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Pesuasion and Conservative Whining

With all due respect to the illustrious Mr. Marshall of our blog--to say nothing of the often insightful, witty and perceptive Victor Davis Hanson--I can sum up my feeling about their speculation of a "lost generation"of young people in American politics with one word:  poppycock!

The only thing that might be called a "loser" in the description Hanson and Marshall (with his gloss of "loser" upon Hanson's "lost") offer of the lives and thinking of young people is the inclination in both toward smug judgment and the political resignation that seems swiftly to follow upon the heels of that judgment.  Honestly, I am at a loss--judging solely from these posts--as to how Hanson and Marshall arrived at this "understanding" of the thinking of young people.  Hanson appears more to have examined them under a microscope--as if they were insects . . . or, perhaps, he is a Dr. Zaius figure in a world that has passed by the rest of us with no need of the time travel Mr. Paulette disposes of here?  Hanson eavesdrops on people's conversations uninvited, for example, instead of bothering actually to engage them in conversation . . . you know, as if they were men and fellow Americans, like him, and worthy of the effort.  Marshall appears happy to accept these descriptions on the basis of Hanson's authority.  Or perhaps it confirms his own assessment of reality? 

While I've no doubt that there are plenty of people now happily fitting the descriptions of sloth and disengagement Hanson offers, I have serious doubts about both the newness of this phenomenon (after all, the relative "poverty" of even 40 years ago was something shoulders above what it was 40 years before that . . . and I suspect that there was, at that time, more than a few VDHs around to point out the "problem," pontificate about the disconnect it creates between human beings and the struggle of life, and pronounce it an unsustainable development) and about the depth and breadth of the problem--even if the nature of the thing is exactly as he describes.

How, for example, does he know that he is right about this:
 
While many were fit, and seem to work out, bike, ski, and hike, none understood the mechanics that lie beneath the veneer of the good life -- the chain-sawing, hammering, drain-unplugging, tractor-driving, irrigating, and welding that allows a pleasant afternoon Greek salad and cappuccino on University Avenue -- the disconnect between those Pennsylvania "clingers" and Obama's arugula-eating crowd.  [emphasis mine]

Did he ask any of them if they'd ever wielded a chain-saw or unplugged a drain?  Some of them, surely, must know how to do these things because there is still plenty of lumber and I've heard nothing of the "great drain-clogging crisis" in America.  If he were to spend some time in my community--say, talking with the dads at the Little League field--he'd discover plenty of line-men, plumbers, electricians, policemen . . . you name it--all comfortably middle-class, shopping at Wal-Mart and Best Buy, raising their children and engaged, as much as possible in a life filled with work, family and other "distractions," in the politics of our time.  And guess what?  Plenty of them eat arugula and enjoy going to Starbucks!  The two are no more mutually exclusive.  Moreover, there are a good number of these "regular guys" who are very much connected to the workaday world as well as to "what it takes" to put together a Greek salad who, despite all this material understanding and connection to the physical world, think and vote as Liberals.  And, if you ask them, they will likely give you a decent argument--be it based in interest or in ideology--as to why they think and vote that way. 

I am well aware that Mr. Hanson, especially, works mightily to keep himself close to his agricultural roots and feels a deep sense of connection with the common-sense approach of the hard-working men and women of America.  That is to be applauded and he is right to be critical of politicians and pundits who sneer instead of sympathize with this essential part of America.  But I wonder if Mr. Hanson does not, himself, engage in another kind of sneering.  If that common sense approach to life that he so cherishes is threatened, is it really threatened, in the main, by changing material conditions?  That seems too easy an explanation to me.  And also, it's a bit of a cop out. 

I say it's a cop out because it allows the holder of the view to cling to an imagined "noble" resignation; a particularly distasteful attitude that I find to be far too common on the right.  It permits exactly the kind of disengagement for conservatives that conservatives bemoan in others.   It allows a good number of would-be conservatives to write off an entire generation of Americans as "lost";  just as so many of them are happy to write off blacks or immigrants because they find persuading them or engaging them in manful conversation . . . well, difficult. 

It's far easier to point to changing physical realities--government policies, relative prosperity, even obesity!--for a possible explanation than it is to question whether or not your side has bothered to put together a cogent argument that can resonate with those realities and with that audience.  However "lost" these Americans are by Hanson's lights, they are Americans.  At bottom and at heart, they are Americans (or, perhaps, in some cases only potential Americans) no matter how disfigured the times, their president, the Democrat party, and their parents (more than likely of Mr. Hanson's generation) have made them.  Either men are capable of self-government or they are not.  This kind of fundamental equality, Coolidge famously noted, if true is final.  It does not change with the times or the circumstances. 

