29 February 2016

What lives matter?

The big lie of 2016 is "All Lives Matter." Not everyone who says this is a liar, but a lot are. Some will go straight from saying it to explaining why this, that or the other one whose death has been protested deserved to die. But the big lie behind it isn't that white people don't really mean it when it comes to other races. The really big lie is that they don't even mean it for themselves. As I've said often, whites lack that "tribal" solidarity that refuses to write off any member of the group. How many mourn when a white "thug" dies, whatever the circumstances? How many regret the circumstances that might have made that corpse a "thug," or a "loser?" How many will speak of such people as "our youth?" How many would just as readily kick white "losers" as those of any other color to the curb? If a crowd at a Republican rally starts chanting "All Lives Matter," for instance, you can guess that most of them are lying -- not because they're racist, but because they're Republicans. If everyone has to earn his spot on this earth, as the Republican capitalist "compete or die" doctrine implies, than it's more accurate to say that such people think that no lives matter until they prove their worth to a bean counter or shareholder. It may be that the people most eager to shout "All Lives Matter" actually believe it the least.

28 February 2016

Trump's conservative foreign policy

Who ever expected to hear a Republican saying the world would be better off if Saddam Hussein were still in power in Iraq, or with Khadafy still in power in Libya? Of course, a lot of Republicans don't feel that Donald Trump is really one of them, and statements like the one he made at the most recent presidential primary debate are among the reasons why. But if Trump's status as a real Republican, whatever that means, remains in dispute, it's increasingly clear who the real conservative is, at least when it comes to foreign policy. Trump is always careful to emphasize that dictators like Saddam and Khadafy were very bad men, but as he said at the debate, "At least they killed terrorists." This suggests that Trump has an appreciation for order that many more credentialed Republicans have lost. In fact, conservatives and neoconservatives have two quite different notions of "order." Trump is trying to say that, despite their occasional international mischief, the two dictators brought a kind of stability, however cruel, to their countries. By comparison, neocons and sometimes-sympathetic liberals like President Obama refuse to acknowledge dictatorship as a form of order. They consider dictatorships inherently unstable, both because dictators supposedly know no limits to their lust for power and because dictatorship by its nature provokes rebellion. It's this line of thinking that holds Bashar al-Assad, another very bad man, responsible for all the carnage in Syria because of his violent intolerance of even peaceful dissent. The responsibility is his, so the thinking goes, because his people have a right to rebel against his repressive government. There can be no real order, so the thinking continues, without liberty, preferably "ordered liberty" constrained by a rule of law, respect for individual liberty, a pre-existing moral code, etc. Conservatives of the more distant past, especially outside the U.S. would not have taken such notions seriously. For them, order was an end unto itself, equivalent to peace, while those who cried Liberty were dangerous theoretical radicals. Going further back, the monotheist tradition offers plenty of admonitions recommending obedience or submission to rulers regardless of their religion. The Jeffersonian idea that people had a natural right to rebel when other natural rights were denied would have been incomprehensible or absurd to the conservatives of his epoch, who probably were far less impressed by appeals to "nature" than people are today. For them, there could quite easily be order without liberty, and "order" didn't have the vaguely pejorative quality it has for many thinkers today. So is Donald Trump saying that people have a duty to submit to their rulers, regardless of their abuses of power? Probably not, but he does seem to have learned from recent history, unlike his presumably more learned rivals, that to invoke a natural law of rebellion inflexibly, to say that rebellion is always the best option against any tyrant, can result in more trouble than rebellion was meant to solve -- especially when outsiders try to tip the scales in favor of rebellion, whether on abstract principle or for reasons of their own. Trump may have some unrealistic notions of his own when it comes to foreign relations, but sometimes you can see, however slightly, why so many people hope an outsider will contribute common sense to politics.

26 February 2016

Bad Faith

Cal Thomas is one of the conservatives who bitterly opposes Donald Trump's bid for the Republican presidential nomination. This has nothing to do with Trump's position on immigration, although Thomas ridicules Trump's vow to build a southern border wall at Mexico's expense, since Thomas has proven in his columns that he hates Muslims more than Trump does, especially since it's not clear, despite all the criticism of his proposals for limiting immigration, whether Trump hates Muslims at all. Many anti-Trump conservatives see him as a threat to limited government, perhaps fearing that he'll try to govern even more by executive order than President Obama is thought to. Thomas in particular seems to distrust, if not envy, Trump's charisma. In a recent column he virtually accuses Trump of being a cult leader, and more clearly accuses his supporters of being cult followers. He quotes an epistle of St. Paul to warn against "people [who] will not put up with sound doctrine [but] to suit their own desires ... will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." Thomas is well aware that "All politicians tell voters what they want to hear," but he's baffled by the widespread willingness to hear and believe Trump.Apart from dark warnings against "the dark side of charisma," he can't explain it. Instead, he rails against the followers, and here's where his rhetoric, coming from an old warhorse of the Religious Right, really gets rich. He writes: "A characteristic of Trump’s followers appears to be their determination to ignore any evidence that would challenge their faith." That sounds like Cal Thomas to the letter, which again begs the question why he opposes Trump when quite a few self-described evangelicals support the billionaire, warts and all. All I can suggest is that Thomas some time ago grew disillusioned with the Religious Right as a political movement, concluding that the moral reform necessary for the country's redemption could not be achieved through political action. He most likely doubts whether anyone can "save" America the way Trump's voters hope their candidate can. But even then those voters share Thomas's faith, I expect that "save" means something different to them from what it means to him -- and I think Thomas resents that even more than the insults hurled at him by Trump fans on social media. But with nothing else to offer himself except, presumably, prayer, fasting, belt-tightening and working three jobs a week, Thomas can be dismissed as a killjoy and a kind of hypocrite. After all, Americans have at least as much reason to put faith in Donald Trump as they have to put faith in Jesus Christ, and since Trump is a living person you could say that faith in him is just slightly more justified.

25 February 2016

The punitive campaign

Every time the "establishment" denounces Donald Trump, his supporters see more resemblance between him and themselves. Yet another potential "jump the shark" moment came earlier this week when Trump, watching a protester get escorted from a rally, expressed a desire to punch the man in the face and a nostalgia for the days, remembered perhaps by him only, when such disruptive people were taken out of rallies like his on stretchers. And maybe it did turn a few people off, but I suspect that the majority of Trump supporters themselves want to punch people in the face. Their slogan could be borrowed from the hilariously bad line uttered by a villain in the new movie Gods of Egypt: "You will bring them reckoning!" For them, I suspect, there is no making America great again without punishing the people they hold responsible for de-greating it. That punishment might be as light as humiliation by Trumpian insults, and it certainly won't be as severe as some fear, but there probably has to be some suffering, some sign that they've gotten the message and felt the just wrath of an offended populace. To the "establishment," of course, politicians aren't supposed to say what Trump said, since it signals an intolerance of criticism, but "criticism" probably is too abstract a concept to be relevant to what Trump or his followers feel. They aren't interested in a deliberative exchange and comparison of ideas; this campaign is about right and wrong to them, and those who are wrong need, as reactionaries are fond of saying, to "wake up," even if that means slapping them awake. Any notion of physical punishment for expressing ideas, not to mention expressing disapproval of a leader or would-be leader, would seem to be as un-American as you can get, but the Trumpites (or Trumpets and Trumpettes?) seem engaged in a moral equivalent of war, and the rules change under such perceived circumstances. To them, smacking the idiots who've held the country back -- and this could be anybody from the "establishment" Republican to the Black Lives Matter protester to the furtive immigrant -- is as American as the Sons of Liberty tarring and feathering Loyalists or making them drink boiling tea -- or it would be if they knew that history. For them, ideas may not merely be wrong but disloyal or heretical. Let them think so, so long as they don't forget that democracy is reciprocal and everyone is accountable to everyone else. If Trump wants to punch people, even as President of the United States, then the old man had better be prepared to put up his dukes.

