Sara Robinson has worked as an editor or columnist for several national magazines, on beats as varied as sports, travel, and the Olympics; and has contributed to over 80 computer games for EA, Lucasfilm, Disney, and many other companies. A native of California's High Sierra, she spent 20 years in Silicon Valley before moving to Vancouver, BC in 2004. Her lifelong interest in the social effects of authoritarianism have most recently led her to pursue the MS in Futures Studies at the University of Houston. She's also a student member of the Association of Professional Futurists, and member of the Accelerated Studies Foundation advisory board on social and cultural issues. For fun, she raises kids and travels. You can reach her at email@example.com.
The significance of Judge Taylor's ruling lies in the act itself -- the re-affirmation of the principle that the President's conduct is subject to judicial review and is subordinate to the laws enacted by the American people through their Congress. This administration, while claiming it has substantial legal authority for its radical executive power theories, has desperately tried to avoid judicial review of the President's conduct at every turn --- with the abuse of the "state secrets" doctrine, the Specter bill, the denial of judicial review to detainees, the refusal to ask the FISA court for a ruling on the legality of its program.
The significance of Judge Taylor's ruling lay not in the quality of her judicial opinion (which everyone gets to feel really smart by demeaning), but instead it is the resounding rejection of the extremist and dangerous theory that the President, because of the "war" we are fighting, has the right to operate without constraints of any kind, including those imposed by the Constitution and Congressional statutes. [emphasis mine -- ed.] On that key issue, the court's analysis was correct and even powerful.
This all had a familiar ring to me: A group of extremist ideologues, creating their own pseudo-legal bubble, defy the jurisdiction of the federal courts over their actions, claiming this peculiar right by virtue of a radical and unsupportable misreading of the Constitution; and as the law runs its course, they huddle deeper inside their bubble, convinced that only they and their fellow true believers hold the keys to a proper interpretation of the law.
Then, out paddling in the silence of Johnstone Strait, I remembered finally where I had heard all this before: in Jordan, Montana, the spring of 1996, where for 81 days the Montana Freemen engaged in an armed standoff with authorities that eventually concluded in their arrests. (For my contemporaneous account of the standoff, see here.)
It's worth remembering that, as Mark Pitcavage's authoritative profile of the Freemen explains in detail, they had been operating their scam for several years before law enforcement finally descended upon them. Rodney Skurdal's paper terrorism campaign in the Garfield County courts actually began in 1992, though he and LeRoy Schweitzer had been learning about and participating in Posse Comitatus phony-lien schemes for some time before this.
The Bush White House, similarly, has been scamming the public with its pseudo-legal theories about their exemption from the vagaries of federal law for a number of years now, though obviously the scale of the enterprise dwarfs the Montana Freemen exponentially. And the pseudo-legal alternative universe they've created for themselves, as with the Montana band, has been closing in around them as the law, embodied by the courts, begins to manifest itself.
Of course, as long they occupy the White House, these particular Freemen aren't going to be surrounded by the FBI anytime soon, except perhaps in defense against their perceived enemies. What's even more noteworthy, perhaps, is that they're being joined inside their bubble by their fellow Beltway denizens in the media and pundiocracy, as Greenwald has pointed out:
Most of these same "experts" and editorialists have stood by meekly and with a corrupt ambivalence while this administration implements radical theories of executive power which vest in the President the power, literally, to break the law. Yet now that a federal judge has courageously and correctly ruled that this administration is engaged in systematic law-breaking that not even the "war on terrorism" justifies, these same tepid, open-minded experts have suddenly found something to be excited about, as they eagerly parade themselves, showing everyone how smart and serious they are by scoffing at the Judge’s writing abilities. As I document here, and as Professor Tribe suggests, there is every reason to believe that it is these self-styled experts who lack serious scholarship with many of their misguided and ill-informed criticisms of the court’s decision.
But even if there are legalistic flaws in how the court defended its legal findings -- and most, including me, have acknowledged that there are -- the fact that we have a President who breaks the law at will because his administration has adopted the theory that he has the power to do so is surely of far greater importance. [emphasis mine] Only those with profoundly skewed priorities, or those seeking to find ways to defend the President's law-breaking, would view that as a close call.
Indeed, most of these pundits and "experts" were baffled by the Montana Freemen and assumed that they simply belonged in the klink, preferably sooner than later. Guess the tune changes when it's your own class you're talking about:
This has been the most bizarre part of the NSA scandal all along: the President got caught red-handed violating an extremely clear law -- he admitted to engaging in the very behavior which that law says is a felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine -- and yet official Washington (the political and pundit classes) simply decided to pretend that wasn't the case.
The Beltway right is increasingly living in its own Freemen-like alternative universe, replete with the usual vacuum of factuality, ripe for bizarre distortion (see, e.g., Fred Hiatt's take on the Plame affair blaming Joe Wilson for his wife's exposure) and the scapegoating of our "internal enemies" (see Donald Rumsfeld of late).
It's only a matter of time, one presumes, before they start posting rambling, nonsensical legal gobbledygook on the White House fence, warning away federal agents and members of the media. And threatening to hang the sheriff.
Sterotypes, Sellouts, and Winning the Meme Wars Friday, September 01, 2006 by Sara Robinson Wow. Looks like we all ate our Wheaties this beautiful Friday morning. Dave: the long rest obviously did you a world of good. And our commenters seem to be in fine voice today, too.
