Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Santorum's Education: "What a Snob!"

This past weekend, when Rick Santorum wasn't busy saying John F. Kennedy's speech on separation of church state made him throw up, he was making this attack on President Obama on the subject of higher education:
Obama says he wants everyone to go to college. What a snob. [applause] There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor and trying to indoctrinate them. [applause]
As is usually the case, the words Santorum uses to attack others are far more revealing of himself than of his targets.

First, Santorum's statement is simply false. The president has not said that everyone should go to college. He has said that everyone ought to have the opportunity to go, and that people with the desire and ability should not be prevented simply because they can't afford it. This, to Santorum, constitutes snobbery.

Second, there's the hypocrisy. In his failed 2006 bid for re-election to the Senate, Santorum's position was the same as Obama's. His campaign website bragged about it, in fact:
Rick ... is equally committed to ensuring that every Pennsylvanian has access to higher education. Rick Santorum has supported legislative solutions that provide loans, grants, and tax incentives to make higher education more accessible and affordable.
But that, to my mind, is far from the worst of it. What I find especially interesting (and disturbing) is what Santorum's comments reveal about his attitude toward education.

To him, college is simply indoctrination. In his universe, college is not a place for reasoned discourse, the search for truth, or the battle of ideas. There is only the imposition of ideas by those with an agenda to "remake" others in their own image. (If I recall my psychology indoctrination in college correctly, I believe this is called "projection.")

Why is college like this? Because, in Santorum's words, we are in the midst of a "spiritual war," and the "Father of Lies" has long since conquered academia. Seriously.

Santorum explained all this in a speech he gave at Ave Maria University in 2008:
Satan has [been] attacking the great institutions of America, using those great vices of pride, vanity, and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that have so deeply rooted in the American tradition.... The place where he was, in my mind, the most successful and first successful was in academia. He understood pride of smart people. He attacked them at their weakest, that they were, in fact, smarter than everybody else and could come up with something new and different. Pursue new truths, deny the existence of truth, play with it because they're smart. And so academia, a long time ago, fell.... the other structures that I'm going to talk about here had the root of their destruction because of academia. Because what academia does is educate the elites in our society, educates the leaders of our society, particularly at the college level. And they were the first to fall.
In Santorum's spiritual war of good v. evil, God v. Satan, academia is already in thrall to the Father of Lies. So what goes on there is not education, but indoctrination. And what students are indoctrinated with is evil. And the only proper response, of course, is to indoctrinate them with good.

In all the hub-bub about Santorum's remarks, people have largely ignored the significance of what he said after the attack on the president and liberal college professors:
Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. [laughter] I want to create jobs so that people can remake their children into their image, not his.
This is, I'd argue, even more revealing. When put together with his earlier comments on academia, Santorum seems to be suggesting that Obama, by trying to get people to go to college, is doing Satan's work. God created us in His image, but Obama wants to "remake you in his image"--by sending you to institutions that have fallen to Satan.

Note, Santorum does not conceive of education as a vehicle for empowering people to make themselves into what they want to be. No, in Santorum's Manichean world, people can only be remade in the image of good or of evil.

Santorum has rather famously walked the walk on this subject, by home-schooling his own children (something he says he would continue to do as president). He has argued against government involvement in education, implying that (ideally at least) all parents would home school their children--or at least have that option--so that they may remake their children in their own image. What other godly way is there, after all? Academia has fallen to Satan.

Santorum's vision of education has no relation to my experience, either as a student or a teacher. I went to twelve years of Catholic school. We had religion classes and and went to Mass.  But I'm confident that the nun with the ashen visage who taught me chemistry in high school didn't indoctrinate me with much of anything (other than, perhaps, an aversion to science classes).

My English teachers, who taught me how to write, my history teachers, who taught me how to think critically, my math teachers, who taught me how reason my way through a problem--all of them helped me develop skills that I still use to this day. That is what education does.

I spent four years being indoctrinated by Satan's minions (i.e., liberal college professors) at Lafayette College, but among the things I remember most about that experience is debate, not indoctrination. Oh, some of them were pretty left-wing, no doubt. But they didn't teach me what to think, they taught me how to think.

(Santorum seems to have made it through the den of iniquity that is Penn State without being indoctrinated, but he doesn't feel others are able to withstand it. Evidently he thinks he is better than all those elites who succumbed. So who is the real snob?)

