Agnew (1918–1996) came to national prominence as a moderate Republican governor of Maryland in the 1960s who changed his personal brand in 1968 to rightwing demagogue and agitator, joining Richard Nixon's Presidential ticket as Vice President in 1968 and 1972, though he resigned in 1973 after pleading No Contest in a bribery-related case.
We netroots blogger types often complain about the pathological media affliction of High Broderism, in which star reporters and pundits insist against overwhelming evidence that the US is a "center-right" country, and that there is always the possibility for a moderate compromise between Democrats and Republicans that would represent a desirably bipartisan outcome. Bipartisanship has long since become a fetish in itself in the High Broderist faith. Along with the correlate that Both Sides Do It, in which any "extreme" in one of the two parties must be balanced by some similar deviation from the sacred center in the other party. The actual content of the policies discussed and decisions made become secondary if not tertiary or non-existent in comparison to the "horse-race" status of electoral contests or the need for Bipartisanship.
The most destructive manifestation of High Broderism is the one Paul Krugman often criticizes. While "the GOP is no longer a normal political party," the Establishment press continues to treat them as though they are a basically sensible center-right political group (Style, Substance, and The Donald 08/05/2015):
... if you ask me, the people who are really mistaking style for substance [with Trump] are the pundits. It’s true that Trump isn’t making sense — but neither are the mainstream contenders for the GOP nomination.(The Shrill One also has a useful analysis of the social basis of Trump's support in Tea and Trumpism 08/11/2015)
On economics, both Jeb Bush and Scott Walker are into deep voodoo. Bush takes his experience of presiding over a giant housing bubble in his state, as proof that he can double America’s underlying growth rate. Walker is Brownback-light: his governorship on Wisconsin was premised on the proposition that tax cuts, spending cuts, and union-bashing can create an economic miracle, but the reality is budget deficits and subpar growth, lagging in particular the performance of neighboring Minnesota.
Is Trump any worse on economics than these guys? He’s suggested that a weaker dollar would be good for America (even though he also wants higher interest rates), which actually makes him more of an economic realist than his rivals.
His immigration proposals are extreme; but as Greg Sargent points out, the Republican base agrees with him ...
So why is Trump regarded as ludicrous, while Bush and Walker are serious? Again, on the substance they’re all ludicrous; but pundits are taken in by the sober-sounding personal style of the runners-up, while voters apparently are not. [my emphasis]
Most delusions have some identifiable contact with reality. And that's true of High Broderism. The main point of contact with reality is that for much of American history since the Civil War, the advocates of civil rights for African-Americans in both parties. While the most hardcore advocates of segregation were in the Democratic Party in the South. During the Progressive and New Deal eras and in the postwar era until the mid-1960s, coalitions for liberal and for conservative causes were spread between both parties. Reagan election as President in 1980 is as useful a milestone as any for demarcating the point where the two major parties aligned in more consistently ideological left-right division.
So there has been some material basis in living memory for the notion that bipartisanship is essential to making government function normally in Washington.
Spiro Agnew's turn on the national stage occurred when that alignment was beginning to shift drastically toward today's positioning of the two parties. As Levy observes:
In the [Maryland] gubernatorial race in 1966, Agnew, running as a racial moderate, defeated the Democratic candidate William Mahoney (1901–89), whose campaign slogan was “Your Home is Your Castle—Protect It!,” a not so thinly veiled reference to his opposition to open housing legislation and residential integration. [my emphasis]In other words, the Republican Agnew was the more racially liberal of the two candidates in that race.