I simply don't believe that progressives will win rural districts by selling out their core values. I believe a lot of it has to do with framing those values in a way that rural people can identify with.
As my series has chugged along, I've been mightily accused by a handful of people who seem to think I'm suggesting that we do just this. The implication is that, if we choose to use language the right-wing authoritarian base understands, the content of our message -- those good progressive values -- will necessarily be diluted, compromised, or lost.
Those people are missing my point, which is the same one Dave puts in stark terms above. Our values have far more intrinsic potency than the right wing's do. After all: we're defending the original ideals of democracy, while they're trying to dismantle it. That's such a stark contrast that past generations of Democrats have been able to make it easily, persuasively, and usually in words with fewer than three syllables. If I have a core thesis, it's that we need to find spokespeople who can speak that language again -- and train ourselves to use it, too.
Our message is unbeatable. But the media we've used to send that message has, in recent decades, sucked. The resulting misunderstandings have led to three debilitating stereotypes, which between them have almost totally closed off real communication and undertanding between Democrats and their eroding working-class base.
The first, of course, is that Republicans have brilliantly stereotyped Democrats as urban, feckless, and out of touch. As I've written: when the Democrats abandoned rural America in the 70s, they left the door wide open for this to happen. We vanished; but the GOP stuck around, promoting their ideas without letup through mail, radio, the churches, their local offices, and eventually the government. The party may have been lying snakes in the grass, determined from the start to sell the American middle class out to globalization -- but they consistently showed up, hung around, and sounded neighborly. In small towns and working-class burbs, sheer consistency and friendliness counts for a lot. Before long, everybody's friends were Republicans.
That's how the Democrats got that latte-and-limousine reputation. The GOP promoted it; and there was nobody left in town to say it was all a lie. At the same time, there were plenty of Democratic talking heads and technocrats around who seemed determined to prove its truth. They provided the anecdotes that fed the lie.
Second: Democrats have returned the favor by stereotyping rural Americans (especially, but not exclusively, Southerners) as stupid and racist. As commenter Cal Godot points out, this view has been gleefully promoted by Republicans, who've used it to keep us as far from their hard-won base as possible:
The "they" of the South is created by those who are unwilling to accept the progress of history in the South. That "they" is created not only by the remaining bigots but also by hand-wringing Democrats who timidly approach the "race issue" when in the South, while boldly preaching against racism when in the North. Democrats condemn Republicans for pandering to bigotry in the South, then turn and pander - albeit in a more confused or subtle fashion - to the very same voters.?
To put it quite simply, and to paraphrase Stein, there is no 'they' there. The "they" Democrats imagine controlling the Southern vote is an imaginary creature, constructed by Republican propagandists who have cleverly realized that Democrats can best be defeated by setting things up for them to defeat themselves. Pogo also offers wisdom: Democrats have met the enemy, and it is themselves.
Only people who haven't spent time in rural America could buy into this. In abandoning the countryside, the Democrats made themselves suckers for people peddling illusions.
Earlier Dem pols would never have bought this nonsense. Many of the best of them came out of agricultural and blue-collar districts themselves, and understood the subtle nuances of working-class culture. These guys knew that their constituents liked plain, strong language. They like to know what you're going to do for them, specifically. They want to know you're taking care of local business. Since working-class Americans tend to be more religious than the upper classes, they value the emotional tropes of public ritual, and are comforted by pols who can talk a little church talk when the occasion merits it.
The old pols also knew that if you scare these people, you'd better damn well be able to back up the threat with solid evidence. They may trust authority a little more, but they're not stupid, and they don't take kindly to people who call "wolf" on them just to play politics (a trait that the Bush Administration, in its arrogance, forgot -- and is now re-learning first-hand).
As long as most of the national Democratic leadership consists of people who grew up in affluent suburbs, went to the Best Schools, and have never spent much time with people outside their own class and culture (and, yes, I'm aware I'm engaging in a little stereotyping of my own here), the party will continue to be easily led by wrong-headed stereotypes of working-class Americans -- and will thus also continue to fail utterly to speak to their real concerns. When we buy into these stereotypes, we're letting the GOP win.
And then, on the third hand (as we've seen here recently), we've got progressives who are perversely stereotyping people on their own side who are trying to get past all this and create some dialogue. "Sellout" seems to be the popular epithet for anybody -- from Howard Dean to yours truly -- who thinks that, if we want these people's votes (or, as with the authoritarians discussed in the series, to simply bring them back to the reality-based world), we might do well to actually go out there, get to know who they are, and speak to what they value.
What's ironic about this third group is that they don't even notice that they're actively arguing against some of their own most cherished liberal ideals. Meeting people where they are? Treating them as unique individuals instead of wrongly lumping them into monolithic groups? Using social science research to divine their deeper motivations? Increasing our own cultural awareness to bridge the gaps in understanding? How utterly feckless. How blatantly useless. Don't you understand you can't reason with these people? Don't you know we're in a war?
And if our values are misplaced -- whoa, just wait until you hear our proposals! Moving the conversation forward by focusing on common ground, instead of what separates us. Honestly invoking spiritual values listeners will understand and find inspiring, or comforting. Appealing to authorities they regard as credible, rather than shooting our own toes off by invoking people they despise. Finding strong language that creates emotional bonds, and empowers the nervous and fearful. Asserting that some values support democracy better than others -- and coming out for those values, with full conviction. How dare people who advocate such things call themselves liberals?
