Down the political rabbit hole

Cartoon by Joe Mohr

Recently in a comment on Alison Bechdel’s blog, I replied to commenter NLC, who added to a political discussion the observation that not everyone who supports the USA’s Republican Party is equally objectionable.  I agreed, and added:

@NLC: “There are Republicans and there are Republicans.”

That’s very true. I know some Republicans who, however hard I may find it to understand why they vote the way they do, are demonstrably quite all right in all the ways that really matter. I even know some Republicans who do yoga.

Fox News seems to be the separator, young people who are decent watch Fox News and leave the Republican Party, old people who are decent watch Fox News and turn into something like addicts- seriously, that channel is like crack cocaine for them. I suppose that means that in the long run Fox News will kill the Republican Party, but in the meantime it will kill a lot of worthwhile things.

In remarking on Fox News (a.k.a. the Faux News Channel,) I was thinking of some recent posts on a site that is for the most part at an opposite pole politically from Alison Bechdel’s, Rod Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative.  Mr Dreher is still quite conservative, but no longer identifies as a Republican.  One reason for this seems to be the effect that he has seen right-wing media have on its elderly fans.  In a post titled “Fox Geezer Syndrome,” Mr Dreher quotes at length from several of his commenters who have told stories of aging their aging parents who have made themselves difficult to be around, not because of the opinions which Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and the rest of them have encouraged them to hold, but because of the belligerence, the obsessiveness, and the overall childishness with which they have begun expressing those opinions since immersing themselves in a constant stream of such material.  Adding to those comments, Mr Dreher writes: 

I recognize the Fox Geezer Syndrome these readers identify. This is what happens when conservatism becomes an ideology instead of an approach to life. It indicates an extremely unconservative temperament, frankly. I’m not deploying the No True Scotsman fallacy; these Fox Geezers may well be conservative in their politics, right down the line. What they’re doing, though, is allowing politics to consume their minds and their entire lives, such that they are making impossible the kinds of things that true conservatives ought to be dedicated to conserving: that is, the permanent things, like family. I have been around Fox Geezers before, and I see absolutely no difference between them and the kind of self-righteous loudmouths on the left that make reasonable discussion impossible, because all problems are reduced to a conflict between Good and Evil, and decided in advance.

The tragedy — and I think it is exactly that — is that the elderly often have great wisdom to share with the younger generations, to say nothing of the fact that it is they who have the long view, and who ought to understand how important it is to nurture bonds among family members, especially across the generations. Yet in these cases, it is they who behave like teenagers and twentysomethings, full of piss and vinegar and a toxic certainty, plus a radioactive impulse to crusade. What they lack is the principal conservative virtue: Prudence. I have some strong views too, as you know, but I strive never to let them come between myself and the people I am given to love. If I want them to tolerate me for the greater good, then I must extend the same grace to them.

Conservative that he is, Mr Dreher goes on to identify the same dynamic at work among the elderly liberals and lefties who predominate in the comments section of The New York Times.  I’ve certainly seen it at work among acquaintances who regard any criticism of the Obama administration as support for Mr O’s Republican opponents.  Such an attitude seems to be as natural a product of habitually watching the rah-rah, Go Blue Team cheerleaders on MSNBC as Fox Geezer Syndrome is of habitually watching the rah-rah, Go Red Team cheerleaders on Fox.  

How to succeed in politics

As seen on Tumblr:

From Suspense Comics, 1952

Dim enlightenment

Mold-BUUG!

The internet is to catchy phrases what shag carpet is to unwrapped hard candy.  Put a catchy phrase online, and you’ll be horrified to see what ends up attached to it.

What brings this to mind is a phrase much discussed in certain quarters recently, “Dark Enlightenment.”   When Curtis Yarvin started blogging under the name “Mencius Moldbug” in 2007, I looked at his site occasionally.  I gave up on him sometime before the average length of posts began to suggest the Russian novel, though you’ll find the name “Acilius” in the comment threads there in the first several months.  I mentioned Mencius Moldbug on this site a couple of times in those days (here and here, in posts that reveal the origins of this site as a continuation of a long conversation among some old friends.)

My interest in Mencius Moldbug stemmed from time I’d spent studying thinkers like Irving Babbitt, intellectual historians who found that ostensibly up-to-date ideas were hopelessly dependent on obsolete theology, while some apparently antiquated doctrines accord surprisingly well with the most thoroughgoing application of the critical spirit.  Mencius Moldbug claimed to have reached similar conclusions, though his windy and unstructured writing, coupled with the vagueness of his references, ultimately made it impossible to determine what, if anything, he had in mind.

I had hoped for a popularized version of the kind of thing Babbitt did, but that may be impossible.  You have to have an editor, and footnotes, and lots of time for redrafting and revision to accomplish a project like that.  As a recent example I’d mention a book I’m still reading, Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.  Professor Gregory’s book is obviously not likely to reach a mass audience, anymore than Professor Babbitt’s did, but it will likely give whatever readers it does attract a deeper understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy as an institution and as a fetish than Mr Yarvin could offer writing as a pseudonymous blogger.

Since 2007, I’ve adjusted my expectations for blogs quite a bit.  No longer do I look for a writer who will offer daily doses of the kind of insight Irving Babbitt developed in his magisterial studies;  now I’m content with a pleasant style punched up by occasional flashes of insight. A blogger who usually meets these criteria is Mark Shea.  His “Catholic and Enjoying It!” is usually cheerful, with a steady stream of self-deprecating humor and links to provocative, well-developed pieces by writers whose views are similar to his.  It is impossible not to conclude from regular attention to it that Mr Shea’s heart is in the right place, even if he himself rarely shows any particular flair for sequential reasoning.  Of late, Mr Shea has posted a series of items about the “Dark Enlightenment.”  In these items, I must say that Mr Shea has allowed his emotions free rein, so much so that it is a bit difficult not to laugh at some of his more hyperbolic statements.  At least one of Mr Shea’s readers has laughed hard enough to dupe him into publishing as fact a breathtakingly ridiculous tall tale about an imaginary cult of Dark Enlightenment enthusiasts.  Mr Shea has gallantly admitted that he was fooled, even though he continues to insist that the phrase “Dark Enlightenment” should always and only be understood by reference to the very worst elements that have attached themselves to it.

Some of those who embrace the label are appealing enough that Mr Shea’s attitude must be called, not only intemperate, but wrong-headed.  I would mention hbd* chick, whose response to Mr Shea made me laugh out loud.   Even a few minutes spent on her blog should suffice to disabuse Mr Shea of a notion he asserts persistently and rather obnoxiously, that “Human Biodiversity” is absolutely nothing but a euphemism for racism.  Not that I am convinced that we need the term- why not just call it “Physical Anthropology”?  The newer phrase, like that unwrapped hard candy in the shag carpet, is sure to stick to something disgusting, while an old label like “Physical Anthropology” points us toward an established academic field with generally accepted professional standards.  Be that as it may, hbd* chick is clearly much closer to the canons of Physical Anthropology than to the sort of online bigot-bait Mr Shea supposes users of the term “Human Biodiversity” to be peddling.