Levy suggests that in that moment in US politics, Agnew's status as a convert to an anti-black position gave him a standing than Southern Democrats strongly identified with the Jim Crow/segregation system, particularly the Democrats' leading racist demagogue at the time, Alabama's George Wallace:
While race contributed to Agnew’s rise, Agnew’s appeal differed substantially from that of George Wallace or other symbols of white backlash. As suggested above, unlike Wallace, Agnew had not gained fame by defending the Southern way, espousing “segregation forever,” threatening to block the schoolhouse door, or preaching the doctrine of nullification. Agnew even enjoyed favorable relations with the press, winning strong endorsements from the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post in his run for the governor’s office in 1966. While many expressed doubts about whether Agnew remained an advocate of civil rights in the wake of his 11 April speech, his record made it easier for Americans who saw themselves as racial moderates to support him rather than George Wallace. Put somewhat differently, Agnew helped legitimate white backlash by breaking its association with an open defense of Jim Crow and casting it in terms that jettisoned references to skin color and proclamations of white supremacy in favor of language that emphasized orderliness, personal responsibility, and the sanctity of hard work, the nuclear family, and the law. [my emphasis]Levy discusses several themes of Agnew's demagoguery, including the following.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., The Amazing Success Story of 'Spiro Who?' New York Times 07/26/1970:
The forgotten Americans, Mr. Nixon said, had become angry; and Mr. Agnew had already displayed his capacity for anger. "As Governor of Maryland," he later wrote, "I saw civil disobedience flare into full-scale insurrection." For anyone unaware that full-scale insurrection has recently taken place in Maryland, or indeed anywhere in America, Mr. Agnew was referring to the riots in Baltimore after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. [in 1968.] Furious, Mr. Agnew summoned and berated the moderate leaders of the black community. He recalls this episode as "a very significant moment in my life."Levy notes that Agnew made a point to make no distinction between overt revolutionaries and more moderate and explicitly nonviolent African-American leaders: "Agnew distinguished himself by redirecting attention away from the radicals to moderate blacks, and by inference, liberals in general."
Agnew also focused on the alleged "cultural" problems of the African-American community, just as today's white supremacists do, along with the black allies like Herman Cain or, once anyway, Bill Cosby. Levy: "Agnew persistently focused not just on violence and the rise of crime but on the alleged cultural roots of the rise of disorder in American society. Cultural permissiveness, not social and economic hardship, Agnew insisted, underlay the riots." (my emphasis)
And in white-backlash mode, Agnew was particularly harsh about the findings of the Kerner Commission Report of 1967, which identified white racism as the primary cause of previous urban riots in the US in the 1960s. It's one sign of how much the partisan politics of race has shifted that the organization committed to preserving and continuing the analysis of the Kerner Commission on race relations is called the Eisenhower Foundation.
Levy quotes Agnew on the Commission's findings:
This masochistic group guilt for white racism pervades every facet of the Report’s reasoning. ... If one wants to pinpoint one indirect cause . . . it would be . . . that lawbreaking has become a socially acceptable and occasionally stylish form of dissent, [while Blacks in the 1930s rioted less not because they were better off, but because the] climate was less permissive. [my emphasis]He talked about the whole notion of white racism as though it were a contemptible (and effeminate/masochistic?) notion. The denial of white racism started long before Agnew's conversion to the white-backlash cause. And of course continues to this day.
And Levy records, "Agnew also appealed to long-time Democrats by noting Nixon’s disapproval of busing and the Democrats’ opposition to the President’s nomination of Southern conservatives to the Supreme Court."
Agnew drew support for himself and to the New Right by appealing to concerns about gender. ...Levy notes that at one point, Agnew himself had stated his support for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which was endorsed by the Republican Party in 1940 before the Democrats ever endorsed it. With some combination of sexism and pragmatic cynicism, the Democrats accused the Republicans of only wanting the Amendment to undermine laws protecting women in the workplace. Eleanor Roosevelt had opposed the ERA over that concern.
[He established] his overall image as a champion of traditional values, which assumed a natural hierarchy of the sexes and fixed gender roles, where men were the patriarchs and women the caretakers. Moreover, in terms that presaged the rise of an anti-feminist movement personified by Phyllis Schlafly’s anti-ERA crusade, Spiro Agnew was soon to portray feminists as part and parcel of the “radlib” menace which, in his estimation, threated [sic] the very existence of the American republic. Agnew’s wife, Judy, reinforced this theme. A one-time parents-teachers-association president and Girl Scout leader, she openly criticized feminism and championed her role as a traditional housewife — even noting in one interview that rather than attending college she had “majored in marriage.” In contrast, during the same time period, a number of other prominent wives of politicians, from Betty Ford to Happy Rockefeller, openly campaigned for the ERA.
