Children Prefer Conservatives

Don’t take my word for it.  Check out the rankings from the Seventh Annual Children’s Choice Book Awards.  You’ll see that this group voted Rush Limbaugh their “author of the year” for his Rush Revere and The Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans.

Talk Radio and Talking Horses

Talk Radio and Talking Horses

What’s the book about? A substitute teacher and his talking time-traveling horse travel back to the Mayflower to travel with the Pilgrims. As Limbaugh introduces it to young readers, he wants “to try to help you understand what ‘American Exceptionalism’ and greatness is all about.” It does not mean that other countries aren’t just fine, too. But as Limbaugh puts it for his young readers, “American Exceptionalism and greatness means that America is special because it is different from all other countries in history. It is a land built on true freedom and individual liberty and it defends both around the world.”

Limbaugh has made efforts to introduce his vision of heroic history to schoolchildren everywhere. As of early 2014, Limbaugh claimed to have donated over 15,000 copies of his book to schools across America. As he told the conservative news site World Net Daily,

The mission is to connect with people that normally wouldn’t and don’t listen to a program like this but who someday will, and maybe their parents and grandparents do. I’m very proud of what I do, and I want as many people to be aware of it as possible. I’m very proud of what I believe. I’m very proud of my country. I want everybody to be. I really do. It may sound like pie-in-the-sky, but I want everybody to love this country as I do.

Academic historians might pooh-pooh this sort of thing. But America’s kids seem to like it. At the annual meeting of the Children’s Book Council, young attendees cast over 1,261,000 votes, and Limbaugh’s effort to introduce children to the wonders of America’s historical greatness came out on top.

 

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Thanksgiving Reflection: The Pilgrims Were Communists!

Here’s a Thanksgiving riddle: Why do conservative intellectuals and pundits insist that America was founded by communists?

Over the past several years, this idea has become a common theme among conservative commentators.

Rush Limbaugh, for example, has explained that the real story of the Pilgrims might surprise many people duped by mainstream histories.  After all, Limbaugh concluded, “They were collectivists!”

Capitalist from (almost) the Start

Capitalist from (almost) the Start

Similarly, the Heritage Foundation explains that the Pilgrims practiced what early governor William Bradford called “communism.”

Libertarian John Stossel reminded readers recently of the Pilgrims’ communist beginnings:

The Pilgrims started out with communal property rules. When they first settled at Plymouth, they were told: “Share everything, share the work, and we’ll share the harvest.”

The colony’s contract said their new settlement was to be a “common.” Everyone was to receive necessities out of the common stock. There was to be little individual property.

That wasn’t the only thing about the Plymouth Colony that sounds like it was from Karl Marx: Its labor was to be organized according to the different capabilities of the settlers. People would produce according to their abilities and consume according to their needs.

It would seem that conservatives would hate this conclusion.  After all, the notion of the greatness of the American founders has long been a centerpiece of conservative thought.

So why do conservatives insist that the original settlers were communist?

For most conservatives, the communist experiment of early settlers is used to prove the superiority of private property and market principles.  In most tellings, early communism proved disastrous.  As a corrective, leaders such as William Bradford in Massachusetts introduced radical market-oriented reforms.

The original founders may have been communists, the story goes, but they quickly learned the error of their ways.  Capitalism and private property triumphed.

Is it true?

Ironically, unlike the normal historical back-and-forth, in which conservative historians insist that America’s founding was glorious and other academic historians point out the many flaws in that tale, in this case mainstream historians have argued that the early settlers were not really as communist as conservatives say they were.

Speaking to the New York Times a few years back, for example, Richard Pickering of the living-history museum Plimouth Plantation explained that the early Pilgrims did originally hold property in common, but the end goal was private profit.

In Jamestown, the charge of collectivism is even more tenuous, according to some historians.  Karen Kupperman of New York University concluded, “To call it socialism is wildly inaccurate.”  Kupperman explained that the entire settlement was part of a joint-stock company, one from which each settler hoped to reap a private, and hopefully enormous, profit.  Kupperman asked, “Is Halliburton a socialist scheme?”

