Obama is taking some flak for distancing himself from the MoveOn mentality and toward the faith-based mentality, and I thought I'd make an attempt to explain why I think it's probably a good idea. It is insofar as it is part of a longer-term strategy to explode the left/right/center media narrative that has developed since the sixties and that I wrote about the other day. The real issues before us are not defined by left vs. right, but by those who want to preserve democracy and the rule of law vs. those who are promoting or are ok with or don't care about the nation's drift toward a national security surveillance state. Nothing matters more than arresting this drift because of the threat it poses to the idea of America.
That idea isn't dead yet, but it's moribund. Obama's campaign revived my hopes that it the idea might survive and move toward a greater realization of itself because he was right on the issues and because he understood to effect a re-alignment around those issues. That means creating an atmosphere within the Democratic Party that is more hospitable to Main Street than many Main Streeters feel is currently the case. And a part of creating that atmosphere requires moving away from the style of liberal politics that endoresed or became associated with the New Left in the sixties.
You could make the argument that the movement toward a national police state began in earnest during the fifties and sixties. Reading Rick Perlstein's Nixonland will educate those of you who didn't live through it and remind those of us who did why the new lefties of the sixties provoked the backlash that justified such a movement in the minds of many Americans. It's not that the Left was wrong about the war and race; it wasn't even that the the anger and frustration by many who opposed the war was unjustified--it was. Then as now bi-partisanship meant a shared commitment to idiocy, and that idiocy defined our national policy. It was infuriating. But the anger and frustration about the war combined with Black anger and frustration created a continuous media spectacle of riots and violent confrontations with the police that scared the hell out of most Americans, and they wanted the police to put an end to it.
Perlstein's narrative makes clear that the new lefties, no matter that they were right on the issues, developed a style of protest that was easy for Main Street to hate. They were deliberately provocative and divisive, and their tactics, rather than to quicken the conscience of Middle America, provoked instead its disgust and in doing so delegitimated their cause. The New Left driven protests assumed the illegitimacy of the Johnson and Nixon governments, but neglected to persuade the rest of the country.
A precondition for the success of any political protest requires that the majority of non-protesters sympathize with the protesters. That's what distinguished the Civil Rights protests before the riots and protests like Solidarity in Poland. The New Left tactics were more about expressing rage than effecting change, and despite their being right on the issues, their tactics delegitimated their positions. People would rather be wrong than be associated with that rabble. Given the choice between the legitimacy of the state and its police powers and the legitimacy of the protesters who challenged that legitimacy, Americans chose the state.
Perlstein is very interesting in the way he describes the media coverage of the police brutality during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The media was outraged at the police because the police was indeed over-the-top brutal. But it soon became clear that the police were surrogates for what a majority of Americans would have liked to have done themselves--beat the living bejesus out of these ungrateful, morally degenerate, unpatriotic punks:
The media had left Chicago united in the conviction they were heroes, prophets, martyrs. "The truth was, these were our children in the streets, and the Chicago police beat them up," the New York Times's Tom Wicker wrote. "In Chicago," Stewart Alsop wrote, "for the first time in my life it began to seem to me possible that some form of American fascism may really happen here." Top executives at all the networks, New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Washington Post and Newsweek publisher Katharine Graham, Time Inc. editor in chief Hedley Donovan, and Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler posted an unprecedented telegram to Mayor Daley excoriating the way newsmen "were repeatedly singled out by policemen and deliberately beaten . . . to discourage or prevent reporting of an important confrontation between police and demonstrators which the American public as a whole has a right to know about about.
Then they learned the American public thought differently. . . .
Bumper stickers proliferated nationwide: WE SUPPORT MAYOR DALEY AND HIS CHICAGO POLICE. Sixty percent of Americans polled supported the sentiment, and 90 percent of the seventy-four thousand letters City Hall relieved in the mail in the two weeks after the convention. It wasn't, they said pace Tom Wicker, their children being beaten in the streets of Chicago. And these media mandarins, they said, weren't their moral authorities.
And the public being their customer, it wasn't long before the media mandarins' interpretation changed.
