Bachmann's Convictions

A quick stipulation: for the purposes of this review, I will pretty much pretend that Core of Conviction, by Michele Bachmann, ends with her 2006 election to Congress on page 140. Up to that point, I enjoyed the memoir and found it, and her, interesting enough to think and write about. The rest of the book is pretty standard Obama-bashing fare. If you've been tuning into Hannity, or clicking on Malkin, or picking up Morris/McGann books, you're already familiar with everything in these 60 pages -- and if you haven't, then it's going to sound like nonsense rambling.

Bachmann herself -- a fascinating, if simplistic character -- almost entirely disappears in those later chapters. That's a shame, because I would have been interested in how she -- the person, not the ideological commentator -- took to life in Washington. Ah well. (We do get four full pages on the infamous but pretty much forgotten appearance on Chris Matthews's show when she called for the media to root out secret socialists in Congress.)

So, let's turn to Core of Conviction, The First 140 Pages -- plus appendix, as I'll get to later.

It is the tale of a midwestern girl from working-class Lutheran roots, whose father leaves when she's 14. Poor and fatherless, she becomes diligent and thrifty in her desire to fit in -- saving up to buy contact lenses, sewing her own dresses. She also becomes born again. Scraping her way to college, she meets her equally Christ-devoted soulmate, and so starts a fine midwestern family. She writes openly and convincingly about the importance of her faith; she conveys the joy she takes from her (creepy, in my eyes) husband; and she engagingly depicts herself as a poor girl pressing to make a difference in the alien and rarified world of politics.

The crux of the tale, however, is how Bachmann, like millions of other white, rural/suburban, working-class, evangelical Christian Americans, converts from Democratic voter to Republican, and then gets pulled further and further into far-right-wing conservative mania.

That important political and sociological shift has been addressed at the macro level, in a growing number of very good books on the subject. But I have not found many good micro-level stories of that transition -- particularly from someone who went through it as an ordinary, everyday person and later emerged as a political leader.

In reviewing Tim Pawlenty's similar but inferior campaign book, Courage To Stand, I suggested reading it as fiction, and the same holds for Core of Conviction. The Bachmann character, like most who have gone through that same Democrat-to-Republican transition, is unable or unwilling to fully explain the factors that went into her conservative radicalization. She makes a game effort, however, and provides much of the surface material; the reader is left to interpret and infer from there.

From a novelist's perspective, Bachmann makes for a terrific character through whom to tell this very American tale -- she is a Minnesotan who goes from active support of the 1976 ticket featuring her state's liberal hero (and her fellow Norwegian-American), Walter Mondale, to voting against that same ticket four years later, and vehemently opposing Mondale's Presidential run in 1984.

Bachmann plays down the Mondale connection in that 1976 campaign, and emphasizes the appeal of born-again, "commonsensensical" Jimmy Carter. But it's very likely that she and her then-boyfriend Marcus were Mondale people -- and very active ones, since they scored tickets to the inauguration, the Minnesota inauguration ball, and several others.

So what changed? Not her, according to her account; recounting the many sins of the Carter administration, she leans heavily on the Reagan trope of not leaving the Democratic Party, but being left by it. 

It's certainly fun, as a reader, to remember just how miserably people felt about Carter -- so miserably that they rushed away from some 40 years of family Democratic affiliation, and into the arms of the freshly disgraced party of Nixon.

But, as is the case throughout the book, Bachmann's observations of what she thought at the time sound like drop-ins from 2011. Did her 1970s self really blame inflation on "the Democratic administration... running big deficits"? Or wonder why the federal government wouldn't let her put her FICA taxes into a private savings account instead? Did she really first become leery of Washington upon seeing the lavish catering at the inauguration parties -- rather than, say, Watergate two years earlier? (Similarly, during a short teenage trip to Alaska she comes to learn that "federal-government restrictions were blocking the extraction" of oil and gas.)

Or consider this reaction she has to the Shah fleeing Iran in 1979:

I also thought that if past generations had been forced to confront the evil of Nazi Germany, then maybe this generation would be forced to confront the evil of Islamic fundamentalism, which led to radical jihadism in Iran. And that was before the new Iranian regime seized the American embassy in Tehran, holding our diplomats hostage..."

How prescient. Granted, I was only 12 at the time, but my recollection is that while everybody in America hated -- hated -- Khomenei (especially after the hostage-taking), they didn't see him as part of some global existential threat to US security. We already had a generational confrontation with the evil, nuke-heavy Soviet communists; Iran pissed us off, but people weren't afraid of global jihad. (And no, Bachmann does not address her hero Ronald Reagan subsequently selling arms to Iran and funding the Afghan mujahideen.)

Carter's failure to stop Khomeini's rise to power, Bachmann writes, led directly to the Beirut barracks bombing, decades of anti-Israel terrorism, 9/11, and both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars -- and "here on the home front," the "dehumanizing" TSA security process, which she says should be inflicted only on potential terrorists so that "ordinary Americans can move around the country unmolested."

But however Bachmann chooses to cast the Carter years, it's certainly true that they helped drive an awful lot of people to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980, just as Bachmann did.

But Bachmann went much further. She got sucked into the newly emerging "movement conservative" vortex.

