Yesterday John Podhoretz admonished his fellow conservatives to “get serious” about Barack Obama. “Obama is very possibly a world-historical political figure,” wrote Podhoretz. He’s not, he explained, a nice guy in over his head. And he’s not “the reverse-negative image of that delusion…a not-so-secret Marxist Kenyan with dictatorial ambitions and a nearly limitless appetite for power.”
Podhoretz is being a bit disingenuous in suggesting that “Obama’s a nice guy over his head” is a conservative delusion; almost nobody in conservative circles actually believes that, it’s just something they said during the recent marketing campaign in which they temporarily increased their market share from 45% to 47%. But a lot sure do believe the Marxist (and I’d add Muslim) Kenyan wannabe dictator.
How does Podhoretz think a serious person should see Obama? As “a conventional post-1960s left-liberal with limited interest in the private sector and the gut sense that government must and should do more, whatever ‘more’ might mean at any given moment.”
The notion that Obama is a dangerous extremist helps him, because it makes him seem reasonable and his critics foolish. It also helps those who peddle it, because it makes them notorious and helps them sell their wares. But it has done perhaps irreparable harm to the central conservative cause of the present moment—making the case that Obama’s social-democratic statism is setting the United States on a course for disaster and that his anti-exceptionalist foreign policy is setting the world on a course for nihilistic chaos. Those are serious arguments, befitting a serious antagonist. They may not sell gold coins as quickly and as well as excessive alarmism, but they have the inestimable advantage of being true.
Do you see the problem here? If not, look a little closer: yeah, there it is: Podhoretz is admonishing his fellow conservatives for believing their inaccurate caricature of Obama (and the nation that has twice elected him president), and imploring conservatives to instead embrace his inaccurate caricature of Obama, and of America. Or, rather, the post-Vietnam caricature of all liberals and Democrats, a caricature created in no small part by John Podhoretz’ parents.
Podhoretz is a legacy. He’s the editor of Commentary. Commentary’s longtime editor and now editor emeritus is John’s dad, Norman Podhoretz, who frequently published pieces by Midge Decter, John’s mom. After Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz is probably the most (in)famous and influential neconservative, at least among the polemicists. A leftist critic of liberalism in the early sixties, by the late sixties Podhoretz was a bellicose & often bigoted rightwing critic of liberalism. By 1968 he was railing against effete liberal intellectuals of the kind he’d once consorted with but whom he believed disdained him because of his hardscrabble background in working class Brooklyn. (Of course it’s surely a coincidence that this flip to cultural conservative came almost immediately after his 1967 memoir “Making It” was savaged by liberal intellectuals such as his one-time time friend Norman Mailer.) By the late 1970’s, Podhoretz and Decter were, according to Jacob Heilbrunn’s They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, alleging that “cultural changes like the rise of feminism and increased tolerance for homosexuality would sap the vitality of the United States and lead it to perdition, a key reason that the neconservatives would later find common ground with Christian evangelicals.” In The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, Sidney Blumenthal less charitably described Decter as “a thunderer against the sins of the feminists, other miscreants from the 1960’s, and crypto-Stalinists.”
The neocons retained a nominal allegiance to the Democrats into the 1970’s, but they eagerly embraced Ronald Reagan and have been intellectual troops–or, one might say, polemical hacks–for the GOP ever since.
But it wasn’t only being dissed by the liberal intelligentsia that led Podhoretz and Decter to go to war with the radical left, the counterculture, and liberalism–terms which over time they practically used as synonyms. Israel and anti-communism loomed much larger in their politics after the 1967 war, and they thought liberals had gone soft on both. But the gateway from abrasive leftism to their reactionary cultural
whoring warring was race. Podhoretz’ issues with race were visible at least since 1963, when he published his essay “My Negro Problem–and Ours”:
With his February 1963 Commentary essay “My Negro Problem—and Ours,” Podhoretz created a furor. The article concludes with a plea for racial intermarriage, but it is mostly remembered for being a blunt recollection of Podhoretz’s childhood terror of the black children and teenagers who, at times, beat him to a pulp. “In my world it was the whites, the Italians and Jews who feared the Negroes, not the other way around,” he writes. “The Negroes were tougher than we were, more ruthless, and on the whole they were better athletes.”
