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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Saturday, March 27, 2021

America in 1948 and 2020

     Last week in my local library--which has been open to patrons for at least six months now--I picked up a new book by the journalist A. J. Baine, Dewey Defeats Truman, about the 1948 Presidential election.  It turned out to be a well-researched piece of history, drawing on the papers of both Truman and Dewey, and many other sources.  It's a thrilling story of an almost entirely personal triumph.  Harry Truman as 1948 began appeared to have lost the confidence of the American people.  For a year and a half he had struggled with the 80th Congress, the Republican-dominated body that had come into power in the 1948 election and tried to undo some of the New Deal. Two wings of the Democratic Party, as we shall see, defected from him and ran candidates of their own.  Truman didn't face any opposition for the nomination during the short primary season, but on the eve of the Democratic convention, FDR's son James Roosevelt, liberal Senator Claude Pepper of Florida, former Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, and the machine bosses of Chicago and Jersey City all called for the convention to dump Truman and draft General Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Truman in the early part of the year seemed to have almost no campaign funds at his disposal--although his decision to extend de facto recognition to the new State of Israel opened up one important source of funds.  Polls showed him way behind Dewey up until the eve of the election.  Truman had an extraordinary self-confidence without a shred of grandiosity, and he believed, almost by himself, from the beginning of the campaign to the end, that he was going to win. And in the end, he did.  73 years later, however, I am more interested in what the events of that campaign tell us about the difference between that America and this one, than about the pure drama of the story, even though that drama stirred some very powerful emotions in me as I read through the book.

Both the major parties had emerged from the Roosevelt era in a divided state. The Democrats' divisions burst into the open during 1948.  First, former Secretary of Agriculture (1933-41), Vice President (1941-5) and Secretary of Commerce (1945-46) Henry Wallace, the darling of left wing Democrats, became a candidate of the new Progressive Party.  FDR had selected Wallace, a staunch New Dealer, to appeal to farmers and labor in 1940, but he had allowed the party to drop him in favor of Truman in 1944, when, as I have learned, everyone at the convention--and probably FDR himself--knew that the vice-presidential pick was almost certain to succeed to the presidency.  Wallace wanted the wartime alliance with the USSR to continue, and he had opposed some of Truman's early steps in the Cold War, such as the Truman Doctrine.  The Progressive Party, however, had fallen under the control of the Communist Party of the USA, and Wallace in 1948 was now parroting the party line in foreign affairs, arguing that Truman sought war with the Soviet Union.  Wallace could never have believed that he would be elected, but he wanted to discredit Truman and pave the way for a more leftwing leadersip of the Democratic Party.  

The second splinter from the Democratic Party was the Dixiecrats from the Deep South, led by the Governor of South Carolina, J. Strom Thurmond.  As William Leuchtenberg detailed more than a decade ago on racial politics, Harry Truman had emerged in 1945-8 as the most effective civil rights advocate ever to occupy the White House. There were several reasons for this.  First, Truman came from Missouri, where significant numbers of black citizens could vote. Secondly, Truman was appalled by acts of violence, including several lynchings against black veterans, and he spoke out against them, and formed a commission to make recommendations for assuring all Americans their rights.  That sparked some bitter personal attacks from white southern politicians, and Truman, when faced attacks, doubled down on his positions. In early 1948 he sent Congress a program including an anti-lynching law, new protections for voting rights, and a permanent commission to fight employment discrimination.  Then, in June of that year, he ordered the desegregation of the armed forces.  When the Democratic convention adopted a platform embodying these proposals,  a number of southern delegates walked out, formed the States Rights Party, and nominated Thurmond for President.  Thurmond ran on an avowed white supremacist platform.

One could argue, then, that extremism on the left and right was more vocal and better organized in 1948, when extreme parties fielded two presidential candidates who each won about 2% of the total vote, than it was today.  Both Wallace and Thurmond took positions that no major politician would take in public today.  Yet that picture turned out to be misleading, for two reasons.  First of all, neither of those candidates managed to do what they had hoped to do--to deny Truman election in his own right.  More importantly, the major party candidates both occupied a left of center position on major issues, and supported the basic principles of the New Deal.

