alien & sedition.
Saturday, December 30, 2006
  Papier-Mache Grandeur and Death

I wasn't going to say anything about the execution of Saddam, in part because to do the subject justice (no pun intended) would mean pursuing any number of threads that would go well past the purview of what I'm trying to do on this blog. My own initial reaction was just a sort of puzzlement that something so serious and complex could ultimately just feel so tacky. But Josh Marshall gets to the heart of it:
This whole endeavor, from the very start, has been about taking tawdry, cheap acts and dressing them up in a papier-mache grandeur -- phony victory celebrations, ersatz democratization, reconstruction headed up by toadies, con artists and grifters. And this is no different. Hanging Saddam is easy. It's a job, for once, that these folks can actually see through to completion. So this execution, ironically and pathetically, becomes a stand-in for the failures, incompetence and general betrayal of country on every other front that President Bush has brought us. [...]

The Iraq War has been many things, but for its prime promoters and cheerleaders and now-dwindling body of defenders, the war and all its ideological and literary trappings have always been an exercise in moral-historical dress-up for a crew of folks whose times aren't grand enough to live up to their own self-regard and whose imaginations are great enough to make up the difference. This is just more play-acting.

These jokers are being dragged kicking and screaming to the realization that the whole thing's a mess and that they're going to be remembered for it -- defined by it -- for decades and centuries. [...]

Myself, I just find it embarrassing. This is what we're reduced to, what the president has reduced us to. This is the best we can do. Hang Saddam Hussein because there's nothing else this president can get right.

What do you figure this farce will look like 10, 30 or 50 years down the road? A signal of American power or weakness?
I have nothing else to add.

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Friday, December 29, 2006
  Turnit A Loose

(Cross-posted at the Daily Gotham)

Here's a great little piece from the NY Daily News to end the week (and the year): James Brown's last ride:
William Murrell, who had shuttled the music legend around for the past 15 years, drove Brown's body on an 800-mile pilgrimage from Augusta, Ga., to Harlem - a trip that took him from 10 p.m. Wednesday to 10 a.m. yesterday.

"I drove him in life, and I drove him in death," said Murrell, 47. "I can't say no to Mr. Brown."

The coffin had arrived too late at the funeral home for staff there to make a scheduled flight out of Atlanta. And the remaining flights that could carry the remains were all booked as well.

Without a second thought, Murrell yanked the backseats out of his Ford van and loaded up. He and a co-worker piloted the Ford Club Wagon van up I-95 with the Rev. Al Sharpton, the funeral home director and Brown's 24-karat gold-plated coffin in back.

"We talked the whole time," added Murrell who owns a transportation company in Augusta. "Old times, the good old days, all the fun that we had, all the people he touched, the lives that he changed. It went on and on."

And as soon as they reached New York, they flipped on the radio to find Brown's songs playing nonstop.
Murrell had to hurry to get to the city in time. But, hey:
"Who's gonna stop us? We've got the Godfather of Soul in the car!"
That just may be the greatest road trip ever taken...


  Gerald Ford, "Shitrag"

Via the Daily Gotham, here's a dude who really, really did not like Gerald Ford.

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  What's the Deal with those Peacenik Dems?

Over at the Weekly Standard, Matthew Continetti ponders the mystery of the partisan divide in American foreign policy. "Never have the differences between the two parties on issues of war and peace been so distinct," he frets.

For Continetti, American politics is currently divided between a "peace party" and a "power party:"
Together, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the March 20, 2003, invasion of Iraq seem to have accelerated a shift begun some 30 years ago: The Democratic party is increasingly linked with the attitudes, tendencies, and policies of peace, whereas the Republican party is increasingly linked with the maintenance and projection of American military power.
His analysis traces this partisan divide to the years after the withdrawal from Vietnam, using historical poll data to note general bipartisan consensus on both getting in and getting out of that war. For Continetti, the mysterious split began during the Reagan years, when registered Democrats tended to oppose Reagan's arms buildup, his meddling in Central America, and the dispatch of Marines to Lebabon - while Republicans tended to support these policies. Under George H.W. Bush, registered Democrats supported the Gulf War less enthusiastically than Republicans, while Democratic representatives in the House and Senate mostly opposed the war resolution.

Then, Continetti kind of undermines his whole point, when he observes that, during the Clinton Administration, it was the Republicans who opposed the use of American military power abroad. But, see, it's not because Republicans were a "peace party:" no, they felt this way "when they thought the 'national interest' was not at stake."

But, of course, it's not possible that, when Democrats oppose an adventure abroad, it's because we don't think that the national interest is at stake.

Of course Continetti is right in discovering partisan differences on foreign policy questions. But his framing is ludicrous. Even the notion of a "peace party" and a "power party" is fallacious - as though power were something that could only be exercised by endorsing every single war and intervention dreamed up the neocons in the Pentagon. Continetti's dishonesty pervades the piece, as when he describes Democrats in Congress as "emphasiz[ing] negotiation without the threat of force" - as if any Democrats support unilaterally removing the threat of force from every diplomatic problem. Force is always implicit in negotiation. The difference is that Democrats believe in negotiating at all.

But Continetti's point is to try and paint the Democrats as inexplicably opposed to the projection of American power, based on Democrats' mixed feelings about neoconservative adventurism. The party divide about which he is so disingenuously mystified is not the product of some dovish Democratic mutation. It's the product of a carefully orchestrated and viciously partisan effort to sell the Republican party as the patriotic party, versus the traitorous Democrats.

If the divide began in the Reagan years, perhaps it's because the entire Reagan mythos was based on the Rambo story of American resurrection, which was in turn based on the stab-in-the-back myth of Vietnam. The Reagan revolution needed to demonize liberals as pacifist, and therefore traitorous.

With the return of the neocons under Bush the Lesser, we've seen this pattern repeated with far greater intensity. Continetti dishonestly traces the current partisan divide to 9/11 (this, particularly, is an infamous lie), and to "the March 20, 2003 invasion of Iraq." But that's not when the partisan divide began. The entire country was united after 9/11. Opposition to the invasion of Afghanistan was marginal at best. And, despite all the flagrant foolishness and dishonesty peddled in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, the war resolution passed both houses of Congress by large majorities.

Even the 2004 election, which Continetti frames as a referendum on the Iraq war, was not that. Only as the war dragged on and slipped dramatically futher into failure during 2005 and 2006, have mainstream Democrats felt comfortable opposing it.

Yes, prior to the invasion, registered Democrats preferred to build support among our allies and give weapons inspectors time to work, and yes, over the course of the war, Democrats have increasingly observed that things are not going well. These are reality-based positions. They reflect reasonable attitudes.

The partisan divide that Continetti observes is not a Democratic phenomenon. It's the result of a massive and intense campaign to energize the Republican base by tying the "culture war" to the cause of American interventionism abroad. It's the product of a highly focused effort to help the GOP defeat the Democratic Party in elections by using politics beyond the water's edge to demonize the domestic opposition. It's the product of a conservative movement that has taught its base to march in lockstep.

The neoconservative movement has a number of problems at the moment, and that base is eroding as Rovian jingoism loses steam. What we're left with, for now, is the lamentations of neocon intellectuals trying to retroactively frame their bastardization of American political discourse as a problem of the perfidy of the left. Their attempt to make their own reality in Iraq and in Washington has failed. But they can still find comfort in the land of make-believe between the pages of the Weekly Standard.

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  This Week in Conservative Organs

So this is a new feature - the idea is to skim through what's happening at the major conservative magazines, things we haven't had a chance to comment on. There's always plenty of fun to be had, so:

TWICO Feature: Neocons: Only Mostly Dead?

At the Buchananite paleocon American Conservative, Scott McConnell warns that the neocons may be down, but they're not out. Despite animosity between the two conservative camps, McConnell feels a "twinge of remorse" recalling the promise the neocon movement showed when it emerged in the 60's:
For decades, The Public Interest was a penetrating and groundbreaking journal. Commentary in the 1970s—when it turned hard against the countercultural '60s—was brave and forceful. Nathan Glazer may never have written anything void of wisdom. To see the movement that spawned this grow into something bloated, stupid, and ultimately dangerous to America is to see the terminus of a vital part of our intellectual history.
Certainly they're in rough shape now:
A main dilemma for the neoconservatives is their relationship to Bush’s lame-duck presidency. [...] Veteran pamphleteer Joshua Muravchik recognized the larger problem, that the current neocon brand—now defined by Bush, the Iraq War, and American global hegemony—has become broadly unpopular.

