31 May 2016

The anti-interventionist consensus

By default, Hillary Clinton is the neocon candidate for President. Michael Gerson, a Washington Post columnist and purveyor of "Heroic Conservatism," is disgusted with the foreign policies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Gerson believes that President Obama's Syria policy has resulted in "a security debacle and a humanitarian catastrophe," yet both Sanders and Trump argue that the U.S. under Obama is "overcommitted" in Syria. Gerson himself has a very clear four-point program for Syria, premised on his belief that "any rapprochement with Assad would be both immoral and pointless." To sum it up, Gerson still wants the U.S. to pick a winner in Syria and back it with as-yet unquantified American resources. The argument, made by both Trump and Sanders, that the U.S. has already done too much in Syria, is "callous" and "foolish" in Gerson's eyes. For all his criticism of Obama's, Gerson's philosophical position is essentially the same as Obama's. Both believe that the Assad regime is the necessary and sufficient cause of the Syrian civil war, on the assumption that dictatorships are inherently unstable because they automatically provoke resistance. Since Clinton was still Secretary of State when the Syrian trouble started, we can presume that she agrees with this philosophy. Gerson is disappointed with Obama because the President appears chastened, and not cowardly as Gerson assumes, by the real-world consequences of the Syrian conflict, from the rise of the self-styled Islamic State to Russia's assertion of its strategic interest in Syria. Gerson assumes that Obama has only himself to blame for those consequences because he did not throw all resources available behind the "nonradical" opposition to Assad, his further assumption being that there ever was a viable nonradical opposition, or that a nonradical opposition could be made viable with sufficient American support. Beyond the Syrian specifics, Gerson tries to guilt-trip the American people by insisting on our national duty to do something about a "humanitarian catastrophe" of political origins. The idea that it is the specific duty, if not the exclusive privilege, of the U.S. to do something about such catastrophes is challenged by candidates and voters Gerson dismisses as "populists" of left and right, populism for him meaning a selfish, amoral concern for "our own" at humanity's expense. For all I know, Sanders may believe in a humanitarian duty in such cases, but not in the U.S. unilaterally claiming that duty for itself, while Trump may well not give a damn about anyone in Syria but might be able to make a principled argument justifying his stance -- or at least an argument as "principled" as any neocons like Gerson make for American world leadership. In any event, the opposition of the Trump and Sanders movements to neocon foreign policy would appear to add up to an American consensus, and you would think people dedicated to "democratization" everywhere would recognize that. But you get the feeling sometimes, like this time, that "democracy" for neocons means something different from what it means to anyone else.

25 May 2016

Clinton's negatives: who, not what

Shortly before I read a summary of a State Department report criticizing former Secretary of State Clinton for her use of a private e-mail server, I saw David Brooks' oddly blind attempt to explain why the presumptive Democratic nominee for President seems so unpopular. Brooks is one of the New York Times' house conservatives, but I suspect that he can't yet bring himself to vote for Donald Trump this November. His column presumes that Clinton's unpopularity is more difficult to explain than Trump's. The difficulty, apparently, is his, since the best he can come up with is that she turns people off because they perceive her as an impersonal workaholic:

People who work closely with her adore her and say she is warm and caring. But it’s hard from the outside to think of any non-career or pre-career aspect to her life. Except for a few grandma references, she presents herself as a résumé and policy brief. ...Clinton’s unpopularity is akin to the unpopularity of a workaholic. Workaholism is a form of emotional self-estrangement. Workaholics are so consumed by their professional activities that their feelings don’t inform their most fundamental decisions.... At least in her public persona, Clinton gives off an exclusively professional vibe: industrious, calculated, goal-oriented, distrustful. It’s hard from the outside to have a sense of her as a person; she is a role.

Ironically, Brooks has actually described Clinton's strength. What popularity she has depends on the role she fills in the eyes of admirers, most obviously the role of feminist trailblazer.  If anything, people's willingness to identify Clinton with that role is her best protection against attacks that have absolutely nothing to do with any conception of Clinton as an impersonal workaholic. Clintonites have garbed their idol in symbolic armor that proofs them more than it proofs her from criticism of Clinton the person rather than Clinton the historic role-player. Many Clintonites, I suspect, are convinced that Clinton is only being attacked for what she is -- a woman politician if not the presumptive first woman President -- rather than for who she is. If so, their attitude is like those blinkered superpatriots who claimed that the U.S was attacked in 2001 for who we were, not for what we did. The claim amounted to a presumption of innocence for the U.S., and likewise Clintonites who claim that Clinton hatred is founded entirely on misogyny, from Trumpets or Bernie Bros, effectively presume their heroine innocent of everything. Worse yet, they seem to presume that every accusation against her is a partisan or misogynist lie.

There certainly are stupid and unfair reasons to oppose Hillary Clinton. My favorite of these is a recurring complaint about the sound of her voice, and even that set off a feminist overreaction that made it misogynist to describe a female politician "shouting." But the biggest lie of this political season is that there are no good reasons to oppose Clinton, but only misogynist lies and distortions. This lie can only be sustained only by refusing to see Clinton for who she is, and creating a myth of what she is in place of the actual person. Does that mean she's so awful that we had all better vote for Trump? I won't go that far. I'd rather see more people take up the NeitherTrumpNorHillary hashtag, though I fear it won't amount to much unless all those who do so rally around one candidate. More people might vote against both presumptive candidates if they didn't fear or despise one or the other so much. The sad part of the 2016 story is that most voters will still fear or despise one more than the other, and see the other as their only protection from the hated one, when the truth is that there's a surplus of reasons to at least despise both enough to demand an alternative at last, and as fast as possible, of our decrepit Bipolarchy.