I have described this Reaganite construction elsewhere. Beginning in the early 1980s, Washington Republicans brought together disparate interest groups representing roughly similar demographic groups: essentially white, rural and suburban, married people, who may not have always thought of themselves as Republicans but who identified more with Nixon's "silent majority" than with the protesters, hippies, gays, black-power groups, and other rabble-rousers.

The Reaganites brought the heads of these organizations together and convinced them to bundle all of their different interests -- Christian values, gun-rights, small-business, Cold War hawks, tax revolt, and so on -- into "movement conservatism." This way, each narrow interest would become a portal into the movement, creating a large pool of supporters who would push for all the causes, and of course be more and more likely to vote Republican.

Returning to Bachmann's journey, we find that the portal is religion. In the late 1970s she discovers and immediately idolizes Phyllis Schlafly, Beverly LaHaye, and the Concerned Women of America (CWA); she enters the "Bible-based Christian law school" at Oral Roberts University in 1979.

Her conservative immersion soon goes far beyond the CWA culture wars of the time: she sees the need for space-based missile defense; she disdains "expense-accounted 'arms reduction talks'"; rejects Keynesian economics; adores Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek; learns of "runaway statism" from William Simon's A Time for Truth; sees through the "faddish fog of 'feminism'"; and determines that high taxes are harming the economy.

Still, I suspect that those issues took a back seat at the time to what were then known as "family values." She seems to suggest so, and discusses at some length her worries during the 1980s that "pernicious social forces were causing severe damage to the soul of the nation."

By contrast with the economic and foreign-policy issues, Bahmann tends in the book to be somewhat vague about those social-forces concerns. That's perhaps a political caution about the somewhat dated, or in some eyes grossly offensive, 1980s-era views of religious-right activists like herself concerning women in the workplace, inner-city crime, drugs, homosexuality, divorce, AIDS, welfare, evolution, vulgar lyrics, and smutty movies. (Similarly, she later criticizes Bill Clinton policies but declines comment on "the scandals and the impeachment trial," giving no hint of whether she partook of the hysterical, conspiracy-addled obsessions that predominated conservative circles during his Presidency.)

So we don't quite get the full picture of her new belief system, but as you can see we have more than enough to know that this is not merely someone whom the Democratic Party has left, but someone who has headed down the movement conservative rabbit hole.

How far down becomes apparent in a laugh-out-loud story development worthy of Updike. Sometime in the 1990s, she discovers her true mission in life: saving Minnesota's children from the international conspiracy to indoctrinate them into globalist socialism.

I am not exaggerating. In the appendix I mentioned earlier, she reprints the entire (seemingly innocuous) National Education Goals section of the 1994 Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which, she writes, "isn't really about education; it's about establishing a new international world economic order."

I'll resist the urge to regale you with details of this earnest crusade. What matters is that it moves her further into political activism, leading her in 2000 to run against, and defeat, a moderate Republican state senator, and six years later to win a seat in Congress -- which brings us to page 140. As I stipulated up top, feel free to read the rest of the book if for some reason the site is down.

I certainly came away liking, and even respecting, the Bachmann character as presented in the book -- much more than the protagonists in the Pawlenty or Sarah Palin political memoirs, though perhaps not quite as much as the one in Scott Brown's Against All Odds. That's at least in part because I found her personal journey to cold-blooded conservatism believable, and even somewhat sympathetic. (As an example of that cold-bloodedness: in her FICA tax rant I mentioned earlier, Bachmann is aghast to learn that "the government was taking my money and spending it on current recipients." She wanted then, and wants now, to keep that money for herself instead, and expresses not a drop of concern for how that might affect the "current recipients" -- ie, elderly fixed-income Americans.)

As I interpret her -- again, as a character -- Bachmann's world view stems from the shock and humiliation of her teen years. She was 14 when her father ditched the family and moved away to marry another woman. It's easy enough to imagine that her rebirth in Jesus, two years later, stems from the fatherless teenage void. But the divorce also immediately transforms Bachmann, with her mother and two younger brothers, from perfect family with two cars and a four-bedroom house on an acre of land (even a snowmobile!), to selling off heirlooms at a garage sale and searching through dresser drawers to find a dime for a school activity.

Yet her mother refused to go on welfare. "She did not consider herself a political conservative; she just didn't see us as poor enough to take government help," Bachmann writes.

It's not clear in the book whether Bachmann knew that at the time, or only discovered later that -- as a self-conscious teenage girl would see it -- her mother turned down money while she was wearing worn-through clothes, living on canned food brought by her grandmother, and generally feeling inferior to her peers. All of which, of course, is just the surface pain of a girl's humiliation and anger over mom letting dad abandon them.

I would imagine there are two ways to psychologically deal with it. You could blame your mother for such heartless, prideful cruelty (and through that, blame her for your father's leaving and everything bad that happens in your life). Or, you can determine to prove how right she was to decide that you didn't need anybody's help. Psychologically, that path requires commitment to the principle that people in bad circumstances don't need assistance; and equally, to the principle that what you obtain, since it required nobody's help, should be yours alone to keep, and not go into some public kitty.

That's how I read Bachmann from Core of Conviction. She is ultimately that poor teenaged girl, abandoned and self-conscious, who has found certainty and success in a faith and in an ideology that provide straightforward, simple, inarguable directions for pretty much everything. Personally I don't think the instructions she's using are good ones, but she appears to live her life honestly and earnestly striving to follow those directions.
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