I recall my college advisor, who, knowing I was an Irish Catholic, made me take the side of Ulster Protestants in one debate on Northern Ireland, and later, knowing my liberal tendencies, made me defend apartheid in South Africa in another. She knew my politics, and though I am fairly confident she shared them, she did not reinforce them. She forced me to look at the other side, and take positions I found personally abhorrent because she knew that was how I would learn. She pushed me to think differently. She did the very opposite of indoctrination. Because that is what a good teacher does.

I've tried to emulate her example in my own career. Anyone who reads this blog knows where I'm coming from politically, but I take care to avoid letting my views affect my classes. I see my job as helping students to think critically, to write critically and clearly, and to argue well--not to simply mimic my point of view (and trust me, very few do).

Early in my teaching career, in 1993, I got a last-minute position teaching a graduate seminar, The United States: 1933 to the Present. More than most classes, that one engaged topics that were directly relevant to current events. If ever there was a chance to indoctrinate, this was it.

Since the class was in the evening, I had several adult students. One student was, I'd guess, not much younger than I was at the time--maybe even older. He was very bright, and very conservative. And we went back and forth for three hours every week, with the conversation sometimes continuing long after class ended.

The next year, when he was no longer my student, he got in touch with me when he heard I was applying for a full-time position at the college, and offered to to write a letter of recommendation for me. He later showed me a copy of it, in which he said he hoped the college would hire me, because no matter how much the two of us might disagree on the issues, the only thing that ever mattered in my class was the quality of his work. He had done well because he had done good work.

That's something that Rick Santorum, with his constricted, twisted concept of education, cannot understand. Maybe his version of education is indoctrination. But mine isn't, and that isn't what I learned from my mentors.

In our version, there is a battle, and there is an enemy. But the enemy isn't an opposing ideology or religion. The enemy is sloppy thinking. The enemy is bad reasoning. The enemy is lack of clarity. The enemy is assertion without evidence. The enemy is narrow-mindedness.

The enemy is ignorance.

The real "war" in education is knowledge v. ignorance, and Rick Santorum has told us all quite clearly which side he is on.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Santorum's History Lesson: "It's not OK."

Rick Santorum certainly is not squandering his moment in the spotlight.

Over the last week or so, he seems almost to be going out of his way to say things that make many voters ask incredulously: "He said what?!" There are a lot of them to choose from, but I'll stick to the "today is much like when we ignored Hitler" story.

Recently, Santorum told a crowd in Georgia that Republican voters need to wake up to the dangers of our times:
Your country needs you. It's not as clear a challenge. Obviously World War II was pretty obvious. At some point, they knew. But remember, the greatest generation for a year and a half, sat on the sidelines while Europe was under darkness. America sat from 1940 when France fell to December of '41 and did almost nothing... We’re a hopeful people. We think, well, you know it’ll get better. Yeah, he's a nice guy, it won't be near as bad as what we think. This will be OK. Maybe he's not the best guy, after a while you find out some things about this guy over in Europe who’s not so good of a guy after all. But you know what, why do we need to be involved? We'll just take care of our own problems. We'll just get our families off to work and our kids off to school and we'll be OK. That's sort of the optimistic spirit of America. But sometimes, sometimes it’s not OK. 
Leave aside the reckless and outrageous suggestion that there is any way in which President Obama represents a threat to the United States, much less one commensurate to what Hitler did in Europe.

Santorum clearly does not understand the period of American history he's talking about. I happen to be in the midst of writing a book about precisely this period, and it bears little relation to his simple-minded account.

I suppose one could reasonably say that, since the United States did not become an active belligerent until December 1941, it technically "sat on the sidelines." But the assertion that the U.S. "did almost nothing" between June 1940 and December 1941 is just laughable.

As soon as the war in Europe began, FDR stated what seemed to him to be obvious: "every battle that is fought does affect the American future." He immediately asked Congress to amend the neutrality laws to allow the sale of arms and other goods to Britain and France on a "cash and carry" basis, which it did.

In his next State of the Union address in January 1940, he proposed that Congress increase defense spending, which it did.

After the fall of France, FDR accelerated aid to Great Britain, including giving Churchill 50 old destroyers that he had requested.

