No, Roy Moore is Not the Whirlwind of Conservatives’ War on Media

You can consider these observations on this article by Rosie Gray and McKay Coppins a companion piece to yesterday’s on Andrew Sullivan and Roy Moore.

Regular readers might guess that I agree in part with the article’s thesis that the conservative critique of the establishment media fueled distrust of the latter.  Moreover, regular readers know that I’ve written about two types of media criticism — the academic and the purely political — and the authors here can credibly argue that too much of the conservative critique was and is in the latter category.

That said, spending only two grafs quoting Newt Gingrich and Ari Fleischer on the idea that the conservative distrust of the establishment media might be at least partially deserved based on the lived experience of generations of conservatives is weak (particularly the week after some liberal pundits decided Bill Clinton may have deserved impeachment, 19 years too late).  And the implication by omission that conservatives are uniquely trapped in a media bubble is… unfortunate to say the least.

To note this isn’t whataboutism.  I’m not defining deviancy down.  To the contrary, I’m merely asking everyone to apply the article’s implied standard of not living in a bubble.  I am addressing the article’s unstated premise that the distrust of the media was somehow irrational and unearned.

After the 2016 election there was a brief spasm in the establishment media, a recognition that they too might be in a bubble.  And so now they occasionally send out a reporter to flyover country to check in on the most stereotypical of Trump voters to further a certain narrative about middle America.

But if they followed the example of fmr NPR CEO Ken Stern and spent quality and quantity time outside their coastal enclaves, they might recognize the magnitude of their failures.  As Stern recently wrote of the distrust of media:

Some of this loss of reputation stems from effective demagoguery from the right and the left, as well as from our demagogue-in-chief, but the attacks wouldn’t be so successful if our media institutions hadn’t failed us as well.

None of this justifies the attacks from President Trump, which are terribly inappropriate coming from the head of government. At the same time, the media should acknowledge its own failings in reflecting only their part of America. You can’t cover America from the Acela corridor, and the media need to get out and be part of the conversations that take place in churches and community centers and town halls.”

The establishment media complains (or smirks) when half the country does not listen to them, but the media has spent decades not listening to half the country.  The seismic shock of 2016 has resulted in the most minimal of corrective responses by the establishment media, efforts vastly outweighed by the general attitude of doubling down on hostility and snark.

The establishment media’s marginalization of mainstream conservatism contributes to conservatives’ (and conservative media’s) dysfunctions.  Establishment media aren’t primarily or ultimately responsible for those dysfunctions; as a conservative I believe in personal responsibility in the first instance.  Conservatives — especially social conservatives — only harm the cause long-term by backing Roy Moore.  But the establishment media were and are a contributing factor, as they would recognize in any other situation where a privileged in-group marginalizes a cultural out-group.  Downplaying this only helps perpetuate the vicious cycle of anger and mistrust.

The failure to acknowledge this dynamic causes the authors to miss the weaknesses in their thesis and a political reality that’s worse than the one they depict.

On the issue of Moore’s candidacy and ongoing scandal, the media-as-villain is a sideshow.  There are plenty of awful so-called conservatives taking the position that they don’t care whether the allegations of sexual misconduct against Moore are true.  That’s the tell here, repugnant as it may be.

The dismissal of the well-reported Washington Post story (and ensuing stories by other outlets) is simply a more palatable rationalization for some than arguing the misconduct can be condoned.  If the media were not being attacked by this segment of Republicans, it would be the accusers themselves and the Democrats assuming the role of the big baddies.

Also, anyone who knows anything about Roy Moore’s political career knows he was never going to withdraw from this race, regardless of whether most people believed the media reports of his sexual misconduct.  But the establishment media’s own track record makes his offered rationalization of media-as-villain that much easier (albeit still off-base).

The real whirlwind is tribal partisanship raised to the level of identity politics.  The wind has been sown by identity politics and self-pitying media on both sides of the partisan divide.

[Note:  Like many of you I have holiday plans, so we’ll resume here next week.]

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Andrew Sullivan, Roy Moore, Bill Clinton, and the Wrong Side of History

If you haven’t read Andrew Sullivan’s “The Danger of Knowing You’re on the ‘Right Side of History’,” it’s worth your time, albeit with the caveat that anything by Sullivan is likely to sprinkle nonsense atop insight.

