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American Right Takes Wrong Turn

There, I said it. By choosing that title I have doomed myself. The majority of readers now know what to think about this post, even though they have not read it yet. In fact, people will chose to read this, or to disregard it, based solely on that title. To be fair, some people do make time to read opposing points of view, just so they can get angry about them. But by and large, political writing is the art of flattering people’s existing prejudices whilst creating the appearance of engaging in constructive debate and imparting useful information. Reading political opinion is like walking into a university for people who already know everything and only seek confirmation of how right they are…

A student walks into a lecture theatre, late. He interrupts the lecturer.

STUDENT: I’m looking for the lecture that gives scientific reasons why global warming, if it even occurs, is definitely not caused by man.

LECTURER: That’s tomorrow. Today I’m teaching how global warming is man-made and how we are headed for oblivion if we do not reduce carbon emissions. The sceptic’s lecture is tomorrow afternoon.

STUDENT: Tut. I’d better come back tomorrow then. Can you tell me which professor takes the course on global warming scepticism?

LECTURER: Oh, I do. Back when I went to school, we were taught to understand a range of views.

I think I am relatively unusual in saying Barack Obama’s first term did not disappoint me. The secret of avoiding disappointment is to enjoy low expectations from the very outset. I can point to plenty of other posts which signaled I was less than enthralled by the inexperienced junior Senator from Illinois. I also felt that John McCain would have made a good president, though it was hard to overlook the folly of selecting Palin as a running mate. Now it seems I am no longer in a minority – the world is uniformly underwhelmed by Obama. That serves him right, for riding the wave of hope and change but offering so little of substance. So I should, all things considered, be broadly open to the merits of his Republican challenger. And, it is true, I feel no great qualms about Romney, and could be persuaded of his personal merits. Whatever his weaknesses, Romney strikes me as somebody who may genuinely strive to do the right thing more often than not. And yet, as the campaign rolls on and builds momentum, I find myself liking Obama more and more, and for one simple reason. Any man subject to such unrelenting vitriol from the barely reconstructed tribal neanderthals of the American right wing media cannot be all bad. For me, re-electing Obama would at least remind his hysterical hyper-critics that good manners, basic honesty, and common decency have an important role to play in a healthy democracy.

Of course, I exaggerate. America’s right wing media is not against Obama and the Democrats. It is not even for the Republican Party. They are apolitical in their partisanship. Their behaviour is not driven by a genuine desire to inform, or elucidate, or persuade. What they want, more than anything, is to make money, and making money involves being noticed. You might as well complain that Donald Trump is too fond of publicity. The sad state of Republican politics is evidenced by Herman Cain, who was surely the first Presidential nominee to be taken seriously even though his campaign was secondary to his book tour. Political writers are now deemed to be professionals, when they used to be people who actually believed in the power of words to make the world better. Only in our modern society can someone become obscenely rich by pandering to the prejudices of the more politically extreme members of the public. In terms of money and popularity, right wing pundits will probably be a lot better off if Obama wins, as that means they will be free to keep on complaining about him. The doomsday scenario for a right wing pundit is the election of someone they agree with, who then continues to be popular with the great majority. In circumstances like those, the audience will switch off the TV and will not turn to the op-ed column in the paper. Nothing stifles the career of a professional pundit than a lack of excuses to become righteously indignant.

Now, it is possible that some will point to the fact that I have attacked the right wing media, and not the left wing media, and see signs of bias. To people who think that, I recommend they grow up. Balance is not created by tediously swapping the words ‘Democrat’ and ‘Republican’ so we end up asserting that everyone is as bad as each other. More importantly, not everyone is as bad as everyone else. However bad some people are, there are some people who are even worse. Today I am pointing out the flaws of right wing pundits. Tomorrow it might be someone else. If you cannot wait for tomorrow, then go read something that suits your prejudices. After all, I have been careful to build up to the real criticisms (hint: they have not begun yet) but I am not going to write something the length of ‘War and Peace’ just for the sake of some endless quest for balance that patently very few others make the slightest effort to pursue.

