We’re not British. The engine is under the hood of the car, not under the bonnet. And the shock absorbers are what keep the car from oscillating wildly on its springs when you roar down a bumpy road, not the dampers, even if damping oscillations is what they do. And we do not throw the luggage in the boot. That’s the trunk. And of course we drive on the correct side of the road – no, not the top – everyone does that – simply on the right. Some things are a matter of what name you use for this or that, others are conceptual – and based on national and quite particular cultural history, like that business with warm beer.
Most Americans just don’t get the idea of warm, thick beer – ours are pale and light and cold. The concept of warm beer – and comfort food like bangers and mash, and Spotted Dick (steamed suet pudding containing dried fruit) – is simply beyond us. We just don’t get it.
And of course we never got the idea of the Loyal Opposition. That’s what you call the current party out of power. The voters have rejected their ideas, or particular party leaders, but they know their role. They are there, now, to oppose what the majority proposes – to raise questions, to make impassioned speeches and to offer ridicule. In short, they function as a balance, to keep those in power from doing anything too foolishly self-serving or radical. But no one questions their loyalty. Sure, they may also be mocked and ridiculed by those who are in power at the moment – the give and take can be great fun – but the Loyal Opposition is, at heart, loyal. That is simply understood. They are not evil, corrupt people, or subversive in any way. Those in power just say the members of the Loyal Opposition are wrong about one thing or another, or being quite stupid, or laughable foolish – but not irredeemably rotten to the core. Not only would that be bad form, everyone knows it’s not true. There is one underlying assumption. Everyone involved in government wants the best for the nation. That goes without question – and those in power will be out of power, and be the opposition soon enough Think of it as a dance, or as a gentleman’s agreement.
We don’t seem to get the whole concept – the recent presidential campaign being an example. Much of what the McCain campaign trotted out about Barack Obama seemed to center on something like disloyalty – Obama was pals with terrorists, his former minister was anti-American, the parts of America where people would vote for him were not the real America (in fact, McCain’s brother and his Virginia campaign manager called pro-Obama northern Virginia, Communist Country), he was a socialist, or a celebrity, or too well-educated, or too articulate, or a lousy bowler. In short, Obama wasn’t one of us. The idea was that Obama was not only the opposition – fair enough, as people can disagree – but somehow he wasn’t loyal, and just couldn’t be loyal.
There was no gentleman’s agreement. The fact that Obama was black, had a white mother, was born in Hawaii and raised for a time in Indonesia, had a funny name, and had the middle name Hussein, didn’t help much. None of that was often mentioned by the McCain campaign directly, but all of it did come up, usually from surrogates who were scolded a bit, halfheartedly. As much as Obama said McCain was a real hero and worthy of real respect, but just wrong on the issues, the favor was not returned. Much of the McCain campaign was predicated on the idea that Obama was not so much the opposition, but that he was disloyal to America. This wasn’t very sporting of McCain – it wasn’t British, if you will.
The odd thing is that McCain had promised to run a positive campaign, on the issues. He and Obama would treat each other with respect. Sure, they disagreed, and they’d have it out, but there’d be no personal attacks – this would be a gentleman’s disagreement on big, important issues, and the voters would decide who was best on the issues.
It didn’t work out that way. Steve Benen explains how it did work out:
As of June, the McCain campaign’s senior aides were feeling pretty good about their chances, until there was a strategy session with the top five McCain advisers. One posed a question designed to give the campaign a central focus: “Why should we elect John McCain?” The five couldn’t agree on the right answer. “Without an overriding rationale, our campaign necessarily turned tactical rather than strategic,” one adviser recalls. “We focused more on why Obama should not be president, but much less on why McCain should be.”
It showed. I started making some notes the other day about the presidential election, the turning points, the strategies, etc. And it occurred to me that the entire Republican strategy was based on nothing but fear. Fear of change, fear of hope, fear of a skinny man with a funny name. Fear of socialism, fear of a tax increase, fear of government. Fear of anything that looked, sounded, or might be perceived as foreign. Fear of the light at the end of the tunnel – it might be a train.
It was an offensive, demagogic strategy, but it was not, on its face, ridiculous. Fear is a powerful emotion, and people made to feel fear can act with clouded judgments. Fear helped propel Republicans to significant gains in 2002 and 2004, and with even McCain’s own top aides unsure how to make the case for a McCain presidency, fear must have looked pretty good.
[Obama] robbed fear of its ability to work through quiet insinuation. He forced America to confront its own subconscious. Obama actually is black. His middle name actually is “Hussein.” He actually does know William Ayers. He actually was married by Jeremiah Wright. He actually had lived in Indonesia.
These were not smears, though they were often used as such. They were facts. And this election was fundamentally about what happened when fear collided with fact.
It was striking to see how Americans responded to the fear-mongering. Obama’s lead over McCain in the polls grew in the face of the economic crisis, but the lead grew even more when McCain and his party tried desperately to scare Americans. The more we were supposed to feel afraid, the more voters responded to Obama’s message – the more intense the smears against him, the higher Obama’s favorability ratings.
