THINGS I’VE BEEN WONDERING (NON-SNARKY, EARNEST EDITION)

Points for answers. Extra credit if you can identify the podcasts I’ve been driving with recently.

Do GOPers make their global warming messaging about attacking Al Gore because they think he’s unpopular and they want to discredit science? Because they think he’s popular and they want to discredit him? Or just because they want to change the topic?

If Barack Obama combined a blue ribbon panel with a moratorium on firings of service members for being gay, how many Democrats in Congress would back him up?

Does having Democrats running the federal government make people who don’t like abortion but want it to stay legal feel more (not 8%, but maybe 1%) comfy identifying themselves “pro-life” without worrying about an abortion ban?

How do thousands of already-and-now-permanently married same-sex couples affect the fight for equal marriage rights for everyone else in California?

When will America have its first Supreme Court nominee who’s open about having had an abortion?

Is Obama serious about using our leverage to push Bibi?

Is Bruce Springsteen the only liberal immune from being tarred with the “elitist celebrity” brush? If so why?

WIFE SWAP CONSERVATISM

While on vacation out East, I got the chance to pick up and read Walter Benn Michaels’ 2006 book The Trouble With Diversity. Might as well spoil the suspense and start by saying Benn Michaels didn’t convince me when he argues (like Michaels Lind and Tomasky) that left-wing “identity politics” around race and gender stand in the way of a serious left-wing class politics. The book reminded me at various points of Catherine MacKinnon’s argument (in Towards a Feminist Theory of the State) that feminists and Marxists view each other with suspicion because each party could undo one kind of oppression while leaving the other oppression intact. It’s often not clear to whom Benn Michaels, an English professor, is addressing his argument. He offers criticisms (often clever, always articulate) of some academic arguments about identity, but he doesn’t engage with many pivotal ones – like the literature on intersectional (rather than additive) approaches to identity, considering how identities mediate each other – how being identified as a poor Black woman has different social and economics meanings than just being poor plus being Black plus being a woman. He calls Omi and Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States “certainly the most influential academic text on the social construction of race,” but cites only two sentences from it.

If the argument is directed at political practitioners, we’re left wondering how he actually pictures the left gaining power and effectiveness by throwing race and gender overboard. In a telling line criticizing the focus on sexism at Wal-Mart as a distraction from exploitation there, Benn Michaels asserts that “Laws against discrimination by gender are what you go for when you’ve given up on – or turned against – the idea of a strong labor movement.” Tell that to all the folks in the labor movement and labor-allied groups who’ve worked to support the Dukes lawsuit and the fight against Wal-Mart’s sexism as part of a broad-based critique of a company that helpfully illustrates the connections between conservatism’s threat to gender equality, economic justice, environmental sustainability, and other values progressives and most Americans hold dear. Benn Michaels’ approach, which denies that rich people can be victims of oppression or that poor people can be oppressed by more than only poverty, would render the left unable to fully understand, let alone seriously engage, with what Betty Dukes and millions of women like her are facing (see also Whitewashing Race). As badly as Benn Michaels may wish for a revived labor movement, in advocating a disregard for identity politics he’s echoing the disconnection from progressive social movements which contributed the labor movement’s decline in the first place. Those blinders regarding oppressions besides class mirror the blindness to class of too many in, for example, the pro-choice movement – blindness of which Benn Michaels would be rightly critical.

That said, we needn’t accept Benn Michael’s arguments about the irrelevance of race- and sex-based politics to appreciate the book’s critical insight: that the plutocrats triumph when poverty is understood as an identity to be respected rather than as a problem to be eliminated. Conservatives, as he argues, have masterfully reframed our class problem as being about the elitists who look down on poor people rather than about the robber barons, de-regulators, and union-busters who make them poor. Examples abound in conservative literature (Tom Wolfe comes in for some enjoyable criticism in The Trouble With Diversity), but Benn Michaels is right that seemingly liberal takes on class often suffer from the same problem. And he’s right that conservatives draw on the language we use to talk about race to pull this off.

