Monday, August 31, 2009

A Deeply Sedimented Cultural Narrative

And this is just the lead in to the week's series on messaging - Krugman kicks down/fouls up.

Somerby goes after Krugman in an amazing post today. There is no doubt that the Incomparable One holds the Shrill One in high regard, so it matters greatly when Somerby uses Krugman as an example of what is wrong with liberal political discourse. Krugman, unlike the Blogger Boyz, has zero interest in being a pool boy at Versailles. He has a day job, after all. The errors he makes are interesting and illuminating because of what they say about the blind spots and ill-advised impulses on the left.

Somerby starts with Ted Kennedy, using Kennedy's death as a dash of ice water on the longing for Camelot:

Our guy was the most effective ever! And health care reform was his lifetime passion! Only we liberals would fail to see the oddness of these conjoined statements, in a month when we’re getting our clocks cleaned again in the matter of health care reform! This isn’t a criticism of Senator Kennedy, of course, This is a criticism of us.

But then, that’s the shape of modern politics. The other side gets the big wins. Our side gets the pleasing stories, in which we’re allowed to define ourselves as being both moral and smart. That’s one of the ways the world’s ruling classes buy off numb-nuts like us.

If we're so "smart", how come we keep getting our asses handed to us? Why can't we get our agendas enacted even when we hold legislative majorities? Somerby then goes into a long and detailed criticism of Krugman's latest article, picking up on themes he has been discussing with regards to Rick Perlstein last week. He's using these two thinkers in great part because these are two of the most perceptive analysts of Movement Conservatism around, people who have clearly demonstrated (Krugman with Conscience of a Liberal and Perlstein with Before the Storm and Nixonland) they get what that movement is and how it came to power.

What Bob zeros in on is the use of the term "crazies" (edited down - be sure to read it all. Some emphasis mine, some Somerby's):

According to Krugman, the right-wing fringe—Rick Perlstein’s “crazy” people, he is careful to say—have taken over the GOP. But does that story, told that way, really make much sense? Does it really make sense on the merits? Does it make any sense as a matter of politics?

Just think about what Krugman says there:

In Perlstein’s piece (click here), he explained who his “crazy” people were—the people around whom he chose to build his name-calling piece. ... Does it make sense to be told that people like these have somehow “taken over one of our two major parties?” Actually, no, it pretty much doesn’t—but that’s where Krugman starts!

Grassley and all those other players are vastly more culpable than the “crazies.” But in the past forty years, liberals have always loved to kick down at little people—at the people who simply aren’t smart enough to win the Bates Medal, the Nobel Prize. In our view, Krugman’s story—as told there—is quite weak-minded. But ever since the days of Nixon, “liberals” have loved to tell that story, thus harming progressive interests.

I read this and had to agree. Mockery of the have-littles has been a standard operating procedure of the Stevensonian mode of liberalism since, well, Stevenson.* What benefit can come to liberalism by being constantly on an intellectual and cultural offensive against working class Americans? Somewhere between nothing and less than zero. Somerby continues by describing the corporate embrace of conservative political measures to defeat the liberal gains of the New Deal. Their success, as both Krugman and Perlstein have documented, lay in the ability of the Movement Conservatives to leverage the arrogance and elitism endemic in the rising technocratic elite - the revolutionary saints. Somerby winds up and delivers a kock-out punch:

COOLICAN (5/15/08): Though it had been tried before, Perlstein writes, Nixon was the first to successfully exploit a devastating new narrative: the Democratic Party as enemy of the working man.

Perlstein says Nixon understood the anger and frustration of working-class people, the humiliation of being looked down upon by elitist, liberal betters. Why did Nixon understand this “deeply sedimented cultural narrative,” as Perlstein calls it? Because he’d faced it all his life.

In California, Ronald Reagan was also “successfully exploiting” that “devastating new narrative.” (For examples, read Perlstein’s Nixonland.) Endlessly, we thought of that devastating narrative in the past five days as we watched a string of spectacularly un-savvy liberals describe certain aspects of the past forty-seven years. (More on that next week.)

We “liberals!”We love to call the other side dumb! But has anyone ever been dumber than we are? Tomorrow, we’ll start a series about the crucial questions Perlstein was asked in the wake of his piece in the Post. Why are Democrats so bad at “messaging?” So bad at “pushing back?” Why is that Democrats and liberals keep getting defeated by “blatant and ridiculous falsehoods?”

