"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Is the United States of America liberal or conservative? So effectively has right-wing propaganda dominated political debate in this country for the past two decades that the question hardly seems worth discussing. Almost without thinking, the majority of Americans — including many who describe themselves as liberal or progressive or left of center — would probably answer “conservative.”
In my opinion, they would be wrong. But right or wrong, such dull conformity is a warning sign for the world’s most enduring democracy. If only one political perspective is heard clearly, there can be no robust debate and no meaningful democratic choice. At a time when highly partisan and extremely reactionary Republicans control every branch of government, our country needs full, fair, and uninhibited debate that encourages participation — not a loud, monotonous drone that breeds apathetic surrender.
Conservatives enjoy their virtual monopoly over the nation’s political conversation, of course. They paid a lot of money for it and they intend to keep it. They dominate the national debate not because their ideas are better (or more popular), but because they have more resources and a vast, coordinated infrastructure that has been built up during three decades. They also tend to dominate because — unlike the supposedly liberal mainstream media — conservatives are perfectly willing to stifle opposition. Liberal opinion is hard to find in conservative newspapers and liberal voices are rarely heard on conservative talk radio.
This kind of political imbalance also pervades the “objective” and comparatively nonpartisan media, which too often fall into line under the intense, unrelenting pressures from the right. Conservatives are quite proud of their ability to intimidate mainstream media executives, so cowed by the fear of being labeled liberal that they bend over backward to placate conservatives. The result is that the most familiar political voices are on the right, and they make so much noise that it sounds as if practically everyone agrees with them. The buzz of conservative cant creates an illusion of consensus.
In a book devoted to debunking myths about liberalism (and conservatism), it seems appropriate to begin with the notion that America, and Americans, are fundamentally conservative.
To stake their claim, conservatives can roll out their favorite colored map, with its vast acreage of “red states.” They can turn up the volume on talk radio and cable television, where reactionary opinion consumes almost all the airtime. They can boast about the Republican Party’s domination of government. They can even point to all the Democratic politicians, from Mario Cuomo to Bill Clinton to the 2004 presidential aspirants, who avoid the liberal label, and snicker at the little band of elected officials who wear it proudly. Finally, and most convincingly, they can cite survey data gathered over the past quarter-century that shows, with great consistency, about 18 percent of Americans identifying themselves as “liberal.”
Yet the propagandists of the right are still too quick to brand America “conservative.” Despite decades of angry denigration of liberalism, the American people continue to uphold the same ideals that have always been identified with the progressive tradition, from Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Americans believe in fairness, equality, opportunity, and compassion; they reject social Darwinism and excessive privilege.
What do liberals stand for? Their adversaries constantly accuse them of elitism, political correctness, immorality, socialism, communism, even treason. These are standard-issue lies from the right-wing propaganda arsenal. Liberalism is an American philosophy that encompasses a broad variety of ideas — yet is probably more coherent than the current brand of conservatism, which ranges from atheist libertarianism to theocratic fundamentalism.
The most basic liberal values are political equality and economic opportunity. Liberals uphold democracy as the only form of government that derives legitimacy from the consent of the governed, and they regard the freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights as essential to the expression of popular consent. Their commitment to an expanding democracy is what drives liberal advocacy on behalf of women, minorities, gays, immigrants, and other traditionally disenfranchised groups.
Liberals value the dynamism and creativity of democratic capitalism, but they also believe in strong, active government to protect the interests of society. They understand that markets function best when properly regulated, and they also know that unchecked concentrations of private power encourage environmental pollution, financial fraud, and labor exploitation. Liberals see a broad social interest in ensuring real opportunities and decent standards of living for everyone, while requiring basic responsibility from everyone.
Those who regard such ideals as naive today should remember that America in the 20th century was built on liberal policy, from the Progressive Era through the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the GI Bill, and the Great Society. The modern economy — a private enterprise system that relies on government safeguards against depression and extreme poverty — is the legacy of liberal leadership, from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. (And more recently Bill Clinton, who erased Republican deficits that were sending the economy into a spiral of recession and began to pay down the national debt.) Liberal policies made America the freest, wealthiest, most successful and most powerful nation in human history. Conservatism in power always threatens to undo that national progress, and is almost always frustrated by the innate decency and democratic instincts of the American people.
