What Makes the Wingers Flap

December 1, 2008

The problem for conservatives is that they alienate people in direct proportion to how stridently conservative they sound and act. That’s because the conservative movement itself is motivated not by ideas but by emotions, and remarkably ugly ones at that. Neal Gabler explains:

The creation myth of modern conservatism usually begins with Barry Goldwater, the Arizona senator who was the party’s presidential standard-bearer in 1964 and who, even though he lost in one of the biggest landslides in American electoral history, nevertheless wrested the party from its Eastern establishment wing. Then, Richard Nixon co-opted conservatism, talking like a conservative while governing like a moderate, and drawing the opprobrium of true believers. But Ronald Reagan embraced it wholeheartedly, becoming the patron saint of conservatism and making it the dominant ideology in the country. George W. Bush picked up Reagan’s fallen standard and “conservatized” government even more thoroughly than Reagan had, cheering conservatives until his presidency came crashing down around him. That’s how the story goes.

But there is another rendition of the story of modern conservatism, one that doesn’t begin with Goldwater and doesn’t celebrate his libertarian orientation. It is a less heroic story, and one that may go a much longer way toward really explaining the Republican Party’s past electoral fortunes and its future. In this tale, the real father of modern Republicanism is Sen. Joe McCarthy, and the line doesn’t run from Goldwater to Reagan to George W. Bush; it runs from McCarthy to Nixon to Bush and possibly now to Sarah Palin. It centralizes what one might call the McCarthy gene, something deep in the DNA of the Republican Party that determines how Republicans run for office, and because it is genetic, it isn’t likely to be expunged any time soon.

The basic problem with the Goldwater tale is that it focuses on ideology and movement building, which few voters have ever really cared about, while the McCarthy tale focuses on electoral strategy, which is where Republicans have excelled.

And the core of that strategy is, in essence, riling up the rubes. And while the rubes are frothing about gays coming to steal their kids and Mexicans coming to steal their jobs, the Republicans and their backers get to max out the credit cards and stick the rest of the country with the tab.

During the long nightmare of the Bush Error, I — like other liberals — would try to argue with wingers on their basis of what were supposed to be conservative ideas. If you’re for smaller government, we asked, why are you supporting such reckless expansion of government power? If you’re for caution and restraint, we asked, why are supporting a war based on childishly obvious lies and deception? If you’re for fiscal prudence, why are you happy to see politically connected contractors gorge on public funds in the name of “privatization”? If you’re for family values, why do you support government policies that make it harder for parents to raise and educate their children?

The answers were always an incoherent swirl of anger, submerged racism, attacks on straw men, class resentment and three-card-monte debate tricks. The two most publicly palatable conservatives, William F. Buckley Jr. and Ronald Reagan, used their immense personal charm to mask the underlying ugliness of their ideas. Take away those facades and what do you get?

You get wingers like this claiming Buckley “kicked out the McCarthy’s [sic] heirs, The John Birch Society, from the conservative movement,” leaving us with the question of whether this winger is truly unaware of the fact that Buckley was a lifelong McCarthy apologist who co-authored the fawning McCarthy and His Enemies and, late in life, a fictionalized biography called The Redhunter. or has simply chosen to follow Sarah Palin’s example and lie about what everybody knows.

You get magic thinking in which the president who allowed the World Trade Center to be destroyed, allowed its mastermind to remain at liberty and played the subsequent “war on terror” strictly for political gain is some kind of national security hero, while the election of Barack Obama means all kinds of bad things are guaranteed to happen.

You get ideological hackery in which the fact that a single accident can bring a family to the brink of ruin is a cause for celebration (and anti-liberal hatemongering on the side).

The problem for conservatives is that Bush was everything they want in a president. And now they have to live with the afermath.

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Today’s Quote

April 1, 2008

Kathy G. on Slate’s ever vacuous blogger, Mickey Kaus:

It is outrageously disingenuous to pretend that the huge increases in inequality that we have witnessed are merely the result of impersonal forces over which we have little control — or, in Kaus’ terms, “problematic trends we all need to confront.”

Dude — you may have forgotten, but you and your friends at The New Republic spend the 1980s bashing unions and economic regulations, and relentlessly pimping for free trade, unregulated markets, less progressivity in our tax system, and the crippling of the welfare state. Just what did you think would happen? It was utterly predictable that those policies would usher in the era of grotesque inequality we’re experiencing today. Inequality is a very much feature of those policies, not a bug. Shifting power away from poor and working folks and toward corporations and the rich — that was the whole goddamn point!

