31 July 2011

Three fixes for the two-party system?

A consensus is building among angry Americans that assigns much of the blame for the debt-ceiling crisis on the country's traditional two-party system. In the Albany Times Union John T. Sullivan Jr. argues that the American Bipolarchy used to work for the collective good but has been corrupted by ideology and dependence upon special interests to the point that it "has become anachronistic and dysfunctional, and seems haplessly unable to heal itself." Sullivan shares a widespread nostalgia for the days of Tip O'Neill, the Democratic legislative leader of the 1970s and 1980s who's become a symbol of a congressional conviviality that reputedly transcended partisanship and kept the country on an even keel. Sullivan proposes Gerald Ford as a Republican counterpart to O'Neill, and laments the absence of such figures on either side of the aisle today. Their disappearance reflects a deeper problem: the loss of a "national consensus" that relegated extremists to the margins while both major parties pursued the common goals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Today, Sullivan protests, the Republicans are the party of the "haves," in open opposition to the "have-nots," while Democrats, despite appearances, are still held back from the reasonable middle by teachers' unions and other powerful interest groups. He regrets the lack in the U.S. of "a parliamentary system to allow the ideologically marginalized to marginalize themselves," though it's hard to tell whether he means an easy ability to form third parties or an easy way for party leader to relegate extremists to the back benches. To sum up, Sullivan appears to believe that Bipolarchy was fine in a pre-ideological era, but that ideology has somehow facilitated the takeover of both parties by special interests in place of consensus builders. For this, he proposes three remedies.

There's no point in creating false suspense. None of Sullivan's three options includes breaking up the two-party system. In fact, one of his suggestions would mean conceding more power to one party at any given time, by putting every seat in Congress up for grab in a Presidential election year. His hope is that for at least four years at a time, "everyone [would be] rowing the boat in the same direction [and] we would begin to solve some of the thornier problems we have." To make these more decisive elections more fair, Sullivan would impose public funding on all candidates to eliminate the assumed influence of special interests. I remain uncomfortable with this option, since it creates a dependency on the state that wouldn't be necessary if money were truly to be eliminated from politics. There is also no guarantee that publicly-funded political advertising would result in less ideologically extreme rhetoric, unless the state is to play a censor's role as well. If that's the outcome Sullivan assumes, we can infer an assumption that ideology derives from special interests, which isn't necessarily so. Finally, in what Republicans will take as a damning show of "liberal" colors, Sullivan calls for the restoration of the infamous "Fairness Doctrine," once more requiring any venue that airs partisan opinion to provide time (if not "equal time") for opposing points of view.

Sullivan hasn't given up on Bipolarchy yet. He regards it as a once-efficient system that has been hijacked by elements against which it had no apparent immunity, despite its onetime efficiencies. He acknowledges that this hijacking took place in the absence of a once-dependable "national consensus," though he may think that the hijacking caused the failure of the consensus, and not vice versa. He seems to believe that a two-party consensus can be restored by reducing the influence of ideologues and special interests, who through his reforms ought to be marginalized as they were before. His ideal, however, is a troubling one. His utopia seems to be a two-party system without meaningful differences, where two behemoths contest elections for the sake of pluralism (or the appearance thereof) but actually disagree on very little. He seems to identify such a system with a golden age of the American economy and social welfare that has more to do with global imbalances that have since been rebalanced than with the conduct of parties. He may also misattribute today's ideological extremism to special interests rather than to the anxieties of decline and the scapegoating impulse. In any event, it wouldn't be right to argue with an assertion that Americans need to pull together. But if Sullivan means nothing more by that than that the Democratic and Republican parties need to pull together, then we have a problem.

27 July 2011

Defining independence down

Barack Obama's place in history depends on each person's perspective. Some people, for instance, may deny that he is the first black President of the United States since, following Toni Morrison's reasoning in the 1990s, Bill Clinton was. However, the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd still sees Obama as a historic first. In her latest column, Dowd explains that Obama is "the first independent President."

Obama, after all, is a new entity. He’s not really a Democratic president. Or a Republican one. He’s the first Independent president, creating his own party.

“Obama’s interests are not the same as the Democrats in Congress in terms of what he needs to do for his own agenda, election and legacy,” said one Democratic strategist, who notes that now the president can benefit from an obstructionist Republican House as a foil.

White House officials dryly joke that the president’s “sweet spot” is his ability to alienate his base and infuriate his foes while falling short of his goals.

This really ought to have earned Dowd an Idiot of the Week nomination, but I'm still reeling from how utterly wrong and ahistorical this statement is. By Dowd's standard of "independence," most of the Democratic presidents of the 20th century were independents, to the extent that their agendas differed from those of congressional Democratic leaders. It's only a recent innovation for congressional partisans to defer to a fellow partisan in the White House, a condition exemplified by Vice President Cheney's power over the Senate in the previous administration. Traditionally, legislators rightly insisted on their equality to the executive branch and their prerogatives under the separation of powers. Partisanship did not require submission to the President or any acknowledgment that he was the commander of the party faithful. So looking at it that way, Dowd doesn't know what she's writing about. And from the perspective of independence, in the absence of any evidence of actual party building on the part of the President, Dowd must take the word "independent" to mean nothing more than "self-interested." It's in Obama's interest to seek the moral high ground from which he can appear to be above the fray, exhorting both parties to compromise, but I don't see him calling the masses to rally around that high ground and form a new electoral entity. Nor does anyone except Maureen Dowd and some disgruntled legislators think of Obama as "independent" in any meaningful sense. It's not that he's the "tax and spend liberal" or "socialist" that the teamongers say he is. It's just that Americans would be able to tell if a President had really called on them to declare independence from partisanship, and the President's hissy fits don't match the description. I suspect that Dowd would not recognize an actual independent if she saw one; worse than that, she might not even be capable of seeing one.

26 July 2011

The burden of compromise

The debate over raising the national debt ceiling is a manufactured crisis, a war of choice that may do more to disillusion people about the sufficiency of the two-party system than any event in a long time. The storyline is easy to understand: the nation approaches a traumatic crisis -- defaulting on its debt obligations -- while the officeholding leaders of the two major parties play what is almost universally described as a game of chicken. There is no good spin to put on the spectacle unless you are a true believer in one of the parties. It's either a doomsday scenario of ideological fanaticism or a cynical dance for electoral advantage. Unfortunately, the nation governs with the people it elected, not the people it needs. A majority of those Americans who bothered voting chose President Obama, and people in a majority of congressional districts chose Republican representatives. Each branch has the prerogative to insist on its priorities, and neither has a legal obligation to compromise before victory. Objectively speaking, I could argue that the ultimate burden of compromise lies with the Republicans because of their intransigence on taxes, but they can claim a mandate from last November to hold out as long as possible and require Democrats to give in. But continued Democratic control of the Senate limits Republicans' power to dictate. They're really depending on the President and Democratic leaders to crack -- perhaps presuming liberals to lack willpower equal to their own. But there are enough crackpots in GOP ranks who seem willing to risk default to create doubt that their side will crack in time.

Here's a layman's modest proposal for compromise, beginning from the assumption that Republicans can't be coerced into submission the way some might like. Compromise will require some deference to current Republican priorities while holding them to their long-term commitment to debt reduction. They oppose tax increases, and even the closing of existing loopholes, on the instrumental ground that continued low taxes will result in greater revenue from an economy stimulated the "right" way by letting people keep their money. Deference to their two-year mandate obliges the opposition to let them try -- and fail. But surrender shouldn't be unconditional. Since leaders are after a multi-stage debt-reduction plan, the first stage should be understood as an ultimate test of Republican supply-side premises. Democrats should make it clear that they'll give Republicans a chance for their magic to work, and that if low taxes don't have the predicted results -- if the entrepreneurial gods don't rain jobs upon the populace and make up deficits with increased revenue from increased profits -- tax increases will be automatic to make up the shortfall. In short, an ideal compromise should delay tax increases for a year or two and do without them entirely should Republican policies actually work, but require increases unless certain targets are met. If Republicans are confident of the efficacy of low-tax policies they should readily accept these terms. If not, they'll further expose themselves as taxophobic fanatics whose dogmas have priority over the public good. Unless Democrats are convinced, for practical or ideological reasons, that tax increases are an immediate imperative, they'd have little to lose by making this offer if they believe their own propaganda against supply-sidism. There is no avoiding austerity in the short term, and no avoiding Republican power today. But a compromise should be possible that would allow Republicans a feeling of accomplishment now while planting the seeds of a comeuppance later. This kind of compromise ought also to appeal to ranks and files across party lines, leaving aside the taxophobic absolutists and the dead-enders who refuse to envision any austerity, and might even, in a better among possible worlds, form the basis of a trans-partisan consensus. But I thought I'd try it on blog readers first.

