Publick Occurrences 2.0

November 16, 2008

Congratulations, GOP, You’ve Won the William Jennings Bryan Coalition

While last week’s NYT article on the South’s waning influence in national elections was one more example of the bigot hunt that the media has been on ever since Barack Obama emerged as a serious contender for the Democratic nomination, it nevertheless makes a good point about the dead end the GOP has rushed into by over-relying for too long on the Southern strategy of somewhat indirectly stirring up the racial and cultural antipathies of southern, rural, and less educated voters. “They’ve maxed out on the South,” political scientist Merle Black is quoted saying in the story, which has “limited their appeal in the rest of the country.” The underlying problem is that while there seem to be NASCAR fans and mega-churches everywhere these days, the South’s fundamentalist political style does not travel all that well, or age gracefully when it does. Non-southerners (and a non-trivial minority of southerners) get tired of being harangued and bullied after a while. More than that, perhaps, the high emotional key and folksy inflection just do not suit voters without the necessary white, rural, evangelical Protestant background/mindset. Life in the big city seems to foster a more complicated view of the world.

What the 2008 Electoral College map shows more than ever is that the Republicans now find themselves with the coalition the Democrats had at the beginning of one of their least competitive periods a century or more ago. That would be the William Jennings Bryan coalition of the Solid South plus the Plains and mining West, the Great Commoner’s ticket to presidential election losses in 1896, 1900, and 1908. While Bryan was far more intelligent and humane than either John McCain or Sarah Palin, he appealed heavily to rural Protestant self-righteousness, building on the remains of the Populist Party, and lost crucial northeastern working-class Catholic votes that the Democrats have always needed to win national elections.  Twisting the Populist platform of economic reform into the nostrum of “Free Silver,” with an assist from western mining interests, the Bryan Democrats were defeated in 1896 by William McKinley and his “Full Dinner Pail” of typical Federalist/Whig/GOP trickle-down economics, which seemed the safe and rational alternative when contrasted with Bryan’s emotionalism.

Far from learning from their mistake, the Bryan Democrats nominated their favorite two more times and saw him beaten even more badly each outing. In his later years, Bryan made his alliance with evangelical Protestantism (and status as a political ancestor of modern Christian conservatism) even clearer by stumping against evolution and taking the anti-monkey (I mean, anti-evolution) side in the Scopes “Monkey” Trial.  Coming from Nebraska, Bryan also forged the political and cultural connection between the Plains states and the South that disappeared for a time at mid-century but reemerged with a vengeance in the the GOP culture wars that have raged ever since the Clinton sex scandals.

Let’s go to the maps. From Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, here’s the election of 1896 (note the historically correct use of red for the Democrats and blue for the GOP):

Now 2008:

The South’s larger, migration-fueled population in recent times made the Bryan coalition a bit more winnable for the modern GOP than it was for the Bryan Democrats. That is, until one consequence of northern migration below the Mason-Dixon inevitably made itself felt: as educated Northeasterners moved further south down I-95 into northern Virginia and then fanned out into the burgeoning cities of central North Carolina, they brought some of their more tolerant attitudes and modernity-friendly politics with them. This effect is certain to spread in the future. The solid South will go back to its loser status and stay there for awhile as key parts of it become more diverse and break away, and the rest gets more and more offensive to everyone else.

After the jump, a salute to the sort of “culture and heritage” that today’s GOP increasingly follows in the footsteps of:



August 26, 2008


Filed under: Democrats,Music,Political culture,Political Parties,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 10:33 pm

This is the first week of classes here, so I hope this will cover up the fact that I really don’t care to watch the national party conventions. I loved them as a kid; it interrupted the reruns and even as late as 1980, unexpected stuff still occasionally happened at the conventions. Or it seemed to. It was kind of a “no Santa Claus” moment for this young politics fan to realize how empty of real decisions or actual information the conventions are. The media finally cottoned on to it, too, only to make matters worse by turning themselves into the political equivalent of Olympic judges — the floor exercises, I guess — minutely but mechanically critiquing the performance of each predetermined movement. (For the record, I gave up the Olympics around 1980, too.) Also, the Democratic Convention coverage suffers from an even worse case of Never-Ending-Sixties & Seventies-itis than John McCain’s foreign policy. Basically the media waits around for something that happened before to happen again: Mayor Daley, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Eagleton, Liberal Avenger Ted Kennedy, anything.

