September 25, 2006


Seeing Red: A response to George Will (Thomas B. Edsall, 09.25.06, New Republic)

George Will's column has taught me several new rhetorical tricks. The first is how to use verbs to distort and impugn. In a column last week about my book Building Red America, Will wrote (emphases mine): "The GOP," Edsall laments, 'has achieved a gradual erosion of the popular consensus behind the major progressive and social-egalitarian movements of the twentieth century."

This artful sentence labels me as a mindless, knee-jerk liberal. In fact, I argue that the left has not come to terms with the fact of eroding support for the liberal agenda. That may or may not be lamentable, but my book leaves the emoting to others. Will writes:

Edsall complains that conservatives pursue an agenda that does not have the public's "decisive support." Whatever that means, liberals such as Edsall are ineligible to make that complaint. They increasingly have abandoned persuasion and legislation and resorted to litigation and judicial fiats to advance an agenda the public finds unpersuasive.

Again, I don't complain about the fact that the public is closely divided on the conservative agenda and on many key issues; I report that division as fact, something very few people--left, right, or center--disagree with.

But verbs aren't the only tool at Will's disposal; he also deploys distortion admirably: To him, I have "abandoned persuasion and legislation and resorted to litigation and judicial fiats" to get what I want. In fact, I agree with the criticism of liberalism as overly court-dependent. Building Red America cites many of the rulings that have protected the liberal agenda from Election Day feedback, and I have written elsewhere with Michael A. Fletcher that "After losing control of the White House when Bush took office in 2001, Democrats and liberals have largely turned to the courts as a last resort." My book is nothing, however, if not an exercise in persuasion. [...]

Then, there's misdirection. Will lumps me in with those on the left who claim that the GOP and conservatives have played a bait-and-switch game on the white working and middle classes, getting their votes with a culturally conservative agenda and then using the power of office to reward the rich. Sadly for him, this is false: I explicitly disagree with major pillars of that theory--made most famously by Thomas Frank in What's the Matter with Kansas?. Instead, I argue that many of the cultural issues have significant economic implications for working and middle class families, who see condom distribution in the public schools, challenges to authority (patriarchal and otherwise), the explosion in the number of divorces, the rejection of traditional religious values, and assertions of the "right" to self-expression and self-fulfillment as threatening qualities--restraint, postponed gratification, and devotion to family--that engender economic success.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 25, 2006 11:50 AM
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