Featured Post

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Knowledge gaps

I don't think I've ever discussed this here before, but my interest in politics goes way, way back, and it always had a particular intensity. In 1952, when I was five, my father was an Assistant Secretary of Labor--that is, a Presidential appointee--and I understood that the contest between Stevenson and Eisenhower would have a major impact on our family's future. I still remember calling up to my old brother, then 9, in the upper bunk, to ask him the morning after the election, who had won, and he replied, "Eisenhower!" It actually took more than two years for the effects of that result to play out, but they culminated in a move to upstate New York. Kennedy's victory led to a move to Africa--and so on and so on. My father had every right to care about the results of elections so much. He had a great talent for diplomacy (which was actually a big part of his job in the Labor Department) and he enjoyed it very much. But he had not been brought up to sound selfish, and up until the end of his life he consistently convinced himself that every election was a great test of good and evil. Our household was foursquare in favor of civil rights and regarded bigots as the scum of the earth, but bigotry against Republicans, with some exceptions, was not only allowed, it was almost obligatory. Meanwhile, starting in second grade, I was learning about earlier eras of American history in Landmark books--a wonderful artifact of Boomer childhoods. And the country, of course, was pretty much united in its belief in American progress and democracy. My elementary school textbooks, I remember, included complicated diagrams showing how bills were passed, and I studied them carefully.

The Vietnam War showed that the older generation could be very, very wrong, regardless of party. The two elections of Nixon showed that the liberal coalition that had made my father's life possible no longer commanded the support of the American people. I have a distinct recollection of watching the midterm elections of 1970--a pivotal year in my life in many ways, actually--and realizing that the old spark was missing--I was interested in the results but understood that life would go on whatever they might be. Some months after that I had a rather sharp exchange with my father after Henry Kissinger's trip to China. I still wasn't fond of Nixon, and I rejoiced at his demise three years later, but I thought he deserved credit for reversing our China policy, and I still do. He didn't want to hear it--Nixon, his exact contemporary, was one Republican who could do no right, all the more so since his election in 1968 had cut my father's diplomatic career short in its prime.

By the time of the Reagan era I was a practicing historian and I was getting more and more detached. A series of elections and deaths, culminating in the 1980 Reagan sweep, had removed most of my liberal political heroes from the scene, and the country was clearly in an entirely different mood. I was busy with my career and young family, too. Michael Dukakis's self-destruction in 1988 was a bit of a shock, and after the Gulf War, I assumed the Republicans would stay in the White House for a long time. My favorite political novel was now Democracy by Henry Adams, a brilliant work even today but not one calculated to inspire idealism, of which Adams had none whatever. In the summer of 1989, after finishing a long book of my own on Europe, I read Adams' entire History of the United States under the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, one of the three or four greatest classics of American history (actually I would rank it with Allen Nevins's history of the coming of the Civil War as the best.) Although Adams was emotionally engaged in it, particularly with respect to Jefferson, it was filled with irony and humor and concluded that American progress in that era had very little to do with the state.

The election of Bill Clinton was a welcome surprise in 1992, and Clinton began with the tax increase that helped restore the country to fiscal health. But the Republican takeover of Congress two years later was a rude awakening indeed, and Clinton never pursued, much less achieved, a particularly liberal agenda. Meanwhile American journalism collapsed almost completely, focusing obsessively on imagined or irrelevant scandals. In the midst of the decade I discovered Strauss and Howe, who assured us that our current political doldrums would give way, first, to a great storm, and then to some kind of regeneracy whose shape no one could foretell. I began rethinking a great deal of the history I knew, both of the US and of other countries as well, and decided that the theory reflected reality pretty faithfully. Then came the stolen election of 2000, and 9/11, which seemed to usher in the crisis era that they had predicted.

It was three years after that, in 2004, that I began making these posts. The Republican ascendancy looked pretty secure at that point, but within months, it began to crumble. Bush, I see now, persisted in the role of a Crisis President, doing whatever he thought was right regardless of public opinion. (That does not mean that he achieved any lasting good, even on the issues he cared about most. Today's papers report that Nouri Al Maliki will retain power in Iraq in a coalition with the most anti-American and pro-Iranian politician in the country, Moqtar Al-Sadr--and that the Sunnis will once again be completely excluded from power while the Kurds secure greater independence. But I digress.) But the Democratic Party won back the Congress in 2006 and then the Presidency in 2008, with a historic margin, in the midst of an economic crisis that seemed completely to discredit the economic policies of the last few decades. Another New Deal seemed to be at hand. Obviously, it hasn't worked out that way.

