Tuesday, November 27, 2007


What Brownstein Gets Wrong: Just About Everything

by SusanG

The Second Civil War
How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America
By Ronald Brownstein
The Penguin Press
New York, 2007

Just as Joe Cannon would feel comfortable at the side of Tom DeLay or Karl Rove, William Randolph Hearst would understand Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, or the Daily Kos. This new media, like paper in fire, fuels the flames of hyperpartisanship.

Nearly everything is wrong with this book, and every one of us should read it.

Never thought I’d write a sentence like that, but it’s true: The Second Civil War is probably the best example to date of the thinking that we’re up against as we try and change the way politics is practiced in this country. The mindset of Ronald Brownstein is Exhibit A for every entrenched establishment prejudice held against the more inclusive participatory movement that we’re building as revitalized progressives. As such, it should be studied closely--as exasperating as it is--as an encyclopedia of every objection that will be raised as we continue, every argument we can and will face, and every interest that is threatened by a movement that insists on openness, citizen input, interaction with policymakers and government accountability.

From the first few pages in the introduction, in which the counterweight to an indicted Tom DeLay’s arm-twisting thuggish leadership style as one of the most powerful House Majority Leaders in American history is balanced against ... wait for it ... Daily Kos users attending the first Yearly Kos convention, the moral bankruptcy of searching for an equivalency is on constant display. New York Times reviewer Alan Brinkley already took Brownstein to task over the DeLay-Daily Kos "stretch", so I will pass up the chance to pile on here, beyond one observation. A professional journalist who either honestly sees the two examples as appropriate weights, or feels the need to provide egregiously unbalanced "balance" and obliges, should be considered irrelevant to the continuing national conversation. This tired, endless quest to create false equivalencies--by a press the Constitution gives special mention because of its sacred duty to inform--is far more damaging to our national discourse than what ordinary citizens are saying on a blog. Whether it’s fear or blindness passing as objectivity no longer matters; to borrow from Jon Stewart, this kind of reporting is bad for America.

Let me count the ways.

1. Mistaking our volume for our message.

Yes, we’re loud. And there are a lot of us. And on occasion we’ve used language designed to make the comfortable uncomfortable. But ... this is not extremism. On nearly every topic we feel passionate about, we reflect the majority of public opinion. Being loud about something most Americans agree with is not "hyperpartisan." Being passionate about getting our troops out of a misbegotten war is not "extreme." (In fact, the 24 percent of Bush supporters who believe he’s doing a dandy job is a far more accurate definition of "extreme.")

Neither are our tactics "extreme." Letters to the editor, contacting our Congressional representatives, signing petitions, phone banking during elections, canvassing, manning information booths, holding up signs as protests, contacting media outlets to demand corrections, registering voters, discussing politics amongst ourselves. Yikes! Truly diabolical undertakings there. I’m sorry, but this is not the stuff of which extreme radicalism is made. I suggest Mr. Brownstein check back with us when Molotov cocktails are being thrown or the White House stormed. Talking to your neighbors armed with facts gleaned from the Daily Kos community about the illegality of torture does not an October Revolution (nor a Jack Abramoff swindle) make, and to frame it otherwise is just plain silly.

Similarly, anything less extreme than holding a convention in Las Vegas about how to better participate in the machinery of democracy cannot be imagined.

2. Oversimplification and dumbing down of progressive positions.

In a lengthy list, Brownstein lays out some of the issues and then delineates the "hyperpartisan" black/white stands that are so dividing America. Some of these include:

Social Security and Medicare: Reduce benefits versus increase taxes.

Immigration/border: Significantly toughen enforcement versus creating legal framework for millions already here.

Oil dependence: Increased domestic production versus reducing consumption.

Budget deficit: Spending cuts versus tax increases.

Let’s dispose of these quickly, one by one. On Social Security, progressives have discussed more than just tax increases (retirement age adjustments, raising income caps). On immigration issues, Democrats favor enforcing existing law, most notably as they apply to big business violators. On oil dependence, progressives advise both reducing consumption and finding alternative energy sources to meet increasing demand. On the budget deficit ... well, it wasn’t a Democrat who said "deficits don’t matter"; most progressives advocate a restoration of the tax code before Bush gifted the rich with breaks while gouging the middle class.

And so on. Reductionist, illusory and/or arguments make for easy-to-sketch dichotomies, but they have little bearing on how real political discussions are being carried on in the progressive movement.

Question: Which is more damaging to democracy--citizens who discuss nuances of policy at an obscure internet outpost? Or media experts with readership in the millions who reduce complex positions of both parties to billboard slogans?

3. Consistently drawing definitive conclusions from facts that are open to different interpretation.

Some profoundly muddled thinking is on display throughout. Consider the following three statements:

A. "The consequences of hyperpartisanship are not all negative .... With the choices so vividly clarified, more Americans are participating in the political system."

B. "What’s unusual now is that the political system is more polarized than the country."

C. "Less tangibly but as importantly, extreme partisanship has produced a toxic environment that empowers the most adversarial and shrill (Yes, he did use "shrill." Really. SusanG) voices in each party and disenfranchises the millions of Americans more attracted to pragmatic compromise than to ideological crusades."

First off, assertions (A) and (B) conflict directly and collapse into a mental mush pie. If more people (i.e., "the country,") are participating in the "political system," how can the "political system" be more polarized than the country? Then Statement C bemoans the fact that the "shrill" are disenfranchising millions of pragmatic Americans. Well, which is it? Are more people enfranchised participants or not? These logic violations crop up repeatedly in the book--the one above was grabbed simply because it typifies the mind-twisting going on to shore up the main premise of the book. But one can hardly turn five pages in a row without coming across one statement that completely casts into doubt one just as assertively made on the previous page. (I will revisit these three statements in the section below called "The Argument Sandwich," so be ready to scroll back here in a bit.)

Unfortunately, the pottage of contradiction conceals some points worthy of real discussion. Alas, Brownstein respectfully declines to pursue them. For example, he doesn’t bother to speculate about a much more interesting possibility posed by the "loud" and "many" conundrum he noted: Could it possibly be that as politics becomes more truly participatory, more inclusive, that it will become more raucous as more voices and viewpoints discover a microphone? I think this question is actually much more interesting than any posed in the book. It’s also entirely possible that the hyperpartisanship has been with us all along, but without the technology to hear what ordinary people actually thought about lawmakers, policies and credentialed political correspondents, it seemed a much more sedate and decorous affair, with all the grumblings at the barbershop confined to the barbershop.

Question: Brownstein chooses to highlight a Yearly Kos attendee who arrives via a van sporting a bumper sticker declaring, "When fascism comes to America,it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross." In failing to identify the originator of the quotation, is Brownstein (a) ignorant of the authorship; or (b) writing to underscore the stereotype of aging, raging hippie loser bloggers? (Bonus question: Is America’s first winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature bad for America?)

4. Ah, the good old days ...

Running throughout the book is a nostalgic yearning for the smoke-filled back rooms of yore, lazy walks by senators in the afternoons, back-scratching understandings of how real things get done in this country discretely beyond the view of the enormously naive voters, who just don’t get how all that horse-trading is in their best interest. Yes, he admits (see the Argument Sandwich below) while it is regrettable that African-Americans (for example) were locked out of the system for years, and it is (of course) a a good and great thing that they now are also able to vote into office their very own back-room Machiavellis to represent them ... still, those good old days were just so much more dignified, so much more appealing.

Please note that I’m not saying Brownstein is a bigot in any sense of the word. There’s not a trace of that in the work. However, his bittersweet evocations of leisurely gentility in an age of true statesmanship before the Dixiecrats bolted over desegregation--incidentally, some of the best written passages in the book--read like they were supplied for characters of Gone with the Wind now reduced to splitting logs and wearing curtains under vulgar carpetbagger rule.

We newbies are just so inelegant, it pains him.

5. The redefinition of the "center."

This is a dead horse beaten into dog food at this point on the blogs: the "center" has been pushed so far right that it appears Brownstein can, with a straight face, write:

Yet Bush, as a presidential candidate, also reaffirmed many of the centrist themes he had stressed as governor. He proposed greater partnerships between government and religious charities to confront entrenched social problems like teen pregnancy.

Yes, you read that right: taxpayer dollars being poured into the coffers of religious groups promoting anti-abortion and abstinence-only policies to teens is now considered "centrist." Enough said.

6. The Argument Sandwich Effect ... or To Be Fair ...

About now, if I were in the rolodex of the chattering classes, I suspect I would be getting a phone call from Brownstein saying, Hey, I said the Republicans started it. I said their tactics were more drastic. And you know what? He’d be right. He said exactly that. But the charge has been diluted with so many qualifications, and so many "balanced" examples from Democrats in order to not offend The Hammer and his hangers-on, that this layered effect cancels out any reasonable way to evaluate the stark undemocratic (with a small "d") tactics the modern GOP has foisted on America.

The right-wing movement has brutalized democracy and its institutions, turned them inside-out, spat upon them, and then ground the rest of us under its boot heel with a savage glee. To disguise this fact like one limp piece of lettuce in a triple-decker sandwich is shameful and not worthy of passing as "journalism."

Usually, this sandwiching is accomplished with the following formula:

  • Both political parties are nasty and brutish.
  • The Republicans? Slightly more so (examples).
  • But Democrats do it too! (Often lame and reaching examples provided).
  • Both political parties are nasty and brutish.

In one case, he refers to the infamous night of the Republicans holding the vote open on the Medicare bill for nearly three hours in order to arm-twist votes (earlier in the book, he’d dug up an instance a decade-and-a-half earlier when Democrats had held a vote open for 15 minutes. You know, it’s just the same! Even though ... um ... it’s not.). He follows his reference to the GOP episode with the sentence, "Though these tactics recalled the Democratic maneuvers against Republicans after the mid-1980s, they often exceeded them." There you have it: a sandwich stacked in one sentence. And no mention at any point in the book that the Medicare legislation in question turned out to be based on outright falsified numbers provided knowingly by the White House.

For variety, Brownstein will throw an extra slice of provolone on the Argument Sandwich, always to the detriment of Democrats. In one case, he leads with the usual "Both parties do it!," proceeds to the "Republicans are kinda meaner," and then tosses in the extra a la carte ("Democrats don’t want to play nice anyway"), as he muses:

Would Bush’s presidency have unfolded differently if he spent more time openly engaging with members of Congress, especially the Democrats who became such bitter adversaries? It is possible that even if Bush reached out more to Democrats they might not have reached back.... Congressional Democrats might have been too constrained by the politics of their own coalition to meet Bush halfway on most issues. But he made it easy for them by so rarely offering to move anywhere near that far in their direction.

Cripes. What can you say to that? How can, say, Sen. Harry Reid respond? "I would too have been nice in your little Lollipop Land fantasy! Really, I would have!"

The final problem with the Argument Sandwich is that it’s responsible for nearly all the illogic in the book, exemplified up above in #3, where he’s clearly trying to placate every side by kicking up dust in one direction while a cyclone’s hitting from the other. Hey, everyone must look like equally bad players, so what if it doesn’t make sense?

Question: If I make sure I bury in the middle of a long diatribe the fact that I think Mr. Brownstein’s motives were probably pure and serious in undertaking writing this book, does that mean I’ve done enough CYA to be considered a seasoned, objective political analyst? I guess we’ll find out.

7. The Credibility Problem: He Got Us Wrong.

So why should we believe him when he describes the dynamics of previous administrations or takes us through what appears to be well-researched historical analysis of cooperative and non-cooperative congressional coalitions in the 20th century (the bulk of the book, it turns out)? Sure, the conclusions sound plausible, but after getting me and tens of thousands of my fellow Daily Kos users wrong, I have no evidence he knows how to get anything else right.

This now extends beyond this book. Never will I read a word of his and not wonder what puffy layers of so-called objectivity I’m fighting through to find my way to truth.

8. Ideologues v. Pragmatists or Bai v. Brownstein

Just for kicks, let’s revisit Matt Bai’s view of us in The Argument:

One of the hallmarks of the netroots culture was a complete disconnect from history--meaning, basically, anything that had happened before 1998.... It wasn’t just that the bloggers didn’t know much about the political world before impeachment; it was that they didn’t want to know, either.... As far as Markos and Jerome [Armstrong] were concerned, tactics were all that mattered.... Jerome had no ideology. He didn’t care about the governing part--that was someone else’s problem.

And here’s Brownstein:

The political system now rewards ideology over pragmatism. It is designed to sharpen disagreements rather than construct consensus. It is built on exposing and influencing the differences that separate Americans rather than the shared priorities and values that unite them. It produces too much animosity and too few solutions.

See? It’s simple: According to expert observers, we’re either wed to ruthless tactics and ignorant of history and ideology, or we’re in thrall to ideology and divorced from tactical, pragmatic solutions.

9. Missing the Real Story-Negotiating with Terrorists

Brownstein’s insistence on spreading blame equally between the two parties and its partisans disguises the much more crucial question America faces today: despite the care taken by this country’s founders, it appears increasingly more likely that the democratic system can be hijacked and distorted by one powerful bloc. The framework of the Constitution counted on each branch jealously guarding its prerogatives against encroachment from the others, and the breakdown the system is facing today is a result of a decades-long willingness of Congress to cede its legislative obligations to the executive branch. Signing statements, executive orders, war authorizations, caving on executive resistance to oversight ... these are truly troubling developments and one would think a serious historical/political observer would at least raise questions about it, if only to put such concerns to rest.

How can our system safeguard itself in the future against the intimidating, power-bludgeoning tactics used by the Republican majority? Brownstein pens a chapter at the end of the book that proposes what amounts to lukewarm fiddling focused on bureaucratic rule changes in Congress--and that seems to assume that there are only loopholes to be fixed and no structural damage done to the framework itself. More and more, the world seems of late to be less divided between left and right, or urban and rural, but between those who view the recent reign of the "permanent Republican majority" as destructive to the very infrastructure of democracy... and those who shrug it off as a mild (and uncivil) aberration in an otherwise healthy system.

You’d think bells would have gone off in pundit land with the introduction of the term, "permanent Republican majority," itself. Why were no expert political commentators willing to examine this declared notion beyond noting the hubris? Amateur that I am, it sure raised my hackles. And to be clear--despite my shrill hyperpartisanship, I would shudder to hear this out of the mouths of progressive strategists as well. This country is not well-served by a "permanent" rule of any sort. All politicians--even those with whom I agree--should be perpetually haunted by the risk of losing power if they stray too far from the Constitution or its principles.

Yet when permanent ideological rule was proposed, backed up by ruthless terrorizing of more moderate Republicans and all Democrats, few voices were raised at the time. Even now, as is evidenced by this book, professional commentators are more concerned about the tone of voice used when raising doubt than addressing the issues themselves.

10. Who’s to Blame: The Fetishistically Neutral Observer

Those with platforms, those with access to the players, have failed us. The morally neutral observers in this struggle, including Brownstein, may end up bearing more responsibility for democracy’s demise than the actors themselves. Of course people in power overreach; the system was designed to counterbalance that. But when professional media representatives spend 484 pages trying to shame us for caring passionately about governance with a patronizing scold of "people who are rather unpleasant have taken to the microphones of late," it’s damaging to democracy.

No, sorry, despite the condescension to which we’re constantly subjected, we won’t shut up. We won’t back off. We won’t tone it down. We’ll continue to fight, and gather on blogs, and hold conventions, and demand accountability from those we elect. We trust that when history books look back on this "hyperpartisan" period, the dispassionate self-appointed witnesses who had the access, the platform and the "credentials" to make a difference--and chose not to use them--will not be judged kindly.

Attempting to shame an invigorated and engaged populace into silence--by comparing it with one of the most corrupt and powerful political machines in our nation’s history--is not quite the role the Founders had in mind for the American press. I suspect in the dark of night, Brownstein probably knows that. But what he and the other Mrs. Grundys of the beltway ultimately fail to explain is how their pleas for compromise and propriety would have stemmed the excesses of Bush and his Republican majority. Either they don't see them as excesses or they don't think that pushing back is worth being viewed as uncivil.

We believe otherwise. The true "second civil war" in defense of our Constitution is not going to be won by those who fear looking foolish or shrill or vulgar. Like the rabble who tossed tea into harbors, argued in taverns, cursed the British and wrote a quite intemperate Declaration of Independence, we're willing to risk the censure of the likes of Brownstein (and Broder and Lieberman and their fellow travelers). Indeed, we're eager to take a stand in a very uncivil war. Unlike, unfortunately, those who choose to "cover" us.

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