He’s entirely right to meditate upon the danger of identity politics consuming our major political parties, even if he doesn’t want to acknowledge his role in it.  He’s also correct that “to believe with absolute certainty that you are on ‘the right side of history,’ or on the right side of a battle between ‘good and evil,’ is a dangerous and seductive form of idolatry.”  But I want to focus on two grafs in particular:

The religious right’s embrace of Trump is of a similar trope. It is not some kind of aberration in the transformation of a faith into a worldly and political cause, it is its logical consequence. The Christian right’s support for a sociopathic, cruel, and vulgar pagan was inevitable, in other words, from the moment the Moral Majority was born. If politics is fused with religion, and if your opponents are deemed evil, then almost anything can be justified to defeat them. Sooner or later, you’l [sic] find yourself defending the molestation of a minor. Which is why I have long refused to call this political movement Christian, but Christianist. It is not about faith; it is about power.

But evangelical Republicans are not, of course, the only group susceptible to such corruption. Democrats are human as well, as we have so abundantly discovered. Many of them have also made their political struggle into a secular form of religion, and found myriad ways to defend the indefensible because the cause demanded it. I vividly remember Gloria Steinem’s op-ed defending Bill Clinton’s sex abuse at the time (she still refuses to disown it). I remember how many wanted to conflate sexual abuse with private consensual sex. I also recall a bizarre very-Washington lunch in that period when, for some reason, I was seated next to Barbra Streisand (my first and thankfully last encounter with the singer). I mentioned Paula Jones’s lawsuit — which I’d just defended in the pages of The New Republic — just to see what she’d say. Streisand’s lip curled. ‘Ugh,’ she scoffed. ‘She’s a little kurva.’ I later discovered that this means ‘whore,’ ‘bitch,’ or ‘slut.’ And that was by no means an unusual Democratic response of the time.”

My first observation is that Sullivan doesn’t have the best analogy here, although I understand that his mind went there because of the rash of liberal pundits reassessing Clinton’s sexual misconduct.  A more apt analogy would be the way in which Democrats looked the other way when four men came forward to publicly accuse Seattle Mayor Ed Murray of raping them or paying them for sex as teenagers.  It took a fifth man, Murray’s younger cousin, to cause Murray to resign.  Or the way in which Democrats did not react to fmr. Portland Mayor and Gov. of Oregon Goldschmidt had a relatively open relationship with a 14-year-old babysitter.  One of those who covered for Goldschmidt is Win McCormack, the current editor-in-chief of The New Republic, where Sullivan was once editor himself.

I don’t mention these scandals in a spirit of whataboutism, as I’m not excusing anyone’s sexual misconduct.  I’m noting that these more apt analogies suggest that the issue is tribal partisanship shading into identity politics, not religious conservatism.  It turns out Democrats are just as capable of downplaying child molestation without “Christianism.”  Again, I understand how Sullivan’s mind went to the Lewinsky scandal instead, but the less apt analogy stacks the deck a bit in his favor.

Second, it’s simply not true that social conservatism necessarily leads to defending the likes of Roy Moore.  Plenty of religious conservatives have criticized Moore, and the data suggests that the more devout are less comfortable with character issues like those that surround Pres. Trump.  Nor should this surprise Sullivan, who led his column praising an evangelical law professor for making this point.

Third, insofar as Sullivan addresses those liberals reassessing Clinton’s misconduct, it’s interesting that his only reference to his own position at the time is to note he’d defended the Paula Jones lawsuit in the pages of TNR.  If you read “The Scolds” (Oct. 11, 1998), which ran in The New York Times Magazine, you’ll find that he thought Bill Clinton should have resigned over the Lewinsky affair, but couldn’t make it through the Starr Report, let alone support impeachment, because the Religious Right was just so thoroughly repellent to him.

(Two brief side notes: While Sullivan raises issues of LGBTQ rights in the piece, he spends far more of his time objecting to the GOP being pro-life, which was pretty much Steinem’s objection as well, though presumably nothing would have changed under Pres. Al Gore.  Also, perhaps Sullivan ought to read the Starr Report — which Ross Douthat recently re-read to find: “The sexual misconduct was the heart of things, but everything connected to Clinton’s priapism was bad: the use of the perks of office to procure women, willing and unwilling; the frequent use of that same power to buy silence and bully victims; and yes, the brazen public lies and perjury.” )

The key point of “The Scolds” for today’s post is that Sullivan objected to the so-called “new moralism” this way: “It is an orthodoxy, to put it bluntly, of cultural and moral revolution: a wholesale assault on the beliefs and practices of an entire post-1960’s settlement.

“[A]n entire post-1960’s settlement” is a fascinating phrase, primarily because it is another of Sullivan’s continuing delusions.  Had there been any such settlement, Nixon would not have been elected in 1968 or won a a landslide against the McGovernite platform of “amnesty, abortion, and acid” (as it was caricatured at the time).  Had there been any such settlement, there would have been no Moral Majority, let alone the much larger phenomenon of Reagan Democrats.