I’d also mention Foseti, who has recently started a series of posts reviewing Mencius Moldbug’s output (see here and here.)  His reviews are as punchy and clear as Mencius Moldbug’ originals are meandering and opaque, so I would recommend them as the first stop for someone looking to see what the “Dark Enlightenment” is really all about.  Also, you can turn to Mencius Moldbug’s sidekick Nick Land for a relatively coherent explanation of their shared ideas.  And there are some good links in this article by Nicholas Pell.

A blog post by Rod Dreher, again in response to the hoax for which Mark Shea fell, includes a reader comment that I’ve stewed over a bit:

Most of these “Dark Enlightenment” bloggers (and that’s really all they are) are fantasists and contrarians with a weakness for obscurantist and melodramatic language. However, many of the writers whom they’ve claimed (e.g., [Steve] Sailer) are serious thinkers who are challenging all of the above–all that is unchallengeable in politics, law, art, mainstream/mass journalism and most tragically, academia. If these are discussions that the elites of our society continue to suppress, I do think that we are the verge of a new political movement–one that will hopefully be led by cooler heads.

I would hesitate call Steve Sailer a serious thinker who is challenging the basic presuppositions of the age.  I do think he’s worth reading, and I read him every day, but he always puts forth a great deal more top-of-the-head speculation than careful reasoning.  Which is all right- that’s one of the strengths of the internet, the sort of thinking out loud that used to lead nowhere unless it took place in just the right room when just the right people were listening can now lead to great things even if you are far from any center of innovation.  But that only makes it the more important to to remember that the first stage of the scientific process, as of every other form of knowledge-making, is bullshitting.  The next phases all refine out the bullshit and isolate any particles of non-bullshit that may be among it.  Mr Sailer’s particular brand of bullshit includes lots of aggrieved white guy defensiveness, which attracts racists, but I think there is more to him than that.

Speaking of Rod Dreher and Steve Sailer, I should mention a post Mr Dreher put up a couple of weeks ago about Mr Sailer and my response to it.  Mr Sailer’s writing has so convinced Mr Dreher that evidence of variability in inherited characteristics related to socially desirable behaviors among humans will shake the world-views of people committed to equal rights that he wishes we could forbid such knowledge, as if it were some kind of witchcraft.  I think this fear is grossly overdone.  I wrote:

I read Sailer all the time and I grant you that he has his unattractive sides, but I’m not worried that he’ll relegitimize racist scientism a la Madison Grant. For one thing, he engages deeply enough with the relevant science that a regular reader can see that any sort of utopianism, including racist utopianism, is not something that nature is going to allow to work. Secondly, his own self-aggrandizing B.S. (continually presenting himself and his favored authors as a plucky band of truth-tellers set upon by the unreasoning hordes of the politically correct establishment) wears thin pretty quickly. If anything, several years of reading Sailer on a daily basis have moved me to the left politically.

I’d mention just one more piece, a critique of Mencius Moldbug’s positive ideology that Adam Gurri put up the other day (I’d seen it, but hadn’t really read it until Handle recommended it.)  It leaves me with the same conclusion I keep coming back to, that the goals the “Dark Enlightenment” types are trying to achieve on their blogs are goals that can really be achieved only in conventional academic writing.  That conclusion frustrates me, in part because I do think that these bloggers have some points to make about civic religion in the West that should be discussed among a broader public than is likely to look at scholarly publications and in part because few scholars are willing to tackle to questions that they raise.  But I don’t see any way around it.

Anti-Anti-War

On Counterpunch, Jean Bricmont warns us to “Beware the Anti-Anti-War Left.”  Professor Bricmont explains:

The anti-anti-war left has no influence on American policy, but that doesn’t mean that it has no effect.  Its insidious rhetoric has served to neutralize any peace or anti-war movement.  It has also made it impossible for any European country to take such an independent position as France took under De Gaulle, or even Chirac, or as Sweden did with Olof Palme.  Today such a position would be instantly attacked by the anti-anti-war left, which is echoed by European media, as “support to dictators”, another “Munich”, or “the crime of indifference”.

What the anti-anti-war left has managed to accomplish is to destroy the sovereignty of Europeans in regard to the United States and to eliminate any independent left position concerning war and imperialism. It has also led most of the European left to adopt positions in total contradiction with those of the Latin American left and to consider as adversaries countries such as China and Russia which seek to defend international law, as indeed they should.

When the media announce that a massacre is imminent, we hear at times that action is “urgent” to save the alleged future victims, and time cannot be lost making sure of the facts.  This may be true when a building is on fire in one’s own neighborhood, but such urgency regarding other countries ignores the manipulation of information and just plain error and confusion that dominate foreign news coverage.  Whatever the political crisis abroad, the instant “we must do something” reflex brushes aside serious reflection on the left as to what might be done instead of military intervention.  What sort of independent investigation could be carried out to understand the causes of conflict and potential solutions?  What can be the role of diplomacy?  The prevailing images of immaculate rebels, dear to the left from its romanticizing of past conflicts, especially the Spanish Civil War, blocks reflection.  It blocks realistic assessment of the relationship of forces as well as the causes of armed rebellion in the world today, very different from the 1930s, favorite source of the cherished legends of the Western left.

Professor Bricmont traces the rise of the Anti-Anti-War Left to the end of the Cold War:

The demonization campaigns prevent peaceful relations between peoples, cultural exchanges between citizens and, indirectly, the flourishing of the very liberal ideas that the advocates of interference claim to be promoting.  Once the anti-anti-war left abandoned any alternative program, it in fact gave up the possibility of having the slightest influence over world affairs.  It does not in reality “help the victims” as it claims. Except for destroying all resistance here to imperialism and war, it does nothing.   The only ones who are really doing anything are in fact the succeeding U.S. administrations. Counting on them to care for the well-being of the world’s peoples is an attitude of total hopelessness. This hopelessness is an aspect of the way most of the Left reacted to the “fall of communism”, by embracing the policies that were the exact opposite of those of the communists, particularly in international affairs, where opposition to imperialism and the defense of national sovereignty have increasingly been demonized as “leftovers from Stalinism”.

Interventionism and European construction are both right-wing policies. One of them is linked to the American drive for world hegemony. The other is the framework supporting neoliberal economic policies and destruction of social protection. Paradoxically, both have been largely justified by “left-wing” ideas : human rights, internationalism, anti-racism and anti-nationalism.  In both cases, a left that lost its way after the fall of the Soviet bloc has grasped at salvation by clinging to a “generous, humanitarian” discourse, which totally lacks any realistic analysis of the relationship of forces in the world. With such a left, the right hardly needs any ideology of its own; it can make do with human rights.

