The culture wars are nothing new. From 1969 to 1971 CBS had a big hit with Hee-Haw – which was a riposte Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In – the irreverent hit show for the hip antiestablishment counterculture. Not that Laugh-In spoke truth to power or anything like that – it was just a comedy-variety show after all, only intermittently topical and even then never biting. But it was urban, if never really urbane – the product of smart and witty people in New York and Los Angeles. Anyone from anywhere in-between, from the fly-over states, might not get the humor. They weren’t supposed to. It’s almost as if they didn’t matter. And maybe they resented that, so CBS created for a show for them – the real folk, the simple unsophisticated but good folks, the rural folks, the folks who drove pick-up trucks or whatever. Buck Owens and Roy Clark hosted the new show from Nashville – all country music and rural Southern stuff the folks in the city just wouldn’t get. They weren’t supposed to – now they were the real outsiders. It was a similarly fast-paced comedy-variety show, but the message was clear. This was war, even if a war of lame jokes. Hee-Haw lasted for twenty more years in syndication. Maybe they won.
The odd thing was that this was a war about who had a better sense of humor, about who could be more irreverent – and that doesn’t pertain in the culture wars today. Now everyone is deadly serious about everything – save for Stewart and Colbert and the crew at Saturday Night Live. And even there only those who are urban-hip are really in on the joke. The humor is somewhat exclusionary – you get it or you’re a pitiful rube and don’t. Open your eyes and wake up, damn it – really, nothing is a laughing matter anymore. Everyone is outraged and angry, and certainly not laughing at themselves, only at others.
It wasn’t that way on Hee-Haw, where each week the male chorus would mock the usual doom-and-gloom self-pitying crap that seemed to be in every country song, always returning to this chorus:
Gloom, despair and agony on me-e!
Deep dark depression, excessive misery-y!
If it weren’t for bad luck I’d have no luck at all!
Gloom, despair and agony on me-e-e!
Yes, if you’ve heard one my-woman-left-me-and-my-dog-died country song you’ve heard them all. They knew that. They laughed at it, but today’s country music has changed. Now it’s all angry too – much of it is simply America-Fuck-Yeah! It’s all anger about Muslims or Obama or gays or fancy-pants city folks or all of it mashed up together – These Colors Don’t Run or Lee Greenwood singing God Bless the USA – with Sarah Palin humming along. The tone is defiance. It’s the same culture war, but now it’s no longer a war of who has the better array of self-deprecating lame jokes and slapstick routines. No one is laughing anymore.
Maybe that’s about to change, because when it comes to Mitt Romney, the new champion of the fly-over states – even if those folks in what they call the heartland don’t like him much and trust him even less – might be thinking that if weren’t for bad luck he’d have no luck at all. Kevin Drum puts it nicely:
Four weeks ago, thanks to Mitt Romney himself, the political world was consumed with “Romneyshambles,” Romney’s gaffe-filled disaster of a trip to Europe and Israel. Three weeks ago, thanks to Harry Reid, the political world was consumed with Mitt Romney’s taxes. Then, thanks to Priorities USA Action, we spent a week arguing about whether Mitt Romney killed Joe Soptic’s wife. A few days later, thanks to Paul Ryan, we spent a week being consumed by Medicare. Now, thanks to Todd Akin, it appears that we’re going to spend this week talking about “legitimate rape” and abortion politics.
Maybe it’s a bad country song, worthy of the Hee-Haw chorus:
Barack Obama must be laughing his ass off about this. When was the last time Mitt Romney actually got to talk about the weakness of the economy – over a month ago?
Romney, however, isn’t laughing. He doesn’t have it in him, and now it looks like a major hurricane may hit Tampa the very day the Republican convention opens there at the Tampa Convention Center. The theme is “We Built That” and implications are obvious – let’s hope it holds together. But it wasn’t proudly built by a rich entrepreneur, all his own. The Convention Center is publicly-owned and managed with taxpayer funds – it was built with a hundred and forty million in taxpayer funds. Oops. They might have chosen the wrong venue, and there’s also that billboard that just went up nearby – “Welcome to Tampa! Where the mayor and all city council members are Democrats! Enjoy your visit!”