And so it gets ugly: Michael Ledeen blames the ladies, Perle says he's "damn tired of being described as an architect of this war," and David Frum gives us this gem, which says a lot about the way the neoconservative movement works:

'I always believed as a speechwriter that if you could persuade the president to commit himself to certain words, he would feel himself committed to the ideas that underlay those words. And the big shock to me has been that although the president said the words, he just did not absorb the ideas.'
That's right: Bush is dumb.

But don't bury the neocons just yet:
Despite the obituaries now being written, neoconservatism will not soon be over with and certainly won’t disappear in the way that American communism or segregation have. The group has always been resilient and tactically flexible.
But who will be their patron now?
[I]f Bush has failed them, what options remain? Joe Lieberman has less national appeal than Henry Jackson did [no kidding! -eds.].
Maybe there's one hero left:
John McCain is another matter, and if Americans can be persuaded that the solution to their Middle East, terrorism, and other diplomatic dilemmas lies in more troops and invasions, neoconservatism will have springtime all over again.
With all the problems their agenda has run into, what should we expect from the next wave of neoconnery?
[O]ne can look forward to neoconservative agitation on two fronts: a powerful campaign to draw the United States into a war to eliminate Iran’s nuclear potential and an equally loud effort in support of maintaining Israeli dominance over the West Bank and denying the Palestinians meaningful statehood.
In case you doubt them, consider this:
Perhaps most importantly, neoconservatism still commands more salaries—able people who can pursue ideological politics as fulltime work in think tanks and periodicals—than any of its rivals. The millionaires who fund AEI and the New York Sun will not abandon neoconservatism because Iraq didn’t work out. The reports of the movement’s demise are thus very much exaggerated.


Also in AmCon, William S. Lind argues that the midterm election results may have made an attack on Iran more, not less likely. Why?
The Bush administration ... will be tempted to do what small men have done throughout history when in trouble: try to escalate their way out of it.
A little problem: this time the Iranians "have 140,000 American hostages, in the form of U.S. troops in Iraq." All they have to do is cut our supply line, and we could lose an entire army.
It would be our Adrianople, our Rocroi, our Stalingrad. American power and prestige would never recover.
The only hope? Since the Democrats won't do it on their own, the Joint Chiefs should force their hand by speaking out publicly - compelling the Democratic Congress to pre-emptively forbid an attack on Iran.

And: Doug Bandow likes David Kuo's book and thinks Christian politics might not be so good for Christianity; and Gerald Russello suggests that, "In pushing for limitations on habeas corpus, conservatives are ignoring their own best traditions."

At Neocon Central - The Weekly Standard - Irwin Stelzer grinds his teeth in anticipation of the 110th Congress's economic populism, while Joshua Livestro sees a Christian revival in, of all places, the Netherlands (and introduces us to perhaps the most frightening phrase of the year: the "corporate prayer movement").

Finally, the venerable National Review treats us to this Ford-related "flashback:" a column written by William F. Buckley Jr. in September of 1974. Shorter version: "Nixon was a damn liberal but we defended him because he bugged the left. Maybe Ford will listen to us."

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Thursday, December 28, 2006
  Good Lord

Barry Zito to the Giants for seven years and $126 million.

I liked the idea of him with the Mets, but frankly I'm amused by the notion of the Giants taking on roughly the equivilant of the Bolivian national debt to hire a guy who, while good, is not exactly Sandy Koufax.

It's a seller's market out there.

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  Edwards Digs In

Ezra Klein has a good post on the Edwards announcement. He's kicking it off as a literally grassroots (shovel in the ground) kind of civic populist effort.

Edwards stopped in at Daily Kos today, which was nice to see.

Geniuses in the American newsmedia have already begun with the "He Says He Cares About Poverty but He's a Multimillionaire" angle (as if it's better to vote for multimillionaires who ignore poverty). Certainly he could be vulnerable to this kind of thing if his campaign is widely seen as a rich guy doing charity for poor people.

I haven't analyzed his rhetoric in the same systematic way as I've done with Obama, so I can't say yet if he seems to be developing a message to transcend that pitfall. Though he did respond to a question about it with an interesting comment at DKos:
You have to talk about our moral responsibility to each other. Second, you can focus on the benefits for all Americans -- a stronger middle class, a stronger economy, etc.

But also -- we all need to be talking about that-- not just candidates -- and work together to create a culture of responsibility.
There's a there, there, I think. But we'll have to watch how he develops it. Klein notes Edwards's relative lack of emphasis on the "Two Americas" theme this time. Clearly - and fortunately - he's not abandoning his economic populism. But perhaps he's searching for a more expansive way of expressing it.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006
  Welcome John Edwards

The announcement was somewhat bungled, and launched in the shadow of the death of a President, but John Edwards is in.

I haven't written about him at all yet, but Edwards has the potential to be a very exciting candidate. The context wasn't quite right for him 2004, but I think that 2008 will be an election that plays more to his strengths.

Stuff like this:
"This campaign is about changing America," the Web site read, listing five priorities that fit neatly with Edwards' message of economic equality: "Providing universal health care for all Americans," "Rebuilding America's middle class and eliminating poverty," and "Creating tax fairness by rewarding work, not just wealth."
Well, that's only three, but I can't get to the site to see the others yet. Anyway, despite the risk of being overshadowed by Hillary and Obama, Edwards will be a player. Of course, being young, good-looking, and Southern doesn't hurt (though let's not overplay the Southern thing). But Edwards seems to have strengthened his message and gained confidence over the last three years. He's basing his campaign clearly and boldly on progressive values. I'm glad he's in the contest.

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  Is Mickey Kaus the World's Worst Blogger?

There are a lot of bad bloggers out there. But only Mickey Kaus seems to have that special talent for swallowing vacuous talking points and attempting to dress them up as incisive and original commentary. At least the folks at the Corner are obviously working for the Cause. Kaus, though, is the world's most widely-read concern troll.

Today, we get an Obama-related double whammy. The ever-insightful Kaus not only worries about Obama's supposed lack of "substance," he faithfully reminds us that Obama has not yet had his Joe Klein-approved "Sistah Souljah Moment." And we all know how Very Important for Democrats that is.

On the first point, Kaus acknowledges some of Obama's wonky legislative work. But, he says:
It's not the same thing as confronting deeper, bigger, less easily addressed problems: How to structure the health care system, how to pay for entitlements, how to confront the terror threat, the rise of China, the problems of trade and immigration, the increase in income inequality at the top.
Okay, that's fair enough. We do need to hear these things, considering that Obama failed to solve them all during his first two years as a Senator. But, uh, why aren't we hearing such loud demands that any other candidate - Republican or Democrat -provide clear answers to these questions? Do you automatically earn "substance" the longer you're in the Senate? Does "experience" exempt you from having to explicitly address the big questions of the day? Quick, without looking it up: can you tell me what plans Hillary and McCain have to tackle each of these issues?

Or is this just the line on Obama?

In fact, I do think that the Democrats have a number of smart, accomplished candidates, and I'll certainly grant the need to hear more from Obama. But considering that he hasn't even officially begun to campaign yet, I figure there's a little bit of time for that.

Meanwhile, there's plenty of time for Kaus to yammer on about stupid things like "Sistah Souljah moments." Kaus asks: "What's the word for trumped-up contrarianism?"

Why, I do believe it's "Mickey Kaus."


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  About that National Nightmare...

At Daily Gotham, Dan points out the problem with all the fluffy rhetoric about how Gerald Ford "united America" in the aftermath of the Nixon fiasco:

The pardon, however, was a case of the cure being worse than the disease. The feeling that grew out of the pardon was that people in power can get away with anything. Certainly Ronald Reagan got away with trading arms for hostages and illegally financing the contra war in Nicaragua. He broke the law and lied to Congress and America about it, and got away with it.

Would Reagan have gotten away with his crimes if Richard Nixon had paid for his crimes? Almost certainly not.

Dan goes on to argue that, with Reagan escaping punishment, the GOP made the judgment that Americans still had energy for one more impeachment - and thus went after Clinton as revenge for Iran-Contra. In turn, the Lewinsky farce ruined the public's (or, more to the point, the media's) appetite for yet another impeachment, even now, when it might be a very good idea.

I'm not sure whether I entirely agree with the chain of causality here: I suspect that one result of the post-Watergate "exhaustion" was that the American media were perversely reluctant to support impeachment in situations attached to great historical gravity (Iran/the Cold War, or Iraq/9/11) but willing enough to go along when the context was completely frivolous. Being as modern Republicans are more likely to commit grave crimes while focusing attention on trivial political discourse - the inverse of the Democratic pattern - this tends to benefit the GOP.

Still, Dan's entirely right about how Ford's pardon set a precedent whereby the forces of the conservative movement - already contemptuous of the theoretical limits set on their power by the Constitution - would feel much freer to act with impunity. We're still suffering the consequences of Ford's failure to uphold accountability in the American system.


