Tag Archives: Politics

The Tribalization of American Conservatism

Ezra Klein’s recent Vox post, “Obama Derangement Syndrome,” seems as good an occasion as any to post the following comments on a related proposition from late 2013. I submit that neither Mark Mardell, to whom I wrote the following, nor Mr. Klein is correct. Contemporary American conservatives’ inexhaustible hostility mostly is not the product of “old-school racism;” it is not the product of policy differences either. While the former is by no means extinct, we have a new tribalism in America.

Mr. Mardell,

I frequently encounter journalists like yourself (both foreign correspondents and Americans) struggling to frame the “Tea Party.” Let me help you out.

You are absolutely spot-on that “old-school racism” has little to do with contemporary Republican ire. I submit that you, like many others, go astray when you conclude that “opposition to big government and high taxation” are the answer, instead. You may be right, of course; I don’t think we can really be sure until such time as a Republican again occupies the White House, and the tea-party-within-a-party quietly evaporates, or does not.

I suspect that the former is more or less what will happen, however, because I believe the energy in modern American conservatism has less to do with small government or any other policy argument than it has to do with an updated “us” vs “them” tribalism. Quite simply, the Tea Party is the product of 20+ years of American conservatives creating their own narrative in which Democrat influence in government is inherently illegitimate.

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What’s wrong with the Trans Pacific Partnership

For the little that it’s worth*, I’m solidly against pending “free trade” agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Curiously, and presumably unintentionally, TPP advocate (and US President) Barack Obama has recently articulated what may be the best reason to oppose these schemes. A new Reuters article quotes Mr. Obama as saying “As we speak, China is trying to write the rules for trade in the 21st century. We can’t let that happen. We should write those rules.”

Now, set aside the childish jingoism. For a moment, let’s even set aside the ambitious sleight-of-hand attempted in the uses of “we.”

I think the real key here is the phrase “write the rules for trade in the 21st century.” In context, Mr. Obama seems to be saying that the TPP and similar treaties, if enacted, will amount to “writing the rules of trade” for the century ahead. Which, as he implies, is a very big deal; in fact it would  probably be at least as accurate to describe these treaties as efforts to (re)write the rules for “any and every kind of economic activity on Earth.” Which I think we might safely also call “most of what we have laws and regulations for.”

Thus I’m extremely troubled by the argument that “the rules for trade in the 21st century” should be written in secret, by corporate lobbyists plus a handful of unelected bureaucrats in the role of moderator, and then “fast tracked” into supranational law with limited debate and no amendments.

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2016 Republican primary spoilers

I suppose that in this context the word “spoiler” can have multiple significances, so let me be perfectly clear: I mean “Bruce Willis was, himself, a ghost the whole time” type spoilers.

So, for those who don’t want the suspense ruined, sorry. (Okay, not really sorry.) The Republican Party’s nominee for president in 2016 will almost certainly be John Ellis Bush, better known to those who take an interest as “JEB.” Moreover, you can just about bet your life that if the GOP nominee is not Jeb, it will be Rick Perry.

So, now you can safely ignore all of the horse-race speculation of the next 14 months or so—even if you recognize its lack of real substance and were consciously paying attention for the horse-race element only. Because under the surface—a surface which is actually quite transparent anyway—GOP presidential primaries have to be among the most reliably predictable activities in American politics.

You will not hear this from journalists or pundits, of course. In fact I don’t believe you’ll hear it from much of anyone, and you wouldn’t even be hearing it from me except that I’ve decided I just cannot stand the pending absurdity without some entirely futile effort to call it out for the bullshit that it is. Therefore, this once, I shall indulge in political horse-race commentary in order to highlight what is probably the most egregious waste of oxygen in the whole vapid phenomenon, i.e. the fantasy that the Republican presidential primary is ever a “wide-open, competitive and unpredictable free-for-all.”

This was probably true once. It has not been true for getting on two generations now, at least.

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The health care reform dissatisfaction taboo

Thank you, Helaine Olen.

For some time now, especially throughout the past couple of months, I have been stewing in dissatisfaction with the progress/prospects of health care reform from my individual perspective. I have nonetheless been reluctant to complain because the issue has become so absolutely binary. Either “Obamacare” represents the ruination of all that is good, is the source of every problem with anything, anywhere, and must be erased from the Earth… or, the good news just keeps on coming, millions more Americans insured, it’s the dawn of a “get more pay less” era in health care, etc., etc.

The former is just hysterical revanchist psychosis. The latter is very possibly all true, as far as it goes, and I want very much to believe that it’s going to go further, that I just need to be patient and give it another year or two or five. I can’t say for certain that this won’t happen, but so far I sure don’t have enough evidence to be confident.*

So I appreciate Helaine Olen stepping forward to say, at Slate, that “Those Protesting Harvard Professors Have a Point: We’re all still paying too much for our health care.” Basically, she has nailed almost every one of my concerns, concerns that I have been reluctant to voice, worrying that “I support the goal of reform and don’t want to lend any support to its absolutist opponents,” and “maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m being too selfish dwelling on my personal and perhaps atypical circumstances when so many people are getting help with greater needs.”