The progressive cause is captive of all three stereotypes. We are going to stay bound in place until we start recognizing all the ways they shape our thinking, and decide to think differently.
Most essentially, we need to stay focused on McLuhan's truth that the medium is the message. We have strong ideas, but we've expressed them narrowly, weakly, and intermittently for lo, these past 40 years. The right wing conversely, has weak and damaging ideas -- but they were willing to broadcast them, strongly and without without letup, for as long as it took.
Notice who won the last round of the meme wars. And imagine how much better we might do if the media we choose were even half as strong as the message we have to tell.
The wrong kind of 'tradition'
Normally, a devastating profile of a politician's background like Max Blumenthal's incisive piece in The Nation regarding Republican Sen. George Allen and his history of flirtation with extremist neo-Confederates would be a windfall for an opponent in an election year. In the case of Allen, whose latent racism has already risen to the fore in the form of his "macaca" remarks, it's the kind of story that keeps an already damaging issue for Allen in play.
Indeed, left-wing bloggers have been all over it; Kos has a detailed post up, and everyone from Atrios to Steve Gilliard chiming in.
It's not as though the information we now have about Allen isn't damning enough. As Blumenthal makes plain, Allen's connections to the Council of Conservative Citizens -- a neo-Confederate white supremacist organization (about whom I've written often, including this relatively germane post) are both long-term and substantive.
And as Blumenthal details, Allen's involvement in the CofCC has also played out in his policy, particularly as a governor:
But George Allen's relationship with the CCC is different; it went beyond poses and portraits. In 1995, he appointed a CCC sympathizer, Virginia lawyer R. Jackson Garnett, to head the Virginia Council on Day Care and serve on the Governor's Advisory Council on Self-Determination and Federalism. According to the CCC's Citizens Informer, Garnett delivered a speech before a CCC gathering saying that the Federalism Commission was "created to study abuses by the Federal government of constitutional powers that rightfully belong to the states."
Later that year, Garnett closed the Virginia Council on Day Care after accusing it, as he wrote in a letter to Governor Allen, of attempting to "form the minds of our young children with a radical ideology before they enter public schools." The Virginia Council had aroused Garnett's ire, according to the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, for preparing an "anti-bias" curriculum for day care teachers. Allen approved the shut-down.
Allen's Advisory Council on Self-Determination and Federalism bore an eerie resemblance to the Virginia Commission on Constitutional Government, a state agency that engaged in lobbying and propaganda in support of "massive resistance" to integration. One typical pamphlet published by the Commission declared, "We do not propose to defend racial discrimination. We do defend, with all the power at our command, the citizen's right to discriminate."
A year after the trashing of the Virginia Council on Day Care, Allen expressed his fervent belief in states' rights in a letter to the largest neo-Confederate group, the Sons of Confederate Veterans. On the occasion of the group's centennial, in 1996, Allen wrote, "Your efforts are especially worthy of recognition as across our country, Americans are charting a new direction--away from the failed approach of centralized power in Washington, and back to the founders' design of a true federal system of shared powers and dual sovereignty." Then Allen appropriated Lincoln's language in the Gettysburg Address about "a new birth of freedom": "By doing so," wrote Allen, "our country is helping to foster a rebirth of freedom for all Americans and will allow the states to chart their own course and control their own destinies as intended by the Constitution."
It's probably worth noting that the SCV hasn't always been a neo-Confederate organization, at least not in the sense that it is an extremist group which agitates for modern secession and a new Confederacy. Since 1996, however, that has been changing, as the Southern Poverty Law Center explored in some depth last year. For years the SCV was dominated by sincere non-racists whose chief interests lay in extolling the virtues of their heritage, such as they were. But in the past decade, neo-Confederates and other extremists have taken over most of its reins incrementally, so that today it can decidedly be described as neo-Confederate:
In what may be the clearest sign yet of this extremist drift, an analysis by the Intelligence Report finds that a significant number of SCV officials — including at least 10 men who hold key national leadership positions — are also active or recent members of hate groups, principally two neo-Confederate groups, the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) and the League of the South.
It's especially worth noting that, as Blumenthal describes, Allen's involvement in the SCV fell clearly on the extremist side of the aisle; the speech he gave explicitly encouraged, with political rhetoric swapped straight out of their playbook, the neo-Confederate ascension.
The SCV has been a classic good-ole-boys organization for years, but since the Civil Rights era, it has been studiously non-racist. It has been dominated since the '80s by Reagan Democrats and cultural conservatives. The rift within it is reflective of a rift within this culture generally: between racist extremists and the decent, sensible conservatives who want nothing to do with them.
So why isn't the Webb campaign doing anything to point out George Allen's support for, and considerable involvement with, the extremist faction?
One has to suspect that it has something to do with the Webb campaign's oft-noted pursuit of the "traditional Democrat" vote in Virginia. As I've noted before, this kind of strategy is fraught with all kinds of serious pitfalls, not the least of which is that the Democratic Party, historically speaking, was for much of its existence the home of white supremacists and overt racists.
