Zombies vs. Vampires

A statistical study indicates that our pop culture churns out more vampire-related entertainment under Democratic administrations and more zombie stories under Republicans. The implication of the research is that those icons act as archetypes for each party.

Naturally, as a Republican I’m suspicious of “scientists” and the conclusions they draw from their so-called “research.” To determine whether these horror themes make sense as symbols of our political parties I think we should, as always, rely on a test of the gut level truthiness of those assumptions.

Are vampires a good metaphor for Democrats? Vampires aren’t all that interested in family life. You won’t find many in the suburbs. They’re worldly, well-spoken, and always have a lot of nice stuff, but none them seem to have a job. They seldom join the military. Their church attendance is erratic at best and they are extremely uncomfortable with expressions of faith. They tend to carry a metrosexual vibe; you don’t run into a lot of burly, flannel-wearing vampires.

Vampires can’t stand to see their own image accurately reflected and can’t cooperate with each other in more than a superficial way. And of course, they survive by draining the lifeblood from other creatures.

Hmmm…I don’t know.

On the other hand, do zombies represent a persuasive symbol for Republicans? Zombies clump together in groups. They work very hard, but they don’t seem to know why. The drooling undead are single-minded, absolutely determined, and extremely volatile. None of them are vegetarians. They are unreasonable and make lousy listeners. They have no apparent sex life, but you never seem to run out of them. They are dead inside and don’t know it.

Zombies are gullible and easy to outwit, but won’t ever stop attacking and never seem to be entirely defeated. Oh, and they want to eat your brain.

No, that comparison doesn’t really fit either.

These shabby attempts to tie political significance to cultural trends are generally a waste of time and this one is no exception. Granted, any sensible person would leave their wallet and other valuables at home before attending an Occupy Wall Street demonstration. You wouldn’t wander into a crowd of those folks looking like you had something someone else could use. But, vampires?

And sure, the last thing you’d want to flash at a Tea Party Rally is a big, fat, juicy brain. Listening to those bizarre lectures on the 10th Amendment can make you pray for someone to scoop your brainpan clean, but that doesn’t mean it will happen. At least, probably not.

Does the research prove that zombies and vampires are archetypes of the two parties? The suggestion is as ridiculous as “Global Warming.”

The Death of America…Again

In British tradition there is a one-line statement that announces the passing of a monarch:

“The King is dead. Long live the King.”

A political institution with a 1500 year history spanning war, conquest, and in several instances its own apparent extinction, can afford to take a little bad news in stride. The end of one reign is merely the dawn of the next. We, on the other hand, are seldom so stiff-lipped over the passing of an era.

Each generation of Americans seems to kvetch over their own morbid fantasy of our demise. During the ‘50’s the far-right fringe believed that the Communist juggernaut was “50-70% complete” with its conquest of America and Eisenhower was a conscious agent of the Soviet conspiracy.

In the ‘80’s we feared that the Japanese were going to dominate the world. Look how that turned out. Now some of us are convinced that a totalitarian third-world country that registers a GDP per capita less than the Dominican Republic is about to steal our thunder or that immigration, which has consistently enriched us is about to finish us off.

At the height of our power, we are running out of credible challengers to feed our favorite guilty obsession.

Pat Buchanan, is the latest in a string of commentators to announce the nation’s impending doom. The source of our demise this time around? Take your pick. Buchanan’s new book Suicide of a Superpower, blames America’s decline on just about every cultural innovation since the 16th Century.

He decries, in no particular order:

Vatican II, discrimination against white men, Muslims, birth control, the Pope’s failure to protect a Holocaust-denying bishop (it’s on pp.107-9), Martin Luther, Socialism, Commercialism, Global Capitalism, Secularism, Mexicans, blacks, desegregation, blacks who rape white women (p.243), diversity, free trade, black sororities, Chinese, the Voting Rights Act (pp.332-9), universities, “bigotry against white Christians,” immigrants, Republican efforts to win non-white votes (p.346), and, most of all, the “decline of the European Majority.”

