Sunday, July 10, 2022

Speaking of Which

Just a few scattered links this week, then I spent a whole day writing an afterword that tripled the length.

One small note from Twitter, where Marc Masters created a meme from three Kathleen Parker headlines:

  • Calm down. We'll be fine no matter who wins. [2016, picture of Trump and Clinton debate]
  • Calm down. Roe v. Wade isn't going anywhere. [July 3, 2018]
  • How could so many have missed what is now so obvious? [July 8, 2022]

Back during WWII, the OSS (the predecessor of the CIA), came up with a term to describe American leftists who warned about the growing threat of Nazi Germany, some of whom were so bothered they volunteered to fight for Spain against Franco and his German and Italian allies. They were called "premature anti-fascists," as if sensible people should hold up and wait until some line-crossing moment when anti-fascism suddenly became fashionable. I always thought that the earlier people recognized problems, the better, but Parker clearly isn't that perceptive. So how come she's a widely syndicated columnist?

Zack Beauchamp: [07-06] How conservatism conquered America -- and corrupted itself: Reviews three books, but the author seems to be working toward a book of his own. The books are: Matthew Rose, A World After Liberalism; Matthew Continetti, The Right; and Tim Miller, Why We Did It. The problem with Rose's illiberal "thinkers" is that hardly anyone on the right understands them, or cares about maintaining ideological continuity between Nazis and today's Republicans. To the extent that people on the right have any ideology, it's closer to the "classic liberalism" of Hayek, Rand and Koch than the völkish romance of Spengler. It's true that the right never had a problem with libertinage-for-us and the-jackboot-for-you. But they didn't become corrupt with Trump. They were corrupt from the start. Trump's only innovation was that he was utterly shameless about it, which came off to his followers as authenticity and candor. The right has always wanted to speak for the freedom to be cruel.

Lindsay M Chervinsky: [07-07] Garland Has to Prosecute Trump for January 6 to Restore Faith in the Justice Department: Problem is it won't work, and more likely will backfire. It will inevitably look political, and Trump is very unlikely to be convicted, so while it may be fun to watch him squirm, it would be a waste of effort. Moreover, even if successful, it's way short of what it would take to "restore faith." Part of the problem is that the obvious charges like seditious conspiracy are bullshit political laws, even if you define them narrowly and document them rigorously. What I would like to see is a Special Prosecutor charged with investigating a wide range of corruption charges, ranging from the scandals that sunk Pruitt and Zinke to the hundreds of millions Jared Kushner got from the Saudis. Even where charges can't be filed, it would open some eyes to get a thorough accounting of the most thoroughly corrupt administration in American history.

Fabiola Cineas: [07-07] What we know about the deadly police shooting of Jayland Walker: "Akron police officers released body camera footage of the killing that raises questions about excessive force." Excessive? Walker was unarmed. Police shot 90 rounds, and hit Walker 60 times.

Ryan Cooper: [07-07] President Biden Is Not Cutting the Mustard: "Young people are abandoning him in droves because he won't fight for their rights and freedo."

Michelle Goldberg: [07-07] The Delightful Implosion of Boris Johnson. She admits to Schadenfreude, but bad as Johnson was, hard to avoid a bit of jealousy that UK Conservatives could put down a dysfunctional leader, while Republicans don't dare touch Trump. The following pieces often return to this theme:

Jonathan Guyer: [07-05] Inside Ukraine's lobbying blitz in Washington: It's inconceivable running a war in Washington without greasing some palms.

Margaret Hartmann: [07-08] Shinzo Abe, Former Prime Miniser of Japan, Is Assassinated. But isn't it kind of strange that 80% of the article are reproductions of tweets from world leaders, as if any of them have anything at all interesting to say? It's hard to convey how exceptional any shooting is in Japan, where there was only one murder-by-gun in all of 2021. More info:

Ellen Ioanes: [07-09] Protests force Sri Lanka's leaders to resign: "Entrenched corruption and a political dynasty may keep them in power, though."

Paul Krugman: [07-08] Wonking Out: Rockets, Feathers and Prices at the Pump: Finally admits that, "yes, market power can worsen inflation." A paper by Mike Konczal and Niko Lusiani seems to have finally convinced him. Krugman also wrote That Was the Stagflation That Was, where he notes that: "The wholesale price of gasoline has fallen about 80 cents a gallon since its peak a month ago. Only a little of this plunge has been passed on to consumers so far." You still believe all of those articles about how greed has nothing to with gas prices?

