Going Vexed to the Sea

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One of this column’s persistent themes is President Obama’s unwillingness to read a book. If he read any books, he would mention them, but he almost never does. When he tries, he gets the citations wrong.

He did it again, on April 11, when he invoked Ralph Waldo Emerson during some self-defensive chatter about Iran. “Consistency,” he said, “is the hobgoblin of narrow minds.” What Emerson actually wrote was, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Well, who cares? At least the president quoted Emerson. Right — though he quoted without attribution, presumably because the staff kid who gave him the words didn’t know where they came from, either. Otherwise, vain spirit that Obama is, he would have displayed his professorial erudition by saying something like, “As the late Ralph Waldo Emerson so wisely advised us all . . .” But whether he knew the source or not, there’s a big difference between “consistency” and “a foolish consistency.” Reproving the latter makes sense; reproving the former does not.

More revealing, I think, although I cannot prove it, is the change from “little” — as in crass, unspiritual, incurious, imperceptive, conceptually limited — to “narrow.” Obama has spent his whole career battling “bigotry”: narrow-mindedness about race, particularly. He appears to think that everyone who criticizes him manifests this vice. But of the distinction between little minds and great ones, he has no awareness. No little-minded person does. And that’s exactly what he is: crass, unspiritual, incurious, imperceptive, just plain little.

Littleness itself can be neither limited nor confined. It is everywhere around us, even in the regions adjacent to Deep Creek Hot Springs, California. On April 9, in that locale, a mob of cops arrested a man who had stolen a horse. The man had been thrown from the horse and had cast himself on the ground in surrender, but the cops beat and kicked him. For a long time. Some cops who weren’t in the original group of beaters came over and joined the fun. Members of the law-enforcement mob have now been suspended from their jobs, pending an investigation. San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon commented on the posse’s use of force by saying, “It does not appear to be in line with our policies and procedures, at least a portion of it. . . .At the end of the day, it appears to be excessive.”

Of the distinction between little minds and great ones, he has no awareness. No little-minded person does.

Yes, it does. And from an aesthetic point of view, at the end of the day seems almost as bad. The prevalence of that pompous phrase is the measure of how greatly little minds prevail with us. At the end of the day is a small-minded attempt to seem large-minded, above the fray, calm and distanced in perspective, up in the midnight sky. . . . The phrase constantly appears in the pettiest acts of press agentry.

Small minds are, by definition, incapable of understanding how their words affect their listeners. They are also incapable of understanding that the issues of the day haven’t ended simply because they themselves have enunciated a pompous cliché. Obama, with his prattle of “hope and change,” has yet to see that the slogan was not, in itself, constitutive of hope and change.

Small minds typically try to make the surrounding world seem smaller; they fit better that way. One of their methods is the deployment of a severely limited stock of words to cover widely divergent situations. They assume that if their words don’t vary, the situations won’t either, and they will therefore be on top of them. Thus, segregation can be used to refer both to the legalized racism of the former South and to any population pattern in which one ethnic group happens to predominate. The same moral outrage can then be expressed toward both. A similar trick can be seen withincome disparity — a term that, unlike segregation, had no moral meaning to begin with. No moral lesson can be deduced merely from the fact that some people make more money than others.Yet the notion of an income gap has been used — first by outright demagogues, then by small-minded and incurious folk — as if it were prima facie evidence of a shocking wrong. The result is a morally agreeable simplification of a world that is often difficult for primitive moralists to feel at home in. They are relieved of any need to consider the obvious truth that some people with large incomes got them by crony capitalism or plain crookedness but others achieved them by benefiting large numbers of willing customers. Climate change is an even clearer example of a slogan employed to deceive, yet it evokes genuine hysteria among people whose view of science is so limited as to accept such a term as meaningful.

The present period of our political history might be called the Age of Small Minds. Its character is established by the tendency of small minds to turn, not to the cultivation of their own gardens, but to the ruin of others’. A startling example of small-mindedness appeared in the “fraternity rape” scandal at the University of Virginia. The episode, as you recall, began with Rolling Stone’s ready acceptance of allegations made by a woman pseudonymously known as “Jackie.” The story was full of holes, holes that could easily be discovered by anyone who had any perspective on human experience; but many people publicly known as intellectuals welcomed it as proof that universities need to reassert their parental powers and exterminate all forms of social life repugnant to those who think about nothing but sex and gender. That, of course, is one of the most nauseating things about both fraternities and gender fanatics, but few people noticed the parallel.

Obama, with his prattle of “hope and change,” has yet to see that the slogan was not, in itself, constitutive of hope and change.

Jackie’s story, and Rolling Stone’s way of handling it, aroused so much controversy that the affair was investigated by a distinguished team of journalism teachers. Their conclusions about Rolling Stone and the credibility of Jackie’s story were headlined as scathing. They weren’t; the report was as mild as lambs. And at a press conference afterward, one of its authors refused — as did almost all media reporting on the case — to blame Jackie for anything that had happened. She remained the “victim.”

The facts suggested that the real victims were those who had accepted the Rolling Stone story. Well — to revise an old expression — you can’t cheat a large-minded man. But even after the nature of the story was fully exposed, only a few brave souls challenged the bizarrely unjustified extension of victim to anyone who claims, however, preposterously, to be a victim. To the small-minded, we are all victims — we, as opposed to they, the people we don’t like. Those people are the victimizers. So much for the complexity of this world.

