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Publick Occurrences 2.0

November 30, 2008

Degradation of the Democratic Dogma: Automotive edition

Filed under: Congress,Economy,Environment,Government,Political culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:37 pm

Regular readers should not worry about the title too much — I am not turning against democracy or trying to ape Henry Adams. What I do think is that democracy as it tends to be defined in modern American government has become a major problem, and a serious contributor to the current economic crisis.

Specifically, it seems to me that the increasing debility of American business institutions partly stems from the permeability and responsiveness of American government. That is to say, in our system, it appears to be a little too easy to get the concerns and interests of various constituent groups a hearing in the halls of government. Wealthy campaign contributors and corporations may jump to the front of the line, but the most powerful argument for any lawmaker is jobs back in their state or district. Maximizing employment in his or her constituency is nearly every legislator’s top priority, which in practice means protecting and promoting the perceived interests of the major industries in that constituency. This is the door that interest group and corporate lobbyists use most effectively to gain influence over senators and representatives, but it is also very close to what most lawmakers see as their most basic democratic mission: being their constituents’ advocate before the government, especially their constituents’ businesses and employers. This is also why so many former lawmakers have few qualms about becoming lobbyists for industries they once legislated on: the two jobs are really not that different. As political scientists have found, and any significant amount of contact with congressional offices will tell you, “constituent service” is the one thing that even the worst legislators tend to be pretty good at, if they survive for any length of time.

In the case of the U.S. automobile industry, both the companies and their workers have received all too effective representation over the past four decades. The Big Three automakers have become addicted to political protection from market forces that have been signaling them for many years to build smaller, more fuel-efficient, more reliable cars. (See this capsule history of CAFE standards from Pew for specific examples.) GM, Ford, and Chrysler avoided mandates to make any of the necessary changes as quickly or thoroughly as they should have by relying on their friends in Congress and the executive branch to block or blunt every new law or regulation that came along. This process operated even at the state and local level, and not just on environmental matters, as today’s NYT piece on the dying out of American car dealerships showed:

Car dealers are not entirely blameless for their fate. Auto analysts say they did not push Detroit hard enough to build better-quality, more efficient cars. They note that the dealers lobbied hard in state capitals for laws to protect their franchises from the Detroit manufacturers who wanted to limit their numbers and determine their locations.

Mr. Thomas lays some blame on the unions that drove hard bargains with the automakers, some on a news media that “glorified” imports, and some on the Big Three for being “slow to react to the market and what the public wanted,” especially when gas prices rose in recent years.

In other words, a certain kind of “democracy” (and “federalism,” for that matter) limited the possible changes to the automakers’ basic business model.

For a long time, cheap gas and the continuing Middle American penchant for overcompensatingly large, powerful vehicles allowed Detroit to keep making money in its familiar way. Meanwhile, outside the Detroit-Washington-exurban street tank driver feedback loop, the American auto industry inexorably lost market share and reputation to foreign competitors. The point at which Detroit could have acted decisively to rescue its image and become known as a producer of reliable, modern, environmentally sustainable vehicles passed almost imperceptibly some years ago. In a bit of painful poetic justice, the industry’s constant, usually successful battles against effective environmental regulations probably contributed to the deterioration of Detroit’s “brand” in the marketplace.  The incessant quasi-jingoistic commercials on sports broadcasts and local TV news probably did not help much either.

Waking up in the crash of 2008, the Big Three found Toyota, Honda, and Nissan occupying their old position as the American middle class’s default vehicle suppliers and foreign automakers generally having built a sufficient number of plants across the U.S. to undercut some of the jobs-based political support Detroit had always enjoyed. The three CEOs’ disastrous last private plane trip to D.C. earlier this month revealed a shockingly changed political atmosphere — the shock showed on the executives’ faces — and it immediately precipitated the fall of Detroit’s strongest redoubt on Capitol Hill, House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell of Michigan. Now the abyss really seems to loom for the American automakers, and one can almost feel the country mentally preparing itself for the coming bankruptcies, at best. Former Rust Belt senator that he is, President Obama will probably step in do something for the auto industry early next year, but by that time he may only be refilling a largely empty shell.

