Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Positive Polarization

Sometimes the irony is just too much for me. The term in the title of this post is the name the Republicans gave their successful movement building in the early 1970's, as described by George Packer in a New Yorker article:

Nixon and Buchanan visited thirty-five states that fall, and in November the Republicans won a midterm landslide. It was the end of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, the beginning of his fall from power. In order to seize the Presidency in 1968, Nixon had to live down his history of nasty politicking, and he ran that year as a uniter. But his Administration adopted an undercover strategy for building a Republican majority, working to create the impression that there were two Americas: the quiet, ordinary, patriotic, religious, law-abiding Many, and the noisy, élitist, amoral, disorderly, condescending Few.

This strategy was put into action near the end of Nixon's first year in office, when antiwar demonstrators were becoming a disruptive presence in Washington. Buchanan recalls urging Nixon, "We've got to use the siege gun of the Presidency, and go right after these guys." On November 3, 1969, Nixon went on national television to speak about the need to avoid a shameful defeat in Vietnam. Looking benignly into the camera, he concluded, "And so tonight—to you, the great silent majority of Americans—I ask for your support." It was the most successful speech of his Presidency. Newscasters criticized him for being divisive and for offering no new vision on Vietnam, but tens of thousands of telegrams and letters expressing approval poured into the White House. It was Nixon's particular political genius to rouse simultaneously the contempt of the bien-pensants and the admiration of those who felt the sting of that contempt in their own lives.

Buchanan urged Nixon to enlist his Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, in a battle against the press. In November, Nixon sent Agnew—despised as dull-witted by the media—on the road, where he denounced "this small and unelected √©lite" of editors, anchormen, and analysts. Buchanan recalls watching a broadcast of one such speech—which he had written for Agnew—on a television in his White House office. Joining him was his colleague Kevin Phillips, who had just published "The Emerging Republican Majority," which marshalled electoral data to support a prophecy that Sun Belt conservatism—like Jacksonian Democracy, Republican industrialism, and New Deal liberalism—would dominate American politics for the next thirty-two or thirty-six years. (As it turns out, Phillips was slightly too modest.) When Agnew finished his diatribe, Phillips said two words: "Positive polarization."

There you have it. Tearing apart a country is positive polarization.

But of course this was a clever answer to the perennial problem conservatives have: How to get enough voters when their natural constituency is pretty small, consisting largely of the moneyed elites.

To get more voters, something had to be given to them. Because the Republicans weren't going to give them money or government programs, they had to be thrown the corpses of their countrymen and -women instead, in that stupid drama called the "culture wars." Well, not the corpses, but that wasn't for lack of trying. Any amount of social disruption and hatred was an acceptable price for someone to pay, as long as the real money kept flowing back to the same bank accounts as always.

Hence the rise of social conservatism. It's cheap, it provokes deep emotions and it costs the powerful in the Republican Party nothing. Even among the Democrats some see it as a purely cultural issue, something trivial, not real politics. But social conservatism is a very real threat to those whose traditional social position has been an oppressed one. That would be us ladies.

Packer's piece is fascinating if you don't mind reading about Republican guys doing Republican guy things. He even admits that the conservative movement is in trouble and will need new ideas. These are the new ideas he proposes:

It's probably not an accident that the most compelling account of the crisis was written by two conservatives who are still in their twenties and have made their careers outside movement institutions. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, editors at the Atlantic Monthly, are eager to cut loose the dead weight of the Gingrich and Bush years. In their forthcoming book, "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream" (Doubleday), Douthat and Salam are writing about, if not for, what they call "Sam's Club Republicans"—members of the white working class, who are the descendants of Nixon's "northern ethnics and southern Protestants" and the Reagan Democrats of the eighties. In their analysis, America is divided between the working class (defined as those without a college education) and a "mass upper class" of the college educated, who are culturally liberal and increasingly Democratic. The New Deal, the authors acknowledge, provided a sense of security to working-class families; the upheavals of the sixties and afterward broke it down. Their emphasis is on the disintegration of working-class cohesion, which they blame on "crime, contraception, and growing economic inequality."

Crime, contraception and growing economic inequality? Who is being bought out here at whose expense? In any case, the growing economic inequality is one consequence of all that the Republicans have supported: Reduced taxes for the top earners of this country, increased liberalization of international trade and outsourcing, a fraying social welfare net. Crime tends to increase with worsening economic times, too.

But contraception? The new conservative movement is going to be a movement against contraception? It sounds like the movement is going to be against women, even more openly than the old one has been.

Nah. I don't think it will wash.