As the proverbial curtain rises on the Bush era in national politics, it's hard to know just how pessimistic progressives should be about the new President's aims and intentions. On a rhetorical level, we were greeted with an inaugural address that with a few minor adjustments could have been given by an incoming president of the NAACP. Look at the substance, however, and we find nominees at the Justice and Interior departments who could have been vetted by the John Birch Society, if not the Army of the Confederacy. The two warring sides of the Republican psyche were neatly illustrated recently at a dinner sponsored by the Philanthropy Roundtable at the Regency Hotel in New York, where two current stars of the Republican rubber-chicken circuit, Weekly Standard editor David Brooks and American Enterprise Institute "research scholar" and Olin fellow Dinesh D'Souza, held forth after a nicely Republican red-meat repast.
Brooks is still riding the wave of his bestselling work of "comic sociology" about America's new elite, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. His talk, like the book, is mostly affectionate ribbing of this class for its bourgeois consumption habits and bohemian self-image. Though he'd be loath to admit it, Brooks is an old-fashioned liberal Republican, not unlike Poppy Bush before he got the bit of presidential ambition in his teeth and found his principles run over by a Reagan landslide. (Just what Brooks is doing in a party dominated not by Prescott Bush and Elliot Richardson but Dick Armey and Tom DeLay is a question for another day.) A self-confessed Bobo, Brooks has only one problem with this tolerant, secular-minded and self-satisfied elite--its lack of civic consciousness.
There are no poor people in the Bobo world--even illegal Guatemalan nannies are treated as if they are taking care of your children and cleaning your bathroom as a lifestyle choice rather than out of economic necessity. "The new elite," as Brooks explained to the assembled philanthropists, "has no ethic of chivalry." Charitable giving as a percentage of assets has not remotely kept up with the unprecedented explosion of wealth in the United States during the past decade.
The virtues of such selfishness, on the other hand, have never escaped Dinesh D'Souza. The young Indian immigrant made his name in this country giving eloquent voice to the most morally repugnant aspects of Reagan-era Republicanism. He began his career as an obnoxious Dartmouth undergrad, publishing crude racist attacks in the off-campus conservative newspaper, followed by a stint at a Princeton magazine where he delighted in exposing details of female undergrads' sex lives. His first book was a loving appreciation of aspiring ayatollah Jerry Falwell.
D'Souza became a national phenomenon with a book attacking PC culture at universities, which was defensible, if overstated, and an apologia for American racism, which he termed "rational discrimination." With its pseudointellectual patina, D'Souza's work, even more than Charles Murray's, seems designed to offer solace to those who miss the good old days of Jim Crow laws and late-night cross burnings. Segregation, he argued, was designed to protect African-Americans and "to assure that [they], like the handicapped, would be...permitted to perform to the capacity of their arrested development." It would end when "blacks as a group can show that they are capable of performing competitively in schools and the work force."
D'Souza is touring for a new work, The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence. (It is a measure of how well-funded are right-wing arguments that I have so far received four unrequested copies.) The thrust of his argument is the opposite of that of Brooks. Simply put, wealth has no obligations to poverty except to avoid it. As he once argued for the logic of racism, he now speaks for the morality of parsimony. The United States, he asserts, is "probably the best society that now exists or has ever existed."
D'Souza is the kind of moral philosopher who pays more attention to the musings of the Ayn Rand-spouting entrepreneur T.J. Rodgers, who races his BMW over speed bumps while attacking the moral probings of the clergy, than he does to the combined works of John Rawls and Richard Rorty. (Terming the latter "Rip Van Rorty" is what passes for wit in these pages.) Reinhold Niebuhr receives no mention at all.
Of course, it's not exactly hard to find billionaires who think of themselves as altruists regardless of the obscene amounts of wealth they accumulate. But it is much more cost-effective to induce "intellectuals" to say it for them. D'Souza fills this purpose not only by celebrating mass wealth but by abolishing poverty. "Poverty," he argues, "understood as the absence of food, clothing, and shelter, is no longer a significant problem in America." His evidence for this breathtaking claim is that even poor people have refrigerators these days, and many of them are fat. That 30 million Americans still struggle beneath the poverty line and 42 million lack the benefit of health insurance represent, to D'Souza, mere speed bumps on our highway to capitalist utopia.
