Saturday, July 8. 2017
Mark Penn/Andrew Stein: Back to the Center, Democrats: Penn was Hillary Clinton's "senior adviser" for her 2008 campaign, which he did more than anyone to destruct and disgrace. Stein was Manhattan Borough president back in the 1990s. Neither figure has any import even among the Clinton faction of the Democratic Party, so it may be unnecessary even to bother with their half-hearted efforts to herd the Democratic Party back toward the "center" -- there must be others who are other who can articulate such views more coherently, but their raw instincts are little different. The one thing they all have in common is a visceral hatred for the left, although in particulars it could take any form that seems convenient. For Penn and Stein, this is built on selective memory:
In 1996 Clinton's "resounding re-election" came with 49.2% of the vote, leaving Gingrich and the Republicans in complete control of Congress -- "back" only if your entire conception of the Party was Clinton himself. The only bills Clinton was able to pass during his second term were ones the Republicans calculated would hurt and disillusion the Democratic Party base -- "welfare reform," repeal of Glass-Steagall, a capital gains tax cut, a bill which declared "regime change" in Iraq to be US policy. But in wasn't "leftward drift" that cost the Democrats control of Congress in 1994: it was Clinton's "triangulation" (his efforts to win over business support by attacking the party base, especially unions), as exemplified in his decision to prioritize NAFTA over health care, and to forsake traditional Democratic health care proposals in favor of a system that catered an increasingly predatory health care industry.
Still, if Clinton's second term was such a golden age for the Democratic Party, how come they lost two elections to Bush, with the Republicans maintaining control of Congress up to 2006 -- when wild-eyed Howard Dean took control of the DNC? And while Obama won decisively in 2008 with his promise of change (and less soundly in 2012 running on "no change"), it's quite a stretch to blame Hillary Clinton's epic collapse in 2016 on the party's "leftward drift." While Republicans have made huge gains since 2010, you have to ask whether this was abetted by fear of the Democratic left or disgust over the corruption and ineptness of Democratic centrists. One hint: Trump's nickname for Clinton was "Crooked Hillary."
Penn and Stein are not just deluded about history, they've come up with some peculiar ideas about what a "winning strategy" for the Democrats might entail. For instance, they think Democrats can win back the working class through a combination of Trumpian prejudices and "moderate" trade and immigration policies:
Penn and Stein never mention Clinton's signature NAFTA treaty, which was a direct attack on the working class, and the cause of a massive wave of Mexican emigration -- the other major source of immigrants (poor ones, anyway) has been US wars and US-sponsored dictators around the world. The single most important reason Democrats lost so much of the working class was their failure to protect and support unions -- they were just too busy chasing business donors. Republicans took advantage of that lapse by playing to white prejudices -- their only option, because they don't have any economic answers (but neither do the "centrist" Democrats, despite empty cant like "fair trade").
The reason this op-ed has generated any interest at all is that it raises a real question, obscures another, and is stupid enough it begs you to argue the opposite.
The real question actually has three parts: is the assumption that American politics is laid out on a left-right axis true; if so, is it true that the center has shifted right in recent years; and if so, can the Democrats gain voter share by moving right to recapture that center? "Centrism" depends on all three being true, but there are many problems with each. Many people don't think in terms of left-right (e.g., they consider other terms like integrity, or they focus on non-economic issues). The statistical center has moved different directions on different issues. And both parties obfuscate (rather than change) unpopular positions. But also 30-50% of eligible voters don't vote, so they defy categorization. If you're on the left, you probably think that's because mainstream Democrats haven't given many people credible reasons to vote. That's unproven, but one data point is that Sanders has consistently polled better against Trump than Clinton did. That argues against Penn and Stein.
The obscured question is whether actual Democrats have done better when they moved to the center. Clinton's 1992 campaign was distinctly populist, and Obama seemed to embrace progressive liberalism in 2008. Both moved sharply center/right after those elections, and both lost Congress after two years. Even though both were re-elected, neither regained Congress, and neither managed to get a successor elected. Both oversaw periods with reasonable economic growth which accrued almost exclusively to the very rich, resulting in greater inequality. Both saw (and contributed to) the decline of the public sector, and the deterioration of the safety net -- as a result, average Americans (by definition, the "center" of the electorate) saw their relative welfare decline, their risks increase, and their children's futures diminish. You might argue that median welfare declined less under Clinton and Obama than it did under the Bushes, but in absolute terms the only upward indicator "centrist" Democrats can point to is the personal wealth of the dealmakers at the top. As the quotes above make clear, Penn and Stein do their best to obfuscate this legacy.
The opposite argument -- that Democrats are more likely to win when they move left -- actually has quite a bit of historical support. Both Clinton (in 1992) and Obama (in 2008) ran successful campaigns that promised much more than they delivered or even attempted when they entered office. The Democrats' best election of the last 25 years was in 2006 (actually before the recession in 2008), when the DNC was run by Howard Dean, the self-described champion "of the democratic wing of the Democratic Party." And again, all available evidence shows that Sanders would have fared better than Clinton against Trump.
Would be "centrists" have trouble grasping this because they fail to understand how the current political dynamic destroys any ground the "centrists" try to claim. This is because the two parties are very different in goals and methods. The Republicans were taken over by a faction which relentlessly and insatiably pushes everything to the right, in large part by never conceding anything important to the other side. This doesn't preclude compromise deals, but they always exact a high price from the Democratic Party base, and as such lead those voters to become disenchanted with the Party leadership. They can do this because their policies are compatible with the beliefs of their donors -- to increase corporate power over everyday life, making the rich richer, and punishing whoever stands in their way.
One could imagine a similar dynamic on the left, but as politicians became ever more dependent on donors there has never been a comparable funding option for the left. Instead, what's happened is that "centrist" Democrats have filled the breech, banking the votes of the base while cutting deals with their favored donors -- sometimes incredibly bad deals, like NAFTA and the repeal of Glass-Steagall. In this dynamic, rich donors naturally pressure Democrats to settle with Republicans, yet in the end they wind up backing the Republicans because they can't resist the promise of getting more and more power and wealth. So in this dynamic, the "centrists" screw themselves two ways: they betray their base voters, and they never really get the business support they bargained for. And after repeated failures, it starts to get obvious that they really have nothing to offer. (Hence Penn and Stein wind up pushing "fair trade" and "trying to restore manufacturing jobs.")
There are a few more angles to all of this -- e.g., Democrats hurt themselves enormously when they jump into foreign wars -- but this is the basic dynamic. Penn and Stein don't begin to understand it. For another view on the piece, and some background on who these jokers are, see: Alex Pareene: Mark Penn's Bad Column Also Makes No Goddamn Sense.
Nicholas Lemann offers a sympathetic portrait of the Clintons in his New York Review of Books piece, What Happened to Clintonism? (mostly behind their paywall), based on four recent books: Daryl A Carter: Brother Bill: President Clinton and the Politics of Race and Class; Michael Tomasky: Bill Clinton; William H Chafe: Hillary and Bill: The Clintons and the Politics of the Personal; and Joe Conason: Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton. He does manage to make Clinton seem less sinister than he appears now. To some extent the "political winds" in the early 1990s were blowing in a way that favored someone like Clinton (or Gore), so to some extent he just happened to be in the right place at the right time. (This is not the same thing as popularity within the party. I remain convinced that Jesse Jackson would have won most primaries in 1992 had he run, but I doubt he would have won, and the Party kingmakers were desperate for someone who could win.) And after twelve years of Reagan and Bush, Clinton's centrism still had an aura of plausibility: indeed, if he had a free hand he might have expanded and strengthened the safety net, rolling back the decline of the middle class, while still pursuing his pro-business initiatives. The Republicans deserve much credit (or blame) for wrecking his dream programs, but he shares blame for echoing and legitimizing their concerns and compromising with their schemes.
Conason's book covers the post-presidential years, mostly Clinton's unique combination of vanity and altruism embodied in his Foundation, probably without examining too closely how much money stuck to his fingers on its way from Davos-class donors to the world's needy. It isn't surprising that someone who worked so hard to help his wealthy benefactors make even more should aspire to be one with them, but such upward mobility has neither sharpened his political instincts nor his human empathies -- which in 2016 turned into a liability for Hillary, whose own political ambitions made his philanthropy look more like some kind of political slush fund. Had the Clintons just quietly receded into their newfound wealth few people would have cared much, but having grown wealthy from being president and making their supporters billions of dollars, running again just made them look greedy, and pretending they were running for us just added the insult of hypocrisy.
That Hillary Clinton ultimately lost the election to Donald Trump, and largely because she was the one perceived to be "crooked," is much more than ironic. Given Trump's history and personality, it should have been easy to depict him as greedy and egotistical -- a man who had spent every waking moment of the last fifty years pursuing fame and fortune, one who could hardly be expected to change his stripes the moment he nominally became a public servant. Even looking back it's not clear why Clinton's campaign failed to drive that point home -- it's not so much that they didn't try as didn't manage to be convincing. And while there are many possible reasons for this, the big one was that they spent so much of the campaign being defensive, reeling from the constant barrage of email and foundation scandals.
On the other hand, the Republicans seem to have figured out a very effective way to drive home their "crooked Hillary" meme: social media. Probably the most convincing (and disturbing) piece I've read to date on the campaign is Sue Halpern's How He Used Facebook to Win. The important thing about social media advertising is the degree to which ads can be targeted, so that Trump's people could deliver very precise messages meant to push different user buttons. This, of course, builds on a strategy Republicans have depended on for years now: cultivating single-user voters and stoking their fears to rally them against the Democrats. (Crime comes and goes, but guns and abortion have been especially reliable issues.) There is, of course, a risk in doing this too publicly: it generates a backlash. But highly targeted social media advertising limits unintended visibility, while providing a multiplier effect as fans forward their favored memes to their friends and followers. Here's a sample from the article:
Nor was Trump's digital advertising limited to pushing buttons to get potential supporters to come out and vote for him. It was also directed at undermining Hillary Clinton's support by turning potential voters for her off:
Some of these approaches had been worked by Obama's campaign in 2008 and 2012, especially in terms of micro-targeted get-out-the-vote efforts. But there's an essential asymmetry between Republican and Democratic agendas and strategies: Democrats at least try to present a coherent program that offers tangible benefits to voters (even though they, especially recently, have a poor track record of delivering on their promises, nearly every popular benefit ever dates back to Democrats). Republicans, on the other hand, favor intrinsically unpopular policies of increasing the power and wealth of a tiny coterie of elites, so they have few options other than to dissemble and misdirect -- indeed, what seems to work best for them is driving voters into blind rage. The article quotes Laura Quinn, explaining: "Trump didn't have a lot of 'Here is my agenda, here is my narrative, I have to persuade people of it,' . . . The Trump world was more like, 'Let's say a lot of different things, they don't even necessarily need to be coherent, and observe, through the wonderful new platforms that allow you to observe how people respond and observe what works, and whatever squirrel everyone chases, that's going to become out narrative, our agenda, our message.'"
It's tempting to blame all this -- literally the undermining of democracy by special interests spreading unchecked misinformation -- on social media. Indeed, the business model of paying for social media through advertising is quickly becoming as annoying and as distorting as the same model has long been in broadcast media. (Print advertising is somewhat less so because it's easier to pass over -- for that same reason, it is often more informative and less manipulative.) I have an even lower view of advertising, not just because that industry has been the source of such all pervasive techniques as message framing, focus groups, polling, targeting, but because the whole industry is built on the notion that truth is maleable to whatever special interests want it to be. As more and more money is put into the process of manipulating public opinion, actual policies become afterthoughts, not something we agree on because we want or need them, but perks for the political parties most skilled at provoking or stroking our psyches.
Hillary Clinton was unable to defend us from these machinations, partly because her naive faith in the establishment, garnered by living so many years in its bubble, didn't prepare her for such a dirty campaign, and partly because she was so complicit in so many failures of that establishment that she wound up bearing more than her share of the blame -- she even managed to make Donald Trump look like an outsider, an insurgent, a vanquisher (all ridiculous views if you give them a bit of thought). The silver lining in the election is that it frees us from the notion that all is fine and nothing has to change. Had she won, we'd still be struggling with that notion, and the Republicans would still look like a possible way out -- even though they have nothing to offer but worse. Finally, the Democrats can cast off the worst of their legacy (Mark Penn and Andrew Stein, for starters). The center is no longer an option: it's too late, and offers too little.
Sunday, June 18. 2017
I noticed this letter by Stu Blander in the New York Times Book Review, a response to a review by Gal Beckerman, 50 Years On, Stories of the Six Day War and What Came After, and saw that it provided a brief set of talking points meant to defend Israel's 50-years-and-counting Occupation. I thought I'd quote these points (in bold below) and see how well they hold up:
I can see some merit in some of these points, especially up through the 1967 War. European settler colonies have either succeeded or failed depending on whether they were able to establish a demographic majority -- as they clearly did in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but as they failed to do in Algeria, South Africa, Rhodesia, or Kenya. Until the 1948-49 War, the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine was limited to about 32% of the total population, which didn't bode well. This is why Ben Gurion and the Zionist leadership embraced Partition and Transfer as well as open Jewish immigration (which the British had suppressed since 1939, and earlier from Arab countries). That they emerged from the war with 72% of the land in Palestine and an 80% majority ensured their survival, but it took some years after that before the lesson was impressed on the Palestinians and neighboring Arabs. Algeria, for instance, rejected the French only in 1964, and it took another 25 years for white South Africans to give up their system of Apartheid. So Zionism won the struggle for existence and statehood in 1948-49, but like so many successful people, they didn't stop there. They got greedy: both in terms of expanding their territorial grasp and in how completely they were able to dominate their opponents. The result has been an extraordinary human tragedy, both for the oppressed and for the souls of the dominators.
Blander's letter continues:
Aside from demography, the other settler colony consideration is whether you can return, as the British in India and the French in Algeria clearly could. Boers in South Africa might have been able to return to the Netherlands, but (unlike the English in South Africa) were long separated from those roots -- which is one reason they hung on so dearly. Jews in Palestine/Israel had few other options -- Americans could come and go, and some others did move on to Western Europe, but the majority from East Europe and the MENA countries had few options and little appetite to return.
On the other hand, if you don't recognize Zionism to be a creed of settler colonialism, you'll miss the underlying rationales for why the Zionist settlers did what they did, and why they've gone on to create a regime that systematically denies the native population any semblance of human or civil rights, a system which it regularly reinforces with violence. Otherwise, you might just think their racism and militarism derive from some intrinsic evil. As a white settler American (albeit 4-10 generations removed from Europe), I can relate, but I also understand the trap such identity sets, and the need to outgrow that. Israelis have succeeded in transplanting themselves to the Middle East, but not for as long, and with a more precarious majority, than we have, so it's understandable that they're much more on edge (plus there's the Holocaust, which they've preserved memory of to an unhealthy degree -- kind of like the way the Civil War was remembered in the US South well into my lifetime, whereas we've done a pretty good job of sweeping traumas to minorities like slavery and the Indian wars under the rug).
I guess this is why I find the last paragraph of Blander's letter confusing:
You can't really square away those and dozens of other things people say, each coming from a limited and parochial vantage point. It would helps to see where the Zionists came from, what they sought and hoped for and built, and how they coped with real and imagined threats, but one also needs to accept the Palestinians as they were and have become, to put their words and actions into a historical context and understand how their options have been severely constrained. The next line might be something about how if they could all just learn to understand and empathize with each other the conflict would be easy to resolve. But that won't happen, at least broadly: the views are too limited and the experiences too raw. It often takes distance to be able to see both sides clearly, to find some common ground or viable modus vivendi.
