Tag Archives: America

January 6 Committee Hearing

The January 6 Committee offers a vision to America:

America belongs to Republicans, but they ought (which is not to say that they must) govern according to orderly processes.

Reading between the lines of how independent observers summarized and commented on the Committee’s first prime time hearing, this is the prevailing conceptual framework whether or not most people realize it.

America is ailing badly from a rotten, toxic system. (Either extreme inequality, mass shootings, an appalling COVID response etc., etc., have been adequate to establish that context, or else just never mind any of this.) The January 6 Committee is, above all, a reaction to Donald Trump’s guidance for Republicans, to exploit people by encouraging the rottenness.

Rep. Liz Cheney calls on her party to reject Trump’s guidance, and instead exploit people by preserving the system. It’s an entirely logical entreaty: The system advantages Republicans, and Democrats are willing to help uphold it nonetheless. Even now, the system is furthering Republican policy, and it was and remains irrational for Republicans to risk that simply to prevent a non-Republican from getting Air Force One for a few years. Cheney and her colleagues ask Republicans to wise up, embrace the system and strategic victory, and accept relatively trivial tactical reverses.

Nowhere in any of this is reform, or liberalism, or even democracy. The narrative being generated by the Committee uses that last word a lot, certainly, but the word is very firmly betrayed by the story being told around it.

(I wrote a short version of this analysis a couple of days ago.)

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A Positive Agenda, 2012 to 2022

During Spring cleaning, I recently came across a surprising artifact from ten years ago: a 20-page letter-sized mailer from Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

This is interesting to me for a number of reasons. I save campaign literature for a reference file, in recent years, but this was before all that and I completely forgot about it. I must have shoved it into the end of a shelf, for whatever reason, shortly after I moved into this apartment. It is quite a campaign piece. Well designed, but just big! Again, 20 pages! Whatever small fortune they spent on creative, and even printing, mailing these things was a bundle.

I think this is also an interesting historic artifact, already, and maybe a useful centerpiece for the latest in my usual musings on an unworkable political system.

Shortly before stumbling upon this brochure, I was thinking about how every election is now pitched by both parties as an emergency scramble to defend our values, our rights, our basic safety from destruction. This is intolerable, but among the various reasons that it continues nonetheless, what positive vision is there, these days?

Despite its title, “The New Economic Patriotism: A Plan for Jobs & Middle-Class Security” feels like the product of a well-established tradition, perhaps even a peak of the tradition’s refinement just before decadence and rot.

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American Self-Endangerment

The past day or so, despite mass shootings and plague and everything else, some journalists and Democrats have tried making a story out of “Trump expressed approval of his supporters chanting ‘hang Mike Pence.’”

This is hapless in multiple ways. There’s really nothing substantive and new, here. All the remotely significant elements, just like the larger picture of the Capitol putsch, have been in front of us since the beginning: violent attack on political leaders’ workplace, carried out by Republican base with the encouragement of Republican leaders, very willing nonetheless to extend violence including hanging to leading Republicans including Pence, and most Republican leaders more concerned with circling the wagons as a party than with anything else. None of that’s new. The basis for this “story” seems to be “The Jan 6 committee has testimony that Meadows told colleagues that Trump said something to the effect that…” Come on, how do you not finish that with “Ferris passed out at 31 flavors.”

But there is perhaps something, here, which fits into an actual meaningful pattern. The elites trying to make this into a story seem, as best I can judge, to perceive something extra alarming in the fact that Republicans are not only comfortable with violence, they’re apparently comfortable with endangerment of themselves. Shouldn’t more of them break ranks, wonder the journalists. Shouldn’t more voters be turned off, wonder the Democrats. Isn’t this attachment to closing ranks, as a greater priority than even self-preservation, disturbing to people besides us, they all ask?

The answer they miss is that such priorities are widespread in our culture, certainly among its elites including journalists and Democrats.

