Going Retro

Someone is still honest in Hollywood. Roland Emmerich, that German fellow who now lives up in the Hollywood Hills, is one of those people. He says he likes making action-packed absurdities – with superb production values. His movies are fast-paced, with extravagant and rather stunning special effects, quite witty, and if you think about the plot at all, completely absurd. There’s no deep inner meaning either – which is how he likes it. He doesn’t want to make Important Films. He wants audiences to have a good time, which is a bit of a retro thing – a bit of Old Hollywood. They used to call this place the Entertainment Capital of the World after all – then everyone started taking themselves far too seriously.

This has made Roland Emmerich rich. There was Independence Day – with the ten-mile-wide alien spaceships – and The Day After Tomorrow – all of Manhattan deep underwater then frozen was pretty damned cool – and now it’s White House Down – which reviewers seem to love because it is so gloriously over-the-top. Don’t think about the logic of any of it. Just have a good time, and catch the sly in-jokes, like that one line in that Day After movie. Two young nerds from nowhere find themselves guests at a reception at a posh old-money Manhattan prep school, and the one turns to the other and says this – “This place is so retro it would be cool if it was intentional.”

That’s Roland Emmerich’s career in a nutshell. Retro is cool, accompanied by irony and wit, and self-awareness. Getting stuck in the past, and not even realizing you’re stuck there, is simply not cool at all – it’s a bit pathetic. More generally, taking yourself too seriously is a killer. Combine that with thinking this is 1953 and you’re in real trouble.

The political implications are obvious. Conservatives are always talking about the need to be careful, as conservatism is by nature a retro thing – don’t throw away what has worked before for some shiny new toy. Fine, but self-awareness and irony and wit matter too. Conditions change over time. What you’re insisting we all stick with may now be more charmingly quaint than useful, so explain it with a touch of irony, indicating you realize there’s a lot more going on these days. Stick to your guns – maybe smoking a bit of marijuana should be a major felony – but acknowledge what life is like these days, and what people actually do, and the proven harmlessness of this activity. Be retro, but be cool about it.

This seems difficult for committed conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly – once, long ago, called the Sweetheart of the Silent Majority. She and her Eagle Forum are still around. Back in the seventies she organized all opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, and she won that battle. Gloria Steinem ripped her on that, but Schlafly had no use for feminism at all. She also hated the United Nations and the World Trade Organization – they were Trojan Horses in an effort to take away America’s sovereignty. She also said that Congress ought to talk about the impeachment of Justice Anthony Kennedy, because he cast the deciding vote to abolish the death penalty for minors. She endorsed Michele Bachmann the last time around, and hates the very thought of gay marriage, or immigration reform – all pretty standard Republican positions over the years.

The problem is that Phyllis Schlafly is now a bit retro, which would be cool, if it were intentional, but she doesn’t think she’s retro at all. Other Republicans now temper their message – we love our brown and black brothers, and women, and some of our best friends are gay, but we can’t move too fast on anything, because moving too fast is always a danger. They’d only say what Schlafly says with deep irony, because it’s just not cool to say such things directly anymore.

Yeah, well, not her:

Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly is still telling anyone who will listen that the Republican Party should only pay attention to white voters (something that it is already pretty good at doing, according to recent data).

Yes, she said that:

Schlafly was a guest on a conservative California radio show when she fired off her latest proclamation about the future of the GOP, announcing that courting Latino voters is a waste of the grand ol’ party’s time because they “don’t have any Republican inclinations at all,” and are “running an illegitimacy rate that’s just about the same as the blacks are.”

Schlafly continued: “They come from a country where they have no experience with limited government. And the types of rights we have in the Bill of Rights, they don’t understand that at all, you can’t even talk to them about what the Republican principle is.”

They need to get her in line. No Republican is supposed to say that, even if the new plan seems to be to double-down on the white vote, specifically angry older white men, and write off everyone else. That’s implicit in what just happened. The Senate overwhelming passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill and sent it to house – where it will die. House Speaker John Boehner says he won’t let it come to the House floor for a vote. What the Senate did is meaningless. They’ll write their own bill, or maybe they won’t. Their choice is to kill immigration reform and insult the fast-growing Hispanic vote, and the business community, and Karl Rove and even Bill O’Reilly, which pleases the base but causes no end of trouble, for decades, or pass the Senate bill, or their own, and insult the base. One will help them win national elections, and the other will allow them to be better positioned for future elections in their own districts. They’re choosing the second. It looks like it will be no path to citizenship, no amnesty – no nothing. There will be no reward for lawbreakers, and America is for Americans, damn it.

