31 January 2012

If only dismantling the two-party system were THAT easy!

Bo Peabody is a venture capitalist and self-styled social-networking pioneer who blogs for the Huffington Post. He has decided that the two-party system is bad for the country. His research has shown him that Bipolarchy was not innately American -- though it failed to point out the existence of a kind of two-party system immediately following the Founding, since his summary of partisan history leaves out the Federalists. In any event, Peabody isn't the first to determine that Bipolarchy isn't doing the nation any favors. He reports that after the Civil War, "waged a war on the influence of the individual voter by instituting election processes and regulations -- the primary system, the winner-take-all philosophy of the Electoral College, and campaign finance regulation -- that build the power of the two-party system at the expense of the individual voter." Other factors like ballot-access rules could also be named, but the result is as Peabody describes: Bipolarchy has become a kind of monolith, a fetish or obstacle to progress, depending on one's perspective. Fortunately, Peabody has found a simple solution to the problem.

We need to re-shape the basic legislative environment to make all politicians more effective. A good start is dismantling the two-party system.
All it takes to accomplish this is one simple act that carries little risk and no expense: become an independent voter. Without the baggage of a party affiliation, you will be free to think independently. And without any members, the Democratic and Republican parties won't exist; and the two-party system will be dismantled. 

Peabody has the naive notion that "the power of the two major parties is derived from their memberships." From that observation follows the assumption that merely by changing their registrations to "independent," voters can bring down the Bipolarchy. Yet I found it curious that Peabody, while urging people to become "independent voters," never explicitly recommends voting for independent candidates. Perhaps he takes this idea for granted, but voting for someone other than a Democrat or Republican is by far the more effective subversion of Bipolarchy than merely changing one's registration. Without the commitment to vote for someone else, an "independent" merely reserves the right to choose between what the two major parties offer -- and the process by which the major parties submit their offerings will not change meaningfully simply because of a decline in major-party registration. Consider the situation now. Are the majority of Republican primary voters really happy with their choices this winter? Did they actually have any voice in the selection they've been given? Do Democrats have any say at all on President Obama's renomination? My point is that it's hard to prove that the major parties will have less power if fewer people register with them when those rank-and-file partisans exert no power within the parties now except as consumers selecting from a pre-arranged menu of candidates. The parties' present power depends not on how many people register with them, but on how many people vote for them, and people vote for them for reasons of brand-recognition and risk-aversion that won't necessarily be affected by changing habits of registration. Becoming a truly independent voter isn't as easy, regrettably, as Peabody thinks; otherwise we wouldn't have had a Bipolarchy for more than 150 years. Entrenched power creates an illusion of exclusive expertise. It requires effort to overcome the suspicion that independent candidates are incapable of governing simply because they don't belong to a governing party. It is assumed that the parties themselves, and alone, know how to govern the country -- it may even be assumed that a party on the Democrat/Republican model and scale is itself necessary to govern the country. Changing registration alone won't change those assumptions. Peabody notes that 30% of the electorate today isn't registered as Democrat or Republican, yet independent parties don't get 30% of the vote. Party membership on the rank-and-file level is overrated, at least by Peabody. It isn't the key to but the consequence of Bipolarchy. In any event, registration has never bound anyone to vote for one party or the other, or to voting at all. When voters develop the courage to entrust power to people without major-party credentials, registration statistics will change accordingly. That change will be the result of revolution, not the cause.

30 January 2012

Gingrich and the gender gap

The gender gap dividing the Republican and Democratic parties is well known. Women simply don't go for the Republican party as much as men do. Even if a majority of women defined by race or religion favors Republicans, they do so in smaller numbers than their male counterparts. These facts are blamed on the GOP's perceived hostility to feminism and the patriarchal vibe it often gives off -- the sense that it is the "daddy party" opposed to the Democratic "nanny state." It might be presumed that Republican women would vote like Republican men, but the current presidential primary campaign reveals a gender gap reproducing itself within the party. Predictably enough, Newt Gingrich is the polarizing figure. Two polls have recently been cited, one showing Mitt Romney comfortably ahead of Gingrich among Florida men but way ahead among the state's Republican women, the other showing the two front-runners in a dead-heat among men but Romney once again way ahead with women. On a micro level, you see it among celebrity women. While Sarah Palin favors Gingrich, Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin have joined the punditocracy attack on the former Speaker, Coulter on behalf of Romney, Malkin on behalf of Santorum. But that stat can be explained in the now-familiar way: as opinionators or think-tankers, Coulter and Malkin probably had to deal with Gingrich while he had power in Washington, while Palin observed his Speakership, if at all, from the isolation of Alaska. Palin is pushing Gingrich as the outsider, a notion at which Coulter and Malkin rightly scoff -- but do rank-and-file Republican women in Florida care whether Gingrich was or is an insider? The gender gap suggests that something else matters more. Since these women are probably not self-styled feminists, and Gingrich has not, to my knowledge, made a habit of disparaging career women, the simplest explanation is most likely a moral objection among traditionally conservative women to Newt's wanton ways as a husband. Compared to the pious Santorum and the bland Romney, Gingrich must look like a Clintonian demon of lust to the custodians of domesticity and the sanctity of the home. Palin, of course, yields to no one as a moralist, but insists that Gingrich be forgiven his trespasses in our hour of need for a fire-breathing outsider to purge Washington. It looks likely, however, that many women in Florida, and not a few men, are actually behaving consistently. If Bill Clinton's trustworthiness was suspect because of his affairs, so is Gingrich's for his ruined marriages. Gingrich might remind his audiences that, to this day, the only divorcee President in American history was Ronald Reagan, but that hero was elected in the pre-Clinton era, before the "politics of personal destruction," and with his divorce nearly thirty years in the past by 1980. That's not to say that divorce couldn't ruin a politician before Reagan; it may well have kept Nelson Rockefeller from becoming President, or even the Republican nominee, during the 1960s. But to the extent that Reagan's personal history troubled Republicans or swing voters, they overlooked it, either in their eagerness to be rid of Jimmy Carter or because Reagan projected some integrity that transcended his original failure as a spouse. Gingrich probably fancies himself Reagan's truest heir, but the fact that Reagan's divorce is but a footnote to his history, while Gingrich's marital troubles apparently remain a major obstacle to his advancement, should tell Gingrich and us that Reagan, like him or not, had something else going for him that Gingrich clearly doesn't.

Will Gingrich crack up the Tea Parties?

In his latest Atlantic post Conor Friedersdorf claims to see signs on Sarah Palin's Facebook page of the fulfillment of a prophecy he made last year. He predicted that an embrace of Newt Gingrich would be the ruin of the Tea Party movement because it could not long endure his many contradictions or his polarizing personality. Since Palin endorsed Gingrich in South Carolina, albeit for that primary only and only to keep the "vetting" process open, many of her "friends" have protested her decision. A more recent post, in which the former governor attempts to turn the tables by accusing Romney supporters of attacking Gingrich from the left, seems to have been a breaking point for many more friends. Palin's argument was flimsy; the attack from the left seems to have consisted of no more than the "politics of personal destruction," which as I recall was a phrase coined by President Clinton to describe attacks on him from the right. She also takes umbrage at charges that Gingrich is un-conservative. In her eyes, and for good reason, Gingrich is the bridge from the Reagan era to the Tea Party era. There's a case to be made that the continuities Gingrich expresses outweigh those quirks of attitude that seem to disqualify him in many eyes from the conservative canon. But insofar as no one in the Romney, Paul or Santorum camps is claiming that Gingrich is "too" conservative, Palin has no basis for claiming that anyone in the dreaded "Republican establishment" is attacking Gingrich from the left.

Meanwhile, many in Palin's Facebook constituency balk at her embrace of an admittedly "imperfect" Gingrich. As might be expected, her "friends" are the sort for whom Gingrich's multiple marriages are damning -- they prove him a "serial adulterer." At the same time, not just in the Palin camp but in Florida as a whole, Gingrich's yearning for a moon colony seems to have revealed the "visionary" as something more like a crackpot. There's a long streak of reactionary contempt for such ambitions dating back at least to the mockery of John Quincy Adams for his advocacy of "lighthouses in the sky" in the 1820s. Gingrich's space vision, to the extent that it's actually admirable, probably damns him as a "progressive" with many reactionaries who can only see such a project as a folly or a boondoggle. For the most part, however, people simply aren't buying Palin's pitch of the former Speaker of the House of Representatives as an "outsider." Like my frequent correspondent Crhymethinc, they draw the reasonable conclusion that, once an insider, always an insider. That doesn't mean that there aren't multiple conflicting factions of insiders with sharply differing views, but it also doesn't mean that the minority of insiders gets to call themselves outsiders.

