25 May 2016

Clinton's negatives: who, not what

Shortly before I read a summary of a State Department report criticizing former Secretary of State Clinton for her use of a private e-mail server, I saw David Brooks' oddly blind attempt to explain why the presumptive Democratic nominee for President seems so unpopular. Brooks is one of the New York Times' house conservatives, but I suspect that he can't yet bring himself to vote for Donald Trump this November. His column presumes that Clinton's unpopularity is more difficult to explain than Trump's. The difficulty, apparently, is his, since the best he can come up with is that she turns people off because they perceive her as an impersonal workaholic:

People who work closely with her adore her and say she is warm and caring. But it’s hard from the outside to think of any non-career or pre-career aspect to her life. Except for a few grandma references, she presents herself as a résumé and policy brief. ...Clinton’s unpopularity is akin to the unpopularity of a workaholic. Workaholism is a form of emotional self-estrangement. Workaholics are so consumed by their professional activities that their feelings don’t inform their most fundamental decisions.... At least in her public persona, Clinton gives off an exclusively professional vibe: industrious, calculated, goal-oriented, distrustful. It’s hard from the outside to have a sense of her as a person; she is a role.

Ironically, Brooks has actually described Clinton's strength. What popularity she has depends on the role she fills in the eyes of admirers, most obviously the role of feminist trailblazer.  If anything, people's willingness to identify Clinton with that role is her best protection against attacks that have absolutely nothing to do with any conception of Clinton as an impersonal workaholic. Clintonites have garbed their idol in symbolic armor that proofs them more than it proofs her from criticism of Clinton the person rather than Clinton the historic role-player. Many Clintonites, I suspect, are convinced that Clinton is only being attacked for what she is -- a woman politician if not the presumptive first woman President -- rather than for who she is. If so, their attitude is like those blinkered superpatriots who claimed that the U.S was attacked in 2001 for who we were, not for what we did. The claim amounted to a presumption of innocence for the U.S., and likewise Clintonites who claim that Clinton hatred is founded entirely on misogyny, from Trumpets or Bernie Bros, effectively presume their heroine innocent of everything. Worse yet, they seem to presume that every accusation against her is a partisan or misogynist lie.

There certainly are stupid and unfair reasons to oppose Hillary Clinton. My favorite of these is a recurring complaint about the sound of her voice, and even that set off a feminist overreaction that made it misogynist to describe a female politician "shouting." But the biggest lie of this political season is that there are no good reasons to oppose Clinton, but only misogynist lies and distortions. This lie can only be sustained only by refusing to see Clinton for who she is, and creating a myth of what she is in place of the actual person. Does that mean she's so awful that we had all better vote for Trump? I won't go that far. I'd rather see more people take up the NeitherTrumpNorHillary hashtag, though I fear it won't amount to much unless all those who do so rally around one candidate. More people might vote against both presumptive candidates if they didn't fear or despise one or the other so much. The sad part of the 2016 story is that most voters will still fear or despise one more than the other, and see the other as their only protection from the hated one, when the truth is that there's a surplus of reasons to at least despise both enough to demand an alternative at last, and as fast as possible, of our decrepit Bipolarchy.

23 May 2016

The platform wars

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, was embarrassed in Washington state over the weekend when all but one of the delegates chosen at the state's GOP convention were loyal to Senator Cruz. The outcome may look like a protest vote, since Cruz has suspended his campaign, despite his pathetic threat to resume the fight had Oregon gone his way. It seems an even more feeble protest, since Washington still holds a primary tomorrow and, according to this story, the delegates chosen over the weekend will be bound to support Trump should he win the primary, as expected in the absence of active opposition. However, their obligation to Trump presumably begins and ends with a vote for his nomination. These delegates presumably are not obliged to vote Trump's way, whatever that may be, on planks of the Republican platform. Cruz and other diehard Republican ideologues clearly hope to use the platform to reassure the regulars of the party's ideological soundness, regardless of what Trump has in mind. Supporters of Senator Sanders on the Democratic side have something similar in mind. Sanders remains determined to maximize his delegate count for the Democratic convention in order to push through a "progressive" platform, regardless of what Hillary Clinton has in mind. For both parties, the platform fights promise to be the main events of the national conventions, now that the presidential nominations, barring the unforeseen, are foregone conclusions. But what's the point of platform fights today?

