The men who talk most about reverence for the American Constitution are the last people in the world to welcome a study of its origin. For the conservative is not devoted to a real past. He is devoted to his own comfortable image of it.

— Walter Lippmann, Drift and Mastery (1914)

In this week’s Sift:

  • The Constitution as Symbol. Tea Party leaders constantly claim to revere the Constitution and the Founding Fathers who wrote it. So why do they know so little about either? It’s simple: To them the Constitution is a nostalgic symbol, not a reality.
  • Tea Buyer’s Remorse. New Tea Party governors have very quickly become unpopular. How they did it.
  • The Economy: Dip or Dive? Housing down, unemployment up. Was May just a glitch, or is the recovery over already?
  • Short Notes. Is the Ryan budget “courageous”? Koch’s congressman doesn’t deny being bought. Two fun inventions and one very important one. The Air Force Academy clears itself of religious discrimination. Ayn Rand and the religious right are strange allies. And Vermont bucks the rightward trend with single-payer health insurance.
  • This Week’s Challenge. As the Right unifies around nostalgia, what can the Left unify around?

The Constitution as Symbol

Tea Party rhetoric is full of references to “the Constitution” as it was written by “our Founding Fathers”. But anyone who paid attention in U.S. History class is often bewildered: What are they talking about?

Case in point: Herman Cain. Tuesday, ThinkProgress linked to a Cain radio piece from October, where he lectured his listeners about how the federal government “has no jurisdiction over bankruptcy law”. Strange that a Constitutionalist like Cain didn’t know Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which enumerates the powers of Congress:

To establish a uniform rule of naturalization, and uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcies throughout the United States;

Or who can forget Michele Bachmann’s claim that the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more” and that “once you got here, we were all the same” — as if slavery had not been institutionalized in the Constitution, as if it didn’t last until well after all the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were dead, and as if many of the Founders were not slave-owners themselves? Or Bachmann’s misplacement of The-Shot-Heard-Round-the-World in Concord, NH rather than Concord, MA.

Or Sarah Palin’s backwards and self-serving understanding of the First Amendment? (She thinks it protects her from the press, not the other way around.) Or (just this Thursday) her garbling of Paul Revere’s ride?

The Onion was spot-on with this parody: Area Man Passionate Defender of What He Imagines Constitution To Be. Tea Partiers don’t venerate the real Constitution or the real Founders, but a Constitution and a founding generation that exists only in their imaginations.

The Constitution as scripture. The template here comes from fundamentalist religion: The Constitution is like scripture, and the Founders are its prophets. (Tea Party Patriots pushes a curriculum explicitly teaching that the Constitution was divinely inspired.) Like fundamentalist scripture, the Constitution is to be revered, but not thought about too deeply. You read it with your heart, not with your eyes and brain.

Wise as many of the Founders were, the real Constitutional Convention wasn’t trying to write scripture. It was trying make a nation out of 13 newly independent states that had as many differences as similarities. So the actual Constitution was full of compromises between high ideals and unfortunate facts-on-the-ground like slavery.

We’ve been fixing that Constitution ever since: freeing the slaves, giving women the right to vote, disestablishing the state churches and so on. Plus, the Constitution has required regular maintenance: We have to keep reinterpreting time-bound phrases like “the right to bear arms” and “freedom of the press” so that they stay meaningful in an age of atomic warheads and the internet.

But that just gets us back to the original question: If the Tea Partiers aren’t talking about the real Constitution, what are they talking about?

Nostalgia. A David Roberts article on the Grist blog (which I’ll get back to in the Challenge) lays a foundation for answering that question:

[T]he American right grows ever more homogeneous: ethnically, socioculturally, and ideologically. … Precisely because it is homogeneous, the right is intense. There is no political force more potent than a privileged class in the process of losing its privilege. The right base sees itself as an Us beset on all sides by Thems; cries Michele Bachmann, “are we going to take our country back?”

The emotional engine that powers the Tea Party is nostalgia. But the specifics — what the base is nostalgic for — can’t be spoken in so many words. Some of it is morally suspect: nostalgia for white, Christian, or male privilege, or for a time when gays were in the closet and non-English-speakers whispered to each other because they were ashamed of their ignorance.

Another part of the nostalgia can’t be spoken because the billionaire backers of the Tea Party want it suppressed: nostalgia for a time when employers had to respect the power of workers to unionize and strike, when economic growth was widely shared rather than captured by the rich, when one factory job could support a family.

Nostalgia that can’t be spelled out needs to be symbolized. The Constitution — the fantasy Constitution written by divinely inspired prophets — is that symbol. If you are part of the conservative base, it symbolizes a time when life was easier for vaguely defined “people like me”, when you didn’t have to make room for people whose religions and worldviews are different or care whether or not you were insulting them, when you could be treated with respect and be confident about your future.

Some of that is a worthy fantasy and some of it isn’t, but it has nothing to do with the real Constitution.

Counter-attack. Understanding this nostalgia can help liberals frame their counter-attack: We need to spell out the parts of the nostalgia that the Koch brothers want to suppress. Corporatism is not nostalgic. Union-busting is an ugly part of our history that working-class Americans do not pine for. Deregulation sounds wonderful when you think of the sod-busters of the frontier, but less wonderful when you think of miners trapped underground. That part of the past is coming back, and it’s not pretty.

Liberals have their own nostalgia to promote: the budget surplus of Bill Clinton, FDR’s establishment of Social Security, Lyndon Johnson’s establishment of Medicare, the unionization that made American factories safe and brought American workers into the middle class. There have been times when working people stood together against the rapacious rich, and made society work for the many rather than the few.


Herman Cain himself is a symbol, which is why his candidacy is has been taking off. Being black, he is a symbolic answer to the charge that the Tea Party is racist. (You can see that we’re-not-racists sentiment very clearly throughout the nostalgic Herman Cain Train music video. “Eat your words,” Cain says to those who charge the Tea Party with racism.)

The racism charge stings because it is 80% true. Its truth makes it hard to dismiss, but the 20% falsehood makes it feel genuinely unfair. Let’s sort it out: If racism means a reflexive hatred of black skin, the Tea Party is not racist and Cain proves it. He has black skin and they don’t hate him.

But if racism means that blacks come to the plate with two strikes — as I think it does in today’s America — so far Cain has proved nothing. Let him swing and miss once, and we’ll see if he’s called out. So far, his rhetoric is down-the-line what billionaires and nostalgic whites want to hear. But if (just once) he wants to go in the “wrong” direction, we’ll see if he gets a white candidate’s share of the benefit of the doubt.

The Constitution/Bible analogy explains something else: why Republicans keep confusing the Declaration of Independence with the Constitution. Herman Cain did it (seconds after scolding “we need to re-read the Constitution”). John Boehner did it (while waving a pocket copy of the Constitution). It happens fairly often.

Why? It’s simple: The Declaration is the old testament of the Constitution.

Tea Buyer’s Remorse

Since February, PPP has polled eight states that elected Republican governors in 2010: Seven of them would like a do-over. Nevada would vote for Gov. Brian Sandoval over Democrat Rory Reid (Harry’s son) again, and by almost the same margin. But John Kasich’s 2-point win in Ohio in November would be a 25-point loss today. Rick Scott’s 1-point win in Florida is now a 19-point deficit. In Wisconsin, Scott Walker’s 6-point advantage has turned into a 7-point hole. Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett went from up-5 to down-9. And so on. Even won’t-he-run-for-president Chris Christie in New Jersey has seen his approval fall.

What happened? It’s simple. In state after state, Republicans ran vague times-are-tough, we-need-more-jobs, I-share-your-values campaigns. (Check out John Kasich ads like this and this and this.) Immediately after taking office, they implemented radical plans that were remarkably uniform across state lines: bust the unions (Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Michigan), make it harder for people to vote (Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio), cut education (Pennsylvania, Florida, New Jersey, Wisconsin), cut Medicaid (Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania) or even privatize it (Florida) — while continuing to cut taxes for corporations (Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin). Other than the corporate tax cuts, it’s hard to find any mention of these specifics in last fall’s campaign.

Despite the campaign message that the Tea Party movement was about government spending, not social issues, Tea-Party-supported governors and their legislatures have passed a raft of laws restricting abortion. (Rachel Maddow has been doing a great job of covering abortion restrictions in her Really Big Government series.) Collateral damage includes women’s health in general: The federal government is challenging the legality of Indiana’s defunding of Planned Parenthood (similar to efforts in North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, and Tennessee). The state funds were not used for abortions, but for contraception, cancer screenings, STD testing, and other important services.

Citizens haven’t taken all this lying down. The Wisconsin union-busting drama (with its Democratic senators escaping to Illinois, 100,000-person demonstrations, and fly-by-night votes in the legislature that are overturned by the courts) has reached its next milestone: Of the eight Republican senators that were eligible for recall petitions, six will face new elections this summer. (Republicans tried to gin up interest in recalling the eight eligible Democratic senators, but they ended up filing petitions on only three of them. The state has yet to rule on their validity, due to allegations of fraudulent tactics — like telling people the petition was for something else.)

The Ohio union-busting law is on hold pending a petition drive to put it on the ballot in November. (The law is polling badly). A recall petition is circulating against Michigan’s Gov. Snyder, and Wisconsin’s Walker is bound to face a recall when he becomes eligible in January. (Wisconsin law won’t let voters recall an official who hasn’t served a year yet.)

That’s a lot of change for seven months. If you want to keep the momentum going in the right direction, consider supporting We Are Wisconsin as it starts campaigning in the recall elections.

Economy: Dip or Dive?

There’s no point trying to put a good face on it: The economic news last week was bad. Tuesday, a key housing-market index fell past the low it hit in 2009. Wednesday, bad news about the job market started coming out, culminating in Friday’s report from the Labor Department. It showed that the economy added only 54,000 jobs in May — well below the 100-150K needed to keep up with population growth. Consequently, the unemployment rate edged up to 9.1%. The Dow Jones average dropped 2.4% (about 300 points) for the week.

Economic writers spent a lot of time arguing about whether this was (1) the start of another downturn, so recently after the last one; or (2) a hiccup in an already slow stop-and-start recovery. The consensus, as best I could piece it together, was (2), but that the hiccup has moved us into perilous territory where unpredictable bad luck — a natural disaster, terrorist attack, or surprise corporate bankruptcy — could trigger (1).

The explanation I found most plausible was from New Deal Democrat on the Bonddad blog. Here are the key features of the problem:

  • Overall, we have a demand problem. Recoveries are usually pushed along by consumer spending, but most consumers have not seen much from the recovery yet. (Almost all the gains so far have gone to the wealthy.)
  • If the world is not already at peak oil production, it’s close. There’s no longer any button the Saudis can push to put more oil on the market.
  • Given that oil production is more-or-less fixed, any increase in world demand raises the price.
  • Consequently, economic recovery is self-stifling: Growth raises demand for oil which raises the price of gasoline. Higher gas prices take money away from low-to-middle-income consumers, the people most likely to spend. So demand drops, shutting off growth.

That’s why we have a stop-and-start recovery to begin with. Why it’s stopping right now, NDD claims, is partly random and partly due to the Japan tsunami, which has screwed up supply chains around the world.

So we should cross our fingers and try not to panic for the next few months. If there’s no additional shock to the system, we should get back to bumpy growth soon.

If you feed “jobs report” into Google News, you’ll notice something interesting: The unemployed are just tokens on somebody else’s gameboard. Articles focus on how the jobs report will affect the stock market or Obama’s chances for re-election — not what it means to people who need jobs.

This reflects something Tom Stites was talking about in 2006: Newspapers target the top 40% of the economic pyramid. Everybody else is invisible until they affect the top 40%.

This was sadly predictable:

Top Republicans on Friday said an increase in the jobless rate underscored the need for President Barack Obama to get personally involved in talks to cut government spending to help stimulate economic growth.

In case you’re wondering, no econometric model in the world predicts that cutting government spending will stimulate near-term economic growth or create jobs. And it’s not working anywhere that has tried it. But John Boehner can say stuff like this and have it reported seriously in the national media.

Three days before, Naked Capitalism’s Philip Pilkington explained how this kind of thing happens: TV talking-head economics has become a morality play, not a social science:

Politicians and economic commentators play into this by acting out various roles. They’re not simply lying – indeed, to an extent they seem to believe in the part they play, even though they know that what they are saying is misleading. But to step outside of the play – to pull a Brechtian manoeuvre and bring the audience in on the truth – would make them appear crazy; nothing, after all, appears quite so crazy as when someone starts telling too much truth. So the commentators and politicians get caught up in a slipstream of misleading nonsense – all the while furthering their careers.

Nicholas Kristof points out where the conservative economic program goes. There already is a country with low taxes, traditional religious values, a strong military, and industry unburdened by environmental or worker-safety regulations: Pakistan.

I spend a fair amount of time reporting in developing countries, from Congo to Colombia. They’re typically characterized by minimal taxes, high levels of inequality, free-wheeling businesses and high military expenditures. Any of that ring a bell?

