Persistent Misconceptions

Okay, this year’s Super Bowl wasn’t much, a blowout as they say, but it had to have a narrative. The guys from one of the two states that have legalized pot beat the team from the other state that legalized pot… or something. The loose happy guys from Seattle beat the serious guys from Denver? The amazingly short young quarterback beat the noble old fart? It doesn’t matter. People watch the game for the halftime show – by all accounts a bit odd this year but with no wardrobe malfunction this time – and for the amazing new ads, where major corporations go all-out with whatever cleverness or extreme sentimentality they can come up with. This year, Bob Dylan descended from his self-imposed deeply artistic isolation, above all the commercial nonsense, and told us to buy a car built in Detroit – a Chrysler to be specific – because “is there anything more American than America?”

What? Score one for pretentious tautology that doesn’t make a lick of sense, and for serenely empty jingoism. Think about it. Chrysler is now, finally, wholly owned by Fiat, so it’s actually an Italian carmaker with a North American division. Is there anything more American? Ah well – those who came of age in the sixties wept, because this Bob Dylan ad was the ultimate sellout, and those who never much cared for the guy in the first place, and never expected much of him, noted that, as sellouts go, this still scruffy guy wasn’t even very good at selling out. He made no sense, and blithely assumed that, as usual and as in the sixties, no one would notice, or they’d be impressed with words that delightfully hovered at the edge of making sense, in a sly and knowing way.

This wasn’t that. The whole thing was embarrassing, on multiple levels, although by all accounts that new Chrysler 200 is a fine car. They should have shown shots of one of those zooming around, so the Italians wasted their money. Two Super Bowls ago Chrysler used Clint Eastwood – before the corporation was fully Italian – but this time they chose the wrong American icon. Not only can he often come off as an arrogant jerk, Bob Dylan also doesn’t play well in the red states. Not everyone thinks the sixties was a fine time. The ad was spectacularly misconceived. Italians probably shouldn’t make ads about American pride.

The damage was, however, mitigated, as Bob Dylan is only an icon to some – who were, of course, offended. Those who thought he was a jerk in the sixties have long forgotten him and may not have even recognized that odd old man talking to them during the breaks in the action. Who’s he, daddy? I don’t know, kid, I don’t know. Chrysler may be looking for a new ad agency.

Luckily, no one will remember any of this, because they’ll remember the far more controversial ad this year:

Not many people expected the Seattle Seahawks to steamroll the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl on Sunday. Less surprising was the right-wing outrage over an ad featuring a patriotic hymn performed in multiple languages.

No, many conservatives didn’t much care for Coca-Cola’s one-minute spot, which showcased a rendition of “America the Beautiful” in languages such as English, Arabic and Spanish.

Former Tea Party congressman Allen West even took time to write a blog post during the game to voice his displeasure. For West, the ad started out strong enough.

“Then the words went from English to languages I didn’t recognize,” a troubled West wrote, calling it “a truly disturbing commercial.”

“If we cannot be proud enough as a country to sing ‘American [sic] the Beautiful’ in English in a commercial during the Super Bowl, by a company as American as they come – doggone we are on the road to perdition,” he wrote.

He wasn’t alone. This item also notes that Fox News commentator Todd Starnes was on a roll – “So was Coca-Cola saying America is beautiful because new immigrants don’t learn to speak English?” And there was this – “Coca-Cola is the official soft drink of illegals crossing the border.” Everyone you knew from high school back in Pittsburgh or Tulsa or wherever, who had never even once left home, was also posting to Facebook, saying they’d never drink Coke again. National boycotts are in the works, and there is context, as a Spanish-language version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” caused a similar stir in 2006, with President Bush weighing in at the time to say the national anthem ought to be sung in English – but there was no one to boycott back then. This time there’s a target. And there’s Pepsi as an alternative. But do liberals really have to drink Coke now, and give up their pomegranate-guava smoothies and iced Thai tea with ginseng?

Glenn Beck explains the problem:

After Coca-Cola’s ad featuring “America the Beautiful” being sung in different languages caused a firestorm of racism on Twitter on Sunday, Beck said that someone had asked him to tweet his own response.

