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Progress and the Media

by James Bowman

Posted: Nov 12, 2010 07:57 PM

The following is the text of my remarks to a gathering to establish a Washington, D.C. chapter of the Friends of the New Criterion at the Tabard Inn on N Street N.W. yesterday evening, November 11, 2010

Thank you, Roger, for that kind introduction. I’m very grateful for the invitation to speak to such a distinguished group as the Friends of the New Criterion and even more grateful to the magazine itself for continuing to stand in solitary splendor among publications devoted to culture and the arts as the one which still advocates a fruitful interaction between what T.S. Eliot called "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and therefore is not merely dismissive of the former in favor of the latter. For tradition is part of what I want to talk about this evening — not just the poetic or artistic kind that Eliot was writing about but the much more comprehensive collection of customs and manners of which tradition in the arts is only one variety. Tradition in this broader sense has of course long been under assault by the most "progressive" elements of the dominant culture, but as the New Criterion’s designated observer of the media, I have to say that I don’t think it has ever been more endangered than it is today, and not only by those with an avowedly political agenda.

Last week’s election may in some degree have represented a backlash by those who have recently come to feel that they are being pushed too far, too fast in the direction of the "change" that was the mantra of the Obama campaign in 2008. But I think it was also a reaction to the way in which an alliance between the mainstream media and the "progressive" forces within the Democratic party now "do" politics. Part of the problem lies in that word "progressive," which is now the favored term of those who used to call themselves, also inaccurately, "liberals." The word "liberal" in most of the world still means what we call "conservative" insofar as it refers to free-market economic theories now referred to as "neo-liberal" by Latin American progressives and socialists with the same contempt that their domestic brethren reserve for "neo-conservative." The late Irving Kristol once said that he must have a "neo" gene because, throughout his career he’d been called neo-Marxist, neo-Trotskyist, neo-socialist, neoliberal and, finally, neoconservative. He thought there might be some common thread in all these different neos, and he was right. None of them was meant to be complimentary. Progressives seem to find the imputation that their opponents are throwbacks to any traditional political philosophy self-discrediting.

But what do they themselves believe? What is their political philosophy? That seems a harder question to answer. Here’s how the fiery progressive Florida congressman Alan Grayson, one of the casualties of the Republican wave put it. Progressivism, he said, is

the same impulse to be good to your fellow man that has been animating people for over 3,000 years. People have understood the need to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and to heal the sick. After 3,000 years that job is not done. So we keep at it. Progressivism is rooted in human nature. When people see other people in trouble they want to help. Progressivism is the objective manifestation of that impulse in politics.

In other words, his admirably non-political, non-partisan political philosophy is what people used to call decency, or Christian charity. Perhaps progressives should call themselves the neo-decent party. Of course, that’s bad luck for us non-progressives who have grown accustomed to thinking of ourselves as at least ordinarily decent human beings. Suddenly, we find ourselves outside the pale of what used to be called "decent society" along with those congressional Republicans whose policy on health care was, according to soon-to-be ex-Congressman Grayson, "Don't get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly."

Even to some of his fellow progressives that kind of language seemed a tad excessive, but it was entirely in keeping with the broader progressive project to re-define decency so as to exclude those whom they describe as being on the wrong side of history. That was Harry Reid’s verdict, as you may remember, on the Republican opponents of Obamacare. There we were, he said, suddenly in history’s sin bin right alongside the slave-owners who once took up arms against the Republic. I’m wary of what might seem to some the similar rhetorical excess of describing the Obama administration and its more progressive policies as "socialist" but it has to be said that they do have this in common with Marxist socialism: a belief in the inerrancy of history — and that they are on history’s side.

As late as the 1960s, when I was a youth, decency meant being thrifty, sober, clean, industrious and sexually continent. Then, with the sexual revolution, all those things, including what was now called sexual "prudery," were collectively known as being "up-tight" and themselves hinted faintly at a new kind of indecency. Decent society now was no longer decent but "judgmental" — which no decent person could any longer be. What this revolutionary change amounted to was a re-definition of decency which the "progressives" have tried to leverage into a justification for their social and political agenda. The pattern of politics generally has been laid down by the so-called "culture wars" in which the military metaphor is at least this far justified and not hyperbolical, that is, insofar as it divides us not along traditionally partisan lines but into the camp of the good guys and the bad guys, the newly validated decent progressives and those whom the President himself recently described as their "enemies."

The beauty of this division from the progressive point of view and that of the media lies precisely in this non-partisanship. Like Jon Stewart, who is becoming one of the media’s most prominent progressive spokesmen, they have done away (in their own minds at least) with what they call petty partisan squabbles. Mr Stewart even took the occasion of his pre-election rally on the Mall to take to task for their partisanship not only the usual suspects over at Fox News but Keith Olbermann, the big progressive attack dog of MSNBC who shortly thereafter was suspended, ludicrously though only for two days, for overt partisanship. But the idea of a "Rally to Restore Sanity" hides a deeper partisanship of its own, and by attempting to stake a claim to sanity itself on behalf of himself and his followers, Mr Stewart was avoiding petty partisanship at the expense of involving himself in something that looks more like civil war.

In a perceptive piece for The New Republic online, Sean Wilentz interpreted the election results as a rebuke to this kind of progressive thinking: that is, the kind that only two years ago appeared to have swept President Obama into office. I’d like to read you a little of what he wrote.

