise in the number of people in this country who do not speak English as some sort of progressive triumph. Nothing is necessarily wrong with a growing number of non-English speakers, if we do have such a phenomenon in the US. But its hard to know why someone would describe this as a progressive triumph, and you really have to be a fool to present this as Traister didas a triumph for the left, opposed by those on the right because of their violent anti-immigration instincts and their dangerous, threatening instincts.
Can we share a secret? In some ways, the rise in low-income immigration presents large costs to the societyto its public schools, for example. You dont have to be a racist to know that, or to find it troubling, annoying or undesirableexcept when high-minded people like Traister sit to stroke and chat. Sometimes, The Crazy isnt crazy at all, even though it may not reflect your own reaction. But tribalists have never seen the world this way, and they never will.
Question: Could Traister explain the challenges and costs immigration has brought to the public schools? Of course she couldnt! On this topic, she seems to know one thingpeople who dont respond exactly as she does must be driven by rage, by hate. Whatever one thinks about immigration, this attitude is itself the soul of casual hateand its politically toxic.
(Since this degree of immigration has largely been accepted as a sop to business interests, its especially odd to see a progressive praise it with such fervor.)
Traisters speech strikes us as blatantly foolish. By way of contrast, it struck Digby as an exposition of the gruesome ways of The Other. But if Traister really wants to know why the left just doesnt seem to be able to come up with either the message or then the mechanism to disperse that message as effectively as the right, we would suggest that she click Digbys link and listen to herself talk. In 2008, the electorate was 74 percent white; well guess the percentage will be higher in 2010. Why do progressives have so much trouble developing a message which reaches these people? In part, because of the foolish attitudes blurted by tribals like this.
And make no mistake, liberals love to spread their dramatic race war portraits, in which The Other Tribe is a group of snarling racists and Our Own One True Tribe is driven by racial greatness. Indeed, the liberal journal for which Traister writes brands itself in this way, although its editor would jump off the Golden Gate Bridge before she would stoop to assign a discussion of the interests of the nations black and brown kids. On the merits, the social progress Traister describes hasnt all occurred on the left; many people have come a long way as this progress has occurred. On the politics, it would be wise for progressives to give some credit to those from outside our own ratty group. But a certain type of pseudo-liberal loves the drama of race-war portraits. Here was dissembler-in-chief Frank Rich, creating one of his typical racial dramas in Sundays New York Times:
RICH (10/17/10): That wave of anger began with the parallel 2008 cataclysms of the economys collapse and Barack Obamas ascension. The mood has not subsided since. But in the final stretch of 2010, the radical rights anger is becoming less focused, more free-floatingmore likely to be aimed at government in general, whatever the location or officials in charge. The anger is also more likely to claim minorities like gays, Latinos and Muslims as collateral damage. This is a significant and understandable shift, if hardly a salutary one. The mad-as-hell crowd in America, still not seeing any solid economic recovery on the horizon, will lash out at any convenient scapegoat.
Few cared when The Boston Globe reported last fall that the Secret Service was overwhelmed by death threats against the president as well as a rise in racist hate groups and antigovernment fervor. Its no better now. In a cover article last month, Barton Gellman wrote in Time that the magazines six-month investigation found that the threat level against the president and other government targets is at its highest since the antigovernment frenzy that preceded Timothy McVeighs bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
Rich adores the picture of right-wing hordes dreaming of killing Obama. Unfortunately, someone did care about that Boston Globe report in the fall of 2009a report which is now a year old, a report whose claims Rich misstates. In December 2009, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton cared enough to ask Mark Sullivan, the head of the Secret Service, if it and similar reports were actually true (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/4/09). In an open congressional hearing, Sullivan said the report wasnt true; he said the number of threats against Obama are the same level as it has been for the last two presidents. (One of those two was President Clinton, who somehow drew a lot of threats despite the fact he was white.) Richs own newspaper reported this testimony, but Rich still promotes his dream of race war, failing to tell you what Sullivan said. (Well assume he may not know. Novel-writing is like that.) Beyond that, Rich misstates what Gellman wrote in Time, embellishing a judgment which carried no special authority beyond the weight one might assign to Times judgment.
Extremism for Dummies, Digbys headline said. For our money, Traister and Rich could be listed among the political dummies. Theyre also lovers of The Tribe, and of all it represents. In their own form of tribal loathingin their massive political dumbnessthey help explain why the left just doesnt seem to be able to come up with either the message or then the mechanism to disperse that message as effectively as the right has.
Final point: At the start of that GritTV chat, host Laura Flanders promoted a new book I had the honor of editing. Here is its title: At the Tea Party: The Wing Nuts, Whack Jobs and Whitey Whiteness of The New Republican Right. In an electorate which is 74 percent white, this type of casual racial denigration may not be the best political play. But such casual denigration has become amazingly common on ours, the progressive side.
It sometimes seems that souls like Flanders love to hate. They love it more than progress itself. They love the greatness of their own tribe. And they seem to love the danger of the threats from The Other.
They seem to love multi-faceted rage. More than progress itself?