Politics & Policy

Rush & Daschle

& the great freedom debate.

I don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh very often. I have deadlines every day and so I don’t listen to any talk radio while working; it’s too much of a distraction. Besides, listening to someone say things I’ll mostly agree with isn’t the best use of my time. I admire Rush for his skills and humor, but, truth be told, I don’t enjoy the show that much. Too much preaching to the choir and occasional rhetorical excess for my tastes (yes, there’s considerable pot vs. kettle-ism here).

Now, in the spirit of the fairness doctrine and equal time, I should also say I don’t listen to Tom Daschle very often. Whatever Republicans do, he says he’s “saddened and disappointed” with them. He talks like a kindergarten teacher, stage-whispering his disapproval of tax policy the way a den mother tsk-tsks a boy for drawing on the wall with crayons. I don’t think I’m alone here. Daschle is not someone most people listen to. If he’s ever turned out of office, fire departments could hire him to talk cats out of trees by lulling them to sleep with his voice until they dropped to the ground. If a cat didn’t fare well, Daschle could say he’s “saddened and disappointed” by the splattered feline and move to the next job.

But, when Daschle declared last week that Rush Limbaugh and his Wannabes — a great name for a swing band — were fomenting hate and inciting violence, people listened. Now, it wasn’t really the sort of listening he had in mind. It was more like the attention that guy at the airport gets when he shouts at the check-in counter — “You don’t understand! I have a huge flounder in my pants!” In other words, lots of people said, “What the hell is Tom Daschle talking about?”

And just to be clear, this is what Tom Daschle said: “What happens when Rush Limbaugh attacks those of us in public life is that people aren’t just content to listen.” Daschle explained to reporters, “People want to act because they get emotional . . . and the threats to those of us in public life go up dramatically, against us and against our families, and it’s very disconcerting.” Daschle said Limbaugh’s “shrill” tone is reminiscent of Islamic fundamentalists abroad.

Now, factually, this is what social scientists call “a load of crap.” Unless, that is, Daschle hangs out with a lot of spotted owls who have a legitimate beef against the talk-jock.

But, I think Limbaugh — like much of the conservative media — is mostly wrong when he tries to explain Daschle’s thinking. Limbaugh declared that Daschle’s comments amount to a “well-thought-out strategy by the Democrats to counter the influence of this program.” He continued, “Every time the Democrats lose, either elections or a major issue, they blame me, they blame talk radio and they blame you.”

This may be true. And, honestly, if Daschle, Gephardt, Gore, Dopey, Sneezy, or any other of the giants of the Democratic party — I have trouble keeping them straight — ever attack National Review Online in similar terms, you can be assured that we will offer a similar interpretation all the way to the bank.

But this campaign-to-discredit-Rush theory is unrealistic. It’s not like Daschle could honestly think that attacking Rush Limbaugh would be bad for Rush Limbaugh. This whole thing was an early Christmas present for Rush, in terms of prestige, listeners, etc. Rush can’t seriously think that regular Limbaugh listeners will tune in less now. When major politicians attack critics by name, the influence of those critics goes up, not down. Bill Kristol’s stature in Washington skyrocketed when President Clinton denounced Kristol’s “there is no healthcare crisis” memos. That’s just how it works here.

No, to the extent that it wasn’t simply a moronic gaffe by Daschle — still the most likely scenario — Daschle’s real intent was to recycle a strategy used to great effect in the 1990s: the demonization of white guys. It’s easy to forget now, but both the political and popular cultures were saturated with anti-white-male silliness for much of the last decade. Hollywood put out a long string of films that painted white dudes as the source of all our problems. Conservative white guys like Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich were blamed for the Oklahoma City bombing, and the murders of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd. Liberal pundits who rolled their eyes and mocked any suggestion that, say, the Unabomber might have been egged on by the apocalyptic environmental rhetoric of the Left, or that Woody Allen’s creepy sex-life might be connected to liberalism, saw no problem linking Newt or Rush to every crime committed by a white guy. For example, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter wrote, “it’s hard to argue that there’s absolutely no connection between gay-bashing in Washington and gays actually getting their heads bashed in.” Actually, it was only hard for him, Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, et al.

Bill Clinton’s success at the polls involved getting enough white men — not all white men or even a majority of white men — to vote for him. At first he did this by sounding like a centrist Democrat from the South. But as his term wore on, he and the Democratic party changed tactics by going after white men. The thinking was twofold — it seemed to me at least. First Dems tried to shame moderate white guys out of voting for Republicans; white men who vote Republican are bigots, don’t you know. But more important — and much more obvious — was the campaign to make the Democratic base think that Republicans were sexist racists and bullies. This was the point of all of that whining about Republicans being “mean-spirited” throughout the 1990s.

So, getting back to Daschle, whether he’s running for president or just trying to keep his job is beside the point. He — like Gore and the rest of the Dems — are trying to win the support of the Democratic base, not persuade Rush’s listeners they’re wasting their time. The Democratic base hates Rush Limbaugh with the intensity of a thousand suns. He is one of the highest-ranking demons in their eschatological scorecard for the End Times. Making yourself out to be a victim of Rush Limbaugh while at the same time bashing everything Limbaugh allegedly represents is a brilliant strategy if you’re trying to convince the women in the teacher’s unions, the bureaucratic vassals in the government unions, and the liberal blacks who are still the most reliable base of the Democratic party. And, tricking Rush Limbaugh into making Daschle his number-one enemy will only help Daschle with the only people he cares about. And, it’s pretty much the only way to get the rest of us to listen to Daschle in the first place.