When the British could no longer pay cash for the goods they ordered, FDR asked Congress to approve the Lend-Lease Act to allow the United States to provide whatever military aid it could spare for Britain's defense, which it did.

In the fall of 1941, the United States occupied Iceland, patrolled the entire western Atlantic, and convoyed British ships--all to relieve the British Navy so it could better confront Nazi Germany.

One can say--as many have since--that that was not enough. But it wasn't "almost nothing."

Santorum is certainly right when he says Americans are "a hopeful people" with an "optimistic spirit." But who were these Americans who were saying Hitler was "a nice guy" or even just "not so good"?

There were virtually none. Even those opposed to American entry into the war rarely had anything good to say about Hitler. When former president Herbert Hoover, on the very day the war began, called for the U.S. to "keep out of this war," he also made a point of saying: "The whole Nazi system is repugnant to the American people."

The vast majority of Americans, whether they supported all-out aid to Britain or opposed it, were under no illusions about Hitler. They were honestly debating the best way to deal with that threat.

Yes, they were also optimistic. Right up until Pearl Harbor, most Americans--about 70%--still hoped to avoid direct involvement in the war. But roughly the same percentage was determined to insure that Hitler did not win, even if that meant going to war eventually.

There were a few Americans with good things to say about Hitler. They were on the far right fringes of American life, people who praised Hitler as a Christian, as a bulwark against atheistic communism.

One was a woman named Elizabeth Dilling. Raised an Episcopalian, she attended Catholic schools as a girl, and considered becoming an evangelist. She called herself a "super patriot, 100 per center" who believed women should stick to "feminine pursuits." She defended the fascist Francisco Franco in Spain because he was "fighting with Spain's decent element for Christianity" against the Loyalists who destroyed churches "with the same satanic Jewish glee shown in Russia."

According to author Glen Jeansonne, she also had kind words for Hitler, because he too "had done a great deal of good ... and helped Christianity flourish." She said those urging the U.S. to fight Hitler in the war were trying to get Americans to "fight the Jews' battles all over again." Most horrifically she made this prediction, which is practically a paraphrase of Hitler's pre-war threat:
If the Jews succeed in hollering America into war, what happened to Jews in Germany might seem like a kindergarten compared to what they might get in America when the dead bodies start coming home, as Americans are a hotter-tempered people.
One of the more notorious Hitler defenders in the U.S., Gerald L. K. Smith, claimed that the "Jews hated Hitler ... because he was a Christian who believed in the Bible." Smith reprinted one of Hitler's speeches which used Biblical passages to justify his policies toward the Jews, and commented:
What good Christian American can find any fault with the above quotations? Could it be that the same Jew-controlled newspapers that lied to us about Father Coughlin and Gerald Smith failed to tell us the truth about Hitler?
This was a man Republican isolationists called to testify before Congress.

The Americans who said Hitler was "a nice guy" were the same ones who called FDR a "dictator" and called his administration the "Jew Deal." They denied Hitler was any threat to the U.S., but were quite certain that FDR was one--a mortal one. They attacked FDR as "the first Communist president," and said that he was deliberately trying to destroy Christian America.

Martin Dies, a Congressman from Texas, who created the House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities, noted in 1939 that the "Fascist-Nazi movements in the United States masquerade as Christian patriots."

Yes, these Americans existed. They were not, however, typical. The vast majority of Americans knew Hitler was the real threat, not Franklin Roosevelt. They knew their president--even if they disagreed with him politically--was not trying to ruin the United States. They knew the debate they were having was not an apocalyptic battle between those who were trying to save America and those who wanted to destroy it, but an honest disagreement about how best to defend the country.

But it seems there will always be people who masquerade as Christian patriots, who tear down the president personally, call him a communist, say he believes in a "false theology," and claim he's trying to destroy the country.

You're right, Rick. Sometimes, sometimes, it's not OK.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Talking Baseball (and Mitt Romney)

[This post is not even remotely historical. I'm not even pretending.]

Campaigning in Michigan the other day, Mitt Romney got one of those questions that has nothing substantive to do with politics, but can have actual political consequences:

"Tigers or Red Sox?"

"Oh, Red Sox, I'm afraid," Romney answered. "I've lived in Massachusetts for how many years now? Forty years."

That really is the perfect Romney line, isn't it? If I had to script just one line that would capture everything that people who don't like Romney don't like about Romney, I think that would be it.