Joan Walsh is in a position to examine the inner workings of the Anti-Anti-War Left.  In a piece for Salon, Ms Walsh looks at what appear to be the first visible signs of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nomination.  Discussing a video that media mogul Haim Saban produced in tribute to Ms Clinton, Ms Walsh begins with a quote from David Remnick:

The film was like an international endorsement four years in advance of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. The tone was so reverential that it resembled the sort of film that the Central Committee of the Communist Party might have produced for Leonid Brezhnev’s retirement party if Leonid Brezhnev would only have retired and the Soviets had been in possession of advanced video technology. After it was over there was a separate video from the President.

Comparisons between the Obama administration and the Brezhnev regime strike me as remarkably inapt on one level.  Leonid Brezhnev pursued identifiable goals by rational, if brutal, means in his occupation of Afghanistan; Ms Clinton and her colleagues have approached the Soviets’ level of brutality in that country, though their motivations are entirely confined to the electoral politics of the USA.  Of course, Mr Remnick’s statement has to do with the propaganda these two regimes produced, and there may be some superficial similarities there.  Be that as it may, Ms Walsh writes:

If Clinton is serious about not running, she should keep copies of the video handy to cheer her up in case she ever doubts her legacy or gets bored. (I’d maybe edit out the Henry Kissinger parts, but that’s just me.) But if she’s serious about running, she should burn the video and never watch it again. It’s an artifact of our self-congratulatory global national security and finance elite, and it belongs in a time capsule. If it were shared widely, it could cost her as many votes as it wins her. And trust me: Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are” is not going to wear well over the years to come.

Ms Walsh goes on:

Remnick’s reporting from the Saban Forum underscored the foreign policy challenges of a Clinton candidacy. Although the Obama administration certainly pushed the Middle East peace process harder than Bush officials did, the prospects for peace may be dimmer than ever. Clinton’s warm-up act at the forum was hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who argued (to little pushback) that “settlements are not an obstacle to peace. The opposite is true.” Clinton followed him, boasting of opposing last week’s symbolic U.N. vote for Palestinian statehood and supplying Israel with the “Iron Dome” weaponry that protects it from Hamas rockets, while asking Israel for “generosity” toward the Palestinians. She was rewarded Monday with the Netanyahu government announcing plans to expand its settlements on Palestinian land.

Even after she leaves as secretary of state, Clinton will continue to face tough questions about U.S. Middle East policy if she runs for president. As well she should. The GOP crusade against Susan Rice is personal and unfair, especially since questions about the State Department’s security situation in Benghazi, the role of the CIA at the consulate, as well as the administration’s ongoing Libya policy, are more appropriately asked of Clinton. And have no fear, they will be, should she run. The 2016 election will at least partly be about whether the Obama administration’s policies have made Americans safer and the world more just. The answer to both questions may turn out to be yes, at least within the confines of reasonable 21stcentury political expectations (I recognize that’s kind of a cop-out qualifier, but the question deserves an article, or a book, or books, or a whole library, of its own). But it’s a debate worth having, and Clinton would be either blessed or cursed with having to defend the Obama side.

Ms Walsh thus takes her place on the Anti-Anti-Anti-War Left. Why not simply call this the Anti-War Left?  Her closing paragraphs make clear that Ms Walsh’s political world is circumscribed by the boundaries set by the Anti-Anti-War Left:

In 2008, I fought hard against the ahistorical, inaccurate notion that the middle-class Clintons, a married couple, could be considered a political “dynasty” à la the Bush family dynasty. Still, I would wince at yet another Clinton-Bush contest. But if it came to that, I would, of course, enthusiastically support Hillary Clinton over Jeb Bush – and so would most of the country.

But it’s a long way from here to there, with a lot of domestic and international landmines that could make Clinton forgo the race or else doom her candidacy if she runs. I write as a Hillary admirer. But I think the fawning of her overclass admirers, as captured on the Saban video, could make her presidency not inevitable but impossible.

“I would, of course, enthusiastically support Hillary Clinton.”  The Anti-Antis need take no notice of Ms Walsh; she will vote for them, she will of course vote for them, she will vote for them enthusiastically, no matter what they do.  Her disagreements with them have no influence even over her own vote.

As in these last twenty years the Left in the USA and Europe has been largely co-opted by advocates of perpetual war for perpetual peace, so the Right has been co-opted by the War Party for sixty years.  It was not always so.  Until the United States entered the Second World War late in 1941, organized opposition to wars had usually expressed itself most effectively in American politics in the form of movements from the Right.  It was the Federalists who led opposition to the War of 1812, the Whigs who led opposition to the Mexican War in the 1840s, conservatives of all stripes who scrambled for decades to prevent the Civil War and tried to broker a compromise peace during it, the arch-conservatives of the Anti-Imperial League who raised the loudest voices against the war with Spain and the annexation of the Philippines at the end of the nineteenth century, and the America First Committee of 1939-1941 that still ranks as the largest antiwar organization in American history.  In the aftermath of the Second World War, an international situation appeared in which it was difficult to imagine any sort of order emerging without a dramatic expansion of American power in the world, and the military establishment built during the war had become so prominent a part of the USA’s economic system that only the bravest politicians could imagine a return to the pre-war America in which military spending was a tiny percentage of Gross Domestic Product and the USA barely had a standing army.  The leaders of the American Right therefore turned away from the anti-interventionist tradition to which they were rightful heirs.  They had not developed a coherent militarist ideology, and had little of value to contribute to the formulation of an activist foreign policy.  What they could and did do was devote themselves to attacking dissenters left and right.  Senator Joseph McCarthy is remembered in a harsh light because of his attacks on left-leaning figures who looked skeptically on Cold War policies; McCarthy’s sometime defender, the late William F. Buckley, Jr, is still lionized for his attacks on right-leaning figures who dared to doubt the same policies.  This Anti-Anti-War Right reached its apotheosis in the Bush-Cheney administration, and its willful deafness to all who questioned its approach.

In a recent piece, economist Bruce Bartlett details how what he saw of the Anti-Anti-War Right in the Bush-Cheney phase led him to question his decades-long allegiance to the conservative movement, and shift markedly to the left.  What most horrified him was the insularity of the Anti-Anti-War Right, its refusal to consider points of view that its leaders had not previously approved or to take notice of publications not on their recommended list:

In 2004 I got to know the journalist Ron Suskind, whose book The Price of Loyalty I had praised in a column. He and I shared an interest in trying to figure out what made Bush tick. Neither of us ever figured it out.

A couple of weeks before the 2004 election, Suskind wrote a long article for the New York Times Magazine that quoted some of my comments to him that were highly critical of Bush and the drift of Republican policy. The article is best remembered for his quote from an anonymous White House official dismissing critics like me for being “the reality-based community.”

The day after the article appeared, my boss called to chew me out, saying that Karl Rove had called him personally to complain about it. I promised to be more circumspect in the future.

