"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)
In the past few weeks – really, the past few years – a cottage industry has grown up on liberal websites and op-ed pages, in Facebook memes and political magazines, trying to make historical sense of the country’s spiraling rightward extremism.
Understandably, people are hungry for facts and ideas that can explain the current insanity. What you might call the magazine-reading class is feeling disoriented, I think. Like most of us, they live in a day-to-day world that seems, if anything, hyper-depoliticized: a world of Starbucks and smart phones and reality TV, in which expressions of political militancy are almost never heard. Crashing into this postindustrial idyll comes a national crisis engineered by wild-eyed insurgents quoting eighteenth-century philosophers. It seems to come out of nowhere.
The other day I got into an argument (yes, it was on the internet) about an article belonging to this cottage industry – though this particular article was a relatively sophisticated product. The piece, by the New Republic’s John Judis, along with this 2011 prequel he wrote during the last debt ceiling crisis, offers a historical explanation of how U.S. politics got to the point where the current government shutdown –“one of the worst crises in American history,” according to the headline – has become possible.
Judis is a thoughtful political writer with a contrarian streak that leaves him resistant to some of the more egregious mythologies one often sees in such articles. He’s better informed than others about the historical facts, and much of what he says is true, or at least based on the truth.
But like much of the liberal pop-history genre it belongs to, Judis’s New Republic analysis seems governed by two overarching reflexes: (1) an insistence on seeing this crisis, not as structural, but as a product of the wicked recklessness of Republican extremists; and (2) a desire to attribute it to the influence of some alien force, from some other place, one that is archaic and unlike our own. For Judis, that place is an imagined neo-Confederate South.
In either case, the danger comes from outside – from some place exterior to the familiar, modern, consensual United States we all thought we lived in. I disagree. As I see things, the reality is much less comforting.
For Judis, the current crisis has two “precedents.” First, and most improbably, is “the South of John Calhoun” (who died in 1850) and his nullification doctrine, according to which states could disobey federal laws they deemed unconstitutional.
Less far-fetched is a second precedent, to which Judis devotes most of his attention: the emergence in the late 1930s of a conservative coalition, embracing Northern Republicans and Southern Democrats in Congress, who opposed the New Deal’s advance.
Judis believes today’s Tea Party-inflected Republican Party is a reincarnation of the old conservative coalition; that the latter “anticipates the composition of today’s Republican coalition and its grievance: the expansion of the federal safety net.” So he offers a historical narrative of how that bygone formation emerged, how it operated, and what explains its alleged reappearance in recent decades.
He starts with the coalition’s Northern component, and describes it well. It was made up of “‘Old Guard’ conservative Republicans from rural and small-town districts in upstate New York, Pennsylvania, the Midwest, and the Prairies,” who “took their cues from small businesses back home in their districts and from business associations like the National Association of Manufacturers.” Although he doesn’t quite make this explicit, these “Old Guard” Republicans very much represented the dominant tendency in their party. Their free-enterprise politics were those of Calvin Coolidge; their revulsion at the New Deal differed little from Herbert Hoover’s.
But Judis doesn’t really dwell much on the coalition’s Republican side. He’s far more interested in the Southern Democrats. If the Northerners come off in his account as somewhat musty relics, with their hysterical claims about the New Deal’s “march toward a totalitarian state” based on “principles and doctrines from Karl Marx,” the Southerners can be depicted as positively antediluvian. Or, more to the point, antebellum.
The Southern Democrats of the 1930s and 1940s were “heirs to John Calhoun and the Confederacy,” Judis writes, who, “following the lead of their antebellum ancestors,” “framed their opposition to the New Deal as a principled defense of the Constitution.” The truth, as he (correctly) explains, is that when Southern legislators opposed liberal policies in the 1930s, they usually did so to protect the region’s racial caste system and the backward and exploitative system of labor-intensive agriculture it underpinned.