There were quite a few messages for the political world yesterday, but one came through loud and clear: We don’t want to be afraid anymore.
Maybe we’re turning British in an odd way. Watch politics over there – no one is selling fear. Sure they are calling each other stupid, and wrong, and gob-smacking foolish – each week the Prime Minister faces Commons for an open question and answer session and it can get rowdy. Watch a few of those here – but note that no one is hinting at disloyalty or otherness or subversion, that the other guy is just not one of “us.” No one is saying be outraged and afraid. The Brits seem to find that tiresome and rather stupid. Frankly, it’s boring. Maybe that has something to do with living through the Blitz in the forties and all the long years since of random terrorist attacks from oddball Irish nationalists – fear is overrated, Mate – you move on and do what you must. No wonder when Blair had to sell the Iraq War over there he was less successful with his citizens than was Bush with us. Tony said be existentially frightened. Most of the populations said no, we’re British, you see.
Here things are different. We went through 9/11 and didn’t come out of that with some feeling we could get through anything – no British stiff upper lip, awful things happen and you deal with them. We went straight into angry wronged-victim mode, struck out relatively blindly, and decided we really should be deathly afraid at all times from that point forward – the world was out to get us. A Brit might say, yeah, so? The world is always full of people out to do bad things. You deal with it, but there’s no point in getting all crazy and doing something foolish. Grace under pressure and all that….
That’s just not us. On this side of the pond it’s always personal. That means there is no Loyal Opposition domestically – just opposition and opposition that you don’t engage, but rather, opposition you eradicate. Think of the similarities between Bill O’Reilly and John McCain – disagreement with what you claim is a personal affront and an insult to your honor, so you don’t speak to the issue, you respond in proud outrage to the idea someone would question you. O’Reilly alternates between calling the other guy a pinhead and telling him to shut up. McCain says, well, he was a prisoner of war and that settles matters. That sort of thing makes it hard for the Loyal Opposition – no one believes in the adjective involved.
And now things are worse, as the new Loyal Opposition is in disarray. Wednesday, November 5, the day after Obama won the presidency, see GOP In Tatters, Looks To Regroup (AP) and Analysis: Election Night’s Biggest Losers (Politico) – now these guys are trying to purge the subversives from their own ranks, those who ruined things, the OTHERS who shouldn’t really be in their party.
According to Jim Nuzzo, that former White House aide to President Bush Senior – “There’s going to be a bloodbath. A lot of people are going to be excommunicated. David Brooks and David Frum and Peggy Noonan are dead people in the Republican Party.”
Cool! We Democrats will take ’em! These are talented folk with brains, and know how to use them! We can always use a few more of those.
Of course, just because they’re invited doesn’t mean they’ll want to join. After all, the Democrats are, at least recently, the party of liberals, and these people are all self-described conservatives.
So the question now is, what does it even mean anymore to be a conservative? Maybe I need to go back and read up on my Edmund Burke.
But then you have Jeffrey Hart, part founder of modern Conservatism, who claims not only that George W. Bush is not a conservative, but that “true conservatives” like Nixon and Reagan, and maybe even Burke himself, would have liked Obama. Forget the fact that most conservatives I know claim Nixon was actually a liberal (although that may be partly because he became such an irreconcilable object of national scorn, they figure he must have been a liberal), but I also think the confusion about Burke is that he himself was not only an eloquent orator but a great thinker, making everyone assume that a true conservative must be both of those things.
But I think that’s a mistake, especially when it comes to the thinking part. Thinking, I think, is firmly part of the liberal heritage, and has been from the very beginning.
Here’s the fifty-cent tour of the history of the two ideologies, as I understand it:
Back in the middle ages, Europe was governed by nobility and the clergy. After the Crusades re-exposed Europe to the learning of the ancient Greeks and Romans, we got the Renaissance, in which the old world order was overturned by “thinkers,” who came to believe that human beings could “think” their way out of most any problem, rather than just leave it all to rich people and God. This was the true birth of “Liberalism.” Conservatism came into being as a movement several centuries later when Burke founded it quite simply to counterbalance prevailing liberal thought. And largely, that’s what has survived until this day.
Not large government vs small, not high taxes vs low, not “life” vs “choice,” not guns vs gun control, not gay rights vs “family values,” not prayer vs Godlessness. Want to know the real difference between the two ideologies today? The real difference is all about attitude, and can be summed up this way:
You want to be a nice person? You’re a liberal. You want to be tough? Conservative. It’s about that simple. Think if we all work together, we can make the world a better place? Liberal! Can’t stomach people who talk that way? Conservative!
Or maybe you’d rather codify it all into basic principles that can be stitched into a sampler that can be placed in a picture frame and hung on your wall:
(1) The guiding philosophy of American Liberalism is to try not to go through life as a self-centered bully who doesn’t know how to think, and has little or no respect for those who do.
(2) The guiding philosophy of American Conservatism is the same as Liberalism, except you just strike out the word “not.”
