Sunday, July 7, 2024

Speaking of Which: Afterthoughts

Back during my careerist, apolitical middle ages, I read a number of business/management books (also, more often, popular science, and sometimes science fiction -- those were the good ol' days), and one point that stuck with me was the observation that in and coming out of meetings, there are two kinds of people: those who give you their reactions immediately, and those who need a day or two to process and come up with better reactions. I quickly recognized that I'm one of the latter.

I'm pretty sure the book was Robert Townsend's Further Up the Organization, which I probably got more from than I did from The Communist Manifesto and Minima Moralia combined, although from Walter Benjamin's Illuminations and John Berger's Ways of Seeing would be close. Some major things I got from Townsend are the value of employee ownership, and a deep loathing for nepotism -- points that have repeatedly been reinforced by real-world experience. There's also a quote about the Ottoman Empire that I'd have to look up to do justice, but the gist is that when you lose your reputation for justice, you lose everything. That quote comes as close as anything to explaining why I spend so much time harping on how important it is that Israel and America have so thoroughly disgraced themselves in Gaza (and, sure, not just in Gaza).

Anyhow, before my digression, I just wanted to introduce this concept, which may or may not become a regular feature -- depends on how much free time I have, which if this week is any example is likely to be not much. It's been taking me so much time to round up my weekly Speaking of Which compendiums, often of late requiring an extra day (or two?), that I wind up just throwing them out, with no more than a quick, minimal spell check. Then I have to pivot for Music Week, which is mostly a matter of collecting bits I had written more leisurely (or carelessly) during the week, and that usually breaks the mood until Friday or so when I get going on the next Speaking of Which. Lately, Music Week day has given me a chance to fix the typos my wife always finds, and add a few items that slipped my net, but I never have the time and perspective I need to refine, clarify, and polish what I wrote in such haste.

That led me to the idea of doing a midweek "Afterthoughts" post, where I look back through the previous week's roundup with somewhat refreshed eyes, pick out a few salient items that I think could use more (by which I think I mean deeper) commentary. I could then add anchors and links to go back and forth between Speaking of Which and Afterthoughts. As I reread, I'll probably catch and fix a few mistakes, perhaps editing some particularly awkward passages. While Afterthoughts will offer the occasional link, I imagine that I'll add new ones I to the old file, or save them for the following week. That will entail keeping multiple files open (and raises the question of whether I should make the work-in-progress file visible).

Another digression (maybe I should invent some markup for these?): I have on occasion done that, and I'm usually rather pleased with what I find there. That gets me to imagining that someone could pull out a book's worth of particularly notable nuggets, but the only people who have given them a look so far have thrown up their hands in dismay (my wife and her publisher friends). When I do it myself, I'm tempted to edit, rarely for points but the writing can always be sharpened up. I've collected most of my post-2000 writings into book files, but they are pretty massive (the four political volumes up to 2020 total 2.86 million words; not collected there yet, Speaking of Which, since June 2021, would add another 800 thousand words).

Anyhow, that's the concept. Unfortunately, I wasted 2-3 days after coming up with the idea without actually doing the work. But I left a placeholder for this post when I opened the next Speaking of Which draft file, so I feel obliged to post something here. (It works this way for technical and historical reasons I won't bore you with, possibly because doing so might expose my inept design.) But as this is being written on Sunday, all I can hope for is make a quick pass and post tonight, with everything else delayed a day (or, perhaps like last week, more).

Zack Beauchamp: Sometimes I think I should write up an annotated list of books on Israel, but the number that I have read quickly becomes mind-boggling -- especially when you start thinking about the various angles and tangents. But this one cuts to the heart of the matter: not so much as to what happened -- which tends to be a long list of indictments -- as to what was going through Israeli when they acted as they did.

One imagines there could be a similar reading list for how Palestinians think, but they've had so few viable options that it really wouldn't tell us much. As Americans, we've been brought up to think that we have a large degree of freedom within which we can deliberately live our lives. Even here, much of that is illusion (or delusion), but Palestinians have never had any meaningful degree of political freedom: not under the Ottomans, or the British, or the Egyptian/Jordanian occupations of Gaza and the West Bank from 1948-67, or under Israel (in or out of the Green Line, with or without the gang rule of Fatah/Hamas), or for exiles in Lebanon, Syria, the Gulf, etc.

