Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Thursday, March 31, 2016

What Is To Be Done?

It has been clear for a long time that the Republican coalition includes a significant number of people with unsavory attitudes about race, religion, gender, and sexuality.  Josh Barro makes this point today, arguing that despite its protestations, the Republican Party is stuck with Trump voters because it needs their support to win.  Paul Krugman made much the same point yesterday, though his focus was on the cynicism of the conservative donor class.

Barro and Krugman are right, and their point stands as an indictment of the Republican Party as an institution.  Quite often the best explanation for Republican support for a policy or idea is that it is dickish, or that it gives voice to some sort of resentment or racial anxiety.  So in other words, it's not just that the Republican Party is full of racists, it's that those racists are specifically motivated to vote for bad reasons.  It is unsurprising when this results in a bad agenda and (when the Republicans have power) bad policies.

But as Barro notes, it's not clear what (non-racist) conservatives can do.  One answer is that they could give up and admit that their constituency is too small to win elections.  In a multi-party system, this might actually be effective:  a party commanding 10-15% of the vote can act as a coalition partner in a center-right (or maybe even center-left) government, exerting modest influence in proportion to its level of popular support.  At times, such a party can punch above its weight when its support is crucial to the governing coalition—it can essentially force the center-right and center-left parties to bid for its support.  (My understanding is that this is the role Parnell hoped to play in British politics.  His lack of success may point to structural problems with this strategy, or it may simply reflect the degree to which his personal life intruded on his political efforts.)

And in fact that's roughly what we see in Europe.  The mainstream conservative parties are (relatively) unsullied by racism, because racist voters flock to the far-right parties that have prospered in recent years.  This has its pluses and minuses, but whatever its merits, it doesn't seem to be feasible in the United States.  For conservatives to "give up" here would mean true exile in the wilderness.

Conceivably conservatives could attempt a quasi-hostile takeover of the Democratic Party, forming a coalition with the party's centrist forces against its anti-market fringe.  But the Democratic Party would reject this maneuver, and it probably has the institutional strength to ward it off.  (In other words, conservatives could join the party and try to push it to the right in primary elections, but their leverage would be very limited and so they would end up residing in a political party that had barely budged from its left-wing commitments.  Perhaps in a few states conservatives could exert more influence, but the net effect would probably be marginal.)

Given these grim alternatives, you can see why conservatives would try to build a party that attracts just enough racist support to remain electorally viable while trying to wall off the racists from the core of the party.  It more or less worked for several decades, and it may work again when Trump has been defeated (probably at the hands of the Democrats).  What is unique about Trump, maybe, is his combination of personal popularity, highly racialized policies, and ineptitude at racial coding:

Conservatives presumably hope that they can put the genie back in the bottle when he has run his course.  And maybe they're right.  But the unfortunate fact remains that their ideological movement is intertwined with bigotry and cannot be extricated in any foreseeable political future.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Sic Transit

The train cars brighten twice as they go around the bend,
Which seems wrong. Shouldn't there be some unique angle
At which they catch the sun?
But by the time I start setting up the math problem in my head
The last car is gone. I thought I had more time
To match theory to fact I thought I had longer
To gather my thoughts
But the train has moved on.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Ayn Rand Played On

Ross Douthat's blog post "Silence Equals Trump" makes a strong argument:  Republican leaders must vocally oppose Trump and organize the resistance, to save their party and their country, and notwithstanding that Trump may be able to portray their actions as the desperate flailing of a threatened establishment.

But I was more struck by the title of the post.  "Silence = Death" was the slogan of ACT UP, a disruptive organization that used controversial, over-the-top tactics to bring attention to the HIV epidemic.  The point they were making was that the stakes were painfully high, and so it was morally requisite for leaders to speak out, to end the silence.  The key factor distinguishing ACT UP from other groups was its sense of overwhelming urgency, and its willingness to risk going too far in getting its message out.  (Langdon Hammer, in his masterful biography of James Merrill, notes that the slogan must have fallen on Merrill's ears like body blows:  Merrill concealed his HIV diagnosis and remained aloof from politics while homosexuals were dying by the hundreds of thousands.)

