14 10 2007


A reader of my blog last month asked me some serious questions, so I’m going to take this opportunity to respond to them. To refresh your memory, I had spoken about my admiration for Ken Jakes’ “no money from Political Action Comittees” stance, and dismay with Lonnell Matthews for taking advantage of so many of the offers that Ken had turned down. I also had voiced my support for Karl Dean.

Here’s what a reader said about these issues:

“I guess I’m somewhat confused about a lot of things said in this post. First of all, the PAC money mentioned as coming to Candidate Lonell Matthews Jr. all comes from local groups within Nashville. School teachers, plumbers, pipefitters, government employees etc. It’s not like he was supported by AT&T, Colt Arms, Blue Cross etc. We’re talking working people who get together to promote a little justice in our local society by supporting like-minded people.

And as regards Karl Dean, I’m stunned that you have chosen a millionaire Belle Meade lawyer whose huge personal fortune comes from strip mining in West Virginia and Wyoming. I’m speechless.”

and here’s my initial reply:

“One of the major sources of political bankroll in Nashville is the business community, specifically big players like Gaylord, who, according to Ken Jakes (who as far as I can tell has no reason to lie about this) use their influence to circumvent zoning and environmental laws. So, when he accepted money from the Nashville Business Council, Lonnell WAS accepting money from big corporate players.

As far as Karl Dean goes, the question is not where his money comes from, which he has little control over, since it’s his wife’s inheritance, but what he’s going to do with it. And no, he’s certainly not perfect, but my call is that he’s less imperfect than Bob Clement.

To me, there’s an underlying issue here, the populist/progressive divide, and questions like why so many politicians who start out somewhat progressive but mainly populist end up being demagogues like Huey Long. I plan to write on this topic for my show next month.

Thanks for caring enough to say something” So, here we go.

Now, here’s the thing: all of the other candidates I supported were taking PAC money and I had no problem with that. Jerry Maynard had loads of endorsements, including the Nashville Business Coalition. Megan Barry, the “ethics candidate,” accepted endorsements, although most of hers were from genuine grassroots groups such as the Sierra Club, the Tennessee Equality Council, and the Nashville Neighborhood Defence Council. But she did accept the endorsement of the Greater Nashville Hotel and Lodging Association….must have been a fluke.

And, among Lonnel Matthews’ endorsements from the firefighters, the Democrats, and the police, all of which fall into my correspondent’s characterization of “working people,” was…the Nashville Business Coalition! Hmm…the NBC doesn’t maintain a website, although it apparently meets regularly and endorses candidates and ideas…this mysterious entity may be linked to the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, and may include Gaylord, HCA, and all the other big players that Ken Jakes was so concerned about, but I’m going to have to keep researching to find out, it seems.

As far as the Green Party thing about not taking PAC money, it starts to look like a question of how you define “PAC.” I had always thought of PACs as big spenders at the state or national level, not the local Service Employees International Union or gay rights advocates. To run a competitve citywide race in a big city like Nashville takes money, and so Jerry Maynard and Megan Barry took money from organizations they felt comfortable with. I can’t fault them for that.

The race between Ken Jakes and Lonnell Matthews, on the other hand, drew on a voting pool of less than ten thousand voters, in a district designed to elect a black candidate. Considerably fewer than half the eligible voters turned out, which gave white candiate Ken Jakes a fighting chance. When you look at the lopsided precinct-by-precinct results, you can see that the votes were cast largely along racial lines, and that it would have taken a lot for Lonnell to lose. So Ken’s totals probably wouldn’t have been improved by endorsements, but he got to look noble by declining to seek any. Lonnell probably increased his margin of victory a little with the advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts he made for the runoff, but it’s significant to note that his vote total for the runoff amounts to his votes in the first round plus the votes for William Mason, the other major black campaigner in the first round.

As for the Dean-Clement race, I have yet to meet Karl Dean, but all of my friends who met him were impressed with the fact that he does not come across like a stereotypical politician. “He’s a mensch,” one of my Jewish friends commented. He’s been involved in Metro government long enough that I’m sure he’s got some dirty laundry, but hey, don’t we all? We need people in power who are not typical, people who are not habitually committed to the status quo, and I think Karl Dean is as good as we’re going to get for now, so I voted for him. If he screws up badly, I won’t vote for him again.

Now, about those “wider issues,” that question of why populists become demagogues…let’s start with a bit of evidence that will seem almost too good to be true to some, and totally obnoxious to others. It’s a study done at UCLA, which seems to show that people who are politiically “liberal” use more of their brains than those who are politically conservative. This greater brain usage allows them to tolerate ambiguity and change their minds more easily, opening them to charges like “flip-flopper.” Sound familiar?

What does that have to do with populists and demagogues? OK, we’ve tended to conflate populists with progressives in this country, because the system, in spite of a lot of fancy ideals, is mostly weighted against the people, so it’s progressive to be an advocate for the common people. But there are two different kinds of being “for the common people.” There’s being for the people because it’s the fair thing to do, and then there’s being for the people because you want to get what’s rightfully yours, by god, and screw them all if that’s what it takes for you and yours to get your due. If that’s the kind of populist you are, then once you have “your rightful due,” you will do whatever it takes to defend it, whether that’s fair to everyone else or not—the “my country, right or wrong” approach. This is about a hundred and eighty degrees from the truly progressive, “the right thing, whether it means my country is wrong or not” attitude, and I think it starts to explain why a “liberal” and a conservative can look at the same facts and come up with such different interpretations, and that’s why some populists have the potential to turn into demagogues.

A corollary question is, what about people who are, as has been said of our new vice mayor, “progressive but not populist?” I think this is a viewpoint that rejects “right or wrong” populism but doesn’t fully articulate “for the good of everyone” populism, because the holder of the viewpoint has judged, rightly or wrongly, that the electorate is not ready for such a bold step. And, when you look at the people we elect on a national level, I’m sorry to say I think they’re justified in their pessimism.

music: Mothers of Invention, Hungry Freaks




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