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Senescence

The German physicist Max Planck said that science advances one funeral at a time. I concluded, years ago, that the concept is at least as relevant in other areas of our culture as in science.

As I think lately about the related (and very convincing) suggestion that people and institutions have generally fixed toolkits, of actions and language and conceptual frameworks, the gerontocracy atop American liberalism seems like an underappreciated contributor to the present failing state.

If humans’ fixed toolkits only really change much in response to a sense of existential threat, there is probably some elasticity in what triggers that. It seems very plausible that an elderly culture of elderly people is more difficult to shake up.

A lot of US political leadership has just aged in place for 30 years. It’s easy to poke fun at this, but I wonder if this has been even more damaging than suspected.

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Charlatans, delay, and normalization

On this day five years ago, Donald Trump wailed “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.” Obviously it did not work out that way.

I have remarked already that America basically normalized the Trump presidency. I think a lot lately about how “hypernormalization” is a defining feature of the culture, at this point; I don’t know how one can process contemporary America and not lose one’s mind, without understanding that “crisis” or “breaking point” aren’t really meaningful concepts.

In retrospect, the “Refuse Fascism” people were probably correct with their “Can’t Wait” for elections warning, if for the wrong reason. The big problem wasn’t what Trump would do in two more years or in three more months or in five minutes. The big problem was that the “wait patiently for the next scheduled election” approach meant that any and everything Trump did was thereby made part of “normal politics.” Imagine, again, if Ukraine had done that in response to a Putin crime capo being head of state. Fortunately, Ukraine didn’t. Unfortunately, we did.

Even more unfortunately, Americans were giving charlatans power over us well before Trump came along. Choosing a point when that began is an arbitrary selection, to some extent; some mild element of fraud at minimum is probably always present in political power.

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Walking back through political interpretation

I make and take a lot of notes. Even before the more or less daily news chronicle which I began in 2017, I have collected and organized political, economic and other notes throughout my adult life.

Lately I’m doing some spring cleaning, and in the process, this weekend I revisited two or three small, ad hoc collections of notes. They are interesting, especially cumulatively as a walk back through 10 years of struggling to make sense of political dysfunction.

A virtual folder on my Mac, which began as a catchall for interesting texts which I wanted to save and meant to file eventually, has turned into a cross section of 2011-20 political perspectives. Some just seems quaint. Remember when the “war on terror” or “free trade debates” were national preoccupations? One is a rant from February 2017, responding specifically to local affairs and posted on a local message board, but which rails against complicit unwillingness to say that a lie is a lie; a general relevance existed at a time but has grown since, I think.

Three or four excerpts from Vox articles published after the 2014 election seem, now, like the beginning of the conclusions I eventually arrived at in my recent book Nemesis.

  • …the Democrats hadn’t actually discovered dark arts of GOTV that allowed them to survive a GOP year. The polls were wrong — but they were wrong because they undercounted Republican support. As often happens, Democrats fooled themselves after the 2012 election into believing they had unlocked some enduring political advantage. They learned otherwise. (source)
  • If the economy drives whether people vote to re-elect the president, and presidential approval drives midterm voting, then surely the economy should should drive midterm voting through the mechanism of presidential approval, right? (source)
  • 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. (source)

One sentence, from the same period, is so exact: “American politics is descending into a meaningless, demographically driven seesaw.”

It’s humbling that it took me seven more years to process this even into what I hope is some kind of useful model for making sense of things.

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Why wasn’t Jan. 6 more disruptive

I highlighted this recent thread from Kamil Galeev because it’s insightful, thoughtful, and thought-provoking. One paragraph in particular has been on my mind as a big contrast with the US:

As a general rule, a large organisation suffering from the problem of attribution can start rewarding high and extremely high performance only if the organisation feels an immediate existential threat. Which happened in Ukraine after 2014. Fear changed the system of incentives…

I’ve seen Ukrainians say, quite plainly, that Russia has been waging war on their country for eight years. To review, for my own sake, Ukraine drove the corrupt Putin stooge, Yanukovych, out of the country. Putin then launched some Civilization shit in Crimea, combining Russian troops, a Russian-supported local insurrection, and a staged referendum for annexation. (Much the same program which Russia expected, based on this experience, that they could repeat with much more of Ukraine this year.)

