Friday, November 09, 2018

Krugman vs. Brooks

While this will not be the topic of my piece today, may I mention that the possibility I have referred to here more than once in the last year--that President Trump will fire Robert Mueller after the midterms--appears to be coming true.  I see no other explanation for the decision to replace Jeff Sessions with Republican hack  and propagandist Matthew Whitaker.  Meanwhile, may I say that I looked into the question of whether the temporary appointment is constitutional, and while the law on the question is as impenetrable as any that I have ever encountered, I'm sorry to say that I don't think it's obvious that it isn't.  The President feels vindicated by the election results and confident that that the Republican Party belongs completely to him. Dramatic developments are just over the horizon.

Having gotten that out of the way, I turn now to the overall significance of the election.  I don't have the time or energy for a remotely complete analysis, but I have done some research on one key area: turnout.  The results were staggering.

In an earlier analysis of the 2016 presidential election, I noted that turnout for both presidential candidates was quite low, and that Hillary Clinton lost because her turnout in critical states was even lower.  In my discussion of Doug Jones's victory in Alabama I showed quite conclusively that high Democratic turnout did not elect him--he sits in the Senate because such a gratifying number of Alabama Republicans would not vote for Roy Moore.  Low turnout did not however decide any key races this year.  Turnout was virtually record breaking in many states.

I checked data in four critical states--Florida, Texas, Ohio, and Georgia--for 2014 and for this year.  5.7 million Floridians cast ballots (in a very close election) in 2014; 8.1 million Florida votes have been counted so far this year, with similarly close results.  In Texas the total vote increased by 78%, from 4.6 million to 8.2 million.  In Ohio, where the governor's race was less heated and the Senate race was not close, it went from 3.1 million to 4.2 million.  And 3.9 million Georgians voted this year, compared to just 2.3 million in 2014--a 70% increase.  Donald Trump, clearly, has gotten many millions of Americans more involved in the political process--but on both sides.  There were blue and red waves in this election.  The blue waves in Texas and Georgia were bigger insofar as Beto O'Rourke and Stacey Abrams did much better than previous Democrats in statewide races in Texas and Georgia--but they were not, it seems, big enough.  (A recount may possibly lead to a revote in Georgia but it won't give Abrams a victory.)

The increased turnout, moreover, does not seem to have increased the influence of younger generations.  More of them voted, but more of their elders did too. According to the national CNN exit polls in 2014 and 2018, the percentage of voters in the 18-39 age group was almost identical in those two years.

Within their home areas--which include the four states I listed above, even though Florida remains closely divided--the Republicans are as strong as ever.  Agricultural areas voted Republican this week even though Trump's trade policies are hurting them.   The gender gap in red states was quite small.  We remain two Americas, and both sides are quite confident in their values and beliefs. 

Much to my surprise, two columns in today's New York Times stated, as clearly as I could have myself, two opposing views of what the election means. They came from the paper of record's longest-serving opinionators, Paul Krugman and David Brooks.  Ten years ago I could not have imagined finding myself in agreement with Brooks, rather than Krugman.  Now, for reasons that will become apparent, that happens all the time.

Krugman caught much of the nation's eye around 2000 as an unregenerate New Deal Democrat, rather like myself, who called a spade a spade rather than referring to it metaphorically as a shovel during the George W. Bush administration.  He wrote frequently about the growth of inequality and nostalgically about the relatively equal economy of our youth.  He welcomed the emergence of Barack Obama in 2008.  But by 2016--for reasons I do not know--he had changed.  He was now an establishment Democrat who, to my horror (and not only mine) argued fervently for Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders, whom he dismissed as an unrealistic idealist.  In today's column, he repeats, not for the first time, the self-serving claptrap that so many Democrats, alas, are feeding on these days. 

Krugman starts with a valid point.  The movement of population into urban areas in the last half century has created an extraordinary differential in the population of different states that allows the Republicans to control the Senate with much less than half of the votes cast for Senators.  Unfortunately nothing can be done about that, since the Constitution specifically forbids taking equal suffrage in the Senate away from any state without that state's consent.  Then, however, he tries to explain Donald Trump's appeal to the Republican party.

"Not to put too fine a point on it: What Donald Trump and his party are selling increasingly boils down to white nationalism — hatred and fear of darker people, with a hefty dose of anti-intellectualism plus anti-Semitism, which is always part of that cocktail. This message repels a majority of Americans. That’s why Tuesday’s election in the House — which despite gerrymandering and other factors is far more representative of the country as a whole than the Senate — produced a major Democratic wave.

"But the message does resonate with a minority of Americans. These Americans are, of course, white, and are more likely than not to reside outside big, racially diverse metropolitan areas — because racial animosity and fear of immigration always seem to be strongest in places where there are few nonwhites and hardly any immigrants. And these are precisely the places that have a disproportionate role in choosing senators."

