Graduate school in the South was confusing – maybe because they called Duke the Harvard of the South, except the campus was exceedingly ivy-covered gothic and looked very British, except for the magnolia trees and all the sunshine, and the oppressive steamy heat. This wasn’t Cambridge, or the other Cambridge on the north edge of Boston. This was the third version, built during the Great Depression, when the butt-end of a cigarette you found in the street might be the only thing that kept you going, with the enormous profits from the tobacco industry. The nearby city, Durham, was gritty and poor and filled with supermarkets called Piggly-Wiggly. The locals didn’t much care for book-learning, and the highway that led south through the miles and miles of dark loblolly pine forests was part of that Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway thought up in 1913 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy – because that war way back when had been noble and good, and the darkies had actually been happy, and the South really didn’t lose, not really. Now that stretch of road leads to Research Triangle Park, which is the Silicon Valley of the South or some such thing. That’s the New South – the ambiguous old mixed with the unsettling new, with everything a version of what it isn’t. There was always tension in the air.
Further west is Charlotte, one of the major cities of the New South, with its giant glass skyscrapers, now the banking center of America, or close enough with Bank of America and so many others headquartered there. It sticks out from the tobacco fields like a sore thumb, not far from Charlotte Motor Speedway with its iconic NASCAR races. It too cannot decide what it wants to be – another place filled with bankers and good ol’ boys, pretending not to see each other, kind of like the Republican Party these days.
That’s probably why the Republican Party just met in Charlotte, to decide what they want to be. Yep, it’s the ambiguous old mixed with the unsettling new, with the Old South facing off against the numbers guys in the nice suits – but something has to be done. They lost the presidency two times in a row, failed to regain control of the Senate when everyone thought they would, lost House seats, and with all the polling against them on most every issue, thought that at least they could force spending cuts to end the government as we know it, by refusing to authorize raising the debt ceiling, thus forcing the nation to default on all its payments and blowing up the world’s economy for many generations, unless they got their way. Then they realized they’d better not do that – it would make them look like thugs and fools – but now they’re not sure what they should do. Obama keeps winning all the battles – taxes went up on the rich and there were no spending cuts at all, keeping Medicare and Social Security pretty much just the way they are. Damn. They’re losing left and right and no one seems to like them much at all. That’s why they met in ambiguous Charlotte:
Republican National Committee members gathered here to re-elect Chairman Reince Priebus for a second term. But by week’s end, that vote seemed secondary to the question of the party’s long-term survival.
After three months of denial, anger, despair and depression over the results of a bruising national election that gave Democrats an edge in Congress and kept President Barack Obama in the White House, Republicans know they must adapt if they are to move forward.
They acknowledge that it’s time for a serious gut check (or, as Haley Barbour put it in November, a “proctology exam”).
That’s cute, but the issues are real:
While Republicans in Virginia and other battleground states launched an effort this week to alter Electoral College rules so that votes are doled out proportionately – which would likely give the GOP at least a short-term edge – GOP leaders here discussed their party’s own shortcomings and sought areas of internal improvement.
Almost every conversation in the bar of the Charlotte Westin Hotel this week involved a discussion about what the party must do to win the next elections. Floating through the air is a desire to recapture glorious days of the past, a challenge made difficult by a country that refuses to stand still. Demographics are changing, minorities are growing in political influence and views on social issues like gay marriage are drifting rapidly leftward. Something’s got to give.
That’s the tension in the air in the New South too. Charlotte was the right setting, and this item goes on to discuss the RNC’s five-person “Growth and Opportunity” committee – which isn’t all-white and suggested the party does need to change a few things. Mocking minorities and the young really isn’t a good idea:
First, they said Republicans must work on improving their tone when taking their ideas to the American people. For example, when discussing immigration, maybe presidential candidates should avoid phrases like “self-deportation” (Mitt Romney) and “anchor babies” (Michele Bachmann).
Henry Barbour said some in the party can appear “hostile” to certain constituencies with the rhetoric they use. The party must increase communication training for candidates, he said.
