31 May 2012

The national interest and the common good: Dionne and Brooks debate American history

Republican columnist David Brooks and Democratic columnist E. J. Dionne get together to chat one a week on National Public Radio. This week they've expanded their conversation into the pages of their respective columns, both of which are inspired by Dionne's new book, Our Divided Political Heart. In an argument Brooks generously calls "engrossing," Dionne describes a degeneration of the American conservative tradition from communitarianism to dogmatic individualism. Dionne condenses his thesis for a Washington Post column, noting a Whig-Republican tradition of government action for the "common good" that seems to have been repudiated by the Tea Party era GOP.  That tradition encompasses everything from protective tariffs to veterans' pensions, but seems incompatible with a modern ideology that presumes a fundamental antagonism between government and liberty. Writing in the New York Times, Brooks agrees with Dionne that anti-government ideology has grown excessive, but argues that the phenomenon is a reaction to excesses on the part of government. While conceding that the modern attitude is to some extent an overreaction, he criticizes a century of liberal-progressive "overreach" that provoked the overreaction. In doing so, Brooks attempts to clarify Dionne's picture of the country's "communitarian" past. To the extent that Alexander Hamilton was a forefather of American conservatism -- conservatives and liberals alike often claim the legacies of both Hamilton and his great antagonists, Jefferson and Madison -- Brooks echoes Dionne by emphasizing Hamilton's "economic nationalism." As the first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton sought to enrich the nation, not just certain individuals (as Jefferson's faction charged), but Brooks contends that Hamilton's idea of the "common good" differed from the ideal of 21st century liberals.

[Hamilton's] primary goal was to enhance national power and eminence, not to make individuals rich or equal. This version of economic nationalism meant that he and the people who followed in his path — the Whigs, the early Republicans and the early progressives — focused on long-term structural development, not on providing jobs right now. They had their sights on the horizon, building the infrastructure, education and research facilities required for future greatness. This nationalism also led generations of leaders to assume that there is a rough harmony of interests between capital and labor. People in this tradition reject efforts to divide the country between haves and have-nots. Finally, this nationalism meant that policy emphasized dynamism, and opportunity more than security, equality and comfort.

Some of the distinctions Brooks makes are probably anachronistic. Hamilton most likely never had to make a choice for or against "jobs right now," for instance. But the distinction tells us a lot about Brooks's own position.  "Jobs right now" apparently belongs alongside "security, equality and comfort" in a category of misjudged priorities. They all seem to strike Brooks as short-term thinking, if not as pandering. In his account, old-fashioned American economic nationalism wasn't the same sort of communitarianism Dionne apparently advocates. It was not about taking care of every single person's security or comfort, much less their equality. Brooks can imagine the national interest being compromised by too much attention to the short-term needs of individual workers. That's his main objection to the New Deal legacy. FDR was right to "energetically respond" to the Great Depression, Brooks writes, but "the New Deal’s dictum — that people don’t eat in the long run; they eat every day — was eventually corrosive."

What can Brooks mean by this provocative, almost sinister-sounding statement? Is he opposed to people eating every day? Perhaps not, but he appears to think that national economic policy -- and as a moderate conservative he does believe in such a thing -- should have a higher, more long-term priority than making sure people eat every day.  The problem with that thought is the implicit assumption of a contradiction between people eating every day -- in economic terms we might translate this as "full employment" -- and long-term economic development. Why should these goals contradict each other? Brooks envisions contradiction because he advocates a capitalism whose most important characteristic, as he explained in his recent defense of Bain Capital, is "creative destruction." Creative destruction will always meet resistance from those whose immediate interests are threatened by it, but Brooks can't imagine an economy evolving any other way. As a result, he can sincerely affirm a national interest and defend what he hopes will be short-term adversity for the casualties of creative destruction on the communitarian ground that the nation's interest outweighs the interests of those individuals whose jobs have been destroyed in the name of progress.

All of this proves that, as ever, and despite what Dionne might argue, liberals remain the ultimate individualists. How did I reach that conclusion? In this way: while liberals are supposedly collectivists compared to conservatives, their collectivism is grounded in a belief that everybody counts. Capitalists are more collectivist by that standard because they can stand the individual suffering caused by capitalist creative destruction and justify it by appealing to some higher good. Individualism isn't the problem with today's Republicans, but the worst of them aren't capitalist collectivists in the manner of David Brooks, either. The problem with 21st century Republicanism is egoism. A moderate Republican like Brooks can rationalize individual misery through his faith that the collective will benefit in the long run. Too many other Republicans don't seem to care whether anyone suffers from economic upheaval, or whether the national interest justifies adversity or austerity, because their notion of individual liberty means that only they count -- for each one, only he counts. When you call that egoism rather than individualism, it loses a lot of its moral glamor. That's my rhetorical hint for the day; please make the most of it.

30 May 2012

Is Birtherism a matter of opinion?

Pressured to repudiate Donald Trump's latest attempt to revive the question of the President's birthplace, Republican nominee-presumptive Romney reportedly told the news media that Trump is "entitled to his opinion." While those are a reporter's words, they presumably represent with some accuracy whatever Romney actually said. The candidate also resisted pressure to distance himself from Trump, telling reporters, this time in his own words, "I don't agree with all the people who support me. And my guess is they don't all agree with everything I believe in. But I need to get 50.1 percent or more. And I'm appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people." Trump implicitly makes the list of "good people," or of those "good" enough to get Romney to 50.1% As for Romney, this may be the most self-damning thing he's said to date on the campaign trail, worse than any of the gaffes that supposedly expose his insensitivity or rich-man's arrogance. What has he said, after all? He'll stoop to collaborating or currying favor with crypto-racist conspiracy mongers in order to get the barest majority of the popular vote. He anticipates the closest possible race and can't afford to repudiate anyone's support. He has to get every hater on his side in order to win. Sad but inevitable -- but let's challenge his initial point. Is Birtherism an "opinion?" My impression was that Birtherism is an assertion of fact, a claim that the President's Hawaiian birth certificate is a fraudulent document concealing Obama's ineligibility for the office he holds. That is no more an "opinion" than the assertion that 2+2 = 5. It's typically postmodern to deny any distinction between fact and opinion, since it's the belief of some postmodernists, usually people on the cultural "left," that "fact" is never anything more than opinion backed by power. Postmodernity empowers the paranoiac bad faith that's simultaneously the analogue and opposite of faith-based politics. For some people, "freedom" now extends to their right not to believe anything particular people, groups or institutions tell them -- or to look at it another way, their right to believe in vast conspiracies of lies motivated by evil intentions. For if this is a free country, don't we have the right to believe that our freedom is constantly threatened by all kinds of people and powers? Aren't we obliged to be jealous of our liberties, after all? Isn't that freedom of opinion? Apparently Mitt Romney thinks so.

Campaign for Primary Accountability's split decision in Texas

The anti-incumbent "Super-PAC" known as the Campaign for Primary Accountability is claiming another scalp this primary season. The group ran an ad campaign against Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a Democrat from the El Paso area seeking his ninth term in Congress. Reyes was defeated by Beto O'Rourke, who won a bare majority in a five-way race. The incumbent reportedly tried to portray O'Rourke as a stealth Republican, but from early outside reports one of the big issues of the campaign, as opposed to whatever issues the CPA raised in its ads, was the drug war. O'Rourke has advocated the legalization of marijuana while Reyes has been portrayed as a profligate drug-warrior. On his website, O'Rourke champions term limits and decries the "taxpayer-funded campaign advantages" incumbents enjoy, but I don't know if anti-incumbency and advocacy of term limits makes you a Republican in Democratic clothing. More likely it was O'Rourke's passive enjoyment of CPA support -- though I don't know if CPA explicitly endorsed him in their anti-Reyes ads -- that damned him for some Democrats, many of whom selectively see Super-PACS as conspiracies of the rich when it suits them. In any event, anti-incumbent sentiment has been insufficient to secure victory in every campaign CPA jumps in on. Elsewhere in Texas, their ad buys failed to topple an octogenarian Republican incumbent.

The unsavory thing about CPA is its status as an outsider interfering with any given constituency's choice of its representative, but they're not the only ones playing that game. By now it seems to be taken for granted that every local campaign is everyone's business, but that's arguably only a logical extension of the idea of national partisanship, for good or ill. If we take a stand that each congressional district is nobody else's business, we have to take that stand across the board, not selectively according to class or ideological bias. If it isn't rich outsiders' business then it isn't unions' business or any other lobby's business unless they have an authentic, live tie to the district. The problem with the debate over Super-PACs, Citizens United and political advertising in general is the tendency to see it in bipolar either-or terms. For right-wing defenders of unlimited spending on political ads, to limit or regulate spending can only serve to benefit incumbents. Justice Scalia said as much during his visit to Troy; allowing regulation was to let (implicitly self-interested) incumbents set the rules. From the other side, unregulated spending is the shortcut to plutocracy even though labor unions and other entities opposed to the reign of the rich enjoy the same "corporate" rights under Citizens United rules. But there are never just two sides to the scenario. There are people who question unconstrained spending by the wealthy who are neither incumbents nor sympathetic to incumbents. The rich are not the only "corporate" threat to the integrity of political campaigns. It just won't do to say that either "the rich" or "the incumbents" have too many unfair advantages, or that either group is somehow a stigmatized class with no right to publicize its cause.  The only fair position, in local elections, is to say to the outsider, whether it's a rich individual or a collective of poor people, that the election is none of its business. It shouldn't be the Campaign for Primary Accountability's business if a district in Texas wants to keep sending the same person to Congress. The CPA can argue that entrenched incumbency is a problem for everyone, but it can only be solved district by district, and rightfully only by the people of each district. It may be a harder argument to make that only those people have a right even to discuss the matter, thus leaving CPA and other entities out, but if anyone actually believes that political campaigns have an integrity that's compromised by outsider spending of any kind, that may be the stand that has to be taken.