Now I happen to think that the Alt-Right movement has been a godsend to Donald Trump, but not for the reasons normally advanced.  The Alt-Right remains tiny and hardly represents an important bloc of votes.  But rather than face up to their own failings and blind spots, Democrats (see below) have chosen to regard the Alt-Right as the backbone of the Republican Party.  This is an undeserved insult to many Republicans and they resent it.  In fact, although I cannot prove it, I think that resentment of intellectuals and Democrats is much, much stronger among Republicans than resentment of any "darker people."  That certainly seems to be what Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity think--if you don't believe me, try listening to them for a few minutes any day of the week--and they ought to know. On another front, everyone routinely assumes now that opposition to immigration is simply racism, and thus unworthy of a moral person.  I favor immigration, but I also believe that the presence of between 11 and 20 million people with no right to be here in the country represents a huge problem that cannot simply be ignored. (The 20 million figure comes from a recent study by very reputable academics.)  Similarly, a liberal Gen X woman of my acquaintance just posted on facebook a graphic showing that a majority of white women in various key states voted Republican, with the caption, "Shameful."  It seems to me that liberal women would do well to understand that other women do not owe them agreement on anything.

Krugman, I am sorry to say, has moved in the last 20 years from being an independent left wing voice to very predictable partisan. David Brooks, whom I almost never agreed with about anything until quite recently, has done the opposite.  He is utterly disgusted with Donald Trump but almost equally disgusted with the Republican Party, and he sees that neither party is really offering what the country needs, a real platform that could bring us together.

Brooks notes today that large numbers of red state Republicans voted Tuesday to expand Medicaid and raise the minimum wage.  Trump's appeal, he argues, relates to both parties' failure to do anything meaningful for the working class for decades.  (Trump of course isn't doing much to help them either, unless they work in oil and gas drilling, but he has talked a good game.)  he then discusses a new book, The Once and Future Worker, by a certain Oren Cass, which deals with our economy and its discontents.  We focus on GDP, Cass argues, without asking hard questions about where gains are going.  We give poor people tax breaks (unpopular among Republicans) that help them consume more, but we don't help them produce more.  Our whole educational system is designed for the relatively few people go to college and become part of the elite. 

Democrats, others have argued, are now, above all, the party of the professional class. "We in the college-educated sliver," Brooks writes, "have built a culture, an economy and a political system that are all about ourselves." That class believes, for the most part, that what's good for the professional class must be good for the country.  But that isn't necessarily true at all in law, in medicine, in education, and in my own profession of academia.  The professional class believes itself entitled to power because of its superior values and has no use for people who do not share them--as a very impressive Harvard undergraduate just argued in the Crimson.  The Democrats won a substantial victory in the House of Representatives and brought out some new voters.   To win back the White House, in my opinion, they will need both an impressive new candidate, and some new values.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

The nature of our current crisis

War, wrote the great Clausewitz, "is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means."  Twice before in our history, in the great crises of 1774-94 and 1860-68 or so, political conflict has led to actual war, the first time to create an independent nation and the second time, to preserve it.  In this crisis we have been engaged since 2000, in my opinion, in a struggle over the future of the United States, waged peacefully but along party lines.  The Republican Party initiated the conflict to undo the work of the New Deal and the Great Society, destroy the rights of labor, complete the deregulation of the economy, and reduce the diversion of private wealth to public purposes.  They are waging the war by peaceful means, but those means are every bit as dangerous to our national health, at times, as real war.  The struggle has been complex, and often, we can only with some difficulty distinguish between ends and means.  The two sides are fighting, as they did from 1861 through 1865, on many fronts.  155 years ago the fronts were mostly geographic; now they represent different aspects of American politics, and even of American life.  Republicans have taken the offensive on some fronts, Democrats on others.  I do not believe that either side can win a total victory, and increasingly I believe that our real task now is to find a way to make some kind of peace.

The Republican offensive against the regulatory state of the New Deal and the Great Society is reaching a climax under Donald Trump.  Once again a round of tax cuts has left the federal government with a large, permanent deficit, as under Presidents Reagan and Bush II.  The deregulation of Wall Street, which at least slowed under Barack Obama, is plunging ahead.  Federal bureaucracies, managed by hostile ideologues or inexperienced incompetents, are having much more trouble doing their jobs.  Environmental protection has been rolled back on many fronts.    Unprecedented drilling on public lands goes forward.  The bulk of the American people oppose most of these measures, but the Republicans have managed to reduce the peoples' influence in politics.  They managed to steal the vote in Florida and thus the presidential election in 2000, and with the help of the Supreme Court (see below) they have gerrymandered districts in key states to an unprecedented degree, allowing them to retain a majority in the House of Representatives with less than 50% of the vote.  They have also taken advantage of the gerrymandering of the Senate--brought about by population movements, not legal legerdemain--which has given power to small states, most of them Republican, totally out of proportion to their size.  The 5-4 Republican Supreme Court majority has also allowed them to take full advantage of their superior financial resources in elections. They have also demonized the Democratic Party and its works, convincing their own voters that the welfare state simply subsidizes tens of millions of undeserving slackers, many of them immigrants, whom they insist on treating as outsiders. All told, they have eliminated the power of the Democratic Party and of liberal ideas in large parts of the country, and they currently control all three branches of the federal government.  Many of their leading ideologues and politicians want a total victory that will end New Deal and Great Society liberalism as we have known them--including Social Security and Medicare.