The sex columnist Dan Savage has written about a certain genre of letter he frequently receives, which he calls HTHs, or “How’d That Happen?!” letters. They’re written by people who painstakingly explain that somehow, due to circumstances beyond their control, they find themselves partaking of some bizarre sexual kink. Like carnal relations with the family pet, for example. Or the guy who signs his letter “Mr. 200% Straight” asking, in essence, “How did his cock end up in my mouth?”

The bad faith that many people like Mickey Kaus display, when confronted with the consequences of political policies they have long supported, never fail to amaze me. Their writings are amount to a political version of Savage’s “How’d That Happen?!” letters. Like the “How’d That Happen?!” folks, they are deeply dishonest with themselves. What I’d say to the “How’d That Happen?!” people, and the Mickey Kauses of the world, is simple: act like an adult, and own your desire. What has occurred is exactly what you signed up for, and at some level you must know it, too.

Today’s Quote

March 23, 2008

Paul Krugman explains it all for you:

Banks exist because they help reconcile the conflicting desires of savers and borrowers. Savers want freedom — access to their money on short notice. Borrowers want commitment: they don’t want to risk facing sudden demands for repayment.

Normally, banks satisfy both desires: depositors have access to their funds whenever they want, yet most of the money placed in a bank’s care is used to make long-term loans. The reason this works is that withdrawals are usually more or less matched by new deposits, so that a bank only needs a modest cash reserve to make good on its promises.

But sometimes — often based on nothing more than a rumor — banks face runs, in which many people try to withdraw their money at the same time. And a bank that faces a run by depositors, lacking the cash to meet their demands, may go bust even if the rumor was false.

Worse yet, bank runs can be contagious. If depositors at one bank lose their money, depositors at other banks are likely to get nervous, too, setting off a chain reaction. And there can be wider economic effects: as the surviving banks try to raise cash by calling in loans, there can be a vicious circle in which bank runs cause a credit crunch, which leads to more business failures, which leads to more financial troubles at banks, and so on.

That, in brief, is what happened in 1930-1931, making the Great Depression the disaster it was. So Congress tried to make sure it would never happen again by creating a system of regulations and guarantees that provided a safety net for the financial system.

And we all lived happily for a while — but not for ever after.

Wall Street chafed at regulations that limited risk, but also limited potential profits. And little by little it wriggled free — partly by persuading politicians to relax the rules, but mainly by creating a “shadow banking system” that relied on complex financial arrangements to bypass regulations designed to ensure that banking was safe.

For example, in the old system, savers had federally insured deposits in tightly regulated savings banks, and banks used that money to make home loans. Over time, however, this was partly replaced by a system in which savers put their money in funds that bought asset-backed commercial paper from special investment vehicles that bought collateralized debt obligations created from securitized mortgages — with nary a regulator in sight.

As the years went by, the shadow banking system took over more and more of the banking business, because the unregulated players in this system seemed to offer better deals than conventional banks. Meanwhile, those who worried about the fact that this brave new world of finance lacked a safety net were dismissed as hopelessly old-fashioned.

In fact, however, we were partying like it was 1929 — and now it’s 1930.

The financial crisis currently under way is basically an updated version of the wave of bank runs that swept the nation three generations ago. People aren’t pulling cash out of banks to put it in their mattresses — but they’re doing the modern equivalent, pulling their money out of the shadow banking system and putting it into Treasury bills. And the result, now as then, is a vicious circle of financial contraction.

Today’s Quote

March 18, 2008

E.J. Dionne on the big Wall Street bailout:

Never do I want to hear again from my conservative friends about how brilliant capitalists are, how much they deserve their seven-figure salaries and how government should keep its hands off the private economy.

The Wall Street titans have turned into a bunch of welfare clients. They are desperate to be bailed out by government from their own incompetence, and from the deregulatory regime for which they lobbied so hard. They have lost “confidence” in each other, you see, because none of these oh-so-wise captains of the universe have any idea what kinds of devalued securities sit in one another’s portfolios.

So they have stopped investing. The biggest, most respected investment firms threaten to come crashing down. You can’t have that. It’s just fine to make it harder for the average Joe to file for bankruptcy, as did that wretched bankruptcy bill passed by Congress in 2005 at the request of the credit card industry. But the big guys are “too big to fail,” because they could bring us all down with them.

