What we’re talking about when we’re talking about Newt

Jonathan Bernsten has his story and he’s sticking to it:  The Newt surge is a mirage; Newt remains an “implausible” candidate; and Romney’s still the favorite, by far, on the R side.  The alternative would amount to an overthrow of everything Bernstein thinks he knows.

In Bernstein’s latest Plum-Line post on the subject – echoing countless other posts, tweets, and no doubt e-mails, e-cards, telegrams, handwritten notes, homemade t-shirts, and hand-engraved stone tablets – he quotes several “Republican Insiders” surveyed by National Journal to illustrate the total, extreme, and what might we might even call fundamental disregard in which the “disgraced former Speaker” is held by supposed typical representatives of that species.  My personal favorite is “Bigfoot dressed as a circus clown would have a better chance of beating President Obama than Newt Gingrich, a similarly farcical character.”

Now, it’s not hard to find all sorts of reasonably smart and certainly seasoned political observers who think the Rs might very well end up nominating Bigfoot dressed as a circus clown, whatever the insiders say. Just to give one example, John Avlon thinks Romney’s ship is sinking, and he sketches out the prospective primary plunge.  Others wonder if Newt is winning “the Fox primary,” and whether it has replaced the traditional accumulation of endorsements, establishment of a real-existing campaign organization and infrastructure, and not having been run out of town for ethics violations and multiple other (and continuing) embarrassments.

Charles Krauthammer, who, one suspects, considers himself at least as smart as Newt, and smarter almost by definition than any left-liberal, demonstratively insists on taking Newt seriously, to the following conclusion:

You play the hand you’re dealt. This is a weak Republican field with two significantly flawed front-runners contesting an immensely important election. If Obama wins, he will take the country to a place from which it will not be able to return (which is precisely his own objective for a second term).

Every conservative has thus to ask himself two questions: Who is more likely to prevent that second term? And who, if elected, is less likely to unpleasantly surprise?

Someone less invested in the conservative movement and Obama derangement might ask whether a party that can do no better than two such “significantly flawed front-runners” can be trusted to take the country to some better “place,” or at any rate keep us in North America if indeed that’s a problem, and whether being secured permanently from the threat of Romney, Gingrich, and Bigfoot the Clown might not be vote-worthy anyway, on whatever continent.  For that matter, if K-hammer is right, then maybe the left really ought to be a lot more enthusiastic about Obama than it has been.  End of the beginning!  Communism in our lifetimes!

Could be!  …Though you need to squint from a trans-paranoid extreme to see things that way, and conservatives, as we can see, are more comfortable in that mode these days than center-left and -right political professionals.  Some of us have much less to lose, however, and we can calmly observe the spectacle of conservatives seriously flirting with collective self-immolation in the face of what they near-universally, perhaps quite fundamentally, see as an “immensely important election.”  Gingrich’s candidacy therefore becomes the vehicle for determining whether the Republican Party – and by extension an entire ideological superstructure and the state of relations it reflects – is in crisis.

In short, the arguments against Newt and for Romney are strong enough to turn the GOP nomination fight into a test case for the theory of a new political-historical epoch.  Furthermore, we know we are not crazy to ponder this possibility, because we are aware of inescapable independent evidence – the global economic conjuncture in all its dimensions, political paralysis afflicting the leading/hegemonic nation-state as reflected in unprecedented dissatisfaction with the system, to say nothing of the ongoing revolt of nature against humanity – that seems to point in the same direction.  If Bernstein’s analysis is correct, then even a merely viable Gingrich candidacy alongside the peculiar weaknesses of Romney may already constitute evidence that the center – as reflected in centrist political science – is vulnerable; has, in a sense, already been overturned in principle.

Which would mean we are already in that place-of-no-return, and it’s only a question of how violently we thrash around in our search for a non-existent exit.

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12 comments on “What we’re talking about when we’re talking about Newt

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  1. As to implausibility, ran across this:

    There’s something of a rule-of-thumb among professional futurey-types: scenario elements that sound plausible are almost certainly wrong, while scenario elements that sound utterly implausible are very likely on-target. That’s generally true, although it applies more to the disruptive aspects of a scenario than to the everyday aspects. (That said, a scenario that said “most people in the West continue to live quiet lives, using their barely-sufficient income to pay for disposable commodity goods and overly-processed food,” while both plausible and very likely on-target for the next decade or three, is more depressing than illuminating.) Good scenario disruption points should be things that, in the here-and-now, would make you say “oh, crap” if you heard them in the news.

    “Scenario disruption point” fits better for me than a “new political-historical epoch” mainly because I’m having difficulty locating and defining the old one. The 2 phrases may amount to the same thing, or maybe not, but in any case I’m sre I’m not getting it.

    • We can start with the things that I think we may be able to agree on without much controversy – the brute economics and recent events, understood in broad terms.

      The epochal shift would be a subject we’ve discussed many times from different perspectives, with the key marker being the onset of financial crisis in 2008, followed by a period of high unemployment and low economic growth with no end in sight, unlike anything in the U.S. since the Great Depression.

