Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"What We Demand"

Today every news outlet in America, and most other places too, is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have A Dream" Speech
The March

The speech is one of those living artifacts in the history of American progressivism that the right wing has been trying with wretched desperation to coopt for the last three decades. Feel free to surf on over to The National Review to get a quick sense of the conservative prattle about "color-blind societies," "race neutrality," and "negative rights," mixed with a lot of anodyne "American values" talk. The implication in virtually every one of these pieces is that King's advocacy for civil rights was rooted in something universally admirable, whereas (the turn in these commentary pieces can be spotted a mile off) contemporary civil rights and progressive policies are contentious, divisive, and un-American.

Witness Jennifer Rubin, who continues to get paid for making no sense, offer a ludicrous comparison between King and Obama.
MLK’s great achievement was to make civil rights an issue for whites and blacks; Obama manages to heighten racial animosity with every pronouncement (e.g. professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Trayvon Martin case).
Is she suggesting here that King did not heighten racial animosity? Or that it was Obama that made the Trayvon Martin case a flashpoint for race relations? More to the point, why is she comparing these two men anyway? One was a civil disobedient social justice theologian; the other a professional politician with a background in constitutional law who became president. That they are black men in the public eye seems to be the only basis for Rubin's comparison; she might just as logically write a column comparing George W. Bush to Reinhold Niebuhr or Bobby Jindal to Gandhi.

It is more useful and honest to look to the March itself to understand King's agenda and the specific kind of "Dream" he had in mind. Because the organizers were canny, organized, and forward thinking, they helpfully provided just such an agenda on the second page of the day's program:

And here are just a few reasons why remembering this moment is so important. Of the ten "demands" for progress made by the organizers, many remain unfulfilled, contentiously debated, and consistently stymied by right wing politicians and laissez-faire ideologues. Consider (using the program's numbering):

1. The call for voting rights in 1963 was answered with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which has since been severely curtailed by the conservative majority on the Roberts court.

3. School segregation has not only persisted since the 1950s, but in some cases has become more entrenched. (For further reading, look here, here, here, and here.)

4. The centrality of the 14th Amendment to the pursuit of racial equality and social justice has been routinely assaulted by opportunistic Republican politicians seeking its repeal.

5. Though significant progress has been made (scroll down to the graphs here), housing discrimination has survived as well.

7. Two graphs from the Post's Wonkblog on the history of black unemployment:

8. The demand for a national minimum wage of at least $2 would be, in today's dollars, a minimum wage of $15.27. Currently the federal minimum wage is $7.25 and all recent attempts to raise it have been voted down by Republicans. (Matt Yglesias argues for a guaranteed basic income over a minimum wage as an even better fulfillment of the standard of living demand.)

Memories of the March bring inspiration, yes, and collective obligation as well. These are burdensome days, these anniversaries. King knew that all too well as he stood beneath Lincoln's watchful gaze.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Monday Music

Returning home from a vacation can be a wonderful feeling, especially after suffering the seemingly interminable horrors of domestic air travel. Even so, the first day at home is full of challenges, exhaustion, all that laundry to do, a vastly depleted supply of Honey Nut Cheerios. In my experience the right music can really help set the tone for first day back. Sure it's tempting to put on something soothing, but you run the risk of giving in to jet lag and taking that nap on the sofa too soon. That's when you wake up 14 hours later with sleep-induced neck trauma and all your clothes still unwashed. The music has to keep you going while easing you back into the routine of home. It's the groove that matters.

Naturally there are plenty of good options. Springsteen is never a bad idea. Nor is some uptempo jazz. But, with groove in mind, my recommendation this week is Van Lear Rose, the collaborative work of country legend Loretta Lynn and rock auteur Jack White. Everyone praised this album when it was released in 2004. New York compared it to Johnny Cash's best work. Rolling Stone wrote "Loretta Lynn hasn't made an album this rich since her 1977 concept tribute to Cline, I Remember Patsy — an album recorded when Jack White was two years old." Hell, the Wall St. Journal loved it.

