Thursday, November 12, 2015

On Safe Spaces and the Celebration of the Individual

There's been a lot of talk about so-called "safe spaces" on the internet, especially in wake up the uproar at Yale over the Halloween controversy regarding social sensitivity and the football players statement/hunger strike at the University of Missouri. Yesterday Glenn Reynolds, an influential conservative blogger and law professor at the University of Tennessee, published a Jonathan Swift-style op-ed which argued that since folks on these campuses couldn't act like adults we should raise the voting age to 25.

There is perhaps no word that better explains the dominant conservative view of the university as "coddling." There are too many examples to link to: a Washington Post op-ed, an Atlantic cover story last month on "The Coddling of the American Mind,"  the conservative blog Hot Air addressed the issue, and so on. There have been some very able refutations and engagements with these types of views, and I would especially recommend Roxane Gay's effort over at The New Republic. But this post is not a post that tries to wade into this particular dispute. Instead, I want to talk about the number-one coddling menace in America today: the Republican Party.

What's that, you say? Republicans aren't coddlers, they're like a hybrid of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons and Snidely Whiplash, twirling sinister mustaches while throwing money at things to make the already-bad-off even worse. Look, no one is accusing Republican policies of being particularly easy on people (Well, their tax plans do do a bit of coddling of the wealthy. But I digress: the record of cutting the social safety net, refusing to enact policies that empower the government to fight private sector discrimination, and their general committment to letting the market "solve" problems more than makes up for their occasionally coddling policy bona fides).

But if you look at Republican rhetoric, it is a 24/7 coddle-fest. Let's head over to the "issues" page of Marco Rubio's website. Well, this is weird: Marco wants to "promote" strong families (very rude of him to imagine they can't do it on their own): he is focused on "protecting the sacred rights of America's gun owners" which to be fair, they don't have anything with which they can protect themselves; he is also into "protecting America's senior citizens" which alright, the elderly have earned their safe spaces, and of course Marco will "stand up for small business owners" presumably because they've been so coddled by the left that they can no longer advocate for themselves.

Ok, so Marco is a coddler. But what about someone else? Let's head over to Ted Cruz's website. Oh wow: right here on the first page, we see that Cruz will appear at a "Rally for Religious Liberty" at Bob Jones University. Americans are "under fire for their religious convictions" and thus in need of higher support and advocacy. Look at the list of other speakers at this event: among them are Joe Kennedy, a high-school football coach who openly continues to violate the Constitutional separation of church and state, and Angela Hillenbrand who was "threatened with jail" for wanting to invoke God in her high school valedictorian speech although who, in fact, was supported by the legal system in the final ruling on her case. On the one hand, someone who is openly violating the Constitution needs our help. Why not just tell him he's wrong? Or do you need to remind him that America is a "safe space" for his beliefs over and against the Constitution? Why bring on someone who won their legal case and celebrate their merits as a speaker on the basis of this legal threat? You don't think the legal victory was enough for them? Sounds like in addition to legal support we need political and cultural support. You know, coddling.

Apologies (a bit) for the tongue-in-cheek tone but this is rich stuff. These days its tough to figure out what the conservative platform is beyond a routine empty populism that demands "the people" be sovereign and in control, and also that their status as victims--of Obama, the state, radical left-agitators, "race hustlers," whatever--is undeniable. The Republican party is coddling the American people in every debate where it repeats stupid, empty truisms and asserts the taken-for-granted greatness of this country without actually having a damn plan to fix the thing. The Republican party is coddling the American people every time it lies and says that we can bring back manufacturing jobs. The Republican party is coddling the American people with unworkable plans to "repeal and replace" (we know its really just repeal) Obamacare, with its bromides against "job killing," and with its belief that we can somehow make massive spending cuts without also taking a huge chunk out of military spending.

Stop coddling the American people, GOP. Since Ronald Reagan you've done nothing but argue that America needs to be a "safe space" for your constituency. It needs to be safe from Al Sharpton, it needs to be safe from Barack Obama, it needs to be safe from the "homosexuals" or today safe from trans-folks who will rape in bathrooms (as opposed to the reality, that it is they who are likely to be assaulted without gender neutral bathrooms). You want (some) people to be safe from anything but themselves.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Trump, Affective Juggernaut

