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Yeehaw For Me, But Not For Thee
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Yeehaw For Me, But Not For Thee

Outrage over Neera Tanden’s confirmation hearing shows a form of liberal tribalism.


Whither Neera Tanden?

Rarely have I been so torn about an issue that matters so little. 

And since I assume many readers are on the same page, I want to assure you that I’m not writing another pro- or anti- Tanden diatribe.  

Still, just in case you’re not up to speed, Tanden is Biden’s pick to run the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The head of the Center for American Progress, a think tank founded to be more Democratic than liberal (a subtle but meaningful distinction for literally dozens of us), Tanden herself is a very partisan Democrat and part of the Clinton faction in the party. That means she’s earned the enmity of both the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democrats and much of the GOP. When I say she earned it, she did so not because of some grand, principled philosophical positions, but because she went hammer-and-tongs at political opponents on Twitter

Now, I have opinions about the arguments and counterarguments over all of this. Some Republicans making a big deal about “mean tweets” are indeed hypocrites, some aren’t. (Mitt Romney, for instance, expressly condemned her tweeting. That’s not hypocrisy, it’s consistency.) Some Democrats who once condemned “mean tweets” by Donald Trump but are now saying they’re fine have either abandoned the standard they once held, or never actually held it in the first place. 

Meanwhile, Biden says he wants to work with Republicans and be a unifying president. Sending Tanden to Capitol Hill to negotiate with Republicans—as OMB directors usually must—is an odd way to pursue that goal. And as I’ve written many times, Republicans who’ve proven that they don’t care about bipartisanship are playing a weird concern-trolling game when they couch their opposition to Biden’s moves as a violation of his pledge to be bipartisan. It boils down to, “I will righteously and sanctimoniously hold Biden to a high standard I don’t hold.”

But, again, I don’t think any of this matters much. Biden is going to push for the budget he wants, regardless of who runs OMB. And honestly, having someone hostile to the Sanders wing in that job is better than the alternative. Of course, this assumes her opposition to Berniedom was deeply principled rather than simply a product of her support for Hillary Clinton. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t; you hear different things from different people.

I also don’t find the charge pushed by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and others that Sen. Joe Manchin is racist or sexist to be very persuasive. By philosophy, temperament, and political necessity, Manchin is interested in being (or seeming to be) Mr. Bipartisan. If Tanden were a different Indian-American woman with a different record, he’d vote differently on her nomination. If your primary explanation of Manchin’s position is about sexism or racism and not the fact that his state voted for Donald Trump by nearly 40 points, you’re not really doing political analysis. You might be trying to punish Manchin to make him more cooperative later. Or, it might reflect that you think sexism and racism explain a lot more than they actually do.

And that brings me to my real point: Everybody’s got their Yeehaw.

Last week on The Remnant, Kevin Williamson and I discussed the winter mess in Texas. I brought up how disappointed I was in Rick Perry, a former governor of Texas and, more recently, Donald Trump’s’s energy secretary. He opted to turn the blackouts into a national partisan exercise and a Texas barbecue-flavored culture war issue. Perry, who knows a lot about Texas and its energy grid, chose to “double down on the yeehaw.”

(Contrary to David French’s otherwise excellent newsletter on the need for competence, Kevin didn’t come up with the phrase, I did. David shall be punished accordingly.)

Now, despite the meteorological cruelty it visited on me and my daughter, I’m a big fan of Texas. Contrary to its depiction by some, Texas is not the cowboy version of an Afghan wedding, with everybody shooting their AK-47s into the air at the drop of their (enormous) hats. Whatever criticism the state deserves for the recent blackouts, it’s still one of best governed and most prosperous states in the union. There’s a reason so many companies and citizens are fleeing California and Washington for the Lone Star State.

