Low-information nation: Whose Constitution is it?


In a post titled Low-information nation: Palin, Beck, Tea Partiers and American ignorance, I argued that the single most under-appreciated and understated aspect of American life, the elephant in the room, is that most Americans have little more than a cursory understanding of the issues and history on which they base their political beliefs and decisions.

I posited health insurance reform as an example:

If policy wonks and political professionals vehemently disagreed about various provisions and outcomes, how could a non-expert citizen, overwhelmed with the demands of daily life, fully comprehend the complexities of the health insurance overhaul? When media outlets and pollsters trumpeted the public’s support or opposition to the bill, what were they polling? Genuine knowledge or vague impressions? Analytical conclusions or parroted soundbites?

That’s obviously not to say that citizens need to be experts to have legitimate opinions, but that if the opinions are based on a lack of understanding, or in some cases utter misunderstanding, shouldn’t the first order of business be to better explain the issues and educate the public rather than use erroneous views as evidence of the inherent value of the proposed policy?

I posted three clips to illustrate my point:

I said we should eschew value judgments and assume good faith:

Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, the vast majority of participants in our national debate genuinely believe they possess the necessary facts and have reached a fair judgment. It’s a mistake to attribute bad faith to a wide swath of the population. So when a Tea Party member sounds off about “defending” the Constitution, it’s perfectly plausible to assume they know little about the document but authentically believe they are expressing fealty to it. Still, we can’t settle for a national dialogue disconnected from facts and truth.

I cautioned that lack of knowledge and information was not partisan:

Pew tells us that “Republicans do somewhat better than Democrats on the knowledge quiz,” so this isn’t about left or right, but about the kind of misinformation fueling political passions.

Finally, I explained why I believe the Constitution can’t be reduced to facile soundbites:

Politics is the one discipline where we’re all expected to be knowledgeable enough to make decisions that affect our shared future. Unless we’re doctors, no one expects us to give medical advice; unless we’re architects no one expects us to design buildings. But if we’re going to debate the future of our country, there has to be some basis in fact, rationality, in knowledge and information.

It’s daunting to realize how much we don’t know and how our most serious decisions are often based on the flimsiest of information and understanding. No matter what the field, it takes a huge investment of time and effort to develop anything close to a detailed understanding – and there’s always more to learn.

This, of course, applies to politics and policy. Interpreting the Constitution is a major intellectual and moral undertaking. It’s not something you do through bumper-sticker slogans. When Glenn Greenwald warns that President Obama is undermining the Constitution by authorizing the assassination of US citizens without due process, it’s a debate we should have. When Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck reduce the Constitution to handy jingoistic soundbites, it precludes a real debate.

Two new opinion pieces explore the Tea Party’s professed reverence for the Constitution.

Ron Chernow:

The Tea Party movement has further sought to spruce up its historical bona fides by laying claim to the United States Constitution. Many Tea Party members subscribe to a literal reading of the national charter as a way of bolstering their opposition to deficit spending, bank bailouts and President Obama’s health care plan. A Tea Party manifesto, called the Contract From America, even contains a rigid provision stipulating that all legislation passed by Congress should specify the precise clause in the Constitution giving Congress the power to pass such a law — an idea touted Thursday by the House Republican leadership.

But any movement that regularly summons the ghosts of the founders as a like-minded group of theorists ends up promoting an uncomfortably one-sided reading of history.

The truth is that the disputatious founders — who were revolutionaries, not choir boys — seldom agreed about anything. Never has the country produced a more brilliantly argumentative, individualistic or opinionated group of politicians. Far from being a soft-spoken epoch of genteel sages, the founding period was noisy and clamorous, rife with vitriolic polemics and partisan backbiting. Instead of bequeathing to posterity a set of universally shared opinions, engraved in marble, the founders shaped a series of fiercely fought debates that reverberate down to the present day. Right along with the rest of America, the Tea Party has inherited these open-ended feuds, which are profoundly embedded in our political culture.

Lexington:

Wouldn’t it be splendid if the solutions to America’s problems could be written down in a slim book no bigger than a passport that you could slip into your breast pocket? That, more or less, is the big idea of the tea-party movement, the grassroots mutiny against big government that has mounted an internal takeover of the Republican Party and changed the face of American politics.

