On thanksgiving, just a few hours before black friday, i invite you to read a (longish) essay on gratitude, just published in the Policy Review. It has a section on the holiday of thanksgiving, and it previews, without exactly predicting, President Obama’s omission (according to news reports) of any mention of God in his address this year, which marks a first for Thanksgiving proclamations. You can find the article online at http://www.scribd.com/doc/73413436/Policy-Review-December-2011-January-2012-No-170 Go to page 58 and read away
i put this in the standard, and some have already been calling 911. It is analysis, not advocacy….
If, as most pundits now believe, Mitt Romney has the inside track for the Republican nomination, he is the first GOP candidate in more than a generation not to be syntactically challenged. Just look at the list of the party’s choices since Richard Nixon, whether elected (Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush) or defeated (Gerald Ford, Robert Dole, John McCain). Whatever other attributes these candidates possessed, facility in extemporaneous exchange was not one of them. None of these men could be counted on to handle a challenging question, let alone always keep noun and verb somewhere near their rightful places.
This deficiency took a psychological toll on the Republican faithful over the years. Hours before a presidential debate or a major interview or press conference, Republicans, nerves frayed, would begin beseeching heaven that their candidate might escape disaster. Could he get through without denying that the Soviet Union dominated Eastern Europe (Gerald Ford in 1976) or leaving some imaginary figure, a century hence, wandering aimlessly down a California coastal highway (Ronald Reagan in 1984)?
With Mitt, at last, Republicans can sleep easy. Agree with him or not, this is a man who’s not about to be stumped. Romney’s verbal repertoire even extends to a capability that Republicans had forgotten still existed: nuance. Romney displayed his adeptness in the New Hampshire debate three weeks ago when parrying a challenge about the complexity of his 59-point plan from Herman Cain. Without hesitation, and with no hint of condescension, Mitt explained “that simple answers are always very helpful but oftentimes inadequate.” Not exactly an answer that Bob Dole would have come up with on the spot. And he showed that he could stand up for himself as well, going toe-to-toe with Rick Perry last week in Las Vegas in the epic battle for the microphone.
Romney’s debate performances the first time around, in 2007-08, were not always so well honed. To his credit, he used his four years of practice to master the craft. This kind of hard work and discipline in an executive may be exactly what the American people are looking for this time. Besides, the simple truth is that there are few absolute naturals in this business.
The template for Republican verbal inadequacy was established before the Nixon era by President Eisenhower. Ike became known from his press conferences as one of the English language’s great manglers, to the delight of reporters bent on depicting him as some kind of fool. This view of Ike prevailed for a time until presidential scholars, led by Fred Greenstein, began to point out that not only was he a demanding taskmaster of the written word—he had prepared speeches for General MacArthur in the 1930s—but his imprecision was sometimes deliberate or studied. “It is far better,” Eisenhower once noted, “to stumble or speak guardedly than to move ahead smoothly and risk imperiling the country.”
Across the aisle, meanwhile, Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate in 1952 and 1956, spoke like an intellectual. The intelligentsia, the cheapest date around, embraced him as one of their own, beginning a love affair with the Democratic party that has endured ever since. No matter what the truth, the thinking classes, with the sophisticated journalists following obediently behind, have regarded the Democrats as their kind and most Republicans as dunces. Republicans’ verbal struggles provided just enough cover to make the charge plausible.
Nixon stands as the exception. An articulate speaker, he was usually at ease handling difficult questions. But even Nixon caused Republicans much mental anguish. No one could know when his suppressed feelings of inferiority or self-pity might come bubbling to the surface, as in his promise to the press, after losing the California governor’s race in 1962, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Nixon prided himself on being an accomplished debater, and he showed as much in the first-ever televised presidential debate against John F. Kennedy, whom the media were already touting as a great intellect. Nixon was judged to be victorious in surveys of those who listened on radio, though the opposite was the case for TV viewers. The simple fact was that Kennedy was handsome, while Nixon couldn’t get a clean shave.
It has added no luster to the history of American rhetoric that the institutionalization of presidential debates, which began in 1976, featured a matchup between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Neither man was a Churchill, though Carter, an engineer by training, could be precise almost to a fault. (Certainly no one in 1976 would have suspected that Carter, in retirement, would publish a book of poetry.) Ford was another matter. He spoke slowly and deliberately, but he managed nonetheless to jumble his syntax and leave his phrases dangling. Smooth he was not. Perhaps to his credit, he could not talk and chew gum at the same time.
Ronald Reagan remains the most intriguing of the Republicans. Known today as the Great Communicator, he was superb in the set speech. At any given moment, he could also shine in debate or extemporaneous speech with a great quip or a beautiful one-liner. But even his admirers conceded that he was never one to be concerned with mastering all the details. And they worried continually at what he might come up with, as in his remark in 1981 that “trees cause more pollution than automobiles” (a claim that scientists more than two decades later discovered to be not entirely off-base). Reagan’s weakness in this mode of communication was seized on by his opponents, whose efforts to depict him as a simpleton knew no bounds. Liberal intellectuals, who in this era were less taken than they are today with the intellectual prowess of Hollywood stars, repeatedly belittled Reagan for gleaning his deepest thoughts from the scripts of B-movies. Yet as in Eisen-hower’s case, historians in the decade after Reagan’s retirement discovered that he had read widely and for years carefully crafted his own speeches.
The post-Reagan era has served only to confirm the weakness of the Republicans’ extemporaneous speaking skills. George Bush père was never thought unintelligent—he had served in posts demanding intellectual ability, like ambassador to China and head of the CIA—but fluent in speaking he was not. He was a chronic assailant of English syntax, and his victory over the more articulate Michael Dukakis owed nothing to his skill at debating or answering questions. Bush’s fate four years later was to encounter a man, Bill Clinton, who was one of the more gifted talkers in American history. A Rhodes scholar, a quick study, and a master of every dossier, Clinton could talk intelligently, or seem to, about almost any subject. (His problem, if he had one, was that he could not stop talking.) To put Bill Clinton four years later in the ring with Bob Dole was an act of rhetorical cruelty. Master of the one-liner, Dole unfortunately found himself in situations where it was necessary to string together a second and third line.
George W. Bush was much better in both debate and spontaneous exchange than his critics made out. He clearly bested Al Gore in the debates in 2000, though this was more the result of Gore’s own implosion than Bush’s skill; and he held his own against John Kerry, whom the liberal media had built up as an intellectual giant. Still, Bush’s mispronunciations, for example of “nuclear,” and his neologisms, like “misunderestimate,” became the constant fare of late-night comedians. It was no plus for the intellectual distinction of the president that his press secretary, Scott McClellan, defended his deficiency, noting that “Al Gore had perfect diction, and we still beat him. We’ve got a different kind of diction, it’s a good diction.” Far more important, no one listening to Bush would ever say that he could express his thoughts with ease. The joint press conferences he held with Tony Blair were painful displays of how much this deficiency hurt him. Blair, in full command of the language, could express what Bush could only hint at.
Much the same was evident in the Obama-McCain debates in 2008. John McCain could be sharp and concise in many matters of foreign affairs, but when it came to articulating his views on economic issues, he could not cover his weaknesses. To say it was a struggle would be charitable. Obama might not have been quite the master that some expected him to be, but even so, the contest was unequal.