And what's not to love? White's mad scientist production skills and guitar work stretch Lynn's songs in every direction from Lynn's Appalachia to his own Detroit rock roots, but by some miracle of musical alchemy the album is all country. There's hard drinking, love lost, one night stands, disfigured children, cheap floozies, pink limousines, righteous women, infidelity, prison, and God. If there was ever an antidote for vacation, this is it. If you're looking to rock out, "Portland Oregon" is the answer; if the blues is on your mind, then it's "Have Mercy"; "God Makes No Mistakes" is the dark side of country; and my personal favorite, the artfully opaque spoken-word reminiscence of Lynn's childhood, "Little Red Shoes."

Remember... sloe gin fizz works mighty fast when you drink it by the pitcher and not by the glass.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

More on Syria...

In an opinion editorial in today's New York Times, Edward Luttwak makes many of the same points about Syria that I made in my last post. I observed that "The long drawn out struggle in Syria between Assad and the rebels might have had any number of outcomes that would not have demanded American intervention." Luttwak writes more specifically:
Things looked far less gloomy when the rebellion began two years ago. At the time, it seemed that Syrian society as a whole had emerged from the grip of fear to demand an end to Mr. Assad’s dictatorship. Back then, it was realistic to hope that moderates of one sort or another would replace the Assad regime, because they make up a large share of the population. It was also reasonable to expect that the fighting would not last long, because neighboring Turkey, a much larger country with a powerful army and a long border with Syria, would exert its power to end the war.
I spent quite a bit of time criticizing Washington Post opinion writer Jennifer Rubin for her vague disapprobation of Obama's inaction, asking "What is Rubin's plan for ending violence in Syria?!? Her grandstanding about intervention makes no mention of what work would be required to build a coalition, launch the invasion, and sustain a stable government the West (and Israel) would be satisfied with. How does Rubin plan on paying for what would almost certainly be nation building?" Likewise, Luttwak writes at the end of his column:
Those who condemn the president’s prudent restraint as cynical passivity must come clean with the only possible alternative: a full-scale American invasion to defeat both Mr. Assad and the extremists fighting against his regime.
Well, Jennifer Rubin has come out today with another policy-free column attacking Obama for not intervening in Syria. Read it through and you'll see she only flirts with specificity about possible US action in one paragraph:
Reports suggest the United States is formulating options for military action against the Syrian regime, despite Gen. Martin Dempsey’s absurd warnings that a force akin to the Normandy invasion would be required. We suspect that if action is taken it will be well short of measures needed to end the conflict and avoid sustained protection of civilians by imposition of no-fly zone.
Setting aside that these "reports... formulating options for military action" would seem to run counter to all her previous criticisms of inaction in the piece, Rubin only hints here at what she believes is needed. Perhaps she knows that if she came out and said what Luttwak has made clear, that the measures necessary to satisfy Obama's foreign policy critics would involve a full-scale invasion, she would lose what little credibility she has left. Instead she is content to take cheap shots at Obama, Clinton, and Kerry while cowardly avoiding the real-world implications of her own cotton candy recommendations.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Egypt, Syria, & the Eternal Disappointment of Jennifer Rubin

Returning from a week offline, something akin to a postmodern monastic experience, I have been catching up on politics and world events only to learn what anyone could have predicted two weeks ago: Syria and Egypt are horrific places to be at this moment. The question we are asking daily is quite straightforward: what is America's responsibility in these nations, whose governments by any reasonable assessment have abrogated their right to sovereignty by slaughtering innocent civilians in great numbers.

Straightforward questions bear the attractive qualities of focus and concision, but they're only useful if the answers are suitably complex. That is particularly true of foreign policy issues, where contingent factors are so numerous and significant that they dwarf the kind of influence people tend to associate with American power or the American presidency. "Superpower" is one of the most dangerously abused words in the American political lexicon, conveying a false notion of global strength and control. That connotation is a relic of a Cold War mentality that was itself not true. America could rarely do what it wanted to do or what it professed to do even during the period of its nuclear dominance in the 1950s.

