05 February 2016

Clilnton: 'I'm fighting for people who cannot wait for those changes.'

So said Hillary Clinton at her one-on-one debate with Senator Sanders last night. I heard that sentence in isolation on the radio this morning, and at first I assumed that Clinton meant that her constituents could not wait for the changes that Sanders wanted to make -- that they needed help now, in whatever incremental form, instead of radical change that could come only after a protracted political battle. But this is what she meant:

Yes, of course, the economy has not been working for most Americans. Yes, of course, we have special interests that are unfortunately doing too much to rig the game. But there's also the continuing challenges of racism, of sexism, of discrimination against the LGBT community, of the way that we treat people as opposed to how we want to be treated. I believe that we can get back on the right track. I want to imagine a country where people's wages reflect their hard work, where we have healthcare for everyone, and where every child gets to live up to his or her potential. I'm fighting for people who cannot wait for those changes, and I'm not making promises that I cannot keep.

Arguably my first interpretation is still plausible. It depends on the rhetorical relationship of the sentence that begins with "I want..." to the rest of the paragraph. Is Clinton fighting for the people who can't wait for wages to reflect hard work, or for healthcare for everyone, or for children getting to live up to their potential? That is, is Clinton fighting for people who can't wait for those changes because those are the changes most needed, or is she fighting for people who can't wait for those changes because they need something else done now? Her juxtaposition of the economy and bigotry bugs me a little. The implication, of course, is that Sanders isn't paying as much attention to bigotry as Clinton thinks he should -- and later she expressed disappointment that bigotry issues weren't addressed more during the debate itself. This is all important to her, I presume, because those issues make up much of her "progressive" bona fides. As the Democratic contest has intensified this month, Clinton has grown very defensive of her progressive credentials, and more convinced that they should be self-evident. During the debate she scoffed that "Senator Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment." If that makes a candidate progressive, then Margaret Thacher was a progressive when she ran for Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1979, and Carly Fiorina today is as progressive as Clinton, just as Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman were when they were running in 2012. Clinton herself would acknowledge that there has to be more to it than that -- she suggests, after all, that she's more progressive than Sanders because she's "a progressive who gets things done" -- but she resents Sanders, and presumably anyone else, acting as a "self-proclaimed gatekeeper for progressivism," just as she resents any insinuation that she has been "bought" with campaign donations or speaker's fees. Clinton is, in fact, very resentful, treating just about any criticism of herself as a "smear" while, of course, she's merely "pointing out the differences" when she goes negative on Sanders. But to return from the tangent, "progressivism" has to mean something in an exclusionary way or else the word is meaningless. If we are unable to say with some confidence that someone is "not progressive," there's no point to saying she is progressive. In such a case, "gatekeeping" is an obligation not just on an allegedly self-appointed figure like Sanders but on anyone for whom the word "progress" has meaning.

Of course, "progress" doesn't mean the same thing even for all self-styled progressives, which is why the Democrats are having debates while many other progressives will be satisfied with neither candidate. Clinton and Sanders represent two strains of, or claims to progressivism. Sanders's vision is radical and universal. He wants to break up the big banks and push through single-payer health insurance, among other goals. Clinton's vision is incremental and self-consciously inclusive. It is insistent that progress include women, racial minorities, the LGBTs, etc., not only as beneficiaries but as enactors of progress. To some progressives, this seems to matter more than any material progress made by the people or the nation as a whole. Clinton practices what might be called retail progressivsm. Sanders clearly has the good of all Americans in mind, inclusive of all demographic groups, but a retail progressive like Clinton, and her husband more so, assumes that those groups like to be acknowledged by name through gestures of inclusion that might seem redundant to an egalitarian from a relatively homogeneous state, like Sanders. Again, to retail progressives, this is progress from a past defined by inequality, bigotry and exploitation, and this may be another key to the difference in attitude between two kinds of progressivism. One faction looks backward and defines progress relative to an unjust past, while the other looks forward and sets goals for progress that have less to do with the redressing the past. Inevitably, one group of progressives is accused of insensitivity while another is accused of playing identity politics. Meanwhile, there are many Americans who really can't wait for change, and many of those may have entirely different ideas of "progress" from either of those contending for Democrats' votes. Despite the ranting of some radio talkers who've tried to make "progressive" a dirty word, I doubt whether any candidate for President this year disbelieves in progress. Whether any of them will deliver progress is another story.

