Archive for May, 2012
It’s worth reading EJ Dionne’s latest piece about the essence of modern conservatism, not so much for the originality of its analysis—its argument that conservatism has morphed into a mean-spirited, anti-communal, exercise in selfishness is a standard liberal trope at this point—but because it revives a valuable debate I’ve written about before: is the Republican Party really in the midst of a hard-right revolution and has the right all but given up on community?
To be sure, there’s a lot to assail about Dionne’s history lessons. Trying to re-imagine Civil War pensions, or the creation of national hospitals to treat sailors under John Adams, as relevant entries in a debate over modern ideology is about as illuminating as linking pro-slavery antebellum Democrats to the modern Democratic Party’s stance on abortion, or dwelling on the Ku Klux Klan’s twenties era power base in the Democratic Party. In other words, minor rhetorical noise, but not much light. Similarly, describing McCarthyism, Vietnam, the civil rights fires, Watergate, and the generation gap as minor pauses in a robust past consensus is the slight-of -hand of a DC pundit framing another lament about the allegedly woeful times we live in now (times that don’t feature inner-city riots, assassinations, 56,000 deaths in a foreign war, or the wiretapping of political enemies).
I won’t challenge Dionne’s premise that modern conservatism is mainly a campaign for “low taxes, fewer regulations, [and] less government.” It is distinguishable from earlier phases when conservatives spent much energy on co-opting liberals, i.e, George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”, Gerald Ford’s off and on economic stimulus proposals; Richard Nixon’s forays into affirmative action and environmental protection. And to be sure, the cable news organ of the contemporary right sometimes blends an unattractive fearfulness about the future with a bravado-laced denigration of the left (that is of course, matched by the left’s unadorned contempt in return).
But the larger thesis, that an ideological jihad has transformed Republicans into an intolerant, right-wing monolith? Dionne utterly ignores two factors that diminish his argument greatly. The first is that the earlier conservative embrace of proactive, larger government had more to do with the most elemental political calculations–that Democrats one, two, and three decades ago were a decisive majority of the electorate and a Republican could not win without a chunk of them–than some broad-gauged philosophical approach to government or community. Even the immensely popular (at least after 1982) Ronald Reagan faced enough of a Democratic edge that his saccharine “Morning in America” ads downplayed the budget cutting and union-busting in his first term; but the fact that Dionne attributes the messaging to Reagan being “acutely alive to the communal side of conservatism”, and not to a skilled campaign’s reading of swing voters, is likely one more instance of Dionne reading the past through his advocate’s lens.
In other words, while it is true that Republicans have reverted more than ever to a base-oriented politics, it has happened in proportion to the electoral feasibility of a ”get out your own vote” strategy: the traditional post-war Democratic edge has shrunk to almost nothing and the advantage self-identified conservatives enjoy over liberals in Gallup’s polling is almost twenty points. Similarly, the Obama Administration’s self-conscious embrace of communitarian rhetoric is no doubt linked to Democratic calculations that a straight-forward embrace of large government and heightened spending is a political loser of epic proportions, that is, unless it is tied to a carefully varnished theme about our “obligations to each other.” In search of a philosophical realignment, Dionne has stumbled on politicians calculating how to win.
A second flaw with Dionne’s analysis is that the actual Republican Party is a decidedly more multi-dimensional enterprise than he even begins to acknowledge. The reality is that the party will nominate a candidate who is inextricably linked to a government driven expansion of healthcare; his last serious challenger failed to consolidate Tea Party loyalists and social conservatives outside the Deep South, despite a relentlessly conservative message that focused exclusively on Romney’s moderate past; and the bronze medalist who won South Carolina and overwhelmingly led polls of conservatives in the last month of 2011 openly condemned the surge of anti-immigration nativism in his party, and defended the prescription drug benefit that Dionne argues is a relic of a discredited and more moderate brand of Republicanism. No question, there are myriad factors that explain the shifting course of the Republican primaries, including who had money and when they had it, but it is impossible to describe that course as the pre-determined march of a myopic, single minded kind of conservatism.
Dionne writes, by the way, at the same time Cory Booker, Newark’s moderate, pro-business mayor, has been pilloried on the left for the apostasy of defending Bain Capital. One wonders what Booker’s survival minded recantation says to Dionne: does it mean that the liberal version of community just happens to exclude private equity firms? Or does it occur to Dionne that infusions of private wealth into flailing businesses was once an approved Democratic prescription as recently as the Clinton era and that Robert Kennedy assiduously courted the ancestors of modern day private equity to invest in depressed markets like Bedford Stuyvesant? And given that history, does the railing against Booker expose the dramatic ways in which liberalism has slid from its own pro-growth roots?
It is true that there is much to be gained from a vigorous conservative debate over the merits of reforming government versus scaling it down to nothing; or as Dionne puts it, “balanc[ing] our individualism with a sense of communal obligation”. (It’s a debate well underway in the pages of National Affairs and National Review, among others.) But Dionne’s communitarianism looks conveniently just like liberalism: more aggressive redistribution of income; more regulation in the name of skepticism about markets; more expanded personal liberty even if it trumps competing rights of religious association or federalism. In other words, not so much a high-minded vision of community, but the contemporary Democratic platform; not a rallying-cry for centrists, but a liberal laundry list.
On May 30th, Artur Davis took time to speak to Fox News about his recent decision to join the Republican party. Please click the video below for more.
