Friday, November 25, 2016

Our political crisis

The Trump team seems to be having some difficulty reaching agreement on key positions, making it impossible to determine exactly what the Trump administration will try to do.  I shall have more to say about that when we learn more.   But whatever they do, Trump's election and reactions to it show that we are experiencing the greatest political crisis in our history since 1860-1, when southern states seceded and civil war began.  The nature of the crisis, however, is different, and in some ways, even deeper.  We fought the civil war because the political leadership in both the North and the South enjoyed popular support.  Now, as I have recently been reminded by two separate incidents, our political class has almost entirely lost popular support, and I have no idea how to regain it.  What follows will be anecdotal but I think it is still significant.

Recently a social media friend of mine provided me with a copy of a questionnaire that his father, a retiree, had filled out.  They both live in one of the states whose loss by the Democrats was so shocking, that is, Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin.  His father apparently received the questionnaire in the mail because he was once a registered Republican, although he is now an independent.  He filled it out, but he made clear from the beginning that the party no longer enjoyed his allegiance because it "has changed since I joined."

The gentleman agreed that the Republican party had to do a better job appealing to minorities, women and young voters, although he also thought it should stick to its principles of low taxes, less government and free enterprise.  But he did not think the Republicans should focus on "the disastrous policies of Barack Obama's presidency" or that it should emphasize social issues, which he thought had become "too divisive."  He did not think the national media misled the public about the Republican party's positions.  More importantly, he spontaneously mentioned that he had received insurance through Obamacare, and although his premiums had increased, he strongly opposed replacing it.  He said that he belieed climate change was a major threat to the nation, but on the other hand, he did not trust the federal government to act in the best interest of our citizens, and he thought "political correctness" had indeed gotten out of hand. 

Asked which party would handle various issues better, he gave the Republicans the nod only one, a strong military, and preferred the Democrats with respect to health care, gun control, and reducing the federal deficit.  (That in my opinion was one of his best-informed responses.)  But on everything else, from the war on terror, the economy foreign policy, entitlements, immigration reform, crime, and appointment of Supreme Court justices, he checked the boxes for "No opinion," but crossed out "no opinion" and wrote "neither."  On foreign policy, he felt the United States should be more a model to the world than a policeman, and he thought we should do more to defeat ISIS, but opposed military action to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons.  He favored admitting refugees from the Middle East "with proper vetting."

The picture all this gave me was of a concerned and quite well-informed citizen who took sensible positions on most issues, foreign and domestic, and who was not caught up in the bitter ideological divisions of our time.  And it seems to me that such people could very reasonably have been expected to vote for Hillary Clinton, who was the more experienced, calmer, and more sensible candidate, and with whom he did not express any really big divisions on issues.  But--he didn't.  He expressed his intention to vote for one of the  minor party candidates, and his son reports that that is what he did.  Now as I have been writing here for 12 years now, the Democrats remain the party that essentially believes in government and does its best, when it power, to keep it going and make it work, while the Republicans try to tear it down.  This gentleman obviously doesn't want to tear government down, but that wasn't enough to get him to vote to keep the Democrats in power.  That is a measure of the mess we are in.

My second piece of evidence came from a conversation with four young people in their early thirties, three of them educators, and all of them Clinton voters.  They spontaneously began talking about who the next Democratic presidential candidate might be.  But like their Republican counterparts this year, all their interest was in a non-politician, some one with no electoral experience, whom they thought they would be able to trust and who might have broad appeal.  The three names that immediately came up were Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, and Jon Stewart.  If I had pressed them I am sure they would all have admitted to some admiration for Elizabeth Warren, and at least some of them had favored Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination, but both of them, alas, will probably be too old to run for President in the future.  There was not one younger Democratic politician whom these four very well-educated young adults actively wanted to run as their next candidate or serve as their next President.  When I said to one of them that I was depressed that their opinion of the whole political class was so low, he replied that they were judging them based on what they had seen them do, and I could not argue very hard against that.

This widespread disaffection has many causes.  Nearly all our politicians are indeed heavily beholden to moneyed interests.  The Republicans have successfully kept government from functioning effectively at all levels to a surprising extent, and that has in turn discredited government. The Democrats have, in my opinion, been much too focused on identity politics, as this article in last Sunday's New York Times effectively argued.  The general distrust of authority that has been growing for the last 50 years has worked against any kind of party loyalty, especially, it seems, on the left and among the young.  But if you believe, as I do, that modern society cannot function without effective governance and that democracy crucial to human happiness, then it seems to me that you must agree that this almost complete lack of confidence in our leadership class is a very serious matter indeed.  And it does not seem at all likely that our new President, who was elected largely because he was outside that class, will be able to do very much to restore confidence.


ed boyle said...

Perhaps entrenched economic interests have taken over government. Perhaps term limits at all levels of government and lifelong lobbying bans and govt. campaign funding with a 3 month campaign would change things.