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  Look on this man, this Dubya...

Brad at Sadly, No points us to David Ignatius's nauseating attempt to paint President Bush as some kind of tragic figure, straining heroically against the burden of history.

Sample quotes:
The stress of the job — so well hidden for much of the past six years — has begun to show on Bush’s face. He often looks burdened, distracted, haunted by a question that has no good answer....

Bush is not a man for introspection. That’s part of his flinty personality — the tight, clipped answers and the forced jocularity of the nicknames he gives to reporters and White House aides. That’s why this version of reality TV is so poignant: This very private man has begun to talk out loud about the emotional turmoil inside. He is letting it bleed....

Bush says he doesn’t care what happens now to his poll numbers, and I believe him. He broke through the political barriers a while ago. I sense that, as he anguishes about Iraq, he has in mind the judgment of future historians....

What makes reality TV gripping is that it’s all happening live — the contestants make their choices under pressure, win or lose.

This is Beltway douchebaggery of the highest order. I never cease to be amazed at how Washington pundits have projected onto this President - for whom mediocrity would be an improvement - so many grand and heroic narratives. There's a real need to see Bush as a towering figure, and only over the past year or so has the commentary class finally begun to give up on this affinity.

The answer, of course, is that the pundits themselves are trapped in, and probably demoralized by, their own thorough mediocrity. They are superfluous creatures of a shallow ecology, and their role in American politics is to cycle between syncophancy and a fashionable, substance-less contrarianism, all while congratulating each other on their relevance to imperial American democracy. It must be a depressing existence. So you can see why they would be desperate, now and then, to hitch themselves to some historical star, to believe that their place in the universe involves an intellectual connection to truly epoch-changing people and events. And so they'll build a mythology around the most cretinous of political stalking horses and indulge themselves in the fantasy that they really are the consiglieri to history.

Having embarassed himself with this myth-making in the days before every sentient being could see what a disaster the Iraq war was, Ignatius has passed through a brief phase of confused reflection, only to emerge stronger on the other side: he may no longer be riding along with the President's men, but, thank the gods, Ignatius can record for us commoners the great Tragedy of Bush. No, this isn't just the ugly result of cheap politics, stupid decisions, and a government run by hacks and thieves. It's not just some idiotic idea carried along on the acclaim of pundits playing make-believe.

It's epic, man.


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Tuesday, December 26, 2006
  Dreaming Big Dreams: How Obama Could Change the Game

Right now we’re stuck in a 51-49 paradigm, electorally speaking. This suits conservatives just fine. They’ve only ever had one truly unifying, game-changing star in the modern era, and he was an actor – and when his magic disappeared, they resorted to the Atwater-Rove approach: divide and conquer. It’s a truism that conservatives win by dividing America, while progressives can only truly win by uniting it. We can muddle along, hoping to hold our blue states and swing Ohio, and we might win next time, but the math won’t change and in four or eight years the conservatives will be back, governing with undimmed arrogance, no matter how small their margin of victory – because for them, power is its own mandate.

Back in the mid-nineteenth century, the Whigs found themselves in the same dilemma. They were trapped at the wrong end of a 51-49 paradigm, losing a series of agonizingly close elections. Despite their dynamic ideas for national development, the Whigs’ only Presidential victories came with a pair of popular generals running non-ideological campaigns (Harrison in 1840 and Taylor in 1848). Each died in office and was succeeded by a mediocre vice-president; more importantly, for our purposes, each man’s victory came in spite of, and as a distraction from, the dire state of the Whig Party. Only with the destruction of the party was a northern Whig leader able to emerge and, under the banner of the Republican Party, address the critical issue of the time, build a progressive plurality, and win a decisive election in 1860. Lincoln frustrated the bold radicals and reformers of his day. But he did force America to make a choice, and the way he led the nation to the decision point made possible the abolition of slavery and the preservation of the Union.

I’m not by any means saying that Obama is Abe Lincoln. (Though, circa 1858, Lincoln was no Lincoln either.)

What I want to argue is that truly successful presidential candidates – and truly transformative presidents – are not those who will tell party activists a laundry list of what we want to hear. They are those who will speak the broad language of consensus and inclusion, all while framing the American story as the story of their values. I believe this is what Obama is doing.

The outline is this:

1. Define America’s values in terms of your values.
2. Tell the story of America as the story of the march of those values.
3. Frame the current political situation as a key moment, in which we are called to action in order to uphold our inheritance of those American values.
4. Define your political opponents as the forces of complacency in the face of that call.
5. Ask Americans to make a choice.

I’ll go through these step-by-step, looking at Obama’s rhetoric:

Step One: Define American Values

Obama has been accused by many in a resurgent progressive movement of that pernicious political sin: centrism. But as George Lakoff recently pointed out, not all centrisms are the same. There’s the kind of centrism where you reduce yourself to an egotistical institution of one (Lieberman centrism), or the kind where you go foolishly chasing after your opponent’s rhetoric (Harold Ford centrism). But then there’s kind where you work to activate the majoritarian progressive values of what Lakoff terms “biconceptual” Americans. Rather than defining yourself around some elusive concept of the center, you define the center around your progressive values.

In this era of divide-and-conquer conservative politics, there’s a hunger for national consensus. And unity is a good thing: a necessary – though not sufficient – condition for effective progressive governance in America. This does not mean full unity – 100% consensus. It means broad consensus, framed around the centrality of progressive values to the American experience. It means transcending the 51-49 paradigm.

In his speech to the DNC, Obama’s call for unity attracted a great deal of attention:

There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America – there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America. […] We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.
Less remarked upon, but even more important, was the paragraph which preceded this, where Obama defined the very idea of national unity around core progressive values:

A belief that we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up, with out benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one.
In Obama’s formulation, national unity itself is a progressive value – and the progressive value of mutual responsibility is at the very core of the American national idea (and at the core of majoritarian religious belief). This mutual responsibility, meanwhile, is what makes possible the flourishing of the individual which is also central to the American project. As he said in his commencement address at Knox College: “We’re all in it together and everybody’s got a shot at opportunity.” This is America defined as a progressive project.

Step Two: Tell the Story of America

Obama begins the commencement address with a self-deprecating story about his first press conference as a U.S. Senator, when an earnest reporter asked him, “What will be your place in history?” It’s a funny story, and a great starting point for a graduation speech, but it’s also a canny way for Obama to begin his telling of the American story. He goes on: “In other eras, across distant lands, this question could be answered with relative ease and certainty.” Servants in Rome, peasants in medieval China, subjects of King George: all knew their place, and none had the freedom to build their own lives.

“And then America happened.”
This is covenant theology, stated directly. In The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn explains how Puritan covenant theology came to broadly influence the founders of the American republic as they tied together the disparate strands of reason, law, and radical opposition that led to the Revolution. It was the idea “that the colonization of British America had been an event designed by the hand of God to satisfy his ultimate aims.”

We all know the many crimes committed and tragedies allowed in the name of the American project. But by locating the origins of America in a covenant, Obama and other “prophetic” progressives (to use Cornell West’s term) can tell a story of America that amounts to an ongoing struggle to redeem that covenant, despite our national sins. In America, “destiny was not a destination, but a journey to be shared.” This is antithetical to the reductionist conservative version of American history, always seeking to shrink our national project to its narrow origins. This America is built around an advancing American Dream: a “collective dream” that

...moved forward imperfectly – it was scarred by our treatment of native peoples, betrayed by slavery, clouded by the subjugation of women, shaken by war and depression. And yet, brick by brick, rail by rail, calloused hand by calloused hand, people kept dreaming, and building, and working, and marching, and petitioning their government, until they made America a land where the question of our place in history is not answered for us. It’s answered by us.
Obama refers again and again to faith. But it’s not an empty rhetorical gesture aimed at “values voters.” It’s central to his story of America. Faith refers to redemption, and the story of America is the story of the collective, progressive redemption of the American covenant. It is, as he says in the DNC speech, “an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation.”

Step Three: the Call to Action

Redemption, in turn, is tied to action. Action has always been a core progressive value, in contrast to conservative complacency. The great progressive Presidents – Lincoln, both Roosevelts, JFK – have always centered their politics around a call to action.

Obama frames it thus:

The true test of the American ideal is whether we’re able to recognize our failings and then rise together to meet the challenges of our time. Whether we allow ourselves to be shaped by events and history, or whether we act to shape them.
The story of American greatness is the story of collective action for the common good.

We have faced this choice before.

At the end of the Civil War […] we had to decide: Do we do nothing and allow captains of industry and robber barons to run roughshod over the economy and workers by competing to see who can pay the lowest wages at the worst working conditions? Or do we try to make the system work by setting up basic rules for the market, instituting the first public schools, busting up monopolies, letting workers organize into unions?