03 February 2016

The sore loser

Donald Trump claims that Senator Cruz cheated to win the Iowa Caucus. The cheating allegedly consisted of false claims about Dr. Carson quitting the campaign, the idea being to get Carson supporters to caucus for Cruz, and a campaign flier that could have persuaded the very gullible that they would violate the law by not caucusing, the idea apparently being to scare potential Cruz voters into participating. In other words, Cruz appears to be guilty of the sort of low-level dirty tricks that are par for the course in election campaigns, but the inexperienced Trump is understandably scandalized. Denouncing Cruz for these tricks is a riskier move than Trump may realize. Looking forward, he wants to galvanize people against a "dirty" rival, but when Trump goes so far as to demand a do-over of the caucuses, he risks looking like a sore loser before an electorate, the Republican primary base, that is probably more intolerant of sore losers, whoever they may be or whatever their complaint, than any other group in the country. Cruz himself has compared Trump to Senator Sanders, who supposedly is demanding a recount of the Democratic caucuses -- though in fact Sanders had decided not to contest the Iowa results by the time Cruz brought the subject up.

Trump has looked like a whiner at various points in the campaign, but until this week it didn't look as if such appearances had hurt him with his fans. You'd think they'd be even more contemptuous of whiners than the Republican base as a whole, but they are, on the other hand, motivated by a strong sense of grievance they hear echoed by Trump. Now, of course, people wonder whether Trump took his whining too far when he boycotted the last TV debate before the caucuses. If so, things could get worse for him fast if people think he's still whining after Iowa. This would be unfair to Trump since people probably should be outraged over the sort of last-minute dirty tricks that are all-too-typical of the "retail politics" Trump is still learning. But Republicans have always been quite selective about whose outrage or protests they consider legitimate. They're the "life's not fair" people, after all, and it's easy to assume that they have little sympathy for anyone crying "No fair!" after losing any competition, even though they've spent the last eight years crying "No fair!" over the results of the last two Presidential votes. In other words, since their attitude makes no sense it shouldn't surprise Trump if they suddenly behave unfairly toward him.

02 February 2016

The loser

It was a near thing with the Republicans in Iowa, though not as close as the Democratic caucus, but Senator Cruz is the "winner" with little more than a quarter of the vote, while Donald Trump is the "loser" for winning one less delegate than Cruz. In the long view, if there was a winner among the Republicans last night it was Senator Rubio, whose strong finish, with as many delegates as Trump, makes the GOP contest a three-man race for the immediate future. The question for the most immediate future, however, is whether Iowa marks the beginning of the end for Trump, whether a spell was broken there. In conventional political terms you needn't think so. After all, Rick Santorum won Iowa in 2012, and Mike Huckabee tied Mitt Romney there four years earlier. Iowa is no guarantee of ultimate victory or defeat. Yet Trump supposedly hasn't been a conventional politician, and hasn't had a conventional politician's appeal. Over the past year an aura of inexorable inevitability, if not invincibility, had formed around him. As of today he seems less inevitable, and it's fair to ask how much of his mojo that costs him. Trump is sort of like Ronda Rousey, the mixed martial artist who became a pop-culture phenom for destroying her opponents with Tyson-like abruptness, until she met her Buster Douglas in Holly Holm last November. Rousey could become an Ali-like legend if she reclaims the title from Holm later this year, but something about her has been permanently lost with that one loss. Rather than "invincibility," I'd rather describe it as a belief that Rousey could do anything. People could openly speculate on her chances in a fight against Floyd Mayweather, the reputed best pound-for-pound boxer of this generation. Some believed that her special skills gave her a fighting chance, at least, against the boxer -- but to my knowledge, no one thinks that about Holm, her conqueror, despite how devastating a fighter she proved to be. When Rousey went down, a sense of possibility, realistic or not, died on the floor of the Octagon. That sense of possibility was to a great extent a product of UFC hype, just as the sense of possibility many identify with Trump is a product of Trump's own hype. Trump may get up, but if his fans felt he wasn't supposed to go down, Iowa may well be the beginning of the end or the breaking of the spell. And in spite of his boorish behavior and his insubstantial salesmanship he has brought a sense of possibility to the 2016 campaign season that probably won't survive a collapse of his candidacy, especially if that leaves us with Cruz, the relentless ideologue, as the Republican front-runner, and that Bob Dole in drag, Hillary Clinton, as his Democratic counterpart.I've never expected Trump to win the nomination, much less the White House, but those who've felt more optimistic, or more fearful on that score actually have little reason to feel differently now. Yet something has irretrievably changed now. Now that Trump has lost a vote, it'll be harder to see him as anything other than just another politician.