Ian Millhiser: [07-09] The post-legal Supreme Court: "The highest Court in the most powerful nation in the world appears to have decided that it only needs to follow the law when it feels like it."

Kate Riga: [07-06] Kansas Republicans Scheduled Big Abortion Vote for Low-Turnout Primaries. Will It Backfire? If Republicans thought their amendment would be popular, they wouldn't have scheduled it on a typically low-turnout primary day, and they wouldn't be lying so much about what it means.

Corey Robin: [07-09] The Self-Fulfilling Prophecies of Clarence Thomas: "For decades, Thomas has had a deeply pessimistic view of the country, rooted in his reading of the Fourteenth Amendment. After the Supreme Court's recent opinions, his dystopia is becoming our reality." Robin has written several books on the reactionary right, including a whole one on The Enigma of Clarence Thomas.

Jeffrey St Clair: [07-08] Roaming Charges: Knocked Out and Re-Loaded. Some of the gun violence statistics actually managed to take me aback. One is that "124 people die every day in the US in acts of gun violence." That works out to 45,260 per year, which is about what I knew, but breaking it down per day makes it seem more inexorably relentless. The other is that we've had "320 mass shootings, putting 2022 on track to finish as one of the deadliest years in US history." But that works out to about 2 per day, which may be par, but feels like less than we hear about many days. St Clair also linked to the following:

The possible political book keeps evolving in my mind. Last week I was debating between writing a Speaking of Which and working on an outline. I decided I could do the former then maybe tack the outline on at the end, but didn't get to it. This week, well, I had a bit of time, so did a quick brain dump on my latest thinking. Titles aren't great, but here's what the structure looks like:

  1. Introduction
  2. American History in Four Eras
  3. What Republicans Have Done
  4. How the World Breaks
  5. Can Democrats Restore Democracy?
  6. The Way Things Ought to Be
  7. Afterword

I've written outlines of American History in Four Eras several times (e.g., at some length on Jan. 27, 2019, but also on June 10, 2018, June 2, 2019, Jan. 19, 2000, March 9, 2020, May 31, 2020. The original insight was that US history could be broken up into four long eras of partisan dominance, each starting with a major two-term president and each ending with a disastrous one-termer: Jefferson-to-Buchanan, Lincoln-to-Hoover, Roosevelt-to-Carter, and Reagan-to-Trump. (Washington-to-Adams also fits that criteria, except for length.) In each of these, the dominant party's long rule was interrupted by loss to two opponents: in the Jefferson-Buchanan period, Whigs won by running ex-generals (Harrison and Taylor), but they died in office, having little effect; the other eras were interrupted by two-term each (Cleveland and Wilson, Eisenhower and Nixon, Clinton and Obama; note that none were consecutive, unlike Roosevelt-Truman and Reagan-Bush).

Several things are interesting about all this. One is that the exceptions tried to maneuver under and around the hegemony of the dominant party. Eisenhower and Nixon accepted the "big government" New Deal paradigm, although they sought to undermine it at the edges. Clinton and Obama bought into the pro-business, militarist, "end-of-big-government" Reagan mythology, even if they tried to soften its harsh prescriptions. The earlier periods are messier to map, and one might be tempted to split them. Jackson marks a pretty clean break in the first era; McKinley is the right time to divide the second, but Bryan's takeover of the Democratic Party may have been the more important shift, producing progressive movements in both parties, reflected variously by T. Roosevelt and Wilson. The point I want to draw out here is how operating under the hegemony of a dominant party may be practical politics, it doesn't help you prepare for the crisis that occurs when the dominant party fails.

Another thing is that each era starts with a crisis resulting in a massive shift of power -- in terms of Congress, Reagan is anomalous, but by 1980 the presidency had become so powerful that gave him a lot of leeway. The first three of those eras were marked by initial shifts to the left -- Reagan, again, is the exception, and the Reagan era is again anomalous in that it along represented a turn against a broader and more inclusive democracy. We have to ask how that was even possible.