23 May 2016

The platform wars

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, was embarrassed in Washington state over the weekend when all but one of the delegates chosen at the state's GOP convention were loyal to Senator Cruz. The outcome may look like a protest vote, since Cruz has suspended his campaign, despite his pathetic threat to resume the fight had Oregon gone his way. It seems an even more feeble protest, since Washington still holds a primary tomorrow and, according to this story, the delegates chosen over the weekend will be bound to support Trump should he win the primary, as expected in the absence of active opposition. However, their obligation to Trump presumably begins and ends with a vote for his nomination. These delegates presumably are not obliged to vote Trump's way, whatever that may be, on planks of the Republican platform. Cruz and other diehard Republican ideologues clearly hope to use the platform to reassure the regulars of the party's ideological soundness, regardless of what Trump has in mind. Supporters of Senator Sanders on the Democratic side have something similar in mind. Sanders remains determined to maximize his delegate count for the Democratic convention in order to push through a "progressive" platform, regardless of what Hillary Clinton has in mind. For both parties, the platform fights promise to be the main events of the national conventions, now that the presidential nominations, barring the unforeseen, are foregone conclusions. But what's the point of platform fights today?

If anything, platforms built with ideological carpentry more extreme than the actual candidates' positions can only hurt them with the general electorate. A Democratic platform shaped by Sanders or a Republican platform shaped by Cruz will only provide ammunition for the opposite party on the assumption that Clinton or Trump must agree with every plank on the platform. Yet who actually believes that either Clinton or Trump will govern in a manner governed by their party platforms? If Republicans don't trust Trump to govern within constitutional bounds, why should they trust him to respect the platform? If Democrats don't trust Clinton to govern consistently with any principle, why even care what the platform says? Once upon a time the platform was a party's principal campaign document, the thing people could read even if they never got to hear a proper campaign speech. It told you what the party stood for, but in this election perhaps more than ever the personalities of the major-party candidates will be all that matters to most people.The candidates' acceptance speeches, a comparatively recent innovation, now occupy the mental space once taken by the party platforms. How many people will actually read the party platforms, apart from opposition researchers looking for vulnerabilities? Yet the diehard opposition in both parties still reaches for planks of the platform as refuge from the popular tide. Their platform battles may ultimately be empty gestures, but I suppose they continue to justify a campaign's existence and keep the cash coming in from the donors, even though their eventual handiwork is unlikely to support the weight of the modern Presidency and all its pretensions and prerogatives. If platforms are to mean anything, they should be in place before the primaries, and party leaders should have the power to forbid anyone who doesn't endorse the platform from running for President. Instead, a candidate usually dictates a platform after his or her nomination has become a fait accompli. This year promises to be different because of entrenching ideological opposition to the presumptive nominees, but this year's conventions may only prove that platforms and platform wars make little difference in the actual governance of the country.

20 May 2016

The other 1% (approx.)

Actually, according to a quick check of online statistics, only about 0.3% of the U.S. population is "transgender." On the other hand, if you ask progressives how many people actually control the U.S., their estimate might also go well below the more attention-grabbing 1% mark. I bring this up because someone called into our news office today to complain that, in his push for transgender rights, President Obama is catering to less than 1% of the population. I was struck by the symmetry of this complaint and the persistent progressive railing against "the 1%" who they see as the source of all our troubles. What worries me is that the transgender-phobic anger at an approximate 1% may have more political potency than the progressive polemic against their ever-underestimated 1% plutocracy. Ever since the Occupy movement broke out I've warned that "1%" rhetoric misrepresents the problem progressives face in the U.S., where their agenda has been checked not by a plutocracy but by a more extensive bourgeoisie and a bigoted lumpenproletariat, to borrow Marxist terms, all of whom claim a stake in the present social order, or an idealized earlier form of it which the left and its constituents are alleged to have corrupted. No left movement in this country can ever hope to rally or even represent 99% of the population in opposition to the richest one-hundredth. At the same time, "1%" rhetoric ignores the fact that many people in the statistical 1% share at least some of the progressive social or cultural agenda, from higher tax rates for the richest to greater tolerance and inclusiveness overall. By comparison, the transgender "1%" presents a less-slippery target for right-wing demagogues, and the Democrats' current obsession with public-restroom access has only shown that there are no limits to how much the Obama administration can infuriate the populist right. If anything, it seems like those people find transgenders even more disgusting and threatening than they do homosexuals. It seems clear from the samples I hear that they see the restroom controversy entirely as an attempt to empower perverts while endangering innocent children. I have a bad feeling this issue will only help Republicans this year. I can understand the justice of the progressive position on an intellectual level, but pushing this issue at this time seems likely to alienate more people than it may inspire. Progressives may envision a broad, diverse coalition of women and all minorities, all of whom presumably empathize with anyone who feels excluded from anything. But I'm not sure how many people who are not transgender will feel more motivated to vote Democratic because of the stand the party is taking for transgenders, while more people may be motivated to vote against Democrats because they see the country more than ever going the way of Sodom and Gomorrah. Again, I can sympathize with a progressive impulse to smash all barriers raised by ignorance and superstition, but something still seems impolitic about forcing this particular issue now. I don't want to dismiss all of this as "identity politics," but I'd like to think that if a political party's highest priority is to get as many votes as possible, that should determine the ranking of other priorities -- and with apologies to the 1% or so who do deserve better, I think Democratic priorities right now are a little askew.