Many centuries ago, Aristotle analyzed success in political persuasion along three dimensions: logos (the quality of argument), pathos (the power of emotional appeal), and ethos (admiration or respect for the character of the speaker). Barack Obama in 2008 enjoyed the trifecta. He was universally lauded for his keen intellect, his mastery of the details of policy, and, in debates, his reasoned style. (Joe Biden, surely qualified to judge, later opined that Obama had a “brain bigger than his skull.”) He could speak in informal settings like an intellectual, even an academic, as in explaining in one of the Democratic primary debates that he and Hillary had a “philosophical difference” on health care—that difference, incidentally, being over the requirement that citizens purchase health insurance, which Obama then “philosophically” opposed. As for pathos, Obama had it to burn, launching an inspirational appeal to hope and change that captured the imaginations of millions worldwide, from humble urban dwellers in Cairo to sophisticated postmoderns in Paris. Finally, Obama was thought to have the makings of greatness, from his perfectly creased pants to his vision of a new future for America and the world.
It is no secret that Obama has lost ground on all three dimensions. Until recently, many who disagreed with him still liked or admired him. Now even that is beginning to fade, as his opponents have come increasingly to regard him as arrogant and duplicitous. More important, over the last few months even some of Obama’s supporters in 2008 have started openly questioning his preparation for the job and his competence. “What people say when he is not in the room,” Mortimer Zuckerman told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published on October 15, “is astonishing.”
Obama’s pathetic appeal has both changed and diminished. A soaring rhetoric of unity has given way to a bitter politics of division. Anger has replaced hope as the dominant emotion. There is no lift left. It may be on the dimension of logos, however, that Obama has suffered most. People do not doubt that he is smooth and articulate, though they have wondered at his addiction to the teleprompter. But they have come to dismiss the logic or reason of his arguments. Both in the health care debate and in the debate on the deficit, more and more are convinced that his figures just don’t add up, and—going back to character—that he knows they don’t add up. His cleverness is fooling no one.
And Mitt Romney? His candidacy today has impressed many who once counted him out or wished him out. He has won the admiration, sometimes grudging, of many doubters for the way he has thought through every issue and is able to express his views. No one is pretending that he is an inspirational candidate, and he has not made the mistake of trying to be. Travel the byways of Iowa and New Hampshire, and you won’t see very many “I love Mitt” signs. Nor is his full character held up as a paragon. Nothing in his biography is truly stirring, and the various evolutions in his political positions do not make him a hero as a leader of conviction. His strength on the dimension of ethos lies in his steadiness and the probity of his family life and personal character.
The shape of the Romney campaign is now clear. His bet is that conservatives will be satisfied that he is conservative enough to be their standard-bearer; that Republicans will want a candidate who can go up against Obama in debate without a handicap; and that the American people generally, having had their fill of charisma and inspiration, will be looking for competence attached to sound judgment. The era of world historical leadership is over, for the time being. Now is the moment not for the narrow manager but for the sound CEO, someone ready and prepared to step in and run the country.
While Carl was dipping into the subtleties of Bowie and Peter was off somewhere
blogging, I was doing my duty as a citizen of the association, attending its meeting.
And here is my comment, also found in this week’s Standard.
While most Americans spend their Labor Day weekend savoring the last moments of
summer vacation, political scientists are normally hard at work at their annual
association meeting, held this year in Seattle. This event is usually a rather sedate
affair, with scholars debating such recondite subjects as “Bayesian approaches to
political research” and “The political‐theological problem in Xenophon’s thought.”
But this time things were a little different. A dissident group of members challenged
the American Political Science Association’s governing system, asking for some
modest changes to the constitution to institute competition in the selection of
officers and the governing council. The dissidents billed their proposal as a small
step toward democratization. Imagine, then, their great surprise when defenders of
the status quo, who included some of the leading political scientists in the nation,
instructed them in no uncertain terms that devices like competitive elections,
labeled “procedural democracy,” counted as next to nothing in comparison to
“substantive democracy.” Substantive democracy meant “diversity” as computed by
race, gender, and ethnicity.
Without going into details — who would care? — the association’s current form of
government might most accurately be described as a cooptocracy. A nominating
committee, appointed by the association president, proposes to the membership a
slate of nominees for all of the officers and representatives to the council. (The
president at the Seattle meeting was Professor Carole Pateman of UCLA, known best
for her work Participation and Democratic Theory.) The nominating committee’s
slate can be challenged by candidates nominated by a petition process from the
members; but the way things normally work — and always, now, for the officers —
“elections” take place with only one person “competing” for each slot. Only in the
case of council representatives have the dissidents put up alternatives in recent
years, winning a few seats.
The change advocated by the dissidents was to require the nominating committee to
name two candidates for each position. Democratic theory would suggest, they
insisted, that this limited competition would increase member interest and
participation in elections and afford an opportunity for an occasional candidate to
raise a substantive question. Professors Gregory Kasza of Indiana University and
Rogers Smith of the University of Pennsylvania led the way in arguing for the
importance of elections as an integral component of anything resembling
democracy, with Smith, a leading theorist of democracy in his own right, wondering
what signal would be sent to our students if the nation’s political scientists rejected
Hold on there, Professor Smith. The responses came fast and furious from a legion of
defenders of the coopt‐ocracy. Such stalwarts in the profession as former presidents
Theda Skocpol of Harvard and Henry Brady of Berkeley pointed out the indignity of
asking great scholars to stand in competitive elections and invoked the old
conservative saw that “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” But the nub of the case for
defenders of the status quo was that elections do not enhance, but limit democracy:
The key to democracy is found in the assurance of diversity, not of views but of
One self‐described Latino speaker said it will be time enough to permit procedural
democracy when certain groups are assured, at some point in the future, of their
proper overall representation within the association. Until then, the great beast of
the mass of political scientists cannot be trusted. (It is rumored that certain group
caucuses own the privilege of naming candidates whom the nominating committee
slates, making the system one of managed diversity.)
Political scientists today generally consider themselves an empirically minded
group, less impressed by airy theoretical speculations than by attention to “hard
data.” On this dimension, the cooptocrats possessed a clear advantage in the debate.
The association’s treasurer, Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan, one of the
profession’s most decorated methodologists, introduced the only real evidence. In a
lengthy speech, he proposed to answer the question “How have competitive
elections changed the council?” Analyzing the cases over the last six years in which
competitive elections for the council resulted in dissidents defeating the nominees
proposed by the nominating committee, Lupia generated a table, which he read in
full, that bears close study. It compares the diversity attributes of the victorious
dissident candidates with the diversity attributes of the candidates proposed by the
cooptocracy, but not elected.
Year Elected Write In Cand Not Elected Nominating Committee Candidate
2004 White American Male Asian Male from India
2005 White American Male Asian Woman from Taiwan
2006 White American Female White Male from Canada
2007 White American Female Black Male from Benin
2008 White American Female African‐American Male
2009 White American Female White American Male
2010 White American Female White Female from Israel
2010 White American Male White Female from Germany
2010 White American Female African‐American male
*Data from Arthur Lupia, University of Michigan.
Interpreting the result, Lupia observed, “In nine of the ten cases [I counted nine],
competitive elections led to the council being more white or less international than
it would have been under the nominating committee’s recommendation. . . . From
the perspective of racial, ethnic, and international diversity, the actuality of these
elections is difficult to support.”
