Dividers, Not Uniters

In a new book, Steve Kornacki looks back at the 1990s — and finds the roots of today’s polarization in the Clintons’ ascent.

..  the 1990s was until recently an invisible decade. “The holiday from history,” it was called, a “lull” where nothing much really happened, a candy-colored coma between the Berlin Wall’s fall on 11/9 and the 9/11 attacks less than a dozen years later.

.. The Red and the Blue, is a political procedural that sets out to explain how we went from giga-landslides in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s to Electoral College squeakers today, how Republicans disappeared from the coasts and Democrats died their final deaths in the South and Midwest.

.. it benefits from the context provided by Trump’s ascent, which has clarified that one big reason we’re seemingly reliving the 1930s today is because both the Left and Right spent the 1990s and early 2000s rehashing the culture wars of the 1960s and early ’70s.

.. Because cable and the Internet have so completely transformed American culture over the past two or three decades, it’s easy to forget (and younger people can’t even remember) just how norm-shattering Bill Clinton was, compared to the Greatest and Silent Generation leaders who came before him. To social conservatives and foreign-policy hawks, Clinton’s election was downright triggering, and deserved nothing less than full-on #Resistance. Historian Steven Gillon famously interviewed one who succinctly fumed that Clinton was “a womanizing, Elvis-loving, non-inhaling, truth-shading, draft-dodging, war-protesting, abortion-protecting, gay-promoting, gun-hating Baby Boomer!”

.. aside from Gary Hart, whose ill-fated career was recently reexamined in the Jason Reitman movie The Front Runner, America hadn’t had a youthful, truly sexualized major-party presidential nominee since JFK — until Clinton came along.

  • .. The Federal Reserve’s preference for financialization and neoliberalism was at its very peak under the influence of Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan.
  • Nearly half of Americans still thought “sodomy” — never mind same-sex marriage or civil unions — should be illegal.
  • And while America was pro-choice, huge percentages of voters demanded restrictions to abortion-on-demand.

The Red and the Blue gives an excellent Gen-X-plaining of just how systemically, institutionally, and culturally impossible it would have been for Democrats to move even farther leftward than they did back then — of how much damage their “too far left” brand had done to the party in the ’80s and of the disastrous political consequences of Bill Clinton’s attempts to govern from the left in 1993–94, as epitomized by Hillary’s attempt at health-care reform. He reminds his readers with his trademark aptitude for facts and figures that America in the 1990s was still very much living in what Sean Wilentz called The Age of Reagan.

.. He manages, for example, to nail the most salient point of the abusive relationship between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich: that it was at heart a love story, and/or a co-dependency worthy of Dr. Phil. One man could simply not have managed to stay in office without the other.

.. It was Clinton hatred on the social right that gave us Gingrich, and it was Gingrich’s surefire ability to trigger the libs that protected Clinton year in and year out. “Do you want him – or me?” became the basic campaign pitch of both men.

.. his Officer Friendly approach to the media is just too naïve by half, especially for someone who is a cable-news host with considerable experience in online journalism. In Kornacki’s telling, reporters merely report, offering just the facts or serving as quickie Greek choruses and footnote sources. This might work for a tenth-grade term paper, but for a book that seeks to illuminate the decade that saw the rise of the Internet, the birth of Fox News, unprecedented media consolidation, and what Eric Alterman called “the punditocracy” at the height of its influence, it’s entirely inadequate.

From highly influential anti-Great Society “Atari Democrats” like
  • Michael Kinsley,
  • Joe Klein,
  • Sidney Blumenthal, and
  • Robert Samuelson and proudly un-PC pundits like
  • Camille Paglia,
  • Ben Wattenberg,
  • Bill Maher, and
  • Andrew Sullivan to donor-funded think tanks like
  • Heritage and
  • Cato, an entire intellectual infrastructure was shaping the national narrative for what became Third Way Clintonism well before the Clinton era began. Yet most of these people and institutions do not even appear in Kornacki’s index, or if they do, they’re curtly dispensed with in one or two lines.

.. It’s possible that with Donald Trump’s attacks on the press (and with some people using criticism of “the media” as an anti-Semitic dog whistle), Kornacki didn’t want to even go there.

.. But a book on 1990s polarization that omits Steve Jobs, Roger Ailes, and Bill Gates from its index? One that effectively ignores the O.J. trial, Maureen Dowd’s gendered, campy, sexist (certainly by today’s standards), Pulitzer-winning coverage of Monicagate, and Clarence Thomas vs. Anita Hill?

.. writers as far apart as Ann Coulter and Eric Alterman blamed Al Gore’s loss in 2000 on the media’s hatred of him (and his hatred of them)?