The Republican Party was also split, as it had been to varying degrees at least since 1912.  The bulk of the Congressional Republicans, such as Speaker of the House Joe Martin and Senate Majority leader Robert Taft, had opposed the New Deal from the beginning and still favored free enterprise above all.  Yet Taft's own campaign for president had never gotten off the ground in 1948 against two relatively liberal Republican governors, Harold Stassen of Minnesota and Dewey of New York--who had already been the party's candidate in 1944.  Dewey, like Truman, favored expanded social security, the rights of labor, and big federal housing programs.  He also supported mainstream Cold War foreign policy.  Truman in fact kicked off his campaign by calling Congress back into session to consider a number of bills that both he and Dewey seemed to favor, to show the nation that the Republican Congress would not pass them.  After his defeat Dewey himself talked openly about the split in the Republican Party and looked down upon those who clearly wanted to return to the ethos and the economic policies of the late 19th century.  And in 1952, although Dewey did not try to run again, he anointed Eisenhower as the heir to his brand of Republicanism, and when Ike was elected he never challenged the most important achievements of the New Deal. 

Truman, as it turned out, won election with a popular vote plurality of several million votes over Dewey, and 303 electoral votes to Dewey's 189.  He demonstrated an extraordinary personal connection to the American people, illustrated, as Baime documents at length, by the huge crowds that greeted him at whistle-stop after whistle-stop as his campaign train traveled around the country. Wallace won enough votes in New York to swing that state--then the nation's largest--over to Dewey, and Massachusetts was the only northeastern state to vote for Truman.  Truman, however, won Ohio, Illinois, and California--all by very close margins--most of the farm belt, and every western state except Oregon.  The Democratic vote in those states came mostly from organized labor--a much larger share of the electorate then than now--from the black vote, and from many farmers, also a larger share of the electorate, whose federal support Republicans had managed to cut.  Thurmond, meanwhile, took only four southern states--South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, the biggest bastions of white supremacy.  But the New Deal had had an enormous positive impact on the South, and Truman carried every other southern state, even beating Thurmond by a 3-1 margin in Georgia and a larger margin in Virginia.  Evidently Truman's civil rights program was not a deal breaker for most of the white Democrats of the South--whom Roosevelt had benefited in so many other ways.  Even Alabama had two New Deal Senators, and Truman might have beaten Thurmond there had not state authorities kept him off the ballot entirely. 

Throughout the campaign, Truman cleverly argued that the 80th Congress, not Dewey, represented the real Republican Party, and that the economic future of the average voter was at stake.  It probably wasn't.  Even though the Democrats also regained control of Congress in 1948, Truman failed to get any civil rights legislation through, or to repeal the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Law or pass a national health insurance program.  It is hard to see how things would be much different today if Dewey had won--although it is interesting to ask how Dewey would have done in 1952, if he had had to bear the political burden of the Korean War. In the long run Truman's biggest contribution was to make civil rights and national health programs part of the standard Democratic litany, even though it took another 20 years or so for them to bear fruit.

Today, on the other hand, the Republican Party rejects two of the fundamental principles of American democracy: the Enlightenment idea that rational investigation can design effective policy--for instance, to fight an epidemic--and the democratic process itself, which Republican legislatures around the country are working to undermine.  The Democratic Party, on the other hand, collaborated in the economic policies that largely wiped out the independent farmers and industrial workers that were its greatest sources of strength  The Democrats are now the party of the highly educated, and education has become a critical dividing line between the two parties.  Race, for both whites and minorities, appears to be a much larger factor in voting behavior than it was then.  President Biden, unlike President Obama, appears to understand that he has to prove to the mass of American voters than he can dramatically improve their lot in the next two years.  If he can, he will have taken a big first step towards restoring some of the civic virtue and civic engagement that the country enjoyed in 1948.