“And I said, ‘Why did you need that to divide us politically?’ Because that’s all this ad is,” Beck opined. “It’s in your face, and if you don’t like it, if you’re offended by it, you’re a racist. If you do like it, you’re for immigration. You’re for progress.”

“That’s all this is: To divide people,” he continued. “Remember when Coke used to do the thing on the top and they would all hold hands? Now it’s, have a Coke and we’ll divide you.”

Heather Parton’s simple response – “It’s divisive to be inclusive. Everyone knows that.”

Yes, it is. That’s why the Republican Party, with its elements that claim Obama is not one of “us” at all, may not be racist, per se – they don’t talk about race and they say that anyone who does talk about race at all is the real racist. This is more of the same, and Josh Marshall, the editor of Talking Points Memo, says what happened this time was inevitable:

If Republicans need any more evidence to see why they need to get out of the way of or onto the immigration reform train before it’s too late, they need only look to that annual rite of sports-lovin’, corporate, Americany fest of Americaness, the Super Bowl (and, oh yeah, concussions), which conservatives now routinely end up protesting because of one commercial or another that either features people who don’t only speak English, aren’t white enough, boink the wrong people or are cheering for the future of America in a way that might somehow, someway redound as praise to something Barack Obama may have had something to do with. The latest example is conservative outrage over last night’s multicultural ad from Coca Cola, the well-known subversive force in American life.

Marshall does remind us that the Clint Eastwood Super Bowl ad for the Chrysler comeback two years generated massive conservative outrage over not much of anything, but argues that this Coke ad actually generated outrage over something important:

The response to yesterday’s ad points directly to immigration reform and the broader challenge of taking the GOP out of at least perceived opposition to the various new and rising ethnic communities pressing for their full place in American life: mainly Hispanics (judged by electoral significance) but Asian-Americans, South Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans and everybody who’s arrived here in the last half century.

Republicans have been able to bottle up immigration reform in the House for the last year despite strong public support, reasonably strong Republican support and the determined judgment of Republican political professionals that the party at least needs to get this issue off the table before it can get about building a strong constituency among these various groups for the decades to come.

The key though is that the people who control the House aren’t necessarily vulnerable to those trends.

The people who control the House are the people put in office by those who hated this Coke ad:

Much attention has been given to the GOP’s very successful 2010 gerrymandering. But that’s actually only part of the story. Republicans were able to hold on to a fairly substantial House majority in 2012 while getting just over a million fewer votes than the Democrats. Part of that was redistricting. But at least as much was the increasing geographical organization of partisan affiliation. Put simply, Democrats are increasingly concentrated in urban and urban/suburban districts. That means Democrats frequently “waste” votes in the districts they win while losing many districts by relatively close margins. In other words, the country’s demography and geography, not just redistricting, give Republicans a substantial advantage in controlling the House. Democratic voters aren’t distributed in the most effective way.

So the House is the GOP’s anchor. But anchor can mean different things: the sure thing that keeps them in the game, as it has since 2010, or the dead weight that pulls them more and more out of touch with the new currents shaping America.

This Super Bowl thing, as goofy as it sounds, is a good example of a real and deep problem.

Coke wants to sell their acidic dark bubbly sugared soda-water to everyone. The people who control the House have to sell whatever it is they’re selling to a smaller and narrower specific group, of necessity. The new Coke ad was then, oddly enough, just what they needed. It reminded that smaller and narrower specific group of important intense voters of how angry and white and put-upon they really were. Talk enough about that Coke ad and they’ll turn out on Election Day.

Sahil Kapur of Marshall’s Talking Points Memo explains where this is heading:

Republicans may need immigration reform to avoid extinction in the long run, but there’s a growing fear within the party that bringing it up now – as House GOP leaders have laid the groundwork to do by releasing a pro-reform blueprint – would depress conservative voter turnout and damage their standing in the 2014 elections.

“No way it happens. I just don’t see it going anywhere,” said one House Republican aide, speaking candidly on condition of anonymity. “I think 2014 is a slam dunk to us otherwise and this would really piss off the base.”

Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, the wealthy conservative lobbying group, warned GOP leaders not to follow through with reform. “The principles released by GOP leaders are a clear embrace of amnesty, and that could hurt the party in November,” he told TPM.

Some conservatives oppose reform on the merits and may be using these arguments to scare the party into inaction. But they may still have a point: mid-term elections tend to be decided in large part by turnout, and a significant faction of conservatives see immigration reform as an existential threat to the country – and the Republican Party. Seeing their party abandon their views on such an emotionally charged issue could motivate them to stay home on Nov. 4.

“There is actually something to the premise,” said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “In the long run, Republicans have to do better with Hispanic voters. But candidates don’t run in the long run – they run in the election that’s coming up. Most House Republicans do not have large Hispanic constituencies, and a decline in the base vote could cost them some otherwise winnable seats.”

They’re not selling Coca-Cola, and they really are worried:

The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol warned that an immigration debate “could blow up GOP chances for a good 2014.” The Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein, deriding Speaker John Boehner as the “fool in the shower,” argued that “in terms of the raw politics of 2014, introducing [immigration] now is bananas.” He warned that passage of reform would “boost Democrats’ prospects in 2014 by demoralizing the GOP base and elevating President Obama.” The National Review’s Andrew McCarthy said the leadership’s immigration plan was, among other things, “deeply offensive to the GOP’s already disgruntled conservative base, ensuring that droves of them will sit out the 2014 midterms.”

Kevin Drum sees it this way:

In the simplest sense, then, this is an issue of timing. At some point, Republicans will have to bite the bullet and do this. They just can’t keep losing the Hispanic vote 70-30 and expect to ever win the presidency again. It’s a simple question of brute numbers. The question is how long they can hold out.

My own guess is that now is just about as good as it’s going to get for Republicans. With a House majority, they have a fair amount of leverage to get the kind of bill they can live with. In fact, if they play their cards right, they might end up with a bill that fractures Democrats even more than Republicans. But what if they wait? Passing a bill is hopeless in 2015, with primary season for the presidential election so close. It’s possible that Republicans will be better off in 2017, but that’s a long shot. Democrats are certain to do well in that year’s Senate races, and are probably modest favorites to win the presidency again. Republicans would have less leverage than ever if that happens.

And even if the long shot pays off, what good would it do them? Immigration reform of the kind that would pass muster with the Tea Party base wouldn’t do the GOP any good. In fact, it would probably give Democrats an opening to get Hispanic voters even more riled up. What Republicans desperately need is a bill that (a) is liberal enough to satisfy the Hispanic community, but (b) can be blamed on Democrats and a few turncoat moderate Republicans in November.

Sure, but Drum knows that’s not going to happen:

If Republicans are smart, they’ll get this monkey off their backs now, when it won’t do them too much harm in the midterms but will give them time to start mending fences with Hispanics in time for 2016. Unfortunately, smart is in short supply these days.

That means they’re not going to buy the world a Coke and keep it company – maybe later – 2024 or so, perhaps, maybe. But by then the Republican Party will be seven very old angry white men in a nursing home somewhere in Tennessee or Texas, and we’ll have a brilliant young gay Hispanic female president in the White House, sipping Coke – and no one will give any of this a second thought. People might remember that the Republicans managed to retain control of the House in the 2014 midterm elections, the year Peyton Manning was so befuddled in the Super Bowl – or maybe not.

The problem is persistent misconceptions. The Republicans are working on that. That’s what their annual retreat was all about, and Byron York reports here on Eric Cantor’s effort to deal with one of those misconceptions:

“Ninety percent of Americans work for someone else,” Cantor said, according to a source in the room. “Most of them not only will never own their own business, for most of them that isn’t their dream. Their dream is to have a good job, with an income that will allow them to support their family.”

“We shouldn’t miss the chance to talk to these people,” Cantor continued, according to the source, “which is why we will present and pass our plans to relieve the middle class squeeze.”