The Webb campaign's disturbing proclivity for playing footsy with this element of the Southern voting public surfaced in the primary season, when it ran a cartoon vilifying Webb's opponent in a particularly disturbing fashion: as a conniving, hook-nosed Jew sneakily conspiring to take away Virginians' jobs. And why, exactly, was Webb depicted as a fist-swingin' guy who just happened to be wearing a brown shirt, black pants and combat boots? The last time I saw this kind of imagery, it was in an Aryan Nations flyer.
Of course, there was nothing explicitly anti-Semitic about the flyer. But you'd have to be immensely thick not to see what kind of appeal was being made here, especially in a cartoon where stereotypes are the rule anyway. Why use these stereotypes if that's not the kind of appeal you're making?
This aspect of the Webb campaign is largely the continuing influence of a consultant named David "Mudcat" Saunders who has become a Beltway darling with his open embrace of the NASCAR element as a voting bloc. Saunders defends the Miller cartoon in this interview by charging that it was Miller who "injected the race card" into the campaign. Sounds like a classic Republican tactic: Indulge in racist policies and behavior, then accuse those who call them on it of "playing the race card."
What’s neither amusing nor ironic, but rather sad, is the state of political advice when it comes to the Democrats’ problems in the South. Saunders’ consultancy career, after all, depends on solving the following riddle: How is it that working-class whites -- especially those in the rural parts of the South who sit side by side with similarly situated working-class southern blacks at high school sporting events on Friday nights, shop at the same businesses on Saturday afternoon, attend similar (if different denominational) Christian churches on Sunday morning, and send their kids to the same public schools the following Monday -- troop to the ballot box on the first Tuesday every other November vote and pull the lever for the Republicans while their black neighbors are voting overwhelmingly Democratic? The answer is complex but, of course, is rooted in race.
When I asked Saunders if he could think of any other two sets of Americans who are otherwise so similarly situated yet vote so differently, he had no answer. Probed for a solution to this stultifying racial bifurcation, he mumbled something about how every white southern guy has at least "one black friend." The soporific Trippi -- himself freshly demoted by former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, whose U.S. Senate campaign in Maryland had been listing badly in 2005 before Trippi was replaced by a new team -- had little to add. Apparently, this is what now passes for serious analysis about southern politics from high-priced political consultants, which is why I flew home feeling a strange sympathy for the man who heckled me, even if he was screaming at the wrong panelist.
I'm not as pessimistic as Schaller about the prospects of making headway in the South, but he hits on an important point: Democrats cannot hope to make gains with racist voters without irrevocably compromising their core principles, particularly their dedication to civil rights and racial justice. As I explained back when Howard Dean stubbed his toe on this problem:
The death of rural America -- a brutal, slow, painful death by suffocation, as corporate agribusiness displaces the family farm -- should be a major issue for Democrats. The Jeffersonian ideal, recall, was an America built as a nation of "citizen farmers." It may be something of a myth, but it is one that is deeply imbedded in our national psyche, and it is not one we can just hastily dispose of like some overripe cantaloupe.
Republicans have made great headway in these states by pretending to be on their side -- mostly by wrapping themselves in red-white-and-blue rhetoric, and especially by waving the bloody shirt of hating the gummint, who by the GOP's lights has been solely responsible for the entirety of rural dwellers' miseries (this was how they managed to fleece them with the misbegotten Freedom To Farm Act of 1996, which should have been more accurately named the Giant Hogtrough For Corporate Agribusiness). Indeed, it's clear this is one of the chief purposes of the proliferation of anti-government tropes by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and his conservative cohorts: to separate working-class people from the very political presence most capable of actually protecting their long-term interests from the Enronesque predators of unfettered corporatism -- namely, the gummint.
Meanwhile, the Democrats have treated these issues as empty afterthoughts at best (Al Gore actually had a reasonably intelligent agriculture program, but you'd never have known about it from either the "invented the Internet" Washington press corps or from Al Gore himself). They have essentially ceded the field to the GOP, and are now paying the price.
Dean at least is trying to confront the problem. Health care and education are natural starting points, though there are many more areas of common ground that in the long term may be even more important. Still, it's a smart gesture.
But Dean makes an error in staking out this argument, an unsurprising one, I suppose, for the son of a stockbroker: He presumes that rural America is monolithic. But in truth, like most American subcultures, it has its own internal divisions. And if you had to explain it in a simple sound bite like Dean's, that division nowadays is between the folks who have Confederate flag stickers in their back windows and those who don't.
The latter -- the decent, civility-minded, neighborly people of common sense and good will who make up the vast majority of rural America -- are the Democratic party's natural rural base, the people who have most felt abandoned by the party's urban focus in the past 20 years. They are the people that Dean, or whoever carries the party's banner, needs to bring back into the fold.
The former -- the neo-Confederates and Patriots, the right-wing extremists and the unregenerate racists and segregationists, all of whom are the people most likely to put a Dixie sticker in the back window -- are the people who once upon a time made the Democratic Party the acknowledged home of the nation's unreconstructed racists. They are the people who fled the party in the 1960s for the welcoming arms of the Nixonite Republican Party.
Dean should not be courting this faction of rural America. Even if he provides them with a brilliant plan to ensure health care for all of them, they will reject it and him in the end anyway, because their hatred of "gummint" ultimately knows no bounds.