19 May 2016

Disaster sells

When I got up this morning I did a little channel surfing through the news networks. I was amazed to find none of them talking about Donald Trump. Instead, all were fishing for every tidbit of news about the Egyptian airliner that apparently had gone down last night, possibly due to terrorism. I wondered whether regular viewers resented the attention given this event. Did they consider it a distraction from the important stories of the day, the week, the year? I'd guess not, because otherwise the networks wouldn't all go to all-crash coverage, or at least one would break ranks to give people the latest political gossip. While the abrupt disappearance of an Egyptian airliner flying from France probably does seem relevant to larger narratives so long as terrorism can't be ruled out, it's also true that a morbid fascination with mass death transcends many Americans' ordinary indifference to foreign peoples and countries. It may be that a similar morbid fascination explains the media fascination with Trump and the apparently increasing likelihood of his presidency. If so, then the news networks weren't really changing their policy this morning. It's just that EgyptAir was just the flavor of the day.

18 May 2016

What happened in Vegas ...

There seems to be plenty of blame to go around for the debacle at the Nevada Democratic convention last weekend. There might not have been a debacle had all the Sanders delegates chosen at county conventions bothered to show up -- on paper they outnumbered Clinton delegates by a few hundred but in the room Clinton had a few dozen more --  but that doesn't take the Clinton forces, including the party chairperson, off the hook for dubiously interpreting some voice votes in Clinton's favor, and that in turn didn't justify Sanders supporters making a spectacle of their frustrated rage -- not to mention playing into the Clintonites' hands by inevitably insulting the party chairperson in violent, misogynist terms. The real problem is Nevada's archaic system of caucuses and county conventions. Much of the country adopted direct primaries generations ago, the idea being to empower the rank and file and prevent party bosses from effectively dictating who the candidates would be. While I won't tell political parties how to select their candidates, as long as they don't tell me to pay for the selection process, I would think that in a democracy a mass party's candidate-selection process should be as direct and democratic as possible. And for what it's worth, when the party selects a national candidate I see no good reason for the selection not to take place simultaneously nationwide, leaving delegates out entirely. It's too late to make such recommendations now, and the damage to the Democrats has been done. Clintonites feel more certain that Sandersites are sore losers and woman-haters, while Sandersites claim fresh proof that the system is rigged against them. The result leaves Democrats worried that disgruntled Sandersites may stay home in November or, worse, vote for Trump to spite Clinton. The more honorable option would be to field a third-party candidate -- Sanders or somebody else -- so they can play a responsible role in the election process. But the real fear is that they'll play an irresponsible role, facilitating Trump's election in the perverse hope that the blowhard billionaire will screw up or crack down so badly that he'll provoke a real revolution. Some might say that a third party would have the same effect, but at least the voters for such a party can remind people after the disaster that there was a better option. Given what the two major parties are going to offer us, there has to be.

17 May 2016

Will Trump's nomination disrupt the media balance?

Part of my job at a newspaper office involves transcribing comments phoned in by readers. In the last week, I've heard two of them complain that all the columnists at our paper are against Donald Trump. They want the paper to restore some balance to its editorial page for the general election campaign. While Trump has dominated talking-head TV to an unfair extent in some people's opinion, so far he has few friends in newsprint. The problem for Trump fans is that while my paper has the typical mix of Democratic and Republican columnists -- mostly from the Washington Post syndicate -- the familiar conservative Republican writers remain adamantly opposed to Trump and will most likely prove slower than Republican elected officials to come around. None of them, to my knowledge, is endorsing Hillary Clinton, but they remain unconvinced that a Clinton presidency would be worse than a Trump administration. We can speculate on why they feel that way, but the immediate problem, at least for newspapers, is whether any aspiration to fairness or balance on their editorial or op-ed pages can be maintained when Republican columnists refuse to play their regular role. As noted, some Trump fans are already crying foul over opinion pages becoming #nevertrump zones, but what are papers and syndicates to do? Supposedly Pat Buchanan is available to write for Trump, but who else? Are the syndicates supposed to recruit new columnists whose only credential would be love of Trump? Should they persuade some of their Republican regulars to step aside for the summer and fall for a guest Trumpet? Or should they admit at last that "balance" only ever applied to the bipartisan rivalry within the political establishment, excluding opinions to the left of Democrats, to the right of Republicans, or, if possible, outside the whole left-right continuum? Should they finally admit also that they've never been obliged to represent all sides in political debates? Would doing so teach Trump's followers, and the rest of the electorate, any sort of lesson?  Do the Trumpets realize now how little room the opinion establishment allows alternative points of view, or do they think that Trump is entitled to editorial-page representation because he'll be the Republican nominee? Given one caller's complaint that Republicans who criticized Trump were not real conservatives, it's hard to say.

