State of the Union

Stadium Politics and the Rebirth of the Salesman

A big trend this election cycle is the mega rally. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders and Republican front-runner Donald Trump are drawing thousands. The results differ. Trump crushed the field in New York while Sanders floundered. But both tap into a deep desire for authenticity.

So we’re told, but it’s actually just another form of marketing.

NPR’s Tamara Keith reported Monday that supporters prefer rallies to business roundtables and town hall meetings. Those forums are stuffy and staged, she said. Rallies, however, don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are—big shows. Plus, as a Sanders supporter said: “They do seem more authentic, and I think it goes back to a lot of people in one place at one time with a similar mindset.”

Americans are unique in their desire for authenticity. We crave “real” experiences and expect our politicians to be “real.” And politicians are all too eager to meet that demand. Since the 1950s, they have presented themselves to voters using techniques from advertising and marketing.

In The Selling of the President 1968, journalist Joe McGinniss documented how former Vice President Richard Nixon exploited the difference between the real Nixon—a man who, as future Fox News chief and Nixon aide Roger Ailes said at the time, got a briefcase for Christmas “and loved it”—and the Nixon who played a seasoned statesman on television.

Given that advertising and politics are con games, McGinniss said:

It is not surprising that politicians and advertising men should have discovered one another. And, once they recognized that the citizen did not so much vote for the candidate as make a psychological purchase of him, not surprising they began to work together.

Without authenticity, however, without the supporter’s sincere belief that the candidate is who he says he is, that the candidate believes what he says he believes, this “psychological purchase” fails to take hold.

If it becomes clear that the candidate is just selling himself, no matter how charismatic, no matter how charming, he’s no longer a leader in the eyes of supporters, wrote David Foster Wallace while covering John McCain’s anti-candidate candidacy for Rolling Stone. Instead, he’s a salesman.

If you’re subjected to great salesman and sales pitches and marketing concepts for long enough—like from your earliest Saturday-morning cartoons, say—it is only a matter of time before you start believing deep down that everything is sales and marketing, and that whenever somebody seems like they care about you or about some noble idea or cause, that person is a salesman and really ultimately doesn’t give a shit about you.

Wallace was onto something. According to Sandra L. Calvert, director of the Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown University, long-term exposure to TV advertising can lead to negative outcomes, including, among other things, cynicism. In a 2008 study, she wrote:

Children can also become cynical as they begin to understand the underlying persuasive messages of advertisements. For example, sixth and eighth graders who understand more about commercial practices, such as using celebrity endorsements, are more cynical about the products. Even so, children who are repeatedly exposed to attractive messages about “fun” products still want them, even if they are aware of advertiser selling techniques.

The implication is that even though children—and adults too, for that matter—may know that something is not what it seems, that does not stop them from wanting it.

Because politicians have been selling themselves for decades, and because young voters are so deeply familiar with the marketing strategies of advertisers, it shouldn’t be surprising to find some Americans calling for a boycott of election day as if they were boycotting Walmart.

That’s what Salon’s Danielle Corcione meant when she wrote: “When I vote for a president I don’t support, I support a flawed political system. I refuse that system.”

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with expecting the moon and stars from politicians. But there is something naive about demanding authenticity from them. The American system separates power so thoroughly that elected officials must betray constituents, as it were, to get anything done.

That’s why voting isn’t a market exchange or a “psychological purchase.” Properly understood, voting is a strategy for increasing the likelihood of putting in power someone who best serves your interests.

Mega rallies, moreover, aren’t more authentic than town hall meetings. They are in effect another kind of marketing, the very thing voters say they don’t want, but can’t prevent themselves from consuming.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the 2016 Koeppel Journalism Fellow at Wesleyan.

Unity Trumps a Flawed Candidate

If politics is the art of the possible, what’s possible changed dramatically on Tuesday.

In recent weeks, it was possible to imagine the Republican Party’s nomination going to someone other than the remaining candidates: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich. In the final tally, none may have enough delegates to meet the party’s threshold for winning the nomination on the first ballot. For this reason, speculation in Washington has been that House Speaker Paul Ryan might step in.

