Folks up in NY-23 sure fooled me.
Fooled our old friend Chris the Cop too.
I know that neck of the woods from a distance. I started college way up thataway, but the little college town I lived in felt too much like a fort on the frontier and a short ten mile trip down the road to the next nearest trading post, particularly in winter, which began in mid-October and continued into April, seemed to take forever because of the wild emptiness of the landscape. Cleared patches among the trees and in the clefts of rocky hills you knew had to be the edges of someone’s farm looked desolate, inhospitable, inhabited by ghosts, very lonely ghosts. If you saw a cow at the (untended, usually) fenceline, which was far, far more likely than seeing the farmer who owned it, the cow would look back with beseeching expression, as if begging you to stop the car and give her a ride the hell out of there.
Any human being who lived out in that frigid nothingness, I couldn’t help thinking, had to be nuts in some way, and probably in a suspicious and hostile way, since the company of other people could not have been high on their list of life’s necessary pleasures, otherwise they wouldn’t stay put there.
It was not like rural areas I’d known before and came to know since, in other parts of Upstate, out in Iowa and Indiana, around here, where if you were alone on the roads even late at night you didn’t worry about breaking down because you’d just seen a light on in the near distance a mile or so back or could be sure that there’d be one a mile or so ahead, and if not someone would be sure to come along soon to help you out.
Up there, if you saw a light, and you probably didn’t, you felt that it would almost certainly wink out as soon as whoever controlled the switch saw you approach, and you were pretty sure you didn’t want anyone coming along to find you alone by the side of the road since they couldn’t possibly have any business being out at that time in that place except that of zombies and werewolves or, rather, the sort of real human beings zombies and werewolves symbolize.
I got out of there as soon as I could.
Much later on, I lived in Syracuse, at the bottom fringes of the district but in twelve years I rarely found reason to go back up there. Civilization spread out from Syracuse to the east and west and south but ended very definitely, as if coming to a wall, not very far to the north, well short of the St Lawrence. Country pleasures, which that area does in fact offer, were friendlier and more easily reached to the not at all far south.
As for the beauties of the Adirondacks, it was always more pleasant to get to them roundaboutly, by going east to Albany and then north to Lake George, and from there I never ventured very far up for the reason I described above. You don’t have to even get off the beaten path before you find yourself alone and thinking that the company of bears and wolves and mountain lions would be more comforting than that of any human being who calls that emptiness home.
Of course, all I really knew and know about the 23rd I know from the tall tales told by bolder men and women who did business and even lived in the scattered outposts of civilization up there. I was like the regulars at the saloon at the edge of the Klondike gold fields in a Jack London story, safe, snug, and warm by the fire but waiting for some hardier soul to come in off the trail to thrill the lot of us with stories of wild adventures up north where life promised nothing but “a barren struggle with cold and death.”
And many of the stories I heard were told to me by Chris the Cop.
Chris not only lived up in those woods for a time, he helped police large, lonely expanses of it. And he frankly admits that people he met on the job made his hair stand on end.
Chris’ personal acquaintance with various armed and hostile residents of the 23rd (and remember, he’s as likely referring to what passed for respectable, law-abiding citizens as any other sort) is why he wasn’t all that surprised by the appearance and rise of Doug Hoffman, the Right Wing idealogue, tea bagger, and probable kook, who became the darling of the Sarah Palin wing of the Republican party and drove the party’s official nominee from the field on the brink of what should have been her easy election to the United States House of Representatives.
What perplexed him was why the local Republicans nominated someone as temperate, sensible, liberal-minded, and unrepresentative of the people of the district, Democrats as well as Republicans, as Dede Scozzafava.
In Chris’ view, the 23rd’s former Congressman and now Secretary of the Army John McHugh was much more of real Republican than Scozzafava. McHugh is considered a moderate, but moderate is a relative and relatively meaningless term these days. It’s just shorthand for a conservative who compared to the Right Wingers who run the National Republican Party these days seems a paragon of moderation and restraint. Although one of his jobs in the Obama Administration is to help pave the way for repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and much of the Right Wing animus towards Scozzafava was fueled by her stand on gay rights and other social issues, McHugh was a traditional small c conservative and Chris thinks the local Republicans should have looked for someone like him to replace him.
Faced with a choice between a rabid conservative and a relative liberal, Chris---and I---believed that Republican voters in the 23rd would have no problem making up their minds in favor of the Right Winger, and since there are more Republicans up there than Democrats, that would decide the election for Hoffman.
I haven’t spoken directly with Chris since Tuesday but I expect that he is as bemused by the results as I am and wondering what happened.
The first and likeliest explanation that comes to mind is that Chris and I were both wrong about who lives there. Reader DKF thinks so.
I grew up about 5 miles south of the Oswego County line, so I am perfectly aware of the firebreathing righty element up on Tug Hill and so forth, but the prevailing attitudes in the region are and always have been on the whole very conventionally centrist. Accepting for the sake of argument the wingnuts' claim that Dede Scozzafava is an archliberal, then by their own logic a moderate Democrat and an archliberal combined for 56% of the vote against the darling of the right. That sounds like the politics of the region I know.