16 May 2016

Sanders and the feminists: too radical or not radical enough

Katha Pollitt, the Nation magazine columnist, has been one of the most unapologetic die-hard supporters of Hillary Clinton's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. You might guess that Sen. Sanders never had a chance with her, but while admitting in last week's column that "in important ways his politics are closer to mine than Hillary Clinton’s are" Pollitt stuck with Clinton -- despite missing the deadline for her absentee ballot -- because "Bernie didn't ask for my vote." Here we go again, right? Translating herself, Pollitt explains, "He never convinced me that gender issues, specifically the persistent subordination of women in every area of life, were of much concern to him" What she means is that addressing these issues is, in some irreducible way, separate and not to be inferred from Sanders' consistent attention to class issues. In other words, solving the problem of class will not solve the problem of gender -- or race or sexual orientation, as Pollitt dutifully adds. To some extent, she sees racism and male chauvinism as causes of capitalism rather than effects. Sanders "doesn’t seem to understand that the economy, like society generally, is structured by gender and race," Pollitt writes, "If women and men are funneled into different kinds of work by race and gender, with men’s jobs valued more because men are valued more, and if women are hobbled economically by doing most of the domestic labor and having to contend with prejudice against working mothers to boot, equal pay alone doesn’t solve the problem." If Sanders really wanted her vote, Pollitt thinks, he should have "given a major speech about his plans to make women’s lives better—safer, fairer, less dominated by men."

If anything, Pollitt contemplates a far more radical transformation of society than Sanders does -- so far as Pollitt or I know -- in order to undo and prevent "domination by men" or by a dominant ethnic or religious group. And yet she entrusts this sociosexual agenda to Hillary Clinton, whose only positive attribute mentioned by Pollitt is that she "gets the awful reality we're facing" from a possible Republican presidency founded almost entirely, as far as Pollitt can tell, on bigotry. Clinton "gets it," presumably, because she's always talking about breaking barriers in a way that apparently doesn't come naturally -- the talking if not also the breaking -- to Sanders. But if Sanders is an incomplete radical in Pollitt's eyes because he doesn't seem to recognize the need of a revolution beyond socialism, Clinton is just as incomplete if, as some critics claim, her barrier-breaking agenda is all about opening the capitalist elite to both sexes, all races, etc., without doing away with elites. It may be that Clinton and Pollitt are two kinds of feminist, the latter possibly more radical than the former yet so convinced of the necessity of a revolution beyond socialism that she can pin her hopes on Clinton, because she says the right things sometimes, while deeming Sanders hopeless. If that sounds foolish, it could be worse if Pollitt seems to dismiss socioeconomic radicalism as inadequate to her purpose. After all, it may be that Pollitt's hoped-for sociosexual revolution against all forms of "domination" is possible only on a socialist foundation, yet to support Clinton over Sanders is virtually to say that socialism isn't necessary, no matter how many idiots see Clinton herself as socialist. The socialist and feminist revolutions ought to be complementary agendas, but the Democratic primary campaign seems to have forced them into rivalry, with feminists like Pollitt siding with Clinton because they're (to some extent) understandably fed up with having been told for ages to wait until after higher-priority revolutions are accomplished.

Rather than close with a curse on feminism, however, I have to concede that Sanders shares blame for the situation. Since it should have been clear to him long ago what feminists like Pollitt wanted to hear, it's fair to ask why it's seemed so hard for him to say it. If Paris is worth a Mass, as the French say, why can't Sanders sell himself to feminists when it should be so easy, and when women like Pollitt seem poised to abandon Clinton upon hearing the right words? Instead, Sanders disgusted Pollitt with an apparently tone-deaf disavowal of male chauvinism.“No one has ever heard me say, ‘Hey guys, let’s stand together, vote for a man.’" Sanders said, "I would never do that, never have.” To Pollitt this betrayed a "vast ... deep ... historically embedded [and] unconscious" sense of entitlement on Sanders's part -- a failure, if I get Pollitt's meaning, that Sanders is where he is only because guys have been standing together for a man without needing to be told to. It's quite an overreaction, but unless you want to say that there is nothing Sanders can do to win over women like Pollitt so long as Clinton is in the race you should concede that Sanders and whatever speechwriters he has could fix these rhetorical problems easily if they really wanted to. Maybe the fact that they don't is a truly unconscious admission that they aren't going to win, so why bother tweaking the speeches? If they weren't willing to compete for the feminist vote you might conclude that the whole Sanders campaign has been less about what he's for than about who he's against. If so, I suppose they shouldn't be surprised if feminists feel that Sanders is against them, too.

13 May 2016

We are the establishment

Donald Trump is against the establishment. Bernie Sanders is against the establishment. Hillary Clinton is against the establishment. Ted Cruz is against the establishment. Each looks at the other three and sees the establishment. Trump rails against politicians in general. Sanders rails against the plutocracy of fundraising. Cruz rails against gutless officeholders. Clinton rails against the enduring old-boy network. I don't recall anyone defending the establishment over the past year, and Michael Kazin has a point, writing in The Nation, that the concept of "the establishment" is so vague that, as noted, no two people mean the same thing when they attack it. What's to defend, in that case? Kazin finds all the railing against the "establishment" to be vapid. If we define "establishment" in the broadest possible terms as the inertial force that resists progress, Kazin finds its essence to be structural, rather than the will of some cabal. Worse, the will to resist structural change isn't conveniently concentrated in any elite. He writes:

Railing against the establishment also ignores the mass resistance to ways of thinking that would have to undergird a truly democratic and egalitarian society. The hope that we can bring about fundamental change by exposing an immoral cabal and crushing its power fails to confront the deeply held belief in the essential fairness of capitalist society. The tenacity of this conviction helps explain why Americans keep electing politicians who promise a good job to anyone willing to work hard and blame the breaking of promises on a mere failure of political will. There’s a feedback loop between the political and economic institutions that sustain inequality and an ideology that forecloses alternatives like the social democracy that exists, albeit under stress, in much of Western and Central Europe. 