… Conservative think-tanks have the same dream of return to a prelapsarian innocence. The Heritage Foundation is running a “first principles” project “to save America by reclaiming its truths and its promises and conserving its liberating principles for ourselves and our posterity”. A Heritage book and video (“We Still Hold These Truths”) promotes the old verities as a panacea for present ills. America, such conservatives say, took a wrong turn when Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt fell under the spell of progressive ideas and expanded the scope of government beyond both the founders’ imaginings and the competence of any state. Under the cover of war and recession (never let a crisis go to waste, said Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel), Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and now Mr Obama continued the bad work. Thus has mankind’s greatest experiment in self-government been crushed by a monstrous Leviathan.

Accept for argument’s sake that those who argue this way have identified the right problem. The constitution, on its own, does not provide the solution. Indeed, there is something infantile in the belief of the constitution-worshippers that the complex political arguments of today can be settled by simple fidelity to a document written in the 18th century. Michael Klarman of the Harvard Law School has a label for this urge to seek revealed truth in the sacred texts. He calls it “constitutional idolatry”.

It’s encouraging when citizens take pride in our founding documents and in the noble principles that undergird our democracy, but it’s dangerous to adopt passionate, often dogmatic, political views based on something you don’t understand, to lay claim to a shared Constitution you’ve barely read, to falsely attribute values to our founders then demonize political opponents for undermining those values, or to insist that your reading (or lack of reading) of the Constitution is definitive and inviolable.

As a Democrat and a progressive, I don’t want to discourage my fellow citizens from basing their views on a shared set of ideals and a common history — that’s what makes us all Americans. But I certainly don’t think we can have an honest debate if those shared ideals and principles are distorted, misconstrued or hoarded by one side.

UPDATE: If the Tea Party is so interested in defending the Constitution, let them start here:

At this point, I didn’t believe it was possible, but the Obama administration has just reached an all-new low in its abysmal civil liberties record.  In response to the lawsuit filed by Anwar Awlaki’s father asking a court to enjoin the President from assassinating his son, a U.S. citizen, without any due process, the administration last late night, according to The Washington Post, filed a brief asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit without hearing the merits of the claims.  That’s not surprising:  both the Bush and Obama administrations have repeatedly insisted that their secret conduct is legal but nonetheless urge courts not to even rule on its legality.  But what’s most notable here is that one of the arguments the Obama DOJ raises to demand dismissal of this lawsuit is “state secrets”:  in other words, not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are “state secrets,” and thus no court may adjudicate its legality.

More from Digby:

The Obama administration’s overnight assertion that presidential assassination orders of American citizens should be treated as a state secret, and thus not reviewable by any court anywhere, the most shocking assertion of unfettered presidential power we’ve seen since John Yoo argued that presidents have the right to order torture as long as they don’t cause pain equivalent to organ failure. As Greenwald says, when Cheney worshiping neocon headcase David Rivkin thinks you’ve gone too far with the executive power, there’s not much more to say… Back when everyone naively thought that electing a Democrat would end these obscene royalist decrees, it was argued by a few of us that once given, these powers are rarely given back. But I don’t think anyone expected the Democratic constitutional scholar would actually double down on the dictatorial powers. I confess, I’m fairly gobsmacked.

When you’re mulling a (weak) strategy less than 45 days out, you’re losing


NYT:

President Obama’s political advisers, looking for ways to help Democrats and alter the course of the midterm elections in the final weeks, are considering a range of ideas, including national advertisements, to cast the Republican Party as all but taken over by Tea Party extremists, people involved in the discussion said.

“We need to get out the message that it’s now really dangerous to re-empower the Republican Party,” said one Democratic strategist who has spoken with White House advisers but requested anonymity to discuss private strategy talks.

Democrats are divided. The party’s House and Senate campaign committees are resistant, not wanting to do anything that smacks of nationalizing the midterm elections when high unemployment and the drop in Mr. Obama’s popularity have made the climate so hostile to Democrats. Endangered Congressional candidates want any available money to go to their localized campaigns.

Several things about this should trouble Democrats:

First, the contours of the midterms have been in place since last summer, when the rightwing attack machine drove a truck through Democrats’ messaging and vision vacuum and framed Obama’s presidency as a socialist takeover. Publicly debating your strategy in late September doesn’t inspire confidence — it tells the public you’re confused and flailing. By contrast the GOP strategy has been simple: NO.