While I’ve gone to great lengths to keep this website a forum for ideas, and not a personal forum, I should say something about the various stories regarding my political future in Virginia, the state that has been my primary home since late December 2010. The short of it is this: I don’t know and am nowhere near deciding. If I were to run, it would be as a Republican. And I am in the process of changing my voter registration from Alabama to Virginia, a development which likely does represent a closing of one chapter and perhaps the opening of another.
As to the horse-race question that animated parts of the blogosphere, it is true that people whose judgment I value have asked me to weigh the prospect of running in one of the Northern Virginia congressional districts in 2014 or 2016, or alternatively, for a seat in the Virginia legislature in 2015. If that sounds imprecise, it’s a function of how uncertain political opportunities can be—and if that sounds expedient, never lose sight of the fact that politics is not wishfulness, it’s the execution of a long, draining process to win votes and help and relationships while your adversaries are working just as hard to tear down the ground you build.
I by no means underestimate the difficulty of putting together a campaign again, especially in a community to which I have no long-standing ties. I have a mountain of details to learn about this northern slice of Virginia and its aspirations, and given the many times I have advised would-be candidates to have a platform and a reason for serving, as opposed to a desire to hold an office, that learning curve is one I would take seriously.
And the question of party label in what remains a two team enterprise? That, too, is no light decision on my part: cutting ties with an Alabama Democratic Party that has weakened and lost faith with more and more Alabamians every year is one thing; leaving a national party that has been the home for my political values for two decades is quite another. My personal library is still full of books on John and Robert Kennedy, and I have rarely talked about politics without trying to capture the noble things they stood for. I have also not forgotten that in my early thirties, the Democratic Party managed to engineer the last run of robust growth and expanded social mobility that we have enjoyed; and when the party was doing that work, it felt inclusive, vibrant, and open-minded.
But parties change. As I told a reporter last week, this is not Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party (and he knows that even if he can’t say it). If you have read this blog, and taken the time to look for a theme in the thousands of words (or free opposition research) contained in it, you see the imperfect musings of a voter who describes growth as a deeper problem than exaggerated inequality; who wants to radically reform the way we educate our children; who despises identity politics and the practice of speaking for groups and not one national interest; who knows that our current course on entitlements will eventually break our solvency and cause us to break promises to our most vulnerable—that is, if we don’t start the hard work of fixing it.
On the specifics, I have regularly criticized an agenda that would punish businesses and job creators with more taxes just as they are trying to thrive again. I have taken issue with an administration that has lapsed into a bloc by bloc appeal to group grievances when the country is already too fractured: frankly, the symbolism of Barack Obama winning has not given us the substance of a united country. You have also seen me write that faith institutions should not be compelled to violate their teachings because faith is a freedom, too. You’ve read that in my view, the law can’t continue to favor one race over another in offering hard-earned slots in colleges: America has changed, and we are now diverse enough that we don’t need to accommodate a racial spoils system. And you know from these pages that I still think the way we have gone about mending the flaws in our healthcare system is the wrong way—it goes further than we need and costs more than we can bear.
Taken together, these are hardly the enthusiasms of a Democrat circa 2012, and they wouldn’t be defensible in a Democratic primary. But they are the thoughts and values of ten years of learning, and seeing things I once thought were true fall into disarray. So, if I were to leave the sidelines, it would be as a member of the Republican Party that is fighting the drift in this country in a way that comes closest to my way of thinking: wearing a Democratic label no longer matches what I know about my country and its possibilities.
Full confession: you won’t find in my columns a poll tested candidate who could satisfy a litmus test. Immigration is a classic example: I wince at the Obama Administration’s efforts to tell states they can’t say the word immigration in their state laws, and find it foolish when I hear their lawyers say that a local cop can’t determine the legal status of a suspect validly in their custody. At the same time, I wince when I see Latinos who have a lawful right to be here have to dodge the glare of so-called “self-deportation laws” that look too uncomfortably like profiling. (It’s a good thing Virginia hasn’t gone that path). And while I haven’t written about the subject as much as I should have, I can’t defend every break in our tax code, or every special interest set-aside, as a necessary tool of a free market. And I can’t say every dollar spent on our weak and our marginal is a give-away: a just government is mindful of the places where prosperity never shines (and I give a lot of credit to an undisputed conservative, Mitch Daniels in Indiana, for saying so, and doing it at the nation’s leading conservative political caucus at that.)
A voter and a columnist have all the freedom in the world to say these things; perhaps a candidate does, too. Should I ever cross that bridge again, I will be trusting voters more than ever (despite having seen how wrong they can get it!) to test ability more than rigid ideology, and to accept that experience changes minds (if it is so in our lives, why shouldn’t it be so in our politics?) I might well decide that all of that is asking too much, and that party demands too much for a guy who doesn’t fit a partisan caricature. Or I might someday not so far off say, “Let the people decide.” Stay tuned.
Mitt Romney’s venture into education policy this week was overdue, but bold in the right places. It was a striking improvement from his previous blend of clichés about local control and hints that the Education Department might be eliminated altogether.
The conventional wisdom is that the Obama Administration has all but swept education reform off the table with its own maneuvering toward the center on the issue. The reality, though, is that the White House has mixed instances of toughness—incentivizing states to embrace charter schools, defending mass firings of teachers in underperforming Rhode Island districts—with a conventional Democratic resistance to merit based pay, vouchers, or any revamping of state tenure laws. It is a record that has won bipartisan plaudits from reformers, but not one that has made much headway in alleviating the festering mediocrity that marks many of our public schools, and that careens into outright disgrace in most inner city venues.
