Monday, November 02, 2009

Frank Rich vs. GOP "Stalinists"

I'm not so thrilled about Frank Rich's New York Times column The G.O.P. Stalinists Invade Upstate New York 10/31/09. The short version of my discomfort with it is that he seems to be looking for that now-extinct political species, the "moderate" Republican.

He apparently thinks that two of the current off-year elections coming on Tuesday have Republicans who are practically Democrats:

No wonder even the very conservative Republican contenders in the two big gubernatorial contests this week have frantically tried to disguise their own convictions. The candidate in Virginia, Bob McDonnell, is a graduate of Pat Robertson’s university whose career has been devoted to curbing abortion rights, gay civil rights and even birth control. But in this campaign he ditched those issues, disinvited Palin for a campaign appearance, praised Obama’s Nobel Prize, and ran a closing campaign ad trumpeting “Hope.” Chris Christie, McDonnell’s counterpart in New Jersey, posted a campaign video celebrating “Change” in which Obama’s face and most stirring campaign sound bites so dominate you’d think the president had endorsed the Republican over his Democratic opponent, Jon Corzine. [my emphasis]
It seems to go right by him that in order to find an example of Republican politicians who are seemingly willing to distance themselves from the likes of Sarah Palin, he has to find them among two that he describes as very conservative Republicans.


And does Frank Rich really think its a novel thing for one Party to borrow popular but largely content-free symbolism from the other Party's ad campaigns? I mean, using "Hope" in a campaign commercial isn't exactly the same as supporting health care reform and strong financial regulation, or opposing the war in Afghanistan. You know, the stuff that actually affects people's lives?

How does this position from Bob McDonnell's campaign Web site differ in substance from Sarah Palin's, Rush Limbaugh's or Glenn Beck's:

Bob McDonnell has concerns that Washington’s proposed reforms will drive the cost of health care up and jeopardize quality and access. Reforms being discussed in Washington could raise costs for those who already have insurance, harm small business owners and make it harder to create jobs, or shift millions of Virginians from their private insurance into a government run system, raise taxes and increase our deficit even further. Rather than centralizing control of health care at the federal level, or saddling Virginia businesses and workers with new mandates to pay for plans the government thinks they want, we should let individuals and families control their health care decisions.
I beginning to wish for a moratorium on citations to Richard Hofstadter's essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics".

Richard Hofstadter(1916-1970)

Which might sound a tad strange for someone who's been making references to Hofstadter and his writing on the "paranoid style" for pretty much as long as I've been blogging, as in Richard Hofstadter and the "paranoid style" of politics 12/29/04, in which I discuss the theory generally. When I checked, I was a bit surprised at how many of my posts over the years contain a reference to his work. Here's how Rich uses Hofstadter:

The more rightists who win G.O.P. primaries, the greater the Democrats’ prospects next year. But the electoral math is less interesting than the pathology of this movement. Its antecedent can be found in the early 1960s, when radical-right hysteria carried some of the same traits we’re seeing now: seething rage, fear of minorities, maniacal contempt for government, and a Freudian tendency to mimic the excesses of political foes. Writing in 1964 of that era’s equivalent to today’s tea party cells, the historian Richard Hofstadter observed that the John Birch Society’s “ruthless prosecution” of its own ideological war often mimicked the tactics of its Communist enemies.
While his narrow analogy between the Tea Partiers and the Birchers is a valid enough use of Hofstadter's work, the emphasis should be on narrow.

Because the main essay in The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965) was about the kind of politics practiced by the Barry Goldwater faction of the Republican Party that dominated the Presidential nominating convention in San Francisco in 1964, including a very public clash with the "eastern Establishment" wing of the Party lined up behind Nelson Rockefeller's Presidential candidacy. That was a key turning point for the present-day "movement conservatism". The movement conservatism that has dominated the Republican Party since 1980!

The Beltway Village is in thrall to the faith of High Broderism: American politics is dominated by the "vital center"; bipartisanship is the high and best form of politics; the "extremes of the right and the left" have to be avoided but especially those of the left.