Interestingly, a couple of days after the Suskind article appeared, I happened to be at a reception for some right-wing organization that many of my think tank friends were also attending. I assumed I would get a lot of grief for my comments in the Suskind article and was surprised when there was none at all.

Finally, I started asking people about it. Not one person had read it or cared in the slightest what the New York Times had to say about anything. They all viewed it as having as much credibility as Pravda and a similar political philosophy as well. Some were indignant that I would even suspect them of reading a left-wing rag such as the New York Times.

I was flabbergasted. Until that moment I had not realized how closed the right-wing mind had become. Even assuming that my friends’ view of the Times’ philosophy was correct, which it most certainly was not, why would they not want to know what their enemy was thinking? This was my first exposure to what has been called “epistemic closure” among conservatives—living in their own bubble where nonsensical ideas circulate with no contradiction.

My growing alienation from the right created problems for me and my employer. I was read the riot act and told to lay off Bush because my criticism was threatening contributions from right-wing millionaires in Dallas, many of whom were close personal friends of his. I decided to stick to writing columns on topics where I didn’t have to take issue with Republican policies and to channel my concerns into a book.

I naïvely thought that a conservative critique of Bush when he was unable to run for reelection would be welcomed on the right since it would do no electoral harm. I also thought that once past the election, conservatives would turn on Bush to ensure that the 2008 Republican nomination would go to someone who would not make his mistakes.

As I wrote the book, however, my utter disdain for Bush grew, as I recalled forgotten screw-ups and researched topics that hadn’t crossed my radar screen. I grew to totally despise the man for his stupidity, cockiness, arrogance, ignorance, and general cluelessness. I also lost any respect for conservatives who continued to glorify Bush as the second coming of Ronald Reagan and as a man they would gladly follow to the gates of hell. This was either gross, willful ignorance or total insanity, I thought.

My book, Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, was published in February 2006. I had been summarily fired by the think tank I worked for back in October 2005. Although the book was then only in manuscript, my boss falsely claimed that it was already costing the organization contributions. He never detailed, nor has anyone, any factual or analytical error in the book.

Among the interesting reactions to my book is that I was banned from Fox News. My publicist was told that orders had come down from on high that it was to receive no publicity whatsoever, not even attacks. Whoever gave that order was smart; attacks from the right would have sold books. Being ignored was poison for sales.

Some would argue that this “epistemic closure” takes more spectacular forms on the Anti-Anti-War Right than on the Anti-Anti-War Left.  Even if that is so, it is likely because the Anti-Anti-War Left is newer.  The Anti-Anti-War Left will likely continue to evolve in the same fashion as long as it continues to win elections.

In a recent Guardian column, Glenn Greenwald mentions left-of-center media figures who have, since last month’s election, been making remarks that mirror Mr Bartlett’s post-2004 assumption “that a conservative critique of Bush when he was unable to run for reelection would be welcomed on the right since it would do no electoral harm.”  The reaction his former colleagues on the Right gave Mr Bartlett’s book showed him that such an assumption was “naive.”  Mr Greenwald analyzes the excuses which Democratic-leaning media gave for whitewashing the Obama administration up to Election Day and concludes that the same excuses will apply equally well for all time to come:

Hendrik Hertzberg proclaims that they will now be even “more respectful” of Obama than they have been. Short of formally beatifying him, or perhaps transferring all their worldly possessions to him, is that even physically possible? Is there a reverence ritual that has been left unperformed, swooning praise left to be lavished upon him, heinous acts by him that have not yet been acquiesced to if not affirmatively sanctioned in the name of keeping him empowered? That media progressives will try to find ways to be even “more respectful” to the president is nothing short of scary.

As for the vow that media progressives will now criticize Obama more and hold him more accountable, permit me to say that I simply do not believe this will happen. This is not because I think those who are taking this vow are being dishonest – they may very well have convinced themselves that they mean it – but because the rationalization they have explicitly adopted and vigorously advocated precludes any change in behavior.

Over the past four years, they have justified their supine, obsequious posture toward the nation’s most powerful political official by appealing to the imperatives of electoral politics: namely, it’s vital to support rather than undermine Obama so as to not help Republicans win elections. Why won’t that same mindset operate now to suppress criticisms of the Democratic leader?

It’s true that Obama himself will no longer run in an election. But any minute now, we’re going to be hearing that the 2014 midterm elections are right around the corner and are of Crucial Significance. Using their reasoning, won’t it be the case that those who devote their efforts to criticizing Obama and “holding accountable” the Democrats will be effectively helping the Republicans win that election? Won’t Obama critics stand accused of trying to keep the Speaker’s gavel in the hands of the Tea Party rather than returning it to Nancy Pelosi, or of trying to hand Senate control over to Mitch McConnell (or, soon enough, of trying to give the White House to Marco Rubio instead of Hillary Clinton)?

Once one decides in the name of electoral expediency to abdicate their primary duty as a citizen and especially as a journalist – namely, to hold accountable those who wield the greatest political power – then this becomes a permanent abdication. That’s because US politics is essentially one permanent, never-ending election. The 2012 votes were barely counted before the political media began chattering about 2016, and MSNBC is already – as one of its prime time hosts put it – “gearing up” for the 2014 midterm.

I’ve described before how the permanent election cycle is the most potent weapon for keeping the citizenry (and media) distracted by reality-TV-show-type trivialities and horse-race excitement in lieu of focus on what the government is actually doing. But the other significant benefit of having all political disputes viewed through a partisan electoral prism is that it keeps partisans focused only on the evils of the other party and steadfastly loyal to their own. The desire to influence election outcomes in favor of one’s own party subsumes any sense that political officials from one’s own party should be checked in how they exercise their power.

Can the USA break its cycle of ever-more warlike politics?  I would say that the cycle will be broken, and rather soon, but probably not by the electoral  process.  The USA is running short of funds and short of allies; its recent military campaigns have ended disastrously, most obviously in Iraq where thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions of American dollars have turned the country into a satellite of Iran.  Eventually a foreign policy so idiotically mismanaged will have to exhaust the ability of the country that perpetrates it to project its power in the world.  Perhaps the prediction William Graham Sumner made in his 1899 speech “The Conquest of the United States by Spain” will be fulfilled in this century:

We have beaten Spain in a military conflict, but we are submitting to be conquered by her on the field of ideas and policies. Expansionism and imperialism are nothing but the old philosophies of national prosperity which have brought Spain to where she now is. Those philosophies appeal to national vanity and national cupidity. They are seductive, especially upon the first view and the most superficial judgment, and therefore it cannot be denied that they are very strong for popular effect. They are delusions, and they will lead us to ruin unless we are hardheaded enough to resist them…

The perpetuity of self-government depends on the sound political sense of the people, and sound political sense is a matter of habit and practice. We can give it up and we can take instead pomp and glory. That is what Spain did. She had as much self-government as any country in Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The union of the smaller states into one big one gave an impulse to her national feeling and national development. The discovery of America put into her hands the control of immense territories. National pride and ambition were stimulated. Then came the struggle with France for world-dominion, which resulted in absolute monarchy and bankruptcy for Spain. She lost self-government and saw her resources spent on interests which were foreign to her, but she could talk about an empire on which the sun never set and boast of her colonies, her gold-mines, her fleets and armies and debts. She had glory and pride, mixed, of course, with defeat and disaster, such as must be experienced by any nation on that course of policy; and she grew weaker in her industry and commerce and poorer in the status of the population all the time. She has never been able to recover real self-government yet. If we Americans believe in self-government, why do we let it slip away from us? Why do we barter it away for military glory as Spain did?