This evidence, cited time and again, appeared to have a decisive impact on the
outcome of the debate. It was so impressive that on my return from the association
meeting, I immediately convened a panel of graduate students at the University of
Virginia to further mine this rich data set and allow it to speak in all of its nuance.
The heated objection of one panelist — that Lupia had buried the fact that the
dissidents promoted more gender diversity (six females instead of three!) — was
duly noted, but quickly set aside. Other panelists pointed out that there were several
factors in play here, not just gender, so the full matter could in fairness only be
determined by a more rigorous statistical approach that assigned weights to each
variable. The resulting “Diversity Index” the panel constructed adopted the
following weights. For gender, a male received a (‐1) designation, a female (+1); for
race, White (‐1), Asian (+1) and Black (+2). Country of origin provoked some
discussion, but in the end, in accord with the spirit of diversity’s concern for
reversing the domination of hegemonic countries (and their allies) over oppressed
nations, the panel decided to accord a (‐2) to America, (‐1) to dependent American
allies like Taiwan and Israel, and up to a (+2) for the former French colony of Benin.
For each entrant on the table it became possible to calculate a single diversity score
[t = R(race)+O(origin)+G(gender)]. For example, to take the outliers, a White
American Male (WAM) was scored at ‐4, while a Black Benin Male (BBM) rated an
impressive +3. The White Female from Israel netted ‐1. When the totals for the
dissidents who were elected were compared with the totals of the candidates from
the nominating committee who were defeated, the panel had little difficulty
concluding that the cooptocracy had, if anything, understated the strength of its
case. These were robust findings in every sense of the word.
The wisdom of social science was happily confirmed at the association meeting.
Leaving the hall, I saw a smiling set of past association presidents being
congratulated by their coopted beneficiaries. Substantive democracy had prevailed
— by an exercise of procedural democracy, no less.
Where Did the Master Orator Go?
Jim Ceaser (also on commentary contention site)
07.26.2011 – 12:23 PM
Can an American president call for a speech on prime time television to talk about the weather? We came fairly close to a test of this proposition last night. Americans, who have been hearing almost daily from the president over the last couple of weeks, were now bidden—should one say summoned?—to listen to him in an official Presidential Address, a format that is normally reserved for solemn or important announcements.
Barack Obama pronounced a speech that contained nothing new, and certainly nothing important. The single “action” he called for was to urge Americans to light up the switchboards of Republican members of the House to compel them to support his approach, which includes tax hikes, to address the debt crisis. Apart from the unseemliness of the president trying so blatantly to impose his will on a co-ordinate branch of the government, this plea was completely irrelevant. From the moment talks about of a grand bargain ended last week, Congress–including the leaders of both parties in both chambers–had agreed to move beyond a plan that contains “revenues.” The president, of course, knew this, just as he knows that in the end he will likely sign such a bill.
The real aim of the speech was accordingly to position himself for the next election as the great compromiser and to paint the opposition as extreme. It was a political speech in the guise of an official presidential address.
Will it work? Will the president appear in the public’s eye—and appearance is what this was all about—as a larger figure after this speech than before? There is reason to think that he will not. Obama spoke for fifteen minutes, three times longer than House Speaker John Boehner. But many will think that John Boehner had three times the better in the exchange. Obama displayed all of his rhetorical prowess, his grand style and his characteristic eloquence. The subject of his speech, in line with almost all of his big speeches, was himself—in this case, how he alone is a figure above mundane politics, a Great Compromiser in the midst of a three ring circus. (Other speeches in the past, for example, had Obama as the one voice of civility in a climate of political incivility, or the one post-partisan in a world of partisanship.) All the elements were in place for one of those larger than ordinary mortals’ performances, but the gambit seems to have fallen flat.
Nothing is more difficult from a rhetorical standpoint than to pronounce a speech that follows immediately upon a presidential address. The president holds all the advantages—the setting, the dignity of the office, and, of course, the personal recognition. He has no need to introduce himself. Almost all of the respondents in these jousts have been bested, sometimes disastrously, with the most favorable result being a draw. Boehner’s performance stands out as the exception. His address was simple and direct, while the president’s was mendacious; his was earnest, while the president’s was self-serving; and his was about the crisis, while the president’s was about himself. Obama strove mightily to get above politics, but failed. Boehner did seek political positioning and succeeded.
Obama, the master orator, has now been defeated on his own chosen ground. Will this leave the emperor without his clothes?
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas has made a name for herself over the years by expressing some very controversial views, like advocating arms sales to Hugo Chavez’s regime in Venezuela. For many, she has richly earned the right to be dismissed. But her widely reported speech last week, charging that the unwillingness of Congress to raise the debt limit stems from racism toward the President, should be taken seriously as the proverbial canary in the mineshaft. Mainstream liberal thought has been edging closer and closer to legitimating the idea that opposition to Barack Obama can be equated to racism.
Just a few days before Representative Lee was telling the House to “read between the lines…only this president–only this one–has received [these] kinds of attacks,” Harold Meyerson, one of liberalism’s most lucid commentators, was pressing a similar line of attack in the Washington Post. Fueled by “the politics of racial resentment,” conservatives loathe what their government is becoming–”multiracial, multicultural, cosmopolitan and now headed by a president who personifies those qualities.” Two years of relentless liberal assaults on the Tea Party helped to prepare this ground. The movement was said to be a front for racist policies, not the popular uprising against big government and uncontrolled spending that it claimed to be. Paul Krugman told his The New York Times readers that Tea Party activists might well imagine themselves starring in the “Birth of a Nation” (the classic 1915 racist film), while E. J. Dionne artfully made it clear that, “Opposition to the president is driven by many factors that have nothing to do with race. But race is definitely part of what’s going on.”
This continuing talk about racism, which is likely to be a liberal theme in next year’s presidential campaign, is sure to strike most Americans as not just disappointing, but unexpected. A great hope of the 2008 presidential election was that it would put to bed, not the existence of racism in society (the country is still a long way from that), but its role in presidential politics. Like the question of Catholicism, which evaporated almost overnight when JFK was elected in 1960, race would cease to matter. People could favor a president or oppose him without taking into account, or worrying that others might accuse them of taking into account, the president’s race.
For liberals who proclaim the continuing power of racism over our politics, the analogy of 2008 to 1960 does not hold. Although they cite few instances of overt racist comments by leading conservatives, this is only because–as they see it–conservatives managed to learn from bitter experience how to avoid cruder expressions and to speak in code. But the feelings are there at, or just beneath, the surface. (For the record, the only important figures to use race language directly against Obama have been Bill Clinton, who in the South Carolina primary in 2008 labeled him “the black candidate” and accused his campaign of “playing the race card on me,” and the Princeton philosopher Cornel West, who recently called Obama “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.”)
But another possibility is that the analogy to 1960 does hold–or at least that it would, except for the efforts by liberals to inject the theme of racism for their psychological and political benefit. It is an instance of “playing the race card,” one that is all the more cynical for being deployed by those who celebrated Barack Obama’s “historic victory” as inaugurating a new day in American politics.