Indeed, we might ask “an entire post-1960s settlement of what, exactly?”  Sullivan accused the conservative moralists of waging “kulturkampf,” as if his “settlement” did not refer to a prior round of political fights over culture.  The reason Bill Clinton’s candidacy and presidency was dogged by cultural strife was because he so obviously represented one side in an ongoing cultural struggle dragged into the political realm.  He was the candidate of zipper problems and bimbo eruptions, of avoiding the draft during Vietnam, of admitted drug usage.  Bill Clinton could be Exhibit A in the argument against Sullivan’s imagined settlement.

You would think that someone who professes to believe (correctly) that there is no “right side of history” would realize that some past settlement of the kulturkampf is a figment of his imagination.  That’s really not how a democratic republic works.

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The Golden Age of TV and Our Shrinking Popular Culture

Something lighter for the weekend.  On this week’s micro episode of the Weekly Substandard, Sonny Bunch and Victorino Matus discussed Stranger Things 2 — and Jonathan V. Last’s refusal to watch it, or television generally.  I don’t share JVL’s antipathy for quality TV, but I do want to write a bit about his observation that there is almost always this push to declare then new, hot show “the best ever.”  JVL added:

[T]his is all about cultural hype and conversation and everyone wanting to find shared space.  This is in a weird way the Millennial backlash to ‘Bowling Alone.’  We don’t have civic organizations, we don’t have families, but we’re going to find something that were going to take on as shared, common culture and we’ll just call it ‘the greatest television show ever’…

This is slightly ironic, insofar as television and the internet were blamed partially for the “Bowling Alone” phenomenon.   But JVL still has a point here about wanting to find shared space.  As a Gen Xer, the arcade was certainly one of those physical spaces of the common culture as depicted in Stranger Things 2.  And Vic is right about the greatness of Dig Dug.

But JVL is also right that those spaces didn’t have to be physical; they could be the movies and television that you discussed at school or work.  As noted in CNN’s Eighties miniseries, broadcast television’s peak as a shared cultural space likely occurred during the era depicted in Stranger Things 2, when the series finale of M*A*S*H* and the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of Dallas racked up the sort of ratings that are now only matched by Super Bowls.

Popular music created these sorts of spaces over the course of generations, often in the automobiles of the young, but also outside them.  There’s a reason why George Lucas pioneered the wall-to-wall pop music soundtrack in American Graffiti; even in 1962, teens had a relationship with the music their parents didn’t like and the disc jockeys whose disembodied voices were not unlike the Wizard of Oz metaphor deployed in the film.

American Bandstand brought this cultural space to Americans’ homes for decades thereafter.  Mary Katharine Ham and Kristen Soltis Anderson produced a fun and funny Federalist Radio Hour about MTV’s TRL providing a similar shared cultural space to first-wave Millennials, where you might be exposed to Britney Spears, Korn, and Sir Mix-a-Lot all in the same hour.

Just as video killed the radio star, the internet transformed the concept of cultural spaces from a heterogeneous shared experience to an endless array of niche communities.  We now live in an attention economy.

And this is probably why fans of a thing — any piece of entertainment or data — take to hyping it as “the best thing ever” or “the worst thing ever,” which may be just as effective in some contexts.  To be sure, the economics are such that there is an arms race of hype in the effort to monetize things.  But from the position of fandom, it is also a nostalgic desire for the shared, mass experience of yore.

It helps explain why our binary age drives binary discussions of so many things.  It definitely explains why you already don’t care what the Rotten Tomatoes score for The Last Jedi will be.

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The Real Reason Progressives are Dumping the Clintons

What to make of these tweets from MSNBC’s Chris Hayes?

Or of Caitlin Flanagan’s piece in The Atlantic asking a generally left-leaning readership to “not forget the sex crimes of which the younger, stronger Bill Clinton was very credibly accused in the 1990s” and criticizing old school feminists like Gloria Steinem for defending him?  Or Vox’s Matt Yglesias wishing Clinton had resigned?  Or even Michelle Goldberg’s NYT op-ed, in which she drags herself kicking and screaming to Juanita Broaddrick’s side against Bill, while doubting other accusers like Paula Jones (to whom Bill paid a $850,000 settlement)?

The first reaction of many on the Right (myself included) is to snort about the convenience of progressives having this political epiphany when Donald Trump has been elected President and Roy Moore’s candidacy for the Senate is consumed with allegations that he preyed on teenage girls.  But this reflex may miss something important about the current state of the progressive Left.