Second, trying to convince voters that your their opponent is crazy (the “nutcase defense“) rather than laying out a simple, compelling vision for the country won’t change Democratic fortunes, as Glenn Greenwald explained recently:

I personally find it hard to believe that large numbers of voters will be motivated by a fear-mongering campaign centered around people who do not currently wield power, do not occupy any positions, and are not even running for office.  But the more significant point is what this tactic says about the Democratic Party.  They have controlled both houses of Congress for almost four years and the White House for almost two.  Yet rather than run primarily on affirmative accomplishments (some Democrats are even running against them), they’re reduced to this not-very-inspiring or hope-laden message:  at least we’re not as bad as Sarah Palin.

It’s not hard to see why Democrats are relying on what Maddow called this “soul-sucking” tactic.  With no end in sight to the unemployment crisis, almost no real benefits yet in effect on their central legislative achievement (health care), a high likelihood of Social Security cuts following the election, few of the promises kept on the issues most important to their core base, and even hardcore Democratic pundit-partisans now finally — and angrily — acknowledging that Obama has continued the vast bulk of Bush/Cheney civil liberties/executive power abuses (ones which drove many progressives to remove the GOP from power), what else can they do to motivate people to vote for them besides try to scare people into thinking about the Sarah Palin menace?

…That the Right has become an even more twisted, malicious and primitive version of what they were during the Bush years is unquestionably true.  And it’s perfectly legitimate to point out the flaws and excesses of one’s political adversaries.  But the expectations which large numbers of Obama voters had — based on the promises made — are not going to be forgotten with these distracting, divisive strategies.

Third, to suggest that Democrats are afraid of nationalizing an election is to telegraph how out of touch they are: this election was nationalized the day Barack Obama took office and the right set out to destroy his presidency.

Finally, this is yet another example of Democrats’ chronic habit of projecting weakness:

Bush’s bluster, born of narrow-mindedness and jingoism, led America to near ruin. But even if it was an act, transparent and loathsome to his detractors, it left an indelible impression – and I stress “impression” – of a resolute man with the courage of his convictions, no matter how terribly wrong-headed those convictions. By contrast, Barack Obama and most Democratic officials are chronically unwilling to speak in moral absolutes, to frame Democratic policies in the language of right and wrong, to project an unshakeable faith in core ideals. And far too often, the reluctance to speak with moral courage is coupled with a failure to act.

Democratic weakness, real or perceived, is a self-inflicted function of the inability to project moral authority, even in cases where they possess the unequivocal high ground. Religious liberty. Torture. A war based on lies.

Barney Frank explains the root cause:

President Barack Obama is afraid of acting in a way that would spur voters to view him as weak on defense, a top Democrat charged Wednesday. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said the president was “intimidated” by certain issues, particularly an effort by Frank and a few other lawmakers in both parties to rein in defense spending. “It’s the one area where I’m disappointed in the president,” Frank said Tuesday evening during an appearance on MSNBC. “I think he gets intimidated by this notion of, ‘Oh, you’ll look weak on defense.’”

It would be unfair and silly to portray all Democrat politicians as devoid of moral convictions, but it’s not inaccurate to state that there is a widespread phobia among Democrats of appearing “weak,” which paradoxically leads to behavior that further reinforces that impression. When you fret too much over what others think, you tend to contort yourself in an attempt to please, often at the expense of your core beliefs. When the specific complaint is that you’re weak, there is a tendency is to do whatever your critics characterize as strong – and in the case of Democrats, they tend to ignore the strength of their own values and emulate Republicans, ending up looking even weaker in the process.

UPDATE: Apparently, the White House denies the Times story:

–The West Wing remains unsatisfied. A White House official: “The Times is just flat-out, 100 percent wrong. The first time Obama’s advisers heard about a national ad campaign is when the story showed up on The Times’ website last night.”

–Times Washington Bureau Chief Dean Baquet responds: “The piece is accurate.”

Democrats should hope that the story is a fabrication.

Quick, what do Democrats stand for? What does the Tea Party stand for?


I’d wager that the first thought that comes to mind is:

Democrats stand for higher taxes and big government.

