Monday, October 26, 2009

Not getting the American Revolution

What do we know about the Obama Administration?

That it does not much believe in freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the rule of law, inconvenient monitoring of human rights, can be astonishingly morally tone deaf, as well as commercially clueless in a way that can be deeply damaging to its favoured friends, is happy to use the tax, spend and regulatory power of the state to buy corporate support and support astonishing levels of deficit spending in ways whose affects are apparently worse than its own projections of doing nothing based on ludicrously unfounded multiplier assumptions.

An Administration can recover from policy setbacks. What it cannot recover from is disastrous political instincts. After all, with the Presidency and both houses of Congress firmly in Democratic hands and time marching on, the Administration is surely running out of excuses.

The only thing going for the Obama Administration at the moment seems to be that their official opponents are even more politically clueless (via here). That, along with Obama’s intelligent, articulate charisma (and, I suspect, a certain wish that the first African-American President succeed) is keeping his polling favourability ratings up fairly well.
But Obama as Carter-redux is looking more plausible by the day. (Except, of course, President Carter was sounder on human rights.) I do not remember a time when US federal politics so completely manifested my fundamental principle of the division in American politics:
US politics is divided between two Parties who can accuse each other of “not getting” the American Revolution, and both be completely correct.
(Of course, that Obama’s political career was partly made on opposing Dubya’s attempt to export the American Revolution at the point of a smart-bomb to Mesopotamia and the Hindu Kush may further complicate matters. But I am not even going to touch foreign policy.)

Yet, on the subject of “not getting” the American Revolution, it is hard to go past Pat Buchanan:
Moreover, the alienation and radicalization of white America began long before Obama arrived. He acknowledged as much when he explained Middle Pennsylvanians to puzzled progressives in that closed-door meeting in San Francisco.
Referring to the white working-class voters in the industrial towns decimated by job losses, Obama said: "They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." …
America was once their country. They sense they are losing it. And they are right.
One cannot understand how much Pat Buchanan does not “get” the American Revolution without understanding the crucial difference between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is love/support/commitment to one’s country, to a polity with a certain territory. It presumes nothing about ethnic identity. Nationalism is love/support/commitment to one’s nation, conceived as an ethnic identity which should have a polity. Nationalism holds, for example, that no Jew can be a true member of any nation (other than Israel). Patriotism does not bar anyone who is willing to support their country.

This distinction is crucial in the case of the US because the United States has never been a nation in an ethnic sense. Not only was it not a solely British founding, the United Kingdom itself was ethnically and religiously diverse. The US, alone of all the great polities of its time, was founded around a set of ideas: ideas expressed most famously in the Declaration of Independence but also in the Preamble to the US Constitution. To be a patriotic American is to support the country founded on those ideals: hence the oath of allegiance being to the Constitution that expresses them. Indeed, the US fought a brutal Civil War over what those ideals meant: particularly over the contradiction of a Revolution based on natural equality and protection of property establishing a United States within which there were people who were property.

The US has never ceased to fight over those ideas. As a WWII veteran so eloquently and movingly states, the current fight over legal equality for the same-sex attracted is the latest manifestation of the battle as was previously fought over race, sex, religion, slavery.

Any attempt to base American identity on race, on ethnicity, on some identity that separates who cannot and cannot be a “true American” beyond their, at least implicit, commitment to something within the grander American project, is a betrayal of the American Revolution. That without even considering Andrew Sullivan’s point about how pervasive black influence is on “white” America.

Pat Buchanan was a disastrous failure as a candidate for the American Presidency (0.4% of votes cast) and arguably helped, with his strident 1992 Republican Convention speech, Clinton to beat Bush senior. Both effects, I would suggest, being because Buchanan so very, very obviously does not “get” the American Revolution.

Cleverer conservatives understand this, including fellow Catholic conservatives:
The anti-culture which the counterculture spawned or gave the opportunity of a lifetime used race/power as simply a weapon against the real foe of those against culture — religion/authority. And the foolish white racists of yesterday failed to realize that choosing to fight over the former meant choosing to lose the fight over the latter.
To be sure, Poulson wants to abandon the effortless virtue of race while standing on the effortless virtue of sexual orientation, and his point about religious culture was previously deployed against Catholics, but at least he understands how self-defeating—indeed, in American terms, self-refuting—the race dynamic is.

As should be obvious, I have grave concerns about the political instincts of the Obama Administration: apparently an amalgam of Chicago-machine politics and academe pc with all the latter's self-righteous obliviousness. That does not mean one cannot realise that many of his opponents are worse.

In recent decades, the Republicans have done best under Reagan for the Presidency and “Contract with America” Gingrich for the Congress. Both “got” the American Revolution in a way none of the current Republicans seem able to get anywhere near.