A related reaction is to cynically assume this is the response of Democrats jostling for position within the party by writing off the Clintons as a political force following Hillary’s embarrassing loss to Trump last year.  This reaction may be closer to the bullseye, but not a direct hit.

A third reaction may be more charitable, hoping that this moment focused on the problem of sexual assaults and harassment by powerful men — which politically includes Trump and Moore, but culturally includes progressives like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and a swath of Hollywood beyond them — has caused some on the Left to look in the mirror and perhaps move forward on a less nakedly partisan basis.  As we’ll see, there is an element of sincerity on the Left here, but even this take fails to capture the larger context of this moment.

I am reminded of a Twitter exchange between Ross Douthat and John Podhoretz shortly after the death of Hugh Hefner:

What’s captured here (I think) is the idea that America’s sexual morality is shifting or has shifted from a traditional framework (one with its own problems) to one informed by feminism and increasingly by the most identitarian variants of feminism.  The latter is arguably more puritanical than the stereotype of the former.

As is so often the case, the obvious examples of this dynamic are seen on college campuses, where students promote formal contracts for consenting to sex and administrations decide sexual assault cases without due process, under the rubric that the accuser has “the right to be believed.”

This is the cultural context in which progressives are starting to revisit and reject the Clintons.  It is the decades-long march and increasing influence of so-called identity politics that suggests this rejection is mostly sincere.  Granted, the rejection is also political, because identitarians’ generally totalitarian view makes everything political.  But the scandals of the moment are largely fueling a pre-existing trend.

That dynamic suggests that this seeming moment of unity over Weinsteingate and related stories is fragile and likely illusory.  The Right and Left are reaching this transitory agreement on the basis of ultimately very different ideas about sexuality and culture.

This may be why some on the Right, in discussing Roy Moore’s sex scandals, cannot help but bring up prior press failures regarding this subject, like Rolling Stone‘s phony story of rape at a UVA fraternity.  Given how well-reported the Moore story has been, I find that talking point unwise on more than one level at this particular moment.  But it’s possible that subconsciously, conservative pundits mentally jump there because they fear the Moore story may carry the culture back toward the reflex of believing uncorroborated and facially fishy accusations.

In this sense, there is also a rough parallel to the debate over whether to remove Confederate monuments.  One branch of this debate pits conservatives who would not defend the monuments against those who fear the iconoclasm of the moment will sweep away monuments to the Founders.  And of course, the more identitarian progressives attacking the Founders lend weight to the latter argument, precisely because identitarianism tends toward totalitarianism.

So by all means, enjoy this shining moment of bipartisan revulsion over the abuse of women by powerful men.  Given the different moral lenses producing this revulsion, we will all be at each other’s throats again all too soon.

[Note: My schedule is such that I may skip Thursday, but I should have something for Friday.]

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Moore Thoughts for Social Conservatives

I broke the holiday silence on Friday to tweet briefly on the Roy Moore sex scandal.  That thread could be read as an “I told you so,” though that wasn’t really my intent.

Rather, my intent was to remind people that the fact of Pres. Trump’s upset victory a year ago does not mean that the current drift of the GOP does not come without risks and does not come without costs.

Right now, the folks who need to internalize this the most are social conservatives (here meaning more religious conservatives as opposed to Bill O’Reilly-esque cultural conservatives).

It’s worth remembering that during the 2016 primaries, Trump did much better with less-churched Christians than he did with those who regularly attend.  Evangelicals were not particularly enthused about Trump’s candidacy.  Also, the Trumpiest of Trump voters tend to say that religion is “very important,” but they are the least likely to attend church regularly.

That may take some of the the edge off the recent PRRI/Brookings poll showing that 72% of white evangelicals now say “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life,” up from 30% in 2011.  Some of it, if not all of it.

Anyway, many social conservatives held their noses and voted for Trump because they believed the alternative was a continued progressive assault on religious liberty.  For the most part, it has paid off, arguably more so than for other traditional factions of conservatism.  The administration is largely delivering conservative judicial nominations.  Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate is getting rolled back.  At the Supreme Court, the Trump DoJ is supporting the baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding.  Etc.

But having propped open the Overton Window far enough for Trump to enter the White House, there was always the risk that other risky candidates would follow.  A party that decides giving the finger to the establishment is a top priority runs the risk of losing its perspective (again with the obligatory caveat that I’ve critiqued party leadership for years for poorly managing its coalition).

Roy Moore is one of the bills coming due, perhaps one of several.

Social conservatives should recognize that Moore was never a candidate of religious liberty.  Indeed, they should have recognized this years ago.