Given all that there’s not much left that could go wrong. It’s almost laughable, but not quite. This isn’t an episode of Hee-Haw. It’s the same cultural war, but without even a hint of humor.
Something should be done and the way out of this mess might be to declare a truce, at least on the cultural stuff, which is kind of what this editorial at PowerLine seems to urge:
If there is one thing we can say with certainty this year, it is that the overwhelming majority of voters don’t want to hear about the social issues. They want to know how we are going to climb out of the four-year economic funk that has been the Obama administration. If undecided viewers tune into the Democratic convention and hear all about abortion, and tune into the Republican convention and hear all about the economy, Romney will win in a landslide.
And, by the way, Republicans should help drive this contrast by saying nothing – and I mean, absolutely nothing – about any social issue. They should talk the economy non-stop, with occasional digressions into foreign policy. If they are asked about abortion, they should chide the reporter for asking about a topic that is of little interest to voters and that, by the way, the president, vice president, senators and congressmen have no ability to do anything about – and give an answer about the economy. If the Democrats want to define themselves to voters as the party of abortion and gay marriage, please, God, let them do so!
At the Washington Monthly, Ed Kilgore suggests that this is absurd:
If conservatives do indeed want a “truce” on issues like abortion, that’s fine with me: let them start observing one. Leave Planned Parenthood the hell alone. Stop pushing for laws that challenge Roe v. Wade. Shut down all your ultrasounds. Tell Bob Vander Plaats to stop trying to run pro-marriage-equality judges off the Iowa Supreme Court. Take all those dog whistles about “respect for life” and “constitutional originalism” out of your platforms and speeches. Promise us you won’t put unholy pressure on a President Romney to ensure the next new member of the Supreme Court will vote to turn abortion policy back to the states or even protect zygotes under the 14th Amendment.
This was their aggression, these were their attacks:
It’s gotten pols like Todd Akin and his Christian Right allies excited beyond all belief. You can’t complain at this late date that when he says something that reminds people of the underlying radicalism of the entire GOP’s position on reproductive rights, progressives are trying to “distract attention” from other issues by pointing it out.
Kevin Drum piles on:
Have they been focused on unemployment or job creation? Nope. Mostly they’ve been busily passing photo ID laws, immigration restrictions, and an enormous raft of new abortion hurdles. Actions speak louder than words, and over the past 18 months the new wave of tea-party Republicans has very clearly shown us what they really care about. Now they’re reaping what they’ve sown.
Maybe this is bad luck for the Republicans, but you make your own luck. They wanted a culture war and now they have one. Deal with it.
Ah, but there’s always a silver lining, at least in most songs, even country songs, and Philip Klein, the senior editorial writer at the highly conservative Washington Examiner, thinks he has found that silver lining:
Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s insensitive and ignorant comments about rape and pregnancy could cost Republicans a majority in the Senate. But in time, the episode may be remembered as an important development for the conservative movement.
In recent years, we’ve become used to a typical pattern when conservative candidates have come under fire for making controversial or ill-informed statements. Democrats and their liberal allies pounce, as do some Republicans and even conservative pundits. But many on the right are reluctant to join them, because they see a fellow conservative under attack by the Left. They recognize a double standard in the way the media treats mistakes by Republicans and Democrats. To this group, conservative pundits who join in the chorus of criticism are seen as weak-kneed bed-wetters who are doing the bidding of liberals.
This conflict is usually framed as one of the “grassroots” against “the establishment.” It played out with the divergent reactions to Sarah Palin in 2008, as well as Senate candidates Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell in 2010.
But not this time:
When Akin made his infamous comments about rape and pregnancy (“If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”), the condemnation was swift and almost unanimous. It wasn’t just liberals who were excoriating Akin, and it wasn’t just establishment Republicans in Washington. The conservative base and Beltway Republicans united against Akin. …
When all the dust settles on the Missouri Senate race, the Akin mess could be looked back upon as marking a shift in the standards that those on the Right apply to conservative candidates.
