30 June 2011

An Obituary for the 'Liberal Class'

We last encountered the journalist Chris Hedges denouncing atheists for their smug naivete, but in his new book the leftist author attributes the same sin, with variations, to an entire "liberal class." Death of the Liberal Class is Hedges's condemnation of an intelligentsia that has betrayed its heritage, not to mention its moral obligations, over the last century or so. He declares the liberals "dead" because they have failed to resist the global assertion of corporate power or defend the poor against capitalist extremism. He blames that failure on generations of compromises. Due to the Enlightenment, Hedges argues, liberals have an unjustified faith in perpetual progress and an insufficient appreciation of mankind's capacity for evil. In the Progressive Era, liberals adopted what Hedges considers a blind faith in the state as the vehicle for human improvement. That is, they put their faith in power instead of taking their rightful place on the side of the powerless, who are presumably doomed always to suffer from power. Later in the 20th century, liberals succumbed to the imperatives of professionalism and careerism, putting tenure or simple job security ahead of moral imperatives to denounce injustice. Later still, liberals joined the Beats, the hippies, the ad agencies et al, in adopting an essentially selfish ethic of personal fulfillment at the cost of compassion for simple poor folk. As a result, Hedges claims, liberals have lost the moral will to resist unchecked corporatism and the moral authority to lead any other resistance.

Here's a representative summation of Hedges's postmortem:

By silencing those who clung to moral imperatives, the liberal class robbed itself of the language and analytical means to make sense of the destruction. Liberals assumed that the engines of capitalism could be persuaded to exercise a rational self-control and beneficence -- a notion that would have gotten anyone who proposed it laughed out of old militant labor halls. The liberal class, seduced by the ridiculous dictum that the marketplace could be the arbiter of all human political and economic activity, handed away the rights of the working class and the middle class. Even after the effects of climate change became known, the liberal class permitted corporations to continue to poison and pollute the planet. The liberal class collaborated with these corporate forces and did so with a stunning gullibility. The short-term benefits of this collaboration will soon give way to a systems collapse.

The true militants of the American twentieth century, including the old communist unions, understood, in a way the liberal class does not, the dynamics of capitalism and human evil. They knew that they had to challenge every level of management. They saw themselves as political beings. They called for a sweeping social transformation....And for this they were destroyed. They were replaced with a pliant liberal class that spoke in the depoliticized language of narrow self-interest and pathetic 'buy American' campaigns.

If Hedges is more radical than the typical liberal, is he also more violent? He admits that "There are times -- and this moment in humane history may turn out to be one of them -- when human beings are forced to respond to repression with violence." But he adds immediately that "violence has inherent problems," the most obviously being that it brings violent but not necessarily conscientious people to the forefront. Depending on violence to save ourselves will only pit "monsters against monsters," he warns. Hedges is too much of a realist by his own rights to assume that any resistance can succeed at this late point in human history, but he does want people to resist, civilly if possible, disobediently if necessary. The essential quality for a true rebel, in his view, is a capacity for self-sacrifice. The rebel needn't necessarily sacrifice his life, but he must be willing to sacrifice personal comfort or security (job security in particular) to "nonhistorical" principles -- compassion above all for Hedges. The rebel must be driven by moral imperatives while disregarding practical worries. Moral acts "should be carried out, not because they are effective, but because they are right," he writes. Because every moral act sets a moral example, "no act of resistance is useless."

Hedges's jeremiad is bound to annoy many -- that was his intention. His condemnation of liberal professionalism is problematic, because it makes any liberal who has to earn to live suspect in his eyes. It would seem that if you'd like to have working-class intellectuals, you'd have to have a system that'll allow them to make a living thinking and teaching. Such a system should be less conformist and more tolerant of radicalism, but doing without one entirely on the assumption that tenure tames intellectual or moral inquiry would seem to mean that we'll have to leave intellect to a leisure class or else steer aspiring working-class thinkers to the priesthoods that were their only avenues of development in pre-modern times. Maybe that's part of why Hedges is so defensive about religion. I also resented Hedges's swipes at modernist culture, including his reprise of the old canard that the Abstract Expressionists were reactionaries because they rejected politicized art. Hedges apparently feels that politicized art is the only worthwhile kind, but that way lies philistinism, however compassionate.

My biggest complaint is that Death of the Liberal Class is a poor excuse for intellectual history. It is, in fact, a typical assemblage of circumstantial evidence of the sort conspiracymongers of all ideologies employ to prove the obvious corruption of those who disagree with them. I don't mean to deny that the "liberal class" is dead, but I think Hedges did his autopsy with a blowtorch. American culture has gone through a relentless dialectic process during which entrepreneurial ideologues have kept the left on the defensive through their monopolization of the premise of "freedom," a term that hardly appears in Hedges's book. The "right" has managed to label every "liberal" initiative as some kind of offense against "freedom," and liberals usually end up backpedaling and compromising because they have no answer to the "freedom" argument or no compelling alternate definition of the term to build their own arguments on. While Hedges makes some good points on the distinction to be drawn between individualism and mere selfishness, he has yet to show how he'd answer the charge that he's an enemy of freedom by making similar distinctions between freedom and mere greed. Hedges may believe that the world is so far gone that "freedom" is bound to become irrelevant in his envisioned future of small enlightened enclaves far from the "food deserts" of urban America. But "freedom" isn't irrelevant yet, and if he wants to accomplish something meaningful now, on top of his pertinent account of liberal impotence, he should write a book to help midwife the new birth of "freedom" that has to happen soon.

28 June 2011

IOU-solationism: Imperialist criticizes fiscally conservative foreign policy

One of the fault lines likely to split the Republican party during next year's presidential primary season is foreign policy. For the moment, the rift seems to divide the current candidates from a GOP establishment disapproving from the sidelines. Most notably, Senator McCain has criticized "isolationist" tendencies within his own party, decrying many Republicans' lack of commitment to the campaign against Libya as well as a broader desire for a rollback of American commitments abroad in the interest of deficit and debt reduction. Now British historian and Newsweek columnist Niall Ferguson takes up McCain's cudgel, coining a new buzzword -- "IOU-solationism" -- in the process. Ferguson, a historian of high finance and British imperialism, subjects with which he sympathizes, has been urging Americans to take up the 21st century white-man's burden since at least September 2001. He writes in 2011 as if he were trapped ten years in the past. How can Americans consider cutting back on foreign military commitments, he asks, when "If radical Islamism is a declining force around the world, I hadn’t noticed."

Ferguson wants fiscal conservatives to aim their knives elsewhere, since "it’s manifestly untrue to claim that “Bush’s wars” are the principal cause of our current fiscal malaise." As he explains, "The defense budget last year was 4.7 percent of GDP (higher than at any time under Bush), but the cost of Social Security plus Medicare plus Medicaid was 10.3 percent." So obviously that's where we should cut. Cutting defense (or foreign aid, I assume) is not an option for Ferguson, since "the world beyond our borders isn’t getting any safer." The unspoken assumption is that it's the special if not exclusive responsibility of the U.S. to make it safer, at whatever cost to Americans. That's easy for Ferguson to say, but the question for the next year is how many Americans, apart from McCain, he actually speaks for.

27 June 2011

Michele Bachmann: non-partisan Republican?

Opening her presidential campaign formally in Waterloo, Iowa, today -- admittedly not the most auspicious location, but it is her birthplace -- Rep. Michele Bachmann said the following:
"Our problems don’t have an identity of party, they are problems created by both parties." And of her hoped-for base of supporters, she said:

The liberals, and to be clear I’m NOT one of them, want you to think the Tea Party is the Right Wing of the Republican Party. But it’s not. It’s made up of disaffected Democrats, independents, people who’ve never been political a day in their life, libertarians, Republicans. We’re people who simply want America back on the right track again.

These are popular things to say in this young campaign season, but each such utterance begs questions. If the Republican party, as Bachmann strongly suggests, has been part of the problem, why does she want its presidential nomination, and why does she represent her district in Minnesota as a Republican? And if the Tea Partiers are not "the Right Wing of the Republican Party," but presumably share Bachmann's view that the GOP has been historically part of the problem, why do they take up the yoke of the Republican party? Is it simply on the assumption that by doing so they're taking it over? Why don't these disgruntled Americans try a new vehicle for getting their country on the right track?

Would it be too difficult? That shouldn't deter a candidate whose announcement was full of praise for the nation's historic can-do, adversity-overcoming spirit. But Bachmann's reluctance (at this time) to declare independence from the Republican party may belie her invocations of an ideal America where "We depended on our neighbors and ourselves and not our government for help." As part of the American Bipolarchy, the Republican Party is, for all intents and purposes, part of the government regardless of whether it controls any branch of the government. During a Democratic presidency, the GOP is the official opposition, the institution that demands or commands the support of anyone to the right of the Administration. According to Bipolarchy thought, the Democratic party requires the existence of the Republican party as a check. Bachmann affirms this mentality by recounting her own story of defection from the Democracy. She told the Iowans today that her first political work had been for Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign of 1976, but that Carter's alleged expansion of government, curtailing of liberty and weakening of American prestige drove her to the other party. In her mind, one can infer, the Democracy remains the party of "big government," against which the Republican party remains the most conveniently available weapon. But the GOP's size, power and availability are all products of its standing, consolidated through election laws across the country, as a virtual constituent element of the American government. The Republican party is embedded in government at every level, and it expands government as readily when it holds federal power as the Democratic party does. And when Bachmann calls the U.S. "the most powerful force for good on this planet," and "THE indispensable nation," that doesn't sound like a call for the downsizing of government in those sectors where Republicans are most committed to its expansion. And in other sectors the Republicans are often committed to maximizing federal power just so states and other entities won't have the power to interfere with business.