But as Kevin argued, one of the prices for its growing urbanization and cosmopolitanism is a surge in Yeehaw culture to compensate. When the state was mostly rural, agrarian, and oil-dependent, Texan culture was more supple and authentic. It’s one thing to wear cowboy boots because you’re either a cowboy or you grew up wearing them; it’s another when you’re an accountant or car salesman from Ohio doing it as a form of cultural virtue signaling, role-playing, or compensation.

It reminds me of the nationalist movements of the 1800s. Germans revived and embraced half-forgotten German traditions as a way to rebel against French influence. Lederhosen for me, culottes for thee! Or something like that. Meanwhile in Budapest, you don’t clink glasses—particularly with beer—the way you do in other countries when you say, “Cheers.” Instead, you look each other in the eye, take a sip, and then lock eyes again. It dates back to the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1848, when Hungarians sought to differentiate themselves from the accursed Viennese. This can partly be attributed to the narcissism of small differences, Sigmund Freud’s explanation for why very similar groups living near each other tend to emphasize cultural differences to telegraph which group they belong to.

The recent upswing in idiotic secession talk among Texan Republicans is driven in part by a kind of cultural panic that Texas isn’t as yeehaw as some Texans imagine it to be. So they’re manufacturing it.

Anyway, my point is that we all have our yeehaw. I remember getting into arguments with liberals who believed that Barack Obama was such an antidote to George W. Bush. In their telling, Bush’s—very mild—Texanism was like a form of alien cultural oppression. Like an English royal put on the French throne, Bush was a kind of internal foreigner. I thought this was kind of nuts, but I knew people—including some relatives of mine—who felt this quite passionately. For them, Barack Obama’s inauguration was a kind of blue state coronation and restoration. 

What I could never fully explain to them is that Obama was as much of a cultural avatar for their worldview as Bush was for his fans. Obama’s professorial way of talking (down) to people who didn’t agree with him was deeply reassuring to liberals who simply saw it as normal, in the same way that fish don’t know they’re wet. But it was deeply off-putting to people already convinced that liberal elites were hostile to them. And whenever I got close to making headway with my interlocutors, they would fall back on the reassuring explanation: “Well, that’s only because he’s black.”

I’ve come to believe that Obama’s race was more relevant to some of his opponents than I recognized at the time. But I still believe his race didn’t have nearly the explanatory power progressives thought—and still think—it did. After all, Hillary Clinton, a Midwesterner who made her name in Arkansas, elicited every bit as much opposition as Obama did. If you want to say, “That’s because she’s a woman,” you’re still projecting your own progressive yeehaw-ism on the situation. Many of the people who loathed Obama and Clinton the most adored Sarah Palin.

I think one of the reasons cultural liberals are becoming more aggressive in their liberalism is that they take left-wing yeehaw-ism as seriously as the right-wing yeehaws do, and vice versa. The signs all over my neighborhood proclaiming “In This House We Believe: Black Lives Matter, Science is Real,” etc. are attempts to buy cultural identity on the cheap. Ditto for giant Trump flags. Of course, flags and signs aren’t good enough anymore, the culture war for some has literally become a pillow fight

Each side, so terrified by the other, practices an ever-escalating politics of preemptive strikes and internal cleansing that often gets called “cancel culture”—at least when the left does it.

Maybe I’m forcing a square peg into a round hole, but I see much of the outrage over Tanden in this context, in part because that context defines almost everything these days. It’s remarkable how it only just dawned on most conservatives that Xavier Becerra—Biden’s nominee for Health and Human Services—is a far greater threat to conservative priorities than Tanden is. But because so much of our politics is driven by Very Online left- and- right-wingers—where the narcissism of small differences is a cultural imperative—Tanden has gotten so much more attention.

Tanden is an avatar of a certain kind of technocratic, donor-dominated, inside-the-beltway liberal tribalism. She is a hero of the D.C. greenroom clique that always serves as a reliable claque for one of their own (a clique-claquer, if you will). She may be a perfectly fine person—I know some people who like her a great deal—but that’s not the point. Her nomination is only supremely important inside the blue-check beltway that takes itself so very seriously. 

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.