Tag Archives: Politics

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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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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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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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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A bit more about bipartisanship

Attorney Marc Elias seems, often, to get very close to seeing a big part of why American politics has become unworkable, without quite confronting the full implications.

Yes, in a very important sense, the Republican Party is a toxic cancer devouring American democracy. But nearly all the body’s systems regard it as a vital organ. We are making nil progress toward solving this problem; this is demonstrated very well by the ability of someone as smart as Elias to get so close to recognizing it and still not make it the whole way.

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Theory of the Case

Like a lot that I post here, certainly of a political nature, this is a visit to familiar territory. I have often mentioned Carl Sagan’s quote about being “captured by the bamboozle.” (In fact I am bemused to discover that currently, at least on Ecosia, one of my posts is the third result when searching the term.)

I have also touched on the idea that’s on my mind, today, but perhaps it deserves a feature of its own:

It seems entirely possible that things can become so bad, that existing systems can be so unworkable, that an accurate assessment will sound like defeatism. Keeping things hypothetical for a moment, imagine a situation like that, and people simply rejecting the reality of it, because describing it absolutely does sound like defeatism. That seems functionally indistinct from the situation Sagan described: “we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. … The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken.”

Now obviously, I don’t really think this is hypothetical. I concluded back in 2020 that hopes for a healed democratic America were already unrealistic.

But what is the theory of the case, for those who still reject that assessment?

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Alternatives and belief

I had an argument, today, with someone who offers a very swell model of the belief that America’s electoral politics are some sort of fundamentally fair-ish game which democracy advocates can win, if we just perform a checklist of the same activities as always.

I am convinced that this is naive and blockheaded verging on delusional. It is not completely outside the realm of all possibility that something might turn the current political environment, and the prevailing pattern of three decades, completely upside-down between now and November. It is very, very unlikely, and it is nonsensical to assert that the same things which have failed so thoroughly can be much more successful in 2022 because they “must.”

I have drafted a book exploring this premise, but perhaps the aspect about which I have the least to offer is that which most interests a lot of individuals: “what do I do?”

I feel like this is really a wrong question. I mean, World War I was an appalling immolation of lives to no point, even by the standards of war; if you had a choice about whether or not e.g. to go fight in the battle of Verdun, doing so would be absolutely stupid even if you wanted with all your heart to win/end the war. It would be absolutely stupid regardless of whether or not someone else, besides the war leaders, was proposing an alternative contribution you could make to help win/end the war.

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Failure of imagination

It seems like our society is somehow drowning in nonsense, while at the same time ailing badly from a drought of imagination.

The nonsense is simply endemic, as are the variants of dishonesty and disinformation. These themes are familiar here on this blog, and recorded almost every single day in my chronicle of news and events any more.

It seems more and more, though, like the fixation on relatively familiar nonsense is connected with a dismal failure of real imagination.

Most people, I am forced to conclude, may be very eager consumers of conspiracies and myths and fantasy stories of all kinds, but are never much good at really envisioning the world familiar to them becoming significantly better or worse. Doing that is really a specialist role.

I suppose we might say that illiberal specialists are meeting the challenge to seize popular imagination relatively well, while liberalism’s imagination seems largely seized-up.

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Studying the news

For about five years I have been “studying the news,” you might say.

After the 2016 election, many of us myself included were grasping at ideas for what we should do in response. I joined organizations, attended protests, got a VPN, started calling Congressional offices… I also took the advice to “keep track of what’s changing around you,” a warning to us that the unthinkable can become “normal” without us even noticing, absent an effort in that direction.

I didn’t actually start until early January, 2017 the file which eventually surpassed half-a-million words of news and events, but over time I entered many earlier occurrences and now is probably as good a time as any to reflect on the experience.

I guess that to start with, I don’t think that there is really any substitute for doing something like this. Plenty of people don’t really pay attention to news, politics, government, etc., but I think even for those who do, the default is essentially passive consumption. I have used the phrase “studying the news,” here, because I think that it’s fundamentally different to spend time taking notes, organizing them, and living with this day after day after day for years.

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