We chose to act, and we rose together.

[During the Depression], we had to decide: do we follow the call of leaders who would do nothing, or the call of a leader who … refused to accept political paralysis?

We chose to act – regulating the market, putting people back to work, and expanding bargaining rights to include health care and a secure retirement – and together we rose.

When World War II required the most massive homefront mobilization in history and we needed every single American to lend a hand, we had to decide: Do we listen to skeptics who told us it wasn’t possible to produce that many tanks and planes? Or, did we build Roosevelt’s Arsenal for Democracy and grow our economy even further by providing our returning heroes with a chance to go to college and own their own home?

Again, we chose to act, and again, we rose together.

Today, at the beginning of this young century, we have to decide again. But this time, it is your turn to choose.
This is where Obama turns the call to action to confront the challenges progressives want to address today: globalization, the education crisis, the health care crisis, the environmental crisis, the task of keeping America secure while rebuilding our ties to the world and restoring America’s international credibility.

Obama issues challenges to Americans generally, and to both political parties. But note the quiet but important imbalance between those calls:

Every one of us is going to have to work more, read more, train more, think more. We will have to slough off some bad habits—like driving gas guzzlers that weaken our economy and feed our enemies abroad. Our children will have to turn off the TV set once in a while and put away the video games and start hitting the books. We’ll have to reform institutions, like our public schools, that were designed for an earlier time. Republicans will have to recognize our collective responsibilities, even as Democrats recognize that we have to do more than just defend old programs. [Emphasis mine.]
Here he sets up a unifying call to action. But, politically, his demands are very different for the two parties. This is not moral equivilance: he is calling for the Democrats to innovate, and for the Republicans to abandon conservatism and accept the core progressive principle. It feels like centrism, but it has much more substance.

The call to action means embracing progressive values and rejecting conservative complacency. Here is where he frames the opposition.

Step Four: Define the Opposition

Obama has defined the American story as an ongoing process of collective action to redeem the common progressive values embodied in the American covenant. He has argued that we now face a choice whether to continue that effort against the challenges we face today. Now he must define the contemporary political opposition standing in the way of that choice.

He must explain how conservatism is bad for America.

Like so much of the American story, once again, we face a choice. Once again, there are those who believe that there isn’t much we can do about this as a nation. That the best idea is to give everyone one big refund on their government – divvy it up by individual portions, in the form of tax breaks, and it out, and encourage everyone to use their share to go buy their own health care, their own retirement plan, their own education, and so on.

In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society. But in our past there has been another term for it – Social Darwinism – every man or woman for him or herself. It’s a tempting idea, because it doesn’t require much thought or ingenuity.
Here Obama takes on the very heart of the modern conservative movement – the better to drive a stake through it. He doesn’t duck away from defining and confronting the conservative philosophy. He takes it head on. He has already set up its refutation:

It doesn’t work. It ignores our history.
In short, conservatism is un-American.

What is conservatism? It is complacency in the face of challenges which demand action. It’s a form of weakness. From his speech to the Take Back America Conference:

It’s the timidity, it’s the smallness of our politics that’s holding us back right now – the idea that there are some problems that are just too big to handle.
Conservatism is a kind of political cowardice. Again, he confronts the conservative philosophy head on:

They don’t believe that government has a role in solving national problems because they think that government is the problem.
And we have seen the results of that philosophy, in a country ravaged by a quarter-century of conservative ascendancy and six years of total conservative government. As Lakoff says, a successful progressive candidate must use the trauma inflicted by conservative government to make the case for progressive politics. Obama, again referring to faith, points to how conservative government has very nearly derailed the American Dream:

Our faith has been shaken by war and terror and disaster and despair and threats to the middle-class dream and scandal and corruption in our government.
In an era when it seems that conservatives have seized the national agenda (and how often have we heard that conservatives have “ideas” and Democrats do not?), Obama defines conservatism as inherently hollow, weak, and empty. It is a kind of social coma into which the nation falls when we do not choose to take action.

Step Five: Ask for a Decision

All of this puts Obama in position to ask Americans to make a bold and very specific choice in the 2008 election. But, one year before the first primary ballots are cast, he has not yet made that clarion call. This seems to be what frustrates many progressives. It seems to me that many of us are only happy when a candidate takes up arms at a political Alamo. That’s a recipe for principled defeat. By contrast, I believe that what Obama is building – if he follows through – is a broad progressive victory.

Armando has described how, in 1860, Lincoln rhetorically seized the political moment for his progressive values – challenging voters to choose between his vision of America, and the dead-end of the Southern position. Armando frames Lincoln's opponent Douglas as the “uniter” candidate, but, in fact, Lincoln’s challenge to the South was a challenge to an American majority: to make a choice, to unite behind one agenda or the other. He called the Democrats’ bluff. But he did so, not with the ferverent impatience of John Fremont, but by laying the groundwork for a majoritarian consensus about the meaning of America.

The time will come when Obama will have to ask Americans to make a choice, not just in their hearts, but with their votes. If he has done his work right, he will have made it possible for a solid majority to choose the progressive vision.

Many progressives are concerned by the fact that Obama has proposed few specific policy ideas. I’m not personally worried about that: hilzoy has pointed out how, in his short time in the Senate, Obama has been behind a remarkable number of good, solid, wonky ideas. But in the election, on the level of ideas, Obama will have to be both bold but not overly specific. JFK didn’t have to explain how we would get to the moon. But he had to say we would get there. Obama will need to clearly frame the election as a referendum on key progressive ideas like affordable health care for all Americans, a thorough commitment to education, and a decisive move to confront the massive threat presented by global warming.

But the real choice Obama will have to demand is bigger and broader. He will have to ask Americans to vote to endorse the progressive vision of American history and society he has laid out. He will have to tell us: “A vote for Obama is a vote for the notion that we are all in this together. It is a vote for the understanding that government can improve our lives, and we all have a stake in it.”

After so many years of muddling through on conservative turf, trying to get along in the 51-49 paradigm, Obama will have to ask us to reject the conservative project, and endorse the progressive story of America. For now, he is building consensus – as he should. But when the elections come, then he will have to frame them around a choice: clearly, boldly, and confidently. My dearest hope is that he will do so.

Did Obama come up with all this on his own? Of course not. Millions of ordinary Americans, over the course of centuries, wrote this story. But Obama tells it eloquently, and effectively, and urgently, in a way that I’m not sure any other potential Presidential candidate can. The progressive story may sound obvious to us, but in recent years the complacent conservative narrative of America has choked it out in public discourse. That’s why, if he does indeed follow through and ask Americans to make a clear choice, to take action in defense of our common progressive ideals, I believe Americans will do so, and Obama will have changed the game.


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Friday, December 22, 2006
  The Derbyshire Christmas Miracle!

A toast to Mama Dollar and to Papa Dollar! Jon Swift comes to the rescue, and Christmas is saved for the Derbyshire clan. It's not too late to give!


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Thursday, December 21, 2006
  Don't Hate the Game

The Poor Man points approvingly to this great comment by Phoenix Woman, who laments the traditional distaste among so many on the American left for serious engagement in electoral politics.
I think the eagerness to eat our own stems from a fundamental difference in how the right and left operate in this country. The farther left one goes, the more likely one is to have a very cynical and morale-destroying view of politics, one that serves to keep one from engaging. [...] This distaste for deep involvement in democracy is part and parcel of American progressivism and has been since its inception. (I used to be part of an e-mail list called "Socialist Liberty", filled with the sort of people who equated Paul Wellstone with Jesse Helms; whenever any prominent Socialist or Communist such as David McReynolds dared run for political office, even as a Socialist or Communist, he or she would get TONS of flak from other Soc/Coms for selling out and buying into a corrupt system that needed to be left alone to die of its own foul weight.) And this distaste has only got stronger: Many lefty/progressive groups over the years have got out of electoral politics altogether, even as righty/religious groups have got MORE political...

The bitter irony of the American left's long distaste for/retreat from electoral politics -- a stance that only in the last couple of election cycles is starting to turn around -- is not just that this is happening even as the right-wing churches and other conservative groups are getting more involved in Republican politics; it is that money and time spent in politics pays better dividends in terms of getting what you want than in almost any other field of endeavor. Here's an example, paraphrased from memory from a writer whose name escapes me (otherwise I'd be linking directly to him):

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett want to spend thirty-odd billion on charitable causes around the world, when just one billion given to, say, DFA would ensure that truly progressive Democrats not only took over the party, but had the resources to go fully mano-a-mano with the Republicans in every single district -- and that would ensure the election of politicians who would back policies that would do much more lasting good than even a thirty-odd-billion-dollar charity could accomplish.
Based on my own experience, the self-defeating leftist rejection of serious politics is an obvious and corrosive phenomenon, but what I also like about Phoenix Woman's post is the way she ties it to the same problem from a different angle: the problem with "non-political" philanthropy. The massive amounts of money given in charitable endeavors could in very many cases be more efficiently and more effectively focused on achieving change in government.

