Left? Right? Which?

Written by Christopher Caldwell on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

The great
warning in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, as every schoolchild
used to know, concerns the "tyranny of the majority." In democratic
societies like ours, any specimen of greed, self-righteousness or spite that
wins the support of 51 percent of the people can be deployed to humiliate the
remaining 49. The problem is even graver than it sounds. First, because, as
human fail-
ings go,
greed, self-righteousness and spite are fairly infectious ones. Second, because
majoritarian tyrannies are perceived as tyrannies only in retrospect; while
they’re being perpetrated, they appear in most people’s minds as common
sense. Today, most Americans will grant that women, blacks and gays were treated
despotically a half-century ago. But if you tell them that smokers are being
persecuted today, they will reply in good faith that they have no idea what
you’re talking about. The only silver lining is that, every once in a while,
the near-unanimous wrath of the American public gets focused on a class of scumbags
who richly deserve to be deprived of their rights. And today, the scumbag class
par excellence of the Internet economy appears to be on the run.

Last week,
the Massachusetts Senate passed–and Gov. Jane Swift signed into law–a
"do not call" bill tough enough to put a lot of telemarketers out
of business. Citizens can place themselves on a list that will make them off-limits
to soliciting, and companies that call them can be fined up to $5000. Such laws
have passed in about half of all states, and people love them. When Kentucky’s
do-not-call law was enacted earlier this year, a third of the state’s residential
phone numbers were registered within weeks; 200,000 New Yorkers signed up for
their own state’s list in the first month; and when Pennsylvania passed
a do-not-call law earlier this summer, the toll-free number for getting listed
on it was jammed for days. So ferocious is the desire to stop telemarketing
that the Federal Trade Commission is considering a federal law.

No reader
of this column will have to be told that evening phone solicitations for buying
stocks ("I wouldn’t want you to miss out on this opportunity, Mister…er,
Chris") or time-shares or home-security systems are a major nuisance. One
FTC estimate is that the average household receives 130 phone pitches a month.
(We can leave for another column the amazing prolificacy of e-mail spammers:
If I had answered even half of the Add-Six-Inches-to-Your-Penis!!! offers I’ve
received, I’d be able to have sex in Chicago from the comfort of my desk
in Washington.) But equally galling is the way telemarketers lobby Congress
to protect their right to barge in on your dinner (or, if you happen to work
the night or morning shift, interrupt your night’s sleep). The Direct Marketing
Association specializes in fraudulent statistics, claiming that telemarketing
employs six million people and accounts for the absurdly high figure of $660
billion of our GNP. The American Teleservices Association (ATA) supplies the
bogus "common-sense" appeals. Their lobbyist Matt Mattingly, a former
Georgia Republican senator (and failed senatorial candidate last time out),
was recently quoted as saying that, "If no one bought from telemarketers,
there would be no telemarketers." Indeed, if no one wanted to have people
knocked off, there would be no hit men, etc.

according to some press accounts, is mulling a freedom-of-speech challenge to
these do-not-call laws. I’m a sucker for this kind of framing of the issues–you
could probably convince me to jump off a bridge if you couched it in libertarian
terms–but Mattingly’s line is an absurdity. Most of our communications
laws are based on metaphors we’ve built from our experience in a pre-technological
age. Lobbyists view the telephone as like a right of way, or a sidewalk. Anyone
can go there, and only a tyranny would limit people’s right to "talk
to one another." But we do have laws regarding public spaces and rights
regarding private ones. Just because anyone can use the sidewalk does not mean
you’re allowed to erect a building on it. Just because there is a path
across your land that hikers are allowed to cross does not give them the right
to open a Burger King on it. Joe Telemarketer, posing as a champion of "freedom,"
is actually a champion of usurpation. Yes, the telephone is a way of communicating.
It is also–whether we think of it as a private-sector thing or a public-sector
thing–your property.

Model Armey

Every election
season piles up more evidence that the Cold War party structure has become meaningless.
Not just "more fluid," or "harder to read"–meaningless.
Our parties are coming to resemble sports teams in the era of free agency–they
have fans who remain loyal, even if the squad has nothing in common with last
year’s. "Liberal" Bill Clinton abolished welfare and pursued
a more conservative economic policy than any president since Coolidge. "Conservative"
George Bush’s signature legislative achievement is an education package
that betokens the largest shift of power to Washington since LBJ. Only inertia
and habit could explain why virtually all of the people who were Republicans
or Democrats 15 years ago still belong to their respective parties.

First, we
see Republicans criticizing Democrats for acting like Republicans. In the South
Dakota Senate race, GOP Congressman John Thune has been running ads against
the Democratic incumbent Tim Johnson, accusing Johnson of wanting to invest
Social Security funds in the stock market. This is not exactly true–Johnson
merely threw out the idea in the run-up to his 1996 campaign against Larry Pressler.
(And asked what Thune’s own position on the matter was, his spokesman Christine
Iverson replied, "John has no position one way or the other." That’s
nice.) What’s more interesting than one politician misrepresenting another
is that Thune thinks he can get elected by spouting the Democratic line.

we see Democrats attacking Democrats for acting like Democrats. In the Michigan
gubernatorial primary, Jennifer Granholm won an overwhelming victory over David
Bonior and Jim Blanchard, two giants of Michigan Democratic politics. This shows
that the feminist money bundlers at EMILY’s List–not the labor
unions, which backed Bonior, and not the blacks, who mostly backed Blanchard–form
the red-hot burning core of the Democratic constituency. But we knew that. What’s
interesting is that the slashing late ads that EMILY’s List ran in favor
of Granholm attacked Bonior and Blanchard as "soft on crime." Granholm
thought she could get elected as a Dem by running on Richard Nixon’s issues.

Third, we
see Republicans attacking Republicans for acting like Republicans. In the New
Hampshire senatorial party, incumbent Bob Smith–a conservative so hard-line
that he briefly left the GOP three years ago because he felt it had betrayed
the cause of small government–accuses his challenger, John Sununu the Younger,
of backing tax increases. Okay, that plays to script: Sununu, like his father,
is one of those worst-of-both-worlds Bush Republicans, who pays lip-service
to conservative "values" while favoring Democratic levels of government
interference. What’s interesting is that Smith also accuses Sununu of voting
against adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. The facts may be iffy
on this–Sununu says he’s voted for two such bills. Hasn’t Smith
done the same? Smith now thinks he can plausibly sell himself to the GOP rank-and-file
as the guardian of an expanded welfare state.

This drifting
away from ideological moorings is particularly marked in the Republican South.
The belief that migration to the Sun Belt would transform the country into some
kind of right-wing bastion has turned out to be wrong. These people are Republicans
all right, but not necessarily of a stripe that, say, Ronald Reagan would recognize.
Dick Armey traveled to Iowa last week, where he gave a speech that vaulted him
to near the top of the Washington antiwar establishment. Saddam Hussein may
continue to refuse to let weapons inspectors into his country, Armey said, but
"in my estimation it is not enough reason to go in." That could have
been Paul Wellstone talking.

In South
Carolina, meanwhile, Lindsey Graham, the Cicero of the Impeach Bill Clinton
crusade, is trying to get himself elected senator by running as Richard Gephardt.
After last week’s Senate passage of fast-track negotiating authority for
the president, Graham said he wouldn’t have voted for it, and set himself
firmly in the protectionist camp. "America is the biggest chump in the
world," he said, "and I’m tired of it." And tired of the
free trade that has been part of the Republican Decalogue since 1980. To judge
from the flurry of agricultural subsidies and steel tariffs that the President
has ordered over the last few months, Graham has company.