Like Sumner, I consider myself a patriotic American.  At the conclusion of Sumner’s speech, he harks back to the political ideals of the founders of the United States:

No adventurous policies of conquest or ambition, such as, in the belief of our fathers, kings and nobles had forced, for their own advantage, on European states, would ever be undertaken by a free democratic republic. Therefore the citizen here would never be forced to leave his family or to give his sons to shed blood for glory and to leave widows and orphans in misery for nothing. Justice and law were to reign in the midst of simplicity, and a government which had little to do was to offer little field for ambition. In a society where industry, frugality, and prudence were honored, it was believed that the vices of wealth would never flourish.

We know that these beliefs, hopes, and intentions have been only partially fulfilled. We know that, as time has gone on and we have grown numerous and rich, some of these things have proved impossible ideals, incompatible with a large and flourishing society, but it is by virtue of this conception of a commonwealth that the United States has stood for something unique and grand in the history of mankind and that its people have been happy. It is by virtue of these ideals that we have been “isolated,” isolated in a position which the other nations of the earth have observed in silent envy; and yet there are people who are boasting of their patriotism, because they say that we have taken our place now amongst the nations of the earth by virtue of this war. My patriotism is of the kind which is outraged by the notion that the United States never was a great nation until in a petty three months’ campaign it knocked to pieces a poor, decrepit, bankrupt old state like Spain. To hold such an opinion as that is to abandon all American standards, to put shame and scorn on all that our ancestors tried to build up here, and to go over to the standards of which Spain is a representative.

As a patriot, I do not wish to see my country reduced to a “poor, decrepit, bankrupt old state.”  I would much prefer to see an aroused citizenry, indignant at the crimes which, committed in its name, defile its honor in the eyes of the world, rise up and put a stop to those crimes.  It would be worth a thousand Fourth of July celebrations to see Mr Obama and his living predecessors in the office of US president tried, convicted, and punished for the myriad atrocities they have ordered, beneath which the proud boasts of our Constitution lie buried.  But I have little hope that such will happen.  The Anti-Antis, left and right, will likely retain their monopoly on political power in the USA until the regime collapses under the weight of their misgovernment.  What follows will be shabbier, meaner, and less menacing to the world at large; but the promise that this country made to its citizens and to all those who believed in its founding ideals in the days when there was real debate here will never be kept.   Perhaps, after our decline is complete, the USA will reemerge as a socially progressive liberal democracy, as Spain has done.  Considering what Spain went through on the path to its present condition, that prospect offers the patriotic American cold comfort indeed.

 

Why didn’t Mitt Romney know he was going to lose?

For a week now, articles, columns, blog posts, and wisecracks have been appearing in their thousands about the fact that former Massachusetts governor Willard M. “Mitt” Romney seems to have been surprised that he lost the presidential election.  The foremost of these publications so far is Conor Friedersdorf’s post on the Atlantic‘s website, “How Conservative Media Lost to the MSM and Failed the Rank and File.”  Also of note are blog posts by Josh Marshall and Claire Potter, a column by Maureen Dowd, and an article on Slate by John Dickerson.

The most quoted section of Mr Friedersdorf’s piece is probably this:

It is easy to close oneself off inside a conservative echo chamber. And right-leaning outlets like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh’s show are far more intellectually closed than CNN or public radio. If you’re a rank-and-file conservative, you’re probably ready to acknowledge that ideologically friendly media didn’t accurately inform you about Election 2012. Some pundits engaged in wishful thinking; others feigned confidence in hopes that it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy; still others decided it was smart to keep telling right-leaning audiences what they wanted to hear.

But guess what?

You haven’t just been misinformed about the horse race. Since the very beginning of the election cycle, conservative media has been failing you. With a few exceptions, they haven’t tried to rigorously tell you the truth, or even to bring you intellectually honest opinion. What they’ve done instead helps to explain why the right failed to triumph in a very winnable election.

Why do you keep putting up with it?

Conservatives were at a disadvantage because Romney supporters like Jennifer Rubin and Hugh Hewitt saw it as their duty to spin constantly for their favored candidate rather than being frank about his strengths and weaknesses. What conservative Washington Post readers got, when they traded in Dave Weigel for Rubin, was a lot more hackery and a lot less informed about the presidential election.

Conservatives were at an information disadvantage because so many right-leaning outlets wasted time on stories the rest of America dismissed as nonsense. WorldNetDaily brought you birtherism. Forbes brought you Kenyan anti-colonialism. National Review obsessed about an imaginary rejection of American exceptionalism, misrepresenting an Obama quote in the process, and Andy McCarthy was interviewed widely about his theory that Obama, aka the Drone Warrior in Chief, allied himself with our Islamist enemies in a “Grand Jihad” against America. Seriously?

Mr Dickerson makes the case that Mr Romney himself was among those deluded by right-wing media into the belief that he was likely to win the election by a comfortable margin:

Mitt Romney says he is a numbers guy, but in the end he got the numbers wrong. His campaign was adamant that public polls in the swing states were mistaken. They claimed the pollsters were over-estimating the number of Democrats who would turn out on Election Day. Romney’s campaign was certain that minorities would not show up for Obama in 2012 the way they did in 2008. “It just defied logic,” said a top aide of the idea that Obama could match, let alone exceed, his performance with minorities from the last election. When anyone raised the idea that public polls were showing a close race, the campaign’s pollster said the poll modeling was flawed and everyone moved on. Internally, the campaign’s own polling—tweaked to represent their view of the electorate, with fewer Democrats—showed a steady uptick for Romney since the first debate. Even on the morning of the election, Romney’s senior advisers weren’t close to hedging. They said he was going to win “decisively.” It seemed like spin, but the Boston Globe reports that a fireworks display was already ordered for the victory. Romney and Ryan thought they were going to win, say aides. “We were optimistic. More than just cautiously optimistic,” says one campaign staffer. When Romney lost, “it was like a death in the family.”