So here’s one for your Thanksgiving diary: When it comes to the historical memory of America’s early founders, we see a perplexing reversal.  Conservative pundits insist that America was founded by communists, and mainstream historians rebut that the free-market has always been America’s true guiding star.

Still left unclear: Did the Pilgrims play football?

Who Owns the Children?

Do parents own their children?  Does the government?

A recent MSNBC promo has put this perennial conservative issue back in the headlines.  Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and others have denounced the sentiments of the ad.

Yesterday conservative pundit Glenn Beck accused liberal-leaning MSNBC of finally exposing their “radical goals” to steal children from parents.  The plan all along, Beck argues, has been for “progressives” to seize government control of the most intimate family decisions.

The specific MSNBC promo to which Beck objected contained this ideological smoking gun:

We have never invested as much in public education as we should have because we’ve always had kind of a private notion of children. Your kid is yours and totally your responsibility. We haven’t had a very collective notion of these are our children. So part of it is we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.

This thirty-second promo by Melissa Harris-Perry contains the proof that liberals want to take children away from their parents and raise them in dysfunctional public schools.  His fears, Beck insisted, had been proven right by this “terrifying” video.  Though he recognized he might be called a “conspiracy theorist,” Beck insisted that this short video contained all the proof he needed of a vast left-wing plot to steal children into indoctrination centers.

Sarah Palin chimed in too, tweeting that MSNBC’s notion that children don’t belong to parents was “Unflippingbelievable.”

Rush Limbaugh predicted that soon children could be forced to mow everyone’s lawns, not just their own.  This notion, Limbaugh concluded, was as “old as communist genocide.”

The idea that “progressives” have set their sights on sneakily seizing control of America’s children has long ideological roots.

Back in the 1970s, for example, the influential conservative activists Mel and Norma Gabler asked fundamental questions about the nature of the textbooks under consideration in their home state of Texas:

To WHOM does the child belong?  IF students now belong to the State, these books are appropriate.  IF students still belong to parents, these books have absolutely no place in Texas schools.  The author clearly states that these books are designed to change the behavior, values, and concepts of the child, based on the premise that the teacher is NOT to instruct, but to moderate, and to ‘heal.’ [Gablers, What Are They Teaching Our Children, pg. 119]

Similarly, Connie Marshner, affiliated at the time with the Heritage Foundation, argued in 1978, “A parent’s right to decide the direction of his child’s life is a sovereign right, as long as the child is subject to his parent.  Educators have no business creating dissatisfaction with and rebellion against parental wishes” (Connie Marshner, Blackboard Tyranny, pg. 38).

But such notions go back much further in the conservative consciousness.  One leading conservative activist in 1951 Pasadena warned a state senate investigating committee that the root cause of public school problems was “a definite elimination of parental authority, undermining of parental influence.”

And back in the 1920s, the US Supreme Court ruled that parents had a right to educate their children in private schools if they chose.  The reason, the court ruled in Pierce vs. Society of Sisters (1925), is that “The child is not the mere creature of the state.”

Beck’s, Palin’s, and Limbaugh’s outrage are nothing new.  Conservative activists have long been convinced of a far-reaching plot to substitute state control of children for that of parents.

 

Traditionalism and Education

This morning’s column by David Brooks in the New York Times is sure to provoke some head-scratching.

Brooks points out the conventional division of contemporary conservatism into two constituent entities. He calls them “economic conservatism” and “traditional conservatism.” Economic conservatives are the free-market champions. They are the sort who cheered when Reagan described the nine most terrifying words in the English language as, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Traditionalists, on the other hand, value localism, organic social structures, and community. They derive their ideas from the likes of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk.

Those who follow the intellectual history of modern conservatism will scratch their heads that Brooks did not include other important types of conservatism, such as the Jerry-Falwell-style Moral Majoritarianism, the kind of conservatism that wants to regulate personal behavior and use government power to improve America’s morals. And where are the “tribal” conservatives, folks such as Rush Limbaugh who cling to “conservatism” largely as a form of in-group identity?

