Author Archives: Matt Kuhns

America’s Politics Not Fit for Purpose

The American political system does not solve problems, or even resolve disputes, at a national level.

This feels like a big-picture understanding of failed-state reality, above the day to day or even year to year blowups.

A good political system ought to solve broad problems of society, and create better and fairer conditions over time. But for a political system to qualify as functional at all, it ought to resolve some disputes. Even if one credits a political system of endless unresolved disputes with being at least preferable, compared with those fights playing out through violence, this does not seem stable beyond a short term. If arguments just fester, while infrastructure decays, explosions seem inevitable.

As America draws near a decade since the optimistic forecast “that the fever may break” soon, I believe we may say that our political system is just not fit for purpose at a national level. I know I say this kind of thing, a lot, but this fundamental futility seems important.

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This unraveling reality

Several months ago I wrote about “a point where it seems like the madness is enveloping us, and the question of whether or not to embrace it seems increasingly academic.”

It does not feel like America has distanced itself from that point.

The toxic Republican Party has been prying and pulling America away from reality, actively, for decades, ever since a critical mass of Republican elites wrote off any possibility of having an inclusive democracy, being honest about the consequences of their policy goals, and still advancing those policy goals. Instead they began the ongoing buildout of “the rightwing cinematic universe,” with think tanks and partisan media and conspiracy theories gradually building an immersive false reality in which their toxic party of sabotage and snarling gets to play heroes.

But as fundamental as that is to America’s problems, there just aren’t so many Republicans that they can be blamed exclusively. They can’t even be blamed exclusively for the problem of the toxic Republican Party, because its continued vast sabotage is only possible with many enablers. Bad rules factor in, too, but the bad rules also endure only because too many people choose to put up with them.

While Republican reality-denying is disproportionate in most measures, there is reality-denying all over, and it is also too much.

Observations from just the past few days:

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Groundhog Day politics

I’m tired of the stupid, empty, ritualized war which has replaced national politics in this country.

America is a dysfunctional failed state, but the rotting zombie shambles along, nonetheless. The belief that some sort of shock will revive moribund neurons seems nonsense at this point. The entire Trump presidency with its New-York-phonebook of abuses and atrocities produced no more than tiny, marginal political movement in the big picture.

The coalitions have held; almost nothing seems to matter; to the extent that any things do matter they tend to be so arbitrary that they reinforce the rule of irrational, inescapable nightmare.

This is perhaps the truest definition of “a system-wide problem with system-wide problems”: when events seem so broadly meaningless that incentive to adapt actions or thinking evaporates, at the same time as resulting exhaustion intensifies the general tendency toward inertia.

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Going off the grid

I struggle to process the emergence from the left of messages like: “Government doesn’t work. Abolish coercive enforcement by the state. Rely only on yourself and local, privately organized charitable systems.”

Of course, there are a lot of things I didn’t specifically anticipate, such as people freezing to death in Texas, yet here we are.

More generally, all of this is entirely in line with the dismal trends I have seen and bemoaned for so long. The trail of news stories and reports documenting the decay of America’s physical infrastructure goes back many years. I have written ad nauseam about the corresponding decay of political infrastructure, especially the corrupt sham Republican Party which in Texas “seceded” from the rest of the country’s electricity grids, and is now busy lying about the consequences. The “horseshoe theory” convergence of some left-originating rhetoric with rightwing libertarianism is strange in detail, but the broad collapse in social trust has been more and more on my mind.

Somewhere around here I have a scrap of paper on which I scrawled something like “the collapse is going to accelerate,” a few months ago. So, uh, yeah.

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Nullification 2021

America’s factions of privilege have a long history with “nullification” in various forms, so it isn’t exactly surprising to see Republicans playing with the concept again. It’s at least a little strange to watch them open a door to judicial decisions carrying no authority unless one agrees with them right after they spent several years packing the federal courts with partisan Republican operatives, but that’s where we are.

Republicans don’t seem to have worked out any cohesive strategy for dealing with the January 6 putsch. To some extent this is a concentration of their overall problem dealing with Trump, but January 6 seems to have actually flummoxed them. The initial direction from leadership was basically “disperse, lie low, hold your breath” and the party seems like it hasn’t ever quite filled that vacuum.

First the Senate went into recess through the end of Trump’s term, effectively a refusal to look at any impeachment articles while Trump was in office. Then Republicans introduced the objection that “we can’t act on impeachment now because Trump is out of office.” This classic chutzpah is entirely typical of them, and they might have pulled it off if they still had the votes to control Senate business completely, despite the fact that the objection is not only hypocritical but totally false. Never mind obscure precedents; the Constitution itself says “The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments.”

Republicans’ willingness to ignore that and claim that an impeachment trial is “unconstitutional” should shock people. If language that clear is “open to interpretation” then the Constitution might as well be oracle bones with no meaning except what judges say it has. But in a sense this is exactly what Republicans want: to transfer authority to an unelected, rigged judicial priesthood.

That strategy depends on judicial decisions having unquestionable authority, though, and now Republicans are actively flirting with a nullification doctrine. If Republican senators end up trying to evade reckoning with January 6 by saying “based on the evidence I would vote to convict Trump if the Senate had that power, but it does not so I have to oppose conviction” they will be declaring judicial decisions optional along with the language of the Constitution.