Should be noted that neither Chris nor I lived in what is now called the 23rd District. We lived in what was then called the 24th. The difference is the result of a major redistricting, that is, some very creative gerrymandering, that added and dropped big chunks of counties, whole towns, and cities, with the result that more Republicans found themselves in another district and more Democrats and Independents found themselves residents of the new 23rd than anyone took into account when watching the race unfold.
I forgot, if I ever knew, that while some of the large counties went for McCain, making the area look very red on the electoral maps of New York, that the district as a whole went for Obama.
Another possibility, which is not exclusive of the above, is that the conservative Republican voters up there are conservative Republicans. Small c conservatives. New York State Republicans are traditionally suspicious of government but they aren’t anti-government.
They don’t trust the federal government because it operates from a distance and they can’t keep a good eye on it. But they don’t mind a relatively liberal and activist state government, as long as the governor is one of their own (see Rockefeller, Nelson; Pataki, George). And they can be positively enthusiastic about liberal and active town and city governments, mainly because they can run them themselves. Some of the most progressive towns and small cities in the state are run by Republicans.
Doug Hoffman is a tea bagger, and the tea party movement, to the extent that it has any coherence at all, coheres around the very angry notion that government is evil. Tea baggers are anti-tax, for the simple reason that a lot of them don’t have the the money to pay the taxes they owe, but they don’t seem to differentiate between types of taxes and they clearly don’t understand, and don’t want to understand, what taxes are for.
But they are also anti-tax because they are anti-government and as far as they seem to know, or care to know, taxes are levied for no other reason than to pay politicians what they need to live like millionaires.
Enough voters in the 23rd do grasp the whys and the whats and know how much their district, which means themselves, their families, their friends and neighbors, and their livelihoods depend on taxes to keep the lights on, so to speak.
No taxes, no government, and the tea baggers seem fine with that. But for the 23rd no government means closing up Fort Drum, shutting down the St Lawrence Seaway, selling off Adirondack Park, and denying dairy farmers the price supports that are barely keeping them solvent as it is.
In short, it means actually turning the whole of the 23rd into what I saw surrounding me in my isolated little college town way up to hell and gone.
Then there’s this. Doug Hoffman doesn’t live in the district and that’s more than symbolic. The tea party movement is a national phenomenon, without any regional ties or loyalties or even sympathies. Its leaders do not come from New York or even the Northeast, let alone from the 23rd. Doug Hoffman was not offering himself as a representative of the district. He was looking to recruit the 23rd whole into the tea party movement, regardless of how the citizens of the district felt about being recruited.
Appears that what a lot of them felt was not positive.
Tuesday’s vote can be read as a rejection of the tea party movement. The insurgent Sarah Palin-Glenn Beck-Fox News-Captain Crazy Michelle Bachmann wing of the Republican Party suffered a defeat that, since it had nothing to do with them, was not offset by the Republican victories in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections. (Though I’m sure that isn’t stopping Sarah Palin and her minions from taking credit.) The question is whether that defeat is also a serious wound.
The Democrat, Bill Owens, won decisively. But he did not trounce Hoffman. Tea baggers have reason to think, then, that they made inroads into the 23rd. But for the movement, which is only a subset of the broader Right Wing cohort that is growing its dominance within the GOP, winning elections is the next step.
The first step is to take over the Party completely, either by crushing what’s left of the small c conservative establishment or scaring the bejeezus out of it. How scared and how close to feeling crushed did what happened in the 23rd leave those small c conservatives feeling and how will they act on that feeling? Hard to say. Dede Scozzafava, one of the most accomplished of her generation of local politicians the Party has produced, seems on her way to becoming a Democrat. Newt Gingrich, of all people is disturbed by what the tea baggers managed in the 23rd. Our former governor George Pataki, a supposed small c conservative of the New York State variety, who appears not to have given up on his long-term hopes of becoming Vice-President someday, has jumped on the bandwagon.
This is why, although I’m glad Nancy Pelosi’s going to have one more vote she can count on, at least for a year, I’m not chortling with joy at the tea baggers’ defeat and why I don’t see it as an embarrassment for Sarah Palin, even if she were capable of feeling embarrassment.
I agree with Taylor Marsh. The tea baggers are not going to be chagrined or cowed here. They know that they, as part of the Right Wing Movement as a whole, are on the march.
Literally on the march today, as Michelle Bachmann leads them in her narcissistic game of Follow the Leader around the Capitol Building.
But figuratively on the march the way Sherman was on the march through Georgia, and, yeah, you bet, I mean the Southerners among them to be offended by that comparison.
Other Democrats and progressives are hopeful that the in the coming civil war within the Party both sides will rub each other out.
But I don’t see that happening, because as far as I can see the Rabid Right is on its way to winning handily. And while that might result in the destruction of the Republican Party at least as a real political party with the power and resources to win upcoming elections, the destruction of that Party is the Rabid Right’s goal.
As Max Blumenthal has pointed out in his book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party and elsewhere, we’re talking about people who believe, fervently, that sometimes you have to burn down the village in order to save it.
