Thursday, July 31, 2008
Hopefully pictures and a name soon to follow.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Monday, July 28, 2008
Brooks has put his finger on one of the issues that Americans have with the man.
Obama is clearly Europe's man in the contest to become president of the United States next year, but the sale is not made to those who will elect the president. I think it is likely that Obama will be elected but the outcome is still in doubt.
The soaring rhetoric of such speeches and the appeals to the better angels of our natures move people who are already within the percentage of the population who favor the idea of Barack Obama. John Kennedy's speeches moved many in 1960, but nothing like all. His false claims of a "missile gap" with the Soviets had as much to do with his election as his exhortation to become one of "freedom's frontiersmen." His wife and children were appealing, but by '63 he was thought by many Americans to be a remarkably ineffective president. At the same time, his picture was to be seen on the walls of shacks and mud huts around the world. Would he have been re-elected in 1964? This is an open question. Khrushchev thought him a posturing, empty suit. From that came much mischief. He forced the Soviet Army out of Cuba? Yes, but would they have been there if the Soviet leadership had not thought him weak and a dreamer?
There is something hollow about Obama's candidacy, something that gives citizens a chance to think him less rather than more. He should be far, far ahead of McCain in the polls. The Republican Party is a wounded beast. McCain increasingly looks like a declining, mean old man. Obama should be at least ten points ahead in national polls. Yes. Yes. I know we don't elect presidents on a national basis.
William Jennings Bryan was an orator at the soaring level of Barack Obama. His "cross of gold" speech still lives in legend, but he was never elected president.
The soaring rhetoric - that has not changed in any substantive way since it was first served up shiny and new over a year ago. The relentlesss avoidance of anything that could actually rally Democrats, such as being rid of the corrupt and failed policies of the Republican Party since Reagan. Or a whole-hearted embrace of universal health insurance. Or a line in the sand on privacy rights.As we saw in the primary, the flight from substance was also a flight from support. The longer the campaign went on, the less there was to present, the more he had to be hidden away - from debates, from primaries, from reality. Even now his blogger defenders are reduced to bleating "Racist! Racist!" when the vacuity of the candidate is identified and criticized. His votes went down. His donations went down. His polls went down. Even now, he does not dare allow an actual convention vote be taken lest he lose.
The deep problem of the Obama campaign, the one that has been there from the start and continues to slowly, steadily bleed away support, is there has never been a presence, only an absence, a "not-Hillary", the candidate defined by what he isn't, most crucially in his partisan commitments.
Some people think I call Obama "The Precious" simply as mockery, as in "Oh, isn't he so precious!" It works, but the term came from the One Ring in Lord of the Rings. The Precious is the name a raving, depraved, insane Hobbit gives to this thing that has no center and exists only to drive its possessors mad with a lust for power. The Precious allows itself to be carried about, pretending to serve, until it sees something better, at which point it abandons its current master for one that will take it further. It glitters and enchants, whispering promises of dominion:
Boromir got up and walked about impatiently. 'So you go on,' he cried. 'Gandalf, Elrond - all these folks have taught you to say so. For themselves they may be right. These elves and half-elves and wizards, they would come to grief perhaps. Yet often I doubt if they are wise and not merely timid. But each to his own kind. True-Hearted Men, they will not be corrupted. We of Minas Tirith have been staunch through long years of trial. We do not desire the power of wizard-lords, only strength to defend ourselves, strength in a just cause. And behold! in our need chance brings to light the Ring of Power. It is a gift, I say; a gift to the foes of Mordor. It is mad not to use it, to use the power of the Enemy against him. The fearless, the ruthless, these alone will achieve victory. What could not a warrior do in this hour, a great leader? What could not Aragorn do? Or if he refuses, why not Boromir? The Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner!'
