If Barack Obama goes down Democrats may reflect on why they cannot combine reason and emotion. Our correspondent visits a gathering of conservatives in DC.
“You know I think in some way Obama is worse than communism because he wants to limit consumption.”
At the podium in the small theatre of the Heritage Foundation, all polished wood and fake columns, Donald Critchlow is just getting into his stride. He’s a man in his 50s, a professor of Conservative Thought, in a blue suit, and an orangey combover. It’s a mid-afternoon session at the famed conservative think tank, right at the heart of DC, with an audience of about 30 or so — a few punditry professionals, a dozen or so hardcore regulars who acknowledge each other, a half-dozen interns from rival think tanks keeping a watching brief, and a bunch of people on their lunch hour. If you’re a politically interested type, intellectually curious, that’s one of the perks of DC — any given week there’s a dozen or so interesting talks you could kick along to from right, left and centre.
The kids, they’re all boys, are all in the intern uniform — blue suit, red tie, white shirt ironed not as well as it could be. Hold ‘em down and check their teeth, you’d find a lot of metal. The grey beards here, there’s not many, are friends of the speaker, turning out for the old quid pro quo. There’s not many of the Conservative Political Action Conference girls here, and they are sorely missed; the preppies in their pearls and Donna Karan, with their vocal fry and their forced fricatives (“Hetherrrrr”). And then there’s the plainly weird, angry women and men who know far too much about Von Mises, and wouldn’t be out of place at a Catallaxy mixer, insofar as anyone at a Catallaxy mixer can be in place. Still, it’s an argument about politics on a weekday midday, and you’ve got to be grateful for that, right?
Well, yeah, maybe. But this session is a launch of Takeover, a book about “the left and social justice”, and you know it’s not going to be in favour of those things. Critchlow seems a nice enough guy, and starts off interesting enough about the roots of the left and so on. But pretty soon we start to get onto the usual stuff — the rise of the new left in the 1960s, and the collapse in the 1970s, the green movement, Silent Spring, ACORN, community organising, health care, on and on. The whole routine plays out like a movie you’ve seen and are seeing again on late-night cable, half-asleep. Somehow, the victory of Obama has been not a winning movement by a democratically elected party, but a cultural conspiracy, engineered decades ago. The civilians in the audience shift in their seats and relax, as if they’re watching a movie they wanted to see on a long flight. This is the goods. This is the thing.
The pros look a little more concerned. This is Fox News pap, not hardcore think tank conservatism. Critchlow has started slow, but he becomes more animated as he gets into his argument. And why shouldn’t he? This is only half a disinterested crowd, interested in ideas. The other half is a tribe, who want the same story, the myth told and over and over again: that the real America has been usurped by the election of Barack Obama and the republic will soon be restored. This is no specialist seminar. This guy is Mowgli, laying down the law to the jungle creatures, who rise on their haunches in the stalls to hear the truth.
“It’s no coincidence, as my tribe like to say, that such groups flourish in DC, not merely because it is the seat of power, but because it is one of the most European cities in the world …”
When he’s finished, and has laid out his “worse than communism” line, some of the audience looks a little deflated. Someone from the Cato Institute, a libertarian outfit, not sympathetic to the doomy paranoid scenarios of mainstream kitschervatism, asks him whether he has anything to say about the deficits of the Bush era, the Medicare drugs bonus (the initiative that gave Medicare users, the over 65s, pretty much unlimited, at-cost drug allocations. Good, yeah? But without a pharmaceutical pricing board, such as we have, and John Howard tried to get rid of, such schemes become a blank cheque to Big Pharma). “Well, uh, yes, I’m not saying we were perfect,” Critchlow will say, “but what I’m saying is this was a plan.”
Your correspondent threw in a question about this nefarious decades-long strategy to limit consumption, the new Left by other means — and how it applied to the greatest “nanny-stater” in the US, New York mayor, Republican and eager capitalist Michael Bloomberg, who has made all the fast food joints put calorie counts on their menus, pedestrianised Broadway to the howls of locals, and banned extra large serves of soft drink. This seemed to gather some interest from the audience, and Critchlow looked a little nervous. Having sketched out a conspiracy theory that would not have disgraced Dan Brown, he now reverted to saying that the progressivist/social justice cause was “a sentiment, a state of mind”.