The editor of the Chicago Daily News, whose publisher had signed the telegram to Daley, abjectly apologized for one of his reporters who had shouted at policemen beating three women,"For God's sake stop that!": "He acted as a human being, but less than a professional, he was there as a reporter not to to involve himself."
Chicago's American was the conservative Hearst paper, and even their tough-guy, cop-loving columnist Jack Mabley had written about how "a policeman went animal when a crippled man couldn't get away fast enough." Shortly thereafter, Mabley climbed down from his short career as a cop critic in a moment of severe self-doubt: "80 to 85 percent of the callers and letter writers cheering for Daley and the cops: You can't help that gnawing feeling--can all these people be right and I be wrong?"
Godfrey Hodgson wrote of the media about-face: "They had been united, as rarely before, by their anger at Mayor Daley. Now they learned that the great majority of Americans sided with Daley, and against them. It was not only the humiliation of discovering that they had been wrong; there was also alarm at the discovery of their new unpopularity. Bosses and cops everyone knew were hated; it seemed that newspapers and television were hated even more." pp. 335-37
I quote Perlstein here to make a couple of points: The liberal media narrative was created in the sixties, and intellectuals and others who sided with blacks and anti-war protesters lost all credibility with Main Street. Not because they were wrong, but because they became associated with the forces of social chaos. Their being right on the issues wasn't enough because they hadn't earned broad public legitimacy, and indeed supported the behavior of many whom the broad public perceived disturbingly illegitimate, which in turn caused them to lose whatever legitimacy they had.
It's not about facts; it's about legitimacy. The media types saw and experienced for themselves unfettered police brutality. Their initial outrage was more than justified. But Main Street thought the protests were illegitimate, so it was quite at one with what Daley and his police had done. Main Street was terrified by the social chaos that had been unleashed, and it looked to thugs like Daley to force the demon back into the box. People said they were for law and order, but put the emphasis on order--if the police have to step all over the law to insure order, so be it. They saw it as the reassertion of a legitimate order on an illegitimate threat to that order. Challenges to the status quo just don't work unless they are broadly perceived as legitimate no matter how legitimate the protesters' cause might be in their own minds. The first task for any protest is to earn legitimation by the broad public. Being right isn't enough.
This is how police states are born. And nine out of ten times when a confrontation develops between an angry mob and the power of the state, the state wins--and the majority applauds. Liberals and intellectuals sided with the angry mob in the sixties because they understood that the mob was right on the issues. A majority of Americans sided with the police and the so-called law-and-order pols because they thought the world was falling apart and that was more of a problem for them than whether the war was wrong or whether blacks had justified grievances.
So this is why I think that any kind of progressivism that has a chance of working in this country has to dissociate itself from the delegitimated new-left style of the sixties. It has to bring Main Street on board, and the new-left style of liberalism still causes a kind of revulsion in Middle America that makes it extremely difficult for Main Streeters to look at the issues except through this distorting left-right, liberal-conservative lens. They see the issues in tribal terms, and the tribal alignments determine one's attitudes no matter what the facts on the ground might be. And as long as those tribal alignments persist, it is very difficult for people who came to loathe "liberalism" in the sixties to support policies, even if they are in their interest, even if they are fundamental to the idea of America, if they are policies they perceive as promoted by sixties-style "liberals."
How to do this is not obvious or easy, but it seemed to me early on that Obama was trying to find a way. I hope I was right about that. I don't think MoveOn is some terrible fomenter of political illegitimacy, but I think it has limited Main Street appeal because of its association with sixties style liberalism. And so I'm all for any attempt to find a way to promote the legitimacy of challenges to the current political arrangements, and if it's necessary in order to achieve that to disavow the sixties style of politics practiced by the netroots or progressive "community", so be it. But it's a question of changing style and tactics without compromising on substance. And that's a distinction that seems to have been lost on the Obama campaign the last week or two. A new narrative is growing that Obama is just a politician who talks pretty but doesn't really believe in anything. I don't believe that to be true, but he better not let such a narrative get legs.
I understand the need to be practical about political reality, but I think that his so far believable presentation of himself as the politician who finally will say NO to the kind of Beltway politics expediency-based is capital that he should be very careful not to squander. We'll see how much the expediency-driven decisions of the last two weeks in the long-run hurt him, but I think they did him more harm than good.