It is worth commenting that I do not use the word ‘conservative’ to describe America’s right-wing media. There is a reason for that. Conservatism requires a somewhat consistent worldview. We can disagree with people whilst acknowledging they have a worldview. Karl Marx had a worldview. Edmund Burke had a worldview. I suspect, somewhere under all the flipping and a-flopping, even Mitt Romney has a worldview. But the majority of America’s right-wing pundits have no worldview at all. They confuse ‘conservatism’ with ‘sharing the same prejudices as people like me’. A bunch of inconsistent prejudices is no substitute for a coherent model of how the world works. ‘Right-wing’ is a better description for the pundits because it articulates their major (and rather feeble) defining characteristic – they are not of the left or of the middle. If you can squelch all political analysis into a comically simple calculation of where you sit on a one-dimensional scale, then you can be right-wing. Anything else requires a far more sophisticated analysis, and will not be delivered by these professional pundits. Their arguments have to be simple, and punchy, in order to satisfy their readers, who are also predominantly simple, and punchy.

So what has made me so angry about the right-wing media? They have committed too many offenses to articulate them all in a single post. But let me give you an important example. There are no bigger issues than the state of the global economy, which is now so inextricably tied up with the state of every national economy. Since the end of the 70’s, many Western countries have seen very significant growth in the amount of public and private debt. Sometimes private debt mountains have been revealed to be founded on lies, then been washed away by a tsunami of revelation, though ameliorated by more than a little help from government bailouts. The subprime fiasco fits into that category. Sometimes public debt mountains have gone the same way. The Greek government has walked that road to nowhere. But in recent months, right wing pundit after pundit has dolled out the same ignorant line: the whole of Europe is in trouble because every European government had a lax attitude to public spending and debt. Wrong, wrong, and wrong again. Some European countries had a lax attitude to the public finances. Others suffered from excessive private debt. Many suffered from a bit of both. However, criticizing the private sector is heresy for these right-wing trolls, so they conveniently ignore it, for fear they would otherwise be arguing for (gulp) government intervention.

Consider the truth about Spain. Time and again, Spain is uniformly is thrown into the laundry list of countries which all supposedly had a problem with government over-spending creating a mountain of debt. For example, Spain is thrown into the simpleton’s list here, in an article that graciously compares Europe’s democratically elected governments to naughty children. But here is the graph of Spain’s public debt as a % of GDP. Compare that to the graph for US public debt. In the 8 years that George W. Bush let US national debt grow ever higher and higher, Spain dramatically reduced its public debt. From a similar starting position in 2000, Spain’s debt was brought down to a level that would seem unimaginable in the US. But at the moment, endless right-wing buffoons are saying Spain’s problems were caused by a history of government overspending. This is simplistic, banal, inaccurate over-generalization at its worst. It is enabled and encouraged by the ‘prism’ of applying America’s broken political values to everything that happens in the world. I am not Spanish, but there are a fair few American pundits who owe the Spanish an apology. It is true that half of the problems of Europe were caused by public debt, as exemplified by the suicidal Greeks. The other half was caused by excessive private debt tied to a housing boom – which is why Spain’s public debt graph goes into a horrible reverse from 2008, as prompted by America’s subprime collapse. In short, some European countries, like Spain and Ireland, did not have a problem with public debt, but had a problem with private debt – just like the USA was revealed to have in 2008. The sustainable solution to insane private over-borrowing is not cutting back on public spending, though that is what has happened in practice, as risks and liabilities have had to be transferred on to national balance sheets. The sustainable solution is government policies which discourage excessive risk taking in the private sector. But that does not suit an agenda of bashing Obama, so the pundits have totally ignored it, and re-written economic history to suit their prejudices.

