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August 24, 2008

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Not that I have the experience or knowledge to speak to Wilentz's writing from a historical perspective, but as a persuasive essay, he clearly isn't thinking about his audience.
In the page you linked to he speaks out against Obama's call for reason, and patience, in the face of Russia's invasion into Georgia and contrasts that with McCain. I think many historians, particularly those with an interest in basic military strategy, call into question McCain's quick, bellicose reaction.
Of course, I'm biased:).

Certainly if Wilentz has erred due to intemperance in his scholarship, editors and reviewers should have risen the alarm.

All a historian really has is a reputation and the resultant credibility. Any act that degrades the credibility harms the historian. It will only destroy his reputation if serious error is found in his work. I am reminded of Stepen Ambrose, a Ph.D. historian, who had a small plagiarism problem.

The problem is that he’s writing this nasty stuff as “Wilentz, Princeton historian,” and not as “Wilentz, public observer.” He cloaks his screed in the language of a historian — i.e., he pretends like he’s doing real history.

Eh, I don't know. He's writing in Newsweek after all. That is not where one goes when one seeks real history or expertise. He can pretend whatever he likes, but at the end of the day, his work is appearing in a crummy weekly magazine not exactly known for its hard hitting investigative journalism or hard core analytics. Context matters.

if Wilentz is willing to cherry-pick and ignore historical sources in pieces like this, what confidence should I have that he hasn’t done something similar in his historical works?

Probably not much. On the other hand, people do compartmentalize and sometimes otherwise ethical people just write crazy stuff about one topic that hits their buttons. Victor Davis Hanson's early writings on military history were excellent even though his current writings are insane.

One thing I've noticed is there are some astonishingly smart professors who have remarkably immature political views. Maybe Wilentz is one of them.

The crummy editorial judgment of Newsweek matters a lot more to me than Wilentz's crummy pseudo scholarship hatchet jobs. There is an infinite supply of writers seeking to debase themselves before a national audience by writing this kind of tripe: the real question is why does Newsweek insist on publishing it.

those who lie are justified, for wearing the badge, of "historian"
you justify your lies for wearing the badge, of "historian"

lying in the name of!
lying in the name of!

I don't know about this argument.
Evidence:
Charles Beard
Eric Foner
Schlesinger (both)

No reason a historian can't keep political opinions distinct from professional work. If we think lawyers can (whether they actually do is a different question), then we certainly ought to give professional historians the benefit of the doubt.

Also, what Turbulence said.

Well, I bet his TAs are seething. I think he has two main concerns, which are both valid. First, he wants to see more substance, a common concern. Secondly, he seems to fear Obama is not showing how he fits into to the evolving New Deal narrative.

On the first issue, substance, I understand the concern but I'm not sure it really matters for practical electoral purposes - at least for domestic matters. As for the New Deal narrative, I think the reality is that Obama is a sort of Tony Blair character, who's leaving much of his party's legacy behind but doesn't really want to make that clear to the aging party faithful just yet (which obviously is related to the above point).

I think he is overlooking two important factors in the comparisons he makes. First of all, much of the domestic policies he's talking about of yesteryear were informed by the Cold War the sense that the American working class needed to be inoculated from the danger of radical leftism. That factor simply isn't there any more. Younger generations understand that it's not enough any more to make the American working class feel like they're middle class with cars, fridges and comfortable-but-steel-ceilinged unioned trades; you actually have to enable them to achieve genuine middle class-dom.

Secondly, on foreign policy issues, I think he's just way off. Does he think Truman laid out his plans for containment and the Marshall Plan in 1944? Carter is his boogie man, but I happen to think Carter was very successful given the onslaught of structural problems America faced. Certainly that risk applies now - crappy economic fundamentals, high commodity and oil prices, and two quagmires - but that is true of any candidate. Wilentz colleagues who study international politics and international history are overwhelmingly supportive of Obama, and some of his colleagues at Princeton have even advised him on such matters I believe.

He criticizes Obama for not talking tough like McCain on Georgia, but also acknowledges Vietnam and LBJ and JFK's greatest disaster. I'm confused, therefore, should a Democratic be bullied by the right into dubious conflicts or not?

Lastly, on Carter and the hostage crisis, it was hardly Carter's fault the military operation went awry. I know it sucked for American bravura, but the reality is there nothing else to be done for those people other than kill a bunch of Iranians and have them get butchered in another rescue operation. Despite the deplorable efforts by the Reagan campaign to have their release delayed for political gain, Jimmy Carter got those people home safe and, incidentally, did more the Arab-Israeli question than any president before or since.

its guys like Wilentz that keep Democrats losing major elections.

Wilentz was a big HRC supporter; fine--everyone has the right to be wrong.

And while I'm not suggesting taking Obama to task for what you think are his shortcomings, what, exactly, is the point of writing such an angry screed like this NOW, after Obama has become the nominee? He'd rather have McCain?

If there's anything Dems can learn from Republicans (and its a slim list), its how Republicans, once they're faced with a candidate they really hate--Sen. McCain, i'm looking in your direction--they eventually suck it up and vote for him, because they can't stomach the consequences if the "other side" wins.

A lot of Democrats--smart, edumacated ones like Wilentz--i guess would rather lose and have a third term of Bush, the man Wilentz said in RS was "the worst president in history."

oops--i goofed. my 3rd paragraph should read:

"And while I'm not suggesting taking Obama to task for what you think are his shortcomings IS WRONG OR SHOULDN'T BE ALLOWED OR ANYTHING--but what, exactly, is the point of writing such an angry screed like this NOW, after Obama has become the nominee? He'd rather have McCain?"

(i should make use of the preview button)

The dual career of Schlesinger's part of the problem.

Wilentz was this close |-| to being Hillary's Schlesinger. And now he's not.

I admire his Rise of American Democracy just this side of idolatry, but who among us, seeing the brass ring, wouldn't reach for it? Who among us would be angry if hey juuuuuust missed grabbing it?

(Me, I'm a humble HS teacher. Prof at Princeton would be enough...)

Re Rob's point, as an independent closely following the primaries for the first time, it's really striking how the Republicans (generally) look at their candidate and say "well, at least I agree with him or her about issues A, C, D, G, and L" and sign on, even if with limited enthusiasm. Over on the Democratic side, far too many people seem to say "hey, I disagree with the candidate on issue H. How can the candidate be so foolish? This will never do...." and dither off, whether a disgruntled Hillary supporter or disillusioned Obama supporter--one vote or statement they don't like, and suddenly it's all a betrayal.