When Bush père was inaugurated, he too made a great show of what was not yet called "compassionate conservatism." He acknowledged that poor people exist and that somebody should do something about it, but as a society, he warned, we had "more will than wallet." (And anyway, his contributors were demanding a cut in the tax on capital gains.) Dubya closed his inaugural with a similar flourish, in which he promised to work "to make our country more just and generous."
To show that Dubya is even remotely serious about his agenda for the poor, he and his Administration will have to ponder the kinds of questions raised by Brooks about the moral obligations of wealth. That is, after all, about the best one can expect from Republicans. But to the degree that he wishes to prove what his enemies insist to be true--that all this compassionate conservatism is simply a frilly frock in which to clothe the Reaganite Republican values of top-down class war--expect to hear plenty more from Dinesh D'Souza.
The likely Bush cabinet will have some who have shown sympathy for the Southern Confederacy—a disturbing trend in the late twentieth century.
Who are George Bush's bipartisan Democrats?
Whoever wins the legal battles over the election, and with them the presidency, recent events will cast a long shadow over American political life in the years ahead. For the first week and a half, the behavior of the two parties did not differ much. Both were playing legal hardball while pretending to act on a basis of high principle. Principles are general rules that are supposed to guide conduct in each case as it arises. Vice President Al Gore and Governor George Bush were doing it the other way around: Their conduct in each case was guiding their choice of principles. Often, this comically required throwing out yesterday's principle in favor of its opposite today. For instance, not twenty-four hours after Bush's strategist-in-chief, former Secretary of State James Baker, had delivered a public sermon on the need to avoid legal action in order to reach "closure" in the election, he was filing a federal case to overturn Florida's election laws. Gore meanwhile was lecturing the country on the importance of counting every vote while fighting to exclude absentee ballots, known to favor Bush. Quite missing on either side was any instance of action taken against self-interest in the name of principle, which is to say any principled act. None of this, however, was perhaps very surprising. The candidates were merely behaving the way lawyers always do in courtrooms. Each was pressing his side's interest to the utmost in the hope of influencing the decisions of the judges.
The tone abruptly changed on the Republican side with the decision by the Florida Supreme Court to permit the recounts of counties that had been sought by Gore. For the first time since election night, the GOP was faced with the prospect of losing the election. Its response was to make an incendiary accusation: that Gore was engaged in a "theft" of the election, as the House majority whip, the impeachment zealot Tom DeLay, put it. The charge was accompanied by a campaign to delegitimize the Florida Supreme Court. In a remarkable statement of defiance, Baker declared the Florida decision "unacceptable," and Bush charged that what the court had done was to "usurp" the powers of the Florida legislature and executive.
Of course, if Gore had been stealing the election, it would have been the obligation of the Bush campaign as well as any other responsible person, Republican, Democrat or other, to point this out and vigorously protest it. In fact, the charge was baseless. The point is not that the particulars of the Republican allegations--that the Florida court had overreached its authority, that Democratic officials were changing the rules for counting votes midstream, that the Gore campaign was demanding multiple recounts--were false (some had merit, some did not--just as some of the Gore campaign's charges against the Bush campaign's legal maneuvering had merit and some did not); it was that even if all the charges were true they did not come anywhere near to justifying the sensational conclusion that Gore was "stealing" an election. To steal an election, after all, would be a crime. If the accusation were true, Gore should not only lose the election; he should be thrown in jail. The fact that a false and defamatory charge of this magnitude--a big lie, if there ever was one--was made by the campaign of a man who may soon be President itself severely damages the political system. For to the extent that people believe it, they must believe that American democracy is a sham, and the American political system is exactly as strong as the support it gets from the American people, and no more.
