Posts Tagged ‘Liberalism’

In the aftermath of the trouncing last Tuesday, some in the media and on the Right are finally beginning to examine the consequences of the conservative echo chamber. I’ve had friends who have been part of the conservative movement for decades complaining to me about this for years, and the chickens are — yes — finally coming home to roost. How far we’ve come from the days when an editor named William F. Buckley Jr. used media, like National Review and Firing Line (a program broadcast on PBS) to provide a forum for informed debate and exchange of ideas.

Insightful analysis here from POLITICO’s Jonathan Martin, and a personal portrait of one loyal GOPer’s personal bubble-bursting experience in the Post. And for reference, Bill Maher has been talking about this (with a literal bubble as a prop) for years.

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Thomas Frank, author of “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” had a fascinating appearance today on Diane Rehm program. I’ve had my objections to his theories in the past, namely that there is a fundamental flaw, from a political and rhetorical standpoint, with the premise that there is something wrong with Kansas. As one teacher of mine put it, the smartest thing conservatives might have done after Frank’s book premiered would have been to offer (via National Review, perhaps) a free copy of the book. The accompanying advert would blare: “See, here come those liberals again, telling you you’re not as smart as them, that–literally–there’s something wrong with you.

My addendum to this argument would be that there’s nothing really wrong with Kansas; there’s something wrong with the progressive/Democratic response to the conservative/Republican arguments being made to the people of Kansas. The problem, if you are a Democrat, is that conservatives are persuading people in Kansas. The solution lies not in “fixing” what’s “wrong” with people, but in persuading them that your ideas are better than the ones they have come to subscribe to.

Frank has a new book out, “Pity the Millionaire,” which he discussed in the Rehm interview, and he seems to be coming around to the position that there’s not as much wrong with Kansas as there is something wrong with the arguments being made by Democrats. I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve read the new book–but based on the interview, Frank and I may be more on the same page this time. His project traces the evolution of populism since its real inception during the Depression years. How did FDR’s political victories, built on the successes of the progressive labor movement, get co-opted a generation later by Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority and the current tea partiers? Frank’s analysis focuses on several factors, among them a failure to embrace the importance of rhetoric in maintaining movements. Frank rightly points to FDR a great political wordsmith who persuaded the nation on the rightness of his policies. Those fireside chats meant something. Liberalism in the postwar years drifted away from FDR’s vigorous rhetorical engagement and towards a more institutionalized, polite, managerial style. Adlai Stevenson vs. William F. Buckley. No contest.

As Rehm pointed out in her interview with Frank, by the time to cultural turmoil of the 1960s came around, the Right had moved in for full populist capture (Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland” is vital reading here.) The white working class (and even a good percentage of the black working class) supported Richard Nixon in 1972. Reagan Democrats were emerging as a political cohort, successors to Nixon’s Silent Majority. I look forward to Frank’s analysis of how this trajectory led us to the tea party and today’s populist anger on the right.

Frank notes that one of his criticisms of the current political left is what he calls “the silence of the technocrats.” He is dead on. In a conversation with a similarly minded friend just yesterday we found ourselves echoing this very theme. Why didn’t the President and his allies make better arguments about their policies, such as health care reform? Why didn’t they articulate them in ways that would persuade, and respond to the phony criticisms from the Right? “They always fall back  on expertise,” was Thomas Frank’s reply today. “That’s not how Roosevelt did it,” he said. “You don’t say you’re doing it because the economists told you so.”

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The horrific terrorist attack in Oslo has led to a flurry of controversial accusations among commentators and critics over whether the anti-immigrant, anti-Ismlamic right wing extremism favored by the accused Anders Ehring Breivik are symptomatic—or even directly linked to—other movements on the political right in this country and in Europe. On the one hand, the lone gunman theory (actually the proper term is “lone wolf,” within the community of those who sturdy hate crimes); on the other the environmental and cultural argument. This holds that whether or not Breivik was or was not technically acting alone, he was also acting out crimes justified and enflamed by rhetoric and activism that speaks of “Islamification” of the west, “invasions” of immigrants, and the rejection of modern government as at once Marxist, fascist, multiculturalist, and socialist.