For people like Palin, the real problem with Mitt Romney seems to be that he doesn't strike fear into the right people. If he doesn't strike fear, they assume, then the establishment recognizes Romney as a "safe" candidate and the grass-roots should recognize him as an inadequate if not treacherous candidate. The fact that Gingrich does seem to scare many people is probably his strongest recommendation for reactionary populists like Palin who want "sudden and relentless reform in Washington to defend our republic." The fact that Romney seems to scare the likes of Palin, who continues to call for nonstop vetting until his weak point is found, will probably prove his strongest recommendation for moderate Republicans and swing voters outside the GOP. The Palins and Limbaughs continue to argue that Romney is the weakest-possible challenger against Obama, for reasons that remain mysterious outside the innermost gnosis of the elect, but they themselves through their protests most likely make him the strongest challenger. He may end up owing them the White House, without needing to show them any gratitude.

26 January 2012

Gingrich vs. the Establishment

The former Speaker of the House is in Florida today, running as an "outsider" to the chagrin of those who take for granted that, once an insider, one can never be an outsider again. The former governor of Massachusetts had wanted to run as "the outsider" on the premise that he had spent most of his life in the private sector, though it was quickly noted that he has spent nearly a generation now running for one office or another. Gingrich has been out of political power for more than thirteen years. He has been portrayed as a lobbyist since then, though he rejects the label, but depending on your audience merely being called a lobbyist begs the question of whom you lobby for. In any event, Gingrich seems to have grown some Teflon, since the "insider" charge has not stuck sufficiently so far to alienate his most ardent supporters. On the offensive, Gingrich portrays himself as a permanent outsider, implying that his short tenure as Speaker might be traced to his incompatibility with Washington insiders. His imperative for the moment is to tap into the original current of populism that energized the Tea Party movement. This means risking the wrath of orthodox Republicans and conservatives by reawakening TP anger at Wall Street as well as Washington, as long as Wall Street is identified exclusively with Mitt Romney and his supporters. Thus the candidate in Mount Dora today:

Remember: The Republican establishment is just as much as an establishment as the Democratic establishment, and they are just as determined to stop us. Make no bones about it. This is a campaign for the very nature of the Republican Party and the very opportunity for a citizen conservatism to defeat the power of money and to prove that people matter more than Wall Street and that people matter more than all the big companies that are pouring the cash in to run the ads that are false.

Based on the limited number of results for "citizen conservatism" from a Google search, Gingrich may well have coined a slogan or a movement name today. What will it mean, though, if Gingrich gets the nomination and has to run as the de facto Wall Street candidate? Will he jettison his typical critique of President Obama's socialism and adopt Ron Paul's critique of the incumbent's "corporatism?" Will he run against crony capitalism, or will capitalism be off limits once the demagogue has conquered the capitalist? All I know is that, leaving out that reference to the "very nature of the Republican Party," this could well have been a rallying call for a third party, and not necessarily one from the right. In this struggle between Goldilocks and the Baby Bear, bedfellows make for strange politics. And no, I don't know who's who; I just like the sound of it.

The Gingrich Immunity?

So far, Newt Gingrich has survived numerous anathemas and excommunications from arbiters of conservatism to stand as the "social conservative" alternative to Mitt Romney. Gingrich has been accused of waging "class warfare" and betraying capitalism, yet he is still perceived as the favorite of the most reactionary elements of the Republican base electorate. As I've written recently, the Gingrich challenge throws into question what exactly conservatism means to the GOP base. Conor Friedersdorf, an Atlantic Monthly blogger, believes that Gingrich's appeal to the base transcends ideology. Friedersdorf is no fan of the former Speaker; his latest post rips Gingrich for asserting on a Spanish-language news program that Romney is anti-immigration. However, every new offense against presumed orthodoxy appears to confirm Gingrich's ability to get away with saying seemingly un-conservative things, at least in the South. Friedersdorf attributes this to Gingrich's "expert[ise] at signalling tribal identification with conservatives." Again, the writer really means southern conservatives, or so we must insist until Gingrich wins something elsewhere. How does Gingrich do this? Friedersdorf explains: "[W]hat people like about him is his ability to lash out at the mainstream media, the cultural elite, and President Obama." As Friedersdorf explained earlier: "Gingrich '12 is modeled after the successful tactics of movement conservatism's demagogues. Is there any candidate in memory whose persona so closely resembles an egomaniacal talk-radio host? The rank-and-file in South Carolina accept a would-be president behaving that way because they're used to their "thought leaders" talking like that." His conclusion is that Gingrich would be a triumph of demagogic style over conservative substance, but that judgment assumes a distinction between style and substance, or character and conduct, that Gingrich's supporters may reject. Whether Friedersdorf likes it or not, tribalism may be the essence of "conservatism" for many base Republicans. We needn't call it racism given the base's continued admiration for Herman Cain, but it is an ultimately intolerant idea of what makes a "real" American and has more to do with matters of style and "character" than with policies or philosophies. Gingrich may seem unorthodox to many Republicans, but that may not bother many other Republicans so long as they don't see his heterodoxy as subversive. As long as Gingrich is perceived as "one of us," he'll be cut slack on faith, while someone supposedly "other," whether Romney or Obama, would be suspected of trying to turn us into someone like him.

It arguably boils down to the distinction I like to draw between populists and progressives. The two tendencies may agree on many issues and share plenty of common enemies, but populism is always the utopianism of the here-and-now; its agenda is to perfect the world by the standards of today, while progressivism always seems implicitly to expect people to change, to adopt new standards, before utopia can be achieved. To the reactionary populist, progressivism threatens one's sense of self or self-worth in an intolerable way. Of course, Mitt Romney isn't a progressive, nor am I claiming that Gingrich supporters or Romney detractors see him that way. But he is seen as "other" by many people, either because of his religion or because of his inherited and accumulated wealth. He and Gingrich probably agree on more than they disagree on, but Gingrich will be able to get away with more in many quarters, even when he agrees with Romney. In other quarters, where Gingrich's southern heritage will work against him, the reverse may be true.  Friedersdorf appears concerned about the rise of a nationwide tribalism of talk-radio listeners superimposed on the country's traditional geographic or demographic tribal divides. But it may well be tribalism that defeats Gingrich and even Romney in the long run -- not to mention the country. Until no American is seen as "other" and his suggestions as innately subversive, the danger is always there.

25 January 2012

Thomas Frank's PITY THE BILLIONAIRE; or, What's the matter with liberals?

For someone who once ran a magazine called The Baffler, Thomas Frank is good at affecting bafflement. His great theme since publishing What's the Matter With Kansas? has been his dismay at why working-class Americans don't vote according to what he considers their rational class interests. His approach infuriates Republicans and even discomfits some Democrats, since Frank seems, perhaps arrogantly, to tell voters what should matter to them, and why what seems to matter shouldn't. For some, he seems to peddle another version of the Marxist concept of "false consciousness," but everything he writes really follows from his discovery in The Conquest of Cool of capitalism's ability to co-opt any seemingly adversarial mindset so long as that mentality is capable of expression through buying things. Frank's lifework is an expose of how the Establishment, which for him is always the rich first, commodifies dissent and rallies it to the Establishment's defense. Pity the Billionaire is Frank's latest chapter, his attempt to explain why the 2008 economic crash resulted not in a populist crackdown on capitalism, as did the 1929 crash, but in yet another revival of the Republican party and an even more fanatical embrace of a free-enterprise ideology that should have been discredited for a generation.

Frank is determined to attribute the unlikely events of 2010 to people's attitudes about the economy. He rejects out of hand explanations that focus on the alleged bigotry of Tea Partiers. From his own encounters with TPs and visits to TP events, Frank finds little evidence of overt racism or other hatreds. He considers Democrats' focus on isolated obvious expressions of bigotry a comfortable tactic to avoid engagement with the uncomfortably legitimate concerns of populists who, through Democratic neglect, turn to the TPs and the GOP to express their anger.  But if Frank dismisses bigotry as a major factor in the current reaction, he seems to concede that Americans in general are more comprehensively hateful than they were eighty years ago, during the last great economic slump. That is, he sees little of the humane solidarity that emerged during the Great Depression and more individual indifference to the failures and suffering of other people, regardless of their race, religion or sexual preference. From Frank's perspective, the Tea Parties are not a movement of Angry White Men, but Angry Small Businessmen and those who identify with that class, though they may be far wealthier. The typical Frankian paradox in play here is that the party and lobbies of Big Business have reversed a mass anger originally directed at that same party and those same lobbies by rebranding themselves as the champions of Small Business while blaming the crash and slump on Big Government. Pity the Billionaire attempts to explain how this strategy managed to work. After running through the contradictions and absurdities of Tea Party rhetoric, thus demonstrating why 2010 is so hard to explain, Frank leaves himself with two potential explanations, one far less plausible than the other.