Boromir strode up and down, speaking ever more loudly. Almost he seemed to have forgotten Frodo, while his talk dwelt on walls and weapons, and the mustering of men; and he drew plans for great alliances and glorious victories to be; and he cast down Mordor, and became himself a mighty king, benvolent and wise.
This scene was what came to mind when I listened to otherwise rational people rave on about Obama's incredible "transformative" powers without explaining exactly how such powers were to be mustered, in whose hands this power would be placed and for what purpose. Only a Stevensonian wet dream of making everyone be good, eat sensibly, and fulfill their awesome potential. We would all be the fantasies of our own idealized selves if only we would take up The Precious Gift, The One, and believe.
But those who resisted the inwards turn towards a fantasized, perfected self (and the comcomitant forcible perfection of the world in which the perfected self exists) have done so through very practical thinking, focusing on unsexy bread and butter issues like insurance and mortgages. These are the kinds of things that gave Hillary's campaign more substance and appeal the longer it went on. No one in the Obama campaign seems to take this fact seriously, writing Hillary's support growth off as "racists" voting against Obama. Instead, we are handed more exhortations to be our fantasy. In the face of The Precious, it is not easy to resist:
Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dur. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.
What Tolkien showed in LotR, and why I've dubbed Obama The Precious, is the seductive danger of believing our own fantasies of socio-political perfection figured as personal virtue writ large. We like being called to the "better angels of our nature" because very few of us want to be less than that. Accusations of racism wound deeply and can shame a person against their better judgement because it strikes directly at this internal self-image. If you very much do not want to be this reviled thing - a racist, a bigot, a stupid hick - then you cannot help but respond by reaching for the better angel within. But how can you ever make present what cannot be proved? When we project our not-so-peachy angels onto others and revile them for the crime latent in our own hearts, then you've got trouble. To identify voting for a specific person as the the only valid test of someone's deepest convictions is to become Boromir demanding to be given the Ring.
As I have asked repeatedly, what is Obama for such that a good life-long liberal like me should give him my vote? I do not need to be convinced that McCain is hideous. He is. Don't vote for him. But Obama is the incredible shrinking candidate. Without the foil of Hillary (and the primary was all about Hillary), what substance there was has vanished. I was fired up fighting for my girl. I'm hardly able to rise above my ennui to criticize The Precious and his Gollumish followers, the once reasonable people obssessively stroking the object of their desire and muttering imprecations about those who have wronged them, bedding down to dreams of revenge.
There is a hollow, fragile shell contending with a blustering old fart. Obama offered up a shiny vision of Stevensonian dominion that is steadily devolving into an internal war on the core of the party. A Media Darling beloved of the Village! Shall we not use the power of the Enemy aganist them? We are true of heart and cannot be tempted into evil, if only you miserable bitches would shut up already about health care and privacy, OK? And it only looks evil, it's not really evil, it's just what we have to do to win...
The campaign is hollow, a pretty bauble without substance, and there is precious little they can do about it.
Friday, July 25, 2008
Monday, July 14, 2008
Mostly I've been braining about the Democratic Party and the anti-Southern strategy it is relentlessly pursuing. I end up with disturbing conclusions. More on that over the next few months.
At the baby shower, one of my friends who is a high school teacher in a poor and working class district talked about the kids she teaches. She has two young women, Latinas, in her class who are doing a little better this year, getting Cs and trying to improve. One of them can't really afford the fees for the equipment and other extras to be a cheerleader, though she scrapes together the money from sponsors. She really likes the cheer squad. One of her parents is in prison on drug charges. The other she says is dead, but is actually suffering from a (too young, too short) life of drug abuse. An older sister, not long out of high school herself, is caring for her kid sister, which means providing a roof and food and hoping the kid follows her example and not that of their parents. Some might dump on this girl because she wants to be cute and sexy and have the crowd applaud. She should be applying herself! The other girl in the class lives with the first and the older sister. Some kind of family trouble. She's a little more studious. Not much else to say about her, except that she is trying to make the right decisions.
