For the inaugural MagRack, I’ll take a pass at the last ish of The New Republic. As I mentioned before, I’ll just weing through the articles in the order they appear, but this isn’t some kind of summary of everything in the issue (that would be boring); just some quick reactions to the pieces that grabbed me. Here we go…
TRB by Peter Beinart: Beinart expresses puzzlement at the progressive repudiation of the Clinton years, arguing that it’s a mistake to blame Bill for the party’s current “crisis of faith,” since he inherited rather than created it, and did a damn good job crafting a Democratic identity and message under the circumstances. I wonder, though, whether the things Beinart credits Clinton with aren’t—from the perspective of political branding, anyway—a big part of the problem. It’s not, in other words, the ideas Clinton lacked, but the ones he (and, as importantly, the Republicans) embraced. Clinton basically endorsed the idea that more unfettered trade is good. Welfare reform accepted the idea that incentives matter and that aid to the poor should be geared at preparing them for work rather than substituting for it. At the same time, the Gingrich-era Republican passion for dramatic government cutting and wholesale elimination of programs and departments evaporated. It’s not that there aren’t, of course, pretty big differences remaining between the parties on this score, but that they’re no longer sufficiently stark. Welfare has pretty much dropped off the political radar, and with it the rhetoric of “handouts for welfare queens” and “scrooges plotting to abandon the poor.” This may be a “curse of success” situation: Ameliorating problems like homelessness and poverty (as Beinart argues clinton did) leaves you, perversely, at something of a political disadvantage if caring about those problems is at the core of your political identity. The main distinctions between the parties now involve culture wars or military and security issues, where most elected Dems have seemed scared to really distinguish themselves from the Republicans too starkly by forthrightly opposing the Iraq war (as opposed to the details of its execution) or favoring gay marriage openly (rather than opposing efforts to ban it at the constitutional level while paying lip service to the “union of one man and one woman” point). The problem there isn’t a lack of ideas, it’s an unwillingness to own up to the ones you’ve got.
Again, Part II by The Editors: Another “why we must intervene in Darfur” piece. The interesting thing here is the idea that while the situation supposedly won’t require a massive commitment of U.S. troops, “what it does require is American leadership” because “Europe is paralyzed.” Well… why? Neither the U.S. nor Europe have acted yet, but presumably we’re just dragging our feet, while the European powers are apparently afflicted in some way that renders them just constitutionally incapable of doing anything without George Bush leading the charge. But there’s not a lot on why their barriers to intervention are higher or more fundamental than ours, and it looks like NATO is very gradually stepping up. Maybe this kind of “paralysis” would be less common if we didn’t create the expectation that the U.S. would be at the head of these sorts of interventions, wherever they happened.
The piece also weirdly misconstrues the objection that the sort of intervention the editors advocate would effectively be an intervention on behalf of the Darfuri rebels. They parse this as a throwing-up-of-hands in a fit of moral equivalence, as though there’s no way to say whether the rebels or the Janjaweed are worse. I had taken the point to be that it’s not clear lives would be saved in the longterm if intervention provides an opportunity for rebels to rearm. TNR says the goal would rather be to “seal Darfur off from the rest of Sudan” and “create the political space for traditional tribal leaders to reasser their authority and rebuild the institutions that once guaranteed peaceful co-existence between Arab and African Darfuris.” And the goal of the Iraq War was Switzerland on the Tigris (once we forgot about those pesky WMDs); that doesn’t mean things will work out that way. If, as they say, the West “has learned nothing from previous genocides,” then TNR’s editors may not have learned enough from previous war advocacy.
Binge and Purge by Jon Chait: The growing conservative repudiation of George Bush is cast as either a cynical or delusional response to dropping poll numbers, the latter possibility rooted in the insistence that since conservatism is the most authentically American philosophy (or something), a president who proves unpopular with Americans must be insufficiently conservative. But the way Chait casts the shift seems plainly wrong. For one, it’s not as if the same people who were singing hosannas for Bush the loudest a few years ago are the same one damning him most loudly now, with a bill of indictiments that consists of policies that didn’t bother them previously. For example, here’s what Impostor author Bruce Bartlett told TNR before the 2004 election:
People are careful about how they say it and to who they say it, but, if you’re together with more than a couple of conservatives, the issue of would we be better or worse off with Kerry comes up–and it’s seriously discussed.