      Though there have been financial crises in other times and places, this one takes place in a political economy that has been defined at all levels, and increasingly, by financialization itself since around 1980. Financialization implies a number of things, and touches upon every typical aspect of the global economy as we’ve come to know it, including historically very high levels of public and private debt next to accelerating inequality in wealth and political influence.

      A financial crisis hitting our financialized culture-state is a complex and exponentiated version of the moment the Ponzi scheme goes bust. The news spreads almost instantaneously worldwide – and it turns out that housing values in Bakersfield California are connected to economic opportunity in Nairobi, and so on, and so on – but it takes much longer for the significance of the events to register, for all of the players to measure the level and meaning of their exposure, while in the meantime sets of initial and intermediate responses complicate the situation further.

      Even if it’s somehow possible to institute a second major wave of financialization, or to delay any reckoning for many more years, just by virtue of its being a second wave or a period of deferral, water-treading, you have the basis for a new epoch – even before you get to the very real differences between the world of 1980 and the world of 2011. These differences aren’t just aesthetic or cultural or even merely technological, but offer very different, in many cases foreclosed or exhausted, opportunities for a new period of high overall economic growth and compounding profit.

      A world that can’t produce ca. 3%/annum aggregate compounded profit is a post-capitalist world. So, that means we need either new areas of exploitation (with new product lines, new profitable sources of demand) or a new system. Either represents a massive set of adjustments to be achieved over time, and nobody left out.

      That’s putting it all in economic terms. You could put the same story forward in cultural, philosophical, ecological, or political-historical terms. There is every reason to expect the state of the Republican nomination contest to reflect the situation fully and in detail, to be transparent to the poltiical-historical context that the candidates self-consciously claim to be in a position to master.

      • Maybe I’m speaking to a general reluctance of thinking of things in terms of epochs, era and the like. I see the utility even necessity of doing so. But it seems a temporary tactic to me rather than a description of reality.

        So a lilltle while ago when talking about jazz you mentioned liking the post bop over the bop. As I’ve put up and reacted to jazz vids here I’ve found that the boundaries seem much mor indistict to me than the clrly do to lots of people. Put another way, I’m llikely to hear Bird and Trane as part of a continuity rather than as exemplars of different eras.

        • Skepticism regarding periodicity is natural – it characterizes an important aspect of our current period in intellectual history! – but it also leads to “everything-is-everything”-ism, in which continuity itself loses its character because there is no way to understand or describe what is continuing (other than nothing, which is a lack of continuity as well as of discontinuity, isn’t it?). Such skepticism, as a stance, corresponds to – both tends to validate and to emerge from – political paralysis, which is also the political mode of the unhappy consciousness that knows truth but means objectively nothing. Maybe that outlook also suits your underlying spiritual-philosophical stance, but it’s not really a view on history or politics, since from within it history and politics are just more nothing, just as there’s no fundamental difference any longer between being unemployed and being employed, being a debtor or a creditor, being at war or being at peace, or bebopping vs cooling.

          It’s intellectually prudent to resist anything that smacks of “this time it’s different” or “now is the great moment,” but merely adopting a different terminology – “scenario disruption” vs “epochal turning point,” say – doesn’t get you out of trouble, or relieve you of the burden of explaining why and how C would be different from A, or erase the evidence – such as economic evidence – that we may at least be at some point B that shows aspects of A wearing out, requiring C.

  2. Similar observations apply to the Cain phenomenon:

    Steve Schmidt, who managed Arizona Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential race, offered a far harsher assessment of the Cain moment.

    “That Cain’s candidacy was taken seriously for longer than a nano-second in a time of genuine crisis for the country raises fundamental questions about the health of the political process and the Republican party,” Schmidt said.


    The Obama presidency does benefit by comparison to such alternatives – the rest of the R circus and also the 10% approval congress – but doesn’t escape the same syndrome so much as represent at least potentially a healthier adaptation to it.

  3. Well Schmidt threw the match back in 2008, with McCain’s consent I’m sad to say, worse than the 1919 Black Sox, and he and Nicole Wallace, ‘poisoned the well; to cover their tracks. Cain had certain shortcomings, but he was taken down most
    by the same mechanism that has cleared a path for much of Obama’s carrier, since he started in 1995,

  4. I don’t mind someone coming to the wrong conclusion, but to get the wrong analysis is less excusable, from the Krauthammer piece;

    Take that ad Gingrich did with Nancy Pelosi on global warming advocating urgent government action. He laughs it off today with “that is probably the dumbest single thing I’ve done in recent years. It is inexplicable.”

    This will not do. He was obviously thinking something. What was it? Thinking of himself as a grand world-historical figure, attuned to the latest intellectual trend (preferably one with a tinge of futurism and science, like global warming), demonstrating his own incomparable depth and farsightedness. Made even more profound and fundamental — his favorite adjectives — if done in collaboration with a Nancy Pelosi, Patrick Kennedy, or even Al Sharpton, offering yet more evidence of transcendent, trans-partisan uniqueness.

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  1. […] re-state more precisely the theme of a post written during the previous Newtening, the further Gingrich seems to go, the more the “massive external event” must be […]

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Noted & Quoted

TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

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