America in Abstraction

Luck, Unelectability, and the Rise of Santorum

In an earlier political era in American history, circa 6 months ago, say, most right-thinking people, politically minded and otherwise, never game any credence to Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential ambitions.  While possessing a fairly pleasing set of attitudes on the sort of social issues that actually matter to the kinds of people that would find Santorum’s set of attitudes on them pleasing, his sympathizers nonetheless saw no sizzle; neither did they find among his positions anything that made them stop and think that he had any sort of roadmap out of our recent economically dark times.  His presence and performance in the traveling carnival that was Fall ’11 season of Republican Idol, generally solid, steady, and on message, simply wasn’t showstopping and therefore could never make either the judges or the audience take their eyes off their respective (though very different) favorites.  Those favorites, respectively, were Romney  and…Everybody But (but not Rick (S)).

Today, as Michigan (and Arizonan) primary voters take their turn writing names, pushing buttons, and pulling levers, the profile of candidates they will choose from looks dramatically different.   Everybody But (but not Rick (S)) had essentially exhausted all its options (save Ron P, but that is another matter) by the end of the calendar year. Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich each took a turn in the spotlight to audition for the role of ‘true conservative’, to be the kind of nominee that hard-right Republicans could, win or lose, proudly go to battle for.  All flopped, flamed-out, fumbled, or philandered their way off stage.  By the time the actual counting of votes began in Iowa, Santorum was the only alternative to Romney’s phony conservatism left standing.  His strong second-place-on-second-thought make that first-place showing owed as much to his good fortune for being an afterthought while Everyone But made fools of themselves as it did to his aforementioned pleasing set of attitudes.  In any case, Rick was in the conversation.

Or he was until he got drubbed in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada.  But then he had his own private Super Tuesday on February 7, besting the field in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado.  He has since enjoyed advanced polls from Michigan that have him leading Romney, one of a number of states that the once inevitable nominee has some claim or other to call ‘home.’  Santorum’s post Iowa stumbles appear now to be the result of a mix of unfavorable demographics and a South Carolinian electorate reluctant to acknowledge the absurdity of a Newt Gingrich.

Santorum’s ascendancy as the conservative faithful’s real alternative to Romney has also been abetted by some creeping changes to the very landscape on which the fight for the Oval Office is expected to be settled.  It is slowly filtering into the consciousness of Americans that our long-ailing economy has perhaps begun convalescing, and with them President Obama’ approval ratings.  That, of course, is bad news for Romney.  Romney has always been the judges’ favorite contestant, and grudgingly that of some of the audience, because he was ‘electable.’   His electability was a function of two things: First, his undisputed business acumen suggested that he could fix the economy in ways that Obama clearly could not. Second, he was a phony conservative and wouldn’t frighten independent voters.  While the Everybody But parade spoke to the unwillingness of many conservatives to accept a phony as their standard-bearer, what is truly lethal to Romney’s candidacy – to the very reason for it  –  is for the economy not to be so obviously in need of Romney’s fixing.  If the dark clouds are breaking up and the sun starts peaking through, Romney becomes redundant, ridiculous even, a Ken-doll flip-flopper who’s signature legislation he is now running against. In other words, Romney becomes unelecatable.

But if Romney can’t win then the conservatives of the GOP (they don’t comprise a ‘wing’ of it, they are its center) have no use for him whatsoever.  If they are going to have to vote for a loser they can just as well vote for one they believe in.  Freed from the lure of electability, they can vote strictly on principle, and for that Santorum, a plain-spoken and earnest defender of their views, suits nicely.  Democrats likely think that the rise of Santorum is evidence of Republican delirium and will serve only to hand Obama the election.  This gets things the wrong way round.  Republicans are now clearly seeing the overwhelming likelihood of Obama’s victory, and are turning to Santorum so they at least have someone speak for them.

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Post-Materialism on the March

‘Post-materialism.’ That’s the term being bandied about more and more to capture the change in values increasingly noticeable among the generation now very much coming to the fore (roughly, the post-boomers, born, say, between ’65 and ’85).  I’m tempted to say we’re witnessing a ‘satisficing’-shift in attitudes, with respect to more ‘materialist’ goods, at any rate.   It seems that growing numbers feel they make ‘enough’ money, or possess enough creature comforts, provided they have sufficient means to enjoy leisure with family or engage in non-economically defined productivity and (self-)development.

I think this shift in attitude might be fueling the Occupy Wall Street movement, and certainly generates sympathy with it. Our currently dysfunctional society, from its criminally unequal economy to its pathetically vapid news and entertainments, is rather hard to fathom outside of a culture whose materialism has run amok.  And there are, in any case, interesting reasons why any self-described post-materialist should be not merely sympathetic but actively help to productively shape the OWS movement.  Some are broadly ethical, as Will Wilkinson suggests here.  But there are also provocative fiscal reasons, as Reihan Salam notes, that could hopefully (my hope, not necessarily Salam’s) encourage transformative change across the board, and not permit the movement to succumb to the embrace of the business-as-usual left.  A truly profound post-materialism, one really worth acknowledging and actually pushing, should transcend a left-right divide that derives much of its meaning from materialist-dominated concerns.

The Real Tragedy of the Commons

From today’s New York Times: David Brooks on the emergence of moral individualism 

The odd thing here is that we tend to be surprised and think something has gone wrong.  If you start down the road of privatizing the good, as we did at the birth of Modernity, this is where you inevitably arrive. What’s taking place is perfectly natural, given our history.

And so will be the inevitable reactions.  This, too, shall pass.

The Search for Meaning: Reflections on a National Tragedy

For those who lived through it, endured it, and ultimately absorbed it, September 11, 2001 persists in memory in an intensely personal way.  Each of us owns that day and its aftermath, even when we manage to remember that so many others own it too.  Some of us, far too many, lost lovers, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, cousins, colleagues, and friends.  These people and their families have suffered unnatural losses by grotesque means, never to be made whole again.  Others, spared this terrible, immediate grief, were nevertheless called to witness something die, and then something terribly sad and terribly wounded grow in its place inside our friends who lost someone.  And there are those of us, living in the city at the time, who suffered the violation of our surroundings.  To have shredded, singed office papers falling like morbid confetti in front of our homes; to continually encounter dumfounded, fearful, and farway eyes; to take ghostly quiet subway rides; to breath the choked air; to smell that burning smell, miles away, in midtown or in Brooklyn, a burning that even to the uninitiated was unmistakably more than electrical wiring, rubber, wood, and fuel, a smell that hung in the air for weeks and haunts us still.  These are all elements of the pictures of that September past that we each stitch together in our own peculiar ways.

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When Good Arguments Go Bad: The Credentialed Society – By Michael Walsh – The Corner – National Review Online

The Credentialed Society – By Michael Walsh – The Corner – National Review Online.

I am quite in sympathy with the argumentative point of this piece; higher education, such as it presently is, is overvalued by both suppliers (in terms of what they charge for it and what they promise by it) and by consumers (in terms of what they believe it will secure for them). The good life, understood both materially and spiritually, can certainly be achieved without contributing to the bloated nature of the education sector while burdening oneself financially in the process. I also concur with the corollary that an effective, productive political agent needn’t be fêted by an Ivy-trained political class.

The problem with Walsh’s snark is with the ridiculously inane exhibit he would have us contemplate in support of those theses. Sara Palin stands as a powerful counterargument to these theses, theses that it is important for us as a country that we believe. It is unfortunate that the wise claim that there are a multiplicity of routes to the good should be obscured by the use of such a singularly bad example.

I find my self thinking of Anton Ego, who expressed the core idea much more graciously and humbly.