Professor Potter draws harsh conclusions from Mr Romney’s apparent belief in his chances:

Peculiarly, since the race was consistently described as tight for most of the month prior to election day, and Obama had been gaining ground in all the states he needed to win, Mitt was entirely unprepared for the possibility that he was not going to be president. According to the HuffPo, Romney was “shellshocked” that he was not winning on Tuesday night, having genuinely believed that voter suppression would work all the major media polls were wrong. Paul Ryan and both wives were also stunned. According to CBS, “Their emotion was visible on their faces when they walked on stage after Romney finished his [concession speech], which Romney had hastily composed, knowing he had to say something….They all were thrust on that stage without understanding what had just happened.”

Let’s underline this: Romney had no concession speech, despite available data demonstrating that he could lose the election. None of the four adults who had planned to run the United States government, and lead the rest of what we used to call the “Free World,” seem to have understood that this outcome was possible. “On the eve of the election,” Daniel Lippman writes,” a number of polling aggregators, including HuffPost‘s Pollster and New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight, showed Obama with a huge statistical advantage over Romney.” And yet, despite the fact that Nate Silver, the boy genius of FiveThirtyEight, is almost never wrong, Romney chose to believe that these polls were just partisan attempts to persuade his supporters to stay home.

This is the outcome of lying: you have no real compass for when other people are telling the truth and you need to pay attention to it.

Ms Dowd echoes this point:

Until now, Republicans and Fox News have excelled at conjuring alternate realities. But this time, they made the mistake of believing their fake world actually existed. As Fox’s Megyn Kelly said to Karl Rove on election night, when he argued against calling Ohio for Obama: “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better?”

Much of this growing literature seems to be driven by the desire of those who supported the reelection of President Barack Obama to gloat over Mr Romney’s defeat and to make hostile remarks about his party.  Mr Dickerson’s Slate colleague Katherine Goldstein has appealed for a limit to this gloating, but her piece has attracted far fewer readers than his, and there is no end in sight.  Conservatives had raised similar points, speaking from of course different motivations, shorty before the election.  For example, on Election Day Michael Brendan Dougherty provided a list of five points to make in trying to explain Mr Romney’s defeat to Republicans who get their news from Fox and Rush Limbaugh, starting with “Lots of Republican voters died” between 2008 and 2012, and growing more trenchant as it goes.  Political scientists have been wary of entering the fray; political science blog The Monkey Cage has only featured one post that could be construed as part of the discussion, and that was structured as a conventional media-criticism piece, not a jeer of “Hey everybody, look at the dumbass!”

Turning back for a moment, Professor Potter’s remarks struck me as somewhat oversimplified.  So I replied to them.  I wrote:

I agree with most of what you say, but I do want to register one demurrer.   “Mitt was entirely unprepared for the possibility that he was not going to be president… This is the outcome of lying: you have no real compass for when other
people are telling the truth and you need to pay attention to it.”  I often think of George McGovern’s response when he was asked when he realized he was going to lose the 1972 presidential election.  He said the first time the thought entered his head that President Nixon might possibly beat him was about 10 PM on election night.  Granted, Nate Silver wasn’t around then, but there were quite a few polls, and they all turned out to be right.  What kept the senator from taking those polls seriously wasn’t that he was addicted to lies; he was a remarkably honest man, in fact.  Nor did he surround himself with sycophants.

So why did it not enter Senator McGovern’s mind that he could lose, when it was clear to most observers that he was on his way to the short end of an enormous landslide?  I don’t think it really is such a mystery.  If you’re goal is to win a major party’s presidential nomination, it helps to be the sort of person who never for a moment considers the possibility that s/he might fail in anything s/he sets out to do.  Donors who write big checks, activists who give up their free time to volunteer on campaigns, journalists who bet their next promotions on the campaigns they are assigned to cover, and other major players in the political system all want to attach themselves to the eventual winner.  If you’re given to self-doubt and you’re opponent is certain that s/he will win, you are at a disadvantage in the contest to attract the attention of those players.  Besides, major campaigns make extremely heavy demands on the time, energy, and finances of candidates.  If one candidate is doing a realistic cost-benefit analysis while another is proceeding from the never questioned assumption that s/he will win, the first candidate is less likely to meet those demands.

What about Mr Romney?  I would point out, first, that he has enjoyed considerable success throughout his life.  It’s true that he has only won one of the four elections in which he offered himself as a candidate, and that by a narrow margin, but in his years as a businessman he reaped huge profits no matter what he did.  Moreover, as the son of George Romney and a descendant of Parley Pratt, Mr Romney grew up as a sort of crown prince of Mormonism.  All his life he has been surrounded by people who expected great things of him.  It would be very strange indeed if someone coming from that background and going through a career in which hundreds of millions of dollars devolved upon him were not to believe himself to be a man of destiny.

In other words, I agree that Mr Romney’s privileged background and the overall intellectual climate of his party are probably factors in his placid self-assurance.  However, a highly competitive system like those which have produced major-party nominees for US president will select for candidates who exhibit that precisely that quality, and it is hardly a surprise when a nominee is so deeply shaped by it that s/he cannot see defeat coming even when all indications point to it.

I’d also like to add one point to the comment I posted on Professor Potter’s site.  Every candidate who represents a political party is expected to help that party raise money, build organization, and get its voters to the polls.  Even a nominee who is universally regarded as a sure loser will therefore, if s/he is living up to the terms of his or her covenant with the party, campaign until the moment the last ballot is cast.  Few people are interested in giving money, volunteering, or voting for a candidate who says that s/he is unlikely to win.  Imagine your telephone ringing, and a voice on the other end greeting you with: “Hello, I’m Peter Politician, and I’d like to ask you to devote your resources and efforts to my doomed campaign.  As you know, I have no chance of winning this election.  Can I count on your active support?  It will cost you a great deal of inconvenience, and buy you nothing but a share of my inevitable, humiliating defeat.”  I doubt you’d respond very favorably.  Right up to the moment when the candidate delivers his or her concession speech, s/he is telling potential donors, volunteers, and voters that s/he expects to win.  That’s a lot easier to do if you actually believe what you’re saying.

And they’re off!

So the results are finally in from the 2012 US presidential election, or as it is also known, the first tracking poll for the 2016 US presidential election.

In the last couple of days, I’ve posted a few comments in miscellaneous places making guesses about 2016.  On political science blog The Monkey Cage, I responded to Andrew Gelman’s prediction that the Republican and Democratic nominees in 2016 would be Paul Ryan and Hillary Clinton thus:

The Republicans have a strong history of settling on a presidential nominee early, and defeated vice-presidential candidates need time to put space between themselves and the slough of resentment that follows a loss. So I’d say that Mr Ryan is very unlikely to be the Republican nominee in 2016. The Democrats tend to look for fresh faces and to favor youth; someone like Ms Clinton, who has been a household name for decades, would therefore labor under a disadvantage in a 2016 bid, though her odds would surely not be as long as those confronting Mr Ryan. If I had to guess, I would say a likelier pair of finalists would be Mike Huckabee for the Republicans and Martin O’Malley for the Democrats. I hasten to add emphasis to the words “guess” and “likelier”; I’d be surprised if that were the matchup, just not quite as surprised as I would be to see a Clinton vs Ryan contest.

