The above image might be entitled "The Innocence of the Dinosaurs". Are the times always so kind as to march lock-step with us? We live in an era so free and therefore so dynamic that we are just as prone to be ahead of the curve on some issues as we are likely not to keep pace with the times on other matters. A circumstance not to be taken personally. After all, it is unexpected, and not rarely unpleasant, things that remind us of the need to adapt, to change, to rebuild. I am in no way suggesting that the political protagonists discussed below deserve support when I simply recognise that they are instrumental in expressing and bringing about changes that affect all of us.
However unpalatable the candidates in question may appear to some of us, it is more helpful to analyse the conditions that make them catalysts of changing times, than to focus on the scandal of their holding views wildly different from ours.
Say what you may, it strikes me as a healthy sign that the American political system remains prone to be shaken up thoroughly every once in a while by outsiders like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
Do not jump to conclusions as to how I think about the mavericks in question. Having said that, I feel the below thoughts are well worth reading:
Yet if nothing were politicized, there would be no civilization. Precisely because we live together, there are issues on which policies must be adopted that will affect us all, even if satisfying everyone perfectly is impossible. Examples include national defense, controlling epidemics, and traffic rules. On such matters, finding the best balance among many tradeoffs requires everyone to be open about their knowledge, aspirations, apprehensions, and expectations. Disappointments are easier to accept if everyone has been heard and conflicting agendas have been reconciled through meaningful compromise. When these ideal conditions are met, the imperfections of adopted policies will be viewed as the costs of accommodating diverse constituencies fairly. Even individuals who dislike specific policies will consider the political process legitimate.
Politics loses legitimacy insofar as it excludes from consideration certain preferences and thoughts. When the fear of being ridiculed, belittled, and stigmatized makes certain groups censor themselves, disappointing policies are no longer acceptable. Yes, open conflict may be avoided, at least for a while. It may seem to groups with a voice in the political process that social problems are being solved through the triumph of superior ideas. In certain cases, the apparent harmony might even become genuine over time; absent public support, the concealed preferences may wither away. The American “melting pot” is replete with examples of old-world preferences that gradually lost appeal after disappearing from public view under pressures to appear “American.” To fit in, immigrants grudgingly gave up authenticity; their children would not even contemplate living differently from their native peers. For the second generation, authenticity meant living like an American, not clinging to ancestral customs.
But when core economic and social interests are involved the truncation of public discourse is unlikely to end as happily. Consider jobs, government subsidies, or wealth redistribution. On such matters, preferences are far more resilient, and disappointments are felt far more deeply than on those involving ancestral customs. Because perceived indignities and injustices are relived repeatedly, excluding them from public discourse breeds sustained anger, and political insiders draw growing resentment. Conspiracy theories that demonize some conception of the “establishment” start to circulate more or less clandestinely, usually through media that the politically connected scorn as backward, reactionary, and misinformed. On the surface, politics will seem relatively calm, but this situation cannot last forever. At some point, the frustrations will spew out, like lava from a long-dormant volcano. When that explosion occurs, the elites accustomed to ignoring the masses will be unprepared to counter the populist leaders who emerge to fill the void. The fates of many so-called establishment candidates in the 2016 Republican primary illustrate the point. So does the degree to which establishment candidates in both parties have had to pander to newly energized constituencies.
Whatever one thinks of the stands Donald Trump has taken on the issues, they have resonated strongly with a large enough fraction of the GOP primary and caucus electorate to make him the presumptive nominee. Establishment candidates are not united, and GOP orthodoxy has proved to have too little appeal.
Like Willkie, Trump has run as an insurgent populist, challenging the elitist wing of the GOP that has long dominated the nominating process.
And like Willkie, Trump will find winning enthusiastic support from Republicans who supported establishment candidates very difficult, because they denounced him as an unqualified interloper during the primaries and caucuses.
Neither the Willkie nor the Trump candidacies has destroyed the GOP, but both disrupted it. The consequences were lasting 76 years ago, and I would predict they will be so this time around also.
In Willkie’s case, his nomination helped reorient the GOP away from a strongly anti-New Deal position to one that accommodated the most popular New Deal stands on matters foreign and domestic, such as support for Social Security and aid to Britain during World War II.
Trump appears to be doing something similar, in the sense that his nomination will likely push the GOP to do more to improve life for working- and lower-middle-class Americans, who have seen their quality of life decline in important ways over the past generation.
I am not entirely in line with the below judgement that
... presidential contests have almost never been about a rational comparisons of policies, but instead have been morality tales framed by the respective campaigns ...
I do think that "rational comparisons of policies" are taking place and do play a significant role - especially among specialist political activists (see below).