Clearly, the hopes and dreams that propelled Obama to the White House are in disarray. The social movement politics that some of his most fervent followers ascribed to him — the idea of electing a "post-partisan" president as the leader not of a nation or even of a political party but of a personalized social movement — has failed. The dream of the Obama presidency based on a movement model of politics was devised by Marshall Ganz, a veteran union organizer and lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School, hired as an Obama campaign official and charged with training Obama volunteers — and articulated by Ganz’s ally, Peter Dreier, also an Obama adviser, a member of Progressives for Obama, and a politics professor at Occidental College. Ganz was both the theorist and practitioner of the Obama-as- movement-leader notion while Dreier played the role of publicist, heralding the new age in articles in The Huffington Post, The American Prospect, and Dissent. Ganz’s projection of the Obama presidency gained its prestige from the hallowed memories of the civil rights and farmworker union movements, imbued with high moral as well as political purposes. He posed it against the threadbare, craven horse-trading and maneuvering of parties and all previous presidential politics, which Ganz believes were "practiced to maintain, rather than change, the status quo." The Obama experiment, a movement that arose from the grassroots apart from the Democratic Party, would usher in a purer moral and more effective leadership to the White House. Obama would not merely alter government policy but also transform the very sum and substance of the political system. As its advocates were thrilled to point out in the aftermath of the 2008 election, their own work had ensured that Obama and his presidential campaign embodied the social movement model — and they insisted that the model was what elected him.

To Professor Wilentz, this amounted to a tactical mistake on President Obama’s part. If he hadn’t put so much of his trust in this transformational "movement" then, he wouldn’t now be paying the price for having bowed to political reality later.

Obama in office upheld the community organizers’ post-partisan credo (he writes), trying to bring together opposing forces and finding common ground, in part under the pressure of the organizer’s own reasonableness. But that was not how it worked in Washington during the past two years; nor had it worked that way for 20 years. A ruthless and right-wing Republican Party spurned talk of common ground as a sign of weakness, and did everything it could to ensure that Obama’s presidency would fail.

With all due respect to the professor, I think he’s wrong about this. For one thing, it takes two to be post-partisan, and the Democrats’ willingness to use their majority to force through what it was increasingly obvious was a deeply unpopular health care bill without a single Republican vote was hardly what anybody could call an exercise in bringing together opposing forces and finding common ground.

But he’s wrong in a larger sense, too. For the movement-style of politics was not just an option, a tactical choice for the Democrats after eight years of moralizing their opposition to George W. Bush and all his works. It was all they had. Barack Obama would never have got near the presidency without the rhetorical template provided for him by the anti-war movement for whom President Bush had been at best a liar and at worst a war criminal. He didn’t even have to repeat these outrageous charges. The media had already helped by making them part of the political currency of the time. All he had to do was offer his own transparent decency, intelligence and idealism as the most obvious of contrasts. The Democrats’ decision to adopt the progressive model of themselves as the party of decency, opposed to the party of lies, corruption, tyranny and war-mongering, was taken long before Mr Obama emerged from the pack, along with his fellow community organizers, as their nominee in 2008 — and it was why he did emerge. It was a useful model, too, so long as he was running against what was widely seen as a discredited predecessor but not so useful once he himself had to defend the status quo.

Now that the party of no are in the majority in at least one house of Congress, the party of decency may once again have a plausibly indecent "enemy" to run against and so may be able to regain some electoral traction. It will be interesting to me to see if John Boehner and his Tea Partying troops take the same course President Bush did with his "compassionate conservatism" — remember that? — and his latter-day mission civilisatrice to spread democracy to the benighted corners of the earth and try to compete with the progressives to claim for his own party the imprimatur of decency. I almost said "make the same mistake" as President Bush did, but it is still too soon to tell (as Chou en-Lai is supposed to have said about the French Revolution) if it was a mistake or not. Maybe staking one’s claim to be the party of decency is the only option we have, Republican or Democrat.

For even under Ronald Reagan the Republicans never campaigned under the banner of tradition. Indeed, you could argue that the claim to be the party of decency and progress is an American tradition, perhaps the American tradition — older than the Republican claim that the Democrats were the party of acid, amnesty and abortion; older than the Democratic claim that the Republicans were the party of the "malefactors of great wealth"; older than the Republican claim that the Democrats were the party of "rum, Romanism and rebellion"; older even than Democratic-Republican claim that the Federalists were the party which would bring the monarchy back — as old, at least, as President Washington’s warning in his "Farewell Address" of the "common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party" itself. Odd to think of him as our first community organizer president, but he has that much, at least, in common with the current one.

The will o’the wisp of bi-partisanship or non-partisanship or post-partisanship in American politics seems to me the only possible explanation for the continuing power of the media to shape the political debate. For even though most people claim to believe that the media are biased, and biased towards the left and the Democrats, they mostly also continue to believe in the sad illusion of an ideally unbiased media that really is what the media we have only claims to be. That must be why the media’s efforts in the recent election to marginalize certain high-profile Tea-Party candidates with personal attacks seem to have met with some success. But as the catalogue of indecencies supposed to disqualify undesirables from high office grows ever longer, encompassing not only vague claims and rumors of racism, sexism, homophobia, bigotry and all the rest of it but student pranks such as Rand Paul’s "Aqua Buddha" and Christine O’Donnell’s claim — you couldn’t make this one up — to have "dabbled in witchcraft," I cling to the hope that at some point the absurdity of the exercise will begin to occur to people as the power of the media continues to weaken along with their business model. That may be an illusion, too, of course. We’ll know, I predict, when we see if Jon Stewart again calls for an end to hard, Olbermannian partisanship when the partisan tides are once again flowing his way.

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