Just like Spain’s government, George Soros probably does not need my help. The man is rich. Very rich. And powerful. He also puts his money into influencing the world. And that seems to be a problem for the right-wing pundits. However, with their demonization of Soros, the pundit’s lack of a coherent worldview becomes all the more telling. We all know the right-wing pundits sliding scale of evil. Liberals are actually socialists and socialists are actually communists. It is ridiculous, but remember their problem: they describe all politics using a one-dimensional scale, so they cannot conceive of how liberals might be a lot more anti-communist than, say, so-called ‘conservatives’. So George Soros gets lambasted for supporting ‘socialist’ causes, even though the man has spent a fortune fighting communism. Whenever someone on the right cites Soros as a bogeyman, my sympathies are instantly with Soros, and against those who vilify him. Why? Because Soros is a staunch anti-communist who has spent huge amounts undermining tyrannical governments and promoting government transparency, all over the globe. How many others can say they have done the same? The right-wing pundits have no sense of shame, never mind irony. To top it all, Soros is rich precisely because he is a capitalist. When he spends capitalist billions promoting his point of view, he is attacked for doing so, even whilst the right-wing pundits see no problem with other capitalist billionaires spending their fortunes as they please. One reason I liked John McCain was that he was passionate about reducing the influence of money on American politics. I find it telling that the same pundits who were so lukewarm in backing McCain are also so eager to bash Soros, whilst not wanting to take money out of politics in general. And why would they? Less money means less to react to, fewer column inches, less viral videos, less press junkets, and less for the pundits to react to. They are on the gravy train and riding it for all it is worth – woe betide any right-wing pundit who thinks it should slow down because that might actually make for a healthier body politic.

I could go on, but the nadir that provoked this post came from one Jennifer Rubin, a woman whose only real point of view is that the world rotates around her, and that anyone who disagrees has taken insufficient care to stand in her universe-defining shoes. Rubin has plumbed such intellectual depths that if the US President campaigns to get re-elected, she treats this as proof of ‘extraordinary’ arrogance and cynicism!! I would argue the contrary – campaigning is a sign that you do not take people’s votes for granted. But Rubin recently wrote in her ‘Right Turn’ column:

This month The Post reported that the Obama campaign is all about “specific appeals aimed at women, African Americans, students, military families and countless others. The result is a campaign that might be the most micro-targeted in history, attempting to use the power of the Web and social media to reach ever-thinner slices of the electorate.”

Not exactly uplifting is it? And it sure is a far cry from the vision of unity Obama first offered in 2004.

Puh-lease. For Rubin to describe Obama’s targeted campaign methods as ‘the politics of division’ is like Adolf Hitler complaining that the Jews oppressed him. And yes, I know Rubin is a Jew, which is why the analogy is so apt – Hitler did make that complaint, and intellectual dishonesty is a vice that crosses all boundaries of politics, race, religion and creed. What if Mitt Romney was to establish a sophisticated campaign, using modern technology, to influence voters by talking to them about the issues most likely to motivate them to vote Romney? Would that be divisive? Of course not. It would just be good campaigning. To slam the President for running a campaign that sends specific messages to specific people is ridiculous. What did Rick Santorum do when he was shaking the hands of all of those people in each of the 99 counties of Iowa? Did he say the exact same thing to every single person, or did he talk about the things that each different voter was interested in?

It is telling of Rubin’s dishonesty that she latches on to a Washington Post article as justification for an unprovoked attack piece, but fails to mention the original article is a balanced take on the strengths and weaknesses of the techniques being discussed. Nor does she mention that the original article mostly focuses on how the President’s dog might help him appeal to dog-lovers – how very divisive! Obama’s tactics might seem a lot less divisive if Rubin had also quoted this excerpt from the source article:

Neither the Obama nor Romney campaigns would discuss their micro-targeting activities or plans. Romney, who until this month was focused on winning the bitter GOP primaries, is expected to ramp up his targeting efforts in coming weeks.

So whilst Obama is divisive because he uses tactics that Rubin abhors, Romney is fine because he has yet to ramp up his efforts to do the exact same thing. Nevertheless, Rubin goes on (and on)…

The Obama team seems to be convinced that what it lacks in a record, uplifting message and second-term agenda, it will make up in bolstering the base. “The segmenting underscores the importance that turnout is likely to play in the tightening race between Obama and Romney.”

