Sunday, October 30, 2022

Speaking of Which

I feel like this week's edition is a mess, and I have neither the time nor the will to try to clean it up. Arguments could certainly be structured better, but all I can offer at the moment are hot reactions. I'm really chagrined by the media's embrace of the idea that Republicans are increasingly likely to win Congress -- FiveThirtyEight has shifted its estimate significantly, giving Republicans a 49 in 100 chance of taking the Senate, and an 81 in 100 chance of wrecking the House -- not least because there is no rational basis for such a shift. If it happens, it wouldn't be the first time I've been disappointed by the American people. (After Nixon beat McGovern in 1972, I was so disgusted that I didn't bother voting again until 1996, when the opportunity again arose to vote against Bob Dole. And today I was reminded of 2004 as I just read that part in David Corn's American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy; my campaign letter is here; my immediate analysis of the Kerry loss is here, as are some later thoughts. One line I want to pull out here: "At this point it's impossible to project how bad [four more years of Bush] will be, but it is certain that this election has cost us four years of opportunity to work on problems that are bad and getting worse." Rereading this 18 years later, I'm surprised at how much more is still relevant.)

If Republicans do win, the reasons are purely emotional, the sort of anger that drives a guy to punch a wall. The only possible outcomes are a hole in the wall and a broken hand (quite possibly both). But whatever emotional satisfaction punching the wall gives you will be temporary: the anger will return, because Republicans are counting on it, and because that's all Republicans can do. Sure, they can exhort you to be God-fearing Christians, and they can punish you for what they perceive as your failures, but neither the heavenly carrot nor the earthly stick actually works, at least at a macro level, so you're only going to get angrier, and that seems to be all they need to get away with their grift.

One consolation I can offer is that if Republicans win Congress, it will be easier for Democrats to run on anger in 2024 (as Harry Truman did in 1948). If Democrats win, they will be judged harshly both for doing things and for not doing enough. As the US system makes presidential elections more important than congressional ones, a loss now for a win later may seem like a prudent strategy. But after so many wasted opportunities, it's just possible that time is running out.

The runoff election in Brazil is today. Very little on it below, as almost everything written this week is pure speculation. But if Lula wins, the world will be a slightly better place. And if Bolsonaro wins, the decline will continue -- especially given the latter's war on the Amazon, which once was the world's most valuable carbon sink. The difference in degree isn't just that Lula isn't as far to the left as Bolsonaro is to the right. It's also because it's a lot easier to break things than to build.

[PS: Election in Brazil has been called for Lula, but it looks closer than 2020 was for Biden over Trump.]

I gather that some nations impose a press blackout a few days before an election. The idea is to prevent some last minute sensational charge, especially a false one, from swaying an election. It's impossible to expect that, and given the degree of early voting, it may not have any effect anyway, but it would be nice to sit back and take a deep breath, and consider one's choices rationally. I've been trying to do something like that, although quite frankly my votes were locked in the day the Kansas primary winners were announced. The only thing that's changed since then is that my level of disgust over KS Republican gubernatorial candidate Derek Schmidt has increased by roughly an order of magnitude, eclipsing even the well-established obnoxiousness of his running mate for Attorney General, Kris Kobach.

In past years, I would have followed competitive Senate races, and a few others, closely, but I've tried my best to blank them out of my mind. Still, enough poll-driven pseudo-news has leaked through that it's clear that Republicans are engaging in a massive gaslighting operation intended to convince people that a massive Red Wave is coming on November 8, which will no doubt be foundation for charges that any actual votes that Democrats might win will be viewed as fraudulent. (Of course, Republicans never complained when large Democratic polling leads in 2016 and 2020 evaporated. Trump claimed he actually won bigger margins.)

There's a lot of obvious bullshit in this gaslighting, but the substantial piece is the assertion that Americans are most concerned with Republican talking point issues -- inflation (most conveniently reduced to gas prices), "crime" (which, since Republicans won't take responsibility for guns as a contributing factor, is reduced in meaning to what Republicans have defined it as since the 1970s: racism), and "open borders" (which, come to think of it, also reduces to racism). Supposedly Americans concerned with these issues trust Republicans more, although it's hard to think of a single reason why. Maybe there is some polling favoring Republicans on inflation-fighting, but more general economic concerns usually favor Democrats, and for good reason: the last three Republican presidencies ended in recessions, and the fourth (Reagan's) started in one that got worse for two years before the Fed belatedly reduced interest rates and kicked off a recovery that, thanks to Reagan, was much more unequal than most.