Maybe I am, but for what it’s worth, without hearing it from me someone else has now pointed out just every dissatisfaction I have identified…

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Failed states

The coverYesterday brought me last week’s issue of The Economist, which promises coverage of “the Republican victory and what it means for America’s broken government.” The casualness of this reference to American government as “broken” is particularly interesting, to me, because I distinctly recall a different editorial stance from the same publication less than five years ago. Then, they noted a growing sense that “the political system is broken. America has become ungovernable,” before declaring that “we argue to the contrary.”

Poking into their newest cover story, the transformation is remarkable. Then, they allowed that various systemic problems “should be corrected. But even if they are not, they do not add up to a system that is as broken as people now claim.” Overall, they insisted, “the basic system works as intended.” The real problem was that “Mr Obama” would not compromise.

Fast-forward to 2014, and subheadline to their story is “Republicans have won a huge victory. Now they must learn to compromise [emphasis added].” This prospect, moreover, they categorize as an optimist’s hope, and a faint one absent systemic reforms. Now, The Economist warns that “even if the optimists are right [emphasis added], America faces a host of ailments that seem beyond the reach of today’s politics.” If this is to change, Americans “need to change the way they elect their leaders.”

So, I guess I won that argument. Progress. Splendid.

…oh, wait, the society I live in is breaking down. Actually this is terrifying.

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2014 midterm election implications

I have read very little news or punditry the past week. Most immediate post-election “analysis” is dregs-of-adrenaline meaningless noise, even by journalism’s ordinary standards, and in this case the specific election results make me physically ill.

Most of the few peeks I have taken have been over at Vox. The conclusions of their staff are thoughtful, appropriately cautious… and horrible. Matthew Yglesias has noted that “American politics is descending into a meaningless, demographically driven seesaw.” If you want more than that, well, that’s a problem, as Ezra Klein has elaborated:

The last five elections, taken together, wreck almost every clean story you might try to wrap around them. They show an electorate that veers hard and quickly between left and right and back again — shredding any efforts one might make to draw deep ideological conclusions from a single campaign. They show that Democrats can, in the right circumstances, win midterm elections. They show that incumbents can win presidential campaigns. They show an electorate that seems to be searching for something it cannot find.

Indeed. Perhaps because that electorate is doing something wrong… one could, of course, easily point to the system in a number of ways, but the strongest hope of changing that system rests in the hands of the electorate… On the whole, it’s easier than ever to see why people are disgusted by politics and declining to participate; unfortunately the spotty, knee-jerk participation that this leaves behind exacerbates the randomness and dysfunction that turn people away.

As someone wrote at The Economist a few years ago, “we have a system-wide problem with system-wide problems.”

Perhaps it might help if the idea that elections have real consequences, for real people, became once more central to political conversation, instead of just a source of anecdotal weapons. Very possibly not, but as self-indulgence is one of life’s few dependable consolations at present…

What state I live in a couple of years from now could well depend on what happens—or does not happen—next in our nation’s capital.

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America seen through television

I wrote this four years ago, during the previous midterm election campaign. Most of it still applies today, particularly the first half which has nothing to do with party politics.

I see very little television. I watch a few History Channel shows on the web, and an occasional football or basketball game. But I don’t watch the evening news, or Mad Men, or SNL or whatever else people watch. I don’t claim that this makes me a better person, in any way. (I’m not denying myself television because I think doing so is “good for me;” I just have no interest).

But it does make television, when I do see it, awfully strange. Especially television advertising.

For one thing, from what I can tell, if one judges by the assumptions made and promoted by TV commercials during most “mainstream” programming, one gets a very weird and rather dismal impression of male-female relations in American society. The near-exclusively prevailing concept of gender roles seems to depict men as affable-but-dim lunkheads, interested almost entirely in beer and sports. Women, meanwhile, are apparently all ballbusting shrews with no interests whatsoever, other than enforcing their total disapproval of, and maybe occasionally mocking, male behavior.

Presumably of course this is not meant to be taken seriously, but instead, “for laughs.” Ha, ha?

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Ferguson, hammers, and the NSA

There’s an old saying about how “if your only tool is a hammer, every problem tends to look like a nail.” I certainly believe there’s a lot of truth to this proposition. Recently, we’ve had a good (i.e. appalling) demonstration of it in Ferguson, Missouri: it sure seems like, on top of the multiple other problems at work, kitting out local police like shock troops encourages them to act like shock troops even when there’s no conceivable justification for behaving that way. (Which, for local police, is very nearly all the time.)

It occurs to me today that this is also a demonstration of why honest, ordinary citizens ought to be concerned about the NSA’s surveillance dragnet and associated programs (arbitrary lists, death drones, “extrajudicial executions,” etc.). The belief that it’s okay because they’re on “our side” seems awfully naive when you consider the fact that we (or people supposedly representing us) have built a massive organization and continually given its employees more and more and more tools for

  1. invading privacy,
  2. finding ways to make it look like someone could be connected with terrorism, and
  3. essentially treating the entire population as suspected criminals everywhere we go, every moment of our lives.