I dug out Ben Cramer's book a few weeks ago. I wanted to find a story I remembered him using -- one about teaching a dog to speak -- but so far it's escaped me. On the other hand, I have reread many passages, and I'm always struck by how easily he gets to unobvious but essential points. One of those is that of all the world's many problems, this conflict should be one of the easiest to solve -- pace Christgau, who throws up his hands in despair after declaring it "the cruelest and most gruesome international conflict of my adulthood." I pick my around that line, but Ben Cramer simply offers an answer: just start by showing Palestinians some respect, and see how they adjust. I have little doubt that they will, but that's because I'm aware that there are many more strands of thought among Palestinians beyond the only ones Israelis recognize: those who fight (like Hamas), and those who surrender (like Fatah, not that even they have so little self-respect that they can satisfy Israel).

I've read quite a bit on Israel over the years: enough that I can pull up a historical reference for almost any situation, so quickly that I frequently circle back instead of offering immediate reactions to atrocities that no understanding of historical context can excuse. But mostly I'm writing on the basis of models I've formed and refined over many years, that give me insight into things people say and do, and how they are perceived and reacted to. I suppose this started fifty years ago, when I was first smitten with philosophy, and through it psychology and sociology (and economics?).

It's been a long time since I ever attempted to articulate it, but I have been thinking more about stories and models lately: most people understand things through stories -- or so we're told by political and advertising consultants, who one suspects prefer them because they see them as ways to manipulate, and as such to compensate their clients and earn their premium. And, if you're interested in practical politics, that's often a game you have to play. Models are harder to sell, because they simply give you insight into how things actually work, and most importantly, that many of the things selfish people would pay for -- like riches, power, status, glamor, fame, notoriety -- come with hidden costs that make them worth much less than you'd like to think.

But read on. The models will come to you.

About last Thursday's debate: I collected a huge number of links, as most center-to-left pundits took the matter seriously and had an opinion to air (and often not just an axe to grind). I didn't bother much with right pundits, as what could they possibly say worth taking seriously? So while I started the post with a general idea of what was going on, and how it might play out, I was fine with letting this play out. And it did, pretty definitively. Biden is toast. He's lost all credibility as a candidate, and if the Democrat clique around him somehow manage to keep him as their candidate, they will lose all credibility and, as soon as possible, control of the party. Even if he sticks and wins, which given his opposition isn't impossible, he and they will get no credit for the feat. All they will get is condemnation for the risk they're running by sticking with a candidate who has clearly lost the faith and trust of his own voters.

That it isn't official yet is probably because the insiders haven't yet agreed on a succession plan. There's been very little reporting on this so far, because it's not the sort of thing inside power brokers dare brag about. But it's pretty obvious if you understand how things work. And what's happened is pretty simple. . . .

PS: Insert my model of US political parties here, then explain how the powers in the Democratic Party have used Biden as a prophylactic against the left. An open political process stood a chance of tilting the nomination toward someone on the left -- probably not Sanders, due to age, but someone would have moved in that direction. On the other hand, it would be very difficult for anyone to challenge an incumbent president, so running Biden essentially shut down the primary process, Now, even if Biden sensibly withdraws, the convention will be controlled by Biden's backers, ensuring that they will come up with a candidate favorable to their business interests. I wrote a version of this for tomorrow's post: e.g., the comments on Cooper and Yglesias.

I've been thinking along these lines for quite some time now. To reiterate:

  1. Both parties basically do two things: raise money, and compete for votes. Aside from unions, which faded significantly after 1980, that meant they had to appeal to the rich, and then take those resources and somehow fashion promises that would appeal to enough other people to win elections. Donors mostly want the same thing, which is to make more money, so both parties have to be credibly pro-business, but parties can appeal to different voters, and try to differentiate themselves accordingly (without offending their donors).

  2. The main differentiation between the two parties is over the issue of whether can and should take an active role in helping people (which, for the donors, includes businesses) or shouldn't even try, but rather should restrict itself to protecting property and repressing people's baser instincts and subversive ideas. You already know which parties match up with which descriptions. They both have problems reconciling donors and voters, and those problems are most acutely felt by party insiders.

  3. Parties are not like firms, where owners have clear control direct from the top, through a board and hired management. Nor are they democratic, like a union (although they could be, and that's something Democrats should consider). They're more like co-ops, which in theory belong to everyone but in practice are dominated by a few people who worm their way into positions where they control access to resources and information. They're often referred to as elites, but cadres would be a more appropriate term (I could also go with professional political operatives, to put a somewhat finer point on it). Cadres may seem like elites, but that's mostly because they wind up being operatives of the real elites: the donors. But while they are usually aligned with elite donors, like the managerial class, they have bureaucratic interests of their own, like self-preservation.