Earlier this week, Ryan narrowed the frame of what’s possible. Twice.

“I do not want nor will I accept the nomination for our party,” he said.

Then, in taking himself out of consideration, he did something else. He suggested that anyone other than Trump, Cruz and Kasich is out of bounds. He said: “I believe [delegates] should only choose from a person who has actually participated in the primary. … If you want to be the nominee, you should actually run for it.”

This casts doubt on efforts to draft Mitt Romney, the 2012 nominee, or anyone else. The press has reported on efforts to conscript military generals and other notables. If the party was in a pickle before, it’s more so now. Who to choose?

First, Kasich. The Ohio governor has no chance of coming close to the 1,237 delegates needed to win. His aim now is to present himself as a compassionate alternative to Trump and Cruz, perform modestly well on the coasts, where Republicans are more moderate, and ride the horse all the way to the convention.

Kasich is in fact much more conservative than Trump. That should give heart to the Christian right and business Republicans. He’s only nominally less conservative than Cruz, but he expanded Medicare in Ohio under the Affordable Care Act, which is beyond the pale to the Tea Party faithful. Kasich’s biggest challenge as the “fourth place candidate” is his dearth of delegates. Choosing Kasich wouldn’t be much different in terms of its anti-democratic impression than choosing Paul Ryan.

Second, Cruz. He is positioning himself as the conservative alternative to Trump. He won’t have the same delegate obstacles as Kasich. Indeed, Cruz has mounted an impressive strategy to manipulate party rules in states like Colorado and Utah to fight for every delegate. Trump hits home runs, but Cruz plays small ball to win.

The main issues facing Cruz are twofold. One is that despite winning Wisconsin, and calling it a turning point in the race, he still can’t get power brokers to unify around him. Yes, GOP donors and Congressional leaders desire an anti-Trump, but in not embracing Cruz wholeheartedly, they are showing worrying signs of ambivalence. His other problem is about 40 percent of the GOP electorate isn’t conservative in terms of the appropriate role of the federal government in the lives of Americans.

We can thank Trump for that. He has shown that even Republicans like many things progressives have fought for, including social insurance programs, fair-trade deals, infrastructure investment, and clean energy. Indeed one of Cruz’s proposals, eliminating whole segments of the federal government in the form of the Departments of Education, Commerce, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development, is favored by just 18 percent of voters, according to a Gallup poll.

Finally, Trump. Yes, Trump.

Say what you will, but the celebrity billionaire has the majority of delegates now and likely will have by July’s convention. If the party denies him the nomination, it will feed into the already entrenched view that the GOP elites don’t care about the base, in which case Trump supporters will have three choices: vote for the nominee, vote for a Democrat or stay home. Given that Trump voters are the most disengaged voters, according to survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, I’m guessing the Republicans can expect to kiss a huge bloc of voters goodbye.

To be sure, Trump is a flawed candidate. His favorability ratings are the lowest of all the candidates, Democrats included. But that may partly be the result of party infighting. It’s reasonable to suggest that his favorability will climb as the party consolidates around Trump, pushing him to the finish. Yes, with Trump as the nominee, the odds are against the Republicans in winning the general election.

But without party unity, it’s close to impossible.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the 2016 Koeppel Journalism Fellow at Wesleyan.

The Real Romney Legacy

HUD Secretary George Romney official portrait
HUD Secretary George Romney official portrait

The current slate of Republican presidential hopefuls make you wonder if the party misses Romney. Not Mitt, though that wouldn’t be so bad. I mean George, his dad.

Donald Trump is innovating new ways to foment the resentments of the white working class, but it remains to be seen whether this will be enough to propel him to the Republican nomination. Among conservative intellectuals, especially the Buckleyites at National Review, he’s the second coming of John Birch Society founder Robert Welch. Trump can’t even win over Glenn Beck. Ted Cruz meanwhile hopes to drive out millions of evangelical voters he believes stayed home in 2012, but the GOP establishment is worried and his peers in the Senate detest him.