If anything, platforms built with ideological carpentry more extreme than the actual candidates' positions can only hurt them with the general electorate. A Democratic platform shaped by Sanders or a Republican platform shaped by Cruz will only provide ammunition for the opposite party on the assumption that Clinton or Trump must agree with every plank on the platform. Yet who actually believes that either Clinton or Trump will govern in a manner governed by their party platforms? If Republicans don't trust Trump to govern within constitutional bounds, why should they trust him to respect the platform? If Democrats don't trust Clinton to govern consistently with any principle, why even care what the platform says? Once upon a time the platform was a party's principal campaign document, the thing people could read even if they never got to hear a proper campaign speech. It told you what the party stood for, but in this election perhaps more than ever the personalities of the major-party candidates will be all that matters to most people.The candidates' acceptance speeches, a comparatively recent innovation, now occupy the mental space once taken by the party platforms. How many people will actually read the party platforms, apart from opposition researchers looking for vulnerabilities? Yet the diehard opposition in both parties still reaches for planks of the platform as refuge from the popular tide. Their platform battles may ultimately be empty gestures, but I suppose they continue to justify a campaign's existence and keep the cash coming in from the donors, even though their eventual handiwork is unlikely to support the weight of the modern Presidency and all its pretensions and prerogatives. If platforms are to mean anything, they should be in place before the primaries, and party leaders should have the power to forbid anyone who doesn't endorse the platform from running for President. Instead, a candidate usually dictates a platform after his or her nomination has become a fait accompli. This year promises to be different because of entrenching ideological opposition to the presumptive nominees, but this year's conventions may only prove that platforms and platform wars make little difference in the actual governance of the country.

20 May 2016

The other 1% (approx.)

Actually, according to a quick check of online statistics, only about 0.3% of the U.S. population is "transgender." On the other hand, if you ask progressives how many people actually control the U.S., their estimate might also go well below the more attention-grabbing 1% mark. I bring this up because someone called into our news office today to complain that, in his push for transgender rights, President Obama is catering to less than 1% of the population. I was struck by the symmetry of this complaint and the persistent progressive railing against "the 1%" who they see as the source of all our troubles. What worries me is that the transgender-phobic anger at an approximate 1% may have more political potency than the progressive polemic against their ever-underestimated 1% plutocracy. Ever since the Occupy movement broke out I've warned that "1%" rhetoric misrepresents the problem progressives face in the U.S., where their agenda has been checked not by a plutocracy but by a more extensive bourgeoisie and a bigoted lumpenproletariat, to borrow Marxist terms, all of whom claim a stake in the present social order, or an idealized earlier form of it which the left and its constituents are alleged to have corrupted. No left movement in this country can ever hope to rally or even represent 99% of the population in opposition to the richest one-hundredth. At the same time, "1%" rhetoric ignores the fact that many people in the statistical 1% share at least some of the progressive social or cultural agenda, from higher tax rates for the richest to greater tolerance and inclusiveness overall. By comparison, the transgender "1%" presents a less-slippery target for right-wing demagogues, and the Democrats' current obsession with public-restroom access has only shown that there are no limits to how much the Obama administration can infuriate the populist right. If anything, it seems like those people find transgenders even more disgusting and threatening than they do homosexuals. It seems clear from the samples I hear that they see the restroom controversy entirely as an attempt to empower perverts while endangering innocent children. I have a bad feeling this issue will only help Republicans this year. I can understand the justice of the progressive position on an intellectual level, but pushing this issue at this time seems likely to alienate more people than it may inspire. Progressives may envision a broad, diverse coalition of women and all minorities, all of whom presumably empathize with anyone who feels excluded from anything. But I'm not sure how many people who are not transgender will feel more motivated to vote Democratic because of the stand the party is taking for transgenders, while more people may be motivated to vote against Democrats because they see the country more than ever going the way of Sodom and Gomorrah. Again, I can sympathize with a progressive impulse to smash all barriers raised by ignorance and superstition, but something still seems impolitic about forcing this particular issue now. I don't want to dismiss all of this as "identity politics," but I'd like to think that if a political party's highest priority is to get as many votes as possible, that should determine the ranking of other priorities -- and with apologies to the 1% or so who do deserve better, I think Democratic priorities right now are a little askew.