24 July 2011

How'd you like your own ballot line? Americans Elect make an offer

Thomas Friedman has been calling for a "radical center" alternative to Bipolarchy gridlock for some time now, but this weekend he writes that he may have found the perfect vehicle for it in the form of Americans Elect, a group that has rethought the usual order of electoral insurgency. Usually an independent movement forms around a candidate, then struggles to get a line on the ballot. As Friedman explains, Americans Elect are going about it the other way, getting a ballot line first in order to have something to offer a candidate. Friedman reports that the group has gotten the signatures it needs to get on the California ballot -- 1,600,000 -- and is shooting to be on every state ballot next year. With that battle already fought, the group hopes that whomever members draft to run for President will accept the honor. Like Get Out Of Our House, Americans Elect is open to everyone regardless of ideology. Individuals proposed as candidates will be winnowed down through rounds of voting to a final field of six. The final choice of an online convention will enjoy a presence on ballots across the country, if the signature collecting succeeds, on the condition that, should the candidate belong to an existing party, he or she must choose a running mate of another party. While this doesn't guarantee the ideological diversity the group appears to want (a Democrat could choose a Green, a Republican a Constitutionalist), the requirement does send a message of dissatisfaction with partisanship without handicapping the movement by forbidding it from nominating partisans.

However, it's a little unrealistic for Americans Elect to state on their website that there'll be "No special interests. No agendas. No partisanship" in their process when that process is by definition open to Republicans, Democrats and other partisans. While Libertarians, if anyone, are early favorites to dominate the proceedings because of their internet savvy, once the major parties take Americans Elect seriously they'll flood in to fight for control as they fight for control of all elected offices. The group has an admirable objective of allowing ordinary people to nominate a Presidential candidate without having to go through party channels, but through history direct democracy has been a matter of who shows up. If Democrats and Republicans show up they'll most likely turn Americans Elect to a bipolarchy in miniature. Politicians of the major parties may not like the requirement of choosing a running mate outside their own parties, but that'd be a small price to pay to keep the AE ballot line from a real independent. It's fair to note, however, that independence takes second place in the group's priorities to the ideal of direct democracy for nominating candidates. Americans Elect object to the existing nominating mechanisms, but if their system results in a standard "liberal" or "conservative" being chosen, what real difference will have been made? The group's candidates will only be as good as their voters, and won't be independent unless the voters are. While Americans Elect is worthy of encouragement, those of us who seek independence from the Bipolarchy should still seek ways to advance candidates independent of ideology as well as partisanship. Doing that may still require some self-segregation from partisans, but Americans Elect offers too enticing a prize for independents to ignore it. The prize may be worth the effort, but independents should keep all options open.

23 July 2011

Norway's McVeigh

Of course, early reports of yesterday's atrocities in Oslo and environs had to consider the possibility of Muslim involvement. The first report I saw, which was just about the car-bombing, before the horror at the youth camp was widely known, saw fit to mention that Norway is a NATO member and was participating in the bombing of Libya. An Islamist attack was not implausible. But something nagged at me. Actually, two things did. One was my friend Crhymethinc, who before we'd even heard of the bombing was telling me about the Constantine's Sword documentary, which had gotten him alarmed about the potential for right-wing Christian terrorism around the world. The other was the fact of the car-bombing itself and the choice of a government building as a target. It reminded me a little too much of Oklahoma City and Timothy McVeigh. Then the attack on the island emerged as a gigantic amoklauf, perhaps the worst such case in modern history. While wearing a police disguise is an Islamist terror tactic, it's not theirs exclusively, and in any event an Islamist is still more likely to draw people to himself in order to blow up. Here, however, was the hallmark of the amoklauf: the power of the gun. Here was another madman who wanted to see his victims fall before him and die. Here was the sadism that's one of the few things the suicide bomber isn't guilty of. While we have one notorious example of an Islamist mass shooter, the Fort Hood killer was Americanized and militarized in an exceptional way. With the rest, it is something like an ethical obligation, I suspect, to die with their victims. Many an amoklaufer does the same, but not before they've had the satisfaction they've sought from seeing people killed. We don't know yet what the suspected Norway killer's ultimate intentions were -- or even whether he acted alone or with the sort of help that McVeigh enjoyed. But he apparently didn't plan on dying. And we appear to know that the suspect was a man of the Norwegian right, and that the island camp where the slaughter happened was run by the leftist governing party. The choice of political targets probably makes the suspect a terrorist rather than an amoklaufer, but the distinction probably isn't significant. If right-wing terrorism in general should prove decentralized or individually initiated, there'll be little difference between the lone-wolf terrorist and the typical amoklaufer. Such acts are unlikely to further any political agenda in any systematic way. They come closer to the pure nihilism usually on display in an amoklauf. If there is a threat to be perceived in right-wing Christian violence, it may not take conspiratorial form, with an al-Qaeda counterpart announcing long-term political goals. But it may be fair and even necessary to ask whether Christian extremism is one of the many potential triggers for transforming an otherwise harmless malcontent into a mockery of martyrdom. One should expect extensive cooperation from the majority of Christians in any such inquiry, since they should be the first to recognize such manifestations as heresy against the non-violent message of Jesus. If they want to insist that theirs is a more inherently peaceful faith than Islam, they couldn't prove the point more convincingly than by purging every violent tendency from their midst, just as they as Muslims to do.

21 July 2011

How many choices are there? A lesson from 1911

By the summer of 1911, American political junkies could make a pretty good guess about the following year's Presidential election. It seemed certain that the incumbent, William Howard Taft, would seek and receive the Republican nomination, while the governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, was emerging as a favorite for the Democratic nod. The editors of the Troy Record predicted a Taft-Wilson race in their August 5, 1911 issue. For them, that would be an ideal contest because Taft and Wilson embodied the fundamental political division in the country.

Every Presidential election should be a clash between conservative and progressive interests. Each plank in the platform which opposes a plank in the platform of the contesting party should indicate the standpoint from which the organization meets the issue as progressive or conservative. Otherwise the contest is one for party names and party patronage.

Newspaper writers of 1911 wouldn't think of "conservatism" and "progressivism" as ideologies because they probably wouldn't be familiar with the word. But the Record editorial writers appeared to believe that what we call ideology redeems partisanship, which was otherwise nothing more than brand-name loyalism. Ideology had not yet become an instrument of brand-name partisanship, as it would be a century later.

By defining the terms of "every Presidential election" in advance, the Record took the familiar line that there was a fundamental and permanent bipolarchy in American politics. The conflict might be between conservatives and progressives, conservatives and liberals, or strict constructionists and loose constructionists, but it has been there from the beginning. But if the writers meant to suggest that "conservative and progressive interests" were the only available choices for American voters, their subsequent discussion of Taft's conservatism undermined the claim.

President Taft stands for conservatism. There is no use in trying to make him appear to be a progressive except in so far as every conservative who is not a reactionary is willing to advance when conditions point the way. But he does not believe in most of the modern radical steps in government until they have been tested and studied longer than they have thus far. (emphasis added)

So there were not two choices, one could infer, but four: not just conservatism, but reaction; not just progressivism, but radicalism. And as it happened, there weren't two major candidates in 1912, but four. The men weren't necessarily a perfect match for the options. Eugene V. Debs, the most successful Socialist candidate ever, would clearly play the role of the radical. Theodore Roosevelt, the former President who challenged Taft and then broke with the Republican Party, explicitly labelled himself a Progressive, though he often thought of himself as a conservative in the classic, reasonable mold, the leader willing to make drastic reforms to preserve the basic social order. In retrospect, Wilson is often also labelled a progressive, given the changes carried out under his administration (income tax, Federal Reserve, direct election of Senators, etc.), though historian Joshua David Hawley regarded him as a conservative progressive relative to Roosevelt. Wilson's racial attitudes also invite a conservative or even reactionary label from modern observers. From the progressive or radical perspective, of course, Taft was not just conservative but reactionary, the two camps perhaps not making much distinction between the options. In any event, the 1912 presidential election had probably the greatest depth of intellect among its multiple major candidates (not counting numerous other contenders) of any campaign in American history, but the nation would have been deprived of half of it had the logic quoted above prevailed. The ancient editorial illustrates the exclusionary principle inherent in Bipolarchy, admitting conservatives but not reactionaries to the contest, and progressives but not radicals. Bipolarchy in unguarded moments acknowledges the existence of other options, but insists that we are all better off with only two choices. In 1912 an ex-President and a Socialist disagreed. Who will stand up in 2012?

20 July 2011

Republican stakes in the 'cataclysmic struggle'

In his latest indictment of irreconcilable Republicanism, David Brooks (who still styles himself "conservative") attempts to categorize the elements obstructing constructive conservative compromise on the debt-ceiling question. He denounces "Beltway Bandits" like Grover Norquist ("the Zelig of Republican catastrophe"), "Big Government Blowhards" on the radio, "Show Horse" presidential candidates like Michele Bachmann and cynically partisan "Permanent Campaigners." All these groups have in common a preference for sensationalism over substance, in Brooks's analysis. They "enforce rigid ultimatums that make governance, or even thinking, impossible," "portray politics as a cataclysmic, Manichean struggle," and "pass responsibility onto the other party and force them to take as many difficult votes as possible." Sensationalism keeps the money flowing and the ratings high. They don't seek results in practical, pragmatic terms, but supposedly "believe that if they can remain pure in their faith then someday their party will win a total and permanent victory over its foes." This apocalyptic aspiration inspires Brooks to dub the irreconcilables "the Gods of the New Dawn." That, he supposes, is their self-image.