Yes, we have heard much of this before. And many on the left are pointing to the Tea Party. To anti-Islamist crusaders like Frank Gaffney, the group Citizens for National Security, and various conservative columnists.

Is this fair?

I’m going to dodge, and raise another point, about national sovereignty.

Beyond the rhetoric of Sharia-law takeovers and immigrant invasions is a more serious, legal and even philosophical dispute about the nature of nations and national sovereignty. About borders and citizenship. Especially since the Bush era, a cadre of intellectuals on the right have been advancing a “New Sovereignty” theory that is related to this current debate.

At its core, the New Sovereigntists argue that nations and their laws stop at their borders; thus the important of citizenship and immigration are implicated. Sovereignty and rights are enforced by nations and governments, set down in constitutions and codes by responsible governments, ideally democratic ones. Hence these thinkers harbor deep skepticism of “human” rights of “universal” rights, which they see as empty concepts, devoid of real legal meaning and thus potential tools of distant organizations such as the United Nations, which are not elected and therefore cannot be held accountable by the peoples of sovereign nations. A similarly deep skepticism of international bodies such as the U.N. and International Criminal Court usually follows. As does a similarly fierce defense of Israel’s absolute sovereignty–which is seen as perpetually under attack not only by Islamic terrorists on its own soil, but by Islamic nations and their allies at the United Nations.

New Sovereignty found many acolytes in the George W. Bush administration. Much has changed since the foreign policy of the United States has moved away from the his “preemption” doctrine championed by the neoconservatives then in government, who asserted we didn’t need anyone’s permission, thank you very much, to act in self defense. At least self defense as they understood it. In fact the war in Libya is almost Sovereignty in reverse. The United States sought and gained the approval of international bodies, but not the Congress of the United States.

New Sovereignty has interesting and substantial intellectual roots, some interesting, and surprising. One being Carl Schmitt, a German legal philosopher and Nazi collaborator who mostly rehabilitated himself after the war and is now being reexamined by postmodern scholars. Schmitt believed that the only distinction that matters in politics is friend and enemy; this blunt and Bismarckian idea grew in his later scholarship to a view of human and political history that encompassed the “Nomos of the Earth.” Nomos is the Greek word for the concept of rule of law on territory owned by a sovereign power.

“The friend and enemy concepts are to be understood in their concrete and existential sense, not as metaphors or symbols, not mixed and weakened by economic, moral, and other conceptions.” -Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political

What we hear today on the right about the incursion of foreign laws into our courts and invasions of foreigners into our communities, diluting our culture and the rule of law has parallels to this. It is happening here with the Tea Party movement and it is happening in Europe as well, in organized and sporadic fashion. I am not, to be clear, proposing a cause and effect scenario. Many of the New Sovereigntists’ arguments are intellectually and legally persuasive. They are important arguments worthy of consideration; my own critique of President Obama’s handling of the war in Libya is, actually, influenced by this thinking to a strong extent.

But ideas, and their followers, do not exist in a vacuum. I do not know if Breivik was reading Carl Schmitt, or anyone else. Or secretly in league with Tea Party Minutemen on the Arizona border. For my purposes, those are only some of the relevant questions. The underlying ideas matter as well, and they go far beyond what a deranged Norwegian scribbled in a manifesto.

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I just watched Jon Stewart’s contentious (to say the least) interview with Chris Wallace on Fox from earlier today, and had to revisit comments from my interview several weeks ago with my friend Scot Faulkner — a lifelong conservative activist who now is head of the Dreyfus Initiative, a nonpartisan, non-profit organization looking to promote civics education (public, parochial, and home schooling) that furthers civil discourse about our country’s history and future.

There is not some daylight, but not much, between what Scot told me and how Stewart skewered Wallace. Fox has become an echo chamber, a quasi-propagandistic island where there is little to no serious debate or exchange of different viewpoints. “Fox is bad for conservatism,” Faulkner told me. “We need to engage the other side, we need to engage the voters…Fox on the right, MSNBC on the left — you have people who are so bitter to each other…so polarizing and vicious, to the point of crafting parallel realities.”

