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Friday, August 19, 2022

A Random Thought on Mikey Kaus

A few days ago Robert Farley, of Lawyers, Guns & Money, posted the latest entry in his wonderful "Oral History of the Blogosphere" project, this one focusing on the once-notorious (indeed, widely loathed on the liberal/left/progressive side of the blogosphere), but now mostly-just-grumbled-over journalist and blogger, Mickey Kaus. It's actually a pretty great conversation, if you're into remembering or rethinking what people were arguing about online and why and how they did it, circa 20001-2010. For me, besides enjoying it as I have enjoyed every previous entry in this series (really, if you're a blogger or ever thought you could be one you should listen to them all), it made me reflect on the enduring relevance of a particular ideological niche, however tiny or incoherent it may seem.

I never thought, and still don't think, the loathing of Kaus was mostly due to the controversial positions he took on the dominant political news items in America in the 1990s and 2000s: welfare reform, criminal justice, immigration, the Iraq War, etc. Rather, I think he was loathed because he insisted--to the minds of the aforementioned liberal/left/progressive pundit class, infuriatingly so--that he was taking those positions as a sincere, if appropriately evolved, New Deal Democrat. In a way, I think Kaus occupies the same much-condemned rhetorical space as Ralph Nader: he's someone who is seen as a betrayer, someone who talks the talk of liberal justice and then engages in public actions and intervenes in public debates that seem, to most liberals and leftists and progressives, to entirely contrary to how the liberal political world actually works.

The first minutes of the conversation with Kaus touched upon the legacy of Charles Peters and the magazine he founded, Washington Monthly, which tutored legions of journalists (including Kaus) in a vision of activist government grounded, as Paul Glastris, Washington Monthly's long-time editor, put it, in "the communitarian patriotic liberalism of Peters’s New Deal youth." There are, out there amid the sprawling, multifaceted coalition that constitutes the Democratic Party, lines of reflection upon the achievements of the New Deal, both scholarly and activist, which seriously downplay the ethical and civic part of that triumph of positive liberalism and egalitarianism. According to those arguments, the greatest achievement of the New Deal was that it laid the foundation for erecting social democratic institutions in America, for which many are still fighting for: to make health care a human right, to make higher education available to all, to put workers in charge of the economy, etc. As a democratic socialist myself, I agree with those lines of argument! But I'm also a sometime left conservative, a wanna-be civic republican, and a fan of both Christopher Lasch and the Point Huron Statement, and thus find myself agreeing with Peters as well. The leadership of the post-New Deal, and particularly the post-civil rights movement, Democratic Party really did focus mostly on achieving liberal justice through building ever-more effective (and ever-larger) redistributive institutions and practices. The way that focus partly (but not entirely unintentionally) combined a very un-New Dealish individualism with outright bureaucratic statism, and allowed a entirely new kind of meritocracy to flourish in liberal circles, thus taking the focus off the cultural and communal aspects of what a genuinely egalitarian and just society must involve...well, that's the critical space which Kaus occupied. Entirely coherently? In a philosophically rigorous way? Open-mindedly, kindly, and without self-indulgent contrarian snark? Not at all; in many ways, Kaus's voice was a profoundly flawed vehicle for this critical perspective on post-Cold War liberalism in America. But to my mind, at least, he was a vehicle for it all the same.