All of which brings me to this point about Egypt and Syria: when a bunch of political Monday morning quarterbacks complain about foreign policy inaction, my skeptic's antennae go up. When people start writing with frightening certainty about what Obama ought to do in Syria and Egypt, it is far too easy for them to imagine a course of events that is strikingly benign compared with the present blood and darkness in those places. Here's a quick example from a Meet The Press ten years back of how that kind of speculation can get dangerous:
Vice President Cheney: Now, I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators. And the president's made it very clear that our purpose there is, if we are forced to do this, will in fact be to stand up a government that's representative of the Iraqi people, hopefully democratic due respect for human rights, and it, obviously, involves a major commitment by the United States, but we think it's a commitment worth making. And we don't have the option anymore of simply laying back and hoping that events in Iraq will not constitute a threat to the U.S. Clearly, 12 years after the Gulf War, we're back in a situation where he does constitute a threat.

Mr. Russert: If your analysis is not correct, and we're not treated as liberators, but as conquerors, and the Iraqis begin to resist, particularly in Baghdad, do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly, and bloody battle with significant American casualties?

Vice President Cheney: Well, I don't think it's likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators. I've talked with a lot of Iraqis in the last several months myself, had them to the White House. The president and I have met with them, various groups and individuals, people who have devoted their lives from the outside to trying to change things inside Iraq. And like Kanan Makiya who's a professor at Brandeis, but an Iraqi, he's written great books about the subject, knows the country intimately, and is a part of the democratic opposition and resistance. The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but what they want to the get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that.
So I am not particularly keen on pundits who have pronounced with absolute certainty how Obama has totally blown opportunities to oust Assad, save Egypt, encourage the Arab Spring, and remake the Middle East. I should qualify that I'm the furthest thing from an expert on the Middle East and I'm more than happy to read nuanced criticism of Obama's foreign policy, but anything that smacks of neoconservative "clarity" is difficult to stomach. So when Bret Stephens, a member of the Wall Street Journal's opinion page conservative brute squad, writes that US intervention in Egypt to quickly assist the army in defeating the Muslim Brotherhood is essential, I'm skeptical. When it's couched in language like this, I'm super skeptical:
It would be nice to live in a world in which we could conduct a foreign policy that aims at the realization of our dreams—peace in the Holy Land, a world without nuclear weapons, liberal democracy in the Arab world. A better foreign policy would be conducted to keep our nightmares at bay: stopping Iran's nuclear bid, preventing Syria's chemical weapons from falling into terrorist hands, and keeping the Brotherhood out of power in Egypt. But that would require an administration that knew the difference between an attitude and a policy.
Pursuing a foreign policy that "aims at the realization of our dreams" is one of the scarier formulations I've heard. It is exactly what Dick Cheney and company did in 2003, and what a bang-up job that ended up being. Stephens, I should note, deserves some small acknowledgment for consistency since he has also advocated for intervention virtually everywhere else, including Darfur. But that's just the point... Stephens believes that American military power has immeasurable reach and power, and it's ability to overcome military challenges is matched by its ability to transform social and political realities. Yikes.

Even less credible is John Bolton, George W. Bush's ambassador to the UN who, not coincidentally, hated the UN. Bolton has since made a living at the AEI grooming his mustache and criticizing Obama. He's also discussed running for president in 2016, a prospect with much the same hope that I have of winning the Kentucky Derby. Bolton just wrote an op-ed in the WSJ demanding that the Obama administration side with the generals in Egypt. He offers three reasons, which I can sum up: 1. the Muslim Brotherhood wouldn't uphold the Camp David Accords with Israel; 2. if Egyptian forces lose control of the Sinai peninsula, Hamas and other terror networks will occupy it and smuggle arms to Gaza and Syria; 3. the Suez Canal must remain open.

This is more pragmatic than Stephens, assuredly, but it's not an analysis worthy of the specific moment. I am hard pressed to conceive of any democratic movement taking place in Egypt that would not endanger all three of these strategic grails. Any newly elected government might reconsider Egypt's commitment to the Camp David Accords; any new government's military policies might weaken the Sinai; and any new government might restrict access to the Suez. Bolton is simply delineating a recipe for perpetual military control of Egypt. He (like other neoconservative dreamers out there) might speak of grand ideas of liberty and freedom, or waiting for a moment when the military in Egypt can hand off power to a democratic regime which promises to respect a relationship with Israel and maintain crucial American interests. But that is the absurd idealist underbelly to Bolton's faux realpolitik. Observers of the real world don't expect Middle Eastern autocracies to suddenly embrace democracy and reject Islamist traditions or policies.