Dems fall in love, then fall on each other. Reps fall in line. It's quite discouraging to watch. I'm not longer surprised they can keep winning elections when on paper people side with the Democratic position.

I haven't seen Sean Wilentz's reputation around for a long time now.

We are, after all, talking about a historian of presidential politics who, in seriousness, made the argument that Clinton should have gotten the nomination because, if the Democratic primaries had the Republicans' winner-take-all rules, she would have. Apparently without considering that candidates for office generally plan their electoral strategies around the rules actually in place, and would plan differently were there different rules.

This is a man who could propose with a straight face that Obama stole the primary from Clinton by simultaneously "playing the race card" and accusing her of doing so. Who supported that analysis with evidence like the following refutation of the claim that Bill Clinton's South Carolina comparison of Obama to Jesse Jackson was an effort to minimize his as just another such symbolic candidacy: "Clinton had made no mention of race." Whose explanation of black voters' rallying to Obama's candidacy is premised on the idea that they can't recognize race-baiting themselves, but are happily willing to believe in it if the New York Times tells them to.

This is the same Sean Wilentz who has found it as impossible to engage with his critics on the substance of their objections as he has to insert the disclosure that he's a longtime personal friend of the Clintons in any of his political writing about the Democratic primary.

Wilentz has written some decent works of history; it seems that to do so, he must have chosen subjects in which his personal opinions were more in sympathy with empirical reality. But a historian who can't keep his eye on empirical reality when his personal opinions lead him to wish it were different is no historian at all.

but who among us, seeing the brass ring, wouldn't reach for it? Who among us wouldn't be angry if they juuuuuust missed grabbing it?

paging Paul Krugman...paging Dr. Krugman...

it's really striking how the Republicans (generally) look at their candidate and say "well, at least I agree with him or her about issues A, C, D, G, and L" and sign on, even if with limited enthusiasm. Over on the Democratic side, far too many people seem to say "hey, I disagree with the candidate on issue H. How can the candidate be so foolish? This will never do...." and dither off, whether a disgruntled Hillary supporter or disillusioned Obama supporter--one vote or statement they don't like, and suddenly it's all a betrayal.

What exactly are you talking about? If you're talking about random voters, then how are you measuring what the two groups of voters are saying? If you're talking about media people, which ones are you thinking of?

The structure of the Republican nomination process, with its winner take all rules, ensured that you could win while only getting slightly more votes than the next guy. That allowed them to finish the race quickly whereas the Democrats had to continue fighting for longer. If you don't get that, it might appear that Democrats had a lot more infighting than Republicans, but that wouldn't necessarily be accurate. After the nomination ended, I haven't seen a lot of evidence that Democrats were more fractious than Republicans about falling in behind their nominee.

Also, note that online the lefty blogosphere is much larger than the righty blogosphere. That means that if you were only looking at blog posts and comments, you might observe "There are a million lefty critiques of the Clinton/Obama but only three righty critiques of McCain/Thompson/9-11/MultipleChoiceMitt" which might lead you to conclude that lefties are much more fractious than their conservative brethrin, but the original observation is just an artifact of the medium. It doesn't really tell us anything.

Well, I'm not an Americanist, and I haven't read Wilentz's major works. But his comments on foreign policy and the Georgian fiasco? That's either willful naivete or neocon stupidity. Or both.

Maybe if Wilentz is bored and wants to branch out, he should go back to Bob Dylan commentary. He was pretty good at that and didn't risk trashing his reputation.

"So Wilentz is either ignorant or lying."

I think he can keep the ax of ignorance and the lit stick of dynamite of lying in the air at the same time.

He's ignorant .... and he's lying.

It's this kind of coordination that wins elections.

Let's give the Republican machine credit.

McCain's figured it out. He knows his audience.

Thus he has transformed himself into an ignorant liar.

Turb, my internet is limited, so I can't give a very long defense, but there does seem to be a left/right dichotomy in terms of infighting. I don't think this is a US thing, but part of the intellectual approach of left versus right. The right generally looks to the past for inspiration while the left thinks of the future as being where the promise of better times is held. I don't know what would constitute proof of such an assertion, but the trope of a circular firing squad is something that is not often associated with the right.

How this maps onto the current Obama-McCain race is complicated by the US people's relationship with liberalism and conservatism, but I don't think that Deborah's point is invalid.

This is precisely why I get outraged by Charles Krauthammer. He and I are both mental health professionals, and thus answerable to codes of ethics (he's a psychiatrist, I'm a psychologist and a psychiatric nurse practitioner). He likes to blur the distinction between his political views (which he's entitled to have) and his professional judgment, so that when he says "Al Gore is crazy," there's at least a hint that he's making a professional as well as a political judgment, i.e. he doesn't just disagree with Al Gore, he has a special insight into how Al Gore thinks, and is able to use that to judge Al Gore deranged. In reality, our ethics require that we not make these judgments without a thorough evaluation, which as far as I know Krauthammer's never done with Al Gore. It's an outrageous violation of professional standards, and it burns me that he's never been held accountable for it.

There is just no relationship between people's professional competence and their political reasoning, it seems.

I have seen so many cases of wonderfully precise thinkers who, the moment the topic switches over to politics, seem to descend into this madness of their own political imaginations. All this anger and emotion builds up in them where there was once cool detachment. And people somehow begin to make ludicrous, paranoid inferences that they'd never make either professionally or in their daily lives. I've seen people lose the ability to reason, lose the ability to realize that they've lost the ability to reason.

I just think that someday psychologists are going to discover something deep about this, something about how the parts of our brain that we use to solve problems, reason out solutions, just don't come into play when we slip into the parts of our head that's responsible for our political emotions.

Younger generations understand that it's not enough any more to make the American working class feel like they're middle class with cars, fridges and comfortable-but-steel-ceilinged unioned trades; you actually have to enable them to achieve genuine middle class-dom.

This strikes me as odd, from an American POV. By the late 50s-early 60s, the US unionized working class didn't only begin to 'feel' middle class, they were *becoming* middle class. If you take someone in a trade and pay them middle class wages, they're middle class. I'm pretty sure class is conceptually different here compared with the UK.

