James Fallows: the GOP Pulled Off an Institutional Coup With the Help of Enablers in the Media
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JH: I also have another additional pet theory, which is that there’s something inherent in the difference in the stories liberals and conservatives tell, in that liberals think that, aside from the very wealthy, people who vote for conservatives have been kind of hoodwinked by their economic betters to vote against their own self-interest. You can look at Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas, for example. I think that’s a prevailing idea on the left. We see there’s been a long tension between the left and the right, between plutocrats and Democrats that go back to the nation’s founding.
If you look at the stories that conservatives have told for so many years it’s about how liberalism is inherently un-American. It’s foreign – you know how you hear all sorts of complaints about how insuring people is European? There’s a pervasive belief on the right that the founders were all religious conservatives as one would define that term today. I wonder how that idea -- that their opponents don’t just disagree but are fundamentally illegitimate -- plays out in their willingness to discard long-standing institutional norms.
Is there hope for getting the media to look more critically at these issues. You wrote about 100 posts on this false equivalence. Do you think you’ve had any impact? Have you gotten any feedback?
JF: In my many years in the press, I cling to the idea of "what’s the alternative?" You try your best to explain the world as you see it, and it doesn’t change everything. But you have to think that if nobody were trying it then it would be even worse. With those cheering words I pass the baton onto future generations of reporters and citizens to say, "let’s see what we can do to improve things."
JH: James, before I let you go -- you have a new book out, China Airborne.
JF: I’ve been living in China for most of the last six years. This is my way of arguing about whether China, which has been such a success the last 30 years, is reaching the limits of its economic and political models. I basically argue that it has more problems ahead than most people think.
JH: Now what do you think about when you see this reflexive China-bashing. I see a lot of this in our political discourse. Is it merited? Should we be fearful of the Chinese?
JF: One of the things I try to argue is that if you were the president of China, versus the president of the United States, you would have 10 times more problems, and strangely, less leverage to deal with them -- even less than a hamstrung American president has. I think when Americans are upset about China it generally reveals what are legitimate uncertainties about how things are going here. As you know, there are lots of problems here. Also it naturally exaggerates the sense of how successful and powerful China is. They just view it through photos of Beijing or Shanghai, which look a lot more impressive than the places where hundreds of millions of peasants are living.
JH: I think part of it is also a sense of frustration with our own leadership -- that we don’t always pursue our own narrow, national economic interests in the same way that you see China doing. This is certainly not to indulge in China-bashing, but it is a reflection of popular discontent with our own leadership.
JF: I think that’ so. When I came back from China a couple years ago I did a big story in the Atlantic about whether America was going to hell. I asked historians about that. One of the things people argued is that throughout American history there’s been these cycles of real concern about the foundations of the republic. In the last 60 or 70 years it’s been natural to argue that point by looking at some foreign competitor, whether it’s the Soviet Union, the Japanese bor the Chinese now. There are some real areas of competition between the countries, but I think the proper area for concern is what is happening to our political and economic system, whether or not China existed.