Commentary Magazine


Topic: culture

Should Politics Be a Proxy for Character?

In his column earlier this week, David Brooks, citing a variety of studies, wrote that “people’s essential worth is being measured by a political label: whether they should be hired, married, trusted or discriminated against.”

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In his column earlier this week, David Brooks, citing a variety of studies, wrote that “people’s essential worth is being measured by a political label: whether they should be hired, married, trusted or discriminated against.”

According to Brooks, as personal life is being de-moralized, political life is being “hyper-moralized” (meaning people are judgmental about policy labels); more people are building their communal and social identities around political labels; and politics is becoming a marker for basic decency. “Those who are not members of the right party are deemed to lack basic compassion, or basic loyalty to country,” he writes. Political issues have become symbols of worth and dignity.

There are of course cases when politics does reveal a corrupted character (e.g., a person who is a member of a neo-Nazi movement). But as a general matter, the points Brooks is making are quite right and, given the state of our politics, quite important. To state the obvious: We all know there are people who hold very different political views than we do who are admirable and honorable individuals, just as there are people who share our philosophy and are disreputable. In the vast majority of cases, one’s political affiliation says nothing about one’s personal character.

Beyond that, politics should have a rather limited role in our lives. To be sure, politics is important; it can create (or destroy) the conditions that allow for human flourishing. Yet for most people, most of life is–and the most important things in life are–lived outside of the arena of politics. And we shouldn’t overinflate its significance or exaggerate what it tells us about each other. Should I think less of the character of the coach of my son’s soccer team, or my daughter’s piano teacher, or the couple in my Bible Study, or the person who volunteers at a homeless shelter because of their views on climate change or the Affordable Care Act? On whether or not they want to raise or lower corporate tax rates? On whether they think illegal immigrants should be given a path to citizenship?

The answer for some people is yes. Jonathan Chait of New York magazine argues that those who hold political views contrary to his “live in a different moral universe” than he does and he therefore believes “their political views reflect something unflattering about their character.” This attitude shapes how he and others like him approach political debate. Why should we treat those on the wrong side of, say, the minimum wage with anything except disdain and contempt? People who hold this view of politics eventually feel justified in declaring their hatred for those with whom they disagree.

It’s important to acknowledge that many of us wrestle with a less acrimonious version of this. I’ve experienced situations over the years in which political differences have caused tensions even with friends that have required repair work and resetting things. The more deeply you feel about a subject the more inclined you are to view those disagreements as rooted in differing views of justice and morality. That’s understandable. If you have strong pro-life convictions and you encounter someone who celebrates abortion as a social and moral good, it’s likely that you’ll draw conclusions about that person that reflect, at least initially and at least in part, on their character. But in terms of what we should aspire to–between trying to check the (natural) impulse to view our political opponents as enemies v. encouraging it–it’s worth considering the example of Lincoln, who governed a nation far more divided than we are today.

“This most unrelenting enemy to the project of the Confederacy was the one man who had quite purged his heart and mind from hatred or even anger towards his fellow-countrymen of the South,” Lord Charnwood wrote in his marvelous biography of Lincoln. “It was not men but slavery he hated,” is how the essayist Joseph Epstein put it. “Malice wasn’t available to Lincoln; mercy came naturally to him. His magnanimity in forgiveness was another sign of his superiority.”

One final thought. Brooks writes, “Most of the time, politics is a battle between competing interests or an attempt to balance partial truths. But in this fervent state, it turns into a Manichaean struggle of light and darkness. To compromise is to betray your very identity.”

This is among the harder things for us to come to grips with, which is that at best we see partial truths; that while we believe truth exists, our ability to fully perceive truth is limited. People who accept this tend to be relatively less dogmatic and abrasive, relatively more empirical, the ones most open to other points of view and corrections. “We need to make room for other perspectives,” a wise friend recently told me. “We need to make room for others at the table.”