In response to a post by Daniel Larison on The American Conservative’s website, I expressed the same surmise about Mr Huckabee.
In response to another of Mr Larison’s posts, I explained why I don’t think that the Republicans will be nominating any Mormons for president any time soon.

 

The political history of the USA in two charts

This chart was published in 1880, in a book called Conspectus of the History of Political Parties, by Walter R. Houghton.  In July, Susan Schulten put it on her blog, Andrew Sullivan mentioned it on his, and I put it up on Tumblr.  Here it is full-size.

This was today’s xkcd comic.  Click on it for a zoomable version.

I think the chart from the Houghton book is more elegant, but this one is nice also.

 

Is the Republican Party strong enough to survive a Romney presidency?

The other day,Jack Balkin of Yale Law School posted an item on The Atlantic‘s website in which he argued that, if former Massachusetts governor Willard M. “Mitt” Romney is elected president of the United States a week from Tuesday, his administration will likely come with great cost to the Republican Party which he nominally leads.  Professor Balkin links to the Amazon listings for two books by political scientist Stephen Skowronek (The Politics Presidents Make and Presidential Leadership in Political Time.)  Professor Skowronek classifies US presidents by the relationship they and their parties have to each other and to what Professor Balkin summarizes as the “interests, assumptions, and ideologies that dominate public discussion.”  Together, these interests, assumptions, and ideologies set the boundaries of the political “regime” of the period.  Professor Skowronek asks two questions about each of the US presidents*: “Skowronek’s key insight is that a president’s ability to establish his political legitimacy depends on where he sits in “political time”: Is he allied with the dominant regime or opposed to it, and is the regime itself powerful or in decline?”  Presidents who lead strong parties that oppose declining regimes can sweep those regimes away and implement sweeping new policies.  Professor Skowronek’s label for the few presidents who have held and capitalized in this enviable position is “reconstructive president.”  If the regime that takes shape under the administration of a reconstructive president continues to thrive after his time in office, his successors can be either “affiliated presidents,” who support the  regime and try to extend it, or “preemptive presidents,” who oppose the regime and try to modify it.  When the regime goes into terminal decline, affiliated presidents go down to political defeat, as “disjunctive presidents,” while preemptive presidents can attempt to join the list of reconstructive presidents.

Professor Balkin argues that the current regime in the USA emerged when the Reagan-Bush administration cut personal income taxes and increased defense spending on big-ticket weapons systems.  These measures were intended to solve certain problems the USA faced at the beginning of the 1980s; the tax cuts did in fact precede an end to the “stagflation” that had plagued the 1970s, and the military buildup did in fact worry the Soviet Union.  These measures, apparently successful as solutions to those particular problems, have been the foundation stones of national policy for nearly a third of a century.  Thus, Professor Balkin classifies Ronald Reagan as a reconstructive president, the two George Bushes as affiliated presidents, and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as preemptive presidents.  Like observers well to his right, Professor Balkin has come to the conclusion that lower taxes and higher spending on big-ticket weapons systems have run their course.  Our current economic woes are not an example of stagflation, and even if they were it is by no means certain that in an age of global capital further reductions in personal income tax could relieve them.  Nor does the Soviet Union, or any other potential adversary against which the weapons systems that eat up most of our military budget would be useful, exists at present.  Tied to a party that has become increasingly doctrinaire in its attachment to these anachronistic policies, a President Romney would be doomed to join the ranks of the disjunctive presidents.  He might be comfortable in their company; the last two disjunctive presidents were Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, like Mr Romney businessmen who campaigned on their abilities as technocratic managers.  Professor Balkin goes so far as to declare that “The next Jimmy Carter will be a Republican president — a Republican who, due to circumstances beyond his control, unwittingly presides over the dissolution of the Reagan coalition.”

I’m not altogether convinced that a Romney administration would necessarily end as the Hoover and Carter administrations ended, with a landslide defeat for the president after one term and a new American regime created by his successor.  I suppose if I were a Democratic politician considering a bid for the presidency in 2016, I would find the idea irresistible, but it strikes me that an incumbent president does have some influence over his party.  If it is so obvious that the policies that carried Ronald Reagan to reelection in 1984 are no longer applicable to the problems of our day, then a President Romney might not only see this himself, but might well be able to find powerful forces in the Republican Party that will support him in an effort to reorient the party towards some new agenda.  He, not a Democratic successor of his, might then emerge as a reconstructive president who creates a new regime.

If Mr Romney is elected and rises to his historical moment in this way, I would suggest a parallel to the presidencies of William McKinley (1897-1901) and Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909.)  Those presidents together enacted an agenda of territorial expansion, commercial regulation, and political centralization that marked a significant departure from main line of post-Civil War politics, and established the regime that Herbert Hoover was trying to preserve thirty years later.  Surely we ought to would classify them as reconstructive presidents.  Yet the regime they replaced had been created during the Civil War, when their fellow Republican Abraham Lincoln had played the role of reconstructive president.  By this reckoning Democrat Grover Cleveland was at once a preemptive president ( 1885-1889 and 1893-1897) and a disjunctive president, opposing typical postbellum Republican policies of high tariffs and military pensions, and a disjunctive president, being the last to govern within the bounds set by the old regime.  Barack Obama might follow President Cleveland in this regard, with such measures as his health insurance reform and his moderate stand on social issues qualifying him as a preemptive president while his warmaking and support for Republican-devised subsidies to the financial firms would place him in the line of post-Reagan presidents.

I should add that I am not at all optimistic that a new political regime founded by Mr Romney and his associates would be desirable.  Given his platform, his background, and his associates, I suspect it would be pretty nearly intolerable, with taxes paid directly to the moneyed elite, frequent wars, and an end to civil liberties.  In these ways, such a regime could fairly be labeled fascist.  However, Professor Skowronek’s system focuses, not on what is desirable or undesirable, but on what is sustainable or unsustainable in a particular period of history.  And I suspect that fascism of that sort might very well be sustainable for quite some time.

*No, not about how they would do in a mass knife fight to the death, unfortunately.

Wasted votes

In a couple of weeks, voters in the USA will go to the polls to fill a number of offices, including the electors who will either return Barack Obama to the White House for another four years as the country’s president or replace him with former Massachusetts governor Willard M. “Mitt” Romney.  To be more precise, that is when the last voters will cast their ballots; millions of of Americans, Mrs Acilius and I among them, have already cast absentee ballots.

The missus and I did not, as it happens, vote for either Mr O or his leading opponent.  We had planned to vote for Ross “Rocky” Anderson, former mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah, whose independent bid focuses, first, on opposition to the wars the USA is currently waging or underwriting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Mali, Mauretania, and heaven knows how many other countries; second, on opposition to “anti-terrorism” policies that have compromised the rule of law so drastically that Mr O openly boasts of murders he has ordered and plans to order in the future;  third, on support for investigation and prosecution of any and all war crimes that recent US presidents have sponsored.  But Mr Anderson did not gain sufficient support to be certified as a candidate in our state.  So we voted instead for Green Party nominee Jill Stein.  Dr Stein agrees with Mr Anderson on all of those points, but focuses her campaign on environmental policy and poverty issues.