The one thing from the Republican playbook you don't hear much these days is how the Democrats are weak on defense. This is a bit surprising given how Biden's approval polls plummeted with withdrawal and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, but Biden has managed to present as both firm and sane in Ukraine, and Republicans don't seem to have a viable sound bite response. Granted, Tom Cotton still wants to start a war with China, but even Lindsey Graham seems rudderless since McCain died, while a faction of Republicans seem to prefer their former campaign aide and fellow fascist, Vladimir Putin -- a strange wind that has kept any Democratic anti-war camp from forming.

State and local races, especially governor, will have a huge impact locally -- if Derek Schmidt wins, Kansas will jump right back into contention for the worst right-wing horror show in the nation, like was the case when Sam Brownback was governor -- but Congress is strictly a numbers game, with the Democrats needing a bit beyond a simple majority to legislate effectively. Without a working majority, the next two years will be painful but basically stuck in status quo: much-needed reforms will be impossible, major problems will be allowed to slide, simple things like budgets will be held hostage. Biden will attempt to compensate with executive orders, and the Republican-packed courts will do their best to swat them down. And the incessant squeals from the right-wing propaganda machine will drone on and on. But lots of even worse things will be stopped until Republicans get another chance to steal another presidential election. Indeed, the big story of 2022 may be how effective their election stealing efforts will be.

But, like so much else, we won't know that until the votes are counted (assuming that's still permitted).

One of the first things I wrote was a long comment under Ukraine, specifically under the Eric Levitz piece about the Progressive Caucus letter to Biden urging the administration to take seriously the need for negotiations. As the comment was pretty general, I thought it better to pull the comment up here (although I'll add some more specific words down there).

It seems to me like it should be easier for the Democratic left to define a position on the Ukraine War that offers practical steps toward peace with justice. I've been trying to do that since the beginning. And along the way I've been willing to put my pacifist principles aside to allow that Putin's escalation of a conflict that should have been resolved peacefully long ago was so egregious that Russia's forces deserved a good ass-kicking, which Ukraine has to some extent been able to inflict with massive arms and financial support from the US and Europe. And I can see continuing this counterattack until Putin is willing to negotiate rationally, but I don't see how that can happen unless the US and Ukraine makes it clear that they are ready to negotiate as well. And the US really has to be part of this, not to pressure Ukraine into making concessions for peace, but because the US holds most of the real trading chips (sanctions, deployment of NATO forces, etc.).

However, that also implies that a useful arbiter has to be someone else, and the USA's habitual either-you're-with-us-or-against-us mindset takes any independent stand to be treason. (China's great crime isn't that they want to take over the world, but that they refuse to knuckle under to an American hyperpower world order.) But that's easy for me to say, as I started out with a long critique of American power and hubris. The Democratic left has several disadvantages: while they understand the core issues of equality, freedom, and justice at home, they've never had to reckon with the effects of American power abroad (minor exception for some people my age, who started with Vietnam). Making this worse is that the Democratic Party has been flooded with people from the armed services: even if most ex-soldiers are right-wing jerks, a significant minority saw their tours as public service, and they've found an esteemed home in the only American political party that actually values service to the public. And finally, there's the Republicans, with their extraordinary ability to trigger Democrats, especially Progressives. That's a real shame, because foreign war rots the very fabric of society -- a lesson Democrats in particular should have learned from Vietnam, and should have stuck with them through the neverending War on Terror.

There's a real chance that Republicans will flip the script on Ukraine, attacking the war not because they want peace and prosperity but because they can blame its expense and effects (like high gas prices) on Biden and the Democrats, with their ideals of American-led world order, and their disdain for Putin (a real but much-maligned conservative hero).