In fact, success under the Obama model would look remarkably similar to the landscape that prevails in education today: a scattering of high profile innovations in either deep pocketed big cities, or states that already have a strong reform culture, with the prospects of individual children turning largely on the vagaries of location and local leadership. Not surprisingly, the politically influential teachers unions have grumbled about the current agenda, but they have adjusted to it as an incremental set of half measures that they can fend off state by state.
Romney’s admittedly evolving proposals are potentially stronger stuff. The centerpiece, allowing kids in families below the poverty line to transfer to public or private schools outside their district, arguably steals a march on liberals by making access to higher quality education something resembling a federal entitlement (heretofore, it is liberals have described education as a “civil rights issue” without delineating exactly what that right consists of). As a variety of critics have quickly pointed out, competitive choice is no panacea: on one hand, it destabilizes the current national funding formula that ties levels of federal aid to the number of poor (or special needs kids) in a district, which makes it vulnerable to the charge that it penalizes already cash starved districts; on another hand, the ready availability of superior schools will vary from one community to another.
As to the first point, the manner in which federal education dollars are allocated remains more a sacred cow for education bureaucrats than a reliable basis for matching money with needs: the current method has notoriously shortchanged rural districts at the expense of large urban systems that are already generously funded at the state level, and that enjoy much larger local tax bases. Romney is right to reevaluate the status quo.
With respect to the argument that all choices won’t be created equally, its an imperfection of any market. But even an imperfect market will prod weaker school districts to make hard decisions about how their schools are managed and organized, lest their ranks become too depleted to stay open. The efforts to instill the same competition through the last education landmark, No Child Left Behind, have floundered because of the manipulability of the federal “report cards” issued to school districts, which led in many states to bad opening numbers followed by artificial gains in subsequent years. There is far less opportunity to game the system Romney envisions, which ultimately makes parental judgments the true test of a school’s achievement, as opposed to bureaucratic indexes.
To be sure, Democratic opponents of Romney’s plan will also hone in on the fact that it allows, without requiring, districts to permit transfers to private schools. It’s not the classic voucher plan some conservatives favor, in that it avoids directing federal tax dollars or credits to parents to enroll their kids in non-public schools, but it would constitute the first outright federal endorsement of vouchers. The distinction wouldn’t diminish liberal opposition, but the fight is one that Romney shouldn’t hesitate to wage: defending the right of low income families to have access to elite private schools is a case that consistently polls well with lower income Hispanics and upper-income Catholics, two swing groups in battlegrounds like Florida and Colorado.
The remainder of Romney’s agenda does arguably copy elements of Obama’s Race to the Top, with the important difference that a Romney Administration would more explicitly reward merit pay plans and performance based teacher evaluations at the expense of tenure. It’s still an improvement, and there is room for Romney to go further, by making merit pay and tenure overhaul requirements for extra federal dollars, rather than simply making them the basis for brownie points in a complex funding formula.
Mandating more drastic measures of teacher accountability, at least for districts that want more cash, is an intervention that not all conservatives would embrace. It is a fact of life that the local control mantra appeals to the base of the Republican Party that distrusts federal regulation even when it aligns against liberal special interests. But the reality is that both the Bush brand and the Obama brand of education reform have done more to alter the workloads of school administrators than they have done to make a fundamental impact on the children struggling to thrive in substandard schools. Romney’s opportunity is to first, put the power of the presidency behind a climate for innovation and stricter standards, and second, to trust parents rather than bureaucrats to be the arbiter of whether local reforms are working. It’s a smart approach for a candidate trying to offer more substance than just repealing Obama’s record.
There has never been much of a reservoir of respect in Barack Obama’s White House for the Republican Party. The disdain is partly the reflex of Chicago-bred operatives who found John McCain’s campaign soft and clumsy; partly the mindset of intellectual liberals who view John Boehner and Mitch McConnell as pedestrian local Civitans made good; but mostly it is the product of a worldview that sees conservatism as neither trendy nor clever, and as the fading gasp of a whiter, duller society. By all lights, Team Obama expected to dismantle Mitt Romney, who seems to them to crystallize all the inadequacies of their opposition.
So, imagine their perplexity that Romney is either slightly ahead, or tied with Obama as spring heads to summer. For all of the Obama campaign’s tendencies to discredit any polling they don’t like, the numbers tell a more or less consistent story: Gallup puts Romney’s chronically low favorable ratings at their highest point yet, about even with Obama’s; CBS/New York Times reveals that the president’s much touted embrace of same sex marriage hurts him more than it helps, and that strikingly, nearly seventy percent of the country attributes the president’s history-making on the subject to political motives. ABC/Washington Post shows that a country preoccupied with the economy believes that a Romney presidency will make it better, and that an Obama reelection will have little effect.
Even the atmospherics seem off. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a rising folk hero in Democratic circles and a favorite Obama surrogate, bashed the campaign’s latest foray into Bain Capital bashing and declared it about as relevant as Obama’s tortured history with Jeremiah Wright (as any decent political junkie knows, the diversion of the week was a bid by a freelancing GOP operative to get financing for an ad buy dredging up the Reverend). An Obama commencement speech at a women’s college drew sour reviews for spending too much time in campaign mode. More substantively, the European economic consensus is unraveling, which may portend dire consequences for domestic capital markets come late summer.