George Romney, on the other hand, was among the most esteemed members of the Republican Party during the last half of the 20th century. But that esteem was about more than personality. Along with former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Romney represented the last vestiges of liberal Republicanism, an all but extinct school of political thought that could once again help the GOP find its way.

Until the 1930s, the Republican Party could reliably depend on the support of African Americans, especially in swing states like Connecticut. The Grand Old Party, after all, was the party of the Great Emancipator.

The New Deal fractured that coalition. In search of a national majority, Republicans started looking to the South, where their message of limited government found appeal among those who believed federal enforcement of civil rights was a perversion of power.

In The Making of the President 1960, Theodore White summed up the Republican Party’s trade off this way: “Let us give the Northern Negro vote to the Democrats, and we shall take the Old South for ourselves.”

White believed Nixon then had the potential to reorient the GOP “toward an axis of Northern-Southern conservatives,” but failed, because liberal Republicans would not stand with him until the party adopted a civil-rights plank as advanced as the Democrats’. The result, White wrote, was “alienating Northern Negro and Southern white, losing both along with the election.”

He would not repeat that mistake. By 1968, Nixon perfected what is known as “The Southern Strategy.”

George Romney was the kind of Republican who believes true self-reliance comes when citizens are fully endowed with the promise of the Declaration of Independence.

This meant that states had rights enshrined in the Constitution, but they also, like citizens, had grave responsibilities. The Michigan governor would not endorse conservative Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964, because of his appeals to Democratic segregationists. And when Romney was in Richard Nixon’s cabinet, he drove the president to distraction with his highly public efforts to integrate housing in all-white suburbs.

As president of the American Motors Company, briefly among Detroit’s most innovative car makers, Romney believed corporations had multiple stakeholders, as described by Rick Perlstein. If they are people, corporations also constitute a community of individuals who depend on each other. “Each owes a debt to the other,” a biographer quoted Romney as saying. Hoover’s rugged individualism, Romney thought, was “nothing but a political banner to cover up greed.”

As Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Nixon, he was implacable in the view that minorities deserve access to quality housing in affluent white suburbs, so much so he became a political liability. Nixon was not willing, as Romney was, to sacrifice the support of white voters in the name of egalitarianism. Until the president cut off all funding to desegregate suburbia, Romney’s HUD, according to sociologist Christopher Bonastia, “came surprisingly close to implementing unpopular anti-discrimination policies.”

With a record of civil-rights advocacy, President John F. Kennedy briefly worried Romney would be his Republican opponent in 1964. Four years later, he was more likely to take the White House, one pollster said, than any Republican since Eisenhower in 1952.

That hopeful prediction was too optimistic. With Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968, liberal Republicans were on a path toward extinction. Who was the last? Some say Nelson Rockefeller. Others say George Romney. Others still say Jack Kemp. But a pretty good case can be made for George Romney’s son Mitt, particularly during his first run for president in 2008, before the former Massachusetts governor rejected his record of using liberal methods to achieve Republican goals.

But Mitt Romney’s second campaign in 2012 was incongruent, as it were, with his father’s liberal Republicanism. Indeed, the nadir may have been in July of that year when he spoke at the annual gathering of the NAACP. Romney said: “If our goal is jobs, we have to stop spending over a trillion dollars more than we take in every year. So to do that, I’m going to eliminate every nonessential expensive program I can find. That includes Obamacare.”

The late civil-rights leader Julian Bond later said: “He wasn’t speaking to us. He was speaking to that slice of white America that hasn’t made up its mind about him, and he’s saying, ‘Look at me, I’m O.K. I can get along with the Negroes. I can say things to them that they don’t like, so I’m not afraid to stand up to them.'”

The divisive rhetoric never came naturally to Mitt Romney. The ideology of his youth wasn’t steeped in the coded language of the Southern Strategy, as it was for candidates like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who famously called Obama America’s greatest “food-stamp president.” The ideology of Romney’s youth was the opposite.