23 February 2016

Progressives' race problem and an incomplete solution

While a few prominent black personalities have endorsed Sen. Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination, most recently and notably Spike Lee, the Sanders candidacy remains threatened by a race gap. Black Democrats still appear to support Hillary Clinton by overwhelming margins and figured in her victory in last weekend's Nevada caucuses. Mutual incomprehension and frustration seem to limit Sanders's appeal for this crucial Democratic demographic. Sanders's supporters are confounded by many blacks' apparent failure to see their man as the most progressive candidate, and hence the candidate most likely to benefit blacks, but while Sandersites lament that blacks don't get it, many blacks lament that Sanders and his supporters don't get it. It's said that Sanders has trouble "connecting" to blacks. While no one seems to question his commitment to equality and civil rights, something seems to be lacking in his temperament. He may lack the Clintonian instinct for empathetic schmoozing, or perhaps a certain deferential manner when courting the people who could deliver votes. Whatever the trouble is, Sanders is getting plenty of suggestions for overcoming it. One suggestion comes from the team of Heather McGhee and Ian Haney-Lopez in the Feb. 29 issue of The Nation. They'd like to see the Senator revive an old trope and argue that Republican pandering to racism is nothing more than a strategy to divide and rule the working class. In effect, and contrary to what many blacks and white progressives may feel, they argue that Republicans aren't really racist. They're haters, sure, but what they really hate is the working class and the sort of government that benefits it. They have no special animus against blacks, but if they can stir up white working-class resentment of blacks they'll get angry whites to vote against their own interests as the working class. In their own words, "a middle class in crisis is what America gets when we'd rather drain the public swimming pool of economic opportunity than let people of color swim, too." In their analysis, Sanders should not be afraid to denounce racism, even to white audiences, as long as he makes them realize that "racism [is] a political weapon as well -- one that is wielded by the elites against the 99 percent, nonwhite and white alike." He should say that "the reactionary economic agenda made possible by dog-whistle politics [in progressive parlance, that means racially-charged rhetoric] not only devalues black lives but immiserates most white families. When conservatives vilify every modest public benefit, from healthcare subsidies to unemployment insurance, as handouts to the undeserving, the social contract is shredded for everyone."

McGhee and Haney-Lopez make a plausible argument, but as debates over Sanders among blacks or between races show, it's one thing to denounce racism, as Sanders does quite regularly, and another to overcome it. The best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates recently endorsed Sanders, but did so reluctantly because the Senator does not support reparations; other blacks may be less forgiving even if Clinton is no more likely to indulge that ultimate fantasy. Again, it will be one thing to convince whites that racism is bad because it divides the working class against itself, and something much different to sell them the continuation and even the enhancement of the sort of compensatory regime black progressives still insist upon. The Nation authors fail to appreciate this. Their account of how Republicans succeeded in turning angry whites against "activist government" has a blind spot in it.

In the New Deal and Great Society years, white majorities broadly supported activist government because they perceived it as helping people like themselves—hardworking, deserving, decent. But as government programs became available to people of color, conservatives saw that they could gain ground by dog whistling about welfare and criminals, using racially coded terms to invoke the specter of liberal government coddling people of color—the very groups whose fortunes seemed to be rising just as life was getting harder for the white working class in the 1970s. 

Their account makes it sound like whites resented even sharing government benefits with blacks, but surely the main grievance among angry whites was that blacks and other minorities were receiving "special" treatment and getting "breaks" that whites weren't. Their resentment extended from ignorant assumptions that only blacks received welfare to protests against affirmative action or anything that specifically benefited minorities at the apparent expense of individual whites. Beyond that, the obvious reason no Democratic candidate for President will ever endorse the idea of reparations is that most whites, no matter how they reject racism, also reject the idea that, as individuals and citizens, they still owe something to black people. Most, I suspect, have grown impatient with the whole compensatory regime, blaming it rather than conservative economics for today's misery, while many question whether blacks even envision its end. This is problematic because black progressives want to hear Sanders tell what he will do about racism, and some won't be satisfied until they hear an answer guaranteed to alienate many whites. How would McGhee and Haney-Lopez have Sanders explain how the white working class will benefit from more affirmative action and other compensatory programs, much less reparations? I don't think they can answer because their proposed strategy would only point Sanders toward a "color-blind" ideal that some black progressives already reject as inadequate. It's peculiar, in any event, that they came up with a plan for Sanders to preach anti-racism to whites as a way to build up his support among blacks, which I assume was the actual goal. If I'm right, then Sanders shouldn't look to The Nation but to those blacks like Lee and Coates who've made calculated, pragmatic and principled decisions in favor of Sanders. They may not be the black political establishment -- some of whom, you may recall, resented Barrack Obama because he didn't have to curry favor with them in 2008 -- but they just might be the first sparks of another anti-establishment explosion in this most interesting year.

22 February 2016

One dynasty down...

Down but not out: obituaries for the Bush Dynasty are premature. All it will take is a Democratic win this November or a failed Republican presidency to make Jeb Bush will be a front-runner for 2020. Nevertheless, the fall of the former Florida governor this year is a stunning event symbolizing the rebellious mood of the Republican primary base. After the South Carolina primary, Republicans' rejection of Jeb can be spun into a more sweeping repudiation of the entire Bush legacy. Strangely, Jeb staked much on the public's presumed enduring love for his older brother. Stranger still, the media bought into this, speculating about how much damage Donald Trump had done to himself by criticizing George W. My impression was that Tea Partiers, whom Trump supporters at least resemble, had no great love for Dubya, regretting his wars while deploring his expansions of government. Yet pundits and opinionators warned that Trump had touched a third rail by accusing the former President of lying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That, supposedly, Republicans could not believe of Dubya. Once again, however, a plurality of primary voters has made it clear that they have their own priorities for judging candidates. Not even the discovery of Trump's own lie -- he has said he opposed the war, but he told Howard Stern in 2002 that "I guess" we should invade -- could dent the billionaire's teflon.

At this point it appears that at least a third of the Republican base is immovably convinced that, warts and all, Trump has the qualities the country needs now. The now is the key part of the equation, as his rivals have failed to realize and the Democrats may also. Trump's opponents continue to make ad hominem attacks on his untested political aptitude and his bullying attitude, but none of this will matter so long as people believe that the times require the supposed executive strengths that come with Trump's offensive (in either sense of the word) personality. Change their perception of the situation and perhaps they won't feel such an urgent need for Trump. Of course, doing so is trickier this year than it may sound. The solution obviously isn't to say that nothing is wrong with this country. Instead, the person who beats Trump will have made a more compelling case, both intellectually and emotionally, for our problems having roots elsewhere than where Trump and his supporters believe them to be, while offering a persuasive plan for dealing with those problems decisively, at the roots. Trickier still, such a case probably will have to be made in something other than Trump style, no matter how much Democrats, in particular, want to tell Trump supporters, or even people taking him seriously, that they're ignorant hysterical monsters. In this sense, Sen. Sanders's persistent focus on Wall Street seems like the sounder course, while the more Hillary Clinton resorts to identity politics to crush Sanders the more she'll be tempted to do the same against Trump, should Republicans give her the opportunity, even if that approach ensures that millions of Americans will refuse to listen to her.