Buchanan has created a comprehensive encyclopedia of terrors. Apparently he got tired before he could explain the dangers of spicy food and iPods. Expect an addendum.

America has always been radically secular and shockingly culturally diverse compared to standards of the contemporary world around it. At a time when European governments enforced one official state church as the only means to preserve civil order America tolerated an impossible diversity of belief. Congregationalists, Anabaptists, Baptists, Jews, Shakers, Quakers, Catholics, Episcopal, Presbyterians, Methodists, and frontier types with their own home-brewed factions came together in a frightening collection of faiths that could only coexist under a carefully secular government.

Buchanan insists that the only reason these folks were able to live together and build the greatest nation on Earth was that they all descended from the same Judeo-Christian heritage. Never mind, for a moment, that his history simply writes out of existence the contributions of a large percentage of Americans. The common European heritage he speaks of in such magical terms wasn’t nearly common enough to keep them from slaughtering each other without scruple in the old country. America has kept order for centuries by tolerating a shocking degree of cultural disorder.

The paranoid nativists warn that we are too culturally chaotic to survive. They are right. America dies over and over again in a thousand different ways, like the cells in your skin. The real test of a culture is not whether it dies, but whether it regenerates itself. What frightens these folks is our nerve-racking dynamism; our accelerating pace of reinvention.

We are in fact living through the end of white America. That “end” will be just as catastrophic as the end of Puritan American, the end of Colonial America, the end of White, Male Landowner America, the end of New England Whaling America, the end of Slaveholding America, the end of Rural America, the end of Pre-Industrial America, the end of Jim Crow America, the end of Industrial America and all of the other endings America has experienced in her short history.

In other words, we can be confident that this ending will be yet another in a jarring series of gateways to an ever freer, richer, and more powerful future. Such optimism may be out of step with the spirit of the moment, but it is still the most reasonable and sober expectation of what’s in store for us.

We are too independent to tolerate the claustrophobic, manufactured unity of a top-down cultural mandate. Conservatives may score a few short term points selling Buchanan’s white Tribalism, but in America the “culture warriors” of each new generation always lose. In the long run his vision is a blueprint for little more or less than Republican political failure. The nation, if necessary, will simply go on without us.

Our chaotic diversity, for all its many benefits, makes for a white-knuckled ride through history. Buckle up, because the next American Century will probably be even wilder than the last.

America is dead. Long live America.

Winning the Drug War

America passed a little-noted milestone in 2009 as drug overdoses outnumbered traffic fatalities for the first time ever to become the primary cause of accidental death. The cause? It wasn’t cocaine or heroin or some terrifying new criminal import. The doubling in drug related deaths over the past decade was driven by prescription drug use.

We spend billions of dollars each year on a campaign to limit access to illegal narcotics, but regardless where the drugs come from we remain a heavily medicated society. Anti-depressants alone are consumed on such a spectacular scale they are starting to be found in significant concentrations in river fish.

The time has come for us to finally turn the tide in the drug war by imposing realistic access regulations and abandoning our policy of absolute prohibition. It won’t happen overnight, but we need to start taking sensible steps toward narcotics regulation, starting with marijuana. Perhaps we could then turn our attention to the wider crisis of substance abuse.

Public enthusiasm for drug prohibition, especially as it relates to marijuana, is steadily eroding. State and local governments are looking for ways to make marijuana medically available and even rolling back enforcement aimed at recreational users. No Presidential nominee from either party since the ‘90’s could say that he’d never smoked pot, and George Bush even waffled on the subject of cocaine use. Marijuana has become far too pervasive for draconian prohibition to make sense.

State and local governments’ piecemeal efforts to ease marijuana prohibition can only create a muddle so long as Federal prohibition remains in place. States’ “medical” marijuana dispensaries and reduced user enforcement merely build islands of criminality, eroding the legitimacy of our laws while leaving the cartels’ business untouched. Anyone visiting a locally legal marijuana dispensary anywhere in the US remains vulnerable to arrest under Federal law and businesses can still be raided by authorities.

