Friday, February 12, 2010


The Clarion Content happened across two articles that traipsed down the same path but came from very different views about the right and the left of American politics. (Please don't let label confusion trip you up, the spectrum is as broad as the population is diverse.)

One of the articles was on the BBC News website, the other was on the Washington Post site. Both attempt to trace why and how politicians of the left and right appeal to their constituencies. The BBC article, as one might assume, is written from a view sympathetic to the left. Somewhat more surprisingly the Washington Post is from the right. It is a feature is written by Gerard Alexander an associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia. It is part of a lecture he is delivering called, "Do Liberals Know Best? Intellectual Self-Confidence and the Claim to a Monopoly on Knowledge." He is coming from quite a different perspective than the BBC.

It is interesting though that both news organizations chose now to publish articles on the subject. The parallels within the articles fascinate. For example both use the historian Richard Hofstadter to set the scene for the left's perception of the right. In the BBC article titled, "Why do people vote against their own interests?" Hofstadter is paraphrased describing the mixture used to win on the right,"'the paranoid style' of American politics, in which God, guns and race get mixed into a toxic stew of resentment at anything coming out of Washington."

The BBC wants to explain why the right thinks and behaves the way it does.

Professor Alexander in the Washington Post believes it is the unfair labeling of the right done by the left that has coarsened the debate and diminished the conversation. He, too, cites Hofstadter, "the Manichaean style of thought, the apocalyptic tendencies, the love of mystification, the intolerance of compromise that are observable in the right-wing mind."

Both authors cite the use of the phrase Bolshevik plot to describe the Democrats health care plans. The BBC says
But it is striking that the people who most dislike the whole idea of healthcare reform - the ones who think it is socialist, godless, a step on the road to a police state - are often the ones it seems designed to help.

In Texas, where barely two-thirds of the population have full health insurance and over a fifth of all children have no cover at all, opposition to the legislation is currently running at 87%.
Professor Alexander retorts,
Many Democrats describe their troubles simply as a PR challenge, a combination of conservative misinformation -- as when Obama charges that critics of health-care reform are peddling fake fears of a "Bolshevik plot" -- and the country's failure to grasp great liberal accomplishments.
The parallels of the two pieces don't end there. Both articles cite books by Drew Western and Thomas Frank. The BBC gives them far more play, quoting a Bush-Gore debate excerpt from Western's book that shows the village idiot Bush "aw shucks" style paralleled versus the wooden, wonkish Gore. Bush dumbs down the issue to make his point and in the court of public opinion win the argument.

The BBC buys Franks's proposition about how this works when it says,
The Republicans have learnt how to stoke up resentment against the patronizing liberal elite, all those do-gooders who assume they know what poor people ought to be thinking.

Right-wing politics has become a vehicle for channelling this popular anger against intellectual snobs. The result is that many of America's poorest citizens have a deep emotional attachment to a party that serves the interests of its richest.
And then it quotes from Frank about the vicious cycle he perceives on the right,
"You vote to strike a blow against elitism and you receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our life times, workers have been stripped of power, and CEOs are rewarded in a manner that is beyond imagining."
Fascinatingly Professor Alexander makes essentially the same argument in the Washington Post. The only difference? The BBC thinks Frank is correct. The professor thinks Frank is belittling right-wing voters and their reasoning.
"...liberal condescension, exemplified in Thomas Frank's best-selling 2004 book, What's the Matter With Kansas? Frank argued that working-class voters were so distracted by issues such as abortion that they were induced into voting against their own economic interests. Then-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, later chairman of the Democratic National Committee, echoed that theme in his 2004 presidential run, when he said Republicans had succeeded in getting Southern whites to focus on "guns, God and gays" instead of economic redistribution."
Their conclusions, despite their different takes on the narratives offered by the left to discern the right, are startlingly similar. Both authors see wellsprings of populism shooting up in America. Both see virulent anger and a distaste for intellectual elitism. The BBC says,
"the ultimate sin in modern politics is appearing to take the voters for granted.

This is a culture war but it is not simply being driven by differences over abortion, or religion, or patriotism. And it is not simply Red states vs. Blue states any more. It is a war on the entire political culture, on the arrogance of politicians, on their slipperiness and lack of principle, on their endless deal making and compromises.

And when the politicians say to the people protesting: 'But we're doing this for you', that just makes it worse. In fact, that seems to be what makes them angriest of all."
Professor Alexander addresses the issue of race that BBC omits. He almost has to, as the right feels compelled to explain away the en masse shift of the American South from the Democratic column to the Republican. The professor's not very convincing answer is that polls show racism has declined, and Obama won. Those who read the quotes of the Joe Sixpack in the South before the last presidential election will find those arguments a bit hard to swallow.

Professor Alexander cites Jay Leno's man on the street interviews and asks if one really believes that Jay only interviews people from the right, of course not is his conclusion. Yet Alexander says the left dismisses the right as if that were so. He cites everyone from John Stewart to the Daily Kos to the Obama White House as being willing to label the right wing and dismissively ignore their policy proposals. Unfortunately, he is reluctant to admit that the right does the same, claiming rather, "A few conservative voices may say that all liberals are always wrong, but these tend to be relatively marginal figures or media gadflies such as Glenn Beck."

Still he sounds an important warning in his conclusion, one the Clarion Content firmly believes is important to heed,"Perhaps the most important conservative insight being depreciated is the durable warning from free-marketeers that government programs often fail to yield what their architects intend...Even liberals should think twice about the prospect of decisions on innovative surgeries, light bulbs and carbon quotas being directed by legislators grandstanding for the cameras."

Link to the BBC article here. Link to the Washington Post article here.

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