I think that's the point of Nathan Thrall's new book, The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine. Thrall is taking a line that Israelis have often said about Arabs -- one of many things Zionist colonizers learned from their British patrons (along with house demolitions and other forms of collective punishment, and indeed the legal code Israel built its Occupation on), and reflecting it back. The saying usually ends with "is violence," which Thrall left out, because he realizes that force can take other forms. In The One-State Condition: Occupation and Democracy in Israel/Palestine, Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir make a distinction between "eruptive violence" (what you normally think of as violence) and "potential violence" (what you feel when you see an Occupation soldier, or are arrested, or served with a warrant by a state that depends on arms for enforcement, or even a veiled threat). Israeli society positively seethes with "potential violence" like this. The closest analogy I can think of, one that Americans should (but often cannot) be able to relate to, is how the all-pervasive legal strictures of the Jim Crow South were reinforced with lynching (and note that many white Southerners had their own "Holocaust memories" dating from Civil War and Reconstruction, their own sense that their renascent power was only achieved through violent struggle).
As someone who abhors violence in all forms and degrees, I find it disturbing to note that Jim Crow was only dismantled because a superior force -- the US federal government -- intervened. (Same for slavery a century earlier, much more violently.) Similarly, it is hard to see any glimmer of hope that Israeli society might voluntarily dismantle its own "matrix of control" (Jeff Halper's apt phrase and thorough analysis) without the application of considerable external pressure. One problem is that the world isn't much good at this: partly because many powers are convinced they can solve their international problems through violence, and partly because the targets of that violence are more likely to hunker down and carry on than to give up. Germany and Japan gave up their imperial ambitions only after utter devastation, but Vietnam and Afghanistan suffered comparable ruin and carried on. And while economic sanctions seem less brutalizing, about the only case you can point to where they worked was South Africa (which at least is much more similar to Israel than such failed sanctions targets as Cuba, North Korea, Iraq, and Iran). The BDS movement is promising not su much because it punishes Israel for misbehaving as because it shows that the world no longer considers Israel's violent repression of millions of people subject to its power to be morally acceptable.
As fascinating as the past is, this is a conflict which can only be resolved in the present, and the key to that is to stop treating each other badly. To do that we need to condemn every transgression on every side, and we need to refuse to allow either side's misdeeds to justify the other. Most obviously, Israel's "right to defend itself" doesn't extend to bombing, shooting, bulldozing, kidnapping or starving -- all typical Israeli acts justified under the "self-defense" umbrella. One could even imagine a simple and elegant system where, for instance, every time someone in Gaza shoots a rocket over the wall Israel can present the authorities in Gaza with a bill for damages and a warrant for the arrest of whoever's responsible. Of course, Gaza could do the same every time Israel lobs a shell or drops a bomb on Gaza. While the warrants may be difficult to satisfy, the damages at least could be deducted from the streams of aid both Israel and the Palestinians receive. The formalities themselves would both publicize infractions and deter against them. Moreover, this wouldn't require a grand deal to establish a "final status" verdict. All it would require is mutual agreement that shooting and bombing is something that shouldn't be allowed or excused any more.
We also need to lighten up and let go of things. You can't go back and rectify the past, but you can start again and try to get it right from here on out. No one starts with a clean slate, and I'm not sure that one is even possible, but a little self-awareness and a little more effort to respect others can go a long ways. I know, for instance, that I'm not free of the racism and sexism and Christianity and American jingoism I grew up with, but I've managed to contain them to the point where I'm not much of a problem for other people. That much seems doable, even if it's not done often enough.
But one last point: we should understand why ending (or at least ameliorating) this conflict matters. It's not just that mistreatment anywhere is bad, or even that Israel is bucking a worldwide trend toward deconialization (not so much a return of settlers to Europe as a general blurring of racial and ethnic identities all around the world), but especially for us in America a recognition that Israel's all-encompassing belief in using violence to perpetuate inequality infects us as well (or in some cases, such as Jim Crow, even originated here). America's self-destructive lurch to the right parallels and feeds off Israel's, and it's unlikely we can stave off the one without at least separating it from the other.
For another review of Thrall's book and several others, see David Shulman: Israel's Irrational Rationality (or as the cover put it: "Israel: From Military Victory to Moral Failure"). Here's a quote:
Also, further down, after detailing the author's personal experiences with Israeli settlers near Hebron:
Shulman also mentions a "binational" scheme which is close to where my own thinking has led me:
Of the other books reviewed, Matti Steinberg's In Search of Modern Palestinian Nationhood strikes me as possibly the most interesting. The author "served for many years as a senior adviser to the heads of the Shin Bet" and he seems to have made a careful, nuanced study of what Palestinian writers were actually thinking as their view of Israel evolved from "roughly 1973" on. There is an interesting movie called The Gatekeepers of interviews with five former Shin Bet heads, showing in each case a career evolution from youthful hawk to aged, wizened dove, so one imagines that even while they towed the standard political line, they actually learned real things about the people they were spying on. Unfortunately, the more they learned, the more they regretted, the more likely they were to be replaced with someone younger and more reckless. I think that rule often applies to Israeli politicians as well, although Netanyahu has managed to be single-mindedly obstructionist for what seems like forever.
Saturday, April 15. 2017
There was an election in south-central Kansas on Tuesday to fill the House of Representatives seat vacated by CIA Director Mike Pompeo. The Republican candidate, Kansas State Treasurer Ron Estes, won with 52.5% of the vote, beating Democrat James Thompson (45.7%) and Libertarian Chris Rockhold (1.7%). In 2016, Pompeo won with 60.67% of the vote, a margin of 30.06% over Democrat Dan Giroux. (Miranda Allen ran as an independent and took 6.91% of the vote. In 2016, Trump carried the district by 27 points. According to 538, only 19% of all Congressional districts are more Republican than this district (KS-4, see: Harry Enten: Why Republicans Are Worried About Kansas).
Thompson ran 20 points better than the Democratic Party national ticket only six months later (about three months into the Trump presidency). That augurs well for a Democratic rebound in 2018, which is likely for several other reasons: the party not in the White House usually gains in mid-term elections, Trump is already very unpopular (uniquely by historical standards), and there is very little reason to expect that Trump's administration will be more popular once its acts and effects have taken their toll. No doubt some Trump voters have already turned against their hero, but nowhere near enough to affect this election.
Rather, I see four differences this time. The first is that all the awful Trump news has energized part of the Democratic base here in Wichita -- specifically the part that gave Bernie Sanders a 70% victory on the 2016 caucuses. The second is that they nominated a relatively charismatic newcomer in Thompson, narrowly over the party establishment's candidates. The third is that the Republican convention nominated their insider guy, a thoroughly lackluster party hack. And fourth: the candidates started out even in money and name recognition (whereas Pompeo, and before him Todd Tiahrt, rarely entered a reëlection with less than a million dollar warchest), and until he last week or two Thompson was able to run competitively by raising samll contributions. (In the last week, the national party and their dark money benefactors tilted the balance, although their ads were so tone-deaf I doubt they helped much.)
Conversely, the Democratic Party (both state and national) took little interest in the race -- a source of much debate and friction; e.g., see John Nichols: Coulda Woulda Shoulda -- Democrats Miss a Huge Opportunity in Kansas, vs. Jim Newell: Democrats Didn't Tank Kansas 4th District. The latter piece, ostensibly defending the Party elites, is pretty embarrassing:
Someone should inform the DCCC that no matter how invisible they try to be, grassroots hatred of the Democratic Party elites will be stoked by Republican ads: the main one that ran this time featured a split screen with Thompson and Nancy Pelosi, even though neither (at least as far as I know) ever even acknowledge the other. Still, what the DCCC's lack of interest suggests to me is not tact, but rather disdain, tinged with self-awareness that the national party doesn't have anything to offer people in states like Kansas. This may have started with the pragmatic idea that given the electoral college there's no point in ever running in right-of-center states, but what really locked it in was basic graft. As political parties became ever more in thrall to big business money -- and really, the thing that made Obama and the Clintons stars in the party wasn't their brains or policy skills and especially wasn't their empathy with Democratic voters. Rather, it was their appeal to big money donors. And in order to deliver to their donors they had to win elections -- something they turned into a narrowly technical set of skills and tricks. In that schema, states like Kansas weren't just lost causes -- efforts to win them were just plain inefficient. And making matters much worse, the Clintons and Obama put their own personal needs way above those of the Party, leaving it hollow and ineffective, and the party's loyal supporters unrepresented.
The rationalizations of the national Democratic Party won them a few elections, but they've driven the states they've written off -- both traditionally Republican ones like Kansas and formerly supportive ones like West Virginia -- ever deeper into Republican clutches. To understand why this happened it helps to look at how democracy has evolved (and recently devolved) in America. The key idea is that democracy provides a general method for arbitrating differences between the various stakeholders. Early on those stakeholders were limited to property owners, notably including owners of slaves. Over time, the franchise expanded, although even today there is much pressure (especially from Republicans) to limit who can vote, and therefore to shift the balance of power. For instance, despite the fact that "no taxation without representation" was a founding principle, the US denies the vote to tax-paying resident aliens.
One result of the initial restriction of the franchise was that all political parties catered to elite interests, a practice which with few exceptions has persisted to this day. Republicans not only seek to restrict the franchise; they also seek to expand the influence and importance of money. The effect of this is to shift the balance of power toward the wealthy, so that government is more responsive to their concerns, and becomes less concerned with the poor or merely less affluent. The Republicans, especially after Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, have been remarkably successful at this, so Democrats have been left with two largely incompatible choices. One is to organize the vastly greater numbers left out and often hurt by Republican policies. The other is to compete with Republicans for the money and influence of the elites.
The Democratic Party establishment, with Obama and the Clintons among its stars, has mostly done the latter. They've had quite a bit of success courting socially liberal donors in knowledge-intensive industries like high tech, communications, and finance, and have tailored their policy initiatives to their benefit. This has let Obama and Clinton raise more money for the last three presidential campaigns than Republicans were able to, but Republicans have done better down ticket, in large part because they've put their money to more effective use in media and organization, and in developing candidates. Meanwhile, Obama and the Clintons have done much to alienate the voters they depend on: partly because they've let their policies become warped by their donors, but mostly because they've neglected (and often undermined) building up a strong party organization. One can only speculate as to why, but one suspects that they fear an organized Democratic rank and file might upset their ability to serve their sponsors -- a prime example being Bill Clinton's decision to favor NAFTA over the unions which had long provided Democratic votes. (Obama made the same choice with TPP, which so unpopular among Democrats Hillary Clinton was forced to reverse course and oppose it.)
As I mentioned above, there is an alternative to the focus on donors that has been so prevalent among the elites of the Democratic Party, which is to try to build a mass organization. That is what Bernie Sanders tried to do in 2016, and his near success, combined with Hillary Clinton's abject failure to beat Donald Trump -- by all measures the most blatantly flawed candidate either party has run since, well, forever -- points toward the alternative: one that makes stronger promises to the voters the Democratic Party courts (and counts on), and which by building a strong organization can finally deliver on those promises. (The main knock on Sanders in 2016 wasn't that he couldn't win but that he had so little backing among elected Democrats that he couldn't govern and/or couldn't follow through on his platform. Something like this happened to Trump, but he's so lazy and unprincipled he just turned the reins over to mainstream Republicans. Sanders at least cares about his platform and the people who voted for him.)
This is the context that explains the DCCC's snub of Thompson and Kansas. Thompson came out of the Sanders campaign, he built a grass roots organization, and wound up doing much better than anyone expected. It didn't appear to me that he ran an especially radical or populist campaign: he avoided negatives, didn't push a lot of policy positions, just promised to fight for people (building on his personal story). I think he should have slammed the Republicans harder, but given how biased the district was I could be wrong. (By contrast, Estes' ads were extremely negative -- so hateful I would have voted against him without knowing anything else, but there can be little doubt that the Republicans know how to push their voters' buttons.) Thompson's organization was very focused on Wichita, and he wound up carrying Sedgwick County by a couple thousand votes (so Wichita by much more). He came real close to a tie in Harvey County, but he lost the other larger counties about 3-to-2, and the outliers badly, some by 4-to-1 or more.
Thompson says he'll run again in 2018, which will bring him much up the learning curve. The obvious downside is that Estes will enter 2018 with a huge funding advantage (unless he gets burned in a primary -- Susan Wagle is talking about a run, and Todd Tiahrt still thinks he's entitled to reclaim his old seat). Also, turnout will be higher -- this election only got 43.52% as many votes as 2016; 2018 will probably split the difference. Hard to say who that will help. The bigger wild card is how much worse off most Kansans will be in 2018 -- as Brownback finishes his second term, with two years of Trump and Ryan doing their worst.
It's still going to be hard for Democrats to win in KS-4. It's not so much that Republicans have a huge natural advantage as that the Republican Party (and affiliates like the Kochs) have put a lot of work and money into building a grass roots organization, and have hooked into the national right-wing propaganda network (especially, but not exclusively, Fox) to all but automatically win elections. Still, their intentionally divisive strategy runs the risk of backfiring. On the one hand, it often promotes weak and often very flawed candidates. On the other, the lies build up, and it's become ever more obvious that too much Republican power causes more harm than good. Still, they win if nobody runs against them, which has more often than not been the case. And that's why James Thompson's run was important: not only is he an impressive candidate, he's not out to wheedle his way in by trying to meet Republican talking points half way. He represents real change, and only that promise has a chance against the GOP machine.
As you probably know, the first post-election effort to move the national Democratic Party focus toward the voters instead of the donors was Keith Ellison's campaign for DNC chairman. He barely lost to Tom Perez, after the latter made all sorts of conciliatory promises like a return to Howard Dean's "50 state strategy." However, consider this Perez quote from Jamie Peck: The Democratic party is undermining Bernie Sanders-style candidates:
I hope Ossoff wins, but if he does it won't have nearly as much impact as a Thompson win would have had in Kansas. The fact is that Kansans have suffered as much under Republican rule as anyone in the country. Democrats should be able to make their case here as pointedly as anywhere, but they can't unless they try, and they won't as long as they remain dedicated to chasing the donor bucks of the upscale urban liberals they've courted ever since they let the unions go bust and manufacturing jobs move to ever cheaper labor markets abroad. And make no mistake: no matter how much Republicans wanted those changes, Democrats let them happen. Letting districts like KS-4 rot is one way they do that.
Also see Harry Enten's post-election piece, Is Trump or Brownback to Blame for the Surprisingly Close Race in Kansas 4?:
I wouldn't get too excited here, although I'm pretty sure Trump will be even more extensively despised by 2018. The California race is pretty atypical -- it was an open primary, with two Democrats nominated for the runoff, and few (if any) serious Republicans ran. And while anti-Trump feeling motivated some Thompson volunteers, it's too soon for many Trump fans to feel betrayed. (For one thing, they're not exactly "high info" voters.) Georgia-6 next week is probably a better test, and a race in Montana is coming up soon, too -- both have serious candidates, which wasn't exactly a given here in Kansas.