I will catch up with the online videos of some speeches later, but for now let’s recall an actually suspenseful Democratic Convention of 1844, with They Might Be Giants:

Thanks to the earlier commenter who reminded me of this song. It’s not a bad account except for the line about Martin Van Buren being an abolitionist, probably the most positive publicity the Used-Up Man has had in 150 years. The lyrics appear below for the use of other historical rock critics.

They Might Be Giants,
“James K. Polk”

In 1844, the Democrats were split
The three nominees for the presidential candidate
Were Martin Van Buren, a former president and an abolitionist
James Buchanan, a moderate
Lewis Cass, a general and expansionist
From Nashville came a dark horse riding up
He was James K. Polk, Napoleon of the Stump

Austere, severe, he held few people dear
His oratory filled his foes with fear
The factions soon agreed
“He’s just the man we need
To bring about victory
Fulfill our manifest destiny
And annex the land the Mexicans command”
And when the poll was cast, the winner was
Mister James K. Polk, Napoleon of the Stump

In four short years he met his every goal
He seized the whole southwest from Mexico
Made sure the tariffs fell
And made the English sell the Oregon territory
He built an independent treasury
Having done all this he sought no second term
But precious few have mourned the passing of
Mister James K. Polk, our eleventh president
Young Hickory, Napoleon of the Stump


March 15, 2008

Social Movements v. the “Conservative Movement” [UPDATED]

Filed under: Conservatives,Democrats,GOP,Political culture,Political Parties — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:40 pm

I am sitting on the floor in a hallway outside a “Science Olympiad” competition at the moment, so please excuse the brevity. I just discovered a newish site called The Democratic Strategist, largely manned by former DLC types, but showing less devotion to doctrinaire anti-liberalism. Today the site had a good post by James Vega taking issue with the common locution “conservative movement,” denoting the network of right-wingers who took over the GOP and brought it to power over the past 45 years. Vega’s major point is that present-day liberal Democrats have a much better claim to “social movement” status, or origins, than GOP conservatives:

The Democratic Party’s economic perspective comes not simply from the legislation of the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt, but from the epic struggle of the American trade union movement in the 1930’s. Equally, at the heart of the modern Democratic Party’s social philosophy lies the historical experience of the civil rights movement and the legacy of Martin Luther King.

These two social movements had three things in common. They were struggles of profoundly disadvantaged and oppressed groups for basic social and economic justice, they were grass-roots, bottom-up movements in which leaders emerged from the rank and file, and they were led by dedicated militants who made huge personal and human sacrifices.

Both trade union and civil right organizers lived with the constant fear of death, vicious beatings, or imprisonment and both movements had many famous martyrs killed in the struggle . . . .

The modern “official” conservative movement on the other hand – although in some respects indeed a social movement – was and is to a significant degree a movement of the “haves” rather than the “have-nots” and as a result has never had any of the three characteristics above.

The modern conservative movement was heavily subsidized by foundations and wealthy individuals from its beginnings. By the 1980’s there was a substantial network of think-tanks, book publishers, house-organ magazines, scholarships and internships that recruited and financially supported young conservatives. Communication with ordinary people was overwhelmingly conducted by very sanitary, “no getting the hands dirty” methods – largely direct mail and television (particularly televangelist programming) – rather than by any actual door-to-door, grass-roots organizing.

Read the rest and the comments.

If there is any problem with this analysis, it lies in the term “social movement” itself. I would have to look up who started using it, but I have always found it is a little too self-valorizing and tendentious, like “pro-choice” or “pro-life.” It claims the mantle of true democracy over whatever the “movement” opposes and makes no allowances for the fact that movements often win and become established institutions, if indeed they weren’t to begin with.

