What’s the Matter With America’s Progressive Intellectual Backbone?

Joining in on the dead horse flogging previously initiated by my esteemed co-bloggers Kyle, tas and Dustin, Chet Scoville examines how the reaction in some quarters to, in the words of Joe Gandelman, Senator Obama’s “politically flat-footed” comments re: small town voters exposes the failure of the American liberal intelligentsia to adequately build the intellectual foundations that progressive politicians can later safely expand upon without fear of blowback like what Obama is currently facing (quote after the fold):

If the American left were at all functional, and if the American media worked the way a free media is supposed to, [Thomas] Frank’s analysis [of why some people vote against their interests, outlined in his book What’s The Matter With Kansas] would be as well known in the public arena as Grover Norquist’s anti-government paranoia on the other side. And it would have been picked up in liberal journals, discussed, debated, fleshed out, corrected. The Democratic Party would have had analysts examine it, do some polling, some focus-grouping, some framing and marketing. And the analysis, newly corrected, would have found its way in palatable form into the campaigns, in a way that placed the blame squarely where it belongs: on the Republican politicians and their corporate bosses who have crafted the paranoia for their own purposes. This, as Bill Bradley noted three years ago, is essentially what the GOP has been doing for thirty years, to great electoral success.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, the candidate has picked up the analysis without any of that other, necessary work being done. Furthermore, he made the capital mistake of deploying this argument during a primary campaign and not the general, thus inadvertently* implying that his fellow Democrats (in this case, Clinton supporters) were paranoid and unthinking.

Scoville points to this post by Bob Somerby, which, though contextually focused on Obama’s race speech, is also (IMO) right on the money in this instance:

It’s dangerous when we put our White House candidate out in front on such issues, making him lead a risky parade (Just as it would have been dangerous to have Candidate Gore deliver those “courageous” speeches about global warming.) But let’s state the obvious: Our “liberal intellectual leaders” don’t lead in any way.

[…]

For better or worse, “courageous” doesn’t typically win elections. “Courageous” is good for liberal thinkers, of whom we have very few.

Fair or unfair, the lack of impact progressive thinkers have had on American political discourse over the past several decades has left Democratic candidates all-too-vulnerable to “gaffes” such as this. Once again, I point to Sara Robinson’s three part series on how the USian liberal left can work to overcome the idea deficit. Until that happens, I’ll grit my teeth in dubious anticipation of future teapot tempests, all-but-guaranteed to be stirred up by a lazy, vacuous press corps wholly contaminated by 30 years of movement conservative propaganda.

8 Responses to “What’s the Matter With America’s Progressive Intellectual Backbone?”

  1. Damn, Matt, thanks… good post.

    It’s not like you to join us in the glue making.

  2. matttbastard says:

    Thanks, Kyle.

    As you know, I’m lukewarm on Obama (and, it should be noted, Clinton as well–her association with the DLC and support of status quo swing-state politicking, as opposed to Dean’s aggressive 50 state strategy, is not the direction I believe progressivism should be heading in).

    Even though a lot of (but not all) of the outrage is largely manufactured, I do believe that his comments were ill-advised (especially considering the context–you don’t diss “the heartland” in San Fran-fucking-cisco). Though not intended for broader public consumption, in the era of cell phone video, YouTube, and citizen journalism, a campaign has to go on the assumption that statements such as these will eventually be exposed. Once again, as this latest incident illustrates, Obama gives really bad soundbite; this could prove to be a critical weakness in, again borrowing from Gandelman, 21st century politics that, if Obama does become the nominee, the McCain-infatuated press corps, always quick to rally around their straight talkin’ homeboy, will gorge upon like sharks on a drunken surfer.

    The bullshit from Chris Matthews and Co. about Obama’s “elitist” beverage choice is foreshadowing of what either candidate will face in the general. The question is which campaign–Senator Clinton’s or Senator Obama’s–is best prepared to not only respond to these inevitable character assassination attempts, but also effectively counterstrike in a way that maneuvers past the media firewall that has been erected around McCain. Again, whether fair or unfair, as of right now, this is just the way it is; frankly, I’m still unsure which one is ready to bring it.

    So let the primary continue.

    And, hopefully, both Democratic candidates–the eventual winner and runner out–come out of all this intact, tested and ready to go to war against the real enemies.

  3. I’m in pretty much agreement with you.

    At this point, like I said in Dustin’s post, I’m really waiting to see this debate next week, that will answer a lot of questions. In the near term, it was a stupid thing to say, right or wrong, which, as I think I’ve made clear, and as you point out, and a lot of people pointed out, what Obama has said was nothing different than one of the conundrums facing Democrats for a long while.

    But it’s the debate this week that I think will show his measure. Any shot he had at actually winning Pennsylvania is pretty much gone now, (though he was making a helluva run for it), but there are other prizes, and other bars to see if he can clear or not.

  4. DrGail says:

    Call me the cockeyed optimist if you will, but why are we so sure that this arguably intemperate remark by Obama, even magnified by the incredible hoo-haw being made of it by Clinton and McCain and the press, has sunk his chances in Pennsylvania?

    The debate, as you all have ably pointed out, will give Obama a golden opportunity to address the issue and he’s got the chops to back himself up.

    I can easily see the esteemed people of Pennsylvania saying “Damn, they make it sound like he’s out of touch, but he’s the only one who really understands how we really feel. I’m not sure who’s right or wrong on the thing about us clinging to our guns and religion, but I don’t feel like he’s talking down to us or dissing us.” The esteemed people of Pennsylvania are not stupid. They know when they’ve been pandered to and when someone has genuinely tapped into their anger and understands it.