Betting against Obama this November is still an uphill wager. Incumbent presidents in the last 80 years have won, unless their party’s share of the electorate has shriveled to 30% (Gerald Ford), or they are facing charismatic, inspirational challengers (Reagan v. Carter, Bush 41 v. Clinton). But it is apparent that unlike his predecessors who won second terms, Obama’s approval ratings six months out are still below 50%, and the prospects of a robust economic recovery seem thin. It is just as clear that the mainstream press’s incessant cheerleading is not the decisive force it was four years ago.
So, Mitt Romney has a pathway now and it seems to have two distinct dimensions to it. The first is to drive home the notion that Obama has not been the president he promised to be. Instead of governing as a post-partisan unifier, Obama has emerged as the president who reconsolidated the liberal grip on his party. He will campaign as an unapologetic defender of expanded government and a liberal social agenda, whose sole announced aspiration for a second term is boosting taxes on the rich: arguably, in the modern era, only George McGovern and John Kerry have campaigned so emphatically from the left.
It will also not be hard for Romney to capture the reality that in most measures, the nation is more fractured and less confident of its course than seemed conceivable in the afterglow of Obama’s inauguration. In fact, if Romney is artful about it, he has the potential to make the refrain “are we more united today than we were four years ago” the contemporary version of Ronald Reagan’s both high-minded and visceral punch at Carter in 1980 (“are we better off now than four years ago”?).
Second, the message about Obama’s economic stewardship works best when it is tied to a theme that Obama is settling for economic mediocrity. The earlier Romney arguments not only exaggerated the president’s shortcomings, they seemed too tethered to a projection of gloom and decline. His campaign is slowly making its way to a more viable case that instead of being an abject failure, Obama has aimed too low—more or less conceding that slow growth, the weakest labor force since 1981, wage stagnation, and depressed home values are the new normal. It’s a stab at the transformational rhetoric of 2008 and if done right, it complements the claim that Obama’s own ideological ambitions steered him away from a laser-like focus on the economy.
To be sure, Romney will be haunted by the fact that not one of his party’s signature policy proposals enjoys significant public support—from preserving the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy, to scaling back retirement security programs. Even the unpopularity of the new health care law is an unpredictable element: should the Supreme Court overturn the law in its entirety, Romney will be pressed to describe whether he would revive some of the law’s more popular features like eliminating pre-existing illness exclusions.
But the back-and-forth over ideology and policy is a mixed bag for both sides. The pivotal independent voters in the center remain ambivalent over which future would cause them more grief, Obama unleashed or Romney upending Obama’s priorities. That ambivalence and this razor-thin race are an improvement over the one-sided framework Democrats confidently expected two months ago—a resurgent, inspirational president against an overmatched, pandering, unglamorous rival. Against all odds, Romney could win this.
My tardiness in updating the responses and feedback section has created a backlog. Not surprisingly, my columns on gay marriage have generated some of the most extensive feedback we have received, most of it actually thoughtful and a legitimate effort to engage the subject—the rest, promptly ignored. My essay on the Americans Elect fiasco proved topical (and as a few of you kindly acknowledged, prescient) and a number of you weighed in on the subject when I wrote about it several weeks ago. Finally, my thoughts on Elizabeth Warren and liberal hypocrisy on race provoked some interesting reactions. So, some thoughts in response:
-I was struck, but not surprised, by the number of responses on gay marriage that disagreed with my proposition that it was possible for civil discourse on the subject—which was frankly more my focus than finding the “middle ground” that some of you referenced. One reader caustically asked if I believed there was room for debate on whether segregation is legal; another argued from the opposing perspective that gay rights opponents have actually yielded too much ground and have not been emphatic enough in attacking the social costs of same sex marriage.
First, as one who remains a critic of same sex marriage, I reject the civil rights comparison. Without even attempting to resolve the imponderable question of whether race and sexuality are equally unchangeable, or in the lingo of constitutional law, “immutable characteristics”, I would distinguish the civil rights movement as an answer to the rigidly discriminatory economic and political fabric that prevailed in America at the time; but one that was never really preoccupied with social equality, and that rarely evoked the language of individual fulfillment or empowerment. It was also a crusade of Americans who were beleaguered and suppressed at every turn, by the force of law in the South and by custom elsewhere. Any historically faithful reading of the fifties and early sixties reminds that the movement was essentially a survival enterprise in a country that frighteningly resembled an Apartheid-like prison for the vast majority of blacks.
Marriage and social equality, for all of their desirability, are not foundations of earning a living or functioning in civil society; as a result, they are different from access to education or employment, or the right to contract, or to move into a neighborhood. Interestingly, the gay rights lobby has not made any of these conventional civil rights claims much of a priority (the Obama Administration put little effort into an employment discrimination law, even when Democrats controlled the House and had 60 seats in the Senate, and there has still been no notable pushback at the omission). My guess is that the relative silence on these questions is the strongest proof that the GLBT community is not suffering the systematic or widespread exclusion that drove the civil rights agenda in the sixties (after all, the gay rights effort has been a highly strategic enterprise that has not been accused of misreading its constituents’ aspirations).
True, it may be for a gay or lesbian American that marriage is a higher order priority, and it may be that their very identity is implicated in a fight over marriage rights, but those subjective possibilities don’t rewrite the history of the respective movements. The fact that one constituency based its effort on one set of threshold rights, while another is engaged in a fight over an entirely separate set of claims, doesn’t settle the argument, but it does undercut the notion that gays at the turn of the decade and blacks in the fifties and sixties occupy anything near the same position.
