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INTERPRETING THE CRAZY! Sometimes, The Crazy is just The Crazy. Except when progressives chat: // link // print // previous // next //

Notice for Wednesday: We’ll 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 topic—voter 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 women’s 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 prodding—including a reminder that a provision of the stimulus bill had cut taxes for 95 percent of working families by changing withholding rates—Mr. Paratore’s 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 ignorance—although 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 people’s taxes, he said, a survey asked people what had happened to their taxes. “Most people didn’t answer that they went down,” he said.

That would have been a Reagan tax cut. Meanwhile, we’ve 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 narrative—in 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.

“Don’t 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 don’t 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 change—and 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 didn’t 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 it’s 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 wasn’t so bad after all. It’s almost enough to make you forget the insanity that gripped Clinton’s 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 public’s 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 media—William Safire, Robert Novak, Rush Limbaugh—encouraged the suspicion that Clinton’s 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 president’s past.

We’ve 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 Chait’s reaction, click this.)

A conservative in a conservative journal, Ferguson trashes Dinesh D’Souza’s 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! Let’s 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 isn’t The Crazy and Racist. Presumably, racism still exists in the land—though 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 Obama’s white vote in several Deep South states was remarkably small, for example. But President Clinton was visibly white—painfully so in the summer months—and he was savaged as a “Manchurian candidate” too! He was a cokehead and a serial murderer—and a major drug runner. Presumably, these ludicrous, hotly-advanced beliefs were not bruited due to his race.

Sometimes, The Crazy is just The Crazy—except 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 isn’t a national poll; it’s a poll of ten congressional districts. And it isn’t a poll of all adults in those districts. It’s 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 didn’t 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 think—and she knew why they think it. According to Digby, their jarring and bizarre responses “stem from liberal successes—civil 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 just—the left just doesn’t 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 haven’t been as good at constructing the message, there are undeniable strides on the side of the left that we can’t ignore when we talk about what’s 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 beginning—slowly, but fast in the scope of history—to 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 I’m very frustrated, are spelling the end of a certain kind of old American way of life and I think what we’re looking at in part is something you called the bacchanal, I think of as a kind of death rattle. And it doesn’t mean that it’s not threatening and won’t have an impact, I’m not suggesting that it’s 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 we’re seeing it with the intensity that we are right now is because it’s 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 is—how lacking in generosity, how politically foolish. Within this particular tribe, the nation’s powerful advances in gay rights—the fact that the nation now has a black president—can’t 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 rage”—“the violent anti-immigration stuff, the violent homophobia, the racism and the anti-Americanism.” It’s tremendously threatening and dangerous.

Truth to tell, there really isn’t 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 it’s 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 did—as 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 society—to its public schools, for example. You don’t have to be a racist to know that, or to find it troubling, annoying or undesirable—except when high-minded people like Traister sit to stroke and chat. Sometimes, The Crazy isn’t 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 couldn’t! On this topic, she seems to know one thing—people who don’t 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 hate—and it’s politically toxic.

(Since this degree of immigration has largely been accepted as a sop to business interests, it’s especially odd to see a “progressive” praise it with such fervor.)

Traister’s 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 doesn’t 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 Digby’s link and listen to herself talk. In 2008, the electorate was 74 percent white; we’ll 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 nation’s black and brown kids. On the merits, the social progress Traister describes hasn’t 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 Sunday’s New York Times:

RICH (10/17/10): That wave of anger began with the parallel 2008 cataclysms of the economy’s collapse and Barack Obama’s ascension. The mood has not subsided since. But in the final stretch of 2010, the radical right’s anger is becoming less focused, more free-floating—more 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. It’s no better now. In a cover article last month, Barton Gellman wrote in Time that the magazine’s 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 McVeigh’s 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 2009—a 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 wasn’t 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.) Rich’s own newspaper reported this testimony, but Rich still promotes his dream of race war, failing to tell you what Sullivan said. (We’ll 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 Time’s judgment.

“Extremism for Dummies,” Digby’s headline said. For our money, Traister and Rich could be listed among the political dummies. They’re also lovers of The Tribe, and of all it represents. In their own form of tribal loathing—in their massive political dumbness—they help explain why “the left just doesn’t 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?