The language of small minds is reductive. It is also inflationary. That isn’t a paradox. If you have nothing much to say, no clear conceptions to communicate, you can always make a big noise to cover the nothing in your mind. You can use big words, stilted words, official words. And official words (such as victim) multiply with the multiplication of official jobs, official “duties,” official powers. They grow with the growth of government and the pressure groups that use government as their weapon of choice. Indeed, they precede it. Before any expansion of the nanny state, empty phrases (sustainability, an epidemic of rape on college campuses, the obesity crisis) rain down to confuse the weak and paralyze the skeptical, while clouds of nerve-destroying gas (we are outraged!) are emitted to make a safe zone for the next enlargement of official jurisdiction. The argot of climate change, with its loud but simple-minded equation of change with evil, scientists with grant recipients, doubters with deniers, green with good, has proven especially effective as a weapon of war on independent thinking. Small minds can accommodate only a few big “ideas”; as soon as those are in place, no antagonistic notions can get in. Almost any kind of hooey will be accepted as settled science; any petty nonsense will become a moral compass.

An amusing example appears in an email created by Cylvia Hayes and recovered, with some difficulty, by a nosey newspaper. Who, you may ask, is Cylvia Hayes? You know the answer if you live in Oregon. Hayes is the romantic partner of (former) Gov. John Kitzhaber, who was forced to resign his office because of scandals attendant on their relationship. Not sexual scandals — nobody, emphatically including me, appears to care who is in bed with either of them — but scandals about the influence on state government of an un-official of the state (Cylvia Hayes). This is no place to give details about the collusion of tiny minds that enabled Hayes, a promoter of Green causes, to dominate the politics of Oregon; you can enjoy the story elsewhere. It’s enough to mention that “Kitz” pompously decreed that his girlfriend was the “First Lady” of Oregon, with the unstated but fully intended corollary that she was entitled to be obeyed in all matters, foreign and domestic. A similar pomposity emerged in my town, San Diego, when our now deposed mayor, Robert (“Bob”) Filner, decided that his girlfriend was a “First Lady,” thus adapting to new and very local uses an old piece of silly presidential jargon.

To the small-minded, we are all victims — we, as opposed to they, the people we don’t like. Those people are the victimizers. So much for the complexity of this world.

Anyway, even without the title, Hayes was pompous enough to fill almost any political role, especially when there were issues about her favorite topic, the environment. If you say that phrase in a normal tone of voice, all it means is “whatever happens to be around us.” If you say it with superstitious awe, it means God. Hayes said it with superstitious awe. Any offense to the environment was clearly sacrilege. So we come to the email I promised to discuss.

It’s a snarky missive from Hayes to someone in the government of Oregon. In it she demands, with sarcasm worthy of the confessional, “Is there a reason we have regressed to single-sided copies?” Anyone who was so unconcerned with sustainability as to use only one side of a piece of paper had obviously regressed on the evolutionary scale.

Was Hayes making a mountain out of a molehill, a Hindenburg out of a toy balloon? Oh yes. And aren’t trees the most sustainable of our natural resources? Don’t they grow again? And isn’t Oregon, of all places, the land of trees? But that’s the thing about little minds: they see neither the forests nor the trees. More important: they are outraged when other people fail to share their view.

I am not arguing that to be large-minded, you have to possess the right ideas about politics, or economics, or the environment, or photocopying, or the state of Oregon. Or that you have to read books and continually cite them. Probably Cylvia Hayes has read some books, maybe more than President Obama. But there are other considerations. I doubt that John Bunyan read a lot of books, besides the Bible. I suppose he read a lot of bad sermons too. But he had an enormous vision of the world, and of the human soul, and he had the literary integrity that comes from large-mindedness. There isn’t an expression in Pilgrim’s Progress that is cheap or tawdry or inflated or pompously self-defensive. The same can be said of those works of art that are still technically known as Negro spirituals. No book learning there — but no petty concerns or petty expressions, either.

I am no political partisan of either Abraham Lincoln or my namesake, Stephen Douglas. In their works you see a great deal of logic-chopping, prevarication, false charges, faulty extrapolation, and other tricks of the professional political wrestler. It’s the same with Webster, Clay, Calhoun, and the other famous orators of that age — and also, I am sorry to say, with Jefferson, Madison, and other great men of an earlier generation. I am not an admirer of William Jennings Bryan, the late-19th-century purveyor of crackpot Progressivism. But you would need a heart of stone to say that the public utterances of these men, even of Bryan, consisted of big words composed by little minds. No; all the world, the world of great America, is in their words, together with that large and vital and often crazy thing, a notion of how it fits together. Like them or not, their thoughts were big, and their bigness wasn’t the bigness of grandiosity and condescension (“I want to be a champion of the middle class”). It was the bigness of real people, people with intellectual curiosity, with an actual interest in ideas and in the crown of ideas, which is language.

There isn’t an expression in Pilgrim’s Progress that is cheap or tawdry or inflated or pompously self-defensive.

In July 1863, President Lincoln greeted the conquest of Confederate fortresses on the Mississippi by writing, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” It’s a magnificent saying, a saying like the voice of a distant planet, yet the voice of someone who knows what the Father of Waters looks and feels and sounds like, who knows his laziness and his dislike of vexation and yet his need to reach the encircling sea. It’s the saying of a person who knows and cares what a river is, and what its history and its associations have been (“Father of Waters”); a person who thinks it worthy of his job as politician to try to express such things.