As for the arguments from the right, opponents of same sex marriage do have different reasons. As Gallup’s recent data makes clear, roughly 40 percent of the country still voices a pretty blunt moral disapproval of homosexuality, a position, of course, that is regarded in elite circles as hopelessly bigoted and one that has fallen out of favor with the under 30 crowd (it’s also a fight that can turn tedious: I read with alternating amusement and boredom a protracted Facebook debate between black professionals in the DC area over varying interpretations of forbidden biblical practices). There are others of us who leave the cosmic question to a Higher Power but fear that the consequences of same sex marriage for say, adoption, are too unpredictable. Yet others (I’m in this camp too) treat the issue as fundamentally a constitutional one and conclude that there is no federal constitutional right that is at stake and therefore no constraint on the 36 states that have banned same sex marriage.
I am of the opinion that whatever our religious teachings, a debate in the public arena does deserve a secular response that doesn’t rely on theology. It also happens that this is probably the only sort of debate that can stay civil and avoid fracturing us even more. That’s not a hedge on the merits; it’s recognizing that civility is a powerful value in its own right.
Having said all of that, religion is relevant to gay marriage in another sense. The institution of marriage is a heavily sectarian force in our culture, given that most of our marriages are religious ceremonies performed by a preacher, rabbi, priest, or Imam. Whether critics like it or not, our faith institutions will drive the consensus around marriage as much as politicians and judges. To be sure, that is an unsatisfactory position for a number of you, but it is a position that has obvious force in at least some contexts: even New York’s gay marriage law exempts churches from forced compliance with it; for that matter, the law exempts religious adoption agencies that won’t make placements with same sex couples from the state’s anti-discrimination statutes. The presence of these provisions is a reminder that liberals hardly treat marriage as just another contract, and that at least some advocates of full scale gay equality have given a nod to the fact that religious freedoms are at stake in the gay rights debate too.
-Several readers wondered if my critical take on Americans Elect means that I have abandoned my view, expressed in a Montgomery Advertiser column in 2010, that an independent party was a viable pathway. One correction: if you read that essay, which is apparently no longer online, I do distinguish between the obstacles around a national effort and the easier path for a state effort. I do think, though, that any independent effort in any partisan contest will face two barriers that are hard to overcome: the force of voter habit in picking Democrats or Republicans and the fact that most political dollars are tied to one party or another.
Therefore, I am not surprised that disaffected moderate to conservative Democrats in my home state are finding their way into the Republican Party, which for all its excesses on immigration is a consistent force for reform in ethics and education, and which favors the pro-growth economic policies that Southern moderates know are critical to attracting new job sources. Similarly, for Democrats who recoil at the influence of the gambling lobby, the Republican Party is a natural alternative to that influence. So, as for the viability of an independent state political movement, it will have to wait on an unusual donor coalition and on a candidate with an appealing nonpartisan record (maybe a visionary CEO or Mayor who has been very effective in building alliances across different lines); perhaps, it will be unnecessary if Alabama Republicans stay open to meaningful reform and don’t just become another party that always lines up with the special interest grid that runs Montgomery.
-Several readers felt that my complaint about Elizabeth Warren was unfair given that her representations of her minority status happened a while ago and apparently only surfaced in obscure academic contexts. While the distance from her claims may keep them from being disqualifying, I find it hard to believe that a candidate’s carelessness with her racial identity is an inconsequential thing. That kind of mis-labeling reflects either a shameful bid to get a job at the expense of more deserving candidates, or a shameless willingness to assist an employer in exaggerating its diversity record. I have no idea which is the case, and of course there are weightier matters this election year, but it’s another thing to say there is nothing to be gleaned from such a revelation. Especially given how much weight Warren has put on her authenticity and genuineness.
There were a few spirited suggestions that I was less than charitable in my observations about diversity at establishment, liberal leaning institutions. One reader made the case that it is inconsistent to criticize the Harvards and the elite law forms of Washington and New York for not being more diverse in their employment while I have criticized affirmative action in a variety of contexts. Sounds like a clever enough point, but consider: does the small number of blacks in administrative or faculty ranks at a place like Harvard, or the near invisible numbers of black lawyers at the top rank firms, really come down to whether affirmative action has been given a fair try? Are there really so few black top 50 firm caliber attorneys, and so few black Ivy League academic types, that it would take racial quotas to get them inside the tent? And in the case of the colleges and grad schools–if there is a dearth of qualified contenders–why do the same institutions that put so much stock in making their classrooms “look like America”, to deploy the cliché in admissions offices, have a much weaker interest in giving their teaching and leadership ranks the same all-American look?
Last week, The Chronicle of Higher Education waded headfirst into the culture wars by terminating one of its bloggers for a column excoriating the black studies discipline and calling for its end. The saga around Naomi Schaeffer Riley has ignited a predictable back-and-forth, from the partly organic, partly organized attack by the left on the original piece, to conservative bloggers who have defended her against political correctness run amuck.
I’m of two minds about the controversy. Most of the assault against Riley does seem like shop-worn viewpoint censorship. As even a liberal critic like Eric Alterman has pointed out, labeling the essay as “hate speech” is a frivolous, overwrought charge, and Alterman is right to recognize that a formal response by the black studies faculty at Northwestern which alludes to past discrimination against black college applicants seemed simultaneously pointless and defensive about the capacities of some of the department’s students—who, of course, are not even all black.