One of the many problems of that conceptual framing of the world of American politics is that as the Republican Party became dominated by what was it's scruffy, still-not-respectable right wing back in 1964, and then became more and more radicalized to the point of embracing criminal torture as one of its core values (not unrelated to the embrace of lynching by the segregationists of 1964) and launching an overt war of aggression in Iraq based on straight-up fabricated claims, the priests and devotees of High Broderism have continued to define the Republican Party as being part of that "vital center." "Vital center" was a phrase that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. popularized in a book by that title, The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (1949), which was one of the founding texts we might say of Cold War liberalism. In his last book published during his lifetime, War and the American Presidency (2004), Schlesinger left no doubt of his own ability to distinguish between today's Republican Party and some kind of centrist conservatism. He described the Party then led by Dick Cheney and George W. Bush this way:

For all his buffoonish side, the president is secure in himself, disciplined, decisive, and crafty, and capable of concentrating on a few priorities. He has maintained control of a rag-tag Republican coalition, well described by Kevin Phillips ... as consisting of "Wall Street, Big Energy, multinational corporations, the Military-Industrial Complex, the Religious Right, the Market Extremist think-tanks, and the Rush Limbaugh Axis." All these groups agree in their strong support of their president, though they sharply disagree among themselves.
Frank Rich writes as though only the Christian Right and the OxyContin Axis are those who practice the "paranoid style". And in this best of all possible High Broderist worlds, they are doomed to political marginalization.

That's not what happened to the paranoid-style politics of the "movement conservatism" of 1964. There aren't any Nelson Rockefellers or Mark Hatfields in the Republican Congressional delegations today. Although Village conventional wisdom John McCain is a bold Maverick who's playing that role. Frank Rich, in other words, can't address the reality of the fanaticism dominating today's Republican Party without going way outside the conventional assumptions of his fellow Villagers.

Dan Froomkin express a much better grasp of that situation as he addresses it in Seven questions for Dan Froomkin The Economist Online 11/01/09 in the context of press coverage of the bama administration and the problem for "balance" in the current climate:

DIA: Do you think the media should strive for objectivity in its reporting?

Mr Froomkin: No. Journalists should strive for accuracy, and fairness. Objectivity is impossible, and is too often confused with balance. And the problem with balance is that we are not living in a balanced time. For instance, is it patently obvious that at this point in our history, the leading luminaries on one side of the American political spectrum are considerably less tethered to reality than those on the other side. Madly trying to split the difference, as so many of my mainstream-media colleagues feel impelled to do, does a disservice to the concept of the truth.
Rich did depart a tiny bit from the Village wisdom on the Obama administration's (mild!) verbal attacks on FOX News:

Only in the alternative universe of the far right is Obama a pariah and Palin the great white hope. It’s become a Beltway truism that the White House’s (mild) spat with Fox News is counterproductive because it drives up the network’s numbers. But if curious moderate and independent voters are now tempted to surf there and encounter Beck’s histrionics for the first time, the president's numbers will benefit as well. To the uninitiated, the tea party crowd comes across like the barflies in “Star Wars.”
This is also a fairly strange statement, largely because Rich observes his obligation as a celebrity pundit not to talk about what the mainstream press is doing. Like, for instance, picking up the phony memes that FOX pumps up furiously. Like his own newspaper the New York Times recently scolding themselves for not paying enough attention to conservative concerns and promising to pay much more attention from now on. And he doesn't note a critical fact, which is that when Glenn Beck and other prominent figures in that "alternative universe" make hysterical and false charges against the Democratic health care reform plans, their viewers and listeners will find it very hard to find clear explanations of the key issues around that issue in the New York Times or other major news outlets. And they do a pitifully poor job of reporting on how the Beckians and the Limbaugh dittoheads actually do affect the political dynamics. Rich's column is an example of that, I'm afraid.

It's also important to remember that the whole Republican Party is keenly attuned to the Beckian/OxyContin "alternative universe", not just those for whom Palin is currently their favorite choice for Presidential candidate.

And I'm not so sure that for the typical TV viewer "the tea party crowd comes across like the barflies in 'Star Wars.'" Since our national press corps does such a very poor job of reporting on that movement, who the activists are and who the groups like Freedom Watch are that finance their protests, I'm not at all sure that's how they come across. One prominent aspect of the Tea Party protests is the extent to which they were organized by the partisan-Republican groups we know as FOX News. But, as we have seen, when the Democrats challenge the "news" channel crass partisanship and political organizing, even very mildly criticize it, the Village lines up to scold Obama and the Democrats for such naughty behavior. As Rich put it, "It’s become a Beltway truism that the White House’s (mild) spat with Fox News is counterproductive ..." Actually, mainstream pundits have said worse than that, that it was on the level of Spiro Agnews back in the day.

And, sure, when you look at Sarah Palin's close cooperation with Birchers and especially the neo-Confederate Alaska Independence Party (AIP), and with the theocratic and cultish aspect of the Third Wave Pentecostal movement of which she has been a very active part, she might look as though she came from an alternative political universe. But our national press corps focused on in 2008 and focuses on still is her verbal gaffes and Tina Fey's spoofs of her from Saturday Night Live. The average news consumer have heard a lot of that. But her "pallin' around" with neo-Confederates? Her theocratic religious commitments? Not so much. Not much at all, actually.

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