True. I am sure the Obama team believes that turnout will be crucial. But then, every Republican worth a damn thinks the exact same thing. Most of the Republican predictions that hypothesize a Romney win also talk a lot about turnout – through good turnouts for Romney and poor turnouts for Obama. Karl Rove never shuts up about the importance of turnout. Hence the Republican attack dogs keep talking about enthusing the base, and not about winning swing voters. Enthusing the base is a strategy of maximizing turnout. Rubin must be extraordinarily lacking in self-awareness if she thinks her part in the campaign is to win over the undecideds. Patently she has adopted the shrill role of hectoring those who lean Republican but might be too lazy to actually vote.

With people like Rubin as cheerleaders, Romney’s campaign had better focus on getting out the Republican faithful – this kind of invective will not appeal to moderates. The incessant spew of Obama hatred is disturbingly polarizing, and it boxes Romney in, as was his problem all through the nomination race. Any sign he might reach out to the centre is greeted with a chorus of catcalls from the Republican hardliners, especially those in the media. More importantly, Republicans need to focus on turnout because the polls show the American public are far less likely to see Obama as the divisive figure that the Republicans think he is. Obama may be disappointing, but the majority of Americans in the middle of the Democratic-Republican divide still think Obama is a decent kind of man. As such, the tirade of anti-Obama abuse probably helps the President more than it hurts him. There is a wing of the ‘conservative’ movement that thinks Obama should not be President because he was not born in the US, or because his middle name is ‘Hussein’, or because he takes his orders from Marxists and terrorists, or because he is a muslim… if real conservatives do not slap down this nonsense (and sadly, too few follow the example set by John McCain) then they will be painted as the true dividers of society. And they will have deserved the opprobrium that goes with it.

So now it is left to Mitt Romney to craft an optimistic, forward-looking message that decries pitting women against men and rich against poor.

By this stage Rubin has left behind any tenuous link to a news story and is engaging in a pure flight of fantasy. Romney may have many merits, but he did not win the party nomination with ‘optimistic forward-looking’ messages. Just ask the rivals he beat for the nomination (and failing that, Obama has the Gingrich and Santorum soundbites, and will play them on a loop). One problem for Romney is that painting Obama as devisive only helps to remind people of the enormous and bitter divisions within the Republican movement. By using Bain Capital to attack Romney, Obama is just copying tactics that were already used by Romney’s Republican rivals. Possibly Romney will try to rise above the fray, and position himself as a real statesman. In so doing he may follow the approach of H.W. Bush and start talking some vague guff about a ‘thousand points of light’. Note what I did there – Republicans are not above the ‘hopey changey’ thing either, because all politicians benefit from getting voters to believe in promises that are too vague to really mean anything. I, for one, would be glad if Romney gave some optimistic messages about women and the poor, matched to some specific policy offerings. For example, Romney might want to take a stand on whether women might decide for themselves if they want a probe thrust up their vagina before having an abortion. The poor might quite like the sound of getting some healthcare they could not otherwise afford, so Romney will want to explain how he will accomplish the same as Obama’s proposals, or at least he should explain why his approach is better in the long run. But those are topics for real political debate, not the phoney war of words we get from professionals in the media.

It turns out Obama’s most egregious broken promise… is his reversion to a politics of negativity, cynicism and divisiveness. He has become what he abhorred: A small and petty politician.

On the whole, the effect of these merciless and unfair attacks on Obama is to make me feel sorry for him. They make me like Obama more than I really should. Whatever his failings as a President, I am turned off by this kind of irrational self-serving bile, and I suspect that most of the people who voted for Obama in 2008 will feel the same way. The problem with gutter politics is that the people who spend most time complaining about it are usually the people who spend most time engaging in it. If the American right-wing pundits want a Republican President, and they want that Republican President to have a genuine popular mandate for change (and not just the begrudging support of a minority who do not trust ‘the other guy’) and if they want to raise the standard of political life, and to bring an end to endless and demoralizing spin and lies, then they can make a start today. There is no need to wait for the election. Every day is a good day for being a good person. Unfortunately, these pundit-professionals place too high a value on inflated paycheques and not enough on the corrosive effect of their half-truths and invective. Romney, and other Republicans, need to grow some backbone and stand up to the ill-informed and often deceitful professional partisans who claim to be their supporters. Bending over backwards to appease paid dogmatists is not the way forward, and can only lead conservatism to turn the wrong way.