I am so weary of this tendency of conservatives when faced with the significant moral and intellectual challenge of real political persuasion--be it with blacks or with Hispanics or, now, with young people--to throw up their hands and pronounce it impossible.  Is it?  How do we know? 

If conservatives really believe that, they damn themselves and not just in the obvious way of pathetic electoral and political results.  They damn, above all, their intentions and motives.  And this is the basis of so much of the distrust that actually does make persuasion impossible.  The charge leveled against conservatives is that we "do not care" about minorities, young people and the otherwise downtrodden of society.  If leading conservatives persist in this meme that blacks, Hispanics, and young people are not persuadable (no matter how the sentiment is masked by reference to the manipulative ways of class-conscious leftists) they betray a fundamental belief in the left's assumptions.  Or, if not quite that, they betray an astounding lack of ambition that ought, really, to condemn them to the fate of those they appear to find "impossible" to persuade.   With thinking like that, why should anyone in those groups bother to buy it?

It is fair to note the difficulty of the problem of persuasion, certainly.  It is fair to note the ways in which downtrodden groups can, have, and will be manipulated by n'er do well left-leaning pols for the purpose of extracting their votes and adulation.  It is fair, even, to make cogent observations about the material conditions around us that contribute to making persuasion more difficult.  One needs to know one's audience--not to pander to it, but to eliminate the possibility of stupid unnecessary blunders that work to sever trust.  Does Hanson really know it?  Can one know it using his methodology of microscopic/anthropological observation?  It seems to me supremely unfair for conservatives who are either too tired or too intimidated to engage in this conversation to accept the designation of "losers" implicitly offered by the patronizers of the Left about groups neither one of them seems willing to be bothered actually to engage.  It is to lose the argument without even taking it up and to accept a reality at odds with the principles we are supposed, as Americans, to defend.

This kind of dismissive whining is unbecoming in Americans--all of us.  We ought not to indulge in it.

UPDATE:  For something amusing that also speaks to the point of conservative pessimism and seeming enjoyment of "loser-dom", look at this today from Jonah Goldberg.
Categories > Conservatism

Discussions - 17 Comments

Once again, Julie, you have the best post of at least the past week! I love to read Hanson's articles, but as a young person have always been turned off by just the kind of writing he does (that was not by any means the first one!) that you point out.

Julie, that was a boatload of good points.

Wow, that was, to say the least, an exceptionally long post. I don't think it was a reveling in defeat or a statement that we are doomed, but that a new reality could be breaking upon us as a prior political and economic age breaks apart, painfully and slowly. The generation of 20% unemployment is in many ways thrown into an unexceptionally difficult position. Hanson's point was that many don't seem in the mood to innovate, adjust, and struggle forward. I live in an upper-middle class suburb where everyone is seemingly successful and a has at least 3 kids, nice lawns, homes, etc. But what I'm observing amongst neighbors is precisely what Hanson describes - economic inpatient care-for their 20something children.

No one is resigning from argument or contention in the public square. But facts can be stubborn. Moreover, shame is a good, no? Our reality, I think for the next long while, is something like harder work, for less money, and most of us will be treading water, if not poorer. In short, there are no magic wands left like international capital flows teeming into American banks or Reagan's beautiful tax cuts. There is just pain and work and retooling and adjustment so that new realities can break our way. To be thrust into this situation as a fresh college graduate must be difficult. The lack of a vigorous response is what Hanson is noting.

But still, I think Hanson's notes do seem rather monolithic. He has said before that the military contains the only part of the younger population that is "ossified in amber." Do I have any, or even many, colleagues who fit the description of Hanson's article? Of course. But what generation can say that they have not had that?

Without miffing my grandparent's generation, I think I can say, "not one." And still, I know many others who have just graduated, who are scrimping and saving and *not* living at home -- working multiple part time jobs (because retail store X can only give them 10 hours a week) with degrees (the ink not even dry on them yet). One friend of mine just entered an insurance agency he helped to start, another learned his father's trade and is opening up his own shop, and another ate nothing but bologna sandwiches for at least a year while sending out applications to the far edges of the world, prepared to become a Hyperborean if need be.

I guess life might seem different within the confines of an upper-middle class suburb. This is not to be harsh, but the 'good ol' days' nostalgia is getting a little tiring, as Julie points out.

Magnificent rant, Julie.