Representatives Ron Paul and Barney Frank, the oddest of all odd couples, this summer introduced legislation that would end the Federal prohibition on marijuana by simply removing it from the schedule of controlled substances. The legislation has gone nowhere. The public isn’t ready to treat marijuana as if it were basil. It is still a powerful narcotic deserving reasonable controls.

Voters may, however, be ready for a considered effort to change the way we handle illicit drugs, especially if that effort began with marijuana. The most significant barrier to public support for a reasonable drug regulation scheme is the absence of any commonsense Federal proposal.

What if people could purchase marijuana the way they buy Sudafed? The restrictions would be slightly more strict than the purchase of tequila, but easier than buying Vicodin or Oxycontin. Government would regulate the form, dosage, and delivery in the same manner as over the counter pharmaceuticals. It could only be sold in limited volumes, by a pharmacist, to a verified adult, in a form that meets quality and labeling standards.

What if farmers could be licensed to grow marijuana and sell it into a regulated channel? What if licensed adults could grow it in small quantities for their own use in the same way that people make their own beer or wine?

What impact would such a change have on the local dealers scattered throughout America (hint: how many black-market beer dealers are there in your neighborhood)?

Getting from strict prohibition to regulation would not be quick or easy, but it could be done and the public is ready to support it. Congress would have to amend the Controlled Substances Act, probably creating a sixth category for marijuana. The FDA would then issue regulations for the production, distribution, and possession of substances in that category. Congress would also have to amend the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act and the FDA and DEA would have to set up new controls for the substance passing through the border.

Even if Congress could be persuaded to endorse regulation, it might take years for the FDA and the DEA to work out the details of a new regulatory scheme. It would be up to the FDA, for example, to determine the form marijuana could take on the market. Would it only be available in a pill or could you purchase it in raw form? What versions or strengths would be available?

Would regulation increase marijuana use? Perhaps, but judging by how well and truly drugged up we already are it is tough to imagine that a marginal increase in marijuana use is going to make a meaningful difference. Compared to the tens of thousands of alcohol-related deaths each year in this country, the potential harm of marijuana seems like a marginal concern.

If someone, anyone, died last year from an overdose of marijuana it has escaped attention entirely. The official figure for marijuana overdose deaths appears to be zero. Marijuana use might lead to tragic levels of snack food consumption and escalating demand for Scooby Doo reruns, but compared to the damage we tolerate from alcohol and prescription drugs this might be a price worth paying.

It will not be easy to find the right mix of regulation and availability for narcotics, but we have to start exploring new options. Right now it’s easier for a high school kid to buy weed than it is for them to purchase beer or sinus medicine. Finding a way to make marijuana available through a controlled channel makes more sense than devoting billions of dollars to futile prohibition efforts.

Perhaps the $13 billion we spend each year trying to ban marijuana is a poor investment. When it comes to drug abuse we have bigger fish to fry…and they’re chock full of Prozac.

How Fundamentalists and Libertarians Buried the Hatchet

Rand Paul is an unlikely fundamentalist hero. He was a rebel in his days at deeply religious Baylor University, apparently forming some sort of half-sarcastic, anti-religious student group. He’s a libertarian who quotes Ayn Rand and hasn’t denied his past drug use. On culture war issues he prefers to dodge rather than charge. In many respects Paul looks like the sort of Republican that the religious right has tried to purge from the party.

Yet Paul’s 2010 primary campaign against a well-established Republican drew endorsements from Sarah Palin, Jim DeMint, and even the Concerned Women for America. The lock was in late in the primary campaign when James Dobson at Focus on the Family very publicly switched his endorsement to Paul.

So how have the high priests of Christian fundamentalism found such enthusiastic common cause with a prophet of Aqua Buddha? Why are evangelicals overwhelmingly the largest block of Tea Party supporters?