3 Responses

  1. Eric,
    Thanks for the interesting analysis of Spain and how high levels of public debt and spending don’t spell national economic doom. I agree, it’s a lesson that U.S. Republicans need to educate themselves about.

    There are other factors at play too. Certainly culture and climate should be taken into account.

    Canada and Sweden are cold-climate nations who do very well with high levels of public spending. Let’s face it, the heat of the summer sun is not conducive to work. Why did the economic rise of the Southern U.S. states coincide with the arrival of air conditioning? During centuries past, nations in temperate climates have been more prosperous on average than those with tropical climates.

    It also takes a certain hardiness to grow up in very cold climates. That same hardiness is the stuff that can make a nation’s people hard-working, prosperous, and inventive.
    When you think of prosperity-lifting cultures, Germany and Japan stand out as temperate-climate nations with strong cultures of hard work and an acumen for engineering. So a higher level of public spending can also work better in those cultures.

    But where the culture and climate are not right, that’s where you can run into trouble. Those are the places where citizens will abuse the federal system – or where the costs can mushroom out of control.

    So I would argue that you need to look at the particular nation (or state) to determine where best to apply more socialist policies.

    Take the subject of government-controlled health care. Massachusetts is a high-income, cold weather state where about 20% of its adults are classified as obese (NOTE: I think we can use the obesity rate as an indicator of average health). Mississippi, meanwhile, is a low income, hot climate state where 34% of adults are in the obese category. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obesity_in_the_United_States

    My guess is that a state health care system would work better in Massachusetts than in Mississippi.

    Dan

    1. @ Dan, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m keen that conservatives don’t become unwitting advocates of moral hazard. Small government is a valid goal in its own right, but if unregulated financial systems reach a point where their failure can cripple the economy, the response should be more than just cutting government expenditure to provide more headroom for bailouts! The rising cost of credit has highlighted weaknesses in both the public and private sectors, and risk caused by excess borrowing is best countered by tackling the root causes – including those cases where private capital has been grossly over-leveraged. When it comes to borrowing, however, it is always a judgement call on how much is too much, because of the cultural reasons you outline. One man may be trusted to borrow a lot, because his character means he will be determined to pay it back. Another man should not be leant a penny, because he never intends to repay his debts. By the same token, different people respond to different incentives to be productive. In the US, there is a strong belief that letting people retain the maximum profit is the best way to incentivize people to work. On the other hand, your examples of Canada and Sweden remind us that other people may be more productive if they enjoy the additional security that should flow from greater investment into public goods. I’m more inclined to focus on whether budgets are balanced, so the people collectively feel the true cost of the services they enjoy. Sadly, balanced government budgets have long been the exception, and not the norm!

      You raise some good points about the relationship between climate and culture. Why wouldn’t one influence the other? As time progresses, I’ll be curious to see how well the correspondence between climate and productivity is maintained for developing economies. Perhaps climate will be less relevant in countries like China – so long as they have sufficient energy to control the climate in the workplace. Whilst 20th century American blacks migrated from the South to Northern cities like Chicago, perhaps Chinese workers will mostly head South to places like subtropical Shenzhen. Indeed, I read there is increasing tension over the numbers of economic migrants moving to Hong Kong. Of course, all I’m really saying here is that motivation is moulded by expectations, and expectations are influenced by the natural world too, though humans also strive to overcome the influence of nature. It’s easy to forget the importance of nature. The original driving force behind the creation of complicated financial instruments was the fact that farmers could never be certain about their harvest! We want farmers to stay in business whether the harvest is good or disastrous, because we want them to keep producing food either way. How ironic, then, that the success in creating systems that consistently generate a surplus of food has resulted in a new kind of health epidemic…

  2. Eric,

    The U.S. government is also heavily involved in subsidizing food through the Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, our gasoline is diluted by ethanol in the U.S. Very hard to find pure gasoline anymore, but I understand the miles per gallon are far superior to the ethanol grade.

    Hong Kong is a great example of unfettered capitalism. Economist Milton Friedman made it the showcase for one of his videos, which must be 30 years old now.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xqh0zXSd4vc

    Dan

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