One big hole the Democrats have dug for themselves is that they've lost sight of the notion of a public interest as they've pursued special interest donors. They need people to understand that there are large aggregates of people whose interests are being trampled on in the mad rush to satisfy the big lobbies. Secondly, they need to bring back the notion of countervailing power: the idea that government can level the playing field so that people who don't have power bases (like businesses) can get a fair shake. One can argue that the Republicans have far too much power, so it would be only prudent to tilt back toward Democracy.
Of course, it would be terrific to get rid of the exalted role of money in politics, but as long as the Republicans think that works to their favor, and as long as they have any substantial power, that won't happen. The next best thing is to make people constantly aware of the tinge of political corruption, and that would be an easier task for Democrats if they'd stop indulging in it so conspicuously. (And yes, that means stop nominating Clintons and their cronies.) What Democrats need more than anything is to re-establish a bond of trust among the voters. Republicans do this by exploiting the prejudices and rage of their target audience. Democrats are hard pressed to compete on that level. The only real chance they have to succeed is to become trustworthy. To do this they need to recruit plain-spoken candidates who understand what it means and takes to fight for the underprivileged. James Thompson is just that, and if he can make KS-4 competitive, think what more candidates like him can do all across the nation.
Sunday, November 13. 2016
I suppose I should write something about last week's election. I've been sick to my stomach all week, feeling chronic maladies that make me wonder how many of the ill consequences I will actually hang on to experience. Admittedly, this reasoned forbiding was made more personal by the death and funeral of a friend and the sufferings of another. It probably didn't help that I've spent so much of my time re-reading old notebooks and blog posts going back to 2001, where I offer a strongly worded and reasoned accounting of the ongoing disaster Billmon liked to refer to as the Cheney Administration. (I haven't gotten up to the Obama era yet -- itself a lengthy chronicle of growing dismay, especially at the mental illness that so many Republicans have fallen into, but also at the haplessness of Democrats, especially Obama.)
Since 2001, I've written some five million words in the notebook. The majority of them have been on music, and I've occasionally mentioned movies, television, books, and more personal matters, but at least one million of those words have been addressed to clearly political topics (especially war). A few people do appreciate what I've had to say, but I've never managed to attract any attention beyond old friends and folks who initially tuned in for music reviews. So when confronted with results like last week's, I can't help but feel that I've wasted fifteen years of my life. I've never been, nor ever will be, a political activist, let alone a nuts and bolts political strategist. I'm starting to feel like I should hang it up, focus on other projects, and let others carry on.
Still, I guess I do have a few things to say. I haven't read many of the post-mortems, least of all the efforts of the usual suspects to shift blame (but for some examples, see Annie Karni: Clinton aides blame loss on everything but themselves). Rather, I did what I usually do, and looked at some numbers. (I mostly got these from Wikipedia and Google, perhaps not the most authoritative sources, but likely to be close to accurate.) First, they show that there was no groundswell of support for Trump. He got 817 thousand votes less than Romney did in 2012 (while losing by 5 million votes), and he only got 168 thousand more votes than McCain in 2008 (while losing by 9.5 million votes). In total votes, the Republican share has been effectively flat over the last three presidential elections. If the voter base has grown (which would be expected given that the population has grown), you could even argue that the Republican share has been declining. They didn't win this time because they gained ground. They merely lost less than Clinton did: she finished with 5.4 million fewer votes than Obama got in 2012, and even so was only done in by a quirk in where those votes were distributed, a bias rigged into the electoral system.
You might wonder about the effect third parties had, but it was negligible. After polling close to 9% for most of the season, Gary Johnson collapsed at the end, receiving 3.22% of the vote. Jill Stein suffered a comparable collapse, dropping from 3% peak polls to less than 1% (0.96%). Both of those candidates ran in 2008, and both did better this time (Johnson was up 2.23%, Stein 0.60%), but their 2.83% increase was a tiny fraction of the increased unfavorable ratings of this year's major party candidates. If Clinton could have magically counted all of Stein's votes, her plurality would have been larger -- as it was, Clinton received 439 thousand more votes nationwide than Trump did -- but even a 1.3% popular vote margin wouldn't have been enough to flip the electoral college in her favor (she would have picked up Michigan and Wisconsin, but not Pennsylvania -- Stein got 48,912 votes in Pennsylvania, but Trump led Clinton by 67,636). At most Stein accounts for one-sixth of Clinton's deficit.
In the end, it's hard to see anyone other than Clinton to blame for that 5.5 million vote drop off. Indeed, one can argue that her deficit was even larger against reasonable expectations. Economic indicators have generally been favorable, and Obama was enjoying his highest approval numbers in a many years. Moreover, Trump was a glaringly deficient, utterly ridiculous opponent: Clinton's poll numbers surged after each of three debates when viewers could see them side-by-side, even more so after the party conventions. She appeared to have the more unified party behind her. And she had more money than Trump (although Trump had pulled ahead of her in "dark money" and benefited from millions the Kochs and others plowed into down-ballot races). So you have to ask: why didn't enough people come out and vote for her?
In some cases they did: she ran ahead of her polls in Nevada, where the "get out the vote" campaign was focused on Latinos (and Democrats feared losing a critical Senate seat). But I have to wonder if she had any effective "ground game" at all in states where polls showed her leading, especially the states that ultimately sunk her: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Could be that Democrats were over-confident there, or just lackadaisical: how many people there didn't vote because they assumed their votes weren't needed? (And how many were turned away by nasty voter suppression laws?) As I understand it, Clinton didn't appear in Wisconsin after the primary. And while she did campaign in Pennsylvania, the big push there was to win over suburban Republicans, not to fortify the party base.
On the other hand, the Koch network seems to have put most of their money into down-ticket races, notably in defending endangered Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida -- all successfully, coincidentally tilting those states for Trump. (Also Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, and Ohio, where Trump was expected to win -- Clinton didn't even contest Indiana or Missouri, although both states should be competitive. The Democrats did win three close Senate races, all in states Clinton won: Illinois, Nevada, and New Hampshire.)
All along, I basically felt that if Clinton could run a "get out the vote" operation comparable to Obama's in 2008-12, she would win handily. If any lesson has become a commonplace over the last 10-20 years, it's that you win elections by motivating your base and getting them out to vote. The bottom line is that Trump did that, and despite her advantages Clinton did not do an adequate job. What was unusual this year was that the primary motivator was fear and loathing of the other side, and that in turn led voters to excuse a lot of deficiencies in their own candidate. Of the two, Clinton's failure is far more spectacular, and far more damning, than Trump's success.
For starters, Clinton had a lot more to work with than Trump did. No major party candidate had ever had anything like the disapproval ratings of Trump. Moreover, he could be attacked on numerous fronts, starting with the gross dysfunctionality of his party's agenda and their obstruction against any constructive attempts to solve proven problems (e.g., health care, finance regulation, climate change). I think it was a tactical error on Clinton's part to focus instead on personal issues -- a tactic that Trump made irresistibly easy, but doing so exposed her own personality faults to greater scrutiny, and she could go overboard, especially with that "nuclear codes" thing which also reminded voters that the notoriously hawkish and anti-Russian Clinton could just as easily get them blown up. (From Karni's article above: "They explained that internal polling from May showed that attacking Trump on the issue of temperament was a more effective message." Internal? From May?)
Just before the election, Trump rolled out an ad that was quickly dismissed as anti-semitic: the problem was that aside from Clinton, all the "bad" people in the ad were Jewish (although they weren't identified as such); and since what made them "bad" was that they "control the levers of power in Washington," favor "global special interests," and "put money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations," that evokes the old anti-semitic trope of a secretive global Jewish cabal pulling strings all around the world. On the other hand, the thrust of the ad was plainly true (as far as it went): for several decades now, Washington has molded public policy to benefit special interests, especially large financial organizations, and Hillary Clinton was very much a cog in this process. I hadn't heard about the ad when I first saw it, so I was focusing on the explicit message, and for a while I thought it would have made a terrific Jill Stein spot. Then Trump came on, and of course it's ridiculous to think that he'll change any of this -- if ever there was a guy angling to get his share of the graft, it's Trump -- but his final pitch turned out to be prophetic: he proclaimed the election the last chance Americans had to stop Crooked Hillary, and that was one simple, concrete task they could carry out. And so, just enough people voted for Trump (and just not quite enough voted for Clinton) to make that much happen. After one of the most annoying and frustrating campaign seasons in American history, at least some people emerged feeling they had accomplished something. (On the other hand, had Clinton won, most Democrats would merely have been relieved, feeling they had dodged a deadly bullet, but aware that the next four years would be sheer struggle.)
The one clear result from this election is that Clinton is done. Having lost one nomination to Obama, having nearly lost another to Sanders, and now having blown a huge lead against Trump, she is a three-time loser, and at her age there's no way she's going to bounce back. And that's not only good riddance, it's a reprieve -- a chance for the Democratic Party to regroup and rebuild free of the dead weight of the Clinton legacy. Back in 1992 Bill Clinton came to Washington thinking he would show the Democrats a way to win in the post-Reagan oligarchy. All they had to do was to prove to the corporate masters that Democrats would be better for business than the Republicans were. As governor of Arkansas, Clinton had pioneered that formula, helping boost local outfits like Walmart and Tyson grew to become international giants. In Washington, one of the first things he did was to push NAFTA through -- over the protests of labor unions, but pointedly to subdue those unions, to weaken them and thereby proove his loyalty to his business friends. Even though Clinton managed to get reelected in 1996, his strategy could hardly be called a success: he cost the Democrats Congress in 1994, and all of his subsequent legislative accomplishments were compromises that Republicans agreed to because they understood that they only served to undercut the Democratic Party's base.
That was followed by eight years of Bush, which started with budget-busting tax cuts and ended with a complete financial meltdown and the worst depression since the 1930s -- conditions which, along with a similar loss of Congress in 2010, conspired to keep Obama from doing virtually anything significant to help his voters out. (His donors, of course, made out like bandits.) With Obama we effectively got eight more years of Clintonism, most obviously through a raft of Clinton-linked appointments, notably his hawkish secretary of state. What's happened in the 24 years since Clinton came to Washington is that inequality has blown up to unprecedented (nearly unimaginable) levels, we've been plagued by near-permanent war, and the Republicans have somehow convinced most Americans that government-by-Democrats can never work to their benefit. And they've een able to do that largely because Democrats like Hillary Clinton have played along. Her long history of complicity and collusion in all of this is the root of her problems, and it's why roughly a third of the country despises her so much they're willing to risk a fool like Donald Trump as president. (And in a country where 40% of the people have been turned off and never bother to vote, that's all it takes.)
I still find it almost impossible to imagine Trump as president, but I'm even more disturbed by what happened in the Congressional elections. The Republican Congress since 2010 has been nothing short of a public embarrassment. Most Republicans have been inveterate obstructionists, with nearly all adhering to extreme (and dysfunctional) ideological positions. The Democrats should have made Congress the central issue this election, much as Harry Truman won the 1948 election by campaigning against a Republican "do nothing" Congress. And if most Americans had clearly understood that message, they surely would have flipped both the House and Senate to the Democrats. But none of that happened. Sure, Democrats made modest gain: two Senate seats and seven House seats, but that left the Republicans in control of both chambers, with fat chance that Trump use the presidential veto will to tamper down their insanity (as Obama, at least, could do).
The only upside is that presumably Congressional Republicans won't feel compelled to wreck their own president's administration. They'll let him do that himself, although I full well expect them to contribute. The Republicans have been playing a weird game where they never get blamed for their obstruction or inaction. That's been going on since 1994, minus a respite when Bush was president. In effect, they've extorted the American people into giving them complete power this time -- recall that Republicans were promising to hound Clinton even if she won the election, and had vowed never to confirm any of her judicial nominees. A Trump presidency spares us that kind of discord (although he could still order prosecutors to go after Clinton -- something that would smack of petty vindictiveness, not that that's beneath him).
What the Democrats have long needed to do was to rebuild a real, effective party that squarely defends and promotes the interests of the majority of their voters. They haven't done this because the Clintons (and Obama) have been so remarkably successful at raising money from well-heeled donors, notably in finance and high-tech. The Republicans have a long head start building their party from the ground up, recruiting compliant apparatchiki to run for precinct and entry-level offices, giving them a coherent ready-built program and talking points, and promoting those who toe the line most effectively. This has resulted in Republican domination of state and local offices, and their gerrymandering has given the Republicans an edge in the House (even when Democrats get more votes). They have organizations like ALEC crafting pet legislation, plus think tanks and their extraordinary media network.
The Democrats have nothing like this, not least because they don't have a coherent program. They merely promise not to be as awful as Republicans, without even fully explaining why that might be, or what it might entail. If there's a silver lining in this election, it's that the DNC will abandon its "cult of personality" that only supports the person at the top (Clinton or Obama) and start to work toward rebuilding the party from the bottom up, formulating a coherent challenge to Republican right-wing dominance. This election debacle will cost us dearly: most obviously, the era when the courts would use constitutional rights to protect us from oppressive government will come to a quick end.
How bad it might all get is hard to forecast. Trump started his campaign by occasionally straying from conservative orthodoxy, but wound up pledging allegiance to nearly every wretched idea the Republican Party has embraced. As president, the main question will be whether he succumbs to ideologues like Mike Pence and/or Paul Ryan, or whether he resists and takes a less self-destructive course. (He has, for instance, already backtracked on Obamacare.) Same for foreign policy: does he provoke more war, or back away from destructive confrontations? I don't expect in any way that he'll become "Putin's puppet" but there are several areas where a closer relationship with Russia could reduce world tensions. On the other hand, no prospective Trump underling fills me with more dread than Michael Flynn -- I find him far more worrying than Trump's notorious "temperament."
Beyond that I don't really care to speculate. Like Reagan and Bush, his fetish for "free enterprise" and contempt for government will foster unimaginable corruption. Meanwhile, the usual Republican nostrums will fail, often catastrophically. We in Kansas have gotten more than a taste of how bad Republican fantasies can turn out. Now it's your turn. This isn't the first time I've been so sorely disappointed by the American people -- the Nixon landslide in 1972 and the Reagan landslide in 1984, both in spite of overwhelming evidence of malfeasance and sociopathy, were especially terrible, although Bush's narrow win in 2004 was even more painful. But we've grown up in a nation that's been warped by perpetual war with the world, a nation that has come to celebrate inequality and inequity, that has grown vicious and surly even while thinking itself beyond reproach. Trump has finally given America a face as ugly as the reputation we've garnered over decades. It still feels like a bad dream, but some day we must wake up and face ourselves. Hopefully that will be sobering.
Tuesday, November 8. 2016
While looking for jazz reviews tonight, I ran across a post I had written on May 12, 2006 -- that's ten-and-a-half years ago -- titled "Mobsters in Suits." At the moment it appears as though the 2016 election is ending in the ugliest way ever: with the Democratic Party nominee winning a clear plurality of the popular (democratic) vote, but the Anti-Democratic Party capturing the quintessentially Republican Electoral College, and thereby electing yet another minority president -- a rich guy with media savvy but no political experience, traits that early in the primaries reminded me of his fellow billionaire and kindred spirit, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. I might as well just quote it here, and leave it to you to figure out the relevance:
The piece concluded with some quotes and comments on Stephen Colbert's White House Correspondents Dinner keynote, which you can look up. As for the relevance of Berlusconi, here's what Kathleen Geier tweeted tonight:
My only additional comment at this time is that while ten years ago I thought America was relatively immune to the sort of criminality that Berlusconi practiced in Italy, it is less so now. How much less remains to be seen, but we have witnessed and suffered through eight years of relentless obstruction and sabotage against Obama's presidency, with essentially no efforts to -- indeed no conception of -- constructively address the nation's myriad problems. And now it seems like the voters have handed two branches of government over to a party hell bent on destruction.