If we boil it down, Brooks's main complaint seems to be that these Republicans are more interested in winning elections than in governing the country. To the extent that the extremists have an ideological aversion to government, that only makes sense. It is also a bad thing, in Brooks's opinion, that the "Gods of the New Dawn" seek total, final victory over their "foes," whether those be Democrats specifically or liberals in general. That's a predictable reaction that reflects the punditocracy's equation of Bipolarchy with pluralism. But if you believe a political party to be a dangerous faction, as many of our Founders presumed any party would be (before they formed their own), why should you want to see that party perpetuated permanently? As long as you're contemplating a conclusive electoral victory and not a ban on a specific faction or factionalism in general, what harm would actually befall the nation if a major party expired? If that's the worst thing that can happen, then the nation was in its greatest peril in 1820, when the withering away of the Federalist party allowed James Monroe to run for President unopposed. But no one considers Monroe the closest thing to an American tyrant. Nor do I think that any Republican leader today aspires to the kind of tyranny we identify with a "one party state." In fact, I question whether any Republican leader actually seeks the "total and permanent victory" Brooks accuses them of wanting.

Bipolarchy assumes that the ideal number of political parties is no more and no less than two. The chief American theorist of Bipolarchy, Martin Van Buren, believed that any political campaign should be characterized as a fundamental struggle in which the American experiment in democratic republicanism was at stake. For him, the election of 1824, not of 1820, was the great disaster of American politics, because four powerful Republicans campaigned as individuals rather than partisans. This irked Van Buren because he expected Republicans to abide by the result of the congressional caucus that picked presidential candidates. The failure of Adams, Clay and Jackson to defer to Crawford reduced the 1824 campaign to mere unprincipled personal ambition in Van Buren's mind. For him, party cohesion depended on portraying any given campaign as a "cataclysmic struggle" with an implicitly un-American opponent. That depended on the existence of an opponent. President Adams played that role in 1828, and Van Buren helped build the Democratic Party around Andrew Jackson by accusing Adams of having won the Presidency unfairly through a "corrupt bargain," and of reverting to the Federalism of his father. If the Whig Party had not emerged to challenge President Jackson, Van Buren would probably have had to invent an opposition party in order to prevent another 1824 after Jackson's retirement. For Bipolarchy, "cataclysmic struggle" is the state of continuity, and "total and permanent victory" only the stuff of propaganda. Notice, after all, that Brooks ascribed such a desire to all the Republicans who were allegedly interested in self-promotion rather than results. Think of them as arms merchants who would have to worry about their future livelihood if "total and permanent victory" were actually achieved. If a time came when multiple Republicans contested a general Presidential election on their personal merits, these people might not know how to deal with it, but they would most likely settle on one candidate and dub him or her a closet liberal/socialist/whatever in the hope of restoring Bipolarchy as soon as possible.

My point isn't that Brooks is wrong to denounce an unwillingness among Republicans to compromise. I simply want to suggest that the current crisis is just an advanced stage of a condition characteristic of Bipolarchy that might eventually be remedied if a "total and permanent victory" were achieved temporarily. I refuse to be paranoid about Republicans or impute tyrannical ambitions to them. Were they to achieve total victory, they would be at each other's throats almost immediately. I don't believe that a "one party state" would be the long-term result of the end of the current American Bipolarchy. It might be preferable if the Republicans fell first, but the important thing is that true pluralism follow, whether it's based on parties or personalities, rather than the reproduction of the Manichean parody of pluralism I call Bipolarchy.

19 July 2011

Libertarian factionalism and the future of the GOP

The same issue of The American Conservative that prints a pan of the latest libertarian manifesto includes an interesting article by W. James Antle III about the simmering conflict within the Republican party between supporters of two "libertarian-leaning" candidates for the 2012 presidential nomination, Rep. Ron Paul and former governor Gary Johnson. Antle's article is a timely reminder that the electoral potential of libertarianism is complicated by an almost inevitable lack of consensus about what libertarianism actually means.

In broadest terms, the rivalry between Paul and Johnson pits "paleolibertarians" against "cosmotarians." The distinction is based on cultural issues, the paleos who support Paul tending toward traditionalist cultural conservatism, the cosmos (for "cosmopolitan") being culturally liberal. As Antle explains, "Johnson's supporters tend to be those attracted to libertarianism because they think freedom advances human happiness rather than those primarily concerned about the depredations of the state....For them, sexual self-expression is as integral to individual freedom as matters of war and peace." By comparison, Paul disapproves of abortion, gay marriage, etc., though he is less willing than most Republicans to use state power to enforce his preferences. To Johnson's supporters, Paul's cultural conservatism compromises his libertarian purity. On other issues, however, Paul's people find Johnson wanting. His opposition to foreign intervention is not as unwavering as Paul's; Antle cites an interview in which Johnson "[left] the door open to unspecified humanitarian interventions." The New Mexican is also more tolerant of the Federal Reserve; he has no known intent to abolish it, as Paul does. Intellectually, Paul is influenced by the early-20th century Austrian economists like Ludwig von Mises, and by the anti-statist, anti-militarist Murray Rothbard (whom Antle calls an "anarchist"). Johnson favors the Chicago School of economists and is a "consequentialist" rather than an absolutist. That is, he tends to oppose government initiatives on the ground that they can't work or are unaffordable, not on the ground that they are wrong in principle. But Antle warns that this particular distinction can be misleading, since "most libertarians make both consequentialist and morally absolute arguments."

Paul, of course, remains popular in pre-primary polls, though turnout in his behalf is no more likely to be in proportion to his online support as it was in 2008. Nevertheless, he is well ahead of Johnson in nearly every measurement of progress toward the nomination. Antle explains that Paul's "more radical and more conservative" philosophy is simply more attractive to Republican primary voters, despite his off-putting anti-interventionism. For that reason, Antle concludes that Paul has a better chance of pushing the GOP in a more libertarian direction, but he adds that Johnson's participation in the primaries will be a good thing as well.

The careers of Ron Paul and Gary Johnson make a good case for libertarian participation in the Republican Party. Both men could have run on identical platforms as Libertarian Party candidates and would have received an infinitesimal number of votes. As Republicans, they won elections and were able to govern....In fact, it is a sign of progress for the libertarian wing of the GOP that there are now two prominent candidates offering an alternative to the Republican establishment's prescriptions of war, deficit spending, and a liberty-constricting national-security state.

A good case for whom? From the editorial perspective of The American Conservative, libertarians are helpful in the struggle against neocons for dominance of the Republican party. In theory, libertarians benefit from seizing control of one of the major parties, but Antle's analysis begs a lot of questions. The obvious question becomes: which libertarians benefit? The obvious next question should be: on whose terms? If libertarians opt for the short cut to power through the Republican party, the option comes at the cost of allowing Republican primary voters to determine which type of libertarianism they prefer -- in effect, to define libertarianism itself unless the losers make a stand on independent ground. Opting for the Republican short cut arguably puts the future of libertarianism in the hands of people whom neither Paul's people nor Johnson's supporters would consider libertarians at all. That's the American Bipolarchy at work.

18 July 2011

A conservative critique of 'futuretastic' libertarianism

There's enough of a libertarian streak in the intellectual tendency known as "paleoconservatism" -- or vice versa-- that a need emerges occasionally for differentiation. This need is answered in part by The American Conservative magazine, which includes in its newest issue a critique from James P. Pinkerton of Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch's Declaration of Independents -- which just happens to be advertised on the magazine's back page. Pinketon is identified as a Fox News contributor and fellow of the New America Foundation, a "radical centrist" think tank. I'm not sure how paleo his conservatism is, but it is unorthodox. At least it takes an unorthodox shape when pitted against Gillespie and Welch's aggressively optimistic libertarianism. What happens when a presumed paleocon criticizes libertarians? In this case Pinkerton produces a justification, if not a defense, of the state.

Pinkerton goes to the root, answering the authors' appeal to Jefferson and the "pursuit of happiness," which they deem threatened by present-day party politics, with an invocation of Washington and Hamilton.

Perhaps “happiness” was never the whole point of the Declaration or the war that followed; George Washington, to name one Founder, had a sternly civic-minded vision of happiness, and it had nothing to do with “infinite individual choice.” Having survived countless battles on behalf of his country, Washington was determined that America would survive as a nation—and it was only the hard, serious work of statecraft that would guarantee its survival.

It was President Washington, too, who commissioned Alexander Hamilton to write the Report on Manufactures—a 1791 defense-industrial agenda focusing on the need for the 18th-century equivalent of, yes, big government to make sure that military production was insourced, not outsourced. It’s worth emphasizing that the Report was written by the first Treasury secretary, at the behest of the first president, and accepted by the first Congress. If libertarians argue (and many do [as do many Republicans -- SW]) that Hamilton was some sort of mutant militarist or corporatist, they find themselves at odds with the thinking of those who were actually present at the Founding.

It was only recently that self-styled conservatives ceased to be statists. Until the early 20th century, statism was an essential part of the job description. Only when politicians broke an implicit alliance with the business class did most American "conservatives" side with business against the state. They idealized the market as the source of all good things, but Pinkerton disagrees, at least in one field of activity: science.