This poorly understood and carefully limited alliance of libertarians and the religious right can be partly traced to a strategic shift by Paul Weyrich during the Clinton years. It helps explain why competence has diminished as a priority and some Republicans are comfortable promoting policies that seem dangerous to the point of recklessness.

Weyrich, the architect of modern American fundamentalism, generated some surprise when he declared in 1999 that the movement had failed. Many fundamentalists at the time were feeling euphoric. The electoral wave of ’94 had given evangelicals effective control of the GOP infrastructure across large swaths of the country. Though they had failed to defeat Bill Clinton, their power in Congress and state legislatures was steadily growing.

However Weyrich saw a different trend. When he worked with Jerry Falwell in the ‘70’s to turn evangelicals into activists he believed they would form an overwhelming political block. That’s why he urged Falwell to call his group The Moral Majority. But during the Clinton years he decided that he was wrong.

His 1999 Letter on the Moral Minority in America explained the problem, “our victories fail to translate into the kind of policies we believe are important.” In other words fundamentalists could get people elected, but they couldn’t persuade those people to enact the movement’s most extreme policies.

The cultural base on which Weyrich had hoped to build his fundamentalist juggernaut was not as broad as he had hoped. Weyrich blamed the public’s weak interest in his more radical goals on the spread “Cultural Marxism.” Instead of focusing their efforts on government, he urged religious activists to direct their attention toward a transformation of the culture.

This did not mean that evangelicals would take their Bibles and go home. Under Weyrich’s influence religious revolutionaries would still participate in politics, but they would cease to care much about governing.

Weyrich’s shift was not uncontroversial, but it gradually gained political force. In 2001, his Free Congress Foundation released a manifesto called Integration of Theory and Practice meant to guide activists in the pursuit of this dark new direction.

The document recommends “intimidating people and institutions that are used as tools of left-wing activism” so that “leftist causes will no longer be the path of least resistance.” It endorses “obnoxious” tactics designed to “serve as a force of social intimidation.” It outlines a grim strategy, “We will not try to reform the existing institutions. We only intend to weaken them, and eventually destroy them.”

No longer hoping to achieve power as a majority, religious conservatives were freed from the demands of effective government. Evangelicals could shed any concern for compromise, effectiveness, or even competence as political priorities. Consequences mattered less than purity.

The document also described a new posture toward libertarians:

There is nothing in this movement that an operational libertarian would find objectionable…this movement does not promote a direct confrontation with the state, but a sort of “weaning off,” or a ‘walking away’ from the state.

But then there is this critical qualification:

[We] must be willing to lose allies among the libertarians we brought on board the post-war conservative coalition …[W]e choose not to make a fetish of political freedom. We recognize that there are other freedoms besides political freedom–such as the freedom not to be subjected to a barrage of cultural decadence at every turn.

Those two paragraphs written a decade ago define the scope of alignment in our time between fundamentalists and libertarians. Weyrich didn’t create these strains in the fundamentalist movement, but he took them off the leash. His shift neutralized a gnawing disagreement among fundamentalists over pre-millennial and post-millennial theology. This approach meant the disagreement no longer mattered for practical purposes.

Weyrich’s strategic shift not only changed the fundamentalist movement, it eventually shifted the balance of power among libertarians. This carefully calibrated opening from well-established Republican evangelicals meant that libertarians could actually win elections, so long as they were willing to embrace a deeply Southern re-branding of the philosophy. Goodbye Ayn Rand, hello Ludwig von Mises.

The alignment between evangelicals and libertarians is most visible under the banner of the Tea Party. The religious wing brings the motivating force of a fresh apocalyptic fetish while the opening to the libertarians offers some cover. Rand Paul has thrived in this new environment, downplaying his libertarian credentials while backing key fundamentalist priorities. A few adjustments allow him to become a far more potent figure than his father without compromising his values … much.