Wednesday, October 12. 2016
Continuing along as I dig through my old notebooks for jazz reviews. Here's my post from April 11, 2003, noting what turned out to be the high point of American triumphalism for the entire Iraq misadventure:
Also found this letter from April 15, 2003, also on the looting of Baghdad:
Earlier in April I pulled out a terrific quote from Gerald Colby's Thy Will Be Done: The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil, pointing out that back in the 1950s Rockefeller advocated an accelerated arms race in an attempt to bankrupt the Soviet Union. Rockefeller certainly knew a thing or two about the advantages businessmen with deep pockets have, and this alone pretty much explains the next 35 years of the Cold War. I also posted a note comparing America's experiences in Vietnam and Iraq, where I wrote:
Back in summer 2003 before it all turned to shit, someone "in the Bush administration" coined the saying, "anyone can go to Baghdad; real men go to Tehran." Sen. Sam Brownback took the bait and introduced a bill to "destabilize" Iran. (Not that we didn't count him as a "real man" before -- you could tell from the way he treated women.) The Wichita Eagle explained: "Using the same philosophy that drove the war in Iraq, the Kansas senator is leading a drive for new leadership for its eastern neighbor." This prompted me to write a letter (June 23, 2003), again explaining the obvious:
From November 12, 1963:
The Iraq War, indeed the entire Global War on Terror, was about us too: specifically, America's self-conception of its superpowers. What bothered America's "leaders" about 9/11 had nothing to do with the death or destruction -- we willing suffer ten times as many gun deaths each year and far more damage in major hurricanes -- and everything to do with smacking down the impudence to test American power. After all, if we don't do so, today's loss will only be the first of many dominos to fall.
Tempted to quote the post from February 24, 2004, describing a Dick Cheney's fundraising appearance in Wichita, where he spent 30 minutes and raised $250k. The report noted that his security costs to the state of Kansas were $120k, not counting the disruptions from shutting down the airport and the main highway into town, nor his own travel costs and security detail. Sure makes it seem like public funding of elections would be more cost effective, not to mention that it would remove the aura of corruption that surrounds the entire process. Further down I reported:
I wish my subsequent analysis had been smarter, but I gave too much credit to the "logic" of tax cuts as stimulus and didn't yet fully realize that giving rich people more money to "invest" only increased their appetites for asset bubbles and other predatory practices. In hindsight, we now that's pretty much all that happened in the "boom years" under Bush. (OK, I suppose you could add deficit war spending and a huge run up in oil prices due to shortages caused by those wars, but the former mostly moved money abroad to be burned up, and the latter just enriched the oil barons, again mostly abroad.)
On March 21, 2004, I assessed the Iraq War a year after Bush launched it. As I noted, "Bush is still marching blithely into the unknown, and he's dragging us with him." I couldn't offer a comprehensive analysis, but did jot down a list of bullet points, including "It is clear now that the US/UK case for going to war against Iraq was founded on [little more than] arrogance and ignorance, and presented as [nothing more than] a blatant list of lies." (I'm tempted today to edit out the bracketed words.) Another point:
On March 12, 2004, I wrote a fair amount about the 1953 CIA coup in Iran -- the subject of Stephen Kinzer's All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror -- and concluded with this note on the leading Democratic candidate to challenge Bush in 2004 (although it would have been equally valid for virtually any possible Democratic nominee, especially the then-junior senator from New York):
From April 24, 2004, following a note on Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, which identifies Bush and Ashcroft as not that far removed from the religious conceits of the book's killers:
At present, Donald Trump is vying for precisely this claim. And while he strikes one as a far less devout person, the entitlement he feels by virtue of his class, wealth, and celebrity (not to mention race and sex) seems to elevate him beyond any shred of self-doubt -- a common trait of mad would-be emperors throughout history.
From April 15, 2004, in response to Sharon's plan to unilaterally withdraw Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip (something flacks like Dennis Ross praised as a step toward peace):
In the months that followed, Israel made great sport out of flying at supersonic speeds over Gaza, rattling houses with sonic booms -- a practice they only gave up when nearby Israeli towns complained. In the years that followed, Israel launched one major military assault after another on Gaza, as well as hundreds of more limited bombing runs and cannon fire. Meanwhile, Gaza was bottled up, its borders frequently sealed, while the economy atrophied.
Found this forgotten item on May 13, 2004, reminding us that US confusion over and participation in Syria's civil war goes back well before Arab Spring:
I've run across several obituaries in the notebook so far, most memorably for my cousin Bob Burns and our friend Bob Ashley. On June 6, 2004, I wrote this one about people I didn't know personally:
Saturday, October 8. 2016
Finished copying the Jazz Prospecting reviews into a work file that will eventually be folded into the Jazz Consumer Guide book(s). Next obvious step is to move on to Rhapsody Streamnotes -- a much larger task, with a fair amount of redundancy up through 2013 and new stuff thereafter. But instead I wondered whether I might find some old stuff in the Notebook, at least up to when I started collecting my Jazz Prospecting notes in the Jazz Consumer Guide directory. Indeed, I found a few things going back to 2001.
I also waded through a bunch of old writings, some of which I thought worth reprinting here. Like this letter I wrote to the Wichita Eagle back on December 30, 2001, in response to a "puff piece" called "Bush's rookie year a success."
After quoting the letter, I added:
From December 5, 2001 (I'm reading forward by months, but backwards within months, so please bear with this idiosyncrasy):
From December 4, 2001:
From December 3, 2001, a point in time I later referred to as the "feel good" days of the American War in Afghanistan, from my comment on a New Yorker piece by Hendrik Hertzberg:
Such views were pretty unusual at the time, but still right on the mark today. There are some earlier posts on 9/11 that I skipped over before I noticed the Bush letter. Also music, movies, and more than a few dinner notes.
On October 25, 2002 I lamented "feeling much more over the hill than seems to be the norm for [my age, 52]," and also bemoaned the sudden death of Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone and the approaching elections, which would give Bush control of both houses of Congress:
From December 30, 2002, in the buildup to Bush's Iraq misadventure, I found myself arguing not just against "liberal hawks" but hardcore pro-war "leftists":
On January 29, 2003, I wrote something about economic policy which I still mean to follow up on some day:
I contrasted this to more commonplace approaches from the left like stimulating demand by raising the wage floor, giving labor more clout to negotiate wages, and increasing government spending (to and beyond New Deal levels). Of course, I favor all of those things, but I'm offering this as something that's rarely discussed (and when it is, usually in negative terms like greater antitrust vigilance).
On January 23, 2003, I wrote a letter about the coming Iraq War (addressed to Wichita Eagle columnist Bob Getz).
I won't bother to quote it here, but in January 2003 I wrote a post on who got elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and who didn't, with what still reads to me like pretty solid analysis. Can't do that any more, but at the time I still knew a thing or two about the sport.
Next post down I referred to Sam Brownback as "our ultra-slimy Senator." From February 19, 2003, I see a post about a plan to keep increases in electric and gas rates secret so as to not tip the utilities' hands to the terrorists.
On March 18, 2003, I wrote the first of many pieces about the Bush War in Iraq as a bad fact and not just a bad idea. Long before I knew that when the time came I'd refer to the Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. The post starts out:
Nothing I wrote that day requires amendment, although I didn't manage to anticipate many of the subsequent debacles. At least, as this paragraph further down shows, I didn't underestimate the unexpected:
I wrote much more about Iraq in the following days, weeks, months, and years. I'll leave it to you to look that up. But throughout the entire notebook period I feel that I've been pretty consistent, and my key insights have been vindicated time and again. Most key is that the US made a colossal mistake in resorting to military force after 9/11, especially in attacking Afghanistan. Bush bears special blame because he was in the unique position of being able to stop the march to war after 9/11. Of course, he didn't, and arguably couldn't, not just because of the institutional inertia of the American war machine but because of his own peculiar personal and political history.
But also note that I wrote quite a lot about Israel/Palestine during the 18 months from 9/11 to Iraq. That was the peak period of the Israeli counter-intifada when Ariel Sharon destroyed what was left of the previous decade's "Oslo peace process," which had begun with much fanfare at Clinton's White House, but which Bush had no interest in salvaging -- indeed, Bush and Sharon shared a preference for "solving" conflicts by brute force, a corollary which only served to worsen each conflict.
Just for perspective, I'll also pull some music bits from the same period. For instance, on February 9, 2003, I wrote: "Closing in on 8000 records rated." The latest count is 27198, so since that point I've averaged about 1400 records per year, or 27 per week (which, yeah, seems like a pretty typical week). The thing that accelerated those numbers was, first, writing consumer guide columns which got some publicists to send me free music, and second, various streaming and downloading services (especially Rhapsody).
I found my first (21st century) Pazz & Jop ballot filed away on December 20, 2002 (after I had started writing for Michael Tatum at Static Multimedia):
As of January 6, 2003, my 2002 A-list was 62 albums long, growing to 77 when I stopped adding records to the file. By contrast, my 2001 A-list only had 35 albums by January 2, 2002 (eventually growing to 53), but I rather prefer my mock 2001 Pazz & Jop ballot -- what I would have sent in had I been invited (which I was not):
Note that Molvaer eventually dropped to 13th, with Buck 65: Man Overboard (Metaforensics) slipping into 8th, The Highlife Allstars: Sankofa (Network) 9th, and Shakira: Laundry Service (Epic) 11th.
Friday, September 16. 2016
Trump up 44.6% to Clinton's 44.5% in TPM's tracking poll together. Electoral college split 254-242 for Clinton, 42 "tossup" (need 270 to win). I tweeted:
I also replied to myself:
Was tempted to add something to the effect that maybe Bernie Sanders could rescue her campaign. We saw him with Seth Myers last night and he made a totally coherent, credible pitch for Clinton, based not at all on personal characteristics but on real political issues and commitments made in the Democratic Party platform.
Still, my gut reaction was to swear off politics until November, then vote for Clinton so I could say "don't look at me" when Trump wins. The silver lining is that Clinton losing to Trump is pretty sure to destroy both major political parties, at least in the sense of discrediting their old controllers. Clinton's loss would be the end of her family control of the Democratic Party, creating a huge opening for new leaders to emerge, and those leaders would define themselves by how effective they are in opposing a certainly disastrous Trump regime.
As for the Republicans, the only thing that breathed life into the GOP these past eight years was rage against an administration that they scarcely bothered to understand, instead taking its very existence as some sort of personal affront. With Trump winning they will lose their drive. Rather, they'll be forced to backpeddle and make excuses for an administration that is virtually certain to make one stupid mistake after another, not least temporary "successes" because at this point all Republican agendas are based on defective ideology.
Sure, Trump winning will hurt lots of people -- in the long run I'd even say everyone -- and that's reason enough to vote against him. But if people can't see that now -- and it's really glaringly obvious, isn't it? -- then maybe they'll have to learn the hard way.
Laura retweeted this from Connor Kilpatrick:
On the other hand, Trump would have been hard pressed to charge that Sanders is crooked and a liar, which are the charges that are doing the real damage to Clinton -- even though, sure, she's a piker in both respects compared to Trump. Her own aura of culpability -- all those irresponsible innuendos about "shadows" and "questions raised" that major media never seem to get around to disposing of -- evidently makes it that much harder for her to challenge Trump on those same grounds. But Sanders suffers from no such taint, which would have made him a clear contrast to Trump.
I think that if there is any one thing that the American people overwhelmingly agree on -- much, much more than their "representative" politicians do (or more tellingly, are willing to do anything about) -- it's that Washington is a cesspool of corruption. Trump is tapping into that by claiming to be an outsider, a contrast that consummate insiders like the Clintons make easy, even for someone who freely admits to having bought influence (including from the Clintons -- recall the old joke that we know Iraq has WMD because we still have the receipts?) -- which should make him as big a part of the problem as the politicians (but, as with sex, we tend to go easier on those who buy than those who sell).
On the other hand, if Trump had to run against Sanders, sure he'd try to paint him as some far-out wild-eyed radical -- and no doubt Trump's more rabid supporters would add "Commie" to the charges, but red-baiting like that seems to have lost much of its punch (not least from overuse against Obama, although pre-Cold War it was also ineffective against FDR). That isn't to deny that such charges would resonate among the donor class: Trump would have a clear money advantage against Sanders that he doesn't have against Clinton. But turning the contest into a referendum on the 1% vs. the 99% won't necessarily work in the billionaire's favor. (And if Bloomberg entered, as he threatened, wouldn't that just have split the 1% vote?)
I got a response to my initial tweet from Robert Christgau:
First point: "inevitable." Hillary Clinton locked up the Democratic Party donor money so early that no mainstream Democrat dared to run against her. OK, O'Malley, but he started on the assumption that she wouldn't run and tried to pass his lame campaign off as a fallback, in case, you know, she got sick and incapacitated, or got indicted, or ran afoul of those "2nd Amendment People." Sanders, on the other hand, had issues to run on, and wound up totally bypassing the party's donor network. But Biden, for instance, gave up a huge structural advantage -- the last four sitting VP's who ran (Nixon, Humphrey, Bush, Gore) easily won their party's nomination -- rather than oppose Clinton. Maybe this inevitability wasn't explicit -- and, sure, it never extended to a guaranteed win over any Republican -- but before the Sanders campaign kicked in as a real possibility even I was pretty much reconciled to Hillary being the nominee. The clincher for me was reading that she expected to raise more than a billion dollars for the race. Not even the Kochs were promising that much.
I don't know what Bob's second sentence means -- seems like a victim of Twitter compression. I disagree that Sanders "lost big." Clinton won a solid 56% of the votes, a surprisingly lame showing given her initial advantages in recognition, money, and party organization, and over time she had to move notably toward Sanders' positions to stay competitive. As for attack ads, sure, neither candidate waged a scorched earth campaign, with Sanders being especially generous in waving off any concerns about her email controversy. Clearly, neither candidate wanted to split or weaken the party against the Republican nominee, but also both realized that the sort of gross slanders the Republicans use were unlikely to gain any traction among Democratic voters.
Still, I don't see any point about the general election one can draw from this. We don't know whether Sanders would have been buried under a full-throated "red smear" attack, but we do know that Clinton has suffered a great deal from endlessly repeated attacks on her honesty and integrity, and that those issues have made it harder for her to gain from Trump's same (in many ways more blatant) faults. Back during the primaries many Clinton supporters argued that she was more electable than Sanders -- that she had been "vetted," having withstood the very worst the Republicans could do to her -- whereas they feared that Sanders would be ground to dust like Henry Wallace in 1948. All Sanders supporters could counter with were actual polls showing him doing better against most Republicans (but especially Trump) than she would do. All I can say is that she's turned out to be more compromised and more vulnerable than any of us expected.
Sure, "blow" is my word, and true, she's only blown her lead (about 5-6 points at post-convention peak), not the whole race. Even today she might still win, and there's still way too much time left until votes are cast. She's sitting on a lot of money, which has yet to blanket the airwaves, and perhaps more importantly organize that "ground game." The election will ultimately hinge on how many people (and who) show up and vote. Obama excelled at that in 2012, while he let the Democrats flail in 2010 and 2014 -- an instance of selfishness at the top of the ticket that her husband practically invented.
