POLITICS JUNE 13, 2008
I am amazed at how many Democrats have fallen for Jim Webb. Suddenly, everywhere you look, people are touting Webb as the perfect running mate for Barack Obama. In recent days, as Webb has seemed ubiquitous (hawking his book, bantering with Jon Stewart, grinning at Obama's side), a sizeable number of my otherwise sane friends, family, and colleagues have told me that they view Webb as a perfectly acceptable choice--or, more disturbingly, a good one.
This madness has to stop. Now. Unless we want to end up with a vice president who harbors a worldview that is fundamentally illiberal, not to mention downright creepy.
Earlier this week, Timothy Noah made the case against Webb in Slate. But he made it almost entirely on strategic grounds, arguing that Webb was a loose cannon and would therefore damage Obama's chances of winning. Maybe. But I think it's entirely possible that Webb would be a political asset to Obama. He could help deliver Virginia, and his political trajectory--military man turned Reagan official turned moderate Democrat--seems likely to appeal to centrist voters.
So my concerns with Webb have nothing do with politics. They have to do with the idea of him serving in the second highest office in the land.
To explain just what it is about Webb that bothers me, I need to distinguish between philosophy and policy. It's hard to know what any candidate will do on any particular issue once in office. This is not to say that the stands a candidate takes on specific policy questions are meaningless. But the political world is unpredictable--alliances shift, circumstances change, things turn out to be more complicated than expected. This is why the best voters can hope for is a candidate whose underlying instincts about the world we basically trust. At this point, I am confident that Obama's underlying worldview is that of a liberal. Of course, there is plenty of room for disagreement about what it means to be a liberal--on foreign policy, on economics, on social issues. But, whatever your views on humanitarian intervention or health care mandates or gay marriage, if you call yourself a liberal then chances are that you recognize clear similarities between Obama's basic instincts about the world and your own. Everything we know about Obama--about his life, about his policy positions--suggests that liberal values undergird his outlook. And so, even though I don't agree with every single policy stand Obama has taken during the campaign, I generally trust him to make good decisions as president. That is why I voted for him in the primary and why I am voting for him in the general election.
So what is Jim Webb's underlying worldview? Not only is Webb not a liberal; he is pretty much the opposite of one. I realize The Weekly Standard may not be the most credible judge of a candidate's liberal credentials; but the magazine ran a great piece about Webb in 2006 that called him "the most sophisticated right-wing reactionary to run on a Democratic ticket since Grover Cleveland." The author, Andrew Ferguson, made a pretty convincing case. The article quotes extensively from Webb's books, relaying staggeringly creepy quotes about his Scots-Irish heritage such as this one: "In a society obsessed with multicultural jealousies, those who cannot articulate their ethnic origins are doomed to a form of social and political isolation. My culture needs to rediscover itself, and in doing so to regain its power to shape the direction of America." But Webb's brand of Scots-Irish nationalism is just the beginning. There is also his well-documented misogyny (he once wrote an article called "Women Can't Fight" and famously denounced the investigation of the Tailhook sex-abuse scandal as a "witch hunt"). Then there is his glorification of violence. It is one thing to accept a certain level of state-sanctioned violence as necessary to the preservation of a just order--to endorse certain wars abroad or certain police strategies at home. But it is quite another thing to glorify violence, to celebrate it, to elevate its practice into a virtue--which is exactly what Webb seems to do in his books. Here is how my colleague Eve Fairbanks describes Webb's writing on the subject:
At times, Born Fighting describes the Scots-Irish fighting spirit with almost pornographic delight: These men were "bellicose and often warlike," "unapologetically, even devilishly hedonistic," "often impossible to control," men of "infinite stubbornness" who "dressed provocatively, acted with a volatile belligerence, drank to excess," and "came to accept the fight as birthright, even as some kind of proof of life." Their modern heirs were people like Webb's father's friend Bud, whom Webb worshipped as a child and who once punched somebody so hard his eyeball fell out when he sneezed.
For a liberal, violence may sometimes be a necessary thing. It may even lead to good outcomes. But while those outcomes may be worth celebrating--and while the people who do the fighting may be correctly labeled courageous or even heroic--the violence itself is never worth celebrating. Webb's outlook flies in the face of this liberal ideal. He seems to be very much in love with violence.