Bachmann's own commitment to state rights is thrown into question by her somehow simultaneous advocacy of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as one-man-one-woman and avowal of each state's prerogative to set marriage standards. In cases like that, the Republicans are happy to be the party of Big Government when little government offends Big Business or Big Church. If disgruntled Americans want a government that doesn't represent Big Anything, they're probably looking in the wrong direction when Bachmann tempts them to take over the Republican party. The "right" has had to take over that party too many times by now for any intelligent conservative to take the prospect of yet another takeover seriously ... but insert your own punchline here about the intelligence of most self-styled conservatives in America, Michele Bachmann included.

24 June 2011

A Funtabulous Libertarian 'Declaration of Independents'

In May 2011, Reason magazine reports, the Pew Research Center officially discovered the existence of libertarians. For the first time ever, the pollsters identified 9% of the population as a distinct "typology" within the general population. For Pew's purposes, libertarians are defined as "Highly critical of government. Disapprove of social welfare programs, Pro-business and strongly opposed to regulation. Accepting of homosexuality. Moderate views about immigrants compared with other Republican-oriented groups." For Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie, editors of Reason, this 9% is the foundation of "the future of American politics." Their article in the August/September issue (not yet available online) is a summary and advertisement for their new book, The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America, which both chronicles and encourages rebellions against the American Bipolarchy. Welch and Gillespie describe this rebellion as an intervention into politics by people who had previously hoped to live apolitically, but whose apolitical approach to life allegedly offers a remedy to partisan gridlock and insolvent government. "We didn't want to get into politics," they write, "but politics got into us."

As their punning title hints, Welch and Gillespie base their arguments on a sort of misreading of Thomas Jefferson. They refer to the famous declaration of self-evident truths in the Declaration of Independence, with a special focus on the right to "the pursuit of happiness." The present authors have a clear, if perhaps also ahistorical idea of what Jefferson and his colleagues meant when they used the phrase as a substitute for a right to property.

They did not write, 'Life, liberty, and the pursuit of politics.' No: The men chewing and gnawing at the crown's leash elevated above all other pursuits the quest for happiness, as defined by each individual, by his own lights. It was a declaration within the Declaration, an announcement that existential meaning derives neither from the whims of a sovereign nor from enlistment in some grand national project but from the most atomized level of being: the personal, private, idiosyncratic human heart.

Once they throw in "existential meaning" you can tell that the authors are actually somewhere distant from Jefferson's notion of happiness, whatever that might actually have been. Had a 21st century libertarian visited Philadelphia in 1776 to explain that people create meaning for themselves by buying things, and especially by buying brand-name things (a favorite theme of Reason), the signers of the Declaration, believers in virtuous republican frugality as a rule (or in theory), would most likely have thought the man mad. But it has been acknowledged that the affirmation of "the pursuit of happiness" as a self-evident right does empower individual pursuits otherwise discouraged by church and/or state. Admitting that, it's questionable to make as stark a distinction between politics and happiness as Welch and Gillespie do. But it's their premise that the pursuit of happiness rather than politics as usually understood is what makes a nation prosperous. "People acting peacefully, mostly left to their own devices and not empowered by the state to force others into servitude, will create riches far more meaningful and vast than the cramped business of tax-collecting, regulation-spewing, do-as-I-say-or-else governments," they write -- as long as "the destructive force of politics" doesn't interfere.

Noting that technological innovation and increased consumer choices have broken down many duopolies in the business world, Welch and Gillespie suggest that a similar approach might break down America's political duopoly.

What if the private pursuit of happiness is the way to address the public problems that it has become necessary to solve? What if we were to foist the lessons, creativity, openness, and fun of our funtabulous non-governmental modern world onto the unwilling and unaffordable bureaucracies keeping us down? What if we were to declare independence, not from a country or government but from the two political parties that have been dividing up the spoils for far too long? Indeed, what if we declared not only our independence in politics but our independence from politics?

For the authors, avowing independence from the Bipolarchy is the first step in the process, even if it creates only swing voters rather than new parties. While not approving of the entire Tea Party program ("We get the vapors when the phrase all-of-the-above is mentioned anywhere near policy," they protest), Welch and Gillespie treat the TPs as a model for future "decentralized network[s] of alienated citizens using technology to overturn the applecart of American politics." They imagine similar movements forming to end the "War on Drugs," or to fight free trade on populist grounds, etc. Whether they agree with every movement that might form or not, they welcome each new one if it undermines the two-party system.

As libertarians, Welch and Gillespie clearly hope that more political independence will result in a more libertarian polity. A poll commissioned by Reason appears to confirm their hopes. Based on a random sample of 1,200 respondents (approximately 60% contacted by landline phones, 40% by cellphones), the Reason-Rupe poll also gives heart to the Republicans currently holding out against any "tax increase" in the debate on raising the national debt ceiling. The poll shows a strong plurality (45% of respondents) favoring reduced spending without tax increases as the best way to reduce the national debt. Interestingly, the poll didn't seem to offer cutting taxes further as an option, which would seem to leave many Republicans and libertarians out in the cold. In any event, the poll seems to confirm a desire for reduced government, or at least reduced debt, across all demographic lines. But does this augur a coming libertarian consensus? I have my doubts. The poll itself shows only 5% of respondents identifying themselves as "libertarian," but the movement may face a more severe handicap.

Did you get the impression from some of the quotes above that Welch and Gillespie are having more fun than many Americans these days? You probably can't blame them for feeling that way; they get to run a magazine that's consistently interesting if also almost as consistently biased, and they no doubt feel cool about sticking it to the Bipolarchy. But if theirs is the rhetoric with which they hope to sell libertarianism to the wider public, they're going to have some problems. How "funtabulous" is the modern world for most of us, after all? It's a word very few Americans would use to describe their country in 2011, and the authors themselves make clear that this funtabulousness is under siege from "the destructive force of politics," even if funtabulousness is somehow also its own best defense. But what makes their world funtabulous, anyway? In its best dress, it's "a world where mutual gains from trade have lifted half a billion people out of poverty in just the last five years." But Matt Welch describes it in somewhat different terms in his monthly editorial, even if he remains as gleeful about it all.

"The business of America isn't necessarily business," Welch writes, "It's change. Constant, creative, destructive, entertaining change." The emphasis, as in all quotes above, is his. But how entertaining has it been for the rest of us? Many of us, I suspect, come closer to Welch's pejorative description of jihadists and fundamentalists who "seek to forcibly create an atavistic, unchanging idyll," with less emphasis on the force. Something is wrong with our wiring, with obvious exceptions. Apparently an exception himself, Welch speculates, "Perhaps for evolutionary reasons, our brains don't seem equipped to process the catastrophic, liberating change happening all around us." Indeed. We're hardly equipped to process the juxtaposition of "catastrophic" and "liberating" without finding it slightly oxymoronic. That must be because we "still can't seem to imagine a world doing what it always does: changing, convulsively, almost always for the better." This is explicitly labelled a "failure to compute [or] draw a direct mental line between America's dynamic openness and its phenomenal strength," so that "every new crisis becomes a threat to that sense of open-source resilience." Too many atavistic Americans crave some sort of security or stability in their lives; they're repelled, not stimulated, by the constant challenge to adapt to catastrophically liberating, convulsively positive change. That's too damn bad for us, I guess, but who are libertarians to deny that for many people, the desire for security and stability, or to not have to adapt to every convulsion, is a desire for a kind of freedom, and that achieving that condition, however it may cramp some people's style or kill their buzz, is a pursuit of happiness? Of all people, they should realize that not everyone wants to live like them, but their own doctrine of freedom seems to dictate paradoxically that everyone must. In their idealized apolitical world, people might not have a choice, but politics gives us a choice. Aren't more choices a good thing? Not if they limit other people's choices, a libertarian might say -- but every choice does that, most obviously including theirs. As long as they fail to see that in their blithe celebration of chaos, all their declarations of independents will amount for little in the struggle against the common enemy, the American Bipolarchy.

23 June 2011

The Party of Thomas Friedman

As a New York Times columnist and consistently bestselling author, Thomas L. Friedman is one of the most prominent voices expressing dissatisfaction with the American two-party system. He vents his frustration again in his newest column, in which he argues that the imperatives of partisanship and fundraising leave any President or Congress with no more than a 100-day window at the start of a term (on the model of FDR's "Hundred Days" of 1933) in order to accomplish anything before being gridlocked and declared a failure. Friedman wants a "full-time government," one dedicated to actual governing and problem-solving rather than fundraising and electioneering. Against the two major parties specifically, he complains that each must pander to its ideological and fundraising bases, who somehow remain satisfied by increasingly empty promises as long as they conform with partisan and ideological orthodoxy. Neither party, he argues, has the will to enact the four reforms he deems essential to national recovery.