On the other side, people less familiar with the landscape of modern American conservatism might be surprised at Brooks’ evocation of an entirely different style of conservatism. Those unfamiliar with this traditionalist tradition might be shocked to hear of conservatives who oppose a pure laissez-faire approach to economics. Conservatives, as Brooks puts it, who want government to use a “subtle hand” to encourage family and neighborhood cohesion.

As Brooks notes, influential bloggers such as Rod Dreher at the American Conservative keep traditionalist conservatism alive and kicking. Brooks might also have included Patrick Deneen at Front Porch Republic in this survey.

Those of us most interested in the relationship between conservatism and education can explore Deneen’s exposition of traditionalist hero Robert Nisbet.  In 1953, Nisbet had lamented the increasingly universalist nature of higher education.  Deneen argues that such trends have only accelerated.  As Deneen noted a few years back,

“The modern university system has arisen with the consent of those on the Right and Left alike, particularly in its guise as the modern research university aimed toward the end of ‘creating knowledge’ and providing educations that allow our students to ‘succeed’ and to ‘solve problems.’ Both have actively assented to a national, and increasingly international educational system that becomes annually more homogenous and standardized (This is just as true of supposedly ‘conservative’ administrations, one of which gave us ‘No Child Left Behind’ and Margaret Spellings).”

The traditionalist solution, Deneen argues, is to restore some measure of true diversity to university life in America.  Instead of a spread of cookie-cutter colleges arrayed to produce skilled mechanics of a corporate juggernaut, institutions of higher education could instead strive to emphasize the particularities of their own local communities.  Elsewhere, Deneen has suggested that this particularity must embody not only a constrained localism, but also a truer conception of universality. 

As David Brooks suggests, much of the subtlety of this sort of traditionalism has been read out of today’s conservative discussions of education.  For those of us trying to understand conservative thinking about education, however, it is a useful reminder of the complexities of what Brooks calls “half of [the Republican Party’s] intellectual ammunition.”

In the News: Fundamentalist Religion and the “Liberal Media?”

Fundamentalist America has long had a somewhat uncertain relationship with mass media.  On one hand, lots of prominent conservatives make their mark by bashing the biases they see in what they call the “liberal media.”  For a recent example, check out William Kristol’s challenge to the New York Times regarding its treatment of Andrew Breitbart.  On the other hand, conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the late Andrew Breitbart himself have relied on their mastery of mass media in order to win whatever influence they may have.

Conservative religious folks usually complain the loudest about media bias.  Two years ago, for instance, a comment by Fox News’ Brit Hume that golfer Tiger Woods ought to embrace Christianity evoked a teapot tempest of discussions about the anti-Christian bias in most media outlets.

Thanks to Walter Russell Mead at Via Meadia, we come across a new study by scholars at the University of Southern California and the University of Akron.  This survey suggests that there may be more to conservative religious folks’ complaints than just Fox News sensationalism.  This study surveyed 2000 media consumers and 800 producers.  Some of the findings seem to confirm an anti-religious bias among most journalists.  More precisely, they seem to confirm a NON-religious bias.  Among the reporters, only 20% described themselves as “very knowledgeable” about religion.  Also, the category of white evangelical Protestants was notably underrepresented among the reporters surveyed.  Reporters tended to feel that the most important part of religion was its impact on politics (48.1%), while fewer media consumers (37.0%) saw that as the most important religious topic.  Also, the general public tended to think there was far too much sensationalism in religious coverage (66.5%), as opposed to reporters (29.8%).

The survey broke down media producers into categories including “Focused,” “Frequent,” “Infrequent,” and “Non-producers” of religion coverage.  In terms of religious identity, only a small minority of the reporters surveyed (5.1%) called themselves white evangelical Protestants, compared to 20.8% white Catholic, 34.9% white mainline Protestant, and 12.8% unaffiliated.  This doesn’t match the percentage of the general population.  According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, evangelicals make up just over a quarter of the US population.  If we look a little closer, even among the self-identified white evangelical Protestant reporters, there is a distinct skew toward religious coverage.  White evangelicals made up just over 16% of the “focused” religion reporters, and only 2.1% of the “non-producers.”