Cynicism may best describe my attitude toward Stephens and Bolton, but I have reserved the better part of my disdain for Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post. Irresponsible, dim, and a knee-jerk Obama hater, Rubin is all the more pathetic because she is hopelessly unaware of her own deficiencies. She just published a column on Syria titled, "Obama's foreign policy leads to hundreds killed by WMDs" in which she argues that Obama's "spineless" refusal to intervene in Syria brings the moral culpability for their deaths to the doors of the White House. Here's how she concludes (italics hers):
The part about national security that isolationists don’t understand is that sooner or later we must act. But by delaying, excuse-mongering and refusing to act sooner rather than later we erode our moral standing, allow great evils to unfold and make eventual action much more complicated. Syria is the quintessential example of why the Obama-Rand Paul national security view is dangerous and leads to heinous results.
This is both wrong and stupid. First, there may be plenty of folly in isolationism, but the wisdom it does offer us is the understanding that we don't always have to act and that sometimes it is better not to. (See Cheney, Dick above.) The long drawn out struggle in Syria between Assad and the rebels might have had any number of outcomes that would not have demanded American intervention. Even now, when some of the horrors of what has happened there have been unearthed, it is unclear what options the US has for intervention. Rubin is operating within the same fantasy world as Stephens, a world in which the United States can do what it wants in other places and therefore it can be an irrepressible force for democratic progress in the world so long as it maintains a strong moral compass. If the impact of foreign policy were based on moral intentions, it would be a hell of a lot easier. It's not, so building foreign policy based on Jennifer Rubin's assessment of American "moral standing" is ridiculous.

Second, lumping Rand Paul and Obama together is a foolish slander. Obama was against the war in Iraq and determined to end the war in Afghanistan for pretty sound reasons, but he is not an isolationist. He just has other priorities. Rand Paul doesn't want America to do anything anywhere because he thinks the government is evil.

Third, like other supporters of the Iraq War and the surge, Rubin has carefully avoided acknowledging the most glaring of the contingent forces restricting US involvement in the Middle East. Had we not blown somewhere between $2 and 6 trillion dollars on the Iraq War and exhausted the American public's tolerance for war, intervention in Arab Spring nations might be more politically viable and financially sustainable. How (and why) would Obama attempt another major military operation when Republicans in Congress refuse to raise taxes to pay for the last war? Or demand dollar for dollar reductions in the budget from domestic entitlement programs without touching the defense budget? Simple arithmetic and passing awareness of Republican Congressional insanity would tell us that every dollar Obama would spend in Syria or Egypt would be paid for by reducing Medicare, Social Security, food stamps, or Pell grants. (Now, Rubin has suggested that the US intervention in Iraq contributed to the Arab Spring, but that is hard to justify with any evidence.)

Fourth, what is Rubin's plan for ending violence in Syria?!? Her grandstanding about intervention makes no mention of what work would be required to build a coalition, launch the invasion, and sustain a stable government the West (and Israel) would be satisfied with. How does Rubin plan on paying for what would almost certainly be nation building? What will America's moral standing look like if, even after an American deposing of Assad and the building of a new government, the only viable options are a military dictator who responds to Western leverage or an Islamist regime supported by the people?—in other words, what will Rubin say if Syria presents the same dilemma as Egypt?

Read her columns... she offers nothing but bland condemnations free of subtlety or analysis. That is probably why Patrick Pexton, the former ombudsman of the Post, offered this free advice to Jeff Bezos about the state of the paper. Splitting the news up into the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, he dedicates all of Ugly to Rubin and why she should be fired.