If Americans have a common fault, however, it’s our tendency to suffer from historical amnesia. Too many of us have forgotten, or never learned, what kind of country America was under the conservative rule that preceded the century of liberal reform. And too many of us have no idea whose ideas and energy brought about the reforms we now take for granted.
If your workplace is safe; if your children go to school rather than being forced into labor; if you are paid a living wage, including overtime; if you enjoy a 40-hour week and you are allowed to join a union to protect your rights — you can thank liberals. If your food is not poisoned and your water is drinkable — you can thank liberals. If your parents are eligible for Medicare and Social Security, so they can grow old in dignity without bankrupting your family — you can thank liberals. If our rivers are getting cleaner and our air isn’t black with pollution; if our wilderness is protected and our countryside is still green — you can thank liberals. If people of all races can share the same public facilities; if everyone has the right to vote; if couples fall in love and marry regardless of race; if we have finally begun to transcend a segregated society — you can thank liberals. Progressive innovations like those and so many others were achieved by long, difficult struggles against entrenched power. What defined conservatism, and conservatives, was their opposition to every one of those advances. The country we know and love today was built by those victories for liberalism — with the support of the American people.
Whether they now describe themselves as liberal or not, most Americans remain strongly progressive in their views about taxation, healthcare, education spending, Social Security, environmental protection, and corporate regulation. In fact, despite conservative political advances in recent decades, survey evidence gathered by pollsters of all persuasions suggests that Americans are still more liberal than conservative.
The best way to test that assertion is to shear away the current stigma attached to the L-word itself, and examine popular attitudes about specific issues. For more than 50 years, from Harry Truman’s surprise presidential victory in 1948 to Bill and Hillary Clinton’s failed reform effort in 1994, a signature liberal cause has been to provide every American, regardless of income or social status, with affordable healthcare. Many liberals support universal coverage funded by the national government, like the systems that protect all citizens in Europe and Canada.
The conservative position is equally clear, if not from their rhetoric then from their actions. They and their corporate allies abhor national health insurance. They spent millions to thwart the ambitious Clinton plan of 1994 — and have fought every incremental step toward universal healthcare, including Medicare and Medicaid. (Those same conservatives now claim to be the protectors of the popular Medicare program while scheming to dismantle it.)
According to nearly every survey taken during the past decade, Americans favor the liberal side of this debate, supporting universal health coverage by very wide margins. The level of support for national health insurance ranges between 60 percent and 85 percent in various major polls. In October 1999, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 67 percent supported a federal guarantee of health insurance coverage for every American. Between 59 percent and 72 percent backed universal, guaranteed coverage in CNN/Time surveys from 1993 to 1995. And a Louis Harris poll in 1994 showed that 86 percent of respondents believed the federal government should provide universal health insurance for all Americans. Smaller but still respectable majorities — from 60 percent in a 1990 Los Angeles Times poll to 51 percent in a 1998 Zogby poll — backed a Canadian-style single-payer system when that question was asked.
Liberalism’s most enduring domestic achievement is the Social Security system, another popular program that conservatives have always opposed and undermined. Created by Franklin D. Roosevelt, the patron saint of liberalism, Social Security embodies American values of community and fairness. Despite enormous publicity campaigns in recent years by right-wing organizations questioning its solvency and urging its privatization, public support for Social Security as a mandatory system of public pensions remains adamant. Asked whether people should or should not be required to pay into the Social Security system in a March 1999 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 70 percent answered “should be required.” And in a March 2000 ABC News/ Washington Post poll, 67 percent responded that financing of Social Security should take priority over cutting taxes.
During the midterm elections in 2002, several Republican congressional candidates were forced to abandon the Bush privatization proposal. In fact, the same politicians suddenly pretended that they had never heard of privatization. Asked how they prefer to save the system, a substantial majority of American voters favors raising payroll taxes on the most affluent.
Most Americans echo the liberal concern that the tax system favors the wealthiest few. Responding to a March 1999 Fox News poll that asked registered voters what bothered them the most about the tax system, 21 percent said the large amount they pay, 26 percent said the complexity of the tax system — and 46 percent said they were most troubled by the suspicion that some rich people get away without paying their fair share. People are especially wary of the Bush administration’s overwhelming desire to cut taxes for the richest, tiniest minority of its supporters. A Gallup poll in January 2003 found widespread suspicion about the latest Bush scheme to remove all taxation on stock dividends as yet another sop to the rich.