What would President Obama have said on that occasion? What would John Boehner’s response have been? What words would Hillary Clinton have found? I could never have invented Lincoln’s words, but I can easily invent the words of his successors on the political stage: “First, I want to say that our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the brave men and women who have been engaged in this conflict with which all of us as Americans have been struggling. We are committed, as a nation, to providing all Americans with the means to live rich, full lives in this great country of ours. The opening of the Mississippi River makes us think and reflect about everything that is truly great about America, which is family and freedom and the hope of a better life for all. I welcome this new opportunity to sit down with the folks in Alabama, and in Georgia, and in South Carolina, and in all the other places where events have happened, recently, that have caused pain to so many of us, and restart our long national dialogue about the values that we share. Together, I think we can work on the root causes of violence, and hunger, and sickness, and disease, and bigotry, and prejudice, and find ways to provide meaningful work, at a living wage, for all Americans. God bless the United States of America.”

Isn’t that right? Isn’t it? And do you ever expect to hear anything better from these people?

/emem




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The Grubers in the Audience

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For a long time I’ve been thinking about Stephen Cox’s account (Liberty, November 22) of Jonathan Gruber’s now-famous remarks about how easy and necessary it is to fool the American people. Did you notice: Cox analyzed Gruber, but failed to analyze the audience that not only acquiesced in Gruber’s disgraceful performance but also, in some of the recordings, laughed along with him.

Cox isn’t the only one who failed to explore the subject. No one seems willing to do it, despite the fact that you can tell a lot about a culture by the willingness of an audience to tolerate what somebody says to it. On the one occasion on which I have heard this topic broached in the media — a discussion on a radio talk show — the two commentators agreed that because we don’t know who, individually, was listening while Gruber blabbed and smirked, we can’t say much about these people, except to label them elitists. The evidence of elitism was the fact that they were academics, or would-be academics, at academic, or para-academic, conferences; and academics, especially those at “elite institutions” such as Gruber’s headquarters, MIT, are elitists. End of discussion. But I’m not willing to end it there.

Yes, academics who work at elite institutions tend to be elitists. I know this by personal experience: I teach at an elite institution. But elitism can take many forms. A person who went to East Overshoe College, or no college at all, can be an elitist in the corporate boardroom, or the media deck of the football stadium, or the town council, or the self-appointed neighborhood watch. And a person who has taught at Harvard for 30 years can be an elitist in ways that are virtually harmless. He can be snotty about his colleagues’ grading standards, or their habit of pronouncing “err” as if it were “heir” (something tells me that Cox falls in that category of elitist), or their inability to decline Latin nouns.

None of the great intellectuals who exert political influence at Virginia appears to have had the slightest fear of reenacting this sorry story.

I don’t mind those forms of elitism. I hope that somebody at Harvard still has them. (Harvard is a ruthless inflater of its own reputation.) The kinds of academic elitism that I do mind are (A) the elitism of people who consider themselves entitled to push other people around, and (B) the elitism that maintains its self-confidence even after it has destroyed its legitimacy.

Gruber’s audiences appear to have been defined by those kinds of elitism. If the academics who sat and listened to Gruber objected to his boasts about pushing people into a healthcare system they didn’t want — a serious matter, much more serious than Latin case endings — some of them would have said so. But there is no record or hint of objection — only the appreciative laughter we hear on some of the recordings. If you show up for a dog fight, and you stay and don’t object, and instead you whistle and laugh and cheer, we can assume that you are morally indistinguishable from the men who trained the dogs to kill each other.

That reflection doesn’t speak well for Gruber’s audience. But here’s a worse reflection, one that has occupied me ever since the appearance of Cox’s article. Critics of elitism didn’t notice this, but Gruber’s elitist audience was forfeiting its very title to elitism. Academics’ legitimate title to respect and deference, to the exercise of any role of leadership in society, comes from their ability to identify facts and deal with them honestly. Yet this is the title Gruber and his audience forfeited, but were too elitist to care if they did.

Suppose that some academic is liberally paid and respectfully heard because he is an expert on civil engineering. This person wants to reform the laws about highway bridge safety. He wants this so badly that he misrepresents facts. If his misrepresentations are discovered, he will forfeit his title to respect and may forfeit his income too. Some colleges still fire people like that.

Or suppose some literary scholar believes that Jane Austen is a great writer and that everyone should read her. Inspired by this ideal, he goes to book clubs and academic conferences claiming that Austen is significant because she was the first woman novelist. But she wasn’t, and anyone qualified to pronounce on her merits would know that she wasn’t, because (for instance), one of her literary merits is her ability to satirize earlier woman novelists. In any audience, even a “lay” one, somebody will rise and ask a question about Aphra Behn or Fanny Burney or Madame Lafayette, and the Austen idealist will be discredited as an expert. If he put on a Gruberlike grin and said that what he meant by “novelist” is a great novelist, and what he meant by “woman” is a woman who never married, so he was right after all, the audience will make for the doors, and probably complain to his department chair. The offender won’t be fired, but his colleagues will give him funny looks in the hallway, and he won’t be invited to serve on many more academic panels.

But if he went further, and informed an academic audience that he didn’t believe any of those things, but merely went around saying them because he wanted to fool all the non-experts, who are stupid anyway, and he smiled and chortled and laughed aloud at the success he had, what would be his fate? The academics in his audience would be outraged, and they wouldn’t keep their outrage quiet. They would take his conduct as a slur on themselves — in general, as members of the human race, and in particular, as people falsely enlisted as his co-conspirators. The real elite would triumph with his ejection from the room, and likely from his career.

Academics do not qualify themselves for public respect because they are “honest” enough to vent their resentments, hysterias, and wish-fulfillment fantasies.

That, at least, is supposed to be the response to such things, and it would have been the response to Gruber if he had operated in the field of civil engineering or Jane Austen studies. But he is a public policy expert, and public policy experts have, apparently, become exempt from professional discipline. I haven’t heard any reports of Gruber’s rejection by the mass of academics in his field. Nor have I heard any vigorous censures from the professional organizations that are usually so quick to make pronouncements about what academics think, want, or demand.