But the Riley essay does not strike me as the best line of defense for admirers of intellectual candor. It is not exactly an exercise in rhetorical grace: there is a talk-radio style bluntness to its 500 odd words that is dependent on name-calling: “left wing victimization claptrap”, “liberal hackery”, a parting shot that practitioners of black studies should defer to “legitimate scholars”. Substantively, the essay’s thesis, that a Chronicle article exposed an intellectual sloppiness in the black studies field, is overly reliant on examples from three dissertations to make a vastly more far-reaching point. Even if two of the papers seem hopelessly polemical and one of them sounds hopelessly opaque, it’s a stretch to indict an entire discipline on such a thin foundation. The whole thing feels like an impressionistic hit dashed off to meet a deadline.
My own instinct is that Riley’s too casual approach to her attack played into the hands of her critics. Her snark and the choice to take a dig at the scholarly capacity of three obscure graduate students has opened her up to the liberal critique of “personal hurtfulness”, a claim that is easy for conservatives to mock but which she shouldn’t have allowed to be a distraction in the debate. Similarly, Riley handed an easy out to the Chronicle by inviting observers to put too much stock in the content of dissertations that she admits she had no opportunity to read and which plainly don’t constitute much of a sample—one more sign of a rushed, careless point trumping a more serious case that she meant to make.
That serious case, by the way, is that political fervor can too often drive out academic rigor, and that the academic left’s empathy with social victims can slide into all of the clichés of victimization. I still recall being stunned when I moderated a law school forum on affirmative action at Howard and heard the audience consternation at a hypothetical that posited that George W. Bush might be reelected; and being just as bothered when the former head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund dismissively refused to answer another query about strategy in the event of a judicial set-back. It was a weirdly contemptuous approach to any outcome that wasn’t the politically desired one, and entirely out of place in a room full of young scholars.
But Riley could have spared herself grief without laying the un-seriousness she describes exclusively on black studies. It’s much deeper and haunts the broader left, from the old Critical Legal Studies camp that flourished in the eighties, to the current leftist fixation with minimizing even mainstream conservatism as racist, homophobic, or a wedge in a “war on women”: the single-mindedness I saw at Howard could have played out on a hundred campuses and on a range of topics.
Is black studies uniquely hostile to opposing points of view? I still wouldn’t know from reading Riley’s missive in the Chronicle, or skimming the dissertation topics she holds up for ridicule; to advance the theory would requiring hearing more about the writings of the discipline’s brand names, not its aspiring PHDs. Would the field benefit from a point of view more critical of the shortcomings in modern liberal domestic policy? It certainly would, and Riley is entirely right to note that the multiple crises in the black community—incarceration, illegitimacy, steep drop-out rates—can’t logically just be chalked up to historical wrongs by racists; to the extent the prevailing view in black studies is that they can, the discipline does a disservice to its own public policy aspirations. And, if Riley is right in her description, it would make intriguing speculation to wonder if the race-centric demonology embraced by new black studies graduates reflects a mindset handed down from the discipline’s intellectual icons, or if it exposes an interesting reflex in what is touted to be the least race conscious generation yet.
But Riley gave most of the hard questions something of a pass. Arguably, by name-calling her way through her critique, Riley does the same kind of thing she laments in her essay: opting for the narrowest, easiest point of blame without holding broader, more complex sources to account. There is a rough irony that her own reductionism inspired an equally simplistic and demagogic campaign against her. It was wrong to fire her, but I fear that Riley set back her own philosophical cause as well.
A decade ago, the Hispanic political community and the gay rights lobby were in a substantially similar position: both with agendas that were largely under radar, far enough off the grid that their cause was neither a rallying point for friends nor a wedge issue for their adversaries. The demands of both groups were mostly inconsequential in a national election.
Adjust the dial to 2012 and both gay rights and immigration have turned into cultural flashpoints. But the fortunes of the respective constituencies have taken sharply divergent paths. By any measure, gay rights advocates are on the rise. A once far-fetched goal of theirs, repealing “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, survived congressional gridlock to become one of the Obama administration’s signature achievements; an even more implausible seeming cause, full-fledged marital status for same-sex couples, has just won the endorsement of the President of the United States and has become a major policy commitment of that president’s party.
In contrast, Hispanic interest groups are in the midst of a bad run. They are winless at the congressional level in the preceding decade—losing badly in their campaign to open up citizenship opportunities for much of the illegal immigrant population, and failing in a more incremental bid to legalize young undocumented adults who join the military or complete college. During Barack Obama’s term, they have actually lost ground. Alabama and Arizona have passed sharply restrictive laws aimed at making their states all but unlivable for illegal immigrants. The Democratic Party that generally wins Latino votes has been an ambivalent ally, with two major elements of their base, labor unions and African Americans, skeptical of any broad liberalization of immigration laws.
The Hispanic lobby must wonder what went so wrong, and it’s a question worth pondering in the aftermath of the past week. I’ll venture two reasons. First, supporters of immigration reform have simply failed to define and caricature their opposition as effectively as has the gay rights movement. The GLBT constituency has deployed the high-minded approach, evoking comparisons with the civil rights activism of the sixties; the bare knuckled version, branding critics as intolerant bigots; and the thinly veiled knife, insinuating before New York’s gay marriage decision that certain on-the fence legislators might be trying to cover up their own closeted sexuality. At best, the immigration reform effort has shown some of the same brass in slowing the trend of state by state crack-downs, but it has struggled to effectively draw moralistic distinctions around any proactive strategy, whether a moderate measure like the Dream Act, or a more comprehensive rewrite like the 2006 McCain-Kennedy legislation.