Put it a slightly different way: If we had the most effective legislator, why can’t we get the cause of his lifetime passed? Part of the answer: We’re too busy assuring ourselves that those who defeat us are dumb.

Sound familiar? It is the alpha and omega of the Obama 2008 campaign, sneering at the socio-economic inferiors who they didn't need anymore to win the elections. Or, to quote Chris Bowers:
Out with Bubbas, up with Creatives: There should be a major cultural shift in the party, where the southern Dems and Liebercrat elite will be largely replaced by rising creative class types. Obama has all the markers of a creative class background, from his community organizing, to his Unitarianism, to being an academic, to living in Hyde Park to shopping at Whole Foods and drinking PBR. These will be the type of people running the Democratic Party now, and it will be a big cultural shift from the white working class focus of earlier decades. Given the demographics of the blogosphere, in all likelihood, this is a socioeconomic and cultural demographic into which you fit. Culturally, the Democratic Party will feel pretty normal to netroots types. It will consistently send out cultural signals designed to appeal primarily to the creative class instead of rich donors and the white working class.
Yup. Hope you creative types don't need health insurance.


*During one of Stevenson's presidential campaigns, allegedly, a supporter told him that he was sure to "get the vote of every thinking man" in the U.S., to which Stevenson is said to have replied, "Thank you, but I need a majority to win."


R. S. Martin said...

Thanks for the post.I don't think the cultural arrogance of the bourgeois left can ever be criticized enough. One would think that, over the decades, seeing Stevenson's losses, Kennedy's (dubious) squeaker of a victory in 1960, the dominance of Nixon, Reagan, and Gingrich/DeLay, and the ugly truths of Obama's victories over Hillary and McCain, that they might want to reassess how they approach politics. One cannot win by treating a majority/plurality group with indifference and/or contempt.

Thanks for including that Bowers quote. We should all have to reread it from time to time to remember just how ridiculously narcissistic the bourgeois left can get.

On the Michael Lind front, he has another good article on today, Can Obama give 'em hell before it's too late?. Although I hope that "demagogy gap" bit in the teaser was the doing of a Salon staffer and not Lind.



Marsha said...

I had an amazing encounter with one of those dumb people the other day.

A good friend is suffering from lung cancer and I went to the hospital with her for one of her (ghastly) procedures. I was in the waiting room, 6 AM, with a heavy-set 50ish woman of some distant Mexican descent. We started to talk about health care (seemed appropriate). And I got blown away.

This women knew everything – bad - about the Democratic Party and Obama. Acorn and its effect on the election of 08. Health care for “Mexicans” not Americans (that sort of amazed me!). Tea Baggers. Socialism. The fact that Congress doesn’t read the bills it passes. You name it, she knew it. She had also participated locally here in Tucson in some town hall meetings AND had called her representative and told him that he was going to get voted out if he voted for Obama’s plan.

But what struck me most was the anger that lurked just below the surface. Anger about something that was not just “health care”. I realized later that she was angry about being thought to be dumb. (Thankfully I enjoyed her conversation and hope that I never conveyed that impression to her as I certainly didn’t feel that way at all.)

In point of fact, she was more informed than 85% of the drivel I hear out of DC.

The Democrats have destroyed any hope of winning over the working people by their supercilious attitude toward “We, the People”.

I was always proud to be a Democrat because (I thought) we helped people. No more. I am ashamed that this lovely lady felt so trashed by the Party to which I used to belong.

In politics, I have no place to be proud anymore. Maybe I never did. But I used to have hope.

Falstaff said...

I love Somerby, but I think this piece includes a tortured misreading of Krugman. Bob is so het-up to make his broader point (which is the same one as your continuing thesis about Stevensonians vs. Jacksonians) that any hint is grist for his mill.

Krugman wasn't at all saying that working-class demonstrators are a necessary and/or sufficient definition of the "crazies." I mean, he only refers to Perlstein at all in order to quote the phrase "crazy is a pre-existing condition," and he only does so in one clause inserted between em-dashes. He isn't using Perlstein's examples as his evidence. That evidence -- the evidence of wingnut mishagas -- is voluminous. He is simply making the rather obvious and unexceptional point that the GOP has ceased to be a mainstream political party -- and emphasizes that by showing that even supposed "moderate" Grassley is promoting birther-level nutjob ideas.

None of this, obviously, vitiates the broader point about "why we lose." Nor is it to argue that Paul Krugman can do no wrong. But he didn't do wrong here.