01 February 2016

Populism and accountability

You'd think Charles Krauthammer would wear the insults of Donald Trump like badges of honor, but in a presumed effort to appear objective he doesn't mention them in his Washington Post diatribe against Trump and Senator Sanders. The Democratic (socialist) candidate gets relatively little attention since Krauthammer still considers the possibility of his nomination "far-fetched." His real concern is with the future of the conservative movement, which he sees threatened by Trump, not only because of Trump's doubtful sincerity as a conservative but also because of his "populist" tendencies. What Krauthammer means by "populism" is best illustrated by his comparison of Trump and Sanders -- whom Krauthammer apparently sees as a left-wing populist -- with his own idea of "reform conservatism."

In radically different ways, Trump and Sanders are addressing the deep anxiety stemming from the secular stagnation in wages and living standards that has squeezed the middle and working classes for a generation. Sanders locates the villainy in a billionaire class that has rigged both the economic and political system. Trump blames foreigners, most prominently those cunning Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese and Saudis who’ve been taking merciless advantage of us, in concert with America’s own leaders who are, alternatively, stupid and incompetent or bought and corrupt.

*   *   *

 My personal preference is for ... the reform conservatism that locates the source of our problems not in heartless billionaires or crafty foreigners, but in our superannuated, increasingly sclerotic 20th-century welfare-state structures. 

Krauthammer's policy preferences aside, he may be on to something without realizing it. Leave aside also whomever Sanders or Trump actually blames for anything. The main point, the obvious difference between their "populism" and Krauthammer's ideology is that he blames systems for the nation's problems, while the populists, true to their name, blame people. Populism, I'd guess, is less concerned with the right ideas holding sway than with the right people doing so, whether they're defined individually or demographically. Hence the politics of personality that sees many rank-and-file religious conservatives supporting Trump despite their awareness of his many personal indiscretions, as well as many young people supporting Sanders, the seeming crabby old man, because a certain crabbiness may be what it takes to speak truth to power or bring it to account. For such people, structural change matters less as an end unto itself than the character of the change-maker. Senator Cruz also benefits from this to an extent, as the open contempt his fellow Republican Senators show for him signals to the grass roots that Cruz may have the personal qualities necessary to make change when ideological qualifications haven't sufficed. While Krauthammer might believe that a change of mind might redeem old politicians who sign on with "reform conservatism," populists probably feel that past failures -- as in failing the American people -- disqualify politicians from ever reclaiming public trust. That's how many Sanders supporters feel about Hillary Clinton, I suspect, and many of them probably won't vote for her if she gets the nomination unless they get really, really scared of the Republican nominee. Ditto for Trump supporters if their man loses, unless their hate for Clinton is as really, really strong. In any event, some sort of populism -- some sort of politics that calls on leaders "like us" to stand up for people "like us" -- probably rises inevitably from the bankruptcy of ideology. To ideologues, especially those skeptical towards Trump -- Krauthammer sees no evidence that the billionaire believes in limited government, for instance -- it looks like unprincipled politics, but if ideology, in the long view, proves to be the aberration in political life, the advent of a more populist (or simply more personal) politics may only mean that politics have returned to normal, or what it was supposed to be.