Obama might be Carter-redux, but without the equivalent of a Reagan or a Gingrich, the Republicans will continue to flounder in their own bubble of deeply misguided delusions. Leaving ordinary Americans, in effect, trying to work out which side of mainstream politics is less of a betrayal of the American project. The articulate, charismatic black man of mixed race has an inherent advantage in that judgement, for what speech has so eloquently personified the American Project as I have a Dream? Buchanan is so profoundly wrong he cannot even begin to see that.

But Buchanan is a patent political failure. The real question is why so many Republicans seem so similarly blind: so apparently utterly unable to understand past Republican success, let alone understand the country they aspire to lead.

ADDENDA That self-declared conservatives continue to way outnumber self-declared liberals in polling just highlights the Republican failure. (H/t gaypatriot).

Ayaayn Hirsi Ali makes the point about the nature of US patriotism quite nicely:
America has the advantage that when you become a citizen, you pledge loyalty to a Constitution that's about ideas and not about ethnicity. Because of that, Americans do not feel shy about teaching new Americans why citizenship is important, why patriotism is important, pride about the Founding Fathers. That's an easier sell than taking pride in the history of France, for instance.
(H/t Bruce Bawer.)

ADDENDA 2: Kyle has a nice post about divisions among conservative elite and base contrasting with far greater unity among liberal/progressive elite and base. Part of what is going on in that, I suspect, is that US progressivism (like progressivism across the West) is to a significant degree about signaling one is one of the Virtuous: a sense of Virtue itself based on a sensibility anchored in ideal aspirations, on a realm of the mind (see my post on beliefs as status markers). So, dissenting on marker-issues exposes one to loss of status. Conservatives, on the other hand, are committed to preserving a diverse inheritance from the past. Given that which part of that inheritance one is committed to and what degree can patently vary, getting unity is inherently harder (and greatly aided if there is a sense of common threat).


  1. While you consider Limbaugh anyone's "official opponent", please don't accuse others of cluelessness. When Obama loses his bid for reelection, he won't concede to Limbaugh, but to whoever happens to win the Republican primary. That won't be because of anything his opponent or Limbaugh does but rather for the truly wretched fashion in which he has attempted to govern. If they're smart or even merely crafty, Republicans will leave the spotlight on Obama and his bloviating nemesis as long as possible. Limbaugh is indeed a symbol of conservatism for people of all opinions, but only those on the left are silly enough to take seriously their chosen contest with a symbol.

    Those whom Limbaugh criticizes would do well to ignore him. Every time they demand an apology from or lament the "rage" (really, someone who so often and so joyously laughs his way to the bank has anything about which to rage?) of this entertainer, they have fallen for his shtick. In the modern parlance, they've been trolled. They may think that everyone is as infuriated by Limbaugh as they are, but they are quite mistaken. The animosity Limbaugh inspires in a tiny pwoggy minority is part of the act.

    Most voters, even those who listen to him regularly, realize how much of the rest of Limbaugh's performance is sophistry and misdirection. When his "opponents" take him seriously, they stand in front of a mirror, in which we can see the same of their own act. Then we reflect on the economy, the public debt, the surveillance state, and the transparency of Congressional customer service. Such thoughts would not redound to Democratic electoral success, even if they hadn't just reminded us to turn on talk radio to see what all the fuss is about. Limbaugh is a sideshow, who will happily monetize all of the attention that pwogs can't help themselves from giving him. If they were serious people with serious goals, they wouldn't punch the tar baby.

  2. You seem to misunderstand the point of my link to Sullivan's "Limbaugh's latest" post. It was nothing to do with Rush Limbaugh and everything to do with the graph attached showing declining Republican identification. My critique is of the official Republican party, not folk on Talk Radio.

  3. Just to make it clear, I have now linked directly to the graph.

  4. Hahaha, I certainly went off on a tangent, didn't I? In future I won't make the silly assumption that you would ever endorse anything Sullivan has to say. [blushing]

    If we judge Republicans on party ID, they've had bad results recently. However, even if we leave out the fact that the loss has gone entirely to the "independents" bucket, polls in the USA typically bounce. (Thus, over the course of centuries, we have had the same two effective parties.) Even if we chalk up the Republicans' current inactivity to incompetence rather than discreet rope-playing, I expect them to make a real comeback over the middle part of 2010. There is a reason that the bluedogs aren't running off the cliff that their party leaders have selected. The next election is never far from their minds, and given the "unforeseen" disasters that accompany the typical large new federal program, the timing just doesn't work out for them.

  5. Oh, I do not deny there is a rich hunting ground out there. Just that there is not much sign the Republicans have much of a clue about what to do about it.

    I used to be quite a fan of Andrew S but went off him somewhat. I have recently started reading him a bit because he provides an alternative view more friendly to Obama and he does link to lots of stuff. He is much the best when he stops being insular (such as the post on the black influence on "white" America) but a lot of the time he seems lost in the Beltway (such as his glib dismissal of Iraq as a "failed war").