Friday, March 19, 2021

A Sea Change in our Civilization

 The current March 22 issue of The New Yorker is unusually rich.  It includes an article by Jane Mayer on Cyrus Vance Jr.'s legal pursuit of Donald Trump and and article that I haven't read yet by Louis Menand about the influence of student radicals on the 1960s.  (I suspect that one may be the basis for my next post.)  The longest article, "The Shape of Love," by Andrew Solomon (not to be confused with Andrew Sullivan), is subtitled, "From opposite sides of the culture, polyamorists and polygamists are challenging family norms," strikes me as a major cultural milestone, not least because it illustrates how broad the influence of postmodernism has become.  

The subject of the article is quite explicit.  The author himself is married to another man, and the article includes some accounts of the establishment of the legal right to gay marriage (which, for the record, I most definitely support.)  Yet it treats that legal change simply as the first big step in a broader process that might recognize and legitimize both polygamy and polyamory.  (For those of you unfamiliar with polyamory, it refers to any kind of open consensual relationship among three or more people, regardless of their biological sex, claimed gender, or sexual orientation.)   The discussion of polygamy begins, logically enough, with Utah.

I am currently working on a concise political history of the United States, based almost entirely on presidential addresses.  I have discovered that polygamy in Utah (and later in Arizona and Idaho) was attacked by a series of presidents from U.S. Grant through the second term of Grover Cleveland.  All of them regarded it as a barbaric practice incompatible with modern civilization, and tried to find ways to bring an end to it despite the theocratic nature of Utah territory, completely dominated by the polygamous Mormon Church.  Eventually the Mormon leadership apparently realized that they would have to renounce the practice before Utah could become a state, and in 1890 they did so.  In response, President Benjamin Harrison issued a general pardon to all Utahans who had ceased to practice polygamy since that time, a step Cleveland reaffirmed a few years later.  Some Mormons certainly continued the practice, and some, including Mitt Romney's grandfather, fled to Mexico with their plural wives and many children--the reason that Mitt's father George, at one time a presidential candidate, was born in Mexico.  Polygamists have formed an alternative Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, and one polygamous settlement led by Warren Jeffs got into serious legal trouble because of arranged, forced marriages between older men and young girls.  In the 2000s the HBO series Big Love, which I became addicted to, portrayed both an upper-middle class businessman with three wives, and the Jeffs-style compound from which he had emerged. What I did not know was that Utah has recently decriminalized polygamy.  The article describes one or two polygamous Mormon families in some detail, but also discusses some other polygamous arrangements in other parts of the country that have nothing to do with Mormonism or any other religion.  

Solomon seems more interested, however, in the looser concept of polyamory, which means quite explicitly that love and sex will not be confined to a couple.  Polyamory is quite simply the opposite of monogamy.  Now our civil law has treated monogamy as the only fully legal kind of relationship for centuries, although we have always known that the principle has frequently been honored in the breech.  What distinguished the 1970s from earlier periods was the movement to legitimize and openly practice things that until then had traditionally been secret, led by adultery, as in "open marriages." Solomon's article shows that that movement is on the rise again.  

I was most struck reading the article by Solomon's tone, which is almost entirely supportive of the practices he describes, with the sole exception of the kind of forced polygamy practiced in the Jeff compound.  He is intolerant on the other hand of more traditional views which he evidently regards as oppressive.  Here is a key passage, in which Solomon takes off from a remark by a polygamous wife named Alina.

 "Alina said, 'Why is it that we’re always ‘brainwashed’ unless we’re choosing the way they think?' It’s true that how we grow up influences what we eat, where we live, whom we socialize with or marry. It determines our taste in clothing, our sense of humor, the value we place on formal education. Freud wrote about the “repetition compulsion,” which drives us continually to re-create our own past, whether we were happy in it or not. Do people in the mainstream argue that polygamists have been brainwashed because mainstream values are alien to polygamous ones? If so, were most people brainwashed to idealize monogamous marriage? Animal models suggest that monogamy is less natural than nonmonogamy. Yet violations of it serve as the basis for terminating otherwise healthy relationships. We are brainwashed into keeping pets, taking daily showers, thinking that it makes sense for nations to have inviolable borders; brainwashed about the morality of abortion, the necessity of medical marijuana. People are brainwashed into Jewish culture or Black culture or French culture."