Frank devotes a chapter of his slim volume -- 187 pages of text plus some substantial endnotes -- to his apparent belief that large numbers of Americans have actually been corrupted by reading Atlas Shrugged. He sees Ayn Rand as a kind of precursor of his conquest of cool, claiming that she used the format and style of a leftist 1930s protest novel to reverse its moral poles, portraying the genius entrepreneurs as the truly exploited working class and salt of the earth. He also appears to trace the country's current compassion deficit, as measured by Republican success, to Rand's assertion of working-class utter dependence upon entrepreneurial genius and her insinuation that the masses deserve death for their lack of gratitude to free enterprise and their incompetence in the absence of entrepreneurial guidance. I'm not claiming that Frank considers Rand a necessary or sufficient cause of the current national mood, but I do wonder, despite the millions of sales for Atlas Shrugged, whether Americans need to learn lack of compassion or contempt for the poor from any novel, as Frank suggests that many did.

A more interesting claim is that Democrats have themselves to blame for losing their moment. After expressing moral horror at the GOP-TP ideology of merciless "pure" capitalism, Frank opens his penultimate chapter by noting that, however horrible that ideology, it's "better than nothing" (emphasis in the original). After indicting the idea of ideology itself, and comparing today's free-market fanatics with the spellbound acolytes of Bolshevism, Frank appears to indict Democrats for a lack of ideology. They suffer instead from a technocratic idealism, the notorious liberal tendency to wish for reasoned and reasonable solutions that don't really hurt or even annoy anyone. That tendency is exacerbated, Frank suggests -- taking as his most damning evidence a passage from one of President Obama's memoirs -- as liberal politicians grow more dependent on campaign donations from Big Business and Wall Street and more understanding of those entities' viewpoints. Taking their lead from Obama, Democrats have refused to be angry when there's plenty, in Frank's view, to be angry at. Frank even goes so far as to concede that small businessmen have some cause for complaint against regulations -- he makes this point to note that Big Business doesn't really have the same causes for complaint, yet pretends to. Just about everyone, Frank assumes, has a right to be angry at Wall Street for driving our economy off a cliff, but Democrats seem more uncomfortable with anger today than they were 80 years ago -- perhaps because, as liberals, they have trouble distinguishing anger from hate. Perhaps they're too legalistic as well, unwilling to see the impressionistic difference between a criminal and a "crook." My guess is that Frank wanted Democrats to call capitalists crooks, if not criminals. By not doing so, he argues, they allowed Republicans to identify a different class of crooks as the true culprits in the crash. People in crisis times crave ideology or something like it, a Frankian fact that helps explain the Marxism of many in the 1930s. That something like it may be something as simple as a moral sense, the certitude that what Wall Street did was wrong or crooked, that Democrats can't seem to articulate properly, despite their articulate President.

The decline of the Democrats into dull technocracy is a subject that requires more detailed analysis than Frank can provide in one chapter, or possibly at any length. It clearly leaves him demoralized, since he closes without calling for a populist takeover or a third party but with a doomsday scenario of social disintegration and fanatical war of "all against all." He may have convinced himself by now of the conquest-of-cool's invincibility, of capital's ability to co-opt everything in its own defense. As he sees it, the pursuit of idealized "true" capitalism has become something like a Freudian death-drive, indifferent to consequences in its ruthless fidelity to the event -- to borrow terminology Frank himself doesn't use. Someone like Slavoj Zizek, who combines Marxism and psychoanalysis, may be a necessary supplement to Frank's hermeneutics. I get the sense that Zizek and Frank might not get along, given Frank's disdain for "cultural studies" and related academic disciplines, but if the stakes are as dire as Frank portrays them, it's also true that he doesn't have all the pieces to put the puzzle of American civilizational decline together. There may never be enough pieces, or even a puzzle. Our challenge may not be to figure out why things went wrong, but how to put things right -- and it's not clear how much Frank's book, which will most likely be read as a left-Menckenesque satire on rightist stupidity, will actually help matters.

24 January 2012

The secret of Gingrich's success?

Like Tinker Bell or a professional wrestler, Newt Gingrich is energized by applause. In the Peter Pan play, the friendly fairy's life depends on the audience clapping their hands. In the squared circle, your husky hero can power out of a submission hold and become a house afire if the marks clap and chant loud enough. So it was for Gingrich in South Carolina, as we can infer from the candidate's protest against the decision before the latest debate to discourage applause. The moderating networks routinely do this because more ovations mean less sound bites. A snarky Republican might suspect that the request for silence is made more sternly now because the "lamestream media" mavens don't want candidates like Gingrich to egg audiences on against the media, as he did last week when challenged about his ex-wife's accusation that the former Speaker had wanted an "open marriage." Gingrich and his supporters now seem to see that as his Reaganesque "I paid for this microphone" moment, an inspiring refusal of deference to newsmongers. Gingrich himself goes so far as to threaten to withdraw from future debates if moderators won't let people applaud. That's like taking yourself as a hostage. Gingrich is understood to have won the last two South Carolina debates, so a rational person would wonder why he'd sacrifice his forensic advantage for any reason. There are two likely reasons. First, Gingrich scores some easy populist points by rising to the defense of an audience's free-speech rights. Second, he actually seems to believe that he won the debates and the primary because people applauded him. He may actually think that he feeds on mass enthusiasm -- and he may be right. There's a word for that type of politician: demagogue.

23 January 2012

Tony Kushner on Citizenship and Partisanship

The playwright Tony Kushner received the Nation Institute's $100,000 Puffin Prize for "Creative Citizenship" last month. His acceptance speech appears in the current Nation, and you can see and hear him deliver it at the Nation website. After an opening act of standup whimsy, the author of Angels in America and Steven Spielberg's upcoming Lincoln movie gets to the meat of his subject.

The whole point of citizenship, that second vocation incumbent upon all of us, upon all people fortunate enough to be enfranchised, or semi-, demi- or quasi-enfranchised, upon all of us who are fortunate enough to live our lives in a still-functioning, if extremely imperfectly functioning, democracy, in which the notion of citizen, the word “citizen,” still has meaning, power and value—the whole point of citizenship is that one admits to a personal stake, and to the potential derivation of benefit, in giving to and sacrificing for the community. One recognizes one’s self in the community, one identifies an important part of the self, a part that deserves tending and nurturing and attention, even therapeutic attention, as much as does the selfish self, which of course receives infinite attention, tending, caring, nurturance. When we step into our citizen selves, we step into that part of our lives, our souls, that exists only in relationship to others. As a citizen, one occupies that part of one’s life, soul, self that is at least as communal, collective, social and contractual as it is monadic, individual, replete.
Citizenship, in other words, is not simply a duty, though of course it is that, nor is it merely a privilege, though it’s that too. It’s a blessing, by which I guess I mean that there is beauty, grace, magic, charisma, charm in citizenship; it’s a gift handed down to us from generations of forebears who thought and fought and struggled and died to create this thing we inherit and advance, this recent, numinous evolutionary phase of humanity.

As Kushner went on, it became more apparent that he was more interested in indicting a certain intellectual selfishness he perceived among progressives than in denouncing the material selfishness that he probably took for granted among Republicans and conservatives. He equates citizenship with artistry, predictably enough, noting that "your fantasies of writing the perfect play, the play that's gonna be better than Hamlet, fall to choices, compromises, fall to action taken, to the admission of limitations, of possibility, of scarcity and community." Creating art for public consumption or scrutiny "is a step out of one's immaculate solitude, one's solitary purity, toward the fertile, febrile dishevelment of community, of democracy." Having embraced this process as a writer, Kushner as a citizen regrets "being disdainful of compromise, disdainful of impurity, disdainful of strategy; luxuriating in a fantasy politics that's an expression of purity, of self, of my own pure self; failing to recognize the egoism in disdain; being impatient rather than patient; plumping my critic-self with comfortable kvetching rather than tempering my political soul with discipline;...living not with hope but with fantasies bred out of revolutionary romance."

The contrasting of "hope," the Obama keyword, with "fantasies bred out of revolutionary romance," determined the direction of the remaining speech. Leaving out the grandiloquence, it may be summed up as "quit your whining and support the Democratic party." That's barely a paraphrase; here are Kushner's actual words:

All of which is to say—and this is what my whole speech was going to be about, but instead maybe I’ll write an essay and submit it to The Nation: In the upcoming election, we must must must hang on to the Senate, we must must must recapture the House, we must must must must must must must re-elect Barack Obama President of the United States of the Reality-Based Community! And a goddamned great president—yes, I said it, I said it out loud!—a great president he is!
(A great president, by the way, is not the same as a great progressive. A great president is a plausible progressive who achieves significant and useful and recognizably progressive things, which is very, very hard to do in a democracy, and which President Obama has inarguably done. We can argue about that later.)
Someone recently said to me—in fact a number of people have told me or have written this—that Barack Obama cares only about getting re-elected. I think that’s transparent nonsense, but even if it’s true, ... Does anything matter more to you than re-electing Barack Obama? Whatever that thing is, if it’s a worthy thing, if you really and truly care about it, you’ll make sure that Barack Obama gets re-elected.