The Tea Party stands for protecting the Constitution and taking back America.

Obviously simplistic and false, but this is what America is led to believe through the relentless pounding of well-crafted soundbites designed as a substitute for critical thinking.

Here’s what the Tea Party really stands for.

Until Democrats deal with this information imbalance, their sinking fortunes won’t improve.

Obama questions grassroots power of Tea Party – says big money is driving elections


During  remarks in Greenwich, CT, President Obama discussed the current political climate:

Partial transcript:

All across the country, special interests are planning and running millions of dollars of attack ads against Democratic candidates. … Millions of dollars. And the groups are benign-sounding: Americans for Prosperity. Who’s against that? Or Committee for Truth in Politics. Or Americans for Apple Pie. Moms for Motherhood. I made those last two up. None of them will disclose who’s paying for these ads. You don’t know if it’s a Wall Street bank. You don’t know if it’s a big oil company. You don’t know if it’s an insurance company. You don’t even know if it’s a foreign-controlled entity.

In some races, they are spending more money than the candidates. … They’re spending more money than the parties. They want to take Congress back and return to the days where lobbyists wrote the laws. It is the most insidious power grab since the monopolies of the Gilded Age. That’s happening right now. So there’s a lot of talk about populist anger and grassroots. But that’s not what’s driving a lot of these elections.

Age of Denial: win or lose chambers in November, it’s soul searching time for Democrats


Christine O’Donnell’s victory in the Delaware Republican Senate primary had Democrats exuberant – cheering victory by the ‘crazy Tea Party candidate.’ But when your electoral strategy is “let’s hope the lunatic wins cause we can’t beat a sane Republican,” it’s time for some serious soul-searching.

Nate Silver injects a dose of realism into overblown prognostications about a GOP landslide:

There’s the possibility that Republicans end up with a lot of half-loaves: independent voters get them almost close enough in some states and districts, base voters in some others, but they come up a few points short in a lot of key races and wind up winning “only” 30 House seats and 4 or 5 Senate seats. Or, just the opposite could be true. Independent voters rally them to surprising wins in some blue-leaning states, while base voters shore up the home front, and allow them to roll back the gains that Democrat made into Republican territory in 2006 and 2008.

He’s absolutely right – anything can happen on Election Day and expectations are beginning to get out of hand for Republicans. Unfortunately, if Democrats lose badly but retain the House and Senate, it will be hailed by the White House and pundits as a victory, perhaps a great victory, dampening the urge for introspection, the self-awareness needed to battle a dangerous radical rightwing resurgence.

Of course, it will be anything but a victory. The whiplash-inducing right turn America has taken since 2008, the deflation of hope, compel a sober and serious look at what Democrats have done wrong. We can take solace all we want in previous presidential poll numbers, we can say this is a normal cyclical dip, but that doesn’t explain or excuse this:

  • George W. Bush is steadily and surely being rehabilitated and now the question is how much gratitude we owe him.
  • Sarah Palin can move the public discourse with a single tweet, promoting a worldview consisting of unreflective, nationalistic soundbites.
  • Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Fox are dominating the national conversation, feeding a steady stream of propaganda packaged as moral platitudes to tens of millions of true believers.
  • In the face of overwhelming evidence, climate deniers are choking the life out of the environmental movement and willfully condemning humanity to a calamitous future.
  • From ACORN to Van Jones, liberal scalps are being taken with impunity.
  • Feminism is being redefined and repossessed by anti-feminists.
  • Women are facing an all-out assault on choice.
  • Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is being co-opted by a radio jock.
  • Schoolbooks are being rewritten to reflect the radical right’s anti-science views.
  • The rich-poor divide grows by the minute and teachers and nurses struggle to get by while bankers get massive bonuses.
  • We mark the end of a war based on lies with congratulations to all, and we escalate another war with scarce resources that could save countless lives.
  • An oil spill that should have been a historic inflection point gets excised from public awareness by our own government and disappears down the memory hole (until the next disaster).
  • Bigotry and discrimination against immigrants, against Muslims, against gays and lesbians is mainstream and rampant.
  • The frightening unconstitutional excesses of the Bush administration have been enshrined and reinforced by a Democratic White House, ensuring that they will become precedent and practice.
  • Girls and women across the planet continue to get beaten, raped, ravaged, mutilated, and murdered while sports games induce a more passionate response.