Solomon is right, of course:  we all learn our values originally from the culture in which we grow up. He is not necessarily right to assume that biology or our inherent emotional makeup plays as great a role in our behavior as cultural onditioning, however.  The postmodernists have argued for half a century that culture represents domination by powerful groups, imposed through language, and they have championed linguistic and behavioral resistance to it.  In so doing, I am convinced, they took advantage of an important element in human nature: the tendency of young adults to rebel against whatever their parents and society tells them.  Society's demands did become stricter and more universal from the seventeenth century through the twentieth, leading, I know think, to the beginnings of a gigantic rebellion in the second half of the twentieth century.   That rebellion has now created a new orthodoxy that celebrates all marginalized communities, defined by gender, race, sexual orientation, and--in this case--behavior.  The values of stable bourgeois society have become so suspect that a professor at an Ivy League law school can be shunned simply for co-authoring an op-ed standing up for them.

On the one hand, I accept that it's very hard to prevent consenting adults from living in whatever way they choose, and I do not want to persecute them for doing so.  But on the other,  I have to ask the question that Solomon completely ignores.  Was there a connection between, on the one hand, the relatively strict social mores of western bourgeois society, and on the other hand, its political, economic and cultural achievements?  To that question the citizens of the early American Republic would have answered with a resounding yes.  Like Tocqueville, they believed that the relatively restrained sexual behavior and strong families of the Americans (especially outside the aristocratic South) helped make democracy work.  Social consensus on these issues, I think, also made it easier to find social consensus on questions like economic equality or inequality, and even the need to resist foreign military threats.  Social consensus was part of the common identity that bound us together as citizens.  During the last fifty years, however, increasing numbers of  Americans have decided that their particular identity, based upon their gender, race, sexual orientation, or, for want of a better word, their lifestyle, is more important than their identity as citizens, and is indeed what they want to be known for.  

Solomon's evident belief that we are all masters both our identity and our experience becomes clearer when he starts talking about the origins of Mormon polygamy. "The practice began around 1835," he writes, "when Joseph Smith, the Church’s founder, took a second wife after receiving a revelation about polygamy; he eventually had more than thirty."  Not "after claiming to receive" a revelation; after "receiving" one.  "In 1890," he continues with the same straight face, "the Church’s president, Wilford Woodruff, also prompted by a revelation, issued a manifesto renouncing polygamy—a decision that fundamentalist Mormons dismiss as political expediency."  It's not only fundamentalist Mormons who might reach that conclusion--Enlightenment skeptics like myself could easily reach it too.  Yet just as we are no longer allowed to question other peoples' definitions of "man" and "woman," we apparently aren't supposed to question their claim of communication with a supreme being.  Our founding fathers realized that we could not allow such revelations to interfere with political decisions.

Obviously people on the other side of the political fence will quickly accuse me, a straight white male, of simply idealizing a culture that favored me and disfavored others.  As it happens, I don't think that western bourgeois culture was inherently racist, sexist, or homophobic, as the legal victories of nonwhites, women and gays in the last few decades prove. The key question for me is one of alternatives.   Is the new wide-open cultural view simply leading to a more tolerant society in which we can all thrive?  In my opinion, it is not.  In universities, where it is strongest, it has created a less tolerant and diverse intellectual atmosphere, and the same thing has happened in the elite press.  The broader question is:  what degree of consensus is necessary for a complex modern society to function effectively?  To judge from the American response to the pandemic, I would have to reply: more than we have now.  It is Solomon's failure even to ask that question that troubles me.  Apparently we shall continue to find the answer experimentally.


Sunday, March 14, 2021

A Question of Authority

 It has been quite a while since I have featured a guest contribution, but this interview really caught my eye. 