I've left out his riff on the great auk; you can thank me later.  Predictable enough, as I said, and it's Kushner's prerogative to make the case. But let's remember that Kushner, like any good adherent of Bipolarchy, is asking people to settle instead of demanding the best, though for a largely-unspoken reason. That reason, of course, is the mortal menace of the Republican and Tea parties. People are free to argue for voting from fear, or to assert that reactionary voting -- as a vote for the Democrats almost always is -- is necessary for the public good. But when Kushner does it after those clever comments about the unselfishness of compromise, I can't help but realize that he doesn't really mean what he'd just said. After all, for him, however successful he feels Obama has been, the real reason to vote for him instead of demanding something better is that there can be no compromise with Republicanism or conservatism or whatever else he fears. My point isn't that there should be no limit to compromise, but to point out that Kushner has chosen his limit, whether he admits it or not. Is there egoism in the choice? A fantasy, perhaps? He might concede both charges while insisting on the principled nature of his stand. If so, then let him concede that principle co-exists with ego among those who insist that the Democratic party is not good enough and that no fear of another party justifies always having to settle. Or would that be too much of a compromise?

22 January 2012

South Carolina proved something

Yesterday's Republican primary proved that Newt Gingrich is resilient. Along among the "flavor-of-the-month" candidates who've risen and fallen over the past year, Gingrich has risen again. That fact arguably proves something else: Rick Santorum doesn't have what it takes. A week after his anointing by the Texas conclave of "social conservative" leaders, he has crashed and burned. He appears to have been repudiated by the rank-and-fire for whom the leaders in Texas presumed to speak. I'll suggest two reasons for this. First, Santorum clearly lacks the fire in his belly that Gingrich just as clearly possesses. He's missing something that would allow him to connect with his would-be base the way Gingrich does. In simplest terms, the Tea Party element seems to have rejected him for one of the same reasons they've rejected Mitt Romney. However rabidly reactionary Santorum may be, he simply doesn't project the same kind of charismatic rage that Gingrich can generate without effort. It does seem clear that self-identified TPs have rejected Santorum for Gingrich, and this is probably related to the nature of the schism I described within the social-conservative movement last week. Though Gingrich is as much of a former insider as Santorum, -- much more, actually -- the fact that so many insiders clearly despise the former Speaker has most likely endeared him to those who, while calling themselves "conservatives," despise the whole idea of "insiders," so long as they don't see themselves inside. The thunderous anathemas cast at Gingrich questioning his conservatism have probably thrown the conservatism of the denouncers into question in some quarters. Just as Gingrich is said disparagingly to be an idiot's idea of a genius -- the important thing is that he's also the sort of "genius" they admire rather than distrust -- he also seems to be the rank-and-file's idea of a conservative leader, if not a "conservative visionary," in some parts of the country. Again, this seems to be a matter of temperament as much as anything else. Gingrich's personal style disqualifies him with many, but endears him or signifies his authenticity to many others. Santorum has none of this, and that dooms his candidacy.

The other thing the primary proves is that South Carolinians are self-deluding. This comes out in a study of exit polls that shows that the Republican primary voters of that state believed Gingrich more electable than Romney in a general election. I continue to hear complaints from the most rabid Republicans that Romney is somehow their least electable candidate. I heard this again from Mr. Right in the office as late as last Friday. I tried to put him straight: as I've written here, the mere fact that people like him are open contemptuous toward Romney will only make him seem like a safer bet for swing voters should he make it into the general election. But like Mr. Right, the Gingrich voters appear to believe that there is a great silent majority of Americans who think as they do, but will only be drawn out to vote by the most hardcore, confrontational conservative candidate. Unfortunately, we already know that many Republicans don't believe that Gingrich is the most conservative candidate, and that some don't consider him conservative at all. I think it's safe to say that hostility toward Gingrich is so great in some quarters that more Republicans are likely to stay home in November if he is nominated than if Romney is. Fortunately for Republicans, such an outcome remains unlikely. The news media want to heighten the drama by saying that Romney's on the ropes right now, but South Carolina ultimately proves no more about Republicans nationwide than Iowa or New Hampshire did. It does prove, I suppose, that Romney hasn't sealed the deal, as he seemed poised to do a week ago -- but it doesn't prove that he won't. The vetting continues....

20 January 2012

What is 'third-party speech?'

In The Atlantic, Wendy Kaminer comments on negotiations between Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown and his presumptive Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren, to discourage "third parties" from advertising during their upcoming contest. It's not what you might think: they're not scheming to suppress the Green or Libertarian or any other independent party. By "third party," Kaminer means issue-advocacy groups who presumably support Brown or Warren already. They are "third parties" in the sense that they aren't officially subordinated to the Republican or Democratic party, but they are aligned along Bipolarchy lines. Kaminer also refers to these entities as "independent advocacy" groups. She ought to look for a better term, since both "third party" and "independent," in this context, are insults to the intelligence.

Still, Kaminer is right to condemn Brown and Warren, though their scheme is still subject to further negotiation. As she notes, the contenders don't actually have any power to prevent advocacy groups from running ads; all they're proposing, apparently, is penalizing themselves should such ads appear. While the idea of them contributing some proportion of the cost of those ads to charity is a charming notion, it would do nothing to deter the advocacy groups, though Warren is reportedly making sinister noises about getting media outlets to refuse their advertising.

Some observers might want to cheer the candidates on, however, if they see this as a bipartisan campaign of principle against the influence of irresponsible money in politics. Of course, both candidates will still be able to spend as much money as they please, i.e. as much as wealthy people can give them, on their own ads. And here's where Kaminer is right from a historical perspective. From a civil-libertarian standpoint, she sees these negotiations as another attempt by political elites to suppress "independent" speech, but I think we can leave the "elite" label out of it. The current idea that only the candidates, or their parties, should advertise their causes is a complete reversal of how political campaigning once worked or was supposed to work. In the distant past, the idea that a candidate for office would advertise himself was abhorrent; it would have betrayed vainglorious ambition on the candidate's part. The ideal of the past was that, were there any advertising at all -- make that an issue for another time, -- it would all be "third party" advertising in Kaminer's sense of the word. The ideal, admittedly, was mostly mythical; ambitious men found ways to arrange for people to "spontaneously" nominate those worthies who reluctantly put their careers aside to answer the call. But at least this fiction kept alive some sense that true agency rested with the people, who could in theory select anyone rather than choosing from a limited menu of party lines. The current concern among party leaders for what Kaminer calls "controlling the narrative" seems contemptuous toward any idealistic notion of spontaneous popular agency. Not only will the major parties tell you who you can vote for, but they will dictate the terms of the discussion before the election. They want to make sure that you vote for them for their reasons, not yours. That's why they seem as hostile to "third party" advertising, at least in Massachusetts, as they are to actual third parties. Maybe that will drive the one "third party" group into the arms of the other some day.

19 January 2012

Santorum vs. Everyone

Campaigning in South Carolina today, Rick Santorum for all intents and purposes questioned Newt Gingrich's sanity while admitting that he had no positive case to make for himself either during the primary season or in the general election. First Gingrich: without naming the former Speaker, Santorum argued that Republicans "can't have a candidate that, every day when you open the newspaper, it's an 'Oh my -- oh, what did he say today?' moment. We need someone who is stable." Mee-ow!

Stability becomes an issue for the GOP, in Santorum's account, because “If we are going to be successful in this race, we have to nominate someone who is going to make Barack Obama the issue in this race, not be the issue himself in the race.”  In other words, let's face it: neither Rick Santorum nor any of his remaining rivals really has anything positive to offer the nation -- not that the incumbent has much, either -- so the Republicans need someone who will not be distracted from slandering his opponent by having to answer for his own faults. This may be true, but the truth of it presents an obvious difficulty: who in the current Republican field is so faultless? Are we to believe that it's the man who in his last general election, running as an incumbent, was defeated in a landslide? The man who now flaunts an endorsement from Focus on the Family, which should be the opposite of an endorsement for any rational person? The nearest thing to a theocrat in the field? By his own statement, Santorum only disqualifies himself, if not his entire party. It isn't partisan of me to say so. All I'm saying is if a candidate can't lead with a positive agenda, he has no business running, and Santorum has just said that he won't. He can't even make a positive case for the Republican nomination, instead calling Gingrich unstable and Romney a Tweedledee to Obama's Tweedledum, and not deigning to notice Paul. With that attitude, I can see why Santorum isn't exactly setting conservative hearts on fire. Even they actually want to believe in something -- besides God, I mean -- and Santorum promises only negativity. I suspect that he'll go next.