I have discussed the many reasons for this here for many months, but today one in particular stands out. The media and our educational system have combined to reduce the average American--particularly the less well-off American--to an astonishing level of ignorance about our political system, what it can and cannot do, and the roles of the two parties. It is true that the choice between the two parties is much narrower than it was 75 or 40 years ago. The Republicans have become the party of extreme conservatism while the Democrats are if anything the party of moderate, somewhat responsible conservatism--the party that realizes that we need a government and have to think about how to pay for it. In fact, the function of Democratic Administrations now seems to be to do something to clean up Republican messes, only to be driven out of office when the Republicans mount an effective propaganda campaign against what they have done and start over. But the difference between the two is still significant. What has become clear to me this year is that many people, including many of those who elected Barack Obama in 2008, do not believe that.

Last February, not long after Scott Brown had won the Massachusetts Senate election, I went to Switzerland with a Massachusetts ski club, composed entirely of people over 50. One night I was sitting with three of them, all reasonably liberal types, including a long-time resident of Provincetown, and a nurse. All three indicated with pride that they had voted for Brown, largely to "teach the Democrats a lesson". I was appalled but kept my mouth shut for reasons of politeness. Brown's defeat had cost the Democrats their filibuster-proof majority and the chance of pushing forth a liberal agenda. But it is now clear, first of all, that relatively few Obama voters even cared about a liberal agenda in the sense that anachronistic New Dealers like Krugman, Jamie Galbraith, Robert Reich and myself do, and that even the Democratic Congress itself--particularly in the Senate--isn't really interested in one either. Both health care and finance reform were imitation reforms, not real ones--even if in both cases, something was better than nothing.

What is astonishing is the complete failure of the Administration even to try to make political capital out of those reforms. Last week one of the most popular provisions of the health bill went into effect, barring insurance companies from denying coverage to families with children with pre-existing conditions. Had this happened under George W. Bush he would have appeared in the Rose Garden surrounded by a troop of chronically ill, irresistibly cute kids. But the Obama Administration did nothing at all. It seems quite resigned to losing at least the House of Representatives and I even heard one insider speculate that the White House doesn't even have much of a legislative agenda anymore. And they obviously have polling data suggesting that both health reform and financial reform (which is probably inextricably mixed up in voters' minds with TARP) are unpopular among swing voters. Not long after the 2008 election I heard James Carville say, in effect, that he expected the Democrats to win a long string of elections based on demographics alone. He was wrong.

The ignorance of voters--and particularly of Democratic voters--is very much on display in a poll reported this morning by columnist Charles Blow in the New York Times. 42% of black voters, 42% of Hispanic voters, and, most shockingly, just 35% of all voters between 18 and 29 years old even know that the Democrats currently have a majority in the House of Representatives. I heard another version of the same story on NPR yesterday when a correspondent interviewed young black people in New Orleans, who had gone to the polls for Obama but saw no reason to do so to choose between two old guys this year. (One of them didn't even know what a midterm election was.) "According to a Gallup poll released in July," Blow writes, "most Democrats didn't even seem to know what a progressive was, and of those who did, slightly more said that it didn't describe them than said that it did." But Republicans, who are 11% more likely than Democrats to know who controls the House, "know" exactly what a Progressive is: a demon from hell. That's because Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity and the rest of Fox News explain it to them daily. And that is why they have a 67% chance of taking over the House of Representatives and quite possibly putting an end to modern liberalism once and for all.

A different but equally troubling kind of ignorance emerged in a post by a younger poster on one of my favorite web sites the other day. Referring to his Congressional contest in Wisconsin, which features a Democratic incumbent, he wrote:

"Anecdotal evidence, take it for what its worth:

"I have a friend, a 24 year old Millenial. She returned from a tour of duty in Iraq early this year. She voted for Obama in 2008, and now says she will vote Republican in this election.

"She appears fairly centrist to me, supportive of gay rights, believes in climate change, and has never once parrotted some line about socialism. But she doesn't have any confidence in Obama's leadership.