Matt Taibbi is a dissident liberal journalist whose work is available by subscription, but he routinely authorizes subscribers like myself to share it once in a whle  Martin Gurri appears to be a Boomer, At the CIA he worked at a branch that analyzes open source materials, which some intelligence specialists regard as the best kind of source there is.  He has a very acute sense, which overlaps my own, of what is wrong with our world, both in our leadership and among political activists.  We have lost the habit of respect for authority of all kinds--intellectual authority, governmental authority, and authority within dissident movements.  He apparently elaborated his views some years ago in his book, The Revolt of the Public.  I was shocked to find that not one library in the whole Minuteman system, which includes all the highly educted suburbs of Boston from Cambridge to Concord and beyond, has a copy.  So I broke down and bought it.  Meanwhile, here is a summary.

Interview with Martin Gurri, "A Short-Term Pessimist and Long-Term Optimist"

Q&A with the author of "Revolt of the Public"

Matt Taibbi

Mar 8

Few authors in recent times have resonated with reviewers across the political spectrum in the same way as Martin Gurri. The Intercept said of the former CIA analyst’s 2014 work, The Revolt of the Public: “Trump and Brexit Made This Book Look Prophetic.” The Washington Examiner, in a piece called, “The best analysis of 2021 is from 2014,” just wrote this a few days ago:

Gurri identified the underlying dynamics that explain why the Department of Justice is punishing an American citizen for making memes, shaman barbarians stand in the speaker’s chair, and sports fans bully hedge fund managers. The GameStop short squeeze in particular unfolded like a chapter in the book…

Gurri’s book, which outlines the inherent contradictions between traditional hierarchies of power and the demystifying power of the Internet, is compellingly predictive on a number of levels, but it’s easy to see why some mainstream thinkers might look askance. He says things that are obviously true, but that no one wants to hear, the worst possible combination.

Ask any mainstream media critic — say, Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post — what needs to be done to rebuild trust in news organizations, and the answer might be a combination of, “We need to do ideological litmus tests before conducting interviews” and “We need to boycott Fox News,” without so much as a nod to, “We maybe have to stop screwing up, too.”

In politics, media, financial services, medicine even, there’s an institutional unwillingness to admit that their trust problem might in any way be self-inflicted. A central premise of Gurri’s book is that the public, around the world, is reacting to real institutional shortcomings. He even has a chapter called, “The Failure of Government.” At the same time, he finds some of that failure in the habit of setting expectations too high, deceiving the public into misunderstanding “the reality of what democratic governments can achieve.”

In other words, Gurri’s book doesn’t just point and blame, in the manner of most recent political non-fiction. He asks both the justifiably angry public and those working in hated elite institutions to look inward. Voters, while they should demand fairness and strike out against corruption, may also need to readjust expectations for government, and resist nihilistic solutions. Meanwhile, institutions like the news media need to recognize that a recent history of blunders — not just whoppers like the WMD mess, but constant worship at the altar of “experts” like Alan Greenspan, who in crises later prove to be clueless — have cost them dearly.

These problems need to be faced, but Gurri believes they can be fixed. The author on trust, positive change, and optimism:

TK: Can any informational institution be authoritative in the Internet age? Put another way, is the Internet-based media system — which can elevate anyone from Joe Rogan to Alex Jones to network-sized audiences almost overnight — inherently destabilizing?

Gurri: There are no logical or structural reasons why authority could not be earned in a time of information overabundance. The process would necessarily be different from the past, when authority was conferred from above and entailed, as a personal reward, rising a great distance above the public. That world is gone with the wind.  No agreement exists about what should replace it.

We are in the earliest stages of a very messy transformation, but in time, I suspect, the institutions of democratic politics and government will learn to engender trust on a transactional basis within the crowded immediacy of the web. I’m not a particularly imaginative person, but I can easily imagine political parties relying on some combination of Wikipedia and subreddit-style sites, in which ideas and energy from below receive a minimum of governance from above.