As I noted later, Dean in fact did back away from this kind of mistake, and his subsequent "50 state strategy" has, in my estimation, made some real inroads in rural America (certainly it has made a huge difference in revitalizing the Democratic Party in those reaches).
I simply don't believe that progressives will win rural districts by selling out their core values. I believe a lot of it has to do with framing those values in a way that rural people can identify with.
Saunders' strategy, it seems to me, moves us toward a lot of winking and nudging and fudging those core values, a sort of Southern Strategy in reverse. All it's likely to do is make the Democratic Party into the GOP Lite.
I hope Jim Webb can unseat George Allen. But I hope that his success doesn't cost the Democratic Party its soul.
Another orca movie Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Just got back from the wilds of British Columbia -- specifically, near Telegraph Cove on northern Vancouver Island. My friend Mike and I spent three days in the vicinity of Robson Bight Ecological Preserve. We didn't enter the preserve, of course, which is off-limits to boats (or at least is supposed to be, though we saw any number of commercial fishermen blithely wading through). We mostly hung out about a quarter-mile from the boundary and watched the whales come through; on Saturday, we saw about 60 whales.
The star of the procession was the A11 pod, which came in next to us from a handful of feet away from where we had been hanging out near the shore. They had also come by us the day before at our camp at Kaikash Creek (the wind was up and so were the whitecaps, so we stayed ashore) and come in close, at times rubbing the rocks there. The most impressive, as you'll see, was A13, the 28-year-old male who sometime this past year suffered a horrifying injury to the top of his magnificent dorsal fin; it appears a boat propeller took out a chunk of its top, leaving a noticeable white scar. These fins, incidentally, are mainly large chunks of collagen. He came up so close in front of my kayak he took my breath away; I was too startled to get off anything but a blurry half-shot of his saddle patch.
The sound recordings were generally pretty clear, but there was a large log boom being hauled by a massive tug that was slowly grinding its way eastward up the strait that day, churning up water and noise along the way. It's part of the constant background noise on the soundtrack.
Tunnels and Bridges, Part III: A Bigger World by Sara Robinson
As we saw in Part II, isolating authoritarian leaders and confronting their followers is a proven strategy for dealing with hate groups, whether it's a local band of skinheads a national movement of several thousand, or a coast-to-coast televangelist gone rogue. But these groups will simply reform and reappear unless we take essential steps to change the cultural atmospherics, and reduce the appeal of their message in the future.
We've seen that liberal tolerance and openess to others' ideas grows as one's fear decreases, and one's sense of the world expands. RWA followers tend to be somewhat less educated and much less familiar with other cultures; our recovered fundies commonly find that the fear that keeps them inside the system dissipates when their exposure to different religions and ethnicities increases, and the unknown world becomes known.
On the other hand, if you were going to deliberately set out to create an authoritarian society, you could hardly do better than some of the GOP's misbegotten social policies over the past couple decades. Here are a few ways in which Americans' understanding of the world has narrowed in recent decades, setting the stage and creating the atmosphere that allowed right-wing memes to take root and fester.
Civics Education I was at a conference at a small university in the Southwest last year, debating media topics with several other panelists. The conversation included a lively debate over the intent of the First Amendment. It soon became clear, judging from the questions we were getting from the 150 students, that many of them weren't entirely clear on just what that amendment said.
Finally, on an ominous hunch, I peered out into the darkness and asked for a show of hands. “How many of you had a high school class in government or civics?”
Three hands went up. All of them belonged to faculty members over 30. It was, I freely admit, one of the most frightening moments I've had in the past several years.
It turns out that civics classes – the essential information one needs to function as a citizen – have been gutted by tight school budgets over the past 20 years. As a result, we now have an entire generation of Americans who don't know how their government works, how the laws the live under get made, or what rights they have as citizens. They don't know who the Founders are, or what's in the Federalist Papers. They can't really articulate the Enlightenment ideals that led to the formation of this country. They are frighteningly ill-prepared to exercise or defend a birthright they don't even understand.
Small wonder, then, that the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that three-quarters of American high school students lacked basic proficiency in civics. According to a commentary published that year by William A. Galston of the Institute of Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland:
"The NAEP is administered biennially in what are deemed "core academic subjects." Unfortunately, civic education has not yet achieved that exalted status, and we are fortunate if civic knowledge is assessed once a decade...The results of the 1998 NAEP Civics Assessment were released a few months ago. They were not encouraging. For fourth, eighth, and (most relevant for our purposes) twelfth graders, about three-quarters were below the level of proficiency. 35 percent of high school seniors tested below basic, indicating near-total civic ignorance. Another 39 percent were at the basic level, less than the working knowledge that citizens need.
"When we combine these NAEP results with other data from the past decade of survey research, we are driven to a gloomy conclusion: Whether we are concerned with the rules of the political game, political players, domestic policy, foreign policy, or political geography, student performance is quite low. This raises a puzzle. The level of formal schooling in the United States is much higher than it was fifty years ago. But the civic knowledge of today's students is at best no higher than that of their parents and grandparents, know no more than they did. We have made a major investment in formal education, without any discernible payoff in increased civic knowledge...
"...It is easy to dismiss these findings as irrelevant to the broader concerns with which I began. Who cares whether young people master the boring content of civics courses? Why does it matter whether they can identify their congressman or name the branches of government? Surprisingly, recent research documents important links between basic civic information and civic attributes that we have good reason to care about.