The campaign of accusation and vilification, moreover, had an evident purpose: to justify extraordinary recourses contemplated by the Bush campaign. One was the step of inviting the Republican-dominated Florida state legislature to ignore the election result and itself appoint electors. Baker solicited this action in the press conference in which he called the Florida decision unacceptable. Another was a challenge to the results by Congress. News reports suddenly appeared that DeLay was "studying" this option. Either option would have guaranteed a full-scale constitutional crisis. In short, by charging that Gore was stealing the election, the Republicans had laid the ground for the eruption of a self-created political Vesuvius in the event that the recounts placed Gore in the lead.
Of course, things didn't work out that way. Gore did not catch up, and Vesuvius stayed quiet. It is important to reflect on how this happened. The answer is that Miami-Dade County, where the beginnings of a recount had strongly suggested that its completion would give Gore the lead in Florida, abruptly called it off. On the morning of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the board of canvassers decided that in the interest of time it would count only those ballots that had gone uncounted by the voting machines. In the afternoon, they decided to cancel even that smaller recount. It was the decisive moment. In all likelihood, it cost Gore the certification and, perhaps, the election. In the interval between the decision to do a partial recount and the decision to cancel it, there was a minor Republican riot inside and outside the county building. When the canvassing board moved to a new room that made observation more difficult, GOP Representative John Sweeney of New York ordered, "Shut it down!" and, in the words of Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot, who witnessed the scene, "semi-spontaneous combustion took over." Republican observers of the election pounded on doors and walls. Democratic observers trying to give interviews to the press were shouted down. Television cameramen were punched. A Democratic counter falsely accused of stealing a ballot had to be given police protection. A canvasser told Bill Redeker of ABC News right after the demonstrations that he had been "convinced that what we were doing was perceived as not being fair and open." Approached by reporters, the demonstrators strangely would not give their names. We now know that many of them were Republican House staffers, organized by the very Tom DeLay who had said the election was being stolen. Others were operatives of the Bush campaign. It was not Vesuvius; it was a taste of lava from a small crack that had been opened in the volcano. But it may have been enough to deny Gore the White House. Gigot commented, "If it is possible to have a bourgeois riot, it happened here Wednesday. And it could end up saving the presidency for George W. Bush." It is, indeed, possible to have a bourgeois riot. Without suggesting any historical equivalence, let us recall that Mussolini, Hitler and supporters of Pinochet, among others, managed to do it.
Intimidation was in the air. That George Bush--he who was going to stop the "bickering in Washington" but has waged political war in Florida--countenanced the result is especially discouraging. It dims to the vanishing point any hope that if elected he would be willing or able to rein in the firebrands of his party. Meanwhile, Bush's announcement that he will begin a transition with private funds is merely the same medicine in more palatable form. The message is unchanged: We are entitled to rule; give us what we want--or else. The riot in the county building was a sample of what the Republicans had in mind. The threats to precipitate a constitutional crisis were others. For now, the Republicans have been placated. Bush won his certification, and has crowned himself President-elect. But the threat has not been withdrawn and will probably be carried out if the legal cases turn in Gore's favor. Vesuvius has not been dismantled. It is being held in reserve for further use in the unfolding election crisis, or thereafter.
Ralph Nader's Green Party campaign for the presidency has evolved
into a dangerous game. On one hand, the candidate insists it doesn't
matter if George W. Bush beats Al Gore. Yet we also are assured that
Nader doesn't pull votes from Gore in closely contested states. Both
positions are patently false.
With very few exceptions, most states are up for grabs, including
California, where the once huge gap between Bush and Gore has narrowed.
Nader now is poised to cost Gore an electoral majority. There is no
comparable threat to siphon conservative voters from Bush by the
floundering Reform Party campaign of Pat Buchanan.
Nader's supporters are potential Gore, not Bush, voters. "The Nader
campaign talks about its appeal to disaffected [John] McCain, [Jesse]
Ventura and [Ross] Perot voters, but I have rarely met one at a Nader
rally," says reporter Matt Welsh, who has been covering the Nader
campaign for the online journal http://www.newsforchange.com. Welsh
added: "The biggest applause lines are those that appeal to the
progressive wing of the Democratic Party."
Those Nader supporters have an obligation to vote for Gore because a
Republican sweep of the White House and Congress would spell disaster for
environmental protection and for efforts to increase the minimum wage and
the earned income tax credit, not to mention the hard-won gains made by
women and minorities. Nader knows better than anyone that there has been
a huge difference between the Clinton Administration and the Republican
Congress on those issues.