In the last crisis, the Democrats relied mainly on Congressional majorities to change the relationship between government and business, but Franklin Roosevelt also bequeathed to the nation a liberal Supreme Court.  President Eisenhower also made two key liberal appointments, Justices Warren and Brennan, and the Court decreed school integration, expanded civil liberties, legalized abortion, and in recent years, narrowly endorsed gay rights.   Several decades ago the Republicans embarked upon a campaign to train, identify, and promote conservative justices--a campaign now reaching its peak under Donald Trump.  The campaign will limit what government at all levels can do for decades to come.

Donald Trump, of course, initially disturbed the Republican establishment when he ran for President, but has reconciled them to his leadership since his victory.  The odyssey of Lindsay Graham, who abandoned criticism of the President in favor of support, is quite typical of leading Republicans, who see how much of their agenda the President is implementing.  Trump has certainly escalated the demonizing of the Democrats, issuing many repeated, violent personal attacks, especially against female and nonwhite Democrats.  And now, in a desperate attempt to retain control of the House of Representatives, he has created an immigration crisis largely out of whole cloth, proclaiming an imminent, dangerous invasion of the country and intermittently threatening to meet it with deadly force.  His administration is also using the ICE bureaucracy to try to terrorize our millions of illegal immigrants into leaving the country.  Making immigrants the primary target of the hatred that he has mobilized--an inevitable concomitant, as Clausewitz noted many times, of war--has huge advantages, since most Americans do not identify with these immigrants and they cannot vote.

On the other side, the Democrats have tried to protect our parents' legacy, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the EPA--although they have collaborated in dismantling the sweeping regulation of the financial industry that has changed the world.  They tried to extend that legacy with Obamacare, which so far has survived, in much weakened form, the return of the Republicans to power.  They have taken the offensive on another range of issues: women's rights, including abortion, LGBTQ rights, the protection (in states ruled by Democrats) of illegal immigrants, and an increase in the numbers of women and minorities holding public office.  This last effort seems to combine political tactics (a means of energizing their base) and an ideological commitment to reducing white male power as an end in itself.  For better or worse, the campaigns of women and minorities have shifted from struggles for equal rights to struggles for political power.   These tactics did help the Democrats win the presidency in 2008 and retain it in 2012, but it may have cost them the presidency in 2016.  We shall find out this Tuesday in Florida,. Georgia, and many Congressional districts, how successful it has been this year.

Both social and economic issues have left the two parties utterly at odds and without any trust in one another, every bit as much as the northern and southern states in the wake of the Civil War.  It is the years 1865-1876, I think, that come closest to what we are now going through, since the sectional conflict once again became political rather than military.   In those years the Republican Party controlled the national government--although it surrendered control of the House of Representatives in 1874--and it presided over the enormous growth of the power of corporations and financial institutions that created the Gilded Age.  Republican presidents appointed Supreme Court justices--most of them who had represented railroads--who defeated any attempts to regulate the economy. By the time the Democrats regained the White House in 1884 they had accepted this new order, and economic radicals had to form various third parties, including the Populists, whose achievements were quite limited.  Meanwhile, after a bloody local struggle, white southerners re-established white supremacy.  Two distinct political oligarchies ruled the South and the North from the 1870s through the early 1890s, and just a few swing states, led by New York and Indiana, decided most of the presidential elections.  In 1896 the populists essentially won control of the Democratic Party, but William Jennings Bryan suffered the party's worst defeat since 1872, ushering in another 16 years of Republican rule.

The Republicans have also achieved much (by their own lights) because they have fought their war in a relatively disciplined fashion.  While many still dislike Trump, nearly all of them are deferring to him because of his power among their constituents and because he has given them much of what they want.  This applies to many Republican women who continue to believe--as fewer Democratic women do--that other issues matter more than the president's casual misogyny and personal history.  Only in 2009-10 did the Democrats in Congress show similar unity.  A large number of candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination will emerge after Tuesday's election, representing different demographics and different constituencies.  Age and ideology divide the Democratic party, and too many of its leaders are now well over 70.  If, as seems almost certain, the Democrats regain the House, legislative deadlock will follow for the next two years and President Trump will double down on divisiveness and hatred.  A Democratic candidate will have to offer something different to win over a new majority--and to lay the foundation for bringing our political war to some kind of conclusion.