In any event, Jeb Bush's collapse makes it more likely that the Democratic nominee will have to deal with Trump after all. Since Trump resolved to be a candidate last year, I've predicted that he'd fall once it came down to him and the Establishment candidate. That may still happen, but not unless either Sen. Cruz or Sen. Rubio drops out, and by this point I doubt whether either man is willing to bow to the other. The latest kerfuffle over a Cruz aide spreading a false story about Rubio denigrating the Bible is fresh proof of the apparently irreconcilable conflict between the two Senators. The Establishment reportedly wants to rally around Rubio, but as long as Cruz remains in the race -- and he has no reason to quit yet -- he'll split an anti-Trump vote that isn't entirely "Establishment" in nature. The Senators are the "movement" candidates in the race, and even without a real "Establishment" foil like Bush to run against, it looks like the movement will fail again because too may enemies of "big government" want to be the most powerful man in the world. It actually wouldn't surprise me if, should Jeb Bush face either or both of them again in a Presidential campaign, he'd crush them like bugs.

19 February 2016

Militant agnosticism

Hardly a month goes by without me seeing some attack on so-called militant atheists in one of the intellectual magazines I subscribe to. As these are, or claim to be, intellectual magazines, the attacks usually come not from committed believers, who would simply dismiss atheists, militant or not, as bound for hell, but from avowed agnostics or amateur theologians quick to assure you that of course they don't believe the more fantastical tales from scripture. While the British misanthrope John Gray is the master of this genre -- sometimes hardly a month goes by without me seeing such a review by him -- others are eager to enter the fray. One such writer is Gary Greenberg, who in the Mach 2016 Harper's reviews Susan Jacoby's Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion and Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue between four-star militant atheist Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, a former radical Islamist from Great Britain who now dubs himself a "counter-extremist." Greenberg writes that "Reading Jacoby -- who tells us that she has been an atheist since age fourteen -- on the subject of religious conversion is a little like reading a sex manual written by a nun." In other words, he dismisses offhand what I take to be her entire project, which is to account for conversion experiences in non-religious terms. It's like saying anthropologists are useless because they don't share the entire worldview of the subjects they study. But to Greenberg, Jacoby is typical of a clique of authors whom he finds as absolutist and intolerant in their assertions as those they denounce. "An apostle of enlightenment is still an apostle," he writes in an admitted cheap shot. As far as he's concerned writers like Jacoby and Harris are nothing but ideologues, which makes them extremists in his eyes. He doesn't even bother engaging Harris's ideas, convinced that he's guilty from the onset of his dialogue with Nawaz of "bad faith." What Harris is guilty of, it turns out, is daring to think that he understands Islam and can define it. Nawaz once thought the same thing, from a position opposite Harris's, but when Harris asserts that "Islam isn't a religion of peace," Nawaz answers -- correctly, from Greenberg's perspective -- that "Islam is not a religion of war or of peace -- it's a religion." In other words, no one, neither insiders or outsiders, militants or pluralists, believers or non-believers, gets to say authoritatively what a religion is. Greenberg clearly agrees with Nawaz's current position that since "any given subject has multiple interpretations, [that] demonstrates that there's no correct one," since this is the key to tolerance and pluralism. While this position may be useful to Nawaz in his polemics against his still-militant co-religionists, it's not too useful to the rest of us, since it only tends to reinforce the argument for distrust that we can't know ahead of time what any given Muslim is going to be like.

Nawaz is the hero of Greenberg's review since he apparently has moved away from the sort of militant certainty that, in Greenberg's view, possesses the militant atheists. His own aversion to certainty makes Greenberg a kind of militant agnostic, one who has himself strayed from the sort of intellectual modesty he appears to recommend. Militant agnostics, it seems, are often more interested in attacking atheists than in challenging superstition. Partly that's because some agnostics see atheists as killjoys who scowl puritanically at whole realms of human experience. There's also something postmodern in their bias, a distrust of all truth claims that goes beyond the normal scope of agnosticism. They harp repeatedly on the "faith" and "absolutism" and even the "eschatology" of atheists, on "pathologies [that] breed extremism at least as prolifically as the Koran does." This is either an attempt to heap the crimes of Leninism on atheists' shoulders -- the atheist reply usually is to label Leninism a kind of religion -- or an insinuation, often directed at Harris in particular, that atheists would be as happy to wipe out religion, if given the chance, as some Muslims, to name just the most prominent group, would be to wipe them out. Greenberg himself takes a plainly postmodern attitude toward "reason," describing "the ravages of capitalism, nuclear war and climate change" as all "products of reason." That's so nutty that I can't even attempt to answer the charge. In any event, what bothers Greenberg isn't reason so much as certainty, the trait militant atheists allegedly share with militant believers around the world. The problem with certainty, as far as he's concerned, is that it's essentially intolerant. Worse, it entitles or empowers people to act, both on their own certainty and on others' errors. The person who acts from certainty, it would seen, will not recognize anyone's right to say no to him or even dispute his premises, and that makes such a person dangerous to Greenberg, though whether atheists really are such people remains unproven to me. If no one would claim to know anything with that sort of intolerant certainty, Greenberg seems to believe, we could all get along better and life would be more peaceful. Unfortunately, it looks increasingly like human survival will depend on knowledge and a wider acknowledgement of it, while humanity may have to grow less tolerant or less forgiving of error, whether it be false knowledge or pathological doubt, if we're to survive. Like political liberalism, Greenberg's sort of agnosticism is a state of mind that requires nothing really to matter so that we can be tolerantly indifferent to outcomes. It seems increasingly like a luxury of an obsolete age.

18 February 2016

David Brooks: Can't we all just get along???

David Brooks is looking for a happy warrior to stop Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.The New York Times columnist, a moderate conservative, warns each man's rivals that they "can't beat passion with pragmatism," Whether it's Hillary Clinton or Marco Rubio, Brooks urges the rest of the field to campaign with more emotion, warning them that " You can’t beat angry passion with bloodless calculation." Instead, he thinks that the demons of the left and right can be beaten with "warmth, confidence and optimism." He offers Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower as models for candidates and Presidents who inspired a feeling of "neighborliness" among Americans. I don't know as much about Eisenhower, but I think Brooks misreads Roosevelt to an extent. He's thinking of the FDR of the radio "fireside chats" and the guy who said the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. But FDR chastising the "economic royalists" of his time, and declaring that "I welcome their hatred" doesn't sound that different from Sanders railing against the "1%" Scholarship aside, Brooks badly misreads the electorate and the candidates of 2016. He thinks of Sanders and Trump as pessimists because they warn of national decline and worsening conditions for working-class Americans, but I doubt whether their supporters see them that way, since each group believes their man can solve all the problems. From their perspective, the real pessimists are the self-styled realists who think that neither man actually could enact his agenda because of vested interests and entrenched opposition.

