Why conservatives can’t do pop culture very well

Yes, somebody actually painted this. And no, I don’t think it’s satire. You have to sort of love the rooster, though. He’s as free as a bird now.

The question is: where’s Waldo?

You see this is why conservatives are failing when it comes to waging the culture war in the arts, and why they at once turn to political means rather than cultural means to wage that war. It’s also why we see so many conservatives devolve into self-victimization.

Conservatives have a hard time making conservative films or television shows – though occasionally you’ll find a show like 24 which espouses some conservative ideas about war and national security. I think the success of 24 was in weaving some conservative ideals into a show that focuses mostly on the action.

You rarely hear conservative music outside of Nashville. Country is one of the few successes at transposing conservative culture war politics into pop culture.

We do see plenty of sexism and other illiberal views in our  mainstream pop culture, of course. See Alyssa Rosenberg’s deconstruction of the Superbowl ads for one example.

But for some reason, conservative attempts at pop culture simply don’t pan out for the most part. So we get complaints about liberal media or liberal Hollywood or whatever. But it’s not liberal Hollywood’s fault that conservatives can’t do art. (Nor is it entirely obvious that Hollywood is liberal, but that’s another story for another time.)

And it’s not as though no good conservative art or literature has ever been produced. It’s just that today’s conservatives have lost any sense of proportion or subtext. Everything is so overt and over-stated. I think that The Lord of the Rings is a basically conservative text. It’s just not explicitly conservative and doesn’t say anything nasty about Obama.

Today’s conservative pop culture is reactionary, which is fitting I suppose. There was a mockumentary conservatives made a couple years ago that attempted to not very cleverly spoof Michael Moore. But an attempt to beat Moore at his own game is probably going to fail, if only because it’s little more than preaching to the choir (and this isn’t even to say that Moore isn’t deserving of his own criticism – the left is actually very good at leveling its own critique at Moore.) It’s the same in politics: conservatives aren’t so much interested with their own ideas about governance as they are about responding to and obstructing the ideas of their opponents.

And perhaps that’s the crux of the issue. Conservative art mimics conservative politics rather than the other way around. And so it can never really be art.


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Gingrich’s gift to the media: a primary bloodbath

"Mitt Romney would only cut the budget this much…"

Newt Gingrich isn’t going to stop, even if Romney beats him bloody in Florida. Don’t get me wrong, the former speaker is finished. He’s not going to topple the party establishment. He doesn’t represent the hope and change he pretends to represent. He’s no transformational figure at all.

The reason the GOP elites dislike Gingrich isn’t because he’s too conservative it’s because he’s a disgrace to the Republican Party. His personal life is an embarrassment and his lobbying for Fannie and Freddie is just one of many toxic items in his record. By comparison, Romney is squeaky clean even with a mini-Obamacare in his past. As far as we know he’s been a faithful husband and father. His Mormonism is problematic, and for some reason his tenure at Bain Capital has him on the defensive, but beyond that his main liability is that people just don’t like him that much. Well when it comes to favorability, Newt scores even worse.

John Heilemann thinks that in spite of all of this, Newt is just crazy enough to keep fighting through the convention:

Pledges to continue the fight unabated in the face of harsh and/or humiliating outcomes are staples of presidential campaigns. And they are also patently meaningless. (Please recall Jon Huntsman’s feigned brio on the night of the New Hampshire primary — and his departure from the race a few days later.) But in Gingrich’s case, he might be serious, so much has he come to despise Romney and the Republican Establishment that has brought down on him a twenty-ton shithammer in Florida, and so convinced is he of his own Churchillian greatness and world-historical destiny.

I suppose this depends largely on whether he can fund a losing campaign or not, in the face of all odds. Andrew Sullivan, no fan of Romney, notes:

I guess I’m biased as I really enjoy a good political bloodbath. And during this campaign, I’ve come to loathe Romney almost as much as his Republican peers do.

Kevin Drum adds:

But here’s the real question: if Romney builds up a big enough head of steam, he’ll declare victory and withdraw from future debates. Without Romney, no one will be much interested in airing the debates, and no one would watch them even if they were aired. So all three of the also-rans would have to keep up their campaigns even though they weren’t getting regular time to yak on national TV and the press corps was no longer taking the race seriously.

Therein lies the rub.

Gingrich’s gift to the media is a long fight – a bloodbath, as Sullivan put it – which keeps all of us pundits happy, and the broadcasters with a steady stream of news. If Santorum bows out and endorses Gingrich, we could see a pretty intense three-way race all the way to the convention. What a glorious bit of persistent news that would be.

