Sunday, July 23, 2023

Speaking of Which

I saw a headline in the Wichita Eagle on Friday -- the article was unsigned but attributed to Las Vegas Review-Journal -- that puzzled me: "Bidenomics is just tired liberalism on steroids." So what is it they're trying to say? It's rejuvenated liberalism? Maybe they want it banned for doping? The phrase "on steroids" has largely lost its literal meaning, in favor of "much larger, stronger, or more extreme than is normal or expected." So at the very least it should cancel out "tired," leaving us with "Bidenomics is just liberalism." That may be the author's complaint, but why is that such a bad thing?

Trump waxes nostalgically about "make America great again," but the closest America ever came to something resembling conventional notions of greatness was the period during and after WWII, when liberalism was most pervasive and hegemonic. In many ways, the original MAGA movement was Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, but unlike Trump, Johnson had no desire for nostalgia. His signature program meant to extend New Deal progressivism to all Americans.

Johnson isn't remembered especially well today because he blew so much political capital on the Vietnam War. One lesson we should draw is that it's always a mistake to assume military might is some kind of measure of greatness. Liberals made that mistake in WWII, partly because the enemies were so abhorrent, and partly because the war effort was led by one of their own (brilliantly, I might add). Vietnam started to divide liberals, but I'm old enough to remember when most were staunchly on board, and I've never really forgiven them for that war -- or for allowing themselves to be duped into thinking that communism was such a threat to freedom that they should kill or punish anyone tempted to think otherwise, or for becoming the unwitting victims of their own witch hunts.

Since the 1970s "liberal" has become little more than an epithet, thanks mostly to the relentless slanders of the right -- "tired" is just one of the milder ones, leaving us with this puzzle: if liberalism is so tired, how can it be such a threat?

Top story threads:

Trump, DeSantis, and other Republicans:

Biden and/or the Democrats:

The Supreme Court:

  • Ian Millhiser: [07-17] How the Supreme Court put itself in charge of the executive branch: "The major questions doctrine, explained."

  • Walter Shapiro: [07-19] Sonia Sotamayor's book scandal is banal and troubling: "The Supreme Court justice's buckraking hardly compares to that of her conservative coleagues. But it still says a lot about how much Washington has changed." Well, it says two things: one is that no one in America thinks they're making enough money, even with a cushy lifetime job and pension; the other is that when other Justices are mired in scandals showing them to be truly corrupt, any innocuous bit of buckraking looks suspect.

  • Stephen Siegel: [07-21] Clarence Thomas's cherry-picked originalism on affirmative action: "Originalism" originally meant whatever Antonin Scalia wanted it to mean, because only he claimed unique, divine, infallable insight into the minds of the crafters of the Constitution. Since his death, other conservatives have stepped up as originalism's self-appointed oracles, no less dishonestly than Scalia.

Climate and Environment:

Ukraine War: The great "counteroffensive" has been going for more than a month now, but the New York Times hasn't changed its maps page since July 9.

Around the world:

Other stories:

David Byler: [07-17] 5 myths about politics, busted by data: Or proven, depending on how you read the data:

  1. Democrats aren't young. Both parties are old. Their breakdown has 30% of Democrats 65+, 28% 50-64, 29% 30-49, and 14% 18-29. But the older cohorts lean Republican (+7 and +5), and the younger ones favor Democrats (+8 and +5). They don't give you the median, but the median Democrat is 5-8 years younger than the median Republican.
  2. Republicans aren't rural. Democrats aren't urban. Both are mostly suburban (57-53, edge Democrats), but as they note, "Democrats fare best in neighborhoods that are close to the city center, while Republicans thrive in exurbs and small metros." As for the rest, the urban split is 27-11 Democrats, the rural 36-16 Republicans.
  3. Religious Democrats and secular Republicans are both common. The secular ("unaffiliated," a somewhat broader category) split is 39-14 Democrats, with Republicans leading 59-33 among Protestants and 21-17 with Catholics ("other" splits 10-6 Democrats). But they also note that the number of Republicans who seldom or never attend church has shot up from 30-42% (time frame unclear), so while Republicans are more likely to identify as Christian, they may be less than committed.
  4. Both parties rely on White college graduates -- not just Democrats. Democrats have an edge among "white, college educated" of 37-31%, which is surely higher than it was even 10-20 years ago, maybe a reversal, as Republicans have had a big advantage there.
  5. The Hispanic vote is not the GOP's only route to victory. I don't really get this point: "Republicans could very well win in 2024 by building on recent gains with the White working-class and Asian American voters, regaining recently lost college-educated suburbanites or finally making inroads with Black voters." Really? Based on what policy mix?