The truth is, we need to do four things at once if we have any hope of maintaining American greatness: We need more stimulus to keep the economy from slipping back into recession. But we need to combine that stimulus with a credible, legislated, long-term plan for cutting spending and getting the deficit under control — e.g., the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan. And we need to raise new revenues in order to reinvest in the sources of our strength:
education, infrastructure and government-funded research to push out the boundaries of knowledge. That’s right. We need to do four things at once: spend, cut, tax and invest. And unless we do all four at once we’re not going to break out of our slow decline

Given the gridlock characteristic of currently-existing Bipolarchy, Friedman asserts that "to do all four at once will require a new hybrid politics, which does not conform to the political agenda of either major party." As he's reiterated often over the past few years, he's heard numerous people "looking for a serious Third Party candidate who could run in 2012 and deliver the shock therapy to the corrupt, encrusted, two-party duopoly now running the show in America." Friedman offers such a party a minimalist five-plank platform to build on.

Such a Third Party would have a simple agenda: 1) Inject a short-term stimulus. 2) Enact Simpson-Bowles. 3) Shrink our presence in Afghanistan. 4) Raise automobile mileage standards. 5) Impose a gasoline tax to pay for a massive increase in government-supported scientific research and a carbon tax to pay for new infrastructure and stimulate clean-power innovation.

As he's shown before, Friedman's ideal third party would be a party of technocratic pragmatists for whom culture-war issues would be refreshingly irrelevant. Convincing voters of those issues' irrelevance might be the hardest party of such a party's pitch, except for anything to do with a "massive increase in government-[subsidized] research." But based on the grumbling he's heard in his travels, or within his social circles, Friedman clearly thinks this platform would be potent enough to put a scare in the Bipolarchy. The problem is that he seems to think putting a scare in the system would be accomplishment enough.

Do I think such a Third Party can win in 2012? Not likely. But it doesn’t have to win to be effective. If such a party attracted substantial voters on such a platform, it would shape the agendas of the Republicans and Democrats. They would both have to move to attract these voters by changing their own platforms and, in so doing, might even create a mandate for the next president to govern for an entire term — not just 100 days.

Friedman would stink as a horse-trader. He's just told the Democrats and Republicans that they could win over and most likely break up his theoretical third party simply by "changing their platforms," i.e. by making promises. This last paragraph suggests that Friedman doesn't really appreciate the influence of Bipolarchy itself on the current crisis. As far as he seems to be concerned, the real problem is that Republicans and Democrats alike are victims of perverse incentives created by fundraising imperatives and ideological primary voters. All a third party would have to do, he argues implicitly, is offer a potent enough counter-incentive and one or both of the major parties would come to their senses and at least say the right things to voters -- at which point, I assume inferentially, the third party's work is done. He doesn't seem to consider that Bipolarchy itself generates many of the perverse incentives he decries, or that the remedy isn't merely the threat of a third party, but total electoral and intellectual war against the two-party system.

Actually, I can understand why Friedman wrote that paragraph, since an all-or-nothing ultimatum might seem too daunting for many potential third-party supporters. The prospect of the big parties at least being forced to listen to a third party probably makes the project look less hopeless in the short term to Times readers. But the same paragraph probably makes Friedman's threats look even more hopeless to the Bipolarchy, because they can tell from it that Friedman isn't really out to destroy them -- yet. If the day does come when Friedman writes that nothing short of third-party victory will be acceptable, you'll know that things are really, really bad.

22 June 2011

Non-Idiot of the Week

The most remarkable thing about this article by Alan Blinder is its source. It was published in the Wall Street Journal, the daily bible of free-market ideology and Republican economics. What the editors may have liked about it is that Blinder, a Princeton economist, doesn't refute "The GOP Myth of Job-Killing Spending" in order to promote specifically Democratic economics. Instead, without endorsing "big government" or indefinite deficit spending, Blinder goes after the self-evident absurdity of current Republican doctrine, including the corollary argument that cutting government spending will automatically result in private-sector job creation. This line of thought is little more than faith-based economics, the faith being placed not in God but in the entrepreneurial class or, in Paul Krugman's phrase quoted by Blinder, the "Confidence Fairy." Fairy tales are just about all Republicans can offer these days, though Democrats have little more than fairy tales of their own. Nevertheless, Blinder holds out hope that bipartisan support can be rallied behind his pragamatic proposal of tax credits for actual job creation instead of tax cuts in the hope of job creation. But he closes on a note of doubt for which he blames Republicans. "And as long as one political party clings to the idea that government spending kills jobs, it's hard to see how we extricate ourselves from this mess," he writes. A cursory glance at some of the recent comments on his article will give neither him nor us much cause for more confidence. The consensus among the WSJ's regular Republican readers is that any money spent by the government on non-military purposes is money that would otherwise automatically fuel consumer demand and/or job creation. The problem with this sort of thinking isn't its presumption about what government does with the money, but its assumption about what the private sector would do with it. The more I see this sort of thinking expressed, the more I seem perversely to desire a Republican victory in 2012, as long as everyone understood that it would be supply-siders' last chance to prove the timeless power of their voodoo.

21 June 2011

Fraud vs. Suppression: the battle over the vote

As if receiving their guidelines from party headquarters, two liberal columnists in as many days -- Cynthia Tucker and E. J. Dionne -- have published denunciations of bills currently under consideration in or recently approved by state legislatures requiring citizens to show photo I.D. cards as proof of their right to vote at a given polling place. In the United States, partisanship appears to determine perceptions of such legislation. Republicans regard them as necessary for the prevention of fraudulent voting. Democrats see them as efforts to suppress voter turnout. It should be self-evident that each position is based on circumstance rather than principle. For whatever reason, Democrats have many supporters who lack photo I.D. or would find acquiring it burdensome. Precisely because Democrats openly acknowledge that their party would suffer from such laws, Republicans push more aggressively for their enactment. But while the motivation of Republican legislators may be transparently partisan, they are probably more capable of defending their stance with a semblance of objectivity than Democrats are. That's because the Democrats, regardless of what you think of their policies and positions, really have no stronger argument against photo I.D. requirements than that they'd hurt Democratic chances at the polls specifically. By contrast, Republicans can argue objectively for the prevention of voter fraud -- and the Democratic protest that such fraud is rare or, in Dionne's words, "not a major problem," is no answer to the principle of the thing. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court's position, established in a 2008 test of an Indiana law, is that requiring photo I.D. is not unduly burdensome as long as the I.D. card can be had for free. Charging for it would make the requirement tantamount to an unconstitutional poll tax. Against the claim that merely requiring people to get the I.D. is unduly burdensome, the Court ruled that such personal costs in time must be weighed against the benefit to all from ensuring fair elections.

While I don't doubt that Republicans pursue such legislation specifically to hurt the Democratic party, and some of their vote-suppression tactics may prove more vulnerable to constitutional scrutiny or redress. I'm just reluctant to see the special needs of the Democratic party enshrined in constitutional law. That is, I wouldn't want a photo-I.D. law struck down on the ground that it hurts the Democratic party, or any party, specifically. Instead, Republicans should shoulder the burden of impartiality by making sure that photo I.D. cards can be acquired as easily as possible, not just by lifelong residents of a state but by newcomers as well. If there's a limit to their willingness to facilitate I.D. acquisition, that's when you can accuse them of vote suppression. But the conditions of acquiring required I.D. are a subject separate from the requirement itself. There really ought to be zero-tolerance of voter fraud, and the presumption of it should not be treated like a slander. Both major parties have indulged in unethical voter-turnout manipulation throughout their history, from sending repeat voters from district to district to bribing the undecided on Election Day. Neither party is entitled to a presumption of innocence on any question influencing voter turnout, and neither is entitled to special consideration by the law or the courts. The two-party system itself, a construct of the nation's collective consciousness, arguably contributes as much to vote suppression by demoralizing citizens as any questionably-motivated legislation. When are we going to see E. J. Dionne or Cynthia Tucker protest against that?

20 June 2011

Theodore Roosevelt on Bipolarchy

In 1904, Theodore Roosevelt looked upon that November's presidential election with some trepidation. He had been President since September 1901, when William McKinley's assassination compelled him to take over the White House. Now he would run for the first time as an actual candidate for President. That May, he felt confident that he had secured the Republican nomination, but he worried whether many Republicans would actually follow through and vote for him in November. He was even more doubtful of whether he'd gain support from Democratic voters, despite his indisputable nationwide popularity. In explaining his worries to the British historian George Otto Trevelyan, Roosevelt described what he saw as a defect of the American political system.

There is one point of inferiority in our system to yours which has been very little touched on, and that is the way in which the Presidential office tends to put a premium upon a man's keeping out of trouble rather than upon his accomplishing results. If a man has a very decided character, has a strongly accentuated career, it is normally the case of course that he makes ardent friends and bitter enemies; and unfortunately human nature is such that more enemies will leave their party because of enmity to its head than friends will come in from the opposite party because they think well of that same head. In consequence, the dark horse, the neutral-tinted individual, is very apt to win against the man of pronounced views and active life. The electorate is very apt to vote with its back to the future!