However, on balance, infatuation with a partisan narrative is likely to be the supreme driver. But that should not surprise us, nor should it be taken as an unmitigated disaster. Here are a number of reasons why:
First, you cannot do politics successfully without a scaffolding of firm story lines. No one is going to win an election by telling their audiences how divided in their honest minds they are on most of the key issues. You need simple, consistent, firmly-held-on-to narratives to come across convincingly.
Second, only very few of us have the time to become thoroughly knowledgeable about political issues. Once you have acquired a taste for a political narrative - mostly during your youth - you are likely to cling to it. For instead of being isolated highlights, political convictions are highly interconnected networks of beliefs. If you start cutting one of them you will soon find that almost all the rest of them must go too. If it was lucrative to become a political expert far more people would have a go at it. As it is, for most people it is rational to subscribe to the spoon-fed (superficially propagandistic) convictions of their chosen political narrative and to support it with their emotions and their vote.
Third, elections/political contests are substitutes for physical brawls, even wars. This is a good thing, which, of course, involves costs. In a free society, political confrontations are part of what I call the transrational arsenal of institutions with whose help we manage to live rather well in the face of fundamental disagreements among the populace.
Fourth, for a political order to be effective, it needs to be organised - like everything else in modern society - along the lines of a division labour. So there are political specialists - such as politicians, their assistants, campaign workers, reporters etc. - which make up only a small part of the population, most of whose members play the role of non-specialist consumers of political propaganda. This need not be a bad system. And there cannot be a good system that does not work roughly along these lines. So let us not ask for too much and be content as long as the activists - many of whom serve as representatives of the non-specialists - do their job satisfactorily, and their interaction with the consumers of politics works reasonably well - i.e. does not result in an uncoupling of a small part of society from the rest of its members and an attendant usurpation of incontestable power.
Say what you may, it strikes me as a healthy sign that the American political system remains prone to be shaken up thoroughly every once in a while by outsiders like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
The first two U.S. elections were essentially not contested, with George Washington as the universal preference. So the third election, which occurred in 1796, was the first truly contested election, and it immediately showed the vitriol and ad hominem attacks we have come to expect in presidential politics. In it, Thomas Jefferson was accused of lacking manliness and proper Christian values, among other deficiencies. In fact, presidential contests have almost never been about a rational comparisons of policies, but instead have been morality tales framed by the respective campaigns:
[When] we think a bit more broadly about the cultural structures of American presidential politics, then this first contested election was absolutely seminal. It set the geographic pattern of New England competing with the South at the two extremes of American politics with the geographically intermediate states deciding between them. It established the basic ideological dynamic of a democratic, rights-spreading American 'left' arrayed against a conservative, social order-protecting 'right,' each with its own competing model of leadership. One can even detect the creation of what linguist and political commentator George Lakoff calls the essential 'conceptual metaphors' of American political life, government as 'strict father' or 'nurturant parent,' but it is not necessary to go that far. Historian Alan Taylor has described a similar idea as the competing political 'personas' of Federalists and Democratic-Republicans: 'fathers' versus 'friends' of the people. It was the Federalists, especially, who got the battle of metaphors started with their efforts to emasculate the image of Thomas Jefferson, but the opposition redressed the balance with a vengeance in the attacks they mounted on the allegedly monarchical, tyrannical tendencies of George Washington and 'Daddy Vice,' as Vice President John Adams referred to himself.
Even with their patchiness, the two campaigns of 1796 managed to construct remarkably coherent images of the two candidates that connected clearly to the policy issues and cultural tensions of the day, especially those raised by the French Revolution. The young United States found its government severely pressured to choose sides in the world war that spun out of that revolution, and its politics were roiled by the democratic enthusiasms it spawned. Keynoted by congressman and pamphleteer William Laughton Smith of South Carolina, with some inspiration from Edmund Burke and guidance from Alexander Hamilton, the Federalist attacks of 1796 wrapped their caricature of Jefferson in a powerful conservative critique of French revolutionary radicalism, the Enlightenment, and post-Christian morals. With the Sally Hemings revelations still in the future, the critics focused chiefly on Jefferson's lack of manly qualities, as evidenced especially by his interest in science and technology. According to the Federalists, here quoted in a sort of dual biography of the two candidates published in Boston, the 'timid and wavering' Jefferson was not cut out to be a 'statesman, still less ... a patriot.' Woe betide America if 'her liberties depended upon the depth of his political knowledge, the strength of his virtue, or the vigour of his mind.' Jefferson's inability to 'act the man' would invite foreign aggression and lead to national ruin: 'our national honour forfeited; war probably ensue, our commerce be destroyed, our towns pillaged.' Better to opt for the 'security' of the 'resplendent abilities,' 'faithful services,' 'inflexible patriotism,' and 'undeviating firmness' of John Adams, who would have the wisdom and strength to stand against 'mad democracy' and 'the wiles of ambition.' The basic images of liberalism and conservatism in American politics have never strayed very far from this original Federalist template.
