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December 31, 2007

the Obama "theory of change"

Mark Schmitt’s essay on Senator Obama has been very widely cited (and should be applied to politicians other than Obama himself). Schmitt argues that, as president, Obama might win legislative victories by treating conservatism as a legitimate philosophy and presuming that his opponents honor the same basic values that he does--e.g., health care for all. This assumption would put Republicans in a difficult position if the evidence favored progressive proposals. Obama’s conciliatory and deliberative style might win over a few Republican senators, Schmitt says, and that is essential if Democrats want to pass legislation.

I actually thought these points were obvious all along, but I’m grateful to Schmitt for using his authority to spell them out for progressive readers. The opposite of Schmitt’s position is being argued by "Kos" in Newsweek and by Paul Krugman in the New York Times. They recommend blaming anti-government conservatism for our major problems, tying all Republican candidates to that ideology, and trying to create a large pro-government majority. Their best argument is that conservative ideas are now fairly unpopular, according to surveys. However, they overlook the following points:

First, Americans do not think ideologically. For instance, few Americans have been interested in the ideological differences between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, even though the two men were diametrical opposites. Often, less than half of respondents to the National Election Studies are willing or able to place the Republicans to the right of the Democrats on an ideological spectrum. In discussions of local issues, according to Nina Eliasoph's research, Americans avoid ideological interpretations. And our own focus groups of college students found deep resistance to all ideologies. Therefore, it would be very hard to blame recent failures on conservatism, rather than George W. Bush personally.

Second, adopting a civil and deliberative style is a good strategy for winning elections. Liberal bloggers have been arguing that only elites, especially The Washington Post editorial board and David Broder, admire bipartisanship and civility, whereas ordinary Americans don’t care about it. These bloggers have been hanging around with angry Democrats and have not been talking to average Americans or reading the scholarly literature on political opinion. Americans are hostile to partisanship and ideological disagreement--excessively hostile, in my opinion. Their aversion to sharp disagreement hampers our politics, in some respects. But they really don't like ideological conflict.

Third, even if Americans are saying that they support somewhat more active government, there is a deep vein of public suspicion about Washington and the federal government. That suspicion is fed by the idea that Washington elites are angry, divided, uncivil, and prone to exaggerate their differences for tactical advantage. Why should you entrust thousands of your dollars to Washington to cover your health insurance if the people who run the place seem to be constantly squabbling, and each half of Congress says that the other half is wicked and foolish? Progressive policy requires public trust in government, and we won't have trust in government until leaders adopt a civil and dignified tone.

Fourth, I do not accept the diagnosis that all our major problems arise from anti-government conservatism. Kos, for example, blames the Katrina disaster on FEMA director Mike Brown, and explains Bush's choice of Brown as a symptom of the administration's "government-busting ideology." There is some truth to this, but I think the Katrina tragedy exemplifies other truths as well. The Army Corps of Engineers did damage over many decades, not because of anti-government ideology but because of managerial and technical arrogance (and old-fashioned earmarking and logrolling)--which are the dark side of the New Deal. Meanwhile, local public institutions, such as the New Orleans schools, were in calamitous condition, partly because of low budgets but partly because of extremely poor management. Yet the leaders of New Orleans were Democrats. If not all our problems are due to "government-busting ideology," then it will be hard to convince people that they are.

Fifth, a close look at the Republican Party reveals a loose coalition, not a tightly organized national machine. It's easier than Kos thinks to pick up Republican votes, and harder than he thinks to tie the whole party to a single ex-president. The best way to make Republicans feel solidarity is to try to lump them together as enemies of decent government.

I pass over a sixth reason--our ethical obligation to presume that our fellow citizens have decent motives until shown otherwise--for fear that that will make me look naive.

Posted by peterlevine at 10:05 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 28, 2007

notes on "genre fiction"

I'm going to try a little light blogging again, although I'm still very emotionally preoccupied. Throughout this difficult period, I have been trying to use novels as a distraction--reading works by Alan Furst, Patrick O’Brien, and Ward Just that could be classified as "genre fiction." It struck me yesterday that that disparaging phrase is a solecism. Should we call Hamlet "genre fiction" because tragedy is a "genre"?

Traditionally, literature emphasized plot, and traditional plots involved grand, dramatic moments. They could be classified by "genre," according to the nature of those moments. For example, there were plays about murderous revenge, happy marriage, and the salvation of souls. But as we move toward the era of Jane Austen and then Henry James, writers become increasingly interested in the craft of representing subtle, interior states. They are able to dispense with dramatic plots and then almost to drop plot completely. Ulysses is an anti-epic because it describes a fairly unremarkable day in the life of an ordinary citizen. Such description becomes the mark of literary excellence, especially when it is layered with irony and reference.

In short, "genre" is what you subtract to get great modernist works. But some authors have continued to serve the taste for dramatic plots, and so we still see novels about crime and espionage, among other genres. (Fictional modern detectives make momentous choices and judgments under intense pressure, much as princes did in Shakespeare’s day.) "Genre" novels have dubious literary status because we presume that real excellence lies in thick description, whereas plot is a crutch--especially if the plot is formulaic.