Roosevelt attempted to demonstrate his point with reference to his own electoral prospects.

In my own case, for instance, I believe that most of my policies have commanded the support of a great majority of my fellow-countrymen, but in each case I have made a certain number of determined foes. Thus, on Panama I had an overwhelming majority of the country with me; but whereas I am not at all sure that any Democrat will vote for me because of my attitude on Panama, there are a certain number of mugwumps who will undoubtedly vote against me because of it. So as regards Cuban reciprocity. The country backed me up in the matter, but there is not a Democrat who will vote for me because I got Cuban reciprocity, while there are not a few beet sugar men who will vote against me because of it. In the same way the country breathed freer, and felt as if a nightmare had been lifted, when I settled the anthracite coal strike; but the number of votes I shall gain thereby will be small indeed, while the interests to which I gave mortal offense will make their weight felt as of real moment. Thus I could go on indefinitely.

The fact that Roosevelt won the 1904 election in a landslide might disprove his premise. Historians would argue that he was wrong about Democrats, since many had been crossing over to vote Republican since the 1896 election, when Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan's populism alienated many longtime partisans. In modern times, the concept of "Reagan Democrats" appears to belie Roosevelt's pessimism about crossover voting. But neither scenario quite matches the situation Roosevelt described. Democrats crossed over in 1896 to repudiate Bryan, and in 1980 to repudiate Jimmy Carter. On the other hand, both McKinley and Reagan were re-elected, Reagan by a larger margin than his first election. If Roosevelt was complaining that partisanship prevented many people from giving a leader the credit he presumably deserved, the 1984 election would seem to refute him more than any other.

Roosevelt made a larger point about the difficulty of building a trans-partisan coalition that arguably remains more relevant today. His main complaint to Trevelyan was that the system appeared to prevent him from making up with gains from across party lines for the alienation of people within his own party ranks. In his own mind, Roosevelt had won a hard fight against entrenched interests within his own party to advance his own agenda. Eight years later, as an insurgent ex-President, he would lose a similar fight and abandon the Republicans to form the Progressive party -- and then, despite most likely still being the most popular man in America, he lost the 1912 presidential election. He might well have blamed that outcome not only on Democrats refusing to abandon their party to support him, but from the more obvious refusal of many Republicans to do likewise. Near the moment of his greatest political triumph, he already perceived to some extent that parties were bigger than men, even powerful men like himself, and had interests potentially different from those of the men appointed as their standard bearers. He thought the British system superior because there, he believed, the Prime Minister was the undisputed leader of his party and less vulnerable to interest groups within the party. In the U.S., the interests seemed to dominate parties, and the parties themselves were interests that could overrule individuals of vision and action. However overwhelming Roosevelt's 1904 victory appeared, in his own mind he had simply beaten the odds -- and he couldn't depend on doing that every time.

Has Working Families declared actual independence in Cohoes NY?

In New York State's capital district, the Working Families Party is something of a laughingstock and the focus of an ongoing criminal scandal involving the two major parties' attempts to gain control of WFP ballot lines with proxy candidates and proxy votes. In such an environment, the announcement of a WFP endorsement for any local election may provoke skepticism. Nevertheless, a Working Families committee in Cohoes, Albany County, has endorsed -- not nominated -- Randy Koniowka for mayor. Koniowka, best known for blogging on Cohoes affairs for the Albany Times Union, was notified of the endorsement last week. No public announcement was made by the WFP, to my knowledge, prior to the report that appeared in today's Troy Record.

Should he accept the endorsement and run on the WFP line, Koniowka would challenge incumbent Democrat John McDonald alongside putative Republican candidate James Walsh. However, it may be in Mayor McDonald's power to block a Koniowka candidacy -- not through the law, but through persuasion. Koniowka has told reporter Danielle Sanzone that "he plans to meet with members of the current administration, mainly incumbent Mayor John McDonald, and discuss plans for the future....[I]f he did not completely agree with McDonald’s vision, ... he would likely make the run for office." This is the typical WFP strategy: confront a Democrat with the prospect of an independent challenge from his "left" in order to extract "progressive" promises that'll ensure the Democrat of the eventual WFP endorsement when their own candidate respectfully withdraws. But with an apparently successful and popular mayor angling for endorsements from those other alleged independents, the Conservative and Independence parties, and given the WFP's current reputation in the region, the party and Koniowka's bargaining position looks relatively weak. Koniowka says that "people are not happy with the current status quo" but admits that "I would much rather work with the current administration than against them." The implication of the report is that it'll be up to Mayor McDonald to shake up the status quo, since Koniowka will only take the initiative if he isn't satisfied with the incumbent's promises. If Koniowka's endorsement for mayor by the WFP is a declaration of independence, it's almost too tentative to be taken seriously for now.

19 June 2011

Bipolarchy in Spain

According to reports, tens of thousands of Spaniards are protesting today against planned austerity measures imposed against the people's will by the European Union and the obligations of the Euro. The protesters call themselves indignados, a term I was introduced to yesterday when the latest issue of The Nation arrived in my mailbox. Describing the indignados, Andy Robinson reports on their protests against a perceived bipolarchy in Spain.

According to Robinson, the indignados have their roots partly in protests earlier this year against an anti-piracy law governing Internet downloads. Since then, protests have grown in scope and seriousness. Robinson notes a protest sign that reads: DEMOCRACY IS A 2-PARTY DICTATORSHIP. The object of complaint is "a two-party system dominated by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s beleaguered ruling socialists and the conservative People’s Party (PP) opposition," described by a protester as "alternation without alternatives." It's the Socialists who've enacted austerity measures, and for that, Robinson reports, they suffered major losses in parliamentary elections. The problem, from the indignado perspective, is that voters didn't abandon Zapatero's party for the new, independent Left Unity party, but turned in typical populist fashion to "racist" anti-immigrant candidates. Left Unity and the indignados appear to believe that Spanish election laws handicap independent parties. Among their demands, according to Robinson, is election-law reform.

The perception that Bipolarchy prevails is reflected in a Wikipedia article on Spanish political parties. "Spain has a multi-party system, which means that there are two dominant political parties," it reads. with extreme difficulty for anybody to achieve electoral success under the banner of any other party." The same article showed that ten different parties were represented in the Spanish legislature after the 2008 elections, but most of the smaller parties were ethnic-nationalist (Basque, Catalonian, etc.) in orientation, with inevitably limited support nationwide. Spanish election law constrains the nationalist parties somewhat since people associated with terrorist organizations, or associations linked to terrorism, face severe legal obstacles to electoral participation. According to this article by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera on Spanish election law, the country employs a form of proportional representation, but to prevent "fragmentation" imposes a threshold for eligibility in the allocation process. A party must get 3% of all valid votes cast (counting blank ballots) in any given constituency to be eligible for any seats. Alvarez-Rivera notes that the law especially handicaps smaller parties aiming for nationwide rather than regional or ethnic support.

Although in most cases the three percent barrier is of little importance, the cumulative effect of the application of the d'Hondt rule over a large number of mostly small-sized constituencies - the provinces - makes a significant difference, given that the largest average method has a tendency to favor the major parties, which intensifies as the constituency size decreases: notice how the effective representation threshold, as a percentage of the total vote, increases as the number of seats to be allocated decreases. As a result, minor parties with evenly spread support usually have very little chance of winning seats outside the larger constituencies.

In addition, election law seems to favor the already successful. Advertising time in the media appears to be allocated based on performance in the previous election, which would automatically handicap new parties while reinforcing the "minor" standing of parties that could well do better next time, depending on other circumstances.

If Bipolarchy conditions do exist in Spain, they remain more fluid than in the U.S. While the Socialist Party has been a constant since the death of Francisco Franco and the re-establishment of parliamentary democracy, the opposition has been concentrated first in a "moderate" Union of the Democratic Center, then in a center-right Popular (aka People's) Party. Socialist dominance has tended to marginalize parties to its left, from the Communists to the more recent United Left. Arguably, the marginalization of the radical left, more than an equivalent marginalization of the radical right, is a defining feature of Bipolarchy, despite a predictable American assumption that a "Socialist" party must be radical-left by definition. In the U.S., it serves the purpose of both major parties to identify the Democratic party with the left. Republicans identify Democrats with the left in order to ascribe to it all the sins of the entire global left, while Democrats hope to convince anyone to the left of Republicans that the Democratic party is their only real hope for change. I don't know enough about Spanish political rhetoric to know whether similar processes prevail there, but if they did it wouldn't surprise me. I don't mean to suggest that Bipolarchy is a conspiracy against the "real left," if there is such a thing, but it does seem to work out that way in practice. In any event, it's the "real left" that demands change in Spain.

Alvarez-Rivera concludes: "In the course of the last quarter-century, rectified PR has contained parliamentary fragmentation in Spain. Although the system does not always guarantee political groups legislative representation in proportion to their electoral strength, it has facilitated the formation of stable governments, and in this manner it has helped to consolidate Spain's once-fragile democratic institutions." The question Spain seems to face now is whether consolidation and stability are achieved at the expense of responsiveness to new mass movements. Left-leaning media may overstate the importance of mass demonstrations or the gravity of their complaints, but the question still arises, and not only in Spain, whether party-based politics turns a kind of democracy into a kind of dictatorship everywhere it emerges.

