Tag Archives: Dysfunction

Better field alone won’t be enough

I recently came across a printout from about three years ago. After the 2018 election, in which Ohio Democrats’ paltry success seemed unacceptable when even Kansas was electing a Democratic governor, I spent several months trying to organize some kind of response. Ultimately I got about 15 Cleveland-area activist leaders to co-sign a letter demanding answers from the state party, and finally badgered the executive director into a meeting with us.

Views were exchanged and not much resulted beyond that, which doesn’t at all surprise me, now. I have accepted that Americans and our culture take the very ordinary human tendency, to maintain the same approach come what may, to an extreme of hypernormalization. I’m still glad that I tried to do something more; I think it’s one thing to dismiss the system as garbage and to drop out, and another thing to step up first and engage others in an organized effort to test the system’s responsiveness.

Meanwhile, this seems worth entering into the record, here, not because the Ohio Democratic Party is singularly deserving of a kicking but, to the contrary, because so much of this seems applicable to the entire project of American liberal democracy.

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Regression

I grew up in a culture and era of “progress” as a near certainty, for both technological and social progress.

That certainty was always, to a great extent, naive and myopic. The evidence for greater skepticism was always there. But the 21st century has hammered this home.

One big example, which I have expressed before, is that in the 19th century America had the cultural technology to close down and replace a major political party; at some point since then we seem to have lost that technology.

Lately I keep thinking, as American government largely acts powerless to address large supply constraints challenging our economy, that this is another cultural retrogression. Recall the major wars of the 20th century, and how American leadership wrung its hands and frowned about price increases, but remarked solemnly that “the economy was running too hot” and it was simply up to the Federal Reserve to slow it down and lower demand? Hopefully the answer is no, because that is not what happened.

Much can be said about the difference, of course, including the fact that America does not have a remotely functional political system now. That’s a kind of retrogression, itself, but it’s even broader than that, in this learned helplessness toward economic challenges which this culture actively addressed, effectively, not that many generations 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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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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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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Journalists get it, partly

Friday’s “The Morning” e-mail from The New York Times is interesting for how it mixes up a flicker of “getting it” with plenty of the ordinary obtuse fare.

Much of the e-mail carries on the braindead political “analysis” which was a big inspiration for my book Nemesis. German Lopez writes an extensive e-mail about “why Biden is unpopular,” walking backward through the past year and a half of covid and covid policy, without ever considering

  • The obvious question of what, exactly, “unpopular” is being defined against; voters have rapidly turned against every president for decades, and more significantly they punish the president’s party consistently, even when presidential approval is much more favorable than Biden’s.
  • To the extent that presidential popularity is variable, at all, could disdain for Biden have anything to do with the fact that even mainstream journalism is so relentlessly affixed to narratives of scandal and (Democratic) failure that the result wildly misleads people about reality?
  • “Analysis” mostly just makes up its premises of what’s supposed to move public opinion and how. From month to month, “The Morning” tells us that Democrats are disappointing the public because of Afghanistan, no because of covid, actually it’s the economy, and they’re out of touch with public fears of “CRT,” etc. The claim, in Friday’s email, that the Biden administration committed itself to firm promises about freedom from covid also seems suspiciously unfamiliar to me as a fairly regular reader of “The Morning.” It feels like “truthiness.”
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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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Three-line program

It just becomes more and more and more difficult to take American political debate and processes seriously. As I have written, real changes are occurring, mostly dire, and I take those very seriously. But these are so detached from most of the rhetoric and rituals which just carry on.

I am reminded of this xkcd:

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