Despite their professed suspicions about overweening government, Americans have consistently told pollsters by margins of 2 to 1 that they prefer public spending to tax cuts. That view hadn’t changed as of late November 2002, when 69 percent of respondents in a CBS/ New York Times survey said they would have preferred devoting the federal budget surplus to Social Security and Medicare. Only 23 percent were happy that the surplus had been squandered on the 2001 Bush tax cut.
Similar figures gathered by every reputable polling organization reiterate the same themes. Americans consistently and indeed overwhelmingly support environmental regulation, consumer protection, spending on infrastructure and education, increasing the minimum wage, extending unemployment benefits, providing food stamps, and nearly every other liberal priority and program. (The sole important exception to this rule has been welfare, but most Americans also believe that generous childcare and health benefits should be provided to help welfare recipients enter the workforce.) Substantial majorities support stricter environmental regulation — precisely the opposite of the anti-Green, conservative minority.
The results of recent elections likewise subvert the idea of a conservative majority. No conservative presidential candidate has won a majority of the popular vote since 1988. The most recent presidential election showed a clear popular majority for the center-left and left-of-center candidates: Al Gore and Ralph Nader. The Green Party candidate devoted much of his campaign to attacking Gore and the Democrats — but their views on national issues were much closer than either of them was to George W. Bush, the Republican corporate conservative who was ultimately awarded the presidency by partisan Florida bureaucrats and the Supreme Court.
The combined Democratic and Green vote in November 2000 exceeded 51 percent, a numerical victory made even more impressive by the mammoth financial advantage of the Republicans. The Bush campaign outspent Gore and Nader combined by nearly $60 million. (The other conservative in the race, rightist commentator and former Reagan aide Patrick J. Buchanan, squandered almost $40 million to garner less than 0.5 percent of the vote.)
Rush Limbaugh indirectly acknowledged the significance of the Gore plurality by trying to erase it. Having declared that America “is not a liberal country, is nowhere near a liberal country,” the talk jock was asked by a rare dissenting caller why more Americans voted for Gore than for Bush. “You know,” Rush replied, “I would bet you that if we counted all the absentee ballots in California, I will bet you that George W. Bush won the popular vote.” That was only true in the alternate reality of right-wing talk radio.
Now conservatives prefer to forget or dismiss the disputes of 2000; they have declared that the midterm election two years later proved their ideological majority. But when all the votes were counted, the national stalemate in Congress remained nearly the same in 2002 as before — again, despite enormous spending advantages enjoyed by the GOP, a docile press that has promoted Bush’s favorable ratings every day since the terrorist attacks of September 2001, and a political strategy that succeeded in associating the president and his party with the national struggle against foreign enemies. Even so, only the terrible loss of Paul Wellstone — who was 8 points ahead of his Republican opponent when his plane crashed in northern Minnesota — allowed the Republicans to win a single-vote majority in the Senate.
The continuing schism between progressive public opinion and conservative political domination is an indictment of the way we conduct and finance our elections. Yet liberals still face a vexing question: If so many Americans endorse progressive ideas, why are so few willing to call themselves liberal? Why is the L-word anathema to politicians, including undeniably liberal Democrats? Why are liberals constantly on the defensive? Why do self-identified conservatives outnumber liberals by 10 or 20 percentage points in national surveys?
Here is one answer. After decades of relentless disinformation from the right, Americans associate the word “liberal” with a series of negative stereotypes: spendthrift, immoral, unpatriotic, “politically correct” and elitist, among others. Right-wing demagoguery has convinced more than a few people that liberals are essentially no different from Communists or terrorists. Without real Communists around in sufficient number to frighten anyone, the right focused and intensified its attack on liberalism in recent years. The effect of this campaign, bolstered by hundreds of millions of dollars from tax-exempt conservative foundations, has been devastating.
Demonizing liberals is a conscious strategy of the Republican right, where such demagoguery is not only a political style but a career path. It’s a vicious technique that dates back to Joe McCarthy and the early Nixon, and it hasn’t changed much since then. As a conservative media analyst boasted on Fox TV not long ago, their aim is to make Democrat and liberal synonymous with socialist, Communist and Marxist. Republican strategist David Horowitz urges a form of conservative political warfare based on identifying liberal Democrats with left-wing terrorist sympathizers and totalitarians. Ann Coulter is even more simple-minded: “I think it’s time to drop the infernal nonsense about liberals being well-intentioned but misguided,” she wrote in a 2002 column. “I will say that there is only one thing wrong with liberals: They’re no good.”