If I'm missing your point (quite possible) let me know.

Wow, that was one sorry article by Wilentz.

I think that -- to overgeneralize wildly -- many conservatives in the blogosphere seem to have more of an ability than liberals to fall in line behind whatever is served up to them. But there are lines that can be crossed -- think of the explosion over Harriet Miers -- that cause them to explode. Liberals, by contrast (and again, over generalizing wildly) seem to me have more of a tendency to be bothered by the fact that their nominees are not perfect, and to take too many things as complete betrayals. (E.g., when Obama says 'I would like to find a way to get some conservatives to work with me', and people leap to the conclusion that he's planning to sell out completely, not to try to find people who genuinely agree with some of his positions, as Lugar and Coburn did.)

I think we go overboard at times, but I really doubt that we'd be better served by becoming more like, say, RedState. Critical thinking, and critical writing, both keep us from heading over cliffs and ensure that when part of the Democratic Party heads over a cliff, the entirety of it does not follow.

(PS: I'm in Denver! But I haven't gone near the convention yet -- I plan to hit it tomorrow morning.)

By the late 50s-early 60s, the US unionized working class didn't only begin to 'feel' middle class, they were *becoming* middle class.

I don't really think so. Particularly in the timeframe you cite, the massive changes in the US economy - and by extension society - came from the growth of the managerial class, typified famously perhaps by "IBM man". I do agree that unionised workers were paid well and had a decent living, but that is my point in a sense. The best-paid unionised workers did indeed achieve middle-class standard incomes. But they were also at their ceiling. Generally speaking, I think they were cut out of the mobility and capital markets that created the society we see around us today.

For those who haven't seen it yet, this article in the NYT is a great examination of Obama's economic thinking.

I meant to add to my original post that I personally don't agree with the 'substance deficit' argument that Wilentz makes, although I do think it's valid in the sense that there is sizable public perception, and therefore it may be a real problem for his campaign.

In fact I've always found him very detailed and substantive, it's just that he always has a lot of thematic content in his speeches. It doesn't seem to occur to many people, including Wilentz, that he might be able to hold thematic and programmatic ideas in his head at the same time.

I think the reality is that Obama is a sort of Tony Blair character, who's leaving much of his party's legacy behind but doesn't really want to make that clear to the aging party faithful just yet

That's funny, 'cause I always thought of Tony Blair as a Bill Clinton character for just the reasons you cite.

To put it another way: the cows have already long since left the barn on the Democratic Party's abandoning its New Deal/Great Society legacy. I see Obama as very much a New Democrat in the Clinton mold, but the transformation of the party has already taken place.

Generally speaking, I think [unionized workers] were cut out of the mobility and capital markets that created the society we see around us today.

Hmm. How was a well-paid, say, auto worker who bought a house which then appreciated a lot over time and therefore represented actual wealth cut out of mobility? Not a rhetorical question; I just see this person as solidly middle class, whereas the managerial IBM-type is more upper-middle, or higher.

It doesn't seem to occur to many people, including Wilentz, that [Obama] might be able to hold thematic and programmatic ideas in his head at the same time.

Yes. Silly, isn't it? What better disguise is there for stupidity than Professionalism?

I have seen so many cases of wonderfully precise thinkers who, the moment the topic switches over to politics, seem to descend into this madness of their own political imaginations. All this anger and emotion builds up in them where there was once cool detachment.

I think the two things tend to go together - the cool detachment and the insanity. Utter detachment is a construct, an illusion (a very useful one). In my experience, the person who forgets about the artificial, tool-like nature of said detachment is often the one who is a shockingly ignorant about their own less-rational side. Where would the US right wing be without engineers?!

Turbulence: "Also, note that online the lefty blogosphere is much larger than the righty blogosphere."

Perhaps OT -- Coming late to the blogging party, I can see where this is true. On the flip side, the right wing dominates talk radio.

I've always wondered why this is so.

(Turb: I must concede that while I expressed concern the other day about Obama waiting so long to name his VP choice might backfight, you were right -- the "secret" was kept so well that waiting until the eve of the convention created genuine suspense that I don't remember with any such selection in recent history.)

On the flip side, the right wing dominates talk radio.

I've always wondered why this is so.

Tis a total mystery to me. Then again, I don't get why people tolerate radio anyway, so most things broadcast over the air confuzzle me.

the "secret" was kept so well that waiting until the eve of the convention created genuine suspense that I don't remember with any such selection in recent history.

Well, as I recall, you've been predicting a Biden pick for quite some time now, so my hat is off to you sir.

What better disguise is there for stupidity than Professionalism?
A phrase for all ages that equate professionalism with generalized authority.

the cool detachment and the insanity.
Just so, sir. Seems often to be childish passions hiding behind the mask, unrecognized by the wearer, When they look in the mirror they see the mask. So much more rewarding to gaze at and take to parties than that nasty child.

I’ve wondered how much of the dislike for Obama’s enthusiasts is based in this uneasy schizophrenia. It’s a challenge to the practice and pretense of detachment and ‘pragmatic’ professionalism.

Probably my fear talking here, but I keep hearing comments about how Hillary has 1/2 of the delegates to the Convention. In essence, this article could have come pretty much out of the Hillary campaign. You know, "empty suit, no experience, all talk..." Can they be hoping that since Obama has not yet managed to pull ahead of McCain appreciably, that maybe a number of the Super Delegates will switch their vote to Hillary? I offer this as a possible explanation of why this article at this time.

Can they be hoping that since Obama has not yet managed to pull ahead of McCain appreciably, that maybe a number of the Super Delegates will switch their vote to Hillary?

I doubt it. The point of the nominating process isn't just to select a leader: it also serves to convince the losers that they don't have enough support. If Clinton tries to pull anything funny at the convention, she will tear the party apart; even if she gets the nomination, the funding will dry up and a good number of Obama's supporters will sit this one out. She can't win without them.

I mean really, the black guy wins the most delegates, has tons of cash and is seemingly the best nominee the Dems have fielded in years, but through back door scheming nad parliamentary trickery, gets the nomination stolen from him at the convention? How can you explain that story to minorities and young people (or anyone really) as anything but a great big F-U to African Americans, as yet another case of white Americans telling their darker brothers and sisters, "nice try, but even though you won, we can't really let you win"?