It’s ironic, really, that the man who so scorns the media at every possible turn would be the one to give them such a lovely present this election season. Of course, if Romney does sit out the debates that changes the equation to some degree. Debates, however vapid they  may be, spark lots of news. They even change the outcome of races (see e.g. South Carolina.)

Then again, we could all be wrong. Gingrich could bow out suddenly and inexplicably after Florida. He could spin his antagonism toward Romney around 180 degrees and back the former Massachusetts governor. The GOP elites and the conservative movement elites could make nice and rally round the nominee.

How dreadfully boring this would be.

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The best critique of Obama’s State of the Union so far

The Republican party has taken a page from The Daily Show’s playbook:

Of course all politicians – or at least most of them – engage in the same sort of repetitive rhetoric. Call it a leftover from the Halcyon days before YouTube mash-ups, when our short memories were enough to shelter politicians from their own talking points.

Times have changed. Our political institutions – and leaders – have not.

(via BuzzFeed)

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Mitch Daniels and ‘trickle down government’

Mitch Daniels gave the 2012 State of the Union GOP response.

Mitch Daniels actually gave a pretty decent SOTU response tonight. None of Jindal’s tragic, loping performance, though that’s a low bar to cross. Perhaps I was too quick earlier to dismiss the Indiana governor. His line about “trickle down government” was extremely clever. Kudos to his speech writer.

Daniels manages to be folksy and fairly likable without sounding insincere. That’s a good quality to have in a politician. Romney would give his left leg to have a bit of that natural, low-key charm.

Still, I find the opposition response to the State of the Union address mind-numbingly boring and, perhaps more importantly, extremely unnecessary. Even a pretty good, pretty positive, upbeat response has me nodding off. After sitting through an entire speech from the president, it’s hard to muster the strength to sit through yet another – albeit shorter – follow-up. Besides, you never know when you’ll pull a Jindal.

If I believed that Republicans were serious about actually reforming entitlements the way they say they want to, I might even find a few things to agree with in Daniels’ response. We do need entitlement reform. We do need smart government and pro-growth policies. The problem is that the grown-ups have by and large abandoned the Republican party. I have many quibbles with the Democratic party but at least they attempt to govern well.

I have no doubt that Daniels qualifies as a grown-up in his party, but it must be an awfully lonely experience.

Instead we have Newt Gingrich toppling expectations in South Carolina – a man whose ego is childlike in its grandiosity.

Daniels did fine, but conservative dreamers like Bill Kristol should avoid getting their hopes up. A fine SOTU response doesn’t build a political organization out of thin air. Daniels still has no organization. He’s still leagues behind his would-be rivals in just about every sense except, perhaps, sounding and acting like an adult. We should know by now that qualities like maturity are hardly important when electing a president. We elected George W. Bush twice, after all.

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Why the president succeeded with his State of the Union address tonight

Obama cut a presidential figure, especially compared to his rivals.

President Obama gave a pretty good speech tonight. American exceptionalism and the emergence from darker times were the interwoven themes of the evening. Scattered throughout were some decent ideas on Senate reform and tax policy, but overall it was still a pretty low-calorie affair. Nothing too wonky or deep. Nothing to sink our teeth into.

Still, I think it’s important to remember the intended audience when we listen to these sorts of speeches. Most Americans, after all, don’t obsess over politics the way we bloggers and denizens of the internet do. Most Americans like to hear a positive, rousing speech that isn’t too long.

Just as importantly, it’s remarkable to watch Barack Obama speak about his vision for America. He cuts a striking contrast with his opponents in the GOP primary. There’s not a lot of visionary material in the speech itself – nothing particularly detailed – but he sure looks like a president doesn’t he?

After several months of the GOP primary circus, listening to Obama give a rousing speech about the American dream, the American promise – the indispensable nation that is us – well, it’s hard not to compare him to the dimensionless Mitt Romney, or the bristly Newt Gingrich and his aura of self-importance. Obama looks dignified. He has gravitas. He’s eloquent.

Still, Andrew Sullivan was disappointed:

I was hoping for a vision. I was hoping for real, strategic reform. What we got was one big blizzard of tax deductions, wrapped in a populist cloak. It was treading water. I suspect this will buoy liberal spirits, but anger the right and befuddle the independents. It definitely gives the Republican case against Obama as a big government meddler more credibility. I may be wrong – but the sheer cramped, tedious, mediocre micro-policies he listed were uninspiring to say the least.