But if your looking for better material to read on the Middle East, try these guys.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Answer

Congratulations to the respondents. I believe reader BO was the first to answer. The only President who died after renouncing his American citizenship was John Tyler. After failing to inspire a compromise movement to keep the South from seceding in 1861, Tyler endorsed the Confederate cause and became a member of the Confederate House of Representatives. He died in 1862 and was buried in Richmond, Virginia near the tomb of James Monroe.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Vacation Trivia

It is the eve of an August vacation departure, in which I'll be completely offline for a little more than a week. I didn't want to leave the blogsphere without something for the faithful readership to mull over while I'm gone. So, a bit of trivia to keep the mind turning through the August doldrums. Feel free to submit answers in the comments section. Cheaters will be punished, and that means no use of the interwebs to track down the answer.

Who is the only US President who did not die an American citizen?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

(Late Night) Monday Music

Sooner or later you have put Bob Dylan back on the stereo.

Every Dylan fan loves the Bootleg series. So many curiosities there in the songs, different arrangements, altered lyrics. I think like most people I've favored some more than others. 4 is the incredible and infamous Manchester performance, the first half acoustic, the second electric, and Dylan accused of being "Judas." 7 is the soundtrack to Scorcese's No Direction Home. (Despite Allmusic staff critic Stephen Erlewine's muted praise—"there are no great revelations here, apart from the realization that the best takes really did make the finished records"—there are incredible alternate recordings here, including perhaps the finest cut of "Desolation Row" with a soul-searing electric guitar.) Finally, Bootleg 8, packed with more of his recent material, is simply genius.

We can begin with the obvious; this man knows how to wear a hat. And then there's the music. Dylan may not have been rocking so hard in the mid 70s as he was in Blonde On Blonde, but he tears up the stage on a few of these tracks. There's an unbridled, reckless energy in a lot of these performances: "Isis," "Hurricane," and a madly paced, brilliant, almost unrecognizable "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." Killer stuff.

The recording of "Tangled Up In Blue" deserves mention for its lyrical rarity (though musically it is rather a substandard performance). As most people know, one of Dylan's mercurial habits is to alter his use of pronouns and verb tense in any given arrangement of "Tangled." This brings, I suppose, another layer of intentionality to the ambiguity of the love story being told between three (or more) characters in the song. Still, in many if not most versions, including the recording most of us know from Blood On the Tracks, the first person narrator takes on a significance that diminishes the whole "love triangle" aspect of the story by its conclusion. The origins of who's involved with whom at the start may change depending on the rendition: "early one morning I was laying in bed"; other times "he was laying in bed"). But in most versions there is a convergence of the characters in the sixth verse when "'I lived with them on Montague street." It's in that same verse we learn that "he started in to dealing with slaves, and something inside of him died." A ruthless lyric. From a listener's perspective, it's hard not to give up on that third person character as the relationship between the narrator and the girl becomes the only lasting bond. There is something Homeric and, well, traditional in that last lyric: "So now I'm going back again, I've got to get to her somehow." Boy loves girl; boy tries to find girl. We know that story.

"Tangled" on Bootleg 5 is quite different. First, it begins with the introduction of possibly two women: "Early one morning the sun was shining, she was lying in bed, wondering if she'd changed it all, if her hair was still red." (She could be thinking about herself there, but that seems weird to me.) The other man is introduced a few lines later with "He was standing by the side of the road...." Meanwhile the first time the narrator is introduced comes at the start of the third verse—"We had a job in Santa Fe, working at an old hotel"—and the "we" refers to the narrator and the other guy, not either of the women. (Then, perhaps mistakenly, the usual fifth verse beginning with "She lit a burner on the stove...." is skipped.) The next verse begins with "I lived with him on Montague St," not "them." The cast of characters seems wider and scattered, but disaster still strikes all of them "when finally the bottom falls out." The touching part, I think, is how Dylan begins the seventh verse: "So now I'm going on back again, I got to get to them somehow." Unlike other versions where the relationships between everyone just fall away leaving only the narrator and the girl, the purpose here is to rediscover the past with all its people and all its complexity. The narrator may want them all to be together, though it is unclear (in this telling) that they ever were at any point before.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Race & The Limits of Libertarian Populism (Part III)

Reader JG offered this wonderful response to my first post on libertarian populism, suggesting that I was too lenient on Douthat:
Douthat's thoughtful. He's certainly not seething or unhinged or downright nihilistic in the way that so many on the right are these days. It's just that his ideas seem completely impractical to me. He operates under this peculiar pundit-class delusion that the American public would endorse an actual libertarian agenda. But we live in a country where even red-state conservatives can't stomach giving up their Medicare. And didn't the right-wing plan to privatize social security go down in flames a few years back? I just don't see real libertarian policies like these--policies that would rollback the key portions of the welfare state--having any kind of significant purchase on public opinion.