It’s a retro Phyllis Schlafly position, although none of them have commented on her rant, and Slate’s David Weigel suggests it’s actually a rational position:

This is the math.

Republicans currently control 234 of the House’s 435 voting districts. In 210 of these districts – eight short of the votes you need to elect a speaker – the Hispanic share of the vote is below 25 percent. Of the other 24 districts where Hispanic voters might be problematic for a Republican who attacks the immigration bill, 12 went for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama. So, if House Republicans held every one of their current seats that only have a tiny fraction of Hispanics, and the dozen with solid Hispanic votes but Republican tendencies, they’d have the majority with four votes to spare. “Nonwhite voters are a threat to Republican White House chances in 2016, but hardly a threat to the House Republican majority,” says David Wasserman, House race editor of the Cook Political Report.

The words of Phyllis Schlafly were an embarrassment, but facts are facts:

It’s clear just how skeptical House Republicans are of immigration reform when you consider that one of those 24 sent to Washington from the mixed, white/Hispanic districts is Texas Rep. Lamar Smith (Hispanic vote in his district: 27 percent), who was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee until this year, and who still gets a committee vote on a possible immigration bill. Before Thursday’s vote Smith tweeted that “the #Senate #immigration bill ignores the will of the #American people & puts the interests of illegal immigrants & foreign workers first.”

Smith isn’t worried about any backlash to a vote against the immigration bill. Neither are most of his colleagues. The 2010 round of congressional redistricting ensured that two out of three Hispanic voters now live in Democratic districts.

There’s that, and the Supreme Court also declared the core provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional. Almost immediately, every Southern state that had had to get clearance for changes to their election laws gleefully went for voter-ID laws, calling for expensive photo-identification cards that would be hard to get, and restrictive voting hours, and moving polling places to where no one could reach them in time to vote. This was their chance to make sure the black and Latino vote was as thin as possible – a gift from the Roberts court – and they didn’t even try to hide what they were doing. This was an in-your-face insult to those groups, taunting them, because they’ll not be able to do a damned thing about it now. They seemed to take pride in rubbing it in. The wrong sort of people had already been moved out of their districts, and now none of them were going to be able to find a way to vote at all. Phyllis Schlafly, when discussing immigration reform, said Republicans should only pay attention to white voters, but this has already been structurally arranged, and Weigel notes this:

Pro-reform scolds have known that for a while. “If people are only looking at their own little backyards, yes, there are a lot of Republicans who can afford to vote no with no immediate repercussions,” says Florida-based GOP strategist Ana Navarro. “Sure, if you’re in the middle of Iowa, you’ll be fine, but I’d like to think there are enough responsible adults in the Republican Party to pass a bill.”

Ana Navarro and the like will lose here, and name-calling doesn’t help – responsible adults, indeed. You’re no use to the party if you’re tossed out of office by your angry constituents:

Any “comprehensive” reform they support will, by nature and design, allow more people to compete legally for jobs. That’s never going to be popular in their districts. While the opposition to immigration reform has been milder and quieter than it was in 2006–2007, there are still hints of white backlash. We saw a tremor of that this month; Republicans noticed that the Senate’s bill gave employers a small incentive to hire guest workers, because doing so would duck Obamacare’s requirements to provide health benefits.

So, what’s easier for Republicans? To give in and pass a bill that might add Hispanic voters to your districts, whom you then have to win over; or blocking the bill and upping your share of the white vote? That’s hardly a dilemma at all, and explains why the Senate bill faces such a hard road in the House. As they contemplate 2014 and 2016, Republicans are looking at elections where the white share of the vote may increase compared with 2012. They compare elections when Barack Obama was on the ballot against elections when he wasn’t. The white shares of the vote in 2008, 2010, and 2012 were, respectively, 74 percent, 77 percent, and 72 percent.