Many people like to say that, because Mr O and Mr Romney are the only candidates with any chance of winning next month’s election, votes for any other candidate are “wasted.”  On its face, this expression is nonsensical.  It isn’t as if the polling places were casinos where the machines pay out if voters cast a ballot for a winner.  I have often asked people what they meant they say that votes for candidates unlikely to win are “wasted,” and have read many internet comment threads where people have been asked to explain what they mean by it.  The response is invariably a repetition of the claim that some candidate or other is unlikely to win, usually accompanied by a lot of bluster asserting that it is a sign of some moral deficiency to vote for anyone other than a likely winner.

Incoherent as these responses are, they seem to reflect a distinction that political scientists make between two kinds of voting behavior.  They talk about “instrumental voting” and “expressive voting.”  Instrumental voting, in its most basic form, represents a voter’s hope that s/he will cast the decisive ballot; expressive voting represents the voter’s attempt to make his or her policy preferences clear.

Political scientists sometimes go to great lengths to defend the rationality of instrumental voting.  Yet a moment’s reflection should suffice to show that in any election where the electorate is more than 600 or 700 people, the likelihood that there will be a single decisive ballot is quite small.  In a race like that for US president, where over one hundred million ballots will be cast and the electoral process is indirect, the probability that the outcome will be decided by a single ballot is effectively nil.  Meanwhile, if it is generally expected that the same electorate will vote again in the future and that such voting will be comparable in importance to the present election, political actors will analyze the results of the election as they formulate their plans for governing and campaigning.  The more votes a losing candidate receives, the more likely the policies associated with that candidate are to receive serious consideration in the interval before the next election.  Nowadays, the methods of analysis that parties, advocacy groups, candidates, and other political actors apply to election returns are so sensitive that even tiny numbers of votes can provide elected officials with information that they may profitably use in forming their approach to governing and campaigning.  Therefore, it is not too much to say that expressive voting is in fact the only rational form of voting behavior wherever the electorate is larger than a few hundred people.

What brought all this to my mind were three pieces I recently read dealing with the 2012 campaign.  Two of them were from lefties exasperated with Democrats telling them that any vote not cast for Mr O is effectively an endorsement of Mr Romney’s worst proposals; these were from Ted Rall and M. G. Piety of Counterpunch.  Another was from a right-wingers exasperated with Republicans telling him that any vote not cast for Mr Romney is effectively an endorsement of the misdeeds of the Obama administration; this was from Mark P. Shea.  In particular, Mr Rall’s arguments, and even his presentation of them as a series of replies to Frequently-Asked-Questions, are remarkably similar to Mr Shea’s.  Of course, the two are poles apart on most issues, but do unite in opposition to the idea of voting for either Mr O or his Republican counterpart.

The Romney strategy

Earlier today, I posted two long comments at Secular RightOne was about philosopher Alvin Plantinga.   That one I’ll just leave there, as I doubt that anyone who reads this blog would be much interested in it.

The other was about US presidential candidate Willard M. “Mitt” Romney.  I’ll copy it below.  Mr Romney recently made news by saying this:

So, in what are obviously prepared remarks Mr Romney is declaring that “47, 48, 49%” of US voters will never support him under any conditions.  That wouldn’t seem to be a statement that a candidate who expects to win an election would make.  It has been widely reported as a gaffe, and on Secular Right blogger “David Hume” (alias Razib Khan) joins those who say that Mr Romney faces “a longer shot than he had one week ago.”

I’m not so sure.  I explained there (links added):

When you say that Mr Romney’s chances of winning the election are less than they were a week ago, I assume you’re thinking of his remarks about the “47, 48, 49%” of voters who will never support him because their household incomes are too low. If that is an incorrect assumption, please let me know.

I don’t know whether those remarks will hurt him in the end. What does seem clear is that they are part of a deliberate strategy on Mr Romney’s part. A few days before the release of this video, he had said that an annual household income of $100,000 was insufficient to qualify for the middle class, that it took at least $250,000 to be a middle-income family. And there have been so many other remarks of the same kind, from “Corporations are people, my friend” to his challenge to Rick Perry to a $10,000 wager, to “Some of my best friends are NASCAR team owners,” that it is clearly a strong pattern. Mr Romney is an extremely intelligent man, and is continually receiving high-quality market research about the voting public’s response to his statements. Therefore, it is unlikely that he would exhibit such a strong pattern unless he believed that it would help him achieve some goal.

What is that goal? I’d say the answer is in the “47, 48, 49%” formulation. The last survey I saw that asked Americans to rank themselves by the level of household income showed that something like 17% of them thought that they were in the top 1%. That survey is pretty old now, but I suspect that far fewer than 49% of Americans think of themselves as part of the poorest 49%. Those who do know that they are in the bottom half of the income distribution are certainly no less likely to vote for Mr Romney now than they were before these remarks were released; if anything, those voters with sub-median incomes who would consider voting Republican are likely to cheer when they hear a politician casting aspersions on those of their neighbors and coworkers who express concern about the future of public assistance programs.

In other words, I think that Mr Romney is trying to position his candidacy as a luxury brand. He knows that people like to feel rich, and that they sometimes choose luxury products or services because the act of buying them will give them that feeling. He is in fact betting his entire candidacy on this sort of luxury appeal.

Will this wager pay off? It seems very unlikely now. Mr Romney started running for president shortly after he was elected governor of Massachusetts, in George W. Bush’s first term. At that time, he evidently hoped that, in 2008, he would be the Republican Party’s nominee for president, that because of the Bush-Cheney record the Republican Party would be very popular, and that the economy would be booming. Under those conditions, a strategy like Mr Romney’s might very well have won a presidential election.

As it happened, Mr Romney was not nominated until 2012, the Bush-Cheney record made and continues to make the Republican Party unpopular, and the economy has not been truly strong for a good many years. So it would be surprise if his strategy were to succeed. What is not surprising is that he continues to pursue it. On the one hand, Mr Romney’s own personal history is such that he could prove his independence from the plutocracy only by advocating a genuinely populist economic policy. That, obviously, is something which he has absolutely no desire to do. On the other hand, the Republican Party in general has been moving towards a more frankly pro-rich posture in recent years. Look at all the talk from leading Republicans about “broadening the base” of the tax system, that is to say, raising taxes on the non-rich. If that is the direction they are going, the only asset the Republicans are going to have in future elections is their luxury appeal. So, slim as Mr Romney’s chances may be, his decision to base his campaign on the fact that he and his social circle are all very, very rich is in fact a rational one.

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