That doesn’t mean that the perspectives of others are always right or even valuable. Not everyone’s opinion is worth hearing. And some personalities fit better at the table than do others. The point from the conversation, at least as I took it, is that one way to avoid “epistemic closure” is by considering, at least now and then, different angles of vision, different ways of seeing things. It means from time to time assuming the person you’re politically at odds with is a decent person and then trying to understand why he holds the views he does, even if you reject them. It requires taking into account the strongest (not the weakest) arguments against our assumptions and the self-confidence to change if needed. The goal, after all, isn’t to win a debate; it’s to more closely align our views to the truth of things.

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Conservatives and Culture

Patrick Ruffini, long one of the conservative movement’s brightest minds on tech strategy in politics, has been working (with some success) to shake the right out of its ossified technological stasis. Part of Ruffini’s insight stems from his bias toward creativity and against institutional inertia: an entrenched institution isn’t by definition counterproductive, but neither should its persistence be taken for granted.

This week, Ruffini took to Twitter to broaden his critique to the conservative movement’s attitude toward institutions in general, both its own and those of the left. This Storify page captures the relevant tweets. Ruffini undoubtedly makes good points, and has some worthwhile advice for the right. But I think the limitation he runs into here is not really about cultural institutions per se but the culture that leads to the formation of those institutions. Ruffini writes:

Where is our Harvard, our New York Times, our Hollywood, our Silicon Valley? Owning the commanding heights of culture, it matters.

It’s true that culture matters, and later on Ruffini seems to acknowledge that a conservative version of the New York Times is not the best way de-marginalize conservative cultural perspectives when he writes:

This is why I’m encouraged to see guys like Robert Costa go to WaPo. Hard news reporting that started on the right.

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Patrick Ruffini, long one of the conservative movement’s brightest minds on tech strategy in politics, has been working (with some success) to shake the right out of its ossified technological stasis. Part of Ruffini’s insight stems from his bias toward creativity and against institutional inertia: an entrenched institution isn’t by definition counterproductive, but neither should its persistence be taken for granted.

This week, Ruffini took to Twitter to broaden his critique to the conservative movement’s attitude toward institutions in general, both its own and those of the left. This Storify page captures the relevant tweets. Ruffini undoubtedly makes good points, and has some worthwhile advice for the right. But I think the limitation he runs into here is not really about cultural institutions per se but the culture that leads to the formation of those institutions. Ruffini writes:

Where is our Harvard, our New York Times, our Hollywood, our Silicon Valley? Owning the commanding heights of culture, it matters.

It’s true that culture matters, and later on Ruffini seems to acknowledge that a conservative version of the New York Times is not the best way de-marginalize conservative cultural perspectives when he writes:

This is why I’m encouraged to see guys like Robert Costa go to WaPo. Hard news reporting that started on the right.

Indeed, as everyone knows, the most glaring lack of diversity in liberal media and cultural institutions is lack of intellectual and ideological diversity. The right produces plenty of talent, but the left’s rigid orthodoxy and enforced groupthink too rarely take the risk of exposing their audience to a dissenting view.

But the larger obstacle to the construction of conservative cultural institutions is that conservatives are so often by nature averse to the infusion of partisan politics into every facet of private life that would be required. Take each of the institutions Ruffini mentions.

Harvard: this is a stand-in for liberal academia overall, but it’s a good example since it retains its high status even as it basically gives its students A’s just for showing up. How does a place like Harvard become what it is today, when it once had such prestige and promise? Easy: the politicization of education by liberals who don’t want their students to be challenged. Do conservatives even want their own version of that? Should they? I don’t think they should, and I don’t they really do either. I think they yearn for the influence such institutions have, but greatly—and appropriately—disapprove of what it takes to get there.

New York Times: this is a stand-in for the liberal mainstream media, especially since the Times itself is going through such a crisis of credibility right now. But Ruffini already answered this one when he spoke of National Review’s ace political reporter Robert Costa going to the Washington Post. Conservative alternatives are too easily defined as such. More importantly, the Times mostly bellows groupthink and has allowed its bias not only to seep into its news reporting, but to become its news reporting. Why would conservatives want to foist another such institution on the country?