But without workable libertarian policies, Douthat would be left with his "country" small-r republicanism, with the populist portion of his two-headed beast. And in so many ways this eighteenth-century country republicanism is already with us, animating the worst paranoid, xenophobic, and atavistic tendencies in the American psyche. As you know, the tradition that Douthat wants to harness was powered by a very strong dose of conspiratorial thinking--the kind that saw, with the passage of every excise tax, the dark hands of Power strangling Liberty's fragile neck. And that tradition--the one that sees in Obama a socialist overlord, the one that sees immigrants as a serious danger to white privilege--seems alive and sadly well on the American right.
I think this is right and it links what I wrote in my last post—"the vast majority of voters want a national bulwark against the insecurities of the market. They want social safety net programs."—with race and white privilege, the most glaring issues with this fantasy of libertarian populism.

It is one of the first lessons in American history that populist movements have always been weakened or split by racial strife. The Populists of the 1890s made a pass at political union across racial boundaries, bringing
Tom E. Watson, Senator from Georgia
black and white farmers, especially landless farmers, together to unseat the power of moneyed interests and unchecked capital. In 1892, the southern politician Tom Watson described the state of black-white relations so:
You are kept apart that you may separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary class system that beggars both.
But Watson could not hold to this line for very long. In 1896, the Populists nominated him for Vice President on a ticket with William Jennings Bryan, but Bryan was also the Democratic Party nominee and they had nominated Arthur Sewell, a banker, as their Vice Presidential candidate. Bryan ignored Watson during the campaign as the Democrats bought Populist support with the promise of patronage. Watson, becoming ever more desperate, sunk back into the same language of race-baiting that had defined southern politics since the end of the Civil War.

That the conversations about libertarian populism today ignore race altogether is staggering, considering that the racial divide in politics remains definitive. Without lower middle class white support, especially in the South, the Republican Party would be non-existent. The same could be said of black and Latino support for the Democratic Party. Looking around the political landscape, I don't see any latter-day Tom Watsons on the right wing side, building a cross-racial coalition to defy Wall St. and big government. Does anyone else? (Not a rhetorical question... write in and let me know if you think such a pol is out there.)

In fact, there is populist splintering in the Republican ranks, but it is occurring along exactly the same fault lines of race and class as it always has. David Corn for Mother Jones has been documenting the strategy sessions of a new anti-Karl Rove political group called Groundswell, intent on winning more seats for Tea Party conservatives and the like. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo thinks Groundswell is a yet another symptom of white racial panic as the nation becomes browner with each passing year. As Corn observed, the group itself is well aware that the far right has failed to attract minority voters. Their own memos state that "terms like 'GOP,' 'Tea Party' 'Conservative,' communicate 'racism.'" Their strategy to "change minds" was to adopt a new phrase, "Frederick Douglas Republican," spelled just so.

At the same time, the same people on the far right have been doing everything possible to restrict voting rights for working class and minority voters, including exploiting the Supreme Court decision overturning the Voting Rights Act. New Voter ID laws have been enacted or are in the process of being enacted. Nate Cohn has argued that, at least in North Carolina, they don't promise to change voting results too much despite Democratic fears. But that begs the question why they would be enacted at all then. Not, despite all the Republican protestations, to combat mythical voter fraud. Douthat himself has acknowledged that the political fallout of such laws will be to mobilize minority support for Democrats in greater numbers than any votes lost. These laws go hand in hand with the other form of vote snatching, the electoral college reform being attempted in blue states like Pennsylvania, which is a not so subtle way of stealing white electoral votes back from a state that has been reliably blue because of black and union voting in Philadephia and Pittsburgh.