The whole point of being a liberal or socialist is the belief that truly universalist, collective action is the surest way to guarantee human well-being and happiness, and that government is the only feasible organizing point for that action. But to use government to protect and improve people's lives, you have to control government. Leftist rejection of political engagement is a form of self-rejection, and an abandonment of the very message we should be trying to send to folks like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

The commenters at the Poor Man's site pretty much savage Phoenix Woman (consensus: "she's full of shit") - largely, it seems, on the basis of a couple of questionable historical points she makes about Saul Alinsky, and about the German Socialists. The only substantive argument against her point, though, seems to be that the left doesn't reject politics, either because Hey: who are all those people "putting their bodies on the line" during the anti-Globalization movement?? - or, because, Hey: campaigning for the Greens is doing electoral politics, numbnuts!

Well, I put my body on the line (literally) for all kinds of causes in my college and post college days. I realize now that my time would have been far better spent learning to organize a precinct and practicing voter contact and campaign strategy.

And sorry, but working for the Green Party does not constitute serious engagement in electoral politics. In fact, it demonstrates a pigheaded refusal to understand electoral politics. There's a (very minor) place in the American political ecology for third parties, but except for a brief period in the mid-nineteenth century that's been a side issue at best - and the Greens are, for all intents and purposes, completely useless to the American body politic.

The way it works in American politics is: there are two major parties. A social movement that wants to make policy picks one of the parties, works to gain influence within that party while still maintaining a broad enough coalition to win elections, and . . . wins elections. That's it. That's all it takes. But it's hard work and by its nature involves a constant give and take between principle and compromise.

If you want to improve the world, that's the game you have to play, no matter how ugly, disappointing, or impure it can seem. As progressives, we have the opportunity to use the Democratic party to achieve our policy goals. So there are two kinds of progressives in this country: those who take that opportunity seriously, and those who don't. I have no use for the latter.


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Wednesday, December 20, 2006
  Derbyshire's Health Care Dilemma: You Broke It, You Bought It.

Hilzoy: John Derbyshire's conservative chickens come home to roost. In his own wallet.

  The God-Like Prince

Yet another "signing statement:"
Hours after signing an agreement yesterday on cooperation with India on civilian nuclear technology, President George W. Bush issued a "signing statement" insisting that the executive branch was not bound by terms of the agreement approved by the House of Representatives and Senate, RAW STORY has learned.
Bush is not the first president to push the line on prerogative power, but he has taken it the furthest and done so while he and his supporters call themselves "conservatives." What's interesting is that I think that they genuinely are conservatives, not in the traditional American sense whereby one refers to Hamilton (or, conversely, to Madison - a contradiction we'll tease out over time). This is something different, and, in a perverse way, new.

The American founders had read their Montesquieu. Madison quotes him approvingly in Federalist #47: "There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person." This is Madison defending the Constitution against critics who claimed it did not feature enough separation of powers.
No political truth is certainly of greater intrinsic value, or is stamped with the authority of more enlightened patrons of liberty, than that on which the objection is founded. The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, selfappointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny. Were the federal Constitution, therefore, really chargeable with the accumulation of power, or with a mixture of powers, having a dangerous tendency to such an accumulation, no further arguments would be necessary to inspire a universal reprobation of the system.
Let no one say that the Bush crowd are "not conservatives." They are, in fact, ur-conservatives, conservatives of a sort alien to the American political tradition.

They are the new American Tories.


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Tuesday, December 19, 2006
  Lessons from Palestine

(Cross-posted, with comments, at Daily Kos)

I don’t expect this blog to spend much time at all discussing Middle East politics (there are other sites that can do it far better), but sometimes you can’t resist commenting, like when you see your government repeating the same stupid mistakes with a persistence that, were we talking about individuals, would be considered proof of insanity. As a grad student I followed closely the fraught but exciting process of Palestinian constitution-making and nation-building that flowed from the period of the Oslo Accords. And, sadly, I can say I predicted the coming of the Second Intifada at a time when everyone else seemed to think that peace was finally at hand.

But I’m certainly nothing close to an expert. Still, watching as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas takes a political gamble he’s almost certain to lose, while Palestinian society slides closer to something like civil war, I can’t help but catalogue some of the Western foolishness which has helped create the crisis.

In the January parliamentary elections, Hamas was successful, not primarily on the basis of its anti-Israel stance, but because it was able to present itself as the grassroots party of reform, in contrast to the corruption and incompetence of Fatah.

The Western – especially American – response to the election result was to cut off financial assistance to the Palestinians. Not only does this reaction undermine the American claim to support democracy in the Middle East (you can’t say you support democracy and then refuse to respect the result of democratic elections) it in fact strengthens Hamas. It gives Hamas an excuse for failure. This is the blindingly obvious (to everyone but the U.S. government) lesson of the Cuban embargo. Moreover, it creates a sense of siege which can only benefit the Hamas leadership, and, by adding to the misery of ordinary Palestinians, increases the appeal of radical elements.

The Western refusal to deal with Hamas also gives Fatah an excuse to avoid undertaking internal reform to address the corruption that led to its defeat, and which continues to marginalize the party in Palestinian politics.

The blatant American favoritism shown to Abbas is also acting as an embrace of death for the Fatah leader. American support for Abbas is clearly not rooted in respect for him as the Palestinian head of state, but as the preferred agent of Western policy in Palestinian society. Maybe the Bush administration has failed to notice, but the United States is not the most popular nation in the Middle East right now.

This, by default, makes the Islamicist party – Hamas – the “patriotic” party, refusing to carry water for foreign interests. This is an unspeakably dangerous development.

The Western game of playing favorites, as Steven Erlanger of the Times points out, thus undermines Palestinian national unity. This prevents Palestinians from establishing the confidence and stability necessary for honest and effective peace negotiations to go forward: a divided society is always more vulnerable to political exploitation by radicals. You may think, so what, a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority is not going to talk peace, anyway. But this is a backwards view. A divided Palestinian society benefits Hamas. A unified Palestinian society benefits moderate and secular elements, and marginalizes Hamas. But for Palestinians, like for people anywhere, external negotiation can only follow internal consensus – not the other way around.

Moreover, as Erlanger observes, the Israelis have rebuffed the efforts of a weak President Abbas to negotiate peace, until the release of the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit:

But by doing so, Mr. Olmert has given Hamas a veto over any progress between Israel and the Palestinians, further undermining Mr. Abbas’s standing. Why should Hamas and its allies Iran and Syria, who have no interest in Israeli-Palestinian peace or in helping Mr. Abbas, let Corporal Shalit go?

Eventually, they probably will. And when they choose to do so, in return for Palestinian prisoners, it will be to suit Hamas’s interests. Hamas will use it to try to prove, once again, that Israel responds only to Palestinian “resistance,” not to the kind of nonviolence and patient negotiation that the stubborn Mr. Abbas counsels so forlornly.
The root of all this is the boneheaded refusal to take Palestinian politics seriously. This is the mistake that the United States and Israel make again and again. U.S. and Israeli policy toward internal Palestinian politics has consisted largely of attempts to pick and choose puppets, while ignoring the dynamics that determine which Palestinian leaders have actual influence, and why.

The U.S. and Israel essentially resurrected the political career of Yassir Arafat in the wake of the First Intifida (because how the hell do you negotiate with a bunch of rock-throwing teenagers?). They then went on to carve out the worst possible political space for him.

First, they conferred upon Arafat the status of national liberator. Then, by treating the P.A. as little more than an opportunity to outsource the policing of Palestinians to the Palestinians themselves, and by otherwise scorning Palestinian national aspirations (and remember, during pretty much the entire Clinton administration, it was politically impossible in the United States to even mention the notion of a Palestinian state), and by ignoring Arafat’s own internal tendencies toward corruption and autocracy, they undermined the credibility and authority of Palestinian liberals, exacerbated divisions within Palestinian politics and society, and degraded the promise of democratic Palestinian sovereignty. Then, when the inevitable Second Intifada (this time with guns!) followed – and the failure of the Taba negotiations and Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount were only proximate, not underlying causes – they attempted to marginalize, and literally to besiege Arafat in a way that not only reduced Arafat’s political horizon to a series of internal struggles, but also reinforced the very cult of personality they claimed to oppose. (The Second Intifada, meanwhile, was in fact nothing like the First, which was for the most part an unarmed, genuinely populist "shaking off" directed as much at an out-of-touch PLO as at the Israelis. The Second, by contrast, consisted largely of armed leadership factions channeling popular frustration into a series of sectarian battles for political hegemony over Palestinian society.)