When you and everyone around you are armed in this way, how is it likely to shape your whole concept of what you and your organization do? Particularly when your organization (like the Ferguson cops) has become detached from and even contemptuous of direction by the community you are allegedly “serving?”

Seems to me that when most of your tools are a tyrant’s, everything and everyone is going to start looking like a rebel (which, from a tyrant’s perspective, means “a terrorist”) to be suppressed.

This, I might add, is one of the (many) things that makes it difficult for me to see any potential for reasoned dialogue with contemporary American conservatism. Listen to the US right*, and “government health care is tyranny! Taxes are tyranny! Public transportation is tyranny!” Everything, seemingly, is tyranny except large standing armies and unaccountable, omnipresent secret surveillance.

This.doesn’t.make.sense. All powerful organizations pose risks, and need to be kept in check, but the hammer-nail effect suggests that some risks ought to be considerably more frightening than others. A health-care bureaucracy that gets high on its own powers might… what? Treat the sick and injured? Or just be really, egregiously bureaucratic perhaps. That’s frustrating, and again, all of these programs ought to have an informed citizenry and our representatives closely managing them. But these agencies decried by conservatives as “tyranny!” are usually okay with that at least in principle. In contrast to the NSA, whose unchecked powers pose a risk categorically more dangerous than do “non-defense” programs, and who nonetheless aggressively oppose the whole idea of outside oversight.

Conservatives love to say “give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” The metaphor fails in multiple ways. Additionally, though, there’s too little consideration of what happens when you teach a man to regard himself as an enforcer of vaguely defined “order” and everyone around him as potential threats thereto.

* There are exceptions, and bless them, but they aren’t a majority and aren’t setting their party’s agenda. Even with an opposition-party president whom they can seemingly oppose on anything else, whatever he does, a majority of congressional Republicans lined up to endorse leaving the military-surveillance complex unreformed.

A political recap of the 21st century

I chanced upon a particularly interesting item, recently, by one Thomas E. Ricks, published at Politico. Entitled “Why Am I Moving Left?”, the author muses on how it should be that he finds himself “moving steadily leftward” in successful middle age.

It struck a chord with me because his eight-point summary of, one might say, “How I Learned to Start Worrying and Turn Leftist,” reads very much like a recap of my own political reevaluations since adolescence.

As recently as 15 years ago, I still considered myself more or less a conservative Republican. Today, I’m a self-employed professional and at least modestly successful. Yet I would have to say that I am very liberal by typical American standards, and about as likely to vote Republican as I am to get my eyeballs replaced with cherry tomatoes; how does this add up? Mostly, the things on Mr. Ricks’s list. More than a dozen years of basically constant spying, torture and murder by the military-surveillance complex, with little substantive dissent from elected officials of either major party, has been a disturbing but persuasive argument for its dismantling. Likewise the concentration of more and more money in fewer hands, and the growing corruption and arrogance of elites in business and politics alike.

All in all his list offers a close and eloquent summary of my own. I can’t say that gun violence would make my own personal list of warning signs; I absolutely support gun-control measures, but as a danger I think that being shot by an armed nut is (rather like that of terrorism) much exaggerated by emotional reactions relative to its real statistical threat. (I’m also skeptical of how much can be accomplished in a vast nation with about a zillion guns already in circulation and a large number of people fanatically devoted to keeping them.)

I would probably add one or two further reasons, meanwhile, in a list of my own.* Read More →

Bad Politics Depends on Bad Voting

I can't recall where I found this, but tl:dr answer is "get out a pencil and draw another option."

I can’t recall where I found this, but tl:dr answer is “get out a pencil and draw another option.”

Yesterday, a friend asked me this question about voting:

So, if you reject the ‘lesser of 2 bought and paid for evils,’ what do you do?”

I admit this seems somehow fake, at least to me; even with the context that led to it, the innocence of this question took me by surprise. But I assure you that this is a direct quote. I suppose that even in this day and age, not everyone keeps his or her mask of cynicism up all the time, and occasionally someone will still ask an honest philosophical question that isn’t accompanied by sneering or part of a set-up etc.

This was my answer(1):

First of all, per the old saying “I wouldn’t start from here,” I advise not beginning at the general election ballot. We have a sort-of-kind-of run-off system in America, via primaries, though this system is to a proper run-off system kind of what the ACA is to single-payer.(2) But it’s what we have, and more people should take part in it rather than just waiting until November to consider who “they” chose for you.(3)

Second, if (and often when) primaries result in both major parties running bought-and-paid-for pod people anyway, look down-ballot. There is often at least some alternative.(4) If there isn’t… or if all of them appear genuinely as bad or worse than tweedle-D and tweedle-R… well, go fish. Many times life is, indeed, a menu of only bad options… but it still isn’t as narrow a menu, as frequently, as most people take for granted.

Elaborating on a few points… Read More →