So that was the Heritage Foundation, huh? I’m sure it was a slow day, a mid-week gig, but there was also something unutterably depressing about it. These guys hung out their shingle as the premier conservative think tank, and yet all they were offering was the same mix of paranoia, myth and special pleading that constructs the Obama presidency as “worse than communism”. Nor were they being soft on communism — they were happy to reel off the death tolls of Stalin and Mao, yet at the same time capable of seeing Obama’s compromised, jerry-built healthcare act as somehow their equal.After the debate, your correspondent, together with Crikey intern Naomi, listened as one earnest wonk after another outlined the “Obama-worse-than-communism” story. Naomi’s eyes widened as that bizarre species, the closeted American conservative, outlined the full world view, like a kimono dragon unrolling its tongue. One earnest man, who didn’t seem to have anything else to do — dressed in red, white and blue like a July 4 firecracker — outlined the theory. What did the mild social market politics of Obama have to do with communism, with Lenin and Mao, one asked? Ah, but Gramsci said, in a democracy use other methods. But did that make every left-of-centre initiative communism? “Well …” he said. But were Obama’s theories not the exact opposite of Marxism-Leninism? Were they not piecemeal, problem-solving policy, in the tradition of Karl Popper? Was there not a problem that tens of thousands of Americans died from preventable diseases because of the private health care system?
God but that was a mistake, if I wanted to catch the 3pm train. “Well there’s always the emergency room …” he said. God, ah, god, the emergency room, the conservative solution to the medical needs of 45 million uninsured Americans, 15 million of them children. It’s at this point your correspondent loses any pretence at objectivity and starts to get shouty. “Do you care,” I yelled, as heads turned in the foyer, “that 15 million children have no GP, no continuity of care, that congenital conditions are easily missed, that thousands will die because they do not get that?” “Does that matter?” said Mr Patriot-puppet. “Yeah, it kinda does!” “Hmmmmm,” he said after a long pause, “interesting …”
He considered it like someone thinking about an exotic belief, British-Israelitism, or the writings of Erich Von Daniken. Later, Naomi, new to the crazy world of the American Right, would ask me how it was possible that they could so vociferously support Medicare, an open-ended socialist medical program that applies to the over-65s, while constructing Obamacare, which actually tries to control health care costs, as the moral equivalent of the Ukraine famine. This is the world, it should be remembered, that Australia’s Americophiles inhabit, the Switzers, Sheridans and Albrechtsens — the America of myth, inside the beltway, as far as possible from real Americans, who live, love and die in far less convivial circs.
There’s only one reaction you can have to an encounter like that, and it’s from the classic Saturday Night Live sketch from 1988, in which Mike Dukakis (played by Jon Lovitz) breaks down and says: “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.” That sketch is doing the rounds again, and for good reason. No less than the Colorado stoners; the Heritage massive pretend to be a rational political expression but are merely another cult, another tribe, creating a simple and concrete world of meaning, with its endlessly intoned origin myths, its colourful tribal garb, its incomprehensible rituals, amidst the anomic flux of American life.
It’s no coincidence, as my tribe like to say, that such groups flourish in DC, not merely because it is the seat of power, but because it is one of the most European cities in the world, walkable, convivial, focused. Try setting up a pro-American think tank in a genuinely American city — Kansas City say, or Atlanta — and it would wither and die, because everybody would be at the mall, or watching cable, or on the freeway between the two.
So how is it that the Democrats may well to these fantasists, less Mowgli and Kim than Calvin and Hobbes, strange political children in their jammies nursing imaginary talking tigers? The short answer is that rationality is itself a political myth, one which disguises the mythical nature of politics. The elites around Obama scorned what Bill Clinton, drawing on his southern roots always knew: to be really intelligent, you have to tell a story, a good and simple one, and the rest is a bonus. It’s a lesson the Democrats learn and forget, learn and forget, and every time they do, it takes eight years or more for them to relearn it.
Yes, the Heritage Foundation is a few dozen obsessives at any one time, but beyond them is Fox News, and beyond that is the great American public, the mass bewildered, infinitely capable of being persuaded against their own interests. As the race tightens to nothing, and Romney, possibly, slingshots ahead, the Democrats may have ample time to reflect on why they cannot combine reason and emotion, science and myth find their own way to define the Right as outside the American spirit.
When they do, they’ll take 40 states. Until then, it is all combovers all the time.