“Movement” is just one of many 1960s -vintage terms and tactics that conservatives have stolen from radicals and liberals, and we might want to consider the fact that the term works better for conservatives despite its inaccuracy. Movement  psychology inevitably privileges demonstrations of ideological commitment over more mundane and concrete accomplishments. In movements, “more radical-than-thou” positions are tough to resist and tend to monopolize the internal prestige and outside media attention available. If you are truly committed to a cause, then deeper commitment almost always looks better and any form of compromise becomes more and more suspect and harder to justify. This radicalization dynamic can be a danger to any movement, but especially to modern liberalism and “progressivism” (Nation-style not Teddy Roosevelt-style). Liberal-progressive solutions to social problems tend to involve building new, ongoing institutions that ultimately require realism and compromise in order to survive and prosper, changes that a movement mentality can rarely accommodate and often resists.

Conservatives just want to smash liberal institutions and blow enough smoke to prevent or reverse social changes that liberal institutions helped bring about. “Movement-”style bombthrowing, to any degree short of crazy Fred Phelps-like behavior, poses no problem for them. They are not building anything.

On a completely different note, I also have my doubts about whether the distinction between “social movements” and other phenomena that tend to take the adjective “political” instead, like parties, are really as clear-cut as sociologists and some historians seem to believe. Seems like to a lot of writers social movement just means “the side of the angels” or “The People.”


February 21, 2008

The Evitability of the Inevitablity Strategy

Filed under: 2008 elections,Democrats,Political Parties,Presidency — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 6:44 pm

hillary_clinton_022108.jpgThe primary campaign is by no means over, but the media and the blogosphere have now realized that the unstoppable Hillary Clinton juggernaut they have been building, image-wise, for these past 3 years is, in fact, eminently stoppable. The inevitable Democratic nominee is now one more big loss away from having to get the nomination Corrupt Bargain-style, and/or risk digging herself an even deeper hole by breaking out the racial codewords again. That seemed to work short-term in New Hampshire but also galvanized black primary voters down south behind Barack Obama and turned the race around. Ezra Klein of the The American Prospect has one of the better recent commentaries on Hillary’s troubles, “The Underperformer.”

We historians know that Olympian historical contextualization of everyone else’s opinions is a sure way to alienate friends and family, so I say, keep it on the blog. To wit:

Ed Muskie Campaign PosterAs historians could have told Hillary, and the media, “inevitability” is about the most evitable thing in politics. Has the “inevitability strategy” ever worked? Let’s ask the long line of prohibitive front-runners whose proud ships ran immediately aground as soon as actual voters were sighted: Ed Muskie, Nelson Rockefeller, Mitt Romney’s dad, the list could go on and on. I remember when John Connally and Howard Baker were big presidential names. Incumbent presidents have gotten the nomination through inevitability, only to have it flop in the general election. Remember Carter and Bush I’s Rose Garden strategies?

Inevitability may have worked occasionally in the Early Republic, for John Adams in 1796 and James Madison in 1808, but that was before such a thing as a nomination process was even invented. Alexander Hamilton’s plan of swapping Adams for a Pinckney might have done the job if there had been a Federalist Super Tuesday in 1796 or 1800. De Witt Clinton might have given Madison quite a shock if could have taken him on in a Pennsylvania or Massachusetts primary. Congressional caucus nominations meant never having to burst the Beltway bubble, if I may be permitted one final anachronism, er, counterfactual.

Back here in the modern world, when will the media learn that those early poll numbers measure nothing but name recognition? For the vast majority of citizens who do not follow politics closely, telling a pollster that they supported Hillary Clinton for president 1 or 2 years before the election was more akin to saying yes, they had heard that the most famous woman in America (non pop-star category) was running for president against that Jock Edwardson — the haircut guy — and noted Irish revolutionary or Muslim poet Brock O’Bama.

Once the identities of everyone else in the race came into focus, Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate did likewise: she was a deeply polarizing figure who brought along most of her husband’s baggage — especially his penchant for calculating triangulation — and little of his charisma; she was on the wrong side of the issue that Democratic primary voters cared most about, the war; and her track record of “proven leadership” began with mismanaging the only real chance at national health care the U.S. has had in my adult life. In addition, she just has not run a very effective campaign. How could Clinton possibly have been such a towering figure in the Democratic party for as long she has and still not have state organizations strong enough to do well in caucuses and navigate the delegate selection rules? Like most inevitable front-runners, she took the DC-centric view that fundraising and press coverage was more important, and waited for the electoral tides to come in. Oops.