1. Civic knowledge promotes support for democratic values. The more knowledge we have of the working of government, the more likely we are to support the core values of democratic self-government, starting with tolerance.
2. Civic knowledge promotes political participation. All other things being equal, the more knowledge people have, the more likely they are to participate in civic and political affairs.
3. Civic knowledge helps citizens to understand their interests as individuals and as members of groups. There is a rational relationship between one's interests and particular legislation. The more knowledge we have, the more readily and accurately we connect with and defend our interests in the political process.
4. Civic knowledge helps citizens learn more about civic affairs. Unless we have a certain basis of knowledge, it is difficult to acquire more knowledge. The new knowledge we do gain can be effectively used if we are able to integrate it into an existing framework into an existing framework of knowledge.
5. The more knowledge we have of civic affairs, the less we have a sort of generalized mistrust and fear of public life. Ignorance is the father of fear, and knowledge is the mother of trust.
6. Civic knowledge improves the consistency of the views of people as expressed on public opinion surveys. The more knowledge people have, the more consistent their views over time on political affairs. This does not mean that people do not change their views, but it does mean that they know their own minds.
7. Civic knowledge can alter our opinion on specific civic issues. For example, the more civic knowledge people have, the less likely they are to fear new immigrants and their impact on our country."
Perhaps more horrifying of all: that 1998 NEAP survey was apparently the last time the federal government even looked at this issue. Another eight years of high school seniors has graduated in the meantime. Too many of these, no doubt, are getting their remedial civics education from Rush Limbaugh, their pastors, and their skinhead co-workers. When confronted with bad facts, these young adults simply have no idea what the Constitution says, or how a true patriot responds.
Making sure that our high school seniors get at least a year or two of civics education, delivered by well-trained teachers using sound curricula, is arguably even more important that what's being taught over in the science lab. We will not stem authoritarianism over the long haul unless we establish a civics as a core requirement for high school graduation in all 50 states. We can't have an effective democracy -- and will be sitting ducks for would-be tyrants -- until every one of us knows this stuff. It's that simple.
Liberal Education There's a reason they call it “liberal education.” The more of it people have, the more liberal they tend to become.
Yet it's much harder to get to college now than it's been since WWII. Pell Grants and federally-supported low-interest loans have all but vanished. Now, students who want financial help for college have to fight for it – literally, by joining the military. Construction of new public universities has stalled, making it hard for the Echo Generation to find a place that will take them even if they can afford it. Our grandparents' firm belief that the more education Americans have, the stronger and richer the nation becomes, seems to have been abandoned: today's policy-makers would rather have less-educated workers that they can readily control.
That's only going to change when we realize our government is only as good as the education of the average voter. It's not a coincidence that America's most prosperous decades were also the ones in which we invested the most in education. While most Americans understand (at least vaguely) that our national prosperity and all that goes with it -- good jobs, growing industries, global prestige -- correlates strongly with the number of university degrees we're minting in any given year, we've somehow misplaced the understanding that the advanced thinking skills learned in college are also critical to making us canny, discriminating, well-informed voters.
Either we build the classrooms, pony up the tax money for tuition, and get more Americans back in college -- or we're going to keep ending up with politicians picked on the basis of their suitability as drinking buddies -- and voters who are easily led by their fears instead of by reason.
Cultural Exchange Americans hold fewer passports per capita and do less foreign travel than the citizens of any other industrialized democracy. We just don't get out much – and the less we travel, the more conservative we tend to be. According to Diana Kerry, who organized U.S. Expatriate voters for her brother John's 2004 campaign, 75% of passport-holding Americans vote Democrat.
We also travel less than we used to. Americans take fewer, shorter vacations than workers in any other first world country. Increasingly, we are not taking vacations at all. And, when we do get away, the costs and post-9/11 hassles of travel are keeping us much closer to home. Over time, these trends are going to seriously narrow our collective view of the world beyond our shores -- with potentially disasterous effects on our ability to make sound political decisions, especially where foreign policy, trade, and war are concerned.
We can fight back, to some degree, by bringing the world to us. The liberalism of urban Americans is fed by the rich cultural mix of our cities -- it's perhaps the main ingredient that turns our cities blue. But xenophobia grows like tansy in the vast rural stretches of the country -- not usually because the folks are naturally mean, but because they simply don't know anyone who's not like them, and therefore can't really imagine what it must be like to be, say, non-white, non-Christian, gay, lesbian, or an immigrant. In the hands of an ambitious right-wing leader with an anti-democratic agenda of his own, this unfamiliarity can all too easily be stirred into outright hostility and fear.
In better days, service groups like the American Field Service, Rotary, mainstream churches, and others historically stood on the small-town front lines against this impulse. AFS imported steady streams of foreign exchange students into small towns, giving rural high school students one-on-one friendships with peers from every corner of the planet. Returning AFS students from our own school were treated like local celebrities when they got back, bearing slides and stories and fluency in languages from Chinese to Afrikaans. At the adult level, international service clubs and church mission groups (run mainly within the largest denominations) provide adults with opportunities to go abroad, often to work on local projects in remote areas; and, at the same time, bring foreign visitors into their towns.