And yet reliance on dramatic plots does not preclude close and subtle description. I quote P.D. James:

E. M. Forster has written: "The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is a plot. The queen died and no one knew why until they discovered it was of grief is a mystery, a form capable of high development." To that I would add: the queen died and everyone thought it was of grief until they discovered the puncture wound in her throat. That is a murder mystery and, in my view, it too is capable of high development.

Genre fiction, in other words, can vary in its degree of literary seriousness. For instance, Alan Furst has revived the noir espionage thriller, in the tradition of Eric Ambler. He provides good entertainment but not much depth. The narration is very straightforward and I detect little irony or complexity. There are discrete portions of dialog, alternating with pure action. (Two characters are talking; then they are running along, being shot at.) Almost all the characters are highly competent and there’s lots of sophisticated spycraft to keep you impressed. It would be a lot harder, however, to tell the same kind of story if the characters were confused and fallible.

Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin novels belong to a hoary subgenre of war novels, the Napoleonic naval series. At least since Horatio Hornblower, we’ve been able to follow the assent of fictional British officers from midshipmen to admirals. These heroes are brave in battle but humanitarian toward their own; Nelson is always the model. But O’Brien crosses this subgenre with Jane Austen; he mixes espionage and battle scenes with close and ironic description. Consider the following passage, picked almost at random. Dr. Maturin has just been given a commission by the admiral himself:

"There is only one thing I do not care for, however," he said as the order was passed reverently around the table, "and that is this foolish insistence upon the word surgeon. ’Do hereby appoint you surgeon … take upon you the employment of surgeon … together with such allowance for wages and victuals for yourself as is usual for the surgeon of the said sloop.' It is a false description, and a false description is anathema to the philosophic mind."

Maturin is a physician, which is a gentleman's occupation, in distinction to the tradesman's job of surgeon. He is a snob about the difference, but he doesn't want to appear so. Thus he settles on the ideal of precise terminology, which he values as a scientist. All of this is efficiently shown, adding a level of richness, humor, and irony to the narration. Equal depth could be found on almost every page.

Which brings me to Ward Just’s Forgetfulness. Superficially a spy novel, this book actually tells a very simple story that could be summarized in a paragraph (if one wanted to spoil the suspense). Most of the text is devoted to very close descriptions of the interior state of one flawed and unheroic, but interesting, individual. Ward Just does not choose a spy plot to entertain. Rather, he wants to reflect on the secret "war on terror," which is a crucial political issue today. The result is fine literature, and whether we call it "genre fiction" hardly seems to matter.

Posted by peterlevine at 9:51 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

December 12, 2007


(Syracuse, NY) I didn't go on the Oxfordshire "research" mission described in my last post. Instead, I'm in my home town with my very sick father and my family. I don't want to write about that--this isn't a personal diary--but I can't blog about other topics right now. I expect to return to regular blogging next week.

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December 6, 2007

to Oxfordshire

Tonight I'm flying to Heathrow and then traveling to a conference on "How Young People Form Political Views." I'm looking forward to learning from international colleagues. I'm then staying in Oxfordshire for about 48 hours after the conference ends. My purpose is "research," but not on youth or civic engagement. In the mid-nineties, I published a novel, Something to Hide. A few years later, I started to develop the outline of another book of fiction--much more intricate and complex--which I have recently started to write. It's set in Oxfordshire during the renaissance. I am familiar with that territory from my childhood and then graduate school. Nowadays, there are amazing webcams, Google Earth, and other online tools that let you see parts of the City of Oxford from your desk in Washington. Nevertheless, I have a list of places I want to see for myself. On Sunday and Monday, I will be doing things like trying to determine whether one could see the Oxford Castle from a scaffold erected at St. Giles around 1590.

I'm not sure I will be able to post again until Tuesday or Wednesday.

Posted by peterlevine at 10:28 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 5, 2007

Obama's service plan

As I write, Barack Obama is at Cornell College in Iowa unveiling his national service plan, along with Senator Harris Wofford. The text of the plan is here (pdf) and here's the speech. It's ambitious in that it envisions dramatically expanding the number of slots in federal programs such as the Peace Corps; creating new corps especially devoted to various important public issues (such as clean energy and health); changing financial incentives so that colleges and universities will fund more student service; integrating service better into k-12 education; and funding "social entrepreneurship" in the nonprofit sector. It is a $3.5 billion/year plan, which is a serious investment.

I think national service programs represent an important aspect of civic renewal. They create opportunities for people to work on public problems without having to enter bureaucracies or obtain credentials--that's how I'd define "social entrepreneurship." They express respect for ordinary Americans' potential to contribute. (For instance, Obama would enlist Americans who speak foreign languages to go overseas and represent us.) And good service programs provide an education in citizenship for participants of all ages.

I do not believe, however, that national and community service exhaust our options for civic renewal. Other major goals include: promoting effective public deliberation about policy, reforming the political system to make it more responsive and deliberative, and revising substantive policies in areas like health and education so that they encourage public participation. Senator Edwards has advanced important ideas regarding public deliberation and political reform. The November Fifth Coalition is showing what it would mean to reform substantive policies. There is still room, clearly, for Senator Obama and other candidates to propose more ideas to renew democratic participation.