29 May 2012

Scalia in Troy

Justice Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court was in Troy this past weekend to receive an honorary degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, an award inevitably protested by some students and faculty, and to participate in an annual colloquy with other honorees. This year's topic was "Honoring Tradition, Responding to a Changing World." As an "originalist" among jurists, Scalia is an interesting person to invite to such a discussion, and I imagine he did not disappoint expectations. RPI's website put up this excerpt from his remarks.

On this occasion, Scalia's understanding of the Constitution is less "originalist" than "strict constructionist." The opposite of strict construction is just as much an "originalist" position as Scalia's, since it was the position of Alexander Hamilton, who was more or less the co-author of the Constitution with the strict-constructionist James Madison. As David J. Bodenhamer writes in his new book The Revolutionary Constitution, Hamilton understood the Constitution as a "grant of power" while Jefferson, reflecting Madison's viewpoint and anticipating Scalia's, saw it as a "restraint on power." Obviously the Constitution is both; it grants power and limits it, the limits being most obvious in the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments. The common-sense position on Constitutional questions should recognize that legislation is unconstitutional if it violates rights defined in the Constitution itself. Strict constructionism goes further, deeming laws unconstitutional not only if they violate defined rights, but also if the powers assumed in the legislation are not explicitly spelled out in the founding charter. The opposite position, from Hamilton to the present day, is more inferential, more inclined to give legislators the benefit of the doubt so long as they don't violate enshrined rights. That position may seem less intellectually rigorous than strict constructionism but the real difference is in the fundamental presumption about government. Strict constructionists from Madison to Scalia interpret the Constitution to mean "this much and no more" until it's amended, while the other side doesn't take the "no more" part for granted. The strict constructionists never say that the other side can't have its way, but insist that under certain circumstances they can't have their way until they amend the Constitution. Because of the amendment process, Scalia is wrong when he says that the people can dictate that some things may never change. But it's also wrong to say that he intends that some things should never change. The real issue between the rival constructions is when it should be necessary to go to the by-definition radical step of amending the Constitution. The opponents of strict construction don't recognize the necessity as often as their rivals. For whatever reason, the "loose" or "liberal" constructionists assume government to have more inherent power than strict constructionists do. Is that assumption based on the Constitution itself or on more fundamental assumptions about government and its obligations? The same question can be asked of strict constructionists, and especially of those, like Scalia, who sometimes fall back on pre-constitutional notions of natural rights. Ideally we would draw our conclusions depending only on the Constitution itself, but if we disagree on the very meaning of government our readings of the Constitution itself will inevitably differ. If the Constitution itself was meant as a vehicle for reconciling conflicting attitudes toward government in the abstract, it's possible to argue that in that sense, at least, it has failed.

25 May 2012

Cal Thomas's pagan ethics: ants, grasshoppers and ravens

It wasn't my plan to go after Cal Thomas again so soon, but it's a slow news day and yet a busy one in my office, and I haven't read much comment-worthy today. Thomas has a fresh column in one of the local papers in which he compares the modern welfare state to the fable of the Grasshopper and the Ants. You know the story, and it's been part of American right-wing folklore ever since Walt Disney made a Silly Symphony of it to the tune of "The World Owes Me a Living." Cleverly, Thomas doesn't identify the feckless Grasshopper with the beneficiaries of the welfare state, but with the government itself -- even though it's hard to envision the energetic, busybody government of Thomas's night-terrors "singing and hopping and having an all-around good time." In any event, the columnist warns that the Ants, i.e. the taxpayers, may deny aid to the Grasshopper government, as they did in Thomas's version (though not Disney's) of the fable, at least on the state level by moving from high-tax to low-tax states. In Thomas's view this would be a just rebuke to liberal governments for "'spreading the wealth around' rather than teaching and encouraging individuals to build wealth for themselves." None of this is new from Thomas or his ilk, but I detected a false note somewhere. It actually came right at the start of the column when Thomas credited the grasshopper story, correctly, to Aesop. But I thought Thomas was a Christian. Aesop, or whoever contributed this tale to the collection we attribute to Aesop, was not. Now I know that Thomas has said that Christians shouldn't try to change people's hearts through political action, but I didn't realize all the implications of that disavowal. Apparently it entitled Thomas to become an ethical pagan in the socio-political sphere by invoking the authority of an idolater whose moral, one might argue, is contrary to the values of Jesus of Nazareth. Consider this evidence from a book widely believed to tell a faithful version of Jesus's life, the Gospel of Luke. Following tradition, we print Jesus's words from chapter 12, verse 24 in red.

Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls?

Of course, a Republican believer can remind us that it's God, not the government, feeding those ravens. But wouldn't God feed grasshoppers, too? It seems that God does not punish the improvident the way Aesop imagines, so why should a Christian want the grasshoppers to suffer. To borrow from Jesus, how much better are they than the grasshoppers? I don't offer Jesus's remarks as an allegory of the welfare state, but to point out that those folkloric, commonsense sentiments Thomas cites are, on the evidence, un-Christian. But were you surprised?


24 May 2012

Bible lessons

How coincidental that I should read Cal Thomas's commentary on the Book of Revelation just after finishing Elaine Pagels's new study of the controversial scripture. That puts me in a position to give the horselaugh to Thomas when he attributes Revelation to "the Apostle John," since Pagels nicely summarizes the argument that John of Patmos, the reputed author of the book according to scholars, is not the same person as John the son of Zebedee, the disciple, apostle and supposed gospel author. Few of the early church fathers attributed Revelation to the Apostle, and those that did sought to improve the pedigree of a disputed tome because they could use its prophecies as allegories for their own struggles with alleged heretics. Thomas cites Revelation to criticize President Obama's supposed "spin" of scripture. He has a notion that the President is trying to cite biblical authority for his new position in favor of same-sex marriage, though he produces no more evidence for this than Obama's citation of the Golden Rule. Assuming that Obama means the Golden Rule to abrogate the familiar animadversions against homosexuality, Thomas accuses the President of "claim[ing that Scripture] says something it does not," an offense the columnist equates with heresy. Revelation comes into it because the final book of the Bible ends with a threat of punishment for anyone who tries to add or subtract from it. Pagels argues that authoritarian early Christians like Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria liked that bit because it helped them enforce a canon and exclude more problematic writings. They liked Paul's warnings against preaching "another Gospel," also cited by Thomas, for the same reason.

At this late date, I'm stunned to find a Christian homophobe like Thomas arguing against selective reading of the Bible. Don't you suppose that he gets hundreds of e-mails every time he raises the subject citing all those nasty prohibitions and death penalties from the Old Testament (for disobeying one's parents, eating shellfish, etc.). Liberals and atheists have those lists readymade, and you know that Cal Thomas will never affirm any of those exotic strictures. Doesn't that make his a selective reading bordering on heresy? You can't criticize anyone else for a selective or insidiously creative reading unless you're prepared to affirm the whole thing, verse by verse, or you can claim some sort of divine revelation of the correct reading of the Old Testament. But to my admittedly limited knowledge I know of no officially established rationale for ignoring all the zany and barbaric prohibitions while continuing to affirm ancient homophobia.

Thomas himself appeals to a divine totalitarianism to validate his discrimination.

Scripture teaches that the marriage union between a man and woman is an illustration of how Christ and the church are one (Ephesians 5:32). It also teaches that since God made us, conceived of marriage and created sex to be enjoyed within the marital bond, He gets to set the rules and establish the boundaries for human behavior, not because He is a curmudgeon who wants to deny us pleasure, but because He knows what is best for us.

But the argument from universal creation that God knows what's best is equally applicable in defense of every archaic taboo in the Bible, even those from which even Thomas might recoil.  Some Christians argue that Jesus abrogated the Old Testament and that Leviticus and Deuteronomy can be ignored, but Thomas isn't one of them. Historically, what's happened is that Christians stopped caring about most of those primitive mandates, but continue to care about stigmatizing homosexuality. Christian homophobia has less to do with God than with Christians -- and when Christian homophobia is rampant in Africa or the U.S., it probably has less to do with Christianity than with the attitudes of Americans and Africans. That should be obvious whether you believe in God or not. It's up to homophobic Christians to explain why they care so much about this issue, compared to everything else in the Bible -- and not for politicians to square their literary allusions with anyone's selective orthodoxy. 