A telling example is how the appeal for expanded rights, either marriage or citizenship, has tended to be framed by the respective camps. Supporters of gay rights have styled their appeals as a desire to be absorbed into the broader national community; shrewdly, they have often described marital rights as an assumption of responsibility instead of as a newly acquired freedom. Immigration rights forces, on the other hand, have struggled to brand their case as one of assimilation; all too often, it has been dismissed as a push for more benefits and more government resources in a decade of fiscal scarcity; and as a kind of special treatment rather than fair treatment, amnesty rather than responsibility.
Which leads to the second reason gay progress has outpaced Hispanic progress: opponents of immigration reform have skillfully depicted the cause as either a permissive rewarding of lawbreaking, or as an economic threat to another constituency, low-wage workers who face competition from cheap immigrant labor. It’s a blend that has solidified conservative resistance and eroded potential alliances within the Democratic base. Foes of gay marriage, in turn, have been far less effective in shaping a rhetorical case that can’t be easily slighted: social conservatives have stressed theological arguments that tend to fall flat outside evangelical circles, and more mainline conservative critics have seemed halting and uncomfortable. They have settled for weak deflections like describing Obama’s reversal last week as a distraction from worsening job numbers. Even an articulate phrase-master like Chris Christie has uncharacteristically stumbled around the terms of the debate: effectively defending the advantages of a democratic referendum over a judicial or legislative resolution, but unwisely pondering that southern blacks would have wished for a similar opportunity at statewide votes on their rights in the sixties. (actually: not at all, Governor, not then or now).
To be sure, the case for expanded gay rights enjoys other advantages: the cheerleading of the mainstream media and the entertainment industry, an affluent support base that can fund both allies and rivals to opponents, and the ubiquity of gay Americans in every identifiable demographic. But, arguably, not one of these factors is a new or unique phenomenon, and there are ample enough instances where the media’s blessing and deep donor pockets (the Equal Rights Amendment and environmentalists) haven’t had a lasting impact and where interests with much greater strength of numbers (labor unions) have run out of steam. In fairness, it’s a singular kind of momentum that gay rights proponents have managed to seize and one that has come in a center-right national political environment.
There is a deeper implication that goes beyond the aspirations of the affected communities and their organized loyalists. The nearly half the country that is skeptical of gay marriage but is dismissed as regional, generational, and on the wrong side of history, and the slim majorities of Americans who favor more moderate immigration policies but seem perpetually on the defensive, actually have the same grievance: they are losing ground in spite of their size and their proximity to the middle ground. Each side is paying the price of culture-based politics.
The prism of the culture wars rewards a sharp, even if simplistic, not altogether factual depiction, of the moral terms of the debate (in my previous essay on gay marriage, I mention Ross Douthat’s very smart column on this point). Taking advantage of that prism is the surest technique in modern politics for out-smarting a majority or near majority. It’s all one more reason the middle seems so robust in theory, so ineffectual in practice.
The most eloquent, poignant argument I ever heard against same-sex marriage came from an African American woman in her late fifties who organized youth groups at a black mega-church in the South. I can’t quote her verbatim but it went something like this: “in the black community, gay marriage is a source of worry because we struggle so hard, and against so many cultural forces, to make even conventional marriages work. We don’t buy into officially recognized alternative relationships because we can’t even win the battle to make the standard kind of marriage look appealing: not when our boys want the music video lifestyle—a different girl at every stanza in the song—our girls get degrees and can’t find men who can support them; and our teenagers think a baby is what happens when you become a woman or a man. Yet another alternative to men and women building families together? That’s a luxury we can’t afford.”
There’s a heap of generalization there, and reasonable minds may or may not agree. In fact, I’ve heard more than a few blacks argue that legal marriages between black homosexuals beats the closets in the black community, which often have the unfair, reverse effect of making any heterosexual black man who stays single look suspect. But the woman I mention was utterly free of malice and not at all reliant on Old Testament allusions to make her case. If you think she is in spite of that a beacon of intolerance, you’ve just indicted a thoughtful representation of about 60 percent of the African American community.
The media-filtered reaction to President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage has been predictable: an undercurrent of exaltation in the newsrooms that have long ceased to think of homosexuality as anything but another form of freedom; cherry-picked evangelical leaders who fit that same media’s expectations of what social conservatism looks and sounds like. To be sure, the networks and cable have brought forth their share of high profile African American ministers and Catholic bishops, but they aren’t the woman in that southern church running a youth group, trying to grapple with how social change shapes fatherless neighborhoods: the preachers and clerics are speaking in the accents of scripture and biblical text, which most Americans are in the custom of preaching not practicing.
It would be a healthy thing if more of the debate featured voices like the woman I described. It would be equally healthy if more conservatives (and frankly, conservatives disagree with each other on this issue, liberals are entirely of one mind) had weighed in not with jibes at Obama’s timing or the sincerity of his original, pre-”evolving” mindset, but with an honest declaration that the argument over gay marriage does not have the same contours today as it did ten years ago. The fight for most Americans going forward is whether the legal future of same sex marriage is determined state by state, with voters and democratic processes deciding this issue, and not by federal judges deploying an elastic construction of the equal protection clause; and secondly, whether sectarian institutions like Catholic adoption agencies will preserve their own freedom of conscience or lose it to public and elite opinion.
Had there been more pragmatic voices, more voices speaking the language of democratic choice and not absolutism, (see Ross Douthat for an insightful take on how the gay rights community has effectively wielded an absolutionist position to stigmatize opposition) this fundamental cultural argument might be one that clarified rather than deepened our division. Had President Obama gone one step further in his interview and defended the right of good people to differ, he could have actually strengthened his case: instead, he portrayed his own past skepticism as a weirdly disconnected thing that had little force or philosophy behind it, and the logic of his case is that to differ is to condone bigotry.