[I]s it really the case that the free market should trump professional canons of medical ethics? Should doctors put aside the Hippocratic Oath in favor of profit maximization? Are those the doctors that you want to visit?
Gillespie and Welch also neglect the reality that science, including medical science, has imperatives of its own. It was not the free market that gave us penicillin, or the polio vaccine, or the eradication of smallpox. Instead, it was a pluralistic combination of public and private actors, spearheaded by doctors who, in fact, do have special healing knowledge to dispense.
And so contemporary libertarianism runs up against yet another weakness: its too glib dismissal of the long-term and expensive science that few entrepreneurs pursue. The miracle of the marketplace hasn’t come up with a cure for Alzheimer’s, and it’s unlikely that it ever will because those kinds of megaprojects have always been undertaken by nonprofits of one kind or another.

Pinkerton accuses 21st century libertarians of abandoning a "pro-science tradition" exemplified by Robert A. Heinlein in their obsession with the Market as the essential vehicle of progress. He finds this ironic given their fetishization of an Internet that "started out as a government program." Worse, it represents a rejection of technocratic pragmatism in favor of wishful ideology. For this reason above all, Pinkerton doubts whether libertarians will win over many people from "the pragmatic middle of America -- the folks who simply want better lives." From what he can see, Gillespie and Welch lack "compelling and comprehensive vision that can grab hearts and minds." They offer, in their own words, a "futuretastic world of nearly infinite individual choice, specialization, and autonomy." Most Americans, Pinkerton expects, would rather see results, or at least be promised some. The libertarians want the rest of us to share their thrill of entrepreneurial risk and adventure. One almost gets the feeling that for them the journey, not the destination matters. If that's so, it's understandable if a conservative dismisses them, because that makes them liberals.

Progressives' 'American Dream House'

Last weekend, hundreds of meetings were held across the country at private homes, sympathetic businesses and public venues dubbed "American Dream Houses" for the purpose. Locally, Dream House meetings were held in Schenectady and Albany, at a cafe in the former city, the public library in the latter. Turnout was disappointing in some cases, and the results were necessarily tentative. These meetings were meant to mark the beginning of the latest attempt to create a "liberal Tea Party" movement, but declaring that intent so baldly is probably a handicap. It may be hard to remember already, but the 2009 Tea Party was not immediately identified, especially not by its grass-roots instigators, as a "conservative" movement. It had a strong populist streak rooted in its origin as an anti-bailout uprising, and the only real hope to reproduce the phenomenon is to tap into a populism that won't necessarily flock to anything explicitly "liberal" or "progressive." The prominence of such figures as Van Jones and such groups as MoveOn.org show the new movement's hand too early. Based on the opinions expressed and priorities affirmed at the two local meetings, the Dream House's initial constituency is the oldschool tax-and-spend element. They're populist in one core sense of the term in their apparent hostility to concentrated wealth. "Popular Front" might be a better term, signifying the attempt to cultivate a distinctively leftist populism. The original PF's anti-fascist sensibility was present in a Schenectady woman's anxiety about conditions supposedly resembling those of the Weimar Republic before Hitler's rise to power. The woman hesitated, however, to accuse the Tea Party and its patrons of fascism. But something like that arguably extremist, arguably intolerant attitude may be necessary to energize an uncertain populace. Paranoia may need to be answered with paranoia if the Dream House hopes to match the Tea Party's public profile. Whether that's desirable is unclear. At first glance, the Dream House looks like nothing more than another get-the-vote-out vehicle for Democrats, with perhaps a promise to primary candidates into progressive directions. But a true working-class backlash against corporate Republican austerity may well prove incompatible with progressive liberalism in at least some ways, and aligning it with the Democrats would most likely only blunt its eventual force. For now, and more so now than in the early days of the Tea Party, this purported grass-roots movement looks a lot like "astroturf."

17 July 2011

Alternate Idiot of the Week: Herman Cain

Here's a double-whammy from the pizza entrepreneur turned candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Herman Cain has endorsed the right of local communities to ban the construction of mosques. He justifies this exception to the First Amendment on the ground that Islam is an exceptional religion.""Islam is both a religion and a set of laws -- Sharia laws," Cain told Fox News, "That's the difference between any one of our traditional religions where it's just about religious purposes."

It is more likely that Christianity is exceptional among the world's religions in being "just about religious purposes." Christianity, in Protestant form especially, is considered an orthodox religion for its almost exclusive emphasis on right belief, as opposed to an orthopractic religion, which insists on right conduct or practice from adherents. Islam is not alone as an orthopractic faith -- Judaism has a "sharia" of its own, for instance -- nor is it exceptional in the insistence of many adherents upon the enactment of scriptural law into statutory law. While one extreme of Protestant Christianity treats repentance as a "get out of hell free" card that effectively enables lifetimes of sin, another extreme, the "reconstructionists," insists that "Christian nations" be governed according to the statutes of the Old Testament. Would Cain forbid a recontstructionist denomination from building a church because its doctrine is politically incorrect? I doubt it, since he falls back later in his interview on fears about terrorism as his ultimate justification for refusing mosques. He would have been idiot enough had he left his opposition at that. For adding a rationalization that is, in fact, irrational, he deserves to be an idiot of some week or other. The rest of the field has almost an entire week to try and top him.

16 July 2011

Idiot of the Week: Wayne LaPierre

Declaring the National Rifle Association's absolutely predictable opposition to a proposed United Nations treaty regulating personal firearms, the NRA president informed the world body that "We reject the notion that American gun owners must accept any lesser amount of freedom in order to be accepted among the international community."

Well, call me un-American, but if you want to be part of a larger group, it's the larger group that gets to set the terms for membership. And now that I think about it, this isn't such an un-American idea at all. For in order to be part of the United States, the individual states had to accept a lesser amount of freedom as dictated by the Constitution. They could no longer coin or print their own money or make treaties with other countries. And to be readmitted into the Union after the Civil War, Southerners had to accept a lesser amount of freedom for themselves by renouncing their right to buy, own or sell human beings. So Mr. LaPierre's real problem is that someone other than his people are setting the terms, however vague, for membership in an international community.

For some reason LaPierre's tirade reminds me of Groucho Marx's famous remark that he wouldn't want to be in any club that would have him as a member. I can imagine a rejoinder from Chico that would express my feeling toward the NRA on this issue: "Atsa right, boss! I no wanna join a club that's got you for a member too."

14 July 2011

GOOOH: pronounced "go," not "goo."

Responding to one of my posts about the way candidates for office are chosen today, d. eris of the estimable Poli-Tea blog asked if I had heard of the GOOOH group and their proposals. I had not, but I have since visited the website of the group formally known as "Get Out Of Our House." Like W. C. Fields emphasizing the "accent grave" on the final syllable of the name Egbert Souse, GOOOH insists that its acronym be pronounced "go," whatever your impulse might be to read it as "goo." The difference is obviously significant, but is it justified?

Founded by Tim Cook in 2007, Get Out Of Our House is not designed as a political party. Instead, "It is a system that will allow you and your neighbors to choose, among yourselves, a candidate who will truly represent your district." The group's first priority is to defeat the incumbent Representative in every district in the country. Accordingly, "Our preference is to compete in the primaries against the incumbent." Running on an independent line is seen as a last resort, but if the GOOOH candidate opts to contest a primary, he or she is obliged to stand down if the incumbent wins. The group appears to believe in a single-elimination principle, citing Sen. Murkowski of Alaska as a negative example (despite her eventual victory) of a party candidate continuing to run despite a repudiation from primary voters. Dedicated to eliminating all 435 current Representatives, GOOOH declares itself non-partisan and non-ideological. As a non-party, it has no platform. It presents itself as a "process," a mechanism through which "a socially moderate candidate [can] be selected in San Francisco and a socially conservative one in Colorado Springs."

Interestingly, GOOOH originally considered excluding lawyers and people making more than 250 times the median national income from membership, on the ground that these groups were already over-represented in the existing political system. They thought better of that rather Capra-esque idea, but still insist that members of either group declare their profession or their wealth before they can participate in one of GOOOH's "Selection Societies." Active politicians and their relatives are still excluded, however.

Everyone who participates in a "Selection Session" is a potential candidate for office as long as he or she meets the requirements for serving in Congress. Participants must fill out a campaign questionnaire, marking Yes or No positions on a wide range of issues -- GOOOH claims there are no "right" or "wrong" answers at this stage. They must promise in writing not to accept money from "special interests" and to vote in Congress according to the positions set down in the questionnaire. Another condition is added elsewhere: each candidate must promise in writing to serve no more than one term in office. Perhaps most importantly, participants must donate at least $100 to a general GOOOH campaign fund. The group acknowledges criticism of this requirement, which is believed by some to exclude "the poor." The core of GOOOH's response follows:

Candidates are competing for a job that will pay $168,000 per year. If someone does not have the ability to raise $100 from family, friends or a side job, it is unlikely they are qualified to represent their district as a US Congressman. If someone is not willing to support the system with a minimum $100 donation, we do not consider them committed to the process.