But what's different this time is Americans' Distaste for Both Trump and Clinton Is Record-Breaking. Motivation to vote this year largely hinges on who you detest the most. As the chart shows, back in March/April Trump was significantly more disliked than Clinton (looks like about 54% vs. 37%, the two highest figures going back to 1980). In The race is tightening for a painfully simple reason, Matthew Yglesias notes that her favorable/unfavorable poll split is now 42-56% ("truly, freakishly bad" -- chart here). Sure, Trump's is even worse, 38-59% (chart here), but has been relatively steady while her ratings have dipped, and being the "hate" candidate he's uniquely positioned to take advantage of her disapproval.
Still, steering the campaign toward personal character issues isn't very smart when only 3% of the electorate view you less unfavorably. Of course, they're doing it because they realize how shady and shabby a candidate Trump is, but also because they don't understand how exposed Clinton appears to an electorate that is so sick of and disgusted by Washington's culture of corrupt insider favors. If they keep going down this path they're going to wind up reprising Edwin Edwards' winning campaign slogan when he ran for governor of Louisiana and was fortunate enough to draw KKK honcho David Duke as his opponent: "Elect the crook. It's important."
But there is an alternative, which is to refocus the campaign on left-right economic issues, and appeal to the vast majority's sense of economic justice (and pocketbooks). There's so much mud in the water people will believe whatever they want about character issues, but there's no way to spin Trump's policies into something that helps a popular majority. Still, more important than persuade the occasional Trump fan to switch sides is to convince everyone else that they have much more at stake than stroking Hillary's vanity.
FiveThirtyEight still gives Hillary a 60% chance of winning, wtih slim leads both in popular vote (46.5-44.3%) and electoral votes (289-249). They show Trump having gained the lead in four states that had previously been in the Democratic column: Florida (51.6%), North Carolina (54.6%), Ohio (57.6%), and Iowa (61.8%). Trump would have to hang on to those four, plus pick up Nevada (48.5%) and/or New Hampshire (36.1%) to win. Trump's next closest states are Colorado (34.5%), Pennsylvania (30.6%) and Wisconsin (30.4%). The actual percentage spreads are much closer, with Clinton leading by 3.7% in Wisconsin, 3.4% in Pennsylvania, 2.8% in Colorado, 2.8% in New Hampshire, and 0.3% in Nevada, whereas Trump leads by 0.2% in Florida, 0.7% in North Carolina, 1.3% in Ohio, and 2.2% in Iowa.
It's also worth noting that she runs worse in four-way polls (i.e., the real world) than head-to-head against Trump, which is to say that when restricted to an either-or choice, more people who dislike both see Trump as the lesser evil. Johnson is polling about 9%, and Stein 2.7% -- as Yglesias notes Stein is actually doing better than Nader did in 2000. Clinton has had a problem all year long in that even when she had a big lead she was never able to crack 50% nationwide.
 Before Biden, the only sitting VP since 1952 who didn't run for his party's nomination under the circumstances was Cheney, who took a rather perverse pride in his unelectability, and whose favorable ratings as the 2008 election approached were down around 9%, about half of Bush's. (In 1952 Truman VP Alben Barkley briefly ran, but withdrew due to considerations about his age  and failing health.) Sure, three of the four lost, but by very close margins. Offhand, I can't recall an open Democratic primary with less than five candidates. This year, the Republicans came up with sixteen -- evidently nearly every billionaire in the party felt entitled to field his own jockey, with Trump somehow gaining extra street cred for running himself. The Democratic Party may be at a disadvantage, but they're not that short of billionaires, but they all made a calculated decision not to cross the Clintons -- even though they saw eight years ago that she could be beat, and should have known that she'd be even more vulnerable this time.
Monday, September 5. 2016
I didn't get around to writing up a Weekend Roundup yesterday. I was working on something else (more below) and, as I tweeted last night, I've really gotten sick and tired of this election and its dominance of the news cycle. At least we had a fairly serious earthquake to distract us: about 100 miles south of Wichita, in near Pawnee OK, a town I've occasionally driven through, noting the red sandstone building in the center of town that is now ruined. We were woken with about a minute of ominous shaking, but aside from a few knick-knacks tumbling we were spared any damage. Oklahoma's state government responded to the 5.6 earthquake, the worst in the state's history, by ordering that 37 waste water injection wells be shut down (out of 4200 in the state).
In case you haven't been following the story, up until around 2006 Oklahoma suffered an average of two small (3.0) earthquakes per year. Since then the numbers have increased astronomically, to over 900 (3.0 and higher) last year. These directly correlate with waste water injection -- not the same thing as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which also injects toxic fluids deep into the earth -- a practice which has increased dramatically over the last decade. (Probably due to Obama's coddling of the oil and gas industry, not something he gets credit for nor that he brags about, but his administration has reversed decades of declining oil production, mostly by increasing the yields of older, largely depleted oil patches like Oklahoma's.)
No earthquake this morning (at least nothing above 4.0 -- I've arranged to get USGS notices whenever one strikes in Oklahoma or Kansas). Instead, when I got up today, my wife told me that Twitter was all abuzz about recent pieces claiming that Hillary Clinton was being done dirty by the New York Times -- notably, Paul Krugman: Hillary Clinton Gets Gored, and Josh Marshall: You Failed, Chumps. As it happens, I had already flagged two precursor pieces for Weekend Roundup: Katherine Krueger: NYT Scrambles to Rewrite Botched Story on Trump's Immigration Speech, and Annie Rees: In NYT's Hillary Clinton Coverage, An Obsession With 'Clouds' and 'Shadows'. As someone who's never been a fan of the New York Times, I don't find any of this surprising. It's inevitable that reporters will shade their limited view of the facts with prejudices, including desire to please the corporate hierarchy above them, and the editors who assign and select and (let's face it) edit their stories are one step closer to the moneyed power that runs their world. So with Trump flailing, of course they'll cut him slack on scandals that dwarf any hints of Clinton wrongdoing. And they certainly won't point out the more basic difference: that while Clinton stands accused of using her influence to help other people ("pay to play") the only person Trump has ever sought to help was himself.
Still, I wouldn't get all that gloomy about the Times' double standards. The right has made hay for decades by attacking the biases of the "liberal media" -- the New York Times serving double duty, first as an icon of the former, then as a source of legitimacy and validation when they cower to the right (e.g., in their promotion of the Iraq War, or more recently in their adoption of the Clinton Cash book). In doing so they've stolen a page from the Earl Weaver management handbook: always argue with the umpires; even when you lose today it makes a bit more likely to give you the next call. In retrospect it was crsystal clear that the mainstream media spun story after story for Bush and against Gore in 2000. I think that's a tendency that is inherent in their trade, and you see it happening all over again for Trump and against Clinton. So I can't blame Krugman, Marshall, et al., for raising a stink -- Earl Weaver would do no less.
But what I do blame Krugman, Marshall, et al., for is their earlier claims that Clinton has already "been vetted" -- that, unlike Bernie Sanders, she has already faced the worst smear campaigns the right can throw up, and has overcome them. Really? If she had really withstood them, she wouldn't be stuck with negative favorability ratings all year long, and she wouldn't be unable to crack 50% against Donald Trump in any nationwide poll. Moreover, she's not just facing the old Whitewater and Benghazi charges, which were whipped up from practically nothing. Her problem today is relatively new stuff, things a smart person running for president should have known better than. While I think her private email server is utter crap, the basic thrust of Peter Schweizer's lurid bestseller -- Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, published with the New York Times' blessing in May 2015 -- is basically true. Indeed, the Clintons themselves validated it when they released their tax returns, showing a $12 million annual income from a skill set consisting of little more than shaking hands and giving speeches.
Sure, you can argue that the Clinton Foundation isn't doing anything different than, say, GW Bush's Foundation -- both are basically receptacles for delayed graft for the many favors both presidents showered on their backers -- but one difference is that Laura Bush isn't running for president (and Jeb, not that he ever came close, isn't obviously connected), so only the Clintons have set themselves up for selling graft futures. Maybe that wasn't the intent, but her decision to run made the Foundation inevitably look like a giant political slush fund, and she's never had the credibility to overcome that. That fact is, having set up the Foundation, she shouldn't have run. Too bad the 22nd Amendment didn't also bar the spouses and children of presidents from running. After all, wasn't a major point of the Revolution of 1776 to put an end to aristocratic rule?
To give you an idea of how bad a candidate Hillary Clinton is, see Barry Blitt's Polls: If the Election Were Held Today . . . cartoon. I'm not denying that we're stuck with her. The alternative is Donald Trump, and he is clearly the greater evil in every respect I can reckon, including measures of personal character and integrity that I think are overrated. I wouldn't even say that she's the "lesser evil" -- I'd say she's objectively 'not bad" in a good many respects (admittedly a big one, war, is not one of those). I'll be pleased if she wins, and saddened if she doesn't. But one thing I don't need is another 90 days of wealth-squandering least-common-denominator campaigning to sway my mind. Like, I think, most sentient Americans, I'm settled. Now, please, shut up.
Saturday, August 13. 2016
One of the more annoying themes pundits like to spin about Donald Trump is how he represents some sort of populist backlash against the elites who run the country. To do so coherently you have to construct strawmen both of the elites and of the people. Coming up with a definition of elites that does not include Trump is an especially daunting challenge: he is, after all, extremely rich, very famous, a guy who flies around in private planes and helicopters, who lives in a postmodern castle in the heart of Manhattan. Sure, elite could mean many other things that Trump decidedly is not: brilliant scientists, stellar athletes, remarkable chefs and fashion designers, actors who can play someone other than themselves. But rich and famous counts for a lot in America: it gets you invited to hobnob with politicians and gives you free access to the media, privileges that, having been born rich, Trump has enjoyed nearly all his life.
Then there are the people. You can't have populism without people, but Trump's people aren't exactly a random cross-section of America -- what Bill Clinton referred to when he said he wanted a cabinet that looks like America (not that the one he picked wasn't a good deal richer and fancier dressed). Trump's cross-section is skewed white, older, and male (in almost exclusively to mostly order). But doesn't populism also have to signify some kind of economic revolt? It did in the 1990s when the Populist Party emerged in response to the worst recession American capitalism suffered (only exceeded by the Great Depression of the 1930s, and maybe the Bush meltdown of 2008). And it's certainly true that there is an economic revolt brewing all across America today, where poverty is increasing and most Americans above the poverty line are mired in stagnant wages, rising prices, and often crushing debt, while business (especially the financial sector) has recovered from 2008 and is posting record profits, with virtually all of the gains accruing to the billionaire class.
But it's not Trump's people who are behind this revolt -- those who really are down and out (or just struggling to get ahead) voted for Sanders or Clinton (if they voted at all). As Nate Silver shows (see The Mythology of Trump's 'Working Class' Support), Trump voters are significantly better off than median (average household income is $72K, about even with Cruz with but less than the $90K of Kasich and Rubio voters). They are, in short, comfortable enough they can afford to indulge their prejudices in false solutions and a candidate who won't help them in the least.
If anyone had any illusions that Trump's economic program would be a boon for billionaires and disaster for everyone else, the candidate dispelled them in two quick moves last week. First, he announced his team of economic advisers. For a quick rundown, see Andrew Ross Sorkin: Donald Trump's Economic Team Is Far From Typical, Patricia Cohen: Trump's Economic Team: Bankers and Billionaires (and All Men) and Evan Popp/Josh Israel: Donald Trump Announces Economic Policy Team: 13 Men -- not sure why these authors chose to focus on sex when the team is homogeneous in more extraordinary ways, such as their finance portfolios, and their PAC experience. Most are billionaires, and most built their fortunes on predatory financial shenanigans -- most notoriously John Paulson, who rigged up the Abacus Fund to bet against the mortgage bubble. A few may dabble in manufacturing ventures -- Steve Feinberg's company makes AR-15 assault rifles -- but only one has a manufacturing company at the base of his resume (Dan DiMicco, formerly of Nucor). None are economists, unless you count Stephen Moore (whose peerless record of bad predictions qualified him to be employed as Chief Economist at the Heritage Foundation).
Two of the advisers do have books that might be seen as signposts of a Trumpian economic nationalism, but they point in different directions, underscoring the incoherence of Trump's own blather: DiMicco's American Made: Why Making Things Will Return Us to Greatness (2015), and Peter Navarro's Crouching Tiger: What China's Militarism Means for the World (2015), but like so much of Trump's thinking they don't exactly fit together. Navarro, for instance, is more concerned with protecting business interests in East Asia against Chinese domination than bringing jobs back to America. I have no idea how DiMicco intends to rebuild America's manufacturing base, but most of Trump's advisers do have proven records of bankrupting companies and sending jobs elsewhere.
The absence of any credible economists is especially striking. Sorkin's article explains that even long-term Republican partisans like Glenn Hubbard and Greg Mankiw are keeping their distance from Trump. Sorkin also lists some major Republican donors who have been staying away -- the people Trump picked mostly paid plenty for the proximity, and are all in position to more than make their investment back if Trump wins. Trump got a lot of credit during the primaries by not being beholden to the billionaires who backed his candidates, but as you can see from this list, that's all over now. Of course, if you're smart you should have realized that being your own billionaire backer doesn't convey one iota of independence from the billionaire class -- it merely harmonizes the corruption.
Perhaps Trump could have clarified all this in his "major economic speech" in Detroit (transcript here), but when it comes down to brass tacks, Trump has little to offer other than tax breaks and deregulation for the already rich, who will then magically take their gains and invest them in American jobs -- just like they did with the tax breaks and deregulation of the Reagan and Bush eras? (Amusing quote from Trump's China-bashing section: "Just enforcing intellectual property rules alone could save millions of American jobs. According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, improved protection of America's intellectual property in China would produce more than 2 million more jobs right here in the United States." Collecting more intellectual property tariffs is the major purpose of TPP, which Trump claims he opposes.)
As Isaac Chotiner noted, the speech "was meant for Republican bigwigs as much as for passionate Trump voters" -- actually, I'd say much more for the bigwigs, as he pulled his punches on doing anything meaningful about balancing the trade deficit -- he just expects miraculous effects there from giving businesses free money. (By the way, the trade deficit actually is a boon to the finance industry, and a major driver of inequality. Some of that money shipped abroad goes to workers abroad, but a large slice of it goes to businesses, many of whom reinvest their profits in American banks which help drive up the prices of assets, benefitting the rich, not least the sticky-fingered bankers.)
The speech offers an avalanche of numbers abstracted from dubious sources, so it helps to follow with the fact checkers, like Fact-checking Donald Trump's speech to the Detroit Economic Club, to get a rough idea how selective Trump's writers were with facts and how outrageously they could spin them. I particularly appreciate this for the full context to Hillary's quote about putting "a lot of coal companies and coal miners out of business" -- actually very thoughtful on how we need to help workers and regions impacted by technology and trade, touching even. But still, you only get a rough idea -- there's much more in the speech that could have been critiqued (like, e.g., the intellectual property crap I cited above), plus it would help to provide more context for Trump's sources (e.g., when he cites the Institute for Energy Research, are you aware that it's a Koch front group?).
Some critical links in response to the speech follow. I'm again struck by how hard it is for some pundits to let go of the notion that Trump is some sort of populist. As should be glaringly obvious by now, there is no economic dimension to Trump's so-called populism. He is too much a part of the rich in America to find any fault with them. Sure, he finds fault in some trade deals, but not because he opposes trade or wants to restore tariffs -- it's just that those agreements were badly negotiated, something a more skilled dealmaker like himself wouldn't have done and could easily fix. How, however, is mysterious, presumably magic, because he doesn't have any coherent program other than his boundless faith in himself.