(So David, David, and Peggy? Welcome to the Party of Heaven! Enjoy your stay!)
But at some point – and maybe it’ll take another election before it happens – the Republicans will realize they can’t survive representing only the schmuck voters of the country, and will then try to broaden their base in hopes of winning elections again. And at that point, I suspect we might see the Brooks, Frums and Noonans once again migrate back into the old fold.
Oh, well, it’s probably inevitable. I guess democracy in America really needs at least two healthy parties to survive anyway. But hopefully by then, thinking will, as a concept, be equally respected by both of them.
Well, it’s happening. Jonathan Martin reports here that a group of far-right folks, including Grover Norquist and Tony Perkins, would meet the two days after the election at Brent Bozell’s weekend home to plot strategy – how to dump the moderates.
Steve Benen comments:
It’s a safe bet that encouraging the Republican Party to moderate its image and embrace a more mainstream agenda will not be on the to-do list.
What bears watching, though, is how the party responds to the demands. In reality, Republicans ended up in this mess by following the dictates of the right-wing base. But to hear the party’s activists tell it, Republicans ended up in this mess by not following the dictates of the right-wing base enough.
Some party leaders seem to be getting antsy.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) argued that Senate Republicans need to “re-establish what the Republican Party is all about … [and] get back to this big tent Republican Party” that is united on fiscal conservatism. Although Ensign was not ready to call for a break from socially conservative ideologies, he said issues such as abortion or gay rights should not be at the core of the party.
“I think we lost our way on our fundamentals” in recent years, Ensign said, adding that “those are the issue that we can disagree on as a party.”
No, they are not. Just as you eschew the concept of “loyal opposition” with the Democrats, so you do not accept the concept internally. Benen says that last quote from Ensign is “the kind of quote that will make far-right activists apoplectic.”
And next up is the fight over the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee:
Rumor has it that South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson not only wants the job, but is considered a leading contender.
Dawson, of course, recently insisted that “moderating our party is what caused us to lose power” in 2006, and he intends to resist any attempts to make the party more mainstream.
And so it goes. The idea that opposition is useful just doesn’t fly on this side of the pond.
Maybe it once did. Kevin Drum suggest these guys return to Ronald Reagan and his ways:
Reagan … had a mile-wide pragmatic streak. Maybe it was his Midwest roots. Maybe it was because he was originally a New Deal Democrat. Maybe it was because he had spent years dealing with California politics. Maybe it was just because Tip O’Neill was speaker of the house and he had no choice.
But whatever the reason, he had it. He slashed taxes in his first year, but when that produced gigantic deficits he raised them the next – and then raised them again every single year of his presidency. (He kidded himself that he was just “closing loopholes,” but he did it nonetheless.) He favored partial privatization of Social Security, but when it became clear that he couldn’t get that he called Alan Greenspan and had him put together a mainstream, bipartisan rescue plan. He won office on the back of social conservatism, but he was the president who originated the Republican tradition of delivering speeches to the annual pro-life rally in Washington DC by phone because he didn’t want to be too closely associated with them. He drove up defense spending and called the Soviet Union an evil empire, but when the Kremlin finally produced Mikhail Gorbachev he did business with him. To the consternation of conservatives everywhere, he eagerly embraced arms control talks with Gorbachev and eventually signed the INF treaty.
This isn’t some kind of ode to Reagan. Reagan was a dedicated, sometimes primitive conservative with plenty of failures to his credit, and I opposed nearly everything he did. But I’m talking about what conservatives need, not what I want or approve of. And unlike George Bush, Reagan seemed to instinctively understand the limits of what was possible and what the country would accept. If the Republican Party continues to embrace Bushism and the messianic, know-nothing Texification he brought with him (current incarnation: Sarah Palin), it will continue its intellectual and popular decline. But if it regains its pragmatic Reagan streak, who knows? They could be back and giving Dems a run for their money sooner than anyone thinks.
But now Reagan himself would be purged from the party. The new Loyal Opposition is tearing itself apart – becoming smaller and smaller, but purer of course.
And they’ll end up with this, as reported by Fox News’ Carl Cameron:
There was great concern in the McCain campaign that Sarah Palin lacked the degree of knowledgeability necessary to be a running mate, a vice president, and a heartbeat away from the presidency. We’re told by folks that she didn’t know what countries were in NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, that being Canada, the US, and Mexico. We’re told that she didn’t understand that Africa was a continent rather than a country just in itself. A whole host of questions that caused serious problems about her knowledgeability. She got very angry at staff, thought that she was mishandled, was particularly angry about the way the Katie Couric interview went. She didn’t accept preparation for that interview when the aides say that that was part of the problem. And that there were times where she was hard to control emotionally. There’s talk of temper tantrums at bad news clippings.
If they decide to coalesce around Sarah Plain as the new face of the new Republican Party, they will finally become the exclude-everything know-nothings. But maybe the Loyal Opposition can be a cast of cartoon characters. It’s just not that good for the country. But then, we’re not British.