Clearly, the auto industry has been a case where Big Business needed a Big Government to get tough with it, with no John Dingells to cry to. Contrary to its own ideology, what American business needs is more regulation and less input. By the same token, our elected representatives need to think a little more about what would be wise policy, and less about what makes their local industries happy.

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November 27, 2008

A John Adams Thanksgiving

Filed under: Christianity,Early Republic,Holidays,Political culture,Presidency — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:23 am

While there is nothing terribly controversial about it today, Thanksgivings were once highly politicized holidays, reviled by critics as what we would now call violations of the separation of church and state and shamelessly used by their supporters as opportunities to make pious but partisan pronouncements. (The plural was used on purpose because kings and presidents declared days of prayer and Thanksgiving whenever they felt like it, and there could be far more than one a year, not at any set time.) As a holiday observance, I offer one of John Adams’s Thanksgiving proclamations, from the spring of 1798. The Quasi-War with France was raging, and the Federalists were in the midst of creating their national security program, which would soon include the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Adams’s proclamation is taken from the New York Commercial Advertiser, 29 March 1798, and it is followed by a response from the Philadelphia Aurora of the same date. Clicking the image should bring up a readable version. (The images appear after the jump.)

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November 26, 2008

Historical Bloviations in “Newsweek”

Filed under: Democracy,Media,Political culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:08 am

I am not exactly sure what the purpose of the weekly newsmagazines is anymore when perspectives on the news are so much more easily available, and more timely to boot, via the Internet and cable. Actually, I do know two purposes: providing credentials for people to appear on TV with, and free advertising for books by the newsmagazines’ staffs. (This was about as a corrupt a “feature” as I ever seen.)

Not that there isn’t some good material published by Time and Newsweek. It is just that the pressure to serve some higher journalistic purpose leads to overreaching for perspective, and that way lies pseudo-scholarly bloviation, especially when the subject is American history. So, uncharacteristically checking Newsweek‘s web site a few weeks in a row this month, I found a couple of bloviations that start with a moderately accurate observation, then inflate it to the point of being deeply misleading.

So for instance, we have Fareed Zakaria, finger in the wind but generally trenchant (if a bit scolding and Cato (Institute)-inflected) on the consequences of the recent financial apocalypse. But then Zakaria has to reach for the American Character, and poor James Madison gets caught up in the process:

It’s a fundamental American belief that competition is good — in business, athletics and life. Checks and balances are James Madison’s crucial mechanisms, exposing and countering abuse and arrogance and forcing discipline on people.

Undoubtedly there was some point in American history where competition emerged as a value in itself, and perhaps it always was in the southern male culture of horse-racing and cock-fighting, but of course competition was exactly what Madison wanted to prevent in politics (and also in many areas of the economy, such as financial markets). The idea of checks and balances (and “extending the sphere” as in The Federalist 10) was to contain and cancel out the competition for power and resources that could not be avoided — in other words, exactly the opposite of encouraging competition. What Zakaria really invokes in the comment above is the late 20th-century mental habit of applying sports analogies to all other areas of life, a problem that the ESPN-less Madison did not have.

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November 24, 2008

Bush and Buchanan, Racing to the Bottom in a Photo Finish

Filed under: Bush administration,Presidency — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 1:59 am

Gail Collins’s column made a bit of joke out of it, but the present situation does seem to make a pretty good argument for a parliamentary system where the rejected chief executive would be immediately out after an election and the new one could start governing immediately. Luckily for us, Obama already has started acting more like a president than Bush ever did, and on YouTube no less. Collins still has Bush in the second-worst slot, and there I think I might have to disagree:

In happier days, Bush may have nurtured hopes of making it into the list of America’s mediocre presidents, but somewhere between Iraq and Katrina, that goal became a mountain too high. However, he might still have a chance to avoid the absolute bottom of the barrel, a spot currently occupied by James Buchanan, at least in my opinion. Buchanan nailed down The Worst President title in the days between Abraham Lincoln’s election and inauguration, when the Southern states began seceding and Buchanan, after a little flailing about, did absolutely nothing. “Doing nothing is almost the worst thing a president can do,” said the historian Michael Beschloss.

