Mitchell’s Musing 11-13-2017: Clean for Gene

09 Nov 2017 3:30 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musing 11-13-2017: Clean for Gene


Daniel J.B. Mitchell


In 1968, with the Vietnam War raging and other cultural clashes (civil rights, drugs, hippies, etc.), a group of college students decided to back Senator Eugene McCarthy’s bid for the Democratic nomination for president. Their goal was to unseat incumbent Lyndon Johnson and the New Hampshire primary was going to be important in that endeavor. In campaigning for McCarthy, the students famously went “Clean for Gene.” Although McCarthy didn’t win the primary, he did make a strong enough showing to convince Johnson to drop out of the race. What the students did was to acknowledge that they had to avoid behaviors that - even though they seemed appropriate within their circle - would be offensive to potential New Hampshire voters. An NPR retrospective tells the tale:


That Johnson won the New Hampshire primary was not a surprise; he had the party machinery, the money and the endorsements all in his favor. That he won with just 49 percent of the vote — compared to McCarthy's 42 percent — was a surprise. In fact, it was a stunning repudiation of a president and his war policy. And it was carried out by the unlikeliest of political figures, leading an unlikely army of college students who decided to "Clean for Gene" — shave, shower, clean up their acts — and toil in the snows of New Hampshire to spread their message.[1]


The idea that if you want to influence someone to do something (such as vote for a particular candidate or come around to your viewpoint), you should avoid behaviors that might offend does not seem terribly controversial. It was on display in the swing state of Virginia during the recent gubernatorial campaign in which the (winning) Democrat took relatively conservative positions on issues such as “sanctuary cities.” But, of course, candidate Trump in 2016 seemed to be an exception to the usual political rule. He offended many potential voters. But he nonetheless succeeded in turning out just enough of his “base” in critical states to win the presidency.


Indeed, the general rule of not offending has a proviso. If by offending, and thereby losing some voters, you can gain still more offsetting votes from another subset, then offending can be a winning tactic. Of course, you might not be interested in convincing anyone or in winning elections and, instead, be seeking the benefits of self-expression or of self-promotion in taking unpopular positions.[2] Or you might not appreciate that what you are doing would be offensive to many people because the folks you know all agree with you, i.e., some version of Group-Think. Where winning/convincing are not an objective, you can offend at will without consequences that you care about.


With that preamble in mind, I reproduce below a headline – “State NAACP urges removing ‘Star Spangled Banner’ as national anthem” - from the liberal and Democratic-leaning Sacramento Bee. Of course, the large-type headline to the story attracts the primary attention of readers. There is an explanation within the article about a stanza of the national anthem (that no one ever sings) and about the political views of Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812. Suffice it to say, many readers may not make it beyond a headline. In internet versions especially, readers often see only the headlines or only the headlines and a brief excerpt.

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Once the article appeared in the Sacramento Bee, it predictably started making the internet rounds. Within California, conservative sources such as the news aggregator “Flashreport” reproduced the headline. Flashreport added a comment: “What So Shamefully Assailed.” Of course, one might argue that a typical reader of Flashreport would not be moved by arguments over unsung stanzas or over Francis Scott Key’s political orientation or that they wouldn’t be especially receptive to views of the NAACP.

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But apart from news aggregators with a deliberate conservative bent, what would someone find who just searched in Google with key words such as NAACP and anthem? Many links in fact turn up in such a search as can be seen below. One main stream news medium, CBS, tries to put some nuance into the headline by having it refer to the lyrics argument. But most sources just follow the Sacramento Bee’s headline style, regardless of their political leaning.


So what was the thinking of the leadership of the California NAACP in adopting a resolution which was likely to be offensive to an external news readership that goes well beyond conservatives? Would that potential readership likely be receptive to the assertion that the national anthem is “one of the most racist, pro-slavery, anti-black songs in the American lexicon”?[3] Was the leadership adopting the idea – perhaps encouraged by the Trump success in 2016 – that you win support by attracting attention through statements that are likely to offend? But as noted, that approach only works if you gain more support in some audience than you lose in others. So was the anthem resolution a calculation that even if offensive to some, enough others would be attracted by the anthem issue to offset the negatives? If so, who would those others be?


There was the background issue for the NAACP of mainly African-American football players who kneeled rather than stood for the national anthem. But the two issues are not quite the same. Poll results, such as they are, suggest there is an opinion divide on the kneeling issue.[4] There are no polls on the anthem issue, but one suspects that scrapping the national anthem would not be a popular position, particularly in those swing states where the 2016 election was decided. So was the anthem resolution a product of Group-Think, self-expression, self-promotion, or what?


Maybe those promoting the anthem resolution were unconcerned about the current external political scene. But the lead sentence in the text of the original Sacramento Bee article says that there will be a campaign by the California NAACP to push members of the state legislature to adopt the anti-anthem position. So the resolution seems to have a wider political motivation. Note that despite California’s generally “blue” political coloration, there are swing seats in the legislature that are critical to the Democrats maintaining their existing two-thirds supermajority (which allows certain legislative discretion). And from a national perspective, several of the swing GOP congressional districts that could be won by Democrats are in California.

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In short, there’s much to be said for an updated version of the old 1968 strategy of going “Clean for Gene” as the 2018 elections approach (and beyond that date, too). But many in the “progressive” camp seem not to be receptive to that idea. The late 1960s also produced the Rolling Stones’ song, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”


No, you can't always get what you want

You can't always get what you want

You can't always get what you want

But if you try sometime you find

You get what you need.[6]

 

It’s another good idea from that era.

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Footnotes:

[1] https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5049072. The McCarthy campaign, in addition, was often framed as a form of patriotism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7pR0yTGOiA.  

[2] The various Milo Yiannopoulos campus events fall into this category.

[3] http://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/capitol-alert/article183262411.html.  

[4] https://www.cnbc.com/2017/09/29/a-majority-of-americans-disagree-with-trump-on-firing-nfl-players.html and http://www.cnn.com/2017/09/29/politics/national-anthem-nfl-cnn-poll/index.html.  

[5] One Democratic member of the legislature from a swing district is currently the target of a Republican-led recall campaign for voting for a hike in the gas tax to be used for transportation purposes. See http://www.ocregister.com/2017/06/27/gas-tax-triggers-85000-signatures-to-recall-orange-county-sen-josh-newman/. Another in a similar district is also at risk for the vote. See https://calmatters.org/articles/millennial-legislator-turned-red-district-purple-now-prime-target/.  

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPS9MpRLCd0.

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