The politics of the 1790s was not a primitive (or sophisticated) competition of personality cults, or at least not any more primitive than our own. In fact, the 'informed voter' model of party politics touted in civics lessons and journalism schools, where the media provide information that allows voters to select the candidate who best matches their own policy preferences from a list of issues, has rarely been more than an aspiration in American politics. By taking a small leaf from the work of George Lakoff and other scholars of modem political culture, we can proceed on the premise that even with fully developed party politics, partisanship not only can but may most effectively be expressed in terms of metaphors and morality tales rather than platforms and arguments.
Is duelling actually illegal, nowadays? And if it is, would such prohibition be a case of paternalism? Or have we "nudged" ourselves toward a duelling taboo that most moderns are proud about as being a victory of reason?
Lately, Trump and Romney have engaged in a contemporary form of duelling. David Stockman claims that in attacking Trump as a businessman of poor performance Romney is presenting us with "a screaming case of the pot calling the kettle black."
Mitt Romney has lashed out at The Donald for being a “phony and fraud”, but consider this. During his 16-years at Bain Capital, fully one-fourth or $600 million of the firms cumulative $2.5 billion of profits were scalped from companies which went bankrupt soon after Mitt and his partners got out of town with the loot.
No wonder the American voters did not believe him when he claimed to be the “job creator”!
Perhaps more interestingly, Stockman, as ever a little shrill on doom and gloom and human depravity, offers us a graphic account of how to make money in the private equity business.
The headlines are mostly trumpeting (heh!) the Donald’s victory in seven states last night, but the delegate count suggests that the victory was far from overwhelming, and the Republican race is far from over. According to The Post, Trump will receive approximately 234 delegates, Ted Cruz 209, Marco Rubio 90, John Kasich 19 and Ben Carson 3. So the total delegate count last night was approximately Trump 234, non-Trump 321. And in the end, Trump needs to get a majority of delegates, not just win vote pluralities.
I understand that many of the upcoming states will be winner-take-all, and this puts Trump in the driver’s seat. But many analysts expected Trump to win 10 states (all but Cruz’s home state of Texas) and to create an insurmountable delegate lead. That didn’t happen; not only did Trump lose four states, but he came within three percentage points of losing an additional three states (Arkansas, Vermont, Virginia).
Trump is still the front-runner and likely to remain in that position, but a contested convention has become more likely. And if Cruz and Rubio could work out a president-vice president deal soon, that would make a Trump defeat even more likely. As Yogi Berra famously said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
An administration may reasonably offer indications to other governments on its attitude towards a possible momentous policy change. Normally, such indications ought to be conveyed in politic, perhaps even intramural, rather than publicly ostentatious fashion. All the more, a responsible government is well advised to be very careful to join the fray in foreign electoral campaigns. It may be just about a borderline case of admissibility when the US government takes sides in the debate of Brexit (Britain's exit from the EU), but the sheer incompetence and ignorance of US foreign policy in the face of its most important challenges never ceases to amaze me; the "masterpiece" being the enormously costly, decade-long destabilisation of the Muslim world from Libya to Afghanistan at the hands of both Republican and Democratic Administrations. It would seem, however, none of the presidential aspirants show promise to change this major shortcoming.
The source. There is something special about the English art of vituperative commenting.
While US Secretary of State, John Kerry, emphasises that his country has a ‘profound interest… in a very strong United Kingdom staying in a strong EU’, Matt Ridley begs to differ:
How would Americans like it if we argued that it is in our interests that the United States should forthwith be united with all the countries in their continent north of the Panama Canal — Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Panama — into a vast customs union governed by a trans-national, unelected civil service. Let’s call it the American Union, or AU.
Imagine that Britain’s Foreign Secretary has just made a speech in Toronto saying he thinks America should join the AU in order to influence Mexico in the direction of free trade. The great and the good in America agree, because they think being part of the ten-country AU will prevent war, boost trade, help smaller nations compete with the behemoths of Europe and China, enable free movement of people, stand up to Russia, encourage scientific co-operation and ensure environmental protection.