Clinton is way too smart for that. This would be like reacting to losing a baseball game by pulling out a rifle and shooting everyone on the field while claiming "victory"...I guess it counts as a win if your opponents are all dead, but things are not going to go well from that point on.

Turbulence: "Also, note that online the lefty blogosphere is much larger than the righty blogosphere."

Perhaps OT -- Coming late to the blogging party, I can see where this is true. On the flip side, the right wing dominates talk radio.

The left more inclusive, more one-to-one, which lends itself to blogging.

The right, more authoritarian, top down communication, which lends itself to passive reception and broadcast.

Publius - in terms of Wilentz's scholarship, as a historian (sort of - I'm still a grad student, but getting towards the finish line) I don't see how the fact that he's been obnoxiously prickish in his support for Clinton and dislike of Obama to a bizarre extent really gives us much leave to think anything of it one way or another.

If his scholarship were as tendentious as this nonsense, it would have been torn apart by scholarly reviewers, who are usually themselves specialists in whatever field is in question. Given the egregiousness of Wilentz's articles on this campaign, such levels of egregiousness in his scholarship might even have created problems even at the stage of peer review.

Given that there have not been such, I think it's fair to say that Wilentz's scholarly work is nowhere near as tendentious as his recent works on politics. That being said, that doesn't mean that there isn't any kind of bias in his work that should be looked at warily. I don't study American history, but from what I understand in talking about his work with colleagues who do is that he's kind of a weird throwback to the Arthur Schlesinger "Wasn't Andrew Jackson a wonderful fellow?" school of American political history. That doesn't mean his work is bad, or should be ignored, but it does mean it probably should be taken with a grain of salt.

And, it's worth noting, that Schlesingerian business (the insistence that somehow the Jacksonian Democrats were the "good guys" in the political battles of those days and should be seen as real forebears of the New Deal Democratic Party), seems to tie in to Schlesinger's lines of attack on Obama.

Beyond that, I really don't get the level of hackishness of Wilentz's attacks on Obama, and I agree on the circular firing squad business. What the fuck is wrong with Democrats? Republicans, faced with a political campaign, energize themselves by getting outraged at stuff the Democratic candidate does. Democrats, faced with a political campaign, also energize themselves by getting outraged at stuff the Democratic candidate does. It's deeply tiresome.

jwo:
Makes sense, if the rumor has any substance; not that there’s sense involved.
But that’s what the version of the rumor I read said; that Obama’s inability to pull ahead of McCain would be pushed by Hillary people as proof Obama couldn’t win, in order to stage a coup.
Sounds like a Rove/Rush spoiler rumor to me.

Part of the problem with people like Wilentz is that after a certain point in the academy, there's actually very little accountability. Many Ivy League professors run second-rate seminars, publish lazy, ill-written books - and collect good money. Sorry, but Wilentz is hardly exceptional in that regard.


One important point in this election is the number of journalists and commentators who keep dragging us back to the Cold War and issues of the Sixties. Could it be that they desperately fear Obama, because a win for him would reveal how outdated and futile their views have become? Is that what motivates Wilentz - that he literally hasn't a clue how to understand Obama?

Republicans, faced with a political campaign, energize themselves by getting outraged at stuff the Democratic candidate does. Democrats, faced with a political campaign, also energize themselves by getting outraged at stuff the Democratic candidate does. It's deeply tiresome.

Somewhere lost in my book pile is a book of jokes which were popular in the old Soviet Union during the 1970s and before (IIRC the joke compilation book was published in the early 1980s or so). One of them went like this:

An American and a Russian were disputing which country had more political freedom.

The American said: "I have the freedom to express my opinion, because anytime I wish to, I can march to Washington D.C., protest in front of the White House, and call my President a liar."

The Russian replied: "It's just the same in my country. Anytime I wish to, I can march down to the American embassy in Moscow, protest in front of it, and call your President a liar too!"


This asymmetry was obviously a result of one side having a much more authoritarian culture. Apply it to the contemporary example as you see fit.

I am so tired of this argument that Obama needs to be more bad-tempered to show that he can handle foreign affairs. People are fighting and he says. "Wait, let's talk about it"? Wasn't this covered in the first term at kindergarten?

More adrenalin, folks! That's what we need! Yeah!!!

I am so tired of this argument that Obama needs to be more bad-tempered to show that he can handle foreign affairs. People are fighting and he says. "Wait, let's talk about it"? Wasn't this covered in the first term at kindergarten?

More adrenalin, folks! That's what we need! Yeah!!!

I am so tired of this argument that Obama needs to be more bad-tempered to show that he can handle foreign affairs. People are fighting and he says. "Wait, let's talk about it"? Wasn't this covered in the first term at kindergarten?

More adrenalin, folks! That's what we need! Yeah!!!

I am so tired of this argument that Obama needs to be more bad-tempered to show that he can handle foreign affairs.

What's really pathetic about the critique is how disconnected it is from our capabilities. We can't do anything about this situation, but Wilentz and friends want us to scream loudly anyway, thereby broadcasting our impotence to the world. I can't tell if these people just can't accept the fact that American power has limits ("We won the cold war, that means we get to do whatever we want!") or if they are simply unable to think beyond the emotional validation of giving Russia the finger.

This asymmetry was obviously a result of one side having a much more authoritarian culture. Apply it to the contemporary example as you see fit.

TLTIABQ, are you suggesting that the Republican party is more regimented than the Democratic party? Or are you suggesting that people who vote Republican are culturally inclined to authoritarianism?

Incidentally, my favorite old Soviet joke is about the guy whose pet parrot escapes. He goes to the police to report the bird missing and to declare: "I do not share my parrot's political views."

-- TP

I don't have to read that article to know that Wilenz is an idiot. I don't say "idiot" lightly here. I read a couple of his articles for TNR, one of them defending HRC's comparison of herself with LBJ and Obama with MLK, at MLK/Obama's expense. For a "historian" to not recognize that there would be no Civil Rights Act without a civil rights movement, ok, I have to find that piece of offensively stupid crazy...

here it is:
http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=a383df9e-9d33-4b57-b832-a75b7c4d0d0c

Dang. I really thought Wilentz would knock this shit off once Obama won the primary -- that it was his views on that that was causing him to write such silly stuff on Obama.

I admit I'm curious as to why he's *still* attacking Obama now (given that he's a solid enough leftie that I have to assume he'd rather Obama win)... but probably not curious enough to overcome my disinclination to read the piece.

