What is the point of having political opinions?

The other day, I saw a rather stinging tweet:

To which I responded:

What I was thinking of there were the op-ed pieces I’ve read in major newspapers focused on one or another high official, with speculation as to what options that official was likely to be considering in the face of some event in the news. Those pieces might be interesting if you are that guy, or if you are likely to succeed that guy in his post, or if that guy is likely to seek your advice. If none of those descriptions applies to you, an interest in pieces like that may expose something embarrassing about your fantasy life. Strangely, not only do papers keep publishing those pieces, but lots of people whom I know personally and regard as otherwise intelligent and well-adjusted avidly share them and enjoy talking about them, both on social media and face-to-face. It makes those conversations more bearable to think of them as “a PornHub comment about what you’d do if you were that guy,” so that’s one reason I’m grateful to B. D. Mathews for posting this.

Another reason I’m grateful for the tweet is that it has prompted me to think of ways of having political opinions that do not reduce to the moral equivalent of such a comment. Today I saw something good in the Weekly Standard, if you can imagine such a thing. Ian Marcus Corbin, in an essay prompted by a recent book on Nietzsche and Heidegger, argues that our social-media-driven age has prompted many of us to obsess over political  opinion-having. He concludes: “Politics may be a necessary evil—but talking incessantly about politics and viewing your countrymen solely through a political lens is an evil that we’re actively choosing, day by day. We should stop.”

The phenomenon Mr Corbin discusses is not morally equivalent to a PornHub comment about what you’d do if you were that guy; it is much worse. While the existence of pornography as an industry does represent a threat to human dignity, no one comment on such a site is particularly likely to lead anyone to hurt another person, or to degrade anyone, or to lead anyone to betray a trust.  Obsessive political partisanship routinely does lead people to do all of those things, and it makes it harder to repair the damage that follows doing them.

Nietzsche himself gave a good reason for having political opinions. In The Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche wrote that a population which takes liberal institutions for granted will distinguish itself among the peoples of the world in its uncommon stupidity, a stupidity that no amount of schooling will cure. However!

As long as they are still being fought for, these same institutions produce quite different effects; they then in fact promote freedom mightily.  Viewed more closely, it is war which produces these effects, war for liberal institutions which as war permits the illiberal instincts to endure.  And war is a training in freedom.  For what is freedom?  That one has the will to self-responsibility.  That one preserves the distance which divides us.  That one has become more indifferent to hardship, toil, privation, even to life.  That one is ready to sacrifice men to one’s cause, oneself not excepted.  Freedom means that the manly instincts that delight in war and victory have gained mastery over the other instincts- for example, over the instinct for “happiness”… How is freedom measured, in individuals as in nations?  By the resistance which has to be overcome, by the effort it costs to stay aloft. (from section 38, as translated by R. J. Hollingdale in the Penguin Classics version)

As usual, Nietzsche expresses himself in an idiom which some will find ridiculous and others will find terrifying. But his point is not so very different from that which a self-consciously civilized man like James Madison makes in that classic of liberal political theory, the tenth Federalist paper. For Madison, it is the adversarial structure of civic life and the mutual jealousies of competing factions within it that make it possible for a community to thrive:

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time; yet what are many of the most important acts of legislation, but so many judicial determinations, not indeed concerning the rights of single persons, but concerning the rights of large bodies of citizens? And what are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine? Is a law proposed concerning private debts? It is a question to which the creditors are parties on one side and the debtors on the other. Justice ought to hold the balance between them. Yet the parties are, and must be, themselves the judges; and the most numerous party, or, in other words, the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail. Shall domestic manufactures be encouraged, and in what degree, by restrictions on foreign manufactures? are questions which would be differently decided by the landed and the manufacturing classes, and probably by neither with a sole regard to justice and the public good. The apportionment of taxes on the various descriptions of property is an act which seems to require the most exact impartiality; yet there is, perhaps, no legislative act in which greater opportunity and temptation are given to a predominant party to trample on the rules of justice. Every shilling with which they overburden the inferior number, is a shilling saved to their own pockets.

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.

