Friday, December 20, 2002

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WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?: Some thoughts on the end of the Lottroversy:

1) Kudos to Josh Marshall. Lott would not have resigned if the uproar over his remarks hadn’t also come from conservatives like Andrew Sullivan or David Frum (oh, and George W. Bush as well), but give credit where it’s due – Josh Marshall sunk his teeth into this one early and never relented. Josh, staple that shellacked hair on the mantle – although if this is the best dirt you can gin up on Frist, I’ll sleep very soundly tonight.

2) Short-term Republican prognosis – mixed. It’s going to be tough for liberals to argue that conservatives were reluctant to pull the trigger on Lott – the denunciations from the right came pretty quickly. At the same time, liberals have had a field day using this episode to highlight the recent Republican history of catering to the unenlightened on racial matters. As Marshall phrased it:

“Many Republicans want to rid their party of this ugly baggage. Many more refuse to play this sort of politics for advantage. But over the last forty-odd years, many Republicans, in many small and large decisions, decided to organize much of our national and even more of our regional politics around race. They shouldn't whine. They shouldn't cry. They shouldn't make up excuses. They made their bed. Now they should sleep in it.”

As I said before, I think this is overreaching. But despite the Weekly Standard’s best efforts, I can’t deny that it’s smart politics. So this will sting a while for Republicans. However, this leads me to my last point:

3) Long-term Republican prognosis – quite good. Liberals want the distinction to be between enlightened liberals and Machiavellian conservatives. Krauthammer wants the distinction to be between good neocons and bad paleocons (here’s Goldberg, Sullivan and Reynolds in response). I want the distinction to be between optimists and pessimists.

Pessimists come in two forms. The repugnant ones are simply racists, and don’t want to see any progress on racial matters. The more conventional pessimists do want to see progress, but are convinced that racism is embedded in the American soul and will never be successfully purged. They are therefore comfortable with solutions that might achieve material results but compromise American principles. They will also be on guard to interpret any ambiguous statement or action as motivated by racism. Most liberals fall into this camp.

Optimists acknowledge the history of racism but believe that matters have improved dramatically over the past few decades. We might be naïve about this, but we also escaped the weight of the past by growing up in a post-civil rights era. Optimists are, to quote Sullivan, “completely at ease in a multi-racial, multi-cultural society, enjoy it, value it and are grateful for it.” Optimists will condemn episodes like the Lottroversy even more fiercely than pessimists because such occurrences clash with their basic worldview.

So why the rosy prognosis? First, over time, optimists will increasingly outnumber pessimists. Second, in politics, Americans like optimism much more than pessimism. Optimists have the imagination that Shelby Steele so eloquently points out is a cancer to racism. What Reagan and Clinton had in common as politicians was the gift of projecting a belief that America would only get better. Perhaps liberals will eventually switch to being optimists on race, but this going to be a conceptually longer trip for them to make than libertarians, neocons, and Christian conservatives.

UPDATE: Virginia Postrel has some good thoughts on this as well.

posted by Dan on 12.20.02 at 12:51 PM