Thursday, September 04, 2008

Sarah Palin and the primary contradiction

David Seaton's News Links
Jim Sleeper, over at TPM, has written a very fine post on the Palin effect.

In it he touches on some points that have interested me for some time and which I often write about. In this post I would like to quote Mr. Sleeper and riff on some of his themes.

To begin with he says:
(...) if you didn't sense last night how deeply Sarah Palin channeled some of the country's deepest, most powerful currents of pent-up indignation and yearning, you don't sense the trouble we Democrats are in. (...) Rhetorically, she was the anti-Obama,. She was stirring precisely because she was so artless, matter-of fact, and "American" -- with no cadences or grand, historic resonances, but with plenty of mother wit and shrewdness. Credit her as much as the speechwriters.. The two currents she tapped (...) were riptides of deeply wounded pride and groping loyalty, a yearning for vindication of something that is not to be disparaged at all.

The first such riptide was unleashed by Palin's and Giuliani's accounts of John McCain's career-threatening commitment, a year ago, when his campaign was hopeless, to an American military victory in Iraq, Right or wrong -- and I think it was wrong -- it was a commitment grounded in an uncommon courage that will be dismissed as stupidity only by smart-asses who really want to lose this election.

The second current was tapped by Palin's own grounded, calm confidence that "ordinary people's" common sense - her kind, and a lot of other people's - is what it takes to pull this country through its converging crises.

(...) For some reason, courage and generosity never showed McCain what they showed Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s -- the true dangers of our military-industrial juggernaut in a world where corporations are more powerful and corrupting than states and where the biggest threats to liberty are no longer taxes-taxes-taxes, and the strongest defense of liberty is no longer what now passes for "national security."

Trapped into making war for laissez faire, conservatives such as McCain and Palin can't reconcile their yearning for a sacred, ordered liberty with their obeisance to every whim of global capital, which is abandoning Palin's small-town America and Obama's urban America, a capital whose injustices and consumer palliatives are subverting our republican institutions and character.

About all this, they haven't a clue. To find one, their folksy common-sense, defiant courage, and religious faith are more necessary than some of us acknowledge or even understand, and therefore we may lose the election.
I think Sleeper's mention of Eisenhower is especially fine. To underline that reference, let me quote from Eisenhower's well known speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors on April 16, 1953:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
Today the situation is much worse, but can you imagine any major American political figure, either Republican or Democrat daring to use such language?

Let us have another look at this wonderful paragraph from Sleeper's post:
Trapped into making war for laissez faire, conservatives such as McCain and Palin can't reconcile their yearning for a sacred, ordered liberty with their obeisance to every whim of global capital, which is abandoning Palin's small-town America and Obama's urban America, a capital whose injustices and consumer palliatives are subverting our republican institutions and character.
This is the center of the whole question, but Sleeper fails to note that neither Obama or Biden or any other major American politician will confront this truth head on or even obliquely. The Democrats are as much a part of the problem, warp and woof, as the Republicans are or ever were.

If Sleeper's paragraph is a masterful summing up of America's central problem. The left should obviously ask "what to do?", which is the question that the left exists to ask.

Obviously the answer is that we should try to change the reality described in the paragraph. The devil, of course, is in the details. Where to begin?

When you organize your days activities, for example, you might make a "to do" list and put the items in order of importance.

One the most useful tools for a political strategist is Mao Tse-Tung's "On Contradiction". Before you laugh and turn away. I suggest you read this quotation from Professor Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (National University of Singapore), writing about the errors of American foreign policy in the Financial Times:
Mao Zedong, for all his flaws, was a great strategic thinker. He said China always had to deal with its primary contradiction and compromise with its secondary contradiction. When the Soviet Union became the primary contradiction, Mao settled with the US, even though it involved the humiliation of dealing with a power that then recognised Chiang Kai-shek as the legitimate ruler. The west must emulate Mao’s pragmatism and focus on its primary contradiction.
Therefore, if America's domestic "primary contradiction" is what Sleeper calls:
obeisance to every whim of global capital, which is abandoning Palin's small-town America and Obama's urban America, a capital whose injustices and consumer palliatives are subverting our republican institutions and character.
And Eisenhower defines as:
this is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
Then it follows that following Mao's pragmatic logic, the American left much seek allies on the right in order to confront the primary contradiction. The issue of American jobs being outsourced abroad, for example, is something that could find a broad base of agreement among many Democrats and Republicans.

"Compromising on the secondary contradictions" is very painful, it involves leaving cherished principals waiting at the door while the primary contradiction is being attended to. If American militrism and the military industrial complex are seen as the primary contradiction, than something as dear to the hearts of Democrats as Roe Vs. Wade might have to be sacrificed in order to fight it.
(Full disclosure: I personally am in favor of women's freedom to choose. As a man, however, I think my opinion is, in fact, irrelevant.

While we are at it, I would ask, why are so many working class and lower middle class Americans so fired up about abortion?

