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NASCAR Man Goes F1

Peter Beinart -- whose new book I will read as soon as I finish Orhan Pamuk’s Snow  -- has a funny, observant but ultimately weird column in The New Republic this week. It starts out as an "anthropology of one’s own tribe" -- liberals at conferences about liberalism, progressivism, whatever you want to call it, blah, blah. Beinart complains that at these conferences, everyone is too nice to each other (hence, apparently, the odd title of the column -- "Nice Ass," as in, Democrats=donkeys, which another word for is "ass" and they’re too nice, thus "Nice Ass." Very clever, in a Hasty Pudding Club sort of way.) , but what he really proves about such conferences is that almost everyone is half-engaged, if they are there at all. "Name tags lie on tables, seats remain unfilled. ...Someone gets a cell phone call, checks the number, and heads for the exit. Someone else fishes a BlackBerry from his suitcase and begins to tap. The condition of American liberalism is grave, we all agree, but evidently not grave enough to put our cell phones on mute."

(An accurate description, although at the last such conclave I attended, only one name tag was unclaimed, Beinart’s, which sat on a side table serving as a silent rebuke lest any of us lapse into mushy, soft-on-terror thinking.)

Beinart points out that every such meeting is then dominated by someone who makes a long and pointless point, even admitting frequently that "maybe this doesn’t make any sense," but that everyone’s too nice, or too distracted by the Blackberry to stop him or her. (I admit that I’m the Blackberry -- Treo, actually -- guy -- I hope I’m not that other guy also.)

But at least I know I’m not the guy Beinart pays most attention to

...if liberals must eradicate self-indulgent niceness, they must also confront an even bigger scourge. Let’s call him nascar Man. Nascar Man hovers over every discussion I’ve ever attended. You don’t always notice him at first, but, sooner or later, someone invites him into the room, and he proceeds to suck out all the air. Nascar Man is the guy liberals need to win, but usually don’t. He loves guns, pickup trucks, chewing tobacco, and church on Sunday. He thinks liberals are high-taxing, culturally libertine, quasi-pacifist wimps. And, once liberals have conjured him up, they no longer say what they really believe--even to one another.

The problem starts with the failure to draw a basic distinction: between what liberals believe and what Democrats should say to get elected. Inevitably, in my experience, the two are conflated, and, inevitably, the latter tramples the former. Should liberals invest more power in the United Nations? Should they spend large new sums on the poor? Should they support gay marriage? The propositions are not refuted; they are rarely even raised, because no one wants to incite nascar Man’s wrath. Nascar Man inhibits intellectual inquiry. He’s the bully everyone wants to appease.

That’s very cleverly put. Indeed, the invocation of Nascar Man, or Dobson Man, is a ritual of such discussions, invariably invoked most often by someone who knows the least about the world beyond the Upper West Side. And Beinart is himself too "nice" to point out that it often occurs within moments of the ritual of pointing out that the group sitting around the table is too white, too straight, too old, too secular, etc., which always must be observed as if noting something obvious allows everyone to move forward, "so noted." Thus one can sometimes have, almost side by side, two "America is..." statements: one, implicit, that America Is like us, but more multicultural; the other that America Is totally unlike us, hates us, loves God, Guns and Guts, and we either need to trick them or go home.

And of course the only "America Is" statement that makes sense is that America is a complicated, hugely diverse place with all kinds of attitudes and constituencies, some of which will be open to progressive ideas and others of which will not. And that in such a place, majorities, political power, and public consensus can all be crafted in multiple ways. Beinart is also right that these assumptions of an America that is overwhelmingly hostile to ideas of justice, rights, and international cooperation lead to a stilted conversation in which people easily lose sight of their own moral touchstones -- they convince themselves that what they themselves believe is something that most other Americans don’t -- in favor of electoral strategizing. That’s particularly disturbing in conversation among people who aren’t actually doing anyone’s electoral strategy.

That said, what’s striking about this passage is it’s lack of self-awareness. Hello? Isn’t Peter Beinart himself the original NASCAR man?? Or at least the one who made the most lucrative go of it. What the hell was the point of "A Fighting Faith," his controversial post-Kerry essay, if not to point out that Americans think liberals/Democrats are "quasi-pacifist wimps"?? Or that they are perceived as quasi-pacifist wimps, and need to do all in their power to combat that perception.

At that time, I argued that the essay might have made internal sense (which is not to say that it would have been correct) had it made a defense of the Iraq war -- that is, if he could argue, as the likes of Christopher Hitchens still do, that Democrats were on the wrong side of history for opposing the war. But although Beinart hadn’t yet said, "We Were Wrong,", he couldn’t defend the war either. So the essay ended up basically saying that moveon.org (his main target) might or might not be right about the war but must not be too outspoken in saying so, because America Is a country that thinks liberals are wimpy and we mustn’t do anything to encourage that perception. In other words, forget reality, say what it takes to get elected, including visibly purging those who might also be right about the war but who might -- in theory -- go too far in their pacifism, opposing other, hypothetisized, wiser wars.

My understanding is that Beinart has toned down the attack in his book. And that he now fully acknowledges that he and his colleagues were wrong to support the war. So I’m surprised by the lack of self-awareness in his otherwise very funny satire of the invokers of "Nascar Man." I hope the book resolves the paradox.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 19, 2006 | Permalink


I'm a little unclear here....

If policy A is "good" but unpopular, should you support policy A?