So what makes Trump a populist? Well, it's all in the eyes of the beholder, isn't it? Deep down, Trump's campaign is based on little more than demagogic appeals to racism and xenophobia. It celebrates a subset of the nation that is white, native-born, and Christian, and flatters them as the true Americans, the people this country used to belong to, people who feel entitled to take the country back from the traitorous scum that let those foreigners and deviants and gave them jobs and power, and that cultivates their votes.
Trump's pitch is the classic right-wing scam, first pioneered by the fascists of the 1920s and 1930s. So why dignify Trump as a populist, a movement from the 1890s which sought to elevate common people (mostly farmers at the time) by reining in the predatory practices of the rich, instead of deriding him as a fascist? I think it's because a certain class of pundit always viewed fascism and populism as two faces of the same thing: an expression of the ignorant prejudices of the lower orders. This betrays a good deal of ignorance both about the history of fascism and the current composition of Trump's movement: both have more to do with middle class fears of the masses but ultimately depend most of all on their real masters, the rich.
Robert O. Paxton, in The Anatomy of Fascism, argues that fascist movements developed in countries where aristocratic classes had been unable to repackage their political interests to have any real appeal in democratic elections. In essence, the fascists were able to broaden the appeal of conservatives by agitating the middle classes, playing to their fears of communist revolution and their various prejudices and hatreds and offering redemption through a renewed, often violent, cult of nationalism. To my mind, Paxton's focus on democratic appeal is overly narrow, as he uses it to deny that various murderous conservatives like Francisco Franco were really fascists. Curiously, his definition doesn't exclude Trump or, for that matter, much of the Republican Party at least since Newt Gingrich became party leader in the House. For twenty years (at least) Republicans have shamelessly campaigned to increase the power and wealth of the already rich, to vastly increase the degree of inequality among Americans, and they have done this by rallying a large slice -- middle-class and up, white, Christian, patriotic in the sense of being pro-military -- to their cause.
Of course, Republicans haven't advertised themselves as fascists -- Americans fought a World War to rid the world of fascism, and sought afterwards to characterize communism as an allied disorder (coming up with "totalitarianism" to group the two as opposed to our system of democracy and free enterprise). In particular, ever since Nixon launched his "southern strategy" and claimed "the silent majority" as his base, Republicans have been careful to "dog whistle" their appeals to racism. The only thing that makes Trump exceptional is that his anti-immigrant stance has been overtly racist -- certainly it doesn't extend to his Slovenian wife or his Scottish mother or his German grandparents -- and that he has refused to dissociate himself with the hard-core racists who have flocked to his campaign. (Has any presidential nominee ever had fewer American-born ancestors?) I suppose you can see from this why pundits who can't tell you the difference between fascism and populism might get confused, but is there anything more to it?
Well, Mussolini got his start leading a gang that smashed the heads of strikers. Trump hasn't done that, but he has encouraged his supporters to acts of violence against demonstrators, and most recently asked his "second amendment people" to stop his opponent, Hillary Clinton (after his convention chanted "lock her up"). Again, Republicans since Nixon have occasionally "dog whistled" their support for violence against their perceived enemies -- in particular, recall Nixon's embrace of "hard hats" who cracked the heads of peace protesters. And the threats made against Obama and Clinton by lesser Republicans and their fans are beyond counting.
I suppose you could add two more technical issues, but I suspect they're beyond the radar of most pundits. Trump's opposition to trade deals -- what you might call economic nationalism, although to be fair he doesn't -- recalls the fascist concern for autarky. And Trump's more explicit "America First" foreign policy stance threatens to fight wars with no concern for the casualties inflicted elsewhere -- hence his insistence on keeping the option of nuclear weapons "on the table" -- although there is little reason to think he would start wars for foreign conquest (as Mussolini and Hitler did). These aspects have created a huge schism within the Republican establishment, not because they point toward fascism but because they threaten to undermine the profits of global-minded businesses. Republican-leaning capitalists have been remarkably obtuse in not understanding that they've made much more money under Clinton and Obama than under Bush, but many are finally, belatedly realizing that Trump would be even worse for them than Bush was.
Just because Trump is a demagogue preying on the worst instincts of a once-powerful segment of the American people does not make him a populist, even if it makes him somewhat popular. After Detroit, that at least is one term that should never be associated with him. As for fascist, I won't argue no -- as a leftist I've long been hypersensitive to even the slightest whiff of fascism -- but I don't regard Trump as exceptionally fascist (e.g., as compared to Cruz and Kasich). I don't see him doing fascist things, but I don't see him undoing the present security state, and he may make things somewhat worse, especially for people who don't pass muster as white.
That's because what he really is isn't any sort of ideologue. He's simply a dog -- a guy who's been hearing all those Republican "dog whistles" for so long he assumes everyone can hear them, that they define reality. And as such, he campaigned on the basis of what he and all the other Republican dogs heard, oblivious to the tact and decorum the whistlers have worked so hard at cultivating. Trump should be a hugely popular figure in this world, because he's practically the only public person who speaks their understanding of the truth. On the other hand, the true conservatives who have been manipulating this electorate, especially the ones who bought wholesale into economic orthodoxy and the ones who are most obsessed with preserving America's worldwide hegemony are aghast, as well they should be.
Just as I won't deny that Trump is a fascist, I won't deny that his election would be catastrophic. It's not so much what he would do as what him winning would say about the American people: that we're so jaded we'd fall for a crude and ignorant media celebrity who understands nothing and has nothing to offer but discredited clichés, with a side of hate to pin our self-loathing on. Above all, his election would encourage the worst sort of racist revanchists, people who until Trump's rise were consigned to the farthest margins of political discourse. But it would also repopulate government with run-of-the-mill conservative spearchuckers, who would multiply the corrupt rot of the Bush administration, and that may do more damage in the long run.
Trump has been sinking in the polls, even since I started writing this. He seems to have learned that the only way to shift one horrid gaffe from the news cycle is to commit another one -- like his "2nd amendment people" threat, or his claim that Obama and Clinton "founded ISIS." Still, no matter how far Trump sinks, Clinton has been unable to push her share above 50%. If Trump wins it will say more about her than about him. Still, Trump only has one real chance: he needs all his dogs to vote, and he needs much of the rest of America to not bother. For that to happen, Clinton will have to prove remarkably uninspiring and/or a dangerous warmonger (her obsession with the "commander-in-chief test" worries me). But also Trump will have to stop pissing off most of the country, and at this point that seems pretty unlikely.
A few more links on the speech:
Pierce, by the way, started his article with a somewhat unrelated reference to "a popular Republican strategist named Rick Wilson," who wrote an op-ed hoping that Trump be defeated so utterly his memory is forever purged from conservative consciousness. Pierce goes on to note:
When conservatives set out to take over the country, they set themselves up with a tough task: to somehow convince a majority of Americans to enrich the 1% at their own expense. They did it by assembling as many single-issue constituencies as they could stand under their umbrella, and even then the few victories they scored were often marked by subterfuge -- remember Bush's "compassionate conservatism"? What about his promise to never engage in "nation building"? When Bush cratered the economy, they didn't readjust to the changed reality. They invented their own, in an echo chamber that was totally disconnected from reality (take another look at that fact checking linked to above), and within this world they found their champion in Donald Trump. That puts them in quite a bind: if, having rounded up all the hate groups, and all the fools, they still lose, and lose badly, the only option left for reaching new voters is to abandon their pursuit of inequality, but how can they do that given the way a handful of billionaires dominate the party?
Saturday, June 18. 2016
I wanted to write about this scurrilous piece [Paul Krugman: The Truth About the Sanders Movement] before my trip -- it was posted May 23 -- but never found the time (and my tools weren't much help). The problem isn't that Krugman claims the high ground of truth, although that's usually a tell of an impending bullshit dump. It starts with a quite from Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels charging that "Mr. Sanders's support is concentrated not among liberal ideologues but among disaffected white men." Rather than finding Sanders' support from "disaffected white men" a damning fault, I'd argue that it is a remarkable breakthrough: it shows that a demographic that has lamentably trended Republican in recent years -- indeed one that seems to be the not just the core but the limits of Trump's constituency -- is less monolithic and more open to a progressive candidate whose articulation of not just their interests is free of the Republicans' customary chauvinism. That sounds like a win to me -- one that Clinton should study and aspire to. As for Sanders' shortfall "among liberal ideologues," that may be because differences between pro-labor social democrats (leftists) and liberals run deep. The latter have always been pro-business individualists -- something partially bridged by the New Deal but which has come roaring back with the New Democrats' hook, line and sinker embrace of the chilling economic doctrines of neoliberalism.
Krugman goes on to observe that "Sandersism has been an assemblage of people with a variety of motives," and offers this taxonomy:
I suppose Krugman would consign me to the "purists." I did, after all, vote for Nader in 2000, and have been consistently critical of many of the policy choices made by the Clinton and Obama administrations: especially how they continued with little (Obama) or no (Clinton) critical thought the neocon establishment's imperialistic foreign policy, but also how they (again, Clinton more blatantly) have repeatedly slagged their voters to advance the interests of their financiers. But where Krugman sees me as merely "affirming personal identity," I see real and substantial policy differences, especially regarding war/peace and inequality -- easily the two most important political issues we face today. Implicit in Krugman's argument that we should make pragmatic choices is the assumption that policy options like peace and equality aren't possible, but his logic is circular: as long as we keep picking politicians (like the Clintons) who believe that war and inequality are inevitable, they will be. Sanders offered the first explicit challenge to this paradigm since Nader -- sure, Obama offered vague hope for change but that didn't amount to much -- so my view is that it would have been dishonest and cowardly not to vote for Sanders over Clinton when given the chance.
Krugman goes on to speculate that "Purists and CDSers won't back Clinton, but they were never going to anyway." Maybe I'm not such a purist after all, as I've been planning on voting for Clinton (assuming she is nominated) vs. the Republican nominee all along. Granted, I know and respect people who say they won't -- they don't want to feel responsible for the next war she blunders into, and I have to admit that the odds of that happening are scary high. But one lesson I learned from the Nader debacle in 2000 was that most of the people we realistically hope to support leftist candidates will in the end vote Democratic anyway. Sometimes you have to support them in order to get them to support you. Indeed, most of the people I know in Kansas who are planning on supporting third-party candidates will be watching the polls and voting for Clinton if it gets close. Clinton carrying Kansas won't make much difference in the electoral college, but a Democratic win would chip away at the myth of invincibility that helps the Republicans dominate (and ruin) the state. Even "purists" realize that electing lesser evils than Sam Brownback would help reduce the damages caused by Republican extremism.
I have less to say about Krugman's other categories, especially idealists and romantics, the sort of fuzzy terms use to dismiss people who haven't yet degraded into embittered cynics. I find it hard to believe that any Sanders supporters are as deluded as the self-described progressives who profess that Hillary is (perhaps secretly) one with them -- and I say that knowing a few that believe just that (including at least four old friends from my recent road trip).
Some while back Krugman argued that Obamacare was practically equivalent to single-payer, and I more/less bought his argument. The key equivalency there is that both aim at universal coverage, and my takeaway (which, by the way was also Bernie's) was that it was important to support Obamacare because it would establish universal coverage as basic public policy. Still, Obamacare wasn't as effective at realizing universal coverage as single-payer would have been, and it left every facet of the profit-seeking health care industry intact, in some cases slightly more regulated but in most respects as greedy as ever. And it also meant that Democrats were taking any prospect for a much better health care system off the table, out of their platform, and moving it into "pie in the sky" territory. Krugman seems to be arguing for a similar equivalency between Hillary and Bernie, saying that for all practical purposes neither will achieve more than the other, but at least Hillary is possible (and necessary given that the alternative is Trump), whereas Bernie is off limits, tempting us with more than we can possibly hope for. Some of my friends think the same thing, although Krugman is exceptional in that he claims the laws of economics disprove Bernie -- although few things are more deeply rooted in politics than the so-called laws of economics.
It might be amusing to work out a similar taxonomy of Clinton supporters, but it's likely to be equally misleading. There can't be all that many neocons or bank lobbyists, although their money speaks volumes. Mostly she leads the timid, promising them little and, if the past history of campaign populism from Wilson to Obama holds, delivering even less. The one thing you have to credit the Republicans with is that even in abject defeat after colossal failure they strut like they rule the world and cower the mainstream media into fawning cowardice. But part of the problem is that the Democrats have never been able to distinguish friends from foes. How else can you explain them blaming Nader for Gore's loss in 2000, as opposed to packing the Supreme Court, or the media's eagerness to treat the teetotaling GW Bush as America's favorite drinking buddy while never noticing Dick Cheney lurking behind the scenes. And could Bush have done so much damage had no Democrats joined in his tax cuts, deregulation, "no child left behind," Patriot Act, or invasion of Iraq? As with Clinton's NAFTA, "crime bill," "welfare reform," balanced budgets, and repeal of Glass-Steagall, often the most effective enemy of Democratic voters is their own leaders. It's not clear to me how Hillary, whose career is dogged by bad decisions, unreliable allies, and one stupid scandal after another, breaks that mold.
Sunday, May 15. 2016
A propos, I guess, of Obama's planned visit to Hiroshima this week, Tom Carson tweeted:
The visit has raised the question of whether Obama should, on behalf of the government he is president of, apologize for the deliberate slaughter of some 200,000 Japanese civilians -- and, for that matter, for the fact that the United States was the first and thus far is the only nation to violate the taboo against using nuclear weapons in a war. We've been assured that he will not, and indeed that he can not offer any such apology -- although Ramesh Ponnuru's reasoning rests on a fairly dubious assumption:
Like many issues, what passes for a consensus here is rooted in a serious lack of historical information and a lot of myths that try to continue justifying war in modern society. The history is complicated and elusive, but the from a pure present-tense view the immorality of the bombings should be obvious. I'm not saying that we should make a habit of revaluating past events through present sensibilities -- I would even go so far as to argue that doing so precludes us from being able to understand why history happened as it did -- but really, you cannot seriously claim that dropping nuclear bombs on two cities is in any sense justifiable morally. Sure, you might try to argue that in some case political and historical exigencies make it necessary to do such a thing, and you may present some calculation that such an act produces results that are less awful than not doing it, but that doesn't alter the matter of morality -- at least I don't see how it could.
The historical question was originally muddied by Harry ("the buck stops here") Truman, who as president ordered atomic bombs to be dropped on two Japanese cities (Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Truman claimed that by using the bombs American troops might avoid having to invade and subdue the four main islands of Japan. His argument resonated because in recent battles -- especially Okinawa -- Japanese troops had refused surrender, fighting to the death, and because Japan surrendered unconditionally a few days after using (in Hirohito's words) "a new and most cruel bomb." This view has been repeated ever since, especially in the essay (and later book title) by Paul Fussell, Thank God for the Atom Bomb. (Fussell was a soldier who fought in Okinawa.)
Carson gives us a variation of this standard argument in his tweet -- although notably he includes future Japanese dead as well as American soldiers in the toll expected from invading Japan, a consideration that Truman and Fussell did not make in the least. Indeed, one could also include Japanese dead on all of their war fronts, as well as dead of their opponent armies and the civilians killed by both sides, and maybe even factor in some of those who starved or fell to disease, although the cease fire didn't put an immediate end to the latter. The nuclear bombs ultimately killed about 200,000 people, but you wouldn't have had to shorten the war by much to balance that out.