O’Donnell’s shock victory is part of this larger picture. Granted, it may imperil GOP chances to grab one more senate seat, but if you see it as a loss leader, as one more huge step to the right, it’s cold comfort to those who have fought the radical right’s takeover of our national discourse.

Yesterday I posted what I believe is the photo that defines our age of denial, a Biblical image of dead sea life:

When things like this are happening before our eyes and we can’t muster the will to do something dramatic to fix it, when Democrats seek comfort in radicals winning primaries, when a great nation abruptly reverses course and barrels headlong toward the 19th century, we have no choice but to dig deep and ask ourselves what we’re doing wrong.

Die-hard Obama supporters demand incessant cheerleading, but their blinders are part of the problem not the solution. As citizens, we’re tasked with making sure elected officials do their jobs. If Democrats and progressives are satisfied with the direction we’re heading, it’s their prerogative. Some of us are not in denial and we’ll keep speaking out until there’s a legitimate reason to believe that we’re righting our ship, reclaiming the moral high ground and making actual – not imagined – progress.

Pundits, print this Digby quote and plaster it on your desk


For as long as I can remember, Digby has been one of the most astute political bloggers on the left. I remember the first time I called her at home, during the 2004 presidential election. I was handling netroots outreach for the Kerry campaign and I wanted to connect with one of my favorite writers. The person on the other end was a kindred spirit and ended up providing years of advice, guidance and friendship. I’m still not sure why, but almost everyone assumed Digby was a man, so I, along with the handful of other progressive bloggers who knew, kept her gender secret until she finally revealed herself. I still read her site daily and just came across this razor sharp observation:

Anyone who is writing about the unreasoned radicalism of the right wing as if it just manifested itself out of nowhere has at least been in denial for well over a decade and a half.

Nothing more to add.

Low-information nation: Palin, Beck, Tea Partiers and American ignorance


Information is the currency of democracy. –Attributed to Thomas Jefferson
Get a brain! Morans –Sign displayed by conservative protester

The defining battle between Obama and the rightwing attack machine was over health insurance reform. The summer of town halls and tea parties was the official descent into the bizarre reality we face today, with Quran burnings, mosque-free zones, disappearing oil spills, rampant climate denial, conservative ‘feminism’, the assault on women’s reproductive rights, legacy theft of Dr. King, rehabilitation of George W. Bush, and shunning of the left.

During the health care debate, one question loomed largest for me: what did Americans really understand about the issue? If policy wonks and political professionals vehemently disagreed about various provisions and outcomes, how could a non-expert citizen, overwhelmed with the demands of daily life, fully comprehend the complexities of the health insurance overhaul? When media outlets and pollsters trumpeted the public’s support or opposition to the bill, what were they polling? Genuine knowledge or vague impressions? Analytical conclusions or parroted soundbites?

That’s obviously not to say that citizens need to be experts to have legitimate opinions, but that if the opinions are based on a lack of understanding, or in some cases utter misunderstanding, shouldn’t the first order of business be to better explain the issues and educate the public rather than use erroneous views as evidence of the inherent value of the proposed policy?

A January Pew survey examined what Americans know – and don’t know – about health care:

The public has consistently expressed strong interest in the health care debate, but relatively few Americans can correctly answer two key questions related to the Senate’s consideration of health care legislation. In the latest installment of the Pew Research Center’s News IQ Quiz, just 32% know that the Senate passed its version of the legislation without a single Republican vote. And, in what proved to be the most difficult question on the quiz, only about a quarter (26%) knows that it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster in the Senate and force a vote on a bill.

Pew’s findings apply not just to health care, of course, but to the entire range of important issues facing the country. What value do we assign to voters’ views on deficit reduction, for instance, when leading economists can’t get their thoughts straight? And how can Americans make determinations about politicians, parties and issues without at least a basic comprehension of the underlying policies?

Now, far from being a screed against the supposed ‘ignorance’ of the American public, this is meant to raise the question of how to better communicate and debate good ideas without having them mangled in a partisan media filter.

No matter how shallow their knowledge, people are programmed to believe they are right and will withstand a significant amount of cognitive dissonance before reason kicks in and alters their view, if ever.

Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, the vast majority of participants in our national debate genuinely believe they possess the necessary facts and have reached a fair judgment. It’s a mistake to attribute bad faith to a wide swath of the population. So when a Tea Party member sounds off about “defending” the Constitution, it’s perfectly plausible to assume they know little about the document but authentically believe they are expressing fealty to it. Still, we can’t settle for a national dialogue disconnected from facts and truth.

Pew tells us that “Republicans do somewhat better than Democrats on the knowledge quiz,” so this isn’t about left or right, but the following clips reflect the kind of misinformation fueling political passions.

I don’t find these interviews humorous, I find them scary. Politics is the one discipline where we’re all expected to be knowledgeable enough to make decisions that affect our shared future. Unless we’re doctors, no one expects us to give medical advice; unless we’re architects no one expects us to design buildings. But if we’re going to debate the future of our country, there has to be some basis in fact, rationality, in knowledge and information.

It’s daunting to realize how much we don’t know and how our most serious decisions are often based on the flimsiest of information and understanding. As a former jazz musician, I’ve listened to countless hours of music, but it’s taken me years to realize what it means to fully appreciate the depth of the art form, the intricacies of tone, timbre, harmony, rhythm, improvisational originality, the interplay of instruments in an ensemble, the subtleties of syncopation and timing. No matter what the field, it takes a huge investment of time and effort to develop anything close to a detailed understanding – and there’s always more to learn.

This, of course, applies to politics and policy. Interpreting the Constitution is a major intellectual and moral undertaking. It’s not something you do through bumper-sticker slogans. When Glenn Greenwald warns that President Obama is undermining the Constitution by authorizing the assassination of US citizens without due process, it’s a debate we should have. When Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck reduce the Constitution to handy jingoistic soundbites, it precludes a real debate.

The single most under-appreciated and understated aspect of American life, the proverbial elephant in the room, is that most Americans have little more than a cursory understanding of the issues and history on which they base their political beliefs and decisions.

In a moment of candor, outgoing Republican Senator Bob Bennett (Utah) recently said, “The public has “no understanding” of what Congress does.”

Another Pew survey finds:

Asked to name the current chief justice of the Supreme Court, and given four possible names, nearly one-in-ten Americans (8%) choose Thurgood Marshall, despite the fact that Justice Marshall left the Supreme Court roughly 20 years ago, and passed away in 1993. In fact, very few Americans can name the current chief justice in a Pew Research news quiz; just 28% were able to correctly identify John Roberts. Another 6% thought the recently retired Justice John Paul Stevens was chief justice, while 4% named Sen. Harry Reid. A majority (53%) admitted that they did not know the answer.

Ezra Klein points out the difficulty of campaigning in a low-information environment:

The auto bailout is a perfect example. By and large, it worked. The automobile sector stabilized. GM, Chrysler and Ford are all posting profits. Millions of workers who would’ve gone down with the car companies still have their jobs. America retains an automotive industry that’s both competitive in developing markets like China and starting to scrap with the Japanese and German automakers in the high-tech, green-car market. But the policy wasn’t popular. Few liked it. Some thought it socialism. Some thought it cronyism. Which presents, of course, a difficulty for the White House: Saving millions of jobs and the American auto industry at an ultimately very small cost to the taxpayer is the sort of major policy accomplishment you should be able to run for reelection on. But what if people don’t really understand that you did it, or that it worked, or that it didn’t cost them much?

Until we work to rectify the problem of a dumbed-down public discourse, we’ll keep spinning our wheels – or going backward.

UPDATE: Charles Krauthammer praises the Tea Party’s loyalty to the Constitution:

Indeed, it is among the most vigorous and salutary grass-roots movements of our time, dedicated to a genuine constitutionalism from which the country has strayed far.

How do you reconcile that with the anecdotal evidence in the clips above that Tea Party adherents have no familiarity with the document?

MORE:

Low-information nation: What do Americans really know about “big” government?
Low-information nation: Whose Constitution is it?

The great rightwing resurgence: right or wrong, Republicans project strength, Democrats project weakness


With polls signaling peril for Democrats, identifying the cause of President Obama’s travails and the demise of ‘hope and change’ is a Washington sport. Some attribute it to the lifeless economy, others to Obama’s supposed (excessive) liberalism, and yet others to the prioritization of health insurance reform in the administration’s first year.