Thus, by the time of Arafat’s death, the West had helped foster a Palestinian Authority with a stillborn civil society (despite the fact that there had been bases upon which a civil society could have been built), a corrupt and personality-driven ruling party (now without its unifying personality), and a popular feeling that life under Fatah and the Oslo regime had failed to live up to its promise and, in fact, had gotten measurably worse. And they were surprised that Hamas won the election?

So here’s where this ties back into the wider point of this blog. Politics matters. When your opponent is successful, it’s not because of the stupidity or fecklessness of his supporters. You can't ignore his success or wish it away. It’s real, and you have to take it seriously, or you risk making the same damn mistake, over and over again, until everything just falls apart. Unfortunately, political discourse in the United States - during both the Clinton and Dubya administrations - has not been amenable to such reality-based consideration of the Middle East situation. This, in turn, helps explain why the situation hasn't gotten any better. Before you can achieve political success, you have to be honest with yourself.


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Sunday, December 17, 2006
  "Apocalyptic Centrism"

This is one of those (exceedingly) rare opportunities to praise somebody like Rich Lowry, so I'm going to take advantage of it. In a column at NRO, Lowry addresses one of the few topics lefties and righties can generally agree on: the irritating and vacuous self-righteousness of a certain style of "centrist" rhetoric.

Lowry's target is Lou Dobbs - "the CNN business anchor who has built his show around a straight-talking populism" (and here's yet another rule of political rhetoric: beware "straight-talk," as it's usually cover for twisted logic). Lowry points out one of the more vapid "centrist" tricks, which is to "spout clichés drawn from the Right and the Left — any one of which has a 50/50 chance that the average person will agree with it," and then go on to dress them up in "angry and dire rhetoric."

This leads to the most interesting graf:
There are various ways to tap into public disgust with partisan politics as usual. One is with a tonal centrism. That is what is offered by Barack Obama, a liberal who presents himself with a tone of sweet reason. Then there is a technocratic centrism: the bland, policy-oriented politics of the sort former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner would have offered Democrats had he run for president. Finally, there’s an apocalyptic centrism, spiced up with paranoia and economic ignorance, and warning of the end of America as we know it. Think Ross Perot.
First, note that of the three examples of centrist politicians Lowry cites, two are Democrats and one an independent. This may indicate an acknowledgment that the modern GOP is not a party that can in any sense be described as appealing to the American political center. Or it might represent a conservative commentator's frustration, after a negative public verdict on six years of conservative government, with the prospect that Republicans may be forced toward a more moderate politics.

Second, let's note how Lowry is describing Obama-style centrism, as contrasted with other forms: it's a "tonal centrism": that is, liberal politics couched in a narrative of "sweet reason." Of course, we can count on a conservative to look for the boogyman behind every moderate progressive, but I think that Lowry sees what many on the left don't: while Obama is carefully making his name as a moderate, it's not necessarily that his ideas are following his rhetoric to the center. Rather, he's using an artfully inclusive language to describe how the American center is, in fact, the natural home of progressive ideas. We'll return to this later this week.

Third, I just really like the term "apocalyptic centrism."

And, says Lowry, that's Dobbs:
Dobbs is in the Perot tradition. He has taken Dennis Kucinich, Pat Buchanan, and a dash of John Bolton, thrown them into a blender and come up with a worldview that is nationalist and populist, while giving both of those things a bad name.
This, inevitably, is where Lowry goes on to lose the plot. He attacks Dobbs, not for channeling Americans' economic insecurities into a confused package of righteous nationalism and reactionary anti-immigrant populism - but for taking those insecurities seriously to begin with: Dobbs, says Lowry, is ignoring "an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent and the 20 years of growth since the early 1980s, interrupted by only two brief recessions."

But, of course, Lowry is a conservative, so we shouldn't expect him to get this part. The economic insecurity Dobbs taps into is, of course, entirely real, despite Lowry's cheerfully cherry-picked statistics. In fact, wages have been sluggish and the job market is slowing with the end of the housing boom, family debt is rising and savings are shrinking, and Americans can't help but notice deepening budget deficits and massive foreign ownership of the growing national debt. Those are just the recent indicators, during a period in which the economy has supposedly been humming along nicely. On a larger scale, income inequality has increased sharply in the United States over the last 25 years, and American workers find themselves with far fewer protections than their counterparts in every other Western industrialized nation: from family leave and sick days, to - inexplicably and inexcusably - the lack of universal and affordable health care.

So, pace Lowry and the clueless conservatives, there is every reason why Dobbs should find so broad an audience: he understands the depth of Americans' economic anxieties in a way the administration and the majority of the punditocracy do not. The problem with Dobbs is that he's more a Bryan than a Roosevelt (whether T.R. or F.D.R.): he articulates a fire-breathing anger over the economic plight of middle America, but his simple-minded protectionism and vicious, dull-witted anti-immigrationism are no more a cure for those woes than Free Silver was in the late 19th century.

What Americans need is an economic progressivism that can keep one foot grounded in the realities of global capitalism while rejecting the dogmas of orthodox "free-market" conservatism. Something like that approach may be founded in the smithy of the 110th Congress, but on the national level it will require leadership that is both committed to progressive principles and skilled at broad consensus building. And I didn't mean for this to become another post about the prospects of an Obama, but there you go (and to be fair, Obama is not the only Democratic leader I think capable of filling this role).

History has shown that the periods of conflict between elitist conservatism and apocalyptic populism are usually a prelude to much more succesful eras: those of sensible progressivism.


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Friday, December 15, 2006
  Jonah Goldberg's Brilliant New Idea for Iraq

This morning at the National Review: Jonah Goldberg figures out just what the Iraqis need: their very own Pinochet!

"Now, hold on," you say. "Didn't they already have something like that?" Patience, please: Jonah is getting there. But it's kind of a confusing column: possibly he was drunk when he wrote it. Let's go through it together, step-by-step:

I think all intelligent, patriotic, and informed people can agree: It would
be great if the U.S. could find an Iraqi Augusto Pinochet. In fact, an Iraqi
Pinochet would be even better than an Iraqi Castro.

Well, this is no good. Incoherent from word one. Let's see if it gets better:
Let’s put aside, at least for a moment, the question of which man was (or is)
Okay, let's.
Castro almost surely has many more bodies on his rap sheet.
I thought we were putting that... well, okay.
But there are measures beside body counts. Castro took Cuba, once among the most
prosperous nations in Latin America and destined for First World status, and
rendered it poorer than nearby Jamaica and heading Haiti-ward. The island is a
prison, and trying to leave can be a capital crime.
Castro is bad: check.
Now consider Chile. General Pinochet seized a country that was coming apart at
the seams. He too clamped down on civil liberties and the press. He too
dispatched souls.
This is cool. I think Soul Dispatcher sounds like a very nice job title.
But on the plus side,
Right, I know this: On the plus side,

income distribution became more regressive. While the upper 5% of the population received 25% of the total national income in 1972, it received 50% in 1975. Wage and salary earners got 64% of the national income in 1972 but only 38% at the beginning of 1977. Malnutrition affected half of the nation's children, and 60% of the population could not afford the minimum protein and food energy per day. Infant mortality increased sharply. Beggars flooded the streets.

The junta's economics also ruined the Chilean small business class. Decreased demand, lack of credit, and monopolies engendered by the regime pushed many small and medium size enterprises into bankruptcy. The curtailment of government expenditures created widespread white-collar and professional unemployment. The middle class began to rue its early support of the junta, but appeared reluctant to join the working class in resistance to the regime.

The junta relied on force, the oligarchy, huge foreign corporations, and foreign loans to maintain itself. Under Pinochet, funding of military and internal defence spending rose 120% from 1974 to 1979. Due to the reduction in public spending, tens of thousands of employees were fired from other state-sector jobs. [6] The oligarchy recovered most of its lost industrial and agricultural holdings, for the junta sold to private buyers most of the industries expropriated by Allende's Popular Unity government. This period saw the expansion of monopolies and widespread speculation.

Oh, wait, that wasn't Jonah. Sorry. On the plus side,
Pinochet’s abuses helped create a civil society.
Just as American civil society could not have developed without the terrible abuses of the George Washington regime.
I ask you: Which model do you think the average Iraqi would prefer? Which
model, if implemented, would result in future generations calling Iraq a
Indeed. When the President talks about spreading democracy in the middle east, which bloodthirsty Latin American dictator should he seeking to emulate?
Now, you might say: “This is unfair. This is a choice between two bad options.”
True enough.

