Saturday, July 08, 2006

How the other half thinks

On June 23 Grover Norquist, the Republican activist about whom I have already had occasion to write quite a bit, appeared at the liberal American Prospect, a kind of Daniel-in-the-Lions-Den experience that he evidently enjoys. His presentation and the question and answer period were very long—they may be read in their entirety at –and I thought my readers and their friends might enjoy a summary.

Listening to Norquist—who might actually have been a student of mine at Harvard in the late 1970s, although I have never checked—one easily realizes why Republicans have been doing so well. While his anti-tax zealotry certainly seems real, he primarily seems to care about one thing, winning elections—and he assumes that Democrats are exactly the same. He listed three pillars of the Republican coalition: people who don’t want to pay taxes, people who want total freedom to own guns, and people who want the freedom to give their children a proper religious education. He is evidently uncomfortable with militant anti-gay rhetoric and would prefer to compromise on civil unions, and in fact, he disputed the idea that a referendum on gay marriage won Ohio and the election for President Bush in 2004. Like Karl Rove (one wonders who learned from whom), he understands that opinions in general, such as opposition to immigration, do not necessarily sway voters: the key is to mobilize constituencies like his three favorites who actually will vote according to one’s position on their critical issue. He has another powerful fantasy that I think will eventually get him into trouble: the idea that America is becoming a whole nation of stockholders who will become loyal Republicans. He favors the privatization of Social Security on those grounds, honestly believing that giving every 20 year old the promise of “a few hundred thousand” in the bank when he retires will change his political orientation. (There is, alas, a terrible swindle behind all this--$300,000 in the bank, as Norquist ought to know, will yield only about $12-15,000 per annum in retirement, some of which will have to be reinvested to keep up living standards in the future. It is not as good, in short, as $25,000 per year in Social Security benefits.)

The Democratic Party, in Norquist’ s opinion, is composed of trial lawyers (he always leads with them), freeloaders, government bureaucrats, declining labor unions, and environmental and sexual fanatics who want to run other peoples’ lives. He does not really grapple with the issue of how such a coalition could win a plurality of the votes in 2000 and more than 48% in 2004. But he does put his finger on a critical, and for him, a very comforting Democratic fact: the most Democratic generation in the country is the GI generation (he extends them youthward to today’s 75 year olds, who were much too young to have fought in the Second World War), and about two million of them are dying every year. That, I would guess, probably was the difference between a tie vote in Florida in 2000 and a Bush victory of a few hundred thousand in 2004.

What is missing from his talk is any real appreciation for what is happening to the United States either at home or abroad. He obviously has grave reservations about the Iraq war, because it has lowered the President’s poll numbers so badly, but he argues stridently that John Murtha wrecked the issue for the Democrats by suggesting that we withdraw—courageously, in my opinion—rather than simply allowing popular anger to fester. If he has any real sense of what is happening to the average American economically—a vast increase in debt—he certainly doesn’t show it. He is confident that when the Republican Senate majority reaches 60 (he accuses Democrats of “changing the rules,” ignoring over a century of history), Social Security will be privatized. He is confident that Americans oppose what he calls the politics of envy—higher taxes for rich people. He is quite sure that Democrats want bigger government only because civil servants tend to vote Democratic. He recognizes that some Republicans are unhappy about huge deficits but he shows no sign of caring about them himself. And he has no vision of what to offer the younger generation except a private account, gun ownership, religious schools, and low taxes. One does wonder whether that will be enough. On the other hand, pointing out how steadily the Republicans have held their majorities in Congress since 1994 (see last week’s post), he seems pretty confident that nothing earth-shattering will happen this fall, and as I pointed out last week, he may well be right. On the other hand, he regards George Allen as the Republicans' best hope in 2008, and Allen, as far as I can see, faces a very difficult re-election race. Allen, says Norquist, most resembles George Bush, but that is a backhanded compliment. Norquist is so full of himself that he cannot resist belittling the President on a number of occasions during his talk, especially with respect to his campaign on Social Security last year.

I was rather astonished at how gingerly Norquist’s questioners treated his potential legal difficulties involving Jack Abramoff, who told certain clients to contribute to Norquist’s organization in order to get a meeting with President Bush. No one asked him about it directly, but he tried to claim that one accusation (not that one) was off base spontaneously. But the mainstream media, as well as the American Prospect, is handling Abramoff and his influence with kid gloves. Having spent most of eight years trying to get Bill Clinton, they are absolutely determined to avoid the appearance of trying to get President Bush. Yesterday it developed that the Secret Service had released news of several more Abramoff visits to the White House, including one in 2001 in which he met with Vice President Cheney’s domestic policy adviser. That news is buried in a tiny item at the bottom of an inside page in today’s New York Times.

Karl Rove is right: there are two Americas, each with its own reality. Rove, Norquist and the rest not only don’t care that the New York Times and the ”Bolsheviks” (Norquist’s word) at the pro-war Washington Post don’t understand what they are doing, they are glad of it. They plan to win in November by running against the reality-based community. This is the climax of an era in American history that began, like so much else, in the late 1960s—the era of the professional political consultant and activist. When Joe Napolitan, a Democratic consultant in those days, wrote a book about his approach, David Broder commented that the book would appall anyone who believed, as he did, that politics should have something to do with government. I doubt he had any idea how far things might go. Government has become nothing but a political whipping boy, and the American people will, sadly, have to learn how necessary it is the hard way. The death of a major American city (New Orleans) does not seem to have made the slightest difference, and I wonder what it will take.


Anonymous said...

How truly depressing. If I could wave a wand, I'd put Norquist in New Orleans, or any of the surrounding areas deeply impacted by Katrina, six months ago on foot with a candy bar and a bottle of water, and tell him to stay there a week on his own. He'd see for himself the failure of the federal government to do its most basic job(s), and perhaps then he would rejoin the human race. Only this morning I was looking at photos of Katrina and its aftereffects at How quickly we forget, and how few realize the scope of the damages.

Guys like this amaze me. How in the world did this snake ever gain his status? What does that say about our system of goverment, our social structure, our ability as a people to meet our challenges head-on?

Thanks for writing this essay. You have a wonderful blog.

George Buddy said...

Terrific analysis of Norquist/Rove approach to politics.

I am going to be a link to yours from my blog.

btw, where are you teaching now?