And there is evidence of even more startling abdications of academics’ most basic professional duty, the duty to be honest. Rolling Stone published an article detailing the allegations of an anonymous woman who claimed that she had been gang-raped at a University of Virginia frat house. The details were so implausible as to render the story unbelievable on its face. Subsequent inquiries by reputable news sources, such as the Washington Post, demonstrated that it was largely, if not wholly, untrue. Nevertheless, on Nov. 22 the academic hierarchs at the University of Virginia arbitrarily canceled all campus fraternity activities until Jan. 9 and have never, thereafter, admitted that their quickly formed and extreme reaction was wrong. Even now, faculty members are trying to ban all fraternity activities from campus, and the administration is trying to extend its power past normal boundaries — in response to a crime that was never objectively verified.

Is this a university that claims to operate with some kind of intellectual integrity, some willingness to exercise critical thought, some fairness in the search for truth — in short, with some kind of intellectual honesty?

No reader needs to be reminded that similar events have happened repeatedly in recent years, most notably in the famous Duke lacrosse scandal. Unfounded reports of sexual and racial abuses have been eagerly swallowed by esteemed academics, who did not hesitate to blame their own communities for crimes that were never committed; and their folly has been subjected to national ridicule. Yet none of the great intellectuals who exert political influence at Virginia appears to have had the slightest fear of reenacting this sorry story.

Another sorry tale is the intellectually dishonest reactions of several elite Eastern universities to the protests attending the failure of a grand jury to return an indictment against the cop who shot a young black man in Ferguson, Missouri, and to the much more justified agitation over the killing of a black man by cops on Staten Island. Not only were students at prestigious law schools invited to delay their examinations if they were upset by these events, but special help was offered in dealing with the “trauma” they suffered because the criminal justice system failed to agree with their views. Officialdom at Columbia University even opined that “focusing on routine matters such as exam schedules . . . diverts attention away from the real issue that should be examined now: how to ensure a criminal justice system that protects fairness, due process, and equality."

Common sense has never been in oversupply about academics, but this takes the cake. It is a radical refusal to comprehend the simplest facts of academic life — the necessity of tests and the ability of students to take them. It is, in a word, dishonesty.

But suppose, you say, these people actually believe these preposterous things? Suppose they actually believe that law students are such delicate flowers as to be unable to tolerate an imperfect world? Suppose they actually believe that demonstrating one’s knowledge of the criminal justice system diverts attention from “examining” how to reform it? Or, to return to UVA, suppose they actually believe that fraternities are — in a modern version of original sin — so evil by nature that they are certain to do evil, and do it continually, simply because they are fraternities, thus obviating the need to locate evidence of the specific evils they do? If people actually believe these things, then aren’t they acting with honesty, no matter how stupid and illiberal their actions may be?

Isn’t it a good thing that such people are increasingly distrusted by the populace in general? Yes, but that’s not good enough.

Indeed they are. But that doesn’t mean they are acting with intellectual honesty. Academics do not qualify themselves for public respect because they are “honest” enough to vent their resentments, hysterias, and wish-fulfillment fantasies. Respected professions are not based on primitive feelings. They are based on their practitioners’ respect for objective, critically tested truth. A plumber who “honestly” believed that water can run uphill would no longer deserve, honestly speaking, to be called a plumber. A physicist who reacted to some unexpected astronomical phenomenon by consulting a horoscope would no longer deserve, honestly speaking, to be called a physicist. It would make no difference that he “honestly” believed in astrology; he still could not honestly collect his paycheck from the physics department.

You see the point, which the politically engaged academics “honestly” do not see. As a result, they are squandering their influence along with their respect.

Well, what of it? Isn’t it a good thing that such people are increasingly distrusted by the populace in general? Yes, but that’s not good enough — for several reasons. For one thing, the offenders don’t care. They care only for their self-esteem and the esteem of like-minded colleagues. For every person who, like Gruber, suffers some material loss from exposure as a dope or fool, hundreds more are advanced in their professions, and corresponding hundreds of intellectually honest young people who merited academic jobs languish in unemployment or underemployment.

Bad money drives out good; institutionalized dishonesty always attempts to drive honesty as far away as possible, and it generally succeeds. Until the American people decide that the result of a college education should not be a credential to middle-class respectability but an exposure to honest thought, the disgraceful trend will continue.




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Lessons from November 2013

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Let’s look at three of the elections held on Nov. 6, and try to discern what they could be telling us about 2014 and ’16.

Virginia

In the Virginia gubernatorial race, a “DC swamp slime” (Democrat Terry McAuliffe) defeated a “crusading prude” (Republican Ken Cuccinelli). McAuliffe got 1,065,000 votes (48%) to Cuccinelli’s 1,010,000 (45%). The Libertarian Party candidate, Robert Sarvis, garnered 145,000 votes, or almost 7% of the total. Sarvis, a young and very well-educated man with business experience, stood head and shoulders above the two major party candidates in terms of policy, personality, and integrity. Given the cankerous quality of the two leading candidates, Sarvis ought to have done even better. His distant third-place finish reinforces the already well-established fact that American voters are pretty much addicted to the two-party system. If the Virginia electorate won’t rise up against the McAuliffe-Cuccinelli choice presented to them by the two established parties, what hope is there for the LP becoming a national force? (Equally telling is the fact that Rand Paul went to Virginia and campaigned for Cuccinelli, not Sarvis.)