George Romney’s Republicanism didn’t see the world as a zero-sum contest between white and black, friend and enemy, us and them. It saw a community of individuals with rights as well as responsibilities, to each other and the community. These communities and individuals don’t work together because they must. They work together because they want to. As the elder Romney explained when announcing his presidential bid in 1967, “We must recognize that the root source of America’s strength is the divinely endowed freedom of its people; That personal responsibility and family responsibilities are essential in a free society; That it is through voluntary cooperation of responsible individuals that Americans have made life more agreeable and rewarding. ”

Such a vision—which emphasizes faith, families, and social responsibility while respecting individual freedom and enterprise—is sadly lacking among conservatives today. Mitt Romney decided against running a third time, which may be just as well. But the political tradition he comes from still has much to offer the Republican Party as it searches for a way forward.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the 2016 Koeppel Journalism Fellow at Wesleyan.

Bernie Sanders Gets His Gun

Liberal commentators make a lot of hay out of lambasting conservatives for their urge to purge apostates from the ranks of the Republican Party. Normally, I don’t mind. But Bernie Sanders’s presidential candidacy has exposed similar urges among mainstream liberals.

The senator from Vermont identifies himself as the only democratic socialist in the U.S. Congress. He has called for breaking up the big banks, for easing drug laws, and for expanding social-insurance programs. In May, he introduced a bill that would impose a tax on Wall Street transactions to make college tuition obsolete.

But Sanders is also an ardent defender of the Second Amendment. This, according to elite liberals’ opinion, does not compute. The implication of their argument is that Sanders is at odds with the values and priorities of the Democratic base. Indeed, Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern appeared downright worried that his economic populism might seduce unsuspecting liberals: “Before liberal Democrats flock to Sanders, they should remember that the Vermont senator stands firmly to Clinton’s right on one issue of overwhelming importance to the Democratic base: gun control.”

Steven Benen, a blogger for MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show,” was more sanguine, however: “It’s probably safe to say that Sanders will be to Clinton’s left on most issues in their primary fight, except when it comes to guns. To understand why, it’s important to realize that Vermont has some of the most lax gun laws in the nation, in large part because gun violence in the Green Mountain State is so low.”

Sanders’s record on gun legislation is somewhat mixed. He used to be a National Rifle Association candidate of choice, but these days, given his support for tepid gun-control measures, he’s persona non grata with the NRA. Even so, Sanders has been opposed for the most part to greater government oversight of ownership and sale of firearms. During his long tenure in Congress—for 16 years in the House of Representatives before being elected to the Senate in 2006—Sanders opposed universal background checks, and after the Sandy Hook killings in 2012 he said that even the strongest gun-control law would not have prevented a massacre of innocents. thisarticleappears

What got Mark Joseph Stern’s back up was Sanders’s support of tort reform in favor of firearms manufacturers. In 2005, he voted for the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which immunized gun makers against liability claims. As Stern writes: “It is one of the most noxious pieces of pro-gun legislation ever passed. And Bernie Sanders voted for it.”

I agree with Stern. And I disagree with much of Sanders’s opposition to gun control. But my point here isn’t to evaluate Sanders’s votes, it’s to examine how mainstream liberals perceive Sanders and his gun record. Informing their perception is an assumption: any concern with the Second Amendment is inherently a conservative preoccupation, something only “gun nuts” worry about. Liberals don’t. The Democratic base doesn’t. That’s why Stern and Benen come to the conclusion that on guns Sanders “stands firmly to Clinton’s right.”

But that’s an impoverished understanding of civil liberties, and it frankly subscribes to the right’s frame of government versus freedom. Sadly, liberals appear too righteous to see that, and as they busy themselves with their righteousness, they lose sight of an important voting bloc that happens to care greatly about guns.

After every election, the Democratic Party spends a lot of time wondering why it keeps losing the support of white working-class voters. Why would the white working class support Republican candidates and policies when those candidates and policies are so detrimental to their economic interests?