19 May 2016

Disaster sells

When I got up this morning I did a little channel surfing through the news networks. I was amazed to find none of them talking about Donald Trump. Instead, all were fishing for every tidbit of news about the Egyptian airliner that apparently had gone down last night, possibly due to terrorism. I wondered whether regular viewers resented the attention given this event. Did they consider it a distraction from the important stories of the day, the week, the year? I'd guess not, because otherwise the networks wouldn't all go to all-crash coverage, or at least one would break ranks to give people the latest political gossip. While the abrupt disappearance of an Egyptian airliner flying from France probably does seem relevant to larger narratives so long as terrorism can't be ruled out, it's also true that a morbid fascination with mass death transcends many Americans' ordinary indifference to foreign peoples and countries. It may be that a similar morbid fascination explains the media fascination with Trump and the apparently increasing likelihood of his presidency. If so, then the news networks weren't really changing their policy this morning. It's just that EgyptAir was just the flavor of the day.

18 May 2016

What happened in Vegas ...

There seems to be plenty of blame to go around for the debacle at the Nevada Democratic convention last weekend. There might not have been a debacle had all the Sanders delegates chosen at county conventions bothered to show up -- on paper they outnumbered Clinton delegates by a few hundred but in the room Clinton had a few dozen more --  but that doesn't take the Clinton forces, including the party chairperson, off the hook for dubiously interpreting some voice votes in Clinton's favor, and that in turn didn't justify Sanders supporters making a spectacle of their frustrated rage -- not to mention playing into the Clintonites' hands by inevitably insulting the party chairperson in violent, misogynist terms. The real problem is Nevada's archaic system of caucuses and county conventions. Much of the country adopted direct primaries generations ago, the idea being to empower the rank and file and prevent party bosses from effectively dictating who the candidates would be. While I won't tell political parties how to select their candidates, as long as they don't tell me to pay for the selection process, I would think that in a democracy a mass party's candidate-selection process should be as direct and democratic as possible. And for what it's worth, when the party selects a national candidate I see no good reason for the selection not to take place simultaneously nationwide, leaving delegates out entirely. It's too late to make such recommendations now, and the damage to the Democrats has been done. Clintonites feel more certain that Sandersites are sore losers and woman-haters, while Sandersites claim fresh proof that the system is rigged against them. The result leaves Democrats worried that disgruntled Sandersites may stay home in November or, worse, vote for Trump to spite Clinton. The more honorable option would be to field a third-party candidate -- Sanders or somebody else -- so they can play a responsible role in the election process. But the real fear is that they'll play an irresponsible role, facilitating Trump's election in the perverse hope that the blowhard billionaire will screw up or crack down so badly that he'll provoke a real revolution. Some might say that a third party would have the same effect, but at least the voters for such a party can remind people after the disaster that there was a better option. Given what the two major parties are going to offer us, there has to be.

17 May 2016

Will Trump's nomination disrupt the media balance?

Part of my job at a newspaper office involves transcribing comments phoned in by readers. In the last week, I've heard two of them complain that all the columnists at our paper are against Donald Trump. They want the paper to restore some balance to its editorial page for the general election campaign. While Trump has dominated talking-head TV to an unfair extent in some people's opinion, so far he has few friends in newsprint. The problem for Trump fans is that while my paper has the typical mix of Democratic and Republican columnists -- mostly from the Washington Post syndicate -- the familiar conservative Republican writers remain adamantly opposed to Trump and will most likely prove slower than Republican elected officials to come around. None of them, to my knowledge, is endorsing Hillary Clinton, but they remain unconvinced that a Clinton presidency would be worse than a Trump administration. We can speculate on why they feel that way, but the immediate problem, at least for newspapers, is whether any aspiration to fairness or balance on their editorial or op-ed pages can be maintained when Republican columnists refuse to play their regular role. As noted, some Trump fans are already crying foul over opinion pages becoming #nevertrump zones, but what are papers and syndicates to do? Supposedly Pat Buchanan is available to write for Trump, but who else? Are the syndicates supposed to recruit new columnists whose only credential would be love of Trump? Should they persuade some of their Republican regulars to step aside for the summer and fall for a guest Trumpet? Or should they admit at last that "balance" only ever applied to the bipartisan rivalry within the political establishment, excluding opinions to the left of Democrats, to the right of Republicans, or, if possible, outside the whole left-right continuum? Should they finally admit also that they've never been obliged to represent all sides in political debates? Would doing so teach Trump's followers, and the rest of the electorate, any sort of lesson?  Do the Trumpets realize now how little room the opinion establishment allows alternative points of view, or do they think that Trump is entitled to editorial-page representation because he'll be the Republican nominee? Given one caller's complaint that Republicans who criticized Trump were not real conservatives, it's hard to say.

