Friday, May 13, 2011

I Think Newt May Be Right

Wednesday, Newt Gingerich announced his candidacy for the 2012 Republican Nomination for President. Not really a surprise -- he's been talking like a candidate for some time (which means making polarizing comments that break down immediately upon reflection -- think of the islamacist atheist conspiracy) and he's not getting any younger.

Now, Newt isn't Trump. He does have some background as a self-developed (and developing) intellectual. What he does share with The Donald is an annoying tendency to put himself as the lead character of any story. This causes him to play fast and loose with that thing we call The Truth. The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler wrote his FactChecker blog about claims Newt made in his announcement. It earned Newt "four Pinocchios" on Kessler's scale.

As an academic, I'm particularly upset by Newt's misstatements. After all, he taught history at the University of West Georgia for eight years. Academic Freedom or not, history professors should have a healthy respect for facts.

Yesterday's LA Times had a detailed story about Newt's claims in his Sean Hannity appearance. Of course, he framed it with Fox News blather about "unfair treatment" -- "Obama, the Republican candidate said, however, has the advantages of the presidency, support from the 'left-wing media,' and the backing of labor unions and billionaires like George Soros." Now, this is easy to rebut simply by naming the impact of the Citizens United decision, Andrew Breitbart, the Koch brothers, the Tea Party movement, The Club for Growth, and Karl Rove's American Crossroads group (that's off the top of my head). Truth -- special interests and balkanized media are on both sides of most political races. As a historian, Newt should be able to acknowledge this systemic reality of politics.

But there was one thing in the Time story that grabbed me. Newt made the following claim:

“I know how to get the whole country to resemble Texas,” he said. “President Obama knows how to get the whole country to resemble Detroit.”

Newt has very clearly stated the plain truth of modern national politics!

Since we're headed to Jackson, Michigan in about six weeks, I've been following much of what's going on there (and especially Detroit). I won't take the time to completely unpack the implications of Newt's comment but it's easy to sketch the broad outline.

Detroit has suffered for many years of high levels of income inequality, racial antagonism, white flight, and short-term policy. It was already weakened when it was struck by a major shift in our manufacturing economy as auto plants downsized and/or departed. There wasn't enough economic diversity to absorb that change. Yes, the population has declined (both in real numbers and in terms of suburbanization). Yes, there are large swaths of the city that are abandoned.

But a quick review of the local news shows that Mayor Bing has a plan for turning the budget deficit into a surplus within five years. And they'll do that without abandoning the needs of its citizens. They want to buy up abandoned properties to do major infrastructure improvement. Ford had a great year. GM and Chrysler are making money, working on repaying their government debts, and expanding their workforces (the problems in Japan has returned the big three to a position of strength). There's much more to do, but the mayor (and the Republican governor) are trying to address issues of infrastructure, appropriate regulation, and business development (it will take a few years to see if the governor's budget gambles will work).

Newt wants to make the country like Texas. Texas has suffered several lawsuits for the inequality of educational opportunities across the state. Governor Perry wants to eliminate all issues that inhibit business development. The State school board is exerting revisionist history in elementary textbooks. There are strong nativist sentiments and concerns over illegal immigration (in a state with some of the fastest growth in Hispanic populations). Recent reports of the Texas miracle find that the state's well-being is maintained by short-term gimmicks (the oft-ridiculed stimulus package has allowed the balanced budget). They execute more folks in their prisons than nearly any other state.

Detroit (a city Newt compares to a state, but I'll let that go) has real serious issues. They got them through a combination of events beyond its control and failure to deal with those issue that were clearly present. In other words, a lot like our national debates about jobs, infrastructure, and demographic demands. Texas, which recently threatened to secede from the US, is a state that holds ideology over pragmatics. That blindness is what made Molly Ivins so great to read for so many years.

The road in Detroit will be hard and will never be what we remember (although the right didn't like Detroit in its heyday). But the path in Texas is a dark one. Increased inequality, increasing demands by a minority who feel power slipping away, environmental concerns that go unaddressed, and a burgeoning prison population resulting in even more of a two tiered society.

So, I have to conclude that Newt let his guard slip and told the truth. It may be the only time his vaunted analytical abilities led him to such an obviously correct conclusion. I won't hold my breath waiting for the next one!

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