Some conclude that racism is the reason, and there’s something to that. Others argue that such voters are being duped by the “culture war,” and there’s something to that, too. But could there also be something here about liberals and their claim to knowing what the Democratic base cares about? Perhaps, I wonder, the white working class might continue to side with the Republicans because liberal Democrats maintain a barely concealed contempt for the white working class, especially in the implication that those who care about guns are insane.

Fact is, the real issue in the gun debate is geography. Bernie Sanders knows it. Vermont is a rural state with relatively weak gun laws and relatively low rates of gun violence. Guns are normal. Meanwhile, most liberal Democrats, especially the ones who write for Slate and MSNBC, live in populous urban centers located on the east and west coasts, where in their experience having a gun makes no sense at all.

I’m not bothered by hypocrisy. What bothers me about this mainstream liberal reaction to Bernie Sanders’s record on gun legislation is what it says about mainstream liberalism, especially its understanding of the values of the white working class, a bloc of voters that the Democratic Party still needs in order to advance a majoritarian agenda.

As a close friend of Sanders told National Journal: “He doesn’t really care about guns. But he cares that other people care about guns. He thinks there’s an elitism in the antigun movement.” And he’s right

John Stoehr is managing editor of The Washington Spectator.

The Answer to Homelessness

Utah is the fourth most conservative state in the union, according to a January Gallup survey. Only 15 percent of residents identify as “liberal.” Yet the Beehive State is on the cusp of ending chronic homelessness using a new method that would appear to come straight from the Nancy Pelosi playbook—by giving away housing.

In 2005, the Republican administration of Gov. Jon Huntsman introduced a “centrally led and locally developed” strategy to defeat long-term homelessness. Called Housing Works, the program began with 17 people who had lived on the streets at least once in the previous year. The goal was to lead them to self-sufficiency, but they kept the housing even if they failed to pull their lives together.

Today, this strings-free approach has decreased homelessness by 74 percent, and by 2015 the state hopes to reach all 3,000 cases of homelessness. Denver has seen success with a similar effort, and Wyoming, the most conservative of all states, is poised to follow suit.

Conservatives know that giving away handouts decreases incentives to work and that, generally, welfare is the enemy of freedom. As Lee Bright of South Carolina, who is challenging Lindsey Graham in the Palmetto State’s Republican primary this year, reminded us: welfare is “legalized plunder.” He insisted: “Liberty is just the right to keep what is yours. When you raise taxes and put that burden on people, you take away their freedom.”

In choosing to give away housing to those who did not earn it by their labor, Utah may appear to be a bastion of “legalized plunder” in which hard-working Utahns are victimized by a powerful state government believing that somebody else deserves what they have earned. But dig deeper and you find a pioneering effort that is, first of all, effective and, if viewed properly, honors the spirit and substance of conservatism.

The model for Utah’s program took shape years earlier in New York City. Clinical psychologist Sam Tsemberis had grown frustrated with orthodox methods that called for the homeless to overcome addiction, seek treatment for mental illness, and find work before getting housed. Tsemberis realized none of that was possible without housing first. So in 1992 he founded Pathways to Housing, a nonprofit group that has slowly transformed the ways municipalities address homelessness.

“The disengagement between the person wanting a place to live and a system that is offering treatment and sobriety and participation in programing as a condition for housing has failed people like this for years,” Tsemberis said during a 2012 presentation in Providence, R.I.

Tsemberis struck out to change that system. His strategy hinges on getting the homeless into permanent housing in order to establish ties to a community. The tenant agrees to pay a nominal rent of no more than 30 percent of whatever income he has. And he must abide by lease agreements, just as any other renter would do. Moreover, he is not forced to seek treatment for mental illness or addiction, but he is offered such programs by a full-time case worker who regularly visits to help the tenant negotiate his way through the maze of social services and charitable organizations.