Liberal values, on the other hand, are embodied in countries like Germany and Norway. Where would you rather live?

Short Notes

Katrina vanden Heuvel notes the change: Political courage used to mean doing the right thing and suffering the consequences. Now it means “making the hard choices” — i.e., deciding which powerless people you’re going to stick it to. Paul Ryan’s budget gives tax cuts to his rich base and sticks it to the old and the poor. There’s nothing “courageous” about it.

A really courageous Republican would tell his base this truth: We got here by cutting taxes. After you eliminate everything that could conceivably be called “waste”, we’re still going to need more revenue.

Congressman Mike Pompeo’s district contains the Koch Industries headquarters, and they’re his biggest contributor. When National Journal asks whether he’s been “influenced” by the Koch brothers, he responds like the Koch PR department:

Koch Industries is an amazing business that has succeeded by building a product that customers love dearly. The folks who run Koch are very clear. They would love to have government just get out of the way and allow companies to compete, whether in their particular sectors or other sectors.

Translation: “Yes, I am bought and paid for. You got a problem with that?”

Geek Power. This guy from Prague has a great idea: If there’s no bike lane, make your own. The projector on his bike adds dotted lines and a bicycle symbol to the pavement in front of him.

If TVs in public places annoy you, this woman has a device to turn them off sewn into her jacket.

And this invention will change lives in poor countries: inexpensive glasses you can tune yourself — no optometrist needed.

I’ve posted before about the Christianist take-over of the Air Force Academy and other military training programs. Chris Rodda (author of “Liars for Jesus: the Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History“) reports the latest: The Air Force Academy has done an investigation and cleared itself. One faculty member commented to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation: “You don’t do proper research with a self-selected sample — unless, of course, you are fishing for the answers you already want.”

Meanwhile, the MRFF claims that the Academy still contains a group of at least 100 cadets who fake being fundamentalist Christians so that they’ll be left alone.

Uh-oh. Somebody just told the religious right that Ayn Rand was an atheist.

While other states have been taking a sharp turn to the right, Vermont is moving towards single-payer health insurance. The motivation combines Bernie-Sanders-style liberalism with traditional Yankee thrift: Why are we sending all that money to out-of-state insurance companies who don’t contribute anything to the healing process?

This Week’s Challenge

Grist’s David Roberts observes that the Right has a lot of homogeneity — racially, culturally, religiously. That gives them unity and intensity, even as they shrink demographically. The Left, on the other hand, is “a contentious coalition of Thems”. Hence this question:

What vision of America’s future is broad enough to inspire and cohere the left’s fractious coalition but specific enough to distinguish it from the conservative status quo? What new narrative can turn the gaze of the country’s elite away from rosy-tinged nostalgia for frontier libertarianism and white privilege?

Any answers out there?

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift’s Facebook page, where you can also get the Link of the Day.

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  • DavidW in SF  On June 6, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    The Declaration/Constitution as Scripture and Founding Fathers as Prophets explains something else in the Christianist worldview which is otherwise baffling: “American exceptionalism.”

    The United States (or at least the Christians in it) are God's Chosen People.

  • Jonah  On June 6, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    How do we know the protester at the Ryan event was from the religious right? Could as easily be from the left. Seems more likely, as the religious right are largely deaf to scriptures regarding care for the widow & orphan.

  • Doug Muder  On June 6, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    Good point, Jonah. My vision of the religious right debating the Randites might be wishful thinking.

  • Anonymous  On June 6, 2011 at 9:51 pm

    Here is some great statistical research from a dating site (!) that shows that the Left will always be more fractured than the Right.
    Here is the post

  • Anonymous  On June 12, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    Help, Help, it's the Koch Brothers! Everyone hide!

    Oh, wait, it's just Mr. Soros. Sound the All Clear!

  • Doug Muder  On June 13, 2011 at 7:19 am

    The most obvious difference between the Kochs and Soros is this: When the Kochs fund something, it is usually advances their personal financial interest in a fairly direct way. So they campaign to cut their own taxes, or to be allowed to pollute more, or (in the case mentioned this week) to slander the alternatives to the fuels they sell.

    Soros' campaigns tend to be more quixotic. He spent enormous amounts of money to build democratic institutions in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism. He campaigns for the legalization of marijuana, and so on. It generally takes a fairly complex conspiracy theory to explain how these are money-making investments for him.

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