True enough.


But that’s all we face in Iraq: bad options.
Oh, Jonah. You used to be so bright-eyed. But anyway:
When presented with such a predicament, the wise man chooses the more moral, or
less immoral, path.
And no man is wiser than Jonah Goldberg. But why do I get the feeling that train left the station in March of 2003?

I bring all this up because in the wake of Pinochet’s death (and Jeane
Kirkpatrick’s), the old debate over conservative indulgence of Pinochet has
elicited shrieking from many on the left claiming that any toleration of
Pinochet was inherently immoral—their own tolerance of Castro

Let's see if we can spot the difference. In the case of one dictator, "tolerance" meant that our government actively brought him to power in an illegal coup, then aggressively supported him even through the most repressive phases of his regime. In the case of the other dictator, "tolerance" means some people who think that maybe our government should ease up a little bit on the sanctions. One of these "tolerances" is not like the other, wouldn't you say?

Moving on:
But these days, there’s a newfound love for precisely this sort of realpolitik.
Consider Jonathan Chait, who recently floated a Swiftian proposal that we put
Saddam Hussein back in power in Iraq because, given his track record of
maintaining stability and recognizing how terrible things could get in Iraq,
Hussein might actually represent the least-bad option. Even discounting his
sarcasm, this was morally myopic.
But I thought you just said the wise man would choose the least-bad option?
But it seems to me, if you can contemplate reinstalling a Hussein, you’d count
yourself lucky to have a Pinochet.
Damn. We've run out of column and Jonah still doesn't make any sense. Tell you what: I'll list a few options as to what the point possibly could be, and you can decide which one you like best.
  1. We had to overthrow Saddam in order to foster freedom and democracy in Iraq, which can only happen if we install somebody just like Saddam - only his name can't actually be Saddam.
  2. Quick: we need to find a fascist dictator for Iraq before a communist one takes over.
  3. Freedom is on the march: one right-wing authoritarian strongman at a time.
  4. You just can't get good client states these days.


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Thursday, December 14, 2006
  Caution: Dolchstosslegende Ahead

Why is Bush waiting until January to announce his Iraq policy?

Perhaps because he wants to force a Democratic Congress to deal with his request for a "surge."

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  Mitt Romney at NRO: Vive la Difference!

(Cross-posted at Daily Kos)

This morning at the National Review, K-Lo puts Mitt Romney through his paces, as the Governor from the Great State of Dukakis/Kerry continues his effort to pander to conservatives. Given how the GOP spent 2004 redefining Massachusetts as "France, only worse," it can't be easy for the guy.

To the tune of "I Walk the Line":

Lopez asks Romney about comments he made in 1994, when he argued that gay marriage should be an issue decided by the states and denounced "extremist" Republicans ["People of integrity don't force their beliefs on others, they make sure that others can live by different beliefs they may have" - whoops! Don't let Dr. Dobson hear you talking like that!]:

GOV. ROMNEY: These old interviews and stories have frequently been circulated by my opponents ever since I took a stand against the Massachusetts supreme-court ruling on same-sex marriage. This being the political season, it is not surprising this old news has appeared again. But I have made clear since 2003, when the supreme court of Massachusetts redefined marriage by fiat, that my unwavering advocacy for traditional marriage stands side by side with a tolerance and respect for all Americans.

Like the vast majority of Americans, I’ve opposed same-sex marriage, but I’ve also opposed unjust discrimination against anyone, for racial or religious reasons, or for sexual preference. Americans are a tolerant, generous, and kind people. We all oppose bigotry and disparagement. But the debate over same-sex marriage is not a debate over tolerance. It is a debate about the purpose of the institution of marriage and it is a debate about activist judges who make up the law rather than interpret the law.

I agree with 3,000 years of recorded history. I believe marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman and I have been rock solid in my support of traditional marriage. Marriage is first and foremost about nurturing and developing children. It’s unfortunate that those who choose to defend the institution of marriage are often demonized.

Shorter version: "I supported civil rights until the courts started trying to enforce them."

You certainly get the sense that Romney has been carefully studying his conservative lexigraphy. One of the benefits of being a Republican is that if you want to appeal to conservative voters, there are certain pre-packaged words and concepts you simply need to cite in order to demonstrate your bona fides. It's a remarkably effective way for a political movement to exercise control: provide the specific language that politicians must use. Orwell understood this. In this case Romney sees the obvious out: this isn't about teh gays, it's about "activist judges who make up the law rather than interpret the law." A million conservative heads nod in unison: check.

On abortion:

LOPEZ: In a 1994 debate with Senator Kennedy, you said “I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country. I have since the time that my Mom took that position when she ran in 1970 as a U.S. Senate candidate. I believe that since Roe v. Wade has been the law for 20 years we should sustain and support it.” [...] What is your position on abortion today? On Roe? How do you account for what is obviously a change — certainly publicly — on the issue?

GOV. ROMNEY: My position has changed and I have acknowledged that. How that came about is that several years ago, in the course of the stem-cell-research debate I met with a pair of experts from Harvard. At one point the experts pointed out that embryonic-stem-cell research should not be a moral issue because the embryos were destroyed at 14 days. After the meeting I looked over at Beth Myers, my chief of staff, and we both had exactly the same reaction — it just hit us hard just how much the sanctity of life had been cheapened by virtue of the Roe v. Wade mentality. And from that point forward, I said to the people of Massachusetts, “I will continue to honor what I pledged to you, but I prefer to call myself pro-life.” The state of Massachusetts is a pro-choice state and when I campaigned for governor I said that I would not change the law on abortion. But I do believe that the one-size-fits-all, abortion-on-demand-for-all-nine-months decision in Roe v. Wade does not serve the country well and is another example of judges making the law instead of interpreting the Constitution.

What I would like to see is the Court return the issue to the people to decide. The Republican party is and should remain the pro-life party and work to change hearts and minds and create a culture of life where every child is welcomed and protected by law and the weakest among us are protected. I understand there are people of good faith on both sides of the issue. They should be able to make and advance their case in democratic forums with civility, mutual respect, and confidence that our democratic process is the best place to handle these issues.

This one is particularly neat: "It was the plight of the stem cells that made me see the light!" I hope some communications consultant got a bonus for that one. (He also includes another dig at those wacky activist judges and - what's that high-pitched whistling sound? - a jab at "experts from Harvard.")

The answer is actually a pretty half-assed attempt at sounding moderate while going after the anti-choice vote. He burps out some vacuous rhetoric about "civility, mutual respect," and the "democratic process" to at least make a show of covering his butt as he makes the only promise that matters here: a President Romney would appoint justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. Operation Rescue will take care of the rest. There are ways to approach the abortion issue from a consensus-building perspective. This ain't it.

And in case there's any confusion on the matter:

LOPEZ: Does that mean you were “faking it” — as one former adviser has suggested — as a pro-choicer in your previous political campaigns? Why should anyone believe you’re really pro-life now?

GOV. ROMNEY: I believe people will see that as governor, when I had to examine and grapple with this difficult issue, I came down on the side of life. I know in the four years I have served as governor I have learned and grown from the exposure to the thousands of good-hearted people who are working to change the culture in our country. I’m committed to promoting the culture of life. Like Ronald Reagan, and Henry Hyde, and others who became pro-life, I had this issue wrong in the past.

Lesson learned: Mitt Romney, unlike the majority of Americans, is anti-choice.

Of course, Romney was for civil rights and choice before he was against them. Is 2008 the year that the Republicans nominate a flip-flopper from Massachusetts?


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Wednesday, December 13, 2006
  They Have Killed Habeas Corpus

From a diary at Daily Kos.

The 109th Congress accomplished nothing, but it did find the time to roll over on habeas corpus, at the command of the radical conservatives in the Bush administration, who want nothing more than to govern according to the fantasy that the enemy du jour - whoever it may be - is The Greatest Threat the Republic Has Ever Faced.

Government, for them, is little more than a high-stakes role playing game. And now they've rolled the dice and killed one of the fundamental rights of Western civilization.

A proud day.
  Let Me Lie to You

One of the projects I'll be undertaking here at a&s is a look at the history of evangelical Christians as a political force. Since I'm an agnostic ex-Catholic from the West Coast currently living in the Second Most Godless Neighborhood in Brooklyn*, I'll be approaching the subject without any particular claim to expertise - just an open mind and a reliance on good sources.

One of the best online sources of discussion about American evangelicalism is slacktivist, a blog by Fred Clark - himself an evangelical, and one of the most thoughtful observers of the subject I have found. Clark is engaged across a variety of subjects, but his ongoing deconstruction of the Left Behind novels is officially the Very Best Thing on the Internets.