Podhoretz, Kristol, Tom Wolfe and other effete coastal intellectuals of their ilk helped create and employ the nasty stereotype of effete coastal intellectuals who indulged and empowered everything that went wrong in America in the 1950’s: the undisciplined kids who occupied universities; the radicals who cavorted with Jane Fonda, Ho Chi Minh and the Black Panthers; the eggheads who indoctrinated teachers in new math, phonics and cultural relativism; the bra burners who were destroying the family and raising boys to be sissies; the experts who built freeways on top of neighborhoods and bussed kids to the other side of town; the hippies who took drugs & were experimental sexual libertines; the savages who took drugs & rutted like animals; the muggers who turned liberals in to conservatives; the multi-lateralists, internationalists and defeatists afraid to assert our national interest around the world, and thus make us unsafe at home; the savages who set fire to cities and ruined the old neighborhoods; and the queens, both the queer kind as well as the lazy kind who popped out babies and wouldn’t work because they could sit around collecting welfare from the taxes paid by the silent majority. Fully emancipating blacks turned the South from a Democratic bastion to the Republican heartland. It was these stereotypes–used by Richard Nixon, perfected by Lee Atwater, and still somewhat useful to Karl Rove–that Republicans used to win elections in the urban and suburban north and in the Sunbelt west for three decades.
By 1980 or so, Podhoretz, Decter, Kristol and the rest of their cadre abandoned Jimmy Carter and the Democratic party and threw in 100% with Ronald Reagan. And that’s where they’ve remained, and where they’ve found employment for their kids. And it’s Jimmy Carter, and Walter Mondale, and Teddy Kennedy and the urban planners and affirmative action hires and Vietnam war protesters and attorneys springing criminals from prison and the Black Panthers and Malcolm X and all the “other miscreants from the 1960’s” they’ve continued to fight. And they believe several of their stereotypes, about single mother parenting, elite education, affirmative action, community organizing and machine politics, that they believe mutated and created the embodiment of so much that they see wrong with America: Barack Obama and his liberal, Democratic enablers and supporters.
Since his parents gave birth not only to him, but in large part to these social and cultural slurs that served as the GOP’s campaign themes, it’s no surprise that John Podhoretz falls back on them to explain Barack Obama. According to John Podhoretz, “Barack Obama and his liberal followers have been doing very serious work over the past four years, and the same cannot be said, alas, of far too many people who oppose them.” He might have instead written, paraphrasing his father, that “Barack Obama and his liberals are tougher than we are, more ruthless, and on the whole they are better campaigners and politicos than we are.”
Podhoretz the Lesser, invoking Sun Tzu, says “you need to know your political antagonist if you are to prevail against him—and you need to know yourself.” I haven’t read Sun Tzu, but I suspect he also says it’s at least kind of important to know the terrain on which you’ll wage battle. We knew Podhoretz inherited his father’s job; now we see the patrimony also included the intellectual weaponry and battle plans of his father’s wars. But those battle plans were devised for a time when the electorate was over 90% white, almost entirely native-born, Christian, almost entirely straight or closeted, if not speaking English than speaking Italian or Polish, working heavily in manufacturing, and just undergoing the changes of desegregation, and more importantly, of feminism. The ideas that drove liberals and Democrats, the weapons they deployed, and the electorate they engaged were dramatically different than today. But the GOP has not adapted to the new adversary and new environment, and until they make fundamental changes–such as distancing themselves from rightwing fundamentalists–they’re at risk of being overrun.
By sticking with his parents’ view of America, John Podhoretz is actually telling conservatives to keep doing exactly what they’re doing wrong: viewing liberals and Democrats, as well as the electorate, as having remained unchanged since the 1960’s and 1970’s. Rather than invoke Sun Tzu, Podhoretz should be thinking about a different adage about war: generals always prepare to fight the last war. John Podhoretz wants conservatives to get serious about fighting the last culture war, that Republicans long ago lost, in an America that no longer exists.