No more knee-jerk nonsense, defending what’s stupid! We’ve changed:
In 2008, a big part of Palin’s appeal to conservatives was cultural. As Cindy McCain described Palin, she was a “reform-minded, hockey-mommin’, basketball-shootin’, moose-huntin’, fly-fishin’, pistol-packing, mother of five.” The fact that she wasn’t adept at fielding interviews from the national press corps was promoted as evidence of her authenticity and deeper connection to the average American than the Washington elites.
Four years later, conservatives are elated at the selection of House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate. Although Ryan is an avid bow hunter and hails from the Midwest, what excites conservatives most about him are his policy smarts, his wonky understanding of budget minutiae, and his articulate case for capitalism and limited government. They aren’t riled up about potential “gotcha” questions in interviews and debates – they want to see Ryan school reporters and run circles around Vice President Biden.
Here Kevin Drum says not so fast there, big guy:
Klein says that conservatives are finally outgrowing their torches and pitchforks stage, and Exhibit A is the GOP’s vice presidential pick this year. …
Please. Conservatives are excited about Ryan because he’s a true believer, not because they’ve developed a sudden love of budget wonkery. They would have been equally ecstatic about Bobby Jindal or Marco Rubio, and they’re breathing a sigh of relief that Romney didn’t pick Rob Portman or Tim Pawlenty, both of whom are plenty serious policy wonks but don’t have quite the right-wing fire in their eyes that the other guys do.
Yes, the Republican backlash against Akin might have been something new, but maybe not:
Honestly, this has nothing to do with a more serious approach to politics. As Klein himself notes, nobody in the GOP wanted Akin in the first place, not the tea party and not the establishment. So he was friendless from the start. More importantly, everyone understands that Akin’s remarks were so outrageous that they might genuinely cost him the election – and with it, Republican control of the Senate. Conservatives have been pretty explicit about this. They want him to step down for the good of the party. That’s the motivation here, not the fact that Akin isn’t a serious enough policy guy.
And there’s this – “A reporter for Denver’s CBS affiliate has disclosed that she was not allowed to ask Mitt Romney about Rep. Todd Akin or the issue of abortion during her interview with the candidate.” There’s further detail here – let’s just not talk about that stuff. Then the Romney campaign said this – “This is not how we operate. The matter is being addressed.”
Sometimes you just can’t win for losing – also the theme of many a country song. The entire mainstream of the Republican Party has asked us all not to think about that Akin fellow, and sees no need to talk about him, but Mike Huckabee didn’t get the memo:
In a Party that supposedly stands for life, it was tragic to see the carefully orchestrated and systematic attack on a fellow Republican. Not for a moral failure or corruption or a criminal act, but for a misstatement which he contritely and utterly repudiated. I was shocked by GOP leaders and elected officials who rushed so quickly to end the political life of a candidate over a mistaken comment in an interview. …
Who ordered this “Code Red” on Akin? There were talking point memos sent from the National Republican Senatorial Committee suggesting language to urge Akin to drop out. Political consultants were ordered to stay away from Akin or lose future business with GOP committees. Operatives were recruited to set up a network of pastors to call Akin to urge him to get out. Money has changed hands to push him off the plank. It is disgraceful.
What else could go wrong? A civil war within the party could flare up, and has. Ryan has always been more on the Akin-Huckabee side on social issues, and Romney will say what’s necessary to win, so he may find himself facing off against his own running mate on social issues. And Todd Akin won’t quit the Missouri senate race – big chunks of the party are now rallying to his side. After all, the New York Times pointed this out:
As a legislator, Mr. Akin has a record on abortion that is largely indistinguishable from those of most of his Republican House colleagues, who have viewed restricting abortion rights as one of their top priorities.