"Now I think part of this is probably her perception that she gained in the military that Democrats aren't very caring about veterans, and she believes that Republicans care more about veterans. My feeling is that this is a big portion of her reasoning. [Editor's note: I find that hard to believe--I have never heard a military person say that.]

"Point being, I think a lot of people in the center are feeling like the Democrats haven't done a good job, and they're voting for the other party.

"Actually, I'm doing that too. I will also probably vote for Ribble against my current congressman, Kagen, because I really don't like Kagen. I met him recently and had a conversation with him (without knowing it was him. You'd be surprised how different people look when they randomly sit next to you versus when they're on a television screen) and he came off to me as completely unknowledgeable and smarmy. Don't know much about Ribble but I figure I can vote him out with a better Democrat next time.

"From the perspective of the liberal voter, voting for incumbent Democrats doesn't make a whole lot of sense. We got them in. They did very little with their majority.

"To vote them in to do it again doesn't represent much other than continued gridlock. If we want to advance the progressive goal, the only real solution is to let the Republicans win and then kick them out again and replace them with better Democrats.

"If you want something to change, you have to do it differently. The current Democratic Majority isn't doing things the way they should be. To vote them in again will result in the same people being in charge. If we want better representatives, better liberals, we have to let the right wing win this one, and put them back into place with new, less compromising liberals."

Now actually, this last liberal Democratic House for a very long time (probably) has done very well. It passed much stronger health care and finance reform bills than the Senate did, and it passed cap-and-trade and the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. But because of the kind of fuzzy thinking exemplified above, and because of economic distress, they will be rewarded by the loss of 45-55 seats, and the government will be paralyzed for two years.

At some point I shall have to confront the question of what all this means about Barack Obama himself, but I would not know what to say about that now. He seemed in 2008 to understand the potential of the role he had been called upon to play, but he failed in the most crucial aspect of educating the public about the need for a new course. The Republicans have defined him for more than half of the American people. They have benefited both from the lack of a recovery and from the inability of many older Americans to accept the reality of Barack Obama in the White House, but they have also won by default.

I had hoped to spend this post analyzing the financing behind this year's elections, because I had found that the New York Times election page (not the fivethirtyeight.com page) has data on contributions for every single Senate, Congressional and gubernatorial race. But a second look informed me that most of the data is hopelessly out of date. A great many stories, however, are saying that the Republicans have a big financial advantage overall--even though some well-financed Democrats, like Russ Feingold in Wisconsin and Harry Reid, are in big trouble all the same. That post, however, will have to wait for better data.


Anonymous said...

I think you're trying to have it both ways here, Dr. Kaiser. The voters are generally totally oblivious to the mechanisms of government, true. But that's not the biggest reason that a lot of Dems (me included) are going to sit this one out, or why many "independents" (typically, the most ignorant voters) are going to pull the Republican lever. Obama and the Dems have spent the last two years doing a wonderful ersatz Republican act. They've disregarded crucial slices of their coalition, in particular, immigrants, private sector unions, blue collar workers. They're explicitly disdainful of their left wing. Finally, they have managed the incredible blunder of identifying the party of FDR with -- the finance "industry"! (Granted, this symbiosis was well underway during Slick Willy's term.)

This is really extraordinary political stupidity. Worse, it has set the stage for even bigger, more catastrophic financial criminality in the near future. You can't really blame voters for paying attention to the blindingly obvious.
-- sglover

Patricia Mathews said...

And - I've been wondering about this for some time - if I were to have one definitive book or set of books on American history, what would you recommend? Besides the Strauss & Howe works, of which I did let "Fourth Turning" out of my hands and should probably re-acquire.

The Grey Badger from 4T

Joe A said...

I find your view "The Republicans have become the party of extreme conservatism while the Democrats are if anything the party of moderate" interesting. I disagree with it. I'd say the opposite is true for the most part. republicans have been moderate even liberal in many ways. and democrats have become more liberal. Perhaps we are focusing on different points of interest. I would agree with the statement that democrat voters are less informed however, every time I get into even the most polite discussion with a democrat they can express vague opinions have have no facts to back them up. They also don't want to hear any facts that contradict their beliefs. Usually conversations start with statements from them and end with "I don't want to talk about it" type statements as soon as any disagreement of views is started. They have no response to anything that consists of any value. I would love honest discussion that might change my views but can't get it. I read your thread partly for that very reason. Thank you

Anonymous said...

