Tuesday, February 28, 2012

800 Words: Chait vs. Perlstein, One on One for Your Nintendo Part 1

In the last two days, there have been two heavy, almost oracular pronouncements from perhaps the two hottest left-leaning commentators in today’s America. Yesterday, Jonathan Chait pronounced in New York Magazine that theocratic Republicans are making their last stand in 2012, because they woke up one day to find history no longer on their side. Today, Rick Perlstein pronounced that the Democratic party will remain in the minority so long as its younger generation remains in 'all-or-nothing' apathy.

In many ways, Jonathan Chait and Rick Perlstein comprise the two divergent strands of the new Democratic party. Both are liberals in every sense, but the former errs on the moderate side, the latter on the progressive.

(Jonathan Chait intellectually bitchslapping a conservative...as he often does)

For nearly ten years, I’ve come close to idolizing Jonathan Chait. He’s a scarily articulate journalist in the manner of Michael Kinsley who always puts facts and substance before ideology and passion. Whereas many magazine analysts think that passion and commitment are the most important parts of articulating a point of view, Chait understands that politics is ultimately a very boring thing - primarily a matter of statistics and bureaucracy - but it is up to the journalist to make this extremely boring subject interesting for the readers. He is the ultimate in prudence, good sense, and not taking politics too seriously - but it also helps that he’s really, really funny. He was trained at The New Republic, the most wonkish, sensible magazine in America - often to a fault and well past it. But in many ways, Chait was the ‘runt’ of the bunch, condescended to as a bit of a clown while they were producing much more serious writers. Whereas TNR’s other ‘wonks’ went to top-flight schools, Chait came out of the University of Michigan. Whereas Peter Beinart would hammer points home by quoting ‘very serious’ older pundits like Arthur Schlesinger, Jonathan Chait would toss off points by quoting The Simpsons or Arrested Development. Whereas Michael Crowley would quote a dizzying array of facts and figures, Jonathan Chait would leaven the data overload with an incontrovertible historical or philosophical comparison that illuminated the issue perfectly. Whereas Ryan Lizza would plumb the depths of journalistic fact-finding on all sorts of political figures, Chait would deal fundamentally with how they fit into the larger scene. Chait’s writing may not have been as serious in the traditional journalistic ways, but he was a much, much more engaging writer than nearly all his peers. For politicos, reading most other TNR writers was a obbligation, but reading Chait was pure pleasure. His one book, ‘The Big Con’, tells the story of how the Republican Party of the 70’s came to be hoodwinked into believing crackpot economic theories like supply-side economics and the benefits of deficit spending. To my thinking, it’s a political masterpiece - absolutely necessary reading for anyone who cares about the direction in which the USA is heading.

Rick Perlstein also spent time at The New Republic and the University of Michigan, but Perlstein’s path is very different. Whereas Chait marshals concepts in the pursuit of supporting facts, Perlstein marshals facts in the pursuit of supporting concepts. Chait is primarily a journalist and pundit, Perlstein is primarily an historian and an activist. Chait’s journalistic calling is to be the lighter pundit in ‘very serious’ publications like The New Republic and New York Magazine. Perlstein’s journalistic calling is to be the ‘very serious pundit’ in lighter magazines like Rolling Stone and the Huffington Post. Perlstein is as scarily well-informed as Chait, so much so that reading his writing can be an exercise in statistical overload. Like far too many historians, Perlstein starts with a theory and then collects his facts to support it. His 600 page tome, Nixonland, has become an unlikely manifesto for liberals around the country. It is a book which argues that all the demagogic fears of the Bush administration has its origins in the political playbook of the Nixon administration. In the manner which Perlstein frames it, it’s difficult to disagree with his thesis. But Perlstein overlooks a few simple facts that nearly destroy his argument. He portrays the liberals of Nixon’s time in an almost Manichean light as the acme of progress and demonstrates no sympathy for the fact that many Americans felt alienated by an ‘elite’ that gradually forgot the white working class. Still more damaging was his ignorance of the Reagan Presidency’s importance. Nixon may have provided the Bush administration’s techniques, but the Reagan presidency - particularly the first year or two - provided Bush’s ideology. It was Reagan, not Nixon, who showed that it was possible to govern America as a Movement Conservative. Far more persuasive, in my humble opinion, is Sean Wilentz’s book, ‘The Age of Reagan,’ released almost contemporaneously to ‘Nixonland.’ Wilentz is a Princeton Professor, and a traditional liberal who hates the Bush administration no less than Perlstein. One of his most famous articles was a 2006 Rolling Stone piece about Bush called ‘The Worst President Ever?’

For Chait, the mendacity of Republicans lies in their stupidity. For Perlstein, the mendacity of Republicans lies in their deviousness. In case it isn’t abundantly clear, I find myself much closer to Chait’s worldview than Perlstein’s. If there is one thing which thousands of years of political junkies have observed, it is that there is no limit to the stupidity of lawmakers. The truth remains that very few politicians have anything but the best intentions at heart. Indeed, the best intentioned politicians are often the most dangerous, because the more fervently they believe in their goals, the less scruples they will have about the often terrible prices which must be paid to enact them.

Yet this time, perhaps just this time, I found myself much more in agreement with Perlstein than with Chait. Why and how did this happen? That’ll be for tomorrow.

Click here for part two

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