17 June 2011

Same-Sex Marriage = Big Government?

In New York State, every commitment by a Republican state senator to support legislation legalizing same-sex marriage is treated in the news media as if the bill itself had passed. Proponents of the legislation have lobbied and advertised aggressively this year. Even the Troy newspaper I work for, which doesn't usually run a lot of issue-advocacy advertising, ran a full-page last week urging readers to urge the bill on Sen. McDonald, who earlier this week announced his support for it. The bill is now at the brink of approval, based on public commitments, while opponents continue to argue against it. One such argument was made in this morning's Albany Times Union by Peter Sprigg, a former Clifton Park pastor who know flacks for the Family Research Council. Sprigg blames the gradual Republican capitulation on this issue on a libertarian streak within the party. To stem the tide, he attempts to argue against the bill on libertarian grounds.

Sprigg contends that libertarians misunderstand gay marriage as a privacy and individual-rights issue. Since marriage is a public institution, he argues, gay marriage can't be defended on privacy grounds. Instead of driving government from their bedrooms, as was the case when courts condemned anti-sodomy laws, legislation authorizing same-sex marriage actually invites government into homosexual bedrooms, Sprigg claims. Marriage isn't an issue of individual rights, he goes on, because the marriage rights of every American, not just homosexuals, are limited by law. But he goes on to state that laws setting minimum ages for marriage or forbidding incest, bigamy or polygamy "are not restrictions upon the right to marry; they are part of the definition of marriage." Practically speaking, that's true; the legal parameters of marriage rights are defined by negative legislation. It'd be an error, however, to argue that these laws derive from a pre-existing definition of marriage, as Sprigg may mean to imply. It's also unclear why these limitations can't be seen as infringements on individual rights. Sprigg can still defend the limitations, but to say that marriage isn't an individual-rights issue is either sophistry or else it reflects some confusion about what "individual rights" mean.

Inevitably, Sprigg retreats to the favored First Amendment argument against same-sex marriage. "Freedom of conscience and religious liberty would be threatened," he writes, "In the wake of same-sex marriage, we have already seen religious nonprofits being told to compromise their principles or go out of business." As I see it, the principles of religious homophobes are compromised only when government forces them to become homosexuals; otherwise, they should be obliged not to discriminate against homosexuals in either services or hiring practices. The right to discriminate in hiring based on religious scruples is no more sacred than the right to refuse service to customers based on their race or ethnicity. If freedom of association is the issue, marriage -- an association by definition -- should trump the negative liberty of refusal to associate upheld by bigots throughout American history.

Sprigg saves his masterstroke for last, when he contends that that greater liberty for homosexuals will lead to bigger government than ever, and specifically a bigger and more abhorrent welfare state:

The breakdown of the traditional family leads inevitably to expansion of government. The best bulwark against a large centralized government is the existence of mediating social institutions which allow society to govern itself. Chief among these is the natural family, consisting of husband, wife and their own children. People living in this family structure are the least likely to become burdens upon society through dependency on government social programs or through crime and incarceration.

Libertarians are unlikely to be swayed by this attempted reasoning. They may agree that strong families are a bulwark against government, but few will agree that only the "natural family" can play this role. Nor are they likely to accept on faith Sprigg's unproven premise about children of same-sex couples. Sprigg's final sentence above is as much an argument against single-parent families as it is against same-sex families, and even if libertarians believed that "natural families" are the least dependent on government or the least likely to commit crimes, I doubt that would justify legislation compelling parents to marry for them.

Sprigg deserves some credit for making his argument in a civil way -- by which I mean that the former pastor never invokes the authority of God or any of his alleged revelations to support his arguments. Instead, he contends that same-sex marriage will disrupt society and increase individual dependence on government regardless of whether God decides to throw more tornadoes at us. Nevertheless, there's an almost palpable desperation between the lines of his piece, a reaching for and twisting of premises and assumptions to trick libertarians away from their defining commitment to liberty. Sprigg makes his stand in the last ditch, or the last but one if New York homophobes appeal to the people to overrule their legislators. In a place like New York, however, it's more likely that people like Sprigg will acquiesce, however grudgingly, and leave the field to the Fred Phelpses of our state. By comparison to what people like that will say, Sprigg's virtually counts as an honorable parting shot.

15 June 2011

Gold Bugs: The mercantilism of populists

In the latest Harper's, Thomas Frank writes: "The appeal of precious metals ... seems almost always tied to the rise of a particular political viewpoint, which foresees that the world will either return to the hard-money wisdom of the Hoover Administration or (more likely) be punished for its paper-money sins by the mighty hand of history itself." His subject for this month is the mania for gold hoarding fueled by advertisers on Glenn Beck's radio program and elsewhere. Frank notes that when the U.S. went off the gold standard in the 1930s, doing so was so widely recognized as a good thing that early editions of the Monopoly game enabled you to collect $50 if you drew a "We're Off the Gold Standard" card from the Community Chest pile. By comparison, he argues, the attitude of 21st century gold bugs "is not so much an ideological preference as it is a repudiation of modernity." Specifically, Frank contends that gold bugs have never reconciled themselves to the government's power to print "fiat" money without constraints dictated by a nation's precious-metal stores. They're driven by a pessimistic suspicion that "this technocrat-made system will come crashing down," after which "the economists and politicians will get their comeuppance [and] the complacent masses will cry out for the discipline of gold."

Frank has a habit of dividing everything between left and right or pro- and anti-government. But by focusing on the allegedly "right wing" anti-government bias of gold bugs, he misses a point that he actually makes in the body of his article. He recalls that laissez-faire economists a decade ago sneered at gold bugs, arguing that "gold has been marginalized because the world has changed," and that "the best anchor is the discipline of markets." While Frank promptly sneers at "the discipline of markets!" he fails to notice the contrast between that and what he'd called "the discipline of gold." It's as if he knows that something more is going on here, but can't bring himself to say it. Gold mania may well be a kind of repudiation of government, and Frank also recognizes it as a repudiation of finance capital, but it also seems to be a repudiation of markets themselves. But if that's so, we're not dealing with conventional conservatives or libertarians as Americans have come to know them. What are we dealing with, then?

The spectacle of "silver bugs" agitating to drive up the price of their preferred metal confuses Frank, since "free silver" had once been the battle cry of populists who wanted to increase the circulating medium so they could do business and pay debts more easily. "I have no idea how investing in silver is supposed to liberate the proletariat this time," he admits. That may be because the hoarding impulse hearkens back past historical populism to the mercantilist instincts of pre-modern times. Mercantilists thought a country's economic well-being was determined by the volume of precious metals in its treasury, not by anything we today identify with its gross national product. The entire idea depended upon gold having some kind of absolute, virtually non-negotiable value. Gold plays this same idealized role for today's hoarders. However irrationally, they presume that gold will always have a value that bestows power on those who hold and hoard it. They want something whose value can't be manipulated by speculators, sharp traders or governments. In their minds, gold has a value that isn't determined by markets, that trumps any other potential commodity. They expect to be able to buy whatever they need or want with gold, no matter what the conditions, and they probably expect to be able to dictate the price they'd pay as well. In the past, powerful people upheld the gold standard because they wanted their inferiors to pay them in gold, so they could pay their creditors in the same coin. They acted on the presumption that gold's value, unlike that of fiat money, was unchanging, since gold determined what everything else was worth. It's that latter impulse, I suspect, that drives today's gold bugs. Their hope is that gold is market-proof, or that markets will only move its value upward.

In closing, Frank notes that both gold and silver dropped significantly in price immediately after the announcement of Osama bin Laden's death. He explains this as a vote of confidence in the Obama administration, the President having proven that he "could act as effectively and ruthlessly as any other president" and thus disproven so many conspiracy theories about his allegedly anti-American agenda. Frank also notes that "there were all sorts of technical reasons for silver's plunge, of course," and I'd like to stick with those. I haven't checked how precious-metal values have changed since the July Harper's went to press, but I wouldn't be surprised if they've gone up with growing fears of a "double dip" recession. Obama has hardly benefited from Osama's demise, and fewer people have given up their suspicions than Frank would like to believe. It'd take more than bagging the world's most wanted terrorist in this age of bad faith to win the doubters over. Nevertheless, there seems to be a link between that existential doubt or distrust, not just in politicians but in all institutions, and the craze for precious metals. "We buy [gold] because of our inner convictions about human behavior, not because it's really useful or something," Frank writes. It may be, however, that our convictions about human behavior actually determine gold's usefulness, as long as speculators and hoarders assume that everybody wants it. Frank himself is satisfied that gold will lose its power when fewer people fear the collapse of civilization, but it may take an actual collapse of civilization to disabuse people of their faith in gold's eternal value. The people who consciously or unconsciously hope for such a collapse might then regret their investments.