Perry takes one for the team

Sarah Palin had a point the other day when she insisted on the necessity of a lengthy primary process for vetting candidates. For instance, less than a year ago, Gov. Perry of Texas was considered an invincible campaigner and feared as an unstoppable juggernaut were he to seek the Republican presidential nomination. He exits the campaign today as something close to a national joke. By the already-low standard set by the likes of Palin herself, Perry was a disaster of a candidate, veering wildly from the intemperate to the incompetent. His failure to remember the third Cabinet department he had earlier proposed to eliminate will go into the record books as one of the most catastrophic gaffes of modern electoral history, but he was already in decline by then. There had been nothing like it since Ted Kennedy's damning loss for words when Roger Mudd asked him why he wanted to be President back in 1980. Perry's blundering left one questioning the standards of Texans who had elevated the man to responsible offices many times over. It may handicap the credibility of Texas politicians on the national scene for a generation to come.

Perry's last act of the national campaign was to assist the suicide of the social-conservative anti-Romney coalition. Joining in the defiance of the conclave that met in his own state last weekend, the governor has endorsed Gingrich rather than Santorum, describing the former speaker as a "conservative visionary." Depending on your perspective, that's a perfect closing note -- that is, if you regard "conservative visionary" as an oxymoron. The schism within the social-conservative movement seems to divide "Washington" or "the Beltway," -- those who had to deal with Gingrich as a leader -- from those who know him only as a "visionary." One one side, against Gingrich, are current and former congressmen, Capitol pundits, and maybe also the people in charge of issue lobbies. On the other side, for him, may be anyone who sees himself or herself, or Gingrich, as an "outsider" or  "anti-establishment" figure, for whom the complaints of establishment figures are meaningless, and to whom an otherwise unoffensive Santorum seems just too dull and plodding. This schism might not have emerged if not for Gingrich himself, who could end up blamed for either a Romney presidency or another Obama term, depending on how unsatisfactory the outcome proves. At least there won't be a Gingrich presidency to worry about. I feel fairly certain about this, despite Perry's sacrifice to the former Speaker, because it now seems more likely for an anti-Gingrich coalition than an anti-Romney coalition to gain traction. All Romney might need to do is promise Santorum the Vice-Presidency for Gingrich to be destroyed. If so many self-styled conservatives despise the "conservative visionary," it probably won't take much for them to vote for Romney, holding their noses or not, just to spite Gingrich. That would mean, of course, that Perry had backed the wrong horse, just to keep his record consistent.

18 January 2012

Sarah Palin's Riddle of Steel

In South Carolina, the land of nullification and secession, there is a civil war within the Republican party -- emphasis on civil so far -- and a war within the war as the anti-Romney candidates battle hopelessly to be the sole alternative. The battle is hopeless because there can't be a sole alternative to Romney as long as Ron Paul remains in the race, unless Paul himself becomes the sole alternative -- an unacceptable option for jingoist Republicans. Into the confusion wades Sarah Palin as if confusion were her natural element. She told Sean Hannity yesterday that, were she a South Carolina Republican, she would vote for Newt Gingrich in Saturday's primary. This was not the same as endorsing Gingrich for the presidential nomination. The former governor made clear that she simply wants someone other than Romney to win the state because "I want this thing to continue." This thing is, in one sense, a refinement of each candidate's arguments, and in another, the ever-hopeful "vetting" of Mitt Romney.

[I]ron sharpens iron, steel sharpens steel. These guys are getting better in their debates, they are getting more concise, they are get more grounded in what their beliefs are and articulating what their ideas are to get the country back on the right track and getting Americans working again. If I had to vote in South Carolina in order to keep this thing going, I would vote for Newt, and I would want it this to continue more debates, more vetting of candidates because we know the mistake made in our country four years ago was having a candidate that was not vetted, to the degree that he should have been so that we knew what his associations and his pals represented and what went into his thinking, the shaping of who our president today is. That vetting did not take place. I want to see that taking place this time because America is on that precipice, it's that important. We need this process to continue.

Reading this excerpt, it takes a while before you realize that Palin is not talking about herself when she talks about four years ago. It's more clear that, when she talks about "more vetting," she isn't talking about more vetting of Gingrich or Santorum. Hers is a desperate hope that somehow, before it's too late, Romney will be exposed, either through some investigative discovery or a gaffe of his own, as unworthy of the GOP nod. Palin denies the inevitability of Romney, whether attributed to his money, his SuperPACs or his supposed moderation. But she does realize that some of the "more conservative candidates" will have to "take one for the team" by stepping aside in favor of the strongest among them. Despite the verdict of the Texas conclave, Palin assumes that Gingrich, not Santorum, should be the last "more conservative" standing.

Palin reassured Hannity that she remained committed to "anyone but Obama" and would support Romney should he be nominated -- but until then "anyone but Romney" is clearly her preference -- though she would face an intriguing dilemma if it came down to Romney vs. Paul. Her great fear is that an "unvetted" Republican candidate could be brought down by an "October or early November surprise." To prevent that, she would appear to want as much of all the candidates' dirty laundry to be aired now. It'd seem that the candidates are doing a pretty good job of that so far, but Palin plainly hopes that the silver bullet from the smoking gun can be found in time to stop Romney before it's too late for the Republican party. Her deeper hope is that the secret weapon, the antidote, call it what you will, actually does exist.  In the end, however, Republican lesser-evilism will probably compel her to hold her nose and vote for Romney. In the American system, a candidate is unacceptable until he becomes your only choice, but that's because you limit your own choices. In a better system Sarah Palin wouldn't have to settle for Mitt Romney -- she might even screw up the courage to run against him -- but fear and nothing else will force her to give him her vote. Her own remarks practically confess that there are more than two directions for the country to go in: Obama's, Romney's and the "more conservative" way. But under the American Bipolarchy she surrenders her prerogative to push for the "right" direction because she assumes that one way will take us off a cliff.

In John Milius's Conan the Barbarian, the villain explains that he had long pondered the "riddle of steel" until he realized that flesh was really more powerful than steel. He demonstrated this by calling one of his followers, perched on a cliff, to join him by leaping off and crashing through a wooden platform into a pit. Sarah Palin can ramble on about steel tempering steel, but in the end she and many like her will jump off that cliff, no matter who wields the sword.

17 January 2012

A social conservative schism?

From all appearances, the Republican presidential nomination is assured for Mitt Romney following the predictable failure of the social-conservative anti-Romney unity campaign. Newt Gingrich has refused to accept the outcome of last weekend's conclave favoring Rick Santorum, and his supporters now claim that the Pennsylvanian didn't fairly earn the conclave's endorsement. Meanwhile, Gingrich brazenly calls on Santorum to quit despite the conclave, insisting shamelessly that "we have got to bring conservatives together," arguing for all intents and purposes that Santorum is too incompetent to run a national election campaign. The former Speaker hopes to convince conservative Republicans that his success in getting a Republican House of Representatives elected in 1994 means that he can get the entire nation to vote for him personally. Santorum understandably scoffs at Gingrich's bluster and the claim that Santorum's candidacy hurts Gingrich's chance to rally the conservatives. "I'm [not] hurting him, I'm beating him," Santorum says. Conservatives are supposed to be hierarchical by nature and convinced of the wisdom of deference. Republican conservatives have too many people trying to be king, and too many saying, "you're not the king of me." They're supposed to believe in ideas and values, but nothing comes before ego for Gingrich, Santorum and Perry. I'm not exactly sad that the social conservatives are having trouble advancing their agenda, but for the sake of objectivity, and with the benefit of hindsight, I can tell them that they should have voted for "None of the Above" last weekend.

Occupied Washington: 1932 and 2011

In what Reuters calls "a sign of renewed vigor," as many as "several hundred" people, including members of a persistent Occupation and sympathizers from across the country, carried out roving demonstrations and confrontations in the nation's capital today. While I credit the D.C. Occupiers for holding out for so long, thanks largely to an indulgent National Park Service, I hope I'm not setting an impossible standard by questioning whether "several hundred" people for a national event is a sign of any vigor. We're not exactly talking about the Bonus Army here, although Sally Benson's new pop history volume The Plots Against the President practically invites readers to see the 1932 occupiers as precursors to the movement of 2011-12. Benson's book is historical cheerleading for liberal Democrats, with a heroic FDR in the starring role, though the Bonus Army was not a plot against that or any other President. That episode seems to have been included for the suggestive parallel to present-day Occupations, though for all I know Benson had already finished proofing the thing before Occupy Wall Street broke out. Unlike the Occupiers, whose demands are many yet nebulous, the Bonus Army had a very specific demand: as World War I veterans, they wanted the government to pay out the bonuses originally promised for 1945 as an emergency relief measure. Reactionaries claimed alternately that the marchers were communist impostors or simply dupes manipulated by communist infiltrators. As Benson notes, Communists were involved in the movement, but the march and encampment hardly qualify as a communist conspiracy. Nevertheless, just as some congressmen would like to see happen today, the U.S. Army drove the protesters out of their encampments with horses, tanks, bayonets, swords and guns. Despite apparently widespread public support for the Bonus Army, both President Hoover and Roosevelt opposed an early bonus payment. Congress had to override an FDR veto to finally release the money in 1936. Roosevelt preferred to put the veterans to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps. At least he gave them jobs. That option would be unacceptable to the majority in the House of Representatives now. Of course, I don't suppose people yelled "Get a job!" at the Bonus marchers eighty years ago. Less than three years after the Crash of 1929, most Americans probably knew the score. What about now? I get the feeling, despite Reuters, that "Occupy" is already becoming last year's news. In Albany they have a lovely storefront that used to be an art gallery, in a far less conspicuous location than they had last fall. They can be ignored pretty easily. Is it that things today aren't as bad as in 1932, or does the average American simply care less for his fellow average Americans? You can probably answer both ways -- but for how much longer?