Enter the federal government, the institution to which the wealthy are not supposed to pay capital gains or inheritance taxes. Good God, you don’t expect these people to trade in their BMWs for Saturns, do you?

The prints are full of heartending tales of hotshots mourning the lost value of their portfolios, and the likelihood that they will have to put their vacation homes on the market. As Atrios asks, why don’t the papers run these kinds of weepies when an auto factory or some other major employer closes shop?  

Today’s Quote

March 4, 2008

Regarding the news that there are kids eligible for free school lunches under a federal program, but who choose to skip lunch because they don’t want to be stigmatized as losers and welfare cases, writer John Scalzi notes the conservative penchant for shaming the poor is a tad counterproductive:

In the case of children in poverty, their being poor is generally not their fault. Shaming the children of poor people for daring to receive a free lunch is tantamount to saying to them, well, if you had been smart, you wouldn’t have been born to poor people in the first place. And, you know. That sort of thinking makes you an asshole.

–snip —

Shaming as a motivational technique to get people out of poverty is a bit like torturing as a motivational technique to get people to tell you something: It works better in fiction than it does in real life. Shaming, like torture, appeals to some minds because it feels like a tough, no-bullshit approach to dealing with something, and everybody’s seen it work in movies, so it’s got to work in real life. But the reason that shame (and torture) work in the movies is that someone’s writing a script; the real word is unscripted. In the real world, attempting to shame people for their poverty isn’t going to motivate them much, what it’s going to do is create resentment. And quite properly so, because per points 1-3 here, in the real world poverty isn’t a single-cause, socially acceptable condition.

— snip —

When I was poor, there were people who tried to shame me for it, and people who tried to help me out of it. The names and faces of those who helped me spring to mind without bidding; they are the people whose kindness and generosity let me see how good people can be, and how I should try to be when it was my turn to help, through personal action and through my influence on my government, and how it uses what I pay into it. The names and faces of those who tried to shame me? Gone from me, save for the memory of the smallness of their being, and the poverty of their understanding of how to treat others. I was inspired to lift myself out of poverty, not shamed into doing so.

When we help those in poverty, the way to look at it — the way I look at it — is that we’re paying it forward. Those I’m helping now will be those who will help others. I know this because I was helped myself. I’m not interested in adding shame to the mix; what I am interested in is adding the idea of responsibility to help those who need help, as you have been helped yourself. You won’t get that through shame.

Today’s Quote(s)

November 19, 2007

Sean Wilentz gets two quotes today, ’cause he’s such a smartie and his book The Rise of American Democracy is a great read:

People’s cynicism is borne of alienation from politics. It’s not crazy– it’s just corrosive. We don’t know who [will be a great president]. You have to look for potential. FDR was not Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. Abraham Lincoln was not even quite Abraham Lincoln in 1860, or we didn’t know it. Certainly the chattering classes didn’t know it. The person has to rise to the occasion.

And then there’s this:

The nation has the lowest esteem around the world that it’s had in decades. That’s not just a matter of people liking us. You cannot do diplomacy if people assume you’re lying all the time. You cannot run the world based on mistrust. That’s a political fact. It’s not a moral category. At home, we’re really hurting. It’s not the economy, simply. But we’ve gone back to the Gilded Age in terms of inequality. In the end, this is the function of liberalism in American life — to save the system from the people who actually run it. The people in power get greedy. They get crazy. Now they need to simmer down.

Wilentz is entirely too credulous about the triangulation strategies of the Clinton years, and he’s a way too glib about the left wing of the Democratic Party — so glib, in fact, that if I weren’t familiar with his other writings, I might just have dismissed him as a dolt. He supports Hillary and I don’t — to put it mildly. But if the dreaded outcome does in fact happen and I have to decide whether to grit my teeth and do the expected thing on Election Day, the support of people like Sean Wilentz will be a big influence on my decision.

Today’s Quote

November 12, 2007

Terry Jones, founding member of the Monty Python troupe, sums up the history of Christianity:

Christ was preaching peace and love and humanity. Then for 2,000 years we’ve had people torturing and killing each other because they don’t agree about exactly how he said it.

Jones was speaking on the occasion of the release of a new DVD edition of Life of Brian, which includes the previously deleted “Otto” scene featuring a “Jewish Nazi” sporting a mingled swastika and Star of David symbol. How long do you think it will be before William Kristol and Norman Podhoretz start demanding that we bomb England?