14 June 2011

Idiot of the Week Nominee: Newt Gingrich

For a few days after the mass defection of his campaign staff last week I was feeling sorry for Newt Gingrich. It didn't surprise me that his presidential campaign was in disarray, since he'd been pressured by Fox News into declaring earlier than he probably wanted to. It also seemed unfair, though predictable, that so many fellow Republicans condemned him for calling "Ryancare" as he saw it -- as "right-wing social engineering." But my sympathy stopped after I read this excerpt from last night's Republican presidential debate. The subject, prompted by comments by Herm Cain, was whether there should be any discrimination against Muslims in government hiring. Under pressure from Mitt Romney, who in this crowd stood out as the champion of tolerance, Cain dodged the question of whether he would require Muslims to take a special loyalty oath. Gingrich did not hesitate to step into the breach.

GINGRICH: I just want to comment for a second. The Pakistani who emigrated to the U.S. became a citizen, built a car bomb which luckily failed to go off in Times Square was asked by the federal judge, how could he have done that when he signed -- when he swore an oath to the United States. And he looked at the judge and said, "You're my enemy. I lied." Now, I just want to go out on a limb here. I'm in favor of saying to people, if you're not prepared to be loyal to the United States, you will not serve in my administration, period.
We did this -- we did this in dealing with the Nazis and we did this in dealing with the communists. And it was controversial both times, and both times we discovered after a while, you know, there are some genuinely bad people who would like to infiltrate our country. And we have got to have the guts to stand up and say no.

Let's focus on the real idiocy of this comment. Gingrich wants to make Muslims take a loyalty oath to prove their loyalty to the nation and its Constitution -- after he's just shown, as if to confirm a popular stereotype, that one Muslim had lied when taking his oath of citizenship. If a determined and ruthless terrorist will lie to get into this country, why wouldn't he lie when asked to swear his loyalty as a bureaucrat? For the bigots who assume that Muslims will lie whenever it suits them, Gingrich had really made the argument, not for a loyalty oath, but for completely excluding Muslims from the government workforce -- and I can't be sure whether he realized the implications of his statement or not. Add to that the idiocy of his analogy (Did we require loyalty oaths from Nazi job applicants? To whom historically was the analogy actually to apply?) -- and we have at least one race in which Gingrich is the definite front runner right now.

Saving America from 'Stupid People'

Instead of a political begging letter, today's mail brought me a magazine subscription solicitation. This one, for Backwoods Home Magazine, came with the offer of a book, though it was pitched in vice versa fashion: buy the book Can America Be Saved From Stupid People? and get a year of the magazine free. As the author of the book and publisher of the magazine, Dave Duffy, identifies himself as a "Libertarian writer," I presume that he got my name and address from Reason magazine's mailing list. But the question of stupidity and its threat to the country is one I hear asked across the ideological spectrum. Of course, what one perceives as "stupid" is often determined by ideology, and in ideological conflict one often sees each side denouncing all others as stupid or worse. From what sort of stupidity, then, do we need saving in Duffy's eyes?

Duffy himself admits to making mistakes. Despite his libertarian beliefs, he admits to having voted twice for George W. Bush for President, explaining later that "he convinced me that he was for limiting Government, controlling spending, and protecting Constitutional freedoms, things which are important to Libertarians." By 2006 he had seen the error of his ways and refused to vote Republican. In an article justifying his stance, he refuted Republican apologists who accused "Losertarians" like Duffy of throwing Congress to the Democrats.

I sure am proud of myself for going back to voting for the best candidate, rather than the lesser of two evils, which most voters do every election. I’d like to congratulate Montana Libertarians for also voting for the best candidate. If your vote got the Democrat elected, rather than the Republican, big deal. If it gave the Senate over to the Democrats, rather than Republicans, so what. There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between Democrats and
Republicans, anyway, so what difference does it matter who won. What matters, I think, is that a small number of Libertarians, as well as a small number of other people voting for their third-party candidates, voted for who they thought would do a good job. They acted as individuals, not as members of a flock supporting candidates and political parties who have done nothing election after election but increase the size of Government. Libertarians throwing their votes away? I don’t think so. Libertarians stood up to be counted. We all like to talk about how we want to see Government get out of our lives, but most people vote time and time again for the same political parties who deliver bigger and bigger Government election after election. It’s their votes that didn’t count.

Duffy had written his original essay on "stupid people" some years earlier. Taking a long view, he explains that the American Revolution was the product of a gradual intellectual evolution dating back to the Renaissance that led intelligent people to reject domination by aristocrats and priests. In Duffy's view, the development of capitalism, "whose premise is that individuals should be given maximum freedom to pursue their own happiness," followed directly from the same Enlightenment values. History, he believes, proves that "capitalism, though not perfect, worked best" for everyone. Stupid people, however, are undermining this enlightenment under the manipulating influence of "knave politicians," demagogues who see "profit and political power in pitting the poor and stupid against those who have found a bit of success in the American capitalist system." The knaves get the stupid on their side, in Duffy's account, by "soliciting their greed and laziness" and telling them that "all they have to do is vote goodies for themselves and they will be delivered."

The stupidity of the stupid, Duffy argues, is their failure to understand "how humanity got this far, how we went from a subsistence economy to America’s system of bounty and relative happiness for nearly everyone." Leave aside whether Duffy himself understands this history; the real hole in his analysis is his failure to account for the emergence of a stupid majority, to the point that "for the first time in history stupid people have more political power than anyone else." While he stresses that the founding Enlightenment ideas were the products of a relative few minds, he does assert that those ideas did "take hold among the majority of people." But that claim seems inconsistent with his summary of modern history. His charge, after all, is that the knave politicians exploited people's stupidity, not that the knaves made them stupid. So why, in our enlightened republic, are there so many stupid people in the first place? Public education doesn't seem to be to blame, at least in this particular essay, so Duffy's scenario of intellectual decline seems even more mysterious without the usual scapegoat to account for it. I can only hope to sketch a possible solution to Duffy's difficulty. In other writings, and especially in his magazine, he champions old-fashioned self-reliance. That, arguably, was the ideal our enlightened Founders aspired to as well. But capitalism, which Duffy portrays as the logical extension of Enlightenment values, requires a constant cohort of dependent labor to work as employees. While 19th century thinkers could still delude themselves into thinking that every wage worker would be self-employed someday, that prospect would mean disaster for capitalist ventures. Once a permanent working class in the modern sense becomes necessary, it could well seem counter-productive to instill in them the self-reliant values that would only steer them away from the factory entrance. In this case, a mentality of dependency begins, not with the promises of a knave politician, but from the requirements of a capitalist economy, which thus sows the seeds of its own subversion once workers begin to look for a better deal for dependency, which politicians, knaves or not, are eager to offer.

If I find fault with Duffy's quickie history, does that mean I think him stupid? Not necessarily, since he's arguably right in his most basic point that "the topic of stupid people can no longer be ignored." Representative democracy has a bad habit of flattering ignorance, while democratic ideologues often bristle at any suggestion that anyone might be inadequately prepared to participate responsibly in public life. To the extent that politics serves a clear end or goal, tension is inevitable from the conflicting claims of expertise and self-rule. But the real question of our time may not be what to do about stupid people, but to find out who isn't stupid. My hunch is that it isn't necessarily the people who claim that everyone but them is stupid. Too many Americans of all political persuasions confuse ideology with intelligence and disagreement with idiocy. We act as if we have nothing to learn from anyone else, and many actively resent any suggestion to the contrary as infantilizing, from the right, or hegemonic, from the left. In this context, I have to complement Duffy for some intellectual modesty, because at least he didn't answer his own question. It still remains to be answered by all of us.

13 June 2011

Hail to the victors

"Did you ever read Pliny's letter to Trajan in which he speaks of it being advisable to keep the Greeks absorbed in athletics because it distracted their minds from all serious pursuits?" Theodore Roosevelt asked his son and namesake in October 1903. I hadn't, but the President's reading made me curious. If I've found the right passage, then it's likely that Roosevelt read more into it than was there, at least in the translation I read. In Letter 48 of the Pliny-Trajan correspondence, Pliny the Younger discusses the necessity of rebuilding a gymnasium in the city of Nicea and requests that the Emperor send an architect to study the work already under way. In his reply, Trajan notes contemptuously, "These paltry Greeks, I know, are immoderately fond of gymnastic diversions." He suspects that the Niceans want an oversized facility for the purpose and should be satisfied with something more modest. I see no bread-and-circuses agenda in this, much less Roosevelt's assumption that Pliny and Trajan were conspiring to distract the Greeks through athletics from ever being a threat to Roman rule. But what Roosevelt writes afterward remains relevant.

A man must develop his physical prowess up to a certain point but after he has reached that point there are other things that count more....I am glad you should play football; I am glad that you should box; I am glad that you should ride and shoot and walk and row as well as you do. I should be very sorry if you did not do these things and if you lacked the spirit you show in them. But don't ever get into the frame of mind which regards these things as constituting the end to which all your energies must be devoted, or even the major portion of
your energies.

Roosevelt wrote at a time when the amateur athlete was still the idea and Major League Baseball, despite its surging popularity, was still held widely in disrepute because men who played sports for a living were inherently disreputable. Rather than playing for the love of a game (hence the word "amateur"), the professional played for pay, and might be capable of cheating, even against his own team, for greater pay -- as the 1919 World Series eventually proved. Professional football was practically nonexistent in 1903, while the Ivy League was presumed to have the best players because it was presumed to have the best students, both academically and in terms of social class. Roosevelt enjoyed rough sports because he felt they developed a manliness that would allow athletes to pursue other, higher vocations without enduring mockery or bullying. He also thought that anyone who lived an exclusively intellectual or academic life was as stunted as one who devoted himself solely to sports. The President obviously enjoyed watching football games, but he would not have expected people to be spectators only. He probably didn't anticipate that mass spectatorship would make the professionalization of nearly all sports inevitable. He most likely couldn't imagine the day when an athlete would be famous for refusing to go to college on the assumption that he was ready already for professional play. And while he may not have been correct on the Roman attitude toward sports, he may well have been unconsciously anticipating what would happen in his own country. The only difference is that there was no political conspiracy to get Americans addicted to spectator sports. Americans did that to themselves, and the result is another great parody of democracy as the nation convenes online and over the air to pass judgment on Boner-El Jams and the I-Maim Hate for failing to live up to their expensive promise of a championship. But who dares tell them that they're wasting their time?

A great athlete should be admired like a great work of art and a great artist at the same time, but even our artists today are mostly overpaid. Are we paying for excellence or for vicarious experience? You could answer either way depending on your emphasis. In a way, we always pay for vicarious experience, and not least for vicarious democracy. I don't want to say that only ascetics can actually practice democracy, but too many other Americans are busy doing something else for me not to feel that we all need to moderate our conduct. Teddy Roosevelt didn't say there was anything wrong with someone making millions from sports -- he couldn't even imagine the possibility. He did seem to say that there was something wrong with anyone making any kind of living from sports, and that something was wrong with a country where that was possible. So how wrong was he?

12 June 2011

Heavenly intervention?

In Albany, today was the day of the annual gay pride parade, which follows a route up Lark Street before turning right at Madison to march past the coin-op laundry I use on Sundays. I got out to late to see the parade, but as I crossed Madison I found an obnoxious remnant of the event. On the corner in front of the Dunkin Donuts parking lot stood about a half-dozen counterdemonstrators, denouncing homosexuality as a sin against God. These weren't hardcore haters in the Fred Phelps mode, but one did hold a sign saying, "Did You Enjoy Your STD?" while another sign warned, "Repent or Perish." I discovered them arguing with a group of celebrants across Lark Street. I couldn't make out what those counter-counter demonstrators were saying, but I did hear one of the homophobes advise those young people to go back to school and learn how to hold a civil conversation. I wanted to see more but I had to unload my clothes and get them started washing. By the time they were safely started and I stepped back out onto Madison, it had started to rain. Within a few minutes, after singing a hymn into a loudspeaker, the pious ones packed up their signs and left. Gay pride events were continuing in Washington Park at that moment, so it must be acknowledged objectively that it rained on both sides of this irrepressible debate. But from my limited perspective, watching the homophobes scatter, I could understand why so many people like to read judgment into such natural phenomena. The flaw in such thinking, of course, is that it's always selective. I doubt whether those sign-wavers felt that God had shown any disapproval of their protest by raining on them. But since I was happy to see them go, I guess I gave thanks to the rain anyway. I'm just not going to expect it to rain next time.

10 June 2011

Scapegoating government for economic failure: from Teddy Roosevelt to today

On September 5, 1903, the President of the United States wrote a letter to magazine editor Lyman Abbott noting that those newspapers and magazines "who seem at present to be the recognized exponents of that portion of the capitalistic class which objects to any kind of supervision or control, no matter how limited, over the great corporations and great controllers of corporations, have entered upon a systematic campaign, not merely against me, which is not important, but against the principles for which I stand."

To be specific, Theodore Roosevelt was referring to newspaper articles, usually on the financial pages, that blamed Roosevelt's policies and actions for "the financial stringency in Wall Street." His decision to pursue antitrust litigation against the Northern Securities Company and his creation of a Department of Commerce with a Bureau of Corporations, were said to have negatively impacted markets -- perhaps by contributing to the "uncertainty" so often blamed by market apologists a century later on the policies of one of Roosevelt's successors. Roosevelt himself wasn't buying this for a second.

Of course this is a preposterous falsehood. A promoters', speculators' and overcapitalizers' panic -- it is this which we have seen. But any disturbance in the business world, no matter how purely due to the excesses of speculators, is sure to effect great numbers of other people, and when these feel the pinch it is invariable a relief to them to have somebody or something concrete on which to lay the blame; and there are plenty of businessmen, wealthy, venturous and unscrupulous,...who find it for their advantage to encourage this feeling, as what they most wish is absolute and unfettered freedom to act without regard to law.

As long as politics interferes with their money making, businesspeople will blame politics when they don't make as much as they'd like, no matter what the actual reason. As long as politics exists, some businesspeople, not to mention some of their sympathizers, will blame it for interfering with business whether it does so in a quantifiably significant way or not. As long as there is a state, dogmatic libertarians, for instance, can say that economic failures don't reflect on their free-market faith, since they can always claim that politics prevents the Market from operating as it should ideally. Politics and government itself serve as scapegoats that exempt capitalists and entrepreneurs from their proper share of blame for national economic decline. The champions of business's independence from politics actually assume its complete dependence, if we take their assertions on face value. They seem to argue that business can function properly only if government policies are just right from the business perspective, but also that it can only fail because of government interference. That's easier than admitting that their brilliant business plans failed, that their models were wrong, or that they weren't competitive enough.

Roosevelt didn't see himself as a radical. In the same letter to Abbott, whose magazine he'd join as a contributing editor after his presidency, he pointed out how evenhanded he considered himself to have been in dealing with capital and labor. He pointed out how his decision to run the Government Printing Office as an open shop incensed organized labor, and how he didn't hesitate to call out the troops against striking workers when they became "lawless." He saw his job as balancing the interests of capital and labor to achieve the national interest instead of taking one side against the other. He told Abbott that he was as ready to put down "crimes of violence" by labor as he was to put down "crimes of greed and cunning" by business. For his trouble, he found himself attacked by "those labor unions who demand that tyranny shall be connived at by the Government, if it is the tyranny of labor unions," and by "those great corporations who demand that lawbreaking shall be condoned by the executive, if the lawbreaker is so wealthy that his welfare can be said to be essential to the general business welfare." In other words, "too big to fail" was already a familiar concept a century ago, to Roosevelt's chagrin.

The beleaguered President also suspected that it was precisely because he wasn't a radical, but was a practical, pragmatic reformer, that he was subject to so many attacks.

The Standard Oil and similar corporations have never really been frightened by any of the demagogic assaults upon them; they do not mind...empty threats about nationalizing them; and they laugh at the populists and professional labor agitators; but they have been aroused to intense hostility by having put upon the statute books a measure which does mean that a practical step in advance has been taken in reference to their supervision and regulation.

The only difference a century has made, as far as I can tell, is that the corporations and their ideological acolytes now don't hesitate to portray the Rooseveltian reformers as radicals. Then as now, the real radicals in America remain powerless. Talk radio doesn't report with alarm the latest pronouncements of the local communist or socialist parties. Instead, they claim that Democratic hacks and liberal academicians are socialists or communists who hate capitalism if not liberty itself. In a way, this pretense makes sense, since reactionaries might well fear whoever's more likely to be effective than whoever's most extreme. But Roosevelt himself thought their attitude unwise. He felt that the reactionaries failed to realize that reformers like him stood between them and revolution. As he asked another journalist, "Do they not realize that they are putting a very heavy burden on us who stand against socialism; against anarchic disorder?" They probably didn't, but more likely saw a slippery slope to socialism, and their successors still view Roosevelt with hostility. While he saw state "supervision and regulation" as an alternative to socialism, his opponents eventually equated it with socialism itself, which they identify primarily with the state rather than the working class. As far as the reactionaries were concerned, the effect was the same; they were less free, and anything that went wrong with the economy thus became government's fault. For all I know, some people today may blame Roosevelt himself for present-day business failures. It'd make as much sense as some things I do hear.

09 June 2011

If 'the Earth is full,' is that the end of freedom?

Thomas L. Friedman's latest discovery is an Australian "environmentalist-entrepreneur," Paul Gilding, who's published a book called The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World. That's not a title you expect to see an entrepreneur publishing, but Gilding tells Friedman that resource limits and climate change will inevitably impose social and cultural changes on everyone. In Gilding's words, “the Earth is full. We are now using so many resources and putting out so much waste into the Earth that we have reached some kind of limit, given current technologies. The economy is going to have to get smaller in terms of physical impact.”

To be more specific, Gilding argues that the imminent crisis will oblige everyone to abandon a "consumer-driven growth model," though he softens the expected blow by proposing, as an alternative, "a more happiness-driven growth model, based on people working less and owning less." I guess that's where the entrepreneurship comes in; Gilding intends to link happiness with having less stuff. That's going to be a hard sell in some quarters, particularly in the good old U.S.A., where a smaller economy based on owning less will inevitably be seen as a loss of personal freedom, especially if the shrinkage is mandated by government. In Gilding and Friedman's own scenario, further limitations on "freedom" are implicit. Population growth, for instance, puts increasing pressure on limited food supplies and on an economy that no longer needs the raw manpower it used to. Creating jobs to make work for even more people puts more pressure on the climate. While Friedman doesn't bring up the prospect himself, Gilding may well propose in his book that population control will be part of his great downsizing, a prospect most Americans across the ideological spectrum regard with horror.