What was extraordinary about that portion of Cantor’s presentation was not that it was out of place – it was entirely on-target for a political party hoping to win elections in 2014 – but that it came six years into the economic downturn, and decades into a protracted decline in middle-class standards of living. Could it actually have taken Republicans that long to realize they should address such problems, especially when Democrats have made huge gains appealing directly to middle-class voters?

Apparently, yes. And even now, not all House Republicans are entirely on board. “It’s something that’s been growing and taking time for members to get comfortable with,” says a House GOP aide, “because they did spend the last decade talking about small business owners.”

Of course they did, and Ed Kilgore puts it this way:

One of the most amusing subtexts of what is appearing to be a disastrous House GOP retreat last week is that Eric Cantor spent time trying to tutor his troops on how to talk to people who (a) don’t own their own businesses, and (b) don’t view themselves as second-class citizens for working for somebody else. …

The small-business obsession of the GOP is what has passed for economic populism in their ranks – a chance to identify a constituency outside the plutocracy, one that could be liberated to thrive if the Big Government/Big Business “crony capitalist” conspiracy of the Obama administration could be broken. That Big Business and not small businesses would be the primary beneficiary of their actual agenda was one problem. The other was simply that more entrepreneurship wouldn’t tangibly benefit anything like a majority of the country in anything other than the most indirect way.

The deeper problem is that most conservatives simply do not believe wage-slaves contribute anything that matters to the economy.

Kilgore then cites Paul Waldman on this issue:

We all believe that some people are just more important than others, and for conservatives, no one is more important than business owners. Remember how gleeful they were when President Obama said “you didn’t build that” when discussing businesses during the 2012 campaign? Sure, he was taken out of context (he was talking about roads and bridges, not the businesses themselves), but Republicans genuinely believed they had found the silver bullet that would take him down. He had disrespected business owners! Surely all America would be enraged and cast him from office! They made it the theme of their convention. They printed banners. They wrote songs about it. And they were bewildered when it didn’t work….

Just like those members of Congress listening incredulously to Eric Cantor, they couldn’t grasp that the whole country didn’t share their moral hierarchy. After years of worrying primarily about the concerns of people who own businesses, they’ve elevated to gospel truth that the businessman’s virtue is unassailable, that his rewards are justly earned, and that no effort should be spared to remove all obstacles from his path. When it comes down to a choice between, say, a business owner who would like to pay his employees as little as possible and a group of employees who’d like to be paid more, conservatives don’t just see the choice as a simple one, they can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t agree.


The truth is that a lot of Americans who have worked for small businesses don’t necessarily see their proprietors as the salt of the earth and the sum of all virtue. Some are precisely the kind of bosses who resist minimal requirements for pay, workplace safety, non-discrimination, and all the other busybody liberal impositions on private property rights.

But if your mindset is such that the only alternative to deification (Waldman’s term) of big business is deification of small business, it will be difficult for you to develop an agenda attractive to people who don’t own businesses at all, particularly if that requires acknowledgement that labor contributes as much to the success of enterprises as capital. Abandon that rampart, and before you know it, you’re acknowledging the legitimacy not only of government regulation of entrepreneurs on behalf of their employees, but of unions! And that way lies socialism, obviously.

So Cantor may be laying out an impossible objective for Republicans in appealing to people they can’t quite respect as the source of anything good other than votes.

Could it be that ninety percent of Americans work for someone else? Who knew? That’s fascinating. Are you sure those in that ninety percent qualify as Sarah Palin’s Real Americans? No, wait. She did apologize for her original distinction – that those who live in cities or on the coasts, or have any education beyond high school, if that, can’t be real Americans. Will there be a similar Republican apology here, a concession that that even if you don’t own a business you might actually be a Real American? Just before the State of the Union and before the Republican retreat, the ultra-conservative Maggie Gallagher said this:

Most Americans have jobs. Yes they are concerned about unemployment: but they are at least as concerned and affected by stagnant wages and declining standards of living that along with rising prices are cutting American middle-class voters’ standard of living. High medical costs and tuition rates are eating away at Americans’ standard of living.

Boehner’s guests tonight include not fewer than five company presidents complaining about Obamacare. Memo to GOP: The job-creators meme is a loser. We say “job creator,” voters hear “my boss.” And voters hate their bosses.