Hollywood: Here again we recently got a good look at how this operates. Actress Maria Conchita Alonso lost work because she supported a Republican. This new Hollywood blacklist is seemingly getting government sanction by federal authorities targeting any other nonconformists.

Blacklists, propaganda, the politicization of education—this is what it took for liberals to succeed in dominating cultural institutions. Which brings me to the last example: Silicon Valley. Ruffini answers this question with a sharp observation later in his discussion, when he writes:

If there are = numbers of smart righties as smart lefties, where do they go. On the right, they go into business. On the left, into politics

And thank goodness for that! Of course we want smart conservatives going into politics, and there are plenty. But it’s the sign of a healthy outlook when Americans are driven to the private sector instead of lusting after power. We are a nation with a government, as the saying goes, not the other way around.

It may be politically marginalizing to the right that conservatives believe in the need for a society outside the suffocating bureaucracy of the federal government, while leftists don’t. But the fact that conservatives believe in a life outside of partisan politics is healthy both for the conservative movement and the country on the whole. It’s a worthy, if frustratingly disempowering, sacrifice.

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The Law as a Moral Teacher

Earlier this week, I spoke to a group of young professionals, most of whom are conservative. And one of the conversations I had was with a person who was asking me about the link between culture and politics, arguing—as others I know have—that culture is “upstream,” and therefore in many respects more important, than politics.

This question reminded me of a passage from the late Alexander Bickel’s book The Morality of Consent, which deals in part with the competing traditions of Locke-Rousseau and Edmund Burke in Western thought and in American constitutionalism and political process:

The unexamined life, said Socrates, is not worth living. Nor is it bearable. To acknowledge no values at all is to deny a difference between ourselves and other particles that tumble in space. The irreducible value, though not the exclusive one, is the idea of law. Law is more than just another opinion; not because it embodies all right values, or because the values it does embody tend from time to time to reflect those of a majority or plurality, but because it is the value of values. Law is the principal institution through which a society can assert its values.

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Earlier this week, I spoke to a group of young professionals, most of whom are conservative. And one of the conversations I had was with a person who was asking me about the link between culture and politics, arguing—as others I know have—that culture is “upstream,” and therefore in many respects more important, than politics.

This question reminded me of a passage from the late Alexander Bickel’s book The Morality of Consent, which deals in part with the competing traditions of Locke-Rousseau and Edmund Burke in Western thought and in American constitutionalism and political process:

The unexamined life, said Socrates, is not worth living. Nor is it bearable. To acknowledge no values at all is to deny a difference between ourselves and other particles that tumble in space. The irreducible value, though not the exclusive one, is the idea of law. Law is more than just another opinion; not because it embodies all right values, or because the values it does embody tend from time to time to reflect those of a majority or plurality, but because it is the value of values. Law is the principal institution through which a society can assert its values.

That statement seems to me to be quite right, and a nice rejoinder to those who say—with what must be barely a moment’s reflection—that we cannot “legislate morality.” In fact, we have legislated/legislate morality all the time—from slavery and segregation, to abortion and same-sex marriage, to welfare and environmental laws, to crime and drug use, to immigration policy and the global AIDS initiative, to much else. Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child abuse because we decided to legislate morality. It’s even said by some, mostly on the left, that the federal budget is a “moral document.” The law is, in fact, the most comprehensive embodiment of what a free society believes. It tells the world, and each other, who we are and what we believe.

This is not to downplay the significance of culture, which is enormously important to a society. But culture is, in some respects, subconscious and pre-social. The law, by contrast, is something that is actively thought out. That doesn’t mean it’s always well thought out, of course. But laws are a self-governing society’s conscious, willful expression of a set of beliefs and convictions. And among other reasons, that is why politics and government are, for all the complaints we (rightly) might have about them, terribly important and, at their best, something of a high calling. That’s worth bearing in mind even, and maybe especially, during a particularly ferocious presidential election.

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Israelis Flock to See Iranian Oscar Winner

The Iranian regime’s reaction to the country’s Oscar victory, in which the Iranian film “A Separation” beat out Israeli contender “Footnote” for best foreign-language film, was indeed revealing, as Alana noted. But far more revealing was the fact that Israelis have been flocking to see the Iranian entry. For that one fact constitutes an eloquent rebuttal of all those who seek to paint Israel as being “undemocratic” and “anti-peace.”