Some commentators in the press have criticized Governor Palin for carrying her youngest son to term when she had been informed that he would be born with Down's Syndrome and at the same time, giving birth to such a child is a strong selling point for Palin throughout much of that America that once voted Democratic. This is an issue where people feel deeply on both sides.

My own theory of this relatively recent impassioned interest in the "right ot life", in a country that approves of the death penalty, ties it directly to the new economy.

The argument for aborting a fetus with Down's Syndrome would be that he or she could not live a useful and productive existance and would thus be a burden on its parents and society.

Do you think that if you were a small town American with just a high school education or only a couple of years in a community college, that you might possibly have cause to identify with such a child? Could we say that great masses of what were America's most productive citizens today might be classed as having "special needs" or being a burden on society?

One of the most interesting things that Mike Huckabee said in his campaign, that showed that interesting things are moving under the surface of American Evangelicalism, was that many "right to life" people only seem interested in children before they are born, once they arrive than it's devil take the hindmost. I consider that one of the most important things any politician of the right has said in a long time. There is some important common ground here.

Let's close with another quote from Jim Sleeper's wonderful post:
their folksy common-sense, defiant courage, and religious faith are more necessary than some of us acknowledge or even understand.
Amen. DS


Stephanie said...

Welcome back. Thank you for linking to Sleeper's post - I would have missed it otherwise. It was sensible and thoughtful (can't say as much for the folks who chose to comment on it).

However, I'm one of those (women) who regards abortion rights as a deal breaker and as important an issue as any other. Not just for the question of choice - after all, in some parts of the country abortion is already a de facto impossibility -- but for its connection to contraception and by extension the autonomy of women, real and symbolic. The Democratic Party lost many voters and was weakened in a far more immediate way by its embrace (grudging) of civil rights, but no one would question the rightness and justice of that decision. (I do not mean to suggest that it's an exact analogy.)

Even assuming that throwing abortion rights and, by extension, a large number of one of the Democratic Party's core constituencies under the bus -- I've come to hate that phrase -- would bring the masses running back, and I question that it would, by the end of that battle there would be no Democratic Party left. I'm not happy with the party, but I don't want it to go the way of the Whigs without another option in sight.

(Also, I suspect there are a lot of women, and not just middle class women, who don't want a lot of kids and who like knowing that there's backup if the birth control flakes out. They may not broadcast that opinion, but that's why there's a voting booth.)

Much of the Democratic commentary on Palin has been astonishingly short-sighted. They've been reduced to hoping she flames out so they won't have to deal with her. That flameout may yet happen, but she represents a larger problem that the party has yet to figure out.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

Very good post!
Let me be clear: I am in agreement with almost everything that those that are going to vote Democratic think that they are getting... I just don't think they are going to get it.

I'm mulling over this business of the "primary contradiction", which for me is the military-industrial complex's version of globalization and am trying to figure out what kind of strategy would be the best for confronting it.

stunted said...

Very lucid comment, Stephanie. I'm not sure how much the Democratic Party still represents what its core constituencies assume it does, and that is a major problem; as David puts it: for Democratic voters, what you see is not what you get. The DNC seems intent on still pursuing the losing tactic of offering the country Republican-lite. Obama lamely throwing in a quotation from Scripture at the end of his acceptance speech was emblematic: too little, too late for the evangelical voters who are massively Republican.

Republicans are not at all squeamish about their faith and bringing God to the forefront of American politics.Sarah Palin has completely changed this election and brought it back to the "values" terrain where Republicans are as supremely confident as Democrats are inept. A woman vice-president might be just enough change for the American voter who has now been conditioned to think that that's what this election is about. Obama's supporters cite dissatisfaction with the Bush presidency as an expression of a desire of the electorate for progressive values, whereas the rock-star excitement Palin is generating would appear to suggest that a large portion electorate is not tired of Republican values at all, just with this administration's ineffectiveness as the delivery vehicle.

As for the "Sophie's choice" facing Democrats that is the thrust of this News Links post, it is a troubling premise with no easy answer. After the abortion issue, what next? Where would the ceding of core beliefs end, and to what end? The fundamentalist evangelicals who make up the base of the Republican party will not content themselves with just the right-to-life arguement; what is taught in schools, who teaches in schools, what is available in libraries, what is available in pharmacies.....what would be left of this country?

For the Republican voter as well, what you see is not really what you get, unless you are in that .1%. The Republican voter will never see Reagan as the reckless de-regulator-in-chief whose presidency helped to put us on the path to economic insolvency. He was the great communicator who told Americans what they wanted to hear after what was perceived as the parched bummer of the Carter years: that America was a shining citadel, blessed by the Almighty; an example to the repressed yearnings of that part of humanity unfortunate to have been born elsewhere. He told Americans that they were special and that is enough to blind them to his very active role in the pauperisation of the middle-classes, his most ardent electorate. It is the very idea of American exceptionalism that needs to be thoroughly discredited. It is just a small little skip in thinking , if America is indeed "blessed" by an Almighty, a nation with a special role in the history of mankind, for voters to seek out politicians who see themselves as executors of the will of that Almighty who is not interested in negotiation.