In a society where governments are formed and dismissed as a result of popular elections, the clash of interests cannot balance itself sufficiently to regulate the state unless large numbers of people attach themselves passionately to political opinions. These opinions may not rest on any very firm rational basis; think for example of the dispute between advocates of the Gold Standard and advocates of Bimetallism that dominated US politics in the late 19th century, a dispute in which neither side espoused a view that can stand up to one moment’s scrutiny from modern economic analysis, but which did as much to revitalize American civic life as did any of the more intelligible debates of other years. It pulled Americans out of an era of backward-looking regionalism to engage with politics on a frank basis of economic class interest. You don’t have to be a Marxist to see that as a step towards reality.

I read Mr Corbin’s article, then turned immediately to Counterpunch. While the Weekly Standard is the most reliably pro-war rightist of major US publications, Counterpunch has long been the most reliably anti-war leftist of the same group. These publications are opposites of each other in those ways, and fittingly enough Counterpunch today features an article that is the converse of Mr Corbin’s.  Bruce Levine’s “Another Reason Young Americans Don’t Revolt Against Being Screwed” argues, not that too many people are too focused on political expression, but that too many people are effectively prevented from expressing or even forming political opinions.

The article picks up on an earlier piece of Mr Levine’s called “8 Reasons Young Americans Don’t Fight Back.” Fight back, that is, against elites who are cheating them of their future. In today’s piece, Mr Levine argues that the internet has given young Americans several more reasons to disengage from politics. First, young people fear that an online indiscretion will haunt them forever, and so refrain from saying anything controversial in any public forum. Rather than quote Mr Levine’s discussion of this fear, I will insert a recent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoon making the same point:

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Second, they are debilitated by the low self-esteem which their peers inculcate in them by their own relentless self-advertising:

For other young people, their greatest fear is “FoMo”—the fear of missing out—which is intensified on social media where they are constantly bombarded with images of others doing “cool” stuff. One young woman recently told me, “You don’t know how crazy we are. I saw a party on Instagram that looked really cool, and I had FoMo over it, even though I know the guy who posted it always makes parties look cooler than they really are.”

Many young people tell me that the constant barrage of their peers’ self-promotions on social media makes them feel inferior; and low self-esteem—like fear—debilitates the strength to resist. One young man recently explained to me that millennials are always aware of their “digital selves” which can be measured in metrics such as “likes”; and that comparing themselves to others routinely results in low self-esteem. Of course, some young people do attempt rebellion, but effective rebellion, they tell me, requires completely extricating from social media, which would be an extremely radical action.

Third, online political discussion tends to be dominated by the loudest voices, those of self-righteous extremists on each side. Disengaged from everything but the sound of their own voices, these extremists make the internet a space where there is no exchange of ideas or building of community, “only mutual venom.”

Mr Levine thinks that his generation can help to solve these problems:

The Internet technology need not necessarily be a pacifying force as, for example, the Internet was effectively utilized during the Arab spring to foment rebellion and organize resistance. Similarly, some of the other pacifying forces that I originally detailed need not be pacifying. Teachers could inspire resistance against illegitimate authorities rather than indoctrinate compliance to any and all authorities. And my fellow mental health professionals could embrace liberation psychology rather than pathologize and medicate rebellion.

My experience is that young people, in general, are becoming increasingly pained and weakened by multiple oppressive forces, and older people who give a damn about them can help. The 1% will always attempt to seize powerful technologies and institutions to pacify all of us—especially young people. To manage these technologies and institutions, the 1% needs technocrats, administrators, and guards; thus, what would help is what Howard Zinn called a “revolt of the guards.” However, if technicians, teachers, mental health professionals, and other guards never even admit to ourselves our societal role—as guards who maintain the status quo—then we guards will never consider a revolt. Many older people are guards, and they can choose to revolt and help young people gain the strength necessary to resist injustices.

What Mr Levine envisions is at the opposite extreme from “a PornHub comment about what you’d do if you were that guy.”  While the current relationship of young Americans to the internet is all too aptly illustrated with the image of the socially isolated figure whose only offering to the world are the thoughts he has while masturbating, the relationship that Mr Levine imagines they might construct if their elders would stop enforcing that isolation and take the lead in opposing it is one that would bring people together to form new communities.

If political opinion-having in the online era is not a community-building activity of the sort Mr Levine has in mind, what purpose does it serve?  Daniel McCarthy makes a case that the appeal of ideologies in not in the quality of their ideas, but in the starkness of the contrast they make with rival groups.