It's not a bad analogy, even if it's a little jarring to watch a Catholic social conservative deploy the rhetoric of a radical and mostly homosexual anti-HIV group.  The comparison is not a subtle one, but I want to pick up on a more nuanced way in which Trump's rise resembles the proliferation of HIV.  In And The Band Played On, Randy Shilts punctuates his account of the HIV epidemic with updates on the number of reported cases and the number of deaths.  I have to admit, the number of cases seems quite underwhelming at first.  A few dozen, a few hundred...  even a single death is a tragedy, but if HIV had stayed at those levels, most Americans would never have heard of it.

Of course this shows how misleading it is to think about geometric growth that way.  The personnel at the CDC were frantic from the start because they understood the math of infectious diseases.  Anyway, the numbers soon climbed into the thousands, at which point there was no excuse for anyone to ignore the threat to public health.  Nevertheless, the Reagan administration did just that, trying to limit spending on HIV as part of its overall budgetary efforts.  (The idea that it was fiscally responsible to shortchange the anti-HIV effort is one of the most mind-boggling examples of short-sightedness I've ever seen.)

The rise of Trump really seems as though it exploited the same kind of mathematical heedlessness.  It's true that early on it was excusable to think that Trump's tenure at the top of the polls would be brief, like that of Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain before him.  But as Trump persistently attracted a hugely disproportionate share of media attention, squeezing serious candidates like Rick Perry and Scott Walker from the race before the voting even started, it was evident that something was different.  Certainly by the time Trump started racking up first-place victories in primaries, it was time to mobilize the party against him.  But few made even a half-hearted attempt to do so.  The lesser candidates continued to maul each other while Trump racked up wins with about a third of the vote.

All of this is familiar now, but for a long time Trump flew under the radar and attracted almost no fire.  And while it seems excusable for a casual observer to have missed the import of his campaign, it seems like political malpractice for the Republican Party establishment to have done so.  Like the CDC, they were in a position to understand the math, but unlike the CDC, they refused to do so, and so they failed to sound the alarm.  And their silence = Trump.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

The Looming Paroxysm

A quick point following up on my previous post.  As any grade school student can tell you, the U.S. Constitution is designed to protect citizens against their government by imposing checks and balances.  But it's worth asking whether the Constitution goes too far and creates the real possibility of elevating a tyrant.  By analogy, imagine that workers at a company are required to log in to their computers using a password.  The company decides to heighten security by requiring workers to change their passwords every two weeks.  Most workers respond by writing their passwords on sticky notes and sticking them to their monitors.

How does this play out today?  The Constitution enables an obstructionist party to frustrate all attempts to legislate.  You would expect this to hurt the party's reputation and cause it to lose seats, but again the Constitution steps in to ensure that certain people and places are structurally over-represented in Congress.  Also, the President inevitably carries much of the blame for government dysfunction, regardless of his/her role in it.  So obstructionism can be a stable, winning strategy.

But obstructionism (like an annoying password policy) invites a response.  Specifically, as I outlined in my last post, it might encourage extremism and disdain for the ordinary business of governing.  And it can also foster campaigns like Donald Trump's.  I have enough faith in our Constitution that I think he would be unable to carry out his domestic agenda in full (though certain grotesque elements of it, like mass deportation, are certainly possible).  But that would leave foreign/military policy in the hands of a dangerous narcissist.  It's also important to remember that our constitutional order doesn't consist solely of the Constitution, and Trump's disdain for basic norms of legality and limited government make him dangerous even if he is formally constrained.

So in other words, the checks and balances that theoretically constrain our government might bottle up our impulses until they become dangerous.  The closest historical precedent that I can think of is the demise of the Fourth Republic at the hands of De Gaulle.  I'm not knowledgeable enough about France to say whether the Fifth Republic has been an improvement, but it seems to have been what was required to end the bleeding in Algeria.