I doubt this is an original thought with me, but there are actually far worse things that a president could do than nothing. For instance, attacking and occuying another nation for years, with essentially no provocation and on the most flimsy of evidence — Bush did that largely on his own, sui generis. Buchanan came into office with the sectional crisis in full swing, a situation to which he made his contributions, certainly, but one that predated his administration and probably outstripped the ability of any Democratic president of that period (when the Democrats depended heavily on southern votes) to adequately address. Buchanan and Bush were about equal in their feckless responses to other disasters on their watch, but I suspect that Hurricane Katrina and Great Depression II will be much better remembered than the North Carolina hurricane and economic Panic of 1857.

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November 21, 2008

Transition Hell Special: The Best Recent Thinking on Our Second-Worst President

Filed under: Civil War Era,Presidency — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 2:45 pm
BLOGITORIAL NOTE: As Paul Krugman reminds us in today’s column, the power vacuums, buck-passing, and last-minute shenanigans that presidential transitions almost always bring are especially dangerous in times of national crisis. The mother of all bad presidential transitions, Buchanan to Lincoln 1860-61, featured (like our present situation) a sitting president already recognized as the worst ever, facing problems that would have challenged even a far more competent and popular leader. Hence it seemed like a good moment to publish a guest post I have been planning for a while, a report on a conference held in late September on George W. Bush’s rival at the bottom of the presidential barrel, James Buchanan. I really wanted to go myself — who could resist seeing a president scolded within the walls of his own shrine? Attendee Chris Childers of LSU has been kind enough to fill us in. I can only hope to live long enough to attend a session this negative at the G.W. Bush Presidential Library some day. — JLP

“OLD BUCK” AND THE POLITICAL CRISIS OF THE 1850S:
A report from the historical trenches outside Lancaster, Pa.

By Christopher Childers
Louisiana State University

James Buchanan has never enjoyed a good reputation among historians and president-raters; most people rate his presidency at or near the worst in American history. Yet even as students of the 1850s note his shortcomings, many—if not most—of the scholars of this period qualify their answer. For James Buchanan, the “Old Public Functionary,” possessed perhaps the most experience of any president in our history. Buchanan’s résumé reveals a man who had spent his life immersed in the American political system and the U.S. government. Congressman, senator, minister to the Court of St. James, minister to Russia, secretary of state — Buchanan held all these positions in a political career that spanned from the 1820s to the commencement of the Civil War. By almost any measure, James Buchanan had sterling credentials for the office of president.

Amid a sea of withering criticism, occasional ambivalence has been the best Buchanan has been able to do in the eyes of America’s leading historians . For example, Kenneth M. Stampp addressed Buchanan in two of his books: And the War Came (1950) and America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink (1990). In the earlier book, Stampp was relatively kind. One of the northern Democrats’ most sympathetic historians, Roy F. Nichols, lauded Stampp for taking a “sensible view” of Buchanan, “making him neither the villain nor the constitutional saint.” Forty years later, however, even Stampp penned a scathing portrait of Buchanan, and his most recent biographer, Jean Baker, author of two other books on the northern Democracy, largely followed suit.

Where could Old Buck’s reputation go from here? Last month, a panel of distinguished historians gathered in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, James Buchanan’s hometown, to participate in a symposium on the man and the crises he faced during his presidency. On the symposium’s first night, participants assembled on the grounds of Buchanan’s home, Wheatland, for a discussion between two of the greatest historians of the 1850s—Michael F. Holt and William Freehling. Wheatland made a marvelous setting for this wide-ranging discussion of the Buchanan years. Pennsylvania’s only presidential home is an imposing red brick building that stands well-preserved on the beautifully maintained grounds about a mile outside the Lancaster city center. Apparently, Lancaster-area brides find Wheatland an appealing place to wed despite its owner’s poor reputation; as the symposium participants met under a tent on the grounds, a couple married in the mansion.