How, then, will libertarian populism be born into a party that has relied on using racism and nativism to maintain the loyalty of their base ever since Richard Nixon? Do Douthat, Domenech, Carney, and all the other promoters of libertarian populism think the right wing can reach working class voters of all races at the same time that they sink immigration reform, restrict voting, and undermine the electoral college? How do they imagine black communities react when their response to the slaying of a black child like Trayvon Martin is to continue to spin the same stereotypes of black male youth while advocating prescriptions like this one from RedState:
Instead of clamoring for never ending government programs, special dispensation in jobs and college admissions or seeing every crime or political issue through race tinted glasses, they should instead focus on reducing unwed and teen pregnancies, demanding quality education for their children and seeking relief from government regulations in order to make black communities compelling places for businesses to invest.
So that and a misspelling of Frederick Douglass's name is the plan to win the support of black America. On race and racism, Tom Watson was a political recidivist, but at least he tried and failed. 120 years later, these guys can't even try.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Limits of Libertarian Populism (Part II)

When I wrote earlier this week about the fresh conservative fantasy of "libertarian populism," I noted that attempting to define Obama and the Democrats as elites and Republicans as defenders of the middle and working classes was vastly overrated as a political opportunity. It relied on the premise that a number of middle class priorities are not being addressed by the Obama administration, ignoring the fact that GOP refusal to engage in the normal negotiations that bring policy into law is the reason why these issues are not being addressed. Having failed to engage in good faith on health care, poverty, jobs, and taxes, they are now exclaiming how they could walk back and seize these issues. It is the politics of blind amnesiacs—they've forgotten that they've walked away from the bargaining table and they can't see that Democrats are still sitting there.

There is a secondary problem with adopting "libertarian populism" as the unifying theme of a new right. There is very little that is populist about their ideas beyond the rhetoric. Now it may be that populism, as one of those widely abused terms in American history, has lost meaning beyond a rhetorical style. Historically populism never achieved coherence as political doctrine for any substantial length of time (which would make it susceptible to abuse in political discourse). But in all its various incarnations, populism has never really been libertarian. Marrying the two terms historically is just a tough sell, and the explosion of articles in the last few days makes that clear.

A lot of political writers have tried to explain what libertarian populism really is and it's the second word, and its history, that makes the term so complicated. 19th century populism, usually (and too narrowly) associated with the People's Party of the 1890s, was certainly anti-elitist and sought to defend the integrity of individual liberties secured through property ownership—so okay, that may jive with what these conservative proponents of libertarian populism. But 19th century populists stood for these things in defiance of the frightening free market forces unloosed by industrialization and the unregulated maturation of American capitalism. They feared (with good cause) that the growth of wage labor coupled with a modernizing, all-powerful, and inhumane financial edifice threatened the American ideal of the freeholder and the artisan. What's more, the political fire of the populists lasted but a cycle or two before it was folded into a burgeoning Progressive movement with very different priorities. So it is hard to conceive of how that kind of populism can be coupled with a libertarianism that deifies the free market. And it is equally difficult to imagine the appeal of populism in terms of a national electorate when its historical antecedent had virtually no success on that scale.

So what exactly is going on here? The answer, as Michael Lind pointed this out in Salon, is that libertarian populists are not actually populists at all, not in any historical sense:
What Domenech and others mean by “populist” appears to be “popular.” They want a popular libertarianism, a libertarianism that majorities of Americans might vote for, not a movement that has anything to do with actual historic populism in the United States, which has generally been, to coin a phrase, illibertarian.
Lind goes on to quote the 1892 People's Party platform before noting the response of libertarian populist Ben Domenech, who quoted another libertarian Robert Tracinski to argue the historical case for the political viability of their program.
The libertarian utopia, or the closest we've come to it, is America itself, up to about 100 years ago. It was a country with no income tax and no central bank. (It was on the gold standard, for crying out loud. You can't get more libertarian than that.) It had few economic regulations and was still in the Lochner era, when such regulations were routinely struck down by the Supreme Court. There was no federal welfare state, no Social Security, no Medicare.