For the country this new political phenomenon means the far right has no incentive to compromise on issues critical to America’s fiscal health. The ratio of spending cuts to tax increases doesn’t matter to Tea Party. They will not accept any deal that fails to weaken the Federal government.

How much damage are they willing to accept in pursuit of this strategy? Glenn Beck’s investments in food storage and the helpful survival guides he offers on his websites offer a hint. Unless Republicans find a way to counter this alliance inside the party we may all need to buy more of what Beck is selling.

Mobs and Other Shortcuts

If the Occupy Wall Street protestors represent ‘the 99%’ then why don’t they already dominate our government?

Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street protests should create some concern. These are not the products of healthy politics.

The tagline of the OWS protest sheds some light on where these kinds of movements really come from and why they struggle to accomplish anything useful. OWS calls itself ‘the 99%’ in reference to the concentration of wealth in this country. Yet, if the OWS protesters genuinely represent the 99%, why aren’t they in office instead of sleeping in a park?

The Occupy Wall Street protestors point to the Arab Spring as an inspiration, but there’s a crucial problem with that analogy. You can’t create a ‘Tahrir Square’ moment in a broadly representative democracy. We already have what the Egyptians were fighting for. Something else is happening here.

In our system of government such mass events tend to cut in the opposite direction, as a reaction against the will of the people. When you see thousands of people gather in a grand protest in America they are doing it because they don’t represent very many voters. If they did, they would just vote.

The actual direction of OWS was laid out rather coldly by a former Alan Grayson staffer who is working with the movement. He claimed in his op-ed for Politico that citizens are “exercising power outside of the ballot box” and he explained why:

Many of them saw an uprising in Madison, Wis., over Gov. Scott Walker’s collective-bargaining and privatization initiatives; and they understand the choice to initiate recall elections rather than strikes resulted in a crushing loss for workers.

They saw that the electorate is solidly against them. Now they are shopping for alternatives to the democratic process.

America’s last great wave of mass protest was the anti-war movement of the ‘60’s. When you look beneath the haze of marijuana and tear gas you can see what that movement gave America – the Nixon Administration. Both OWS and the Tea Party should take that as a sober warning. Over the long term, Americans who actually vote are relatively hostile to the costumed and/or unwashed mobs that take to the streets to lengthen their commute and tell them what to think.

It seems as though the reasonable American center took the fall of the Berlin Wall as their cue to tune out. We won the great war of political ideas. There was nothing left for politics but the drudgery of administration. Now our political sphere has descended into entertainment, degraded by the antics of cartoon characters.

The message of both movements can be boiled down to this sentiment – Running a superpower is haaaard. We want to be it easier. We want a political system that has less reading and more parties. Not political parties, but the fun kind. Send pizzas to Zuccotti Park and we’ll figure it all out at some point.

Our political system channels the public will into the political process through elections. We may not like the direction America has taken over the past decade, but we can’t hide behind supposed villains like the Koch brothers or the Federal Reserve. Any of us who wants to see the dark forces driving America need only borrow a mirror.

Romney Can’t Stop the Tea Party

By all appearances Mitt Romney seems likely to walk away with the Republican Party’s 2012 nomination. We can still expect a few scares, particularly in Iowa and South Carolina, but it’s getting harder to construct a credible scenario in which Romney fumbles this one away. He looks smart, savvy, and ready to take on a struggling President. Rational Republicans all over the country are imagining that it’s safe to come out from under their desks.

Hunker down. This is the eye of the storm.

Don’t be fooled by the myth that the Tea Party Movement emerged from nowhere in 2009. They are not an external insurgency. The Tea Party is little more than a rebranding of extreme elements that have come to control the party infrastructure across most of the south and west. A potential President Romney will be governing from a political island in a wild, conspiracy-whipped sea.

The Tea Party is not going to melt away without a fight. Romney may not have signed up with them, but he’s shown no willingness or capacity to take them on in the grassroots trenches. Romney has the party’s financial base, its main media arm, and the bulk of the primary electorate. The Tea Party has the activists and the infrastructure. And if you thought these folks were weirded-out by having a Black suspected Muslim in the White House, wait ‘til they get a confirmed cultist.