I want to add one thing: There is a need for a peace movement during but mostly after the Ukraine War. The goal is not to dictate or advocate for a specific resolution of the war, but to define a political agenda to prevent a recurrence and/or similar wars in the future. As such, we start with a deep critique of war making, especially the belief that war is justified by national and/or imperial ambitions. This has relevance to Russia, to the US, to their allies, and to various factions within Ukraine. But it is Russia alone that inserted its forces in Ukraine, and despite my own pacifist instincts, I have no problem with Ukraine fighting back, or with other nations (including the US, despite a poor record in other countries) helping them resist and roll back Russia's aggression. I do, however, believe that such support can come with conditions, especially agreement from Ukraine to seek a ceasefire and negotiated withdrawal of alien forces, and to allow people who live in contested territories to determine, by fair vote, whether they should stay in Ukraine or join Russia. The principle is that there is no justification for annexing territory except by the express approval of the people who live there. During and after the war, we should work to establish a process for resolving this and similar conflicts in the future.

Negotiations should be resolved on the basis of what's right, not on who has the power to extort concessions from the other. What's right may not always be clear, but one measure is whether a measure can be voluntarily agreed to, or can only be forced. For instance, no nation would voluntarily sacrifice its sovereignty, so it is wrong to demand that it do so. Some examples that wouldn't be right: demanding reparations, war crimes trials, changes to laws regarding minorities (although it's fair to note human rights abuses), preventing trade or association with other countries (although each country has the right to refuse to trade with other countries; i.e., to implement sanctions). So while US aid to Ukraine should be conditioned on Ukraine negotiating on the basis of doing what's right, it shouldn't pressure Ukraine to surrender things that are within its rights. I would say, for instance, that the provision of water to peninsular Crimea is not something that should be expected of Ukraine, although it could be something that Ukraine chooses to offer for other considerations.

At present, whatever negotiations may be going on are in secret, with little opportunity for the public to assess their intentions or progress. Therefore, it's impossible for anyone else to assess, or to make anything more than the most general suggestions. On the other hand, after the current hot conflict is resolved, there will be much for a peace movement to do. We need to make the world understand that the US and Russia both did much to provoke this war, and that even if nothing the US did justified Russia's invasion, it is critical to eliminate such provocations in the future. It is further imperative to understand that much of the "defense doctrine" both powers have espoused is severely faulty: it simply doesn't work, or worse (the logic that supposedly prevents war in fact provokes war).

Vincent Bevins: [10-30] In Today's Election, the Survival of Brazil's Democracy Is at Stake.

Patrick Cockburn: [10-28] Rishi Sunak and Britain's Post-Brexit Fairy Tales. By the way, in case you're wondering what an Indian Hindu is doing leading the Conservative Party in England, see (hint: he's a near-billionaire):

Connor Echols: [10-28] Diplomacy Watch: The West doesn't know how to talk about Ukraine: That's largely because any time someone speaks the plain truth -- that the only way out of the quagmire is through negotiation, which will involve some give and take on both sides -- they get shot down. Echols starts with the example of Romanian Defense Minister Visile Dincu, who was forced to resign after acknowledging reality. Then there was a letter to Biden sent by the House Progressive Caucus, who were pressured to retract it within 24 hours.

Ezra Klein: [10-30] Do the Democrats Deserve Re-election? He should know better, but can't even bring himself to answer his own question. Instead, he offers a long list of complaints about tactics, without accounting for the numerous obstacles (beyond Joe Manchin) that Democrats have had to struggle with over the last two years, including his own intractably suspect publication. The obvious rejoinder to the title is "compared to what?" -- not a hypothetical question, given that the answers are clearly Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Kevin McCarthy. Klein is smart enough to know that they did no good when they were in power, and that they wouldn't have gotten any better with another chance. Indeed, one of Klein's complaints about Biden is: "Politics has not moved on from Trump." That's not going to happen by punishing Democrats for not delivering an arbitrary list of programs that the Republicans wouldn't even have considered. But instead of answering his own easy question, here's Klein promising: "Next week, I'll take a closer look at what Republicans are promising to do if they are given the power to do it." You know, I wrote about just that -- Rick Scott's Senate campaign manifesto -- back in March.