Anyone get a sense as to why he's still pressing this? I get taking a side in the primary, but this is just strange.

SF

TLTIABQ, are you suggesting that the Republican party is more regimented than the Democratic party? Or are you suggesting that people who vote Republican are culturally inclined to authoritarianism?

A little bit of both, actually.

The GOP as a party and its friends in the media have demonstrated far better organization and message discipline over the last several decades, than have the Democrats, IMHO.

I think of this as being part of the cultural DNA of the GOP because for much of its history it has been a minority party - first during its formative years in the mid 19th Cen before the 1864 election gave the GOP a durable hold on power, and more recently in the wake of the broad Democratic coalition which FDR's New Deal forged.

A minority party by definition has to be more disciplined and have a tighter organization, if it is to contest for power with any lasting success, and I think the habits of mind the GOP used to survive and eventually prosper despite lengthy periods of minority status have continued to this day. In some ways this explains why they are so divisive in office when they do obtain a semi-majority and get into power. They rule like a minority party haunted by a sense of insecurity.

The Democrats are the converse - they persist with the habits of a stable and at times overconfident majority party which fears little from the outside, even when they are no longer in fact such. This includes internecine squabbling.

Lately that seems to be changing. The Democrats are showing some signs of adaptation to the semi-minority status which they've been relegated to starting in the 1980s, while the GOP has been getting sloppy and overconfident.

I think this is part of the cyclic character of American politics. Our two party system acts like a pendulum swinging back and forth, never allowing a single coalition to remain stable for more than two or three generations without breaking down and giving the other side an opening.

This is because a perenial problem for any coalition is how to satisfy the base while at the same time reaching out to moderates, and in a two party system there is no permanent solution to this structural problem when having a long term stable ruling coalition breeds greater hunger and stronger demands from the base for a more ideological policy, while the corresponding base on the other side grows weary of being out of power and willing to compromise with moderates (at least in the short term) for the sake of expediancy.

At the same time, I also think that people with authoritarian personalities are preferentially attracted to the GOP at this time in our history. I don't think there is anything inevitable or durable about this, it is a short-term historically contingent byproduct of two factors:

1 - The fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism as an attractive ideology was a devastating blow for left-wing authoritarianism, from which it has not yet recovered.

2 - The recent loss of power on the part of the Democratic party within the US.

Both of these factors would tend to discourage an authoritarian personality from being attracted to the left, because to do so is to be alienated from power. An authoritarian cut off from power (not just temporarily, but for the forseeable future) would be like nymphomaniac stranded alone on a remote island. Not a very attractive prospect.

Depending on personal circumstances and history, some fraction of the population with authoritarian personalities will go hard left, some will go hard right, and some could go either way as a function of serendipity. Right now almost all of the last group are heading to the right for the reasons I gave above. The net result is that there is a greater influx of new people with authoritarian personalities into the GOP than into the Democratic party at the present time, which is helping to skew the personalities of both parties.

If the Democrats succeed in assembling a new stable majority coalition and taking power for a lengthy period of time, I expect that this assymmetric flow will stop or even reverse over time. That is something which actual progressives will have to guard against and deal with - an influx of bullies and power seekers into the Democratic party.

That's my theory anyway.

One easy rule of thumb to assess general article and books by historians is to ask a simple question: what do they actually know about, in the sense of research on? You can generally work that out through lists of their articles/specialist academic books (often on their websites or listed in the bibliographies of their more general books). Once you know that, you can work out how relevant their professional knowledge is likely to be to what they're talking about. The less relevant it is, the more they are relying on nothing but the supposedly better analytical skills they have as historians and the more wary you need to be.

If you see that Robert (Sean) Wilentz's expertise is in early nineteenth century US labour and religious history, you can start considering how much his professional expertise is useful for analysing 21st century politics, just like that of Victor Hanson (on classical Greek warfare and agriculture) and Bernard Lewis (the Ottoman Empire).

(Disclaimer: I am a historian, but I work on early medieval religion and society and thus have no relevant professional expertise on any topic in the second millennium AD, never mind the third).

If you see that Robert (Sean) Wilentz's expertise is in early nineteenth century US labour and religious history, you can start considering how much his professional expertise is useful for analysing 21st century politics, just like that of Victor Hanson (on classical Greek warfare and agriculture) and Bernard Lewis (the Ottoman Empire).

I'm sorry, but if you an academic historian you would know that Wilentz falls right into the field of modern US history. While most of his scholarship has been on the 19th century, it is certainly absurd to think that the man does not have a extremely impressive knowledge of the twentieth century. He almost certainly has taught classes on the subject. Moreover, his new book is practically contemporary history, looking at the USA from Reagan to the present day.

On the other hand, I don't like the article either. But it's not scholarship, I don't think his academic credentials need by questioned by a piece in Newsweek. If it was really atrocious maybe, but it's not that bad. Certainly above-average for rags like Newsweek.

I'm sorry - but this does cripple his professional credibility. A central research ingredient in both the social and natural sciences is resisting the temptation to simply confirm your own prejudices. This means that you seriously weight evidence contrary to your hypothesis. Wilentz has, very publicly, demonstrated a willingness to twist evidence and logic to trash a candidate whom he loathes. I see no reason to now grant him the provisional faith in his professional work that he has done due diligence and fairly evaluated evidence both for and against his preconceived ideas.

I don't think he 'trashed' the candidate, he said he wanted to see a more developed elaboration of the candidate's vision, and particularly how it related to other C20 Democratic presidents. I happen to think that his bases for comparison are unfair, since it's not like the people he cited had laid out all the things he gives them credit for at this stage in their pre-presidential careers.

I also think his evocation of the Georgian crisis, and McCain's predictable response, is the lamest part of the article, especially given he acknowledges 'Nam was disaster for JFK and LBJ.

Where would the US right wing be without engineers?!

As an engineer, who spends significant time in the company of other engineers, I frequently hear very smart people saying very dumb, uninformed and just plainly absurd things with regard to politics.

One of my coworkers told me he couldn't vote for anyone who refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance, "even if it were Rush Limabaugh." (HUH???!!!) Of course, he was referring to Obama, because "there were pictures of Obama all over the internet not saying the Pledge of Allegiance." What does that even mean? Is it even remotely reasonable to think that a serious presidential candidate would refuse to recite the Pledge of Allegiance? It boggles my so-called mind.