Romney will find it extremely difficult to nominate a credible Vice-Presidential candidate. The same intra-party dynamics that forced McCain into the arms of Sarah Palin will press Romney toward something that could be even worse. We may see someone just as politically daffy as Palin, but far more capable.

Worst of all, the Tea Party has locked up a critical prize in this campaign – second place. For more than 50 years the standing rule in the GOP has been that we nominate either our sitting President or the guy who finished second last time.

The only direct exception is Nixon who defeated the 1964 second-place finisher, Nelson Rockefeller, in the ’68 race. George W. Bush was nominated without having to face the previous runner-up, Pat Buchanan, who left the GOP in ‘99. Unless Jon Huntsman experiences some strange and miraculous surge, there is no realistic outcome in which the Tea Party will fail to capture the strategically critical runner-up slot.

Maybe this year’s second place finisher will get so fat and happy on their multi-million-dollar book and Fox News contract that they’ll lose interest in politics. Otherwise they will ride into the next campaign as the presumed frontrunner. That would be the culmination of twenty years of eroding GOP credibility, making a public showdown between the Tin Hat Brigade and the party’s old-line conservatives finally unavoidable.

With the presumed frontrunner in their camp and control of the party machinery over a wide swath of the country, the Tea Party, or whatever brand emerges to take its place, will hold the high ground in that fight. Someone might be forced to launch a third party. Unless we start working very hard and very soon (like yesterday) to retake control, it will be rational conservatives who are pushed out onto that rough road.

Ever since Reagan boarded a helicopter bound for retirement the Republican Party has been harboring a lazy fantasy. We’ve imagined that the genie he unleashed on the far religious right might crawl back in its bottle if we just left it alone. It’s amazing that a generation later so many Republicans still cling to that fantasy. A Romney win in this campaign is good. But the fight over the 2012 nomination is just a prelude to the battle for the soul of the Republican Party.

Paul’s Straw Poll Wins Are Practice for Iowa

One of the minor stories to come out of this year’s Values Voters Summit is Ron Paul’s sizeable victory in the forum’s straw poll.  The Paul organization is developing some expertise at the art of straw poll hijacking.  They turned out their supporters in significant numbers by committing money and organization as they’ve done elsewhere.

This result inspires two questions.  First, why does the Paul campaign keep putting resources into these polls?  And second, could Paul potentially have produced a much more interesting showing if he hadn’t rigged it?

One possible answer to the first question is: Iowa.

Learning to consistently jack up straw polls is good practice for the Iowa Caucus and Paul is putting himself in fine position to compete there.  The presumed Iowa favorites, Bachmann and Perry, are both staggering under the weight of their own mistakes.  The Hermanator can be expected to join them soon enough (“Mr. Cain, tell us again what you think about Muslims and the unemployed”).  Romney is focusing his energy on New Hampshire.

The field is opening for Paul to steal the spotlight in a way that could actually produce some delegates.  Iowa is all about getting committed, qualified people to show up in numbers and perform as directed.  His decision to consistently spend energy manipulating symbolic votes makes some sense if you see it as a rehearsal for the real deal.

Did Paul’s manipulation obscure an otherwise noteworthy show of support?  It appears that it didn’t.  If Tony Perkins’ accounting is correct, Paul’s team astro-turfed in about 600 people just for the balloting.  A total of 1983 people voted.  If you disregard those 600 votes then Paul finished 5th behind Perry and Bachmann.  That’s about where you’d expect him to finish with a group of hard-core evangelical voters.

Can Ron Paul convert straw poll acumen into Iowa delegates?  Is he using these polls to polish his organization for the caucuses?  Maybe that’s reading too much cleverness into his efforts.  Maybe he’s less ‘crazy like a fox’ than just, well…you know.

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