Jamelle Bouie, Digby, and Markos’ American Taliban

Two of my favorite political writers are having a bit of a showdown today, and I just thought I’d throw in my two cents.

Over at The American Prospect, Jamelle Bouie wrote a thoughtful critique of Markos Moulitsas’ new book, American Taliban. Digby responded, arguing with Bouie’s review more than defending Markos’ book.

I see two elements to Bouie’s critique: there’s the polemical nature of the book itself, and then there’s an argument about the outcome and effectiveness of that approach.

Let’s start with the more interesting argument here, that the GOP’s extremist and negative tendencies have actually been ineffective:

Conservatives haven’t actually gained from their willingness to bend and misrepresent the truth. For starters, Republicans are still deeply unpopular; according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, only 24 percent of Americans gave the GOP a positive rating, a historic low. At best, with their constant attacks on “socialism” and “tyranny,” conservatives are responding to a gross caricature of liberalism; after years of taking down liberal straw men, conservatives can neither respond to actual liberals nor offer the public anything other than decades-old dogma. Indeed, their likely electoral gains notwithstanding, movement conservatives are still incapable of making an affirmative case for their governing philosophy. Their “new ideas” are anything but, and to most informed observers, it’s clear that “no” is the only functioning weapon in the Republican Party’s paltry arsenal. Put another way, there’s a reason why the movement’s leading voices are quasi-religious charlatans, rent-seeking celebrities, and failed ex-governors.

Digby’s response is the same as my initial response – is Bouie actually “living in the same political world” as the rest of us? But as I re-read Bouie’s argument and thought about it, I think it deserves much more credit than Digby gives it. After all, like Digby, I’ve linked to Paul Krugman’s depressing takes on the economic environment. I think there’s merit to the argument that the administration’s inattentiveness and/or unwillingness to appreciate the depths of the unemployment crisis has doomed the Democratic party’s prospects in this November’s midterm election. But you can’t say that the bad economy is driving the political winds of the midterm election AND credit a Republican party that you think is in disarray.

Here’s what Digby wrote:

This is a mind-boggling assertion, really, especially considering the fact that they are on the verge of making an epic comeback even in the face of total institutional disarray and a takeover of the GOP by the lunatic fringe. And it’s purely on their willingness, indeed eagerness, to go for the jugular.

Frankly, no, it’s not mind-boggling.

Crediting this economy to GOP policies is an argument I happen to buy, but Digby seems to be instead crediting this to conservative aggression. Maybe there is a link, and maybe conservative aggression is part of the reasons Dems have been unwilling or unable to make a convincing case to voters. But it was Democratic Senators elevating centrist posturing over sound policy that watered down the stimulus – not the GOP. It was Democratic opposition that watered down credit card reform. It was Democratic opposition that watered down Wall Street reform. It was Democratic Senators who were unwilling to overcome a filibuster of extending unemployment insurance. But it certainly was not a preference for the GOP’s proposed alternative policy solutions that drove those decisions.

If you buy that the economy and joblessness is driving the GOP’s comeback, then you can give some credit to their lock-step opposition to any policy choices that would alleviate suffering. But that’s exactly what Bouie is arguing – that NO is their “only functioning weapon.”  Bouie carefully chose his words here, saying that Republicans “haven’t actually gained” from this situation. I don’t buy that this is a zero-sum equation here. While it’s true that the GOP has managed to hurt the Democrats with this strategy, it’s hard to see where this has directly benefited the conservatives. They’ve driven moderate Republicans from the party and made races that should have been slam-dunks into tight contests.

The idea of GOP disarray has been wildly overstated, as we can see by their impressive discipline in maintaining a negative bloc of votes. That isn’t really evidence of “institutional disarray”, but rather evidence that the RNC is not their primary source of leadership.

Then, there’s Bouie’s less-impressive arguments about the polemical nature of the book:

Like Liberal Fascism, American Taliban is another entry in the tired genre of “my political opponents are monsters.” Indeed, Moulitsas begins the book with the Goldbergian declaration that “in their tactics and on the issues, our homegrown American Taliban are almost indistinguishable from the Afghan Taliban.” And he fills the remaining 200-plus pages with similar accusations. In the chapter on power, Moulitsas writes that “the American Taliban seek a tyranny of the believers in which the popular will, the laws of the land, and all of secular society are surrendered to their clerics and ideologues.” Which is, of course, why these American Taliban participate in the democratic system and hew to the outcomes of elections. Later in the chapter, Moulitsas argues that the right-wing hates democracy — they “openly dream of their own regressive brand of religious dictatorship” — loves war, fears sex, and openly despises women and gays. In the chapter on “war,” Moulitsas calls Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota a “high priestess of the American Taliban” — a veritable Mullah Omar, it seems! — and in the final chapter on “truth,” Moulitsas concludes by noting the foundational “kinship” between the two Talibans.

I think Bouie overstates his case here. Digby responds:

Evidently, the use of hyperbole to make the ironic point that they have the same worldview as their proclaimed mortal enemies is verboten because it isn’t literally true. But polemics often make use of such literary devices to make a larger observation, so I’m not sure that Moulitsas is trying to convince people that the American Far Right is secretly cutting women’s noses off but rather that in the context of our society, they are the nose cutters. (And frankly, I think it’s fairly obvious if they could enforce their religious doctrine and political ideology on all of us, they would. No nose-cutting, so that’s good. They’ll just engage in old fashioned American slut-shaming, which I grant is an improvement over physical disfiguration but the deeper meaning of the act is exactly the same.)

Like Digby, I’m still waiting to get a copy of the book, so I can’t go into much detail here. But I think she’s right here – differences of degree aside, hyperbole is an effective literary device when used properly. Unless I’ve misread his review or missed something key about Markos’ book, I think Bouie is wrong to focus on a few GOP political figures instead of the parallels between the Christian dominionist movement (and their more mainstream cousins in the GOP, like Phyllis Schlafly) and the Islamic dominionists. There’s been an undeniable mainstreaming of the far-right elements over the past few years, as Dave Neiwert and others have documented.

And, as Digby pointed out, Bouie’s claim that Ann Coulter “was fired from National Review (an organ of the American Taliban)” for her comment about invading other countries and converting them to Christianity either completely misremembers or mischaracterizes the whole situation.

Ann Coulter was fired for going on TV and slagging National Review Online (she didn’t work for the magazine) for paying peanuts and because they wanted to edit her column. They made a big point about saying they fired her for her unprofessional conduct, not her writing. And she was hired afterward by USA Today (where she was also eventually fired and replaced by Jonah Goldberg.)She still has a nationally syndicated column and her work appears on Townhall, World Net Daily and Human Events among others. She sold many thousands of hate-filled anti-liberal books with titles like Slander and Treason and Godless, appeared all over the country to tumultuous, adoring crowds and landed on the cover of Time magazine — all after she made those statements. Apparently the National Review’s withdrawal of its imprimatur didn’t impress her audience very much. If that’s what constitutes a glaring contradiction in the book, then I’m afraid it isn’t Moulitsas who has failed to do his homework.

That factual mistake aside, Bouie’s argument is much more nuanced and creative than the usual high-minded, above the fray nonsense that Markos has written extensively about, and his criticism deserves an honest hearing.