His most recent LB post cites Mark Noll's classic The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind ("The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind..."). Noll's "epistle from a wounded lover" ponders

...a picture of an evangelical world almost completely adrift in using the mind for careful thought about the world.... [E]vangelicals -- bereft of self-criticism, intellectual subtlety, or an awareness of complexity -- are blown about by every wind of apocalyptic speculation and enslaved to the cruder spirits of populist science.

Evangelical thought was not always this way. In the mid-nineteenth century evangelical colleges helped foster a flourishing intellectual life, devoted to democratic principles and enthralled with the scientific revolution as exemplified by the work of Francis Bacon.

And then Darwin happened, and that's another story entirely.

Clark observes one of the organizing principles of the LB novels:

One of the stranger things about LB is the way the authors seem to think that their novel, their work of fiction, serves as "proof" of their [premillenial dispensationalist] claims. They seem to think it not only illustrates, but demonstrates, that faith conquers reason and that Scofield's notes are canonical rather than heretical. They've created a fictional reality in which their weird theories are true. In this fictional world, all who disagree appear as fools.

When you refuse to abide the common rules of defining reality, you're forced to create your own, and to push and push for your airless worldview against the threatening hegemony of intellectual honesty. Faith must conquer reason. This dynamic is at work as much within evangelical circles, as between evangelicals and others. There is no evangelical consensus on standards of truth, but there is an aggressive faction of mindless fundamentalists determined to impose its own truth on others, because to attempt anything less would be to concede the collapse of its entire worldview.

And thus, for now, fundamentalist evangelicals make perfect partners for a party that claims to make its own reality - and, no matter the facts, is determined always to stay the course.

*All statistics made up


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  March of the Straw Souljahs

At the National Review this morning, Kathryn Jean Lopez searches for The Way Forward in the War on Christmas. Here at a&s, we are committed to staying the course in the War on Christmas, and we believe we have a clear strategy for success, which we define as a December 25 that defends itself, that is free of the colors red and green, and that serves as an ally in the War on Valentine's Day.

At any rate, K-Lo has a very special Santa in mind this year: she's counting on Barack Obama to slide down the chimney and end all this nonsense by...uh...denouncing liberals.

While K-Lo sighs into her eggnog, let's note a couple things at work here.

One is the ongoing and ever-helpful conservative effort to tell Democrats about opportunities for "Sistah Souljah moments." Our friends on the right have fetishized the SSM and framed it as nothing less than a rite of passage for Democratic candidates. And, if you're a Republican, it's a neat deal. First your opponent is obligated to search around for some irritating and irrelevant extremist, pretend that he or she somehow represents a legitimate wing of the Democratic Party, and then denounce liberals and Democrats for being in thrall to such whackos.

So, yet another lesson Not Taking Advice from Your Enemies.

But there's something else here, which is Obama's success thus far at defining himself as the candidate of national unity. It's become increasingly common to describe - or criticize - Obama as a "blank slate," upon which anyone can project their political or patriotic hopes. I somewhat disagree: while it's true that, since coming to the U.S. Senate, he has kept a low profile to go with his limited track record (shocking behavior for a freshman Senator in the minority party!), he entered the national political scene with a very carefully crafted piece of rhetoric, which was designed precisely to define his politics - and his expression of what it means to be a Democrat - as a process of inclusion based around broadly shared values. It's a theme (further developed in his Knox College Commencement Address), that can seem irritatingly vague if you fail to realize how potentially powerful it is as a basis for progressive politics.

We'll talk a lot more about this later. At any rate, K-Lo's holiday (whoops, sorry - Christmas) wish for Obama points out the dangers of his approach: either that he could end up actually redeeming the cynical hopes of the pundit class - building and knocking down an army of straw Sistah Souljahs - or, on the other hand, that when the pundits realize he won't redeem those hopes - that he in fact represents a progressive politics which they cannot accept - he'll be subject to a truly vicious media backlash. One fueled by all the nastiness and scorn of spoiled children outraged to learn that Santa won't be coming down the chimney at all.


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Tuesday, December 12, 2006
  Return of the Gipper?

Credit to Enterprise at Urban Elephants: at least he's asking the right questions.

"Oh dear, oh dear," said Lucy. "And I was so pleased at finding you again.
And I thought you'd let me stay. And I thought you'd come roaring in and
frighten all the enemies away - like last time. And now everything is going to
be horrid."

"It is hard for you, little one," said Aslan. "But things never happen the
same way twice."

-C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian

  Profiles in Courage: Pataki Bravely Says Sex Offenders Bad, NY State Leg. Bravely Raises Own Pay

Via the Albany Project, a lesson in two dangerous political species: outgoing legislatures and mediocre governors seeking higher office.

With the destruction of the New York State GOP as a significant political force (for the time being, anyway), Republicans in the Empire State are left without an agenda that might broadly appeal to voters. But one thing they can still do is punish sex offenders some more. And as Governor Pataki gears up for a run at the GOP Presidential nomination (ow, the funny - it hurts!), his outgoing wish list includes, in the finest tradition of the idiotic Rockefeller Drug Laws, a "civil commitment" bill that would keep sex offenders locked up even after they've completed their sentences. Nevermind that it's unjust, over-broad, with a track record of failure in other states, and is opposed even by victims' advocates - it sure would sound cool in Iowa!

But how do you get such a craptacular piece of legislation through the Legislature? You trade it (oh, and that little Atlantic Yards boondoggle) for a pay raise. Never mind that the New York State Legislature is already the third-highest paid, but the most dysfunctional one in the nation. It's Christmas time, and Christmas means giving, and the gifts you give yourself are always the best of all.


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  At the Death of Pinochet, While the Conservatives Squirm and Fawn

"I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves." - Henry Kissinger

This has been brought to you by Speading Democracy and Freedom, Except When We Don't Like the Results.
  Getting Stabby

At the Weekly Standard (I'm a few days late on this one, but catching up), Robert Kagan and William Kristol manage to blame the failure in Iraq on . . . the Iraq Study Group. It's a neat trick, actually - to equate those searching for ways out of the disaster (which, by definition, would mean withdrawing troops) to the Rumsgoat who can be blamed for not sending enough troops in the first place. Evidently there is no strategic difference between 2003 and 2006-7. In a similar vein, the Germans, having failed to take Moscow in 1941, should really have made an effort to do it in the spring of 1945, instead of wasting all that time mucking around in the streets of Berlin.

I mention the German analogy because, while I have complete respect for Godwin's law, I can't read a sentence like this:
That means the president will have to be, much more than he has been, his own general and strategist.
without imagining the little man ranting over maps in a bunker somewhere, cursing the fecklessness of his generals. With, no doubt, similarly effective results. Anyway, it's probably moot: Hitler was a (demented, evil) overachiever, whereas Bush goes to bed far too early to take on the task of being "his own general and strategist."

Oh, but so: the whole point of the Weekly Standard piece is to beat the drum, yet again, for "more troops" - about 30-60,000 should do (which may be crappy turnout for a Jets game, but is apparently enough people to finally secure a major mideast nation which is currently locked into a savage civil war).

What is all this? This is a Dolchstosslegende in its formative stages. About which more later, but you can see the basic shape, which is always the same: after the war situation has gone well past the point of being disastrously untenable, the hawks are finally relieved of authority and the grown-ups do what they can to clean up the mess. This, in turn, frees the hawks to spend the next two or three decades crafting the myth that, in fact, it was the grown-ups who lost the war - that things were going so well until the nation was stabbed in the back. After all that time, the details - timelines, lies, blunders, elections - tend to get fuzzy, but the stab-in-the-back legend reorganizes, clarifies, provides a bright and convincing new way to remember all those things that happened during that late unpleasantness so many years ago.

That's the historical dilemma facing the Democrats. They were elected, clearly, with a mandate to clean up the Iraq mess. But so often, a party elected with a mandate to clean up messes and do unpleasant things is punished years later, when the crisis is past and the party winds up being identified with the very messes and unpleasant things it had to deal with.

Anyway, here's a proposal: the Democrats should consent to the additional troops, on the condition that any increase in troop levels be directly indexed to the percentage of card-carrying Young Republicans and College Republicans who enlist in the armed forces.

After all, they've got to come from somewhere.


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"An obscure but fantastic blog." - Markus Kolic


Critical analysis of the American conservative movement from a progressive perspective. Also some stuff about the Mets.

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Favorite Posts

I Was a Mole at the Conservative Summit, Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Wars of Perception, Part One
Wars of Perception, Part Two

Conservative Futures
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