Judis’s historical argument – and he’s not alone in making something like it – goes like this: Although the conservative coalition managed to stall the New Deal’s advance in the late 1930s, it “faded temporarily from view” after 1945. This was due to a “spirit of national unification” induced by the national government’s wartime call on all its citizens to pull together and sacrifice. That spirit of unity “lasted for 15 years after the war,” and it “helped to give rise – although not without conflict – to a social compact between business and labor, an end to racial segregation and the preservation and expansion of New Deal programs like social security.”
But beginning in the Sixties, that consensus started to unravel. “The Democratic Party began to come apart over Jim Crow in the 1960s, and Barry Goldwater seized the opportunity to attract white Southern Democrats by taking up the mantle of states’ rights.” The result was a rolling realignment that brought the South gradually into the Republican Party, culminating in the 1994 elections, which finally destroyed much of the region’s remaining Democratic contingent.
For Judis, then, “the conservative coalition of the 1930s was the Republican Party of today.” Only today it’s far more potent, for it now forms an organically unified party. When it was only a cross-party formation, the alliance had been an uneasy one. But once united within a party after 1994, it “lost the inhibitions that had previously prevented it from trying to destroy its Democratic opposition and to dismantle the New Deal itself.” The result is today’s out-of-control extremism.
Judis gets many of the details right. But the weaknesses in his argument are fatal. The first wobbly point is his notion that a wartime “spirit of unification” caused the conservative coalition to “fade from view” until the Sixties. Those who were around in the 1950s would have vigorously disagreed. For example, an August 1960 article in the New York Times magazine, headlined “Again That Roadblock In Congress,” highlighted how “a conservative coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats has made the Committee on Rules virtually a third branch of Congress.”
But more importantly, after 1945 the extremism of the conservatives’ rhetoric and tactics didn’t fade away either.
Certainly not in 1946, when the Republicans triumphantly recaptured Congress after a bitter red-baiting campaign. That election installed new House leaders, all of whom, according to the historian Robert J. Donovan, had “risen to power chanting the same refrain over and over again. Its lines – in no particular order – were:
Arrogant individualism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt … un-American … unconstitutional dictatorship … NRA … AAA … lavish spending … socialistic experiments … New Deal spoilers and wasters … never known the necessity of meeting a payroll… New Deal pump-primers … planned economy … remain the citadels of liberty … America is in peril … Valley Forge.
Nor had it faded by 1952, near the height of Red Scare hysteria, when the national Republican platform charged that the Democratic administration and its leaders “work unceasingly to achieve their goal of national socialism,” and had “so undermined the foundations of our Republic as to threaten its existence.”
So faithful to the spirit of national unity was Robert Taft that as Joe McCarthy turned the political system upside down with fantastic allegations of high treason, the Senate Republican leader had advised him to “keep talking, and if one case doesn’t work out, proceed with another.” That year saw the re-election to the Senate of a whole generation of reactionary Old Guard Republicans, including not only McCarthy himself, but William Jenner of Indiana, George Malone of Nevada, Arthur Watkins of Utah, Edward Martin of Pennsylvania, John Bricker of Ohio – as well as a newcomer to the Senate, Barry Goldwater of Arizona.
The reality is that whatever moderation did emerge in the postwar Republican Party was brought about not by some ethereal “spirit of national unification,” but by hard electoral facts. In 1958, the Republican Right and its far-right business allies overreached, making the fateful mistake – against the advice of more sober-minded party technicians – of putting right-to-work measures on the ballot in six mostly industrial states, including Ohio, California, and Washington. The flood of union members turning out to defend organized labor, combined with the effects of the short but sharp recession earlier that year, triggered a Democratic landslide nationwide – “The Midterm Revolution” – that decimated the Old Guard. When it was over, Martin, Jenner, Malone, Bricker, and Watkins were gone.
