alien & sedition.
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
  Karl Rove, Optimist

Ross Douthat has an excellent post on this New Yorker piece about Karl Rove -- I haven't read the whole article yet; there may well be more parts worthy of commentary, but Douthat singles out this passage:
“There are two or three societal trends that are driving us in an increasingly deep center-right posture,” [Rove] said. “One of them is the power of the computer chip. Do you know how many people’s principal source of income is eBay? Seven hundred thousand.” He went on, “So the power of the computer has made it possible for people to gain greater control over their lives. It’s given people a greater chance to run their own business, become a sole proprietor or an entrepreneur. As a result, it has made us more market-oriented, and that equals making you more center-right in your politics.” As for spirituality, Rove said, “As baby boomers age and as they’re succeeded by the post-baby-boom generation, within both of those generations there’s something going on spiritually—people saying it’s not all about materialism, it’s not all about the pursuit of material things. If you look at the traditional mainstream denominations, they’re flat, but what’s growing inside those denominations, and what’s growing outside those denominations, is churches that are filling this spiritual need, that are replacing sterility with something vibrant, something that speaks to the heart of the individual, that gives a sense of purpose.”
Douthat suggests that Rove's two arguments here -- that Americans are getting more materialistic and that they are getting more spiritual -- don't add up:
It's hard to imagine a balder description of the essential contradiction at the heart of the GOP coalition, and yet Rove seems unaware that there's anything contradictory here at all.
Of course, one could imagine both trends operating together -- your basic "Jihad vs. McWorld" dynamic. But that sort of thing tends to involve more instability and strife than the happy symbiosis Rove is positing (on the other hand, who's to say the right doesn't benefit from instability and strife?).

But it's when you break down each part of the equation that its silliness becomes most apparent. One the one hand, there isn't any evidence that trends in American religious belief will benefit conservatives over the next few years. If anything, it's the other way around. Douthat observes that even if there is growth among more-conservative demoninations, it doesn't represent an increasingly religious America: such developments are a familiar pattern in American history, and they are almost always "more a matter of the religious portion of the population shuffling from one faith to another ... than of the country's overall religiosity increasing." And as Digby and Bill Scher pointed out some time ago, the fastest-growing "religious" group in America is actually the "unchurched" -- a demographic that, unsurprisingly, tends to vote overwhelmingly Democrat. Meanwhile, the very particular political organization that in recent decades made it seem that religious faith necessarily led to conservative politics is falling apart. It has never been a given that Republicans benefit from Americans' religiousity; it was, in fact, the product of a well-organized religious right operation from 1979 on. As that operation fades, so will the electoral potency of faith-based GOP politics.

The other side of Rove's equation is, in its way, even more absurd. I mean, really: Americans are going to vote Republican because of ebay? This is Rove doing an impression of Newt Gingrich's breathless futurism at its nuttiest. Just as Gingrich rhapsodizes about technological developments as though every innovation were produced by private as opposed to public investment, Rove is getting caught up in the wild assumption that a post-industrial economy will make market disciples of the masses. Douthat points out the problem with this:
[I]t's by no means obvious that the Information Age's winners are natural Republicans (as opposed to, say, natural Clintonites or Spitzerians), and neither is it clear that the unfortunate externalities of skill-based technological change (growing social immobility, for instance) won't transform the Information Age's losers into disgruntled Lou Dobbs Democrats, rather than the Sam's Club Republicans whose votes were crucial to the fleeting Bush majority.
I've been reading Jacob Hacker's The Great Risk Shift (I'll review it when I'm finished), which seems to me to be exactly based on reading the "unfortunate externalities" of the new economy, and understanding the pitfalls for ordinary Americans in a way to which Rove is entirely oblivious.

The fact that Douthat recognizes this, too, is an indication that he continues to be one of the most interesting conservative thinkers out there at the moment.

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