But even Carson is assuming here that the war had to be fought to a definitive end, that had the US not used nuclear bombs the only way to end the war would be through invasion, and that the invasion would have been far bloodier than Okinawa had been. (American deaths in Okinawa were 20,195, about 4% of all Americans to die in WWII. Japanese deaths included an estimated 77-110 thousand soldiers and 40-150 thousand civilians, i.e. 13-50% of the total civilian population. Japan had a population of 73 million in 1940.) Hardly anyone talks about the first point, since early in the war Roosevelt declared that he US would only accept unconditional surrender, but it's worth noting that that is rarely the way wars end, and in the end the US accepted a condition that Hirohito be allowed to continue, at least nominally, as Emperor (and not be prosecuted for war crimes).
We now know that by mid-1945 Japan was in extremely precarious straits: the US had effectively blockaded the homeland, isolating Japan's troops with no chance of resupply, and preventing import of food and other critical goods, causing widespread famine; and the US had bombed nearly every Japanese city, killing hundreds of thousands and displacing millions; many (perhaps most) government leaders saw that they had lost the war and were contemplating some sort of surrender; the Soviet Union, at the urging of the US, had finally declared war on Japan, which raised the prospect of divided occupation (as had already happened in Germany) -- some historians have suggested that fear of the Soviet Union had more to do with Japan's surrender to the US than the nuclear bombs did.
In 1965, Gar Alperovitz published the book Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam, which argues that an important factor in the US decision to drop the atom bomb on Japan was a desire to intimidate the Soviet Union. I've never quite bought this argument: if the US had seen the Soviet Union as an adversary at that time, why would Truman have pressed Stalin to enter the war against Japan? For that matter, why invite Stalin if Truman had understood that the bomb would have proven so immediately decisive (and therefore so intimidating)? Stalin himself accelerated the Soviet Union's planned entry into the war, perhaps because he was aware of plans to drop the bomb, but more likely because he was aware of Japanese feelers aimed at negotiating peace -- the Soviet Union had been ostensibly neutral in the US-Japan conflict, so seemed to Japanese leaders like the obvious intermediary. Not clear to me whether Stalin jumped in to restore Russian imperial claims (many lost during the disastrous 1905 war with Japan), to advance communism (as happened with the partition of Korea), or simply to provide a counterweight to the expansion of American interests -- all likely factors. But Stalin commanded a huge mobilized and battle-hardened army that quickly routed the Japanese in Manchuria and would have proved decisive in a ground invasion of Japan. And there can be no doubt that Japan's leaders, both for nationalist and capitalist reasons, feared the Russians much more than they dreaded a purely American occupation.
Weighing these factors, I find the Soviet entry to be the more decisive factor behind surrender, but it's easy to understand why that aspect has been forgotten in America, and why the atom bomb has been raised to such a high pedestal. Some major reasons:
The thing to notice here is that the debate is less about the historical war than about later political stances. Still, those who do examine the history tend to raise questions, such as in this piece (which Milo Miles cited in response to Carson): Mark Weber: Was Hiroshima Necessary?. I think Weber makes a good case that a Japanese surrender could have been obtained without the atomic bombings. On the other hand, I also think that there was no way that either the political or military command in America could have decided to show such constraint, and I also believe that the bombings were a fitting end to the era of global imperialist war -- what Arno Mayer called the Thirty Years War of the Twentieth Century -- a demonstration of the futility of such war so graphic that no one could fail to get the point (not that certain vested interests didn't try).
As for the inevitability of the decision, you should understand three key things: how profoundly racist the US was regarding Japan (anti-Asian racism was layered on top of anti-African racism, but had a long and deep history in its own right, and that provided a prism even for viewing Japanese successes in stereotypes); how the US leadership had adopted an ethic of total war (something Churchill had practiced in WWI, but which when combined when racism would turn genocidal against Japan -- US firebombing of Japanese cities started well before Hiroshima); and nobody in the US command from Gen. Groves up seems to have really understood that nuclear weapons were anything more than souped up versions of the conventional bombs already used so prolifically, so it never occurred to them not to use a weapon they had invested so much money in (some scientists understood this, and eventually the concept sunk in).
No time tonight to unpack these three points, but John Dower's 1987 book War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War is the place to start on how racism fed into the war -- a prequel to Dower's Embracing Defeat, cited above. There are also numerous books on the history of anti-Asian racism in the US, not least on the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry during WWII -- itself a revealing prism into the racial attitudes of the time. There are even more books on the atom bomb project, of which Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb stand out.
One additional point I do wish to make is that the argument that had Truman not dropped the bomb the US would have had to invade Japan (as opposed to waiting for surrender) is at least as big and hoary a contrafactual as not dropping the bomb. The fact is that an orderly surrender with the Japanese political system intact was a much preferable solution than an invasion and occupation (as had already happened with Germany in 1945, although the US occupation of Iraq in 2003 is another example).
Also, the assumption that an invasion of Japan would have been a repeat of Okinawa scaled up about 150 times was unrealistic (basically a fever dream of American racism, which viewed all Japanese as preferring suicide to submission. Okinawa was a military outpost, where over 20% of the population was uniformed and ordered to sacrifice themselves to make Americans so fearful that they wouldn't dare invade. Japan itself had few soldiers left to defend the island -- most were stranded abroad -- and would have collapsed rapidly (not that the resulting chaos would have been easy to govern -- as I said, an orderly surrender was much preferable).
As Americans, we grow up accepting all sorts of self-flattering falsehoods, including the notion that the undoubted evil of the Axis powers' aggression justifies everything that the US did to defeat them. The fact is that the US did many things that later generations should be ashamed of, and apologizing for them would be one small but concrete step toward making sure that they never be repeated again. The genocidal bombing of cities with fire and, ultimately, nuclear radiation is just one glaring example. The fact is we never paid for those war crimes -- justice is something we imposed on defeated regimes without ever aspiring to ourselves, and failing to acknowledge that makes it seem that we needn't restrain ourselves from committing future war crimes (especially those explicitly called for by Trump, most Republicans, and more than a few prominent Democrats).
One last book I want to recommend is perhaps the most important, not least because it challenges so much of our accepted understanding of how WWII came about: Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (2008). One thing you will find there is documentation about various steps Roosevelt took to provoke the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which unified American public opinion in favor of entering the war. Another thing you will find is that the only people who made any serious efforts at preventing WWII before it broke out were pacifists. Anyone making excuses for the atrocities of war -- indeed for war itself -- is just blowing smoke.
Sunday, May 1. 2016
If all Democrats had the same beliefs and agenda, the only real question for the primaries would be who could best represent those values in the general election. Likewise, there would be no reason for candidates who weren't successful to continue, and when they withdrew they could be counted on to fall in behind the winner. But there are vast differences between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, so even though at this point it will be impossible for Sanders to overcome Clinton's lead, Sanders' supporters still have reason to get out and vote, and Sanders has an obligation to stay in the race and represent them -- at least as long as the campaign has sufficient funds, which doesn't appear to be a problem.
Sanders' people pretty much all understand this. They can give you a list of substantive platform differences between Sanders and Clinton. Moreover, they can point out that Sanders has a long and impressive record of sticking to his positions, whereas the Clintons have a history of playing up populist themes while they're campaigning then turning around and working for special interests once elections are over. Many voters, having been lied to and screwed over repeatedly, are looking not just for policies that help them but for politicians who will defend them tenaciously.
On the other hand, Clinton's people don't quite get this, although not always for the same reasons. Under her husband, the Democratic Party was refashioned from the party of labor to the party of highly educated socially-liberal professionals and businesses. Some people made a lot of money off the Clintons (and with a clear conscience), and they see nothing untoward in their triangulations -- indeed, they form the core of her donor class. Add to that those with some form of patronage attachment to the party: for them she represents success, and a meal ticket. Then there are the settlers: the people who accept the party line that significant changes are impossible given hard realities ranging from globalization to Republicans obstructionism. That, of course, is easier to accept if those realities haven't hit you personally that hard, but the age skew between Sanders and Clinton supporters suggests that they're getting harder to ignore. Indeed, Clinton's most favorable demographic got their start in more benign economic times -- before the Clintons came to power.
Less partisan observers may have noticed that the Clintons actually had something to do with the rise of the superrich and the hollowing out of the middle class, the creation of an economy that is stagnant for all but the rich, and the cult of austerity that thrown such a wet blanket on the very possibility that "the government of the people" might actually work to the benefit of the vast majority. Indeed, Thomas Frank has argued that only a Democrat could have blunted rank-and-file opposition to allow things like NAFTA, "welfare reform," deregulating banks and financial markets, declaring "the era of big government is over," and balancing the budget to pass -- all "highlights" of Bill Clinton's presidency. Frank even argues that Democrats like Clinton may turn out to be much worse than the "lesser evil" they're often viewed on the left as.
Both political parties are necessarily coalitions of imperfectly aligned interests, some attracted positively, others negatively. Both have always crossed class lines, because money has always mattered in American politics, and increasingly so lately. As the middle class withered, both have had to find voters where they could. The GOP went for the white backlash vote, playing up religion and patriotism (war) and the "fear of falling" (as Barbara Ehrenreich put it), while using whatever power they gained to feather the coffers of the rich. That cost the Democrats large chunks of their New Deal coalition -- Baptists in the South, Catholics in the North -- while the unions declined and shifted from manufacturing to services (mostly government), which they eventually replaced with educated professionals, high-tech businesses, and anyone sufficiently terrified by the rightward march of Republicans.
Still, if we've learned anything from this year's primaries, it's that the masses who picked their party negatively have started to turn on the party leaders. We've seen this in Democratic Party with the widespread rejection of Hillary Clinton -- has any Democrat other than an incumbent president ever started with such complete control of the party, then gone on to perform so poorly? Bernie Sanders nearly upset her, running on a platform the party rulers couldn't even conceive of. And something similar happened among the Republicans, where the masses preferred Donald Trump to every proper establishment candidate (even the loathsome Ted Cruz).
I started writing this to introduce some comments on recent posts by Paul Krugman, who has been so relentless in his recent attempts to discredit Bernie Sanders that he's risking becoming an incoherent crank. For instance, see Why I Haven't Felt the Bern and Sarandonizing Economics, as well as minor digs like A Note on the Soda Tax Controversy (really? I wouldn't mind a VAT if other taxes were sufficiently progressive, but a sin tax on soda is just the sort of moral snub that makes liberals seem so overbearing, so intent on imposing their values on everyone else). The "Sarandonizing" post only mentions the actress/activist once:
So Sarandon is "evil and useless" because made a joke about Hillary -- one that is built on numerous kernels of truth, from her past as a "Goldwater girl" to other traits we associate more with Republicans, like her coziness with Walmart (she's a former board member) and Goldman Sachs (that $650k speech) to her notorious hawkishness. What makes the joke effective (maybe even insidious) is the suspicion that Hillary's not really on our side -- that when push comes to shove she'll always wind up siding with the people who got the money and the power. That's certainly her track record. Why should we think that now will be any different?
For some reason, Krugman can't stand the idea that anyone on the left should have the temerity to question Clinton's leadership. She is, after all, the only person standing between civilization as we know it and the Republican Dark Ages. Still, it's not just Clinton he's getting so defensive about. It's also the authority of all those Very Serious People in the economic profession that he hasn't already lampooned himself: you know, the ones like Christy Romer and Larry Summers (and himself) who properly understand the true gospel of IS/LM. He's upset that Sanders is proposing a very serious expansion in the level of investment in infrastructure, not so much because he's against such investments as because some pro-Sanders economists have argued that the expansion will result in a level of economic growth (like 4.5%) that his own faction of economists have decided is impossible -- therefore he's repeatedly panned such analyses as equivalent to the "supply side" snake oil that right-wing ideologues like Arthur Laffer have been peddling.
When Krugman tries to explain his position, he gets slippery:
What's he trying to say here? That the left only has pie-in-the-sky visions, but can't come up with any stepwise programs to get there? (That the only "reforms" possible are cynical schemes that right-wing think tanks used to kick out, the sort of things Clinton/Obama have dusted off and presented as bipartisan?) And that the left cannot even defend their pie-in-the-sky on its merits without sinking into "ad hominem" attacks against their supposed enemies, because they're fundamentally irrational and vindictive even when they see themselves as idealistic? Or is he just talking about Sanders, who by simplifying leftist ideas into sound bites has brought out his followers latent anti-intellectualism? Or is he just saying that only professional mandarins like himself are competent to weigh in on economic matters?
There can be no doubt that social scientists have a bad history of doing "research" that winds up doing little more than advancing their prejudices. For starters, we can point to the history of race studies, since virtually every "scientific" claim to find differences has been thoroughly debunked. Economics is rife with political scams, and Krugman has slayed more than a few of them. Back when I majored in sociology, it seems like I spent most of my time identifying untoward presumptions in studies -- indeed, a common textbook at the time was How to Lie With Statistics. David Hackett Fischer wrote a whole book cataloguing Historian's Fallacies. So Krugman's warning against something real, but rejecting Sanders' programs out of hand is every bit as arbitrary. If he didn't start out with a political bone to pick, he might put some effort into refining the proposals. For instance, he's probably right that breaking up "too big to fail" banks doesn't solve the problems with "shadow banking," and he may even be right that the latter is more crucial than the former. So why not show Sanders that it's possible to come up with a plan that better achieves his goals? One reason might be he's opposed to those goals. Another is that he just doesn't like Sanders or his followers. Another is that he's committed to Hillary regardless of the issues.
I don't know which it is, but Krugman certainly fits Frank's concept of "the liberal class" -- that may be pigeonholing him a bit, but for the most part the shoe fits. His reluctance to back Sanders, much like the reluctance of similarly aged, educated, and well-heeled feminists like Gloria Steinem, smacks of class consciousness. Even if they can understand and empathize with the profound damage caused by inequality and war, they still feel that class bond with Hillary, not least because in large part they've personally never felt the costs of her mistakes.
Sure, I snuck war into that line belatedly, but that's a perilous issue to ignore with Hillary. And much like economists like Krugman are very good at rationalizing liberal compromises -- indeed, it was mostly Krugman who convince me that ACA was a pretty significant improvement even though it was far from what I wanted -- there exists a comparable body of foreign policy and security mandarins that can be counted on to rationalize all sorts of American military interventions, regardless of the track record of previous wars. I'd even say that the latter are far worse than the economists -- the latter are blinkered to alternative approaches, but the former are nothing less than obsessed with their own hegemony.
I'm reminded here of something McGeorge Bundy said, about the difference between how Kennedy and Johnson approached the challenges of war: Kennedy wanted to be smart, but Johnson wanted to be seen as tough. Both faced pressures to escalate the wars in Southeast Asia, and while Kennedy did some things there that turned out to be not so smart, Johnson made the really disastrous decisions. One might say the same things about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton: he wants to be smart (but isn't always), and she wants to be seen as tough (even if that puts her in the "do stupid shit" faction). That's an analogy that doesn't bode well.