Eric Levitz:

  • [10-26] The Media Did Not Trick Voters Into Disliking Inflation: Seems like a strange point. Inflation is an economic dislocation that has both winners and losers, but you never hear about the winners: those who have the power to raise prices or wages (whichever they benefit from) have a good chance of coming out ahead, while everyone else loses. Arguably, more people are properly concerned about inflation because more people come out on the losing end, but the media does have much to do with that perception. It seems strange to ignore that.

  • [10-24] Return of the Hostage Takers: "Surveys consistently find that rising prices are far and away the public's top concern and that Republicans are widely seen as more credible inflation fighters than Democrats." Really? Why the fuck is that? As noted above, inflation has winners as well as losers. Republicans favor the rich, and Democrats, well, also favor the rich, but also care a bit about the poor. So, assuming that both profess opposition to inflation, and have their favored remedies, you'd expect each to help its preferred voters, at the expense of the others. Republican remedies fight inflation by cutting employment and services, and those have widespread effects -- even within the business sector, most businesses are hurt to protect banks. Give Republicans more power, and they will flaunt it, to try to force their way on budgetary issues, even at the risk of defaulting. That's what Levitz means by "hostage taking." Democrats would have been well advised to pass a law getting rid of the debt ceiling crises, but couldn't manage to squeeze that through in time.

More on inflation:

  • Paul Krugman: [10-27] Republicans Have No Inflation Plan: Even if they did, they wouldn't implement it, because as long as Biden (or any Democrat) is president, their sole goal is tanking the economy to make Democrats look bad. Contrast this to 2020, when Democrats enthusiastically supported a bold rescue plan, because Democrats care more about helping people than about making their opponents (even Trump) look bad. But if a Republican was president, Republicans still wouldn't have a plan for fighting inflation, because the two or three things they think they know about the economy are wrong. But also because short of implementing wage-and-price controls -- which Nixon did, badly, but no one of either party would consider now -- there isn't much a party can do about inflation: that job has been turned over to the Fed (along with the task they take more seriously, which is keeping the banks profitable). You might counter that Democrats don't have an inflation plan either, but they do have plans for reducing the pain caused by inflation. And you'll find that they are invariably opposed by Republicans.

Ian Millhiser:

Nicole Narea: [10-28] What we know about the violent attack on Nancy Pelosi's husband. More than I knew about threats to other members of Congress. Also a reminder that Pelosi's home had been vandalized in December 2020. But strangely: nothing on the rabid vilification of Pelosi in Republican campaign ads (see below). While it's possible to imagine political figures of all stripes as targets of violence, only one side prides itself on its guns and eagerness to use them. It's a big step from "voting to kill" to actually doing so, but we're seeing it more and more. [PS: Narea later wrote: [10-29] The attack on Nancy Pelosi's husband is the culmination of longtime GOP hate-mongering.]

Siona Peterous: [10-28] The backlash against Ron DeSantis's puzzling voter fraud arrests. What's so puzzling? The arrests were a PR stunt, and that's what DeSantis does. And they were meant not just to harass 20 voters in a state with 10+ million registered voters, but to send a message intimidating more voters (still a tiny percentage, but Bush's margin of victory in 2000 was officially 537 after the recount was stopped). Interview between Sean Ramaeswaram and Lawrence Mower.

Kelsey Piper: [10-27] The shrinking ozone hole shows that the world can actually solve an environmental crisis: True enough, but the big difference is that industry was willing to find substitutes for CFCs, because they could profit either way. But replacing fossil fuels is not just harder: it takes business from established companies and moves it to new ones (no matter how much oil companies diversify into renewables). As long as political systems are stacked in favor of profits, it will be all but impossible to transition from fossil fuels to non-carbon energy.