It’s really much more basic. Set aside policy and focus on sheer perception, who do you associate with strength, George W. Bush or Barack Obama? Republicans or Democrats? I’d bet good money that on both questions, many on the left would pick the former.

Bush’s bluster, born of narrow-mindedness and jingoism, led America to near ruin. But even if it was an act, transparent and loathsome to his detractors, it left an indelible impression – and I stress “impression” – of a resolute man with the courage of his convictions, no matter how terribly wrong-headed those convictions. By contrast, Barack Obama and most Democratic officials are chronically unwilling to speak in moral absolutes, to frame Democratic policies in the language of right and wrong, to project an unshakeable faith in core ideals. And far too often, the reluctance to speak with moral courage is coupled with a failure to act.

This has been the essence of the progressive critique from day one, on gay rights, civil liberties, secrecy, the environment, the economy, health care, executive power, war.

It’s baffling that pundits still don’t get it. We hear endless tea leaf (and Tea Party) reading, endless poll analysis, endless pontification about Obama’s ideology or lack thereof. He’s too liberal, he’s not liberal enough, he’s overly pragmatic, he’s a conservative, a socialist, a corporatist, he’s achieved more than any president in history, he’s presided over the biggest government takeover in history. Who cares? In the end, you either project strength or weakness. You have moral courage or you don’t.

Cheney and Bush knew one thing: from a strictly political – and cynical – perspective, pretend moral conviction is better than none at all. At the very least, it telegraphs to voters that you care deeply about something, anything. Enough to take a stand for it, to portray your opponent as unethical for opposing it.

In the best of worlds, Democrats would believe in something good and fight tooth and nail for it. Their moral compass would be true, pointing in the direction of justice, fairness, equality. Progressive ideals would guide them and they’d present America with a consistent, cohesive, powerful and inspiring worldview. Candidate Obama tapped into the force of that combination. President Obama can’t seem to do it.

Democratic weakness, real or perceived, is a self-inflicted function of the inability to project moral authority, even in cases where they possess the unequivocal high ground. Religious liberty. Torture. A war based on lies.

Barney Frank explains the root cause:

President Barack Obama is afraid of acting in a way that would spur voters to view him as weak on defense, a top Democrat charged Wednesday. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said the president was “intimidated” by certain issues, particularly an effort by Frank and a few other lawmakers in both parties to rein in defense spending. “It’s the one area where I’m disappointed in the president,” Frank said Tuesday evening during an appearance on MSNBC. “I think he gets intimidated by this notion of, ‘Oh, you’ll look weak on defense.’ “

This is a perennial problem. In many ways, the progressive blogosphere was created to fill the vacuum left by the persistent image (and reality) of Democratic weakness, to convey the truth that militarism is not the only definition of strength, that moral might trumps material might. By nature, online progressives are confrontational activists, loyal to causes, not people. Contrary to conventional wisdom, there are no netroots darlings. Anyone who crosses the community on a matter of principle faces a similar backlash. Witness Howard Dean’s dressing down over his mosque position.

Progressive bloggers exert an enduring and outsized influence on the public discourse because they project strength. With few partners in the Democratic leadership, their impact on policy is proportionally small, but they are despised by the political and media establishments precisely because they ferociously stand their ground on core values. It’s why they are an indispensable counterweight to the rampaging right.

It would be unfair and silly to portray all Democrat politicians as devoid of moral convictions, but it’s not inaccurate to state that there is a widespread phobia among Democrats of appearing “weak,” which paradoxically leads to behavior that further reinforces that impression. When you fret too much over what others think, you tend to contort yourself in an attempt to please, often at the expense of your core beliefs. When the specific complaint is that you’re weak, there is a tendency is to do whatever your critics characterize as strong – and in the case of Democrats, they tend to ignore the strength of their own values and emulate Republicans, ending up looking even weaker in the process.

The only way to break the cycle and to project strength is to go back to basics, to look inside, to find the core principles that power a life of public service and to be relentless in pursuit of those principles. Moral authority is a prerequisite to genuine, enlightened leadership. Why do you think Glenn Beck wants to co-opt Martin Luther King Jr.? Democrats have the ideas and the ideals, they just need the courage of their convictions.