23 May 2012

How high is the cliff? Choosing between deficits and recession

Conventional wisdom, at least among Republicans, contends that government deficit spending is one of the major contributing factors in the country's economic slowdown, the logic being that every dollar spent by the public sector is one the private sector can't spend to create jobs. Reducing government deficits has been presumed to be a prerequisite for economic recovery. Now, however, the reputedly nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office warns that deficit-reduction measures scheduled to take effect next year could push the country back into recession, at least for a short time. While the rhetoric about a "fiscal cliff" makes the situation sound dire, the CBO apparently predicts only a few months of recession, with growth to resume slowly before the next year is out. Despite the resumption of growth, the CBO report projects a higher unemployment rate by the end of 2013 than at present if the deficit-reduction measures take effect. Perhaps predictably, the CBO recommends against letting the George W. Bush tax cuts expire as they're scheduled to do at the end of this year. Perhaps less predictably, it also warns against spending cuts.  If scheduled spending cuts are cancelled, the CBO anticipates a healthy rate of economic growth throughout the coming year.

All of this sounds surprisingly Keynesian, and perhaps also Reaganesque, Reagan having to some extent borrowed his way out of the recession he inherited from Jimmy Carter. While the CBO reportedly warns that the government can't continue to indebt itself indefinitely, it appears to concede that there are times when governments, at least, can't simply settle for living within their means. That's not something many actual Congressmen concede. But the CBO report seems to have something to offend people on either side of the proverbial aisle. Democrats want the lower tax rates to lapse, while Republicans certainly want to cut some kinds of government spending.  It shouldn't surprise us to see a purportedly nonpartisan entity tell both sides that they're partly wrong. Nor will it surprise us to see partisans and ideologues explain how the CBO is wrong on one count or another. If the CBO is right, however, we should ask what it tells us about our economy, at the present time and in general, if the private sector can't create an adequate number of jobs unless the government spends more than it takes in and more than it actually planned to spend. Some may fall back on an assumption that government spending itself isn't the real problem, but taxation still is. Others may look at the year-long projection and opt to tough it out on fiscal principle. In any event, I'm not sure if anyone's economic orthodoxies are vindicated by this story. Things aren't as simple as the dismal scientists say, or wish.

22 May 2012

Austerity and other forms of creative destruction

In the New York Times, the daily bible of centrism, Thomas Friedman envisions an era of austerity:

[W]e’re leaving an era of some 50 years’ duration in which to be a president, a governor, a mayor or a college president was, on balance, to give things away to people; and we’re entering an era — no one knows for how long — in which to be a president, a governor, a mayor or a college president will be, on balance, to take things away from people. 

Friedman goes on to argue that "we dare not cut without a plan," on the understanding that any plan must preserve, not cut, education, research and development. " I can lose weight quickly if I cut off both arms," he analogizes, "but it will surely reduce my job prospects" That's a nice sentiment, but by now Friedman takes the necessity of austerity so completely for granted that he need not explain in this particular column why the era of taking away is upon us. But as European politics proves, the austerity imperative isn't taken for granted universally. It has not been forgotten that many people have regarded the modern western-civ welfare state as unsustainable if not immoral for generations. The possibility has not been ruled out that arguments about sustainability only cover ideological hostility toward the welfare-regulatory state and provide the excuse, exacerbated by tax cutting in some places, for "starving the beast." The question pundits like Friedman can't ignore is whether austerity is forced on nations because they objectively can't sustain civilized social programs or because powerful people simply no longer want to pay for those programs.

After reading David Brooks's defense of Bain Capital and venture capital in general in the same newspaper it struck me that austerity in politics is no more than capitalists' beloved "creative destruction" in the public sphere.  Interestingly for thinkers perceived as rugged individualists, apologists for creative destruction usually justify it on the assumption that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one. Giving private equity credit for needed reforms in American corporate practice, Brooks admits that "The process was brutal and involved streamlining and layoffs," but adds that "at the end of it, American businesses emerged leaner, quicker and more efficient." He argues that in spite (or because) of "a great deal of churn and creative destruction," the reign of private equity "does not, on net, lead to fewer jobs." Jobs may be lost in "old operations," but new jobs appear in "new, promising operations." Well and good, but unless the person whose "old operations" job is lost gets the new "promising" job, the process is brutal indeed. As Friedman notes, there are lots of job openings posted at a time of high unemployment, but many unemployed Americans lack the skill sets necessary for those jobs. While Friedman's ideal austerity program would maintain if not increase funding to train people in new skills, he's not exactly confident in politicians' commitment to that goal. What seems more likely is that hardcore austerity advocates see the people in general the way private equity regards troubled companies in Brooks's account -- as entities they'll try to "force ... to get better." Brooks explicitly looks forward to "continu[ing] this process of rigorous creative destruction" by "tak[ing] the transformation of the private sector and extend[ing] it to the public sector." Something may get lost in translation here. In the private sector, ideally, you might make services more efficient, but the idea isn't actually to reduce services. In the public sector, as Republicans have made clear, it may be a different story. Creative destruction in the private sector doesn't mean telling consumers to make do with less; in the public sector, forcing consumers to make do with less (i.e. "get better") is the actual animating idea of creative destruction in the name of austerity. What, then, is the public-sector equivalent of a layoff?

Someone like Brooks might argue that you can't expect the economy to operate without ever laying anyone off, and it's objectively unrealistic to expect that government can prevent economic adversity. It's easy to argue that people ought to be able to cope with adversity, or that adversity is a test of character that each of us will pass or fail on individual merit. Expect a lot of rhetoric about how our ancestors coped with tougher circumstances and how weak or spoiled are those who complain today. But there are two extremes to avoid when considering how people in society deal with adversity. One extreme is the paranoid assumption that all adversity is the product of some malignant will, a hostile conspiracy to degrade or destroy those outside the clique of the powerful. The other extreme is the complacency some people seem to insist upon that never questions the causes of adversity and simply deals with crises as they come. Between paranoia and complacency comes critical intelligence and the understanding that society is not nature, that austerity is not synonymous with adversity, that sometimes when shit happens it is somebody's fault -- and occasionally somebody's plan. Governments should neither promise immunity from adversity nor simply tell people to deal with it without asking questions anytime it comes. Governments are entitled to ask sacrifices from citizens, and there are times when governments might reasonably ask people to make do with less. But politics still determines who does the asking and the sacrificing to some extent, depending on the adversity. There's an alternative to Friedman's bleak scenario of administrators taking things away from people. It could be argued, after all, that all the things people were given over the last fifty years, from the Treaty of Detroit to the Great Society and beyond, were ephemeral substitutes for the one thing they should have had and can still have: power.   

21 May 2012

Libertarian-Republican flirtation resumes, awkwardly

Everyone else assumes that libertarians and Republican conservatives play for the same team, but many libertarians will die denying it. That's not because they don't think Republican conservatives would make good allies -- the editors of Reason magazine recall that the factions played well together for much of the cold-war era -- but it's one thing for Republicans to defend "freedom" against the International Communist Conspiracy and fellow travelers at home, and another for them to swallow the entire freedom agenda of 21st century libertarians. That becomes freshly apparent as you read Reason's transcripts of debates between its editors, Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie, and reputed Republican opinion leaders Jonah Goldberg and Ann Coulter. Goldberg, a columnist frequently quoted here and an editor of National Review, virtually concedes Welch's argument that Republican conservatism grew out of a libertarian tradition rather than vice versa, but is openly contemptuous toward libertarian advocacy of drug legalization.

Goldberg: We can have that argument if you like: Legalizing PCP is a national emergency!

Welch: The technology of independence is a hell of a way to promote the culture of liberty and change the Republican Party. And, I hope to God, change the Democratic Party on issues like the drug war, which for me is not an incidental PCP laugh line. We're still arresting 800,00 people a year for something that should be legal, and we should all feel a sense of shame about that.

Goldberg wants to distinguish between libertarianism and "what i would call libertinism," but it's a distinction many libertarians refuse to recognize or abide by. From the viewpoint of the anti-liberal movement, it is reasonable to demand prioritizing. "Cultural libertarianism is all very interesting and fine and good," Goldberg says condescendingly, "but it seems to me less relevant" than economic libertarianism -- the kind most likely to motivate libertarians to vote Republican. But the persistence of cultural issues as a sharp sticking point between the factions becomes more clear in Gillespie's exchange with Coulter. She's more openly contemptuous than Goldberg toward libertarian "chickenshits" who, when "we've been fighting A ... these chickenshits will come up with: Oh no, I want Z. Let's start talking about Z! No, that's not the fight we're having right now." That's Bipolarchy thinking in a nutshell, from an actual nut. There can only ever be one fight and two sides. But if libertarians are supposed to be on the Republican conservative side, what are they to do when Republican conservative propagandist Coulter goes off on immigration.

Coulter: I'm saying we repeal the 1965 Kennedy Immigration Act that by its intent wanted to change the demographics of America....I don't think any time in the history of the world has a country changed its ethnic composition overnight like this. It was done by design. It was done to help the Democrats, and it did help the Democrats. This is not the country that Ronald Reagan got elected in any more, and a lot of that is because of this family migration....We don't need more people to sweep floors right now and vote for the Democrats and go on welfare....This is the biggest problem facing the country because, if we lose on immigration, both legal and illegal, that's it. That's lights out for America. No Republican will be elected nationally again.