Who thinks about these kids? Where are the interests of the working poor being considered and protected? These girls need reliable, affordable contraception. They need some regular adult attention and guidance. They need decent jobs that can help them pay rent and buy the groceries while they get through their dizzy teen years and get a handle on life. They need to not be punished for having been born to shitty parents. They need to be respected for having enough discipline to get sponsors for cheer squad and to raise their grades, even as they are steadily pushed to do a bit more for their own sakes.
I contrast this to the recent rumors that the secrecy over Obama's birth certificate is not some nefarious secret, like he isn't a US citizen, but something far more ordinary - that his parents probably never married in the first place. I said this in private emails to a few bloggers several weeks ago. To me, it isn't something that is anyone's business. But what does bother me is the dreamy fantasy promulgated in his books, a fairy tale romance that he is able to spin out over years and continents, trying to craft a respectable ending for the family's honor if not exactly for the individuals involved. The truth, ironically enough, is more interesting, reflecting a tough minded, independent and determined woman with dreams of her own who may not have been the person her son wanted her to be.
Few of our parents ever manage that trick. Somehow they keep stubbornly being their own people.
The high school girls my friend talked about, one of them has created a story to explain away a parent who won't be there, preferring this person be dead to the fact of abandonment, betrayal, failure. It hurts to have a parent who fails you, and every one of us who has felt such a sting makes up a story to make sense of that unpalatable fact, make it more noble, less painful, displace its shame, deny its damage.
Isak Dineson said that any pain can be borne if you put it into a story or tell a story about it. What matters is what kind of story you tell. Is it a story of reclaiming what never was? Is it a story that acknowledges pain, but makes it a thing that is done and dealt with? Is it a tale that talks about dysfunction with clear-eyed honesty and compassion for all involved? Does it limn an unfulfillable wish, or instead create a foundation on which to build? I suspect most of us recount a mix of such things.
I'm interested in the dreams of our daughters, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and how they can frame a future that is not just drugs, gangs, babies, and relentless second-class status. Maybe one of the reasons the lady in the pantsuit connects with so many daughters is the story she can tell us about herself, and about us as well. Maybe what we need are better stories of the indignities and tragedies of ordinary life that don't have Daddy in another country, but permanently incarcerated, or a blow-hard abusive bastard, or wandering the streets as a bum looking for his next fix, and how you are not condemned to a similar fate.
A dream that looks forward, not back.
Sunday, July 06, 2008
First, some background. I have two posts from April 17, discussing the Bittergate stupidity and citing Paul Krugman as he rustled up some actual facts and figures on white voting patterns:
In partial answer to a comment on the last post, Clinton Democrats are not simply Reagan Democrats, though Reagan Democrats were brought back to the party by Bill and even more by Hillary, joining the majority of Democrats who support the Clintons. Clinton Democrats can be defined as people who understand and approve of using the powers of government to make ordinary lives better and to defend the citizenry from forces and powers outside their control - from catastrophic illness to economic crisis to attacks upon the nation. It is a mode of public service that is very bread-and-butter oriented, efficient rather than elegant.
Paul Krugman jumps right to the point (quote from the second link) when he says:
It’s true that Americans who attend church regularly are more likely to vote Republican. But contrary to the stereotype, this relationship is weak at low incomes but strong among high-income voters. That is, to the extent that religion helps the G.O.P., it’s not by convincing the working class to vote against its own interests, but by producing supermajorities among the evangelical affluent.(My emphasis) So, the people responsible for shifting the political control of the nation from Democratic to Republican in the wake of the Civil Rights Act are the affluent whites, not the poor and working class whites. The affluent evangelicals who are the conservative counterparts of the Obamacan "creative class" voters who are disproportionately affluent whites.
So why have Republicans won so many elections? In his book, “Unequal Democracy,” Mr. Bartels shows that “the shift of the Solid South from Democratic to Republican control in the wake of the civil rights movement” explains all — literally all — of the Republican success story. ...