To be absolutely honest, that’s a big deal. I presume it’s at least on the order of e.g. a dodgy Mexican annexation of Arizona, if we imagined Mexico as the seemingly stronger military power and the US kind of stuck for any immediate options to retaliate. Nothing remotely like that has happened to the US in ages, if ever.

But then, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were not at all like a hostile foreign power annexing an entire state. Despite that—and despite my own belief then and now that they should have been treated more like a crime than like an existential threat—they produced plenty of panic and change.

So it seems like a violent insurrection invading the nation’s Capitol itself, at the prompting of a defeated president and his political allies, could qualify to change the usual approach of the same people doing the same things. It really did not in this case, at all.

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Nonsense, BS and outright lies

Today marks three years since the US House asserted its completely valid right to examine Donald Trump’s tax returns. Despite which, those returns remain locked in a vault even after America elected a U.S. House, U.S. Senate and president purportedly committed to oversight and accountability.

This seems like a good day to survey the degree of dishonesty which prevails generally even within the “responsible” portion of US politics, at this point.

I don’t imagine that this is really a new phenomenon, but we’re now years into perma-crisis; did that shock anyone into shaping up? Not a bit of it.

One can insist that there’s a continuum from reasonable errors, through nonsense, bullshit, and denial, to outright lies. On February 6, 2021, when Representative Marcy Kaptur proclaimed that “Our union remains strong. Our democracy may bend, but it will never break,” maybe that was just nonsense. Maybe it was a reasonable error when Nancy Pelosi said obtaining Trump’s tax returns would be “one of the first things we’d do” if voters gave Democrats a House majority.

But at some point, the volume and consistency of statements which don’t fit reality is just too much for positioning on the continuum to matter very much.

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Europe, America, problems, and scale

Yesterday was local elections day in the United Kingdom, and today was analyze-the-results day.

First of all, I find it charming how the coverage I’ve looked at—admittedly national coverage, mostly from The Guardian—disregards actual local conditions and individual candidates and approaches the results entirely as a proxy referendum on the national parties/leaders.

Naturally I perceive eerie echoes of American politics, as I usually do with British politics. Before and since Thursday’s UK local elections, they felt particularly like America’s 2018 midterms. On Wednesday, one person forecast that voters would thump Britain’s party of the right but only about as much as the head of government’s party usually experiences—rather than any extra punishment for Boris Johnson’s shameless lying, scheming, and abuses of power. Oh, much like (I realized a few years later) US voters did in 2018?

Today’s coverage and analysis has featured a wide range of interpretations, from “disaster for the Conservatives” to “entirely inadequate results for Labour.” Like here in 2018, though, the picture improved for the center-left party as more result came in. There is of course the fact that these local elections don’t actually impact the UK’s national government, but the truth is that America’s 2018 “blue wave”* didn’t really do so either. (Republicans kept control of the Senate, ignored the Democratic House, and basically carried right on as before.)

Despite the similarities, however, in combination with the recent French presidential election I feel like a sense of scale is really important and often missing when comparing America’s political travails to “peer countries.”

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Nemesis, or, The World of Yesterday

The book which I titled Nemesis is, at its core, about a simple idea. For three decades, a recurring vote against the sitting president’s party has been a very powerful influence within American politics, even as the culture mostly carries on as though this influence doesn’t exist.

The point of Nemesis, I suppose, is that the narratives about American politics have become badly misaligned with what’s actually going on. After setting out the case that this nemesis vote exists, and is best explained as a big vote against the sitting president’s party—rather than as a trivial thumb on the scale, or as big votes in response to policies or issues or events—the book explores what preceded this destructive force, how that old system broke down, what’s actually going on now, and what options exist now.

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