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7/09/2004

George Will and Stupid Editorials

When I read op-eds like yesterday's Washington Post offering from George Will: The Left, At a Loss in Kansas, the wretched state of conservative political discourse hits home. At least it gives me an opportunity to "Fisk" (a ridiculous name for the practice of hostilely dissecting articles).

It has come to this: The crux of the political left's complaint about Americans is that they are insufficiently materialistic.
Will is taking advantage of ambiguity in the word "materialistic." From dictionary.com:
  • The theory that physical matter is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling, mind, and will, can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena.
  • The theory or attitude that physical well-being and worldly possessions constitute the greatest good and highest value in life.
  • A great or excessive regard for worldly concerns.
It is no great revelation that liberals tend to disagree with the second meaning and to agree with the third. Especially in contrast to the quasi-religious idealism of modern social-conservatism, which reserves all of its moral condemnation for ephemeral "threats" presented by benign choices of random people, completely ignoring the values underlying, for instance, an effort to ensure universal health coverage.
For a century, the left has largely failed to enact its agenda for redistributing wealth. What the left has achieved is a rich literature of disappointment, explaining the mystery, as the left sees it, of why most Americans are impervious to the left's appeal.
This paragraph is meaningless. Social Security is a fairly successful liberal program, as are environmental protections, protections for worker's rights, civil rights, and women's rights. Not to mention that "redistribution" has little to do with the left agenda. The real question is how fair the initial distribution is - making sure people have the power to get their fair share from the economy.

Also note that Al Gore received more votes than George W. Bush.
An interesting addition to this canon is "What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America." Its author, Thomas Frank, argues that his native Kansas -- like the nation, only more so -- votes self-destructively, meaning conservatively, because social issues such as abortion distract it from economic self-interest, as the left understands that.
I haven't read Frank's book, though I did read the preview article in Harpers, and I have his One Market Under God. Frank's argument isn't an argument per se, it is a simple fact. The conservative electoral coalition has significant tension, primarily between social conservatives and economic conservatives. They are certainly not natural partners, and most conservative strategists recognize this.
Frank is a formidable controversialist -- imagine Michael Moore with a trained brain and an intellectual conscience. Frank has a coherent theory of contemporary politics and expresses it with a verve born of indignation. His carelessness about facts is mild by contemporary standards, or lack thereof, concerning the ethics of controversy.
I actually think One Market Under God, despite the importance of its argument and my agreement with it, was poorly argued and poorly organized. Conservatives imbue market transactions with moral significance, assuming that market valuations in some sense represent democratic validation. Frank criticizes the argument, especially as it reached its heydey in the tech-driven hysteria of the 90s, but he could have used a more powerful editor.
He says "the pre-eminent question of our times" is why people misunderstand "their fundamental interests." But Frank ignores this question: Why does the left disparage what everyday people consider their fundamental interests?
This is a radical "democratic" argument that asumes revealed preferences are equivalent to actual preferences. The whole question is how people arrive at their electoral preferences: what are the contours of the American sociodicy? "Max Weber said that dominant groups always need a 'theodicy of their own privilege,' or more precisely, a sociodicy, in other words a theoretical justification of the fact that they are privileged. Competence is nowadays at the heart of that sociodicy, which is accepted, naturally, by the dominant - it is in their interest - but also by the others." Pierre Bourdieu, Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market 43. Yeah, so I just quoted a French theorist. The divergent sociodocies embraced by the Republicans and Democrats is one of the most fascinating question of our time.
He says the left has been battered by "the Great Backlash" of people of modest means against their obvious benefactor and wise definer of their interests, the Democratic Party. The cultural backlash has been, he believes, craftily manufactured by rich people with the only motives the left understands -- money motives. The aim of the rich is to manipulate people of modest means, making them angry about abortion and other social issues so that they will vote for Republicans who will cut taxes on the rich.
The Backlash has been one against community and shared values, against the realization that we are all in this together. Conservatives have denigrated the idea of common good or public interest so successfully that they unquestioningly mock those who invoke it. The turn to a personal, rather than a collective (bad word) morality is a difficult question, because everybody is hurt by our betrayal of cooperation and our unquestioning elevation of individualism.