Fears of Loss of Masculinity (closely related to the previous)
Levy quotes a memorandum from Kevin Phillips saying how the 1968 Nixon-Agnew campaign "needed to 'impugn HHH’s [Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey’s, 1911–1978] manhood and capability,' to emphasize his 'womanish quality of verbosity' and 'how he bragged he’d lead a riot himself, [but Nixon] could not wield the hatchet himself.'”
As Vice President, Agnew liked to attack intellectuals as wimps, e.g., "A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals." (quoted by Levy)
This is obviously related to the anti-feminist stance. As Levy notes:
The rise of the women’s liberation movement as well as the counterculture during the 1960s reignited fears about the decline of masculinity and Agnew’s appeal rested, in part, on his ability to cast himself as a real man as opposed to liberals, who he described as unmanly or “effete.” This was especially the case with regards to whether or not troops and police should be allowed to shoot rioters, with Agnew’s (and [Democratic Chicago Mayor Richard] Daley’s) pro-use of force stance portrayed as manly and the liberal non-use of lethal force as unmanly.Contempt for Antiwar Protesters
Levy quotes this from Agnew: "I do not question that a degree of alienation exists. I do not deny that there is always room for academic improvement. But real or reasoned progress will never result from the abusive tyranny of students who ... take their tactics from Gandhi, their philosophy from the classroom and their money from daddy."
Notable here is that Agnew codes antiwar protesters as privileged children. The real existing antiwar movement was largely led by Vietnam War veterans, our current Secretary of State John Kerry being a famous example.
Identification of the Agitator with the Majority
Nixon famously posed as the representative and defended of the "silent majority" who supposedly agreed with him on the Vietnam War and the cultural war, as well. In one of his most famous speeches, his 11/13/1969 attack on the television news media, the Vice President who had agitated against black rioters and protesting students accused television news of exaggerating their importance:
Normality has become the nemesis of the network news. Now the upshot of all this controversy is that a narrow and distorted picture of America often emerges from the televised news.Thinly-veiled Anti-Semitism
A single, dramatic piece of the mosaic becomes in the minds of millions the entire picture. And the American who relies upon television for his news might conclude that the majority of American students are embittered radicals. That the majority of black Americans feel no regard for their country. That violence and lawlessness are the rule rather than the exception on the American campus.
We know that none of these conclusions is true.
Perhaps the place to start looking for a credibility gap is not in the offices of the Government in Washington but in the studios of the networks in New York.
Just as German and Austrian anti-Semites today use "the East Coast" to refer derisively to Jews, the American anti-Semites of 1969 could easily see the nudge-nudge wink-wink implications of "New York" in the following description of the Mean Libruls in the Evil Media. With it's picture of secretive, clannish, sophisticates who don't share the views of Real Americans, it resembles the conservatives' use of "Hollywood" as a political symbol today:
Now what do Americans know of the men who wield this power? Of the men who produce and direct the network news, the nation knows practically nothing. Of the commentators, most Americans know little other than that they reflect an urbane and assured presence seemingly well-informed on every important matter.Pat Buchanan, not incidentally, was Agnew's main speechwriter in those days.
We do know that to a man these commentators and producers live and work in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington, D. C., or New York City, the latter of which James Reston terms the most unrepresentative community in the entire United States.
Both communities bask in their own provincialism, their own parochialism.
We can deduce that these men read the same newspapers. They draw their political and social views from the same sources. Worse, they talk constantly to one another, thereby providing artificial reinforcement to their shared viewpoints. [my emphasis]
Since I began this post with a criticism of the groupthink of High Broderism, I obviously recognize there can be systematic problems with the dominant media.In Latin American countries like Argentina and Venezuela, the political alignments of major media companies are openly discussed and debated as part of normal political discourse. The demagogic nature of the Agnew/Buchanan approach in that speech is the way they plugged conservative attacks on the press into traditional far-right anti-Semitic stereotypes as well as the white-backlash rhetoric about the evils of the media which, in the segregationist view, had created a terribly unfair image of the segregated South by actually reporting on some of the ways the segregation system actually worked. And they did so by making broad accusations with only a tenuous factual basis.