We can’t be the party of people’s bosses and win elections.

That seems rather obvious, from the outside looking in. The party does need to work on its persistent internal misconceptions, and by the way, language is fascinating too – but then the variety and richness of the world’s many languages, and the cultures from which they arise, is not everyone’s taste – nor is Coke, nor is Bob Dylan. Selling stuff, effectively, is harder than it looks, and persistent misconceptions make selling anything almost impossible.

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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1 Response to Persistent Misconceptions

  1. Rick says:

    I don’t completely agree with you about Bob Dylan.

    Even back in the 1960s, he denied being what everyone thought he was, which was a “protest singer”. He didn’t sing about Vietnam; Country Joe McDonald did. Dylan sang about not working on Maggie’s farm anymore and once visiting some girl in the north country, so he didn’t really sell out anything. He was mostly a somewhat poetic songwriter, and when he sang, he made himself sound like an unschooled old man from the hills, maybe one with something stuck in his throat. That was his style.

    While I was never a big Dylan fan (although I did like his writing, I found his singing style a little too thick and put on), I was glad to see him in that commercial. At first I didn’t recognize him, since he looked too good — maybe he was computer animated? — but I think it was a better car commercial than one in which cars zoom around; they all look alike when they do that. This one, dumb and tautological that it was, at least stood out. About the only car commercials I like are for Suburu, in which the cars don’t zoom around.

    ” ‘That’s all this is: To divide people,’ [Beck] continued. ‘Remember when Coke used to do the thing on the top and they would all hold hands? Now it’s, have a Coke and we’ll divide you.’ “

    Exactly! I mean, Coca-Cola wants to divide us by pretending to bring all us multi-lingual Americans together, something that real Americans such as Glenn Beck don’t want to see happen, but Coke does, because Coke just wants to, um, they want, uh… Hmm.

    The point is, you need to be very careful when you try to sing the praises of the greatness of America, since you risk pissing off all those people who pretend to love this country more than you do.

    And also:

    “Fox News commentator Todd Starnes was on a roll – ‘So was Coca-Cola saying America is beautiful because new immigrants don’t learn to speak English?’ “

    In fact, throughout our history, the myth has been that those immigrants don’t want to learn English. In fact, it’s been said that, historically, even if some older immigrants never learn our language, their kids tend to be bi-lingual, and their kids will mostly speak only English. Even today, the demand for English courses among adult immigrants apparently way exceeds the supply, and specifically, when it comes to speaking Spanish, see this Wikipedia article concerning the “Future of Spanish in the United States”:

    “Historically, immigrants’ languages tend to disappear or become reduced through generational assimilation. … Although Latin American origin immigrants hold varying English proficiency levels, almost all second-generation Latin American origin US residents speak English, yet about 50 percent speak Spanish at home. Two-thirds of third-generation Mexican Americans speak only English at home. … [Calvin] Veltman’s language shift studies document high bilingualism rates and subsequent adoption of English as the preferred language of Hispanics, particularly by the young and the native-born.”

    In other words, this conservative fear that America will stop speaking English is like their supposed fear of voter-fraud — based on nothing but their vivid imaginations.

    So what is it about Republicans and immigration reform? The Republican party can say they’re for it, but Republican voters, through their spokesmen such as Rush Limbaugh, don’t seem to much like immigrants. Need proof? Just watch them whoop and holler if an American hymn is sung in the languages of immigrants. Don’t even imagine that them foreigners don’t notice this, and those people will inevitably someday vote, which leads Ed Kilgore to note:

    “So Cantor may be laying out an impossible objective for Republicans in appealing to people they can’t quite respect as the source of anything good other than votes.”

    So once again, yes, the fact that the Republicans can’t do what might save their butts in the long run because they can’t plan beyond what they’re facing right now — that is, this year’s elections — shows that they can’t help but wage never-ending war between how they want people to see them and what they really are.

    This, of course, pleases me very much, not just because it’s my side that seems to be winning, but because the xenophobes seem, at least for the time being, to be losing.


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