Wheatland, Buchanan's Lancaster mansion

Interestingly, the majority of the questions that Holt and Freehling fielded concerned counterfactuals—the great “what ifs?” of sectional crisis history. What if Buchanan had stuck with his earlier advocacy of extending the Missouri Compromise line rather than endorsing the Kansas-Nebraska Act? What if Buchanan had asserted national authority in the Kansas imbroglio? What if Buchanan had taken a stronger posture in the secession crisis? The Buchanan presidency seems to provoke many “what if” questions from people who cannot escape the conclusion that many things went terribly wrong between the years of 1857 and 1861.

The next day, the symposium shifted to Franklin & Marshall College, where Buchanan served as president of the board of trustees from 1852 to 1866. Old Buck certainly had a few sympathizers in the crowd; one man rose at the end of the last session to praise Buchanan, lamenting the fact that he has endured ceaseless opprobrium for 150 years. Few historical figures have endured such scrutiny and disdain, the man argued. And yet, even Buchanan’s most ardent home-town supporters, eventually concede that the president’s record certainly does not merit praise. Of course, many of the panelists grappled with this very question. Buchanan biographer (and symposium participant) Jean Baker has phrased the dilemma well, asking “why such a well-trained and well-intentioned public figure could have failed so abominably”?

Most all of the panelists agreed: James Buchanan’s was a failed presidency. And when someone spoke of his strengths, they surely did not speak of the sectional crisis. John Belohlavek spoke positively of Buchanan’s skill at managing foreign policy, while William B. MacKinnon praised his decisive efforts at ending the Mormon crisis in Utah. But a strong foreign policy aimed at territorial expansion and the tamping down of rebellion in Utah did not assuage most of the scholars at this symposium, who generally viewed Old Buck’s presidency harshly. Indeed, while other panelists conceded Belohlavek’s point, they noted that Buchanan tended to flee domestic crises by attending to foreign affairs.

In all fairness, and in spite of Buchanan’s obvious shortcomings, most of the historians agreed that Buchanan inherited a terrible situation. As Nicole Etcheson pointed out, the crisis in Kansas had already spun out of control as proslavery and antislavery settlers in the territory made a mockery of Stephen Douglas’s popular sovereignty doctrine. And as Holt and Freehling—two grey giants of the field—ably discussed, the great party system that had given form and organization to political conflict was in disarray. A sectional party had risen from the ashes of the Whig Party and the short-lived Know Nothings to challenge the Democrats. And while the feckless Republican candidate John C. Fremont lost his bid for the presidency in 1856, the specter of a sectional party hostile to southern interests threatened political stability and provoked bitter recriminations from southern Democrats and northern doughfaces.

Amidst this turmoil, James Buchanan won the presidency. Yet the scholars at Lancaster generally agreed that Buchanan made a bad situation worse. As Maury Klein noted, Buchanan picked an ineffective cabinet. Secretary of State Lewis Cass had long passed his prime and served as a mere figurehead; John B. Floyd, the Secretary of War, appeared downright crooked, especially after a congressional investigation severely tarnished the Buchanan administration’s image. At the outset of his presidency, Buchanan had tried to craft a sectionally balanced Cabinet and in the end created a mess. Perhaps more notably, Buchanan’s meddling in the Dred Scott case created a firestorm in the North at the very beginning of his presidency. The president’s statement that he would “cheerfully submit” to the Supreme Court’s decision in the case followed a brief conference between Buchanan and Chief Justice Roger B. Taney moments before he took the oath of office. But this paled in comparison to allegations that Buchanan had personally encouraged his friend Justice Robert C. Grier to vote with the majority and deny Scott’s plea. Legal historian Paul Finkelman presented a compelling argument that Buchanan’s early actions immediately handicapped his administration.