Gillespie: Every economist who looks at this ... has to concede that on balance, illegal immigrants add much more to the economy than they take out. They don't take welfare. Immigrants, legal or illegal, are not a drain on our economy. Immigration is not a problem. Immigration is a problem when it stops happening.

On economic matters libertarians often chide Republicans for not cutting spending enough and for not "changing the conversation" when liberals say (in Welch's words), "Oh my God! If you cut a federal agency, poor people are going to die in the street!" Welch's faith is that poor people won't starve but will become "more free and more prosperous" as they did in the 1970s when Democrats sometimes took the lead in cutting programs. Whether he remembers that decade correctly or whether similar economic conditions really exist isn't the issue for today. The problem libertarians pose for Republicans is that even though libertarians are often to the right of the GOP on economic issues, they remain suspicious of America's cultural right wing. Neither Goldberg nor Coulter does anything to calm their suspicions.

Goldberg: Libertarianism is a universal credo, a universal philosophy....But it's important to remember, and this is a point some conservatives and some libertarians make, is that it grew up in a certain place and time for certain reasons. It grew out of Western Europe, it flourished in the United States, and you cannot have freedom unless you have a people that cherishes freedom. And one of the points of conservatism is to keep that in mind and keep the love of liberty alive in the hearts of people, rather than simply say, 'whatever floats your boat.' Because the habits of the heart are really one of the things that will sustain a liberty-loving people far more than just libertarian public policies.

Coulter: Going back to our Framers, who were smarter than we are, this is the most free society. It does allow the maximum amount of freedom by having so little government at the federal level and allowing people on the local level to make decisions for themselves and so on and so forth. And our Founders did not think you could have a free people under our Constitution without religion, without family, without honesty and integrity. These are values that are transmitted through the family.

The implications of Coulter's statement for libertarians who support gay marriage are obvious. They're consistent with what threatens to be a defining Republican stance that may someday definitively alienate libertarians. What it boils down to is a libertarian belief that you don't have to believe in anything else first to believe in liberty. You don't have to be a product of Western European Protestantism or Christendom in general in order to believe in limited government, economic freedom, personal responsibility, etc. But Republicans appear to insist on some kind of cultural preconditioning without which anyone else's commitment to liberty is suspect. Coulter seems more specific, and more threatening, about this than Goldberg, but libertarians are likely to hear the same message from either messenger. Libertarians like to believe that they don't believe in mandatory cultural conditioning. Whether that self-regard holds up to philosophical scrutiny or not, the opinion is enough to make libertarians potentially hypersensitive and hostile to any Republican assertion of cultural essentialism and the implicit state culture necessary to sustain it. None of this is enough to drive libertarians into the Democratic camp under current conditions, but if Republicans hope that libertarians will give them the edge for one more generation before (as Coulter fears) demographics doom them, they've got to make a better case for the alliance than Coulter and Goldberg have.

Cuomo-Booker in 2016?

The ticket in the tag may lack regional balance, but Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York and Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, New Jersey are positioning themselves as exemplary Austerity Democrats for the next election cycle. Booker built up his street cred -- Wall Street, that is -- with his criticism of the Obama re-election campaign yesterday for its attacks on Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital. The most startling thing about Booker's comment was its implicit generality, which on the one hand gave him wiggle room to later say that Romney himself wasn't immune from scrutiny, yet on the other left him sounding like an uncritical cheerleader for venture capitalism. He didn't say "stop attacking Romney," nor "stop attacking Bain." He said "stop attacking private equity." Moreover, he equated attacking private equity with attacking Rev. Jeremiah Wright, as if to say that criticizing speculative capitalism itself is as politically incorrect and dangerously provocative as criticizing a black preacher. On top of that, Booker basically dares people to question his motives by noting at the onset that "I live in a state where pension funds, unions and other people invest in companies like Bain Capital." He may be happy with the totality of Bain's record -- he says "they've done a lot to grow businesses, to support businesses," -- but whether he or anyone should be happy with the power over people's lives an entity like Bain possesses, and the prerogatives that come with such power, is the real question and a legitimate issue in any campaign season.

Cory Booker seems like the sort of tailor-made politician for whom Barack Obama was a rough draft. His nativity is unquestioned, as far as I know. Like Obama, he came out of the Ivy League and rose to power after struggles with an old-school black political establishment that questioned his authenticity. Unlike Obama, he has executive experience. His community activism has largely been directed against inner-city crime. His most recent appearance in the national news before yesterday was positively Capraesque as he personally rescued a neighbor from a burning building. He seems to be the change some people were hoping for from Obama: a black politician without the racial or ideological baggage of the inner city or the deep South. With appearances like yesterday's, Booker distances himself from Obama and raises centrist hopes that he may actually be The One. The only challenge he faces over the next four years is whether to stand pat on his mayoral record or take a chance on challenging Chris Christie -- a presidential prospect for the other side -- for the governorship. But if Booker finds it "nauseating" to criticize capitalism, whether its excesses and abuses or the system itself, he may not have the stomach for a national campaign as a standard-bearer for a party or movement that tolerates capitalism, like their antagonists tolerate government, as a necessary evil at best while insisting that people, not markets, set standards for civilized life. Even then, he might still be better than Cuomo.

18 May 2012

The void at the radical center

Postmortems for Americans Elect continue after organizers decided yesterday not to change their online-primary rules, denying themselves a final chance to nominate a presidential candidate despite the ballot lines waiting in 27 states for whomever they might have nominated. Observers have drawn several conclusions from the embarrassing end of a once-promising anti-Bipolarchy movement. A talking head of the moment is David Karpf of Rutgers. Interviewed by U.S. News & World Report, Karpf says that the debacle refutes hopes vested in a "radical center" by centrist pundits like Thomas Friedman. Centrists aren't radical but apathetic. "The people paying attention to politics tend to pick a side," Karpf says, and as he sees it attentive centrists have already settled on President Obama. On his own blog, Karpf dismisses the radical center as a fantasy that its boosters hoped could be willed into being with technology, through vehicles like Americans Elect. Karpf himself is a believer in Duverger's Law and the inevitability of Bipolarchy and polarization, offering only the National Popular Vote as a potential remedy.  Meanwhile, people who got involved with Americans Elect have commented on its labor-intensive sign-up and survey process, and a lack of follow up from AE itself, but Karpf cautions against assuming that glitches handicapped a good idea. Whatever the personal or structural factors, many observers seem rightfully appalled that an anti-Bipolarchy movement could gain so little traction at a time when public dissatisfaction with elected officials is at or near a historic peak. None of this alters my opinion that the tentative contentlessness of the Americans Elect vehicle was a fatal turn-off. Unless centrism is understood as a simple matter of splitting differences, centrists would have no automatic affection for a scheme that promised only a two-party national ticket, since the AE presidential candidate could not have a running mate from his own party. Even if you believed that this would result in bipartisan teamwork -- a dubious proposition considering how easily the Vice-President can be marginalized even by fellow partisans -- the prospect of a Republican and Democrat working together probably didn't impress many people as the answer to all problems. Whether there really is or can be a radical center depends on how you define the term. If centrism means no more than splitting differences and reconciling polarized opposites, there's no way it can be radical. If centrists plot themselves on a Bipolarchy graph, there probably isn't a way for them to escape the logic of Duverger's Law, which discourages difference-splitting in favor of either-or outcomes. A truly radical center would envision itself not between but outside conventional political bipolarity. Radical centrists will be those who can explain why "left" and "right" are hopeless options, not only because of their incompatibility, but each also on its own terms. People devoted to truly radical centrism might well be able to recreate the most successful elements of Americans Elect, particularly its aptitude for ballot access, but for such a vehicle to be more than another empty container, ideas must come first.

Obama's 'defining issue'

The President's latest begging letter arrived today. He's in uniter-not-divider mode this time. The word "Republican" only appears when he writes that his values "aren't Democratic values or Republican values." He eschews "class warfare" as well, adding that those values "aren't 1 percent values or 99 percent values." Yet someone is obviously opposed to those values, and the disagreement is "the defining issue of our time" -- but what are those values, anyway?

I have a deep conviction that we're greater together than we are on our own. I believe this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone, from Main Street to Wall Street, plays by the same rules. And I believe we all prosper when hard work pays off and responsibility is rewarded.

You wouldn't think that anyone disagrees with this, except perhaps for those dissatisfied with the President's assurance of nothing more than a "fair shot." But Obama knows well that an opposition has fueled a "raging debate" that has "left Washington in a near-constant state of gridlock." This not-so-nebulous but respectfully unnamed opposition has a philosophy of its own, the President claims. Their "philosophy is simple: We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules."

Of course, no one would expressly claim a philosophy framed in those words as his or her own. No one claims a right to "play by their own rules;" the debate rages over whether rules set by politicians and bureaucrats or rules discerned by economists and ideologues are preferable. Nor would many people assert that each must fend for himself or herself. Fewer still would deny the President's own premise that "we're greater together than we are on our own," but many would disagree on the import of the phrase. A libertarian, for instance, might agree that we're better together, but only under conditions of "spontaneous order,' free from consciously political meddling. Republicans would certainly agree on everyone's right to a "fair shot" while disagreeing with Democrats over what exactly a fair shot is and what should happen if someone takes their shot and misses. 