Newt Gingrich's pursuit of happiness for kids

Maybe now Republicans will stop trying to label Gingrich a leftist. Fox News is claiming that the former Speaker won last night's South Carolina debate -- I suppose that as a media entity they have a stake in keeping the race going as long as possible -- and this report cites numerous pearls of Gingrich wisdom as proof of his success. I like best his invocation of the principles of the Declaration of Independence as justification for his advocacy of child labor.

He also won strong support from the audience when he was asked whether it was belittling to minorities to suggest that poor children work as janitors to build a work ethic.
Gingrich replied, "No, I don't see that." He said dozens of people have reached out to him recalling jobs they got when they were "11, 12, 13 years of age," and defended the idea of paying kids to work in school. 
"They'd be getting money, which is a good thing if you're poor. Only the elites despise earning money," he said, later adding: "I believe every American of every background has been endowed by their creator with the right to pursue happiness. And if that makes liberals unhappy, I'm going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job and learn some day to own the job." 

Admittedly, children probably did work in many cases in Jefferson's time, but I still don't think that's what he had in mind when writing of unalienable rights, and it's definitely not what most people see as an 11-year old's pursuit of happiness. But maybe they think differently in South Carolina, where lines like those above reportedly earned Gingrich thunderous ovations. Of course, South Carolina also started the Civil War, so standards clearly differ there, and maybe Gingrich has a chance.

16 January 2012

How not to exploit the GOP debate on capitalism

E. J. Dionne has some fun in a recent column describing Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich as "well-known socialist intellectuals" for their comments on Bain Capital and Mitt Romney. In all seriousness, he welcomes their criticisms, and the criticism of their criticisms, for opening "the debate on the nature of modern capitalism that should have started in 2008....[focusing on] whether some kinds of capitalism are bad for the system as a whole." For Dionne, the debate is a little one-sided. He quotes Gingrich and Perry favorably at their most scathing, without presenting the Romney side of the debate, which would presumably explain the necessity or ultimate benefit of Bain's more controversial practices. To be fair, Romney's supporters have done little such explaining, preferring to condemn his rivals for heresies against the capitalist faith.  Speaking for himself, Dionne intervenes on another front, attacking Romney on ground different from that taken by the other Republicans. While Perry and Gingrich have spoken, probably with more accuracy than sincerity, about the suffering inflicted by Bain on working-class Americans, Dionne wants to engage the front-runner on the subject of free enterprise, not from the workers' perspective, but from the perspective of the state.

Romney’s defense of his work as a venture capitalist is one of the truly authentic parts of an otherwise heavily scripted campaign. He speaks with genuine passion when he accuses his conservative opponents of putting “free enterprise on trial.” But that goes to the heart of the matter: “Free” for whom and under what circumstances? Capitalists of Romney’s sort never want to acknowledge how much their ability to make money depends on what government does. How does it structure the laws related to property, taxation and debt? What rules does it write on how companies can be acquired and how power within firms is apportioned among shareholders, employees, managers and other stakeholders? These are not natural laws. They are the work of politicians and the lobbyists who influence them.

Dionne's position is intellectually sound yet tone deaf in the typical liberal Democrat manner. If GOP leaders fear that this issue will hurt them in the general election, it's not because they think Gingrich or Perry exposed any vulnerability of Romney's on the subject of capital's dependence on the state. If the two bomb-throwers have gained any traction at all, it is because theirs has been an appeal to the working class. Perry and Gingrich obviously still believe in free enterprise, and they want working-class Republicans to believe that they'll benefit from it except when a "vulture capitalist" like Romney preys on businesses. What a Democrat or anyone to the left of the Republican party should add at this point requires a little tweaking of Dionne's paragraph, or cutting it down to one crucial sentence: "Capitalists of Romney's sort never want to acknowledge how much their ability to make money depends on the working class." That's the point Gingrich and Perry can't quite make, despite their rhetorical implication that companies like Bain are betraying American workers. Because of their own dogmatic commitment to free enterprise, the two Republicans will ultimately find themselves hard pressed in Republican company to explain why layoffs as perpetrated by Bain are wrong. That's when someone like Dionne should step in, instead of opining on the majesty of the state. It's not an irrelevant subject, but if he wants to bring it up, he should also open a debate on who gets to make those rules. His own complacent answer to the question isn't necessarily the right one. 

15 January 2012

The conservative conclave's toothless endorsement

It took three ballots before the social-conservative magnates gathered in Texas this weekend settled upon Rick Santorum as their preference for the Republican presidential nomination. It's a milestone of interdenominational harmony, I suppose, for a group most likely dominated by evangelicals to throw their influence behind a Catholic, but how influential are they, really? The Washington Post notes that the conclave has not asked, and apparently will not ask Gingrich and Perry to step aside. It's unclear whether even those who voted for the other men this weekend will renounce them formally. Whether their flocks will follow their shepherds is even more questionable. But if the leaders can disavow any intention to drive any candidate out of the race, they clearly expect their congregations to do that for them in their capacity as voters. If they're not going to put any actual pressure on Perry and Gingrich this weekend's spectacle was practically meaningless, but it's unclear what pressure they could legitimately press upon those two apart from a promise of humiliation at the polls. But Gingrich is probably shameless in that respect, while Perry may still imagine himself invincible until Romney has a majority of delegates. The only real result of the conclave is that now the social conservatives can blame Gingrich and Perry, not to mention Paul and Huntsman, rather than themselves if Romney is nominated. If the race were reduced to Romney and Santorum, which it won't be while Paul lives, Romney's victory would be damning evidence that the conclaves' "social" conservatism is not conservatism as far as the Republican party, if not the larger "conservative" movement, is concerned, just as anyone's conservatism ceases to be that, in the eyes of the Republican establishment, if he questions Romney's conduct of his businesses. This is the state of movement madness in January 2012: conservatives are desperate to stop Romney but are told that their sharpest criticisms of him -- and let's not even start on the subject of religion this post -- are not conservative. There is a conservatism in America that sees Mitt Romney as its ideal candidate. Is that the conservatism of every conservative? If the usual lesser-evil impulses prevail, conservatives will have no choice but to let Republicans once more tell them what their movement stands for. In effect, there won't be a conservative movement at all -- just a self-conscious, self-righteous, self-pitying and self-defeating constituency of the Republican party.

13 January 2012

Virginia court to Perry: You didn't say 'unconstitutional' in time.

By March 6, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul may be the only candidates left for the Republican presidential nomination. In that case, a Virginia court's decision upholding that state's ballot-access law and keeping Messrs. Gingrich, Huntsman, Perry and Santorum off the ballot won't make any difference. Readers may recall that Perry had challenged the law, which required him to collect several thousands of signatures throughout the state without the assistance of out-of-state campaign workers. A federal judge has now bitch-slapped Perry by telling him that, had the Texan filed his protest earlier, before the deadline date for the signatures, he would have overturned the law. But because Perry waited until after the deadline had passed and he'd fallen short of the requirements, the judge concludes that he and the other complainants "played the game, ... lost, and then ... complained about the rules."

Wait a minute. Presuming that the judge would have struck the law down because he deemed it unconstitutional, did that law somehow become less unconstitutional after the deadline, or because Perry tried to abide by it? Maybe the judge reasoned that Perry thought the law unconstitutional only after he failed to meet its requirements. But you don't decide a constitutional question on the ground that the petitioner is a spoilsport -- especially if you, the judge, have just said you would have otherwise overturned the law.  Perry's team has every right to be pissed, and to appeal. I haven't made any Idiot nominations this week, but I have a feeling this would be one week when Perry would not win.

'The problem with capitalism is capitalists.'