The actual candidate selection process is a staggered caucus system that does seem to give each member a plausible fighting chance at first. Members in each district are assigned randomly to pools of ten people apiece, from which two candidates will be sent to the next round of selection. The process repeats until the number of potential candidates is down to ten. Those ten are then empowered exclusively to choose one from their number to run against the incumbent in a primary or general election. It is a very indirect system of selection that may strike people as undemocratic at the final stage, but the indirectness arguably denies any single person an advantage due to notoriety, and advertising is conspicuously absent from the process. If the plan has an obvious Achilles heel, it is the lack of any guarantee that all participants in the selection process will support the final candidate. Some may prove unwilling to register in the incumbent's party if the election law requires it. For others, ideological bias may trump anti-incumbent sentiment if the final candidate appears "worse" in any respect than the incumbent.

GOOOH expresses confidence that its candidates can win primaries and general elections. "We believe Americans will vote overwhelmingly for our citizen representatives if given an honest chance," the website declares, "GOOOH candidates will win in a landslide." The group hopes to seal the deal with a stern anti-incumbent argument against voters who declare themselves satisfied with their current representatives.

There are 700,000 members in each district, thousands of imminently qualified men and women. George Washington stepped aside after two terms as President because he did not want any one person to become more important than the system. Will your representative do the same, or is he more concerned about his political career? If your representative is good, shouldn’t he run for Senate or Governor? Do you agree that sometimes it is worthwhile to take one step back in order to move 435 forward? But, does it really matter if you “like” your representative. We voted for our high school officers based on likes and dislikes. This is about results. What has your politician done to ensure there are no earmarks in a budget? What has he done to ensure we do not amass debt that our children will be forced to pay? What has he done to seal our borders, improve our education system, or solve the looming Social Security / Medicare crisis?

The author (presumably but not necessarily Tim Cox) goes on to make comments that suggest an anti-Democratic bias, but Cox does appear to have designed a system that it itself ideologically unbiased and would produce biased results only if ideologues join in numbers overwhelming to everyone else. However, GOOOH desires people to spread the word indiscriminately, to as many people as possible regardless of current partisan or ideological orientation. As long as GOOOH is not a secret club for any particular ideological faction -- and while Cox seems to expect "fiscal conservatives" to be chosen his rules can't guarantee that result -- it might serve as a vehicle for anyone intelligent and charismatic enough to impress at least ten people. I'm not prepared to endorse GOOOH on a first reading, but the ideas it proposes definitely deserve a closer examination.

13 July 2011

A lobby for the Constitution?

A press release arrived in the office today announcing the formation of a "constitution lobby" for the state of New York -- "a permanent non-political, non-profit [lobby] with the sole purpose of holding elected officials accountable to the State and Federal Constitutions, the local City Charters and the Rule of Law." The lobby's name is We The People of New York Inc., and its stated purpose is "to defend the Constitution on purely legal, not political grounds," because "the Constitution cannot defend itself." The press release states that the lobby will hold a series of informational meetings in the Capital District, with the object of recruiting members toward a goal of 800,000 -- 5% of the state's population. Annual dues of $25 will be charged, according to one of the group's websites.

The Constitution lobby hopes to form a "critical mass...a more formidable force than all the lobbies and unions now in New York -- who will keep a permanent watchful eye on what government is doing at every level, and will hold those in power directly accountable." Those dues will go toward paying "approximately 1,240 Constitutional Monitors" who will be trained to review "the constitutionality of all official actions of all public officials." Violations of any constitution will be reported to the attorneys at a Citizen Vigilance Center, which will recommend appropriate action.

At this site, the lobby details its purposed response to unconstitutional measures:

1. Measure the actions of their public servants against the requirements of their city charters,state and federal Constitutions, local laws and oaths of office.

2.In the event of a violation, serve a Petition for Redress of Grievance and instructions of remedy, as protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, upon all parties involved.

3.Make the public aware of the violation and remedy and apply public pressure on the serving parties to reply and/or comply with the remedy.

4.In the event there is no substantive response,take steps to enforce the Rights of the People that have been violated via coordinated Civic Actions by the Lobby members.

The ultimate goal, as the membership drive appears to envision, is to establish a "constitutionalist" voting bloc that would ideally transcend established party lines. The question must inevitably arise, however, of how apolitical such a lobby can be. Nearly every Supreme Court decision reveals deep disagreements over the meaning of the Constitution and its relevance to current affairs. For generations, many Americans have asserted that the true two-party system of the country divides the strict constructionists of the Constitution from those whose looser interpretations enable more extensive government. If the organizers of the lobby (Robert Schulz is identified as "a prominent Constitutional activist") sincerely believe that they can form a formidable lobby or voting bloc based on a non-partisan reading of the founding document, they are probably doomed to be mistaken.

Any implicit claim of ideological neutrality in the press release might be belied by the inclusion of the "Articles of Freedom" among the group's recommended readings. The Articles were drafted at a "Constitutional Convention" in November 2009. They are "the conceptual foundation guiding the mission of the Constitution Project." I don't have time now to review the Articles in detail, but even a cursory glance reveals instant controversy on many topics and a bias in favor of libertarian or paleoconservative readings of the Constitution. While the lobby nowhere asserts that assent to the Articles is a precondition of membership, the organizers' apparent reliance on them must alienate large segments of the politically-conscious population. If organizers insist on assent to the Articles, their lobby immediately becomes "political" unless that word means something very different to them. I may have a chance to find out more for myself next week, so the jury is out for the time being.

Past and Present: American attitudes toward wealth

In response to alleged disparagement of "millionaires and billionaires" by the Obama administration, Cal Thomas writes:

Pulling down the strong seems to preoccupy this administration and congressional Democrats. Is that unfair? Where, then, can one find a champion of achievement, risk-taking and capitalism among the Democratic leadership? Many of them are rich; they just don't want too many of the rest of us to become rich....There is something deeply repulsive, even un-American, about this war on achievers. We once held them in higher regard because they built and sustained the nation.

In November 1907, Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican President, wrote the following:

I neither respect nor admire the huge monied men to whom money is the be-all and end-all of existence; to whom the acquisition of untold millions is the supreme goal of life, and who are too often utterly indifferent as to how these millions are obtained. I [thoroughly] believe that the first duty of every man is to earn his own living, to pull his own weight, to support his own wife and family; but after this has been done, and he is able to keep his family according to his station and according to the tastes that have become a necessity to him, then I despise him if he does not treat other things as of more importance in his scheme of life than mere money getting; if he does not care for art, or literature, or science, or statecraft, or warcraft, or philanthropy -- in short, for some form of service to his fellows, for some form of the kind of life which is alone worth living.

Roosevelt could not be accused of envy -- though I suppose some modern Republicans might make the charge. At the center of the excerpt above is a sentiment with which none of them would disagree -- "the first duty of every man is to earn his own living, [etc.]" -- yet at some point Roosevelt and his successors diverge. That point comes when each century contemplates the richest Americans. When Roosevelt reaffirmed an individual's personal responsibility to earn his own living, he probably didn't have John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie or J. P. Morgan in mind as role models for the common man. But as a spokesman for 21st century Republicans, Thomas refuses to discriminate. In his opinion, you cannot criticize a billionaire without "trash[ing] success and promot[ing] class division and envy of the successful." When Thomas exhorts politicians to "use successful people as examples for the poor to follow," he presumably does have the richest Americans in mind. He would compel us to admire them, presumably, while recognizing no point when "achievers" become avaricious and thus less worthy of admiration -- except, perhaps, when they reveal themselves as Democrats.

The issue here is not whether Teddy Roosevelt would side with Barack Obama -- he would probably find the current President too sentimental or naive in many respects, and probably less worthy of his place in history than Booker T. Washington might have been -- but whether today's Republicans are right about our country's attitude toward wealth in its supposed golden age. They might argue that Roosevelt was an obnoxious exception and little better than his Democratic cousin, but they should recall that on the one occasion when he ran against a Republican, Teddy got more votes.

12 July 2011

'Magic Levers:' the new voodoo economics

After last week's jeremiad against congressional Republicans, what could David Brooks do for an encore? Presumably a Republican himself, the New York Times columnist had condemned the taxophobic core of the party for a lack of economic understanding and moral decency during the debt-ceiling crisis. This week, Brooks aims to be more evenhanded, but his critique of "magic lever" thinking again seems directed mainly at the Republican dead-enders.

Belief in a "magic lever," in Brooks's account, is another way of describing voodoo economics. To believe in such a lever is to assume that, if you do one thing right as defined as your favorite dogma, the economy must improve. Brooks accuses Keynesian economists of behaving as if deficit spending was a magic lever that would lift an economy out of recession every time. As practiced by the Obama administration, a deficit-funded stimulus "must have done some good to cushion the recession," Brooks concedes, "but either through a failure of theory or a failure of implementation, their lever was not as powerful as they promised." While some Keynesians argue that Obama simply did not borrow and spend enough, Brooks is unlikely to entertain such an argument when "the world is awash in oceans of debt." Rather than disprove the existence of a magic lever, Obama's apparent failure has only inspired Republicans to propose their own lever. Economic recovery, these people propose, depends entirely on keeping tax rates low, if not on further reducing them.