Sarvis took more votes away from McAuliffe than from Cuccinelli. He did best among young voters (18–29 age group), taking 15% of that vote. He won 15% of independents, and 10% of self-described moderates. It’s unlikely, however, that 15% of Virginia’s young voters will continue, as they age, to support the LP. The thirties and beyond bring new life burdens and responsibilities such as parenthood, mortgages, and paying for college. Some and perhaps most of those young LP voters will morph into persons who look to government for help with their adult responsibilities. It’s easy for young people to vote LP when they have a social safety net — their parents — to fall back on.

The youth vote in Virginia should give Republicans pause. Cuccinelli won only 40% of voters 18-29. Advocating state intervention in people’s sex lives, as Cuccinelli has (on this see Andrew Ferguson’s Oct. 3 Liberty article, “Two Evils”) is not the way to win the votes of young people. Keeping social issues to the fore is a sure recipe for helping Democrats win elections in most parts of this country.

McAuliffe won among all income groups, with the single exception of those making between $50,000 and $100,000 (this group, of course, is the one that is most squeezed by taxes). McAuliffe’s margins were highest among those making under $30,000 per year (65%–28%), and those making over $200,000 (55%–39%).

Cuccinelli carried the male vote, 48%–45%; McAuliffe won women by 51%–42%. These figures mirror national trends. Cuccinelli, however, won a majority of married women. McAuliffe won handily among unmarried voters; he carried single men by 58%–33%, and single women by 67%–25%. These are worrisome figures for the Republican Party.

Cuccinelli won the white vote, 56%–36%, yet still lost the election. Whites make up 72% of the Virginia electorate. That percentage will continue to decline in Virginia as well as nationally. McAuliffe won 90% of the African-American vote.

Virginia is of course something of a special case. McAuliffe won big in northern Virginia. The Washington, D.C. suburbs, which contain a large number of government employees, carried him to victory. He also won the Tidewater region by a large majority. This area includes a sizable military population, and in the past has been kinder to Republicans than it was to Cuccinelli. Almost one third of Virginia’s voters said that someone in their household had been affected by the government shutdown. These people voted heavily for McAuliffe. Government employees and their dependents have turned Virginia from a red state into a purple one.

Despite declining faith in government across almost all demographic groups, the great majority of Americans are not libertarians or rugged individualists.

But the problem for Republicans goes deeper than this. Demographic trends are turning the Old Dominion blue. Older white voters from rural areas no longer decide the winners in Virginia elections. Women and nonwhites are now the deciders, and Republicans in Virginia and across the nation are increasingly viewed with disfavor by both groups.

For the first time in 40 years, Virginia has elected a governor from the same party as the sitting president. The governor, the lieutenant governor, and both US senators are Democrats. Had the Republicans run a moderate against McAuliffe, they probably would have taken the governorship. But had the Democrats run just about anyone other than McAuliffe, that Democrat would have beaten any Republican. Republicans in Virginia should be worried — very worried.

New Jersey

Governor Chris Christie rolled to reelection with 60% of the vote. It’s surprising that he didn’t score even higher, given that the Democratic Party did little for its candidate. Christie got the attention of some analysts by carrying 57% of women and 50% of Hispanics. He even took 21% of the black vote. In the wake of the election, journalists and political junkies began speculating anew on the prospects of a Christie presidential run in 2016.

Yet the fact remains that Christie would find very rough going in the Republican primaries. He’s little better than a Democrat to Republican voters in such places as Iowa and South Carolina. A strategy based on New Hampshire-Florida-California doesn’t get Christie the nomination. Even if he somehow won the nomination, his prospects in the general election would be much iffier than most analysts appear to realize. His penchant for insulting people may work well for a New Jersey governor, but it’s not what most people want in a president. There are personal and ethical issues lurking in the background as well. A series of negative ads featuring Christie being Christie could have a devastating effect. The Democrats may have taken his measure already, which would account for their failure to try to drag down his majority in the election just past. Even New Jersey voters favor Hillary over their governor by 48–44. Christie may very well take the plunge in 2016, but one way or another his fate is likely to be the same as that of another New Jersey blimp — the Hindenburg.

Alabama: the establishment strikes back

A special Republican runoff election was held in Alabama’s 1st congressional district (the incumbent Republican resigned to take a position in the University of Alabama system). It pitted Chamber of Commerce-backed lawyer Bradley Byrne against Tea Partier and businessman Dean Young. The two candidates were neck and neck in the polls going into election day, but a late blizzard of spending by Byrne carried him to victory with almost 53% of the vote. National Tea Party organizations largely ignored the race, a tactical error that could mean the ebbing of Tea Party fortunes in the battle for the soul of the Republican Party.

The Chamber and other business organizations, as well as leaders of the establishment wing of the GOP, were energized by the government shutdown debacle. Since 2010 they had largely avoided confrontation, hoping to channel the radicals’ passion and energy into promoting establishment policies and goals. Prior to the shutdown, this dual track hypocrisy wasn’t working very well. Maintaining the dual track became impossible when Ted Cruz and Co. brought the federal behemoth to a halt for 16 days, a move that alienated wide swathes of the public, including many Republicans.

It remains to be seen whether the financial clout of the establishment can bring the Tea Party definitely into line. If the establishment fails in this the GOP will remain hopelessly divided between pragmatists and radicals, with electoral doom the result. Should it succeed, the Tea Partiers may just take their ball and go home, with electoral doom the result. To put it in another way, will the Tea Party accept more moderate policies in return for winning elections and gaining power? Centuries of political history tell us the answer is yes. But so far at least this grassroots movement has defied logic and convention. The GOP’s ability to remain a viable force in American politics is, therefore, uncertain.