.. Limbaugh’s pioneering tactic (soon perfected by Gingrich, Coulter, and Karl Rove) of branding anyone whose politics were even slightly to the left of, say, Sandra Day O’Connor or Dianne Feinstein, as a Loony Liberal, Radical Leftist, or Femi-Nazi. From Clinton and Dubya well into the Obama years, red-meat conservatives intentionally fuzzed the line between corporate social-liberals and the true hard left of Michael Moore, Pacifica Radio, and Thomas Frank, and Kornacki captures their strategy perfectly.

.. Aside from the Obamas themselves, no other politician would even remotely disrupt or challenge Clintonistas’ hold on the Democratic party for another ten or 15 years. But Clintonism could only continue as long as the true far-left remained repressed, and as long as the economy kept humming.
.. When a fist-shaking socialist senator from Vermont lined up an army of Millennials in formation behind him eight years after the dawn of the Great Recession caused in no small part by Clinton-era financial policy, it became crystal clear that Newt Gingrich had won the war.
.. When they exited the White House, the Clintons left behind a Democratic party that working class, rural, and/or religious whites had become almost allergic to, one more dependent on African-American and Latino voters than ever.
.. Donald Trump cruised to triumph in 2016 using all of the dog whistles and wedge issues that Gingrich, Rove, Buchanan, and Ross Perot had refined to perfection.
.. And just as education-conscious, socially liberal white professionals reacted against Gingrich’s and Buchanan’s reactionary rhetoric in the late ’90s, Trump’s Republican party has now been effectively evicted from places as once-synonymous with the GOP as Long Island, Maine, New Jersey, San Diego, and Orange County.

Postmodernism didn’t cause Trump. It explains him.

We get the term “postmodern,” at least in its current, philosophical sense, from the title of Jean-François Lyotard’s 1979 book, “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.” It described the state of our era by building out Lyotard’s observations that society was becoming a “consumer society,” a “media society” and a “postindustrial society,” as postmodern theorist Fredric Jameson points out in his foreword to Lyotard’s book. Lyotard saw these large-scale shifts as game-changers for art, science and the broader question of how we know what we know. This was a diagnosis, not a political outcome that he and other postmodernist theorists agitated to bring about.

.. Jacques Derrida’s concept of “deconstruction” sought to understand language as a system capable of constantly hiding and deferring meaning, rather than a simple conduit for conveying it.
Another thinker, Jean Baudrillard, developed the concept of the “simulacrum,” a copy without an original, that leads to the “hyperreal,” a collection of signs or images purporting to represent something that actually exists (such as photos of wartime combat) but ultimately portraying a wild distortion not drawn from reality.
.. By the 1980s, conservative scholars like Allan Bloom — author of the influential “The Closing of the American Mind” — challenged postmodern theorists, not necessarily for their diagnosis of the postmodern condition but for accepting that condition as inevitable.
.. Unlike so many of today’s critics, Bloom understood that postmodernism didn’t emerge simply from the pet theories of wayward English professors. Instead, he saw it as a cultural moment brought on by forces greater than the university.
.. Bloom was particularly worried about students — as reflections of society at large — pursuing commercial interests above truth or wisdom. Describing what he saw as the insidious influence of pop music, Bloom lamented “parents’ loss of control over their children’s moral education at a time when no one else is seriously concerned with it.” He called the rock music industry “perfect capitalism, supplying to demand and helping create it,” with “all the moral dignity of drug trafficking.”
.. Kimball called “Tenured Radicals,” in his 1990 polemic against the academic left. At the heart of this accusation is the tendency to treat postmodernism as a form of left-wing politics — with its own set of tenets — rather than as a broader cultural moment that left-wing academics diagnosed.
.. it treats Lyotard and his fellows as proponents of a world where objective truth loses all value, rather than analysts who wanted to explain why this had already happened.
.. If you’re going to claim that Trumpism and alt-right relativism are consequences of the academic left’s supposition about what was happening, you must demonstrate a causal link. But commentators looking to trace these roots play so fast and loose with causality that they could easily be called postmodernist themselves.
.. It is certainly correct that today’s populist right employs relativistic arguments: For example, “identity politics” is bad when embraced by people of color, but “identitarianism” — white-nationalist identity politics — is good and necessary for white “survival.” But simply because this happens after postmodernism doesn’t mean it happens because of postmodernism
.. figures such as “intelligent design” theorist Phillip Johnson and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich cite the influence of postmodernist theory on their projects. Yet, as McIntyre acknowledges — and documents extensively in his book — right-wing think tanks and corporate-backed fronts — like tobacco industry “research” — had already established an “alternative facts” program for the right, long before creative misinformation entrepreneurs came around.
.. because reading postmodern theory is so notoriously difficult — partly because of how philosophical jargon gets translated, and partly because so much of the writing is abstruse and occasionally unclarifiable — an undergraduate (as in Cernovich’s case) or a layperson will almost inevitably come away with misreadings.
.. Hannah Arendt’s 1951 “The Origins of Totalitarianism”: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction . . . and the distinction between true and false . . . no longer exist.” 
.. “The deliberate falsehood and the outright lie used as legitimate means to achieve political ends,” writes Arendt in her 1971 essay “Lying in Politics ,” “have been with us since the beginning of recorded history.”
.. Fredric Jameson’s reflections on conspiracy theory (“the poor person’s cognitive mapping in the postmodern age”) aren’t what’s convincing people to believe that climate change is a hoax or that the Democratic Party has been running a pedophilia ring out of a Washington pizza parlor.