By 1860, old battles over Kansas, the Dred Scott decision, and internecine struggles within the Democratic Party had weakened the American political establishment and had rendered the Buchanan administration ineffective. When Abraham Lincoln won election to the presidency in November 1860, without a single electoral vote from the South, a crisis had finally emerged that compromise would not avert. But Buchanan faced his own crisis, in what Jean Baker has called his “extraordinary contradiction” that while Buchanan believed the Union inviolable, “he held no coercive power to prevent or overturn an illegal act by a state.” Buchanan’s belief that he possessed no power to maintain the Union paralyzed his administration and seemingly limited him to a wait-and-see approach, hoping that calmer heads would prevail and the crisis would pass. Jean Baker, Daniel Crofts, and Michael Holt discussed Buchanan’s actions in the secession crisis, a course that strongly favored the South. Buchanan seemed increasingly impotent in addressing the issues that the crisis posed and even acquiescent in the course of secession, to the point where he prepared to order Major Robert Anderson from Fort Sumter back to the scuttled Fort Moultrie, a move that essentially surrendered the federal installations in South Carolina. Only when three of Buchanan’s cabinet members threatened resignation did Buchanan change his course and take a more Unionist stance. In many respects, Buchanan seemed all too willing to leave the crisis for Lincoln to manage.

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November 20, 2008

The GOP’s Southern No-Exit Strategy

Filed under: 2008 elections,GOP,Regionalism,Voting — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 10:45 pm

From Brad DeLong’s most prodigious of all blogs by a working academic, there is some support for my “William Jennings Bryan coalition” post of a few days ago, with heavy-duty social science graphs.  As I understand it, the graphs show that 2008 southern voters were radically more responsive to race than voters in other regions, with the Midwest as the next most similar region, but not very similar. (It was the relatively underpopulated Plains that went for McCain, not the cities of the [post-] industrial Midwest.) Brad opines:

The whites in the heartland of today’s Republican Party just do not vote–and do not think–like the rest of us do. Richard Nixon wanted the Republican Party to lock up the South. Now it looks as though the South has locked up the Republican Party.

The post does not get any deeper into the history of the GOP’s southern problem, and emphasizes racism more than I did; yet one must note that for all Bryan’s humanism and good Christian intentions, southern racists were his hard-core base of support.  In his last run in 1908, Bryan pulled more than 70% of the vote in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina, and over 90% in those last two.

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November 18, 2008

Myths of the Lost Atlantis: Was the Federalist Press Staid and Apolitical? (Kaplan)

This is a guest post, the sixth in our series, running in honor of Philip Lampi and in conjunction with the Common-Place politics issue. See the introduction for an explanation. Click the logo below to see all of the posts in the series.

WAS THE FEDERALIST PRESS STAID AND APOLITICAL?
By Catherine O’Donnell Kaplan
Arizona State University

[BLOGITORIAL NOTE: Just to model the true spirit of democratic pluralism, we wanted readers to know up front that today's "myth" is one that the proprietor of this blog had more than a hand in promoting. My book "The Tyranny of Printers": Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic (University of Virginia Press, 2001) focused heavily on Democratic-Republican political journalism in making the argument that partisan newspapers played a crucial binding and embodying role in the development of American political parties, and democratization more generally. My rather dismissive chapter-and-a-half on the Federalist press sold it decidedly short. Though like most authors I continue to believe I got the story basically right — there were some key differences in the degree and manner that Republican and Federalist newspapers connected themselves to electoral politics — in retrospect it would have taken little away from my argument to grant the Federalists a larger and more creative role in the political press of the Early Republic than I did.  Looking back, the only good reason to short-shrift the Federalists to the extent that I did was the excessive length of my manuscript, though at the time that was a REALLY good reason. In this post, Catherine Kaplan redresses some of the interpretive imbalance left by writers like myself, and graciously does not even attack me for it. — JLP]