The answer would appear to be that in all eras, as politics returns to normal, people are less engaged, and special interests worm their way in, exploiting a deeply ingrained (even if very unpopular) tendency toward corruption. After all, getting rich has been a common aspiration and a matter of national pride since colonial days. The Grant and Harding administrations were perhaps the most famously corrupt, and while it's easy to blame them on inattentive leaders, they occurred at points when business was finding government favor especially lucrative (railroads and oil, respectively). But the Republican Party has always looked to government as a source of private riches (in 1860, the campaign slogan urged farmers to vote themselves free land, and manufacturers to vote for tariffs). By the time you get to Reagan and the "greed is good" decade, this penchant for corruption was baked into their DNA. Every Republican administration from Nixon on has been wracked by corruption scandals. We'll return to this frequently throughout the book.

The second section follows the Republicans from the freak election of 1946 (which among other things passed Taft-Hartley) on. We can talk a bit about the Goldwater right, but Richard Nixon is the key figure, because he's the one who taught the party to do whatever it takes, no matter how deceitful, unscrupulous, or plain illegal, to win. We'll look at Kevin Phillips' The Emerging Republican Majority, and how Republicans welded several reactionary factions into a solid base. We'll look at how that base allowed them to recover from defeats when their policies blew up disastrously. And we'll show how those decisions, while allowing them to claim and hang onto considerable power, despite repeated proof of their inability to govern wisely or even competently. Indeed, each time they lose, they bounce back more vicious and insane than ever.

Another thing we need to talk about here is the structure of the Republican Party: particularly, the donor networks, their think tanks and university alliances, the lobbies, allied groups like the NRA, their propaganda organs, and their influence on "mainstream media."

The third section introduces the Republicans' most intractable enemy: reality. Republicans are masters at crafting rhetoric that flatters their supporters and excoriates their imagined enemies (the "radical left"), but their deeply ingrained corruption keeps them from facing their real problems (especially problems they themselves created). In this section, we take a handful of sample subjects, explain briefly how they work, how they eventually break down, and why the Republicans have no solution for them. This chapter could grow into a massive book of its own, so it is important to pick relatively obvious cases. Some possibilities: health care, climate, trade, immigration, civil service, information, education, public welfare, war, justice.

These are all big subjects, so I'm inclined to start with some common threads. First, I'd emphasize how much the world has changed in my lifetime, especially since my grandfather's before me (he was born in 1895). This new world is much more complex, and much harder to understand, especially in its complex interdependency. As a practical matter, we have to delegate large parts of responsibility to experts, and they have to be trustworthy. That's hard in any case, but all the more difficult in a hyper-individualistic society largely driven by the profit motive, with its consequent levels of inequality and injustice.

The individual topics are big and deep, and risk swallowing up our available attention. One approach that may help is to limit analysis to Republican approaches. We don't have to solve health care or climate; just show that Republicans won't, can't, and are only likely to make the situation worse. Chapters two and three should demolish any hope that Republicans might face up to and overcome the problems of the modern world.

The fourth chapter is about and for the Democrats. It starts with some history, a survey of how Democrats have reacted to Republican attacks, probably going back (briefly) to 1946, but mostly we have to deal with the Reagan-Bush-Trump era. That involves spending some time with the New Democrats, to make two important points: one is that their concessions to the Republicans failed politically, both to gain ground in the center and to hold their own base; the other is that they failed to solve major problems, or even to help us understand why such problems matter and persist. Clinton and Obama may have made the world a little better than they found it, but they did not prepare the voters to keep it better, and to keep on working to make it better. Otherwise they would not have lost their Congressional majorities after two years, nor been succeeded by such manifestly incompetent and disastrous presidents as Bush and Trump.

The rest of this chapter is meant to help Democrats campaign more effectively. After all, they are the only alternative to Republicans, who are hopelessly compromised. (Third-party prospects can be easily dismissed.) If we look at real interests, we should be able to show that Republicans favor a vanishingly small minority, which in a democracy should quickly be rendered powerless. We can even point out that Republicans understand this, as they've as much as admitted by their anti-democratic efforts (voter suppression, gerrymandering, unlimited money, etc.; these points may fit just as well in the 2nd chapter). The main way they get away with it is due to their ability to convince voters (who are notoriously ill-informed, and rarely able to grasp complex problems and policies) not to trust Democrats. The only way out of this is for Democrats to show voters that they care about their voters, that they are open and honest and not beholden to special interests. They need to be seen as approachable and sincere. They need to be regarded as fair and just. While this may seem like a high bar, in practice they only need to be seen as clearly better than the Republicans, so by all means point out when Republicans betray public trust, or otherwise attempt to deceive and manipulate voters, such as by appealing to their prejudices.