What does it all mean?  First of all, as with any such survey, the results mustn’t be overdone.  The fact that a minority of journalists who took part in this survey called themselves “very knowledgeable” about religion doesn’t mean that they are biased against religion, much less against a certain type of religion.  But the fact that white evangelical Protestants are notably underrepresented among this sample suggests that there is a trend among reporters away from evangelical Protestantism.  Especially when the responses are broken out into more detail.  Even among the small minority of evangelical reporters, the percentage of such reporters who are not specifically focused on religious issues shrinks to near-nothingness.  One way to look at this might be to think that evangelicals—when they become journalists at all—tend to restrict themselves to specifically religious issues.  Just as with other minority groups, evangelical reporters might find themselves pigeonholed into just one aspect of their public identity.  In this case, evangelical reporters might be considered to be legitimate only for reporting on religious issues, not for sports, education, politics, or foreign affairs.
Does it mean that the “mainstream media” are unfair to Fundamentalist America?  From this limited evidence, of course, it’s impossible to say for sure.  However, this survey does suggest that reporters tend to look different from the rest of America.  They tend to be less knowledgeable about religious traditions than the rest of America. They tend to be less interested in spirituality than the rest of America.  And they tend to be less often from a white evangelical Protestant background than the rest of America.

As with any sort of bias, it is much easier to be inadvertently biased about groups different from ourselves.  It is even easier to be biased when we know very little about such groups.

Fundamentalist America complains that most reporters don’t “get” them.  This study seems to support that complaint.

Are Culture War Activists MORE Likely to Read from the Other Side?

It has become a tired cliche that our society has grown more culturally segregated due to the fact that we only read/see/hear those ideologically driven news outlets with which we already agree.  An interesting piece in this morning’s New York Times describes a study of media consumership that challenges that common wisdom.  According to a study by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro of the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, people who read/view/listen to news and information from one side of the political spectrum are MORE likely to also read/view/listen to sources from the other side.

“Internet news consumers with homogeneous news diets are rare,” the authors wrote.

As James Warren of the Chicago News Cooperative suggests, the problem might not be that hardened culture warriors are clustering farther and farther apart in the newsiverse, reinforcing their own stereotypes and preconceived notions.  The problem might be, Warren suggests, that too many Americans are not reading/viewing/listening to ANY news at all.  Though some news consumers frequented sources from both left and right, larger numbers of Americans consumed very little news from any source.

What does this mean for our understanding of the culture wars?  Morris Fiorina has suggested that the hype of culture war has been overblown.  Fiorina argued that most Americans were centrist, but journalists and politicians eager for attention stressed extreme positions.  Perhaps this study bolsters Fiorino’s argument.  The study’s authors found that most online news consumption clustered around centrist sites such as Yahoo and CNN.  I find that heartening.

Some might say that another, gloomier interpretation is more obvious.  According to the study, listeners to Rush Limbaugh were more likely than the average American to also spend some time on perceived left-leaning sites such as the New York Times.com.   And visitors to the leftist MoveOn.org were more likely than the average American to also visit right-leaning sites such as FoxNews.com.  One interpretation is that those readers and viewers were interested in hearing both sides of an issue.  The most obvious interpretation, though, is that each side is only conducting reconnaissance.  Both sides, in other words, scan through the news outlets from the other side in order to expose their foibles and weaknesses.

So, perhaps these ardent culture warriors are only reading their enemies in order to disprove them.  Even so, I consider that a good thing.  Even if culture warriors are only trying to disprove one another, the fact that they are familiarizing themselves with the “enemy” will mean that they have some sense of what other people are thinking.  This study, in any case, seems to give support to a hunch that Americans are not as far apart culturally as some have suggested.