Much of the political discussion I see on social media reminds me of what one might hear listening in on a therapy session.  For example, this photo was much circulated a couple of days ago:

 

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I saw this posted both by Trump supporters, who exulted that their man was the rock on which the waves of Western decline break, and by Trump opponents, who expressed dismay that the US president was behaving like a petulant child. I put it another way in response to a contrast between this photo and another taken a few seconds before made by a right-wing news outlet:

The photo that is valuable is the one that will enable people on each side to see what they want to see.

This almost literal political Rorschach test is not unique. Here is another such, occasioned by reports that Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was about to be arrested on charges of sexual assault:

The photo of Mr Weinstein and Gwyneth Paltrow with Hillary Rodham Clinton appears to have been taken in 1999, a year when the phrase “Clinton Derangement Syndrome” was much in the air among Democrats exasperated with the apparent willingness of a certain percentage of the US public to believe absolutely any story, no matter how far-fetched that put the then-president and his family in a negative light. Shortly after Mr Clinton left office, Republicans began shaking their heads about “Bush Derangement Syndrome”; since then we’ve heard about “Obama Derangement Syndrome” and “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” These are real things, and they are complemented by equally delusional behavior from people determined to regard the incumbent US president as somehow good.

That’s where the image of a therapy session comes in. The US presidency is a powerfully evocative symbol. That’s part of the point of it. For example, in 2008 many supporters of Barack Obama hoped that the election of an African-American president would call forth a version of the USA free of the old racial tensions; in 2016, many supporters of Donald Trump hoped, as many of his opponents feared, that his election would call American men to a more assertive masculinity. But as time wears on and those cultural transformations fail to take place, what the symbol actually calls up are the feelings individuals have about male authority figures in their lives. A president of your own party merges with all the images you carry of what might have been or what might yet be in your relationships with powerful men, while a president of the opposing party merges with all the men who’ve let you down. Discussions of presidents therefore rarely maintain any connection to questions of national policy for any length of time.  I suppose those discussions serve a therapeutic purpose for those who engage in them.

 

 

 

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Presidential line of succession

Today’s xkcd:

Ties are broken by whoever was closest to the surface of Europa when they were born.

I agree that the 1947 Presidential Succession Act is a disaster waiting to happen, and that at times it has waited rather impatiently.  In the case of the first vacancy to occur in the presidency while the act was in effect, it might very well have triggered a world war.

Before dawn on 23 November 1963, Secret Service Agent Gerald Blaine was assigned to guard President Lyndon Johnson, who had a few hours before been sworn in as successor to the assassinated John F. Kennedy. In his 2010 memoir, Mr Blaine admitted that he came within a fraction of a second of killing President Johnson that night. As a member of President Kennedy’s security detail, Mr Blaine had grown accustomed to that president’s scrupulous habit of notifying his guards every time he was about to go outdoors. When Mr Blaine saw a figure roaming about in the darkness on the grounds of President Johnson’s Washington-area home that night, therefore, he assumed it must be an intruder, and being as he was on highest alert he prepared to shoot the figure on sight. His finger was on the trigger of his submachine gun, about to squeeze, when a beam of light fell across the familiar features of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Had Mr Blaine squeezed that trigger, the presidency would have fallen to the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, John W. McCormack, Democrat of Massachusetts. Here is a photograph from the holdings of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, showing John McCormack in conference with President Kennedy:

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In November of 1963, John McCormack was a 71 year old man with no national following, who was known on the world stage solely for his family’s longstanding and often bitter feud with the Kennedys. For example, in 1962 John McCormack’s nephew Eddie McCormack had been Edward M. Kennedy’s opponent in the Democratic primary for the US Senate from Massachusetts, a race in which Eddie McCormack had said some rather hard words about the president’s kid brother.  Had a man with that profile succeeded to the presidency as the result of two shootings within hours of each other, the first committed by a person or persons at that point still unknown, the other committed by a member of the late president’s own bodyguard, it would have been natural for the world to assume that the shootings were part of a bloody power struggle in Washington. Some people, particularly the people in charge of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, would have been required to take substantive action based on that assumption. