Friday, September 18, 2009

Populism and Big Government

David Brooks has some common sense things to say in The New York Times about the hysterical, over-the-top, playing of the race card in recent days by Jimmy Carter, Maureen Dowd and many others. Their willingness to stir up racist conflict just to score cheap political points on an entirely unrelated issue - health care - point simultaneously to the weakness of their position and the lack of civil debate today in the public square. Brooks writes:
"And yet we live in a nation in which some people see every conflict
through the prism of race. So over the past few days, many people, from Jimmy
Carter on down, have argued that the hostility to President Obama is driven by
racism. Some have argued that tea party slogans like “I Want My Country Back”
are code words for white supremacy. Others say incivility on Capitol Hill is
magnified by Obama’s dark skin.

Well, I don’t have a machine for peering into the souls of Obama’s critics,
so I can’t measure how much racism is in there. But my impression is that race
is largely beside the point. There are other, equally important strains in
American history that are far more germane to the current conflicts.

For example, for generations schoolchildren studied the long debate between
Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians. Hamiltonians stood for urbanism, industrialism
and federal power. Jeffersonians were suspicious of urban elites and financial
concentration and believed in small-town virtues and limited government.
Jefferson advocated “a wise and frugal government” that will keep people from
hurting each other, but will otherwise leave them free and “shall not take from
the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”

Jefferson’s philosophy inspired Andrew Jackson, who led a movement of plain
people against the cosmopolitan elites. Jackson dismantled the Second Bank of
the United States because he feared the fusion of federal and financial

This populist tendency continued through the centuries. Sometimes it took
right-wing forms, sometimes left-wing ones. Sometimes it was agrarian. Sometimes
it was more union-oriented. Often it was extreme, conspiratorial and
rude. The populist tendency has always used the same sort of rhetoric: for
the ordinary people and against the fat cats and the educated class; for the
small towns and against the financial centers.

And it has always had the same morality, which the historian Michael Kazin
has called producerism. The idea is that free labor is the essence of
Americanism. Hard-working ordinary people, who create wealth in material ways,
are the moral backbone of the country. In this free, capitalist nation, people
should be held responsible for their own output. Money should not be
redistributed to those who do not work, and it should not be sucked off by
condescending, manipulative elites.

Barack Obama leads a government of the highly educated. His movement
includes urban politicians, academics, Hollywood donors and information-age
professionals. In his first few months, he has fused federal power with Wall
Street, the auto industry, the health care industries and the energy

Given all of this, it was guaranteed that he would spark a populist
backlash, regardless of his skin color. And it was guaranteed that this backlash
would be ill mannered, conspiratorial and over the top — since these movements
always are, whether they were led by Huey Long, Father Coughlin or anybody
Maybe the left should pause from their rabid partisanship for just a moment and take a deep breath so that they can reflect on two facts: first, that the fact that the United States last Fall became only the second country in modern history to elect a member of a racial minority to its highest office and, second, that by tarring so many of their fellow citizens with the brush of racism they are in effect raising the question of whether or not there is truth to the conservative charge that they hate their own country with a blindness born of ideology fanaticism.

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