Anyway, the important point is that working-class Americans do vote on economic issues — and can be swayed by a politician who offers real answers to their problems.
So, returning to my recent post No Where Else to Go, I'm seeing a certain pattern here. Voters located down the socio-economic ladder are simply being dismissed, attached to a figure reviled by the Stevensonian elite and rejected as worthless, retrograde, dead-enders, racists, and political garbage. Obama is now turning a full charm offensive onto precisely those voters who have been most likely to reject Democrats since LBJ, the affluent evangelicals. The constituency that really is the rotten repository of revanchist racism, but they have money.
And if there is one thing we know about The Precious it's that he's all about the Benjamins.
If you don't have much of a political ideology other than vague "bipartisan" impulses, and you are panting after dollars, and you feel confident that it won't be your rights and freedoms that will be curtailed, your reproductive and marital freedoms that are endangered, your sons and daughters who are packed off to defend imperialist interests half a globe away, then it may not seem such a bad thing to suck up to these kinds of people and their theocratic desires.
Why throw your lot in with the working class when they're really not that into you anyway? If you make promises to them, you might have to stand for something.
Tuesday, July 01, 2008
The widespread and growing discontent with the campaign for the nomination should tell us something about the problems the party is being forced to face. This is not simply a contest between two very popular candidates with aggressive supporters as most would have it, reducing the post-primary tensions to merely a case of “getting over it”. These are problems that have to do with divergent views of party purpose, significant shifts in demographics and geographic distribution of traditional and prospective Democratic voters, and a fundamental divergence of the role of government in the lives of ordinary citizens – who are increasingly female, young, non-white and vulnerable to the vicissitudes of economy and environment. We could say that the Democrats are going global.
The split of the Democratic electorate itself has been followed by growing resistance to the designated nominee. This is not something I have seen before on the Democratic side, though it certainly begins to look more and more like the 1976 contest between Reagan and Ford, with the establishment candidate barely avoiding a convention floor upset by a rival with a new and energized coalition that is dedicated to the party but unhappy with the party direction. The party leadership, like their Republican counter-parts in 1976, appears determined to yield no ground for the cause of true unity, which would require compromise with their internal rivals and the constituencies these actors represent. Instead, what we hear is some variation on “You have nowhere else to go, so tough.”
It is this arrogance and incapacity to acknowledge legitimate claims and criticisms that has raised the hackles among Democrats who are not necessarily ardent Clinton supporters – though repetition of the dismissal clearly hardens resolve – and which points the way to the underlying problem of the Party, laid bare by this electoral contest. Perhaps it took this particular match up, one that undermines comfortable assumptions about what Democrats believe and are willing to fight for, to expose the fault line I have been discussing for the last few months. It helps to explain the reaction of Hillary supporters to the anointing of Obama as the presumptive nominee, but even more it illuminates the voting patterns observable in the exit polls.
Not only does the Party leadership and large swaths of the Stevensonian elite firmly believe that the Truman rank-and-file have nowhere else to go in a political sense, they have also abandoned any substantive commitment to socio-economic movement for this class. They no longer care to provide there voters anywhere else to go economically or culturally. The Truman wing is seen as an electoral dead end, and no more effort should be expended on their behalf.
Controlling for race, the results of the primary campaign were split between the haves and the have-nots. Exceptions can be found, such as my own household. We’re in the 90th percentile of incomes and hold advanced degrees, are secular humanist, are clearly “creative class” knowledge workers, etc. We should have been Obama supporters; indeed the spousal unit started the campaign as one. However, the overall trends were consistent – the working class and poor were strong Clinton Democrats and the Stevensonians clung to Obama. Look at the makeup of the Clinton Democrats – working class, especially the working poor, the elderly, less than college graduates, women and non-whites voted for Hillary. The missing constituency in this coalition was African American voters, for whom racial identification was a greater determining factor than any other. As I have said repeatedly, while an unfortunate electoral turn of events for Hillary and the only reason Obama won his large states, I see nothing pernicious in this fact, nor does anyone have to invoke racism on either side to explain the phenomenon. It is not “reverse racism”. For all the huffing and puffing from various partisans and pundits about how the Clintons allegedly destroyed their relationship with the AA community, what I remember reading in the paper were statements from ordinary AA voters who said they hated having to choose, and reading Gallup’s analysis that showed AA voters were the most likely of Obama’s supporters to vote for Hillary should she take the nomination.