“There are certainly too many times when we’ve had candidates who have come across as hostile, and that’s not really helpful when you’re trying to win elections,” Barbour said.
Ah, communication training might help candidates cleverly disguise the hostility. The chairman of the Ohio Republican Party put it this way – “We need to understand that we can’t come off as a bunch of angry white men.” He didn’t say that they shouldn’t be very angry, perpetually – he said that they just shouldn’t come off that way.
And then there’s the matter of recruiting quality candidates, as the Tea Party favorites have been nothing but trouble:
They include Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin, who lost a Missouri Senate race last year and forced Romney and other Republicans on the defensive over women’s issues. In 2010, Nevada’s Sharron “Second Amendment Remedies” Angle and Delaware’s Christine “I’m Not a Witch” O’Donnell lost Senate races Republicans had been expected to win.
There has to be a way to fix that, but no one was sure how, and there’s the other issue, the bigger one, of whether core Republican ideas need to change. They decided they don’t need to change:
“The conservative message sells,” said Saul Anuzis, the former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. “We’re on the right side of history, on the right side of the issues. We just haven’t done a very good job on articulating the issues.”
Anuzis’ analysis is pretty universal in Republican circles. They see the true cause of their problems as merely poor presentations of otherwise good ideas.
That means a tricky rhetorical sleight of hand.
Don’t believe women should have access to an abortion if they are raped or victims of incest? Try not to talk about it. Think the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes are “takers”? Please don’t quote Ayn Rand in your stump speech. Support laws banning gay couples from legal rights guaranteed to straight couples? Keep it in the closet. And remember, when in doubt, pivot and talk about economic growth.
Yeah, that’ll work, and the South will rise again, but at least they found the appropriate keynote speaker:
Watch out, Washington: Bobby Jindal called Thursday on Republicans to take an ax to the federal government.
The Louisiana governor suggested “rethinking nearly every social program in Washington” in a speech to members of the Republican National Committee gathered here.
“If any rational human being were to create our government anew, today, from a blank piece of paper – we would have about one-fourth of the buildings we have in Washington and about half of the government workers,” he said, according to a copy of the speech obtained in advance by POLITICO. “We would replace most of its bureaucracy with a handful of good websites.”
He wants to “recalibrate the compass of conservatism” – it’s all about getting rid of most of the federal government, because his party is a populist party and that’s what people want. That this might not be what they want couldn’t be true, and the rest follows logically, if you accept that premise, and this calls for bold action:
The speech ended with a call for Republicans to make seven changes, including: Stop looking backward, compete for every single vote (“the 47 percent and the 53 percent”), reject identity politics, stop being “the stupid party,” and “stop insulting the intelligence of voters.”
“If this election taught us anything, it is that we will not win elections by simply pointing out the failures of the other side,” he said.
Here’s an immediate reaction from Charles Johnson:
I have to admit, Jindal has huge brass cojones to call out the GOP for being “stupid” – when he has done more than any other Republican governor to legitimize the teaching of creationism, climate change denial, and all manner of religious right pseudo-science in Louisiana.
For one example out of many, a religious school funded by Jindal’s voucher program teaches that evolution is disproved by the existence of the Loch Ness Monster.
I don’t know, Bobby; that sounds pretty freaking stupid to me. However, I fully expect the media to applaud Jindal for this deceptive, self-promoting hooey.
The media applauded a bit, because at least someone said something, but of course this was in ambiguous Charlotte, where an ambiguous Southerner – the son of immigrants from India with the keen mind of a redneck truck mechanic – said odd things.
I am not one of those who believe we should moderate, equivocate, or otherwise abandon our principles. This badly disappoints many of the liberals in the national media of course. For them, real change means:
Supporting abortion on demand without apology – Abandoning traditional marriage between one man and one woman – Embracing government growth as the key to American success – Agreeing to higher taxes every year to pay for government expansion – Endorsing the enlightened policies of European socialism…
That is what real change looks like to the New York Times editorial board.