16 May 2016

Sanders and the feminists: too radical or not radical enough

Katha Pollitt, the Nation magazine columnist, has been one of the most unapologetic die-hard supporters of Hillary Clinton's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. You might guess that Sen. Sanders never had a chance with her, but while admitting in last week's column that "in important ways his politics are closer to mine than Hillary Clinton’s are" Pollitt stuck with Clinton -- despite missing the deadline for her absentee ballot -- because "Bernie didn't ask for my vote." Here we go again, right? Translating herself, Pollitt explains, "He never convinced me that gender issues, specifically the persistent subordination of women in every area of life, were of much concern to him" What she means is that addressing these issues is, in some irreducible way, separate and not to be inferred from Sanders' consistent attention to class issues. In other words, solving the problem of class will not solve the problem of gender -- or race or sexual orientation, as Pollitt dutifully adds. To some extent, she sees racism and male chauvinism as causes of capitalism rather than effects. Sanders "doesn’t seem to understand that the economy, like society generally, is structured by gender and race," Pollitt writes, "If women and men are funneled into different kinds of work by race and gender, with men’s jobs valued more because men are valued more, and if women are hobbled economically by doing most of the domestic labor and having to contend with prejudice against working mothers to boot, equal pay alone doesn’t solve the problem." If Sanders really wanted her vote, Pollitt thinks, he should have "given a major speech about his plans to make women’s lives better—safer, fairer, less dominated by men."

If anything, Pollitt contemplates a far more radical transformation of society than Sanders does -- so far as Pollitt or I know -- in order to undo and prevent "domination by men" or by a dominant ethnic or religious group. And yet she entrusts this sociosexual agenda to Hillary Clinton, whose only positive attribute mentioned by Pollitt is that she "gets the awful reality we're facing" from a possible Republican presidency founded almost entirely, as far as Pollitt can tell, on bigotry. Clinton "gets it," presumably, because she's always talking about breaking barriers in a way that apparently doesn't come naturally -- the talking if not also the breaking -- to Sanders. But if Sanders is an incomplete radical in Pollitt's eyes because he doesn't seem to recognize the need of a revolution beyond socialism, Clinton is just as incomplete if, as some critics claim, her barrier-breaking agenda is all about opening the capitalist elite to both sexes, all races, etc., without doing away with elites. It may be that Clinton and Pollitt are two kinds of feminist, the latter possibly more radical than the former yet so convinced of the necessity of a revolution beyond socialism that she can pin her hopes on Clinton, because she says the right things sometimes, while deeming Sanders hopeless. If that sounds foolish, it could be worse if Pollitt seems to dismiss socioeconomic radicalism as inadequate to her purpose. After all, it may be that Pollitt's hoped-for sociosexual revolution against all forms of "domination" is possible only on a socialist foundation, yet to support Clinton over Sanders is virtually to say that socialism isn't necessary, no matter how many idiots see Clinton herself as socialist. The socialist and feminist revolutions ought to be complementary agendas, but the Democratic primary campaign seems to have forced them into rivalry, with feminists like Pollitt siding with Clinton because they're (to some extent) understandably fed up with having been told for ages to wait until after higher-priority revolutions are accomplished.

Rather than close with a curse on feminism, however, I have to concede that Sanders shares blame for the situation. Since it should have been clear to him long ago what feminists like Pollitt wanted to hear, it's fair to ask why it's seemed so hard for him to say it. If Paris is worth a Mass, as the French say, why can't Sanders sell himself to feminists when it should be so easy, and when women like Pollitt seem poised to abandon Clinton upon hearing the right words? Instead, Sanders disgusted Pollitt with an apparently tone-deaf disavowal of male chauvinism.“No one has ever heard me say, ‘Hey guys, let’s stand together, vote for a man.’" Sanders said, "I would never do that, never have.” To Pollitt this betrayed a "vast ... deep ... historically embedded [and] unconscious" sense of entitlement on Sanders's part -- a failure, if I get Pollitt's meaning, that Sanders is where he is only because guys have been standing together for a man without needing to be told to. It's quite an overreaction, but unless you want to say that there is nothing Sanders can do to win over women like Pollitt so long as Clinton is in the race you should concede that Sanders and whatever speechwriters he has could fix these rhetorical problems easily if they really wanted to. Maybe the fact that they don't is a truly unconscious admission that they aren't going to win, so why bother tweaking the speeches? If they weren't willing to compete for the feminist vote you might conclude that the whole Sanders campaign has been less about what he's for than about who he's against. If so, I suppose they shouldn't be surprised if feminists feel that Sanders is against them, too.