A large portion of the constituents on both side have said they won’t support the other candidate, but polling shows that the Clinton Democrats who will not cross over are larger in number and stronger in their opinions than Obama supporters. The party leadership is threatened by this disaffection, yet they are consistently unwilling to regard this part of the party as part of the coalition they need to retain. The public relations campaign, insofar as there is one, revolves around threats (Roe! Roe! Roe our boat!), shaming (You’re just racists if you won’t vote Obama), but mostly dismissal - “You have nowhere else to go.” The opposition is dismissed as emotional, racist, low information, culturally backward, and republican dupes instead of driven by very concrete material interests.
What was Hillary offering that rallied this constituency behind her and which has remained an amazingly strong identification? She offered material improvements to ordinary lives, and an explicit commitment to use the power of the state to achieve those ends. The two most prominent examples are her lifelong commitment t health care and her current response to the mortgage crisis. It is a difference of political style, but also of political philosophy. Hillary has demonstrated that she believes a politician is someone who has to earn people’s votes by understanding where they are coming from and being on their side. “You are not invisible to me.” It is also a way of diffusing social grievances by substituting festering resentment which can be channeled into resentment-fueled backlash (the hallmark of movement conservatism) with amelioration of socio-economic threat through practical policy to stabilize conditions for the working class. In contrast, Obama has run as a conversion experience (You are not Democrat or Republican, you are an Obamacan.), calling people to their better selves, which inherently presupposes that what they currently are doing is wrong, corrupt, and unworthy. It substitutes morality for interests, focuses on the inner-life of the voter rather than on the material needs of the population, and individualizes broad social concerns. If only you racist hicks would improve yourselves we would have a wonderful nation. It is a top-down approach that dictates behavior rather than provides solutions, which is why it ends up sounding very conservative.
There are times when a nation does need to be called to something higher and to set aside particularity in service of a cause. With Obama, however, these are sacrifices with no specificity. It is not a bad message to whack complacent well-off liberals over the head with, mind you, because my class (yes, it is a class and I’m thoroughly a product of it) gets a little too enamored of its own wonderfulness, but even for the privileged in this country, you have to ask – Sacrifice on behalf of what? What is being relinquished and for what reason?
The historic answer for the modern Democratic Party is for the economic interests of the working class. High-income earners give up money for the cause of economic equity. Workers agree to collective bargaining and forswear revolution. The government acts in deliberate ways to socialize the risks of mere living through measures like education, insurance, public health and safety, regulation of industry and so forth. If the average Joe is secure, the party has done its job.
Symptomatic of the deep problem of the party as a whole is the turn by the leadership towards privatization of social risk. Health insurance is not a mandate, and thus a right, but a choice to be exercised if desired. This ignores power, especially the power of the state to defend the citizen against the encroachment of moneyed interests. The well-off Stevensonians are no longer interested in defending the material needs of those who are not a part of Whole Foods Nation, and they hide their abandonment under the guise of rejecting racism. If the problem is the state of your soul and not the condition of your medical care, then you must heal yourself, and they can smugly pat themselves on the back for having defended the right moral stance.
Obama appears to think of himself as a world-historic actor called upon to guide the people through the moral crises of the nation. This is the common intellectual deformation of a Stevensonian, imagining that social problems are simply a matter of will and right thinking. It’s a love affair with the beauty of the forms and contempt for an imperfect world, and its usual mode is a hunt for intellectual inconsistency cast as political hypocrisy.