I was reminded of People Like Us, a very engaging PBS documentary about class in America that explores a series of interesting situations – working-class folks fight with ex-hippies about what kind of supermarket to bring into their neighborhood; tensions within African-American communities about whether Jack and Jill clubs aimed at well-off Black kids are elitist; a daughter’s embarrassment about her “trailer park” mom – but all from the perspective of how different classes can get along, not how we can reduce or eliminate class differences. The least sympathetic characters in the movie are a bunch of snotty high school kids at a mixed-income public school talking in awful terms about why they wouldn’t talk to the poor kids they go to school with (“What would we talk to them about?”). It’s a good movie. But you could walk away with the sense that our class problems would be solved if the rich kids would befriend the poor kids. Which, as Benn Michaels would argue, would be much less expensive or destabilizing for the powers that be than making those kids’ families less poor. As Benn Michaels writes (in one of many paragraphs that makes you wish more political books were written by English professors) about an episode of Wife Swap:

At no time, apparently, did it occur to the makers of the show, the people in it or the people reviewing it, that what the show really demonstrates is how much better it is to be rich than to be poor. Or perhaps one should say not that the show ignores this point but that it is devoted to denying it, and that it succeeds so completely (this is its brilliance) that we find ourselves believing that run-down shacks in the woods are just as nice as Park Avenue apartments, especially if your husband remembers to thank you for chopping the wood when you get home from driving the bus. The idea the show likes is the one Tom Wolfe and company like: that the problem with being poor is not having less money than rich people but having rich people “look down” on you. And the rich husband is bad because he does indeed look down on the poor people, whereas the rich wife (the one who has never done a day’s work in her life and who begins the show by celebrating her “me time,” shopping, working out, etc.) turns out to be good because she comes to appreciate the poor and even to realize that she can learn from them. The fault here is not in being rich but in thinking that you have better taste – more generally, in thinking that…you are are a better person.

MONEY, IT’S A HIT

Something else about Lieberman-Lamont: Their race brings together two of the less popular archetypes in American public life: the incumbent creature of Washington and the guy with more money than God.

That’s not a coincidence.

Under the “one dollar, one vote” system undergirded by the “money is speech” regime set forth in Buckley, the ability to raise and spend money ranks high on the already frightful list of institutional advantages held by incumbents. The ability to raise money is the first mark of legitimacy in the eyes of the media and political establishments who too often serve as gatekeepers between would-be challengers and the attention of the electorate. Ostensibly liberal people pledge fealty to the doctrine that serious candidates should be able to raise serious money.

Some millionaire candidates, of course, fail spectacularly. Some spend enough of their dough to leave the incumbent at a significant spending disadvantage. Some do both.

But wherever one comes down on what we should or shouldn’t assume about millionaires’ character and suitability to represent us, the difficulty of unseating an incumbent without being one should concern us.

A PETTY POST

I’ll happily agree with all those saying that the President of the United States using the word “shit” in what he believed to be private is one of the least newsworthy angles on the current carnage in the Middle East. But seeing as it’s in the news anyway, I think it’s worth asking whether he really believed it to be private.

As with other ostensibly unscripted accidental colorful moments from George Bush (see Paul Waldman’s account in Being Right Is Not Enough of Bush calling the Times’ Adam Clymer an “asshole”), this seems to read as easily as a scripted reminder that George Bush is a tough guy from the heartland who doesn’t “take shit.” What better contrast with the legions of smooth-talking caviar-eating French-speaking girly-men whom conservatives imagine sliding through the halls of the United Nations and the G8? What easier way to grab headlines pitting the President against inaction without requiring much in the way of action?

And what could make for better Fox News headlines for a week than if some college professor somewhere comes forward criticizing Bush for using coarse language to talk about Hezbollah?

BILL FRIST: NADER-LITE

One of the consequences of the way I chose to furnish my apartment (futon on one side of the room, table and chairs on the other), is that having the wired internet reach my laptop on the futon – which due to some trouble following the Ikea instructions only works as a bed – means that it can’t reach the table. So I’ll pull things up sitting on the bed, unhook the laptop from the internet, and then take it over to the table to read whatever web page I’ve pulled up while I eat.

I mention only because otherwise it’s unlikely I ever would have read the entire past week of blog posts from Marshall Whitmann. I say this not because I disagree with him (although on most things he chooses to write about I do), but because reading a page of Marshall Whitmann felt a lot like reading a paragraph of Marshall Whitmann several times in a row. Although there are some variations: On Friday, Joe Lieberman was like JFK in that he’s a “blue collar, bread and butter” type unlike the “upper-crust” Ned Lamont; on Monday, Joe Lieberman was like JFK in that he’s a “pro-growth progressive” and not “the darling of liberals” like Ned Lamont.

But the most tendentious of the analogies employed repeatedly by “The Moose” is one that crops up again and again in neoconservative, neoliberal, “New Democratic” and other discourse on the internet: the comparison of left-wingers and Pat Buchanan. Lieberman’s critics, Whitmann warns, are part of a “neo-isolationist, MoveOn.org, Pat Buchanan-lite imperative to rid the Democratic Party of the centrist hawks.” And many of them “are merely Pat Buchanan lite who share the paleo-conservative animus toward America’s special relationship with the Jewish state.”