31 January 2016

How far left?

The current Harper's has a scathing article by Garret Keizer on a relic of oldschool leftism, the Revolutionary Communist Party USA, led from French exile by Bob Avakian. Keizer introduces us to Avakian by describing a rare American appearance of his at an advertised "public dialogue" on Revolution and Religion, at which Avakian outraged most of the audience by launching into a two-hour diatribe against religion, in an implicit attack on his interlocutor, self-described "revolutionary Christian" Cornel West. There might have been a point to the attack, which Keizer, showing his own hand somewhat, describes as "nasty bits of Eurocentric arrogance," were Avakian not the object of a carefully cultivated, utterly obscure cult of personality. Avakian is a Marxist-Leninist on the Maoist model, the RCP's line being that the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, a period the Chinese themselves prefer to pass over with a silent shudder, was "the furthest advance of human emancipation" to date. Interestingly, Avakian fled the U.S. after leading a protest against the 1979 visit of Deng Xiaoping, the man who made China's superpower possible but whom hard-core Maoists regard as a treacherous capitalist-roader.

I took a look at the RCP website, which was recently updated with "Six Resolutions of the Central Committee," most of which are dedicated to the indispensable revolutionary genius of "BA," a world-historical figure who, though "subordinate to the collectivity of the Party overall," is "greater than the Party" by virtue of his "new synthesis of communism." Avakian takes the position that no real revolution is possible without a correct, scientifically determined "line" as synthesized by himself. All of this makes me wonder why the organizers of the Revolution and Religion dialogue thought it was worth having Avakian in their midst. Cornel West at least has some sort of celebrity, while Avakian seems only to have a cult. Perhaps the organizers were entranced by the "Revolutionary Communist" label, though many were disillusioned by Avakian in the flesh. I don't doubt that many of his observations on religion were on the mark, but as far as Keizer's concerned, the issue isn't really religion vs. atheism but grass-roots vs. vanguardism. Keizer himself clearly rejects the Leninist premise that a vanguard party is necessary for any real revolution, though he concedes that "if I'm truly serious in my anticapitalism, I need to affiliate myself with some group."

The real question for the left is what it means to affiliate yourself to a group. Inescapably it must mean submitting to some sort of discipline, but ideally, at least as far as Keizer's concerned, it shouldn't be the top-down great-leader discipline of someone like Avakian. Keizer would probably say that revolution is not a science, but even if I know what he'd mean by that, I'd answer that it should be, to the extent that it proceeds by the scientific method. The problem with "scientific" socialism, as I see it, is that it predicts a result that itself dictates how we should reach that result, while encouraging adherents to attribute failures to deviations from the correct line, if not outright sabotage. Marxist-Leninists are too confident in their knowledge of what revolutions should look like and too hostile to alternate approaches. If you instead see revolution primarily as a moral or species imperative, instead of something that can be predicted like the movements of stars in the sky, you should be more willing to take a trial-and-error approach and more ready to adapt to error. Because Marxist-Leninists have an ironbound notion of what revolution looks like, they become inflexibly defensive in the face of failure, since any failure threatens to discredit the revolutionary structure that is their primary concern. But if revolution is something you're doing rather than something you're building, it shouldn't follow that any revolutionary mistake discredits the revolution itself. Vanguardism only makes things worse because self-appointed vanguards bring with them a preconceived "scientific" notion of what the poor or the working class should be doing. Avakian, for instance, once dallied with the labor movement but ultimately repudiated it because unions were more concerned with improving working conditions for their members than in taking over. Such an attitude tempts one to infer that someone like Avakian probably doesn't really care about anyone's working conditions, so long as they're doing the work he considers necessary. To reject the Avakians of the left shouldn't mean abandoning all efforts to persuade the grass roots of the necessity of certain measures and policies, but it does mean listening to what the grass roots deem necessary as well, instead of sneering at their unscientific consciousness. For whose sake is revolution undertaken, after all? For the good of the people, everyone will say. But who gets to say what the good of the people is? There has to be a middle ground between "it's whatever the people say it is" and "it's exactly what Marx/Lenin/Stalin/Mao/Avakian says it is." But no middle ground is even apparent, arguably, unless both sides, or all sides, make themselves heard, so I guess we have to tolerate the Avakians of the world on the off chance that one of them may be right about something, even if their pretensions of epochal genius deserve only laughter.