Here’s how AP, after noting that “an impressive 30,000 Israeli filmgoers” have seen “A Separation” since it opened a week and a half ago, described the scene in Israel: “Ticket buyers stood in a long line on Sunday night at the Lev Smadar movie theater in Jerusalem. Omer Dilian, manager of the theater’s cafe, said ‘A Separation’ has drawn hundreds of viewers, even on weeknights … All the screenings in Lev theaters were sold out last Friday and Saturday.”

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The Iranian regime’s reaction to the country’s Oscar victory, in which the Iranian film “A Separation” beat out Israeli contender “Footnote” for best foreign-language film, was indeed revealing, as Alana noted. But far more revealing was the fact that Israelis have been flocking to see the Iranian entry. For that one fact constitutes an eloquent rebuttal of all those who seek to paint Israel as being “undemocratic” and “anti-peace.”

Here’s how AP, after noting that “an impressive 30,000 Israeli filmgoers” have seen “A Separation” since it opened a week and a half ago, described the scene in Israel: “Ticket buyers stood in a long line on Sunday night at the Lev Smadar movie theater in Jerusalem. Omer Dilian, manager of the theater’s cafe, said ‘A Separation’ has drawn hundreds of viewers, even on weeknights … All the screenings in Lev theaters were sold out last Friday and Saturday.”

So let’s start with the obvious: “Undemocratic” countries don’t show films produced by their worst enemies in theaters throughout the country; they ban them. You won’t, for instance, be able to see “Footnote” at a movie theater in Tehran. That this even needs saying is a disgrace. But given the frequency with which Israel’s critics have been hurling the “undemocratic” label at it, it’s clear many self-proclaimed Western liberals need a refresher course in the basics of democracy.

What’s equally true, however, is that “anti-peace” regimes generally don’t want their citizens to learn about their neighbors’ culture, for very good reason: If a regime really seeks to prevent peace, dehumanization of the enemy is vital. Thus, it’s important to shield the public from anything that might cause it to view enemy nationals as people more or less like themselves. That’s precisely why, for instance, Israeli books are almost never translated into Arabic, nor are Israeli movies shown almost anywhere in the Arab world.

In contrast, a country that seeks peace is intensely interested in getting to know its neighbors’ human side, because humanization enhances the prospects for peace. That is why, for instance, you can easily find translated Arabic literature in Israel, and it’s also why “A Separation” has been such a hit. It’s not just that it’s an award-winning movie, though that obviously helps. It’s because Israelis, to quote AP again, were intrigued “by the rare glimpse it offered into the living rooms of a country they regard as a threat.”

And indeed, that was evident in the movie-goers’ responses. “You see them driving cars and going to movies and they look exactly like us,” wrote an Israeli reviewer. One audience member told AP “she was struck by Tehran’s modernity, which jarred with the image of black-clad women and religious conservatism that has become iconic of Iran”; another “said she was surprised by the humaneness of the Iranian bureaucrats portrayed in the film.”

So next time anyone you know gets confused abpit whether Israel is really democratic or peace-seeking, I recommend the following simple test: Just ask which country shows its enemies’ films and which doesn’t – and in which country the public flocks to see them.

 

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The Hypocrisy of the “Cultural Boycotters”

Abe’s post about the hypocrisy of rock stars who preach morality while cozying up to dictators inevitably brings the anti-Israel cultural boycotters to mind. Take, for instance, Grammy-winning jazz singer Cassandra Wilson, who canceled a planned performance in Israel last week at the behest of pro-Palestinian activists. But somehow, she discovered her moral conscience only one day after having received full payment for the scheduled show – of which she has so far agreed to refund only part. In other words, this paragon of morality used her newfound passion for the Palestinian cause to commit robbery in broad daylight.