Why should liberals now risk throwing away a real benefit to the nation? One answer is that racism provides a convenient explanation for why liberalism has not had the success that was expected. For those like Paul Krugman, who declared that “the progressive philosophy won,” or like Harold Meyerson, who assured the faithful that the “future of American politics … belongs to Barack Obama’s Democrats,” it is consoling to think that temporary setbacks are not the result of any inadequacies of the progressive philosophy or its leader, but of dark and sinister forces plotting against the future. Just as likely, the card is being offered as a calculated gambit to keep the loyal in tow and, especially, to minimize potential defectors among decent people who despise racial injustice. They are the target group in this stratagem. Liberals have become high-stake gamblers willing to bet the house–and at any price.
I am reemerging from the depths and am posting a blog done last night for Commentary (with John York).
Blaming It All On the Tea Party
James W. Ceaser and John York
07.15.2011 – 5:30 PM
With the breakdown of negotiations on a so-called grand bargain on the debt limit demanded by President Obama, liberal commentators have sought a convenient scapegoat to account for the impasse. Not surprisingly, they have begun by rounding up the usual suspect: the Tea Party. Its intransigence, so the line goes, has sunk this great deal.
For two years now, “Blame the Tea Party First” has been the Democrats’ favorite mantra. “Firsters” invoke the Tea Party to make sense–for themselves–of the otherwise inexplicable fact of large-scale public opposition to President Obama, and they hold the Tea Party responsible for many of the nation’s deeper problems, from incivility in our discourse to an inability to set aside intransigent partisanship.
Generosity in describing one’s foes is a rarity, especially among conspiracy theorists. But Firsters have carried their animus against the Tea Party to unprecedented heights by failing to credit it with what is today right before everyone’s eyes. Without the Tea Party, there would be no debt limit negotiations going on, just as there would have been no budget reduction deal last December. Without the Tea Party, President Obama would not be posing as the judicious statesman, but would be pushing –as in truth he still is–for more stimulus and further investments in high-speed rail. Whatever pressure now exists to treat the debt problem derives directly or indirectly from the explosion of energy that has been generated by the Tea Party.
In lambasting the Tea Party movement for its stubborness, Firsters have silently acknowledged what for two years they had all but denied. Instead of being in fact a front for racism or opposition to abortion, the “baggers,” as they have been derisively called, are genuinely insistent on cutting spending and containing the growth of government. Everything is less complicated than it seems. Supporters of the Tea Party are who they said they were.
A stroll down memory lane provides a reminder of the Firsters’ shifting characterizations of the Tea Party. About the only constant in their analysis has been its political opportunism. The baggers have been charged with seven deadly sins.
1. They are uneducated poor racists. All honor for this accusation goes to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who referred to the grassroots movement as “astroturf,” comprised of swastika-carrying radicals. Since then others have joined in: Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson saw “no coincidence” in “the birth of a big, passionate national movement — overwhelmingly white and lavishly funded — that tries its best to delegitimize… the first African-American president.”
2. They are uneducated poor dupes. In this description, the racism is not denied, but it is almost beside the point; the real issue is that Big Money has been manipulating the ignorant and gullible masses. Paul Krugman, the Nobel-prize- winning economist turned film-critic, offered this helpful advice to Tea Party activists in the New York Times,: “This is not the movie you think it is. You probably imagine you’re starring in ‘The Birth of a Nation’ but you’re actually just extras in a remake of ‘Citizen Kane’…[in which Kane] just puts politicians on his payroll.”
3. They are privileged whites who don’t want to pay their fair share. As poll evidence started to show, Tea Party supporters were not as poor or as dumb as was initially thought. On the contrary–for this CBS/NewYork Times Poll, at any rate– they were older, wealthier, and better educated than the general public. Never mind. Firsters just adjusted the image, having it that these people just wanted to protect their own, indulging, as Harold Meyersson would have it, in a “politics of racial resentment and the fury that the country is no longer only theirs.”
4. They are folks with understandable concerns, but they don’t comprehend what will solve our problems. This is probably the most sympathetic and patronizing treatment of the Tea Party, and it gained ground as the size of the Tea Party itself became apparent. It had to be treated now with some delicacy. Yes, Firsters acknowledged, these are mostly good and decent people–they may even care dearly about their children–but they need some guidance. In the time-honored tradition of legislators to revise and resubmit their remarks, Nancy Pelosi now began to find common turf with the Tea Party: “We share some of the views of the Tea Partiers.” The president let it be known “that there are strains in the Tea Party that are troubled by what they saw as a series of instances in which the middle-class and working-class people have been abused or hurt by special interests and Washington, but their anger is misdirected.”
5. They are just the old-conservatives rebranded. This is the Ecclesiastes argument, that there is nothing new under the sun. Although slightly angrier than other conservatives, and maybe just a little bit more libertarian, in fact they are pretty much “full spectrum” conservatives concerned not only with fiscal issues but social issues. They offer nothing different than the Republican Party of old. According to a New York Times sketch of the movement, “They do not want a third party and say they usually or almost always vote Republican.” Almost six in ten went so far as to hold a favorable opinion of former President Bush.
6. They are parts of a fragile and conflicting coalition. This charge, like the last one, brought some consolation, as it indicated that the movement was weaker than thought and would not be able to withstand the test of holding together in real votes. Scholars took the lead on this characterization, with a team led by Harvard Professor Theda Skocpol arguing that the “affection of grassroots Tea Partiers for major programs like Social Security is at odds with the policies pushed by many of the elite national organizations that fund their protests.”
7. Supporters are historical fetishists, concerned with quaint and outmoded things like the principles of the Revolution and the Constitution. E.J. Dionne, one of the first Firsters, has been long lecturing the Tea Party folks that they have been serving the wrong part of history, 1773, rather than the Constitution, which was a pro-government document. He recently lectured his “friends in the Tea Party” that they are “drawing all the wrong conclusions” which will lead to “some remarkably foolish choices.” Jill Lapore, professor of history at Harvard who has written a full length book on the movement, goes a step further than Dionne, condemning the movement for the folly of an “originalism” that would seek to apply directly the ideas of yesteryear, even if correctly understood, to today. She would evidently throw out of court, as would Dionne, the originalism of one Tea Party supporter who had the temerity to offer this application of the Founders’ political system: “I’m sick and tired of them wasting money and doing what our founders never intended to be done with the federal government.”
Despite the accident of its name, the Tea Party is not a political party, but a political movement, according to Peter Berkowitz, “one of the most spectacular grass roots political movements in American history.” A feature of such movements in American politics, whether on the Left or the Right, is that they are unformed and inchoate. Their boundaries–who is in and who is out–remain ill-defined, as there is no authoritative organizational structure that exercises control of the “members.” It’s therefore almost always possible for interested investigators to find, somewhere, what they are looking for. So the Tea Party movement has had its share of ideologues (Ron Paul) and flakes (Christine O’Donnell)–although the same might be said, respectively, of the Democratic Party’s Sheila Jackson Lee and Anthony Weiner.