That election represented a decisive step in a process that had been gradually underway in the industrial states for the past twenty years: the slow displacement, mostly by attrition, of the Northeastern GOP’s once-dominant hardline Coolidge-Taft current, as the growth of a heavily unionized working class rendered such revanchist conservative politics increasingly incapable of clinching statewide majorities. New York, once a cradle of reactionary Republicanism, was probably the first state to undergo this shift, beginning in the 1930s. The result was a crop of “liberal” (in fact, usually moderate) Republicans like Thomas Dewey and, later, Nelson Rockefeller.
But the force was irresistible elsewhere, too. The ascendancy of Republicans like George Romney of Michigan, Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, James Rhodes of Ohio, and Charles Percy of Illinois reflected their respective state parties’ need to marginalize the hard-right politics of their rural areas and small towns – not because of any postwar “spirit of unity,” but because in some of these states probably more than half of all households now contained union members, and urban black populations were growing. These states had reached electoral tipping points that seemed to leave the GOP with no other option than at least a tacit acceptance of the New Deal status quo.
If Judis’s treatment of the Republican Right is flawed, his account of the coalition’s other half is totally specious. The notion that Southern Democrats in Congress during the middle third of the century were progenitors of ideological Tea Party-style anti-government extremism cannot withstand a glance at their actual voting records.
In the 1930s and afterwards, Southern members almost unanimously insisted on shielding the South’s social system, based on labor-surplus agriculture and formalized racial hierarchy, from any federal policies that might erode it. But once those guarantees were granted, usually through quiet negotiations in committee or within the Democratic leadership, those legislators openly and overwhelmingly supported the New Deal.
It should be remembered that when FDR was elected, the South was a desperately poor, single-crop farm region with a per capita income roughly half the national average and a third the level of the Northeast. Its political culture was still tinged by the memory of the violently suppressed Populist insurgency of the 1890s. Its elites were reactionary, and only bloody turn-of-the-century disenfranchisement campaigns had spared them from total defeat.
But even with a restricted franchise, there was simply no mass electoral base in the South for the kind of free-enterprise fundamentalism that could thrive in historically prosperous northern regions like rural upstate New York or small-town central Ohio. In a study of 150 key New Deal-era roll calls held between 1933 and 1950, Ira Katznelson and two co-authors classified the votes according to their policy areas: labor, civil rights, welfare state programs, fiscal policy, economic planning, and business regulation. In all areas except labor and civil rights, Southern Democrats voted overwhelmingly in favor of New Deal liberalism, while in all areas except civil rights, Republicans voted overwhelmingly against it.
A majority of Southerners voted to establish Social Security, regulate utilities, expand work relief, and even, before 1938, to pass labor legislation like the Wagner Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a minimum wage.
Or we can look at the ideology scores of Northern and Southern House members, using the well-known data compiled by Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal. Their data set, which takes into account all roll calls in every Congress, distills each legislator’s voting into scores on two dimensions, which together can predict on average 85% of votes. The first dimension score, which carries the bulk of predictive power, reflects conventional notions of contention over the “role of government in the economy.” The second dimension score is a racial-sectional one whose predictive power was greatest during controversies over Reconstruction in the nineteenth century and civil rights in the twentieth.
As you’d expect, Southerners were always far to the right of Northerners on the second dimension. But as the graph below shows, the average Southern member’s score on the first dimension was consistently more “liberal” than the average Northern member’s through 1958, and remained roughly even with the North through 1964.
In fact, all of Lyndon Johnson’s major War on Poverty programs were enacted with a majority of Southerners voting for final passage. The 1964 Economic Opportunity Act – the omnibus bill establishing Job Corps, a federal work-study program, adult education funding, and various other things – was sponsored in the House by staunch anti-labor segregationist Phil Landrum of Georgia, and passed with 60% of Southern Democrats voting in favor, even as 87% of Republicans opposed it. Likewise, Medicare passed in 1965 with 61% of Southern Democrats in favor and 93% of Republicans opposed. The 1964 Food Stamp Act, after an intra-party log-rolling deal involving farm subsidies, went through on virtually a straight party-line vote.