    Please remember, Obama may very well know more about what he was doing, and what he should do in light of the reaction, than any of us do. He spent a lot of time as a community organizer, and the people he was organizing were not the tennis club crowd.

    Okay now, tell me how I’m wrong about this. If there’s a flaw in my argument, if what I’m proposing is really all that improbable, help me see it.

  5. matttbastard says:

    Call me the cockeyed optimist if you will, but why are we so sure that this arguably intemperate remark by Obama, even magnified by the incredible hoo-haw being made of it by Clinton and McCain and the press, has sunk his chances in Pennsylvania?

    I don’t think it necessarily has sunk his chances in PA, although Mike could probably provide a more informed analysis on how this issue may have struck the electorate. AFAIK, PA doesn’t hinge on the rural vote; PA’s Democratic base pretty much = Pittsburg and Philly. What could “sink” him is the inconvenient fact that, for whatever reason, a majority of Democratic voters in PA just might happen to *gasp* prefer Senator Clinton. 😉

    Rather than short term consequences, I’m more worried about the general, where (if Obama wins the Democratic party nomination) McCain and Obama will be jockeying for independent voters (a number of whom resembling the caricature painted by Obama) in swing states. It wasn’t so much Obama’s underlying premise that I think was ill-thought, but more the presentation and setting (putting down teh rubes for the entertainment of rich donors in liberal SF!!1111). More than anything, that, to me, was extremely tone deaf politically. If Obama had instead made these comments (or a more artful version) on the stump in, oh, say, rural PA, I would have been the first to say “right the fuck on!”

    With that said, again, I don’t feel that Democratic candidates should be forced–or put themselves in the position–to display reckless courage on the stump (especially in such a hotly contested contest) without having the foundation to set the ugly truth upon. Instead, we have a political ecosystem in which the post-Reagan revolution press corps, liberal punditocracy/intelligentsia and, to varying degrees, the electorate, are still suffering from, as publius calls it, “liberal self-hatred”, quick to prove their NASCAR bonafides (while simultaneously hiding their Starbucks cups). Again, the Obama campaign should be aware of this; thankfully, instead of denouncing and rejecting his remarks, Obama has run with it, so who knows — he might just be able to (at least temporarily) turn lemons into lemonade, if nothing else through sheer force of will.

    I can easily see the esteemed people of Pennsylvania saying “Damn, they make it sound like he’s out of touch, but he’s the only one who really understands how we really feel. I’m not sure who’s right or wrong on the thing about us clinging to our guns and religion, but I don’t feel like he’s talking down to us or dissing us.” The esteemed people of Pennsylvania are not stupid. They know when they’ve been pandered to and when someone has genuinely tapped into their anger and understands it.

    I wish I shared your optimism regarding the awareness (or lack thereof) of the typical voter, especially those who remain undecided.

    Please remember, Obama may very well know more about what he was doing, and what he should do in light of the reaction, than any of us do. He spent a lot of time as a community organizer, and the people he was organizing were not the tennis club crowd.

    And John Kerry was a legitimate war hero, while Chimpy languished stateside during Vietnam. Tell me again how that worked out for the Dems in ’04 after the Swiftboaters were done with the Senator from MA? This time ’round, Freedom’s Watch has a quarter billion dollars in its war chest ready to fund this year’s inevitable up = down 527 smear campaign.

  6. DrGail says:

    You made a number of very good points, for which I thank you. What really drove it home was the comparison to Kerry. That is to say, it may not really matter if those swing voters would necessarily draw a favorable conclusion from the facts; the issue is what conclusion they would draw after the facts have been given several twists with the ugly stick.

    It sure will be interesting to see how Obama finesses this one. This whole process reminds me of the flap over Reverend Wright, which led to that fabulously memorable speech about race. There was some short-term grumbling about the speech, but I think the 20/20 hindsight is that he handled that one pretty well. It seems that the CV now is that something came up that could have been very embarrassing and damaging in the long run, and he instead turned it to a showcase of his ability to bring the nation together in just the way he’s promising to do as President. In that case, he managed to make quite a successful political pivot and pull out a “win” from it, right under the noses of the pundits who bloviated about how it would sink his candidacy.

    AAARGH! Now I’m sounding like as big an Obama fan as Kyle!

  7. tas says:

    Veering off-topic from the discussion in the comment thread and onto another poin in your great post:

    Fair or unfair, the lack of impact progressive thinkers have had on American political discourse over the past several decades has left Democratic candidates all-too-vulnerable to “gaffes” such as this.

    I also don’t think it helps that liberals constantly bow to the conservative talking points and let them control the agenda that’s discussed in the media. We see this time and time again, and in this instance, both candidates are guilty of it: Hillary for shamefully pressing this issue, and Obama for standing down from these comments after feeling the pressure. It’s the same bullshit all the time… John Kerry didn’t stand up to getting swift-boated, he let the right control the agenda, and look what happened? Hell, around that time the Rathergate story also broke and the right controlled the agenda again, getting everyone to discuss the memos when I emailed the lot of them a different aspect of the story to hammer, and hardly anybody responded.

    It’s all about growing a set and fighting back.

  8. Jay Chawla says:

    Maybe I’m not an intellectual, but I view being Christian and turning to God as SMART, whether you are rich or poor, right or left.

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