The same article quotes Andy Ferguson from August of that year admitting in The Weekly Standard “a thinly disguised secret–Republicans are supporting a candidate that relatively few of them find personally or politically appealing.” At the RNC in 2004, I heard plenty of the same sort of talk: No Child Left Behind and the Medicare bill were abominations, the tariffs were grotesque betrayal of free-trade principles… but of course, we’ve got to shut up about these things until we’ve won the election. That’s cynical and dishonest, but not in the way Chait thinks. That is, the problem isn’t that conservatives change their opinions about who’s conservative based on opinion polls, it’s that they change their willingness to voice their opinions based on opinion polls.
Also, while I think Chait is probably right that it’s a stretch to blame an effort to appeal to liberals for all Bush’s sins, it takes incredible chutzpah to cast the steel tariffs as pandering to “business interests” when, fairly clearly, it was
steelworker unions who pushed the hardest for them and hollered the loudest when they were repealed, and steel unions that Bush was pretty clearly hoping to court when he imposed them. Also, it’s not a good response to arguments about the political perils of pissing off the base to point out that the base continues to register rather amazingly high approval of Bush when you give them a thumbs-up/thumbs-down poll. Because every time you see that kind of base argument, it’s about mobilization, engagement, and turnout—that is, about the intensity of approval, rather than which side of the “pro” or “con” line people come down on, all things considered.
Political Pitch by Franklin Foer: A (God help us) “whimsical” piece on the links between different forms of government and success in soccer, in which Foer manages to produce almost three pages of copy that are utterly frivolous without actually being funny. I can only assume that this is one of those that worked better as a two-minute pitch in an editorial meeting than as an actual article, but (now that Foer’s top dog) there was nobody to spike it once it was finished.
Pop Up by Niall Ferguson and Samuel J. Abrams: The intriguing thesis here is that globalization tends to produce different forms of populism in countries at different stages of development: In poorer countries, where globalization attracts an influx of foreign capital, it takes a lefty form, while in developed countries where it means an influx of immigrants, you get a right-wing breed. The authors seem puzzled, though, that in many low-immigration countries you see higher levels of hostility ot immigrants than in countries where there’s much more immigration. It becomes much less mysterious if you flip the order of observations: In countries where people tend to be hostile to immigrants, you see less immigration. And of course, there’s a kind of historical lock-in you can imagine, where countries that have traditionally had lots of immigration are apt to think of themselves as a “nation of immigrants,” leaving them more willing to accept future immigrants.
Divining Divinity by Stanley Kauffman: Kauffman wonders whether the “explosive success” of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (a phenomenon he plausibly describes as far more interesting than the book or movie themselves) is a sign of gnawing doubt or mere thirst for exposé. I tend to think it’s more like the mutation of religion into one more species of fanboyism, where once you’re invested in the characters, the most interesting thing is the fanfic. Sounds like the logical extension of protestantism to me.
The Thinking Thing by Charles Larmore: Review of a new book, The Idea of the Self, on the development of that idea in western philosophy. Larmore has an interesting thought about pomo rockstar theorists like Derrida and Foucault who proclaimed the “death of the subject”:
Must they not have been supposing that the only way we could count as selves or subjects is if we were–but this is impossible!–the autonomous authors of ourselves?
That actually mirrors a thought I’ve often had about people who argue against retributive punishment or for income redistribution or what have you on the grounds that when we look at all the factors that shape people, it seems they are not really responsible for their situations after all. They think they’re dispensing with antiquated notions about the unfettered, self-creating individual, when in fact they’re still standing in the shadow of those antiquated notions, relying on a conception of “responsibility” that demands an incoherent free will and imagines people as magical unmoved movers. I note also that the distinction Larmore sets up between two schools of thought on the self—as something constituted by social institutions and interactions or as something that has an “authentic” pre-social form but is corrupted and repressed by society—parallels rather nicely Hayek’s distinction between constructivist rationality (which he associates with French law) and his own preferred critical rationality (which he associates with evolved British common law).