Jeffrey St Clair: [10-28] Roaming Charges: Tales From the Democratic Crypt: After the funding appeal, starts with the aborted Progressive Caucus letter on Ukraine, which "like a v-2 rocket . . . had exploded in the Democrats' faces before most people had even heard the sound of its flight." More on that above. Further down, he quotes a tweet from National Review: "Remember Rumsfeld's rule: 'Sometimes you have to kill a chicken to frighten the monkeys." For context, the article linked to was titled "To Contain Xi, Defeat Putin in Ukraine." Every word screams insane, from the disgraced authority to the racist innuendo of the metaphors, all the way down to any possible meaning, let alone agenda. I would start by questioning why the US needs to "contain China" when it has few options for expanding, but would no doubt regard such intentions as threatening, then ask why defeating Russia in Ukraine should make much of an impression on China, then ask whether defeating Russia in Ukraine is even possible (and how calling Putin a chicken advances any such ambitions?). And never forget that Rumsfeld's first big mismanagement job was when Nixon tabbed him to wreck the Office of Economic Opportunity. He went on to spend his whole life failing up, probably due to his knack for sharing racist jokes with superiors -- at least until Bush scapegoated him in 2006. Much more here, including a picture of a book subtitled "The inside story of Liz Truss and her astonishing rise to power," marked down for clearance.

Michael D Swaine: [10-28] Biden's boilerplate defense strategy: it's all about China: "The NDS continues a long tradition of painting China as an aggressive nation working to weaken the US." Publication of the latest National Security Document kicked off a number of alarms. In particular, the obsession with China as a strategic rival and possible enemy, while no doubt good for the defense business, is liable to turn fantasies into reality. More pieces:

Karen Tumulty: [10-29] I'm sorry I said nice things about Glenn Youngkin: The worst journalist in America -- she won her title in Alex Pareene's Hack 30 (why isn't this still online?), but continued to "fail up," landing as deputy editorial page editor and columnist at the Washington Post -- admits that she fucked up again. Speaking of Youngkin, see Steve M. on Katherine Miller (Considering the Post-Trump Era in a Tucson Sports Bar): Slow Lerner.

Alissa Walker: [10-26] Mike Davis Was Right: A truck driver who developed as "an activist historian with an unapologetically Marxist bent," Davis wrote a couple dozen books, especially on his home town of Los Angeles (City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles; Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster; Setting the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties). The one I was most impressed by was Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niņo Famines and the Making of the Third World, which pretty thoroughly upturned everything I thought I knew about 19th century colonialism. A couple more examples illustrate his eye for odd but profound detail: Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (2007), and The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu (2005, one he lived long enough to update as The Monster Enters: COVID-19, Avian Flu and the Plagues of Capitalism).

Marcy Wheeler: [10-27] John Durham's Investigation Has Disclcosed Corruption: His Own: "The Barr-appointed special counsel was supposed to reveal 'the crime of the century.' All he revealed was his incompetence -- and worse."

Here's a tweet triptych from Steve M.:

  • The goal of right-wing news and opinion is not to inform. The goal is to create and reinforce the right set of allegiances and hatreds, and to ensure that the audience never questions those allegiances and hatreds.
  • The multiple right-wing propaganda messages about the Paul Pelosi attack are designed to ensure that no one in the audience wavers in their hatred for Nancy Pelosi and love for fellow righties. He wasn't a righty - he was a psycho-lefty! It was a gay tryst gone wrong!
  • Right-wing media's one job is to guarantee that the audience never questions the right's main premise: that right-wingers are good 100% of the time and liberals/lefties/RINOs are evil 100% of the time.

M. writes more about this: [10-30] If you don't like these deflections, the GOP has others:

When real-world events threaten to expose the GOP as a threat to American civilization, the party uses kettle logic -- multiple arguments, many of them incompatible with one another -- to rally both rabid and moderate party supporters, and to reassure fence-sitters that all evil lies elsewhere. Look at January 6: To the rabid base, the party's propagandists argued that the violence was justified, or was the work of Antifa or the FBI (or both), or that it was encouraged by Nancy Pelosi, who (they falsely claim) was personally and solely in charge of the Capitol Police. To voters in the middle, the response has been whataboutism: Remember when Antifa and Black Lives Matter burned down entire American cities? (Which didn't happen.) Why isn't there a select committee about that?

While a lot of people still fall for this "kettle logic," and another bunch of them use but don't need it -- the ones who are unfazed by the violent events like the assault on Pelosi, and therefore need no reassurance -- an increasing number of people recognize this spin as the bullshit it is, and tune it out almost automatically. One of the things this election will measure is how gullible people remain after 20-40 years of Republicans lying to them continuously.

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