It turns out Webb is also something of an apologist for the Confederacy. He has accused "revisionist politicians and academics" of trying "to defame the entire Confederate Army in a move that can only be termed the Nazification of the Confederacy." When I saw the Politico piece that came out on Wednesday documenting Webb's views on the Confederacy, I can't say I was shocked. That's because, years ago, when I was working at The American Prospect, I spent some time reporting on a Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter in southern Virginia; and there are clear similarities between the Sons of Confederate Veterans' worldview and Webb's. For one thing, they share an unhealthy obsession with the past. I remember watching in disbelief as one member of the group I was interviewing became choked up while recounting to me what happened at the Battle of New Market in 1864--to the point where he couldn't finish the story. I have no idea whether Webb would grow teary talking about Civil War battles, but his enthusiasm for the history of his own people is considerable, to say the least. And while I have no problem with people being interested in their heritage--most of us are--I find Confederacy apologists’ specific obsession with continuing to litigate the historical case of their ancestors extremely disturbing. I'm sure that Webb, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, would respond that everyone has a right to take pride in their own heritage. Well, it isn't so simple. When the past of a certain group is so directly connected to the subjugation of others--and, let's recall, we are barely more than a single generation removed from the time when institutionalized racism was the law of the land in the American South--then the celebration of that past is, at minimum, a complicated matter. The Sons of Confederate Veterans would have you believe that the celebration of Confederate heritage is the same thing as Black History Month. But it's not even close.
Perhaps the most unappealing thing about Webb's worldview is that it seems to be built largely on resentment. In his book Born Fighting, you can practically feel the resentment coming off the page when he writes, "The slurs stick to me ... Rednecks. Trailer-park trash. Racists. Cannon fodder. My ancestors. My people. Me." To disaggregate these resentments: There is Webb's resentment of elites, whom, as Eve notes, he derides as "people of books and pep clubs and prom committees." (People of books--what an ugly phrase, especially given that Webb himself is a writer. Haven't we had enough of the anti-intellectualism of George W. Bush and others who insist that there is virtue in ignorance?) There are also his resentments that focus on gender and ethnicity. Why is this troubling? Because worldviews built on resentment are almost always bad news. They are often bad news even when those resentments are deployed on behalf of a minority group with justifiable historical grievances. (See Jeremiah Wright and Louis Farrakhan.) But they are really bad news when deployed by a historically dominant group (men, southern whites) that feels its traditional dominance slipping away. Indeed, it is just this sort of resentment that has spawned some of the least liberal developments in American history--from Jim Crow laws to periodic outbursts of anti-immigration sentiment.
All of this information about Webb is out there and relatively well known. Which makes the Democratic infatuation with him all the more perplexing. Why are so many liberals willing to overlook so much evidence suggesting that Jim Webb sees the world so differently than we do? Part of the explanation is obviously that liberals want to win so badly that they are willing to overlook flaws in any running mate who might help Obama garner votes. But there has to be more to it than that, since the flaws that liberals are overlooking in Webb's case are not an isolated heresy here or there, or even (as with Sam Nunn) a marked tendency towards centrism, but rather a considerable body of evidence suggesting that his general outlook is deeply estranged from our own. Besides, it's not like liberals are merely saying they would tolerate Webb in order to win back the White House; a lot of them (like Katrina vanden Heuvel) seem genuinely taken with the guy. What gives?
The answer, I think, lies in the difference between politics and philosophy. Liberals are looking only at Webb's positions, not his worldview. In the years since he left the Republican Party, Webb has found his way to certain policy stands that liberals correctly find attractive. He was right about Iraq, and, on economics, he is right to criticize the disparity between rich and poor. But taking positions that happen to intersect with the views of liberals is not the same thing as actually being a liberal. In a president or vice president, I don't just want someone who agrees with me on a handful of issues. I want someone whose instincts about the world I trust--whose underlying philosophy is decent, humane, and, yes, liberal. For any Democrat who believes that Jim Webb meets these criteria, I have a simple question: Are you completely out of your mind?
Richard Just is the deputy editor of The New Republic.
Click here to read another take on Webb by Eve Fairbanks.