Jonah, yesterday you called for comments on this TNR piece by Thomas Edsall
adapted from his new book, Building Red America. I’m only part way through the book, but having read the summary piece, I’ll take a stab.
Edsall claims that successful Republican talking points amount to a “laughable caricature” of liberals’ political philosophy. Well, that’s exactly what Edsall’s account of conservative political philosophy is–a laughable caricature. Edsall tars conservative objections to affirmative action and big government by linking them with George Wallace’s “segregation forever” speech. Conservative concerns about liberal social policies are rooted in Pat Robertson and Jerry Fallwell’s claim that 9/11 was a punishment for America’s loose morals. Cheap shots like this are unworthy of Edsall, whose work over the years has been consistently smart, fair, and important.
Edsall’s silly-paranoid take on Republicans is a variant of a thesis already popular among liberals: Bigoted and cynical conservatives manipulate cultural wedge issues to make mincemeat of caring and sincere (but naive and hapless) liberal nice-guys. But here’s the twist. Edsall’s book is a revelation. All that nonsense about evil Republicans is just a superficial sheen on the bitter pill Edsall wants his fellow liberals to swallow. Edsall understands, as few others do, that the culture war is not some trumped up statistical trick, but the central organizing principle of our politics. I can’t tell if Edsall actually believes his bogus caricature of Republicans, or if he has to write this way just to get his liberal readership to pay attention (probably a bit of both). But read a bit beneath all the silly propaganda and you find a thesis of genuine importance.
Superficially, Edsall is saying that cynical Republican politicians manipulate cultural wedge issues. But the actual thrust of his work is the opposite. Edsall makes the case that the 1960′s brought a profound social revolution to the United States–a revolution whose consequences have created serious social and economic problems for many Americans. On the one hand, Edsall pretends not to notice the difference between integration and affirmative action, between equal opportunity for women in the workplace and illiberal sexual harassment laws, between increased tolerance for gays and a radical redefinition of our most basic social institution. Edsall fudges these critical distinctions so as to bolster his thinly veiled accusations of bigotry.
At the same time, Edsall calmly goes about the task of showing his liberal colleagues that their political overreach on these and related issues have created an effectively permanent Republican and conservative majority. Edsall’s account of the actual implications of the so-called gender gap (the mass desertion of men from the Democratic Party) is fascinating and definitive. So Edsall is giving his liberal readers just enough Republican bashing to wake them up to the truth that their own cultural radicalism has destroyed the Democrats.
The powerful-crazy beginning of Edsall’s article encapsulates the problem of his work. Edsall explains how Karl Rove’s own tragic family history allowed him to understand “the longing of many Americans for a traditional nuclear family and a sense of social order.” It’s a measure of how far gone we are that Edsall then has to virtually apologize to his liberal readers for describing such “crass” sentiments. Do liberals really now view the longing for a stable nuclear family as “crass?” Because social liberals can’t seem to take this desire seriously, they treat Republican appeals on the issue as cynical manipulation. But everything about Rove’s story says that concern for stable families is not cynical and not insignificant. Millions of Americans understand that Rove is right. Yet strip away the tendentious and embarrassing obtuseness about the real motivations of conservatives and you will find in Edsall the best effort by a liberal Democrat to date to come to terms with the forces driving American politics today. (Note to the publisher of the paperback: You do not have my permission to quote the last half of that sentence without also including the first half.)