The logic seems to go something like this: Pat Buchanan is famous and really unpopular. He believes Hitler was “an individual of great courage,” that women lack “the will to succeed,” and that AIDS is “nature’s retribution for violating the laws of nature.” Also, he promotes an isolationist doctrine in which America should minimize its presence abroad. One application of that doctrine has been opposition to the invasion of Iraq and criticism of the ongoing American presence there. And he doesn’t much like neo-cons. Ergo: Anyone who is overly critical of the Iraq War is “Pat Buchanan lite” and one step away from embracing isolationism and bigotry. And since labeling lefties as Buchananite is counterintuitive, it’s guaranteed to be right – and to demonstrate the sophistication of whoever makes the charge, especially if it’s a conservative lumping another conservative in with a leftie.

The folks who trot out the Pat Buchanan slur like to pitch it as some kind of sophisticated exegesis of the philisophical first principles underlying criticism of the neoconservative project. But it’s not. Certainly, Democrats have been more comparatively more hesitant in polls to express support for phrases about government pursuing aggressive foreign policy or democracy promotion since the man who’s running the government gave both a bad name. But that doesn’t make them isolationists. And it doesn’t mean there aren’t worthwile interventions they would support, especially if they had reason to trust the people making the case for them. Plenty on the left – to the chagrin of some at The New Republic – have decided that US military intervention in Darfur would be a very good idea while remaining convinced that unilateral US military intervention in Iraq was a very bad one (as Alan Wolfe notes, unilateralism is itself the “first cousin” of isolationism).

And it should go without saying, but if you’re looking for a constituency with greater animus than most towards people who are Jewish, women, Black, or gay, the left isn’t it.

It’s hard to come up with an equal and opposite absurdity to compare to the charge that war critics on the left are like Pat Buchanan. It would need to compare people on the right based on a policy view they have to a wildly unpopular figure on the left who shares it for different reasons. Maybe “Conservatives who tried to use the federal government to re-insert Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube are Ralph Nader lite!” Difference is, Ralph Nader may be unpopular, but unlike Pat Buchanan, he’s not a bigot.

COME ON

The Times reports that 72 Georgetown faculty, administrators, and graduate students have signed a letter protesting the school’s hiring of Douglas Feith for a two-year lectureship. Which of the 72 did Jason DeParle choose to interview? One is the author of the petition. The other

has appointments in anthropology and French and whose résumé lists several writings about French chocolate makers. (“From Master Chocolatiers Today: Bayonne and the Basque Coast.”) She complained that Mr. Feith’s appointment was “presented as a fait accompli.”

What better to reinforce a narrative which marginalizes critics of the neoconservative project as anti-American elitists than an anecdote about a French professor who studies “Master Chocolatiers”? That liberal media, at it again.

Incidentally, Professor Terrio has other research papers DeParle could have cited, like “New ‘Savages’ in the Suburbs: Criminalizing ‘Immigrant’ Youth in French Mass Media.” Or he could have talked to a professor like Judith Tucker, the historian who edits the International Journal of Middle East Studies. But that wouldn’t pack the same narrative punch.

LIVING ON THE WEDGE

Here’s CNN’s headline on the latest GOP response to not being so popular right now:

GOP hones its core agenda: Flag burning, gay marriage, abortion top Republicans’ Senate plan

This will certainly provide fodder for those left of the center who like to argue that the problem with Republicans is that they focus on intangible “wedge issues” rather than material issues that actually affect people. It’s an argument that has some popularity not only with centrist Dems but with a fair number farther to the left too. I don’t think it’s a good one. Thing is, these so-called wedge issues affect real people in ways that are all too real – and often are economic as well. The problem with Republicans isn’t that they focus too much on so-called “social issues.” The problem with Republicans is that they are wrong. The problem with Republicans is that they want to reverse social progress. Democrats need to expand the public understanding of what is an issue of values. But they also have to make the case better on the issues that are already commonly identified that way (Thomas Frank is right to argue that taking stronger populist stands on the economic issues could help to sap right-wing “culture war” politics of their ostensibly anti-elitist appeal).

All that said, one can hold out hope that the image of Bill Frist scheduling hearings on how to amend the first ammendment to ban flag burning will do some damage to his party’s credibility as responsible stewards of the Congress.

