11/30/2008 (11:31 pm)
I’m frequently appalled at what passes for analysis on the left, so I guess Neal Gabler’s unbelievably vapid analysis at the Los Angeles Times, claiming that conservatism was really started by Joe McCarthy, and that what we’re seeing from conservatism is a “McCarthyism Gene,” is no real suprise.
As political science, Gabler’s article is simply incoherent. He liberally switches between “republican” and “conservative” in his descriptions of his targets, but really means neither; when he’s done staggering from pillar to post, he arrives leaning on the pillar of “paranoia in American politics” — the tactic of winning elections by scaring people.
If his criteria included populism and anti-intellectualism, as he suggests at first (before abandoning those), he’s on good ground connecting Ronald Reagan to Joe McCarthy; both led populist movements that were rejected by Washington elites, Reagan with greater success. But surely he understands that those are not sufficient criteria to define a political movement, doesn’t he?
“Use of scare tactics” is hardly a more robust criterion. By the time he lands on “scare tactics” as the common thread of conservatism (or is it Republicanism?) he’s tied McCarthy to Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, and Sarah Palin.
He accuses Nixon of “fueling resentments as McCarthy had,” without a single word explaining who resented what, or for what reason. It’s a meaningless assertion. Nixon probably won the 1968 election because the Democrats were hobbled by the Vietnam war and by the riots at the Democratic convention; the Democrats’ position that year was not very different from the Republicans’ position this year. He won the 1972 election because George McGovern was a blithering idiot and everybody knew it; nobody expected McGovern to win, and nobody really wanted to run against Nixon.
His sole reason for including George H.W. Bush in the list is the Willie Horton campaign ad, which was hardly the reason Bush was elected; he won because he was a Republican following one of the most popular Presidents in modern history. Michael Dukakis was an unapologetic liberal in an era where the American people identified “liberal” with social policies they detested. The elevation of the Horton ad to the role of chief identifying mark of Republicanism, ignoring every other factor in the election, strikes me as nothing but convenient cherry-picking (I would have said the same about his assertions about Nixon, except that there were not any cherries for him to pick, so he simply asserts his point without support of any kind.)
The anti-intellectual political science continues with George W. Bush. He includes George W. Bush in the list because of his success in tarnishing John Kerry’s war record, skipping right over the 2000 election because it does not fit his narrative. It’s to no avail. Tarnishing Kerry’s record is not even anything George W. Bush did. The Swiftboat Veterans for Truth were a private organization who advertised in only 3 states, and their message was carried by talk radio and the blogosphere, not by the Bush campaign. Ultimately, though, Kerry’s dishonor on this topic is the fault of John Kerry, who acted as the public face for the military anti-war movement in the 1970s, complete with false accusations of military atrocities. The opposition of Vietnam veterans to the Kerry candidacy was the most predictable political event of my lifetime, and to blame this on Karl Rove (who probably was not even involved in it) is the worst sort of infantile whining.
Palin, finally, earns inclusion in Gabler’s Hall of Shame merely by insisting that the link between Bill Ayers and Barack Obama contains relevant information. Readers of this blog know that that link goes a lot deeper than anything Sarah Palin said about it, and that Barack Obama cannot be defended as anything but a wholehearted neo-Stalinist who has adopted centrist policies just within the last 2 years in order deceive the public and win an election; readers who are new here should begin here, here, and here for background information. Be that as it may, however, one finds it hard to imagine that Gabler could possibly be serious when claiming that simply thinking the Ayers connection is important constitutes the primary criterion linking all conservatives — except, he really is serious.
This is truly the ultimate in slander politics; the mere mention of a negative characteristic of liberalism makes one a “conservative,” and thus a “genetic McCarthyite.” It’s political science without any attempt to assemble relevant facts. There’s no rebuttal for this level of silliness; one simply shrugs one’s shoulders and mutters, “Whatever.”
Absent from this analysis, of course, is any consideration of whether there’s anything to be scared of, or (to put the matter more objectively) any problem to be taken seriously. He simply asserts indirectly, without even making a positive claim, that everybody knows there were no communists in US government, that the Soviet Union was not an Evil Empire, and that radical Islam is not a real threat. He’s provably wrong on all points. The Venona project has settled the question of whether there were communist plants in the US government; we now know there were hundreds, and beyond that, McCarthy’s primary claim was simply that government personnel policies were irresponsible, which they provably were. The millions killed in the Gulag, and the murderous communist revolutions around the world that ceased for some reason after the fall of the Soviet Union (odd coincidence, that) stand as testimony to the evil of the Soviets, and their collapse vindicates Reagan’s policies. I’ve already pointed out that Kerry has nobody to blame for the reaction of Vietnam veterans aside from himself, and that Palin actually had a point about Obama.
Of course, it’s pretty difficult to listen to complaints about a proclivity for “scare tactics” or the “politics of resentment” from the political party whose most successful theme for the past two decades has been “soak the rich,” that has the government buying up the banking industry over an imminent credit freeze that nobody seems to be able to substantiate, that wants to turn American productive capacity over to a central economic planning organization in order to prevent a global warming crisis that is increasingly imaginary, or that insisted on electing a man with an empty resume’ on the dubious thesis that the only opposition to such a candidate arose from a sort of racism that the US has not exhibited since the 1960s. If Joe McCarthy were, in fact, guilty of scaremongering over a chimera (he’s not), his most direct political descendants would be Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barney Frank, not Sarah Palin and George W. Bush. I suppose Gabler excludes Gore and Frank because leftist intellectuals, for no reason having anything to do with facts, still think they’re right about a few things. It’s not a great reason.
I do think Joe McCarthy, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Sarah Palin have in common that they announced reason to be cautious and take sane measures against real threats. I think Al Gore, Barack Obama, and Barney Frank have in common their cynical opportunism based on illusory threats. But I don’t think any sound political science could associate them on this basis alone. This is the stuff of bad freshman Poli Sci papers, the kind that earn the sea of red ink in which they invariably swim.
If Gabler wants a genuine recent instance of an anti-elite populist, he should visit Newt Gingrich’s American Solutions project. The only problem is that Gabler would then have to admit that America really is a center-right nation; Gingrich produces copious polling data suggesting that politicians could easily draw 70% or more popular support on nearly any political subject by adopting a center-right policy line. His “Drill Here, Drill Now” theme (yes, that came from Gingrich, not from Michael Steele) arose from the poll suggesting that more than 70% of Americans, including a majority of Democrats, think it makes good sense for the US to develop its own internal oil sources.
In the end, Gabler’s “analysis” amounts to an unthinking, whining complaint about how unfair it is that when Republicans are on message, the American people find what he calls “liberalism” abhorrent. He’s disturbed that so many people think he supports policies that are just, plain bad policies. Tough. They’re bad policies nonetheless, and if saying so makes me a “genetic McCarthyite,” then I’ll be one proudly. Only, of course, it doesn’t; it just makes me Gabler’s political opponent, somebody he’s more comfortable calling names than he is engaging in anything resembling cogent discussion.
The impulse to character assassination of this sort does, in fact, run in political parties; only, he’s got the wrong party. Character assassination is the singular, unifying theme of every Democratic party initiative of the past 70 years; it’s the only thing they do well. Just ask Joe McCarthy. Or Dan Quayle, Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas, Newt Gingrich, Linda Tripp, Ken Starr, George W. Bush, Sarah Palin…