She’s entitled to her banal sputtering, of course. She’s even entitled to make millions of dollars by polluting the airwaves and bookshelves with mindless diatribes. What is long overdue, however, is a response commensurate with these right-wing attacks. What is needed, more than ever, is an answer to conservative propaganda that holds the right accountable for its lies and hypocrisy.
The right prefers to demonize liberals and set up fights with “politically correct” straw men rather than debate with real progressives. (That is why, for example, the bully boys and girls of the right-wing media almost never confront a labor leader on television; such a debate would instantly destroy the stereotype of the liberal “elitist.”) Stereotypes and caricatures are the most important kind of message delivered by the conservative media. By “defining” and discrediting their opponents, they can substitute invective for argument and images for facts. The technique is unscrupulous and almost foolproof. It’s the big lie, repeated and repeated until the truth is obliterated and the lie is legitimated.
Whether the right-wingers who create and disseminate this vicious propaganda actually believe it is unimportant, although I suspect that the smarter conservatives know very well when they are lying. What matters is that their lies have spread unchallenged by facts for so many years.
Are liberals unpatriotic, a favorite conservative canard? No. The record of loyalty (and military service) among liberals equals that of conservatives. Do liberals despise the work ethic? No. Liberals defend the interests of working Americans against the fake populism of corporate conservatism. Don’t liberals always tax and spend the economy into ruin? No. The numbers prove that liberal Democrats have been the most competent, fiscally trustworthy stewards of the economy for the past seven decades. Aren’t liberals determined to restrict freedom in the name of political correctness? No. In fact, liberals have been the most consistent defenders of the Bill of Rights for the past century. Is “liberal” a synonym for “immoral”? No. Liberals do preach less about “family values,” but they’re just as likely as conservatives to honor those values.
To debunk conservative mythology about liberals is inevitably unflattering to the right. As might be expected, the most vocal liars often turn out to be hypocrites as well. Comparisons that involve patriotism and morality, for example, are incomplete without examining some unpleasant facts about certain prominent individuals. But conservatives have been making ugly accusations about their adversaries for a long time, without hesitation or regret. If they don’t enjoy hearing the truth about themselves for a change, I offer no apologies. They’ve asked for it many times over.
This book confronts the biggest lies deployed by conservatives against liberals, progressives, and Democrats. Its purpose is not to defend every liberal position or politician. (It also isn’t intended to disprove every right-wing myth, some of which are so widely disbelieved as to be irrelevant — such as the Bush administration’s insistence that its goals include cleaner air and water.) It doesn’t suggest a conspiracy against liberals, or argue that Democrats haven’t brought any of their problems on themselves. And it shouldn’t be taken as a blanket indictment of Republicans or conservatives.
That last point is of special importance to me. The spiteful, malignant discourse that became so common during the Clinton era has done lasting damage to democratic participation and civility in our political system. Although as a matter of literary convenience I frequently refer to conservatives and Republicans, I certainly don’t believe that every conservative or every Republican is responsible for the offenses discussed in these pages.
Unlike Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter, I also don’t believe that my political adversaries are uniformly “no good,” or un-American, or greedy, or bigoted, or stupid. I shouldn’t have to say this, but I know from personal experience that generosity, compassion, and wisdom cross all partisan and ideological boundaries. I married into a family that includes Republican conservatives who happen to be among the finest people I have ever known. My wife’s grandfather is an unrepentant right-winger who likes to tweak me with editorials from the New York Post and Internet jokes about dumb Democrats. He is also a true patriot and a gentleman who has treated me with kindness from the first day we met, despite my obnoxious opinions. I would much prefer an atmosphere that encourages friendship rather than hatred among Americans, regardless of ideology and party.
Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s much chance of that happy outcome until liberals learn to hit back hard. The classic American hero is the underdog who wins respect by fighting back against a bully. Sometimes the bully just limps away to nurse his wounds. Sometimes the bully wises up and mends his ways. Occasionally, the underdog and the bully become best friends.
But the underdog who dares to fight back is always better off.
Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.More Joe Conason.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)