The belief that Federalists sat grim-faced and hapless as their nimble Jeffersonian opponents developed ways to shape public opinion runs deep in American historical thought. The Federalist press has been portrayed as entirely lacking the agility and ambition of its Republican counterpart; Federalist politicians have been accused of failing to realize they needed to create a network of believers; and the party as a whole often appears in historical accounts as the horseshoe crab of the early republic: a living fossil that played no role in the nation’s ongoing evolution.Joseph Dennie I’ll leave it to others, including Andrew W. Robertson and Philip Lampi in this very space, to show that Federalists competed electorally — and fiercely — until the War of 1812. What I’d like to discuss is the Federalist press, and I’ll posit something that I hope honors the spirit of this contrarian blog, if not every historical interpretation ever advanced by its management: Federalist literati precociously developed politics as culture, politics as personal expression, politics as a community built through media, and politics as performance. These men and women of letters rejoiced over partisan divisions while other Americans (including more than a few Federalists) still lamented them. And they understood political media to be the art of getting read, discussed, and perhaps even paid, as much as the art of getting things done. Arianna Huffington? Meet Joseph Dennie.

Dennie was a 1790 Harvard graduate who had desultorily set up shop as a lawyer in New Hampshire, all the while trying to establish himself as an essayist and wit, a kind of American Addison. In the mid-1790s, Dennie learned to yoke together the goals and skills of literature and politics, and when he did so, he not only found his voice and livelihood, but also profoundly influenced the Federalist press. Dennie’s two widely read and extracted periodicals were New Hampshire’s Farmer’s Weekly Museum newspaper, which he edited throughout the second half of the 1790s, and Philadelphia’s Port Folio magazine, which he founded and edited from 1801 until his death in 1812.

Politics and Literature: Two Great Enterprises That Went Great Together

Here’s another myth-buster: literature was not a retreat from politics for alienated intellectuals. Literary techniques helped to build the human infrastructure party politics required, and politics offered intellectuals a way to be heard in a country sorely lacking in aristocratic patronage and metropolitan density. Over the course of the eighteenth century, a tradition of witty clubbing — lubricated sometimes by coffee, sometimes by alcohol — had become increasingly entwined with print culture. The educated men and women in England and the colonies who gathered to critique literature, society, and life began to seek publication of their manuscripts in newspapers and magazines. In both their face-to-face gatherings and in print, participants were driven by three desires. They delighted in the sense that their superior judgment and wit differentiated them from the world outside. They wanted to be known to that world outside even as they were convinced of its dull incomprehension. And they wanted to believe that their associations and writings could make that world a better place. These goals — and the tensions between them — readily merged with the intense partisanship of the 1790s. The political parties did indeed have competing understandings of the role of government and competing agendas. But they each also needed to become virtual communities of emotion as well as reason, communities that were simultaneously evangelical and exclusive. Literati, it turns out, were well suited to creating these communities through print. Thomas Jefferson turned to a poet, Philip Freneau, to edit the National Gazette. But it was a Federalist man of letters, Joseph Dennie, who truly excelled.

The literary marketplace in the early Republic had no metropolis, no London to which the aspiring could go and from which power, sales, and influence emerged. In the United States, to convince printers to bring works to press, and to make newspapers achieve anything like a national influence, small but interconnected networks of people worked together to drum up subscriptions. Many of those same people also wished to see their own writing pass through those networks, so they supplied manuscripts to printers and newspapers. Creating a national political party, even a loosely-knit one, required something similar: uniting the work of far-flung networks of amateurs with that of a few professionals, in order to create and circulate ideas and emotions, and to build a community — real as well as imagined — without direct contact.

A page from Joseph Dennie's "Port Folio," 28 May 1803

 

In both the Farmer’s Weekly Museum and the Port Folio, Dennie larded national and international news with brief, mordant commentary, and he also penned longer essays, such as the “Lay Preacher” series, which combined Benjamin Franklin-style moral pronouncements, acerbic critiques of American politics, and an almost campy display of Dennie’s own melancholic unease. Dennie also printed poems, letters, and essays by readers both famous and obscure, many of whom used metaphors and pursued themes the editor himself had introduced.