Levy describes how the reception of the speech among Republicans responded to the Presidential Administration's positioning itself as fighting an uphill battle on behalf of the Real Americans against the Librul Media bogeyman:
Margo Ling of the Eagle Republican Women’s Club of Cincinnati praised the vice president for questioning the right of the “arrogant few” to “decide which news fits.” As with the response to his post-King assassination speech, many extolled Agnew for his courage and leadership, with Dr. N.M. Camardese of Norwalk, OH, proclaiming that history would place Agnew in the “Hall of Fame, wherein stands ... Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Winston Churchill.”69 Somewhat along the same line, a number of letter writers focused on Agnew’s willingness to criticize the eastern establishment. Or as Harvey Turkel of Detroit put it, for taking on “the whole ... New York Mentality and its disproportionate influence.”Agnew's attacks on the press on behalf of the Nixon Administration were one big reason so many liberals were reluctant to recognize the depth of the national press dysfunction on the Whitewater pseudoscandal, the Clinton impeachment, the Republicans' actions on the disputed 2000 election results in Florida and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And part of why the Democrats have been slow to recognize and counter the way that Republicans effectively "work the refs" by their non-ending attacks on the Librul Press. They didn't want to be seen as aping Agnew's very illiberal attacks on the Librul Press.
Using His Own Criminal Behavior to Portray Himself as a Martyr to Persecution
It is often noted that Nixon became a hero to hardline conservatives after resigning from office due to the Watergate scandal. Despite his many heresies like the SALT arms-control agreement with the Soviet Union, resigning from office allowed conservatives to see him as a martyr.
Agnew struck the same posture as he came under fire from press leaks about the Justice Department investigation into bribery charges against him. Levy:
Without referring to any of the specifics of his case, he delivered a blistering attack on the Justice Department’s persecution of him, abetted by the press. “In the past several months ... I have found myself the recipient of undefined, unclear, unattributed accusations that have surfaced in the largest and most widely circulated organs of our communications media.” Proclaiming his absolute innocence, he questioned the motives and methods of the prosecution and challenged those who had borne witness against him by arguing that their testimony had been bought by offers of immunity. To the chagrin of the audience, which interrupted his address 32 times with howls of approval, Agnew asserted that the charges against him, though untrue, had so damaged his reputation that he would not be able to serve as their presidential candidate in 1976.This was an attack on his own Administration's Justice Department!
While the press was largely critical of Agnew’s address, quoting Elliot Richardson’s “rebuke” of Agnew’s charges that his office was politically motivated and had leaked information, much of the public was not. Letters poured into Agnew’s and Elliot Richardson’s office that described Agnew as their Knight errant in the contemporary Holy War with Christianity and America on one side and the devil, communists, and un-Americans on the other. For example, “ROUT OUT THE FORCES OF EVIL which has put this nation in such a position,” implored Esther Pringle.But times have changed (some, anyway!)
99“Dr. Robert Miller of Paragon, IN, concurred, warning that Agnew should not “overlook the Communists and the left wing skunks in high office” or the “long hand of Henry Kissinger.”100 “Those who control the new media have become a source of evil,” added Florence Williams.101 Similarly, Dr. Talivaldis and his wife declared: “Keep fighting, lest we all are forced to goose-step along with the power crazy media moguls.”
Speaking of netroots criticism of the press, our star pundits are now floundering around for a narrative on Trump's current popularity among Republicans that doesn't take them too far outside their comfort zone and doesn't distract them too much from Hillary Clinton pseudoscandals.
Returning again to the Shrill One, he notes something about the idolization of St. Reagan by the Republicans that is also an important reminder to nervous Democrats who worry that Bernie Sander is the second coming of George McGovern and the electoral defeat of 1972:
So right-wing Reagan-worship requires a heavy dose of historical ignorance. But that’s not the only weird thing about the way today’s Republicans pledge their devotion to his legacy: Remember, Reagan was elected 35 years ago. That’s a long time: the election of 1980 is as distant from us now as the election of 1944 was when he was running. The America of Reagan’s triumph was in many ways another country — a country of still-powerful unions and bad coffee, with no internet or cell phones, in which a plurality of voters disapproved of interracial marriage. It's quite remarkable that the right can’t find any more contemporary role models. [my emphasis]