A more profound misreading is Brook's belief that Sanders and Trump, not to mention their supporters, are mainly "put[ting] the blame for this disaster on discrete groups of people — Wall Street or immigrants." This is a superficial interpretation of so-called "populist" candidates, when it should be obvious to anyone with ears on the ground that Sanders people hold more than "Wall Street" to blame, and Trump people hold far more than immigrants to blame. Brooks can only propose the alternative approach he does because he doesn't understand the national mood. What good can it do to appeal to neighborliness when so many people think their neighbors are to blame for our national plight? Sanders supporters are indifferent to Clinton's warnings about Republican intransigence because they despise Republicans. How does Brooks suggest any Democrat get them not to do so? Trump supporters are at the point, or near it, where they despise anyone who isn't on their team. Anyone who isn't with Trump is part of the problem, not just because of their beliefs or policies but because of their overall attitude; they are "disgusting" and stupid losers who need and deserve the chastisement Trump is giving them, as a bare minimum. How does Brooks suggest any Republican persuade them to tone down the contempt? If these people are populists, as so many observers insist, then we can more certainly define populism as a belief that people, not systems, are the problem. Brooks, who blames conditions on "structural forces — globalization, technological change, the dissolution of the family, racism," may be right about all that, but that doesn't help him understand how other people think or how to refute their beliefs. He might be able to reach Sanders's younger supporters, who I suspect still think more systemically and thus are more receptive to sweepingly radical proposals, but his older fans are unlikely to reconcile themselves to Republicans after generations of mutual hate. Brooks has less chance yet with Trump's followers, whose analysis of American society is more completely ad hominem than the Sanders camp's. Brooks may yet get lucky and see both Sanders and Trump self-destruct due to flawed campaign strategies and tactics, but if he thinks anyone can beat either man with Brooks's own Pollyana patriotism, then he must be as much a believer in a hidden majority as the Tea Party is -- only his majority, those Americans who still think well of and trust all their neighbors and all of civil society to be part of the same team, is even more well hidden than the TP chimera.

17 February 2016

Youth and identity politics in the Democratic race

One of the most mind-boggling details of a truly mind-boggling presidential campaign is that the oldest person running for a major-party nomination, Senator Sanders, is the youth candidate. He wipes the floor with Hillary Clinton among younger voters, and I suspect that the gender gap in that cohort isn't very great. It's also worth noting that Sanders beat Clinton among women voters in New Hampshire last week, and the younger the women were, the more they supported Sanders. While Clinton still campaigns as if Sanders is ignoring minorities, it seems that young female Democrats are less interested in making history as an end unto itself than their elder sisters are. It may be that younger women don't need the Presidency to validate their own progress as much as their elders who remain resentful of all the slights of the past. It will be interesting to see how that varies by race as the Democrats move on to more heterogeneous states like South Carolina. It may be, after all, that white women don't need that validation, while others, perhaps more conscious of enduring barriers, empathize with anyone, even a white woman, trying to break barriers. That seems to be Clinton's own thinking as she portrays Sanders as a single-issue candidate -- and despite all her comments on his health-insurance plans, she's now decided that his single issue is "break up the banks" --while asking what his special project will do to end sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. The subtext of the Clinton campaign seems to be that it's "privilege" to focus on the issues Sanders is concerned with, while the underprivileged "can't wait," as she has said, for action to improve their lot as soon as possible. More than Sanders, Clinton is trying to translate the rhetorical logic of "Black Lives Matter" to the presidential campaign. She is determined to press as many identity buttons as she can. More importantly, she hopes to drown out Sanders's efforts to push those same buttons by shouting that he isn't even trying.

It will also be interesting to see how youth effects racial voting patterns. There are already small hints that younger blacks are more skeptical toward Clinton than their elders. At least one black Representative seems worried about a youth backlash against criticisms of the alleged naivete of Sanders supporters. Across the board, young supporters of Sanders are described as everything from idealist to ignorant, while Clinton is held up as the person who knows how to get things done in the necessary baby steps. But are young voters naive or stupid not to think, as Clinton wants them to, that reactionary Republican stubbornness is an argument against Sanders? If anything the Sanders movement consists of people who are sick and tired of Republicans and could not care less whether they intend to oppose anything Sanders proposes. Sanders people, I suspect, have no desire to defer to Republican objections to anything, nor any interest in compromising to get Republican votes. That may well mean that nothing gets done, depending on the composition of Congress, but younger people may not see that as a reason not to demand what they think is right. It may be idealistic or naive of youth to dare to demand in the face of seemingly immovable opposition, but should that really be held against them?

The Sanders case is the second recent instance of youth's affinity with age after the Ron Paul movement, or the third if you want to go back to Ralph Nader's presidential campaigns. What do young people see in crusty old men? What they respect is defiance of political convention, though I wonder whether they ask themselves why this seems to come more easily to the elderly.  Perhaps they believe that the country has started to go to hell recently enough that older people know what better times were like. Age alone doesn't win anyone a following, however, or else young people would be flocking to Clinton, going on 69, or Donald Trump, going on 70. One plays identity politics while the other plays populist, so by process of elimination maybe younger voters are the ones most likely to think in systemic rather than personal terms and are more interested in radical reform that amounts to more than simply chastising certain people or groups of people. Sanders is often described as a populist because he denounces "Wall Street," but right there his politics become less personal than those of his rivals. They're less about punishing specific people than about reforming if not revolutionizing an entire socio-economic or political system. Similarly, Ron Paul proposed dramatic systemic reforms, albeit with drastically different intended consequences, and that kind of systemic vision may appeal more to the youngest voters than the bitterness or wagon-circling approaches of other candidates. Another way of putting it might be that the sort of young people who are drawn to Sanders, Nader or the elder Paul are those too young to believe that people are the real problem. If so, judge them accordingly.

15 February 2016

The self-destruction of Marco Rubio?

Two video sound-bites this weekend stood out for me. One was Senator Rubio, expressionlessly priggish and dead-eyed, telling an interviewer that the Republicans would not entertain any nomination by President Obama of a successor to the late Justice Scalia. The other came from the latest Republican primary debate. Rubio was challenging Senator Cruz's interpretation of something he, Rubio, had said in a Spanish-language interview with the Univision network. How did Cruz even know what I said, Rubio asked, when he -- like Rubio a Cuban-American -- doesn't speak Spanish? To which Cruz answered immediately, angrily, en espanol. I'm told after the fact that Cruz's wasn't good Spanish, but I suspect that he comprehends the language better than he speaks it, which would defeat Rubio's argument, and in any event most people watching on TV probably couldn't judge Cruz's fluency. They only saw that Rubio had again been made to look like a fool during a presidential debate. Not so long ago, the Floridian had been the hope of the Republican establishment, if not Republican moderates, against the rock of Trump and the hard place of Cruz. But then Gov. Christie embarrassed him in the previous debate by exposing his rote repetition of talking points, and now, after that face-off with Cruz, I imagine people are thinking that Rubio is incapable of thinking before opening his mouth. By comparison, Trump may seem to shoot his mouth off recklessly, but there's clearly some calculation of effect, some conscious desire to outrage some and entertain the rest, going on as he talks. Rubio seems to talk as if incapable of imagining even a spontaneous response to his words. Nearly all the Republicans acted before thinking this weekend after Justice Scalia's death, and one of them will pay the consequences in November. But Rubio may dodge that bullet, if only because he'll have shot himself full of holes long before.