I spent the weekend wading, once again, through piles of e-mails from enraged e-mailers who think I’m not only “stupid,” “ignorant,” and “idiotic” for even suggesting that we are more free today than we were in grandpa’s day, but who also think I am a dyed-in-the-wool liberal or a leftist double agent for doing so much damage to “real conservative principles.”

Since I don’t have the time or inclination to respond to all of the people directly, I thought I’d address their complaints here and be done with this debate for the time being.

By far, the most common objection from readers involves the ever-growing size of the federal government and the ever-increasing amounts of money it takes from us. Depending on where you live, you can go well into the month of May, in effect, working for the government because citizens (or I should say many citizens) are paying somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent of their incomes in taxes. Do I think this is outrageous? Yes. Do I think it is counterproductive? Yes. Do I think we would be freer and the country would be better off if we cut those taxes? Absolutely. Do I think we have become less free because of those taxes? Well… yes and no.

Imagine if, starting tomorrow, every American citizen made a minimum of $1 million a year. If the federal government took 50 percent of your income, you’d still have $500,000 per year. So while, yes, that’s an outrageous tax rate and, yes, you’d be more free if the government took “merely” 40 percent — or better yet 5 percent — you would still be more wealthy than you’d have been if you only made $100,000 a year. In principle, i.e., for the purposes of this discussion, the share of your wealth taken by the government is not as relevant as the question of how wealthy you’ve become.

Now, obviously, we’re not all millionaires. But we are all — and that includes the poor — much, much wealthier than we were in grandpa’s day. Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation crunched the numbers in the 2001 Census last year and found that, “Today, the typical American defined by the government as poor has a car, air conditioning, a refrigerator, a stove, a VCR, a microwave, a stereo, and a color TV. He is able to obtain medical care. His home is in good repair and is not over-crowded . . .” Meanwhile, 41 percent of “poor” people in America own their own homes. And, today, adjusted for inflation, “expenditures per person among the poorest fifth of households equal those of the average household in the early 1970s.” [my emphasis]

In other words, poor people today live under the conditions that middle-class people lived under in the 1970s, even though the share of the economy controlled by the U.S. government has increased. So, yes, the government has grown in size and scope — and outrageously so — but so has the individual wealth of taxpayers.

And this leaves out the fact that as, say, phones and cars get cheaper, they also get better, which means we’re buying a lot more with our money. When I was a kid, phones were expensive and plugged into the wall. Today they are cheap, you can take them anywhere, and they do just about everything short of launching an MX missile. Two hundred years ago you might have spent a fortune to buy some wooden teeth — if you were lucky enough to live so long that you needed them. Today, we spend a few pennies a day on toothpaste, not only to keep our teeth but to be free from the agony and inconvenience once considered a fact of life in pre-modern-dentistry America.

Then there’s political freedom vs. freedom freedom. Many insist that I am conflating apples and oranges by talking about material freedom and political or legal freedom, I don’t really know what more I can say. Again, on the whole, our political freedoms have been expanded. Free speech qualifies, right? Well that’s much more free. Freedom from self-incrimination and unwarranted searches? More free — though with a few caveats. Remember all of those Dirty Harry and Death Wish movies? They all had to do with the fact that the Supreme Court had discarded forced confessions, unlawful searches, the beating of suspects, etc. In fact, most conservatives bemoaned these expansions in constitutional freedom — and rightly so if you ask me. Grandpa didn’t have his rights read to him when he got arrested, don’t ya know?

Now, I do think we’ve lost some ground on freedom of association. On the one hand, the repeal of laws against interracial marriage has increased individual liberty. But on the other, while I am entirely in support of the abolition of Jim Crow, I do think it came with costs. Integration, busing, quota-mongering, and the like have done some real damage to the right of people to get together with like-minded folk. Just look at Augusta or New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. But, as I said, it’s a mixed bag. We’ve gained in some places and lost in others.

Which brings me to this apples-and-oranges complaint. Some of you think political freedom and material freedom are completely different and non-interchangeable things. Fine. I can respect that — and, besides, I think everybody gets what I’m talking about.

But some people simply insist on arguing in bad faith. Too many conservatives and libertarians are simply married to the idea that we must be losing our liberties because, hey, if we’re not, I have no excuse to be so angry. So I have no problem as an intellectual matter of separating the apples of political liberty from the oranges of aggregate human freedom. If you want to say as a matter of principle that the ability to drive from, say, Nebraska to San Francisco so you can get the job, the lifestyle, and the friends you couldn’t find where you were born doesn’t constitute a rise in political freedom, I can respect that even though the guy who moved will think your abstractions are fairly meaningless.

But what I find infuriating are those who count some apples and ignore other apples because to admit that we are getting freer might contradict their bumper-sticker ideologies. Again, I don’t necessarily think it’s a good thing that we are so much freer today than we were 100 years ago. In some instances I think it’s terrible. Indeed, I would have thought more pro-lifers would immediately understand this point. I, for one, am capable of understanding that an expansion in abortion rights, for example, is an expansion of the individual liberty of citizens even though it’s not necessarily an improvement. Strippers, according to the Supreme Court, are practicing constitutionally protected “free speech.” I don’t really want to ban all strip clubs, but I also think it’s goofy to think the Constitution prevents, say, Charleston, S.C., from banning them.

Anyway, I’m done with this. I will just have to content myself with the wisdom of Friedrich Hayek: “We all declare for liberty: but in using the same word, we do not mean the same thing.”


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