Critics of American democracy have observed that at the heart of our polity is a driving paradox: on the one hand America was founded in the name of “the people” and the idea of a shared nation is itself a kind of collectivist ideal. On the other hand, there is the liberal value of individuality. These two values are irreconcilable, as Chantal Mouffe observes in The Democratic Paradox and as a result the goal of democratic politics should not be understood as that of achieving in an absolute sense both values but instead of fostering a polity that can productively manage the tension between the two. Mouffe rightly observes that in the American context, liberal individuality is the favored side of the dialectic. We might measure this in cultural terms by examining the extent to which individual choice is valorized in advertising and television programs, we might observe this in politics by charting the linkages written by politicians and pundits between concepts like freedom and the idea of individual achievement, and so forth. This post takes for granted that this is the case, and I want to connect not the rise but the persistence of Donald Trump, presidential candidate, to recent public scholarship on questions of victimhood.
                But first: what broke the dialectic? I maintain that the dialectic was broken by the populist turn of American conservatism in the 1960’s, a movement which married the ideology of individualism to a collectivist sense of the “invisible American” and then later Richard Nixon’s “silent majority.” Up until the late 1950’s what the American political parties stood for can be understood fairly straightforwardly: the Republican Party stood for traditionalism, in the sense of defending the inertia of an institutionalized socio-economic elite from outside, contingent-but-class-directed antagonism. Democrats were more or less the party of labor and liberation, with questions of race a notable outlier given electoral self-interest. By the 1950’s, Republicans were on the run as a seemingly staunch consensus emerged about the necessary, permanent role of large state spending and programs in the polity. Because opposing massively popular programs in plain sight is not a ticket to electoral victory, Republicanism could only find its way forward by constituting new interest groups rather than working to consolidate its gains within existing constituencies. Moreover, most Republican voters were either traditionalists along religious and societal lines, or libertarians with an interest in the emerging economic doctrines of individual freedom. Michael Lee’s wonderful recent book, Creating Conservatism, details one part of this process, the production of the concept of conservatism itself and its curation within a new set of sacred political texts like Ideas Have Consequences and National Review. Central to Lee’s work is the idea that Republicans refused to choose a side in the debate, but instead framed conservatism itself as a concept drenched in agonism so that battles between the traditionalists and libertarians would not spill-over to ruin an emerging Republican wedge.
                This tactic worked quite well to build a healthy conservative infrastructure for argumentation, patronage, and print consumption. However, it needed a delivery vehicle in order to begin to constitute the mass public. This vehicle was populism, as I’ve discussed in previous posts . Though relatively alien to the explicit populism of the late 19th century America, threads of anti-intellectualism that populated—but did not determine—agrarian populism were useful for conservatives who found themselves on the outside of the governing consensus and thus in need of attacking those in power on the basis of their institutional position. By conflating liberalism with what rhetors like Nixon figured as the “excesses” of the 1960’s—protests, declines in stability of the nuclear family, domestic unrest—the Republican party began a slow march towards moving the center of the electorate further to the Right. While “the people” was a rhetorical figure not yet ripe for explicit poaching, conservatives could nevertheless link existing unrest to the seeming hegemony of liberalism. The Great Society, powered by government, ruined the population via a paternalistic understanding of civic life.
                Today, the dialectic between collectivism and liberal individualism is broken. Recent populist turns in the Democratic Party have either featured a retrograde, racially punitive populism tethered to fear of crime as in the case of Bill Clinton or a populism borne of confusing democracy’s promise of inclusion with an actually existing policy agenda, as in the case of Barack Obama. Pundits and voters label Obama a progressive when in fact his theory of government intervention is routinely one in which government steps in only as a last resort if the market system has failed. Meanwhile conservatism conserves only the last little covalent bonds that tie together the traditionalists and libertarians, in between trying to activate the old resentment-laden energy nodes of the silent majority. Observe, for example, how magazines like The Weekly Standard have mostly stayed out of the debate over recalcitrant clerk Kim Davis in Kentucky. A decade ago this would be red meat for a larger segment of the conservative base. Today, only “values” conservatives like Mike Huckabee or the most opportunistic ones like Ted Cruz step into the breach to associate with Davis.
                What is considerably more viable is a commitment to a generalized politics of victimage, and this is where Trump comes in. Adam Gopnik observed very recently that the Trump phenomena is nothing new, that from Father Coughlin to Barry Goldwater America has a long history of incoherent populism. As he observes, “The ideology is always available; it just changes its agents from time to time.” Many have wagered—especially on the Right—that the post-2008 environment’s anger and antipathy was not so much a racist reaction to Obama as it was a generalized condition fostered by the deep intensity of the economic crash.
                Trump’s persistence reveals this understanding to be flawed, not only because, as Gopnik notes, Trump was the most prominent proponent of Birther ideology. In fact I think Gopnik is a bit wrong to group Trump with Wallace or Goldwater, because the incoherence of Trump is exceptional even by very lenient standards. Goldwater’s stand for less government but robust militarism made little sense, but this is a formula considerably more successful politicians have embraced. Wallace did not represent the “people” but certainly a “people,” namely embittered southern racists. Trump leads the national polls less than a decade after people just like Trump nearly buried the American economy in a heap of derivatives and debt swaps.
                How do we make sense of Trump? We must go back to the idea of populism, and the relationship of leader and constituent. Perhaps the most common thing said of Trump today is he is popular because “he tells it like it is.” Just google Trump and that phrase in quotes: you’ll get over 47,000 hits, like this Real Clear Politics piece. Trump is not the manager who will translate the base’s wishes into policy gains like Jeb Bush, and he is not the “fighter” whose policy agenda’s sharp teeth represents his base like Scott Walker: Trump’s ugly, unvarnished masculinity mirrors the sentiment of a base that, since 2009, understands that they must “take their country back” from an undeserving, threatening Voltron of a black president, nouveau hippies worried about microaggressions, the Chinese, and raping immigrants.

                This is not, of course, all Trump’s doing. If one takes stock of conservative ideology in the last six years, whether one reads platforms, policy papers, punditry, or Rush Limbaugh transcripts, there are two overwhelming thematic notes: conservatism today in discourse aspires to conserve the rhetorical figure of “the American people” and also nurture that old, silent majority-era sentiment of Republicans as constitutive outsiders to the polity. Why do conservative wonks like Jim Pethoukoukis repeatedly air their frustrations on twitter? Because a party can only push a policy agenda that will please their base, and there is almost no policy agenda palatable to establishment conservatives and the base. Conserving a victimized identity is not a policy agenda, but it is a powerful weapon of negativity, particularly when the overarching desire of conservatism in the last forty years is a principled negative critique of the state which is the opposite of the population it supposedly serves. Trump embodies “the people” first, and the party never. One might perhaps be amused that pundits like Jonah Goldberg lob the same bromides at Trump that liberals threw at the Tea Party in 2010. Indeed, the structure of the arguments is the same: his/their politics are incoherent, its pure negativity, he/they have no real agenda. To me, however, it is a real horror show: the dialectic is broken, populism now, populism forever. We are now given over to a future of halfwit Lonesome Rhodeses, with half the wit and charisma and twice the power in a presidential primary. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Market Populism at Walmart

Market Populism at Wal Mart
            I'm in the midst of working on a project about the relationship between "the people" in the American political imaginary and how they've come to be selfsame with the product of collective choice i.e. the judgments of the market.  My last blog post here looked at the specter of consumerism in a famous Ronald Reagan campaign ad, “Morning in America.” Some of the dynamics I identified there can actually be viewed today, albeit in a slightly different way in the practices of the Walmart corporation.  Indeed, between their decision to purchase the cheapest good available regardless or labor conditions and their well-documented mistreatment of their own labor, Walmart is something of an easy target for progressive activists and political pundits alike, Thomas Frank repeatedly mentions Walmart repeatedly in his 2005 essay “What’s the Matter With Liberals?” when he complains that centrist Democrats refuse to challenge large corporations like the Arkansas-based retail giant, choosing instead to benefit from the resulting corporate fundraising. More recently, Walmart came under fire for a few different issues in the spring of 2013. A CNBC report from April detailed that customers were frustrated with their shopping experience at Walmart, as cuts made to staffing created extensive stocking and customer service issues.[i] The report also noted that in order to avoid running afoul of labor laws Walmart was forcing employees to work off the clock in order to increase efficiency. Forbes’ Rick Ungar linked these practice to decline’s in Walmart’s profits, suggesting that there was a correlation between companies like CostCo that pay their employees a living wage and a positive shopping and consumer experience.[ii] The Washington Post’s Harold Myerson picked up on these observations, noting this uptick in criticism came even as Walmart opened more stores while cutting down on the overall number of people employed in its businesses. It also uses this business model throughout its supply chain, resulting in a situation where:
Problem is, the Wal-Mart model of employment and service not only reflects but also reinforces the declining economic prospects of the majority of Americans. The nation’s largest private-sector employer has used its market power to impose its low-wage model all along its supply chain, leaving millions of Americans with no shopping option other than the kind of discount, and frustrating, experience that Wal-Mart provides.[iii]
At the same time that people like Myerson were issuing high profile critiques of the company, a disaster at a Bangladeshi factory tied to the corporation made visible the high costs of its labor practices on the population abroad, threatening to link American consumption practices to unacceptable violence elsewhere. Time magazine reported that the cost of Walmart’s cheap products was  at least 386 deaths in addition to another 122 at a separate facility just a year before.[iv]
            Critics were taking aim at the negative consequence’s of Walmart’s policies that aimed to cut costs and increase profits. Offshoring production, playing shell games with employee hours, and imposing conditions throughout their supply chain—remember, Walmart is the biggest corporate employer in America—create a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy wherein Walmart’s low-cost, “no frills”  model emerges as a necessary evil for scores of American consumers. In response Walmart turned to market populism as a strategy for managing the criticism.
            Walmart launched an ad campaign called “The Real Walmart.” The campaign featured three videos corresponding to three different aspects of the company, including the benefits it provides for consumers, its employees, and its hyper-efficient supply chain. Each ad seeks to humanize a different element of the Walmart business model. The first advertisement called “Real Walmart Shoppers” focuses on the benefits for consumers. It emphasizes the size of Walmart’s customer base—60% of the shopping American public—and figures these consumers as particular representatives of the American whole. Not for nothing does the advertisement open with a black man who calls himself an “American success story” before a multiracial and dual-gender parade of bodies get a few seconds each in front of the camera to run through their occupations: firefighters, accountant, engineer, teacher. These occupations correspond neatly with those on display in the old Reagan campaign video, which shows firefighters and teachers, and of course various generic white-collar workers on their way to the office.  The advertisement emphasizes the consumer savvy of those who shop at Walmart, locating in the gap between the Walmart price and the (assumed) higher price from another vendor the economic acumen of the average American citizen. The decision to shop at Walmart becomes an expression of the market savvy of the American population, wherein less spending on one thing creates opportunities for thoughtful purchasing in others. What Myerson’s article suggests is the effect of coercion—a reduction in the available options for purchasing—is instead figured as an expression of the popular will. Of course for many Americans they “choose” to shop at Walmart inasmuch as it’s the only option available for them, and in many cases this is because they work at some other company who is a subsidiary of Walmart or works on a similar business model so to call it a choice stretches credulity.
            While the first ad establishes the democratic bonafides of the decision to shop at Walmart, the second ad opens with a young black man who works at Walmart and who proudly proclaims “I’m the next American success story.” The advertisement then lays out a host of possible opportunities within the infrastructure of Walmart: management, engineering, and several other related areas where Walmart gives its employees college credits. Rather than appearing as exploited labor, the protagonist says of those who observe him on the job that, “When they see me, I hope they see someone working their way up.”  The present is not a matter of actually existing injustice but instead is figured as a temporary stopping point before a future of possibility and professional growth, not to mention financial enrichment. Not for nothing he notes that he receives a bonus when sales are good, suggesting that critiquing Walmart and its labor practices is to actually take issue with and threaten the livelihood of "the next American success story."
            The third advertisement focuses on Walmart’s highly efficient supply chain, regulary drawing on language of eliminating inefficiency. Again using the language of an “American success story” the ad features lots of images of trucks, tractors, and their drivers, emphasizing the human and machinic elements at the heart of Walmart. Employing imagery that belies an odd fetish for the mechanical, the short ad closes with the following statement, that “When you see our low prices, remember the wheels turning behind the scenes delivering for millions of Americans everyday.” By encouraging consumers to be semioticians, this third ad completes the equation of market populism set up by the first two: behind each price lay a in separate elements the fingers on the invisible hand, where consumer choice, employee labor, and an efficient supply chain meet in a coincident point. Because there is no temporal element to the narrative, each of these factors plays into the production of the commodity equally in terms of their form: at the same moment that the consumer makes the right choice, they are providing a benefit for the young black employee in the form of increased sales, at the same time that they themselves are demonstrating their economic sophisticated by producing savings that they can move to other areas even as the efficient supply chain in part makes it possible. At each level the economy is humanized: truck and tractor drivers, the cosmopolitan and multiracial makeup of the Walmart consumer base, and the potential-laden black youth demonstrate that Walmart is "people" not some space of exploitation. Not for nothing are we reminded of Mitt Romney's easy proclamation that "corporations are people."
            “The people” are a rhetorical resource available not only for their use as a spearhead in an attack of the regulatory structure of the welfare state. Indeed, “the people” authorize attacks upon those who would seek to criticize the existing arrangements of power as they exist within the economy itself.  This market populism makes each part of a commercial transaction—production, sales, and purchase—into human moments that express the competence and value of the American public. To take issue with the product of these judgments which in this case is the central position in the market held by Walmart is thus to disagree with the marvelous product of the American “people.” As a Forbes article that reported on the campaign said in its headline, “Its About Time Walmart Waged an Ad Campaign Like This One” people need “to understand the tremendous net positive that Walmart remains for the American economy.”[v] In a way this move seems unnecessary: shouldn’t the very public who “decides” to shop at Walmart already know the facts that the advertisement wants to disseminate? The need for the campaign itself demonstrates that the trappings of populism are cynical indeed.
            Moreover, the Walmart campaign suggests an update to Patton’s thesis discussed previously about the threat posed to the silent majority by the racial and sexual Other and the State. It is not just the figure of the queer person or the black male who threatens to “penetrate” the silent majority, but in fact it is the generalized threat of the possibility of there being some judgment external to “the people” and, seemingly, external to the economy. In the same way that the state threatens to distort the truth of the market, so too does external criticism of the market threaten "the people's" integrity by indicting their choices as complicit in injustice. Where we are generally led to believe that what the market is good because it is a reflection of a complicated aggregation of choices that, on balance, tend towards the better, what does it means for this tacit economic populism if its results are actually net negative? While the advertising series does not engage in a proper rehearsal of objections and their refutation, certainly its routine insistence on pointing to an abstracted but positive existence enabled by Walmart—whether the future career of the young black worker or the other savvy consumer choices of its customers—suggests that these complaints with Walmart are temporary while the future of both customers and employees lies elsewhere, with a future in engineering or the adjustment of resources into more vital areas as told by a sovereign American vox populi.
            The individuated collective is made manifest in this campaign. Elsewhere I have attempted to show that the individuated collective is a modern rhetoric of conservative populism wherein the collective element of appeals to "the people" is maintained while in practice the only shared element common to the population is the fact of their individual differentiation from one another. While there are a variety of human inputs into Walmart, each of them arrives at one shared point which is the moment of consumer choice. Whether teacher, firefighter, trucker, or Walmart employee, what holds “the people” together is that they can each express themselves equally through their choice to either consume or work at Walmart. Their right to do is established through defenses of efficiency, choice, and ultimately competence: shopping or working at Walmart maximizes utility and efficiency. In this way a typical paradox of political populism—namely that “the people” by being multivariate and many do not possess any kind of unity that would come along with a collective name—is displaced if not resolved through the suggestion that the shared element is participation in the choice that is reflected in where the market settles. Hence to attack actually existing arrangements of economics is to attack “the people” in their one moment of supposed appearance within the realm of the public, insofar as “the people” can be found not as an entity in the world but instead in these moments of judgment that reflect their will. Hence market populism’s hostility to claims made on the basis of labor and social justice is a move to insulate the naturalized economy from criticism on the basis of that criticism's emergence from a site outside the place of populism. Given our tendency to emphasize the democratic rather than republican elements of our politics in our political discourse, this explains in part the staying power of these version of market populism despite the "contradictions" pointed out by Thomas Frank and other critics who wonder loudly why Americans continue to "vote against their interests." They are not, it seems voting against their interests: they and the economy are inseparable in the rhetoric of modern market populism.



[i] http://www.cnbc.com/id/100618849
[ii] http://www.forbes.com/sites/rickungar/2013/04/17/walmart-pays-workers-poorly-and-sinks-while-costco-pays-workers-well-and-sails-proof-that-you-get-what-you-pay-for/
[iii] http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/harold-meyerson-taking-the-service-out-of-the-service-sector/2013/04/16/b0a47efe-a6b6-11e2-8302-3c7e0ea97057_story.html
[iv] http://business.time.com/2013/04/30/bangladesh-factory-collapse-will-force-companies-to-rethink-outsourced-manufacturing/
[v] http://www.forbes.com/sites/dalebuss/2013/05/14/its-about-time-walmart-waged-an-ad-campaign-like-this-one/

Monday, December 29, 2014

Reagan's "Morning in America"

Critics have identified the short campaign ad “Morning in America” from Ronald Reagan’s 1984 presidential campaign as one of the most effective—and influential—campaign ads of all time. No doubt the ad stands out for not only the context, which was one the most successful presidential campaigns of all time, one that saw Reagan crush his challenger Walter Mondale by taking 49 out of 50 states, but also for its content, which presented a bucolic and peaceful view of regular American life, one that Reagan compared favorably to the social upheaval of the 1960’s and the economic difficulties of the late 1970’s.
            Reagan’s appearance at this juncture, positioned neatly between the upheaval that ushered in and undermined Richard Nixon but before the end of the Cold War, has been the subject of considerable scholarly attention. I want to here meditate on several different readings from critical scholars that often focus on one aspect of Reagan: his status as a simulation. Diane Rubenstein reads Reagan’s presidency as a kind of Baudrillardian simulation par excellence, a president who seemingly stood for nothing and in so doing could be the concept of America itself. While other leaders like John Kennedy or Dwight Eisenhower could draw on the kingly residues of the nation’s higher office with either reference to bodily charisma (Kennedy’s sexuality) or military prowess (Eisenhower’s role as Supreme Allied Commander), the trappings of the old sovereign understanding of the king also constrained and threatened these leaders, subordinating their charisma and power to the Ego-Ideal of a perfect, universally powerful (and religiously designated) leader.
While I am often loathe to draw on his work, Rubenstein’s deployment of Baudrillard’s concept of the hyperreal wherein signs serve not a representational function but instead a self-referential one, ushers us into  an era where “territory no longer precedes the map but is generated by it” (p. 584).  This concept explains Reagan’s success in a way purely semiotic theory cannot: a representational account of language is often frustrated by a figure like Reagan precisely because the presence of “objective” indicators of his flaws as president—scandals, wars, an interest in astrology—did not in practice collapse Reagan’s presidency. Suspended between the subjective understanding of Reagan’s failures as a policymaker and his enormous symbolic political capital is this self-referential status of the Reagan presidency: Reagan and the America he was a part of were separated tautologically from the crisis and disasters that attended to his time in office.
          In this way Reagan can admit to the arms-for-hostages deal while remaining distant from any responsibility for it, as Rubenstein notes that Reagan’s statement “’I told the American people that I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that it is true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.’” (p. 587). Even when there is a real problem, Americans continue to feel as if everything is ok. “Morning in America” produces—anticipates even—this sense of good feeling even in the face of still troublesome conditions. Hence Rubenstein’s point about maps generating territory; much the same could be said for political space, drawing a connection to theorists working in the area of publicity.
          Michael Warner focuses on how Reagan’s image made him the “champion spokesmodel for America” in Warner’s words (p. 173). The phrase “spokesmodel,” seems intentionally gendered here: a “spokesman” pitches a product while a “spokesmodel” is feminized, simply displaying , gesturing, and pointing to a desirable object, generating a symmetry between their own sexual desirability and the object. Reagans capacity to instill identification with his audiences, even where this identification was not selfsame with popularity in the public polls, was such that he could be said to have an immense amount of political capital in the sense that those who insulted him found themselves constrained, and those who opposed him politically found themselves the subject of public ire.  Like “the people” Reagan does not have speech, he simply stands in to point to America’s self-referential goodness, in much the same way that people simply living their lives in “Morning in America” provide the proof that America is a great nation. In having seemingly little agency or persona, Reagan mirrored the impotence of the public. Warner’s reading works similarly to that of Joan Copjec, who argues in Read My Desire that Reagan’s impotence was constitutive of his authority rather than evidence of a lack. Identifying with Reagan did not threaten one’s sense of self in the way that embracing a charismatic John F. Kennedy or a geographically-specific George W. Bush might. As an added bonus, such signifying does not invoke Ernst Kantorowicz’s theory of royal power, producing a president capable of living up to symbolic expectations, ones that merely ask for a president to be like “the people” rather than one who is above and rules them in a manner guaranteed to activate that traditionally American robust ideology of individualism.
            Citizens, Warner says, long for “privileged public disembodiment” (p. 176).  Abstraction is the key technology for producing the modern public sphere, and where consumerism substitutes for civic participation, citizens seek to consume in a way that reduces that anxieties associated with existing. Reagan’s befuddlement made him one of the citizens. Reagan could thus witness disasters with the citizenry. Moreover, he could, like cititzens, admit to some rational level of culpability for a disaster or scandal, but maintain his emotive, human distance from them. In line with Warner’s work, this model of present distancing from politics explains how citizens might routinely cathetic to a political system that rarely, if ever, serves their interests: they “rationally” know it to be true but feel otherwise, and feeling trumps.
            It is telling that “Morning in America” includes no disasters, no threats, only a happy and bucolic nation rising to meet the day. It also includes no persons of color. The ad opens in the morning hours, showing people either working or on their way to it. Amongst the various occupations depicted are paperboy, farmer, firefighter, and white-collar work. The first twenty seconds of the advertisement are dedicated to commerce:  folks either go to or are at work, or engage in acts of commerce: a voice over mentions increasing volumes of home purchasing while the ad shows some presumably new homeowners marching a large, just-purchased rug into their new house. Meanwhile the voiceover reminds that “more Americans will go to work this morning than ever before in the nation’s history” while commenting on the remarkable drops in interest rates, contrasting the Reagan recovery with the difficult days of Jimmy Carter. These are not just the conditions that facilitate prosperity: they are prosperity.
Following these displays of commerce, the video transitions into the scene of a smiling, elderly woman watching a young, heterosexual couple getting married, while the narrator adds that today “6500 young men and women will be married.” The narrator then notes that, with today’s lower inflation rates, these married couples can anticipate economic prosperity will remain stable. Out of 53 seconds of content in the advertisement, fully 15 seconds are dedicated to the events of this marriage, which include not only the walk down the aisle but the smiling procession into wedded bliss: not to mention, a prosperous future. The closing embrace between the grandmother and her newly-married granddaughter, both clad in white, transforms into the US Capitol building in a screen transition, symbolically producing these ordinary Americans living their life with a prosperous future, emphasizing how the center of American life is the population itself, rather than the government. In fact, this appearance of the Capitol—along with a brief shot of a firefighter schoolchildren, and some soldiers raising the American flag—are the only shots of government agents in the entire commercial until Reagan’s face appears at the end. It is of course notable that the shot is of the Capitol: the building that houses a multitude of, rather than one, of America’s leaders, creating a kind of relay of multiciplicity that reinforces Reagan’s version of populism.
            Indeed, after this brief shot of the Capitol we repeatedly see American flags, being raised in the morning in a variety of different contexts like schools and military bases. This, we are told, is the daily life of America: marriage, work, learning, symbolic acts of patriotism. We see a carpool taking someone to work, the hug from grandmother to granddaughter, people smiling and waving. The message is clear: the American people are doing very well, very well indeed. And this happy shared living mirrors the economic prospects of the nation. If Reagan’s “Time for Choosing” could manufacture anxiety our of prosperity, and if Nixon’s silent majority gave Americans a way to make sense of the chaos of the 60’s without indicting themselves,  “Morning in America” made the fact of living, of going about one’s quotidian business into tactile proof that America was on the right path.
            Indeed, this calm morning exists in part because of one major absence, the absence of the government.  Though the ad is for Reagan’s presidential campaign, Reagan himself does not appear until the last few seconds of the advertisement. While there are agents of the government present, it is almost always figures who represent either local government—firefighters and schoolteachers—or civic necessities, like the aforementioned firefighters or officers of the military. Government here is mostly absent, present only when there is threat to life and property (fire, war) or when so localized that it can be directly connected to the community will, as in the schoolhouse. Otherwise the life of the community is defined by their own acts: commerce, labor, love, with no government present.
            It bears noting that this population is industrious, virtuous, hardworking, and finding fulfillment in their relations with one another. The absence of inflation and the reduction of other economic negatives, combined with the felt positivity of the Americans living their lives in the ad campaign suggest an America where prosperity of the population mirrors the economic prosperity generally. That these are achieved in the absence of the state is no accident. After all, the idea that the default character of the American “people” is that of a peace and prosperity is a very old notion, but politicians have maneuvered around in it in a number of different ways. Nixon’s silent majority worked by producing peace and prosperity as the desire of most Americans, and used the appearance of instability, protest, and dissent throughout America to confirm and reassure those who felt anxious and troubled that what was occurring was not the “real” America. Nixon, of course, was fighting a pitched battle against a more-or-less openly legitimate social welfare state. By Reagan’s time, this consensus had begun to crumble, and so Reagan’s production of calm as the appropriate character of the movement works to suggest America is on the right path.

            Establishing that the American people were in the process of returning the nation to its greatness helped to create conditions felicitous for American conservatives to rewrite American civil space as a site for pitched battles between on the one hand a peaceable, hardworking and family-driven—and flatly, white—majority of Americans one one side against “political” individuals who attack and threaten to undermine “traditional” American cultural mores by pointing out asymmetries in power and existing injustices. Cindy Patton argues in “Refiguring Social Space” that the new right articulated a neutral concept of “civil rights” as the simple right of individual—here conflated with cultural—existence. In this way groups begging for “special rights” like the Equal Rights Amendment were fracturing and violating American civil rights by watering down the “real” struggles of the Civil Rights Movement through particularizing identity maneuvers that performatively eradicate the consensus even as they testify to the attraction attendant to the fantasy of a smooth and consensus-ridden democratic public. Conservatism needed these particularizations to threaten something, and that something was Morning in America. The other step in this process was for conservative rhetors to matriculate state-phobia from its Cold War context into a more useful mechanism for understanding domestic politics, a theme I will soon return to at length.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Response To Douthat: On the Incommensurability of GOP Economics and Populism

Eric Cantor’s shocking primary defeat last night dealt a blow to the conventional wisdom that this would be the year of the Republican establishment. Cantor, a key and visible voice on the right, was not the sort of politician who falls victim to a primary challenge. His position high up in the Republican leadership structure should have implied that he was almost untouchable, certainly in a year where midterm elections would mean major gains and victorious consolidations amongst Republicans, rather than defeats. And yet Cantor lost.

For those of us keeping our eyes in the levels of partisan intensity in Washington, this was not reassuring. Certainly, David Brat’s victory came as good news to many on the populist right: Cantor, despite his conservative bona fides, is certainly an “Establishment” figure, while on the left, many progressives took to social media to crow about how Cantor, who often comes off as unnecessarily snide, got what he deserved. Yet, Cantor’s record as a voter was solidly conservative. His primary challenge owes more to the generally totalizing character of the conservative base over the last few years than any real policy decisions. Cantor was a big-time conservative, he acted pretty conservative, and his flirtations with immigration policy were overblown. So, what does his defeat mean?

Ross Douthat writes in today’s Times in a piece titled “After Eric Cantor” that Cantor’s loss suggests a problem Cantor the politician, no conservative politics per se. Perhaps Cantor just couldn’t bridge the gap between the populist sentiment driving Obama-era conservative politics and populist policy that aims to enrich the “middle class” of America’s Main Street rather than those much reviled fat cats on Wall Street. If only, Douthat holds, conservatism could coalesce around a “good” economic populism rather than a “bad” populism. Douthat outlines what these dynamics are in an earlier op-ed, where the good populism consists of channeling Rand Paul on anger at government surveillance and security overreaches alongside tax plan’s like those of Utah Senator Mike Lee, which encourage increased tax relief for families. This also includes some kind of policy of real regulation to punish Wall Street for cronyism, corruption, and financial loss.

Douthat opines that, perhaps this victory is a good sign that the Republican Party is moving in the right direction. Or, at the very least, he hopes that it is. But I think Douthat’s assumption, which holds that there are two kinds of potentially agreeable populisms that are fighting for the soul of the Republican Party, is wrong in my estimation. In fact, it is a battle between the real populist sentiment of a conservative base (who take as their animating ethos anger and resentment at the 2008 financial collapse and the resulting bailouts (and who have, to some extent, matriculated some of that intensity to President Barack Obama and issues like Obamacare and the stimulus package) versus the traditional economic wing of political conservatism which focuses on generating freer markets by having a presumption against thick regulation in many areas of policy.
What these factions don’t necessarily share are goals. For example, Mike Lee’s tax plan aimed at boosting and stabilizing the American middle class might, in fact, do so, but at the expense of the deficit. . Lee’s goal is economic stability in the sense of making things easier for households. Rising budget deficits are, of course, a total non-starter for many on the traditional conservative side, who see the need to control spending as a political cudgel that can be used to facilitate connections in the minds of voters between their own economic anxieties and federal budget issues. Others, who come from the trickle down school, certainly claim to want to increase the economic welfare of the middle class as well but set certain federal baselines for this: hence the need to protection against budget deficits at all costs, demands for balanced budget amendments to the Constitution, and what have you.

None of this discussion within the realm of economic policy even begins to address cultural conservatives, who were already alienated at a formal level by the Tea Party’s insistence that they focus not on cultural issues but only on economics. While in practice the Tea Party’s broad opposition to government still allowed traditionalists conservatives to align themselves with the movement, what their role is in the current legislative majority in the House (and soon, lets face it, probably in the Senate) remains murky. Are conservatives angry about legalized gay marriage going to be placated with a tax credit for families?

In sum, the choice is not between good or bad populism. On one side is a populism, as The Weekly Standard hopes, that might offer various economic benefits for middle Americans by tax breaks on the middle class, the preservation or perhaps mild extension of social safety nets, and real regulation of white collar and financial crime. On the other side is a conservative populism of negativity which rages against Obamacare, budget deficits, and the denigration of the Constitution, but offers little in the way of a governing strategy to pair with these frustrations. Indeed, it is these conservatives who most often seem prone to engage in language about “makers and takers” or “economic losers,” suggesting the remedy comes not at the policy level but instead at the level of individual behavior. I do not think this gap between various conservative groups can be bridged, but instead will require some kind of at least medium term movement that will alienate the latter to strengthen the former. Cantor’s defeat signals prolonged partisanship, not a new political dawn with more action at hand.