Liberals and Patriotism; Reason by Robert Reich
Election years always stimulate increased popular interest in politics. But the presence of daily polling and instant analysis via blogs, both of which I have been obsessing over, can too easily direct our attention to the campaign process, the horse race, at the expense of the public policy issues at stake. This is made apparent by the dramatic decline in public attention to politics once the legislating begins, accompanied by a parallel decline in media coverage.
I'm guilty as well. I did not even pay much attention to the election until the night of the Iowa caucuses. I assumed that Senator Clinton was going to win the Democratic primary, and then the election, in a walk. What a difference a caucus can make. I opened up my wallet for Senator Obama that night, and have been more or less glued to the Internet since. I refresh my favorite political blogs with sufficient frequency to raise concerns about the survival of my F5 key. But this is mostly instant gratification, micro-data from polls and pundits on the campaign, not on our public policy. The campaign Senator McCain has chosen to run has only further diminished the visibility of key issues on the campaign trail.
I decided to take matters into my own hands, in the way I always do when I want more information: I started looking for books. I sought out big picture texts on the liberal agenda, and was directed to Robert Reich's Reason, Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal, and of course, Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope. On specific policy areas, I picked up David Cay Johnston's Perfectly Legal, Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy, and Chris Mooney's The Republic War on Science. For some help on understanding what led to the current financial crisis and the reactions to it, I bought Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, Charles Morris' The Trillion Dollar Meltdown, and Kevin Phillips' Bad Money.
So a big batch of books was headed my way, and I started with the first that arrived. Robert Reich, who maintains his own blog, became friendly with Bill Clinton during their time together at Oxford as Rhodes Scholars, and then joined Bill and Hillary at Yale Law School. Many years later, he would serve as Secretary of Labor in Clinton's first administration, and emerged as a leading liberal voice in a decidedly centrist cabinet. In the years since he left office, he has continued promoting liberal values and politics in his prolific writing, including his 2004 book, Reason.
I have already discussed Reich's take on the rise of "radical conservatives," his argument that liberals should not shy from discussions of public morality, and his elucidation of the liberal path to economic prosperity. The final prong of Reich's liberal rebuttal to the radical conservative ("Radcon") agenda is another hot current events topic: patriotism. He starts by exposing the superficial nature of the patriotism that conservatism encourages:
The Radcon version of patriotism requires no real sacrifice by most Americans. And it asks nothing of the more fortunate members of our society. Radcons don't link patriotism to a citizen's duty to pay his fair share of taxes to support the nation. And they don't think patriotism requires that all citizens serve the nation. Theirs is a shallow patriotism that derives its emotional force from disdaining foreign cultures and confronting foreign opponents. As such, it imperils the future security of America and the world...
Can there be any doubt that this is exactly the type of patriotism that conservatives have been pushing for the last eight years? And the trend continues. Let's take a look at the events of just the last week. Last Tuesday, at fundraiser in North Carolina, Sarah Palin said:
We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.
Sure, sure. Never mind those people in the big cities. You know, the ones that terrorists like to attack. Suffice it to say that these comments were so ill-received that even Palin felt it necessary to apologize. But take a moment to look beyond the denigrating offensiveness, and try and find some actual meaning to what she is saying. What can she possibly mean by the "real America" or the "pro-America areas" of this country? It is this same vapid patriotism that Reich was referring to.
Perhaps to give Palin some covering fire, Republican congressmen have produced their own variations on this theme. I have already covered Rep. Michele Bachmann's rant on Hardball last Friday, when she told Chris Matthews, "I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out: Are they pro-America or anti-America?" Bachmann was rewarded for this hate-fest via hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to her opponent and a DCCC influx of an additional $1 million to boot her from her seat. After initially denying she ever made the recorded, televised comments, Bachmann now regrets going on the show, where she claims "a trap was laid."
Just when it couldn't get any weirder, we got word that while introducing John McCain at a rally on Saturday, North Carolina Rep. Robin Hayes told the audience that "liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God." That's not the weird part (after all, this language has been par for the course); this is:
The comments were first reported by the New York Observer. When Politico linked to the Observer story on Monday evening, Hayes' spokeswoman Amanda Little called and denied the report. Observer reporter Jason Horowitz told Politico he stood firmly behind the story. Politico left the quote in The Crypt blog but added the Hayes denial.
On Tuesday, two more reporters and two other witnesses confirmed the quote, but Little continued to deny it, calling the story "irresponsible journalism." Little said she had just as many sources who would deny it, including Hayes' staff and Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), who spoke before Hayes.
But then Politico obtained an audio file of the Hayes quote from radio reporter Lisa Miller of WFAE. Little backed down, saying that Hayes must have misspoken.