We voted for Obama; now we find we got another Clinton. The base will like this. I’m not sure independents will. As performance, he did as well as he could with the thin material he had in his hands. As a speech, I thought it was the worst of his SOTUs, when he really needed his best.

Josh Barro wanted Obama to talk about monetary policy and was disappointed when he didn’t. Indeed, there was little policy meat in tonight’s speech.

But isn’t hoping for a vision sort of missing the point? Isn’t hoping for concrete policy a little like wishing for unicorns?

This is the first of many campaign speeches Obama will give. Will it anger independents? I don’t think so. Most independents are actually just undecided low-information voters.

The point of a speech like this one – an election year State of the Union Address – is not to lay out a grand vision. To be honest, the time for grand visions is over. What the president needs to do – and what he didn’t do enough tonight – is lay out in stark terms why his presidency is important and distinct from the hypothetical presidency of Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich.

But none of that really matters. Obama looked like a president tonight. He sounded like one, too. For that matter, Mitch Daniels actually sounded a bit like a president.

Both men sound a lot more like presidents than Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich. This is a really bad sign for the Republican party. And since it’s too late for Daniels to get into the race, it’s a really good sign for Obama.

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In which I agree with Bill Kristol on Ron Paul

Is Weekly Standard chief Bill Kristol secretly rooting for Obama?

Neocon-in-chief and Weekly Standard top-dog Bill Kristol wants Ron Paul to run a third party ticket:

A lot of people when they criticize Ron Paul have to preface their criticism by saying, ‘you know, he’s good guy, he brings a lot to the debate,’” Bill Kristol said on C-SPAN. “I actually don’t buy that. I do not think he’s a particular good guy . . . I think it would be better for the Republican party, if he left the Republican party.” …

“[Buchanan] left the party in 1999 and a lot of people, and I was one of them, said, goodbye and good riddance, you’re not in the mainstream of the Republican party, go run as some Reform party candidate . . . he did in 2000 and he didn’t get many votes and actually George W. Bush I think was helped—and the Republican party was helped—to be free of Buchanan’s extreme isolationism, protectionism, anti-Israel views, and the like. Ron Paul is a little different from Pat Buchanan—but he’s no better, in my view. And I actually think we’d benefit in the long run—but even in the short run . . .”

The boss concluded: “I don’t think anyone should plead with him not to run or to stay in the party. I would be comfortable in a general election if Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum as the Republican in the Reagan tradition and debating both Barack Obama and Ron Paul.”

Ed Brayton chuckles:

You know who else would be comfortable with that? Barack Obama. If Ron Paul runs in the general election as an independent or on a third party ticket, his reelection is guaranteed. Obama’s campaign leaders would be doing back flips if that happens.

Maybe Kristol understands that Obama has actually done a much better job of tracking down terrorists like, I dunno, say Osama bin Laden, than his Republican counterparts. Maybe this is Kristol’s way of secretly rooting for a second Obama term. Those neocons were all socialists in the beginning, back before they got mugged by “reality.”

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A Qualified Defense of Obama

Andrew Sullivan's defense of Obama is incomplete but compelling.

Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek cover piece is one of the best defenses of the Obama presidency I’ve read, echoing many of my own beliefs about the president. On healthcare, I think the Affordable Care Act was the wrong policy at the right time – the best step we could have taken with the political system we have and almost certainly a step in the right direction. Our nation’s healthcare status quo is a disaster, and the poorly termed “Obamacare” pushes the needle in the right direction – though there are miles to go before we sleep.

Indeed, on domestic policy I agree almost entirely with Sullivan. The president did all he could do given the disposition of congress, the economic straights we found ourselves floundering in, and the reality of politics in America. Perhaps he wasn’t forceful enough in his condemnation of the Republican obstructionism. Perhaps he’s playing a long game as Sullivan suggests. Certainly he has surprised us all before. And certainly his political calculations are based on a very different set of information than we have available.

Like Conor Friedersdorf and Ryan Bonneville and others, my quibble with Sullivan’s piece comes when the discussion revolves from domestic to foreign policy. Both Conor and Ryan pointed out that Andrew was far too quick to gloss over Obama’s foreign policy and civil liberties record. I agree.

On assassination of US citizens, the NDAA, the war on drugs, and a handful of other issues, Obama has been a huge disappointment. I understand that the politics of foreign policy and the drug war are complex and difficult to fathom. And I do, on some level, forgive Obama’s decisions here. He works within the constraints of the American political scene. He can’t appear weak on defense. If anything will sink his chance at reelection, a weakness at defense will.