I also wanted to mention David Frum: How to Save the Republican Party, aside from begging the question of "why bother" -- we now seem to be generations removed from any form of Republican Party that that might make any sort of constructive contribution to the political system. Still, Frum's vantage point on the far right occasionally yields insights, like his observation that where the Republicans fear their base, the Democrats loathe theirs. Consider this:
When I first read this I reasoned that he was generalizing about both parties -- that "the center" rose up to nominate Clinton as well as Trump -- but he's really only concerned with the Republicans. Still, although Sanders is well to the left of Clinton, Sanders' supporters may well be closer to the center, certainly to the "underrepresented" masses that flocked to Trump. That the Democratic Party end of the "duopoly" was able to prevail over the uprising was mostly due to the party elites' unity behind a single candidate. The Republican elites had no such unity, partly because all of the candidates recited from the same party talking points -- or so it seemed at first.
The only issue Republicans were much divided on was immigration, where elites liked the idea of using guest workers to weaken labor markets, but a great many Republican-leaners were fantic not just in opposition to "amnesty" but to anything that would dilute white America. And that was the issue Trump captured, not by taking the most uncompromising stand possible but by expressing his stand with the most unforgivable rhetoric -- folks knew he meant it when he wouldn't take it back. Trump later proved shameless, refusing to walk back one gaffe after another, everything from quoting Mussolini to getting endorsed by David Duke. His willingness to go off message started to trouble the party nabobs, but all they seemed to be able to charge Trump with was not being a true conservative. As Frum shows, that turned out to be a toothless complaint, as nothing the GOP has been peddling has resonated less with the base than laissez-faire economics. One suspects that the real problem party bigwigs have with Trump is that he risks unselling their scams to help the rich. Indeed, one thing that makes him suspect is that he isn't under the thumb of a trusted billionaire. He is his own billionaire, which makes him less controllable -- even if he ultimately reverts to pursuing his own self-interest (like his doppelganger Berlusconi).
Frum is properly alarmed by Trump, and blames "the failings and self-seeking of Republican leaders":
Frum thinks it's possible to save the party by articulating a program which actually serves the base, that returns some tangible reward for their support. I have no idea what that might look like, because I don't see anything Republicans support or believe in that offers any actual hope to anyone but the already rich.
On the other hand, one can imagine the Democratic Party flipping from Clinton to Sanders, much as they previously flipped from Grover Cleveland to William Jennings Bryan, or from Al Smith to Franklin Roosevelt. Such changes occur when conservative elites no longer have answers for real world problems. But Republicans have no answers: just homilies to "family values," and a media that stokes seething rage against their supposed enemies (pretty much everyone but the rich, and even there they manage to find enemies).
Some miscellaneous links (since this is Sunday):
Friday, April 15. 2016
I started writing this up as a Weekend Roundup bullet item, but decided to let it stand [almost] on its own.
Tom Hayden: I Used to Support Bernie, but Then I Changed My Mind: The famed 1960s New Left radical, a founder of SDS, defendant at the Chicago 8/7 trial, and moderately successful California politician, explains:
I'm surprised to see Sanders depicted as having "all the money in the world," but checking Open Secrets I was even more surprised to see that he has managed to collect $139 million so far -- more than Ted Cruz ($119 million, including $52 million PAC money), still less than Hillary Clinton ($222 million, including $62 million PAC; Sanders has made a big point about not having a dark money PAC). Most of Sanders' money came in February ($42M) and March ($44M), well into the primary season. Until that happened, he was mostly dependent on volunteer efforts. I know, for instance, that he's had an active supporter group here in Wichita for over a year, and they would be pretty surprised to find he's rolling in all that money. They did, however, organize Sanders' second-largest victory margin to date -- although he's since won bigger elsewhere. As primary season unfolded, the money understandably went to critically competitive states. And Clinton, who started with (and still has) much more money, had somehow locked up the Deep South where most Democrats are black -- maybe she had made the investments Hayden charges Sanders with neglecting. (Still, isn't it interesting that a seasoned politician like Hayden sees money as the essential element in securing the loyalties of black and Latino votes? The implication is that those votes are tied to group elites in a way that approximates the old political machines.) And even more than cash, the big advantage that the Clintons brought into this election was a well-oiled patronage machine. The clearest evidence that established patronage matters is Clinton's 469-31 superdelegate lead. (Sanders' contributions have averaged $27-30, which works out to five million-plus donations though there are repeaters -- I know that my wife has donated $27 several times, probably putting her over $100 by now. Beyond her PAC money, Clinton has also gone after small donations, and claims more than one million donors. Sanders has more, "nearly two million donors" (Hillary Clinton Touts One Million Donors, While Bernie Sanders Approaches Two).
I've been somewhat mystified why Clinton enjoys such a large lead over Sanders among black voters. It's certainly not based on a sober examination of positions and issues, and I doubt if it has much to do with personal style. The best I've been able to come up with is that even with growing economic inequality and the decimation of the middle class all across America, most blacks have improved their lot, and see their solidarity with the Democratic Party as having helped them out. This isn't an unreasonable stance, and no doubt if/when Clinton wins she'll owe blacks and Latinos big time -- but she'll also owe bankers and the war industry, and in the end I suspect their investments will pay off better.
If Hayden was just a cog in the Democratic Party machine, I could see his choice: indeed, it would be as unremarkable as it's been for hundreds or thousands of Party hacks all across America. But Hayden was one of the most prominent figures in the New Left in the 1960s. One might argue that choosing Clinton over Sanders shows that he's not really much of a leftist, but more likely, I suspect, he's just proving one of the major critiques of the New Left: that it was run by people who came from privileged backgrounds and saw their role as to advocate for other people who had been denied their good fortune. That's not bad per se, but in practice shifted much of the left's focus from class to minority and identity issues like race (and sex and sexual orientation). They've done good work on all those fronts, but while they were off helping others the right smashed the unions that propped up the middle class and created vast inequality -- so much so that young people in America today have less reason to expect to live out their lives in comfort and freedom (e.g., free of debt) than any past generation for at least a century.
The upshot is that we have a guy who's spent more than fifty years working towards radical political change yet can't recognize it when it's actually happening, just because it's not coming from where he's been expecting it. The irony is that the Old Left that Hayden rejected had made the same mistake, expecting the working classes to rise up even after labor unions had won them middle-class jobs and social security, enough to buy homes (and cars, etc.) and send their kids to college and retire comfortably -- enough luxury they could even afford to look down on the less fortunate. Hayden, like much of the New Left, rebelled against the white working class as much as against the Old Left. I suspect that's because he was never of it, whereas those of us who grew up there were better able to notice when things went sour.
A few other quick links, limited to the elections. Next up is the New York primary, where 538's "projected results" favor Clinton 57.8-39.6%, although I only see one (of eight) April polls where she has that kind of margin -- 10-12% is typical. I don't expect Sanders to win, but wouldn't be surprised if it turns out to be much closer. (Friends who watched here -- I didn't, but baked them some cookies -- tell me Sanders had a very good debate last night.) On the Republican side it's Trump-Kasich-Cruz: 52.9-24.4-20.4%. You'd think that Trump's first majority win plus a third-place Cruz finish would turn the post-Wisconsin punditry around, but I doubt it. (Although I see that Josh Marshall is already out front there.) Trump, by the way, is polling well ahead in the April 27 primaries (Connecticut, Maryland, Pennsylvania) -- as is Clinton (although Connecticut is closer, and a couple of Pennsylvania polls show her lead there down to +6 or +7).
By the way, while I was not listening to the debate, I somehow imagined Hillary saying:
Meanwhile, some brief links:
Saturday, April 9. 2016
I wanted to reply to this tweet by Tom Carson, but no way to unpack so much misunderstanding in 144 characters:
First, very obvious point: left and right are never symmetric, let alone mirror images of one another. Granted, the core issue can be viewed as a continuum: people on the left believe that all people are fundamentally decent, that everyone shares equal rights and deserves respect and fairness, while people on the right hold that for civilization to exist and survive society must be organized as a hierarchy, with those favored by great wealth lording over the hapless masses, using whatever force is needed to maintain order. Unpack this a bit and you'll see that left and right are inhabited by fundamentally different kinds of people. So when you say "X is the lefty Y" the main thing you're saying is that X is so profoundly different from Y that analogies can only be superficial.
Even so, the only linkage I can imagine Carson making between Goldwater and Sanders is that he thinks Sanders, if nominated, will lose as badly this year as Goldwater did in 1964. Leaving that for the moment, it's hard to see much similarity -- even in the funhouse mirror of centrist punditry. Most obviously, Goldwater was extremely rigid in his adherence to principles -- most scandalously in his opposition to using the federal government to secure civil rights systematically denied by a dozen-plus state governments -- whereas Sanders has always been flexible and pragmatic (e.g., in supporting Obamacare even though he knew it wasn't the best, or even a very good, solution). And Goldwater was so fanatic in his opposition to Communism he couldn't be trusted not to start a thermonuclear war. Sanders elicits no such fears -- which isn't to deny that neocon warmongers fear him.
As for the Nixon-Clinton mashup, I reckon that the association here is that both are unscrupulous opportunists willing to say and do anything that seems to work to their personal advantage. No doubt that both Clintons have been opportunistic at times, often siding with rich and powerful interests against the very people they depend on for votes. Nothing unusual about that, but you have to question how far left they really are on the left-right line I plotted above. I don't really consider them lefties at all.
Still, for all the times the Clintons have been slagged as liars -- Christopher Hitchens' book on them was titled No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family -- I'm hard pressed to recall specific deceits (aside from the Lewinsky blow jobs, and blaming Arafat for the Camp David failure, the latter a big one), as opposed to grandstanding (like the Sista Souljah slam) or plain old bad policy choices (like NAFTA, or repealing Glass-Steagall). I don't doubt that the Clintons are greedy, ambitious, and vain -- willing to use office to get rich, and to use their wealth to build a political machine to seek further office. Still, the scandals that have dogged their rise have been remarkably hollow.
On the other hand, Nixon holds a unique place in American history, not just for bad policy and malign intentions but for actual crimes against American democracy as well as egregious crimes against world peace -- sure, the later have since become routinized and Nixon didn't invent them all, but the scope of his crimes was breathtaking -- and for a while shocking, although his obsession with winning at all costs and his cynicism at manipulating people's fears has since become baked into the American pie. If Carson wanted to pose a true conundrum, he might have posed a choice between the real right-wingers Goldwater and Nixon. I have no more answer there than I would have had if asked who is the best (in the sense of least awful) of this election's crop of Republican presidential aspirants.
Carson at least is right to place Nixon on the right, avoiding the recent revisionism trying to rehabilitate him as some kind of closet liberal. I suppose the main impetus behind this has been to show how far the right has stooped since Nixon's time, but doing so forgets (and forgives) the fact that the rotten impulses that have permeated today's right owe more to Nixon's craven realpolitik than to Goldwater's so-called principles.
If you do have to make predecessor analogies, you might try casting Trump as Nixon and Cruz as Goldwater. With the latter pair you at least know what you're up against and start organizing against it, although the prospect of itchy trigger fingers is always a threat. But with the Nixon-Trump pair, you don't know shit -- just that it's likely to be pretty nauseating and the sickness they sow is likely to return again as precedent, possibly for even worse.
I suspect that what worries Carson about Sanders has less to do with Goldwater's 1964 loss than McGovern's in 1972, thanks in no small part to Nixon's dirty tricks. McGovern wasn't fundamentally more liberal (let alone lefty) many other Democratic candidates -- Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Walter Mondale in 1984, Michael Dukakis in 1988, John Kerry in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 -- but he lost bad, due I think to a combination of factors. One is that the media has always had it in for anyone who might rock the boat (Roosevelt was the exception, but he came along after the boat had already capsized, and Obama got something of a pass for the same reasons). McGovern also ran afoul of the Democratic Party's patronage-focused elites, especially their hawk faction, and also the rump Wallace voters -- all of whom chose Nixon's dirty tricks over the most decent and honest politician the Democrats ever nominated.
All those losses by self-avowed liberals -- a string that really starts with Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956 -- have left centrist pundits with the stunted thought that Americans refuse to lean left. If Sanders is further to the left than McGovern (or anyone else on that loser-laden list) what's to stop the entire establishment banding together to stop him? (Billionaire self-promoter Michael Bloomberg has already vowed to run a spoiler third-party campaign if Sanders is nominated.) That seems like a fair question, but I'm not sure the coincidences it is based on really supports the conclusion. Several things have changed since, say, McGovern won and lost:
These point don't guarantee that Sanders can defeat a full bore Republican assault, but they offer some reasons to think that he might do much better than McGovern did. The similarity to McGovern that I worry more about is Sanders' exceptional integrity and public spirit, which at least in McGovern's case was overwhelmed by Nixon's dark money and dirty tricks. The one thing we can be sure of is that in this year's election the Republicans and their dark money sponsors won't hesitate to go places Nixon only dreamed of. The voters could very well reject such tactics, but the Republicans have had no small measure of success thus far at manipulating people to vote against their own interests and desires.
Hillary Clinton has relied heavily on arguments that she's much more electable than Sanders is. The most common argument here is that she can attract a broader slice of the left-right spectrum, allowing her to pick up moderate/centrist voters Sanders can't reach while keeping the left captive, if only as the lesser evil. There are several problems with this formulation: most people don't fit comfortably, let alone mechanically, on a left-right axis, but bring other factors into play, including several where Clinton may compare poorly against Sanders -- for instance, integrity and credibility. Sanders has stood firm with his principles much more consistently than Clinton, and a good part of the reason for that is that he's much less tainted by association with private interests -- e.g., he's never spoken to Goldman-Sachs, much less for $650K. One thing that's clear from primary results so far is that Sanders has done much better among (presumably centrist) independents than Clinton has.
Indeed, in head-to-head polls Sanders regularly outperforms Clinton against virtually any Republican candidate, suggesting that for whatever reason Sanders is the more electable Democrat. Yet some Clinton supporters, even ones who admit to being closer to Sanders on the issues, persist in their belief that Clinton is more electable. Aside from ideology, the other reason they commonly give is the claim that Clinton has already had to face so many attacks from right-wingers that she has been thoroughly vetted, whereas Sanders has yet to feel the full fury of the Republican hate machine. That may be true but glosses over several things, including that Clinton has more points on which she is compromised, and that she's not exactly unscathed by all those attacks -- her unfavorability polls are exceptionally high.
On the other hand, I think there is one area where Clinton does have a substantial advantage over Sanders, and that is her ability to raise dark money and use it to underwrite the same sort of vicious mudslinging right-wingers can be counted on doing. So when the campaign gets dirty, as it's sure to do, she's arguably in a much better position to fight that kind of fight. Whether that's an argument in her favor is hard to say, but it's certainly a reasonable position -- the counter is that if Sanders could win without PACs and dark money that might help break the grip big money has on the political system, and our democracy would be much better for it.
Still, Clinton wooing big money donors and playing the dark money game won't be enough to make her Nixon, even a hypothetical lefty version. Nor will it make her a right-winger, even though it would indebt her to people who are on right of center, at least in terms of equality. And having done all of that, I wonder how much energy or will she is going to be able to muster to start to reverse the nation's long slide into oligarchy. At some point things get so bad that lesser evils don't cut it. If Sanders' popularity shows anything it's that many Democrats believe we've passed the point where yesterday's palliatives are all it takes.
It's normal for people to reach for historical analogies when trying to understand today's issues, but it can also lock you into illusions and blind you to opportunities. And sometimes produce outright absurdities. My original response to Carson's tweet just touched on one small aspect of this post, which is that real people don't necessarily gravitate toward the middle when faced with real choices: