Daniel Larison

Obama's Steep Appalachian Hills

In the past few weeks, I have been noting the remarkable resistance to Obama among Kentuckians, including Democrats, and the polling data by region support the anecdotal evidence supplied by George Packer in a recent post.  Opposition to Obama has deepened in just the last two weeks, especially in eastern Kentucky, where Clinton led by 63 in mid-April and now leads by 74.  These margins from eastern Kentucky are approaching the comical.  In eastern Kentucky, according to SUSA, Obama has lost 22 points in the month of April in the Democratic primary poll.  Statewide, Clinton’s lead remains basically unchanged throughout the month (currently 63-27), but the race has tended to polarise between Louisville and the rest of the state, in much the same way Pennsylvania did in the closing weeks of the campaign.  That’s potentially better news for Yarmuth, whose 3rd District seat is centered on Louisville, but terrible news for Obama.  It is solidifying, rather than weakening, the image of him as the urban, liberal candidate who has no traction in the rest of the country.  The Kentucky primary is 22 days away, and Obama has done nothing but go down around the state outside Louisville for the last 30 days. 

Young voters may generally be trending Democratic, but young Democrats are definitely not going for Obama in the primary (he loses 18-34 year olds to Clinton by 28) and young voters generally do not prefer him to McCain in Kentucky, which he loses 63-29 overall.  He loses to McCain among these 18-34 year old voters by 41 points, while Clinton leads McCain by one in the same group (she trails by just 2 in the overall results).  That’s a pretty staggering difference.  Counterintuitively, Obama is more likely to receive support from older Kentuckians in the general than from younger ones.  43% of Democrats back McCain, and 44% back Obama.  It’s an open question whether he can secure a majority of his own partisans against McCain in this state.   

West Virginia is similarly unfriendly territory.  Rasmussen’s latest poll, which is now over a month old and so may overestimate Obama’s level of support, showed Clinton ahead 55-27.  Looking ahead to the general, 41% of respondents in WV said they were unlikely to vote for Obama against McCain (25% said the same about Clinton).  41%!  Even the demographics where Obama is usually very strong do not support him overwhelmingly: he leads among 18-29 year old Democrats by 5 points, and the only income group where he is even competitive is the $100K+ earners (he still trails by three).

Now Kentucky has been a “red” state in recent elections, but this SUSA polling shows that it could be competitive this year as it was in the ’90s (Clinton won here both times), unless Obama is the nominee.  West Virginia has been a “red” state for the past two cycles, but is not obviously out of reach for the Democrats (having voted for Clinton twice), but Obama seems to do unusually poorly in these states.  These were also states that Carter won in ’76, as did Truman in ’48.  The last Democrat to lose Kentucky and (technically) win the general election was Kennedy, but even Kennedy carried West Virginia.  So no Democrat has won the White House in the last 60 years and not won at least one of these states, and all but one winner has won both.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that a Democratic candidate must win these states, but it suggests that a Democratic candidate who has the ability to carry the old Border states is probably able to win the general election and one who cannot will not.

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Against Saakashvili, Not Georgia

The title of James’ post on Georgia, responding to Freddy’s post from earlier in the week, pretty well sums up my response to this line of criticism from Jonathan Kulick.  There are several problems with Kulick’s view of why Americans and NATO should stand up for Georgia, beginning with the strange idea that “freedom and democracy” have something to do with the current regime of Saakashvili.  Unless and until friends of Georgia can begin to acknowledge that Saakashvili is consistently doing great harm to Georgian interests and to the prospects of sustainable representative government in that country, they will continue to be viewed by Georgia’s neighbours, skeptics of NATO expansion and more than a few European governments as willing dupes for unwise, unjustifiable policies aimed at Western hegemony in the Caucasus rather than the well-wishers of the Georgian people that they claim to be.  In point of fact, neither I nor any of my colleagues treats Georgia as a “whipping boy.”  I have profound sympathy for the suffering land of Georgia and its people, as I have stated time and again.  It is Saakashvili and his hangers-on that I criticise and I wish the U.S. would stop lending such unstinting support to such an unworthy character for a country that is, as Kulick correctly states, “not obviously central to American interests.”  In fact, it is not even tangential to American interests, which is all the more reason why Washington should have no hand in propping up someone like Saakashvili to the detriment of ordinary Georgians.