.. Likewise, the claim that the Trump-Russia investigation is — as Trump said on national television — a “made-up story,” an “excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election,” is not a postmodernist critique of the evidence the Mueller investigation has gathered. So it’s a massive category error to call Trump’s post-truth politics “postmodernist.” It’s just the say-anything chicanery of the old-fashioned sales pitch.

.. it’s clear that the real enemy of truth is not postmodernism but propaganda, the active distortion of truth for political purposes.
Trumpism practices this form of distortion on a daily basis. The postmodernist theorists we vilify did not cause this; they’ve actually given us a framework to understand precisely how falsehood can masquerade as truth.

AS SEEN ON FOX NEWS WEEKEND

THE TRUTH ABOUT THE LEFT AND MINORITIES: “The left believes that black people and Hispanic people are stupid. That is the truth. They believe that we are stupid.”  – Candace Owens, communications director for Turning Point USA, on “Life, Liberty, & Levin,” discussing how racism, journalism, feminism and socialism interconnect in today’s political environment. WATCH

SOCIALISM IN THE CLASSROOM – “They can’t win in the battle of ideas … They’ve got to indoctrinate an ideology rather than educate in history because if they teach history, they’re going to lose.” – Radio host Michael Knowles, on “FOX & Friends Weekend” saying that Democratic Socialists are urging Socialists to become teachers because they can’t win a “fair fight.” WATCH

 

There Is a Revolution on the Left. Democrats Are Bracing.

“They need to wake up and pay attention to what people actually want,” Ms. Conner said of Democratic leaders. “There are so many progressive policies that have widespread support that mainstream Democrats are not picking up on, or putting that stuff down and saying, ‘That wouldn’t really work.’”

.. Energized to take on President Trump, these voters are also seeking to remake their own party as a ferocious — and ferociously liberal — opposition force. And many appear as focused on forcing progressive policies into the midterm debate as they are on defeating Republicans.

.. Fifty-three of the 305 candidates have been endorsed by the Justice Democrats, the Working Families Party, the Progressive Change Campaign and Our Revolution, organizations that have helped propel challenges to Democratic incumbents.

.. Mr. Brewer, who backs Gretchen Whitmer, a former State Senate leader and the Democratic front-runner for governor, said Michigan Democrats were an ideologically diverse bunch and the party could not expect to win simply by running far to the left.

“There are a lot of moderate and even conservative Democrats in Michigan,” Mr. Brewer cautioned. “It’s always been a challenge for Democrats to hold that coalition together in the general election.”

.. The pressure from a new generation of confrontational progressives has put Democrats at the precipice of a sweeping transition, away from not only the centrist ethos of the Bill Clinton years but also, perhaps, from the consensus-oriented liberalism of Barack Obama. Less than a decade ago, Mr. Obama’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, derided the “professional left” for making what he suggested were preposterous demands — like pressing for “Canadian health care.”

.. urged Democrats to recognize the intensity of “anger, fear and disappointment from people in our own party,” especially those new to the political process.

“They’re young, and a lot of them are folks that weren’t around or weren’t engaged when Obama ran for the first time,” Mr. Johnson, 36, said. “So this is their moment of: Let’s take our country back.”

.. primary voters have chosen candidates who seem to embody change — many of them women and minorities — but who have not necessarily endorsed positions like single-payer health care and abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency.

..  Martin O’Malley of Maryland, a left-of-center Democrat who ran for president in 2016, suggested the party wants “new leaders and fresh ideas” more than hard-left ideology.

“Sometimes that may be filled by a leader who calls herself a Democratic socialist, and sometimes it’s not,” said Mr. O’Malley, reflecting on the political convulsion that touched his home state. “Sometimes it’s with a young person. Sometimes it’s with a retiree. Sometimes it’s with a vet.”

.. avowedly moderate standard-bearers, such as Senator Doug Jones of Alabama and Representative Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania

.. among Democratic stalwarts, there is a sometimes-rueful recognition that a cultural gulf separates them from the party’s next generation, much of which inhabits a world of freewheeling social media and countercultural podcasts that are wholly unfamiliar to older Democrats.

.. But within deep-blue precincts where Democratic insurgency appears strongest, talk of accommodating the center is in short supply.