Kazin could be more sweeping yet in his critique. While all four presidential candidates rail against the establishment, all arguably belong to it as wielders or wealth or power, yet each sees the others as the problem. This is no less true when people who have no apparent power rail against the establishment, when they also resist radical change. If they think that all that needs to happen is for "the establishment" to be brought down or replaced, without radical change on their own part, they contribute to that inertia that keeps an "establishment" in place -- that is, in effect, the establishment. There's more to this inertia than some faith in fairness; after all, "life's not fair" is practically an organizing principle for this inertial resistance to changes usually demanded for the sake of fairness. To make life more fair most likely requires a more "mobilized" citizenry than most of us want to be, because we no longer can imagine a middle ground between rugged individualism and the marching, chanting, uniformed hordes of the "totalitarian" nightmare. For too many of us, to move toward that middle ground is the first step down the slippery slope all the way to the other end. Ours is the political culture that results when we refuse to move. Despite all the protests about our powerlessness as ordinary citizens we remain a democratic republic, and if such a republic can't countenance radical change for the common good, whether out of complacency or fear of  Big Brother, then the masses are the establishment as much as the millionaires are. That goes as well for all the "populists" who say someone else has to change and not us. And that raises a troubling question: to be truly "anti-establishment" in this country -- to be truly committed to radical change --  do you have to be anti-democracy as well?

11 May 2016

The toxic endorsement fallacy

One of the big arguments Democrats will use against Donald Trump over the summer and fall is that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is suspiciously attractive to white separatists and supremacists. The Trump campaign isn't exactly protecting itself from such attacks; the California operation apparently failed to vet a "white pride" independent who applied to be a Trump delegate to the national convention but has since withdrawn following his exposure. The narrative is already familiar: Trump's suspicion of Muslims and slanders against Mexicans endear him to people interested only in restoring a supposedly-lost white (throw in male, straight, Christian as needed) domination of the nation and its culture. That reflects poorly on Trump on the "if they like you something you must be doing something wrong" principle, the opposite of "if they hate you you must be doing something right." At the heart of the argument is a simple fallacy: if you are attractive to white supremacists, you must be a white supremacist. In Trump's case, this confuses xenophobia with racism, since I'm unaware of the candidate asserting the inferiority of blacks or Asians, or that the virtue of western or European civilization inheres in blood. I'm not even sure the opposition really cares to prove Trump a racist; the real point of this line of attack is more likely to persuade people to vote against Trump in order to spite the rednecks and ku-kluxers who supposedly like him. In any event, anyone familiar with Donald Trump should know better than to think of him as an espouser, much less an exemplar of any traditional culture; despite his Archie Bunker affectations he's too privileged and cosmopolitan a figure for "pride" to mean much to him. But "pride" types fall for his shtick in part because they like the idea of a candidate who seems more like them, despite his wealth and privilege, and is more viable than any politician who more exactly echoes their beliefs. If Trump himself is a consequence of the major parties' enforced openness to "outsiders," so is the embarrassment that comes when real outsiders embrace a major party or its candidates. Perhaps such embarrassments help explain why the parties acquiesce in a system that limits their ability to define themselves. It may burden the Democratic establishment with the need to suppress but also mollify the Sanders insurgency, for instance, but it also gives Democrats a weapon against the Republicans when Trump is identified with white supremacy, just as the Republicans can exploit any compromise the Democrats and Hillary Clinton may eventually make with Sanders and his "socialist" supporters. At the end of the day, of course, the Democrats still want those "socialist" votes, on the understanding that they'll have to accept whatever Clinton offers as they best they supposedly can get, but the poor Republicans can't appear to want "white pride" voters, even though they'd impose exactly the same terms Democrats impose on supporters to their left. If only such people would be quiet about their pride! But as it stands they may be more trouble in terms of "optics" than their votes are worth, and if their affection proves a handicap to Republicans, while remaining a disqualification in the eyes of Democrats, perhaps it would be best, to make a modest suggestion, simply to deny avowed white supremacists the right to vote. Then at least they'd know their feelings of persecution are not entirely delusional.

10 May 2016

'Division is profit....There is no money in unity.'

The speaker is Rance Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, in an interview with Time magazine. He was trying to explain how, in the interviewer's words, "too many people, candidates included, have found ways to promote themselves by magnifying differences." Priebus pointed to cable news and fundraising organizations, some of which helped push Donald Trump to the forefront, while others now threaten to split the GOP out of hatred for Trump. Whatever the context, however, no reputed authoritarian or totalitarian could make a better argument against freedom of the press (or media) than Priebus did, perhaps without realizing it. He may have meant only that there's profit in exploiting division, bad as that sounds already, but it's easy enough to intuit that there's profit to be had in creating division. If the authoritarian/totalitarian nightmare of unity imposed at the expense of conscience is one unacceptable extreme, this anarchic abhorrence of the vacuum of unity -- unity being the absence of demand for dissent -- is the opposite extreme and should be equally unacceptable.  We want freedom to air dissent, but we should also insist that dissent be conscientious and not merely self-interested in the brutally mercenary sense implied by Priebus's comment. There should be a middle ground between tyrannical repression and an  irresponsible free-for-all, but I'm not sure liberalism can recognize such a ground in its hypersensitivity to slippery slopes. Civil libertarians' great fear is that governments can't deter the profit motive for divisiveness without acquiring the power to silence honest, objective dissent. Yet you can't give absolute immunity to dissent without inviting people to see dissent as an end unto itself, if not a business career. At least you can't in a culture like ours, where the claims of individuality and community are seen in zero-sum competition and appeals to unity are received with skepticism or paranoia. And now we may be starting to see the end result of a culture that seems to value the right to refuse -- something perhaps not equivalent to the right to dissent -- above all. We take it for granted that things were worse when kings or commissars ruled with iron hands, but wherever dissent required courage more than money, when it was a different sort of risk than the kind investors take, you could at least assume that dissidents were honest.