Gilding hopes for a future with "a growth model based on giving people more time to enjoy life, but with less stuff." He'll have to overcome generations of raw materialist notions of both happiness and freedom if he expects Americans to embrace this idea. There have always been some whose notion of happiness has been based largely on leisure, but most of us have been trained to base our happiness on what we own and our ability to get more whenever we want. Likewise, many of us identify "freedom" with an ability to earn as much as we can and buy as much as we want with our earnings. The once-popular notion that freedom is linked to frugality, and threatened by luxury, seems ancient and alien to us now. But the idea of freedom once wasn't as materialistic as it is now, so it may grow less so in the future. If Friedman and Gilding are to be believed, that'll have to happen, and Gilding, for one, is optimistic. He tells Friedman, "We may be slow, but we’re not stupid." That remains to be seen, and a world-historical perspective might not be as optimistic. Corruption and decadence may be inevitable and inescapable for our culture as they were for the great cultures of the past. But pessimism will only fulfill a negative prophecy. We remain free in the most essential sense as long as we are able to take part through words and actions in whatever change comes instead of taking orders from self-appointed technocrats. In one sense, freedom has meant not being prevented by arbitrary power from doing what's necessary. The "great disruption" Gilding predicts may challenge all of us to affirm this kind of freedom against an ideology disguised as "freedom" that seems determined to stop us from saving ourselves.

08 June 2011

Department of Palin Studies

Like a dog with a fresh bone, Democratic opinionators will not let go of Sarah Palin -- and yet they complain about a bone in their mouths. The obsession with Palin has hit new heights of absurdity with the pundits and bloggers' gleeful parsing of the former governor's comments from last weekend on the midnight ride of Paul Revere. Palin herself, as is her wont, only added fuel to the fire by complaining later that she'd been asked some kind of trick "gotcha" question when her interviewer had only asked what Palin had been doing and seeing lately. She can almost be excused for her feeling, though, since she does have a knack for turning the most innocent questions into "gotchas" with her answers. Her problem is her idiomatic way of speaking. Part of her alleged folksiness is that she actually speaks like many people do, with a constant mix of metaphors and a steady blurring of the literal with the figurative. Like many people, she appears to conflate speech with action and vice versa. Action becomes speech when it "sends a message," and speech can become action if it "fires a warning shot." Metaphor itself translates one form of action into another. Figuratively, for a simplistic mind like Palin's, Revere's ride was a warning to the British, even a warning shot -- though it is something of a stretch to equate it with ringing bells.

If Palin's history lesson sounds funny, some of the comments afterward are downright hysterical -- in any sense of the word. One of the latest is Eugene Robinson's column, a wonderful exhibition of ideological literal-mindedness. For example, Robinson huffs at Palin's interpretation of Revere's ride as a warning to the British against trying to "take American arms." He interprets her commentary as if Palin had claimed that Revere had literally set out to inform the British about American intentions to resist their troop advance. Then he condemns her for putting "some kind of Second Amendment statement" in Revere's mouth, on the premise that, because there was no Constitution and no Second Amendment in 1775, Revere could not be taking a stand against the confiscation of weapons. But it just so happens that the British were coming for the specific purpose of seizing military stores. And if Robinson thinks that no one believed in an individual right to bear arms, for self-defense or otherwise, before the Bill of Rights was ratified, then who, exactly, is shaky in the history department?

"Yes, I'm belaboring the obvious," Robinson protests, adding later that l'affaire Revere is "a small, unimportant matter." Why, then, is it the subject of an entire column when there are bigger fish to fry -- declared Republican presidential candidates like Romney, Santorum, Pawlenty, etc? Because, Robinson writes, "the incident says so much about Palin's arrogant disregard for objective fact" when "Palin demands to be seen as a big, important person in the nation's political life." But if that's what Palin demands, it's writers like Robinson who are only too happy to please her. He claims that "She is ridiculous and dangerous in equal measure," -- not the most quantifiably factual assertion itself. I agree on the ridiculous part, but the danger, I suspect, is largely in the minds of purportedly panicky pundits like Robinson. They claim to tremble at the thought that she has "enough political support to effectively hold the Republican Party hostage," claiming that Mitt Romney should have complained about her distracting the media from his campaign announcement, but hasn't because he fears her and her alleged supporters. I probably shouldn't question whether Robinson sincerely fears Palin, but you can't deny that he wants us to fear her. When he writes columns like this, however amusedly contemptuous he tries to sound, his business -- like Palin's, actually, -- is fearmongering, and that's a disservice to democracy. If American elections were about choosing the best among several options for the country's future instead of accepting a lesser evil to prevent a worse, there'd never be a Sarah Palin in American politics, and the Democrats wouldn't have to invent one.

07 June 2011

The Christian Right: theories of evolution

Reviewing two new books on "the making of the Christian Right" and "the rise of evangelical conservatism" for The New Republic, historian of religion Mark A. Noll notes that evangelical Christians did not consistently support the political right in the U.S. until a decisive period following the election of Jimmy Carter, an evangelical himself, as President in 1976. After splitting nearly evenly between Carter and President Gerald Ford, the evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and have supported Republicans in comparable proportions ever since. The two books Noll reviews -- Daniel K. Williams's God's Own Party and Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sunbelt -- go back further in time to explore the roots of right-wing evangelicalism. In the reviewer's opinion, the books complement each other, with Dochuk stronger on the Christian Right's demographic roots among Depression era Southern migrants in California, whose "plain folk religion" had affinities with the entrepreneurial Republicanism evolving in the far west. But Noll feels that neither book really "addresses directly what should be one of the most compelling questions about the political history they describe so well: what exactly is Christian about the Christian right?"

According to Noll's paraphrase, "Southern plain-folk religion was instinctively congregational, fiercely independent, usually preacher-centered, and largely self-taught." Their theology stressed "individual redemption, church culture emphasizing local independence, and social instincts trained by segregation to resist outside interference from Yankee do-gooders and intrusive Big Government." While noting that the migrants started out "militantly racist," Dochuk convinced Noll that "over time explicit racism gradually faded as a primary component of California's conservative Protestants," while the antipathy toward "big government" endured. None of this, apparently, told Noll what was "Christian" about the movement, but his review tells us that he has his own idea of Christianity and its social responsibilities, according to which he finds the Christian Right wanting badly. He faults the historians for not carrying out a "moral evaluation" of the right that Noll himself deems necessary.

Noll sees the modern Christian Right as a "merger of Jesus and Jefferson," a concept that might have made Jefferson himself ill. Noll's opinion seems to be that there's too much Jefferson in the Right's antipathy toward government and not enough Jesus in their sense of mission toward others. He notes a "great irony" in the migrants' initial dependence on government-generated jobs in their western promised land. The jobs, Noll argues, "were either created directly by government action or facilitated by government subsidies to oil, gas, aerospace and defense industries." He seems to feel that the Christian Right could not denounce government without renouncing these jobs. Their alleged inconsistency points to the Right's lack of anything Noll recognizes as a political philosophy, which also seems to explain their inconsistent application, as Noll sees it, of Christian principles. The Right's record, he contends, "deserves to be both applauded and denounced.

It can be approved in classical Christian terms for trying to protect the lives of unborn innocents, but criticized for not seeing the need to mobilize on behalf of other weak and marginalized members of society, such as those who are trapped in urban ghettos. It can be praised for efforts at protecting families from the ravages of modern sexual and gender revolutions, but criticized for not acknowledging the stress placed upon families by postwar economic growth, 24/7 advertising and runaway consumption. It can be praised for standing firm against atheistic communism, but criticized for treating the complex realities of the modern political world as a Manichean cartoon. It can be praised for insisting on personal responsibility in the face of Big Labor and Big Government, but also criticized for not exercising the same vigilance with respect to Big Finance, Big Insurance and Big Business.

But whether anyone shares in Noll's applause and denunciation in the proportions he demands depends on whether they agree with Noll's reading of Christianity. A critic might ask "what exactly is Christian" about Noll's Christianity, after all, and since a book review is no place to lay the theological or scriptural groundwork for Noll's social gospel, his bit of preaching here isn't likely to convince skeptics. The crusade pitting the social gospel against individualist salvationism has been going on for more than a century now, and Noll's book review isn't going to resolve the dispute. Some Christians read the Bible and feel themselves called above all to aid the poor, while others read it as a key to saving themselves. Since both sides would agree on the Bible being, more or less, the word of God, religion alone is unlikely to explain why one Christian goes left and another right. Likewise, looking to the history of religion alone won't explain why evangelicals shifted hard to the right in 1980, though Noll points to some interesting research on right-wing takeovers of denominations as a prelude to massive faith-based intervention in politics. Just as religion in itself doesn't explain political action, it most likely can't guide political action on its own. The debate between the social gospel and its opposite is unlikely ever to be resolved by some decisive theological insight. Instead, Christians (not to mention other believers) will go left or right based on concerns outside the realm of scripture, using scripture after the fact to justify their choices. In this way, "Christian Right" may be a misnomer, as Noll insinuates, yet not, as he also insinuates, because it's some sort of heresy, but because it has nothing really to do with religion at all.