Is it even remotely reasonable to think that a serious presidential candidate would refuse to recite the Pledge of Allegiance?

That's the scariest thing, to actually believe the rumors about Obama is to engage in the most absurd conspiracy-theorizing. The ironic part is, if there was one presidential candidate who had somehow risen to the highest levels of American politics while concealing a devious subversive agenda, surely it would be the guy who was exposed to North Vietnamese brainwashing and indoctrination for many years.

You can be damn sure if the Democratic guy had McCain's bio, he'd have been swiftboated to death by now with all sorts of appalling tripe.

How was a well-paid, say, auto worker who bought a house which then appreciated a lot over time and therefore represented actual wealth cut out of mobility?

The present problem is not so much lack of mobility as it is mobility in the wrong direction. The well-paid auto worker is retired; his middle-aged factory worker child is struggling to make ends meet on far less than his or her father earned, and the grandkid is serving fries at Burger King.

Where would the US right wing be without engineers?!

As an engineer, who spends significant time in the company of other engineers, I frequently hear very smart people saying very dumb, uninformed and just plainly absurd things with regard to politics.

Certainly wasn't slamming all engineers, hsh. It's more an engineer mentality rather than the practicing of the actual profession. I don't pretend to understand it well, but I see it a lot. It seems to be partially a demand for simple, unambiguous answers to any question; partly a mechanistic POV, a detachment from one's own heart and others' - it reminds me of Hobbes (''For what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints, but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body, such as was intended by the Artificer?'). I don't know what it is, but without that mindset, the Republicans, the talkshow haters, and the Libertarian party would all be poorer.

The present problem is not so much lack of mobility as it is mobility in the wrong direction.

We were talking about the 1950s-60s, rea. No argument with you about now.

Where would the US right wing be without engineers?!

ahem.

actually, most of the politically-outspoken engineers that i know are outspoken libertarians. they'd much prefer a system of government in which the rules are simple, clear and easy to understand: efficient, easy to follow, easy to debug. engineers and chaos don't mix.

the GOP promises this, of course. but they will never, ever, ever, ever, actually implement it.

It seems to be partially a demand for simple, unambiguous answers to any question; partly a mechanistic POV, a detachment from one's own heart and others'

I think this assessment is rather insightful. Maybe not correct, but definitely insightful. Speaking as an engineer, one thing that may not be obvious about our training and our work is the strong emphasis on eliminating detail: analysis is actually very hard and time consuming, but when trying to solve any one particular problem, almost everything that you can analyze is unimportant. Good engineers look at a problem and decide to ignore vast areas of it at very high speeds while spending almost all of their time on very small sections. This is reductionism in the extreme: not only are most complex things just details, but all those complex details don't fundamentally affect behavior.

I would add that it is very common for engineers (and theoretical natural scientists of any shade too) to confuse their models with reality, giving rise to the old saying that the stability of a building is inversely proportional to the learnedness of the engineer that designed it.

Certainly wasn't slamming all engineers, hsh.

I didn't take it that way, jb. And I see it the same way you do, AFAICT from your comment.

actually, most of the politically-outspoken engineers that i know are outspoken libertarians.

I see pretty much the same thing. In fact, I've heard a not-insignificant amount of interest in the candidacy of Ron Paul expressed. My experience with my colleagues is that they don't really think much about social issues either way. They're mainly agnostic regarding abortion, profanity and such that the religious right tends to focus on. They tend more to be economically and fiscally conservative, but maybe a bit on the hawkish side concerning foreign policy, supporting the Iraq War and liking tough talk toward Iran, Russia and whomever else. They're probably more hawkish than most libertarians, but less puritanical than many other Republicans. But, mostly, engineers are just cheap.

assuming a spherical electorate...

Turbulence, I wonder if this is the basis of the Salem hypothesis, an observation that creationists with advanced degrees are often engineers.

Speaking as a biologist, we are *all* about the details. We build our big picture from zillions of details, and make much of detailed differences & similarities. This is probably why a lot of people find HS biology boring -- there are an awful lot of details to learn. It didn't bother me because I'd already learned a lot of them from natural history handbooks and from Isaac Asimov, but if you have to get them in a lump it's too much.

"Perhaps OT -- Coming late to the blogging party, I can see where this is true. On the flip side, the right wing dominates talk radio.

I've always wondered why this is so."

My hypothesis is: they dominated the communication medium which was becoming popular at a time when their side felt shut out of or maginalized by the major communication channels of the time but were actually gaining traction (see especially Limbaugh 1987).

Conservative talk radio gained traction when they perceived a large liberal slant to the mainstream media. Liberal blogging became prominent when they thought the main venues of discourse were shutting them out but were actually gaining traction (see especially dKos 2003).

Essentially when the mainstream media is well out of synch with the tenor of the times, if an alternative media tool is gaining prominence, the side that is (or feels) shut out of the mainstream will popularize and dominate it.

Re: The Salem Hypothesis:

... Of course, it doesn't say that engineers are all creationists: it says that creationists with advanced degrees are often engineers, a completely different thing altogether.

I don't personally know any Creationists, that I know of, thank Darwin. Even the limited relationship between having and engineering degree and being a Creationist purported by this theory is too upsetting an idea for me to abide. I refuse to accept it, regardless of any evidence.

I don't personally know any Creationists, that I know of, thank Darwin. Even the limited relationship between having and engineering degree and being a Creationist purported by this theory is too upsetting an idea for me to abide. I refuse to accept it, regardless of any evidence

The best explanation isn't really all that disturbing. Engineers are -- by education and training -- inclined to see things as created systems. Whatever they're working on is the product of design -- theirs or other peoples.

If they bring that viewpoint with them to biology, it trips them up. Of course, some engineers already use genetic algorithms and such to evolve solutions. :)

By the late 50s-early 60s, the US unionized working class didn't only begin to 'feel' middle class, they were *becoming* middle class.

I don't really think so.

My big box of anecdota tells me that, in fact, working people did become middle class in the 50's and 60's. They bought houses and new cars, invested in the stock and bond markets, and sent their kids to college. Quite often for the first time in anyone's living memory, for all of those things.

That's how it was in my family, and in everyone's family that I know. Maybe I'm in some kind of weird sweet spot, but I don't think so.