"[U]nacceptable [tax] increases would be worse than the threat of national default, worse than a decade of gigantic deficits," Brooks writes of this faction, who represent no more than 20% of Americans according to a Gallup poll. Despite that apparent fact, "the G.O.P. is now oriented around this 20 percent. It is willing to alienate 80 percent of voters and commit political suicide because of its faith in the power of tax policy."

Brooks takes a pragmatic stand against blind faith in magic levers on anyone's part. He claims to write on behalf of a pragmatic majority ("you might call us conservatives") who " believe that even if you are theoretically right [about a magic lever], your policies will be distorted by human frailties and special interests." This "silent" and "astonishingly passive" majority stands between two factions, the "tax cut brigades" and the "Medicare/Spending brigades." Some of the people in these factions are fanatics, some are arrogant wonks, and others are "political hacks who don’t want to lose their precious campaign issues." In describing this last category Brooks briefly touches on a problem of party politics. To justify their perpetual existence, parties must differentiate themselves from each other as dramatically as possible. They must choose defining issues and promise uncompromising stands in their support. A tendency toward ideology and the monomania of "magic levers" is inevitable, or else it is determined by an imperative to sustain parties that in turn is driven by making the existence of parties the standard of democratic health. How would multiple pragmatic parties differentiate themselves, after all? It could be done, but it would certainly take more political imagination than today's partisans possess, and it wouldn't necessarily ensure the permanence of any party. The real problem may be that the Republican and Democratic parties are as committed to perpetuating themselves infinitely as is any Communist party in a dictatorship, and are in some ways just as dogmatic and intolerant. The debt-ceiling debate is only further evidence that a party-oriented polity is bad in the long term, whether there's only one party or two.

All or Nothing for Ron Paul?

The fans of Rep. Ron Paul should take heart from his announcement today that he doesn't intend to seek another term in Congress. The explicit and obvious reason for his retirement (at the end of his current term) is his desire to concentrate more on what will almost certainly be his last presidential campaign -- unless he becomes the Harold Stassen of the 21st century. The less obvious but more promising implication of his decision is that he's starting to cut ties with the Republican party while ostensibly running for its presidential nomination. Paul doesn't have to worry anymore about being primaried for his controversial opinions on foreign policy, drug policy and other matters. His future is no longer in the hands of his Texas constituents but will be decided first by next year's primary voters, and then....

It seems to me that Paul's announcement is an early indication that he intends to run for President as an independent should he fail, as is just about certain, to win the Republican nomination. It is impolitic for him to say so explicitly now while he still has a theoretical chance to get the GOP nod. But his speeches and debate appearances will now probably be aimed past the primary base; he would be in a position to make his case to independents while running as a Republican, and to prove his independence through Republicans' likely repudiation of him. I don't know if he ever really constrained his opinions while a Republican officeholder or candidate, but he has no reason to hold anything back during the 2012 primaries, which should make the Republican debates more entertaining than they already promise to be.

As a libertarian ideologue, Paul would probably prove a national disaster as President, but a Paul candidacy is certain not to be about libertarian economics alone. Should he declare independence after the primaries, he would be the one prominent voice in the 2012 campaign against the perpetuation of the War on Terror and the War on Drugs, just for starters. His participation would spotlight these issues and, one hopes, inspire others to decouple them from Paul's wilderness social policies. It might even come to pass that, like any candidate, Paul would prove willing, at least verbally, to compromise his dogmas to secure the votes of the anti-war element that might prove, in turn, his most formidable constituency. It will depend on Paul's ultimate priorities, and whether he wants a revolution on his own terms or a re-empowerment of American democracy without preconditions.

11 July 2011

Defining Democracy Down

Do you get the sense that Americans' patience with the negotiations between the President and the Republican congressional leaders over raising the debt ceiling is wearing thin? The pundits' patience, it seems, is frayed to the point of snapping. Matt Miller borrows a phrase from the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan to argue that both parties have "defined democracy down" by becoming so dysfunctional that "relief masquerades as accomplishment," presuming that we get relief. Moynihan himself wrote of "defining deviancy down." He's quoted by Miller thusly:

[W]e have been redefining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the 'normal' level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.

Miller adds: "If that doesn't capture Republican behavior on the debt limit, I don't know what does." But he doesn't let the President off the hook, though he deplores Obama's helplessness rather than any gross "deviance." The President's shortcomings, Miller argues, really reflect our "deviant" democracy, which he describes as a "shrunken sense of collective possibilities." This he blames partly on America's shrunken economic power relative to other countries, and tentatively on the American Bipolarchy.

Questioning whether any leader can alter our current dynamic -- if that's really the right word for gridlock, Miller speculates: "Maybe no one operating in our two-party system can -- the interest group and ideological barnacles are just too thick." He then asks, "Why do we have a nominating process that leaves moderates such as Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman pandering to a few hundred thousand conservative voters in idiosyncratic states? How can we expect to make progress when two years of every four are consumed by presidential campaigns?"

From the perspective of political science, Americans first defined democracy down when they opted for representative government instead of direct democracy, as they probably had to in a vast nation of virtual nations -- the states -- in 1787. They may have defined it down further when the people's representatives rejected the notion that the people could instruct them how to vote on important questions. But even that arguably debased standard was defined down decisively when Americans deferred to political parties for the selection of candidates for offices. Why do we have the nominating process Miller deplores? Because we organize elections and ballots around parties, and we let the parties tell us who our choices are. We are so used to this process that it is probably literally impossible for many Americans to imagine a different way to recruit someone to serve in government. But this is not the way the Founders expected officeholders to be chosen. The ballot in any state, paper or electronic, would probably look like abstract art to the first generation of the republic, and they wouldn't necessarily be convinced of the ballot's necessity or effectiveness, especially if they judged the system by its current products, as Miller does. Independents and insurgents struggle for access to ballots, but the ballot itself may limit the spontaneity of popular organization during crisis times such as these times seem to be. The physical limits of the ballot and the time constraints of finalizing it before Election Day may innately constrain the responsiveness of public opinion and its range of options in the emergency of inadequate choices. Representative government may be inescapable in a continental republic, but Americans added an unnecessary layer of representative government when they acquiesced in party domination of elections. If we want to redefine democracy upward, we must explore alternate means of choosing our representatives and demand that election law provide them. If partisan legislatures refuse to provide the necessary remedies, the people's ultimate remedy may prove to be democracy in its rawest form.

Republican standards of 'accomplishment'

The state of Minnesota is a regular little laboratory of Republican polemics. Two of its leading Republicans are candidates for the party's presidential nomination for 2012 -- former governor Pawlenty and current Rep. Bachmann. The latter is currently outpolling and probably out-fundraising the former, and the erstwhile executive doesn't like it. Pawlenty went negative on Bachmann yesterday, contending that the Representative had a "nonexistent" record of "accomplishments" compared to his experience in administration. A President, he argues, should have experience in leading a "large enterprise" like a state government. Bachmann disagrees. Attempting to refute Pawlenty's criticism, she defines her accomplishments as profiles in advocacy, from speaking out against the Obama agenda to inspiring thousands of others to protest against it in Washington. In other words, her primary qualification for the highest office in the land is her supposed success as a demagogue.

This Minnesota feud reflects the confused nature of Republican ideology at this point in American history. Bachmann sounds like the more authentic -- or more stereotypical "conservative" Republican, while Pawlenty has been denounced to me (by Mr. Right) as "not a real conservative." The former governor probably exposes the roots of far-right distrust of him by boasting of his administrative experience and avowing his eagerness to administer the nation, while Bachmann probably endears herself further to her national base by implicitly repudiating a desire to administer in office and explicitly repudiating an administrative standard of accomplishment. The Republican paradox requires partisans to aspire to power in order that power not be exercised where they think it doesn't belong. They must consolidate and maximize power to prevent it from being "abused" by bureaucrats and social engineers. They must appear to practice negative administration, monopolizing power in order not to do anything. No slip of the tongue that hints at a desire to actually govern or administer, to guide or direct the nation, can be forgiven. While some Republicans may still consider a successful boss in the private sector to be the ideal President, few want that person to actually be the "boss" of the nation. Instead, in a debasement of Theodore Roosevelt's notion of the "bully pulpit," and in supposed emulation of Ronald Reagan, Republicans of the Bachmannite ilk envision the Presidency primarily as a platform for moral exhortation and the prevention of governmental expansion. Since the President should not do anything (but act decisively as Commander-in-Chief), administrative accomplishments are no recommendation for the office. To the Bachmann base, it matters only that the candidate says the right things.

The differences in ideology between Bachmann and Pawlenty are probably trivial to anyone but the most dogmatically sectarian Republican, but their need to differentiate themselves exposes the contradictions in 21st century Republicanism. Bachmann implicitly chides Pawlenty for wanting power and wanting to use it. Her supporters are presumably those most distrusting of the "career politician," yet Bachmann is as much such a creature as Pawlenty. No amount of disclaimers can refute the fact that Bachmann wants to hold power, if only to hold it in check in the ideologically-approved fashion. But if the Republican base is so distrustful of politicians and politics itself, why should they trust anyone who openly aspires to the ultimate power? If they revere the Founders and want to restore their model of politics, they should recall that no one was meant originally to run for office in the way we recognize today. Leaders were supposed to be drafted from the ranks of the people, either by elected notables or through mass meetings later ratified at the polls. In our earliest time, at least on paper, anyone who sought office was suspect. On what basis, then, can Republicans trust one candidate and not another, when they should distrust the entire process and the party machines it has created? A logical extension of Bachmann's implicit negative standard of accomplishment might well disqualify the candidate herself from consideration for the power she craves.