We are governed by the Constitution, not custom

In the ultimate proof that Republicans really don't care what anyone but their own kind thinks of them, the GOP apparently intends to make a stand against even holding hearings for anyone the President may nominate to fill Justice Scalia's seat on the Supreme Court. Their pathetic argument in defense of their position is that it is not customary for a President to nominate a Justice during an election year. What they seem to mean, as the record shows, is that it's uncommon for a President to nominate a Justice while the Senate is controlled by the opposing party. NBC News cites six instances of election-year nominations. In only one such case did the President and Senate majority belong to opposing parties, and in that 1956 case, although the Democratic-controlled Senate was in recess when President Eisenhower, a Republican, nominated William Brennan, the Democrats promptly confirmed Brennan, who ironically proved to be one of the Court's great liberals, when they returned to Washington in 1957. On four previous occasions, a President's nominee was confirmed by a Senate controlled by his own party. So the "custom" cited by Republicans now is pretty much a figment of their partisan imagination -- and if Justice Scalia actually had any integrity as an "originalist," I'd expect him to scoff from the grave at the GOP ploy, since this so-called custom is nowhere to be found in the Constitution of the United States. The President is under no constitutional obligation to defer to the Republican Senators' wishes or feelings on this matter. Unfortunately, the Senators probably have no enforceable obligation to bring an Obama nominee to a vote, or even hold hearings, before Election Day. No matter what they do, however, the succession to Scalia's seat is now, and will remain, a dominant election issue, and it can only hurt the GOP. The Republicans are taking a gamble, presumably, on the premise that anyone Obama might name could be dismissed as an unacceptable radical. That blows up in their face if Obama names anything close to a moderate, despite the litmus test already demanded by both Clinton and Sanders, who've said that anyone they'd nominate -- do you doubt that they're privately rooting against Obama on this one, no matter what they might say in public? -- must be committed, for starters, to overturning the Citizens United decision on campaign financing. This is almost a no-risk situation for Obama. It probably has never been easier to make the Republicans look like idiots to the entire country than it would be right now, and as a lame duck Obama himself has no consequences to worry about. It might be worth his while to screw over both Clinton and Sanders by nominating a moderate, without applying their litmus tests, since one of them is bound to benefit in November from the Republicans' mindless obstructionism. Since Justice Ginsburg will probably retire the moment the next Democratic President is inaugurated, it's not as if Obama's would-be successors won't get a chance to pick a Justice themselves. This is shaping up as such a perfect scenario for Obama and the Democrats that I'm surprised I haven't yet heard anyone say Scalia was murdered.

13 February 2016

Antonin Scalia (1936 - 2016)

I don't like to speak ill of the dead, so let's just say the Supreme Court and the nation are better off without the Justice who passed away this weekend. It is a fact rather than a slur, however, that his reactionary originalism went too far for the 21st century, since he took it to mean that we should still be governed by 18th century attitudes toward sexuality, above all. At the same time, he betrayed originalism by reading a natural-rights ideology that is not explicit into it that resulted in the Court's inference from the Second Amendment of an individual right to keep and bear arms. Whatever his protestations, his vision of the Framers' original intent was really the personal ideology and religious bias of Antonin Scalia. His passing throws a torch into the tinder of the 2016 presidential campaign, and the results could blow up in the Republicans' faces. Senators Cruz and Rubio have already declared their determination to prevent the President from appointing a replacement for Scalia. Throughout the party, the rallying cry today is that the next President, whom they hope will be one of theirs, must be the one to replace the great man. The Obama presidency could not be summed up more perfectly from the Democratic point of view. The impending last great battle will only confirm what Obama has said all along, and what both Clinton and Sanders will echo from here to November: the Republican party remains committed to unconditional obstruction, at once fanatically ideological and blindly partisan, of the Presidential mandate. Yet Cruz and Rubio probably have no choice but to take such a stand immediately if they hope to win the Republican nomination. They may hope that the issue will put fresh pressure on Donald Trump, who from now on is sure to be pressed as never before on whom he'd nominate, and on what basis. If it appears that the future of reproductive liberty is at stake in all this, there's sure to be a rally of female voters around the Democratic nominee, whoever it may be. Knowing that the general electorate is different from the Republican primary base, party leaders might take a note from football coaches who, when the opposing team has the ball on the goal line with two minutes to play and will take the lead if it scores, lets them score as soon as possible so they'll have the most time left to retake the lead. Wouldn't the accomplished fact of another Obama appointee on the court be more provocative for the voters the GOP depends upon, and more likely to get them out to vote in protest against his would-be Democratic successor? Maybe, maybe not. But since the President is unlikely to let the matter of replacing Scalia drop just because Republicans will oppose anyone he names, I can't see a protracted fight over the succession benefiting the GOP as the year grinds on toward November while the cry of "obstruction!" echoes across the land. Despite all that, I can't see Republicans stopping themselves. They most likely will be bulls charging the matador one more time, while the Democratic nominee wields the pic. If historians conclude that Scalia's death cost Republicans the 2016 election, they may also conclude that dying was his greatest contribution to his country. He might not do the country a favor simply by assuring Democrats the White House, given the person still most likely to win the Democratic nomination, but given the people likely to win the Republican nomination, he could do worse.

12 February 2016

The fear of God is the beginning...

Nature, the "international weekly journal of science," published in its latest issue an article guaranteed to generate mainstream-media headlines. According to Nature's own summary, "Cross-cultural experiments find that belief in moralistic, knowledgeable and punishing gods promotes cooperation with strangers, supporting a role for religion in the expansion of human societies." According to a Washington Post report about the article, the anthropologists argue that people who believe in a god who punishes wrongdoers are less selfish and more inclined to behave impartially toward others. Such people are "are more likely to adopt behaviors that can create and support large-scale cooperative institutions, such as trade and markets." The researches base this hypothesis on observations of different communities of people around the world. What did they observe? According to the Post, they observed people playing a game the researchers themselves brought with them. The game is a test of honesty. From the Post:

In each game, participants received 30 coins, two cups and a dice with half of its six sides one color and the other half another. They were told to mentally pick a cup and roll the dice; they were then instructed, based on the dice color, to put the coin either into the cup they were imagining or the one they weren’t.In both experiments, one cup was assigned to a distant and anonymous adherent of the participant’s religion. The second cup was either assigned to the participant or to an anonymous local adherent of the same religion.Participants were told that each cup’s contents at the end of the game would go to whomever it was assigned....In theory, the game would end with an average of 15 coins evenly split in either cup, thanks to random chance.But the experimenters designed the game to make it easy to cheat: because participants chose the cup in their head, they could easily override the rules. And they did....But the higher a participant rated their God as moralistic, knowledgeable and punishing, the fairer they were to the distant stranger of the same faith....Participants who believed in a moralistic and punishing God were about five times fairer to their distant “co-religionists” than participants who didn’t know whether their God was moralistic, the researchers found.

For the researchers, this indicates a potential for "prosociality" in the world's more god(s)fearing people. They sought a factor to account for the expansion of prosociality (or " the scale of human cooperation and societal complexity") since the development of agriculture, since "well-studied mechanisms of cooperation based on genetic relatedness, reciprocity and partner choice falter as people increasingly engage in fleeting transactions with genetically unrelated strangers in large anonymous groups." If I understand this correctly, the anthropologists are saying that at a certain point in the early development of trade something has to account for people not ripping off strangers all the time. It's worth noting that they're cautious in their conclusions: "beliefs in moralistic, punitive and knowing gods increase impartial behaviour towards distant co-religionists, and therefore can contribute to the expansion of prosociality." (emphasis mine). They don't say it did, and they're wise not to.

The specialists out there will excuse a layman's ignorance, but I thought anthropologists were supposed to observe what people actually do in their everyday lives. That, I would think, would be surer proof of any hypothesis linking ethical or "impartial" conduct to fear of God's justice. As for the hypothesis itself, perhaps the theorists have cause and effect mixed up. They speculate that belief in a just and wrathful god discouraged people from treating strangers unfairly. Is it really less likely that, teaching themselves to treat strangers fairly when doing so went against past practice, in order to benefit from trade or cooperation across distances, they would justify the departure from past practice by telling themselves that their god wanted it so, or else? In either case, it's also fair to ask how successful such teachings about gods and their rules have been. After all, has the "expansion of human societies" really been an impartial or fair process for all its participants? To be fair, the present researchers aren't claiming that. They only argue that a belief in divinely-enforced fairness could have been a factor in the expansion of human societies. If so, it can also be argued that the principle of divinely-enforced fairness is one that certainly has been asserted throughout history, but has more often been honored in the breach.

10 February 2016

The Republican endgame draws closer

Carly Fiorina is out and Gov. Christie is most likely soon to follow. They're casualties of the New Hampshire Republican primary, where Christie, in particular, did more harm to Sen. Rubio than he did help to himself. Unlike Fiorina, Christie at least made it on to the news, but while he may have proved to some that Rubio lacks spontaneity, he apparently failed to overcome his own unlikability or convince voters that executive experience counts for something this cycle. Dr. Carson endures and presumably is staking all on his popularity with southern evangelicals, while Gov. Kasich has outlasted more of his rivals than many expected and can almost plausibly portray his second-place finish in New Hampshire as a win. He's the last hope of the moderates, now, though Jeb Bush presumably awaits the moment when he'll take over that role. Rubio has been staggered by his debate debacle despite his attempt to double down on his supposed weakness by vowing to repeat his rote phrase about Obama anytime he wants. Senator Cruz has been looking past New Hampshire for a while, I suspect, though he'll need to prove his electability in a blue or swing state at some point. He may want to delay that moment until it's an either-or choice between him and Donald Trump, who now can call himself a winner again, if not a comeback kid. While Fiorina and Christie have found New Hampshire fatal to their ambitions, all the "Live Free or Die" state really proved this time was that Rubio has a one-track mind and Trump's supporters didn't immediately abandon him after a defeat. From what I can tell the true believers are still out there believing, but for now they're only a plurality of Republican primary voters. This thing won't start to be decided until you start to see candidates winning majorities of the primary popular vote. For that to happen, more candidates need to quit, but apart from Carson I don't know if any of the survivors are ready to go soon. Bush can probably afford to play a waiting game, while Kasich will wait and see if he can actually gain momentum out of New Hampshire. The big question mark remains whether Cruz has a full-scale movement out there, or whether he and Rubio will cancel each other out. But as every corpse of a candidacy falls by the wayside the time of reckoning grows nearer. I think we're past mere popularity contests, now, and that means things should get really interesting soon.

09 February 2016

Character in sportsmen and statesmen

The results of the New Hampshire Republican primary probably won't be changed much by Donald Trump calling Senator Cruz a pussy recently. Many voters have decided that conventional norms of public propriety are irrelevant if not obstructive in a time of national crisis. Meanwhile, people want to crucify Cam Newton, the quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, for his terse, sullen answers to questions at a post-Super Bowl press conference. Newton is the highly-hyped Most Valuable Player who led the Panthers to a nearly-perfect regular season and some impressive playoff wins, only to be embarrassed by the Denver Broncos defense in the big game. Before the game, and really ever since Carolina emerged as a dominant team, Newton has been under peculiar scrutiny. Football fans are still fighting the old kulturkampf over how to celebrate success. Newton offends an oldschool mentality because he dances when he throws a touchdown pass or runs one in himself. Writing as a football fan, I think athletes in all sports go overboard celebrating these days, but I can't get worked up over it as some people are. Because Newton is a young star who was pitted against a beloved veteran, Denver's Peyton Manning, and because Newton is black while Manning is white, debates over athletes celebrating themselves become culturally and racially charged.

There remains a perception that celebrating the way so many players do is a black thing, or at least was brought into the game by black athletes. Yet I remember seeing a documentary about Joe Louis, the black boxing champion of the 1930s, that described how Louis, down on his luck and forced into professional wrestling, had to be taught how to celebrate his victories, since doing so went against his nature. You could just as easily argue, I suppose, that all the self-celebration you see now represents the leeching into competitive sports of pro-wrestling attitudes, though that still begs the question of why pro wrestling deems it necessary for winners -- including the good guys as well as the egotistical bad guys -- to celebrate themselves. In any event, the question arose whether Newton was a proper sports hero, many feeling that a certain stoic modesty better became champion athletes. The question became moot for a few months when Newton lost, but his critics have kept piling on. They cite a crucial moment late in the game when Newton had the ball stripped from him and, instead of diving to recover his own fumble, visibly recoiled from entering the scrum on the ground. This proved to the critics that Newton had either given up on the game or always lacked the character of an athletic hero. Worse, Newton was blatantly disappointed by losing and brought his disappointment to the press conference, where he answered questions curtly, with downcast eyes, before abruptly walking out. This in turn proved Newton a sore loser.  Etiquette dictated that he praise the winning team and show optimism about his own team's future. But while Newton congratulated Manning on the field at the end of the game, all he could say about Denver to the reporters was that the Broncos outplayed his team.

To reporters and many watching on TV or online, Newton lacked graciousness. We don't want our sports heroes to dwell on their disappointments. They're supposed to be role models of achievement and so should appear positive at every opportunity. Newton's performance probably looked worse to many observers than it was because his glum demeanor bookended his supposedly egotistical exuberance during the regular season. He'd gone from one extreme to another -- though he clearly could have been much worse in defeat -- without achieving the golden mean of character expected of sports stars. Throughout the year, people have been deciding whether to like Newton or not based on almost everything but his performance on the gridiron. His words and gestures are micro-analyzed and the man himself is subject to lofty scorn and, in some cases, bigoted contempt. The ironic thing about all of it is that so many people still insist on this sort of code of character in athletes while in politics growing numbers of us seem to be saying that none of that matters anymore. A lot of the people condemning Cam Newton as some low-grade character are probably voting sometime this year for Donald Trump, the man who called his rival, a U.S. Senator, a pussy -- to be fair, he was merely repeating what a fan in the seats had said, though he made a big joke out of how it wasn't a nice thing to say -- and earlier joked about being able to shoot people without losing popularity. It just goes to show that we demand different things from different roles. Some may say we demand too much from our athletes, that we take sports too seriously. Does it follow that we take politics too seriously if we expect our leaders to be dignified? It could be the other way around. Perhaps we demand manners of our athletes because sports are ultimately superficial, while to demand manners from our leaders is not to take politics seriously enough. Let's have a vote on that someday.

08 February 2016

The Bernie Bros and ad feminam populism

Senator Sanders' surprisingly popular campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has often been described as one the populist phenomena of this moment in American history. For the most part, this is because of the anger Sanders and his supporters express towards Wall Street, as well as their desire to break up the "too big to fail" banks. But some would say that the phenomenon of the "Bernie Bros" shows another, uglier side of Sandersite populism. In short, the Bernie Bros are the Sanders supporters who make ad feminam attacks on Hillary Clinton and her feminist supporters online. Bernie Bros presumably oppose anyone who appears to support Clinton because she is a woman, and despise the argument that Clinton's gender is a significant "progressive" credential. That their opposition sometimes takes an ad feminam turn is unsurprising. It's almost impossible to argue against feminist voting priorities without appearing misogynist to many observers, but there's also ample evidence that some attacks by presumed Bernie Bros on Clinton or her supporters are misogynist in fact. It doesn't follow, however, that an anti-feminist attack on Clinton supporters is automatically misogynist, any more than it's impossible for anyone to think Clinton the better candidate on the issues. I don't think it's misogynist to argue that electing the first woman president needn't be the Democratic party's highest priority this year. Also, and as I've written before, the Democratic race would have a much different tone, with a lot less ad feminam or ad hominem argument, were Senator Warren running against Sanders in Clinton's place. Furthermore, let's make a distinction between ad feminam and ad hominem criticism of Clinton herself. Her character is definitely open to question without her gender coming into it, and anyone who interprets any ad hominem attack on Clinton as misogynist is probably sexist herself.