Or then there’s indie pop group, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, which recently canceled their planned performance in Israel. They, too, cited “political” reasons, in addition to scheduling pressures. But somehow, their moral conscience awoke only after they had managed to book a more lucrative gig in Malaysia for the same time.

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Abe’s post about the hypocrisy of rock stars who preach morality while cozying up to dictators inevitably brings the anti-Israel cultural boycotters to mind. Take, for instance, Grammy-winning jazz singer Cassandra Wilson, who canceled a planned performance in Israel last week at the behest of pro-Palestinian activists. But somehow, she discovered her moral conscience only one day after having received full payment for the scheduled show – of which she has so far agreed to refund only part. In other words, this paragon of morality used her newfound passion for the Palestinian cause to commit robbery in broad daylight.

Or then there’s indie pop group, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, which recently canceled their planned performance in Israel. They, too, cited “political” reasons, in addition to scheduling pressures. But somehow, their moral conscience awoke only after they had managed to book a more lucrative gig in Malaysia for the same time.

If this naked greed posing as morality is the best the cultural boycotters can do, I don’t think Israel has much to worry about on the moral high ground front. But it’s time for the rest of the world, including Israel, to start calling a spade a spade. These artists don’t give a fig about either Palestinian suffering or Israeli “human-rights abuses”; if they did, they wouldn’t have booked gigs in Israel in the first place. At best, all they care about is earning some positive publicity by feigning concern for Palestinian rights. And at worst, as with Cassandra Wilson and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, their crocodile tears are merely a convenient way to earn some extra lucre.

In short, they aren’t “cultural boycotters,” and they shouldn’t be dignified as such – because that term at least implies taking a moral stand, however warped. They are cynical poseurs who have found a way to exploit the Palestinian cause for their own gain.

 

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Sting and the Police State

In terms of lifestyle, dictators and rock stars occupy the same stratum. Consider only a fraction of what they share: palace residences, obsessively broadcast concern for the poor, appearances before strange crowds who chant their names, flattery from identical media sycophants, protection from hired flunkies who allow their eccentricities full expression, an ever-ready foul word for Israel, and another for the United States. Experientially, rock stardom is dictatorship without death squads and the pretense of governance.

Perhaps that’s why newly released pictures of British rock star Sting laughing it up with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2008 seem to capture a moment of natural affinity. Who but a rock star understands the demands of the dictatorial daily grind? Viewing photos in the Daily Mail of the two happy men with glamorous wives in tow, it’s easy to imagine they’re trading stories of bumbling private-jet stewards or the headaches of polo-court installation or condemning rapacious capitalists (present company celebrated, of course) or whatever else the dictator-rock star class gets up to when not dictating or rock starring.

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In terms of lifestyle, dictators and rock stars occupy the same stratum. Consider only a fraction of what they share: palace residences, obsessively broadcast concern for the poor, appearances before strange crowds who chant their names, flattery from identical media sycophants, protection from hired flunkies who allow their eccentricities full expression, an ever-ready foul word for Israel, and another for the United States. Experientially, rock stardom is dictatorship without death squads and the pretense of governance.

Perhaps that’s why newly released pictures of British rock star Sting laughing it up with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2008 seem to capture a moment of natural affinity. Who but a rock star understands the demands of the dictatorial daily grind? Viewing photos in the Daily Mail of the two happy men with glamorous wives in tow, it’s easy to imagine they’re trading stories of bumbling private-jet stewards or the headaches of polo-court installation or condemning rapacious capitalists (present company celebrated, of course) or whatever else the dictator-rock star class gets up to when not dictating or rock starring.

Sting’s second career is self-righteous pontification. He has irritated on the matters of trees, earthquakes, and the poor. He has served since 1981 as “ambassador” for Israel-bashing Amnesty International. He is the unparalleled rock-star activist self-parody. Which, of course, is why his flirtations with human-rights abusers are so delectable. Yes, flirtations—plural. Sting is one of those human-rights promoting singers who take big money to sing for human-rights abusers (while opposing the evil regime of George W. Bush, naturally.)