February 19, 2008

Superdelegates team up against the Spectre (of a brokered convention)

Filed under: 2008 elections,Democrats,Political Parties — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 1:26 am

Following up on the earlier “brokered convention” post, I noticed that at least some of the key “superdelegates” (Democratic officeholders who can vote for any candidate they please) seem to share Ed Kilgore’s fears of a convention fight. Rep. Charles Rangel and Sen. Charles Schumer were both quoted warning the Hillary Clinton forces against relying on superdelegates or parliamentary maneuvers (like the seating of delegates selected in the non-sanctioned Michigan and Florida primaries) to take the nomination away from Barack Obama at the convention:

“It’s the people (who are) going to govern who selects our next candidate and not super delegates,” Rangel said Sunday night at a dinner for the New York State Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators conference in Albany, N.Y.

“The people’s will is what’s going to prevail at the convention and not people who decide what the people’s will is,” he added.

This a better argument than the fear of a chaotic convention projecting a bad image for the party.

The idea that the party’s decision should reflect “the people’s will” can be traced back to Jacksonian and “Old School” complaints about the use of congressional and legislative caucus nominations back in the 1810s and 1820s. The Democrats adopted the delegate convention system partly in response to the past outrage over the denial of the nomination and the presidency in 1824 to alleged popular favorite Andrew Jackson. 1824 front-runner William Crawford was nominated by the Democratic-Republican congressional caucus despite the fact the candidate was medically incapacitated and the competing candidates’ supporters boycotted the caucus. Party mastermind Martin Van Buren and other Crawford supporters then discovered first hand how perilous and self-defeating it was to seize the nomination for their favorite when the perception existed that a majority of the party did not support him.

You have to admit that it would be fun if the first black presidential nominee ends up owing his nomination partly to Jacksonian arguments.


February 13, 2008

The Fearsome Spectre of a “Brokered Convention”

Filed under: 2008 elections,Democrats,Political Parties — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 2:14 am

I have no intention of prognosticating, but the thrillingly close Democratic nomination race we have going now certainly looks as if it might not be resolved until the national convention this summer. (Of course, Howard “Conventional Wisdom” Fineman just tried to call it off Tuesday night. Oh, and go Senator Obama!) What I really don’t get is the distaste with which even Democratic apparatchiks seem to regard this possibility. Here’s Ed Kilgore from last week:

There’s a more mundane but still significant problem with the situation: who will plan and execute the convention itself in the absence of a putative nominee?

National political conventions, despite the increasingly meagre live network television exposure they secure, are large, complex operations. Much of the initial preparation–fundraising, logistics, and site development–are done many months in advance, by local committees working with national party committees. But when it comes to the really crucial functions of a convention, such as who will speak when, what they will say, and how the whole show is presented to television viewers and to a massive international news media presence: every decision, major or minor, has in recent years been made with totalitarian authority by the putative nominee’s staff.

Kilgore uses the word “totalitarian” to describe the candidate-centeredness of our politics like it was a good and normal thing. The fear and loathing of any sort of non-staged democratic decisionmaking, indeed of any political event where the outcome might be in doubt, really shines through. Of course, fraidy-cat Democrats and the political reporters who abuse them love to rehearse a litany about the absolute necessity of avoiding another fractious convention like 1968, or 1972, or 1980. Supposedly such disarray doomed the Democrats in those years, as opposed to, say, Vietnam, George Wallace, Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the Ayatollah, or any other of the many more substantive factors historians might name, besides the public’s known hatred of suspenseful television.

This whole aversion to an open-ended, full-length nomination process seems to be reflected in the rise of the term “brokered convention,” a phrase seemingly designed to sound roughly as desirable as “deviated septum.” If a “brokered convention” means one where party delegates actually get together and decide on a nominee, wouldn’t that be roughly equivalent to, I don’t know, a party convention (non-Soviet variety), a.k.a. the event formerly known as one of the basic institutions of American democracy? Just asking.

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