This chapter is likely to turn into a hodge-podge of political advice, ranging from how to counter stereotypes about Democrats to how to avoid overreacting to problem issues. I won't try to sketch out a list here, but every day I read the paper I run across cases that could be handled better. As critical as I am of businesses, we need them and they need to be profitable, so any policy that hits them needs to be considered carefully. Most policy questions involve tradeoffs, and one needs to be sensitive to all concerned. But "all concerned" needs to include the public, and (even harder to factor in) the future. We need to recognize what we don't (or can't) know, and we need the flexibility to adjust when things don't work out as expected. We need to avoid getting too caught up in our own rhetoric and logic. We need to understand that it's impossible to change things immediately, and that changing things too fast is disruptive and upsetting. On the other hand, that's no excuse for doing nothing.

The fourth chapter will avoid discussions of policy specifics, but it may get into philosophical principles. Democrats need to align themselves more firmly in favor of individual freedom and responsibility, but they also need to be more sensitive to the corrosive effect of power imbalances. Inequality would be less of a problem if it were possible to mitigate the differences in power. Often the easiest way to do this is to create countervailing power forces.

The fifth chapter is reserved for policy matters. I expect that this will eventually be cut from the book, possibly to be spun off into another, but for the time being, it is a place to move policy thoughts out into. I have a lot of policy ideas that I think would be good for Democrats and for the country and the world, but they are outside of the present Overton Window, so they have no value in a book of practical politics. Ending intellectual property and replacing it with a system of public grants and free licenses is a relatively clear example. (Even so, it involves some fairly deep changes in how we think about creativity, incentive, and the public interest.)

The "Introduction" and/or "Afterword" are needed to fit the body of the book into a particular political context. At this point, it's impossible to write this and release it before the November 2022 election, which is likely to significantly alter the landscape.

I've been kicking around ideas for a political book as far back as the late 1990s. I even took some time off then to work on a draft. I had studied philosophy and sociology in college, but made a career out of software engineering. It occurred to me that one could apply engineering discipline to many political issues without succumbing to the hack mechanistic simplifications common to the genre. Perhaps my personal background would help figure out what might and might not work. But I wasn't satisfied with what I came up with, and shelved it. After 9/11/2001, I took a renewed, more urgent interest in politics, and started blogging. I was dead set against the War on Terror from the very start. By 2004, I saw the need for a narrowly-focused polemic Case Against the Republicans, but missed the election window. Still, I kept turning the ideas around my mind, mostly thinking of a longer time frame. I've been fond of utopian writing since my late teens, so I found the title The Way Things Ought to Be very appealing. (Unfortunately, Rush Limbaugh used it, in a 1992 book that turned out to mostly be an insane rant against Anita Hill.) I've long been struck by the extent of change over the last 150 years, and felt that people everywhere had done a poor job of adjusting their thinking to cope with the times. But while bad ideas were everywhere, really dangerous ones were concentrated in the Republican Party, so I tended to vacillate between focus on urgent vs. important matters. While Obama was president, it seemed more important to think long, but when Trump lucked out, an urgent sense of impending doom took over. In early 2020, I again narrowed the focus and opened a file for A Letter to the Democrats, which I started by copying the "four eras" outline. I hoped to close the door on the Reagan-to-Trump era, and open a new one -- sure Biden didn't rise to the standards of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, but history has never been a mechanical cycle. I imagined a short book, with the four eras for historical background, and a second part closer to chapter four above. I had a short window, and blew it. After the election, it took some time for me to think through the second and third chapters, which again return the focus onto the Republican threat. For a while, the third was "The Way the World Works," but while reading Vaclav Smil's similar title it occurred to me that "Breaks" would be better than "Works." Republicans break things.

It's not that I have had writer's block. I have millions of words written in my various notebook/blog files (collected in 4 huge volumes here), but at this stage I have no confidence in my ability to pull an actual book together. Perhaps it's just a psychotic "will to fail"? But I do think this outline makes sense, and there's no shortage of material to flesh it out -- once you get going, the harder thing is to decide where to stop. The target audience would be active Democrats, who by now fear Republicans as much as I do, but are hard-pressed to formulate effective tactics to oppose them. I have no experience in doing so, but can draw on a lifetime of observing Democrats fuck up and sell out short. The 2016 debacle was not because America was too conservative, but because a critical sliver of the public so distrusted Hillary that they were willing to take a chance on Trump. Incredibly stupid that was, but that's why we need smarter critics.

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