09 May 2016

Captain Republican: Civil War

How can an institution stand for something if anyone can join? Both major parties have faced this question this year, as self-described independent Bernie Sanders has plagued Hillary Clinton on the road to the Democratic presidential nomination and celebrity outsider Donald Trump has effectively secured the Republican nomination. In the face of Republican leaders and elders withholding their endorsement from him, Trump has only escalated his defiance of GOP orthodoxy, reportedly proposing an increase in tax rates for the rich and in the minimum wage. Meanwhile, Sanders's dogged challenge may pull Clinton further to the left by convention time than she or the Democratic National Committee may deem convenient. Disaster seems to have befallen the Republicans, while the Democrats most likely will prove stupidly lucky in getting Clinton nominated in our turbulent anti-establishment environment. But why did Trump or Sanders even have a chance? It bears repeating that the two major parties have little power to prevent anyone from getting on their primary ballots as long as candidates state their intentions and/or get the necessary signatures by whatever local deadlines exist. No one on the national level has the power to disqualify candidates, much less people registering to vote, for going against the party platform. In one sense this actually reinforces our democratic habits, since the primary voter becomes the ultimate arbiter determining who a "real" Republican or Democrat is. But that's only the case if both parties respect democracy. The imminent schism between Trump and Speaker Ryan, among others, shows that some Republicans intend to put ideological integrity before the will of the rank and file, apparently preferring the devil they know -- Mrs. Clinton, not Senator Cruz -- to the uncertainty of Trump's intentions. If, as these leaders hope, they remain in charge after a Trump trainwreck, will they learn any lessons from this year?

The only lesson to learn for either party is that the only guarantor of ideological integrity is the privatization of the party, the removal of the candidate-selection process from the public realm of a government-funded election, at whatever expense to the party, and its liberation from government rules limiting the conditions parties can impose on candidates. Such a reform is obviously subject to abuse -- parties adopted state-funded primaries in the first place to keep party bosses from limiting party members' choices -- but it places responsibility for abuse where it belongs, with the party. Why don't the major parties do this? It can't be that they're cheap, given how much they spend on campaigns, though you can be profligate and still want someone else to pick up the tab sometimes, e.g. on primary day. For this persistent flirtation with self-sabotage to make sense, it might be wise on this occasion to think of the major parties as part of a single "establishment" whose interests are not exactly those of either party or both combined. To the extent that stability is a prime establishment interest, the fluidity of party identity that results from existing rules may serve that interest by providing a kind of steam control, allowing the two-party system to absorb discontent, at whatever cost to coherence, in order to prevent the consolidation of a persistent if not permanent alternative. Tempt the insurgents to take over a major party, the theory may go, and the sooner that insurgency will play itself out. The theory may prove valid for the Democrats if no permanent movement results from the Sanders insurgency, but some Republicans now seem uncertain about playing their side of the game to the end. For the theory to hold the status quo should be able to withstand even a Trump presidency, just as it has, to a great extent, survived the long insurgency that began with the Barry Goldwater candidacy and culminated with the generational triumphs of Ronald Reagan, the Contract With America, and the Tea Party without the insurgents carrying out their agenda to reverse the New Deal. The heirs of these insurgents are among the many Republicans who fear Trump. We presume it's because they fear that he will govern as yet another "imperial" President with perhaps less comprehension of, much less respect for the Constitution than his recent predecessors. But there may be more to it than that. Their opposition to their presumptive nominee ultimately may tell us more about them than about Trump -- and if they survive to reclaim the reins of the party, what they do afterwards to prevent another Trump-style takeover, or don't do, may tell us still more.

06 May 2016

No one said Republicans were a democratic party

The news media are now reporting every endorsement of Donald Trump by a Republican elected official or celebrity like a milestone. You understand why, since just as much attention, if not more, is paid to Republicans who as yet refuse to endorse Trump, from the retired Bushes to Speaker Ryan and Senators McCain and Graham. The resisters suppose that they're standing up for the integrity of the Republican party, but they could just as easily be digging its grave deeper than they feared it would go. The question of whether or not Republican eminences will endorse their party's presumptive nominee for President should not be a matter of suspense. Trump, like it or not, is the winner. He may not have won a majority of votes nationwide during the primary season -- I haven't checked the stats, but I presume they're out there -- but he has stayed the course while Cruz has imploded and Kasich has chickened out. By the rules of the game, the people have spoken, and no matter what die-hards say about the convention serving as a "deliberative" body, the whole point of these exercises in the modern era is for the rank and file to determine, through the selection of committed delegates, who their candidate will be. What does it mean if the eminences of the party don't consider themselves bound to endorse the popular verdict? The answer has less to do with Trump than people think. The remaining dissidents may not realize it, but they're revealing as much of what they think of the rank and file as they have of what they think of Trump. The rank and file probably assumes that to be a Republican means to do your utmost for the candidates chosen by them,but it's clear now that many leading Republicans think otherwise. If they're unwilling to endorse and work for Trump, the only honorable option for the resisters is to bolt the party and form a new one. If Speaker Ryan is unable (even temporarily) to endorse by name the nominee of his party, he should resign his speakership. I won't go so far as requiring every dissident elected Republican official to resign, since each earned his or her spot personally, but none of them should seek a Republican nomination again. As for Trump, wherever local schedules permit he should put up someone to primary any congressman who doesn't endorse him, on the understanding that Republicans who don't profess personal loyalty to him now won't treat him much differently after Election Day, should he win, than they did Barack Obama. Yes, the cynic in me wants the Republican fratricide to continue, and not for their own good, but the small-d democrat in me is disgusted, regardless of my opinion of Trump, by the contempt Republicans are showing for democracy itself.