With all that being said, it's still unsurprising that some left-wing strains of populism bristle at any feminist argument in Clinton's favor. Populists in many cases are simply the left-wing or otherwise unorthodox versions of the proverbial angry white male -- the ones who for whatever reason don't buy into the Republican party and its ideology. Just as populists in general identify themselves in all their particularity with "the people," so the white male left-wing populist or "Bernie Bro" may see his problems and concerns as those of humanity in general, or at least the nation, while concerns raised by those who are obviously different by virtue of gender, sexual preference or race are minority or "special" interests of self-evidently lesser priority. He's tempted to question whether advances against exclusion for "minorities" are advances for humanity or the nation as a whole rather than specific advances, of limited general benefit, for women, gays, other races, etc. This may result from a vestigial Marxism according to which class is all, with class visualized according to white male specs, or it may be simple resentment of others getting (or even demanding) political attention while he appears to be ignored precisely because he is the "ordinary" or "normal" citizen. In any event, he isn't really any less narcissist than women or non-whites; it's just his "privilege," if you will, to be able to see himself as the generic human being in a way that his very assertion has historically made more difficult for other people. Again, while this tendency becomes exaggerated when the subject is Hillary Clinton, it shouldn't be overstated. Many Bernie Bros might well ditch Sanders for Warren in a heartbeat, were the opportunity to arise, if only because, to keep things superficial, Warren is considerably younger than Sanders or Clinton. However, if Warren's turn does come, and Clinton's quest has failed, there probably still will be some resentment of women making much of Warren becoming the first woman President.

Until the thing happens, there will always be a gap of perception and affection when women run for President, with "meritocratic" objections raised against "making history" as an end unto itself, and the skeptics' meritocratic objections to making history subject to skepticism. Few will want to wait until every potential Bernie Bro is convinced that the woman in the field is the best possible candidate, since some will think some Bros biased against ever believing that. In the best case scenario, the qualitative difference between candidates should be so slight that primary voters should be willing to risk making history and thus getting that part of history over with. In the present case, however, the qualitative difference between Democratic candidates seems far from slight, and if some seek to paper over that difference in order to make history, they shouldn't be surprised if others resent the attempt. But perhaps we should blame Senator Warren for all of this. Had she, rather than Sanders, challenged Clinton this year, Clinton would have been unable to play the gender card, and we most likely wouldn't be raising this topic at all.

05 February 2016

Clilnton: 'I'm fighting for people who cannot wait for those changes.'

So said Hillary Clinton at her one-on-one debate with Senator Sanders last night. I heard that sentence in isolation on the radio this morning, and at first I assumed that Clinton meant that her constituents could not wait for the changes that Sanders wanted to make -- that they needed help now, in whatever incremental form, instead of radical change that could come only after a protracted political battle. But this is what she meant:

Yes, of course, the economy has not been working for most Americans. Yes, of course, we have special interests that are unfortunately doing too much to rig the game. But there's also the continuing challenges of racism, of sexism, of discrimination against the LGBT community, of the way that we treat people as opposed to how we want to be treated. I believe that we can get back on the right track. I want to imagine a country where people's wages reflect their hard work, where we have healthcare for everyone, and where every child gets to live up to his or her potential. I'm fighting for people who cannot wait for those changes, and I'm not making promises that I cannot keep.

Arguably my first interpretation is still plausible. It depends on the rhetorical relationship of the sentence that begins with "I want..." to the rest of the paragraph. Is Clinton fighting for the people who can't wait for wages to reflect hard work, or for healthcare for everyone, or for children getting to live up to their potential? That is, is Clinton fighting for people who can't wait for those changes because those are the changes most needed, or is she fighting for people who can't wait for those changes because they need something else done now? Her juxtaposition of the economy and bigotry bugs me a little. The implication, of course, is that Sanders isn't paying as much attention to bigotry as Clinton thinks he should -- and later she expressed disappointment that bigotry issues weren't addressed more during the debate itself. This is all important to her, I presume, because those issues make up much of her "progressive" bona fides. As the Democratic contest has intensified this month, Clinton has grown very defensive of her progressive credentials, and more convinced that they should be self-evident. During the debate she scoffed that "Senator Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment." If that makes a candidate progressive, then Margaret Thacher was a progressive when she ran for Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1979, and Carly Fiorina today is as progressive as Clinton, just as Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman were when they were running in 2012. Clinton herself would acknowledge that there has to be more to it than that -- she suggests, after all, that she's more progressive than Sanders because she's "a progressive who gets things done" -- but she resents Sanders, and presumably anyone else, acting as a "self-proclaimed gatekeeper for progressivism," just as she resents any insinuation that she has been "bought" with campaign donations or speaker's fees. Clinton is, in fact, very resentful, treating just about any criticism of herself as a "smear" while, of course, she's merely "pointing out the differences" when she goes negative on Sanders. But to return from the tangent, "progressivism" has to mean something in an exclusionary way or else the word is meaningless. If we are unable to say with some confidence that someone is "not progressive," there's no point to saying she is progressive. In such a case, "gatekeeping" is an obligation not just on an allegedly self-appointed figure like Sanders but on anyone for whom the word "progress" has meaning.

Of course, "progress" doesn't mean the same thing even for all self-styled progressives, which is why the Democrats are having debates while many other progressives will be satisfied with neither candidate. Clinton and Sanders represent two strains of, or claims to progressivism. Sanders's vision is radical and universal. He wants to break up the big banks and push through single-payer health insurance, among other goals. Clinton's vision is incremental and self-consciously inclusive. It is insistent that progress include women, racial minorities, the LGBTs, etc., not only as beneficiaries but as enactors of progress. To some progressives, this seems to matter more than any material progress made by the people or the nation as a whole. Clinton practices what might be called retail progressivsm. Sanders clearly has the good of all Americans in mind, inclusive of all demographic groups, but a retail progressive like Clinton, and her husband more so, assumes that those groups like to be acknowledged by name through gestures of inclusion that might seem redundant to an egalitarian from a relatively homogeneous state, like Sanders. Again, to retail progressives, this is progress from a past defined by inequality, bigotry and exploitation, and this may be another key to the difference in attitude between two kinds of progressivism. One faction looks backward and defines progress relative to an unjust past, while the other looks forward and sets goals for progress that have less to do with the redressing the past. Inevitably, one group of progressives is accused of insensitivity while another is accused of playing identity politics. Meanwhile, there are many Americans who really can't wait for change, and many of those may have entirely different ideas of "progress" from either of those contending for Democrats' votes. Despite the ranting of some radio talkers who've tried to make "progressive" a dirty word, I doubt whether any candidate for President this year disbelieves in progress. Whether any of them will deliver progress is another story.