Nor should Nader be downplaying the consequences for the Supreme Court
if Bush is elected. On the campaign trail, he muddies the issue by
observing that some Republican Presidents have appointed moderates to the
Court, ignoring Bush's pledge to Pat Robertson and the rest of the GOP's
right wing that he would name judges in the mold of Antonin Scalia and
Clarence Thomas. As it is, the Court in the past five years has struck
down twenty-five progressive laws that Clinton managed to get through Congress,
including parts of the Brady gun control bill and the Violence Against
That is why leading progressives like Sen. Paul D. Wellstone
(D-Minn.), Jesse Jackson and Gloria Steinem have taken to the hustings to
convince Naderites to vote for Gore. It is not their intention, or mine,
to deny Nader credit as the most consistent and effective crusader for
consumer interests in the history of this nation. It is also true that
Nader deserves thanks for raising basic issues arising from the corporate
dominance of our political process, which the major candidates have
And, yes, it does mock democracy to have denied Nader and Buchanan a
place in the debates, particularly given moderator Jim Lehrer's apparent
indifference to the role of big money in undermining representative
democracy. Let me also add that I feel betrayed by a Democratic candidate
who is so gutless as to not even utter the name of the President, whose
enormously successful administration is the source of Gore's credibility.
So Gore's not perfect--what else is new? Most often, the majority of
voters end up siding with the electable candidate who comes closest to
their political thinking. For progressives in this election, that is
clearly Gore. Certainly, Robertson and his allies on the Republican right
now justify their support of Bush as a vote for the lesser evil. They get
nervous when Bush talks about "compassionate conservatism" and plays to
the center, but they hold their noses and rally around his candidacy
because that is the best they've got.
It is time for progressive Democrats to be equally practical. Gore is
a centrist Democrat, and he will not likely do much to rein in corporate
power, pass much-needed universal health care or reverse the travesty of
welfare "reform," which will prove a disaster in the next recession.
But Gore is on record as supporting the McCain-Feingold campaign
reform measure, affirmative action and a woman's right to choose. He
would protect Social Security and Medicare from Bush's irresponsible
privatization schemes. He has an expansive view of civil rights
protection for minorities and gays. And he has as consistent a record in
support of the environment as any major politician.
Finally, from my experience interviewing Gore and observing him in
action, he is far better than his media notices. Like Clinton, but in
sharp contrast with Bush, Gore is very bright, has seriously worked the
issues and sincerely believes that an effective federal government is
necessary for the well-being of the populace.
That may not make for a green revolution, but it's a lot better deal
than a Bush White House with the doors thrown open for Trent Lott, Jesse
Helms, Pat Robertson and Charlton Heston to run amok.
Neoconservatives are serial grave-robbers. Back in the early eighties, Norman Podhoretz tried to claim both Ronald Reagan and George Orwell as part of his meshuggeneh mishpocheh. Now, say what you will about the dimwitted defender of right-wing terrorism and the scrupulously honest symbol of the Anglo-American democratic left, they do not belong in the same political movement. Honest admirers of both men pointed out the fallacy in this transparent tactic, but two decades later, no cure has been found. Last seen in the neocons' trunk leaving the literary graveyard were the intellectual remains of the liberals' liberal, the critic Lionel Trilling.
Trilling never uttered so much as a sympathetic syllable about the neocon/Reaganite worldview to which his would-be inheritors became so attached after his death in 1975. Yet there he was, sitting atop a pyramid of Reagan-worshipers--people whose politics he never endorsed and whose style of argument he abhorred--in a chart accompanying a Sam Tanenhaus-authored encomium to the neocons in the New York Times a few Saturdays ago. The trick with Trilling is really no different from that with the refashioned Orwell. (Ironically, as John Rodden notes in his 1989 study, The Politics of Literary Reputation, it was Trilling's introduction to a 1952 reissue of Homage to Catalonia that was almost singularly responsible for securing the writer's reputation in the United States as a kind of secular saint.) Both men wrote witheringly of those intellectuals who gave their hearts and minds over to Stalinism, prescribing tough-minded scrutiny in the face of emotional appeals. In a foreword to a 1974 edition of The Liberal Imagination, Trilling pointed out that his early essays were inspired by "a particular political-cultural situation" he identified as "the commitment that a large segment of the intelligentsia of the West gave to the degraded version of Marxism known as Stalinism." With Trilling safely unable to respond, the neocons twist these words in order to apply them to liberalism itself.