Consider, for instance, school vouchers. My main problem with school vouchers is that, like most privatization schemes, they are merely a euphemism for abdication of a collective responsibility. As a society, we have an obligation and a responsibility to make sure that everybody gets a good education. Vouchers, cloaked under an argument that they are a method to achieving that end, shift the responsibility for ensuring a high quality education to parents and private schools.
Such fevered thinking is a staple of what historian Richard Hofstadter called "the paranoid style in American politics," a style practiced, even pioneered, a century ago by prairie populists. You will hear its echo in John Edwards's lament about the "two Americas" -- the few rich victimizing the powerless many.
Hofstadter is rolling in his grave. This administration embodies his paranoid style down to the footnotes. It is characterized by threat inflation (are we still on yellow today?), the meticulous documentation of unrelated connections (Stephen Hayes), and bigotry (homosexual agenda?). Hofstadter wrote the Paranoid Style as a description of Goldwater and his minions, people that blamed Communists, Masons and Catholics for all that ailed the world. The paranoid style has been the ascendant style of American conservatism since at least 1994.
Frank frequently lapses into the cartoon politics of today's enraged left, as when he says Kansas is a place of "implacable bitterness" and America resembles "a panorama of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymus Bosch." Yet he wonders why a majority of Kansans and Americans are put off by people like him who depict their society like that.
Why aren't people put off by hellfire and brimstone conservatism?
He says, delusionally, that conservatives have "smashed the welfare state." Actually, it was waxing even before George W. Bush's prescription drug entitlement. He says, falsely, that the inheritance tax has been "abolished." He includes the required -- by the left's current catechism -- blame of Wal-Mart for destroying the sweetness of Main Street shopping. "Capitalism" is his succinct, if uninformative, explanation of a worldwide phenomenon of the past century -- the declining portion of people in agricultural employment -- which he seems to regret.
They have destroyed - explicitly - our obligation to work together. The prescription drug entitlement is a farce, and welfare is undoubtedly now a punitive program, an expansion of the right hand of the state. The inheritance tax, one of the clearest symbols of the belief that we get what we have in part because we come from such a great society, has been turned into an illegitimate tax on family farmers. The elevation of the consumer over the producer and the family businessman further sacrifices our collective repsonsibilities for the gain of some individuals.
If you believe, as Frank does, that opposing abortion is inexplicably silly, and if you make no more attempt than Frank does to empathize with people who care deeply about it, then of course you, like Frank, will consider scores of millions of your fellow citizens lunatics. Because conservatives have, as Frank says, achieved little cultural change in recent decades, he considers their persistence either absurd or part of a sinister plot to create "cultural turmoil" to continue "the erasure of the economic" from politics.
Voting for one party because it claims to oppose abortion, while the same party is promoting your exploitation, is "inexplicably silly."
Frank regrets that Bill Clinton's "triangulation" strategy -- minimizing Democrats' economic differences with Republicans -- contributed to the erasure. Politics would indeed be simpler, and more to the liking of liberals, if each citizen were homo economicus, relentlessly calculating his or her economic advantage, and concluding that liberalism serves it. But politics has never been like that, and it is becoming even less so.
This is the opposite of Frank's argument. Liberals are more than happy with homo sapiens. Conservatives want homo productivus.
When the Cold War ended, Pat Moynihan warned, with characteristic prescience, that it would be, like all blessings, a mixed one, because passions -- ethnic and religious -- that were long frozen would come to a boil. There has been an analogous development in America's domestic politics.
I suppose that our ethnic and religious passions are hotter now than they were in 1968. Someone inform Mark Kurlansky.
The economic problem, as understood during two centuries of industrialization, has been solved. We can reliably produce economic growth and have moderated business cycles. Hence many people, emancipated from material concerns, can pour political passions into other -- some would say higher -- concerns. These include the condition of the culture, as measured by such indexes as the content of popular culture, the agendas of public education and the prevalence of abortion.
Mr. Will should someday bother to descend from elite Washington culture and Baltimore sky boxes. His pollyannish, end of history, interpretation of the American economy would be news to many. This is the sort of slip up that gives the lie to the conservative argument that they represent the common person.
So, what's the matter with Kansas? Not much, other than it is has not measured up -- down, actually -- to the left's hope for a more materialistic politics.

 

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