Czarist Nonsense

by John McQuaid John McQuaid is a journalist specializing in science, environment, and various forms of government dysfunction. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Slate, U.S. News, Wired, and Mother Jones, among other publications. He is also the co-author, with Mark Schleifstein, of Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms.

He worked as a feature writer, Latin America correspondent, and political reporter for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans before turning to investigative projects, including a 2002 series that anticipated Katrina in many ways. His work has won many national awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1997 for a series on the global fisheries crisis. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland with his wife and two children.

For more information see www.johnmcquaid.com (warning: a work in progress)
15.09.2009

The George W. Bush presidency brought both the Republican Party and the conservative movement low, and it's distressing to watch the GOP base get whipped into a frenzy by cynical demagogues while its politicians do the only thing they know how to do -- pander to the people making the loudest, most aggrieved noises.

Demagoguery and aggrievement are nothing new in American politics. But what's strange is the scattershot nature and incoherence of the attacks on Obama. Usually, politicians -- even demagogues -- summon a sense of history, shared experience, and cultural traditions to move people. But there's little evidence of those things in most of the critiques of Obama's policies by Republican politicians or tea party activists, little evident understanding of what the president is doing or how it might be improved upon, changed, or replaced. Scare words and phrases have supplanted arguments. Those words have historical meaning. Once, history gave those words power. But now they've been shorn of all context. It's a communist-fascist-socialist word salad.

One of the sillier examples of this is the crusade, by Glenn Beck and others, against Obama administration "czars." They already got the scalp of "green jobs czar" Van Jones, and now the attacks continue. "Czar" sounds scary, I guess, because it's a Russian word. Communists are taking over the government! Of course, the last real Russian Czar, Nicholas II, was executed by communists in 1918, so the historical reference is nonsensical. So is the substance of the attack. "Czar" is an informal -- and semi-ironic -- title that connotes a certain policy portfolio. It has been in use since at least the 1970s. As Dave Weigel noted in the Washington Independent, many "czars" actually occupy pre-existing jobs. Some of them been approved by the Senate. Some are mid-level appointees, and don't require Senate confirmation. A few have been appointed to new positions, such as "Afghanistan czar" Richard Holbrooke -- but most of them are well-credentialed.

So: Obama, the president, is appointing people to government positions that have certain policy coordination responsibilities. That's what presidents do. There may be questions to be raised about their job performance or past activities, but in that respect they are no different from hundreds of other political appointees. Yet, exploiting the notion that Obama must be up to something sinister, Republicans have seized upon the czar issue. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who is running for governor of Texas, attacks the "czars" in today's Washington Post as an affront to the Constitution. It's bizarre. (And also sad that the Washington Postprovides a forum for a specious argument.)

During the 1980s and 1990s, many conservatives had credible, coherent arguments to make about government policies and the nature of government itself. I sometimes agreed, more often disagreed. But their arguments had some heft: the liberal welfare state actually did have a lot of serious problems in the overlapping realms of policy and politics. Now, if I'm looking for a meaningful critique of Obama's policies and appointments, (with some exceptions of course) I'm just not going to find it on the right. Conservatism has, effectively, gone AWOL from the policy debate -- which is a great boon to Obama, but probably not so good for the American system.


The author is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist

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