There were certainly hard-right Southern Democratic legislators who refused to vote for such policies. There were also surprisingly liberal ones; the region’s Congressional delegations were more ideologically diverse than is usually assumed.
If there was one legislator who best embodied the classic image of a conservative Southern Democrat in Congress, it was probably Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. An uncompromising (if “genteel”) segregationist and signer of the Southern Manifesto, Russell, according to a political scientist writing in 1950, belonged to a class of Southern legislators which “speaks for the respectable conservatives, speaks for chambers of commerce, civic clubs, banks, corporations.” Russell was probably a bit to the right of the median Southerner in Congress. But it is a mark of how different that time and place were that Russell declared the proudest accomplishment of his forty-year Congressional career to be the National School Lunch Act, which he spearheaded in 1946 and then doggedly defended over the years whenever its funding was challenged: “No one,” he charged, “should seek to deny a poor child in a poor state a lunch at school because both child and state are less able to pay than a wealthier child in a wealthy state.”
The notion that this brand of Southern Democratic politics prefigured modern-day Rush Limbaugh-style Tea Party Republicanism is fallacious. If, today, there are modern-day equivalents of Russell’s genre of Southern Democrat – on issues other than civil rights – they are not Eric Cantor or Ted Cruz, but rather Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, John Breaux, or Claire McCaskill. In other words, the closest modern-day equivalents of the conservative Democrats of the 1940s are modern-day conservative Democrats.
As for the process by which those traditional Southern Democrats were eventually displaced by an ever-expanding Southern Republican Party – a process Judis attributes to Goldwater and his fellow conservatives “seiz[ing] the mantle of states’ rights” – it was a gradual, uneven, and complex one. What is notable, though, is that over the long run it represented a process ofconvergence with the rest of the country – not a retreat into some moonlight-and-magnolias particularism. And for good reason: during those decades, the South’s social structure was converging with the North’s at a stunning pace. Once a poor, rural and agricultural backwater, the South emerged as a suburban, postindustrial growth region. In almost every aspect of its society – including its new forms of racial stratification – it increasingly resembled the North. And the same was true of its politics.
The South’s 1964 protest vote against Lyndon Johnson was undoubtedly a result of the Civil Rights Act. But over the next decades, as the Republican Party advanced through a rapidly modernizing South, it was the white-collar, affluent, and suburban districts – i.e. those that were the most “modern”, “American,” and populated with northern transplants – that led the waytoward GOP dominance, while those that were most traditionally “Southern” lagged behind. Likewise, the old post-Civil War pattern of poorer whites being more likely to vote Republican, which survived well into the 1950s, sharply reversed, so that by the end of the Reagan era the South had joined the national pattern of “normal” class voting alignments.
The civil rights revolution and its backlash were historic shocks to an ossified Southern political system; they created openings for Republicans in places where openings might not have existed otherwise. But by the mid-1970s, the “racial issues” that were helping many Republicans win election in the South were rarely any longer regionally distinctive issues like states’ rights or equal voting, especially outside the Deep South. They were usually the same racial issues that were helping Republicans win election in the North. In their appeals to white voters, Southern Republicans would find great advantage in hammering away at racially coded issues like crime, welfare, busing, and affirmative action. But in this they were no different than their fellow Republicans in the suburbs of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
Today, except perhaps for the deepest Deep South states – and remember, Deep South whites make up no more than 5% of the nation’s population – voting patterns don’t differ all that much by region, once voters’ other characteristics are taken into account. In fact, nowadays the single best predictor of a state’s level of Republican voting among whites seems to be religion. By this measure, whites in most Southern states vote more or less the way you would expect them to:
Nor is this fact itself exceptional. In nearly every rich democracy – even those that are most secular – religious voters of any given class are much more likely to support conservative parties.
So where does that leave Judis’s thesis? If all he meant to say was that today’s Republican Party is like the old interregional conservative coalition in that (a) it’s conservative, and (b) it’s interregional, his argument would be trivial.