My primary evidence for this is a wonderful book that he wrote, The End of Equality. The book never got the respect it deserved, I think, partly because of the weird moment it arrived (right at the beginning of the Clinton administration; but was the book arguing against what Clinton was doing, or supporting it, or both?), and partly because Kaus's subsequent career--intransigently defending some of the worst aspects of Clinton's welfare reform, obsessing about family breakdown even as income inequality skyrocketed, etc.--retrospectively made the book's insistence that "Money Liberalism" was a non-starter and that "Civic Liberalism" was the way to go seem like Kaus was auditioning George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" a decade before it nominally (though never actually) arrived. All those criticisms are fair. But I still use selections from the book in my Political Ideologies classes on occasion, because I find so much of it refreshingly clear and free of cant. He is frank about his conviction that most of those with socialist aspirations have been unwilling to recognize the incompatibility of "fraternity, community, and idealism" with the lack of "material prosperity" that only rapacious capitalism seems to provide (p. 11); he is genuinely eloquent in asserting that differing levels of health care don't actually matter to the egalitarian legitimacy of society so much as "that everyone wait in the same waiting rooms" (p. 93); and he is downright prescient in warning that, if the goal of the Democratic party continued to be tweaking the tax code in some Rawlsian way so as to make it fairer and increase the size of welfare checks but in the meantime said nothing about the lack of community-feeling and solidarity in America, the end result will a general hardening of whatever egalitarian spirit the revolutions of the 1930s and the 1960s may have left us with:

Americans may be social egalitarians today. But give the affluent two more decades to revile the underclass and avoid the cities as if they were a dangerous foreign country, two decades to isolate their "gifted" children from their supposed inferiors, two decades of "symbolic analysis" and assortative mating, and we might wake up to discover that Americans aren't such egalitarians at all any more. Then politics would be really dispiriting (p. 180).

That paragraph can be picked apart and even partly undermined in multiple ways (that large numbers of younger and mostly liberal-learning people, including young families, started returning to America's cities throughout the 2000s is the most obvious rejoinder, but not the only one). But I read it, and I see the once at least moderately liberal suburbs, filled with college-educated, white-collar-job-holding, mostly well-off Americans, voting for Trump across large parts of America. Dispiriting indeed.

Anyway, this is just something that occurred to me, when Robert unintentionally invited Kaus back into my mind. So I thank him for that.

Wednesday, August 03, 2022

Seven Theses on Kansas, "Popularism," and Value Them Both

Well, my predictions from yesterday were wrong (mostly; I was still right about Kris Kobach getting the Republican Attorney General nomination). And while the image I used yesterday to reflect the diversity of the No campaign here in Wichita didn't unintentionally predict the final state-wide vote totals (59% voted No, not 75%), the fact is it was a lot closer than I or any other serious political observer here in Kansas that I'm aware of actually believed was possible. So what more is there to say.

Well, a few things, anyway:

1) Let me repeat what I just wrote: nobody I am aware of who as at all seriously engaged in following these campaigns--and I've talked to people at the Kansas Reflector, at Vox, at Newsweek, at ABC News and KAKE News locally, and many more places about all this--was predicting that in an August primary election, in a strongly Republican state, would result in a win for abortion rights by 10 points, much less nearly 20 points. As the very first election to take place anywhere in America after the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the ending of a national constitutional guarantee of at least limited access to abortion services, the size of the Value Them Both amendment's defeat is bound to create a lot of political noise.

2) Political noise...but maybe not immediate political changes. Political parties are mighty beasts, and different factions or interest groups that have put in years of work and money and organizational strategy in shaping their platforms, and thereby socializing and contributing to the further self-sorting of voters who look at those parties and platforms, aren't going to want to see them make an about-face after just one election. Here in Kansas, I would expect that Governor Kelly will express gratitude for the results, and then proceed to run her re-election campaign in with the same wonky focus on Medicaid expansion and other nuts-and-bolts issues that she's always preferred; similarly, I bet that Derek Schmidt will prefer to say as little as possible about the failed amendment, and run the same "Governor Kelly serves the radical left in Washington DC" ads that he's team has no doubt long since prepped, only with references to abortion very much cut back.

3) Why? Because Schmidt will know, as will leaders of the GOP's current super-majority in Topeka, that there is simply no honest way to parse these numbers without acknowledging that there were a good number of Republicans--including at least a small-but-nonetheless-meaningful slice of Kobach-supporting, low-propensity, normally-November-voting-only, self-identifying conservative Republicans!--who voted against the amendment. The majority of the Republicans in Topeka come from safe enough seats not to worry about alienating those Republicans who wandered off the anti-abortion reservation this particular election...but there are at least a few who will worry about them, and Schmidt, who needs to hold on to votes in the same urban counties which Kelly won in 2018, will worry about them as well.

4) So I suspect that the short-term consequences of this vote won't be especially visible. It's the medium-term consequences, the post-November 2022 consequences, which could potentially put some real force behind all the chatter which Value Them Both's defeat is generating. I could be wrong, of course; my track record suggests I probably will be. Maybe the Kansas GOP will immediately throw all their efforts behind voting to unseat state supreme court justices in November, and immediately start talking about taking another shot at amending the constitution, this time grudgingly including language about how the Kansas constitution does guarantee that there cannot be a total, no-exceptions-for-rape-or-incest-or-medical-emergency abortion ban. But I doubt it; rather, I think they're going to want to wait to see how this vote is reflected in other votes nationally, and how the overall abortion discourse continues to evolve.

5) After all, in the meantime there is probably going to be a small, perhaps invisible, but almost certainly nonetheless viscous, fracture within the Kansas GOP to deal with, all while the gubernatorial election is going on. Because there will be Republicans--the small-government, business-oriented, libertarian-inclined, individualistic Republicans from rural Kansas, the pragmatic folks that, before Brownback and Trump would have been considered the backbone of the party--that will have serious questions for why their party essentially out-sourced themselves to Kansas Catholic archdioceses for this election, and why they ended up (by driving all the cultural conservatives to the August voting booth) saddling themselves with a three-time loser like Kris Kobach as their attorney general candidate. That fracture doesn't exist in isolation, of course; the divide between the numerous micro-factions that make up the much-declined (but not extinct) moderate bloc of Republican voters and the even more numerous micro-factions that make up the dominant (but not completely unobstructed) conservative, Trumpist bloc of Republicans, has been a feature of Kansas politics for decades, and this internal fight will be folded into it. Will it push the party towards a new balance? Dion Lefler, who has watched Kansas politics as closely as anyone I know, thinks it might; we need to wait and see.

6) As we wait for the medium- and long-term consequences of a strongly Republican state voting in a way that actually reflects the existing polling data here in the state, as opposed to being led by party allegiance to support the much more extreme positions adopted by minority anti-abortion factions in their parties, to play themselves out, one note about "popularism." While there are many ways to make use of this wonky idea which has emerged among Democratic activists over the past couple of years, the basic idea is that Democrats hurt themselves when they allow their party to become associated with liberal or progressive or radical or socialist ideas that don't poll well, even if their purported consequences are ones voters clamor for. The question, as my old friend Damon Linker posed months ago, is whether the insights of popularism--that is, building campaigns around those ideas which poll well with ordinary voters, keeping the question of whether or not they are truly empowering or "populist" insofar as the interests of ordinary people are concerned as a secondary concern ("normie politics," as Freddie deBoer put it)--apply to Republicans as well. Noting the extreme abortion bans popping up through legislative action throughout the country in the wake of Roe's overturning, Damon wondered if Republicans are "governed by the principle that there are and can be no negative electoral consequences from moving too far to the antiliberal right on cultural issues." If so, then the defeat of Value Them Both might be seen as sign that some Republicans had had enough, or at least were content with what they had (abortion is already quite heavily regulated in Kansas), and didn't want to see the status quo disrupted, even if that meant challenging their own party's priorities in this primary election.

7) Finally, if nothing else, let's enjoy a couple of news cycles where people wonder how on earth an anti-abortion referendum could have lost in Kansas. The context is totally different, but I can’t help, as I look at the incredulity around me, but remember an exchange during the debate over the non-discrimination ordinance adopted here in Wichita by the city council last year. City ordinances to explicitly list and defend the rights of LGBTQ citizens had been pushed by many groups throughout Kansas for years, and Mayor Brandon Whipple made supporting such a priority. It passed by a 6-1 vote, but not before much argument on the council, some of it contentious, and two marathon open city council meetings that went on for hours, with dozens of people showing up to elaborate about how an NDO was an attack on religious freedom. At one of those meetings, a woman showed up and looked at the council (which ultimately, after many delays, voted for the ordinance by 6-1), shook her head, and said, in essence, “this isn’t the Kansas way, this isn’t the Wichita way, I don’t know who you people think you’re representing.” When she saw Mayor Whipple roll his eyes, she zeroed in on him, observing that her grandchildren deserved to grow up in a Christian world, "not Brandon Whipple’s world." I’ve never heard the conviction held by that shrinking-but-still powerful segment of Kansas voters that true “Kansas values” can’t possibly include abortion rights, LGBTQ protections, etc., expressed so pithily. Until today, that is.

Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Three Predictions Regarding the Abortion Amendment Vote in Kansas Today

These four images are just a sampling of the yard signs which have sprouted everywhere in my west Wichita neighborhood over the past couple of months; a complete record of the public expressions about today's amendment vote in yards within just a half-mile of my home would have to include twice as many pics. Do the three "No" signs to the one "Yes" sign suggest that the Noes outnumber the Yeses three to one? No, actually around where we live, the Yeses visibly outnumber the Noes, though only slightly. But every single Yes sign I've seen--not just in our neighborhood, but everywhere throughout the city--is the same as the one in the lower right-hand corner, whereas I'm aware of a half-dozen different No signs besides the ones I've included here, put forward by a close to a dozen different organizations, and that diversity is worth thinking about. 

And yes, I have thought about it, as I have many other things having to do with this amendment, both politically and personally. And I've talked about it: to the Kansas Reflector, to Vox, to KAKE News, and to "Good Morning America" on ABC (both video and print). So after all this thinking and writing, I must have some opinions about the vote itself, right? Well, sure. Here are three, for anyone who cares. (And please remember: my track record when it comes to predictions is pretty horrible.)

1) I think the amendment will pass, but only barely, perhaps by as little as 1% of all the votes cast, or even less. I'm thinking about the election of 2020, where Democrats were as organized and well-funded and had as effective a get-out-the-vote operation in support of Barbara Bollier's U.S. Senate run as I've ever seen here in this state where Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 2-to-1 in most precincts. And the result, at least by most readings of the election results, was that all that money mostly managed to activate lots of low-propensity, non-ideological, historically Republican voters...who ended up mostly voting for the Republican in the Senate race, which resulted in Bollier, despite benefiting from comparatively fantastic turn-out numbers, losing decisively. 

I suspect something similar will happen here. The Republican majority in Topeka wanted this election to take place during an August primary election, not a general election, assuming the more ideologically passionate primary electorate would be much more likely to vote to open the door to much more extreme anti-abortion legislation than Kansas currently has on the books than would the more ambivalent and diverse electorate that shows up in November. That assumption will work for them, I think, despite what will be a large increase in the turnout of Democrats and unaffiliated voters, thanks to the overturning of Roe v. Wade which generated great consternation, fear, and energy among defenders of abortion rights and unleashed a huge amount of anti-amendment money. The only reason, I predict, that their plan will still work in the face of that is because the conservative anti-abortion faithful will be joined by a small percentage of the less passionate Republican electorate that will show up to vote.