Let me explain. As I see it, the essence of Mitt Romney's problem connecting politically is the feeling many of us get that there is no there there, that there is nothing you can hold onto and depend upon about the guy. For any true-blue fan of any sports team, this Romney reply says exactly that.

I was born and raised in New Jersey, to parents who both grew up in New York City. We lived my entire childhood in the New York media market. My teams growing up were the New York Giants in football and the New York Mets in baseball. I got the former from my dad who has rooted for the Giants almost as long as there has been a team called the Giants.

I picked up the Mets on my own, probably influenced by the hysteria over the 1969 Miracle Mets (though I don't actually remember following them at that time). But I was a full-fledged fan in plenty of time to share the agony of Willie Mays, captured in this picture from the 1973 World Series which the Mets lost in seven games to the Oakland A's. That image of Mays, one of the greatest to ever play the game, is seared into my memory.

Willie Mays argues with umpire Augie Donatelli after teammate Bud Harrelson was thrown out at home plate in Game 2 of the 1973 World Series in Oakland, CA on October 14, 1973. Photo by Jerry Cooke/ Sports Illustrated/ Getty Images
I left New Jersey in 1985 for graduate school in Texas. Since then, I've lived in New Jersey for maybe a total of four years. I've lived in South Carolina for over ten years now. But you know what? Those are still my teams.

When a friend and colleague with season tickets to the Carolina Panthers invited me to join him at the Panthers-Giants game some years ago, I proudly wore my Giants cap to the stadium in Charlotte. I didn't become a Panthers fan. Because real fans do not abandon their allegiance to the team they grew up rooting for just because they move to someplace else. Because it's about staying loyal.

Because being a fan of that team, your team, becomes part of your identity. It's the team your dad rooted for, the team you and your dad watched together when you were a kid. When my Giants made their amazing run this year, ending with a Super Bowl victory, in my family there was series of emails after each improbable victory: my dad, my brother, my sister's son, and by extension, my nephew's infant son who was born right before the Giants began their run. (In my family, little Ryan is responsible for all of those Giant victories. And don't dare try to tell us any differently.)

Being a fan--a real fan--is a part of who you are, and you stay true to who you are. That doesn't change because you move out of state.

But Romney? He moved to Massachusetts, so he roots for the Red Sox. Of course he does.

Romney may have thought he was saying the politically brave thing, since he was in Michigan at that moment, talking to Michigan reporters, and went with the Red Sox rather than Michigan's Detroit Tigers. But then, naturally, he had to claim the Tigers, too.

"I grew up as a Tigers fan, of course, and Al Kaline was my hero." But then, you know, he moved, so ...

New state, new team. New political race, new ideology.

Really, it is just perfect. As president, I guess he'd be a Nationals fan. It would serve him right.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"The Effort to Americanize the Catholic Church"

John Carroll, Bishop of Baltimore, became the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States in 1789. As Daniel Walker Howe notes in his Pulitzer Prize winning history, What Hath God Wrought, just how he became bishop is worthy of note: he was "elected bishop by his clerical colleagues."

Those who know how the Catholic Church operates know that this is not how things are generally done in Rome. It was, however, how things were generally done in the United States. So Rome discreetly (and wisely) let that one slide.

Howe says that Carroll "undertook to demonstrate to a skeptical public that his church could reconcile itself to republicanism" and that "American Catholics embraced freedom of religion." When the pope appointed John England Bishop of Charleston in 1820, England
carried the effort to Americanize the Catholic Church still further, creating a written constitution for his diocese that included participation by elected delegates, clerical and lay, in an annual convention.
All of these efforts to be more American had a single source: the knowledge that the overwhelmingly Protestant majority did not trust Catholics, believed they were under the direct control of the pope, and thus were not really good Americans, because they could not be good republicans.

The connection between anti-republicanism and Catholicism was not just a paranoid Protestant delusion. In fact, the Catholic Church in Europe at the time was closely aligned with the post-French Revolution conservative ideology that explicitly rejected constitutional government.

Writing in 1814, Joseph de Maistre, perhaps the foremost conservative thinker of his time, said the idea that a "sovereign could reign legitimately only by the deliberation of the whole people, that is to say, by the grace of the people," was an absurd idea "which will never happen."