Andrew’s response to civil libertarians was not dismissive, but incomplete:

In wartime, I believe the government has a right to find and kill those who are waging war against us, if it is impossible to capture them. I don’t think wartime decisions like that need be completely transparent – or can be, if we are to succeed. And I think Obama has succeeded remarkably quickly in this new kind of war. He has all but wiped out al Qaeda by drone attacks and the Afghanistan surge. And his success makes these repugnant wartime excesses things that, in a second term, he could ratchet back. Even Bush racheted back in his second term.

But my primary issue has always been torture – the cancer it introduces into our legal, moral and civilizational bloodstream. That has gone. More will, if Obama continues to win this war and gains strength against the authoritarian pro-torture GOP by being re-elected.

Lesser of two evils in this respect? Yes.

Well…yes and no. The end of torture is undeniably a good thing, and something that would be once again revoked by a Romney or a Gingrich or a Santorum, all three of whom have vowed to waterboard if given the chance. When it comes to the question of lesser of two evils, Obama is almost certainly a lesser evil than any of these three. And on domestic policy he is far preferable to Ron Paul, the only Republican who would be more liberal on matters of civil liberty and war.

I also understand that in writing a defense of the president, Sullivan was less interested in attacking him at length on these abuses of power. To Sullivan, the defense of Obama is more important than offering up an extended critique of the president. Sullivan – and I’m with him on this – is worried about a return of Republicans to the White House. The prospects of a Romney or a Gingrich presidency are truly frightening. Everything we dislike about Obama would almost certainly be worse under a GOP administration. The lesser of two evils, in a democracy ruled over by a political duopoly, does indeed matter.

But these things do matter. What else can I say? The fact that Obama has deported so many undocumented workers, has essentially ramped up the war on drugs and laughed off its opponents, and started (and, admittedly finished) a war in Libya – these are deeply troubling. They reveal an illiberal strain in the Democratic party that is worrisome to civil libertarians like myself. I’m left feeling more hopeless than ever about the future of our free-ish society.

There is almost no way I could possibly vote GOP in this election. Ron Paul is a good man, I think, and an honorable one. He would attempt, at least, to do good, liberal things like end the wars and the war on drugs. But his history with the newsletters and his more radical domestic policies also matter to me. He doesn’t represent my vision for America either.

I’m left wondering how to change this country for the better. People say politics is all about the local. Focus on your congress person. Focus on the politics that are closer to home. Maybe this is true. But a president can make a big difference, as the Bush years have more than adequately illustrated. Maybe that’s Obama’s greatest strength. For all his flaws, for all his continuation of bad Bush-era policies, he’s managed to be a competent leader and administrator. Republicans long ago decided that the business of governing was beneath them. Bush was the culmination of years of anti-government attitudes. The appeal of Huntsman, I suspect, was that he seemed at least competent.

Well so is Obama. Surveying the GOP field this primary season, perhaps that is enough.

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Why I’m Rooting For Gingrich In South Carolina

Aspiring child janitors everywhere will not forgive Gingrich if he drops out after South Carolina.

Newt, this is not the former speaker we know and love. You don’t give up on politics, just on marriages!

Newt Gingrich came clean Tuesday afternoon, admitting that if he can’t win this state’s primary on Saturday, he probably can’t win the Republican nomination at all.

“If I don’t win the primary Saturday, we will probably nominate a moderate,” the former House speaker said, referring to Mitt Romney. “And the odds are fairly high he will lose to Obama.”

The question is whether Gingrich endorses Santorum if the frothy ex-Senator stays in the race after a South Carolina loss.

I suppose that depends on whether or not all this bad press actually puts a dent in Romney’s titanium exoskeleton. The fact that Perry, Santorum, and Gingrich all failed to get on Virginia’s GOP primary ballot may be a moot point if they all run out of money by March.

Obama must be sleeping like a damn baby these days. All these Super PACs are doing his job for him as the Republican field shreds itself to pieces. They’ll all line up like good soldiers behind Romney in the end (Ron Paul is a wild card on this point) but the damage will have been done.

Perhaps I just have a morbid fascination with Republican primaries, but I really do hope Gingrich or Santorum beats Romney so that this whole lovely mess gets dragged out even further.

(P.S. Totally unrelated random thought: why should we settle for just one president? We pay the president way too much. We could hire like 2,000 kids to do that job instead and teach them about hard work and responsibility all at the same time. Extend this logic to congress and you’ve not only saved money, you’ve dragged thousands of kids out of unemployment.)

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