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February 29, 2008

"Obamacans" and "Reagan Democrats": The Limits of Transcendence

This extraordinary election year has brought talk of both party realignment and demographic shifts. But it’s hard to know what’s really changing and what’s staying the same. Ronald Brownstein writes today that the Democrats are “A Party Transformed,” that a “new democratic coalition is being forged” that may tip “the party’s internal balance of power.”

From New Hampshire to California, and from Arizona to Wisconsin, exit polls from this year's contests show the Democratic coalition evolving in clear and consistent ways since the 2004 primaries that nominated John Kerry. The party is growing younger, more affluent, more liberal, and more heavily tilted toward women, Latinos, and African-Americans.
Meanwhile, we hear talk of Republicans voting for Obama, “Obamacans,” a species of voter who is supposed to be the mirror image of all those “Reagan Democrats” who bolted the party to put conservatives and Republicans safely in power for nearly thirty years. In truth, until yesterday, I didn’t really believe these people existed outside the imagination of the press and a few starry-eyed propagandists on team-Obama. But yesterday, while repairing the lights in my front yard, my neighbors, Harry and Gwen, hailed me from their yard across the street to take my political-pulse. Now Harry and Gwen, I’ve always believed, are solid Republicans. Very decent people, mind you—retired conservative church-goers with whom I exchange a few good-natured barbs on most election days. I seem to recall Harry being glued to his set during the Clinton impeachment hearings—rooting for the prosecution!

Yesterday, however, as we chatted across the narrow street that divides us, they both volunteered the judgment that Obama was the better candidate. “You mean better than Hillary?” I asked. But since it was an intriguing comment coming from people I assumed were model McCain voters, I added: “Or better than McCain?”

“Better than the whole lot of them,” came the response—and with elaboration, too (not only were they impressed by Obama’s thoughtfulness, their feelings about McCain were summed up tersely with: “a hundred years in Iraq!!!”)

Still, the problem with claims for both the “shift” in Democratic Party demographics and party allegiances more broadly is that they seem a little too sudden. One could see in Reagan Democrats, for example, the seeds of thirty years of deep social dislocations coming to fruition (backlashes against the civil rights movement, the Cultural Revolution, the explosion of government and the corresponding changes in the way individuals were imagined to relate to the state). But this year’s transformations seem to come from nowhere. As arrogant and incompetent as the Bush presidency has been, and as unpopular as the war in Iraq is, it is hard to see these things as so profound as to transform the entire political culture. For the last twenty years or so it has been conventional wisdom to describe ourselves as a fifty-fifty nation, divided evenly into two antithetical, ideologically rigid, camps; and there’s been no apparent reason to doubt that wisdom.

That is, until now. The 2008 election may be telling us that, although we have been evenly divided, it hasn’t been along ideological lines. Here, it might be instructive to contrast Bill Clinton and Barak Obama. If we truly were as evenly divided along ideological lines as we’ve assumed, then you would assume that Bill Clinton would have had infinitely more crossover appeal than Obama. Clinton, recall, was the DLC candidate, the “third way” politician who advanced moderate policies and market-based solutions to achieve traditionally progressive goals. He proposed balanced budgets and left office with a surplus—a rather uncharacteristic achievement for a Democratic president. Yet, for all of his ideological gestures to the right, they vilified and impeached him. Obama, on the other hand, has been a safe liberal vote in both the senate and the Illinois legislature. As far as I can tell, he makes few or no ideological gestures to the right wing, save for a willingness to entertain their arguments. Yet, he incites very little hostility—indeed, he even generates a fair amount of respect.

What’s the difference? Clinton was a moderate, who campaigned as a Democrat. He campaigned against Republicans, and his wife vilified them as members of a “vast, right-wing conspiracy.” (Hillary often charges that her opponents have lifted a vile tactic “right out of the Republic play book.”) Clinton may have been a centrist Democrat who tried to reform his party; but to redefine your party’s brand, you have to claim ownership of it. In the end, Clinton may have transcended traditional ideological labels, but not party labels. Obama does the exact opposite. He embraces liberal policies, but without hugging the party brand too tightly. Since he does not vilify Republicans, many of them feel free to support him without the need to repudiate a cultural identity they’ve adopted.

All of this suggests, I think, that Americans may be more ideologically open—or free-thinking—than we’re accustomed to believe. But they’re much less willing to abandon who they “are”—that is, a name for something they perceive to be fundamental to their identity. As trivial as it seems, “Reagan Democrats” could still claim too be some sort of Democrat, just as becoming an “Obamacan” does not linguistically—or psychologically—require one to cast off the family name.

Posted by stevemack at 09:58 AM | Comments (0)

February 22, 2008

Thrill-Monger McCain

In the dust up over the New York Time’s publication of the McCain “lobbyist/possible affair” story, there’s a potentially more salient issue that’s being missed: McCain’s “recklessness.” Take a look, for example, at the ninth and tenth paragraphs of the article in which the personality traits that got McCain mixed up in the Keating scandal are discussed:

“He is essentially an honorable person,” said William P. Cheshire, a friend of Mr. McCain who as editorial page editor of The Arizona Republic defended him during the Keating Five scandal. “But he can be imprudent.”

Mr. Cheshire added, “That imprudence or recklessness may be part of why he was not more astute about the risks he was running with this shady operator,” Charles Keating, whose ties to Mr. McCain and four other lawmakers tainted their reputations in the savings and loan debacle.