Academics may debate “judicial supremacy,” the theory that the courts are the final arbiters of the Constitution.  But it’s a far different thing for Moore to have ignored court orders because he conflates the law with his view of scripture.  That sort of theocratic leaning has nothing to do with the free exercise of religion.  Moore does not appear to acknowledge a separation between church and state (Jefferson’s “wall” concept is debatable; the concept of preventing a government-backed church from impinging on religious liberty is in the marrow of the nation).  And Moore endorses a religious test for office, which is expressly forbidden by the Constitution.

Moore is not a candidate of religious liberty; he is a candidate of religious identity politics.  If social conservatives want to fight out their issues on the basis of power politics, rather than on the principle of religious liberty, they should be aware of the risks.  Once principles are tossed aside, the raw politics had better be good.

It is one thing to support the Little Sisters of the Poor in their fight against the contraceptive mandate.  It is another to defend the guy who claims he definitely did not disrobe a 14-year-old, but can’t remember whether he dated teenagers when he was in his thirties, a guy who could not even convince a Hannity panel of his truthfulness.  It is one thing to have debated same-sex marriage, but quite another to defend a guy who couldn’t answer in 2015 whether homosexuality should be a capital crime.

And it is more difficult to oust a candidate like Moore when the White House wants to avoid another recap of how Trump has treated women in the past.  And it is easier for Grand Old Partisans to fall into the trap of endorsing or defending Moore once they have already lived with Trump.

The recklessness of some GOP primary voters was such that the party could lose a Senate seat that very few thought could be lost a few months ago.  And losing that seat would increase the odds that the GOP could lose its majority in the Senate in 2018, especially if other GOP primary voters continue to nominate risky candidates just to satisfy their loathing of the party establishment.  And losing the Senate would mean losing the power to confirm Trump’s judicial nominations.  That would be a comeuppance for social conservatives every bit as much as it would be for Sen. Maj. Ldr. Mitch McConnell.

OTOH, Moore may yet win election to the Senate.  After all, the stakes are high.  Some voters will never want to admit they were conned well before this particular scandal was reported.  Some will never want to wrestle with the recklessness of their choices, whether in 2017 or in 2016.  And some hate the media so much that they will dismiss or ignore this well-reported sex scandal in favor of hand-waving over prior poorly-reported stories.

But if Moore wins, it will be largely at the cost of social conservatives (and perhaps the GOP generally) dropping their principles and squandering their moral authority — with consequences that may linger well beyond this election.  There is no such thing as a free lunch.  Some conservatives still know this.

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Trump’s GOP: The Party of Obama

It’s a familiar tale.  After eight years of holding the White House, the in-party is exhausting itself.  The 22nd amendment creates an open seat election.

The out-party nominates a pop-culture-friendly candidate of Hope and Change.  Maybe the candidate is actually from a town called Hope.  Maybe he just has an assistant named Hope.  But there’s Hope, with the promise of Change.

The promises themselves are not serious, not even a little bit.  The sea level will change.  The post-industrial economy will reverse.  Americans will put aside their partisanship and realize that we are all part of one great nation.

That the promises are ridiculous really doesn’t matter.  The out-party candidate is a “blank slate” upon which people project their own preferences.  He is to be taken “seriously, but not literally.”

The economy is not great.  Our foreign policy isn’t great.  People are tired of the war.  The incumbent president didn’t deliver on enough Change for swing voters.

The out-party candidate wins the election.  The out-party even controls Congress.

The out-party becomes the in-party.

The new president drops the unity talk almost immediately after being inaugurated.  “I won,” he will say.  “Look at my big, beautiful Electoral College victory.  It’s the biggest ever.”

He swiftly moves to undo many of the prior president’s executive orders and regulations.  Members of the new in-party are jazzed with these mostly temporary displays of executive power.  The new president, having a Congressional majority, prioritizes a partisan agenda.

Meanwhile, the members of the new out-party rage.  Some faction of the out-party forms a movement to resist the new administration, which they see as pursuing a tyranny of the majority.  They protest.  They march.  They wear odd costumes.  They pressure the Congressional minority to maintain lockstep opposition.  The in-party mocks them as oddballs and extremists determined to deny the new president a chance at success.

The new in-party’s agenda is not wildly popular and not easy to enact.  The president’s job approval numbers decline.  The out-party’s standing on the generic Congressional ballot improves, as does its ability to recruit quality candidates.  The in-party suffers some key retirements in Congress.

There are special elections and off-year elections.  The in-party manages to withstand challenges from an enthused opposition where the territory is traditionally friendly.  But then come those elections on neutral to trending unfriendly territory.  The in-party is handed some humiliating defeats.