And, yet, there is a need for “that vision thing” as Bush the Elder so eloquently put it, because even material interests carry within them a valuation – this interest and not that one is deserving of social resources. The interests of exploitative companies, though clearly of benefit to the owners and stockholders, should not be valued above the physical safety of coal miners, for example. Nations do face extreme crises, usually under conditions of war. JFK, the most successful of all Stevensonians, bent the powers of the nation to the cause of winning the Cold War. The single minded pursuit of this cause was also an implicit critique of the New Deal, a slightly scornful judgment that FDR had settled for mere interest group liberalism, whereas the New Frontier looked to a higher calling – beating the Russkies. The space race, the Peace Corps, advances in science and technology, containment of Communism in far flung corners of the globe, the origins of the Internet (though it took Al Gore to deliver that promise to the ordinary schmuck like me), all of the initiatives of the Best and the Brightest were in the service of the cause of the Cold War. We were going into the future.
But what Kennedy, like Stevenson before him, resisted was the road less exalted, less clear and pure, less prone to domestic upset and the messiness of particular lives, the present that needed to be addressed if the George Jetson futurama was to have substance, and that was civil rights. Had he lived, he would have had no choice except to address it. And the dream of the New Frontier was done in by the attempt to contain Communism in Vietnam, though the military industrial complex burbled merrily along. Those two events – the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War – created the fault lines breaking up beneath the party today.
The party may be unified on paper, as demonstrated by the bleating of the Blogistan useful fools like Kevin Drum and Big Tent Democrat, that there is “no difference” between the Democratic candidates, but the difference can be seen in the philosophical commitments of the final two contenders. One looks at Obama and there is no political substance. Nothing. There is no issue, no cause, no certain pledge that says he and his faction intend to do anything for the working class or any interest that might involve true political contestation. This is what Krugman has pointed out from the start. Everything is on the table to be negotiated away for the sake of “unifying the nation.” When pushed, there will be no shove back. He has nowhere he wants to go.
Bill Clinton, for all his faults, had a cause when he entered the White House, which was utterly political – it was to undo the self-inflicted damage of the party since Johnson and make liberalism credible again to the millions of ordinary citizens who had given up on it. He meant to be, and be seen to be, on the side of people who “worked hard and played by the rules.” He organized his administrations around this cause, which could succeed only by improving the material conditions of people who felt themselves abandoned by the post-Watergate Democrats yet no longer trusted the bluster and bullying of the Republicans. Debate its worth or whether it did enough, but he was effective in this cause. The foundations of the current Democratic revival were laid in the mid-90s, and Obama is running as the ghost of Clinton past, right down to the message of hope and “can do” optimism.
The Reagan Democrats are now Clinton Democrats and have come back to the party, but the party leadership is more interested in nursing its wounded pride than in actually cementing its coalition. It would rather moralize than act. And, given the moral equivocation their selected leader has been showing in the last few weeks, it is uncertain they have a moral leg to stand on.
The message of economic justice still resonates with the majority of Democrats, as shown by Hillary’s intense support, but that message is not accepted as true. When we talk about it, we’re met by screams of “Racist! Racist!”and sneers that we have nowhere else to go. How can Obama’s content-free message make contact with the real world? There is nothing to attach his rhetoric to, no central organizing principle. He talks about the “smallness of our politics,” so what is it precisely that is to be enlarged? He has always backed away from the hard choice of throwing the power of the state behind the cause of social justice. At every point, Obama backs away from requiring these efforts, while Hillary embraced them. The Stevensonians have forced their preferred candidate on the party on their own terms, paying no mind to where they stand and what they want to accomplish. They may be centrists, but they no longer have a center to hold.
For Clinton Democrats, there is nowhere else to go with Obama because there was never anything there to begin with.