If policy B is "bad" but popular, should you support policy B?

The two are linked if policies are binary, since (NOT A) policy is a B policy.

There are also two types of type A policy - You could have a policy that is "good" from a liberal value system perspective, but bad from a "Nascar Man" perspective. You could also have a policy that's good from both perspectives, but Nascar man doesn't know it yet -but will find out in the future, or could be persuaded to "see the light."

Finally, while judging whether a policy is good or bad requires neccessarily requires a normative assessment, deciding whether a policy is popular seems like a more or less empirical question. There's still room to present results and discuss methodology, but there's nothing inherently liberal about whether a policy is popular or not. In principal a conservative or moderate could assess popularity just as well.

Posted by: wml | May 19, 2006 1:34:57 AM

Beinart's endless making of lists of what the democrats must do to win public favor and his need to place ideas and people into the tidy little intellectual categories of "liberal", "conservative, and etc reveal what a simple minded nit wit the guy really is.

Posted by: Chris Brown | May 19, 2006 8:01:58 AM

Of course, the other side plays the exact same game.

They invest their political capital into free prescription drugs rather than into abolishing social security.

How do you think that particular calculation came about?

The difference seems to me that the other side is willing to be cold and calculating in building a majority electoral coalition in a way that we are not.

Posted by: Petey | May 19, 2006 8:34:44 AM

"They invest their political capital into free prescription drugs rather than into abolishing social security."

Well, not really -- they invest a lot of rhetoric in trying to convince people they've provided free drugs, perhaps. And they let the insurance and pharmaceutical industries write the bill. Thereby screwing over the people they were supposedly trying to "help" and adding some more to the deficit.

Anyhow, I think Beinert has a point, which he expresses in an painfully entertaining way -- and I agree that he's weirdly unaware of his own NASCAR tendencies. The Republicans know how to whip up resentment, fear, and derision, all at the same time, by invoking a cartoonish notion of masculinity. The Democrats (and/or liberals) find this hard to deal with, which is understandable on some level. (I wound up feeling sorry for John Kerry in 2004 -- he had no idea how to deal with the relentless brutality and shamelessness of the Bushies.) But I wish they would stop trying to appease NASCAR man, because it is an impossible goal. I don't know who attends these conferences (not me) or what relationship, if any, they have with the real world, but a little diversity (economic, racial, sexual, geographical) might help. Then again, it might not.

Posted by: Mary | May 19, 2006 4:33:22 PM

Perhaps the problem is that the Democrats don't have a "story." There is as much diversity in the Republican coalition as there is in the Democratic, but there is essential consensus on the defining fictions of that coalition--lower taxes and spending, security, less regulation, hostility to government and the overall notion of the public sector as an agent of social good.

The fact is, that the governance of this coalition is only loosly coupled to that consensus story. And that doesn't matter much. Because in the public mind, it is pretty clear what the Republicans "stand for."

There is no such clarity--and no such consensus--about what the Democrats stand for. There is a broad disparity of outlooks, so the definition of the consensus is done strategically by the conservatives. The liberals are for what the conservatives are against--thus we are for higher spending and taxes, more regulation, less security, etc.

So regardless of the spectrum of opinion on the American left, such as it is, we need to have a nominal consensus set of principals that we can communicate. And they have to be consensus, and they have to demonstrate core values. "Social justice" is insufficiently precise, and too easy to mischaracterize.

We need a "story" that will represent the binding principals of the liberal coalition, even if they are not really true.

Posted by: Osama von McIntyre | May 21, 2006 11:29:36 PM

Nice catch Mark, spotting Beinart's name tag left behind at the registration table. Maybe not coming to that conference was his way of acknowledging that he is one of the worst conjurers of Nascar Man. He decided not to attend, leaving his name tag unclaimed and available for use by straw men, because he knew that if he did participate at the conclave he just couldn't stop himself from invoking "real Americans."

Posted by: Matt | May 23, 2006 11:38:36 AM

Don't know what his description of the conference meeting had to do with Democrats. It sounded like 98% of the similar gatherings I have attended. None involved political organizations.

Posted by: NotThatMo | May 23, 2006 3:59:39 PM

I agree-it does sound like a few too many conferences I've been to, and so that doesn't cause concern in me about the state of politics. It causes concern in me towards America's ability to focus on much of anything.

Posted by: iheartcars | May 25, 2006 3:30:25 PM

The problem here is that the liberals presume themselves to be the Democrats. And I think as long as that's the idea, the project fails, because we don't have the numbers and never will. Social-democratic, internationalist, policy-oriented, tech-involved 20/30-something nerds are not the Democratic party. Nothing's changed in that regard since Adlai's day, and if the Dean campaign couldn't knock that into our heads, I don't know what will. There are just not enough of us to constitute a national party. With or without Nascar. When we begin to understand that we can try to append our agendas to a national party's, but that we do not have the numbers to set an agenda ourselves, we might get somewhere again.

Posted by: amy | May 26, 2006 3:14:30 PM

Great point, Amy.

I often wish that we were a nation of wonks, but it just ain't so. In fact, most people find it difficult to think abstractly about policy to any degree.

Posted by: Osama von McIntyre | May 27, 2006 1:47:21 PM

I guess you could call me a Nascar Man. But I for damn sure don't fit the stereotype you have in mind. And neither do many of my friends at the track. It does get tiresome reading about the stereotype you have fooled yourself into believing.


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