Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Politics of Cool Redux

I have a piece on AlterNet today about the reception of Markos Moulitsas's American Taliban.

This isn't a straightforward comment on California culture (though Markos and Daily Kos work out of Berkeley). I mention it here because many Californians may not realize that what counts as rhetorical success in liberal circles can be a resounding defeat in socially conservative ones.

I learned this while teaching in Texas, where I first heard that intellectuals were people "educated beyond their intelligence." That's why the whole pass-the-biscuits thing is so popular in Texas politics; any sign of sophistication is grounds for immediate suspicion.

This cultural difference is laid out nicely by Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner in Clear and Simple as the Truth (Princeton U.P., 1996). They contrast classic style and plain style, whose model scene is a congregation, not a debating society. Totally different language games.

I know that many liberals dislike polemics like American Taliban--they test the classic liberal virtues of tolerance, sympathy, and good temper. But as I argue in the piece, if we renounce polemic, and conservatives reject reasoned debate and regard political compromise as a spiritual sell-out, we're pretty much left with satire--not the greatest bulwark against passionate (but poorly informed) moral crusaders.

Another option is to cast our politics in religious terms. Let's call this the Jim Wallis strategy. I don't have a problem with that, but I think many liberals do.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

California Crackup

I just finished reading Joe Mathews and Mark Paul's California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It.

I'm not a policy expert, but I spent five years editing reports and briefings at the Public Policy Institute of California, so I've read more than my share of material on the state's economy, population, and governance. I can tell you that this book does a superb job of laying out the state's current political problems, explaining how they became so critical, and offering ideas for what they call a Great Unwinding.

Their argument, in a nutshell, is that we voters (with timely help from various quarters) have done it to ourselves--all in the name of reform. Quoting Carey McWilliams on the state's "perilous remedies for present evils," Joe and Mark show how the use of statewide initiatives in particular has turned California governance into a Rube Goldberg contraption that not only doesn't work, but also can't work.

In some cases, even our elected officials don't know how to operate the contraption. Describing the absurdly complicated mechanisms of Prop 98, whose goal was to fortify K-12 school finances, Joe and Mark note, "The legislature simply could not govern what it could not understand."

And we voters, quite naturally, don't trust what we don't understand.
Angered by the complexities as well as the poor results of state government, we repeatedly try to solve budget problems (for example) with ballot initiatives. Almost inevitably, the unintended consequences make matters worse. Enshrining budget priorities in the state constitution is a prescription for failure, yet we try it time after time, expecting different results.

Many of the reforms (e.g., Prop 13) were supposed to establish budget "discipline." Joe and Mark explore the metaphor, comparing voters to dominatrices in an elaborate game of fiscal bondage. We flog our elected officials for failing to satisfy a score of criss-crossing, overlapping, and inconsistent mandates as well as make sensible policy decisions. And in addition to burdening the system with more complexity and myriad unintended consequences, these reforms frequently don't solve the narrow problems they were designed to address.

The remedies for getting out of this hole? First, stop digging. Give Sacramento the tools to do its job and then hold the parties responsible if they fail to deliver. Second, improve the representativeness of state government by shrinking districts and implementing proportional representation and instant-runoff voting. Third, make sure the tasks of government are handled at the appropriate level. One of the unintended consequences of previous reform efforts has been to concentrate control in Sacramento, which is often too far away from problems to solve them well.

I've followed Joe's and Mark's work for some time now. They're shrewd and witty observers of state politics, and both are extraordinarily adept at explaining California's problems clearly. But even their discussion requires a fair amount of focus and acumen to follow. This isn't a criticism of their book, but rather more support for their claim that the sheer complexity of our political problems far outstrips the average citizen's ability to grasp (much less solve) them. So maybe we should stop with the silver-bullet nonsense and get on with the Great Unwinding.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

American Taliban and the Politics of Cool

I just heard from Nancy McWilliams, Carey McWilliams's daughter-in-law. She was kind enough to send me two of Carey's books (Ill Fares the Land and Louis Adamic & Shadow America) from Iris McWilliams's library. That means a lot to me.

I've been thinking about Carey McWilliams for other reasons as well. Much of that has to do with the reception of Markos Moulitsas's American Taliban, which compares some American conservatives to their Islamist counterparts. (I acquired the book for PoliPointPress.) Jamelle Bouie, a young reviewer at the American Prospect, rejected the premise of the book, claiming that a) American liberals should leave hyperbole to conservatives, and b) that conservatives haven't gained politically from their rhetorical tactics.

Digby and Hunter refudiated those claims, and I cited a Robert Kuttner article in the American Prospect that made some of the same points as Markos while reviewing Max Blumenthal's Republican Gomorrah. (In fact, Kuttner's article is titled "American Taliban.") Evidently, it's OK for Bob Kuttner to deploy that term in the American Prospect, but when Markos explores it, he gets a lecture.

Naturally, conservative critics (and some liberal ones) have touted the review in an effort to dismiss the book, but the online commentators overwhelmingly support Markos and make some interesting points of their own.

What to do about tone, especially when political passions are running high? When I gave the Bonnie Cashin lecture at UCLA, I spoke admiringly about McWilliams's style and "the politics of cool." I said he was a classic stylist in the sense described by Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner in Clear and Simple as the Truth. "Hyperbole is useful in some situations," I noted, "but the classic stylist renounces it. The readers he imagines don't need it, and resorting to tricks would only diminish his hard-earned credibility."

I then asked: "Is there an audience for this style in the age of sound-byte politics, overheated talk radio and blogs, and hyper-theorized scholarship?" The answer is yes, but that audience is a small, elite one. Probably very much like the American Prospect's. "Elite" here doesn't mean you can't join that group; anyone who subscribes to the tenets of critical analysis is welcome. But that community in America, Carey once told Victor Navasky, consists of about 250,000 souls.

The politics of cool, I continued, often holds up well over time but isn't very responsive to the passions of the day, and this limits its intellectual reach as well as its appeal. McWilliams didn't feel in his guts what other Americans did--for example, the fear and resentment of those who voted for Nixon twice. And that meant he couldn't quite fathom the political implications of those emotions. At first he thought Nixon had fooled voters. Later in life, he realized that Americans had understood Nixon perfectly. The times called for a bastard, and Nixon fit the specifications. That's the scarier thought, and I think Bob Kuttner understands its applications today.

Two of McWilliams's books were more polemical: Factories in the Field and Witch Hunt. The first took on farm labor in California and remains one of his classics. It appeared in 1939, during the Great Depression and while European fascism was expanding in force. McWilliams had already traced the links between what he called "farm fascism" and its continental counterpart. Witch Hunt: The Revival of Heresy, which examined the onset of McCarthyism, appeared in 1950, too soon for most Americans to see the links between the persecution of Communists and earlier heresy trials. Arthur Miller's The Crucible came later (1953) and has been the touchstone ever since. Carey later admitted that he got carried away with the historical parallels, and the book never caught on. But in both books, Carey linked an American political vice (labor exploitation, McCarthyism) to something creepy and obviously un-American (fascism, hysterical persecutions).

I'm not sure there are any hard-and-fast rules here, but I agree with Kenneth Burke's point that tolerance, a classic liberal virtue, is an inadequate response to rabid intolerance. And as I've aged, I've been struck by the limits of logical argumentation alone in American public life. I wish that kind of high-minded exchange mattered more, but in this culture, overshooting the mark is sometimes the best way to hit it. Hyperbole is a matter of raising the subject excessively, and we often need it to start or reframe a particular conversation. The American right, by the way, understands this idea very well and has been using it to advantage at every turn.