 

Through his astute use of bylines, introductions, and even inside jokes, Dennie made visible the relationships and networks that produced and circulated literary and political content. Both the content and this revealing of the networks were important. The periodicals drew people into a partisan community in which they spread Federalist-inflected anecdotes and rumors, sent in their own political information, and, significantly, learned to see with Federalist eyes and speak in a Federalist tongue. Politicians such as Jeremiah Smith, Lewis Richard Morris, and Robert Goodloe Harper eagerly participated. More generally, Federalist newspapers — like Republican ones — reprinted each other’s work, “linking” to each other in a way that increased awareness of publications and editors and sped circulation of ideas, animosities, and tropes. Successful editors offered their distinctive worldviews and voices, but also offered a forum in which nonprofessionals — in either literature or politics — could find their comments posted, their battles joined, and their turns of phrase admired and emulated.

Federalist Dittoheads

This was participatory print culture, one that openly tried to create an impassioned, hostile interdependence with Republican newspapers, so that passions and readerships might rise. “Since the Editor has been splashed with the mud of Chronicle obloquy,” Dennie wrote gleefully in the midst of one newspaper war, “he has gained upwards of seven hundred subscribers. He therefore requests…the honour and the profit of their future abuse.” Such a print culture is reminiscent not of a hidebound aristocratic past but instead of today’s political/social/cultural websites such as DailyKos and Redstate. Federalists who participated in these newspapers, moreover, realized that jokes, caricatures, and a heightening of the divide between “us and them,” of the sort that flowed naturally from literary club culture, would gain both readers and political adherents. The point was to make participants feel part of an enclave, even as one justified that gated community by insisting one’s goal was to tear down the wall and reform the nation. Thus in Federalist newspapers, broad insults and scabrous doggerel (even John Quincy Adams indulged) drew laughs, while the creation of a private language of allusions, characters, and metaphors gave readers the thrill of being political participants and members, not simply consumers.

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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:

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November 14, 2008

The roots of early American history-themed rock

Filed under: Historians,Music — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:51 pm

A couple of weeks ago, I took note of Austin-based rocker Robert Harrison’s frequent references to early American history, from the name of his wonderful ’90s power pop band Cotton Mather to a song called “Old Edmund Ruffin” just released by his new band, Future Clouds & Radar. Well, I had a chance to see FC&R this past Tuesday night and chatted briefly with Harrison. It turns out that he comes by his historical references honestly, from having grown up with an early American historian in the house! His father was Joseph Harrison, Jr., an Early Republic specialist who taught at Auburn University. (And once published an article in the Journal of the Early Republic, as I found out when I got home and looked him up in “America: History and Life.”) My conversation with the extremely talented Robert Harrison was short, but it was memorable in being the only time I have ever heard a band member at a rock show utter the phrase “internal improvements.” This means it is the duty of every early Republic scholar to go out and buy a Future Clouds & Radar CD.

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I Knew I Liked That Guy, I Just Didn’t Know How Much

Filed under: Generations,Obama Administration,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:31 am

Several times I have expressed my appreciation for the fact that Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate, and now will be the first president, from my generation, the original Generation X who grew up in the 1970s. Now it turns out that the science fiction and comic book geekery that seemed something of a shameful secret in the Kansas of my youth, was actually a universal experience, at least among the future-educated:

Newsarama.com : 5 Things We Hope Obama Learned from Spider-Man
Not only has America elected its first African-American President, it’s looking more and more like we’ve elected our first Geek-in-Chief. He’s read Harry Potter, he’s addicted to his BlackBerry, and his Mac laptop has a Pac Man sticker on it. Do we need any more evidence he’s one of the nerd generation?

Most recently, the President Elect has acknowledged that he collected both Conan the Barbarian and Spider-Man comic books growing up (although he identifies with Batman as well as Spidey).

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