I ran across some material really important to winning in 2012, while doing some digging to post a reply to a comment in the Better Off Without 'Em diary. We've all been watching to see if Obama's second debate performance can make up for his first, we've seen Joe Biden clean Paul Ryan's clock, and we're doubtless wondering why anyone would vote for that arrogant, lying S.O.B. aka Mitt Romney. How does he get away with it?
Remember the Culture Wars? Well, there's one going on right before our eyes but it's not so much the "family values" foofaraw as it is something deeper from our history.
More below the Orange Omnilepticon.
Whatever we are now as a country, there's no denying much of our history is still shaped by our roots as a colony of England. What we see now as a clash of cultures between red and blue states, between libertarian impulses and authoritarianism, individualism versus socialism, can be traced back to four radically different groups that came to America from England. The basic thesis of the book Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer is that the different traditions and social expectations of these groups is still shaping the debate today. If we seem to be talking past each other at times, it's because we are.
I'm going to confess up front I have yet to read the book - but Sara Robinson has and her analysis in Why We Don't Shoot Back sheds a lot of light on what's happening now. From 2008, these words seem prescient in light of how the debates between Romney and Obama have gone - and the polls afterwards.
Worlds In Collision
The four groups in Albion's seed are the Puritans, Quakers, Cavaliers, and the Borderers. Robinson summarizes the last two thusly:
"...Cavalier and Borderer cultures are extremely honor-driven. A person's good name is their most cherished asset. Any challenge to that must be answered. Anyone who is unwilling to defend his or her honor, or to stand up for his or her own kin, or defend his or her principles, reveals his or her essential unworthiness to lead others. A Cavalier will challenge you to a duel. A Borderer will start a fistfight. A more modern politician will do it with public ridicule, a stirring speech, or a TV interview. No matter. You call these folks out, and you are going to have to reckon with some consequences.emphasis added
In the southern and western areas that were dominated by these two cultures, many people simply don't understand and won't accept leaders who shy away when attacked. Strength matters. (So do wit, grace, and style in shutting down upstarts. There are big bonus points for doing it in a way that never lets them see you sweat. Ann Richards, for example, did it in a way that was funny, feminine, and murderously effective.) Failure to exercise that strength is fatal. People figure that if you're not even willing to defend your own honor and interests when someone confronts you directly in public, how on earth can we ever count on you to fight for the rest of us on the stuff that really matters?"
Two guesses which kind of voters Romney is gunning for, and which ones are attracted to a man who takes being an Alpha Male to toxic levels. A man can be a lying scoundrel - but still be admired for his readiness to defend his honor, such as it is.
Meanwhile, who does this remind you of?
The northern Puritan and Quaker cultures, on the other hand, have much more measured and careful responses to being challenged. Publicly question the honor of a Boston gentleman, and he probably won't dignify the challenger with any response at all. He trusts that the community will exercise its own judgment, measure his character against that of his opponent, draw the correct conclusion, and quietly defend him by shunning the cad. (Both the Puritans and Quakers relied heavily on shaming, shunning and banishment -- all forms of community discipline -- to deal with people who upset the collective order.) If someone crosses the legal line, he'll let the courts sort it out. In the meantime, he will say nothing on the matter at all. If you ignore ugly, it will go away. Under no circumstances do you take matters into your own hands.emphasis added
Our gentleman also takes it as a matter of personal honor that civilized people never, ever, ever use force. Fischer writes that you can tell when a New Englander is on his very last nerve when he says something like, "I swear -- I almost hit him!" (Contrast that to Borderers, who will gin up fist fights for fun.) Puritan and Quaker leaders demonstrate their moral superiority by doubling down on their self-control when under fire. Losing it brands you forever as a hothead who's a potential danger to self and others, and who should never again be trusted with any kind of serious responsibility.
In Quaker culture, challenges do get answered -- but since violence is not an option, the community is obligated to come together and frankly talk the matter through until the truth is discovered and the matter resolved. Both groups see confrontation as destructive to the resolution process and a threat to community order and cohesion, and discourage it at all costs.
So, any questions about which side is more effective in pushing its agenda? Any questions about who appears stronger to undecided voters who may not know a lot, but know what they see? What we see as bullying, they see as leadership. What we see as reasoned consideration, thoughtfulness, courtesy, they see as weakness. We're having a real conflict here, so is it surprising that people who thrive on conflict have an advantage - if we let them have it?
If you haven't got time to read Albion's Seed, definitely look at Sara Robinson's Why We Don't Shoot Back. If you're wondering why inside the beltway wisdom is so out of touch with the rest of the country, consider this from Robinson:
At this point, you can probably see where this is going. As a broad generalization, the roots of American conservatism -- along with the deep culture of much of the country -- lie in two foundational cultures that accept high levels of conflict and confrontation as normal, and take the measure of a candidate on the basis of how confidently and creatively he or she responds to it. On the other hand, the roots of American liberalism -- along with the deep culture of the northern tier of the country -- lie in two foundational cultures that are extremely conflict-averse, and regard returning fire as an incontrovertible sign of personal weakness and poor character.emphasis added
Unfortunately for progressives, the descendants of the Cavaliers and Borderers far outnumber those of the Puritans and Quakers (who, from the start, had much smaller families); and, thanks to the wanderings of the Borderers in particular, they're far more spread out across the country. Worse: these were joined later by large immigrant waves from traditional Catholic cultures (Irish, Italian, Latino, and so on) that, wherever they landed, also subscribed to the belief that a leader who won't rise to defend his or her own honor or interests is no kind of leader at all.
On the other hand, the Puritans were tremendous builders of social networks and educational institutions -- and to this day, the areas of the country they dominated enjoy a disproportionate share of political and cultural power, particularly on the liberal side. The bottom line is that the "don't fight back" crowd dominates the eastern power establishment -- but they're a distinct minority across the rest of the country. And that's where the fatal disconnect lies.
Robinson wrote this in 2008, but the words are even more appropriate today.
Obama is at his best when he reaches back into his Kansas populist side; but these days, he's no doubt got plenty of old party hands giving him the same fatal advice they gave Gore, Dukakis, Mondale, Humphrey, and even old Adlai Stevenson. (Note that they're all Northerners, too. Gore was a son of the South, but spent most of his childhood in D.C., and went to Yale.) They're going to do him in, too — and in exactly the same way — if he keeps listening. He needs people who know how to stick it right back to the GOP — fast, fearlessly, fiercely, with deadly aim and a transcendently elegant sense of style. (There's no need to give up the high road, ever. You absolutely can do this and stay classy.) And he needs them this week.emphasis added
And that's why it was a mistake to write Joe Biden off - he knows this in his bones. That's why he left Ryan floundering in his wake. And it's why the Republicans only get angrier the worse they do. When they complain about "Chicago Style Politics", it's actually a compliment according to their world view. No wonder they want Democrats to shun it.
I'm going to end this with a video of Bill O'Reilly interviewing President Obama on Super Bowl Sunday back in 2011. It's a compilation of every time O'Reilly interrupts the President, talks over him, puts words in his mouth. You can see the clash of cultures here.
Monday night, Barack Obama had better leave Mitt Romney a whimpering mess on the floor - and do it with style. That's the only answer they understand, and what a lot of America will be watching for.