28 January 2016

Redefining the right

Ryan Lizza analyzes the Trump vs. Cruz race in this week's New Yorker. He emphasizes that Trump "doesn't use the traditional language of the right," while his supporters are "uninterested in how conservative the G.O.P. should or shouldn't be." Standard conservative litmus tests don't apply to The Donald; his supporters prefer to choose a la carte from the ideological menu. Ann Coulter, for instance, likes Trump's position on immigration so much that she wouldn't care if he "wants to perform abortions in the White House." A non-celebrity fan, who also claims to be a fan of Kim Davis, the homophobic county clerk from Kentucky, says that Trump's apparent lack of religion doesn't faze her, since "strength" and "forthrightness" determine her political preferences. Lizza notes that Trump's strongest supporters are "less educated and less well off" while his fiercest opponents (among Republicans, that is) have "advanced degrees and high incomes." In effect, Lizza claims, "Trump has turned what is traditionally an ideological fight into a class war." Quoting another observer, Lizza writes that Trump is forcing Republicans to ask and answer a new question for them: "To what extent should the G.O.P. be the advocates for those struggling in the modern economy?" No Republican can stop Trump, Lizza warns, unless that candidate "can realistically address the economic anxieties of its base without succumbing to Trump-style bigotry."

Given all this information you might ask why Trump is still considered a candidate of the "right," except that Lizza answered the question in that last sentence. However I may define the term "populist," it often means "working class bigot" when used to describe Trump's fans, if not Trump himself. When a Trump supporter says "We're tired of being run over," Lizza makes sure you understand the person means they've been run over by welfare cheats and their political patrons. This particular person says her husband works two jobs for seventeen hours a day with one leg -- and there's the hubby to confirm this -- but while a liberal progressive or democratic socialist might say that a person in his condition shouldn't have to work any job, he's more interested in seeing Trump put those other people to work. Of course, there's also the anger vented at protesters and journalists at Trump rallies, while Trump's own attitude toward the press -- expressed most recently in his boycott of tonight's Fox News debate -- is rightly disquieting to the media. The left wants Trump's base to be angry, but they have to be careful of whom they're angry at to avoid being relegated to the "right." But what is "the right" now? Trump and Cruz are fighting to determine that, whether Trump is aware of the stakes or not. He may well think of himself as a man of "the right," if only because he perceives a "left" that he despises, however he defines it. To any left, I suppose, "the right" means privilege. Cruz obviously upholds the "privileges" of wealth and business, but to the left Trump and his people uphold some sort of privilege, also, whether it's "white skin privilege" or something else along those lines. In this case it might be best to oppose "privilege" to "inclusion," a supreme value of the 21st century American left. Whole groups of people don't feel welcome in the Trump movement, probably including many Trump hasn't actually attacked or criticized. That's most likely because the left assumes that to exclude one is to exclude all, that hostility to Mexicans or Muslims is only an aspect of that universal white (or white male, or straight white) hatred of any Other that, to some, virtually defines western civilization.