Joe Rogan and Alex Jones are surface symptoms of this transitional moment. Their success and destabilizing power have come at the expense of the old hierarchical institutions, managed by elites who simply refuse to accept that the world has changed forever and who insist that legitimacy can only be bestowed from above. When the center grows dotty and delusional, marginal actors with strange ideas will move in and carve off slices of the public’s attention.

TK: Do you think the fears of those “old hierarchical institutions” might be part of the thinking behind the content moderation movement, which seems designed to a) put the "network" under more centralized control, and b) narrow the informational options for the typical news consumer?

Gurri: Content moderation, in my opinion, isn’t really a movement but part of this delusional thinking. The idea is to make the great digital platforms look like the front page of the New York Times circa 1980. It won’t happen. The digital realm is too vast.  There can be no question that, with Joe Biden as president, we have entered a moment of reaction — a revolt against the revolt.  But all the techniques of control wielded by the elites are, like their dreams, stuck in the 20th century and ineffective in the current information landscape.

To take down an opinion, or an author, or a small platform like Parler would have had a shocking impact in 1980, but today is simply swarmed over by similar opinions, authors, and platforms. This is truly a Marshall McLuhan moment, in which the message is the medium, rather than little threads of contested content.

TK: You write that the Border can neutralize, but not replace, the Center. Is this absolute? In other words, has the network you describe permanently undermined the whole concept of centralized authority, or just a particular set of institutional authorities - banks like Goldman, Sachs, the Democratic and Republican Parties, CBA/ABC/NBC, etc?

Gurri: That’s a good question. I don’t believe the paralysis caused by the collision between network and hierarchy is absolute. I think it’s contingent on the structure of the institutions and the behavior of the actors on the political stage. Government can be reconfigured, elites can be replaced by others who behave differently, and the public’s behavior, one hopes, is under our own control. Positive change is perfectly possible.

I have often said that hierarchy is both inescapable — baked into our DNA – and indispensable to getting things done. The sectarian dream of perfect equality in every interaction is a formula for endless argument without final action. But hierarchy can be of various shapes and sizes, and it can be open or closed. We have inherited from the 20th century institutional pyramids that are steep, ponderous, and closed to all who don’t know the secret code. Digital life, which is what most of the public experiences, is flat, fast, and accessible to everyone. Part of the reconfiguration I mentioned before will be to bring the old hierarchies closer in line with the public’s expectations: government will have to be flatter, faster, and more interactive.

TK: You referenced the repeat appearance in protest movements of imagery from "V for Vendetta,” a movie that ends with the destruction of the old regime, and everything else will “take care of itself.” Do you think there's disinterest in the form of future governance among political activists because they're pessimistic about actually taking power? Or is it optimism: if they overthrow established authority, problems will vanish? Or is it the quasi-ironic/nihilistic spirit of these times, where even the most capable people don't like to imagine themselves as power-holders? Where in our society are people trained for actual governance?

Gurri: The posture of negation that edges into nihilism is a function of the structure of the public itself. The public in the digital age is many, not one. It’s fractured into mutually hostile war-bands. The only way to unify and mobilize these groups is to emphasize what they stand against: the system, the elites, the established order.  Governance would require organization, leadership, programs — but all those things would once again divide the public into its component parts. So the posture remains eternally against. Even when protesters win concessions — as in France with the Yellow Vests, for example — they will not take yes for an answer.

Your last question is a very interesting and troubling one. In the digital age, people are trained to express themselves, to perform in a way that will grow their following, rather than to govern. (Think Donald Trump.) Yuval Levin has written that our institutions were once formative — they shaped the character and discipline of those who joined them — but are now performative, mere platforms for elite self-expression and personal branding.  I completely agree. Outside of the military, which still demands a code of conduct from its members, I don’t see where people are trained to govern today.

TK: If so many of the questions in your book are tied to the problem of information and how it's delivered, how big of a role will the news media have in determining our future? A common reaction to criticisms of media within the media business is that we're just not that important, in the scheme of things, at least not compared to banking, medicine, etc. How big of a deal is the loss of trust in the news media?