You can criticize this system, but America lived under it for longer than it has lived under the modern regulatory and welfare state, so you can't say it's not "credible." And while life was nowhere near as good as it is for Americans today—after another century of progress—the country had just finished one of the greatest periods of growth and economic progress in all of human history. Life for the common man was better than it had ever been before. All of which means—to get back to Douthat and Domenech—that there are deep roots in American history for this "libertarian populist" agenda.
This is nonsense. At the risk of posing too obvious a question... if life was so idyllic for the common man in the laissez faire late 19th century, then why on earth did so many common men launch major protests in the 1880s and 1890s, pitting workers against capital, that upended the party system and effected restrictions of industrial forces and big business?

What we have in libertarian populism is a parlor trick. Some conservatives point to the late 19th century to promote libertarianism while ignoring the origins and contours of populism; others point to contemporary moments of right wing wave elections as evidence of workable right-wing populism though these elections weren't expressions of coherent libertarianism. (Ben Domenech wrote, "The elections of 1994 and 2010 were obvious expressions of conservative populism: a point where the right’s coalition presented ideas that speak to the concerns of engaged people.") Then, in a mash-up of wish fulfillment and bad history, they've combined them in what they imagine is a coherent and popular program for future GOP success. Tim Carney set forth the agenda and unifying themes of libertarian populism in the Washington Examiner with no sense of the internal contradictions:
Conservatives need to turn to the working class as the swing population that can deliver elections. Offer populist policies that mesh with free-market principles, and don’t be afraid to admit that the game is rigged in favor of the wealthy and the well-connected. As I put it in June: The game is rigged against the regular guy in America today. And it’s rigged in favor of big business, the politically connected, and the wealthy.
If the history of the late 19th century tells us anything, it is that unfettered capitalism caused massive discontent and unrest among the working class. Slapping populist rhetoric on the same laissez-faire ideas like "the game is rigged against the regular guy" won't help much unless you've got policies ready to go that will convince working class voters you will un-rig the game. Carney suggests eliminating the payroll tax, which rightly or wrongly people perceive as the basis for Social Security and Medicare, and abolishing the Export-Import Bank. That's his strategy. Good luck winning an election with that platform.

Plenty of left wing pundits have pointed out these absurdities, none more compelling than Jonathan Chait at New York:
A second mistaken premise of Republican populism is a confusion over what causes inequality in the United States. Republican populists are obsessed with the role of elites using the government to reinforce their privilege. Certainly examples of this exist. But the main driver of inequality today is the marketplace, and the main bulwark against that inequality is the federal government. The federal government disproportionately taxes the rich, and it disproportionately spends on the poor. Our government redistributes less from rich to poor than do most other advanced countries, but it does redistribute.
Whatever evils libertarians attribute to the federal government, the vast majority of voters want a national bulwark against the insecurities of the market. They want social safety net programs. They probably also want a fairer shake in the market, but—and this is what none of the libertarian populists have come to grips with yet—left wing politicians can be just as adept in wielding populist rhetoric as the right.

The real question to ask is what new voters will come to the GOP because of this libertarian populist rhetoric. Are there working class voters who assign blame to an over-reaching and bloated federal government? Sure, but most of them vote Republican already. To win other voters, libertarian populism will have to compete with the populism of New Deal liberalism. Libertarians might despise the New Deal, but they can't ignore it, or its most eloquent political defenders. And few are better than Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Take a look at her campaign priorities and you'll find the same rhetoric as that deployed by the libertarian populists. Here, for instance, is her speech to the Democratic Convention last year. Compare this with what Carney wrote above:
People feel like the system is rigged against them. And here's the painful part: they're right. The system is rigged. Look around. Oil companies guzzle down billions in subsidies. Billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. Wall Street CEOs—the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs—still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors, and acting like we should thank them.
Thus the essential question: who will voters trust to rein in Wall St., Tim Carney and his people or Elizabeth Warren and her people? My money is still on Warren. In a battle of populists, the left has at least as much to offer as the right, and probably much more.