Given the porousness of the movement, any serious analysis demands perspective and discipline, qualities that in political commentary today are in short supply. What Firsters have instead provided is a grab bag of charges from which they pick the one that best fits the need of the moment. On some days it may be that the Tea Partiers, as Michele Bachmann so colorfully expressed it, are a bunch of “toothless hillbillies coming down out of the hills,” on others that they are some country-club Republicans teeing up for a round of golf. One moment the movement is weak and fragile, another it has captured the Republican Party, which, according to David Brooks, “has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.” Where these characterizations do not undermine themselves by contradiction, they often amaze by their absurdity. In the most malicious and persistent charge–that of racism, which serves as a prophylactic to protect O’bama from any criticism–the evidence offered is a small number of African Americans in the movement. But how many African Americans, already the most liberal group in America, should one expect to join a movement opposing Barack Obama? And of course when one does, like Herman Cain, and upon a strong showing in a debate wins the respect of the hordes of racists, he immediately becomes subject to the most unseemly attacks by those free of any hint of racial prejudice.
In this week’s controversy, Firsters are promoting the narrative of Barack Obama as the great statesman of the hour, willing to go the extra mile for a great bargain. Somewhere and sometime, according to this fantastic account, Obama experienced an 11th-hour conversion to spending restraint. Only no one–no one–has seen or knows what he wants. It is the phantom of the budget, staged with wondrous smoke and mirrors and accompanied by the old refrain, now growing stale by repetition, of Obama worship. We are witnessing the sorry spectacle of high-minded commentators, who only recently were chanting in unison for greater transparency in our politics, and who now bite like a school of perch at the cheap plastic lures and leaks being tossed out by White House flaks. These are men and women without an ounce of pride in either themselves or their craft.
At the end of the day, the choice the nation faces is pretty clear–even if both sides will at one day face a point of reckoning. One side wishes a more constrained federal government and greater austerity in our welfare programs. It will hold or cut these programs to the point where it finds it cannot go much further, at which time other remedies may need to be considered. If one wants a model for this approach, it is necessary to look no further than the policies of some of the red-state governments (or Great Britain). The other side wishes a federal government at and beyond the level of 2008 and beyond the current level. If one wants a model for this approach, the blue-state of Illinois or California will do just fine. This side will continue to maintain and expand government, cutting national defense to the bone and adding more “revenues,” up to the point it becomes literally unsustainable. That point has not been reached yet.
This is the choice the nation faces. As of 2011, it has not been definitively made. Perhaps 2012 will be the year of the Tea Party.
James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. John York is a graduate student in politics at the University of Virginia.
unlike peter, i never predict an election. but i do postdict. here is an account of the election that will shortly appear in the crb
Facts speak for themselves.
The Democratic Party under Barack Hussein Obama in 2010 suffered the greatest defeat for a newly elected president in a midterm since the Republican Party under Warren Gamaliel Harding in 1922. Democrats, at this writing, dropped 61 seats in the House of Representatives, where they will now be in the minority, and 6 seats in the Senate, where they will continue to hold a slight edge. The Democratic defeat was historic by other measures as well–in House seats lost in a congressional election (the most since 1948), and in House seats lost in any midterm (the most since 1938). But it is the performance of a president’s party following his first election that is the relevant point of comparison today.
The midterm election is one of the distinctive features of America’s constitutional system. By allowing for an expression of voter sentiment separate from the selection of the president, midterms help supply the concrete political support in Congress for checking presidential programmatic power. A check of this kind seems to be exactly what the public had in mind in 2010, ending liberal hopes that Obama’s presidency would inaugurate a “new” New Deal.
The comparison of Obama to FDR has been looming in the background for the past two years. Time magazine, in the cover of its post-election edition, superimposed Barack Obama’s head onto a memorable photo of FDR seated in his convertible following his 1932 landslide victory. The expectation was that Obama, like FDR, would lead Democrats to further gains in the ensuing midterm and then onwards and upwards to an era of Democratic dominance. Democratic totals in Congress in 2008 were taken to be a floor for the party’s support, not a ceiling. “The future in America’s politics,” wrote Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson, “belongs to Barack Obama’s Democrats.” Happy days were here again.
If 2010 represents the future in American politics, it is not the one Progressives expected. This holds true not just for the Democrats’ standing today at the national level, but at the state level as well, where Republicans gained control of at least seven new governorships and fourteen state legislative chambers, giving them their highest total of state legislative chambers since the 1920s. More importantly, the renewed strength of Republicans in the states gives the GOP an important edge in the crucial process of the redistricting of legislative seats that begins next year. It was the perfect time for a surge.
President Obama and the Republicans did not agree on very much over the last two years, but on the question of what this election was all about there was not an inch of daylight between them–at least when the campaign began. The contest, as the President repeatedly proclaimed, was a judgment on “the change,” referring to his whole domestic package of stimulus policies, health care reform bill, and presumably his proposals for increased taxes on the wealthiest. Obama spoke of “guarding the change,” with Republicans responding by echoing the sentiment, if not always the exact words, of John Boehner, “Hell No.” Herein lies the main line of political conflict for the period ahead. With the advancement of the progressive Obama agenda by legislative (as distinct from administrative) means halted, Obama, now the “conservative,” will be using every ounce of his powers to sustain the parts of his program that have been enacted, while the Republicans, as proponents of change, will be seeking to reverse many of them.
The 2010 election was one of the most nationalized, some will say the most nationalized, midterm campaign in American history. Every Republican competing for national office, from Hawaii to New Hampshire, ran against the Obama agenda and made it the centerpiece of the campaign. The President, who was in full campaign mode for months, joined the fray, defending his agenda while excoriating its “enemies.” Only some Democrats, sensing the ship to be sinking, latched onto the stratagem of trying to “localize” their contests–not because the politics of 2010 really were local, but because they were not. This tactic worked in some of the Senate contests, like Delaware and Nevada, where the Republican candidates proved to have special vulnerabilities.
The 2010 campaign was also highly personalized, although not in the usual sense of focusing mainly on the President’s character attributes, as was the case in the Clinton “impeachment” mid-term election of 1998. “Personalized” in 2010 meant instead focusing on Obama’s policies and his continued boasts of having made “historic changes.” Even Republicans’ frequent invocation in their ads of the other Democratic leaders, the smiling Nancy Pelosi and the dour Harry Reid, became in the end a way of speaking about Obama’s change. All this fit with the President’s own evident comfort level in placing himself conspicuously front and center as the voice and mind of the administration. Although Obama made a point in his Denver convention acceptance speech in 2008 of telling Americans (and the world) that “it’s not about me,” a phrase he has repeated frequently since, there must be some reason why he has had to issue the disclaimer so often. It has not been entirely forgotten, either, that Obama reportedly reassured a few nervous congressional Democrats last January that any fears that 2010 might resemble 1994 were unfounded, because the “big difference” between 1994 and 2010 “is that you’ve got me.”
This slight to Bill Clinton highlights one of the most fascinating rivalries of modern American politics. Going back to the start of the 2008 campaign, Obama knew that he could only defeat Hillary by, in effect, defeating Bill; the original meaning of “change” was change from the Clintons. Bill Clinton in turn chaffed at Obama’s oblique criticisms and was visibly dismayed at the prospect of being replaced as the brightest star in the Democratic Party’s firmament. Clinton’s reputation took a nosedive after he imploded during the South Carolina primary contest, accusing Obama of playing the race card. Not only did Bill Clinton, America’s first black president, have to bide his time and eventually cede the spotlight to Barack Obama, America’s second black president, but he was virtually forced after the election to hide from public view as a UN envoy. But the worm has turned this year, and as Obama’s approval ratings went down, Clinton’s popularity, especially with Democrats, went up, proving once again that William Jefferson Clinton, the self-described comeback kid, has had as many lives as Fredrick Charles Kruger. Clinton and Obama, being practical politicians, understood the advantage both to their principles and to themselves of working together. Clinton was almost as much in evidence during the 2010 campaign as Obama, going to places where Obama was not welcome. Now, in the wake of the 2010 election, which overshadows Clinton’s own historic mid-term drubbing in 1994, many are wondering whether Barack Obama will be studying Bill Clinton’s 1995 playbook in hopes of a political recovery over the next year.