But that’s crazy talk. America already has one liberal party, she doesn’t need another one.
Kevin Drum sees what Jindal is selling here:
Will the media continue to tout Jindal as a “breath of fresh air” for the Republican Party? Or will they eventually catch on that he basically wants to turn the entire country into Louisiana? We’ll have to wait and see. But I think Jindal has more crossover appeal than a lot of pundits think. He’s got obvious appeal to the Tea Party base, which loves his hardnosed conservatism and really loves the idea of proving that they’re not racists by voting for a hardnosed conservative who’s also a dark-skinned son of Indian parents. (Take THAT, liberals!) And the press will, as usual, be wowed by the idea of a hardnosed conservative who has a high IQ and can discuss policy issues intelligently. The fact that Jindal is singing the same old tired song, and merely wrapping it in a thin fog of policy wonkishness, will take a while to sink in.
It may not sink in, and as for Jindal saying Republicans should “stop being the stupid party” and referring to “bizarre and offensive comments” made by certain unnamed candidates, Slate’s David Weigel is in awe of the silliness here:
Jindal’s Sermon on Gaffes assumes that the audience still blames Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” tape for his defeat, and blames Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment for blowing the key Senate races. Sure: Both were huge, inarticulate mistakes. Romney’s spitballing about makers and takers was in line with contemporary Republican theories about the tax code and the entitlement state, and Jindal doesn’t back off from them, either. “Where do you go if you want a handout?” he asks. “Government. This must stop.” He doesn’t mention entitlement spending except to call for “rethinking nearly every social program in Washington.”
Akin’s gaffe was even more explicable. He believes that life starts at conception, and he’s against abortion in cases of rape. Jindal doesn’t talk about abortion at all, except to accuse liberals of “supporting abortion on demand without apology.” But in practice, he’s signed restrictions on abortion, requiring women to see ultrasounds and hear fetal heartbeats before they terminate their pregnancies. Following a 2012 law signed by Jindal, a woman can only opt out of the ultrasound results if she affirms in writing that she was raped or the victim of incest. But Jindal doesn’t go around talking about it.
Jamelle Bouie is a little clearer:
There’s just little in the way of “reform” here – after all, he has no interest in actually moderating the party’s conservatism. This highlights a larger problem: There aren’t any real “reformers” in the GOP.
Jindal himself embodies the same right-wing policies that sank Mitt Romney and damaged the GOP’s appeal to middle and working-class Americans….
The fact of the matter is there are no real reformers among the leadership class of the Republican Party. Not Bobby Jindal. Not Marco Rubio (who, despite his feints in the direction of immigration reform, is hewing to the NRA line on guns). And not Paul Ryan (who will soon be submitting a budget that supposedly wipes away the deficit in 10 years, with no new revenues, which would require savage and deep cuts to government programs that help the poor and elderly). At most, these leaders offer a whitewash: Underneath all the new rhetoric of change and inclusiveness lurk the same unpopular policies and priorities skewed in favor of the rich and against the middle class and poor.
All this is merely driving on the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway, in a sleek new car, but dreaming of the good old days when the darkies were happy and every woman was Scarlett O’Hara. Turn right and you’ll end up in Charlotte.
No one else is driving on that highway. In fact, in the Guardian, Bhaskar Sunkara suggests folks are less into Margaret Mitchell and more into Karl Marx these days, because they’re disillusioned:
For many in my generation, the ideological underpinnings of capitalism have been undermined. That a higher percentage of Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 have a more favorable opinion of socialism than capitalism at least signals that the cold war era conflation of socialism with Stalinism no longer holds sway.
At an intellectual level, the same is true. Marxists have gained a measure of mainstream exposure: Foreign Policy turned to Leo Panitch, not Larry Summers, to explain the recent economic crisis; and thinkers like David Harvey have enjoyed late career renaissances. The wider recognition of thought “left of liberalism” – of which the journal I edit, Jacobin, is a part – isn’t just the result of the loss of faith in mainstream alternatives, but rather, the ability of radicals to ask deeper structural questions and place new developments in historical context.