That absurd idea also happened to be the cornerstone of American government, as stated in the Declaration of Independence: "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

For de Maistre, constitutions were "divine" in origin and not to be written down by men:
What is written is nothing.... Man cannot make a constitution, and no legitimate constitution can ever be written ... almost always these declarations are the effect or the cause of very great evils, and they always cost people more than they are worth.
This conservative ideology in Europe was supported by the Catholic Church. It was antithetical to American constitutional government. That was the root of the suspicions American Catholics needed to overcome in American politics. No wonder Carroll and England made a point of choosing leaders "by the grace of the people" and having a constitution for the diocese.

The tension between the moral absolutes of religious beliefs and the demands of pluralism in a religiously diverse republic has always been there. It emerged again rather dramatically last week.

I come from a Catholic family and attended Catholic schools for twelve years, so I was not terribly surprised when the bishops objected to the requirement that the health insurance offered by Catholic universities, hospitals, and charities cover contraception.

Given that Catholics have long been a part of the Democratic Party's coalition, I was also not surprised that there was backlash within the party against the Obama administration's decision, nor that the president quickly realized that he needed to find a way to accommodate the objections.

What surprised me somewhat was the rejection of that accommodation by the bishops.

Before that, I think one could argue that the bishops had the moral and political high ground. But once Obama made a good faith effort to accommodate their objection, by making the insurance companies themselves responsible for offering contraception coverage, and not requiring the Catholic institutions to pay for it, they ceded that high ground.

By rejecting the president's proposal, they have reversed the religious liberty dynamic. Before, they could plausibly claim that the rule amounted to forcing them to act in a way contrary to their religious beliefs. But their new demand is "removing the provision from the health care law altogether." In other words, because the Catholic Church finds contraception morally objectionable, no employer should be required to provide insurance that covers contraception.

By insisting that the Church (and any other employer) be granted the right to deny certain coverage to their employees--even if those employees do not share their faith, even if the coverage is being offered free of charge to the employee directly by the insurer--the bishops have now entered the realm of insisting that their religious beliefs trump the rights of their employees.

As a result, this is no longer (if it ever was) about the government imposing its views on the Church--it is about the Church seeking to impose its beliefs as government policy. And that the Church has no right to do.

That the bishops cannot see the difference between these two things shows an unthinking ignorance of American history and the American system of government. Those early American Catholic bishops understood that they had to find a way to both faithfully practice their religion and politically assimilate to the culture within which they tended to their flock.

Despite their best efforts, for well over a century and a half, American Catholics labored under the bigoted assumption that if they gained national political power, they would try to use it to impose their religious beliefs on others. Over the last fifty years, that bigotry has largely disappeared.

(This line made the rounds on Twitter last week: "Fifty years ago, they were afraid JFK would listen to the pope. Now they're mad that Obama doesn't.")

Ironically, now that it is no longer burdened by that bigotry, the Church has seemingly lost its sensitivity to the political culture. Encouraged by opportunistic Republicans (who also don't really understand the difference), the Catholic bishops have put themselves in a position where one can plausibly argue that the bishops are trying to do the kind of thing the bigots always said they would do.

In doing so, the bishops have done a terrible disservice to every American Catholic over the last two hundred plus years who labored long and hard to demonstrate that Catholics can be good Americans, ones who can practice their faith devoutly without seeking to impose it on anyone else.

Monday, February 13, 2012

"You Republicans" and "We Conservatives"

I was reading last week about the 1940 presidential election for a book I'm working on. Coinciding as it did with Mitt Romney's latest stumble on his way to the Republican nomination, I couldn't help thinking he had a few things in common with the GOP's standard bearer that year, Wendell Willkie.

After being crushed in consecutive elections by FDR, Republicans were desperate for a winner in 1940. Prior to 1932, Republicans were accustomed to winning presidential elections: from 1896 through 1928, they won seven out of nine contests. The only exceptions were 1912 and 1916. In the former, the Republican vote split between the sitting Republican president William Howard Taft and former Republican president Theodore Roosevelt, delivering the presidency to Democrat Woodrow Wilson who got just 41.8% of the popular vote. Four years later, Wilson eked out a narrow re-election victory.

In short, Republicans had come to feel the presidency really belonged to them before FDR. Going into the 1940 campaign, they had two reasons to hope for a comeback: 1) FDR might not be a candidate, because of the two-term tradition; and 2) though the economy was much improved from the depths of the depression in 1932, it was nowhere near true recovery (unemployment was down from 25% to between 14 and 15%).