Gurri: Well, the future is opaque, and I haven’t been granted a prophetic vision, but here’s my take on your question.  The news business was adapted to 20th-century conditions and is an endangered species in the present information environment.  I think many of the pathologies you yourself have documented are desperate attempts to survive in the digital storm.  In the old analog life, the media was important to the elites, and the elites were important to the public.  Neither of those conditions apply today.

TK: You speak in the book of being worried for the future of representative democracy. How much more or less bleak does the picture look now, after four years of Donald Trump? It looks possible that his legacy will be the delegitimization of electoral politics, as traditional hierarchies have almost rallied to something like an authoritarian counterrevolution in response to him. If people have lost faith in authority, have elites also lost faith in the ability of populations to hold up their end of the bargain in democracies?

Gurri: First, I hold that Trump was a symptom — an effect rather than a cause.  He possessed an outlandish personality, and that brought its own effects, but one can easily find Trump-like populists all over the world. Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, for example, makes Trump seem like an etiquette book by comparison. Globally, the public is looking for alternatives to the ruling elites, and these populists, by their very outrageousness, are signaling that they are not them.

Second, the elites, as I said before, are stuck in a sterile nostalgia for the 20th century.  They are at war with the world as it actually is today, and I imagine they would love to disband the public and summon a more obedient version. Hence the panic about fake news and the tinkering with control over content.

When Trump won in 2016, the elites refused to accept his legitimacy.  He was said to be the tool of Vladimir Putin and an aspiring tyrant. When Trump lost in 2020, he and many of his followers refused to accept the legitimacy of that election. A Trumpist mob sacked the Capitol building to demonstrate its rage. None of this is good for democracy or the legitimacy of our political institutions.

But let’s look at the big picture. Trump won in 2016, and, in his inimitable style, ran the US government for four years. He lost in 2020 and moved out of the White House to make room for Joe Biden, just as he was supposed to do. Now Biden is in charge.  He gets to run the government. The drama of democracy has generated lots of turbulence but remarkably little violence. The old institutions are battered and maladapted but they have deep roots. The American people may be undergoing a psychotic episode, but they are fundamentally sensible.

With regards to democracy, I’m a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist. Not sure whether that’s an analytical judgment, or just an act of faith…


Saturday, March 06, 2021

What is possible now?

 Anyone who takes the time to peruse the archives here for late and early 2009 will find that I was much too optimistic about the future then.  The Democrats had 60 votes in the Senate and a substantial majority in the House, and that looked like enough for Barack Obama to reverse the direction that the country had been going in, just as Franklin Roosevelt had done 76 years earlier.  I turned out to be wrong.  While the New Deal passed at least a dozen pieces of major legislation in its first two years--many of them providing immediate relief to desperate Americans--Obama managed to pass only two, the stimulus program and the Affordable Care Act.  His economic advisers--Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, and William Bernanke--concentrated on putting the new, finance-dominated economy back together as soon as possible, instead of using the crisis to change our economic power structure. None of these policies brought immediate relief to large numbers of Americans, and by the middle of 2010, the Republicans seemed certain to regain control of the House--as indeed they did, for the next eight  years.  In 2016 they regained control of the Senate.  Now the Democrats control both chambers by very narrow margins.

Biden will, it seems, manage to provide more of the immediate relief that the nation once again desperately needs.  Even before the new stimulus passes, the economy is moving in the right direction and unemployment is now under 7%--much lower than its peak about a year into the Obama administration.  With vaccinations growing in number, the pandemic seems likely to recede by the end of the year.   But what more will he be able to accomplish after the stimulus passes through reconciliation, without a dramatic increase in the minimum wage?  And what are the chances that the Republicans will not manage to pick up the five seats that they need to control the House after 2022?