But Trump is no de Gaulle.  ("All my life I have had a certain idea of France, and let me tell you, it's going to be the greatest, the best, the most spectacular France you've ever seen.  And believe me, we're going to win...  a lot.")  I have a fairly high degree of confidence that our political system can keep him from power.  But it's better not to test these things, and anyway it's not as though perpetual obstructionism (or if you prefer, punctuated equilibrium) would be a satisfactory state of affairs even in the absence of the threat of tyranny.  We should adjust our constitutional order before it is adjusted for us.

Does Gridlock Foster Extremism?

This post is an attempt to explain the attraction of "anti-establishment" candidates in this year's primaries.  My theory is admittedly incomplete.  It is more of a starting point than a fully fleshed-out idea.  In short, I think that the gridlock conditions that characterize our current political stalemate have encouraged people to focus on the payoffs that would accrue in conditions of single-party control of government, since those are the only conditions in which meaningful legislation can happen.  Therefore people favor extreme candidates who are promising to make fundamental changes when they are elected.  By analogy, if you are down by 4 points late in the game, you would rather have a slightly better quarterback than a vastly better kicker, because a field goal accomplishes nothing.

Here is what I take to be the factual background.  First, the federal government basically doesn't pass laws, because the Republicans control Congress and the Democrats control the White House.  The government still functions (most of the time), but it is almost like a caretaker government.  The taxes come in, the checks go out, but the laws stay the same.  In "normal" times you might criticize a politician for proposing a plan that is too unpopular to become law.  In our environment, it seems wildly naïve or ambitious to suggest that you can accomplish anything at all.

Second, this stasis is punctuated by occasional fits of legislative hyperactivity.  In the Obama era, the results were the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.  These bills brought seismic changes in the legal and economic structure of our country, and they were written with little or no input from Republicans.  (It is not clear whether Republicans would have been given a real chance to affect the legislation if they had tried.  I don't believe any did so, although some did vote for Dodd-Frank.)  Both bills were passed at a time when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and (of course) the White House.

Third, ideological sorting (with essentially every major politician in the Democratic Party to the left of every major politician in the Republican Party) has resulted in a very high degree of partisan polarization relative to the second half of the twentieth century.  (I realize this is somewhat tautological, but I mean polarization to include not just ideological self-identification but also a high degree of partisanship and rancor.)  This often amounts to sheer antipathy for the other party and its leaders.  Meanwhile the weakening of the party system has basically eliminated the viability of the old-fashioned "pragmatic" role—anyone who compromises with the other side risks facing a primary challenger, even when this might flip the district to the other side.  (Some of these dynamics are more readily observed on the Republican side than on the Democratic side, and I don't mean to strike a false equivalence between the parties.  However, this is also not my subject at the moment, so please just take this as the broad, impressionistic sketch it is meant to be.)

In this environment, change is intermittent and sweeping, rather than frequent and incremental.  So almost all the payoffs are concentrated in rare states of the world.  Let's say you believe Hillary Clinton would make a better president than Bernie Sanders in the face of a Republican Congress, but that if Sanders had a Democratic Congress (including a filibuster-proof Senate), he would accomplish more.  Ordinarily you might still prefer Clinton, because a Republican (or divided) Congress is far more likely, but in our current situation maybe it doesn't matter because nothing happens in that situation anyway.  Maybe you assign a value of "nothing changes" to all situations involving divided government and focus entirely on states of the world when something can actually change.

I should note at this point that I don't think Sanders would actually be better than Clinton in those circumstances, so it's not a hard choice for me.  Moreover, there are plenty of factors to consider beyond legislation—there is the Supreme Court, there is foreign policy, there is the administrative state.  And of course, there is also a role for voting defensively to prevent the other side from being in a position to enact a sweeping agenda.  So in other words, there are a lot of caveats.

Still, relative to other times, our current situation seems to invite extremism and long shot strategies, and so maybe it explains some of what we are observing in the presidential primaries.