These efforts may look quaint and dated -- but it's hard to overstate the effect this kind of one-to-one cultural exchange can have in opening the horizons of people in rural areas. If we want to dissipate the fear of the Other that drives people into authoritarian thought systems, we need to make sure these networks survive, thrive, and expand. It's not a complete answer, but we need to identify and support the groups that keep these doors to the world open in rural America.
Goin' Up to The Country The Democrats bear their share of the blame, too. The post-McGovern retreat from the party's traditional blue-collar and farming base ensured that liberals were thin on the ground in much of rural America by 1980. The party's decision to centralize campaign planning in Washington led to the shuttering of thousands of local Democratic offices, many of them serving small towns. The GOP grew like kuzdu into the social void they left behind. By the late 80s, liberals were so invisible in so much of America that the right-wing radio talkers could tell their listeners we had horns and ate babies – and there was nobody actually on the home front left to stand up and contradict them.
They couldn't have gotten away with this if more rural Americans had simply known their liberal neighbors. “Wait – Rush is talking about those nice old ladies down at the Democratic office who did that great float for the Memorial Day parade.” “Hey, my fishing buddy Joe's a Democrat, and he's no traitor – he's a Vietnam vet.” The demonization of liberals happened one person at a time, and counted on the fact that rural liberals had been so effectively scattered and silenced that they couldn't mount a coherent response.
This is why liberal talk radio and Howard Dean's 50-state strategy play a critical role in changing the atmospherics. As we've seen, it's hard for RWAs to demonize a group when they feel affinity and loyalty to a member of that group -- or when they see the actual faces, and hear the actual voices, of those people every day.
We need to get our faces and voices back out there, on every street in America -- and Dean's plan to plant full-time, permanent activists and offices on the ground in every county in America will accomplish that, giving Democrats that missing high local profile again. Rural Americans, even those brainwashed hate-radio fans, will be reminded that those traitorous liberals are people they know, and interact with daily – the teacher, the preacher, the guys in the union and down at the veterans hall. Organizing local progressives, raising their profile, and restoring their voices is the first step to breaking the back of national authoritarian politics.
Our GI grandparents were lifelong liberals not just because of the New Deal, but because WWII took them off the farms and out of the cities and showed them the world; and because the GI Bill opened the university doors to them -- a hope many had never had before. They stayed generally liberal in their outlook -- even when they became prosperous and started voting Republican -- because everybody they knew agreed that travel, education, and tolerance were essential to both the spiritual and economic well-being of a growing empire.
The investments America made in this generation and these goals were, in a very real sense, investments in its own democratic future. We are losing our democracy to the authoritarian movements because we are no longer making these investments. This stuff is basic -- perhaps so taken for granted that it doesn't even need to be said out loud. But, given the decay evident in our civics classes, our college attendance rates, and our overall exposure to the larger world (including the other cultures we share the country with), it's time to step back and start giving them the attention they deserve.
Democracy begins when we value essential liberal values enough to invest in them for the long haul. And, without that investment, it dies.
Tunnels and Bridges, Part II: Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself Sunday, August 27, 2006
by Sara Robinson
In Part III of Cracks In The Wall, we saw the importance of calming the high fear and panic levels that drive individual authoritarian thinking. Taking fear reduction to the community and national scale is pretty much the same process. The ground rules are: find and build from our common ground; appeal to authorities they're bound to respect; and speak from strength, always avoiding weak and ambiguous language.
Family, Community, and the Moral Common Good Finding political and cultural common ground, as we all know, hasn't been easy in recent years. Many RWAs are beyond furious at the whole idea of government, for reasons that most of us have found perplexing, but Doug Muder, in his excellent essay "Red Family, Blue Family," makes pointedly clear. For those at the authoritarian end of the spectrum, supporting schools that don't teach their values and parks where they can't put up their Christmas displays feels like taxation without representation. The social safety net just encourages people to ignore their inherited familial obligations. We don't even define “family” the same way they do; and we don't reckon our obligations to it in quite the same way. How can we stop talking past each other, and find solid places to connect?
Muder's essay offers several promising suggestions – all of which emerge from his core point that RWAs are angry with us because they've been told to mistake our tolerance and flexibility for moral unseriousness. Only people who take their commitments lightly could be so keen on creating systems that enable people to abandon their obligations, or excuse them from the consequences of their choices. Staking out common ground, he argues, begins with making our own commitments clear:
The most important fact that conservatives don’t know about liberals is this: We believe that a life without commitments is superficial and empty. Unlike the demonized liberals you hear about on Fox News, real liberals are morally serious people who are not looking to take the easy way out when there are greater issues at stake.
Liberals join the Peace Corps, work in soup kitchens, and stand together with unpopular oppressed peoples rather than walking away from. Why? Because liberals are serious, committed people....Our rhetoric needs to capture the seriousness of our beliefs and commitments. We should, for example, miss no opportunity to use words like commitment and principle. Our principles should be stated clearly and we should return to them often, rather than moving towards a nebulous center whenever we are afraid of losing....
Many, given an accurate view of liberals and the values that motivate us, may come to see that we are not so scary, and that their differences with us can be bridged. And as the pluto- cratic agenda of the Right lets jobs continue to be lost, wages continue to stagnate, and the gap between rich and poor stretch ever wider, they may recall that the New Deal was not such a bad idea after all.