The in-party downplays these defeats and more significantly the fundamentals behind them.  They deny the losses could be a referendum on the new president or the in-party’s agenda.  Much of the media friendly to the in-party sugarcoats the bitter pills; to warn their audience of the possible wave to come would be both futile and unprofitable.

Nevertheless, these losses increase the pressure on the in-party in Congress to pass something — popularity, policy and procedure being quite beside the point.  At this point, a purely partisan success beats a failure that might lose the donors and grassroots alike.  The in-party convinces itself that people will grow to like the new law, whatever it is.

Congress ultimately produces a mixed record.  Some big bills pass, some fail.  It doesn’t matter.  The successes fuel the the out-party’s fury; the failures fuel the out-party’s confidence.

As the midterms grow closer, the in-party finally becomes nervous.  The new president assures them that this time, things will be different.  After all, he’s the president now.

It’s a familiar tale, one that usually ends badly.  But this time, things will be different, right?

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The Cold Take From Virginia

One of the luxuries of running this sideblog is the ability to publish “cold takes.”  In this case, it means having the luxury of examining the lessons of the Virginia gubernatorial campaign before the votes are counted.

At the outset, the most important thing to note may be the low stakes: this election won’t tell you much, if anything, about the national midterms in 2018.  Not that this will stop the “winning” side from telling you otherwise.

Accordingly, let’s also consider that the “winning” side may not necessarily be the winning side.  Let’s look at a general assessment of the situation as of yesterday morning, which is when I’m writing this:

The GOP candidate, Ed Gillespie narrowly won a primary in which rival Corey Stewart raised cultural issues like the removal of Confederate monuments.  Gillespie has been trailing the Democratic nominee, Ralph Northam, who beat the Bernie Sanders-endorsed Tom Perriello by a wider-than-expected margin.  On a purely abstract level, Virginia has been trending Democratic in recent cycles, but the Republican candidates have generally managed to close to at least a close race.  Accordingly, while the public opinion polling here has been as sketchy as polling tends to be for off-year elections (in this case based mostly on what pollsters think turnout will be in NoVa), the average showing a 3-4% lead for Northam seems entirely plausible.

Gillespie did close on Northam in polling, but was this an echo of the recent history in Virginia races, or something more?  To unify his base vote, Gillespie has adopted the cultural issues championed by Northam, including the Confederate monuments and concerns over sanctuary cities and the operation of the MS-13 gang.  Some on the Right therefore would like to see this election as a test case of “Trumpism without Trump,” in which a fairly generic GOPer is otherwise able to benefit from cultural politics.

This has not gone unnoticed by folks on the Left of center.  Activist groups have attacked Gillespie as running a racist campaign.  One group created an ad (with a small buy, hoping for and getting earned media coverage) depicting a Confederate flag-waving Gillespie voter running down minority children with a truck.  Another group attacked Northam‘s campaign as racist for conceding the sanctuary city issue, despite the fact that it’s a symbolic concession insofar as Virginia lacks such cities.

Even closer to the center, the left-leaning establishment has not particularly helped their cause.  When Gillespie claimed there are more than 2,000 MS-13 gang members in Fairfax County alone, the response from the Washington Post was to fact-check him and conclude the true number was lower — as though the presence of only 900 or 1,400 violent gang members is some great comfort to residents of Fairfax and its neighbors.

Despite these seeming errors from the Left, that 3-4% polling advantage for the Democrats is probably the line against which “winning” should be measured.

If Northram wins by more than that 3-4%, one might conclude that Gillespie’s gambit truly failed, or that anti-Trumpism fueled Democratic enthusiasm above normal levels.  Conversely, if Gillespie wins — or even loses by less than 2% — one might be encouraged that the “Trumpism without Trump” was relatively successful and thus worth trying in other races.  (The tale here is likely to be told in terms of any tradeoff Gillespie has between college-educated whites and less educated whites.)  Or your margin of error / estimation of noise here may be wider, in which case one might conclude: (a) Gillespie’s strategy was ultimately not as important in either direction as general partisanship; or (b) the Left’s reaction — which may or may not occur in other races — was as important as Gillespie’s strategy; or (c) both.

What happened:  Gillespie lost, by a yuge margin that suggests Gillespie’s Trump-fusionist strategy did not work.  But the losses in VA’s House of Delegates may be more alarming to the national GOP than the gubernatorial race.

All of that will be fun to discuss today.  Just remember the first thing I told you: last night’s results may not matter much outside Virginia (a state trending leftward for years), except that people will believe they do.  Regular readers know I might like to write the Trump-skeptical take here, but while the Virginia results can’t be credibly spun as good news for Trump or the GOP, the point of today’s exercise was to check my priors by analyzing the race in advance.  I just noted that Trump was in a spot that might help the GOP lose the House — Virginia may well be another indicator, but I’d stick to the larger picture.