  4. The cadres struggle to balance the conflicting demands of donors and voters, leading to different strategies. Republicans flagrantly appeal to rich, then try to line up voters who will defer to the rich and overlook their own economic interests, expecting little or nothing from government. Democrats take a different tack, trying to woo voters with promises of better services, but they also have to find and keep donors willing to go along with their programs. Both strategies are dysfunctional, but that could fill up a book.

  5. One problem of special relevance here is that in their relentless supplication to donors, Republicans are corrupt in principle, while Democrats are corrupt in practice. Somehow the latter seems to bother people more than the former. Probably because to Democratic voters, corruption seems like betrayal, leading them to distrust their leaders. Republicans also see Democratic corruption as betrayal, because it benefits others, but accept their own corruption as serving their party and its ideals.

  6. In the 1970s, unions were declining, and business started pumping huge amount of cash into politics. That led to the Reagan 1980s, which in turn led to a desperate realignment within the Democratic Party, where success was often linked to becoming even more pro-business than the Republicans. That shift was led by Clinton, backed by middling Democrats like Biden, and picked up by Obama. Not only were they pro-business, they turned the Party into a platform for their own personal agendas, with no regard for developing bottom-up party strength. (Both Clinton and Obama came in with legislative majorities, then suffered massive mid-term losses, rebounding to win unproductive second terms without Democratic Congresses. The sole exception was in 2006, when Howard Dean -- who coined the term "democratic wing of the Democratic Party" -- built a party that won Congress, only to see Obama cashier him and lose everything.)

  7. Obama picked Biden as VP as a peace offering to Hillary Clinton, who was thus assured that she could run for president after Obama, without having to fight off his VP. She got her clear lane, raised massive money, and still lost, to one of the worst Republicans imaginable. She barely survived Bernie Sanders' challenge in the primaries, mostly by slim margins in states with strong Democratic machines. In 2020, after Sanders won the first two primaries, with Bloomberg so panicked by a possible Sanders win that he spent nearly a billion dollars on his own hapless candidacy, the Party cadres rallied all of their support behind Biden, and eeked out a win, mostly through terror of a second Trump term.

  8. Biden hadn't come remotely close in his previous presidential campaigns, was already considered too old to run in 2016, and was neither inspiring nor graceful in 2020, but managed a loudly disputed win in 2020. He had no business running for a second term, but Trump was running, and the rematch appealed to him. Moreover, as an incumbent, his renomination would be a lock, it would keep his donors happy, and for Party cadres, it would preclude another challenge from the left -- one that risked reorienting the Party from its donors to the people. Besides, the left wasn't all that unhappy with Biden (although Gaza risked becoming a sore point), so as long as he seemed capable, pretty much everyone was willing to go along. But mostly it was cadre fear of open primaries that drove his candidacy. The Democratic Party pledged to save democracy in 2024, but dared not indulge in it.

  9. I don't know who insisted on the debate, but it offered a sanity check as to Biden's competency. Most likely his donors wanted to see him in action, to reassure themselves he could do the job. In any case, he failed abysmally. The good news is that he could still be replaced. The bad news is that he's left the Party in control of cadres committed to him, because they have no other option. Hence the current stall, denial, misdirection, and dissembling, which assumes Democrats are even more gullible than Republicans (a tall order, given that they're still backing Trump). The worse news is that many Democrats are so terrified they're willing to stick with a plan that has repeatedly failed rather than risk change.

I don't mind advising patience, but the notion that Biden will still be the nominee in September, much less in November, is too horrible to contemplate. The measuer of this is not whether you would still vote for Biden over Trump in November. Of course you would, as would anyone who recognizes Trump for even a fraction of what he is. The question is how do you want to beat Trump? You want to beat him not just on how bad he is, but on how much better you are.

You need a candidate who can stand up to him, who can argue back, who can hit him so hard and so fast that he's the one who looks like a doddering, senescent idiot. And, let's face it, that candidate isn't Joe Biden. If we could get a fair vote on it, I'm pretty sure most Democrats would agree, and come up with someone better. But thanks to Biden and the cadres, only they get to decide this year. If they get it wrong, they will lose all credibility, and we'll have to rebuild the Democratic Party from scratch, as a union of voters. Meanwhile, we'll suffer for their hubris. And next time, we'll understand much better what we're fighting for.

Changes I made to the file:

  • Tareq S Hajjaj: missing link.
  • Hoda Osman: botched link tag.
  • Moved Prem Thakker under Blaise Malley's "craziest 'pro-Israel' budget amendments."
  • Zack Beauchamp: bold-faced book authors.
  • Andrew Prokop: typo.

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