Tag Archives: Politics

What next for the Democratic Party?

Let’s indulge hope, just for a moment, and play pretend. Let’s imagine possibilities, precisely because we’re pessimists and expect that even an illusion of encouraging circumstances is usually short lived, and so one might as well daydream when one gets the chance.

Along these lines, then, let’s ask what liberals/Democrats should do next?

The prompting for this bit of whimsy is, obviously, the Affordable Care Act’s most recent Houdini Act. Plus a couple of recent articles that more directly considered the idea that the Democratic Party might be about due for a new project.

This is, on a basic level, not actually all that fanciful. It does seem possible that the years-long effort to implement and defend the Affordable Care Act is, at least, ready to shift from war-of-survival to maintenance-program. I think it isn’t completely delusional to suggest, as Vox has, that Republicans are just running out of ideas to disembowel the ACA with one stroke. More importantly, perhaps, I suspect that they may also just be running out of steam a little bit. At some level. Certainly the fact that, by the time the Supreme Court finally ruled on King v Burwell, many many elected Republicans were actually quietly relieved that they didn’t have to deal with the consequences of a “victory” suggests that they may be ready to redirect resources to some other issue.

So perhaps the Democratic Party ought to be thinking the same thing. Significantly, and strange as it is to suggest, “Obamacare” arguably completes the several-decades-long project of safety net programs. Compared with e.g. a European welfare state, America’s redistributive social programs are still a net, indeed, i.e. full of holes. But as a skeleton, an outline, they do seem basically complete: old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, disability payments, and, finally, a program that at least aspires toward universal health care access (however short it falls at present). There is no longer any obvious, complete void to demand patching over as priority one.

At the same time, I might add, it looks (from my point of admitted privilege) like social equality is making reasonable progress. Racism, sexism, homophobia etc. still certainly exist, but the space in which it’s okay to be noticed practicing these -isms seems to get narrower every year. Maybe, as I will speculate with some other issues as well, progress from the bottom up is now self-sustaining here without top-down pressure. Perhaps.

All of this suggests both an opportunity and a challenge. A once-in-a-generation chance to think big and dream of something more than just building a floor is kind of exciting, in theory. At the same time, however, a description I read a few years back of legislative reform in America having “limited bandwidth” has only seemed more and more apt with time. It seems likely that Democrats will mark eight years in the White House with precisely one major legislative achievement to show for them (health care reform). It seems just about as likely that accomplishing even that much in the next decade will be a tall order. Yet that’s all the more reason to prioritize. Chance is always a factor, but for the most part this generation shouldn’t expect much further in the way of big, national progressive reform without a sustained, focused campaign for it. Plus, a party ought to have some national agenda to run on in a national election, however dim that agenda’s prospects, right?

So: what to place first in that low-bandwidth download queue? (Note: as this is primarily a look at what should be done, even if there is limited support, it won’t be constrained by present congressional malapportionment, etc., because what do several more years of locked-in gerrymandering matter when it may take 10, 15 or more years to build your case for action anyway? That said, I am going to “score” each issue and will examine political prospects therein, briefly.) Read More →

Trade treaty arguments’ conspicuous omission

In the wake of yesterday’s extensive coverage of the latest development (whatever it was) in the Obama administration’s quest to enact new “free-trade agreements” like the Trans Pacific Partnership, I realized there’s something notable about the associated arguments that I had not noticed before.

Sherlock Holmes memorably observed once, of the non-reaction of a dog at night, “that was the curious incident.” Even with this model before me, it has taken quite some time, but today I finally picked up on a similar absence from advocacy of new trade treaties:

Proponents aren’t promising jobs.

On the surface, this is easy to overlook because “jobs” are still part of the arguments. Mostly, however, in the form of opponents warning that these treaties will result in loss of many Americans’ jobs. Treaty proponents mostly, so far as I can tell, tut-tut and then attempt to change the subject to rosy forecasts for “growth,” or to disingenuous scoldings about protectionism, or to booga-booga-China-scary xenophobic jingo.

What I realized today is notable, however, is that not only are proponents saying little to refute directly the claims of job losses, they aren’t promising job creation. In 2015 American politics this is almost like not including an appeal for money. It’s so strange you might not even notice its absence at once but when you do it’s simply shocking.

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Ireland fine with gay marriage

I have had relatively little to say as America has, in 15 years, gone from “don’t ask don’t tell” to legal gay weddings in however many states it is at the moment. That’s hardly a credit to me; the best I can say for myself is that

  1. I’ve never had real opposition to marriage equality
  2. I recognized my lack of close investment in the issue, and generally stood aside trusting advocates to present their case best; and
  3. I have consistently voted for candidates either supportive or at least acquiescent, rather than those peddling repression and bigotry.

I am prompted to post now by the recent referendum in Ireland recognizing gay marriage (as marriage, i.e., not just civil partnerships). This is notable in itself, for a solidly Catholic country in which the church strongly opposed this result. In detail, it also underscores something that I recently concluded about why segregating marriage from same-sex relationships was probably not just wrongheaded but impossible, at least in any society where equality is taken seriously.

This took me way too long to realize, and it can hardly be regarded a great insight given the advantages of hindsight. Still, for what it’s worth…

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Tories, blue and red

I’m coming around to the suggestion that there is a common weakness at the back of Anglophone labor parties’ concurrent woes. That, i.e., their embrace of a triangulating “third way” approach which abandoned dedicated advocacy of the working class in favor of grabbing “the center” (as defined by the corporate elite) was short-term convenient, but long-term self-annihilation.

This is often called “neoliberalism,” but aside from this having always felt like an intentionally misleading term, it has occurred to me that in practice it basically amounted to trickle-down economics 2.0. In theory, center-left parties continued to advocate government intervention. But from Tony Blair’s “first you need wealth to redistribute” to Bill Clinton’s “it’s the economy stupid,” in practice this easily devolves into “just keep corporate stock values perky and everyone wins.”

That didn’t work. The New Economy has proved to be much like the old economy, a rising tide does not in fact lift all boats, and for labor to share in economic growth it still needs to fight for it via some organized counterweight to corporate solidarity. Union strength having steadily eroded in Anglophone society, that leaves political parties… which have been “consciously uncoupled” from working class advocacy for a generation.


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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