Mr. Beck, America knew Martin Luther King Jr.; Dr. King was a friend of ours; you’re no Dr. King.


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is among the handful of moral giants who have graced our planet. So it’s no surprise that when someone like Glenn Beck tries to piggyback on King’s greatness, the reaction is swift and harsh.

Glenn Greenwald:

I dislike the phrase “desecration of hallowed ground,” but if it applies to anything, it’s Glenn Beck’s obscene appropriation of MLK

Bob Herbert:

America is better than Glenn Beck. For all of his celebrity, Mr. Beck is an ignorant, divisive, pathetic figure. On the anniversary of the great 1963 March on Washington he will stand in the shadows of giants — Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Who do you think is more representative of this nation?

…Jerald Podair, a professor of American studies at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, has called Aug. 28, 1963, “the most important single day in civil rights history.” This is the historical legacy that Glenn Beck, a small man with a mean message, has chosen to tread upon with his cynical rally on Saturday at that very same Lincoln Memorial.

Beck is a provocateur who likes to play with matches in the tinderbox of racial and ethnic confrontation. He seems oblivious to the real danger of his execrable behavior. He famously described President Obama as a man “who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”

Brave New Foundation:

UPDATE: A powerful piece by Steve Benen:

“We,” Glenn Beck recently told his minions, will “reclaim the civil rights movement.” “We,” he added, are “on the right side of history.” After all, it was “we” who launched the civil rights movement “in the first place.”

It’s not altogether clear who counts as part of “we,” though presumably it’s limited to those who share Beck’s twisted view of reality.

Leonard Pitts Jr. explained this week that this isn’t just shameless nonsense: “It is obscene. It is theft of legacy. It is robbery of martyr’s graves.”

Beck was part of the “we” who founded the civil rights movement!? No. Here’s who “we” is.

“We” is Emmett Till, tied to a cotton gin fan in the murky waters of the Tallahatchie River. “We” is Rosa Parks telling the bus driver no. “We” is Diane Nash on a sleepless night waiting for missing Freedom Riders to check in. “We” is Charles Sherrod, husband of Shirley, gingerly testing desegregation compliance in an Albany, Ga., bus station. “We” is a sharecropper making his X on a form held by a white college student from the North. “We” is celebrities like Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando and Pernell Roberts of Bonanza, lending their names, their wealth and their labor to the cause of freedom.

“We” is Medgar Evers, Michael Schwerner, Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, Cynthia Wesley, Andrew Goodman, Denise McNair, James Chaney, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson, shot, beaten and blown to death for that cause.

Beck and his confused followers are claiming a legacy they don’t understand. They’re trying to lift a mantle that doesn’t fit on their shoulders. They’re adding their names to the same scroll they tried and failed to destroy.

The “nutcase defense” — The DNC creates the RNC’s November ad campaign


Progressive activists have been raising the red flag for almost two years. The message to Democrats has been simple: if you don’t present a grand unified vision of what Democrats stand for, the rightwing noise machine will step into the vacuum and frame everything you do as part of a liberal conspiracy to destroy America.

The progressive message has not gotten through. The result is now a wave election, with Democrats scrambling to avoid a total wipeout. In this state of chaos and confusion, Democrats are now resorting to the “nutcase defense” — trying to tell voters that they are ‘crazy to vote for crazy people.’ But this is a gross misreading of the rise of the Tea Party, the age of Palinmania and America’s sudden rightward shift. Case in point: this DNC ad could easily be released by the RNC and would be an effective GOTV tool:

UPDATE: Sarah Posner expresses a similar view:

I covered 9/12/09. It was pretty “crazy” looking, but at the same time, I talked to plenty of people who weren’t carrying Obama-is-the-Antichrist signs and were, it seemed to me, looking for someone to give them some easy answers about why the economy was in the crapper. (See here and here for my perspective on the events.) They were looking in the wrong place, obviously, but the Democrats won’t win by telling these people they’re crazy or cavort with crazy people. But that always seems like the easiest way to go.

That’s not to say that nativism, racism, and other ugliness shouldn’t be reported and reviled. But Democrats shouldn’t be “gleefully noting to reporters” anything about Beck. Until they have their own brilliant plan to rally the faithful, glee shouldn’t be part of their vocabulary or their talking points.