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Memo to Trump: Do Your Job

“Do your job” is the upshot of a recent data analysis from David Byler (Now at TWS; formerly from RCP):

[T]he overall thrust of this analysis is that Trump, despite all his oddities and his historically low poll numbers, is conventional. If he deals with a crisis competently (e.g., hurricanes), his approval rating ticks up. If he pushes an unpopular policy (e.g., various health care bills), he suffers in the polls.”

Regarding the latter — both pushing and then not succeeding to pass healthcare reform — Pres. Trump’s supporters may want to blame Congress.  But Congress isn’t entirely to blame.  And more important, the public is blaming Trump also.

Moreover, a vicious cycle may develop.  Per a prior analysis by Byler, Trump’s approval rating may be a ceiling for the House GOP in the midterm elections.  And right now, Trump’s approval is in the range where the GOP could potentially lose the House in 2018.

If the GOP loses the House, Trump’s ability to move legislation (at least legislation amenable to the GOP base) virtually disappears.  And regardless of whether a Democratic Congress would move to impeach Trump, it’s a very fair bet there would be investigations aplenty.  Whatever conservative policy is moving through the administrative agencies might slow to a crawl if the administration is busy responding to a blizzard of Congressional subpoenas.

So it’s probably very important for Trump and the GOP to get tax reform right and to get it passed.  And yet there are already problems in the Senate.  The proposed elimination of the adoption tax credit is not sitting well with social conservatives.  Pres. Trump wisely helped put the kibosh on a trial balloon for taxing 401(k) contributions.  The House is trying the sort of fast-tracking of the bill that met with, um, mixed success on healthcare reform.

If the GOP manages to blow tax reform, they can expect a revolt from both the base and the donor class.  If the party heeded Trump’s populist impulses to shift the emphasis a notch or two toward ensuring relief for the middle class, they’d likely be much better off a year from now.  Will Trump weigh in as he did on the 401(k) issue?  A normal president would consider it part of the job.  He should realize how much of the fate of his presidency may be tied to it.

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Does the Democrats’ Civil War Matter?

Moonlighting at Fox News, Commentary magazine’s Noah C. Rothman surveys the current schism gripping the Democratic Party, from fmr interim DNC chairwoman Donna Brazile’s claims that the party (at a low ebb post-Obama) gave Hillary Clinton advantages over Bernie Sanders and behaved in a decidedly unwoke fashion towards Brazile to the manner in which leftist identity politics may be helping GOPer Ed Gillespie in the Virginia gubernatorial campaign (after right-wing identity politics took center stage in that GOP primary).

To Rothman’s list, I’d add the potentially ugly primary campaign Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein may face in her re-election bid to the US Senate from both the identity politicians and Bernie Bros.

Though I’ll be popping my share of the popcorn, we should take a moment on the question of whether the Democrats’ internal brawl ultimately matters.   The answer is probably both “not very much” and “quite a lot.”

Consider that when the GOP was the out party in 2009, we were treated to a not-too-dissimilar brawl between the party establishment and the Tea Party.  Both factions fielded some good candidates in various contests, and some less-than-good candidates in other races.  In 2012, Mitt Romney — a pretty establishment sort — won the presidential nomination in large part because none of his rivals captured the anti-establishment Tea Party spirit.

Then, per Rothman:

Say what you will about the GOP’s 2012 ‘autopsy,’ at least the Republican Party engaged in an open display of introspection in the wake of a humiliating defeat. The autopsy galvanized a Republican activist base resentful of what it saw as the false elite consensus around diversity and immigration, and vowed to show the party leaders why they were wrong.”

That’s certainly a piece of How We Got Trump, though it’s notable that two of his main rivals, Sens. Rubio and Cruz also were from that Tea Party Class of 2010.  Trump represented a facet of that same anti-establishment movement, just one that tended to be overlooked by most observers at the time.

What’s more important for today’s discussion, however, is the fact that 2016 demonstrates that, broadly speaking, political parties don’t actually “learn” lessons.  So did 2010, when the conventional wisdom had conservatism on the ropes following a smashing Democratic victory in 2008.  In this sense, party brawls often mean little, because we are in an increasingly tribal two-party system, which means the out party can benefit mostly by default when the party in power stumbles.