08 July 2011

Race and Party Identification: the choices for black Americans

Who said the following? "No administration in modern times has failed younger blacks more than the Obama administration." According to the "Sister Citizen" columnist for The Nation, Melissa Harris-Perry, it was none other than Newt Gingrich, who's urging Republicans to make a greater effort to win black votes in 2012. Harris-Perry warns readers not to dismiss the possibility out of hand, citing her own research in longitudinal voting data to point out that African-American identification with the Democratic party had been declining in recent years before Hurricane Katrina reinforced a sense that Republicans, to paraphrase Kanye West, don't give a damn about black people.

The columnist notes that George W. Bush won more black votes in 2004 than he did in 2000. While African-Americans continued to support Democrats overwhelmingly, the switch from 7% to 12% Republican was still significant, and should have served as a warning for Democrats, especially since Harris-Perry attributes it not to greater GOP outreach but to increasing Black disillusionment with the Democratic party since Jesse Jackson's failed bids for the party nomination in 1984 and 1988.

Until recently, Harris-Perry argues, blacks had not joined white voters in seeing fewer differences between the major parties. " African-Americans had much stronger emotional and psychological attachments to the Democratic Party when they perceived it to advocate racial and economic justice reliably," she writes, "But the more interchangeable the Democrats appeared with Republicans on issues of racial advancement, the less enthusiasm black Americans showed for them."

Preparing her study in 2005, Harris-Perry and her colleague Jeffrey Grynaviski forecast greater black alienation from the Democratic party. The Katrina disaster and the rise of Barack Obama have stalled that trend, but the columnist contends that "as memories of Katrina become more distant and the reality of a black president becomes more routine, the possibility of shifting partisan alliances may re-emerge."

Harris-Perry suggests that blacks may reproduce the historic trends that eventually led Catholics and Southern whites from the Democracy to the GOP, but that strikes me as ahistorical number crunching on a first reading. Southern whites, for one thing, left the Democratic party precisely because blacks were joining it after a century of loyalty to the "party of Lincoln," and there's no equivalent for that condition now, unless blacks believe that Democrats are suddenly catering too much to Hispanics or immigrants. A larger black conversion to the GOP would also seem to require wider black adoption of the prevailing Republican ideology, which still seems unlikely unless disillusionment with Obama results in a repudiation of liberalism in general. On the other hand, if you accept the premise that the Republican party changed its thinking or rhetoric in order to win over disaffected Southern whites, it's possible that the GOP might tweak its image to attract Black swing voters in order to counter perceived Hispanic solidarity with Democrats. How Hispanics feel about the two parties is another question entirely.

Conversion to Republicanism isn't the only option, of course, for would-be ex-Democrats. Harris-Perry herself seems to think that the more likely short-term option is increased apathy. " The detachment of even a small percentage of African-Americans [from the Democratic party] in the next election would be a boon for Republicans," she warns in closing, "It is not necessary for African-Americans to become Republican voters; only that they fail to become voters at all. Predictably enough, the possibility of blacks becoming the base of an independent party more representative of their beliefs and interests is never mentioned in Harris-Perry's column. The American Bipolarchy never seems very distressed about declining electoral turnout. One side may complain if the decline costs them an election or two, but they soon set about trying to win over a greater share of remaining voters. After all, it's the people who vote, no matter how few, and not the people who don't, no matter how many, who put a party in power. If entire groups of people take themselves off the board, that's preferable to their jumping from one party to another, and infinitely preferable to their forming new parties to stay in the contest. If African-Americans want a government that's responsive to their needs and concerns, their best option is, at the very least, to threaten to form a new party while inviting like-minded Americans outside black communities to join it. But if fear of Republicans or Tea Partiers is too strong for that to happen, then Democrats have nothing to worry about.

07 July 2011

The people vs. Casey Anthony

Mr. Right came into the office this afternoon after three days off. Mr Peepers promptly shuffled over to his desk and asked what he thought of the Casey Anthony verdict. "Two words," Mr. Right answered, "Professional. Jurors." And so one stupid young woman has seemingly united a nation across the widest ideological chasms, for just a short time earlier my friend and frequent correspondent Crhymethinc had told me that the Anthony case had reinforced his own longstanding desire for at least professional standards for jurors. These two personalities may agree on nothing else, but they shared a widespread dissatisfaction with last Tuesday's verdict. I heard the first hint of it the moment the verdict was announced, in the gasps from the office people gathered around the TV set in answer to every "Not Guilty." Not since O. J. Simpson was acquitted in 1995 has there been such anger directed at the American criminal justice system. Anthony's trial had been televised and analysed ad nauseum, and while few viewers saw and heard everything the jurors did, many feel entitled to draw their own conclusions and deem them superior to the jurors'. From them we hear that the jurors were stupid, cowardly, sentimental, too easily manipulated by improper appeals to emotion or false standards of reasonable doubt. Outside the courtroom, Casey Anthony is self-evidently guilty of killing her daughter. For many if not most observers that's the only reasonable inference or deduction, and inference and deduction, so the consensus seems, should form a reasonable basis for conviction in criminal trials.

Perhaps predictably, some experts argue otherwise. Alan Dershowitz, one of O. J. Simpson's "Dream Team," insists that "the system worked," even if it offends a majority of people. To prove his point, Dershowitz must assign the narrowest possible scope to criminal trials, in order to allow the maximum scope to "reasonable doubt."

A criminal trial is neither a whodunit nor a multiple choice test. It is not even a criminal investigation to determine who among various possible suspects might be responsible for a terrible tragedy. In a murder trial, the state, with all of its power, accuses an individual of being the perpetrator of a dastardly act against a victim. The state must prove that accusation by admissible evidence and beyond a reasonable doubt.

Even if it is "likely" or "probable" that a defendant committed the murder, he must be acquitted, because neither likely nor probable satisfies the daunting standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, a legally proper result—acquittal in such a case—may not be the same as a morally just result. In such a case, justice has not been done to the victim, but the law has prevailed.

Dershowitz had already noted that a criminal trial is "never about seeking justice for the victim," but he will add that "justice" can be had through civil suits, as was arguably the case with Simpson. What "justice" is remains elusive in this account. Is it a court saying to a defendant, "you are responsible?" Is it a payment of compensation to a plaintiff or her survivors? More problematic for many readers, I assume, is the distinction drawn between "justice" and "law." Shouldn't they be synonymous? The distinction does much to explain the hostility felt toward lawyers by laymen, especially since the basis for the distinction is nearly as vague as the definition of justice.

We may get a hint of Dershowitz's own distinction in the quote above, when he refers to "the state with all its power." It may be that law, for Dershowitz, is a set of rules for the state, while a criminal trial is concerned less with whether the defendant deserves to be punished than with whether the state is entitled to punish her. Anglo-American legal traditions have been especially concerned with constraining the state, imposing tests to ensure that governments, through courts, do not act arbitrarily or rush to judgment based on prejudice. Dershowitz himself finds biblical roots for the principle that freedom for ten guilty men is preferable to the false conviction of one innocent, but historically the bias in favor of the individual and the presumption of innocence has been strongest in the Anglo-American tradition, despite numerous prejudicial exceptions, because of an adversarial tradition toward the state dating back at least to Magna Carta. These constraints probably appear less necessary, or reasonable, in democratic countries -- and indeed, normally anti-statist types in America seem as likely as anyone else to denounce Anthony's acquittal.

People grow impatient with the state's self-constraining standards of evidence (and let's not get into whether all doubt is reasonable) when they perceive self-evident enemies (drug dealers, gang members) in their midst. The distinction between the "criminal" and the "enemy" has been strongly asserted during the "War on Terror," but many Americans wonder why some people are labelled "enemies," and are thus able to be dealt with fewer apparent scruples, and some are not, and thus must be handled with questionably justified care. A lot of the confusion probably has to do with who gets to define the "enemy." Some have questioned anyone's right (apart from Congress) to define an enemy if that means stripping the presumed enemy of legal protections, while others simply feel that the "enemy" label would be better applied where it might enable people to deal more decisively with presumably more obvious enemies. Laws appear to obfuscate truths in many cases, and Dershowitz himself insists that "a criminal trial is not a search for truth." But many Americans know it to be "true" by deduction that Anthony killed her daughter, that Simpson killed his wife, that someone is a gang member and someone else is mobbed up. They expect their government to be able to act on those "truths," which are proven to many minds beyond any doubt they consider reasonable. Such "truths" render defendants enemies of the people, against whom the state has no good reason to hesitate before taking just legal action. It could be argued that this was the unspoken logic behind many a lynching in the bad old days, but that observation shouldn't be a conversation stopper. A middle ground between paralysis and absolute license has to be possible.