Because midterm elections take place in distinct races, 472 of them this year, rendering a national verdict involves administering a very rough justice. The sins of the Progressive Democrats in the House were visited on Democrats of a more moderate disposition. Huge numbers of these Democratic “blue dogs” were defeated. There was something poignant, too, in watching these foot soldiers in the Obama-Pelosi army being mowed down in droves, in many cases having been denied funding from national party headquarters with which to make a fight. Meanwhile, most of the staunchest progressives, running often in Democratic redoubts, escaped to live another day, including Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank. A few of the old venerables, like committee chairs Ike Skelton (Armed Services) and John Spratt (Budget) were not so fortunate. Since there is little honor and less pleasure in serving in the minority in the House, it would not be surprising if a few progressives decided to avail themselves of Congress’s generous retirement provisions. About the only solace these House Democrats can take is that so many moderate colleagues were ousted that there is little chance for severe acts of recrimination.
A number of analysts, anticipating the need to soften the blow against the Democrats, began arguing in October that the 2010 election was about generalized anger directed at incumbents because of economic conditions. Some anger, no doubt, there was, which naturally fell on the party (the Democrats) that, given its extraordinary majority, had full responsibility for running the show in Washington. And in the Republican Party, too, there was more than the usual pressure exerted against incumbents early on, coming from a vast and energetic new movement, the Tea Party. (Two Republican Senate incumbents, Robert Bennett of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, lost primary contests, and–what is not the same thing–a number of establishment candidates running for GOP nominations, including Charlie Christ in Florida and Mike Castle in Delaware, was defeated.) But when it came to the final election, the story in the House was not one of incumbents losing, but of Democratic incumbents being ousted. All but two Republican incumbents were re-elected, while more than 50 Democratic incumbents met their political maker. In the Senate, every Republican incumbent who was nominated (and perhaps one other, Lisa Murkowski, who was not) was re-elected, while two of the Democrats’ finest, Russ Feingold and Blanche Lincoln, went down.
The results of the 2010 election changed the landscape of American politics. In viewing the national electoral map of House seats, it is as if someone came in overnight and redid the whole canvas, changing huge swaths of blue to red, especially in the vast area between the coasts and–adding to the impression of Republican dominance–in non-urban districts, which cover much larger geographic areas. Republicans have their largest majority in the House since 1948. And the political reality is even redder than it looks, since a number of the blue dogs who did survive, having observed the cruel fate suffered by their colleagues, will now be less likely to sit and stay at the President’s command. In the Senate, one new Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, was elected by firing a shot at President Obama’s cap and trade policy, and a large number of the 23 Democratic Senators up for re-election in 2012, especially those who come from redder states, have heard the footsteps. The Democrats in the House come January will be a more progressive lot, with a small but helpless contingent of surviving blue dogs, but the Senate is apt to be vey different. Some Democrats may look to do “business” with Republicans, although there would appear to be too few moderate Democrats to mount a sustained opposition against Obama from the center. If Obama is to face some pressure from within his party, it is more likely to come from progressive intellectuals and bloggers outside of Congress. Given where the center of American politics now is located, such posturing will be of no real significance.
To be sure, a “landscape”–a term that once carried the implication, if not of permanence, then at least of some duration–is not all that it used to be. Like the modern construction projects that turn a barren lot into a plush green field in a day, the contemporary political scene now lends itself to more rapid re-configurations. The nation over the past two decades has lived through a period of its greatest partisan fluctuation, with the presidential majority having changed party hands four times, the House three times, and the senate twice. Every midterm since 1994 has been highly nationalized by historic standards, a result not only of huge events–the first health care reform proposal (1994), the looming impeachment (1998), the 9-11 attack and the prospect of the Iraq War (2002), the Iraq War (2006), and now Obama’s “change” agenda (2010)–but also of sharpening party conflicts that draw clearer divisions on national issues. Congressional elections seem to have entered into new territory.
Of all the recent mid-term elections, 2010 is the closest the nation has ever come to a national referendum on overall policy direction or “ideology.” Obama, who ran in 2008 by subordinating ideology to his vague themes of hope and change, has governed as one of the most ideological and partisan of presidents. Some of his supporters like to argue in one breath that he is a pragmatist and centrist only to insist in the next that he has inaugurated the most historic transformation of American politics since the New Deal. The two claims are incompatible. Going back to the major political contests of 2009, beginning with the Governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey and to the Senate race in Massachusetts, the electorate has been asked the same question about Obama’s agenda and has given the same response. The election of 2010 is the third or fourth reiteration of this judgment, only this time delivered more decisively. There is one label and one label only that can describe the result: the Great Repudiation
What accounts for the Great Repudiation? It is not always easy to come by a genuine explanation from listening to political actors. While the social scientist aims to present the truth of the matter, politicians and spinners live by a different ethic. Their job is to offer explanations that serve their party’s (or their own) future political prospects. It is only by coincidence that their accounts resemble the truth.
The ballots were hardly counted in 2010 before the President and his allies were shifting the narrative, embracing a Beta version to serve as the post-election explanation. Instead of the election being a fair and clear judgment on “the change,” it was now said that the American people never understood the real issues. Part of the reason was a Republican campaign of misinformation, aided not just by the spending of huge sums of money, since Democrats overall spent as much as Republicans, but by the influx of “secret money,” which always buys more. Another reason has been a failure in communication. The President was working so hard to address the nation’s problems that he neglected to devote sufficient time and attention to explaining his policies to the public. The election outcome was all the result of a misunderstanding. If there was one substantive mistake to which the President admitted, it was that he had unwittingly fallen victim to a massive intelligence error. Contrary to the reports of our government’s agencies and to the assurances of his brain trust, Obama was shocked to discover in the end that there were no SRPs (Shovel Ready Projects).
The main Democratic explanation going forward, however, has taken a different tack, denying that the election ever had anything to do with “the change.” It was instead all about Americans’ reaction to economic conditions. In light of the administration’s original promises for the beneficial effects of its stimulus package, this explanation evidently has met resistance. But what the administration now thinks is that there was no fix for the economy, in the sense of being able to achieve a recovery at the rate that Americans came to expect. The blame rightly belongs to the previous administration, although President Obama now understands that pressing this argument, a year and half in office, looks petulant. The new line is therefore simply to blame “the economy,” as if it were an alien force dropped in from the outside, with no connection to the President’s policies. The economic crisis, previously viewed as an indispensable ally in helping the President enact the agenda, now appears as a malevolent agent, and a perversely ill-timed one at that, since, as Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker explained, “the longest and deepest mass suffering” of the Great Recession, in contrast to the Great Depression, “has occurred with Obama in the White House.” The notion that “the economy” is an actor in its own right, disembodied from “the change,” has led some analysts to float the strange argument that Republicans should have won more convincingly than they did.