“People are more likely to chart new paths if they have stable housing and meaningful choices from which to start,” Utah’s Homeless Coordinating Committee said in a plan-of-action report released in 2008.

Tsemberis’s program attracted the attention of Republican governors around the country because it ultimately saved money. Lots of taxpayer money. When Utah officials added up the amount going into medical treatment and law enforcement, the cost to the state per homeless individual was more than $216,300 a year in 2007 dollars, according to Housing Works. The cost of housing, rent assistance, and full-time case management, meanwhile, was just $19,500.

But fiscal restraint wasn’t enough to persuade some in Utah. After all, this is a deeply conservative state, and there’s something offensive about the idea of someone getting a free handout, especially something as valuable as housing. Surely skeptics were correct in assuming some kind of failure of character.


“There is an implicit assumption that because that person is homeless, it is [due to] something about them. Perhaps they didn’t work hard enough or what had been given to them had been squandered.” Tsemberis said in his 2012 presentation, acknowledging the proclivity among citizens and policymakers to “hold [the homeless] accountable for their suffering.”

Lloyd Pendleton, director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, once agreed. But he’s now working with Wyoming officials to replicate his state’s success. He said in public remarks last year that he used to tell homeless people to find work. Then he found his views being challenged by the depth and complexity of the problem. His experience moved him to push aside one part of his conservatism, personal responsibility, and more closely embrace another. “These are my brothers and sisters,” he said. “When they’re hurting, we’re hurting as a community. We’re all connected.”

Eventually, Utahns like Pendleton came around to seeing the wisdom of providing housing without strings attached. Though it may at first sting a bit to see someone getting something he didn’t work for, over time most recipients of free housing take responsibility for their lives, Tsemberis says. Once they have the stability of housing, they can beat addiction, manage mental illness, seek more education, or find employment. Housing, critically, must come first.

In that spirit, Tsemberis argues that the Housing First model doesn’t just help the homeless. It helps the rest of us. “There’s a price that we are paying for homeless,” he said in 2012. “Not noticing is costing not only the people still homeless on the streets but it’s costing us. If we take for granted the feeling of seeing a homeless person and walking by, we have to shut down part of ourselves in order to tolerate the pain we’re walking past. In that we are together in a shared suffering, that actually can be alleviated.”

John Stoehr is the managing editor of The Washington Spectator.

How Pope Francis Challenges the Right (and Left)

A consensus has emerged since Pope Francis issued his very first “apostolic exhortation”: this is the most liberal pontiff since Pope John XXIII ushered in the ecclesiastical reforms of Vatican II.

I exaggerate, slightly. But after Rush Limbaugh characterized his exhortation as “just pure Marxism,” the die was cast. This impression was deepened even further last month after an Italian newspaper published an interview with the pontiff in which he indirectly responded to Limbaugh. When asked about the “ultraconservative” outcry, Francis told Turin’s La Stampa that, “The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.”

He continued:

There is nothing in the Exhortation that cannot be found in the social Doctrine of the Church. I wasn’t speaking from a technical point of view, what I was trying to do was to give a picture of what is going on. The only specific quote I used was the one regarding the “trickle-down theories” which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world. The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefiting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor. This was the only reference to a specific theory. I was not, I repeat, speaking from a technical point of view but according to the Church’s social doctrine. This does not mean being a Marxist.

So while the “ultraconservatives” in this country are gnashing their teeth over the pope’s “Marxist” exhortation, Francis is reminding us of what classical conservatism looks like. Pointing out that the economy is not doing what powerful people have long said it would doesn’t make you a Marxist. Pointing out capitalism’s destructive tendencies, however, especially with respect to the most vulnerable around the world, just might make you a conservative.

Institutional Christianity has always been concerned about poverty and other faceless forces of dehumanization. In a sense, by making the distinction between Marxism and Catholic social doctrine, the pope is challenging American conservatives (as represented by Limbaugh & Co.) to expand their moral horizons. If they can’t, then their conservatism, however much it aims to provoke moral outrage, is exposed as being merely good for business.

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