Occupying the center requires vagueness. In centrist mode Obama can't honestly state the terms of the raging debate, which has only been raging, with different degrees of intensity, for the past century. The subject of the debate is the size and scope of government regulation, which Obama barely implies is the precondition for fair shots, fair shares and our being greater together. But he lacks either the intellect (which seems unlikely) or the courage (ding!) to make the case for strong (rather than "big") government the way Theodore Roosevelt did as a renegade Republican turned self-styled Progressive in 1912, or the way generations of politicians did later. Until someone reaches back to Roosevelt and revives the allegedly-discredited principles of 20th century progressivism, the raging debate will be fueled by ideas from one side only, and by little more than begging letters from the other.

17 May 2012

Americanism of the heart

Base Republicans have to be pissed today. After all the news about people backing down on making Rev. Wright a campaign issue, now we have a Republican congressman apologizing for having said that the President isn't an American "in his heart." Rep. Coffman of Colorado expressed what seemed to be a typical Republican sentiment at a fundraising appearance last weekend, only to find himself treated as if he were a birther. Whether he is that or not remains unclear. Coffman claims today that he is confident of Barack Obama's citizenship and eligibility for the office he holds. Last Saturday, however, before he questioned the President's, er, sentimental Americanism, Coffman stated rather bluntly that "I don't know whether Barack Obama was born in this country." He didn't sound so confident then, but the impression I have is that Coffman meant that part of his remarks when he said today that he had "misspoke." On the issue of Obama's essential identity, Coffman tried to elaborate, objecting to the President's supposed notion that "America is but one nation among many equals." To think that, apparently, is to throw your loyalty into question.

Coffman was really expressing a fairly common view that Americanism is a matter of right ideas. It's often said that the U.S. is a "propositional nation," founded on an idea, as if the Declaration of Independence was the beginning rather than the culmination of a long process of separation from Great Britain. There have been other propositional nations in modern history, but the U.S. has usually fought against them in cold and hot wars. The Islamic Republic of Iran might serve as another example of a propositional nation -- and if mentioning this strikes you as an assertion of moral equivalence among propositions, so be it. I may agree with many of the propositions upon which my country is supposedly based, but I reject the idea that full membership in the nation where you were born depends on the correct answers to some secular (or not so secular) catechism. That's the logic of Stalinism and Maoism: if you didn't follow the great leader's line, wherever it went, you were a traitor. Nations are defined by people, not ideas. The national interest is not the perpetuation of any ideology, but the well being of the people who live within the nation's borders. Critics may disagree with the means President Obama employs to that end, but they dare not dispute his commitment to that end without appearing fanatically paranoid. Nor dare they dispute the end itself if they know what's good for them in an election year. What's the alternative? "It doesn't matter how many starve as long as the idea endures!" Maybe the Objectivist candidate would have the gall to say that, but more practical politicians, even Republicans, realize that, despite their own rhetoric, no idea is un-American when the American people vote for it. Are policies un-American that immiserate multitudes? I have an idea on the subject, but it's still up to the voters to figure that out for themselves.

ad religionem arguments and character assassination

For probably obvious reasons, Mitt Romney is reportedly "distancing" himself from a pro-Republican "super-PAC's" plan to buy time for advertisements damning President Obama by association with the infamous Reverend Wright. Speaking for the presumptive GOP nominee, his campaign manager manages (thus earning his keep) to turn a very circuitous repudiation of the super-PAC into a direct denunciation of the Obama re-election campaign. Declaring it self-evident that Obama's side "is running a campaign of character assassination," Romney's spokesman then says that his candidate and his campaign "repudiate any efforts on our side to do so." The distinction is probably lost on most observers, not because Romney's people are lying but because most of us have lost the ability to distinguish between criticism and character assassination. Republicans and Democrats alike ascribe opposing beliefs to bad character and assume each other to do so. Romney himself has sometimes attempted to avoid ad hominem arguments, preferring to portray Obama as incompetent rather than malevolent. But few will make a real distinction between Romney and all those who speak for him or in his favor. For that reason, few will take his pre-emptive repudiation of the anti-Wright ads seriously. Some will even question the premise of his stooge's statement. As I implied at the start, it can be assumed, fairly or not, that Romney wants religion taken off the agenda to prevent his own faith from becoming a campaign issue. It can also be asked whether religion, particularly when politically charged, really is as irrelevant as Romney's people now want to say it is.

Like it or not, there is no compelling reason to consider the Rev. Wright scandal a closed issue. Senator Obama issued a persuasive repudiation of Wright's extremist rhetoric (e.g. "God damn America!") back in 2008, but you wouldn't exactly expect a defense of the fiery preacher from a presidential candidate. I thought Obama's repudiation of Wright, who continues spitefully to stir the pot by accusing Obama's allies of trying to bribe him into silence, was thoughtfully sincere, but people have a right not to be persuaded. None of us can look into Obama or Romney's mind or heart. There's always room for doubt, though actions should leave less room over time. Evenhandedness requires respect for some people's lingering doubt, even if you don't respect those people's beliefs in general. If anyone is willing to consider the possibility that Mitt Romney's Mormonism will influence his politics, that he will be guided by Mormon preachers or teachers in any unseemly way, they have to concede a like possibility that Barack Obama was somehow shaped by Rev. Wright's occasional rantings on politicized subjects. In neither case does the speculation amount to character assassination. Religions are value systems. They are subject to judgments in ways that skin color and other biological components of identity are not. Freedom of religion does not confer immunity from public opinion; it only prevents public opinion from suppressing unpopular faiths.

If the Romney campaign meant to claim some moral high ground today, few will concede the claim. It's one thing to "repudiate" a prospective ad buy and another to show moral leadership, if you want to call it that, by saying that the Wright ads should not run. In our current political market, of course, Romney has no power to make any of his self-described allies stop obnoxious advertising as long as they finance themselves. He could, however, have been more forceful in denouncing the Super-PAC, instead of having his lackey append the denunciation to an attack on the Obama campaign. If anything, this presumably principled gesture will only hurt Romney with the Republican base, stuck with him though they are now, since many in the hard core remain convinced that it was Sen. McCain's reticence at invoking Rev. Wright, Bill Ayers and all the other mass-murderers and devil worshipers behind Obama that cost Gov. Palin's running mate the 2008 election. The base will most likely see this as weakness, if not wimpiness, on Romney's part, and they'll probably share the suspicion of cynics on the other side that the candidate is only out to protect his own flank. It'd be better for both major-party candidates to confront the religion issue directly and make clear whether faith influences their politics in any way. Then those who trust religion and those who distrust it can draw their own conclusions.

Update: Now the businessman who was supposed to have paid for the Wright ad campaign has repudiated the idea. A representative claims that the ad program reported on was nothing more than a proposal commissioned by the businessman and subsequently rejected by him. This statement will win him no fans with the base, which must be wondering why everyone is so chicken on the subject of Wright. The most obvious reason, of course, is that any discussion of religious influences brings Mormonism into play, but there may also be a feeling that there is no way to criticize Wright without some sort of racism being inferred. Even at this late date, I don't know if any Republican or right-winger wants to be drawn into debating whether black people have cause for calling down divine judgment upon the United States.

16 May 2012

Van Hollen v. FEC and the secret ballot for campaign donors

The evolving jurisprudence of campaign finance and political advertising raises questions about the relationship between publicity and accountability. A case working its way through the court system, Van Hollen v. FEC, should bring this question to the forefront. The plaintiff is a Democratic congressman challenging a Federal Elections Commission regulation he considers too narrowly defined to assure appropriate disclosure of the sources of funding for "electioneering communications" -- political ads that name a candidate but don't explicitly advocate his election or defeat. Yesterday, the Washington D.C. circuit Court of Appeals denied a motion from two "corporate-funded non-profit groups" to stay a lower court's decision in favor of Van Hollen requiring more thorough disclosure of donations. By a 2-1 vote, the appeals court ruled that the two groups had provided insufficient evidence for their argument that disclosure would subject their donors to threats. The denial of a stay doesn't end the appeals process itself, however, and this case will most likely end up before the Supreme Court.

Does the public have a right to know who pays for political ads of any kind? There's an implicit cui bono logic behind demands for disclosure, an assumption that material self-interest rather than principle motivates the political donor. But when does "who benefits?" become an ad hominem argument? The argument that anyone will benefit personally from policies he or she promotes through advertising takes on significance only when it is presumed, if not proven, that the donor will benefit at the public's expense. At its extreme, the argument against political advertising and unlimited campaign donations rests on an equation of donations with bribes -- but there's no basis on this assumption, apart from ideological bias, for distinguishing between donations and bribes. It's no less a bribe if an old woman contributes her widow's mite to a candidate who promises to increase her benefits than if a corporation contributes to someone promising lower tax rates. The best argument for curtailing campaign donations has never been to denounce donations as bribes, but to denounce the dependency on donations and fundraising that an unregulated market in political advertising imposes on politicians.