2) The smallness of the victory will throw Republican unity over legislative priorities and electoral prospects in Kansas into chaos. Note what I just said above: I'm guessing that the percentage of the low-propensity Republican voters who support the amendment will be "small"--sufficient to give the Yes campaign a win, but only a tiny one. Because along with the high turnout of Democrats and various unaffiliated, low-propensity abortion-rights defenders, you're going to see a good number of Republicans, many of whom that might otherwise score themselves as quite conservative, deeply distressed by this result. Between the purges of Republican moderates orchestrated by Governor Brownback between 2010 and 2014, and the Republicans that have taken themselves out of the game since Trumpism came to dominate most of the Kansas GOP, it's not like the Republican moderates have anything like the influence within the party which they had decades ago. Still, they are out there--and they depend upon those low-propensity Republican voters, along with the occasional moderate Democrat, to stay in office. The majority of those two groups will turn out to have voted "No" on the amendment, which means they will go into the November elections with ready-made target on their backs: they'll easily be painted as just another extremist, one of those who orchestrated the amendment and is looking to impose a total, no-exceptions, Oklahoma-style abortion ban. 

How will they defend themselves against that charge? I presume by promising like mad to their voters that they will never, ever, ever, support a super-majority challenge to Governor Kelly's veto of extreme abortion legislation. Will that work? It will for some of them. But between the tiny number of moderate Republicans in Topeka either running scared or losing to angry Democrats and the occasional Republican who feels totally burned by what their party pulled off in August, the Republican super-majority in Topeka, at least when it comes to abortion, will disappear. Governor Kelly will position herself and her veto pen as the only thing standing between the ambivalent, diverse voters of Kansas's 10 or so urban counties (which, given that the rural counties which make up 90% of Kansas's territory having been mostly losing population for decades, are the only ones you need to win) and a total abortion ban, and that be winning argument. And because the Republican leaders in Topeka aren't idiots, they're going to be able to see all of the above clearly, and will try to force (with perhaps only moderate success) the firebrands in their party to shut up about abortion bans, and will attempt to pretend that the plans for extreme legislation that has already been floated in Republican circles simply doesn't exist--none of which will make those who bankrolled the Yes campaign for the Republican party at all happy. 

This is Kansas, so surely the Republicans will get it back together soon enough. But they won't, I think, do so soon enough to prevent enough of a fracturing of the GOP in November for Kelly and the state Democratic party to give themselves a fighting chance during what otherwise will likely be a blood-bath for Democrats nationally. Among other things, watch the Value Them Both true-believers put Kris Kobach over the top in the Republican primary for attorney general, and then watch him struggle mightily to turn around his losing streak as he goes up against Chris Mann, who will probably benefit from a decent number of those ticked-off non-culture-warrior, normally-November-only Republican voters, in the general.

3) The overall result of the vote, insofar as public health is concerned, particularly for poor women, will be very bad, but there could be a possible silver lining. The immense and multifaceted organizational and electoral work which amendment opponents have done over the past months won't be entirely for naught; I think, when the votes are all counted, it will be clear that they kept an August primary voter in a strongly Republican state with a large, passionate, and well-organized anti-abortion minority from walking away with a major win, holding them to a squeaker of a victory, with all the consequences I'm imagining above. But in the long run, assuming the variables at work in the abortion debate nationally do not markedly change, extreme anti-abortion legislation will probably come to Kansas eventually anyway, maybe even an Oklahoma-style total ban, though it may take until the end of Governor Kelly's second term to do put it together. For tens of thousands of Kansans, that development, if it turns out to be correct, will be very bad indeed.

But by that time, there's also a decent chance that enough Republican legislators, in the wake of what surely at least a handful of them will consider a to have been a Pyrrhic victory this Augut, could be convinced to go against their leadership, and Kansas will finally expand Medicaid, as every state surrounding us (including Oklahoma!) already has. Obviously, that's not going to help Kansas women without the means to travel who find their ability to choose for themselves how to deal with the anguish of a crisis pregnancy taken away from them by the government (if you've read this far and actually are an undecided voter, then please, if you care about those women at all, get yourself to a polling station immediately, vote No, and make my predictions irrelevant!). But it may give those trying to help those women a resource to build upon into the future, and that's not nothing, even if it's not enough.

Guess we'll find out how wrong I am soon enough.