I'll be interested in the degree to which the press reports the new Obama service agenda. Most of the coverage of Edwards' "democracy agenda" was generated by colleagues and associates of mine who deliberately wrote supportive op-ed pieces (collected here). Their message was: Edwards has good ideas, but there is plenty of room for other candidates to stake out civic ground. I'd say that remains the case even after today's excellent speech by Senator Obama.

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December 4, 2007

the Huckabee phenomenon

Disclaimer: I doubt very much that anything in this post is original. This is popular territory, and I haven't looked for other blog posts that make the same points better:

If Mike Huckabee plays a major role in the Republican nomination race, the impact will be quite profound. The conservative coalition, as many have observed, consists of Christian values-voters, pro-corporate tax-cutters, and professional politicos whose fates are tied to the Republican Party. (By the way, there are also people and groups whose narrow economic interests and career trajectories tie them to the Democrats.) The three components of the conservative coalition sit uneasily together. In particular, social conservatives like Rich Cizik and Randy Brinson do not view the Republican Party as an end in itself (or as a meal ticket). They do not like putting political expediency above principle; and they are not mainly interested in cutting taxes. In fact, their substantive goals can be advanced either by cutting bureaucracies or by expanding government programs, depending on the context. I strongly suspect that Cizik and Brinson have bigger grassroots followings than the Republican Party loyalists, because that's the nature of all political movements. Grassroots activists don't have narrow self-interests, so they care about principles. Meanwhile, professional party leaders are easily corrupted by strategic considerations because they are the ones who can get jobs, contracts, fame, and contacts if their party wins.

The traditional conservative coalition has been held together by anti-communism (and now Islamaphobia), by a sense that government bureaucracies are godless, and by fear of losing to liberals. Social conservatives get one obvious thing from their partnership with corporate types: cash for Republican campaigns, which helps them to win. But they want results in terms of policy, and they want to believe that principles are driving their movement, not expediency. They have very good reason to doubt that they've gotten a decent deal lately.

What's fascinating about Huckabee is that he's going straight to the conservative grassroots and saying that he won't do anything to get corporate money or GOP endorsements. He is declaring independence--much like a Democrat who refuses to court labor. If Huckabee wins, the conservative coalition blows up, although conceivably a pure social conservative movement might prevail under his leadership. Even if someone like Romney or Giuliani ultimately defeats Huckabee, his strength in the primaries could be an effective warning shot.

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December 3, 2007

German memories

Last winter, we took a quick family vacation to a small town in Bavaria. This was my first serious stay in Germany, although I'd been to Austria before. Specifically, we chose to visit a town in Franconia, a province famous for walled cities, vineyards on rolling hills, carved altarpieces by Tilman Riemenschneider, and the Nazi Gauleiter Julius Streicher.

Our hotel was built into the medieval walls. Its cultural atmosphere was, I suppose, a mix of the pre-modern and the contemporary. The food, the appliances, and the free computer terminals were all up-to-date, but the structure belonged to the old free Imperial city of traders and guilds. That city, incidentally, incorporated a large Jewish community with a famous scholarly tradition, until the Jews were expelled in 1520.

The family that owned the hotel could not possibly have been friendlier, warmer, or kinder to us. Near the end of our stay, we had to move--as previously arranged--to a suite in their private house. This turned out to be a spacious and comfortable home with all the modern conveniences, reminiscent (to me) of suburban houses in Surrey. It was, in fact, a newer building than any in which I have lived in the United States. A stone plaque over the main door identified the date of construction. I believe it said "1937."

I do not pretend to know the details of life in a small Franconian town in 1937, but I suspect that no one built handsome houses right outside the city walls without being friendly to the totalitarian Nazi regime, which was deeply rooted in the region. Our host had grown up in the house and seemed old enough to remember its construction. You flipped on a light switch and thought to yourself that that very same switch had still been new on Kristallnacht in 1938. Evil felt close and recent.

And yet, the family's private library included serious, scholarly books on the holocaust, anti-Nazi classics by Mann and Grass, and pacifist volumes by the likes of Tolstoy. How do I know that there was a medieval Jewish community in town? Because of the fine and prominent municipal monument to the expelled, which is inscribed with Hebrew poetry translated into German. I know from an equally excellent Holocaust memorial that the 17 Jews who resided in town in 1938 were driven away and lost to history.

It wasn't our host's fault that he was born in Franconia around 1930. Nor do I deserve one ounce of moral credit for having been born of Jewish heritage in America decades later. I don't see what anyone in his position could do, beyond reading the books that he owns and contributing to the decent contemporary state that is the Federal Republic of Germany. There are countless citizens of guilty countries who have never stopped to think about such matters.

Our host's wife was in the hospital. On the day we had to leave, he insisted on driving his little car all the way to the Autobahn so that we could follow him and get safely on our way to Frankfurt. I picture him waving goodbye to us and then driving back to his 1937 house to wait for news from the hospital. I only hope that the news was good.

Posted by peterlevine at 7:45 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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