But if we don't equate donations with bribes there's less reason for donors to worry about disclosure. The most likely threat donors fear is that disclosure will subject their causes to the ad hominem or cui bono criticism I just described. If they fear boycotts or some other form of marketplace reprisal for the political stands they take, let them lobby for a law immunizing them from such reprisals and make their case to the general public. Fears of physical reprisal can't be taken seriously in the absence of a violent "left" in this country, given who fears punishment from whom. Fear of reprisal, of course, is the historical argument for the secret ballot, which was advocated by and for the working class so that bosses couldn't fire people after learning how they voted. People shouldn't be punished in any way for the way they vote, nor should people suffer reprisal for supporting candidates or controversial positions by any legal means, including monetary donations. Ideally, however, the more we impose safeguards against reprisal the less need there should be for secrecy. If people persist in insisting upon secrecy, it may be because, in their minds, knowledge and reprisal are inseparable. If one extreme of the argument over campaign donations goes too far in the ad hominem direction, the other extreme may well go too far in the direction of guilty conscience.

15 May 2012

An empty container: more on Americans Elect

Americans Elect organizers have admitted failure without conceding defeat, cancelling another online primary overnight because no proposed candidate has met the minimum requirement of multi-state support in order to compete. However, the online group, which hoped to present a centrist ticket with instant ballot access across the country, and has secured lines in 27 states and counting, has announced that it still intends to address "an almost universal desire among delegates, leadership and millions of Americans who have supported AE to see a credible candidate emerge from this process." Over the next week, organizers will confer with their "community" before announcing their "next steps" on May 17. Today's announcement has sparked some concern that organizers might anoint a candidate through a process less democratic than the one originally announced, which admittedly set too high a threshold for viability for a new political movement. Those ballot lines are just too precious to waste, even if they don't come with any promise of financial support for a candidate. But as I wrote yesterday, the problem with Americans Elect is that those lines mean nothing to anyone until individuals fill them.

Whatever the organization's "centrist" bias, Americans Elect appeared to envision itself as a kind of public utility, a vehicle through which people could nominate political candidates without partisan supervision. The organizers may have presumed a centrist result, but the vehicle itself is essentially a blank slate -- yet Americans Elect promoted it as a cause in its own right under an anti-party banner. It was most likely to attract two kinds of voters; those willing to take a chance that their ideological favorite would win the online primary, and those genuinely indifferent to the result of the primary yet committed to the potential of the obligatory multiparty ticket to transform American politics. That left out a vast middle: all those reluctant to take a chance on Americans Elect so long as they couldn't know in advance what the eventual nominee would stand for. People had a vague idea of what Americans Elect was against: polarizing partisanship. Fewer people could extrapolate from that what AE was for, especially considering that any Democrat or Republican could get the presidential nomination. That's why the group has failed in its apparent purpose to become a public utility for candidate selection. Even in the distant past, when people gathered to "spontaneously" nominate candidates at mass meetings, those meetings usually self-selected their membership. The people who attended already had an idea of what they stood for, and what they wanted their candidate to stand for. For Americans Elect, this was undesirable if not impossible. For the organizers, the only way to escape partisanship was to generate a candidate from an essentially random gathering of people, united only in their hostility to certain aspects of the American two-party system. Affinity is not partisanship, however, but in its rejection of partisanship Americans Elect could find no way to promise affinity -- or else the affinity it presumed was so vague that few people recognized any affinity in it.

Looking at it another way, Americans Elect decried partisanship but ignored its roots. The organizers presumed that something exclusive to the electoral system caused partisanship, and that by admitting all the human elements of our present partisanship under one roof they could get better results with new rules.  An image of rearranging deck chairs suddenly comes to mind. The fundamental error may have been the assumption that all these elements could co-exist and get along if only the right formula for cohabitation was found. The result was an organization opposed to the two-party system without really opposing what the two parties stand for, while assuming naively that the vice-presidency is a wedge that can break up Bipolarchy even if the organization nominates Bipolarchy candidates. I can understand why Americans Elect didn't take a "No Democrats or Republicans need apply" approach, since it hoped to be a mass movement, but until someone dares argue that the premises underlying the supposed left-right division of the country are wrong, and that peaceful coexistence of left and right will not automatically solve our problems, no anti-Bipolarchy argument will really catch fire, and any organization defined only by opposition to Bipolarchy will be but an empty container, without a product or even a brand name to make it worth having. 

14 May 2012

What if 'Americans Elect' nobody?

In this week's Time, Michael Crowley comments on the seeming failure of the vaunted Americans Elect campaign to nominate a non-partisan presidential ticket through online caucuses. He reports that the organization had to cancel one of its scheduled caucuses because "no candidate met the necessary criterion of 1,000 backers in each of 10 states." The petition drive that resulted in earning Americans Elect ballot lines in 26 states so far hasn't yet translated into a groundswell for any actual candidate for President. Crowley claims that this is because AE is "all cart and no horse," an organization without a charismatic leader. Without a recognizable personality up front, AE's argument against Bipolarchy doesn't seem to have inspired many people; the organization still has less than half a million members. In Crowley's view, AE's worst miscalculation is its claim that the Democrats and Republicans aren't focusing on real issues. In his opinion, AE may not like either party's answers, but that doesn't mean they aren't addressing the issues. It may mean they aren't addressing them seriously, but according to Crowley, that's not the argument AE has made.

It's probably unfair of Crowley to quote an arch-partisan like Paul Begala to the effect that "I haven't the slightest idea what someone from Americans Elect would do," but the AE people should have anticipated the complaint. All along, they've been pushing a process rather than a platform. Their candidate could just as easily be a Democrat as a Republican, but AE's requirement that their nominee choose a running mate from another party symbolized its opposition to partisan dogma. The presumption has always been that AE would reveal a "centrist" bias, but a presumption of centrism should have mattered less than a promise of a new approach to the issues that could only begin with an AE victory. Americans Elect advocates should have been -- should be telling people that what we really need is to bring diverse points of view together with a sincere commitment to finding pragmatic solutions to national problems. Honest advocacy would tell people that the solutions remain to be found because the objective, undogmatic deliberation hasn't begun yet. But it's fair to ask whether that argument would work for many voters who want answers now. Since AE can't have answers now, apart from its founders' invocations of centrism, it can only suffer in comparison to the simple solutions peddled by the major parties. In a sense, Americans Elect is, unintentionally, an ultimate instance in faith-based politics. It demands faith that a new process will produce reasonable candidates, and obviously demands faith in those candidates before their identities are even known. That's not as tall an order as religious faith in supernatural powers, but it still may be too much to ask that people assume it can happen. It's probably more reasonable to ask that, if pragmatic people are capable of finding answers through honest deliberation, that they do so first and then declare their candidacies and announce their platforms. If solutions can be found, why wait until after Election Day to start looking for them? Crowley may be right about AE putting the cart before the horse, but if so the problem isn't a lack of personality, but a lack of ideas.

11 May 2012

The 'People's Rights Amendment' and the question of 'corporate' speech

George Will tells a scary story in a recent column about a constitutional amendment proposed by a Democratic congressman to restrict the document's free-speech rights to "natural" persons, thus excluding business corporations and all "corporate entities" from the First Amendment's grant of immunity in political discourse. Rep. McGovern's "People's Rights Amendment" attempts to render corporate speech subject to regulation while disallowing any construction of its language that would "limit the people's rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free exercise of religion, and such other rights of the people, which rights are inalienable." Will, of course, is a free-speech absolutist when it comes to corporations, and can only attribute attempts to regulate or limit corporate speech to a conspiracy of incumbent politicians who fear that unlimited spending will counterbalance their notorious competitive advantage in re-election campaigns. Taking his bias into account, however, Will seems to have a good argument against the specific language of this amendment. Despite the disclaimer quoted above, the amendment's rejection of corporate speech-rights does seem to put some rights and immunities long taken for granted into question.

As the columnist notes, "Newspapers, magazines, broadcasting entities, online journalism operations — and most religious institutions — are corporate entities. McGovern’s amendment would strip them of all constitutional rights. By doing so, the amendment would empower the government to do much more than proscribe speech" As many defenders of corporate speech point out, whether they're Republicans or ACLU-style civil libertarians, the right of corporately-owned newspapers, news networks, etc to editorialize on political subjects doesn't appear to concern people as much as corporate entities' ability to buy commercial time for political causes. Advocates of the People's Rights Amendment might fall back on the Mitt Romney defense and argue that newspapers are people -- but what about unsigned editorials? If an editorial -- let's say an election endorsement -- goes unsigned to represent the collective opinion of a publisher and editorial board, would that render it subject to regulation under the People's Rights Amendment? Supporters of the amendment might argue that the disclaimer means that newspapers would not be held accountable for anything they weren't held accountable for before, but to the extent that this particular amendment retroactively invests speech-right in "natural" persons rather than the sort of corporate entity that a newspaper is, isn't the implication that the corporate entity never had the rights or rightly enjoyed protection in the first place?

There remain arguments to be made for regulating the market for political advertising, as opposed to regulating political speech in general, but McGovern and whoever else drafted the People's Rights Amendment haven't necessarily made the best arguments in the optimum language. Ultimately the issue of whether wealth distorts politics can't be dodged and has to be addressed directly, despite the protests of the ACLU that such suspicions stigmatize a class of people. Civil liberties are great things, but they presuppose a standard of civility that itself seems to be in dispute these days.  We may need to redefine civility before we can agree again on the civil liberties people by themselves or in groups -- or corporate entities -- may enjoy.