Don’t hold your breath, though. Culture wars and party politics don’t reward what I just described, and it is culture warriors and partisans who get the microphone at these kinds of junctures. That’s the state of play in the values debate circa 2012.
I have a distinct memory of a time in my childhood when boxing was at the epicenter of the national consciousness: when Ali’s rematch against Leon Spinks had a country on edge, waiting for word; when the resolution of the Ali/Frazier grudge-matches seemed like a definitive cultural event; that stretch in the 80s when Sugar Ray Leonard seemed the smoothest, bravest, most insanely gifted athlete on the planet.
Then, at some point in the nineties, boxing stopped being imaginative and started being boorish. You might trace the moment from when Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfeld staged a street brawl inside a boxing ring. Or perhaps it was the night Ali’s once nimble, flawless hands couldn’t hold a torch still at the Olympics. For whatever cumulative reasons, though, an alluring, if awkward, beauty turned into something a substantial number of Americans can’t stand. A sport that used to electrify America is now the province of a hard core and an over-priced cable market.
It’s a cautionary note if the National Football League will only hear it. The pedestal looks solid enough now—100 million of us annually turn the Super Bowl into the one nationwide communal occasion that involves neither terrorism nor the election of a president; football is by a decisive margin not only the most popular single kind of television viewing but the sport that cuts through the most cleavages of class and geography. But there is a rhythm of violence that is starting to diminish football in the same way that boxing was eroded.
The spring and late winter brought the revelations that a Super Bowl champion was funding a cockfight mentality in the form of bounties on rival players. Then there was the league’s belated acknowledgment that concussions correlate directly with a higher incidence of early Alzheimer’s and debilitating depression; and the unsettling suicides of ex players like Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, Andre Watters, and Junior Seau. The first three had documented brain injuries and Easterling was one of the lead plaintiffs alleging the league’s negligence in responding to and treating concussions. But it is Seau’s suicide–after a long fall from grace– that touches a special nerve. He was so indestructible and so poised, and his descent so unforeseen, that his friends believe his death has to be the toll of what amounts to years of blunt force trauma to the head.
The self-serving mantra from the sport’s apologists is always that the whiners are ignorant and lack knowledge about the game. What a curious reflex from a sport that makes its riches off the loyalty of a rank and file that generally can’t diagram a play or translate a snap count or fully recall the intricacies of intentional grounding: football thrives off the visceral engagement of we lightly-informed, novice fans and it’s no answer to pull the ignorance card.
Nor is it much of an answer to describe the NFL’s violence as the essence of its appeal. To the contrary, I’ve always bought the argument that football brilliantly sanitizes its violence. The helmets shield us from seeing the confusion in battered faces, and our technology is not yet precise enough to deliver us the blunt, unfiltered sound of giant men colliding with each other at full impact. Indeed, the succession of analysts on our screen leave the impression that the athletes who age out of the league are savvy, polished fashion icons, not basket cases.
Football’s myth-making power is, to be sure, part of what lifts it–that and the fact that its basics are so comprehensible and strategic at the same time. There are two things, however, that can tarnish those forces: if the ugliness starts to get more prominent, visible display, and if more of our icons start degenerating on us. Both are happening now and if the scientific evidence that is accumulating is right, the trends will worsen.
There is another social phenomenon that threatens the league’s everyman persona. To a degree we don’t like to acknowledge, the youngsters who hurl themselves into the most competitive reaches in football are disproportionately poor whites, blacks, or Latinos who are pursuing a life-changing payoff at the end of the hits. These boys have absorbed that football is a color-blind, class-blind zone of a kind you don’t find on Wall Street or Capitol Hill, or the high-rise office downtown, and it requires none of the graces and patronage poor boys have to learn to climb other ladders. If football is increasingly defined as too brutal an enterprise, is it sustainable that unaffluent, unconnected young men are disproportionately bearing the brunt? Surely, it’s only a matter of time before a society concerned with inequality–one that stresses over disparities in the ranks of, say, the incarcerated–finds something unacceptable about an imbalance in the composition of a debilitated warrior class.
The Sporting News is onto something when it suggests that the diagnosis of serious injuries like head blows ought to be taken away from self-interested teams and put in the hands of independent neurologists: that’s a culture shock for teams who are ferociously secretive about their internal medical assessments of their players. But a variety of other valid suggestions, like mandatory waiting periods before a concussed player can return, could have the unintended effect of giving a competitive edge to a team that inflicts enough damage. That is, unless the league shows an intolerance for intentional hits at the head by doing the following: suspending and not just fining offenders (the NBA’s example of tossing Ron Artest out of a playoff series for turning his elbow into a battering ram is one the NFL should be willing to imitate) and banning and not just suspending in the most severe instances. Certainly, Commissioner Roger Goodell’s one-year ban of the New Orleans Saints’ head coach was a judgment call that sends the right message about higher-ups who look the other way.
No one suggests that the NFL ought to turn football soft. But a sport that reads the public mood so skillfully ought to know it has a weak spot that is glaring. The same league office that spends innumerable hours dissecting every play for insights on its rules and officiating shouldn’t shrink from looking just as closely at the structure and intent of its controlled violence. To be sure, football is not in position to say with respect to brutality, “never again”. But it can say: not so easily, not without punishment that fits the crime, not as often for this next generation of players as it was for the last. Call it the Junior Seau rule.