Sunday, July 7, 2019

Spectrum Disorder

Photo by Bill McCullough, New York Magazine, April 2019.

This turned out to be a post by Jeet Heer, and not nearly as idiotic as The Nation's teaser makes it look; he was thinking not of the celebrated public philosopher of centripetality David Brooks and a campaign such as Brooks might design on the basis of his own political thinking, but of the fictional David Brooks who was the protagonist of Brooks's column of 28 June, looking for a Democratic presidential candidate he could support. But it was kind of idiotic:
The best thing about Brooks’s column is his frank use of the first person singular. Although he makes gestures to other hypothetical moderate voters, he is candid that the question is whether the Democrats will nominate someone “I can vote for.” This “I” is honest, since Brooks is speaking for a tiny faction, Never Trump conservatives, who twice demonstrated in 2016 that they were a powerless rump minority in the real world of politics.
But he's wrong about that for starters, since Brooks in fact isn't honest at all—he claimed at the outset to be speaking for 35% of the electorate:
According to a recent Gallup poll, 35 percent of Americans call themselves conservative, 35 percent call themselves moderate and 26 percent call themselves liberal. The candidates at the debates this week fall mostly within the 26 percent. The party seems to think it can win without any of the 35 percent of us in the moderate camp, the ones who actually delivered the 2018 midterm win.
And he's clearly adverting to people who were happy to vote for Trump when he warns Democrats away from being too positive about immigrants, or neglecting to complain about the most dangerous elite of all:
the highly educated Americans who are pulling away from everybody else and who have built zoning restrictions and meritocratic barriers to make sure outsiders can’t catch up.
Heer's main point seems to be that Democrats shouldn't accede to Brooks's wish to make the election about "civility", as he claims Hillary Clinton did in 2016:
As Princeton University history professor Matt Karp noted in a compelling post-mortem written right after the election, “In pursuit of professional-class Republicans, the Clinton campaign made a conscious decision to elevate questions of tone, temperament, and decorum at the expense of bread-and-butter issues like health care or the minimum wage. This wasn’t just a tactical move away from some culturally distinct group of ‘white working-class’ voters. It was a strategic retreat from the working class as a whole.”
I don't know about that at all; Karp's analysis is apparently based on the last ad the Clinton campaign ran, and there were a good 18 months before that of Clinton running what you might call an "Elizabeth Warren–style campaign" before that, in which she kept explaining that she had a plan for everything, culminating in late September with the realization that it hadn't been working, and it was really difficult to understand why not:

The Democratic nominee raised the issue here during an address via video conference to a gathering in Las Vegas of the Laborers' International Union of North America.
The former secretary of state ticked off her pro-union positions, including investing in infrastructure, raising the minimum wage and supporting collective bargaining.
“Having said all this, ‘Why aren’t I 50 points ahead?’ you might ask?” Clinton said. “Well, the choice for working families has never been clearer. I need your help to get Donald Trump’s record out to everybody. Nobody should be fooled.”
I don't know why the African American vote wasn't inspired by this, but it wasn't because they were waiting for more detail on health care, and it wasn't because Clinton was exhibiting too much civility either. The fact was, Trump's complete unsuitability for the job was obvious to enough people that it was hard to understand why it wasn't obvious to everybody. Her decision to talk about Trump wasn't just about "tone and temperament", either: it was about his well-known anti-labor positions, his reputation for stiffing workers and contractors, and the increasing likelihood that he was a "puppet" of Vladimir Putin.  Should she have taken it further and mentioned that he's functionally illiterate and a known criminal and a vicious racist? Yes! And, by the way, the African American community was well aware that Trump is a vicious racist.

But that's not what Heer is suggesting. In the end, he's putting himself in the same stupid universe as Brooks in this column, fighting over where Clinton should have been on the left-right spectrum.

It was a dumb column, even by Brooks's standards, but I couldn't stop imagining the column Brooks might have written instead, which would have gone loopily afield from the left-right spectrum and been more fun for me—the idea of a "David Brooks–style campaign" in terms of our philosopher's broader long-term aspirations for creating a better society, which certainly wouldn't have been burdened with briefing papers on every policy, and definitely would never have lowered itself to referring to a group of voters as "deplorable", as he told Meet the Press:
People, even the people that say repugnant things at Trump rallies, are complicated and they’re driven by complicated fears and anxieties to sometimes do some things, sometimes do beautiful things. And so, the truism that you hate the sin, but don’t hate the sinner applies to politics just as well and she was hating the sinner.
A presidential campaign that followed Brooks's prescriptions would be light on detail and absent on the insults, and devote itself to telling a "new American story" in which all our differences would be healed and we would find new unity as a nation. In fact what Brooks has long been calling for was exactly what Barack Obama (a longtime Brooks reader) did in 2008 and 2012, though Brooks failed to note this himself at the time.

Personally I don't think either the Clinton approach or the Obama approach is going to be quite adequate to what's coming to us all next year, and I don't want you to suppose I do. I just want to point out that even somebody as smart as Jeet Heer can get stuck in the one-dimensional picture of politics where everyone's identity is accounted for by the statement of who's to their left and who's to their right, and their electoral prospects to be judged accordingly. Because that's all this argument is, underneath the fancy circumlocution: Brooks saying the Democrats need to position themselves more to the "right" and Heer saying no they don't.

It's a tiresome and unproductive debate, if only because it's one-dimensional. It focuses attention away from what voters want (like socialized medicine with private insurance, a concept pundits can't wrap their minds around because they can't fit it onto the left-right spectrum) and onto what journalists like (the horse-race aspect of what the individual candidate "needs to do"). It obscures our ability to understand what the opposition is up to (all the ink wasted over the last four years over exactly how "right" or "left" Trump actually is). One thing where Obama was certainly right was in refusing to play the game—which polarized the pundits between liberals complaining he was too "centrist" and conservatives complaining he was radically "left", but won the electorate over. Maybe because, air-filled as his speeches sometimes seemed, they perceived that he was talking about serious things.

What we really need is good politicians who aren't made nervous by the relative leftness or rightness of the things we want them to do, whether it's universal healthcare or universal tertiary education/job training or reparations for the long history of abuse of those who were once enslaved. And one thing that Brooks is right about is in proclaiming that good politicians are those who can "tell a story", except Brooks is wrong to hope that it can be a story with no conflict in it, and stupid to keep reverting to spectrum analysis in spite of the insight.

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