I made a concerted effort to avoid the Anthony trial. My position has always been that local trials of such limited scope have no business being national news. Thanks to my ignorance of the case, I'm not going to attempt to say whether the Anthony jury was justified or not. But if the trial provokes a sustained national conversation on what the rule of law should mean in a modern democratic republic, the coverage it's received may prove worthwhile after all.

All the News (of the World) That's (Not) Fit to Print

In a stunning development, the 168 year old British Sunday tabloid News of the World, one of the planet's most popular papers, is folding after this weekend's edition. The longtime scandal sheet, currently owned by the Murdoch family's News International organization, is falling on its metaphorical sword after its reporters scandalized Britain by hacking into private cell phone accounts in search of dirt for sensational stories about celebrities and commoners alike. The paper thus becomes the highest-profile casualty of the ongoing border war over privacy in this era of increasingly publicized life. For the Murdochs, it may prove nothing more than the sacrifice of a brand, since they can reclaim their readership by adding a Sunday edition to their popular daily tabloid, the Sun. But the fact that this step seemed necessary, that advertisers had pulled out of News of the World like it was Saigon in 1975, is still telling. It tells us that however shameless or exhibitionist many people seem to have become in the age of Facebook, there are still lines drawn that separate "none of your business" from the virtual universe. It also tells us, of course, that cell phone conversations aren't as private as people would like to think. If journalists can steal your communications, it's easy to imagine who else could. The demise of a sort of cultural institution may satisfy some people's sense of justice, at least in part, but like the death of any individual terrorist, it doesn't really make the rest of us any more safe.

06 July 2011

Tea Partiers to GOP: You have nothing to fear but our apathy

Mitt Romney seems to be no one's ideal Republican candidate for President of the United States, but many observers remain convinced that the GOP nomination is his to lose in a field of perceived small-timers, in spite of the presumed desire among "base" primary voters for a more hard-charging conservative. As the Christian Science Monitor reports this week, some Republicans are worried about whether Romney can inspire the turnout they'd need to unseat President Obama or, in the worst case scenario, provoke a rightward bolt of dissatisfied Tea Partiers.

Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks and an advisor to Tea Party groups, would clearly rather not have Romney as the Republican nominee, but he also doesn't want anyone to blame Tea Parties should Nominee Romney lose to Obama. He is adamantly opposed to Tea Partiers declaring independence from the GOP. "I'm not predicting a third party," he tells Monitor reporter Linda Feldman, "and I would never support that, because I think it's a bad strategy." He warns, however, that Republicans could fall victim to passive resistance from TPs if they "nominate a candidate who's not exciting or even acceptable to fiscal conservatives who do so much of the work." Like many Tea Partiers, Kibbe contends that Senator McCain lost the 2008 election, in spite of Sarah Palin, because he was insufficiently conservative to inspire sufficient conservative turnout. The same fate, he hints, could befall Romney -- "If the Republican Party fails to produce a candidate that meets basic standards, that's always a problem."

Kibbe makes what he considers an important distinction. The risk involved in any right-wing resistance to Romney (or to any perceived moderate nominee) is that Tea Partiers could be blamed by the GOP mainstream for re-electing Obama. According to Kibbe's logic, the TPs would be guilty as charged if they formed a third party and actively sought to take votes from the Republicans. Former RNC chairman Haley Barbour seconds this viewpoint. He tells Feldman: "The tea party voters have proven they recognize that they shouldn't be a third party, because it would insure Obama's reelection." But if TPs simply stayed home, Kibbe implies, an Obama victory would be the GOP's fault -- as it was in 2008-- for nominating an uninspiring candidate. But what about the TPs' patriotic obligation to offer a better choice to the general public for the country's sake? Kibbe's implicit threat to stay home from the Presidential vote, welcome as it may be to Democrats, should strike Tea Partiers themselves as an abdication of responsibility for the future of the republic. Many of them probably recognize this already, since the Monitor reports that "some tea party supporters already back Romney" on the simple basis of his assumed electability. This is the usual nose-holding lesser-evilism at work among people who'll take anyone in place of the current President. But weren't they supposed to have more and better choices thanks to the Tea Party uprising? Instead, in the event of a Romney nomination, the movement offers its members a stark choice between complacency and apathy.

Some will choose apathy, with a side order of spite. According to Feldman, a Montana TP recently told an RNC committeeman that "if we don't get someone who's a real [conservative], I'd rather have Obama and let everything go down in flames." From a movement that supposedly embodies the country's can-do spirit, you couldn't ask for a more pathetic expression of angry impotence, or a more complete failure of political imagination.

05 July 2011

A movement with 'no sense of moral decency'

As the deadline for raising the national debt ceiling grows closer, moderate Republican New York Times columnist David Brooks has gone ballistic on the Tea Partiers in his latest opinion piece. In Brooks's opinion, Democrats have bent over backwards in their efforts to compromise with Republicans, giving the GOP an opportunity to claim a historic deal that'd result in trillions of dollars in savings. He writes: " A normal Republican Party would seize the opportunity to put a long-term limit on the growth of government. It would seize the opportunity to put the country on a sound fiscal footing." Doing so, Brooks claims, would be "the mother of no-brainers." Unfortunately, "the Republican party may no longer be a normal party."

Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative. The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch in order to cut government by a foot, they will say no. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch to cut government by a yard, they will still say no.

The members of this movement do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities. A thousand impartial experts may tell them that a default on the debt would have calamitous effects, far worse than raising tax revenues a bit. But the members of this movement refuse to believe it.

The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency. A nation makes a sacred pledge to pay the money back when it borrows money. But the members of this movement talk blandly of default and are willing to stain their nation’s honor.

Brooks goes on to condemn the Tea-fueled GOP's monomaniacal obsession with taxes; they "have no economic theory worthy of the name," but only a "sacred fixation" on tax rates. Worst of all, their intransigence has only made Democrats, at long last, less willing to compromise. But at this moment, Brooks clearly believes that the ultimate burden of compromise lays on Republicans, who must show whether they are "a normal conservative party or an odd protest movement that has separated itself from normal governance, the normal rules of evidence and the ancient habits of our nation."

But Brooks's tirade begs a few questions. What is a "normal" party, let alone a normal conservative party? Normal conservatism might be an easier call. Brooks, as a moderate, expects conservatives to be pragmatic rather than dogmatic, as conservative parties were in Europe and America for much of modern times. Pragmatic conservatives, presumably, would take the deal the Republicans have been offered instead of insisting on an all-or-nothing position on taxes. Fine. But what is a "normal party?" Brooks's notion seems to have something to do with "normal governance," which, as for many liberals, is a matter of constant bargaining and compromises on pragmatic principles. The Republicans have been rendered abnormal, almost to the point of dishonor, by an odd, "psychological" protest movement. But leave aside your opinion of the Tea Party movement -- which, I must note, Brooks doesn't mention by name. In our representative form of government, isn't this "psychological" phenomenon entitled to representation in Congress as long as it can draw enough votes? And wouldn't any movement embittered against "business as usual" seems just as abnormal to Brooks? While I may distrust ideology in general, it doesn't follow that everyone must be prepared to compromise on everything. Protest movements are founded on a feeling that conditions are intolerable in some way, so a note of intolerance in political debate is probably inevitable -- as Tea Partiers can attest from either the receiving or the firing line. Any other radical movement that gains traction in the future should expect to be accused of similar intolerance, irresponsibility, etc. These are standard establishment slurs against radicals, and while every radical must be judged objectively by his words and deeds, the case against him is not proved by establishment anger alone.

Brooks's real problem seems to be that a "protest movement" has apparently taken over a "practical governing alternative." But whose fault is that? Tea Partiers themselves are in large part to blame for their typical desire for a short cut to power. From their perspective, the rage of a David Brooks only proves the wisdom of their strategy, since "taking over" the GOP has given them a potential to paralyze the government that they most likely would not have enjoyed as a third party. But if Republicans feel discomfited now by TP pressure, they did not anticipate such discomfiture while urging them to join forces with the GOP, the TPs' supposed natural home, over the past two years. If TP taxophobia makes life difficult for Republican leaders, they have themselves to blame. But this Republican crisis may compel a more nuanced analysis of how Bipolarchy works. For some time, my preferred argument has been that opting into the two-party system in the hope of "taking over" one of the major parties eventually neutralizes insurgency as the insurgents bump against the party apparatus's imperatives of fundraising and "responsible" governance. But if Brooks is right about the Republican crisis, that may prove that Bipolarchy also handicaps politics by empowering radicals beyond their actual numerical strength. In this scenario, all a radical "protest" faction has to do is grow big enough to become a "base" in order to have leverage over the entire apparatus of a major party. Bipolarchy offers not only a short cut to power but also a force-multiplier that could give a faction influence far beyond its actual numbers -- and that is no more desirable in representative democracy than a system that blocks radicals from having any distinct voice at all.

The main reason Bipolarchy offers a short cut to power is because most Americans still refuse to vote independently -- which is the reason insurgents so often seek a short cut to power in the first place. As long as that remains true, radicals will still have a strong incentive to attempt a major-party takeover instead of building an independent party movement. It may be that voters will have to change their habits before politicians will, but that might require people to make their desires known outside the auspices of partisanship -- to reassert democracy in its plainest form.