But while the left perceives any sort of exclusionary populism as "the right," that populism actually occupies the center of at least one continuum of thought. At one end, the "right" of capital and free enterprise, anyone can succeed and the successful are welcome everywhere, but nothing is promised, much less guaranteed, to anyone. For them it's survival of the fittest, albeit within certain self-justifying rules, and the losers can rot. At the other end, which in this case means liberalism rather than an often less-forgiving hard left, everyone must make it, with no questions asked, or else the world is unjust. In the middle are those who believe that their membership in a particular group entitles them to something more than the right would grant, but believe that entitlement to be a birthright rather than a human right to be shared unconditionally with everyone else. Populists often think of themselves as "the people," but at the same time they effectively affirm that they are a people who are distinct from others and like it that way. Let's say they see themselves as the people who define a people as a distinctive thing. This becomes problematic if they're not the only ones who form a particular people, but it shouldn't be as problematic when they demand that a people, in the national sense of the word, ought to be considered by their nation before the nation looks abroad for monsters to destroy (today's populists oppose neoconservatism and liberal interventionism, seeing them as two sides of the same coin) or strangers to embrace. It needn't be a matter of hate or ethnocentrism or any sort of prejudice. It can be as simple as what I hear every day: why do we spend so much money on foreign countries when there's such crying need in this country? Democrats hear that and say: no problem, we'll tax the rich more to help you out without changing anything else; while most Republicans won't listen unless someone can profit by addressing those crying needs. The middle ground between those positions doesn't have to be "the right" unless the people occupying that ground are pushed there. That doesn't mean those people have no obligation to think straight about who all the people are who make this a people, but it does mean that the rest of this people have to think hard about their priorities, too.

People who live in glass theocracies ....

A quick comment is in order about the scandal in Italy over the Prime Minister's decision to hide various nude statues behind screens to spare the quaint puritanical sensibilities of the President of Iran during his visit to Rome. It was a silly gesture on its own terms but diplomacy often looks silly to those not engaged in it. Islamic contempt for nude sculpture is itself contemptible -- though presumably a Shiite like President Rouhani is less iconophobic than his Sunni counterparts around the Muslim world -- but those who question the Italian government's decision should also question why female dignitaries, or the wives of dignitaries, are obliged to follow a dress code when meeting with the Pope. If modesty is contemptible it becomes no less so when Roman Catholics rather than Muslims insist upon it. If self-expression is to be upheld against all opposition let's not be selective in our criticism. The point of opposing Islamism in all its forms isn't simply not to bow to it, but to bow to no such thing.

26 January 2016

Putin vs. Lenin

President Putin of Russia felt inspired the other day to differentiate himself from Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union. Often suspected of totalitarian tendencies because of his KGB past, Putin admitted that he still believes in some of the ideals behind the Soviet Union, but also admitted that "the practical embodiment of these wonderful ideas in our country was very far from what the Utopian socialists had proclaimed." Putin has several problems with Lenin, if not with Leninism. He thinks Lenin went too far in ordering the slaughter of not only the Russian royal family, but many of their servants who,ought to have been recognized as proletarians. His real beef with Lenin, it turns out, is that Lenin was a federalist, a believer in national autonomy on some level whose policies implied a right of secession that Putin describes as an "atom bomb" waiting to blow the country apart, as it did, in his view, in 1991. He further faults Lenin for having to give up a huge swath of territory to the Germans in 1918. In general, Putin seems to take a more favorable view of Stalin, but the standard by which he judges the two leaders is essentially nationalist, since for him the USSR was just another name for Russia. In his recent talk Putin notes that Stalin preferred a "unitary state" from the onset, but was overruled by Lenin. If the question was whether the socialist republics within the Soviet Union could secede or not, an American might ask what was wrong with Stalin's (and Putin's) position, since most Americans, apart from those unreconstructed Rebs, reject the idea that any state can break up our Union. You would have to turn to the Poles, the Latvians, the Lithuanians, the Estonians and, yes, the Ukrainians, as well as unlisted others, for the answer. As far as these peoples are concerned, they were subjects of the Russian Empire, not partners in it. They'd be justified in finding Putin's apparent nostalgia for the pre-1917 empire alarming, though they shouldn't go overboard in their alarm as long as Putin doesn't go overboard in his nostalgia and turn it into imperialist irredentism. Putin may be a hero of sorts to the anti-imperialist left because he defies the U.S. and sticks up for others who do so, but "anti-imperialist" hardly describes Putin himself.
"the practical embodiment of these wonderful ideas in our country was very far from what the Utopian socialists had proclaimed."

"the practical embodiment of these wonderful ideas in our country was very far from what the Utopian socialists had proclaimed."

"the practical embodiment of these wonderful ideas in our country was very far from what the Utopian socialists had proclaimed."