What comes next?

Are the Democrats also staring into a pit of their own making? Just a month ago, things seemed to be going their way. The shutdown had obscured the botched rollout of Obamacare. The polls indicated widespread public disillusionment with the Republicans, who themselves seemed hopelessly divided. The October jobs number looked pretty good. Then came the second blow to Obamacare: several million people learned that the president’s promise, “If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it,” was a bald-faced lie.

The ripple effect was immediate and profound. Obama’s favorability rating, and that of his party, plummeted. Democrats in Congress started peeling off and calling for changes in the Affordable Care Act. Public faith in government action as a force for good took yet another hit, and a big one — something that can only hurt the party of government. Obama himself appeared pathetic as he tried to explain his playing fast and loose with the truth. Does this portend an unraveling of the Democratic Party, with major consequences for 2014 and ’16?

Christie would find very rough going in the Republican primaries. He’s little better than a Democrat to Republican voters in such places as Iowa and South Carolina.

Probably not. The Obamacare storm is likely to blow over. A return to the pre-Obamacare healthcare system would not mean healthcare bliss for most of the uninsured, for people with pre-existing conditions, for parents whose children are unemployed (official youth rate unemployment is currently around 15%) and therefore dependent upon them for healthcare. Despite declining faith in government across almost all demographic groups, the great majority of Americans are not libertarians or rugged individualists. They want a certain amount of protection from the cold, cruel world and the powerful forces that inhabit it. The Republican Party, which is the party of less (though still big) government, has lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections. Although it has a majority in the House of Representatives, it actually lost the total vote for Congress by five percentage points in 2012.

The Democrats have certainly been hurt to some extent. While they had very little chance of recapturing the House in 2014, any hopes in that direction have now been definitely dashed. The Senate, which appeared safe only a few weeks ago (despite many more vulnerable Democrats than Republicans being up for reelection), may now be in play again.

2014 may then turn out to be a better than expected year for Republicans, though by no means a repetition of 1994 or 2010. How much success the GOP has will depend largely upon whether its two wings can come together to fight the common enemy. Of course, many Tea Partiers view the establishment wing of the GOP as the other enemy; at this moment it seems doubtful that many of them will choose unity over ideological purity. To the extent that this proves true, Republican gains will be limited.

And so to 2016. Republican strategist Mike Murphy sees three strong (i.e., electable) presidential candidates in the Republican stable for 2016 — Chris Christie, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, and Jeb Bush. I’ve already discussed the likely outcome of a Christie candidacy. Walker is not a national figure; he lacks the personality, drive, and money that would be required to make him one. This analyst would be flabbergasted if Walker made a splash outside the Great Lakes region.

Which leaves Bush. Should he run, the whole weight, financial and otherwise, of the GOP’s establishment wing will be behind him. His conservative credentials are superior to those of the two previous nominees. He has an attractive family, including a Mexican-American wife. Polls show that the public is gradually coming to have a more benign view of his brother’s disastrous presidency. All this indicates to me that he can win the GOP nomination for president, if he chooses to run.

An insurgent candidate representing the Tea Party wing — that is, Rand Paul or Ted Cruz — could score some surprising victories in the caucuses and primaries. He could even go all the way, in the absence of a heavyweight establishment candidate. But in that case the general election would end in Goldwater fashion.

The problem for the Republicans, even if united, is that their base of support is shrinking because of demographic trends. Voters who are white, married, and making between $50,000 and $150,000 per year will elect Republican candidates again and again and again. But this demographic is shrinking, while Democrat constituencies are growing. Attempting to combat this trend through voter suppression, as the Republicans have sought to do in many states, is both wrong and impractical. Somehow the GOP must broaden its appeal if it is to survive and prosper.

Hillary is probably the next president, unless she decides not to run. Any other Democrat could be vulnerable, depending upon how badly the Obama administration ends. In the absence of Hillary there is a small chance that Democrats will turn to a far-out candidate, such as Elizabeth Warren. A Warren candidacy would breathe new life into the Republicans.

It seems to me that either Hillary or Jeb will take the crown in 2016. Should both stand aside, we will be in for a very interesting campaign. In any case we should recognize that the best people rarely seek office, while government continues to grow bigger and more intrusive. This is a recipe for more bad things in our future. The decline of the Republic, which began in the mid-1960s (or, more precisely, at Dallas in 1963), will continue.




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Scylla Defeats Charybdis

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Last night (Nov. 5) Democratic fixer Terry McAuliffe became governor of Virginia by defeating Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in a singularly unpleasant race. The Libertarian candidate, Robert Sarvis, finished with 6.6% of the vote—a more than respectable total in most statewide elections, but ultimately a bit disappointing in this one, given the almost South Parkesque awfulness of the major-party pair.

As noted earlier in this space, Sarvis had hoped to be included in the final televised debate on Oct. 24, and seemed to have met the requirement of polling at least 10% in major independent statewide opinion polls (in fact, as of the final poll before the debate, he was polling at 12%). But the decision was made — likely because of strong pressure from the Cuccinelli campaign — to hold to a cutoff of Oct. 10 for the polling data, back when Sarvis averaged just over 9%.

If it was Cuccinelli who supplied the pressure, it was a craven but politically expedient move. Trailing McAuliffe by seven to ten percentage points both before and immediately after the debate, the Cooch — no really, that’s the nickname — saw a chance to make up some of that gap by taking votes out of Sarvis’s hide rather than McAuliffe’s. Given Cuccinelli’s firm Catholic belief, I can only assume he derived this strategy from 2 Samuel 12, where the rich man shrewdly steals a poor man’s lone lamb rather than culling one from his own vast flocks. Wherever he got it, though, the result was Rand Paul coming out to stump for Cuccinelli, and bizarre arguments being made in conservative-friendly press outlets such as Breitbart about how Cuccinelli was actually the more libertarian choice.

Never mind that the Virginia AG wanted to remake sodomy into a felony crime, or that he has an anti-immigrant streak a border-fence wide, or that he used his office to threaten a lawsuit against a university scientist for research he didn’t like. The real problem is that he just comes off as insufferable even by the standards of politicians; to be regarded less favorably than Terry McAuliffe —someone whom even the Daily Show, no friend to conservative or libertarian causes, labeled “pond scum”— takes some doing.

In fact, the only thing that seemed to be more unfavorable still was the Affordable Care Act, especially with the ongoing “glitches” in implementation and the parade of lies told by Obama and his advisors coming daily to light. So Cuccinelli doubled down on his pitch to Virginia’s fiscal conservatives, billing himself as the candidate who could stop Obamacare. Though Sarvis had been gathering support in southwest Virginia — up to 20% in regional polls, and even a newspaper endorsement from the Danville Bee — some people evidently defected for Cuccinelli, and the race tightened up notably over the final week.

As a result, those in the Democrat base who may have considered voting Sarvis as a protest vote (or as a vote for his stronger commitment to marriage equality and other generally liberal social issues) ended up choking back their bile and voting McAuliffe instead. And even so, it was closer than most polls inicated: the final margin was about two percentage points, and that’s with the Democrats outspending the GOP by about $15 million.

It remains to be seen what promises McAuliffe had to make, and to whom, in order to get that money, and the state of Virginia can now look forward to the time when those favors get called in. It’s very likely that the list of beneficiaries will include favored contracting firms, green-energy boondoggles, “clean” coal miners, and the NSA shadow economy that spiderwebs through the DC suburbs. But who knows? After all, this is a man who stopped at a fundraiser on the way back from the hospital with his wife and newborn child; he has specialized for decades in connecting people with money to people power, and now he’s the one with the power. He’ll wield it while filling an office previously held by the likes of Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe.

As with most elections, the best one can say about this one is that, thank God, it’s over. And there is a bright side, at least from a policy standpoint: the Republicans maintained a “solid” House of Delegates majority, meaning that it’ll be a street fight for McAuliffe to get anything done. But it also means the bitterness of the campaign trail will extend into every legislative tussle over the next four years. One can only hope that the Old Dominion sees better options come 2017.

in major independent statewide opinion polls (in fact, as of the final poll before the debate, he was polling at 12%). But the decision was made



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Two Evils

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In odd-numbered years, there’s rarely much at stake electorally. One of the very few races of note in 2013 is in Virginia, where the gubernatorial race pits Republican attorney general Ken Cuccinelli against former Democratic National Committee head Terry McAuliffe. Both are odious; even among loyal party-line voters there will be very few unheld noses at the polls.

It was McAuliffe, you may recall, who pulled together the funds for Bill Clinton’s presidential run, reaching out to the most toxic corporations and associations — arms manufacturers, polluters, real estate shysters — for donations that would be paid off in regulatory favors down the line. It was McAuliffe, as well, who masterminded the infamous “Buddhist temple” (read: Chinese government) fundraisers for Clinton’s reelection, as well as brokering face time with the president and first lady, even sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom — for the right price.

After a public falling-out with Al Gore over the latter’s botched 2000 campaign (one of McAuliffe’s few good points is seeing Gore for the sanctimonious hypocrite he was and always had been), McAuliffe took over at the DNC as the party received its biggest gift in years: the presidency of George W. Bush. However, despite his undeniably effective, undeniably dirty fundraising, he could not oust Bush from office. After running Hillary Clinton’s 2008 bid into the ground, McAuliffe was out of national politics; “the best fundraiser in history” — as Gore himself had said in happier times — had lost his touch. Since he clearly had no intention of just going away, that left only one option: state politics.

In 2009, McAuliffe ran for governor of Virginia — though “ran” is probably the wrong phrasing; more accurate to say “fell flat on his face.” McAuliffe tried to ingratiate himself with the electorate by visiting “every corner” of the state, but he was only ever going to be regarded as a creature of the DC suburbs, a potentate of the despised northern counties. McAuliffe didn’t even make the general election; instead, he got thumped in the primaries by a state senator, Creigh Deeds, who would go on to lose handily to then-Attorney General Bob McDonnell.

McAuliffe pulled together the funds for Bill Clinton’s presidential run, reaching out to toxic corporations and associations for donations that would be paid off in regulatory favors.

And yet, despite all of this baggage, McAuliffe is running again in 2013, and to this point with a slight lead (4 to 6% in most polls) over his Republican competitor. Certainly McAuliffe hasn’t become any better of a candidate in the last four years. What could explain this shift in fortunes?

A few things. First, there is the ongoing, literal shift in fortunes toward the DC suburbs. Much of the wealth extracted by the federal government in recent decades has sloshed into northern Virginia, drawing lobbyists, bureaucrats, and other parasites who make their living off of others’. According to Forbes, half of the richest counties in America, as measured by per-capita income, lie in northern Virginia. The prosperity of these communities (not to mention their extravagant school systems, lavish pensions, and gold-plated healthcare plans) depends on the continuing bloat of the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense, and any number of other agencies situated there. They are as establishment as it is possible to be; they will support anyone and anything that maintains their privileged position — and McAuliffe is all about privilege and position.