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"Jacksonians" And Nationalism

Perhaps I was not clear in my earlier post, but I seem to have given the impression that I think that Southerners never supported foreign wars and were never involved in the development of American nationalism.  Very plainly, I don’t think that, and based on what I have written before about nationalism, expansionism and expansionist wars I couldn’t possibly think that.  The Democratic-Republicans and the Southern Democracy were ardently expansionistic, as everyone knows, Calhoun was a War Hawk in 1812, support for the Mexican war was heavily concentrated in the South and the war was perceived as a war for the interests of the slave states.  Expansion was very much a Democratic and particularly a Southern Democratic project, it was a case of nationalist enthusiasm, and it paved the way for the consolidation that came later.  As for the nationalism of Southerners, Jackson opposed nullification and Taylor was a fierce opponent of any suggestion of disunion.  There was, however, still some significant difference between this kind of Unionism rightly called and the consolidated nationalism of the people who came later, but they are both examples of American nationalism coming at the expense of regional or sectional loyalties.  With respect to foreign policy, we also cannot ignore the cross-cutting effects of party and region.  The people in any given region may oppose a particular policy or entry into a particular war, but if their representatives belong to the party of the President they are likely to fall in line with the White House. 

The extent to which “Jacksonians” were and are nationalists is the extent to which they have also embraced basic democratic myths about the identity of the people with ”their” government, and the extent to which they closely identify country and government, but typically it has not been Jacksonians who have embarked on foreign wars in the 20th and 21st centuries.  In large part, this is because Jacksonians were not the ones who dominated in the political or foreign policy establishments.  That does not mean that they are antiwar as such, but it does mean that they are not the driving force behind American involvement in war.  Further, I would say that the Jacksonians are the classic case of Americans who feel strong patriotic attachments to their country and their homes and then have these natural affinities turned towards abstract nationalist goals.

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Novalis Blogging

At Taki’s Magazine, I have a few new posts from the last two weeks.  There should be a couple more up in the next day or so.

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Will O' The Wisp

While Ross is right that McCain’s symbolic moves are going to be insufficient, I would remind him that Mr. Bush spoke to the NAACP’s national meeting when he was a candidate in 2000.  For his trouble, he received 8% of the black vote and before that he saw the NAACP run that charming ad associating Bush with the murder of James Byrd because he refused to sign hate-crime legislation.  The most remarkable thing is that he ever went back to address the group.  Between his support for mass immigration and the war, it seems to me that McCain is almost uniquely ill-suited to winning more support from black voters, which makes you wonder why he is putting as much time and effort into wooing them as he is (aside, of course, from the fact that Jack Kemp is whispering in his ear).  There is simply no chance that any national Republican will ever consider changing significantly drug laws or the prosecution of the drug war, just as there is no chance of any Republican seriously challenging sentencing guidelines or embarking on meaningful prison reform.  There is no incentive for them to do this, and it is in its way as much of a fool’s errand as pushing bad immigration policy to shore up the GOP’s position with Hispanics.

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Well, So Much For That

I am not terribly interested in saying that much more about Obama and Wright, so here are some final comments.  It has been talked to death, and Obama has finally made his public break with the pastor.  For a lot of people who have turned sharply against Obama since March, this is too little and at least six weeks late, while for many others it will seem as if he has sold out, but what I find more troubling about the latest episode of this sorry soap opera is that Wright has gone from being the virtual family member whom Obama could not repudiate to being just some guy who makes outrageous statements.  When the media seemed to be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, Wright was a “part” of him, and now it is as if he is a stranger.  It’s not clear to me how Obama can get credit for a lot of what he said in Philadelphia and get credit for what he said today, since the strong declaration that he could not disown Wright has been flatly contradicted by the fact that he just disowned him.  Having likened disowning Wright to disowning the entire black community (similar to the identification with “the black church” that Wright employed in his own defense in the last few days) and his grandmother, he now disowns him.  But it doesn’t interest me to dwell at length on this contradiction.  Suffice it to say when the media accepted a mild rebuke, Obama gave a mild rebuke, and when the media expected a more forceful repudiation he delivered what was expected.  I find the whole scene rather pitiful.