This is not Mitt’s party. The Republican National Committee’s platform committee is not his platform, as one committee member told the Washington Times that this “appears to be the most conservative platform in modern history.” Romney is only conservative in order to hold onto his base, at least as many people assess him. No one knows what he really thinks – he’s not saying. And this platform calls for a “human life amendment” with no exemption for rape or incest – a position on abortion that Romney repeatedly says he opposes and Ryan has always supported, until this week, now that Ryan is Romney’s pick and has to be a good boy – but Ryan could revert to his old self. The hurricane brewing in the Caribbean is the least of Romney’s worries now.
It’s hard to win the general election when you’re fighting your own party, and the New York Times’ Charles Blow argues that it’s hard to win the election if women don’t vote for you:
On the one hand, the Republican establishment wants to battle the perception that the party is waging a war on women – which it is – by claiming that women’s economic interests are separate and distinct from their health interests. But that’s a false argument for many women because the two, particularly when it comes to reproductive control, are inextricably intertwined. Children dramatically affect one’s financial bottom line.
Self-sufficiency is tied up in self-determination. Family planning is essential to career planning. This is particularly true for single women.
On the other hand, there are those on the fringe of the party who are less beholden to the establishment and constrained by convention. They air the party’s frustration with these single women voters and don’t try to disguise their disdain.
It’s the single women who are at issue here, and Blow amassed a list of problems Romney must resolve with his party:
Earlier this month, the rhetorical bomb-thrower and media-monger Ann Coulter commented on the influence of Sandra Fluke in a Fox News interview – “I think it’s probably a good sign that Obama is so desperate just to get the base Democratic voter – stupid, single women – to vote for him.”
Then, in another Fox interview, Coulter, speaking this time about Republicans wooing the women’s vote, said this – “Ronald Reagan managed to win two landslides without winning the women’s vote, but it is as you say, it’s striking, it’s not the women’s vote generically, it is the single women’s vote. And that’s because single women look to the government to be their husbands and give them, you know, prenatal care, and preschool care, and kindergarten care, and school lunches.”
The Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson – who has made a number of appearances on Fox News, founded a Tea Party group in California and is also the founder of a group called BOND (Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny) – recently gave a speech (I hope it wasn’t a sermon), in which he said:
“One of the primary reasons that it is over for America is because women are taking over, women are taking over, they’re in high so-called powerful position, they’re now running companies – they’re making decisions.”
He then pointed out that he was not referring to all women:
“There are some, a few out there that are logical women and can make sound decisions, but most cannot.”
He prattled on nonsensically for a while, adding that “women cannot handle power, it’s not in them to handle power in the right way” and “women have been degraded, women are now degraded, they have no shame.”
And there’s this:
“I think that one of the greatest mistakes that America made was to allow women the opportunity to vote. We should’ve never turned it over to women.”
This is the crowd that Romney must confront, somehow – or not. Maybe the hurricane will cause the Republicans to cancel the convention and do all the nominating stuff online, via Twitter. No one will have to say anything.
That might not help, as Blow just wonders why any women vote Republican:
Even if you are personally pro-life you don’t have to be universally anti-choice. This is the party that attacks reproductive rights and limits women’s health options – which has the effect of limiting women’s economic liberty – and whose proxies on the radio and TV openly show disdain for women, especially those not hitched to a man.
Even if you’re married now, you weren’t always. You too were once a single lady.
If this were an episode of the old Hee-Haw show this would be played for laughs – the male quartet in the bib-overalls and straw hats would sing about how if it weren’t for bad luck they’d have no luck at all, and everyone would understand their woes were all of their own making and they were fools. That was the joke. Now it’s not a joke – the culture wars are real enough. And real people get hurt. Somewhere along the line the slapstick and lame jokes became what pass for serious discourse. No one back in the late sixties could have anticipated that.
On the other hand, on September 16, 1968, Richard Nixon, running for president at the time, did appear on Laugh-In and asked the signature line as a question – “Sock it to me?” Hubert Humphrey declined to appear – and Nixon won. Maybe slapstick and lame jokes are the way to go.