PIN THE TAIL ON THE ELITE

There’s a lot that could be said about Matt Bai’s NYT Mag profile of Mark Warner, which unsurprisingly says as much about Bai as about Warner. Bai’s faith in the conservatism of the average American, and the culpability of the uber-rich liberals in wrecking the Democrats’ appeal, will be familiar to anyone who read his chiding critique of Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s book for considering structural obstacles to Democratic resurgence when the problem was obviously those liberal Hollywood celebrities and crazed bloggers stopping the party from offering Americans what they actually want. What struck me most on reading the article was the way that Bai’s choice of anecdotes reinforces his narrative – which may also be a reflection of Warner sharing anecdotes that reinforce a similar one.

Bai notes Warner’s plans to reform Medicare and his “embrace of free trade,” as things which will antagonize that infernal liberal elite, even though, as his readers may recall from the 2004 election, the party’s coterie of fund-raisers and policy wonks and strategists and spin-meisters are not known for their support for including labor standards in trade agreements. Warner’s belief that eroding entitlements in the solution to global competition seems more likely to put him on a collision course with the low-income voters who depend on our social insurance net and who’ve borne the burden of neoliberal trade policy. But there’s no gesture towards such a confrontation in Bai’s piece; instead we get an anecdote about his being hectored by elitist liberals at a Bay Area dinner party:

Warner thought his liberal guests would be interested in his policies to improve Virginia schools and raise the standard of living in rural areas; instead, it seemed to him, they thought that they understood poverty and race in an intellectual way that he, as a red-state governor, could not…as some of the guests walked Warner to his car, one woman vowed to educate him on abortion rights. That was all he could take. “This is why America hates Democrats,” a frustrated Warner blurted out before driving away. (Still piqued a month later, Warner, speaking to The Los Angeles Times, summarized the attitude of the assembled guests about their plans to save the country: “You little Virginia Democrat, how can you understand the great opportunities we have?”)

To read this story, and Bai’s article, you would think the only people to the left of Mark Warner are Bay Area elitists with cash left over from their brie purchases to distort the primary process. Of course, Matt Bai isn’t the only elite journalist committed to a vision in which his self-styled centrism is the will of the masses and those to his left are an insular elite. Michael Crowley, in a TNR piece on the tensions between Steny Hoyer’s more TNR-friendly war position and Nancy Pelosi’s, chose to describe Pelosi’s inner circle this way:

In addition to her top confidant, the combative Miller, others with Pelosi’s ear include Rosa DeLauro of New Haven; Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto; and Jan Schakowsky, a fiery crusader from Chicago’s upscale Lakefront area. All are critical of the war.

Now I’ve had the pleasure over the past four years of discovering all kinds of things for which New Haven should be nationally known. But it isn’t. Probably, as many TNR readers recognize Lakefront as New Haven. So Crowley could as helpfully written about “Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto, Jan Schakowsky of Lakefront, and Rosa DeLauro, whose New Haven, CT district represents a largely low-income constituency.” I’m curious why he decided instead to specify how “upscale” Lakefront is. But maybe that just makes me part of the reason people hate Democrats.

STATING THE OBVIOUS

In a banner ad over at Instapundit, right-wing blog outfit Pajamas Media shares the breathless prose of Tammy Bruce:

The core of the American people has manifested itself most purely in blogs because elites for so long controlled all avenues of communication. Those days are over now.

The blogosphere oozes with this kind of petty triumphalism – from Andrew Sullivan’s “The Revolution Will Be Blogged” tagline to Ed Driscoll’s “Year of Blogging Dangerously.” Bruce’s claim is just a shining example because it counterposes “elites” with the “core of the American people.” She’s right that American journalists are a fairly elite group (the shift in journalists’ conception of their job from a trade to a profession is related to this). That’s why coverage of unions, contrary to the claims of most bloggers, tends to be so right-wing and hostile. But if Bruce thinks that blogs – overwhelmingly written and read by the wealthiest sliver of the population – represent the “core of the American people,” that suggests that she has a rather elite conception of the American people herself.

LOOK WHO’S UNREPRESENTATIVE NOW

The great thing about legislative civil rights victories like the civil unions bill passed last spring here in Connecticut and the even more historic equal marriage rights legislation passed yesterday by California’s legislature is that it deprives the opponents of civil equality under the law of their judicial tyranny arguments and leaves them stuck opposing equal rights for all couples on the merits. One of the most squeamish about having to take sides on the substantive issue here is Governor Schwarzenegger, who in the LA Times today is grasping desperately for any “unrepresentative elites” argument he can get his hands on. Schwarzenegger’s gambit to have his centrist image and eat it too? Pinning the “unrepresentative elite” argument on the legislature. I expect we’ll see more of this in the future: Republicans rising to disparage the republican system of government in favor of direct democracy through ballot initiatives on the grounds the marriage issue strikes so deep that legislatures, like courts, can’t be trusted with it. That means deliciously ironic statements like this one from Schwarzenegger’s spokeswoman:

The people spoke when they passed Proposition 22. The issue subsequently went to the courts. The governor believes the courts are the correct venue for this decision to be made. He will uphold whatever decision the court renders.