The problem for the Republicans was that they had not come to any consensus about their way forward as a party. Should they hold onto the low-tax, laissez-faire approach (which many Americans still blamed for the depression) and fight for repeal of the entire New Deal, or reconcile themselves to a "New Deal Lite" policy that merely promised to manage the new social welfare programs better?

As a result, the Republican convention was torn in 1940, needing six ballots to settle at last on a nominee: corporate lawyer and businessman Wendell Willkie. 

Willkie was an odd choice. He had never held elective office. He had been a delegate to the 1932 Democratic convention. 

That fact alone made him highly suspect to many Republicans (and reminds one of Romney's vote in the 1992 Democratic primary, as well as his past claims to be a "moderate" with "progressive" policies).  

One former Republican senator had this reaction to the thought of this former Democrat getting the GOP nomination:
If a whore repented and wanted to join the church, I'd personally welcome her and lead her up the aisle to a pew. But, by the Eternal, I'd not ask her to lead the choir the first night.
Yet this convert bested elected Republican officials like Senators Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenberg, because the business wing of the party and the liberal eastern establishment supported his nomination--because they thought they could control him.

But when it came time to speak to the convention, Willkie slipped. As he finished his acceptance speech, he said:
And so, you Republicans, I call upon you to join me, help me. The cause is great. We must win.
That phrase was the tell: "you Republicans." Willkie had given away the game. Deep down, he didn't really consider himself a Republican.

I couldn't help but think of that phrase when I heard Mitt Romney at CPAC on Friday repeatedly say things like "we, as conservatives ..." He used some form of the word "conservative" over twenty times. He was so intent to avoid pulling a Willkie, that he repeatedly did the anti-Willkie.

The effect, however, was much the same. He was so desperate to say that he is a conservative that he undermined the case that he is one.

There are, of course, many differences between Willkie and Romney, but some of the parallels are telling.

One is the absence of ideological clarity, the focus (in both cases) on "electability."

In 1940, Willkie got the nomination because enough Republicans feared that a real Republican, someone too much like Herbert Hoover, would lose. Though they would have been loathe to admit it openly, they recognized that things like Social Security had been accepted by the public. More importantly, the public had also largely accepted the general idea that the federal government should have a role in managing the economy and mitigating the wild swings of the unregulated market. Willkie would not be a hard-edged ideologue, he would win over disgruntled Democrats, he could win.

As I have noted recently, many of today's Republicans also seem more concerned with defeating President Obama than deciding what exactly the party's principles should be. While they are united in pledging to abolish what they call "Obamacare," you'll rarely hear them say that they want to go back to allowing insurance companies to refuse to insure people with pre-existing conditions, or that they want to throw children under 26 off their parents' policies. They rail against the individual mandate, but can't agree on why they do. What they all agree on is that they want to beat Obama, and will support whoever seems most likely to do that.

Second, in both cases, the party looked to a businessman, someone who had not served politically in Washington, someone who claimed expertise as a manager and executive who could run things more efficiently.

As David Kennedy notes in Freedom From Fear, Willkie was "a leading spokesman for those in the business community who felt themselves aggrieved by the New Deal." He would restore a pro-business climate. Willkie did not explicitly reject the New Deal, but he "denounced the Democrats as having acquired vested political interest in the Depression and therefore as having willfully throttled the wealth-making and job-creating potential of private enterprise." 

It takes little imagination to hear Romney saying precisely that about Obama. While Romney served as a governor (and was, as he told CPAC, a "severely conservative" one), his campaign has focused overwhelmingly on his private sector experience in a way that emphasizes pragmatic management more than ideology.

One major difference, however, would be foreign policy.

In 1940, most of the other Republican candidates for president were from the isolationist wing of the party. Though most Americans remained determined to avoid direct involvement in the war, they supported FDR's efforts to aid Britain short of war. So did Willkie.

Willkie even went so far as refusing to exploit foreign policy in the campaign. When FDR decided to send 50 old destroyers to Britain in early September 1940, Willkie did not make an issue of it. When two weeks later the administration supported a peace-time draft, Willkie was told that opposing it would help him politically. But he favored it. Willkie replied, "I'd rather not win the election than do that."