Those scolds may be wrong. There will be no black man on the ballot, so the black turnout should be down, especially with all the new court-approved difficulties they will face in even being able to cast a vote ever again, and thus the white vote has to rise, enthusiastic and on a roll:

Republicans, increasingly, light a fire with whites. From 2008 to 2012, Barack Obama’s share of the white vote fell from 43 percent to 39 percent. Right after the election, the fact that Obama scored a smaller white vote than Michael Dukakis was cited as proof that the GOP needed to change. Flip the logic. If Republicans can build on the white trend but Democrats can’t build on the nonwhite trends, Republicans will be safe, for a while. If Republicans get back to the 66 percent white vote won by Ronald Reagan in 1984, they’re golden.

Or maybe not:

Democrats don’t see that happening. “How the hell can they do better among whites than they did in 2012?” asks Paul Begala, a former Bill Clinton strategist who worked for the pro-Obama 2012 super PAC Priorities USA. “Can they really ever get 66 percent of the white vote again? No way. First, because their white voters are old: Romney got 61 percent of whites over age 65, but only 51 percent of whites 18 to 29. What the demographers euphemistically call ‘cohort replacement’ is working against the GOP. Other white subgroups, like college-educated women, gave Romney just 52 percent.”

Speaking of women! “If Hillary runs in 2016,” says Begala, “she has a good shot at building on Obama’s dominance among younger whites and his strength among white college grads, and perhaps even outperforms him among white working-class voters.”

That’s quite possible. Retro-angry-white-male might not be the answer here. It was always an ironic strategy anyway, and Weigel indicates:

Immigration reformers have to convince House Republicans to embrace the uncertainty, and fear the familiar.

That’s not in the nature of any conservative anyone ever met, but Matthew Yglesias puts a different spin on things:

I don’t think how this factors into anyone’s real world thinking, but when gaming out the short-term politics of comprehensive immigration reform it’s worth underscoring the fact that the most important political consideration with almost any bill is its substantive impact on the world. If immigration reform passes, the economy gets a short-term boost and that makes incumbents look better. And that short-term boost is there relatively uncontroversially, even if you believe the darker tales about the long-term consequences.

Here’s how that boost works:

First, by placing the country on a higher expected population growth trajectory suddenly our number of houses per capita looks too low which stimulates investment in the housing sector. Second, and relatedly, by placing the country on a higher expected population growth trajectory suddenly our stock of capital goods per capital looks too low which stimulates business investment.

The other factor is that the 10 million unauthorized migrants currently residing in the United States are operating under severe credit constraints. It is very difficult to get a loan on favorable terms when you can’t establish that you’re a legal resident of the country. That’s terrible for the individuals affected, but at a time of financial distress and depressed economic conditions it also has broader implications. The fact that with a wave of a magic wand we can genuinely improve the creditworthiness of millions of people has significant economic implications.

That’s a rosy picture, and it sure beats the alternative:

The flipside is that if you imagine some kind of stringent bill being signed into law that credibly committed the country to a future course of no amnesty, much more effective border security, no guest workers to replace the unauthorized migrants, and large-scale self-deportation of people living here illegally then you’d have the opposite impact. The expected future path of population growth would fall, the number of houses per capita would look to large, and the marginal product of capital would fall. All of that would depress the economy in the short run. The rational investor has probably been putting a low weight on the probability of this happening ever since Obama’s reelection, but it is out there as a possibility and a drag on the economy.

Yglesias calls for rethinking all this:

I think people oftentimes overthink the political implications of legislation. If something resembling the Gang-of-Eight bill passes the House, broad economic conditions will improve in a modest way and people will be modestly happier with the overall state of things. They probably won’t accurately understand the linkages, but a rising tide of public satisfaction will nonetheless lift many votes.

Ah, all those reluctant Republicans really should vote for immigration reform – passing it would be good for all incumbents. The economy would thrive. People would be relieved, if not happy, and those in office might find it easier to remain in office, since folks would have the vague feeling that their representative might have had something to do with things getting better, maybe.

That’s incredibly subtle and it is hard to tell if Yglesais is entirely serious. Politicians don’t take such chances, or many chances at all, or any chances – and conservative politicians doubly so. Nope, they’re the ones deciding how ironic they can be about their entrenched retro positions.

What can one say about where the Republicans find themselves standing right now? This place is so retro it would be cool if it was intentional? It isn’t, so it isn’t cool.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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