I see lessons here for Democrats, in that they need to hold onto and expand their substantial share of mainstream voters, especially ones free enough of Republican prejudice as to still have options. Of course, it's also important to keep the groups Republicans offer no joy to, which means offering tangible benefits, and not just taking them for granted. (Failure there may not translate to Republican votes, but to non-voting.) But I also don't put much stock in multisectoral statistical breakdowns and their attendant identity politics

As for Republicans, they're already performing way above where they should be if voters were rational and voted their best interests. How they improve on that is hard to imagine. They're certainly not going to change course, at least as long as the current one seems to give them a chance to squeeze through on some technicality. Their only real hope is that Democrats discredit themselves -- a card they've been playing, with diminishing returns, since the check kiting scandal of 1993.

Robert Crawford: [07-20] How media makes impact of U S forever wars invisible: Review of Norman Solomon: War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of its Military Machine. An excerpt from this book is here: The convenient myth of "humane" wars. There's also an interview with Solomon: [06-23] How America's wars become 'invisible'.

Tyler Austin Harper: [07-19] 'Barbie' and 'Oppenheimer' tell the same terrifying story: Author ties them both to the search for the Anthropocene boundary stratigraphy. Nuclear fallout is one obvious marker, as it was non-existent before the Trinity test in 1945 and the subsequent annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, only to be followed by hundreds of further atmospheric tests (528, according to Arms Control Association, with 215 by US and 219 by USSR, 50 by France, 23 China, and 21 UK). But another marker would be to look for buried plastics, which are if anything more ubiquitous. The coincident release of two movies exploring such geologically important shifts is unlikely enough that some people have turned it into a thing. And many are writing on one, the other, or both. I should note that I haven't seen either movie, and I'm not likely to soon -- we just don't do that anymore, but I also gather that the formerly pretty good Warren Theatres we once had here have turned into rat traps under soon-to-be-bankrupt Regal.

Idrees Kahloon: [06-05] Economists love immigration. Why do so many Americans hate it? Well, economists think growth can be infinite. More practical souls ask: where are you going to put it all?

Dylan Matthews: [07-17] The $1 billion gamble to ensure AI doesn't destroy humanity: "The founders of Anthropic quit Open AI to make a safe AI company. It's easier said than done."

Matt McManus/Nathan J Robinson: [07-21] Are we in the grip of an 'American cultural revolution'? Christopher Rufo thinks it's already happened, but he's belatedly fighting back in his book: America's Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything. Sounds like good news, at least until I read the fine print:

The "revolution," in Rufo's telling, is comprised of -- wait for it -- diversity programs at colleges, Black Studies departments, protests against police brutality, and corporations that tweeted pro-BLM platitudes in the aftermath of George Floyd's killing. His evidence for dangerous revolutionary changes in our society consists of things like the appearance of the term "institutionalized racism" in the newspaper.

Since "the radical left conquered everything," you might wonder if Rufo is smuggling his missives from jail or some cave, but he's actually been appointed by Ron DeSantis to the board of trustees of New College. I know Robinson's made it his life's worth to debunk the so-called thinkers of the right, but why bother with one this hallucinatory?

Jeffrey St Clair: [07-21] Roaming Charges: Political crying games. He starts with the Congressional smackdown of Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) for identifying Israel as "a racist state" -- a reaction so shrill Jayapal wound up voting for a Resolution proclaiming that Israel is "not racist or an apartheid state" and that "the United States will always be a staunch partner and supporter of Israel." No doubt such eternal fealty will be tried repeatedly as Israel's state lurches farther and farther to the right.

St Clair offers two quotes, one from Prime Minister Netanyahu ("Israel is not a state of all its citizens but rather, the nation state of the Jewish people and only them") and former PM Ehud Barak ("who says that the current government is 'determined to degrade Israel into a corrupt and racist dictatorship that will crumble society'"). When it does, bank on Congress to pass another near-unanimous Resolution reassuring Israel of America's eternal submission. Israel is no longer an ally. America has become its vassal.

The only argument I can imagine against Israel being a racist state is to question whether Jews are a race. While that has been a common claim in the past, it makes no sense to regard Jews as a race in America or Europe. However, in Europe, government-issued identity cards specify who is a Jew, and who is not, with the latter group subject to further distinctions. And those cards determine the rights you have, and how you are treated by the state, and probably how you are treated by many other organizations. Maybe there's a fancier word for that system, like ethnocracy, but if you're an American, that system sure sounds like racism. And if you know anything about South Africa, you'll probably see affinities to their since-abandoned system of Apartheid.