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Elitist, Populist

In Pennsylvania, Obama did everything conceivable to win over Clinton’s working-class voters. ~David Brooks

Yes, he did everything, except offer those voters some concrete proposal that seemed likely to address their concerns and serve their interests.  Brooks’ column does a good job showing the divisions created by differing levels of education, and he could push this idea further in talking about the cultural fragmentation encouraged by the sheer variety of modes of communication that now exist.  It isn’t just that different demographics are cultivated by marketers, but also that ever-narrower niche groups are being self-selected and reinforced through increasingly isolating habits of treating compatibility and similarity as the essential requirements of any relationship.  Yet social identity is not “everything,” as Brooks claims for rhetorical effect, and would not count for nearly as much as it does if the cultural divisions between more and less educated people did not align so closely with different views on policy and different rhetorical styles.  Brooks’ own assessment of Obama’s campaign in Pennsylvania is itself an example of the divide Brooks is describing: Obama did everything on the level of symbolism–eating cheesesteak, bowling, and so forth–that someone like Obama or Brooks thinks might make the candidate more acceptable to the voters in question, assuming that this kind of consciously adopted symbolism will persuade people to back a candidate who does not otherwise seem to represent their interests.  That doesn’t mean that symbolism can’t lead people to vote for candidates who, in fact, don’t represent their interests, but it needs to be employed consistently and regularly to have the desired effect.  When you see stories and columns detailing how affected and calculated the deployment of this symbolism is, the symbolism doesn’t work as well.   

Despite his fairly humble origins, Obama speaks the language of the elite and the highly educated (or at least the thoroughly schooled), which he uses as a marker of the status that he has acquired; despite their more privileged backgrounds, McCain and Clinton are more comfortable speaking in a lower register, or at least have accustomed themselves to speaking this way, because they have nothing to prove and no need to reinforce their right to belong to the elite.  It may be relevant that some of the Democratic candidates over the years who have been derided as elitist, “out of touch” or lacking in some patriotic enthusiasm are the children or grandchildren of immigrants–Kerry, Dukakis and now Obama–so that the very signs of assimilation to the norms of the political class are taken as evidence of a lack of connection to other Americans, when, of course, the retention of visibly ethnic or foreign habits would be considered equally disqualifying in an election. 

Of course, it’s true that McCain and Clinton are immensely wealthy, and Obama is only modestly and very recently so, but it is actually because of how recent his success and wealth are, because he came from that single-parent family and came up from poorer circumstances, that his adoption of the “creative” class’ attitudes and the political class’ assumptions makes him seem somehow especially elitist and allows his rivals, who are every bit as elitist as he is and possibly more so, to exploit this as a wedge.  What you see with the entire controversy over Obama’s elitism is those who are already well-entrenched as part of the elite using the very imitation of elite tropes and attitudes that makes Obama acceptable as part of the political class against him.  Of course, if he did not embrace these attitudes as fully as he has, he would be ridiculed as an arriviste and a gate-crasher, or worse yet he would be denounced by elite commentators with the only insult that they regard as more politically damaging than “elitist,” which is, of course, the name of populist.  The difference in the degree of hostility from most commentators is this: rivals and pundits mock you as an elitist to damage you, but it is still a sign of acceptance that you are a competitor who belongs in the arena with them, who are in reality equally elitist, while the charge of “populist” is intended to stigmatise you and your ideas as dangerous or crazy or both. 

So, in a strange way, Obama has been fortunate to be described as an elitist, and not as a populist.  Elitists are at least allowed to reach the general election; populists must be stopped or politically crippled long before that.  Of course, there is some real relationship between what the candidate proposes to change and the use of the different names: those who actually threaten the status quo in some meaningful way are deemed populists and driven to the margins, while those who represent an acceptable alternative are merely elitist.  People who are a little too visibly elitist are not desirable for other members of the elite, because it reminds everyone else of the disparities and concentration of power and wealth that exist, while people whom they deem populist represent, or at least seem to represent, a real danger to their position.

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By Perfect, He Means Terrible

There is, however, somebody who would fill that bill and therefore be a near-perfect pick for McCain: Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. ~Stuart Rothenburg

When I was in Washington for CPAC, my colleagues were talking about the possibility of McCain-Lieberman, and I laughed at them.  I believe my exact words were, “That would be insane.”  So, right away, you can see that it is something that McCain might actually do.  Even so, it is such a bizarre idea that I don’t know why it keeps being circulated.  Of course Weekly Standard folks are going to talk it up, as they have done before, since it would represent an ideal one-two punch of mindless jingoism (a.k.a., “centrism”), but who actually thinks that this would be a winning combination?  What reasons does Rothenburg give?  He writes:

Lieberman’s selection to McCain’s ticket would send a clear message about bipartisanship and about McCain’s desire to change the way things are done. While the Democratic nominee surely will talk about bringing people together and “change,” a truly bipartisan McCain-Lieberman ticket would trump any and all Democratic rhetoric.

The selection of Lieberman would have particular appeal to independent voters, who are likely to be a key swing group later this year.

But choosing Lieberman is as good a symbol as any that you don’t want to change how anything is done.  Lieberman and McCain both stand for continuity with the policies of the last eight years, at least as far as foreign affairs are concerned.  If selecting Rice would be politically crazy for demonstrating a close connection to the Bush administration, how is it any less crazy to choose someone who has been so supportive of the administration’s Iraq policy such that his own party no longer wants him?  Does Lieberman actually bring any more independents to McCain that McCain wouldn’t already get?  That is doubtful, and Rothenburg offers no evidence beyond the conventional assumption that Lieberman is a “centrist.”  I have already said what I think about that idea. 

Besides, the conventional wisdom, which happens to be right, is that McCain still needs to shore up conservative support.  Obama is losing Democrats left and right in general election match-ups, but McCain isn’t exactly unifying the right behind him, either.  To choose Lieberman would be the final straw for millions who are very grudgingly accepting McCain’s nomination.  It might not drive many people to vote third party, but it would depress turnout in swing state after swing state.  It would confirm every pro-life, conservative critique of McCain, it would validate every progressive attack on Lieberman as a sell-out, and it would drive home the message that the priority of the GOP is nothing but the war.  There are theoretically worse choices (Tommy Franks!), but few would have more negative political consequences than selecting Lieberman.  

What about the negative reaction to this selection?  According to Rothenburg, this is some kind of advantage:

Third, selecting Lieberman would anger both conservatives and Democrats. In other words, it’s a “two-fer” for McCain, who seems to relish those moments when he can stick it to people he doesn’t like. Just think how McCain would chuckle at the thought of annoying both ends of the political spectrum.

Yes, he would chuckle all the way to a ten point loss.  I can think of nothing that could better energise Democratic voters than the prospect of beating McCain and rejecting a turncoat.  This is the kind of thing that might even make me vote for the Democratic ticket just to punish the other side for being so remarkably stupid.

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Anti-American-Baiting

While it does betray a certain intellectual bankruptcy, the mainstream conservative fixation on Wright is so strong because Wright offended against Americanism, which is far more serious to this sort than anything to do with race one way or another.  Incidentally, this is also why I think the charges of “race-baiting” in ads being played in local and House elections are overblown–the message is not to associate local Democrats with a black man as such, but rather to associate them with the “anti-American” sentiments of Obama’s former pastor.  (But remember, when Democrats complain that their opponents impugn their patriotism, they are supposedly hallucinating.)  Most of the same people who now obsess about Obama’s associations used to give Obama enormous praise because he said the sorts of nice, saccharine, inoffensive things about American goodness that they find most agreeable, but Wright (and Obama’s refusal to repudiate him entirely) changed all of that by saying critical things about America, added together with his loopy conspiracy theories, and they have chosen to identify Obama with these sentiments, rather than the ones he actually expresses on a regular basis. 

Of course, the correct conclusion to take away from Obama’s campaign is that he is entirely too boosterish when it comes to talking about America’s role in the world.  Naturally, mainstream conservatives feel obliged to portray him as a new McGovern, even though coming home is the furthest thing from Obama’s intention with respect to American deployments around the world.  They likewise want to insist that he is a bad Americanist, when he basically shares the same triumphalist vision and progressive nationalist interpretation of American history that they have.  They wish to portray him as someone who is “pessimistic” about America (because he acknowledges that there are problems and failures), when he is the most irrepressibly optimistic candidate of the last fifty years, and I don’t say that as a compliment.  They have to keep emphasising how far away from them, the mainstream conservatives, he is supposed to be, because otherwise people would begin to notice all of the assumptions that they share with him, which would either make him more viable or reveal them to be further to the left than they would want to acknowledge.       

P.S.  It will be an interesting test of the down-ticket effects of an Obama nomination if Childers, who held the plurality of the vote before the run-off, ends up losing in the wake of this ad.  You also have to marvel at the phoniness of the suburbanite Greg Davis posing with the farmer by his tractor, when Childers is the overwhelming favourite of the rural and small town voters.  Of course, because Childers’ base is exactly the kind of people likely to be insulted by Obama’s San Francisco remarks the ad may be unusually effective.  We shall see.