You were writing how it used to be in 19th century. Technology and business react more quickly to exploit situations than govt. can control it. Antitrust laws, consumer and labor protection were blowbacck or claw back of rights taken by capital exploiting technology. Property rights are seen as sacred. Wealthy exploit technology to control trade, communications, labor, govt. regulations and expand their advantages. Tech revolution allowed replacement of middle management in corporations and wal mart type global trade companies using jit delivery, satellite communication, etc. Wall street derivatives by hedge funds and TBTF banks were products of technology. Power could be centralized under one person with right technology of communication and military, like under stalin. This issort of what NSA practices also pressuring google, mass media to toe line. Wal Mart, big banks, military industrial complex lobby and get results in terms of trade agreements, new wars to expand western control for said agreements. Unfortunately home market cannot live without income paying jobs and internet has a workaround around ministry of truth so voters know the game is rigged and a few billionaires in USA are not only people with legitimate interests on the planet.

Power claw back globally will mean restricting trade and opening press up to multiple opinions on foreign policy and economic theory. The individual, local community and nation has become subservient to the multinational corporations and banks. Thevsystem of technology is however so complicated that it is on its last legs, see military boondoggles, windows updates, HFT trades on wall street. Capitalism or rent seeking society is purely egoistic and combine that with technological expansion gone mad we see a sort of Frankenstein monster or jurassic park scenario. The health care or banking or educational or military industrial swamps are inefficient, costly, corrupt. If society is to work for individuals 90% should not be overhead costs controlled by corrupt, invisible people far beyond our reach. Reset, reboot. National bankruptcy could be best bet. India seems to be working this direction. Perhaps Italy next. It could become a trend. Building up gold reserves is a good idea and retrenching into national borders in trade and military and leaving people to deal with moral issues at a regional or state levels. Collapse is hard to accept but can be dealt with sensibly.

Author said...

Interesting - especially the young'uns preference for media personalities to be our Democratic presidential candidate. Media, media: how hast Thou ruined us, instead of helping inform and educate us!

Bozon said...


Thanks for this succinct, and frank, summary of the position.

Americans seem, generally, to sense, clearly or dimly as the case may be, that something is somehow more wrong with the party of their fathers, or with the party they once joined perhaps in rebellion from their fathers, whichever it may happen to be.

They almost all have always held, deep down, views of good government derived from the founding ideas of the American Republic, a republic based on repudiating strong central government altogether, and repudiating not only monarchy but also an aristocratic leadership class systemm which went with that old order.

At the time of the founding, most colonists criticized the British Prime Ministership, called a Robinocracy, in ways similar to how average Americans now criticize politicians of either party, conceiving themt to represent just a new form of financial patronage system, but without the crown or the aristocracy.

Although there may be some truth in that, much was given up by giving up a parliamentary system which relied on other important things besides money.

Ours now relies on nothing else, partly because nothing else was left by the founding fathers, and as you admit money lies behind the so called leadership class.
The real leadership class is the money behind the politicians: that is why they were so disappointed with Trump, because he claims to rise above money, the real leadership class, true or false.

All the best

Bruce Wilder said...

The American Civil War was the culmination of a long political struggle of resistance to progress of an increasingly well-defined sort: the Slavepower, as it came to be known, had conscious hold of certain veto points afforded by the American Constitution: the Senate, the Supreme Court, the way Parties organized the selection and election of Presidents and used those veto points to resist the coming of economic, social and political developments and ideas hostile to unfree labor: slavery was the salient for this resistance. It is common to speak of the sharp division of a country about to embark on a civil war, but in fact, like a body of water accumulating behind a dam, a great consensus had been forming not just against slavery but for western expansion and development, a transcontinental railroad, land-grant colleges, a modern economy. Lincoln and Douglas agreed about almost everything . . . almost, and Lincoln proved a master at managing and keeping alive that agreement.
There was a moment in the recent primaries when the profound division among Democrats revealed itself. You wrote about it, shocked at the betrayal of principle by Krugman when he embraced "horizontal equality". I was surprised when several of what I had supposed were advocates of public single-payer health insurance abandoned that position -- Paul Starr and Ezra Klein among them.

For thirty or forty years, globalization and financialization have driven forward rationalized by the market monotheism of neoliberalism, an ideological monopoly backed by mainstream neoclassical economics and a permanent increasingly feckless punditry. The foreign policy neoconservatives fit themselves neatly into this structure of no alternatives and no effective criticism.
The neoliberal consensus and its neoconservative accompaniment has been remarkably destructive in policy terms: economic decline, wars that never end, financial instability. But, there has been no alternative. Trump is not much of an alternative: he is neoliberalism without a theory. A similar grift, but shorne of the sophisticated b.s. of the chattering classes.
You say the country is deeply divided and I do not doubt it, but its divisions are without the conviction that marked the Civil War, without the sense of common purpose that undergirded previous crises. We fear the future, because as ed boyle says, our future is collapse. The long neoliberal consensus has drained our imaginations of alternatives.

Gloucon X said...

Bruce Wilder’s last four paragraphs are as fine a description of our situation as I've read anywhere.

“The long neoliberal consensus has drained our imaginations of alternatives.”

Drained imaginations are a sign of abandoned principles. The neoliberal consensus means a runaway plutocracy. To allow plutocracy to be our future is a betrayal of principles of democracy and a surrender to tyranny. Democracy means all people share the fruits of society or it means nothing. There is our basic principle. If we're going to lose elections let's lose them in an uncompromising fight against plutocracy and for decency, justice, and democracy. Sens. Sanders and Warren are the closest we have to that uncompromising fight. It’s a noble fight. One where we join all those living and dead who fought tyranny.