10 May 2012

Ad hominem ad absurdam. Mitt Romney's schooldays

Increasingly, politically-minded Americans see differences over politics as proofs of character flaws in the people who disagree with them. While Republicans most notoriously take this attitude, Democrats are really little different. Ad hominem politics is nothing new in the U.S., of course, but we've come a long way from the epic days of the Coffin Handbill to today's picayune equivalent, the revelation of Mitt Romney as a schoolyard bully. Before I go further, let me confess that bullying is a bad thing -- I suppose I'd count as a victim on a modest scale -- and that I remain opposed to most of what Romney stands for. But the glee with which some are pouncing on this news somehow strikes me as pathetic. It probably says as much about the current mania over bullying as it does about partisan politics, but does it follow that all bullies become miserable men or menaces? Democrats see Republicans in general as bullies (while some Republicans may see liberalism as the revenge of the nerds), and that may well color our current horrified perception of bullying. Democrats today are definitely reading their present perception of Romney and Republicans in general backward into Master Mitt's youthful pranks, but we do Republicans and bullies injustice, to different extents, when we assume some correlation between bullying youth and political belief. The error is to presume that Romney's bullying past is some kind of decisive argument against his election. In pursuing such a claim, Democrats may end up in the same kind of trap many Republicans have fallen into after arguing that adultery made certain Democrats unfit for high office.

The hidden potential for hypocrisy aside, this minor scandal reminds me of John Gray's sharp review in The New Republic of Jonathan Haidt's controversial volume, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.  "Much of his book," Gray writes of Haidt, "is an attempt to apply the findings of evolutionary psychology to the political gridlock that currently exists in the United States. The incongruity of the exercise should not go unnoticed. Whatever the causes of division in Washington, they have nothing to do with evolution. The phenomenon is much too recent for any evolutionary explanation to be remotely plausible. It is also too distinctly American to be explicable in the universal terms of evolutionary theory....There is no line of evolutionary development that connects our hominid ancestors with the emergence of the Tea Party....Using evolutionary psychology to explain current political conflicts represents local and ephemeral differences as perennial divisions in the human mind. It is hard to think of a more stultifying exercise in intellectual parochialism."

To take the story of Romney as a bully seriously as a political argument would be an attempt to apply child psychology to political questions. Doing that is probably more plausible than applying evolutionary psychology -- Haidt applies it to account for a division between caring-and-fairness oriented liberals and authority-and-loyalty oriented conservatives -- but not much more. Our characters aren't fully formed in the schoolyard. The adult Romney's adventures at Bain Capital and the Massachusetts statehouse certainly tell us more about his potential fitness for the Presidency than his prep-school shenanigans. But because we identify bad policies with bad people, some of us will look at the bullying story as proof of something more than that Mitt Romney was a jerk as a teenager. If we're convinced that his policies are bad, however, we need no more reasons to vote for someone else. The bullying story will no more decide the election than the tales of Romney's mistreatment of his dog, -- which were answered with references to times when young Barack Obama ate dogs --  but it'll probably make the contest even meaner in any sense of the word.

09 May 2012

Democracy in Wisconsin: do you recall civilized political disagreements?

It's gotten this bad in Wisconsin. A woman has reportedly run down her estranged husband because he tried to stop her from driving her SUV to a polling place to pick a candidate for the recall election against Gov. Scott Walker. This is perhaps the most extreme episode in a state where a poll reveals that 30% of respondents have ended friendships over political disagreements. Wisconsin is possibly the most polarized state in the country, the Democratic candidate chosen yesterday having joked that there are only 37 undecided voters left there. The Democrat is Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee, who ran unsuccessfully against Walker, a Republican, two years ago. His nomination by Democratic primary voters gives the recall a little too much of a do-over flavor for my taste. The object of a recall should be to determine whether voters want to repudiate the sitting governor, not whether they want to change their minds entirely about the 2010 election. I doubt there's a way to do it, but recall laws should come with a provision making the recalled official's opponent ineligible for the disputed office. Barrett's presence on the ballot would lend substance to any Republican claim that the real motive behind the recall is sore-loserism. Walker has made himself the enemy of organized labor with his policies abolishing many collective-bargaining rights for public employees. Throw Barrett into the equation and the issue loses clarity; it becomes simply Republican vs. Democrat again rather than Walker vs. Labor. I wish the unions had found a way to put a candidate of their own selection on the ballot, but Wisconsin's recall laws aren't as liberal as California, where a minimal filing fee allowed such people as the porn star Mary Carey and the late Gary Coleman, as well as the eventual Gov. Schwarzenegger, to challenge the recalled Democratic governor. By comparison, I know of only three challengers to Walker: Barrett, a Libertarian nominee and one independent. Many observers lamented the California frivolity, but despite the retrospective inevitability of the celebrity Republican's victory, that state's recall had something different from the usual Bipolarchy flavor that made it seem more authentically democratic in the small-d sense than the campaign orchestrated by Capital-D Democrats to oust the Wisconsin governor. It may still be true that the labor-vs-employer angle is the real exacerbating factor in Wisconsin, and it is true one way or the other that the present recall is being contested on sharper left-right lines than the California contest. That can't be blamed on the Democratic party alone, but it takes two to make a vehicular assault, if that's what actually happened in Chippewa Falls. It may please us to say that one party is driven by hate more than another, but in Wisconsin it looks like both parties are driven by hate to an increasingly dangerous degree. As goes Wisconsin, will so go the nation? We'll find out before the year is done....

Democracy in West Virginia: an inmate challenges the President

The talk you heard last year about challenging President Obama's renomination by the Democratic party from the left was never going to amount to anything. Obama is too much of a progressive icon, no matter what he does, for left-liberals to take him on, and a few well-timed insinuations that white left-liberals were holding Obama to a racist double-standard probably enhanced their innate inhibitions. The Democratic left's abdication did not leave Obama's path to renomination unchallenged, but the progressives left the field to pure protest candidates and cranks. In West Virginia yesterday, one of these cranks got 40% of the primary vote against the President. He is Keith Judd, a prison inmate and serial candidate who somehow raised the relatively minimal sum to get on the primary ballot. Based on the questionnaire he filled out for Project Vote Smart during his last presidential run, Judd is anything but a progressive standard bearer -- he comes across more like a libertarian populist. Nor were the West Virginians who voted for him progressives, at least according to the news media. The media's focus has been on voters protesting against the President from the right or center, particularly people dependent on the state's coal industry and resentful of environmental regulations that might cost jobs. We are reminded that Obama lost badly to then-Senator Clinton in this state in 2008, and he isn't expected to take the state in the general election. West Virginia was perhaps unlikely to have a progressive constituency for a progressive protest candidate, but when you consider that the only way the state's Democrats could protest against Obama was to vote for someone like Judd, who reportedly ended up earning at least one delegate to the national convention, you can't help wondering what would have happened had West Virginians had a choice of protest candidates -- had progressive Democrats not been such cowards.

08 May 2012

Liberalism, left right and center

Eric Alterman's The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, co-written or actually handed off to and picked up from historian Kevin Mattson, arrived from my book club yesterday and I've read a few chapters already. There's a long way to go before I'm done but some motifs have already emerged, most interestingly the suggestion that post-WW2 liberalism can be divided into three subgroups symbolized by respective idols or founding figures. The right wing of liberalism, if you please, is represented by Harry S. Truman. Truman's heirs are characterized by tough-mindedness on foreign policy (Alterman intriguingly notes that "liberals" were more interested in making war on fascism than either "conservatives" or "radicals"), an acceptance of consequence that makes them appear weak to those on their left, and a capacity for what came to be known as "triangulation." Truman, for instance, gave in to surging Republicans and gave up on many New Deal regulations, only to attack the GOP hard from the left during the 1948 elections. The liberal center is symbolized by Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR's widow, who combined liberalism's characteristic sentimentality with a degree of realism regarding political options and a lack of illusion about foreign powers. Alterman illustrates this by emphasizing her role in drafting the UN Declaration of Human Rights while making sure that the Soviets didn't manipulate its language to their propaganda advantage. The left wing of liberalism is embodied by Henry Wallace, Vice-President during FDR's third term but dumped in Truman's favor in 1944 yet retained as Secretary of Commerce until forced to resign following a speech critical of Truman's foreign policy. For Alterman, Wallace represents those least willing to compromise with opponents, yet least likely to appeal to force, most naive about international politics and human nature, and most inclined to "blame America first" for international conflicts. In the defining year of 1948, Truman was re-elected, with a late endorsement from Mrs. Roosevelt, despite Wallace forming a "Progressive" third party. Wallace won less than 3% of the popular vote and ran behind Strom Thurmond's segregationist ticket.

Even though Truman survived Wallace's insurgency, Alterman to the present day sneers at any attempt to challenge the Democratic party by forming an independent party to its left. He has no patience with what might be described as the liberal left's angry naivete, its refusal to compromise its idealism and deal with the realities of power politics. Alterman seems to be an adherent of Reinhold Niebuhr's secular doctrine of tragic necessity and its rejection of any politics of principled purity. But Alterman most likely identifies himself with the Eleanor rather than the Truman wing of American liberalism. That is, he reserves the right to criticize the liberal right (e.g. Democratic elected officials) for the extent of the compromises they make while refusing to indulge the liberal left (e.g. Ralph Nader) in its supposed contempt for compromise in general and its assumed insistence on impossible demands. Perhaps ironically, it's probably that same idealism that prevents the liberal left from becoming a radical left, despite the labels Republicans might apply, since true radicalism might mean getting one's hands dirty, if only metaphorically.