Seriously. Check the original blog post to see the blow-by-blow updates. It is downright embarrassing. Of course, now that Hayes concedes that he made the statement, he claims "there is no doubt that it came out completely the wrong way." Hate speech can be tricky that way.
Apparently feeling left out, John McCain got in on the act on Tuesday. After flubbing an attack on John Murtha by actually agreeing that Western Pennsylvania is "racist," he made a feeble recovery attempt:
That's right, "Western Pennsylvania is the most patriotic, most god-loving, most patriotic part of America." Take that Eastern Pennsylvania! And the rest of America!
But seriously, there is good news in all of this. Palin had to apologize. Bachmann's comments were seen as so outrageous that her opponent now has $2 million to spend in two weeks, and she was forced to walk back her statement. Hayes, under intense media scrutiny, had to explain away a statement he has probably made a dozen times before.
What does this tell you? That there is another kind of patriotism out there, one that goes far beyond the shallow jingoism spouted by these conservatives. And it is a patriotism that resonates with the electorate, and can be harnessed. As Reich put it:
Liberals should embrace patriotism--not the negative and imperialistic version the Radcons are peddling, but a positive patriotism that's better suited to our time: a patriotism that's based on love of America, but not contempt for what's not America; that cherishes our civil liberties and our democratic right to dissent; that understands that our national security depends as much on America's leadership and moral authority in the world as it does on our military might; and that emphasizes what we owe one another as members of the same society.
Any of this sound familiar? If you had your television tuned to one of the major networks or cable news stations on August 28, 2008, it should:
We are the party of Roosevelt. We are the party of Kennedy. So don't tell me that Democrats won't defend this country. Don't tell me that Democrats won't keep us safe. The Bush-McCain foreign policy has squandered the legacy that generations of Americans -- Democrats and Republicans - have built, and we are here to restore that legacy.
As Commander-in-Chief, I will never hesitate to defend this nation, but I will only send our troops into harm's way with a clear mission and a sacred commitment to give them the equipment they need in battle and the care and benefits they deserve when they come home.
I will end this war in Iraq responsibly, and finish the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. I will rebuild our military to meet future conflicts. But I will also renew the tough, direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and curb Russian aggression. I will build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century: terrorism and nuclear proliferation; poverty and genocide; climate change and disease. And I will restore our moral standing, so that America is once again that last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, and who yearn for a better future.
These are the policies I will pursue. And in the weeks ahead, I look forward to debating them with John McCain.
But what I will not do is suggest that the Senator takes his positions for political purposes. Because one of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other's character and patriotism.
The times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan playbook. So let us agree that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain. The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and Independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red America or a Blue America - they have served the United States of America.
So I've got news for you, John McCain. We all put our country first.
And Obama has kept hitting back at the most recent ugliness from the Republicans. Take a look at this Dana Milbank piece from yesterday's Washington Post about Obama's rally in Richmond (note Milbank's mockery of the "Joe the Plumber" meme):
"There are no real parts of the country and fake parts of the country," he told 12,000 supporters. "There are no pro-America parts of the country and anti-America parts of the country. We all love this country, no matter where we live or where we come from. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, young, old, rich, poor, gay, straight, city dweller, farm dwellers, it doesn't matter. We're all together."
In recent elections, Democrats were cowed by challenges to their patriotism. But the crowd in Richmond, confident of an Obama victory, brushed off the Palin insult with laughter, a survey of the first row in the arena revealed.
"I'm a terrorist," said Kathleen the Food Vendor.
"We're probably communists," added John the Other Food Vendor, sitting with Kathleen. "I've been hating America ever since I was a young man."
"I was a baby terrorist," offered Terrence the Unemployed Guy.
Obama wasted little time getting to the "careless, outrageous comments" of McCain. "That's what you do when you are out of ideas, out of touch, and you're running out of time." He then had some fun with McCain's Joe-the-Plumber offensive: "He's not fighting for Joe the Plumber; he's fighting for Joe the Hedge Fund Manager." Eventually, he arrived at Palin's "pro-America" charge.
"There are patriots who supported this war in Iraq; there are patriots who opposed it," he said. "There are patriots who believe in Democratic policies and those who believe in Republican policies. The men and women from Virginia and all across this country who serve on our battlefields, some are Democrats, some are Republicans, some are independents, but they have fought together and bled together, and some died together under the same proud flag."
In the heart of real America, the crowd gave Obama a cheer that did not seem at all phony.
Amen to that. With Reich's book and Senator Obama's campaign, Democrats are reclaiming the meaning of patriotism that has been hijacked by conservative rhetoric for too long.