Those parallel realities stand in the way of political progress, which depends on discourse. As I have written repeatedly, the conservative movement and its media voices have devolved from the model favored by its modern godfather William F. Buckley Jr. and his Firing Line to CNN’s Crossfire (also lambasted by Stewart) and now the Fox echo chamber. One of the last bastions of serious, conservative intellectual exchange is not much noticed in the media — and often improperly portrayed as part of the right wing conspiracy: The Federalist Society. In what I’ve written on the Federalists when researching my Ph.D., I had the chance to ask then-Senator Hillary Clinton, who coined that conspiracy phrase, about the Federalist Society. In hindsight she took a different view, complementing the Federalists for their intellectual dedication and organizational commitment.

I cannot say, nor do I suspect Sec. Clinton would say, similar things about the crowd on Fox. As Faulkner pointed out in my extended interview with him on POLITICO, the Fox effect has recently given us such political sad stories as Newt Gingrich, who was resurrected by Sean Hannity in the farthest thing from a process of serious political engagement;  on Fox, Hannity was Gingrich’s “golden retriever.”

And when Gingrich goes on Meet the Press, he encounters someone who wasn’t a golden retriever.

Fox is bad for conservatism. Just as other networks, like MSNBC with its own crop of over-the-top programming, is bad for progressivism. Both are bad for the broader political discourse. I’m happy to have Jon Stewart out there making the case; I’d like to also see more principled conservatives like Scot Faulkner making the case.

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Two years ago I prepared a presentation for the National Communication Association on the rhetorical parallels between Ronald Reagan and the newly elected President, Barack Obama. I was coming off the campaign trail myself, having served as communications director for David Kurkowski, the Democratic candidate for Congress in New Jersey’s 2nd District. We were up against a seven-term incumbent, Frank LoBiondo, whose popular image, pork barrell projects (and massive stockpile of cash) made him a formidable opponent. We ran an agressive campaign and gave LoBiondo the toughest challenge of his career, but even the Obama tide wasn’t enough to put us over the top.

In my own speechwriting and message strategy with Dave, I followed Obama’s model, and in doing so I also realized I was following the Reagan model. In the analysis here I am focused on Obama’s campaign rhetoric, not the more mangerial, impersonal communication style that he seemed to switch to after he was elected. In part, one must conclude that this switch was due to a misperception by Obama that “governing” is not the same as running a campaign. Actually, it is; whether campaigning for election, or campaigning for a health care bill, or campaigning to maintain suppport for a war in Afghanistan…it is always about campaigning, about persuasion.

With the re-hiring of David Plouffe and a distinct recalibration of the White House communication strategy there are signs Obama may be returning to the Reaganesque style that propelled him to office two years ago. His Tuscon speech struck all of the right notes, and aprt comparisons were made to Reagan’s Challenger speech. The State of the Union fell short, though, and as I blogged earlier missed far too many rhetorical opporunities.

On Reagan’s 100th Birthday, it is worth a look back, though, at how Obama’s campaign followed the Gipper’s playbook. Let’s hope he sticks with it.

I. Obama’s Nevada Interview

Barack Obama had been an established figure on the political stage, let alone a presidential candidate, for quite some time before a remarkable interview he conducted with the Reno Gazette-Journal prior to the “Super Tuesday” primaries in 2008. His keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Party National Convention thrust him into the public eye, generated comparisons to some of the most acclaimed convention speeches of the past, and attracted the attention of scholars of rhetoric and communication.

What made news in the hour-long Reno interview was a short segment that finds Obama implicitly comparing himself to Ronald Reagan. Here is part of the relevant passage:

I don’t want to present myself as some sort of singular figure. I think part of what’s different are the times. I do think that for example the 1980 was different. I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.


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A decade ago, while I was still a registered Republican and working for GOP wordsmith Frank Luntz, I was witness to the early phases of the conservative effort to demonize Nancy Pelosi. Just as conservatives attacked Howard Dean for his “latte-drinking, Volvo-driving, Hollywood-loving” liberalism, the right successfully made Pelosi the scapegoat. It was a rheotircal project 10 years in the making.

Read my full article here, published on November 16, 2010.

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