As we saw in Part III, individual RWAs relax when they feel sure of who we are and what we stand for, even when they don't agree with it. They are impressed by strength, and have contempt for weakness – especially in those who seek to lead them. They will not trust us as long as we're ambiguous about our values and commitments. But once we start using clear language and taking clear, bold stands for what we cherish, they may at least be impressed with our moral strength even when they don't share our principles. Once their trust is engaged, and they are convinced they are dealing with morally serious people who are strong in their own beliefs and values, it becomes easier to lead them away from black-and-white thinking, and toward greater willingness to think in more complex terms.
The Right Authorities We've seen that RWA followers only grant legitimacy to authorities who confirm and support their worldview; and they may expand those views if given permission to do so by people operating under color of these accepted authorities. We gain their trust when we support our points by enlisting authorities they respect.
It's true that finding authorities that we can also give some credence to isn't always easy. We need to choose our rhetorical allies carefully. Perhaps the first place to look is in the ranks of sainted Republicans, past and present, who took positions that would now be recognized as liberal. Eisenhower and Nixon both had some magnificent moments here. Teddy Roosevelt and Abe Lincoln also provide rich fodder. "Conservatives Without Conscience" began in conversations between John Dean and Barry Goldwater; one of Dean's main arguments is that Goldwater's values were much closer to those of modern liberals than they are to Bush's. Likewise, there are clergymen with "elder statesman" status on the right -- Robert Schuller and Billy Graham, to name two -- who have surprisingly often argued for positions that square with progressive notions of morality.
Yes, we have our own important liberal sources of authority. But when we are trying to talk to the authoritarian right, our sources will not be believed. In quoting their own heroes back to them, we're not only moving onto common ground -- "we believe these things, too" -- we're also co-opting some of their own mythology, taking control of it and re-defining it in the same way the right wing has re-defined words like "liberal" and "patriot" out from under us. It's a game two can play; and this is the way to play it with a clean conscience.
Brave Words and Strong Language Democrats seem to have lost the gift of powerful oratory. Most of our public figures speak like overeducated technocrats, relying on facts rather than emotion to carry their message. It's why they're seen as effect urban snobs. It's time to return to language that speaks in clear terms of right and wrong – not to parrot authoritarian values, as some Vichy Democrats are prone to do, but to passionately assert and defend the traditional Democratic values that are the very basis of constitutional government. There are just two rules here:
Stay Strong -- As we've seen, RWA followers are driven by their fears. Rush, Ann, and other right-wing talkers play straight into that fear by speaking in voices that are strong, assertive, even occasionally aggressive. It hits all their buttons, providing an emotional antidote to the fear they feel even as it stokes the fires of their rage. God knows the appeal of these gasbags isn't in the factual information they provide; it's in the soul-comforting conviction they bring to their bloviations. It's their emotional appeal that establishes them as authorities in their listeners' ears, and convinces them to follow wherever they lead.
Democrats have a long and noble rhetorical tradition of speaking from strength, which we stupidly abandoned out of embarrassment at the over-the-top rantings of the far-left leaders of the 60s. In reaction to this, public liberals have spent the last 30 years leaning the other way, trying (at the cost of their own credibility) to sound not-loony, calm, and rational. The upshot, to many Americans, is that we sound like wimps who don't really believe what we're saying, don't understand the fear they feel, and aren't strong enough to be counted on when it matters.
People: Abbie Hoffman has been dead for 17 years, and the Sixties are now three decades behind us. The world has moved on -- and it's desperately in need of Fighting Dems again. America isn't afraid of our strong language; to the contrary, it's terrified by the lack of strength we seem to bring to our convictions.
If you can't remember how this is done, go re-read Tom Paine's pamphlets, Dr. King's speeches, or anything from FDR or JFK or great populists like Bob LaFollette. This is our rhetorical heritage; it is also how we reclaim the respect of the soft-core followers who may be seeking a powerful, moral alternative to the increasinly unignorable cravenness of their own right-wing leaders.
Stay Concrete -- Use the specific, non-abstract language that authoritarians understand. Draw clear lines between people, policies, and the real-life consequences people experience in their own lives. "My proposed bill will put $10 million in new programs for illiteracy" makes your average voter (authoriarian or otherwise) just snooze. But "The war in Iraq is costing you, personally, X dollars per day. In a year, that's Y new teachers you're not getting in your local school, Z amount of health care for your family, and Q amount of effective homeland security" -- that's the kind of real-world specificity that wakes listeners up to the intimate consequences of their choices.
As the GOP rose through the 70s and 80s, it sought out and cultivated candidates that could speak this language – and then, just to make sure, gave them specific training to make them particularly effective at it. It's stunning that Democrats haven't followed suit. They've been talking circles around us for 20 years now.
It's past time for progressives to make strong, passionate oratory a required skill for our emerging leaders as well. Al Gore's global warming talks are perfect examples of how to lay out arguments that are clear, specific, values-based, emotionally appealing, and unambiguous in describing how specific policies can create great personal harm to the listener. Nationally, the growing influence of progressive Christian groups within the Democratic party, and the rise of politicians like Barack Obama and John Murtha who are comfortable with strong moral language, are positive trends. The progressive side is not going to win back the soft core until our ranks are thick with leaders who can present our values in the clear, literal, unequivocal language RWAs associate with strength.