Your response highlights a fault line we as conservatives / Republicans have to navigate in the 2010 and 2012 elections and beyond.

I don't think we have to make special outreach to populations not well-represented in our ranks (whether political party or political philosophy) but we must be careful with our presumptions. Additionally, we profit from standing firm on conservative principles while striving to give the benefit of the doubt to populations we desire to attract.

The "greatest generation" had tremendous flaws. All generations do, as Owl of Minerva has asserted. After all, we're talking about human beings. Our big, principled tent should never lose sight of that fact. For, as Jonah Goldberg clearly demonstrates in Julie's update, our adversaries are going to control a message that gives us no benefit of the doubt.

There has been no lack of GOP outreach to minorities or youth. It just hasn't worked too well because our message isn't as easily understood as the liberal one, and because our viewpoint doesn't allow easy scapegoating of other people.

And, I too have noticed lots of people living the good life but not appreciating who makes it possible. As for whining, I don't see any in VDH's article. If he's guilty of anything, I'd say poetic generalization. He's painting a zeitgeist -- it doesn't need to be literally true for every single 25 year-old, Julie. Lighten up!

If we talk the talk and walk the walk (as good conservatives), they will come (eventually). Success breeds success, and there is no substitute for that.

I'm not sure that VDH and Julie are arguing things that are completely mutually exclusive. I think that VDH's generalizations are very true. There's a sense of entitlement to an upper-middle-class lifestyle, the right job to match one's impressive academic credentials going back to elementary school when they were an organization kid, $5 coffees, all the latest gadgets, etc. The idea that they would pick up a shovel and weather the recession is indeed anathema to them. Like all generalizations there are obviously exceptions, but I think VDH is definitely on the right track.

But, Julie is right. These kids in the generation should be engaged as human persons, as a rising generation, and as a group of self-governing voters. The gripping about them should not lead to disengagement or writing them off. They do bring important things to the table and should be mentored as our future leaders and voters. Many are smart, articulate, and tech saavy.

Great observable flaws of the generation I find in my classroom: single-parenting, especially motherhood and the use of marijuana, especially in young men. These override race and ethnicity, but are shared burdens of a generation. Do conservatives speak to these issues in any useful way?

Perhaps the latter, marijuana use, is less obvious, but it is a burden. I no longer have a problem with the legalization of marijuana, which we should legalize because of its prevalence. We used to be able to say it was not like alcohol in a social way, but now it is. This is the Prohibition issue for a generation. Conviction for drug use wrecks the life of the guy who has been caught. I may only have one guy starting over from that out of thirty users, but that fact that it is simply a matter of those guys caught or not makes the law seem absurd. Republicans should let this go on the grounds of compassion and liberty. The War on Drugs is lost and should be abandoned as a lost cause.

Of course, I also deplore marijuana's use. My standard classroom question has become, "Doesn't the use of marijuana tend to sap you of your ambitions?" and I have not had an argument yet, in three years of asking. It is a plague and a terrible burden on much of that generation. Yet, illegality has not stemmed the plague.

You might as usefully ban premarital sex. The latest statistics on single-parenting are staggering. How do we respond to this? I have not had a single mother among the many in my classes who thought that raising the child without a father was going well.

These are not just huge burdens that individuals carry, but all of society carries them as well since we have to live with the burdened. The Democrats' answer is to throw money into government programs. The evidence is that this produces more of the problem. My classes are full of people who have suffered from a lack of self-government and no lack of government, which they all know has not helped.

I find myself with no time to edit. In many ways I agree with you, Julie, but until conservatives find a way to persuade people, what are we to do? People who have been raised not to be self-governing have a high learning curve to overcome the error of their ways. Persuading people of the efficacy of self-governance in order to remove excessive external government from their lives might be the argument to make.

The GOP's "outreach" such as it is and because it is labeled "outreach" has been transparent and also sometimes patronizing and, generally, ineffective. The GOP's presence in new and social media has been lagging behind that of Democrats. They are improving in this area but . . . so are the Dems. I see no improvement whatever in outreach (though I tend more to agree with Rattlegator and not even like the word) to blacks and other minorities. If there were improvement you would be hearing a stronger and a better message coming out of Arizona--one that did not leave open any doors to an ugly under-belly of the politics of resentment. I do not think that the vast majority of people irritated by the lack of enforcement of immigration laws and a failure to secure the border are racists . . . but I do think that there was a massive failure to coordinate the message and to root out those who are glomming on to the fight in AZ for their own questionable reasons. And I've already noted that there was a significant problem here with timing . . . But this is another large can of worms I don't want to open just now.