They did start the fire and they’re enjoying watching it spread.
The tea party movement is made up of a lot of ill-informed, misinformed, and in many cases deliberately and proudly uninformed---know-nothingism is an old and proud American tradition---people who are angry at they’re not sure what or why, they just know they’re mad as hell and don’t want to take it anymore. They are Medicare recipients who want the Government to stay away from their health care. They are laid-off workers collecting unemployment who don’t want the government spending their tax dollars to support lazy people without jobs. They are children of immigrants and immigrants themselves who want the Government to stop the hordes pouring across our borders. They are gun nuts and racists and religious bigots and paranoid kooks of every variety watching the skies for black helicopters and Muslim paratroopers. They are even, in many cases, fairly ordinary and decent-minded people with concerns that aren’t, as some Washington Press Corps types tried to assure us, legitimate, because those concerns aren’t based on facts, but with worries and fears and troubles and disappointments that are real and which make their concerns worth the trouble of trying to understand.
But whatever else they are, they are people possessed by demons let loose by Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and the cynical demagogues who followed their lead in order to get control of the Government they professed to despise. The demagogues and cynics figured they could control the mob and manipulate it to their own ends. What they didn’t realize is that it takes a monstrous personality, and a very specific type of monstrous personality, to control a monster.
Goldwater was horrified by the monster he’d helped create. But Nixon and Reagan knew how to control it. The monster---and maybe it’s better to call it a mob---didn’t know exactly where it wanted to go or how to even begin to get there, but Nixon and Reagan knew where they wanted to take it and what they wanted to do with it when they got there.
They taught the mob to trust them and let them do the thinking for all of them. They were thoughtful men and with them at its head the mob, in a fashion, thought. They were organized men and organizing men, and with them at its head the mob was, again in a fashion, organized. They were men who believed in and could bring about order, and with them at its head the mob was kept, not in a fashion but actually, in order.
Nixon and Reagan were good leaders.
Good as in skilled.
I’m not saying that this made Nixon and Reagan good and I’m certainly not saying that what they did with the mob at their backs good for the country. What I am saying is this.
A mob that thinks, that is organized, that keeps itself in order, and that allows itself to be led, as opposed to driven, is not a mob.
But these days the Republican Right is without a Nixon or a Reagan. What it has is Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck and Michelle Bachmann, who are not leaders in the sense Nixon and Reagan were leaders. They are leaders only in the sense that they want to be out in front of the parade.
Palin wants to be the queen. She wants to be courted and flattered and fawned over. She wants her whims catered to. She wants her people to love and adore her. But she does not want to go through the trouble of actually leading them. Organizing and keeping order are hard work. Thinking is too, but in any case actual thought is beyond her and bores her. She is willing to appear before the crowd to accept applause and to grant her blessings, and she’d gladly ride out in her carriage in front of the crowd and wave to the cheering throngs. But that’s as much as she’ll do. Taking real risks and dirtying one’s hands? That’s why you have servants.
As for Michelle Bachmann, her ambition is not to be the mob’s leader but to be its inspirational goddess. Today she is Lady Liberty Leading the People and that beautiful image of herself is all she needs to keep going and, apparently, is for her the whole point of any of this. She is a crazy exhibitionist who missed her true calling as a movie star of the sort Norma Desmond was before she hit middle-age. Nothing she does is real to herself until she sees herself doing it on the TV screen.
Glenn Beck is similar, a diva who wants the mob’s attention and love more than he wants the mob to do anything specific. But he also has a longing to see the world burn. His is one of those self-destructive natures that because of ego or fear are unable to destroy themselves literally (Beck attempted it at one point in his life by trying to drink himself to death) so they set out to do it symbolically by bringing about the destruction of all around them.
He doesn’t aspire to lead the mob. He only wants to drive it and everything in its path off a cliff.
Leaderless, unorganized, disordered, driven by demons of hate and self-loathing, the Rabid Right marches onwards. The only check on its progress is coming from the Republican establishment which can only get in its way now. It can’t lead it. Nixon and Reagan are dead. The old preachers who used to give it some direction are dead or retired; the new generation are ignored or in disgrace or part of the mob, inflaming it but not actually leading it. The politicians who ought to take charge are running from it or rushing into its embrace. Those who are standing their ground seem more and more demoralized and at a loss as to what to do next.
It may be that in burning down the house the Right will go down in flames along with it. But that’s not their intention.
Their plan is to be on the spot to occupy the scorched patch of ground where the house used to stand, and who’s to say they won’t be?
Fear and hate are infectious, and fire seems to have a will to spread.
Max Blumenthal thinks that there’s another factor that helped determine the outcome of the election in the 23rd:
While the female vote is impossible to quantify so soon after the election, the personal attacks by a mostly male gang of assailants led by Rush Limbaugh on Scozzafava, one of the most accomplished female Republican legislators in New York political history, may have turned women solidly against Hoffman. The five percent protest vote that Scozzafava garnered, even though she dropped out, will almost certainly contain signs of a female backlash.
Read the whole of Max’s post-election analysis in The Daily Beast.