Thanks -

Essentially when the mainstream media is well out of synch with the tenor of the times, if an alternative media tool is gaining prominence, the side that is (or feels) shut out of the mainstream will popularize and dominate it.

That makes a lot of sense. New media have an uncertainty cost associated with them (initially you don’t know how effective they will be or how best to use them) - whichever side is less satisfied will be more willing to pay that cost. I think this dynamic would apply regardless of whether the MSM is actually out of synch with the tenor of the times or not.

How well does this analogy map backwards in time onto the emergence of radio and TV? Were the Democrats net beneficiaries of the emergence of radio (FDR, fire-side chats) and the Republicans net beneficiaries of TV? TV in the 1960 election didn’t work so well for Nixon, but from 1968 and on the GOP seem to have had the better of the Dems with regard to the use of TV (at least sporadically). What about direct mail (both for fundraising and messaging) during the 1980’s? My recollection is that it was used much more effectively by conservatives than liberals.

Sebastain,

A followup question: do you think that emerging new media would tend to shift the intraparty power relationships in favor of insurgents and the more ideologically committed (aka The Base), rather than status-quo moderates within each party? It seems to me that a similar dynamic would work within each party - new media favor the less risk adverse group, which should be the firebrands.

Oh, and my profuse apologies for misspelling your handle [pounds head on desk]

Conservative talk radio gained traction when they perceived a large liberal slant to the mainstream media. Liberal blogging became prominent when they thought the main venues of discourse were shutting them out but were actually gaining traction (see especially dKos 2003).

By this explanation, it is a mere accident of technology that the right glommed on to talk radio and the left to the internet. One could even argue that the formats are not so different: host=blogger; callers=commenters; audience=lurkers.

Still, I think the market for leftie radio talkers is small for the same reason that the market for atheist preachers is small. Even if you call atheism a religion, it is an empirical fact that congregating to hear it preached is not one of its rites. There's just something more regimented about the right-wing mentality, and its correlation to religiosity may be a clue to what that something is.

Surely 'the free market' could not account for the dominance of right-wing talkers on radio. Those talkers are forever telling us how full of libruls the country is. A purely profit-driven entrepreneur would surely have exploited that vast market for liberal ideology long ago -- if it were not much harder to exploit than the conservative ideology market.

-- TP

ThatLeftTrunInABQ:

A followup question: do you think that emerging new media would tend to shift the intraparty power relationships in favor of insurgents and the more ideologically committed (aka The Base), rather than status-quo moderates within each party?

I think they temporarily shift intraparty power relationships in favor of insurgents, but I think lots of other factors apply to that dynamic. A big dynamic in the Republican Party was the shift from minority party thinking to majority party thinking (which I'm not sure ever really took in the House of Representatives). Insurgents gain power and then put your numbers over the top. They tend to believe that this validates their insurgent ways even if they aren't really a majority of the party. This tends to lead to some ill-considered lurches along the way. I suspect this feature is independent of the communication media.

Tony P.:

By this explanation, it is a mere accident of technology that the right glommed on to talk radio and the left to the internet. One could even argue that the formats are not so different: host=blogger; callers=commenters; audience=lurkers.

I think the analogy of the two formats is pretty tight, and I would have put it pretty much as you did. I do in fact think that their relative predominance in talk radio and blogging is an accident of timing. I think that because both talk radio and blogging had popular roots outside of politics (and in many cases continue to be outside of politics).

"Surely 'the free market' could not account for the dominance of right-wing talkers on radio. Those talkers are forever telling us how full of libruls the country is. A purely profit-driven entrepreneur would surely have exploited that vast market for liberal ideology long ago -- if it were not much harder to exploit than the conservative ideology market."

Network effect. At this point conservatives are comfortable looking for talk radio to validate their beliefs and liberals aren't comfortable looking past NPR on the radio dial to validate theirs.

Also I would probably argue that the need for liberal talk radio as a counter to the mainstream media has never been as large as the perceived need for a conservative counter to the mainstream media was *at the time it became powerful*. (Please note that caveat because I think it is crucial).

Even in the late 1980s there really wasn't a large conservative presence in the mainstream media. It is hard to remember after 12 years of FoxNews that FoxNews didn't exist before 1996. It wasn't until the late 1990s that conservatives had a big presence in the mainstream news media itself. That has never been a problem for Democrats/liberals.

"Even if you call atheism a religion, it is an empirical fact that congregating to hear it preached is not one of its rites. There's just something more regimented about the right-wing mentality, and its correlation to religiosity may be a clue to what that something is."

Been to a college campus? Those rallies with speakers don't tend to be on the right. But in any case I'm not sure what your comment has to do with talk radio/blogging. Talk radio prime-time is during the drive home from work. Blog interactions have a congregating to hear it preached aspect which is pretty strong. Even with commentors most blogs tend toward the "preach it brother" side of things. The community building aspects of having your preconceived notions reinforced are very stong on both sides.

Wilentz again. So goddamn indulgent.

FDR and LBJ loved power and politics, but every day they got up and fought like crazy because they knew about millions of Americans who didn't have enough food and medical care, and who didn't have unions to fight for job safety, decent pay and retirement benefits. They served.

Assholes like Wilentz know that good liberal policy makes for a stronger, fairer America, but they want people to recognize them for being smart enough to figure that out.

If they cared about working people and the poor, they'd shut up and SERVE THE PEOPLE. But no, they would rather lose the war and be right, than win and not be recognized.

The working classes really should give up on these kinds of Democrats. They are poison.

liberals aren't comfortable looking past NPR on the radio dial to validate theirs.

Look where? I've got Pacifica, which can be a bit far out for my tastes, and Air America, which is AM (or internet) and not great quality. NPR has a variety of programs, from Car talk to Wait, Wait to Fresh Air. So I tend to listen to NPR and not look past it all that much.

Been to a college campus? Those rallies with speakers don't tend to be on the right.

Yes, yes I have, and I don't recall lots of big rallies. In fact, I don't recall any big rallies. I'm sure that such rallies are part of the conservative imagination, but when I was in school (in a pretty liberal town), I never saw any.

"If you have the stomach for it, check out Sean Wilentz’s latest — and nastiest — anti-Obama screed. It’s not everyday you see a respected Princeton historian devolve into Grandpa Simpson in four short pages, but Wilentz pulled it off. (The 4th page alone is all you need to read.)"