St Clair also mentions on RFK Jr's attack on Biden for "threatening Israel with ending of the special relationship between our two nations," and his pledge, "As President, my support of Israel will be unconditional." And he quotes Nikki Haley: "The U.S.-Israel alliance is unbreakable because Israel's values are American values." I've long felt that American neocons were jealous of Israel's freedom to bomb their neighbors (and their own people; I'd say "citizens" but they aren't recognized as such) with no fear of repercussions, but I'm not sure most Americans actually share those values. Which ones they do share are hard to pin down, especially given that the most vehemently pro-Israeli Americans are hoping for a rapture which will, or so they believe, consign all Jews to hell. But if you're pro-Israel enough, you never have to worry about being tagged as anti-semitic. (Just consider RFK Jr.)

St Clair also includes more than you want to know about Jason Aldean's "Try That in a Small Town," including a contrast to the late Tony Bennett, whose experiences in small town America included the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march.

More links related to the above:

PS: While American politicians are tripping all over themselves to swear allegiance to Israel, note that American elites are starting to have second thoughts:

Tweet from No Lie with Brian Tyler Cohen:

Marjorie Taylor Greene warns Joe Biden is trying to "finish what FDR started" by trying to address problems related to "rural poverty," "education," and "medical care." She warns it's similar to when LBJ passed "Medicare and Medicaid."

The White House responded:

Caught us. President Biden is working to make life easier for hardworking families.

This may prove to be the silver lining in the right-wing bubble: that they can no longer hear themselves when they say things that are incredibly unpopular.

Biden also responded by using Greene as narrator for a 30-second political ad.

I've been reading Peter Turchin's End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration, which is a comparative history of several millenia of revolution and civil wars, attempting to glean some quasi-scientific insight into the evident disintegration all around us. Thumbnail histories going back as far as Nero's Rome are always interesting, but his conceptual framework is rather oddly framed if not plainly wrong. He sees two forces that drive societies to the brink of disintegration. Mass immiseration is widely recognized as one. But his main one is what he calls "elite-overproduction," by which he a fractious rivalry between multiple aspirants ("elites," if you must, but limiting that term to the political arena). Whether this is caused by too many elites or simply by weak governing structures is less clear. If sheer numbers of princes were the problem, you'd expect Saudi Arabia to be the most fractious country in the world today, which it plainly isn't.

Given the key concern of immiseration, and his identification of a "wealth pump" driving it, much of Turchin's current political analysis is quite reasonable. But then I ran across this (pp. 219-220):

The Democratic Party has controlled its populist wing and is now the party of the 10 percent and of the 1 percent. But the 1 percent is losing its traditional political vehicle, the Republican Party, which is being taken over by the populist wing. Tucker Carlson, rather than Donald Trump, may be a seed crystal around which a new radical party forms. Or another figure could suddenly arise -- chaotic times favor the rise (and often rapid demise) of new leaders. Earlier I argued that a revolution cannot succeed without large-scale organization. The right-wing populists intend to use the GOP as an already existing organization to group power. An added advantage is that control of one of the main parties offers them a non-violent legal route to power.

Two fairly staggering problems here: if the Democrats are the party of the 1%, how come most known one-percenters are big Republican donors? And how come Republicans campaign for them -- especially with tax cuts, deregulation, and anti-labor measures -- so shamelessly? Given this, it's especially bizarre to paint the Republicans as opposed to plutocracy. Sure, they pander to prejudices and exploit the fears of some people who have not fared well under plutocracy, but where are their programs to shut down the "wealth pump" and offer help to reduce immiseration?

It is true that some of the very rich hobnob with Democrats, that many Democrats are very solicitous of their support, and that Democrats like Clinton and Obama have rewarded such benefactors handsomely -- including doing very little to slow down the wealth pump. Some rich Democrats may see the need for sensible reforms -- Franklin Roosevelt was called "a traitor to his class," but his New Deal did much more than just rescue the poor from the Great Depression: it also saved the banking system, rebuilt industry, and built a large amount of infrastructure, which led to the post-WWII boom. Some may simply be thinking about how much damage dysfunctional Republican ideas could do. And some may simply regard the Democrats as offering better service for their interests.

Turchin's fascination with Tucker Carlson may be excused as he wrote this book before Fox fired him. Still, I have to think that part of Turchin's confusion lies in his overly broad notion of elites, which at various times he divides into economic and credentialed classes. The Democrats have made gains among the latter, mostly because the Republicans have turned savagely against education and expertise, especially science. Still, characterizing this latter-day know-nothingism as "counterelite" conflict ignores who's really in charge, functioning mainly to deflect blame where it is due.

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