The point here is that the GOP has not been able to be persuasive, in large part, because there is so much disagreement and, frankly, ignorance on the part of too many people who are trying to do the persuading. Party hacks love to talk about being the party of Lincoln and Reagan when it is useful to their purposes. But it really seems to me that not enough of them know what that means in any deep or meaningful way that can be easily transmitted to large majorities of people. The message of the GOP is not as difficult to grasp as some here suggest. For it is the message of liberty and a call to root out all tendency toward tyranny or the denial of that liberty. It is a message that has long resonated with Americans and it is a message that has effectively persuaded large majorities of them to act in the past. But it has to be delivered with coherence and conviction and--as I noted in the post above--the kind of prudence that allows the argument to resonate with the particular realities of the time in order to transform the prejudices of the people into something more consistent with that liberty. It is emphatically impossible to do this with a rhetoric that insults the pride of one's fellow Americans in large swaths and, to no purpose, assuages the guilt of ineffective rhetoricians.

When I finished reading the splendid writing of three bloggers about a single tome by VDH, I believe that you all have provided adequate tribute to great skill of VDH. When I read his “Tour” piece in PJM, I was drawn to his concern with the “protected” youth of today who have never had to suffer through financial hard times because Mom and Dad were dual-income prosperous and determined that under no circumstance would their children have to live poor and bored. I personally relate to that since my Mom had to put me to bed in an unheated bedroom during winter. My kids only slept in warm heated rooms. VDH goes on in his tale to say in essence that overprotective parents often sap strength and initiative from their pampered offspring to be replaced with self-delusion and misplaced ego.

So when Professor Hanson worries about the preparedness of today's young people to sustain American liberty, John Marshall logically follows and expands this reasoning by citing the lack of concern from our spoiled youth about our service economy which has outsourced many jobs overseas thus introducing long-term stateside joblessness into the mix.

Now comes the debating team of Julie Ponzi declaring that Hanson knows naught of which he speaks and forever optimist J.B. White over at RattlerGator Blog agrees with her. Julie, for example,thinks that the CA grape farmer knows nothing about the effort required of hard-working field hands to earn their wage the old-fashioned way and she sees nothing wrong with American youth living above their means. She finds no value in our youth first assessing real world economics before demanding liberal statist benefits.

J. B. seems to think that persuasion rather than whining by principled conservatives is required to turn the bad seed among us. Unfortunately, the well-entrenched leftists won the election and fascism has raised its ugly head. As we are led down the path of open borders and government health and welfare programs we have to look to the name for Julie's blog and make “No Left Turns.”

To look at our future, we need only look to Greece . . . and Victor Davis Hanson wrote about that as well.

I suppose the gadfly's experience as a child in a room without heat might have done much to form his political sentiments to the good. But I wonder if he can account for the legions of others with similar (or worse) experiences who--as they watch their parents work hard--developed political views that are diametrically opposed to his? I know a good number of dyed-in-the-wool Democrats, for example, who are Depression babies . . . and nothing changes them.

On the other hand, I know a number of people my age (late 30s early 40s) who grew up in the kind of comfort you describe your kids enjoying . . . including . . . well, me. Some of us lean conservative and some of us don't. Perhaps a good deal of the difference has to the ways in which we have experienced life. I am willing to believe that it does. But I think another large part of it has to do with the kind of persuasion I was talking about and the fact is, whether you will admit it or not, you do too. If you did not, you would not bother to post your opinions here--for it would be a pointless exercise unless it just happens to make you feel good to do it. There is more to the development of political sentiment than material circumstance and life experience . . . people have minds and the amazing thing about human minds and--perhaps, especially, American minds--is that they can (though they don't always do it) transcend time and place.

I know that VDH knows this. And if the gadfly had read my commentary a bit more carefully (perhaps after his chill subsided) he might have seen that I even acknowledged that VDH's description of some young people (and maybe even a sizable chunk of them) is not entirely off the mark. But it's not especially original either . . . not to him, not to any author . . . heck, not even to this century! It is a perpetual and re-occurring problem in human history that he describes. The youth are always going to hell in a hand-basket--sometimes they go there in the way VDH here describes. At other times they find different modes of transportation.

But if VDH was hoping to take the role of the proverbial angel on the shoulder and stop some of the madness, I think he missed the mark. But perhaps his aim was not to do that . . . maybe I give him too much credit? I don't think so . . . but perhaps you do?