Above all, we argue, it would show the world that America is not small-minded, xenophobic, protectionist and isolationist. To this end we think the AU should — er — agree a common tariff against imports from the poorer countries of South America and have free movement of peoples within but not from outside the union. We also think the United States should give up the dollar and use a common currency issued in central America, called the auro, sometimes known as the oreo, or if it is not ready to do that, should encourage others to use the auro, even though there is limited fiscal harmonisation, which bodes ill for the single currency. Oh, and the flag of the AU, consisting of ten radial yellow stripes on a blue background, should be prominently displayed alongside the Stars and Stripes.
Unfortunately, in the current political climate, it turns out that these manifest advantages, deliciously attractive though they might be to the American elite, because they offer an escape from having to think about people in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, apparently do not have quite the same appeal to the American electorate. People are worried about Mexicans taking their jobs, using their health care and drawing upon their welfare if they join the AU. And about Panamanians running up deficits, Guatemalans passing laws that affect Americans and Nicaraguans sharing a common foreign policy.
The average Trump voter might not like Congress much, but he likes the idea of an expensive international parliament that shuttles between Mexico City and Vancouver even less, and of an international executive whose directives pass automatically into law still less, let alone one whose corridors of power are positively seething with lobbyists from big business and big pressure groups (funded by the AU to lobby it). As for the idea that the US Supreme Court could be overruled by judges sitting in Toronto or Managua…
I find the below attempt at classifying the political camps of the US, especially the 'right', interesting, though I have slight doubts as to the competence of the author, considering that he presents Murray Rothbard as an aficionado of the night-watchman state, which the confessed anarchist certainly was not.
What strikes me most though is the ease, even facileness with which many proponents of (libertarian-leaning) freedom like to play God by pontificating about the mix of creed they would like to prevail in the country. Freedom is all about admitting, generating, tolerating and accommodating people who think differently from the way you and I do.
There is something deeply illiberal about visions of the right kind of attitudinal landscape, because freedom is not only a civilizatory stage that tolerates plurality, she is actually an engine of diversity and change.
At times, one might get lost in reveries of a society strictly and comprehensively conforming to one's own preferences. But once we wake up again from such dreams, it is to be hoped, our awareness returns that it is the right of all mature citizens to compete for and jointly effect the society we live in, which as a result of such pluralism will tend to be rather eclectic and heterogeneous.
Of course, I may be picking a vantage point that is not entirely fair to the author, who, my misgivings notwithstanding, has a right to ponder an ideal state and to argue, oddly in my view:
Perhaps an ideal ‘state’ would be akin to United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which have capitalism and some degree of personal autonomy but also religious and cultural homogeneity. But even those countries, as culturally conservative as they are, have a lot of foreign laborers, which racialists on the ‘alt right’ would not condone. But it’s probably too late for the United States to reverse its course, being that it’s already too diverse, too entrenched in the ‘status quo’, and too populous.
The vacancy created [by judge Scalia's demise] on the Supreme Court makes painfully clear the huge stakes involved when we choose a President of the United States, just one of whose many powers is the power to nominate justices of the Supreme Court.
Justice Scalia's passing would be a great loss at any time. But at this crucial juncture in the history of the nation -- with 5-to-4 Supreme Court decisions determining what kind of country America will be -- Scalia's death can be catastrophic in its consequences, depending on who is chosen to be his successor.
He does not like Donald Trump:
If, by some miracle, Trump became president, what kind of president would he be? Do we need another self-centered know-it-all in the White House to replace the one we have now?
Sowell thinks the only candidate up to the challenge is Ted Cruz:
If the Republicans are to avoid having Donald Trump lead them -- and the country -- to disaster, they are going to have to have the majority of non-Trump supporters get behind some given candidate.
Senator Ted Cruz has been criticized in this column before, and will undoubtedly be criticized here again. But we can only make our choices among those actually available, and Senator Cruz is the one who comes to mind when depth and steadfastness come to mind.
As someone who once clerked for a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he will know how important choosing Justice Scalia's replacement will be. And he has the intellect to understand much more.
Image credit. Thomas Sowell's dictum may be overly trenchant, but the point he is trying to make is cogent.
Also, I do not condone the insult expressed at time mark 02:25, but otherwise Rushdie's argument strikes me as sound.
Writes Richard Larsen:
America has a rich history as a melting pot of cultures, ethnicity, and religion. Those who have come here over the past couple hundred years have sought a better life through the freedoms and liberties assured by our Constitution and the free enterprise system that fosters their “pursuit of happiness.” They’ve brought their culture, customs, and language with them, but they became Americans: learned English, learned our customs and conventions, and became encultured into the American way. America is great in large part because of the diversity of our people, and the richness of our cultural elements brought here. But multiculturalism has become much more than that, and is now more destructive than ameliorative, to American culture.