But he seems to be saying more than that. By spinning a fable in which a mid-century “spirit of national unification” and the forward-looking consensus it allegedly created accounts for all that is good and progressive, while all that is evil can be traced to the “heirs to John Calhoun and the Confederacy” and the backward-looking coalition they led, his argument calls to mind the admonition of historians Matthew Lassiter and Joseph Crespino in their introduction to The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism:
The notion of the exceptional South has served as a myth, one that has persistently distorted our understanding of American history. Although scholars and journalists have repeatedly chronicled the decline of regional distinctiveness for more than a century now, the basic features of southern exceptionalism still structure the popular mythology of American exceptionalism—a story of white racial innocence (occasionally compromised by the “southernization” of northern race relations), of a benevolent superpower (that temporarily tasted the “southern experience” of defeat after Vietnam), of an essentially liberal national project (if only the red states would stop preventing the blue states from resurrecting the Great Society).
Judis sees a historically progressive national project derailed by a particularist South’s rebellion against the civil rights consensus. I see something different. I see, among other things, a reactionary national consensus over a backward set of fundamental governing structures – and it is these structures that are most immediately to blame for the present crisis.
The United States has the least competitive elections in the rich world; the lowest participation by voters; the most infrequent turnover in its legislature. For a century and a half two entrenched parties have periodically manipulatedelection rules to exclude competitors with the blessing of the courts, in ways that would probably draw formal sanction by E.U. monitors if it were happening in Kazakhstan.
In the jargon of mainstream political science, citizens have preferences, and the political system aggregates those preferences according to its particular rules and structures. Undoubtedly, Americans’ political attitudes have shifted to the right in many ways over the past few decades. Still, if the shutdown and debt ceiling standoff represent a “shocking” crisis, a “breakdown” in the norms of governance, maybe the problem lies less with bad people and their bad preferences (and where do those come from?) than with the distortions of the system that aggregates them.
Tea Party Republicans, for example, turn out to be no more numerous in the South than in the rest of the country – at least judging by reliable sources like the National Election Study or the Pew Research Center’s political typology analysis. But there are far fewer liberal and secular voters there. As a result, the degree of competitiveness of House elections in the region is even lower than the scandalously depressed levels prevailing in the rest of the country – which themselves stand somewhere between North Korean levels and those of a functioning democracy. And that is due to the U.S. regime of restricted party choice.
The average member of the House “Suicide Caucus” (half of which is southern, compared to 30% of the overall House) won his or her last election by a margin of 32 percentage points. Nationwide the average House member won by a 31 point margin. For the average Republican winner the margin was 29%. By comparison, in the last UK election the average parliamentary victor won with a total vote of 47%.
But the problem runs deeper than the mere mechanics of elections. When voters do bother to vote, even on the rare occasions their vote matters, the results are rendered opaque and irrelevant – a proliferation of veto points, a miasma of dispersed authority – by a constitutional structure meticulously designed to suppress any visible connection between the casting of a ballot and the enactment of a program.
However disastrous or ridiculous the outcome of this crisis ultimately proves to be, the sub-democratic structure of American politics will guarantee that the consequences will be non-existent for those who initiated it: the regime of repressed competition will ensure no consequences for the individual legislators, while its separation of powers will probably ensure no consequences for their party either.
In the last debt ceiling crisis, two years ago, the public expressed overwhelming revulsion and blamed the GOP by a wide margin; the next year, Republicans won the House again, and ended up with three-fifths of the governors and state legislatures. Most likely the same or worse will happen again in 2014.
After two centuries laboring under a Constitution crafted by principled opponents of democracy, who saw as one of their central goals the suppression of any chance that concerted majorities might ever use the state for positive ends, how can anyone be surprised that this country is hospitable to anti-government extremists?
In Judis’s history, the villains of the piece, the reactionary ogres of the conservative coalition, North and South, who stymied all progress at every turn, never tired of extolling the greatness and genius of the United States Constitution.
What did they know that liberals don’t?
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)