OTOH, the various Democratic factions would be foolish not to brawl.  This is also the lesson of 2016.  Trump may have been the internally weakest GOP nominee in modern history… but he won.  And by winning Trump has the ability to set the agenda, even if he sometimes seems less than fully interested in doing so.  When a party stumbles, the fight for the head chair at the table commences.  In this sense, the fight matters a great deal.

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Identity Politics and the March Through Institutions

I advise people to RTWT with some frequency, but Mary Eberstadt’s cover essay in the Weekly Standard, “The Primal Scream of Identity Politics,” fully merits the longread.  It is one of those works that moves the discussion of an issue forward with the originality of its insight.

Boiled down to its essence, the essay argues that the roots of identity politics and the emotionalism behind them can be found in the sexual revolution and the decline of the traditional family.  The de-institutionalization of traditional marriage and family causes what Eberstadt calls a “game of musical identity chairs,” and fuels the psychology of loss aversion, which in turn results in the demand for “safe spaces” and the campaigns against “cultural appropriation.”

While I’m still digesting the piece, I have at least two additional thoughts.

First, Eberstadt attaches great importance to “The Combahee River Collective Statement,” a 1977 declaration by black feminists, as a “founding document of identity politics.”  She quotes the statement:

This focusing on our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”

I might characterize the statement more as a founding document of intersectionality in identity politics, but I won’t quibble here.  I will add the statement also refers to the well-known and succinct distillation of identity politics that has its origin in feminism:

A political contribution which we feel we have already made is the expansion of the feminist principle that the personal is political.”

“The personal is political” is a phrase that dates at least as far back as 1969.  Various feminists to whom the phrase has been attributed have disclaimed authorship, suggesting it was a sentiment already in the feminist aether for years.  And it is the core idea from which identity politics flows.

Second, while I think Eberstadt’s emphasis on marriage and family is important, her use of the term “de-institutionalization” is also significant.  The family is (or was) the key institution in society, and thus its decline may have the most serious ramifications.  But the Left’s “long march through the institutions” has not been limited to the family.

Regular readers know that my hobbyhorse institution has been education.  Regular readers also know that Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism touches on the subject of identity politics in a number of passages and demonstrates they have emerged in decades prior to the 1960s.  But today’s example is his account of the 1969 takeover of Cornell University:

Black student radicals, convinced of their racial superiority and the inherent corruption of liberalism, mounted a sustained campaign of intimidation and violence against the very institution that afforded them the luxury of an education. President [James A.] Perkins himself was a quintessentially progressive educator. With degrees from Swarthmore and Princeton, he cut his teeth as a New Dealer in the Office of Price Administration. Intellectually, Perkins was a product of the progressive-pragmatic tradition of William James and John Dewey, rejecting the idea that universities should be dedicated to the pursuit of eternal truths or enduring questions. He ridiculed the ‘intellectual chastity’ of traditional scholarship and mocked non-pragmatic scholars — modern-day ink knights — who spent their time devoted to ‘barren discussions of medieval scholasticism.’ Like so many of the New Deal intellectuals, Perkins was hostile to the idea that the past had much to say about the present. For him, the watchword was ‘relevance,’ which in the 1960s quickly led to ’empowerment.’

Perkins believed that universities should be laboratories for social change, training grounds for ‘experts’ who would parachute into the real world and fix society, like the Progressive of Wilson’s and FDR’s day. For these reasons — plus a decided lack of courage — Perkins prostrated himself to fascist goons while he ruthlessly turned his back on those whose educations, jobs, and even lives were threatened by Black Power radicals. *** The black radicals wanted to be taught ‘black science’ and ‘black logic’ by black professors. They demanded a separate school tasked to ‘create the tools necessary for the formation of a black nation.’ They backed up these demands not with arguments but with violence and passionate assertion. ‘In the past it has been all the black people who have done all the dying,’ shouted the leader of the black radicals. ‘Now the time has come when the pigs are going to die.’ Perkins supinely obliged after only token opposition. After all, he explained, ‘there is nothing I have ever said or will ever say that is forever fixed or will not be modified by changed circumstances.’ The first course offered in the new program was Black Ideology.”

Education is thus another example of how the decline of an institution expressly led to the promotion of identity politics.  And while I would never claim to be an expert on religion, a similar claim probably could be made with respect to the decline of organized religion during this same time period.

Nor should this be entirely surprising.  The point of the “long march” was to empower the state at the expense of other institutions.  But these other institutions are important to the formation of individual identities.  The campaign of de-institutionalism waged by the Left thus placed more of a focus on identities like race and sex and left the state as the primary institution for mediating social conflict.  The decline of marriage and the family may be the most significant loss, but it’s not the only one.

[Update: I’ve had some work come up today, so there may be no post for Friday.  If so, have a good weekend.]

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