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Bipartisanship Deconstructed

Our political culture of reverence for “bipartisanship” has become like a cargo cult. Few have really caught on to the reality that the rituals aren’t working, let alone questioned their origins. Many simply carry on apparently convinced that going through the motions and chanting the magic phrases—”find common ground,” “reach across the aisle,” “bipartisan“—must eventually revive the politics of decades ago.

If one can manage even basic pattern recognition, it’s easy enough to dismiss this. Fake radios don’t work, the Ghost Dance didn’t work, repeating clichés with no relevance to contemporary politics won’t work. But ignorant superstition is not a convincing complete explanation, here, and it’s worth examining how America became so attached to this concept in the first place.

Much reference to “bipartisanship” seems like a shorthand. It’s an overused gesture toward cooperation and reasonableness, employed out of habit. Or it’s an all-purpose endorsement of policy, in place of details which few will follow.

But a deeper reflection on bipartisanship reveals an important part of governing and America’s social contract itself, for well over a century.

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Mueller Time Reconsidered

A small further reflection on The Resistance, and what might be the most significant of my personal artifacts from the whole thing. It is not a sign or banner or anything physical. It’s a draft e-mail I prepared years ago to summon acquaintances in the event Trump fired Special Counsel Robert Mueller and nationwide protests followed.

The “springloaded” protests were organized by a vast coalition; I don’t know how many people eventually signed up to take part, although I believe it was a lot. I not only signed up, but drafted a personal e-mail to a few dozen people in hopes of reinforcing the potential participation just a bit more, doing my small part.

Looking back, the heavily organized non-event seems to encapsulate a lot of The Resistance.

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#TheResistance 2016-21

For my personal purposes, a public protest on Nov. 18, 2016 is probably the clearest beginning of “The Resistance,” out of various arbitrary options. It was a strange evening, within which the strangest moment was the inclusion among more expected chants of the phrase “I am my brother’s keeper.”

That has stuck in the back of my mind, ever since, and I’ll come back to it.

As the Trump nightmare bubble ends in anticlimactic deflation, time has come to look back on the whole four-years-and-change of The Resistance, for the movement and for myself.

Of The Resistance writ large, it seems more than anything else like a big missed opportunity.

Here was a momentary disruption of the steady slippage toward dystopian oligarchy. Here was a wake-up call, not only sounded but heard. Millions got off their butts in more than 500 cities for the first Women’s March. People were ready to take action. What followed?

What followed was mostly a vast demonstration that in a crisis, institutions do the same things as usual, just more—and that this observation of Robert Cringely applies to large informal blobs as well as to discrete formal institutions.

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Holding our breath

As soon as we got a mostly complete outline of the Jan. 6 Republican putsch, that same day I wrote down several “things which ought to happen now,” followed by a question “how many will?” Right now, the answer looks to be “some,” but on the whole I would say that confronting the reality is coming in last as an option. Half-measures, buck-passing, quiet conversations, muddling ahead and “holding our breath” are collectively prevailing. Shelt Garner’s model of “an autocracy without an autocrat” seems more apt than ever, as Trump—having proved there’s really nothing in place to stop an organized autocrat from succeeding in America—appears to be deflating anticlimactically because he’s a vain undisciplined grifter.

I agree entirely with all the warnings that this is far from over, but as of this writing we’re in a strange interim place, again. So, some fragmentary thoughts for a fragmentary moment.

Televis-ocracy. COVID-19 has killed so many people, and had apparently trivial impact on American political power; the harm inflicted during the Jan. 6 putsch was relatively very minor but its political impact is, if not yet transformative, certainly larger. One can draw various conclusions, from this, but I think the importance of simple visuals on television is critical. Many have already observed that COVID is still not “real” for lots of people, in the absence of direct experience or visuals of what’s happening in hospitals. The putsch offers a striking contrast, and I think that’s a big part of why we’ve seen even the limited political movement so far.

Corporate America frowns upon the putsch. After days of headlines about corporate America’s alleged pulling of dollars away from Republicans’ “coup caucus,” it occurred to me today that this might be best understood as a PR play and a message to Republicans that the paymasters want clean, professional oligarchy.

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The US Capitol Besieged

Yesterday—January 6 2021—armed terrorists, inspired by the president, stormed the Capitol in a violent attempted coup. The terrorists had support from Capitol Police (in their actions) and Congressional Republicans (in their aim to reject the presidential election result).

As of now, Thursday morning, the terrorists are dispersed; a few have been arrested and more may follow. The terrorist-leader president is still in office although his administration is disintegrating through resignations. Both houses of Congress are adjourned after completing the mumbo-jumbo of election certification in the wee hours. The closest thing to an anti-Trump Republican in Congress, Sen. Mitt Romney, has actually said “I think we’ve got to hold our breath for the next 20 [sic] days.”

As concerned as I am about the next two weeks, I’m also minded to consider the long term and the big picture. Something big and terrible happened on Wednesday. Invaders raised a Confederate flag inside the Capitol, which many people pointed out never happened during all the years of the Civil War (even though DC was basically surrounded by rebel territory). Hostile forces have invaded the Capitol, before, but that was 200 years ago when the United States was a precarious upstart nation.

This morning my mind’s drawn back further, to the sack of Rome in 410, and how this appeared for some time afterward to be only an embarrassing brief event.

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