Now, to tell you the truth, my own gut-check tells me that he was not having an affair with Ms. Iseman—though my only reason for believing so is my rather uncritical acceptance of his public reputation for being a straight arrow. But, I don’t have any problem believing that he would be reckless enough to indulge himself in a little “harmless” flattering flirtation (emboldened, ironically, by confidence in his own stainless character). No infidelity, just a little blood-quickening thrill.

Something of the same MIGHT be true of his relationship with lobbyists. That is, an over-appreciation of his own strengths (moral or physical) leaves him indifferent to danger. For some, piety means being above reproach; for others, it means dancing with the devil, skating on thin ice, just for the thrill of proving they’re impervious to danger.

Here is where someone’s undeniable courage turns from virtue to vice. A dare-devil's judgment can never be trusted because it’s so often subverted by inflated confidence.

This explains a lot, I think, besides his connection with Iseman and other lobbyists--his maverick posture in the Republican party, his audacity in basing his campaign on staying the course in Iraq when political wisdom argued against it. And also, of course, his reckless and irrational faith in a dangerous war policy.

Posted by stevemack at 08:47 AM | Comments (0)

February 14, 2008

Credit Obama For This One

With the mortgage crisis vacuuming up the attention reserved for economic issues, it’s something of a relief to hear Obama addressing the credit issue that, I has an even greater impact on the lives of poor and middle-class Americans—credit card lending practices. (Of course, as far as the msm is concerned, there really is no crisis with credit cards since the issuing banks can apparently squeeze as much as they need to out of consumers to maintain healthy profits; this is to say that, a credit “crisis” is defined as lenders getting in trouble, not just borrowers).

Obama’s credit card bill of rights:

 Ban Unilateral Changes: Currently, credit card companies can unilaterally change the terms of a credit card agreement at any time for any reason with only a 15-day notice to the consumer. Barack Obama will ban these unilateral changes in credit card agreements unless companies have obtained written consent from consumers and have followed the rules and terms of the agreement.  Apply Interest Rate Increases Only to Future Debt: Credit card companies often apply increased interest rates to both new debt incurred by the cardholder, as well as previously incurred debt. Barack Obama will require increased interest rates to apply only to future credit card debt, and not to debt incurred prior to the increase.

 Prohibit Interest on Fees: Credit card companies often charge interest on transaction fees, such as late fees or paying a bill by telephone. Barack Obama will prohibit credit card issuers from charging interest on transaction fees.

 Prohibit “Universal Defaults”: “Universal defaults” are a practice in which a credit card company raises an individual’s interest rate based on failure to pay a different creditor on time. Barack Obama will prohibit this practice.

 Require Prompt and Fair Crediting of Cardholder Payments: Barack Obama will require credit card issuers to apply payments first to the credit card balance with the highest rate of interest and to minimize finance charges.

The entire white paper can be found here.

Posted by stevemack at 05:49 PM | Comments (0)

February 01, 2008

The Politics of Identity: Authenticity vs Transcendence

With John McCain apparently poised to take the nomination, the right wing political anxiety of the moment seems to be whether he’s a true conservative. The lunatic fringe is weighing in: Rush complains that his economic policies amount to "attacking economics on the basis of class envy." A bad sign, no doubt, when "Republicans start talking like liberals and using liberal language." Now Ann coulter has promised to campaign for Hillary Clinton should McCain get the nomination.

Robert Robb of the Arizona Republic offers a thoughtful defense of the hometown favorite by borrowing a distinction William Buckley used to assess the ideological credentials of both President Bushes: "According to Buckley, they are "conservative," but not "a conservative.'"

By that, Buckley meant that they would usually list toward the conservative position, but weren't anchored by the philosophical tenets of modern American conservatism he did so much to expound and popularize. To answer the question of how much McCain can be expected to list conservative requires, regrettably, also borrowing from Bill Clinton: It depends on what the definition of "conservatism" is.

Buckley's point is better than Robb's. The question really hinges on the meaning of that "a." Or to borrow from another Clintonian maxim, it's not ideology stupid, it's identity. The article "a" marks the distinction between proclivity and pedigree--and pedigree is always the bottom line.

The question of pedigree, the authenticity of one’s identity, is the overarching issue of this (perhaps every) presidential election. Consider the questions we’ve collectively wrestled with thus far:

“Is Obama black enough?” (A question that gave way to “Is Obama more black than transcendent after all?”)

“Is Hillary really a woman, or a masculine robot in a sharp pink suit?” (Ah! she cries—the genuine woman betrays herself.)

With Romney we get a twofer: “Is he really a conservative or some kind of pandering shape-shifter?” But this question, I suspect, was really a displacement of another one, more difficult to ask in polite company: “Is he really a Christian—or a cultist?” With the party line on Mormonism being what it is, you’d think Huck would have the inside track. But hell, would a true Christian conservative spend so much time talking about poor people?

Typically, it’s the Democrats who are accused of getting tangled up in identity politics. The irony here, however, is not just that Republicans are equally mired in identity conflict—it’s that they’re mired in a particularly suicidal way: For Republicans this is an in-group game; the argument is over how to spot and expel the imposters—the phony Christians, the infidel conservatives, the secret liberals. For Democrats the question is not authenticity but transcendence—which candidate is best able to convince voters that the boundaries of their identity are not so narrow or rigid that they cannot meaningfully representing those on the outside.

Posted by stevemack at 04:47 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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