Podhoretz has long been critical of his ex-teacher for what he termed his "failure of nerve" that was part of "an epidemic of cowardice" he detected in anyone who failed to agree with him. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly, Nathan Glick notes that "besides being a disloyal deprecation of a former friend and mentor," these claims "have the scent of ideological self-serving. They come with particular ill grace from a writer who treats his own seven-year flirtation with the New Left as not only easily forgivable but also proof of his editorial flair for riding the tide of political fashion." In fact, as Glick points out, Trilling viewed liberalism as "a political position which affirmed the value of individual existence in all its variousness, complexity, and difficulty." Nothing, however, could be further from the neoconservatives' creed--one that has served, in the view of Leon Wieseltier, editor of a generous new collection of Trilling essays called The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent, as "the anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals." By inventing a genealogy that goes back to Trilling, Wieseltier notes, "They enhance their intellectual self-esteem. They have this view that everyone to the right of the left is Neoconservative, or a Neoconservative who dares not speak its name."
In fact, the critics of the counterculture whose writings have held up best during the past thirty years are those who never gave themselves over to the neocon temptation--who never became apologists for Reagan and Bush, much less Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Liberal and socialist anticommunists like Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe, Michael Harrington, Alfred Kazin and Garry Wills led a relatively lonely intellectual life in the eighties, as Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, Elliott Abrams and Jeane Kirkpatrick were all toasting themselves at the Reagan White House. But contrary to Tanenhaus's apologia, it is their works--together with Updike's Rabbit and Roth's Zuckerman extravaganzas--to which historians will one day turn to comprehend the combination of ignorant arrogance and small-minded self-delusion that captured both American extremes in the final decades of the twentieth century.
Another oddity of Tanenhaus's article was the news that the forever-ricocheting Michael Lind, who mimicked Podhoretz recently with his own McCarthyite tract on the Vietnam era, is writing a manifesto to try to revive the neoconservative creed he once savaged. His co-author is Ted Halstead, president of the New America Foundation. Here history repeats itself as farce. First-generation neocons hijacked liberal institutions like Commentary and Partisan Review (and, sadly, much of The New Republic) and gave them over to conservative purposes. Halstead's organization (with which I was briefly associated) now takes precious funds from progressive donors and redistributes them to the likes of the right-wing Lind and the conservative, isolationist, foreign-policy writer Robert Kaplan. Halstead has even boasted of trying to hire George W. Bush's chief speechwriter. "Fool me once, and shame on you," explained the sage engineer of the Star Ship Enterprise, Mr. Scott. "Fool me twice, and shame on me."
* * *
Babs in Toyland: The famously sensitive liberal icon Barbra Streisand recently played the first in a long series of "farewell performances" in New York and LA, gouging fans to the tune of $2,500 per ticket. The worthy cause? Another twenty million or so for the greater glory of Barbra Streisand Inc. Streisand herself destroyed the political economy of concert-going in the mid-nineties by charging in the hundreds for tickets. Today the Eagles and Billy Joel jack up prices to $1,000 apiece. The Stones routinely charge $350; the Who, $250. Both bands were a hell of a lot better in the pre-Streisandified seventies, when I saw them for about two-weeks' allowance. Yes, I know, markets, supply and demand, blah, blah, blah. But could we please put an end to the deification of multimillionaire rock stars who shake down their own fans? (Rock critics rarely make this point, because they get free tickets.)
The future of the Supreme Court is the most important issue in the most important election year since 1932. Progressive Americans should treat it that way. The radical right does.
Perhaps it was because he was recovering from painful back surgery, but a few weeks before the Republican convention, Paul Weyrich, a founder of the religious right, was awful grumpy about George
Research assistance was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.