What makes all these people "liberals?" Alterman suggests that they share an inheritance not only from Franklin but from Theodore Roosevelt. That inheritance is a revision of liberalism during the Progressive Era, when  Republicans were severely outnumbered by TR's followers, a "progressive" Democratic party under Woodrow Wilson, and Eugene Debs's Socialists. Previously, Alterman writes, "liberalism" was concerned with protecting individuals from the power of the state. Starting with the Progressives, liberals decided that government itself could protect people from powers that had risen during the Industrial Revolution with the potential to oppress them. All three factions of liberalism, in Alterman's account, still agree on this point -- and all presumably agree, no matter how far left liberals go, that conventional party politics and representative government can adequately protect people from the excesses of capitalism, while socialism is deemed unnecessary or counterproductive. All the liberals, presumably, remain convinced that capitalism alone can generate the wealth that can make life better for everybody, so long as liberal governments regulate it in the public interest. That's why they're not socialists, again despite what Republicans think. Alterman's book doesn't identify liberalism exclusively with the Democratic party -- the cover illustration includes two non-politicians, Martin Luther King and Gloria Steinem -- but Alterman's columns have often identified the fate of liberalism with the fortunes of the Democracy. Whether his history will back up his argument remains to be seen.

07 May 2012

When is the right time to vote for the incumbent? The case of Richard Lugar

Richard Lugar is an 80 year old Republican running for his seventh term in the U.S. Senate. He's considered a moderate by current GOP standards, which is why he faces a serious challenge from a "Tea Party" candidate for the Republican nomination, state treasurer Richard Mourdock. The latest opinion poll shows Lugar trailing Mourdock by ten percentage points. Faced with the prospect of becoming a lame duck after tomorrow's primary, Lugar has gone over the heads of his fellow Republicans, reportedly urging Democrats and independents to vote for him in the open primary. While the Democrats of Indiana already have a candidate for Lugar's seat, they ran no candidate against the Senator in 2006, the year their party reclaimed the Senate without their help. Only a Libertarian dared challenge Lugar that year, and he got 13% of the vote for his trouble. Lugar's reasoning seems to be that, as the Democratic party does have a candidate this time, the Republican primary could be the last chance Democrats who like him will have to actually vote for him. The implicit argument is that they have a right to vote for him now -- to force him upon his own party if necessary.

Open primaries always raise questions about the autonomy of political parties. It seems reasonable for members of a party to have exclusive say over who runs for office in their name. On the other hand, given how few "real" choices voters supposedly have, many people want a voice in selecting both major candidates, in the hope of having the best possible choices in the general elections. Running as an independent may not be an option for Lugar, but his plight makes one wonder whether, so long as we don't impose term limits on legislators, incumbents should automatically be eligible for the general election if they want to remain in office. Lugar strikes me as someone past his prime, and his relative moderation probably looks less moderate from an objective perspective, but it's fair to ask whether a popular representative's constituents as a whole should be denied an opportunity to re-elect him simply because his party doesn't want him any more. My idea may go in the opposite direction of all the theoretically popular demands for term limits, but we might learn something about our political system, if not ourselves, if we entitled incumbents to an automatic spot on the general-election ballot. We would at least have some definite proof of how much of an advantage incumbency is. The case of Sen. Lieberman appeared to prove that incumbency, if not personal popularity, could trump partisanship. Defeated in his Democratic primary for his support of the invasion of Iraq, Lieberman was re-elected as an independent after scrambling to earn a ballot spot. If Lugar could do the same thing, it might prove something about incumbency -- but what if he took advantage of a guaranteed spot for the incumbent, despite his party, and still lost? Would that prove that partisanship or ideology can sometimes trump the alleged power of incumbency? Some might argue that my idea -- I wouldn't go so far as to call it a proposal yet -- would only entrench incumbents, since incumbents could use their guaranteed spot on the general election ballot to deter any primary challenge, and dissident partisans would be reluctant to challenge incumbents in the first place for the same reason. However elections turned out, they would be clarifying events. Are we ruled by parties, or by a clique of incumbents? Do parties (and the Bipolarchy) derive their power from incumbency, or vice versa?  Many observers may feel that both incumbency and partisanship are bad things, but the two perceived malignancies tend to blur in our perception. Separating incumbency from partisanship might allow us to isolate each problem and help us figure out remedies for both, while term limits promise relief from one problem at most. This may be heresy, or simply devil's advocacy, but think about it a moment before dismissing the idea.

05 May 2012

The Libertarian candidate

The Libertarian party has nominated its most credible candidate ever for President, though by doing so they may seem to have betrayed their own principles and prejudices. By an overwhelming margin, delegates at the party's national convention in Las Vegas have tapped a former governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, to top their national ticket. Johnson is an erstwhile Republican and had briefly campaigned for the GOP presidential nomination. He will run on a platform of austerity plus drug legalization, his liberal position on the latter subject having won him admirers among the Libertarians while he was governor. On his campaign website, Johnson promises to be "The People's President." This will apparently consist of his being a civil-libertarian deficit-hawk who will cut military spending and get the troops out of Afghanistan. He promotes the "Fair Tax," a flat-rate national sales tax that would replace both income and payroll taxes, and promises that the latter provision will stimulate job creation. However, he refuses to take direct credit for job creation in New Mexico during his administration, affirming the libertarian doctrine that "government doesn't create jobs." He does claim to have stimulated job creation by "keeping government in check" and eliminating "unnecessary regulatory obstacles." I imagine that he considers this sufficient to get the working-class vote, though I also imagine that at least some working-class people will want to know how he proposes to keep the bosses in check. It's probably as much a sign of the times as of his newfound dogma that "Labor" isn't one of the issue categories on his website. The new view, it seems, is that people should be grateful if jobs are created and not question the terms under which they might be put to work. This commentary may look crabby and narrow-minded, and to be fair I don't doubt that Johnson's civil-liberties credentials compare favorably with both the President and his presumptive Republican challenger. Nor do I doubt the sincerity of Johnson's determination to extricate us from Afghanistan. But I am not prepared for those reasons to endorse an ideology that denies the propriety if not the right of democratic regulation of labor and the economy as a whole. No matter what libertarians may claim, submission to the Market is not the same as self-government. Nor has an excess of self-government brought our society to its present plight. Until libertarians accept that employers are accountable to the employed, and not just through the magic of the Market -- and that the Market itself is accountable to the people -- I will continue to meet their claims with skepticism, to say the least. But since the rest of you can draw your own conclusions, here's Johnson's campaign site to peruse at your leisure.

04 May 2012

Plutocracy + Mediacracy = Bipolarchy?

In the lead article of this month's American Conservative publisher Ron Unz challenges readers' complacency regarding the superiority of the U.S. political system to China's. From noting greater responsiveness to public opinion than Chinese leaders are usually given credit for to observing that China's political class consists mostly of engineers and thus know how to build things, Unz wants readers to stop taking automatic American superiority for granted. He also wants them to take American decline seriously. He blames it on a decline in democracy as the U.S. becomes something closer to a one-party state despite the persistence of superficial competition.

When times are hard and government policies are widely unpopular, but voters are only offered a choice between the rival slick marketing campaigns of Coke and Pepsi, cynicism can reach extreme proportions....But if our government policies are so broadly unpopular, why are we unable to change them through the sacred power of the vote? The answer is that America's system of government has increasingly morphed from being a representative democracy to becoming something closer to a mixture of plutocracy and mediacracy, with elections almost entirely determined by money and media, not necessarily in that order. Political leaders are made or broken depending on whether they receive the cash and visibility needed to win office.

"Mediacracy" emerges as Unz's particular target. He is one conservative unconvinced by partisan denunciations of "liberal media." For him, it's the media's for-profit nature that keeps it from playing its proper role in a democratic society. He presents the news media's under-reporting (by his standard) of the Vioxx recall and the drug's possible linkage to thousands of fatalities, compared to what he describes as the American media's hysterical coverage of the Chinese tainted-milk scandal, as a prime example of the corporate media's abdication of responsibility -- a failure blamed implicitly on the news network's desire to retain the Merck pharmaceutical company as a major advertiser. He concludes:

A media and academy that are highly corrupt or dishonest constitute a deadly national peril. And although the political leadership in China might dearly wish to hide all its major mistakes, its crude propaganda machinery often fails at this self-destructive task. But America's own societal information system is vastly more skilled in shaping reality to meet the needs of business and government leaders, and this very success does tremendous damage to our country.

Proposing a remedy to the problem of mediacracy might challenge the readers and editors of an ostensibly "conservative" magazine even more, since the only alternative to moral suasion (e.g. "Don't be evil") is greater state regulation or direction of the media. But at least Unz recognizes that unless something changes, "the torch of human progress and world leadership will inevitably pass into Chinese hands." It's nice to be reminded that some self-styled conservatives actually believe in progress -- but that always depends on what you want to conserve. That's a reason to judge people like Unz by what they actually say instead of by the labels they wear, even those they choose themselves.