And welcome back, David. I would love to spend a month anywhwere in Spain. You are a lucky man, but then, we make our own luck. I'd still love to knock back a few tapas with chilled wine before heading off to the Prado for a quick eyeful.

Anonymous said...

Palin’s speech was prepared by Matthew Scully – a former member of the George W. Bush speech writing team. He is obviously adept at positioning those as he sees fit. He prepared the body of her speech before McCain chose her then weaved in a folksy biography to paint Palin as a feisty hockey mom and centrist. He also saw to it that, once again, her opponents, Obama and Biden were portrayed as smug elitists.

Stunted commented about the Regan message which suggests that America is blessed by the Almighty and that it has a special role in the history of mankind. This mindset is consistent with the Rove strategy as well. I expect Palin will respond well to her upcoming interviews and debate as she has been sequestered to bring her up to speed with the McCain campaign dogma ala Steve Schmidt and crew.

The McCain/Schmidt campaign has deep ties to George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and even Samuel A. Alito, Jr. and Chief Justice John Roberts. These people are skillful, ruthless and have little need for conscience or decency. They will use all means to accomplish their objectives.

Apparently only God knows the democracy is compromised – as clearly the voting constituency is unaware or unconcerned about this fundamental issue for the time being.

For this reason, progressive humanitarians who value liberty bear a heightened responsibility to stand up for their beliefs.

If Neoconservative policy decisions continue to be effected ala a McCain victory, then the shine of that aforementioned sanctified Americanism will continue to fade. So the liturgy of fear and division will continue and indeed be bolstered. Sadly even acts of unprovoked war have been convenient and effective in this regard and I have little doubt that McCain will continue to foster these objectives. Case in point is the contrast in McCain’s pre-2000 election policy stances versus his present ones. It seems that the throttling he received during the 2000 election campaign from the likes of Bush/Rove have left a lasting impression.

Overturning Roe v. Wade, legalizing same-sex marriage or resolving other polarizing matters would constitute the sacrifice of fundamental wedge issues in their ongoing cultural war. Those are the most powerful and inflaming weapons in their arsenal.

The Supreme Court is already poised to deliver on those counts. If they’ve taken a pass on addressing those issues throughout the duration of the most willful and autocratic administration of our lives, then why would they bother on the next go around? Leaving those issues lingering fuels discontent within their base therefore keeps the door open for more like-minded Supreme Court appointees to enter the system and effect ever farther-reaching precedents. On those terms, they will continue to fragment our democracy in more subtle yet powerful ways to further their objective of becoming the global constabulary that is stated in their own published doctrine works.

Executive privilege now supersedes the balance of Congress. Couple that with the prestige of undefeatable veto power and inexhaustible signing opinions. Now tell me they are not there already.

While it is an interesting notion to muse over, I don’t think it makes sense for Obama to get in bed with this lot.

Instead, Obama needs to remind America that our democracy was once the envy of the world. Not because of its power or wealth, but because it offered a voice for the under-represented. We need to embrace the belief that freedom is more important than our differences and that tolerance is the critical element that ensures the great experiment continues. Tocqueville wondered if race would tear it apart, but at the moment, religion seems the more threatening of the two. In this regard, America can remember the basic tenet of separation of church and state. The notion of common decency and mutual respect, if reinstated would be helpful as well.

Negativity is the domain of the Rovian goons that are running the McCain campaign and at the moment they have the upper hand. Palin was a superb choice as an attack dog, but her history is mired in hypocrisy and McCain in the final analysis is hardly a model for change.

If Obama is to be successful, he will need to re-energize his base and reassert himself as the candidate of change. Using the example of Eisenhower’s fateful expression could prove an effective opener in terms of appealing to common decency and uniting Americans to support him. In any event, the highest impact of the campaign was generated from the positive transference of his enthusiasm to the others. Positive energy is powerful and if America is truly hungering for change, that attitude has merit.

The pendulum has swung smartly to the right, but eight years have gone by and America is smarting from the effects of the Neoconservative policies. We may even face another term before the tide turns, but I believe the tide in time will turn again – hopefully sooner than later.

Regardless, we need to remain patient and continue to speak out in support our values.

Just as America did during the McCarthy era, eventually we regained our decency – even though at the time many felt it would never return.

Everything runs in cycles. At the end of winter, spring feels like it will never come, but it always does.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

I think people imagine Barack Obama to be anything their heart desires, someone that Spike Lee calls their "magical negro".

In fact he is merely a supreme opportunist, that has been groomed by mayor Daley of Chicago, leader of one of America's oldest and most corrupt political machines.

Sarah Palin is so damaging for Obama, because although her CV is very thin, it is so much thicker than his. When commentators attack her on this point, people think, "yes, but, she has actually done other things in life besides writing her autobiography and running for president".