05 May 2016

Republicans are in a New York state of mind

When George Pataki, the former governor of New York, announced his candidacy for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, the scoffing was universal. There was no way, the experts said confidently, that a New York Republican could win a spot on the GOP's national ticket. At that time, Donald Trump was still considered a sideshow, but Trump's success seems to refute all the naysayers about New York Republicans. You can't deny that Trump has been identified with his home state, not to mention his home town. Senator Cruz clearly believed that Trump's "New York values" would handicap him in a national campaign, to cite the most blatant example. In retrospect, it might be argued that Pataki, who won three terms in Albany, was the wrong kind, and Trump the right kind of New York Republican. Paradoxically, it might also be pointed out that Pataki is exceptional among New York Republicans. Given their druthers, New York Republicans often go for Trump-type personalities: bombastic businessmen who promise unconventional governance based on their innocence of conventional politics. In 1990, before Pataki's ascent, Republicans despairing over a weak field of potential challengers to the then-mighty Gov. Mario Cuomo -- the father of the current governor -- turned to dark horse businessman Pierre Rinfret. In 2010, long after Pataki's retirement, an early manifestation of the Tea Party carried businessman Carl Palladino, now conspicuous among Trump's Empire State supporters, to an upset victory over a well-known conservative congressman at the Republican primary. For all that people want to think of the national GOP as increasingly a southern and western party, Trump's presumptive nomination may signal a New York-ification of the Republican party as populist cultural conservatives across the country, with certain exceptions where Cruz was strong, detach themselves from ideological orthodoxy to express their instinctual yearning for a Leader -- not a Führer, mind you, but someone they perceive to be decisive and, above all, tough. But if the likes of Rinfret and Palladino help us understand Trump's success, they may also show his limits. While boring, center-right Pataki won three terms, Rinfret's campaign was a disaster marked by frequent absence from the state and a mouth that still makes Trump look tame. I recall vividly a press conference at which Rinfret called a reporter a political prostitute, for instance. In the end, Rinfret finished barely ahead of a third-party conservative candidate, while in 2010 Palladino was crushed by Cuomo the Younger by a nearly two-to-one margin. Today, Trump boasts that he, unlike many previous Republican presidential candidates, can win the Empire State. It might happen, since anything can happen to Hillary Clinton in the next six months, but history seems to show that, in the state as in the nation, the type of candidate who appeals to the Republican base has a hard time in the general election.  Trump's claim that he can win New York can't be taken too seriously when his models are New Yorkers who only had New York to win, but failed badly.

03 May 2016

Cruz makes news again

In retrospect, this morning's tirade against Donald Trump from Senator Cruz looks like the spite of someone who knows he's a beaten man but thinks it's all unfair. Cruz, who has suspended his campaign after losing the Indiana primary, can tell himself for the next four (or eight) years that Trump and the liberal media colluded against him, suppressing the worst truths about the billionaire while denying Cruz the equal time he deserved, but he'll spend those years on a river in Egypt if he convinces himself that primary voters didn't know who he was or what he stood for. In one respect, at least, this Republican primary season really has been much like the last two. In the end, the "movement" candidate, the supposed champion of an ideological base believed to be the tip of a hidden-majority iceberg, loses badly to a non-movement candidate. As Mike Huckabee went down in 2008, as Rick Santorum went down in 2012, so Cruz falls now. While we have every reason to discuss what's different about Trump, we shouldn't lose track of what remains the same. Movement conservatives, the people who think that they alone can lead the Republican party to victory, remain a minority within their own party. Something else will probably stay the same if Trump loses the general election; the movement conservatives will say that things would have gone differently had the GOP chosen one of them. But if the GOP itself never chooses them, how can they believe the larger electorate will? These ideologues fancy themselves big thinkers, but they'll probably continue to dodge the hard thinking they need to do now. It's easier to imagine another conspiracy, the latest of an infinite number, denying them their due. Conspiracy, in this case, means democracy that doesn't go their way.

Cruz makes news

As Bill O'Reilly patiently explained to people on Fox News last night, it's one thing when a Republican presidential candidate makes a speech, but when Donald Trump insults someone famous or smears whole classes of people, that's news. Senator Cruz must have been watching, and must have taken the lesson to heart. Trump had made news already today by mentioning an Internet legend, supposedly confirmed by a photograph, that Cruz's father, a Cuban exile who'd once fought against Batista only to turn against Castro, was an associate of Lee Harvey Oswald. There seems to be no better way to get Cruz mad than to dis his family. He called Trump a coward when the front-runner appeared to insult and threaten Cruz's wife. Now, on the day of the Indiana primary, widely seen as make-or-break for Cruz if not the clincher for Trump, Cruz made news that the media could not ignore.

