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Festival of Books – politics April 29, 2008

Posted by Peter Hornby in currentaffairs.
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One of the major draws of the LA Times Festival of Books is the comprehensive collection of political panels available to attendees. Now, the Festival is all about selling books, so the panelists all have books to punt. Still, that doesn’t seem to diminish the quantity or quality of the panels – it doesn’t seem like we’ll ever run out of political books, or, indeed, political authors.

One amusing wrinkle is that the session audiences are, shall we say, almost uniformly liberal, in a very LA sense. Sometimes it seems as though the conservative panelists are sacrificial lambs. Audiences are very willing to hiss, boo, and call out brief editorial interpolations – “Rubbish!”, “Are you crazy!”, and the like. As Daniel Schnur said, after the panelist introductions had been completed – “I’d like to announce that, after the panel, David Frum and I will be hosting a meeting of our supporters – in my car”. The quip received a generous laugh, but there wasn’t much else for the conservative panelists to smile about.

So, who did we have? Unfortunately, Christopher Hitchens, who is a regular panelist here, was a notable absentee this year. He dominated a wonderful panel last year on religion, and I had been hoping, in vain as it turned out, for a return visit. No-one handles a hostile audience with Hitchens’ blend of superciliousness and intellectual combativeness. This year, the highlights for me were Eric Alterman, Ariana Huffington, John Dean and, especially, Amy Goodman, Nancy Snow and Robert Scheer. On the conservative side, I was impressed with Hugh Hewitt and, well, that was pretty much it.

Amy Goodman and Robert Scheer seem to be regarded as the Festival’s favourite children. Both were applauded loudly when they were introduced. In particular, Amy Goodman’s message seemed to resonate particularly strongly with her audience. Her central theme is one which is not unique to her. I heard it at the Festival a couple of years ago from John Dean, after he introduced what has turned into his “broken government” meme. Dean was asked “What can we do to fix this?”, and he was very clear and straightforward – my paraphrase would be “we need media who are prepared to speak the truth”. That’s Amy Goodman’s core message, I think, and it’s also what Nancy Snow was telling us in the “Can Government Work?” panel with John Dean. Nancy is a Professor in the Department of Communications at California State University, Fullerton, and she specialises in propaganda, and the way in which much of the broadcast and print media subordinates itself to the needs of power.

Naturally, the election, and in particular the fight for the Democratic nomination, was strongly represented, and there were some very interesting moments. It’s clear, of course, that the Republicans are enjoying every moment of the struggle between Senators Clinton and Obama, as David Frum made clear. What also seems to be clear is that they hope that Senator Obama wins the nomination, because they believe him to be unelectable as President. Hugh Hewitt made this point very strongly, and I think he caused the audience, normally not disposed to hear such things, to think for a moment. Hewitt’s point, one which was also made by Frum, was that you have to live with the electorate you have, and that, no matter how much Reverend Wrght comes across as a kindly old pastor, no matter how much Senator Obama backpedals from a tenuous association with a former member of the Weather Underground, a substantial, and probably definitive, fraction of American voters will simply not vote for him. Robert Scheer tried to point out that almost no-one had actually listened to Reverend Wright’s words, other than in inflammatory soundbite form, and that the full sermons, which were up on TruthDig, painted a very different story. “Doesn’t matter”, said Hewitt. Even the kindler, gentler Reverend Wright, he said, paints a picture of America that many Americans don’t recognise, won’t accept and, most importantly, won’t vote for.

One other fascinating insight was something which I hadn’t thought about before, and which horrifies me. The Democratic candidates, and Senator Obama in particular, have mobilised a huge number of people who have never been active in the political process before. Whoever wins the nomination, there will be many, many disaffected workers on the losing side who have vast amounts of emotional capital invested in their candidate, and that these people will not know how to deal with losing. Hugh Hewitt conducted a straw poll in the audience. “How many Clinton supporters are out there?”, he asked. A substantial minority of hands went up – this was big-time Obama-land. “How many of you”, he went on, “will not vote for Obama in the general election if he wins the nomination?” And, astonishingly, a good few hands went up. If Democratic voters are sufficiently suicidal that they would rather see a Republican win the election than the “wrong” Democratic candidate, then they deserve to lose, and the next four, or eight years will, I predict, pay them back in spades.

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