Translation: "I'm mad. This really smart person is entirely wrong and should be mocked. Read the conclusion without the supporting arguments, which I won't address."

"Like everyone else, Wilentz is entitled to his opinion, and to hate Obama."

Here you just make yourself laughable.

"Obama will remain the most unformed candidate in the modern history of presidential politics."

This blog is still attacking mild criticism of Obama by distortive quoting, I see.

"For instance, Obama’s awfulness is surveyed in contrast to other modern candidates."

And still not able to read in context.

'During his four years in Washington, he has compiled one of the most predictably liberal voting records in the Senate—yet he presents himself as an advocate of bipartisanship and ideological flexibility.'

"Facts, however, are stubborn things."

Right, the facts on FISA, drilling off-shore, NAFTA, the Carter stuff from page 3 are stubborn.

The facts are that you disagree with two of his points, both of which you misunderstand or anyway reply unappositely to, and have to pile on the emotional language to make up for the lack of substance - this post is just Rush Limbaugh mocking the liberal profs from the other side.

And you even miss the serious mistake Wilentz makes wrt the dollar bill issue.

Oh well.

Unfortunately, Sean Wilentz is not an aberration in terms of what passes for scholarship in the United States. The article is delusional in thinking that people are voting for Obama because of his skin color or that Clinton was a great president. The racist undertones are also pretty clear when he refers to "menacing strangers".

publius, I'll at least give you credit for at least providing a link to Sean Wilentz's article in question. That said, since when has the expression of one's political opinion that's contrary to your own consituted a form of deceit?

Judging by your manufactured outrage at those selective quotes that you've taken entirely out of context, you've no doubt successfully channeled your inner vicious queen, and as such your resultant literary handicraft is worth neither the bandwidth it occupies nor the time I wasted while reading it.

This blog is still attacking mild criticism of Obama by distortive quoting, I see.

This blog can't really do anything since it is not a person. If you mean, "I think hilzoy and publius are still attacking mild criticism of Obama with distortive quoting", then please just say that. I for one want to hear more about why you think hilzoy and publius write so dishonestly. Do you think they're fundamentally dishonest people?

"Facts, however, are stubborn things."

Right, the facts on FISA, drilling off-shore, NAFTA, the Carter stuff from page 3 are stubborn.

rilkefan, are you saying that you agree with Wilentz' claim that Obama is the most liberal Senator? Do you think that the methodology by which he (or the National Journal) came to this conclusion is sound and represents good scholarship? And what does FISA, drilling, NAFTA, or Carter stuff have to do with the most liberal Senator claim that publius was criticizing?

"This blog is still attacking mild criticism of Obama by distortive quoting, I see."

Doubtful. The blog has no volition or consciousness or agency. I suggest addressing and characterizing individual humans, who do.

I do think Wilentz has gone off the deep end on Obama. And I would add that the primary argument he makes in his last book -- which celebrates Jacksonian Democracy as a sort of preview of modern liberalism while downplaying its appeal to White Supremacism -- is also pretty flawed (as shown recently by historian Daniel Howe).

So may Publius is right: that Wilentz's obvious obsession with attacking Obama (at a time when his comments can only help Republican John McCain) calls into question his abilities as a historian. (And by the way, I'm also a historian, with a Ph.D., so I'm not just pulling this out of you-know-where).

Good engineers look at a problem and decide to ignore vast areas of it at very high speeds while spending almost all of their time on very small sections. This is reductionism in the extreme: not only are most complex things just details, but all those complex details don't fundamentally affect behavior.

That's a really clever observation, Turbulence. There are exceptions, of course, but in general when an airplane goes out of control in the sky, gear up, all analysis of landing gear control margins do tend to get put aside in favor of more likely causes.

All too frequently, though, I get to a point in analysis where nothing I think I know is helping, and revert to just making up a whole lot of hypotheses and attempting to negate them. Almost like a real scientist, I think. It's in situations like these that I tend to feel as if I've earned my paycheck, and then some, because I tend to find, if not solutions, explanations.

Which, on occasion, has gotten me referred to as "expert". That makes me kind of uncomfortable, though, because it's just the things I'm called expert in that I feel that I least understand.

"Re Rob's point, as an independent closely
following the primaries for the first time,
it's really striking how the Republicans
(generally) look at their candidate and say
"well, at least I agree with him or her about
issues A, C, D, G, and L" and sign on, even
if with limited enthusiasm. Over on the
Democratic side, far too many people seem
to say "hey, I disagree with the candidate
on issue H. How can the candidate be so
foolish? This will never do...." and
dither off, whether a disgruntled Hillary
supporter or disillusioned Obama supporter
--one vote or statement they don't like,
and suddenly it's all a betrayal."

So, so right.

The proof? The large number of voters who
abandoned Al Gore for Ralph Nader because
of Gore's lack progressive perfection.

Slarti: welcome to the practice of law.

The Wilentz piece has this passage in the first paragraph:

"Last winter, when his candidacy gained traction, Obama's foreign-policy credentials consisted almost entirely of a speech he gave before a left-wing rally in Chicago in 2002, denouncing the impending invasion of Iraq as "a dumb war." That speech, made by a state senator representing a liberal district that included the University of Chicago, and that went unreported in the Chicago Tribune's lengthy article on the rally..."

This is a pretty incredible degree of insulting distortion - remember, the time period referenced is after his 2004 convention speech, campaign for the senate, several years in the senate. And it goes downhill from there. This is not "mild criticism." It's toxic propaganda, and it is not intellectually honest. That's like reading a piece that begins with "Bill Clinton, known mostly for his endless lust for women and shady real estate scandals frequently investigated in the press..."
You know you're not working with an honest writer when you read something like that.

Wilentz has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to twist things that I can check. I therefore simply can't trust that he isn't doing the same for things that I can't check where he claims expertise.

Wilentz is Hungarian for turd.

You can trust me - I'm a professional historian.

Wilentz is Hungarian for turd.

You can trust me - I'm a professional historian.

Re the page 4 link, Wilentz, McCain and Obama/Biden are ALL wrong on the Georgia/Russia issue, anyway.

And, Biden being a war hawk/internationalist type who wants to bring Georgia into NATO is yet another reason to think outside the two-party duopoly.

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Whatnot


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