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Still Waiting For That Southern Domination

As the descendant of “communitarian Yankees” and “unsophisticated” Scots-Irish alike, I found this Michael Hirsh item whining about the alleged Southern domination of American politics (no, this is not a joke) to be one of the worst things I have read all year.  Here is the Yankee-as-besieged-enlightener morality tale:

This region was heavily settled by Scots-Irish immigrants–the same ethnic mix King James I sent to Northern Ireland to clear out the native Celtic Catholics [bold mine-DL]. After succeeding at that, they then settled the American Frontier, suffering Indian raids and fighting for their lives every step of the way. And the Southern frontiersmen never got over their hatred of the East Coast elites and a belief in the morality and nobility of defying them. Their champion was the Indian-fighter Andrew Jackson. The outcome was that a substantial portion of the new nation developed, over many generations, a rather savage, unsophisticated set of mores. Traditionally, it has been balanced by a more diplomatic, communitarian Yankee sensibility from the Northeast and upper Midwest. But that latter sensibility has been losing ground in population numbers–and cultural weight.

Where to begin?  One might note that Scots-Irish are also a Celtic people, which makes the designation of Irish Catholics as Celtic rather redundant.  Nowhere in this does Hirsh seem to consider the possibility that despising the Eastern elite was, is, a good idea.  The “communitarian Yankee” sensibility is not really waning.  Indeed, I would argue that it remains disturbingly strong despite its long history of doing great harm to this country. 

Every foreign war or foreign policy leading to involvement in war since 1898 has largely been supported and waged by the ”diplomatic, communitarian Yankee” set.  Who wanted us to go to war with Spain?  Overwhelmingly, it was Northeasterners who fueled the frenzy and a Midwesterner who presided over it.  Who took us to the edge of war with Great Britain over a Venezuelan boundary line?  A New Yorker named Cleveland (who was otherwise actually quite sound on foreign policy).  Who wanted us to enter WWI?  Liberal Protestants and Anglophiles from the Eastern Establishment.  Wilson was from the mid-Atlantic region for almost his entire life, and eschewed the Jeffersonian restraint in foreign affairs of the land of his birth.  Who urged entry into WWII?  The same people as had urged entry into WWI, and often for the same reasons.  Southerners, Westerners, fundamentalists, the “unsophisticated” of the land were overwhelmingly against involvement in European wars.  Panama, the Gulf War, Kosovo–all were the products of “realists” and internationalists.  No doubt Hirsh thinks involvement in those wars, which grew out of the internationalism and/or economic interests of the Easterners, was desirable,. but he cannot pretend that America has usually gone to war because of the Scots-Irish.  The Scots-Irish typically are unenthusiastic about the war, but serve disproportionately in the military because they believe patriotism and duty require it.   Meanwhile, the preachers of American nationalism were typically Northerners, whether we trace it back to Webster and Clay (correction: as has been pointed out in the comments, Clay was a Kentuckian, so he doesn’t really belong in this sentence–I regret the mistake) or consider Lincoln as one of its main proponents or look to T.R. and FDR.  Who has given us the Iraq war?  Bush may have lived in Texas for a while, but he is by background and education as thoroughly a product of the Eastern establishment as anyone alive.  Do the so-called “Jacksonians” tend to support the war more than others?  Yes, but not always enthusiastically or zealously; they support American wars because they believe, sometimes mistakenly, that it is their patriotic duty to do so.  It takes Easterners, particularly those reared in the “realist” and “internationalist” schools and weaned on Wilsonian fantasies about democracy and self-determination, to come up with the sort of interventionist and ideologically-motivated crusading of the last twenty years.  Middle Americans will support wars they believe are waged in self-defense or for the sake of national security; it takes Easterners to concoct preposterous theories of targeting potentially hostile states with “preventive” invasions.  The unsophisticated yokels of the backwaters, as Hirsh would see them, do not, would not, imagine such elaborate nonsense. 

No one can look at American politics today, seeing the main presidential candidates who are now running for the White House, and conclude that the South has triumphed in any meaningful way: we have two out-and-out Northerners and a transplant whose ancestors may be Scots-Irish but whose loyalties are to the central state and the status quo and who has immersed himself fully in the culture of the capital.  The South has become the most populous region, and yet it still wields vastly less cultural power than the major urban centers of the East Coast and California.  Hirsh is free to prefer the urban, Eastern liberals, but he should give up on the idea that the power and influence of Easterners are meaningfully in decline. 

After all, who still has the real power?  Overwhelmingly, they and urban elites around the country do, while Middle Americans will express their displeasure only if these people openly mock or belittle their beliefs.  So long as the pandering and the charade of phony populism continue, Scots-Irish folks and Southerners seem mostly content to accept and even to support a system that consistently works against them, their history and their interests.

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