The real purpose of this explanation, however, is to limit the reach of this election’s meaning in a way that leaves the President himself and “the change” untouched. The election was an anguished response of voters to the economy–nothing more. It was the Great Protest, not the Great Repudiation. This position, which the President embraced in his post-election news conference, allows him to join up with the spirit of the election and participate in its message. He will now concentrate on the economy like a … dare one say “laser beam”?
Republicans have agreed on the importance of the economy as part of the explanation for their victory. Yet in their account the anemic recovery is not unrelated to the core elements of Obama’s “change.” The problem in Obama’s approach has been his failure to appreciate what generates productive wealth, which comes not from bigger government and more spending but from the activity of private business and entrepreneurs. Economic “philosophy” in this large sense was in fact the main voting issue in this election. It was for this reason as well that Obama’s “populist” appeal against the big banks, Wall Street, the insurance companies, and the wealthy gained so little traction. While most Americans, including many on the right, were angered at “big business” and Wall Street, many also became convinced that Obama’s populism struck squarely at the sources that generate wealth. Even Obama’s plan to eliminate the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, considered by White House advisor to be a sure-fire winner as an electoral issue, made little headway. The economic question in the campaign went back to the great colloquy in 2008 between Barack Obama and Joe the Plumber. This time, however, Joe seemed to have the upper hand.
For many Republicans, and especially for the allies in the Tea Party movement, the issues of economic policy were also linked to a deeper concern. The size of government and the extent of the federal debt represented not only a burden on future generation and a threat to American power, but also a violation of the spirit and letter of the Constitution. The Tea Party in particular, with its belief in Jeffersonian ideas, has been responsible for re-introducing the Constitution into the public debate, a place that it has not held in the same way for over a century. This theme is what connects the Tea Party to the American tradition and makes their concerns matters of fundamental patriotism. The stakes in the 2010 election for these voters went far beyond economic questions, and for Democratic leaders to reduce everything to frustrations about the “Economy, Stupid” represents a final act of disparagement and belittlement.
There was accordingly an additional factor that played in this election outcome that was hardly noted or tested in the polls. It was a cultural clash between an elite and much of the public, between liberal intellectuals and the Obama administration on the one hand and the mass of Tea party activists on the other. The one has shown disdain and the other has responded with resentment. It is impossible, then, not to say that the person of Barack Obama was a major factor in this election, for when he was not himself the leader he became the frequent enabler of this dismissal of middle America. That Obama would have to descend from the lofty heights that he inhabited during the campaign and after his election was something that no sane observer, and no doubt Obama himself, could fail to have foreseen. But this loss of bloated charisma has never been the real problem. It has instead been his demeanor as president. Obama modeled himself on Abraham Lincoln, and it is painful in retrospect to draw the contrast in how they have behaved. One showed humility, the other arrogance; one practiced sincerity, the other hypocrisy; one made efforts at cultivating unity, the other seemed to delight at encouraging division: and one succeeded in becoming more and more a man of the people, while the other, despite his harsh populist appeals, has grown more distant.
Elections in America serve two functions– a “formal” function of filling the personnel for the constitutional offices, which takes place in every election, and an “informal” function of signaling what the people want, which takes place in a meaningful way only in certain elections, where national public sentiment has congealed on a common message or theme. The situation in Washington now reflects a conflict stemming from the results of these two functions. On the formal side, the array of forces puts neither party in full control. Democrats hold the presidency, Republicans will now firmly control the House, and the senate appears likely to swing in ways no one can now foresee. The Democrats, who now derive their power from this formal situation and rely on officials chosen in elections conducted two and four years ago, will emphasize the constitutional authority of the offices. They represent for the moment the conservative position. On the informal side, Republicans claim not just their seats and numbers in Congress, but the weight and power of the majority as expressed in the clear and powerful message. delivered on election day. This claim cannot, of course, cancel the formal array of power–we are a nation governed by laws and institutions–but there is nothing amiss in reminding those in offices that they cannot stray too far for too long from the wishes of the majority without straining the fabric of authority in a democratic system. The informal function, while it should not be overvalued, should not be undervalued, either.
The Republicans’ case, resting on this informal claim that can always be disputed, is already under assault. Along with the Democrats’ open campaign to persuade the public that the election did not mean what Republicans thought, there is an allied effort underway, far more subtle, to undermine and weaken the Republican position. It comes from a group of self-proclaimed wise men who present themselves as being above the fray. These voices, acting from a putative concern for the nation and even for the Republican Party, urge Republicans to avoid the mistake of Obama and the Democrats after 2008 of displaying hubris and overinterpreting their mandate. With this criticism of the Democrats offered as a testimony of their even handedness and sincerity, they piously go on to tell Republicans that now is the time to engage in bipartisanship and follow a course of compromise. The problem with this sage advice is that it calls for Republicans to practice moderation and bipartisanship after the Democrats did not. It is therefore not a counsel of moderation, but a ploy designed to force Republicans to accept the overreach and the policies of the past year and half. It is another way to defend “the change.” If Republicans are to remain true to the verdict of 2010, they cannot accept that the message of this election was just containment; it must mean roll back.
There’s nothing more embarrassing than someone from an older generation commenting on the present one. Think of the aging hippie professor, clad in jeans and t-shirt, trying to prove his bona fides by showing he is hip to his students’ latest taste in music. It never fails but to provoke amused giggles from the back of the classroom, followed up by the inevitable tweet : “I mean this guy is so out of it; that’s stuff, like, from a month ago.”
Having repented of my foolishness a couple of weeks ago in bringing to our readers’ attention an article by Charlotte Allen on the current sexual mores of the young, I now repeat my folly by turning to the parallel issue of, precisely, the musical tastes of the young. I say parallel because the article I now commend suggests that the music of yesterday is the prolegomena to the sexual mores of today. Put more simply, who says rock says hook up. The author is the renown philosopher Roger Scruton, and the essay can be found at http://www.aei.org/article/101717 or, in the fuller version, at http://www.american.com/archive/2010/february/soul-music. And we will all await, as we did last time when the youth movement spoke up to set matters straight on the effective truth of the alpha male, for commentators still in touch with the current generation (is it X, Y, Z or AAprime?) to show us where, perhaps, Scruton may have gone astray.
Scruton is a wonderful writer and an expert on music (among a thousand or so other things that he has studied and mastered). The current essay, “Soul Music,” is highly reminiscent of the famous chapter on music that appears near the beginning of Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. Bloom’s chapter is also on the music of the youth. Interestingly, too, Bloom and Scruton both begin from Plato, referring to the Republic. The theme is that music shapes the soul, and thus shapes the way of life or the regime. (“The ways of poetry and music are not changed anywhere without change in the most important laws of the city” Republic 424c). And sure enough, as our music has changed, so have our mores and laws, in the direction, as Cole Porter put it even before the revolution in rock, of “anything goes.” And consider for a moment not the music but the lyrics of that one:
In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking,
But now, God knows,
Good authors too who once knew better words,
Now only use four letter words
Writing prose, Anything Goes.
The world has gone mad today
And good’s bad today,
Stop. “Good is bad today.” Porter saw not only where mores were heading, but what was to be a precise linguistic transformation. Kool! Of course, the dictum “anything goes” would be strictly libertarian, whereas the new ethic is in fact more restrictive: it permits only that which allows anything to go, while excluding anything that does not. This is what is known as political correctness or the dogmatism of relativism.