There's something about Cruz's voice and his preacherly manner of speaking that always threatens to make his anger sound insincere. I detected some real emotion in his previous tirade in defense of his wife, but this time there was something calculated about his philippic against Trump, as if he'd been waiting for an opportunity, which Trump inevitably would provide, to give a "Have you no decency?" speech in the manner of Joseph Welch facing down Joe McCarthy. It doesn't help that Cruz's squishy face seems incapable of strong emotion. In any event, it is most likely too little, too late for the Texan. It simply isn't the same when you do this on defense. When Trump insults people it isn't really personal; it's just his way of asserting dominance. People can hear him and believe that he's expressing their disdain and anger at the establishment and the state of things in America. By comparison, all Cruz is really saying here is that his feelings have been hurt. Had he written this on the Internet or social media, it probably would be dismissed as "butthurt." Cruz has found himself in a debate for which he was not prepared, in which all his vaunted training and talent have done him little good. This debate has not been a good thing for the country at all, but it probably couldn't have happened to a nicer guy, so to speak.

02 May 2016

All the fits that's news, we print

It was in Mad magazine, I think, where I saw a parody of the New York Times with the motto above in mockery of the Times' own slogan, "All the News That's Fit to Print." I was reminded of that while I was watching some of The O'Reilly Factor tonight. I surf the cable-news channels when I get home from work, and while I rarely linger on Fox News, I noticed that the O'Reilly show was picking up on our theme from earlier today: Sen. Cruz's complaint that the media was biased in favor of Donald Trump against the other candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. Bill O'Reilly was defending Fox and his own coverage of the long buildup to the primaries against criticism from an editor of the Washington Times, the capital's conservative newspaper. The editor thought it unfair that Trump received far more coverage during 2015 than any other GOP candidate. O'Reilly's defense was twofold. First, he dismissed the other candidates for making the same prepared speeches with all the same talking points everywhere they went, while Trump was more likely to make news anytime he spoke. The Times editor clearly was unhappy with this explanation, probably thinking that all Republican aspirants, or at least all conservative Republican aspirants, were entitled to equal time from Fox News. O'Reilly's second line of defense was to dismiss implicitly the equivalence of Trump's performances and his rival's speeches. When Trump insults people, O'Reilly argued -- his example was the candidate's expression of contempt for Sen. McCain's war heroism -- "That's NEWS!" You can see what he means, but what a lesson for our future would-be leaders to learn! If you want the news media's attention, don't propose radical reforms or innovative policies. Instead, call your opponents or unpopular minorities names and make an ass of yourself. Actually, they may as well. The sooner we do, the sooner Trump's sort of idiocy won't be news anymore -- depending on what you think Trump's particular idiocy is. O'Reilly was breathtakingly cynical tonight about Trump's appeal to his sort of news media, and Cruz's fans would love to blame their man's misfortune on that sort of media cynicism. Whether they're justified in doing so -- whether Trump owes his popularity wholly to telegenic insult comedy -- is another matter entirely.

Cruz: Trump is the media's Manchurian candidate

Senator Cruz is losing to Donald Trump in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. That wasn't how it was supposed to be for the Texan this year, so naturally it's a conspiracy. Check out this transcript from the May 1 Meet the Press show for a rare moment when a host refuses to take his guest's crap. Cruz believes that the media should be pressuring Trump to continue debating him. Since he assumes that the media can make millions from more debate, he concludes that their failure to publicly pressure Trump to participate -- because they've had great success in making him do what he doesn't want to, haven't they? -- proves that they want Trump to win, since he would not win (it follows) if Cruz got to debate him more. They want Trump to win because they're all liberal, you see -- and this is where host Chuck Todd turned on Cruz -- and they're setting Trump up to be an easy target during the fall campaign. Cruz claims that the media isn't talking now about all of Trump's liabilities and vulnerabilities, when they can benefit Cruz, but saving them to ruin Trump in the fall. Taking the long view, Cruz believes that Trump has been a liberal-media creation from the beginning -- you know, going back to the period last year when everyone assumed that Trump would fade once the field was narrowed. Apparently the rabble are responding to Trump's rousing instead of Cruz's only because the media are favoring Trump. To be fair, Trump has received more TV time than he may have deserved originally because of his celebrity and his uniquely provocative rhetoric, but I'd guess that from a pro-Trump perspective a lot of that coverage has looked pretty consistently anti-Trump in its framing of him as a know-nothing stirring up ethnic hatred. Cruz sees it differently for two reasons. Firstly, he has to blame something other than himself or Gov. Kasich for continuing to lose to Trump. Secondly, as should be apparent, he sees the Trump candidacy as a media conspiracy against the Republican party and the conservative movement because he's convinced that Trump can't win the general election, while he could. Cruz is stuck in the 2008-12 mode of Republican grousing, which blames Barack Obama's victories on the GOP's failure to nominate an ideologically sound and sufficiently "hard-charging" candidate, one who would bring the presumably conservative hidden majority out to vote. 2016 has been a nightmare for the Republicans because it looks like a hidden majority, at least of Republicans, has emerged, only to reject both the officeholding establishment and the intransigent ideologues like Cruz. It must be galling for believers like Cruz to learn that the hidden majority can be so easily bamboozled, but they'd rather believe that than face the stronger possibility that the reason this potential majority remained hidden not because of high ideological standards, or apathy in the face of the perceived tepid moderation of McCain and Romney, but because only someone like Trump, and not the debating master Cruz, could reach them. So when reality doesn't conform to Cruz's expectations, inevitably there must be a conspiracy. People mock Trump for accusing Cruz and Kasich of cheating in various ways, but with this outburst Cruz proves that he's no better, while his demand for more debates sounds sadly like he wants Trump thrown into the briar patch, where Cruz will only outfox himself.