Second, the Virginia Republicans are much weaker and more fragmented than they were last time around. In 2009, Bob McDonnell benefited from the ongoing recession, building a successful campaign around a pro-business message and, in the process, bringing the state’s social conservatives (who were behind him no matter what) together with its fiscal ones. However, once in office McDonnell quickly became enmeshed in corporate kickback scandals, culminating in criminal investigations into the governor’s alleged acceptance of gifts totaling upwards of $140,000. McDonnell also alienated the social libertarians among his base by breaking sharply right on several social issues, especially abortion (requiring an ultrasound prior to the procedure) and gay rights (blocking legislation extending health coverage to same-sex partners). With McDonnell blocked from running for reelection by Virginia statute — and potentially also by criminal conviction — the task of keeping the coalition together now falls to AG Cuccinelli.

Which brings me to point the third, Ken Cuccinelli himself. A true believer in the legislation of morality, Cuccinelli has never seen a moral cause he wouldn’t champion. He’s fought rearguard battles in favor of anti-sodomy and even anti-adultery laws, opposed any attempt to end discrimination against gays in public (note: as opposed to private) hiring, created a human trafficking taskforce with the intent and effect of cracking down on prostitution, pushed abstinence-only sex ed, and tried to give police and school administrators the power to search students’ cellphones to prevent sexting.

He has also — and he wasted his own money on this, so it’s in no way unconstitutional, but nonetheless telling — made up his own version of Virginia’s state seal, which features the Roman goddess Virtus, a personification of virtue, wearing a tunic that leaves one breast exposed, as she stands victorious over the vanquished Tyrannus. Never mind that a single exposed breast is often taken to signify modesty — even unobtainability. Never mind that the state’s own description for the seal states that Virtus is dressed in “Amazon” style; i.e., semi-robed. No, for Cuccinelli, as for all prigs, all flesh is prurient; therefore, he devised a seal with a breastplate to conceal the offending teat. If virtue is to conquer tyrants, she better do so in a PG manner.

As with any ideological conservative, Cuccinelli has his good points: he’s fought against eminent domain abuse, and he’s staunchly anti-tax, even leading the fight against a generally bipartisan gasoline tax increase. But stack against that his anti-immigrant stances, such as support for a “papers, please” law allowing police to investigate the residency status of any suspected illegal, as well as for language tests for laid-off workersseeking unemployment benefits. And add in also his embarrassing lawsuit against the University of Virginia relating to research performed on global climate change: Cuccinelli asserted that such research amounted to “fraud” against the taxpayers. Whatever your views on the subject, the prospect of a state’s attorney general wasting huge amounts on court costs in order to meddle with university research should prove chilling, and would have provided a fearsome precedent.

A true believer in the legislation of morality, Cuccinelli has never seen a moral cause he wouldn’t champion.

So Virginia’s voters must choose between the DC swamp slime, and the crusading prude — and these are the images that are drilled into their heads, over and over again, during every television and radio broadcast, on every website, in every newspaper, on every street corner, on and on and on and on. Huge amounts of money assure that this saturation will only get worse: McAuliffe’s taken in $20 million, Cuccinelli more than $13 million; every dollar’s being put to use in shouting at voters, telling them in so many words how the other guy is a scumbag, a misogynist, a bigot, a stooge; certainly unfit to take on the job presently occupied by a(n alleged) crook, and by many other crooks before him.

And the thing is, they’re each right about the other’s unworthiness.Little wonder that the two are polling between 80 and 85% combined in most polls, with huge portions of the electorate undecided, or at least unwilling to commit to either one.

What’s interesting is that, when Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis is included in these polls, he regularly pulls 8–10%. Sarvis’ campaign has been run on shoestrings: by the end of August he’d raised about $60,000, and spent only $45,000 of it. But I’d wager that by the next count, that number will have at least doubled: Sarvis is making good use of his intermittent time in the spotlight, hovering around the showing off his photogenic family, making a case for libertarianism both socially (gay marriage, drug reform) and fiscally (anti-tax, anti-subsidy and other manifestations of crony capitalism).

Sarvis has elaborated these positions while hanging around outside the interminable statewide series of debates between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli, debates to which he, as a third-party candidate, has not been invited. But that may change. On October 24 there is a debate scheduled in Blacksburg at Virginia Tech, with a ground rule that any candidate polling 10% in “major independent statewide polls” can participate. Cuccinelli, showing himself an abject coward, has requested that this bar be raised, to make it in effect impossible for Sarvis to participate. McAuliffe, knowing full well that Sarvis will take more votes out of the Republicans’ hide than the Democrats’, has already signed on, and I would speculate might even provide background support to help Sarvis reach or maintain the required numbers, and then dare Cuccinelli to back out of an event that the attorney general himself requested.

I don’t know what kind of debater Sarvis is, especially when placed up against two able manipulators of rhetoric. But he starts with the advantage of not being either one of them, so there’s every chance his message could be heard. On the other hand, Cuccinelli could prevail, succeeding in getting Sarvis barred from the event with the usual tack of snobbish bluster. If so, then Sarvis will definitely continue to get interviews — McAuliffe will make sure of that — but will lose the chance at a live audience.

Whatever happens, Sarvis has succeeded in injecting something approaching interest into this most dire of elections. Where once the only enjoyment available was looking forward to either Cuccinelli or McAuliffe losing, and savoring the schadenfreude of the concession speech — and there still will be that; my God, how I’m looking forward to watching one or the other spit out the words of defeat while having to drum up at least the pretense of respect for his opponent — now there is also the hope that a message of freedom might make its way into at least a few new hearts and heads.



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