I'd like to think that, if the issue were important enough, Romney would say the same. But given his rank opportunism and foreign policy demagoguery so far in this campaign, I can't say I'm confident he would.

(To be fair, even Willkie, in his desperation late in the campaign, called the destroyers-for-bases deal "the most dictatorial act ever taken by an American president," and dabbled in some FDR-as-war-monger rhetoric.)

In the end, Willkie lost. That was most likely because, with the world in flames, most Americans wanted FDR's experienced hand on the wheel. But that's not how Republican conservatives saw it.

Historian Richard Ketchum says that for "twenty-four years the resentment would fester, the schism would be unresolved."  At the 1964 convention, 
Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen rose on the floor ..., pointed a finger at the New York and Pennsylvania delegations, led by Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton, and shouted at those reminders of Wendell Willkie: 'You led us down the road to defeat ...' And at last the Old Guard chose one of its own, Barry Goldwater, only to see him crushed in the worst defeat in any presidential election to that time.
If Romney gets this nomination and loses in the fall, it won't take 24 years. In four years, the Tea Party and conservative wing will likely say "You led us down the road to defeat" to the establishment, and chose one of its own.

If that happens, the big, historic question will be this: will that nominee end up being Goldwater in 1964, or Reagan in 1980?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Republicans: The New Whigs?

I've never seen a poll on this, but I'd guess that most Americans couldn't identify the Whigs. Of all the major political parties in American history (defined as those that got at least one president elected), they remain the most obscure. Their brief history, however, is looking strangely relevant to me these days.

The Whigs were one of the two major parties in what American historians call the second party system. The first party system was the Federalists (led by Washington, Adams, and Hamilton) and the Republicans (led by Jefferson and Madison), which lasted roughly from the 1790s to the 1810s. The third is today's Democrats and Republicans, which emerged in the mid-1850s. In between was the second, made up of the Jacksonian Democrats and the Whigs.

I've always found it a bit of challenge to teach about the Whigs, because they represented an odd collection of views. The very name reflected their amorphous identity.

The name has two meanings. Since they claimed as a foundational principle a dedication to the republican government of the Founders, and the Whigs were the anti-monarchy party in Britain, the American Whigs adopted the same name.

There was a second meaning, however. On a practical level, one of the organizing principles of the party was its opposition to Andrew Jackson, whose high-handed style led them to label him "King Andrew." So the American "Whigs" were the opponents of the "King," Andrew Jackson.

This led to some odd political bedfellows in the Whig Party. While it is certainly possible to identify a Whig ideology (active government, particularly in pursuit of economic development), there were also members of the party who were not supporters of the ideology, but who sided with the Whigs out of an anti-Jackson animus.

So, for example, when Jackson faced down John C. Calhoun and the state of South Carolina during the nullification crisis of 1832-33--despite the fact that the Democrats were the party of states rights--some of the more vehement supporters of states rights joined the Whigs.

The resulting ideological incoherence came out in the presidential election of 1840, the first the party ever won. To hold together its diverse anti-Jackson coalition in the race against Jackson's successor, Martin Van Buren, the Whigs nominated the old Indian-fighting general, William Henry Harrison.

For most Americans, that campaign is remembered (if at all) for its alliterative slogan: "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too!" John Tyler, the vice-presidential candidate, was in the words of Daniel Walker Howe an "eccentric Virginia state-righter," who joined the Whigs "because he found Andrew Jackson high-handed."

The Whigs, as Howe notes, "possessed a more coherent program" than the Democrats, but when Harrison died only month into his presidency, Tyler--who did not believe in most of that program--became president. He then proceeded to thwart his own party on important issues such as a national bank and tariff policy. The ideological incoherence of the Whigs wrecked their first administration.

What does this have to do with today?

My last post examined the ways that various forms of conservative thinking have been clashing below the mudslinging surface in the Republican debates. This, I argue, suggests an ideological cracking up of the Reagan coalition that has survived and prospered since 1980.

What holds it together? Right now, one thing: hatred of Barack Obama.

No matter how nasty things get in this primary season, all of the candidates and their surrogates return to that theme: the need to defeat Obama. After winning the Florida primary Tuesday, Mitt Romney tweeted:
Thank you FL! While we celebrate this victory, we must not forget what this election is really about: defeating Barack Obama.
Whenever they are searching for unity, they go back to that.

