An Interview With Michael Barone
John Hawkins:: A lot of people seem to think that the American electorate is perhaps as polarized as it has ever been right now. Do you think that’s the case or is this sort of venom in American politics more common than we think?
Michael Barone:: Certainly venomous partisanship has been common in American politics, but I think the venomous partisanship we see today is greater than at any other time since I started following American politics seriously in 1960.
John Hawkins:: Do you think that it’s healthy for our Democracy that because of gerrymandering, only handfuls of House races are now actually competitive races?
Michael Barone:: You can certainly argue that it’s unhealthy. But it’s not inexorable. Ordinarily within a 10-year intercensal period the partisan preferences of different kinds of voters change in different ways. The result is that districts that seemed safe Democratic or safe Republican at the beginning of decade have come to be marginal or even leaning to the other party by the end of that decade. This happened in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. So far it has not happened in this decade, since political alignments have been almost frozen for the last nine years. But that does not mean they will be forever.
John Hawkins:: On the whole, the US seems to have been moving slowly, but steadily to the right over the last 25 years. Do you agree that’s the case and can you tell us why you think that is?
Michael Barone:: Slowly to the right in many ways, yes; but not on everything. The Democratic party is weaker in congressional and state elections generally than it was 25 years ago, but it’s arguably stronger in presidential elections; Democratic presidential nominees in the last three elections have won more popular votes than Republican nominees. Bill Clinton won 49 percent of the vote in 1996 and Al Gore won 48 percent in 2000; current polls show John Kerry running as well or better. On some issues abortion, gay rights–the electorate has moved well to the left in the last 25 years.
John Hawkins:: What do you say to the argument that assimilating Latino immigrants, legal and illegal, into our culture today is a unique and particularly difficult challenge? Reason being that they are particularly resistant to assimilation because people from all over Latin American come from a similar culture & speak a similar language & since the numbers of Latino immigrants are so large, businesses, schools, and government agencies are changing to adapt to them instead of vice-versa.
John Hawkins:: I have addressed this question at length in my book “The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again“. My thesis is that the American people and the immigrants themselves mostly want assimilation, but that some of our elites do not. I do not see Latino immigrants becoming a single block with an adversarial attitude to the United States or to American culture; rather, like the Italian immigrants of 100 years ago, they want to work hard and to enable their children to move into the middle class, usually in the United States but in some cases in their lands of origin. Latin American Spanish, by the way, is by no means uniform, with characteristic national and local accents that are easily identifiable to Spanish speakers.
Businesses, schools and government agencies are indeed accommodating Latinos’ “differentnesses” in some respects rather than pushing for assimilation the work of those elites, primarily. But the large mass of immigrants themselves want to assimilate. Intermarriage rates among second-generation Latinos are high, which means that many third-generation Latinos will have non-Latino ancestors. In time the definition of intermarriage changes. When my parents were married in 1943, their ethnic background (Italian and Irish) would have prompted many people to consider their union an example of intermarriage. Almost no one would think that today.
John Hawkins:: In your opinion, how do you see the relationship between the US & Europe playing out over let’s say the decade or two?
Michael Barone:: With its negative population growth, sluggish economies and huge welfare state burden, Europe is on its way to becoming less important economically, culturally and militarily. The United States, in contrast, has positive population growth, a resilient and growing economy and a smaller welfare state burden. With one-third of the world–India and China–moving rapidly from Third toward First World status, Asia is likely to become more important to the United States and Europe less so.
John Hawkins:: Europe is without question, much, much, “softer” than the US. Do you think that Western civilization could be imperiled if Europe stays “soft” and Americans were to become as “soft” as Europe is currently?
Michael Barone:: In that case, yes. But remember that many Asian countries have Hard economies and civilizations that in many respects are comparable to European-American economies and civilizations.
John Hawkins:: Do you think we’re going to succeed in helping the Iraqi people build a Democracy? Why so and how big of an impact do you think an Iraqi Democracy would have on the region?
Michael Barone:: I believe that we are watching progress—sometimes halting and uneven and messy progress–toward an Iraqi democracy. And I believe that is already changing minds in the Middle East. It is switching people’s attentions away from the issues that the leaders of Middle Eastern nations have directed their people, to distract them from their own failures–the existence of Israel, the supposed depredations of the United States–and toward the question of how you build a decent society and government. I think we will see more of that in the future, although it’s not likely to be covered well by Old Media, which has a professional and emotional stake in American failure.
John Hawkins:: Do you think that a Palestinian state living beside of Israel in peace and harmony is realistically possible within say the next decade or so? Why so?
Michael Barone:: Israel. My hope is that other leaders will arise and that the Palestinian people will turn to other goals, but I fear that turn may take a long time.
John Hawkins:: Since you’re a student of history and politics, I thought it would be interesting to get your top 5 greatest American figures in American history, in order with a short blurb about why each one merited their position.
Michael Barone:: This is a pretty standard list. George Washington, for creating the nation by his military leadership and holding it together in the 1790s. Abraham Lincoln, for holding the nation together and redefining it in the 1860s. James Madison, for doing more than anyone else to fashion the Constitution. Alexander Hamilton, for establishing the framework for finance and industrial capitalism. And I suppose Thomas Jefferson, for holding the nation together and expanding it in the 1800s.
John Hawkins:: Same question, but this time, only figures from the 20th century would be eligible.
Michael Barone:: Franklin Roosevelt, for getting the nation out of the trough of the Depression and organizing the victory in World War II. Theodore Roosevelt, for establishing the United States as a great power in world politics. Harry Truman, for establishing the ultimately successful Cold War foreign policy. Ronald Reagan, for winning the Cold War and reestablishing confidence in America. Martin Luther King, for providing inspired leadership of the civil rights movement.
John Hawkins:: What do you think the future of the blogosphere is? Is blogging a fad that’ll die out in a year or two, will bloggers change journalism forever, or do you think the truth will lie somewhere inbetween once it’s all said and done?
Michael Barone:: I think bloggers have already changed journalism and will do so more as the years go on. Twenty five years ago, the three broadcast networks had a sort of monopoly in the news business, and they took their direction obediently from the New York Times and the Washington Post. Now no one has a monopoly in the news business, and many more voices can be heard.
John Hawkins:: Can you tell us a little bit about your new book, “Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation’s Future“?
Michael Barone:: Hard America is the part of American life where you have competition and accountability. Soft America is where you don’t. The boundaries between them change over time. We Soften aspects of society when we think them too Hard and Harden them when we think them too Soft. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, we Softened crime control, welfare, education and the military. Crime control and welfare were greatly Hardened in the 1990s, the military in the 1980s and 1990s; we are just getting started on Hardening education. Usually Softening has been a project of centralized elites university, media and corporate elites–who think ordinary Americans are incompetent and need Softness. Usually Hardening has been the project of people out in the periphery, who are addressing particular problems and see Hardness as a solution. When their local successes get national attention, the political players get into the act and Hardening becomes national, as it did on crime and welfare. By the way, the private sector is not necessarily Hard and the public sector Soft. The big company private economy of the 1950s was Soft, with managers (and union leaders) convinced they were insulated from competition and accountability. But foreign competition, deregulation, changes in financial markets and entrepreneurs with good ideas Hardened the private sector economy in the 1970s and 1980s. That resulted in low-inflation economy growth that almost no one predicted 25 years ago.
John Hawkins:: Are there any blogs or websites you could recommend to RWN’s readers (before we finish)?
If you’d like to read more from Michael Barone, take a look at his columns onU.S. News & World Report.