Milton Friedman, a defender of capitalism if ever there was one, once said: "the problem with socialism is socialism; the problem with capitalism is capitalists." He meant, I presume, that the ideal of socialism was inherently flawed, while the ideal of capitalism is a good one that few practitioners actually live up to. That may seem to leave us little to choose from, but it looks like a relevant point in light of the Republican inquisition over certain candidates' criticism of Bain Capital and Mitt Romney. There are indications that the attacks made by Newt Gingrich and Gov. Perry are backfiring and provoking the conservative constituencies they considered theirs by right to circle the wagons around Romney. Even Ron Paul -- though I'm not sure why I wrote "even" in this context -- is defending Romney, and Bain by extension, and criticizing Gingrich and Perry for crossing a red line. The two offenders are unrepentant. Gingrich in particular rightly contests the charge that to criticize any capitalist is to criticize capitalism itself.

I do think it's kind of absurd that there has been this general response, mostly by Romney supporters, that to question his record is to be opposed to capitalism. Mitt Romney said he had two criteria for being president. One was his record as governor, which he now doesn't want to discuss because it's too liberal for South Carolina. The other was that he claimed he created 100,000 jobs. Well, the Washington Post yesterday gave him three Pinocchios on that jobs claim. They pointed out that in 1994, running for the Senate, he claimed to have created 10,000 jobs. And then he wasn't at Bain Capital in a management role after that. And they said they couldn't find any evidence that he created 100,000 jobs....So I have asked questions about let's look at the record. Let's see the details. Don't just give us the claim. Show us what actually happened. That somehow got turned into questioning capitalism, which is baloney. This guy is running for president. He is making a set of claims. He bases a lot of it on his career. If you ask about his career, it's because he is running for president. I think he owes the country a much more detailed answer about what his career was like, what decisions they made. Because we're looking at the judgment, the values of a particular person, not of a system, but of one guy, Mitt Romney, who wants to be president.

Gingrich and Perry argue that Romney is a bad capitalist who took shortcuts to profits by laying people off. It's their prerogative to argue that Romney's alleged practices don't reflect on capitalism as a system, but as I've been arguing this week, the debate over Bain Capital raises provocative and potentially destabilizing questions about what Republicans or conservatives mean when they invoke capitalism as their ideal or use the word as a synonym for free enterprise. The truly dangerous subject broached by Perry and Gingrich is the propriety of layoffs. Their critics would presumably have us all except the necessity of layoffs for the survival of companies and as the breaks of the game for working people. Romney's critics have dared suggest that there are circumstances when layoffs are unfair or just plain wrong. We probably shouldn't give Gingrich or Perry too much credit for insights that probably wouldn't occur to or resonate with them were they not running against (not to mention behind) an alleged corporate raider. But even broken clocks are correct twice a day and approximately correct slightly more often, and it's the other Republicans who seem out of sync with the times. The GOP establishment thinks that Perry and Gingrich are giving the Democrats ammunition to use in the general election, but if the establishment means to argue that capitalist practices can never be criticized and that layoffs are never wrong -- only "tragic" -- that sounds like ammo enough for anyone willing to use it.

12 January 2012

The Republican debate on capitalism continues

On the principle that "only Nixon can go to China," perhaps it was only within the Republican party that candidates could actually debate the merits of different modes of capitalism. Desperate and uncowed by a chiding commentariat, Gov. Perry insists that Mitt Romney's practices can and presumably should be criticized without betraying the party's commitment to free enterprise. Perry isn't opposed to "venture capitalists," -- he claims to want to bring more to Texas -- but he doesn't want "private equity firms" coming in to "take companies apart so they can make quick profits." He claims to have seen proof in South Carolina of how Bain Capital would "destruct" communities through mass layoffs. Such practices make Romney a "vulture capitalist," a label Perry won't apologize for using. Newt Gingrich apparently carries on the attack elsewhere, while ex-Gov. Palin has reportedly weighed in with an opinion that criticism of Bain is "fair."

None of this changes any Republican's opinion on the public sector -- they still distrust it for their various obscure or pathological reasons. But the populist turn against Romney and the establishment reaction against that turn seems to be forcing Republicans to think over their idealization of the private sector. For too long there's been an unthinking equation of capitalism with "free enterprise" and the work ethic itself. For the moment, however, Republicans appear to be asking themselves exactly what it is they've been defending unconditionally for so long. I don't think people are buying the argument that the likes of Perry and Gingrich have suddenly turned "left" because they criticize the way a particular capitalist did business. It may have been the party line that Republicans shouldn't question such things, and it may be that Gingrich and Perry are simply abandoning principle out of anger and frustration. But who's to say the principle in question shouldn't be abandoned? Is it really an unalterable principle of the Republican right that no profit-seeking practice should be criticized, no matter what the consequences for working-class Americans? It may prove to be if Romney is nominated, but there may be fewer Republicans if that happens.

The important thing at this moment is that Republicans are hearing the sort of arguments they would automatically ignore if they came from Democrats. Coming from Republicans, these arguments can't be ignored so easily, and that fact enrages some people who would clearly prefer not to hear this discussion. These people protest that the debate could hurt Romney in the general election, but that's short-term thinking. The future of the Republican party and what it'll stand for may be at stake.

George Will makes a case for socialism

Perhaps despairing at last of the Republican primaries, George Will turns in a recent column to first principles, submitting what he takes to be a decisive case against the liberal regulatory state and its redistributionist agenda. There's a little bit of self-delusion in this essay, most apparent when he writes: "A puzzling aspect of our politically contentious era is how little contention there is about the ethics of coercive redistribution by progressive taxation and other government “corrections” of social outcomes it considers unethical or unaesthetic." I had thought that such contention was the basis of the entire modern conservative movement, but Will's attitude may reflect an unconsciously arrogant belief, given his recent anathemas against Newt Gingrich, that Will himself is the only conservative who actually thinks conservatively. In any event, Will supposes that "government rarely explains, or perhaps even recognizes, the reasoning by which it decides why particular outcomes of consensual market activities are incorrect." I suppose that someone in government would first have to concede that all market activities are consensual before satisfying Will, but I think it more obvious that the progressive liberal (the ventriloquist behind "government" in Will's mind) is less concerned in detailing the incorrectness of outcomes than in fulfilling the liberal's defining imperative that everyone must live, preferably in a humane minimum of comfort, and with easy access to the means of extending life. If redistribution alone secures that access for all, progressive liberals will support it without having to argue whether certain market activities are right or wrong. The burden of proof rightly sits on Republicans who consider both the redistributionist program and its motivation incorrect. But since none of this resembles a case made by George Will for socialism, I had better get to my point.

Will thinks it a compelling argument against redistribution as practiced by the liberal welfare state that "such government is inherently regressive: It tends to distribute power and money to the strong, including itself." He elaborates on the point in his next paragraph: "Government becomes big by having big ambitions for supplanting markets as society’s primary allocator of wealth and opportunity. Therefore it becomes a magnet for factions muscular enough, in money or numbers or both, to bend government to their advantage." As a practical example, he cites how "a small cohort" of sugar producers benefit from lobbying for preferential sugar import quotas while the majority of consumers pay higher prices. In short, Will's argument is that a government committed to regulating vested interests is susceptible to influence by those interests when drafting regulations, which often end up benefiting those interests, and perhaps the regulators as well, rather than the general public. For Will, this follows from government's inevitable tendency to self-aggrandizement. For another observer, the problem is more obviously the vested interests. If regulators are vulnerable to manipulation by vested interests, the reasonable alternative for a government dedicated to correcting market outcomes is to abandon the futile project (on Will's account) of regulating vested interests in favor of socializing production. Will would object to that, of course, as a further aggrandizement of government with no greater justification for rejecting market outcomes. But he has arguably pointed out to progressives an inherent flaw in their own approach. Conservatives are fond of showing liberals how their plans won't work, and they can actually prove useful in that role. As long as progressives ignore the related argument that certain plans shouldn't work, or shouldn't be tried on "ethical" grounds, they should be open to any practical critique of their programs. When a conservative makes an objectively practical case against liberal regulation, progressives might take that as a cue to try something more radical.

11 January 2012

The Primary Problem and the case for the smoke-filled room

Douglas Turner, whose op-ed for the Buffalo News has been reprinted in papers around the country this week, is disgusted by the low quality of candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. He specifically cites Rick Santorum as a "flawed nobody" who has gotten more attention this month than he deserves. Turner blames that fact on the current system of choosing candidates through binding primary elections. He contends that an "open" party convention would not give Santorum or Newt Gingrich, another loser in Turner's opinion, a second look. By an "open convention" Turner means a genuinely deliberative event in which delegates are not bound by the wishes of the voters who appointed them. He argues that the democratization of the nomination process through the vehicle of primaries, which he traces on the Republican side back to 1968 -- though the struggle to establish the primacy of primaries dates back at least a century -- has been at best a mixed blessing, but increasingly a curse.

These so-called reforms are no longer about democracy. The primary process has become the plaything of media conglomerates, and of super PACs triggered by the Supreme Court’s unleashing of corporate money. For the sake of the country, both parties should make their conventions meaningful again by ruling that state primaries and caucuses are advisory only; and end this parade of showboating nonentities. 