Returning to Bloom, he was known best for his attack on rock music. One line stands out: “life is made into a non-stop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy” (p.75). His chapter on music, incidentally, is commonly thought to have been the reason for which this work of theory was able to burst out from beyond the narrow circle of academic readership to find its way to the top of the New York Times best seller list, earning him the envy and enmity of the academic establishment. Not even John Rawls, in his wildest, er, philosophical fantasy could top that.
There is more to the last point about selling books than meets the eye. I can testify to this first hand, for I knew Alan Bloom, as he once jokingly said to me, “before he was Alan Bloom,” meaning before he became a household celebrity. No one can say that Bloom knew he would become famous by writing Closing, as its success remains at the end of the day one of the more inexplicable events of modern culture. Still, I think its popularity was not a one-thousand percent accident. Bloom attacked rock music in large part to create a scandal. For a philosopher to jump into the mosh pit and talk about hip hop and MTV was to make him a shock jock avant la lettre. And the purpose was not so much to sell books–though the man could sure spend money!–as to try to reach and educate a portion of the youth generation. He attacked rock–he says as much at the beginning of his chapter–because he knew that modern youth would defend it. Indeed, he thought it was about the only thing they would defend as such, i.e., not on relativistic but absolute ground. And this was the kicker in his pedagogy: Defending something absolutely and with indignation is a precondition for philosophical inquiry. You have to love something first to be capable of beginning the ascent; you have to be in the thrall of a prejudice, to cling to something absolutely, before going through the wrenching experience of giving it up and opening up to the pursuit of truth. A student open-minded to everything would remain that way forever. “If a student can … get a critical distance on what he clings to, come to doubt the ultimate value of what he loves, he has taken the first and most difficult step toward the philosophic conversion.” (p.71) Bloom no doubt meant most of what he said about Mick Jagger, but the analysis was secondary to his “rhetorical” purpose of engaging some of his students and helping them to get some satisfaction.
Roger Scruton’s article is much more about music per se than Bloom’s chapter, but the two together make for some good reading. Make sure you get the version of the Scruton essay that contains the musical clips, and have your headphones ready.
I was shocked and amazed to read Charlotte Allen’s long cover story for the February 15 edition of the Weekly Standard, entitled “The New Dating Game.” It is an exploration of the sexual mores of contemporary American society, either as they actually exist or as they are being imagined and described in a range of sex commentary blogs, which the author surveys with great interest and precision. Either way, Ms. Allen’s article is a fine piece of social science, and seldom is social science so arresting. At any rate, it sure beats Max Weber’s Wissenschaft als Beruf for late-night reading.
If Ms. Allen is anywhere near correct in her account, I gather that we are no longer living in Jane Austen’s world. True, beneath the surface, there are some alpha males lurking in Ms. Austen’s society, and one can detect in some of her females incipient cougar leanings. But all these things are partly channeled and controlled by the weight of convention and by the consequences of sexuality in a different technological era. Well we have broken through, for better or for worse. A pincer movement of advanced technology (birth control devices, new antibiotics) and a new morality of a male-style feminism have breached the walls of convention, which are tumbling rapidly, even since the recent and more halcyon days of the hook-up culture. Ms. Allen describes the return of a Paleolithic age that has none of the grace found in the Flintstones and none of the agonizing sensitivity of the cavemen of the Geico ads (these last, as Rousseau said of the men Hobbes described in his state of nature, only place modern man into a fictive primitive setting). It’s quite a world out there now, best accounted for in Allen’s speculation by Darwinian evolutionary models. George Gilder had seen this all before, a long time ago, even before he had all the biological studies that the modern analyst can cite. And it seems to be ending just where he thought it would.
There is much room for commentary from our esteemed stable of writers, whom I invite to weigh in, along with the deeper thoughts still of Pomocon readers. Besides, it will boost our circulation hits beyond those of the Porch.
“Incline thy ear to me; answer me speedily in the day when I call!” Psalm 102
Forms—let’s call them for the moment manners, little rules of protocol, the observance of ceremonies—are the heart and soul of civilized life. And that is why the conservative, pre- or post-modern, is so solicitous of them, for he/she knows that civility is what keeps the wheels of social intercourse rolling. It is a fine thing, therefore, to have these little rules. I know, for example, that when I see a colleague, whatever I may think of him/her (or whatever she/he may think of me), I am supposed to offer a greeting. It is a convention that often helps me get past the moment.
The opposite of forms is captured by the wonderful democratic phrase “let it all hang out,” which I think—meaning the internet told me—originated as a lyric with a rock group called the hombres. Letting it all hang out, excluding any of its more graphic connotations, means, according to various dictionaries, “saying or doing exactly what you want” (generally a poor idea), or “being yourself” (a worse idea still). I recall a wedding I attended many years ago, in which the ceremony, dictated by centuries of careful thought and adjustment—a “form”—was going very nicely; but then, alas, the presiding member of the clergy took it upon himself to step outside of the rules and add something of his own. Following a ten-minute soliloquy on why the congregation should support the president (it was Bill Clinton at the time) and urge our congresspersons to support his wife’s healthcare plan, we returned to the couple at hand, standing before their Maker, ready to pledge their vows till death do us part. Somehow the little ethical interlude did not quite measure up to the solemnity of the occasion.
But what happens when there are no forms to guide us, when some new situation or circumstance occurs that is unregulated by any previous rules? Technological innovation is often the source of such situations, which is reason enough for some staunch conservatives to be opposed in principle to technology itself. Take some of my friends sitting on their front porches in their little communities. There is a whole protocol of communication that is built up around this little idyllic setting. If you place yourself and your family on the front porch, unprotected by any kind of hedge, you announce that you are fair game. Someone strolls by on a hot summer evening—that is what people are supposed to be doing—and if they call to you, you are obliged to respond. You have signed away your privacy. And if they persist in chatting you up, all tiny signals of resistance notwithstanding, you have no alternative but to oblige. Form demands it.
Which brings me to the problem of email. Just what are the forms, especially—for my specific concerns—between teacher and student? I have no choice but to list my email address at my university, at pain of not knowing of upcoming lectures (thus sacrificing my intellectual well-being), or of department meetings (thus relinquishing my civic rights), or of social events (thus forgoing all social intercourse). But my address being “out there” in cyberspace, does it follow that I am supposed to respond to an inquiry from any student? Have I been placed, willy-nilly and without my consent, on the proverbial front porch, so that when the message arrives, invariably beginning “Hello Professor,” I will break conventions and commit an act of rudeness by a quick deletion? Certainly, this is how students see things, no doubt especially students at small liberal arts colleges. An email message is not like a telephone call without an answering machine. It has arrived and there is no denying it. It is like a letter, but how often would a student in the past have sent a letter, which imposed the costs of paper, thought, envelope, a stamp, and a trip to the mailbox? For the students today, the matter is all but settled: incline your ear and answer me speedily in the day that I write. I am still resisting, applying this principle only in regard to my occasional communications to them.
I agonized over this dilemma with a couple of post-doctoral fellows the other day. They listened bemusedly, as if the whole issue were passé. Their response? Just wait till you are on Facebook! To paraphrase a lyric of Metallica, May that day never come.