In the last few weeks I have listened to two interviews (readily accessible on youtube), and read one, with the Democratic political analyst David Shor.  He is the man who lost his job last summer with one Democratic political data firm because he retweeted an article arguing that violent protests over the death of George Floyd would cost the Democrats votes.  Fortunately he has found another one.  His extraordinarily even emotional keel, his dedication to data, and his non-confrontational style represent the best of his Millennial generation.  He sees things that most of us have not seen, and they do not bode particularly well for Biden and the Democrats.  I shall summarize some of his most important points.

Shor believes that the biggest dividing line in American politics today is not race, but education.  College graduates have been trending Democratic for years, and Trump accelerated that trend.  He lost substantial numbers of college-educated white voters--most, obviously, in the suburbs--last November.  He already had a large majority of non-college whites behind him, and he gained votes slightly among non-college black voters, and more significantly among Hispanics.  In a chilling moment in one of his recorded interviews, Shor discussed the evolution of Florida in the last twenty years.  In 2000 it was evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.  In the intervening years it has become larger, much more diverse thanks to more Hispanic immigration--and pretty solidly Republican. Like their Cuban counterparts, immigrants from Venezuela and Colombia, it seems, vote in large part out of hostility towards socialism.  Checking, I find that Donald Trump in Texas did 1% better against Joe Biden in 2020 than Ted Cruz did against Beto O'Rourke in 2019.  That shift also seems to have reflected a better performance among Hispanics.

Democrats do better, Shor argues, when they stick to bread and butter issues (like the stimulus and minimum wage) that appeal to uneducated voters.  Unfortunately, their party activists are generally highly educated, and prone to focus on social issues and even to use language which does not resonate with the uneducated voters who have become swing voters.  Shor reports that the political ads that appealed the most to himself and his co-workers, such as a notorious one (that I cannot find on youtube) that showed a little girl crying in response to some of Donald Trump's most vicious remarks, did the worst among potential voters.  He might have added that because Democratic candidates surround themselves with activists (their campaign workers) and with wealthy donors (also highly educated and liberal), they easily let those groups' language burst out in public or semi-public gatherings.  Barack Obama talked about white voters clinging to guns and religion, and Hillary Clinton referred to Trump's "basket of deplorables."  Biden, I think, in one of his rare public statements to date, did something similar when he referred to "Neanderthal thinking" behind the premature lifting of mask mandates.  He might better have simply criticized the policy, rather than labelling everyone who supports it as less than fully human.  Biden also seems to be going along with liberal activism on another hot-button issue, immigration.  The Washington Post reports today that large numbers of Mexicans and Central Americans are on their way to the border, and the Biden administration is apparently preapring to let them in.  Already it has allowed unaccompanied minors to cross the border and go into detention facilities for the first time in a  year, and revoked the Trump regulation that such people must stay in Mexico while their asylum claims are heard.  The Democrats may well emerge as the party of open borders.

An important recent article at fivethirtyeight.com described three options for Democrats, each favored by a certain faction of the party.  The first wants immediately to do away with the filibuster not only to pass the minimum wage, but to admit the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico to the union and expand the size of the Supreme Court in an attempt to create Democratic majorities in those two branches of government.  A second group also favors getting rid of the filibuster, but only to pass bills such as the new minimum wage and a new voting rights act that will perhaps outlaw gerrymandering and mandate mail-in voting in Congressional elections.  The third group, to which the President seems at this point to belong, favors doing only what can be done with the help of Senator Manchin, if not with any bipartisan support.  The second group's ideas make the most sense to me.  They are designed to undo at least some of the advantage Republicans now enjoy through ruthless gerrymandering and which they are now trying to increase with numerous measures designed to reduce total votes.  If the filibuster is eliminated, however, the Democrats will have to deal with a lot of intraparty fights over more radical legislation.  

The Republican Party now essentially opposes democracy because it rejects what effective democracy brought about in the middle third of the twentieth century: high taxes, effective economic regulation, and civil rights bills, especially the Voting Rights Act. Three decades of packing the courts have   left the Republicans in an excellent position to block major economic legislation.  Biden may still have a chance to reverse the trends of the last 40 years.  He can improve his chances by taking positions on social issues and using language which the vast majority of voters can understand and approve.