Now, even celebrated liberal Paul Krugman has been invoking ideas long relegated to the margins of American life. When thinking about automation and the future of labor, he worries that “it has echoes of old-fashioned Marxism – which shouldn’t be a reason to ignore facts, but too often is.” But a resurgent left has more than worries, they have ideas: about the reduction of working time, the decommodification of labor, and the ways in which advances in production can make life better, not more miserable.
This is not what Bobby Jindal had in mind, or could even imagine, and Andrew Sullivan adds this:
I don’t think Sunkara is wrong about this – but mainly by default, because conservatives, instead of trying to rein in a corrupt capitalism, have been defending its excesses as principles, and just ran a Bain executive as its nominee, for Pete’s sake, after an era in which reckless financial oligarchs nearly destroyed the entire global economy. What we have now is not democracy, properly understood, but an oligarchy on the take and a justice system designed to convict rather than try. Conservatism should be on the forefront of reform here – as Disraeli and Bismarck and Lincoln were – because it is our beloved free market economics and representative democracy that are being discredited for at least two generations.
And not because a free market doesn’t work when government regulates it right, when the tax code is simple enough for every citizen to understand, and when government tax-expenditures do not infiltrate every nook and cranny of our economic life.
Andrew Sullivan would have said something else in Charlotte:
The GOP needs to propose and fight for a return to real capitalism and opportunity, radical tax reform, an end to all deductions, serious long-term cuts in entitlements that Obama won’t touch, prison reform, breaking up the big banks, ending the drug war, and turning the permanent war department back into something recognizable as “defense.” That doesn’t include intervention in fricking Mali, by the way. Or picking yet another military fight in the Middle East with a land invasion and air-campaign – or thinking that torturing defenseless prisoners is some kind of strength, when it is, in fact, proof of our lost way.
Maybe this calls for a new synthesis:
Marxism in its classic sense cannot come back. It was proven wrong. Collectivism, however, always has a future. In my view, it is at worst a necessary evil from time to time (defensive war, a social safety net against the hazards of life), and at best a vital resource for liberal democracy in crisis (see FDR and Obama). But it is much more avoidable if real conservatives do their duty all the time, and attend to corruption in capitalism diligently, regulate lightly but firmly and without favors, fight the military-industrial complex and keep the lid on domestic spending.
But in America, the Republicans haven’t done this for decades. They’ve forgotten entirely what their reformist tradition requires of them.
And of course Jindal is no reformist. In his new Newsweek cover story, Sullivan suggests what we need is what we have:
I wore a Reagan ’80 button in high school for the same reason I wore an Obama T-shirt in ’08 – not because their politics were the same, but because they were both right about the different challenges each faced, and both dreamed bigger than their rivals in times of real crisis…
The hope many Obama supporters felt four years ago was not a phony hope. We didn’t expect miracles, but a long, brutal grind against the forces and interests that brought the U.S. to its 2009 economic and moral nadir. I’ve watched this president face those forces and interests with cunning and pragmatism, but also platinum-strength persistence. Obama never promised a mistake-free presidency, or a left-liberal presidency, or an easy path ahead. He always insisted that he could not do for Americans what Americans needed to do for themselves. In his dark and sober Inaugural Address he warned that “the challenges we face are real, they are serious, and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time.”
Sullivan adds this:
I think Americans understand and understood that. And they are finally reacting to being treated like amnesiac children by Romney-Ryan.
That means that what was said in Charlotte was nonsense. Few if any want to turn the entire country into Bobby Jindal’s Louisiana – the government can do useful things, and should, and maybe pure free-market capitalism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and by the way, evolution is not disproved by the existence of the Loch Ness Monster, which doesn’t exist. And also, by the way, that overwrought movie Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte was set in Louisiana. That man from Louisiana should hush.