That's fairly natural. Obama is the incumbent president, after all. But there is a particularly harsh edge to it this time. It's personal, it's vitriolic, it's irrational. And it's potent.

That is what reminds me so much of the 1830s: the tendency to reduce the party platform to the opposition to an individual, to personalize everything. It is no coincidence that its enemies never call it "The Affordable Care Act," but rather "ObamaCare." There is a whole "King Obama" meme on the internet, like this Photoshopping of Obama's head onto a famous painting of Emperor Napoleon.

The effects of another Obama term are put in apocalyptic terms. It's not his policies, but his person. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, in a Romney radio ad, says: "America cannot survive another four years of Barack Obama." Seriously? Cannot survive? This, from the campaign whose slogan is "Believe in America"?

Of course, apocalyptic rhetoric is practically the norm in American presidential elections. One Whig, in the 1840 campaign, said the following about President Van Buren:
Wherever you find a bitter, blasphemous Atheist and an enemy of Marriage, Morality, and Social Order, there you may be certain of a voter for Van Buren.
Republicans today would need to do little more than change the name.

There is, of course, not much evidence put forth to justify the gloom and doom. As comedian Bill Maher noted, the opposition to Obama is mostly to a deluded fantasy of the man, not the actual president: "Republicans have created this completely fictional president ... The Republican hatred of Obama is based on a paranoid feeling about what he might do, what he's thinking, what he secretly wants to change."

Note how Gingrich put it Tuesday night: "If Barack Obama gets re-elected, it will be a disaster for the United States of America, make no bones about it.... you can’t imagine how radical he’ll be in his second term." No, Newt, I can't. Because he has never been a radical president, outside of your fevered imagination. The Republican caricature of "Obama the radical" is nothing but imagining.

(Again, this is not unlike the Whig caricature of Jackson--he was called "King Andrew," but his era is now more commonly known as the "Age of the Common Man," because of the democratizing forces that brought him into office.)

What the Republican Party as an institution needed more than anything after the George W. Bush years was some serious ideological self-examination. The Tea Party, for all its many faults, was at least in part an attempt to begin that process. But if the pundits are right, and the nomination is now inevitably going to Mitt Romney, that will not happen.

Romney is a man without any ideological core. There is no ideological there there. He will say or do anything to be president. In poll after poll, Republican voters say that they support him mostly because he is seen as the most electable, the most likely to defeat Obama. The fact that he does not truly stand for anything is secondary to the hope that he will vanquish their fictional "King Obama."

Already, voices on the right are crying out in despair. This week an editorial in the Wall Street Journal began: "Let's just say right now what voters will be saying in November, once Barack Obama has been re-elected: Republicans deserve to lose."

And the target of their ire is the ostensible candidate of Wall Street, Mitt Romney:
Thus the core difference between Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama: For the governor, the convictions are the veneer. For the president, the pragmatism is. Voters always see through this. They usually prefer the man who stands for something.
Another voice from the right, of a more Tea Party bent, had this to say:
The Establishment could not have made a more strategic blunder. They will, in all likelihood, succeed in securing the nomination for Mitt Romney, but the damage they have inflicted upon themselves is approaching irreversible. The public now sees the length to which the Establishment will go to make certain their hand-picked candidate is chosen regardless of the dire circumstances facing the nation. 
Average Republican or conservative voters are the same people that buy the books or magazines or subscribe to the websites ... A number of them (how many is anyone's guess right now) will no longer be willing to support those factions within the Establishment and the Party or to believe what they are told. These are the people suffering the consequences of the disastrous policies pursued over previous decades, while those in the Establishment live lives of relative ease and comfort, which seems to be their primary concern.
The cracks are showing. For now, they are being papered over with posters bashing "King Obama." For all I know, given the hard economic times, that could be enough--for now.

Historian Michael Holt, the author of a comprehensive account of the Whigs, wrote:
the history of the Whig Party can best be understood in terms of a tension or balance between centrifugal forces that always threatened to tear it apart and the centripetal force of conflict with Democrats that held it together.
Under the strains of the polarized politics of the 1850s, the Whigs fell apart and disappeared.

Today, the Republicans are in no danger of disappearing, but they are being held together by their centripetal forces. Like the Whigs, they ignore the centrifugal forces of ideology at their peril.