03 February 2016

The sore loser

Donald Trump claims that Senator Cruz cheated to win the Iowa Caucus. The cheating allegedly consisted of false claims about Dr. Carson quitting the campaign, the idea being to get Carson supporters to caucus for Cruz, and a campaign flier that could have persuaded the very gullible that they would violate the law by not caucusing, the idea apparently being to scare potential Cruz voters into participating. In other words, Cruz appears to be guilty of the sort of low-level dirty tricks that are par for the course in election campaigns, but the inexperienced Trump is understandably scandalized. Denouncing Cruz for these tricks is a riskier move than Trump may realize. Looking forward, he wants to galvanize people against a "dirty" rival, but when Trump goes so far as to demand a do-over of the caucuses, he risks looking like a sore loser before an electorate, the Republican primary base, that is probably more intolerant of sore losers, whoever they may be or whatever their complaint, than any other group in the country. Cruz himself has compared Trump to Senator Sanders, who supposedly is demanding a recount of the Democratic caucuses -- though in fact Sanders had decided not to contest the Iowa results by the time Cruz brought the subject up.

Trump has looked like a whiner at various points in the campaign, but until this week it didn't look as if such appearances had hurt him with his fans. You'd think they'd be even more contemptuous of whiners than the Republican base as a whole, but they are, on the other hand, motivated by a strong sense of grievance they hear echoed by Trump. Now, of course, people wonder whether Trump took his whining too far when he boycotted the last TV debate before the caucuses. If so, things could get worse for him fast if people think he's still whining after Iowa. This would be unfair to Trump since people probably should be outraged over the sort of last-minute dirty tricks that are all-too-typical of the "retail politics" Trump is still learning. But Republicans have always been quite selective about whose outrage or protests they consider legitimate. They're the "life's not fair" people, after all, and it's easy to assume that they have little sympathy for anyone crying "No fair!" after losing any competition, even though they've spent the last eight years crying "No fair!" over the results of the last two Presidential votes. In other words, since their attitude makes no sense it shouldn't surprise Trump if they suddenly behave unfairly toward him.

02 February 2016

The loser

It was a near thing with the Republicans in Iowa, though not as close as the Democratic caucus, but Senator Cruz is the "winner" with little more than a quarter of the vote, while Donald Trump is the "loser" for winning one less delegate than Cruz. In the long view, if there was a winner among the Republicans last night it was Senator Rubio, whose strong finish, with as many delegates as Trump, makes the GOP contest a three-man race for the immediate future. The question for the most immediate future, however, is whether Iowa marks the beginning of the end for Trump, whether a spell was broken there. In conventional political terms you needn't think so. After all, Rick Santorum won Iowa in 2012, and Mike Huckabee tied Mitt Romney there four years earlier. Iowa is no guarantee of ultimate victory or defeat. Yet Trump supposedly hasn't been a conventional politician, and hasn't had a conventional politician's appeal. Over the past year an aura of inexorable inevitability, if not invincibility, had formed around him. As of today he seems less inevitable, and it's fair to ask how much of his mojo that costs him. Trump is sort of like Ronda Rousey, the mixed martial artist who became a pop-culture phenom for destroying her opponents with Tyson-like abruptness, until she met her Buster Douglas in Holly Holm last November. Rousey could become an Ali-like legend if she reclaims the title from Holm later this year, but something about her has been permanently lost with that one loss. Rather than "invincibility," I'd rather describe it as a belief that Rousey could do anything. People could openly speculate on her chances in a fight against Floyd Mayweather, the reputed best pound-for-pound boxer of this generation. Some believed that her special skills gave her a fighting chance, at least, against the boxer -- but to my knowledge, no one thinks that about Holm, her conqueror, despite how devastating a fighter she proved to be. When Rousey went down, a sense of possibility, realistic or not, died on the floor of the Octagon. That sense of possibility was to a great extent a product of UFC hype, just as the sense of possibility many identify with Trump is a product of Trump's own hype. Trump may get up, but if his fans felt he wasn't supposed to go down, Iowa may well be the beginning of the end or the breaking of the spell. And in spite of his boorish behavior and his insubstantial salesmanship he has brought a sense of possibility to the 2016 campaign season that probably won't survive a collapse of his candidacy, especially if that leaves us with Cruz, the relentless ideologue, as the Republican front-runner, and that Bob Dole in drag, Hillary Clinton, as his Democratic counterpart.I've never expected Trump to win the nomination, much less the White House, but those who've felt more optimistic, or more fearful on that score actually have little reason to feel differently now. Yet something has irretrievably changed now. Now that Trump has lost a vote, it'll be harder to see him as anything other than just another politician.

01 February 2016

Populism and accountability

You'd think Charles Krauthammer would wear the insults of Donald Trump like badges of honor, but in a presumed effort to appear objective he doesn't mention them in his Washington Post diatribe against Trump and Senator Sanders. The Democratic (socialist) candidate gets relatively little attention since Krauthammer still considers the possibility of his nomination "far-fetched." His real concern is with the future of the conservative movement, which he sees threatened by Trump, not only because of Trump's doubtful sincerity as a conservative but also because of his "populist" tendencies. What Krauthammer means by "populism" is best illustrated by his comparison of Trump and Sanders -- whom Krauthammer apparently sees as a left-wing populist -- with his own idea of "reform conservatism."

In radically different ways, Trump and Sanders are addressing the deep anxiety stemming from the secular stagnation in wages and living standards that has squeezed the middle and working classes for a generation. Sanders locates the villainy in a billionaire class that has rigged both the economic and political system. Trump blames foreigners, most prominently those cunning Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese and Saudis who’ve been taking merciless advantage of us, in concert with America’s own leaders who are, alternatively, stupid and incompetent or bought and corrupt.

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 My personal preference is for ... the reform conservatism that locates the source of our problems not in heartless billionaires or crafty foreigners, but in our superannuated, increasingly sclerotic 20th-century welfare-state structures. 

Krauthammer's policy preferences aside, he may be on to something without realizing it. Leave aside also whomever Sanders or Trump actually blames for anything. The main point, the obvious difference between their "populism" and Krauthammer's ideology is that he blames systems for the nation's problems, while the populists, true to their name, blame people. Populism, I'd guess, is less concerned with the right ideas holding sway than with the right people doing so, whether they're defined individually or demographically. Hence the politics of personality that sees many rank-and-file religious conservatives supporting Trump despite their awareness of his many personal indiscretions, as well as many young people supporting Sanders, the seeming crabby old man, because a certain crabbiness may be what it takes to speak truth to power or bring it to account. For such people, structural change matters less as an end unto itself than the character of the change-maker. Senator Cruz also benefits from this to an extent, as the open contempt his fellow Republican Senators show for him signals to the grass roots that Cruz may have the personal qualities necessary to make change when ideological qualifications haven't sufficed. While Krauthammer might believe that a change of mind might redeem old politicians who sign on with "reform conservatism," populists probably feel that past failures -- as in failing the American people -- disqualify politicians from ever reclaiming public trust. That's how many Sanders supporters feel about Hillary Clinton, I suspect, and many of them probably won't vote for her if she gets the nomination unless they get really, really scared of the Republican nominee. Ditto for Trump supporters if their man loses, unless their hate for Clinton is as really, really strong. In any event, some sort of populism -- some sort of politics that calls on leaders "like us" to stand up for people "like us" -- probably rises inevitably from the bankruptcy of ideology. To ideologues, especially those skeptical towards Trump -- Krauthammer sees no evidence that the billionaire believes in limited government, for instance -- it looks like unprincipled politics, but if ideology, in the long view, proves to be the aberration in political life, the advent of a more populist (or simply more personal) politics may only mean that politics have returned to normal, or what it was supposed to be.