In 2010, he played a concert in Uzbekistan organized by the regime of Islam Karimov. Accused of boiling his opposition alive, Karimov nevertheless pays well. One night’s work earned Sting £2million.

An ungenerous reading of Sting’s public comments might lead one to believe he’s sympathetic to the likes of Karimov and Assad. In 2010, he told CNN’s Don Lemon during some cause-oriented interview, “We’re asking for big government, basically.” Lemon clarified: “You want big government?” Sting’s response: “Of course we do. This is a huge problem, and only the government can solve it. You know, the man on the street can do a little bit, but big governments need to make decisions.”

What, exactly, was the “huge problem”? Here’s a better question: What’s the difference? There’s no shortage of huge problems that activists beg big government to handle, from energy policy to healthcare to wealth distribution. Sting was stuck on forests at the moment, but the details of the 11th hour crisis du jour don’t matter. The point is, if big government is your thing, no one goes bigger than dictators. In Syria—even way back when in 2008—every breath you take, every move you make, Assad is watching you. And in time, killing you. Sting doesn’t have to convince him the man on the street can only do “a little bit.”

Which is where the man on the street parts ways with Sting. The latter, as an international superstar with hundreds of millions of dollars in disposable income, dinners with world leaders, and millions of impressionable fans, can do plenty. Every time I write about some pop star-bad regime alliance, I get comments and emails begging me not to waste Contentions real estate on clueless performers. Know-nothing narcissists, I’m told, are irrelevant to the real problems we face. Maybe. But who owns the culture: cerebral neoconservative scholars or people who look, sound, and act like Sting? Viral videos of pop stars and actors pledging allegiance to Barack Obama were hardly irrelevant to the unprecedented youth vote that delivered our 44th president to the White House.

Culture matters, even when it’s superficial and base. That’s why more people need to understand that celebrity activism is an outgrowth of lifestyle. You buy a yacht, schmooze a dictator, do an Occupy photo-op, and sign on to save the rainforest. It all comes from the same silly place. Sting is only hypocritical when you look at him through the lens of convictions and values. But why would you ever do that? As a longstanding member of the superstar set, his behavior is perfectly consistent.

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Rick Santorum, Culture Warrior

Rick Santorum has been given the gift of using vivid language to make his points. For example, at a Tea Party event in Troy, Michigan, Santorum said, “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob!” He described the purpose of college as “indoctrination.” Santorum added, “Oh, I understand why [Obama] wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.”

If going after the current Democratic president wasn’t enough, Santorum decided to take on an iconic one from a half-century ago. In describing his reaction to John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Santorum repeated a statement he made in the past. Kennedy’s speech, Santorum said, made him want to “throw up.”

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Rick Santorum has been given the gift of using vivid language to make his points. For example, at a Tea Party event in Troy, Michigan, Santorum said, “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob!” He described the purpose of college as “indoctrination.” Santorum added, “Oh, I understand why [Obama] wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.”

If going after the current Democratic president wasn’t enough, Santorum decided to take on an iconic one from a half-century ago. In describing his reaction to John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Santorum repeated a statement he made in the past. Kennedy’s speech, Santorum said, made him want to “throw up.”

In the last several days, Santorum has also asserted that Mitt Romney is “in bed with Barack Obama on destroying these vital mediating institutions of our society by starving them of money from the very people that keep these organizations alive and well in our society.”

The connecting thread to this rhetoric is intemperance. Even arguments that have a germ of truth to them — such as college is not for everybody – is framed in language that is immoderate and wildly overstated. And why Santorum would double down on his fight with JFK rather than easily pivoting out of it tells you quite a lot. (Ronald Reagan, during his presidency, had nothing but praise for Kennedy.)

Senator Santorum is a smart and experienced man; he doesn’t need to resort to rhetoric that simply reinforces the impression he’s a deeply polarizing and strident figure. He seems to be reflexively drawn to these fights, much like Pat Buchanan was. The effect of this is to put people, even those somewhat sympathetic to Santorum’s views, on edge.

There are a lot of ways for Republicans to run against Barack Obama; coming off as anti-college and anti-Kennedy isn’t one of them.

 

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