Julie, first, your insistence that our "message" is simple isn't really true. For much of the last century the GOP was a "me too" party -- the auxiliary for the Progressives. Then we became Cold warriors. Then Goldwater and Reagan injected the message you speak of (sensible libertarianism -- although Reagan had an industrial policy and some other things that aren't strictly libertarian). Under the Bush clan the GOP talked small government but vastly expanded it. And what are we now?

This is a much more complicated picture than the Democrats' message, which is: "Change the world." They are aggressive, while we tend to be defensive (which makes sense).

And VDH's major point is on-target: We have been a nation of "helicopter" parents, and this may turn out to be problematic.

Redwald, you make excellent points about the ways in which Republicans have obscured and convoluted their original message. That is all true enough. But Republican fecklessness by itself does not change the truth. The GOP ought (as should every political party) to try and represent their understanding of what being and American under the Constitution means. There is a correct answer to this question and, while I realize that there will ever be debate about the finer points, we ought to be able to present a coherent case about the major ones. Republicans have failed to do that. In lieu of doing that Democrats, as you correctly note, have taken up the project of "changing the world" . . . which has the advantage (for them) both of being a project and being a project that does not require vast underlying agreement. It can be whatever the noble-hearted acolyte wishes it to be in his mind . . . for a time. But now Americans appear to long for substance. Will the GOP be able to provide it?

As far as VDH's criticism of the helicopter parent phenomenon, you must know that I am not unsympathetic to that argument. No time to look them up now, but I've posted on it many times in the past. On the other hand, you will note that in discussing it, my criticism is directed more at those parents than at their progeny. None of that critique of the phenomenon was especially original to me--nor is his variation on the theme original to VDH. Indeed, the critique in all of its various permutations is so prevalent among parents, grandparents, teachers, and even kids (!) that I begin to wonder who it is that they can be criticizing! Who is left? It must be "other" parents and "other" kids . . .

Is any of what I said above to imply that the phenomenon is not real or that the consequences of it, if real, are not serious? No. But I do recommend a bit more self-reflection for everyone and, of course, some better calibrating of the fire.

I think you will always find exceptions to the rule, but Hanson's article rang true with my interactions with most the people in my generation.

As for the GOP message that you state: I love that simple message. However, I don't see how the GOP could put that message out and not be laughed at. They would have to roll back the keep us safe, police state rhetoric they have been pushing since 9.12.01. I thought they were wrong then and wrong now. Liberty has and never will be without danger.

As for the part of the conversation that went towards drug use, I am not as convinced that we are facing an epidemic. I just have not seen that many people who were actually held back in life by smoking pot, getting caught is another story. The war on drugs was a farce on two levels. One: its just like prohibiton where drug use has shot up since it was outlawed. Now, there is huge profits to be made by outlaws. Two: our government ships the stuff in. They helped set up the Columbian Cartel decades ago(remember that little thing that almost got Reagan in trouble and the future fox news correspondent stepped in and saved the day?) and are now growing and selling the opium in Afganastan. They claim they have to guard the fields so the Taliban can't sell it, but where does the money go now we are in control of it? Legalization would help, because it takes the money out the outlaws hands(meaning western banks and intel firms along with the drug lords), but don't count on support for it because the intel./financial power in the Western World make money off it.

The tech stuff is quite the mixed bag. We have this wonderful thing called the internet were concerned people like us can come together and share ideas. We also have an idle person's playground full of more porn than you could ever see, more media than you could ever pirate, and more lulz than you could ever enjoy. So, in a way, the tech has made a rather pathetic life seem less dreary. Is this good or bad? I really do fear though that in our own real life dystopia that we are only experiencing a huxley version on the way to Orwell. The fundamental thing I was always curious about was why did you still need the technology and comforts when you already have the people beaten.

Brutus, you say: "I love that simple message. However, I don't see how the GOP could put that message out and not be laughed at."

Let me suggest this: try it. I find that while people sometimes laugh, more often it resonates. But then, I don't believe--as Hanson appears to want to believe and perhaps, you do too--that the heart and soul have been sucked out of the American people. I don't believe that their capacity for self-government is sapped. It is in danger. But it always is--as you readily note.

The question, once we recognize that, is how do we go about eliminating as much of the danger posed to self government as possible? The answer cannot be to fall into self-congratulatory screed writing that can appeal only to people who already see the problem you describe.

(And btw: I have more sympathy with what you say about the GOP's post 9/11 rhetoric than you may know . . . .)

I took my first business loans when I was not very old and that aided me very much. However, I need the small business loan once again.

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