WHERE ARE THE CATHOLIC WORKER POLS?

As Matt Yglesias observes, the relative absence of economically liberal social conservative politicians isn’t based on any lack of voters with that set of views. Michael Lind has an interesting take on it in Up From Conservatism. I still don’t know where he got the idea that the number of Americans “who sincerely believe both that abortions should be outlawed and that there should be further massive tax cuts for the rich – is quite small” (maybe he’ll explain it over at TPMCafe). But setting aside Lind’s questionable demographic premises, I think there’s some truth to his argument that the scarcity of politicians who are socially conservative and economically liberal is related to the scarcity of members of the American elite, however defined, who are what Europeans would call “Catholic workers,” libertarians would call “authoritarians,” and Lind would call “national liberals.” Self-identified libertarians, on the other hand, are much better represented amongst the elite than amongst the American public.

SIX POPULISMS

TPMCafe’s guest stint by Thomas Frank (One Market Under God, by the way, is a masterpiece) has stirred a spirited debate about the place of populism in a progressive future. Populism is a word which has rightly come up fairly frequently in more- and less-enlightened discussions of the left’s future, but too often it seems like folks are talking past each other. Here are six of the somewhat but not entirely related themes I think are in play in the way different people discuss populism:

Progressive Economics: In broad strokes, the economic policy proposals that get labeled as populist are the ones least popular with the Washington Post editorial board and the “Washington Consensus” crowd: fair trade or no trade; downward economic redistribution; unionization. Opposition to immigration often gets grouped in here as well as part of the same package, though for obvious reasons I’d rather apply the populist label to the push for equal labor rights for immigrants.

Direct Democracy: The other set of policy proposals which usually get the populist labels are the ones which bring political decisions under more direct control of the American public. This includes taking decisions away from judges and handing them over to legislatures and taking them away from legislatures and handing them over to public referenda.

Trust in crowds: Populism is also used to describe a posture – whether held by politicians or activists – of trust in the mass public and distrust in elites. Usually, trust in the public is justified by an appeal to the wisdom of common people in identifying their own problems and synthesizing their own solutions. And distrust in elites is justified on the grounds of their inability to understand those insights or, more often, their narrow interests.

Democratic Legitimacy: Populism also describes a particular kind of appeal made by elected or unelected political leaders. Candidates for office, especially, tend to get the populist label for seizing democratic legitimacy for themselves – that is, for framing themselves as the bearers and protectors of the people’s will. The corollary to the candidate as representative of the masses is the candidate as enemy of the elites, whose hostility is easily explained by their opposition to the popular policies and popular mandate.

Prejudice: Populism is also a frequently-invoked label to describe all manner of ugly prejudice, be it directed against Blacks, Jews, homosexuals, or immigrants. In this conception, populism is the cry of some self-defined majority against unwelcome interlopers. This meaning of populism – which gives elites a lot of credit – is never far when someone’s looking to discredit one of the others.

Economic Focus: Maybe the simplest sense in which the word populism is used is to refer to a focus on economic issues (rather than a particular stance on them), to the exclusion of others.

That makes two kinds of policy approaches, two rhetorical/ philosophical postures, a question of focus, and a very bad thing (generally thrown into the mix by pundits like Joe Klein to make everything associated with the word sound ugly). Each of them, though, has a way of showing up implicitly in discussions about what is or should be populist.

What does it mean, for example, to ask whether Bill Clinton was a populist President? He often gets described that way, in large part because he ran on the economy (“It’s the Economy, Stupid”), and because his challenge to Bush benefited significantly from a sense that Clinton represented the concerns of the American people with which the President had fallen out of touch (and supermarket ray-guns). Others associate Clinton with the decline of populism in the Democratic party, and of the party in the country, pointing to his conservative stance on issues like NAFTA and the technocratic underpinnings of the “Reinventing Government” concept. I’m not going to say they’re both right (I’d say Clinton campaigned as a populist, but he didn’t govern as much of one). I will say that on those terms, it’s no surprise that those conversations don’t get farther than they do.

Thoughts?