Turner may be right that party primaries are "no longer about democracy," but he leaves hanging whether they should be. His desire for "open conventions" implicitly removes the choice of candidates from the party rank and file and elevates convention delegates to the status of legislators within the party, entitled to act according to their own wisdom and to ignore instructions from their constituents. Turner may denounce the influences of money and media, but his implicit conclusion is that the rank and file can't be trusted to select an electable candidate. Indeed, he blames the democratized system for compelling otherwise intelligent people like the late Jack Kemp to pander to ignorance by promoting the teaching of creation science in public schools on the campaign trail. Of course, democracy has always been and always will be accused of promoting pandering to ignorance by critics who mistakenly blame democracy as a political principle for the ignorance of the masses. That point aside, Turner's diatribe raises the question of whether political parties themselves are or should be democracies. That's a question Turner himself doesn't quite seem prepared to answer.

In the list of comments below the article, reader Don Nowak warns against a return, through the "open convention" principle, to "the smoke-filled rooms of yore, when party and regional powers brokered a deal in a back room." Responding to Nowak, Turner insists that he doesn't like "smoke-filled rooms," either. He goes on to claim that "relatively open" conventions picked some pretty good Presidents. And lest he seem partisan in his attacks on Santorum and Gingrich, he argues that an open convention would not have picked an untested figure with a controversial background like the current President, either. On the other hand, he concedes that a "relatively open" 1964 Republican convention nominated an equally "unprepared" and arguably more irresponsible Barry Goldwater. He also claims again that the democratic principle behind direct, binding primaries has been compromised by the power of money in politics, and that the current system should be set aside until the Citizens United decision is overturned. A look back at his own analysis, however, leads one to ask what Super-PACs and media conglomerates have to do with the grass-roots ignorance he initially identified as the problem with primaries.

An "open convention" is not the same thing as a "smoke-filled room." The latter term entered the political lexicon in 1920, when party bosses compromised behind the scenes of  the 1920 Republican convention on Warren G. Harding as their eventually victorious presidential nominee. These bosses presumably had the power to tell delegates under their control to vote for Harding. A truly open convention would be one without smoke-filled rooms and dictation by bosses -- but what makes Turner think that an open convention today would be more immune to the influence of PACs and media than ordinary primary voters? Congress itself, the deliberative model for an open convention of elected delegates, has demonstrated no such immunity. Turner's error is his belief that the right system can avoid the taint of ignorance and irresponsibility that is actually pandemic in our political culture. It may be impossible to reform politics in order to immunize it from corrupt culture. It may yet be possible to save politics by reforming culture, but that starts with us and not the people we vote for.

10 January 2012

New Hampshire proves nothing?

The former governor of Massachusetts appears to have won a primary in a New England state -- how shocking? But Mitt Romney's win will confirm his standing as an unassailable front-runner for many observers, at least until the tournament moves to a southern state. If New Hampshire proves anything, it may be that Ron Paul is assured of at least 20% of the vote anywhere he goes -- but that depends on the South as well. It's said his anti-interventionism won't play in that jingoist, militarist part of the country, but we'll find out soon enough. The only things New Hampshire proves indisuputably are facts about itself, the primary fact being that the traditionalist social conservatives aren't welcome there. Consider this: according to the latest returns as I write, which are sufficient for Romney to claim victory and Paul to concede the state to him, those two candidates and the apparent third-place finisher, Huntsman, have combined to win 78% of the Republican vote. The three traditionalists -- Gingrich, Perry and Santorum -- combined for barely 20%, the Texan getting not even 1%. That would seem to prove that there was no point, after all, in the social-conservative cabal picking one from the three last weekend, since that chosen one would have gotten clobbered, anyway. Better to wait for South Carolina, where the verdict of the coming conclave might mean something, unless all of those three are thought to have sinned too much against the holy dollar to merit the votes of the righteous. One thing seems certain regardless of New Hampshire: things can still get crazier in the Republican race, and probably will.

'Conservatives' vs. Capitalism: a Republican crack-up?

Rare is the day when I can say "Rush Limbaugh is absolutely right," but that's pretty much the case when he takes fellow Republicans to task for criticizing Mitt Romney's business practices and complaining about his wealth. His dismay at the spectacle seems refreshingly sincere and he seems honestly at a loss to account for the apparent hypocrisy from the party of capitalism. He turns to a National Review Online columnist, Jay Nordlinger, to help figure it all out. Nordlinger notes, and Limbaugh seems inclined to agree, that only Romney among the Republicans, the one who seems the least Republican to other Republicans, has the guts to defend capitalism as an economic system. Limbaugh seems to think that Romney himself is overrated as a capitalist, but he appears to concede Nordlinger's point. This alone is unlikely to reconcile Limbaugh to Romney, but today's observations raise a question neither Limbaugh nor Nordlinger may care to confront: how strong is conservatism's commitment to capitalism? The alliance of the two phenomena is relatively recent. In the 19th century, self-styled conservatives often opposed laissez-faire capitalism because the conservative position then was statist and upheld the state's prerogative to regulate trade. That battle was lost, but self-styled conservatives in many countries took the lead in introducing social-welfare provisions -- Germany under Bismarck is the noteworthy case -- on the assumption that it was better for society for some people to be dependent on the state than for them to join a revolutionary mob. In the U.S. in the 20th century, anti-communist conservatives rallied to capitalism because it was part of an entire socio-cultural order that communism threatened -- but how essential is capitalism to that order? How many people became conservative primarily because they thought communism would confiscate their houses or demolish their churches? You don't have to endorse capitalism in all its splendor to believe in private property, after all, just as you don't have to be a communist to criticize capitalism. If most self-style conservatives in America today see themselves as defenders of a moral order, as seems to be the case, how essential is capitalism to that order? As Thomas Frank and others, on both left and right, have noted, capitalism as a system of perpetual "creative destruction" is in many ways inherently corrosive of traditional order and traditional morality. Frank has noted for years that moral conservatives' alliance with capitalism has been consistently self-defeating, yet right-wingers have persisted in it on the assumption that the baby of traditional order would go out with the bathwater of laissez-faire if the left took over. Meanwhile, Nordlinger and Limbaugh cite the wisdom of Phil Gramm, the former Texas senator who advised Republicans never to defend free trade on the stump because those who benefit from it don't realize how they benefit, while those who suffer no exactly why they suffer. If we enlarge the scope from free trade to free enterprise, a time comes inevitably when more people suffer than benefit -- Limbaugh himself cites the 2008 crash as an example. Is the majority to be consoled with the usual warnings against envy and the familiar reminders that life's not fair? What is conservative, exactly, about those opinions? Envy is on the loose in the primary field among people who are not otherwise unconservative -- depending on your perception of Newt Gingrich, of course -- and the bulwark against envy is the man normally regarded as the least conservative Republican, and whose likely victory is increasingly perceived by his rivals as unfair. We've been led to believe that a true conservative would not complain about the triumph of a Romney, in business or in politics. So are Gingrich, Perry et al not true conservatives, or are they not true Republicans? The distinction may matter more than people think somewhere down the line.

09 January 2012

Class warfare in the Republican primaries

Newt Gingrich has been condemned by many self-styled conservatives for questioning Mitt Romney's business practices and complaining about the influence of wealth in politics. Now, it seems, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman are joining the class-warfare chorus from the party supposedly opposed on principle to class warfare. They seem to have forgotten all the reassurances from the apologists for corporate donors, all the comforting recollections of elections when the richest candidate didn't win. Romney is unconsciously goading them with supracontextually provocative remarks like his admission today that he likes "being able to fire people." The context was from a consumerist perspective, though admittedly "fire" is not quite the right word. He was expressing his preference for a system where individuals could switch health insurers more easily -- "firing" those that provided poor service -- but the sound bite is sure to resonate, as reporters are predicting, from now until November. The quote seems unobjectionable to a Republican, but Romney himself remains objectionable to many in the GOP, and the resentment expressed on the campaign trail is nakedly hypocritical. Envy does not appear to be exclusive to liberals and Democrats, and maybe what they've been accused of feeling, and what some Republicans feel now, isn't really as simple as envy after all. More to the point, not only the poor envy the rich; hence the confusion regarding Wall Street within the Tea Party movement. Historically, Republicans have been inconsistent in a consistent way. They don't want to be dragged down by the poor or the politicians, but they don't like it any better when accumulated wealth and privilege stand in the way of their own advance. They are the people most fond today of quoting John F. Kennedy's dictum that life is unfair, but what Republicans seem to mean, regardless of Kennedy's meaning, is that everyone but me cheats -- and that entitles me to do what I have to do. Party primaries are sometimes educational; it's when people of one party confront each other, rather than presenting a united front against the enemy, that the people and the party show their true faces to the world.