The best politicians money can buy. The whole system is corrupt. Mr. Smith does not go to Washington anymore. The people have been made successively more stupid by TV, Talk radio. Business controls the propaganda machine. Life and journalism has become superficial. You seem to ignore the logical consequences of the theory to concentrate on the conventional political analysis. Boomers and Xers have their own politics and interests which is not the interests of their parents and grandparents as you see from your own experience, Mr. Keiser. Democrats and Republicans, even modern politics is uninteresting to people, it is enterntainment, not absolutely necessary to survival. A freak show. An earlier generation suffered depression and war and parties and individuals represented real alternative solutions and there was a consensus then too as now. Now the consensus is business oriented(the state is bad,Goldwater/Reagan/Milton Friedman) not social oriented (labor unions, large industrial, FDR/Keynes). To move the consensu back requires a collpase or failure of the big banks and of Free Trade and probably national, state and municipal bankruptcies/defaults. All of both ideological sides are dependent on economic growth. Both parties base their ideologies on a dsitribution of growth made money to the poor or to the rich depending on the party. The future is now one of shrinkage due to global resource shortages and massive overpopulation and climate change. The republican and democratic ideologies cannot cope with these realities. In fact democracy is incapable of coping with giving peole less as they will vote these politicians out of office. This means a new era. Whoever wins is unimportant.

Anonymous said...



And then there are people like you Dr. Kaiser.

David Kaiser said...

To anonymous, directly above:

Yes, and I'm proud of it. I allowed this particular comment to show my readers that there are indeed bigots out there ready to accuse any white supporter of the President of being a traitor to his race. They don't, however, deserve to call themselves Americans, although the Constitution guarantees their citizenship.

Anonymous said...


Many thanks for a very informative and searching post.

'Family social history' plays a significant part in how I have come to see things, as I mentioned on my site also, although it took many years to recognize this influence, amid all the others.

The 'ignorance factor' you delineate may be the biggest domestic factor in determining the direction the country eventually moves toward.

Foreign endeavors will also have a preponderant effect on what goes on here.

I was especially grateful for some book references.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush named visiting fellow at Harvard University Institute of Politics


Anonymous said...

"The country needs a dose of genuine socialism, just as it did in the 1930s when FDR started the TVA, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the PWA and WPA, and the Democratic Party could have been laying the political basis for it and given itself something positive to run on over the last two years. "

It is quite interesting to see that someone whose grandparents fled socialism and communism is
now advocating it for the land that they had fled to!

I guess you know all other histories besides the history of your own family.

Perhaps in one of your musings you can explain to your readers why is it that you are an ardent advocate of something that your own grandparents have fled from?

David Kaiser said...

To Anonymous, above:

My grandparents did not flee communism or socialism, they fled Tsarism. With the help of the New Deal their younger children went to college and in some cases grad school and became a lawyer, a diplomat, and successful businessmen. My whole family are Democrats and always have been. Don't presume so much, it's very unbecoming.

Bentree said...

I just discovered your blog and I find it to be easy reading and illustrative of the progressive state of mind. Being a Constitutional originalist I have always struggled with the vagrancies of progressive thought. Progressive intellectual dysfunction seems to me to be the best way to describe how seemingly erudite individuals, I pause here to deal with the anxiety I'm feeling for my country and my families future, inexplicably ignore the principals set forth in the Founders documents.

I am assuming a benchmark of knowledge of those documents and I also realize that you have a different interpretation of what seems to me to be a pretty succinct characterization of the founders intent in those Documents. Put this together with the many and varied writings of same I would think some intellectual connection between the founding Principals and progressive policies would and should be the subject of the political debate in this country.

I realize that progressive intellectual types relegate the unwashed masses that live outside large cities, Washington and the Capitals of these several states, as uncomprehending of all the intricacies of what is required to "rule" this country, therefore creating the need for the intellectual elite to step in and institute fundamental change. Do you think that maybe, just maybe that those same "unwashed masses" understand the difference between Liberty and tyranny even without peer review.

Your family fleeing Russian Czarism is only semantically different from fleeing Communism or any other form of tyranny including progressivism. This obfuscation is another example of progressive intellectual dysfunction. You really don't understand that progressives and czarist are one and the same. A tyrant by any definition is still a tyrant, the only difference is in the means or as John Adams might have said, " in the construction".