Politics Upside Down
Suddenly the same-old, same-old does not work this year
All the old reasons why entrenched congressional representatives, senators, and state and local officials are usually ensured reelection — the brag of securing pork-barrel earmarked projects, boasts of years of incumbency and insider experience, habit and rote, seniority on committees and boards — aren’t quite working this year (although they did as recently as just two years ago).
People suddenly don’t care as much that their representatives won yet another recreation center or office building in their district named after themselves, or that a newly paved stretch of highway is named after a favorite congressman. Instead, to the degree politicians voted for $3 trillion more in debt the last two years or a federal takeover of health care, they face rising and blanket voter resentment. The problem is not just that we know the deficits are unsustainable, or that the borrowed money spent so haphazardly (remember that Joe Biden was supposed to monitor how the hundreds of billions were consumed?) has so far had little long-term benefit. The problem is more a spiritual one.
I think at the heart of the tea-party revolt and public anger in general is simply sheer disbelief at the astronomical debts, red ink that has increased by $3 trillion in just two years — and will fall due one day mostly on a generation that did not incur or enjoy the borrowing. People are depressed that even a restoration of the Clinton tax rates would now still leave a trillion in annual deficits, given the vast level of federal spending.
They are increasingly ashamed too that a great nation like the United States is the world’s greatest debtor, that we are the object of global financial ridicule while an authoritarian government in China, flush with trillions in cash, is admired and courted for its money. And so the public does not react to political rhetoric and promises as they have in the past. Show us the bottom line of balancing a budget the people instead demand.
When a once shoo-in Senator Russ Feingold, Sen. Patty Murray, or Rep. John Dingell is in trouble, then we know the rules are changing. True, Reagan, like Obama, nosedived in the polls in his first and second years. So did Clinton. But in the former case, policies in 1981-3 were aimed at assuring businesses that profit was a good thing; in the latter, remorse in 1994-5 reassured them that as well. The result was that private enterprise was confident of only a temporary downturn, not a rewrite of the game. Not so now: Obama, in a word, shows no signs that he wants private enterprise to make lots of money rather than have them concede at a certain point that they’ve already made enough for his tastes.
So something is different this year, as trillions of dollars sit out the economy until the November elections. Job creators and buyers want proof that there is an end to greater regulation, higher taxes, more redistributive spending, cap-and-trade, and more gratuitous name-calling.
When the president says to his rallies “Don’t make me look bad [in the November election]" I think he means that he is more worried about his own standing than the scores of congressional Democrats who both took him at his word that his hope and change agenda was the wave of the future, and now are suddenly deemed expendable. The presidential worry seems not about fifty or so representatives that won’t be around in January, but more his own loss of face.
Slurs mean nothing
The media does not seem to be able to stop the rising public anger either. The tea-partiers, as their clout grew, have gone from being ignored, to being racists, to supposedly kindred spirits who are not really conservative as much as protesting against the entrenched and powerful. Meanwhile, media editorializing means very little. Newsweek after all sold for a dollar. The New York Times is in growing percentages leveraged. Whether it is CNN or Time, the constant is a shrinking audience.
Everything seems to be in play in this year without rules and precedent. A six-term congressman in a safe seat can be ahead by 10 points and a month later poll dead even. Democrats can run the most engaging ads — bragging on voting against the Obama agenda.
What are we left with then?
The greatest misreading of public unhappiness in recent political history.
Somehow Obama, after a brilliant campaign, thought that either America was ready for European-style socialism or could be persuaded that it was, as if his own election had nothing to do with McCain’s lackluster campaign; the September 15, 2008, meltdown; the Bush-Iraq war; the novelty of electing the first African-American candidate; or the centrist, "across-the-aisle" Obama rhetoric -- but was rather an endorsement of campaign slips like “spread the wealth” and the Pennsylvania clingers speech.
Obama also apparently concluded that the public anger with Bush was that he was too conservative, rather than too liberal, in the sense of spending too much money, too lax on illegal immigration, and too prone to creating new unfunded government agencies and programs. Instead of breaking with Bush, he simply trumped him to the nth degree.
The result is politics upside down, as fainting crowds vanished; books about the brave new progressive age are remaindered about when they appear; and elected majority party officials run on everything but the public's worry over joblessness and massive debt. I cannot remember a party prepping for an election by either ignoring its legislative record or attacking it.
A McCarthyite Attack from the Stanford Daily
Recently, the Stanford Daily accused me of being a racist for comments on the university in general that appeared here on Works and Days, and were later excerpted in the Wall Street Journal. Here is the passage I wrote now in question:
Diversity is Orwellian: the university is the most politically intolerant and monolithic institution in the country, even as it demands the continuance of tenure to protect supposedly unpopular expression. Even its emphases on racial diversity is entirely constructed and absurd: Latin Americans add an accent and a trill and they become victimized Chicanos; one-half African-Americans claim they are more people of color than much darker Punjabis; the children of Asian optometrists seek minority and victim status.
The Stanford Daily wrote the following:
At the risk of stating the obvious, we would like to point out this passage for what it is: absolute trash. If Hanson wants to engage in discussion about affirmative action or the role of race in higher education, we would applaud that and welcome his viewpoint. But this sort of homogenous denigration is no intellectual commentary. It is at best vitriolic ignorance. Combining the toxic assumption that all members of an ethnicity group act the same way with the mocking reference to “an accent and a trill” veers dangerously into bigotry.
And then this:
Hanson’s words, tragically, not only hinder this discussion, but deride stakeholders and concerned parties with callous and shrill remarks. If he was trying to draw attention to the topic, he has instead shifted the focus onto himself.
Worse yet, Hanson’s words reflect badly on Stanford through his association with a research center supported by this university and housed on this campus. The editorial board understands the Hoover Institution cannot be held responsible for all the public statements of its scholars, but strongly urges the institution to repudiate or, at the very least, review Hanson’s remarks. Surely, gross generalities couched in racially charged language cannot fit with Hoover’s mission.
It is worth stressing that the Hoover Institution includes preeminent scholars in a variety of disciplines. From Nobel Laureates to former high-level public policy officials and advisers, many of the foremost minds at Stanford and other universities contribute to Hoover’s work. These professors offer serious academic research that adds significant value to policy discussion and to the intellectual community on campus.
Hanson’s despicable words provide the Hoover Institution the perfect opportunity to clarify its role in American politics. Purposeful academic research or derisive, unfounded cheap shots: which will it be? The editorial board expects and hopes that an institution producing distinguished research to inform policy debates will wholeheartedly reject the sort of remarks Hanson made.
Thus, we issue this editorial as an open challenge to the Hoover Institution. If you find fault with Hanson’s grossly generalizing remarks and wish to be a leader in the discussion of modern American universities, then please: let us know.
If you do not, we hope you realize the damage you do to this university’s standing and to the well-being of higher education in America.
Note first that this unsigned and generally despicable editorial reflects badly on Stanford University. It is entirely ad hominem and provides no proof for its accusations. It simply does not address the point of my remarks, which suggested that universities in general are Orwellian in using racialist rubrics to attempt to correct past racism.
First, the university application of racial preferences has no definable or consistent logic, at least any that are readily understandable to the public that supports higher education. Preferences are not necessarily predicated on assumed contemporary racial prejudices based on skin color or necessarily an identity with an historically oppressed group.
Nor are racial or ethnic preferences necessarily class- or income-based. Hence my point that some people of color, such as Punjabi students, do not qualify for racially- or ethnically-based considerations, but those who are in part African-American do. Are not those with Spanish surnames per se often considered minorities for university purposes, regardless of national origin, ethnic background, or citizenship? Do the children of professionals qualify for special considerations based on their racial heritage? Would the children of Barack Obama in theory qualify for affirmative action? Did a middle-class younger Barack Obama, of mixed white and African heritage and without direct experience with the African-American ordeal, qualify for affirmative action — and if so, on the basis of race per se, membership in a particular group that experienced past racism, or economic need?
My examples were not cheap, toxic, or despicable, but drawn from my own experience with higher education over some 40 years as both student and professor, in which tragically the university often discriminated against students of all races and heritages by applying fossilized racial categories that have no place in 21st-century America.
Again, the too frequent defense of using race to categorize applicants and job seekers is to call critics racists rather than to present a logical and consistent defense of the so often illogical and inconsistent. That simply will not work anymore.
So I offer an open challenge to the Stanford Daily: either apologize for the baseless slur of racism and the cheap language (e.g., "trash," "toxic,""despicable"), or at least show how I was in error, and that, in fact, there are logical and consistent criteria that qualify some groups for racial preference in admissions and hiring in the university and not others. Second, if race is used as a criterion, what then qualifies one as belonging to a particular targeted race or group? Does one warrant special consideration if he is one-half, she one-fourth, they one-eight of a particular targeted lineage? Or is the distinction merely ad hoc and impressionistic? Does the university employ such percentages? If so, such usage has a nightmarish tradition dating back to the antebellum South. Simply invoking the generic idea of "diversity" does not mean, de facto, that racial profiling should not require some concrete, explicit rationale.
These are not racist inquiries, but genuine concerns, as I wrote, that universities themselves are race-obsessed in an increasingly multiracial society where intermarriage, immigration, and assimilation are making race an obsolete criterion for addressing past collective discrimination.
For the Daily to level charges as “despicable” and “cheap,” then surely it must provide proof that they are so. Note again, the anonymous authors of the editorial did not refute anything I wrote as untrue; they only stooped in McCarthyite fashion to invoke charges of racism and to challenge my institution to silence my views that they found unappealing. All that is beneath the daily newspaper of a great university.
But as a classicist and historian, I do not need lectures from the Stanford Daily about scholarship. As someone with a long familial relationship with Stanford dating back over 65 years, I do not need reminders about Stanford tradition and decorum. As someone who lives at the heart of illegal immigration from Mexico in Selma, California, with a racially diverse extended family, I do not need lectures about campus notions of racial insensitivity.
Just as Hoover is connected with Stanford University, so Stanford University is affiliated as well with the Hoover Institution; each conducts itself with logical argumentation rather than easy invective like "trash." A university newspaper that so easily casts charges of racism and wishes to silence the views of others is obligated to demonstrate why and how its allegations are true. The Daily did neither.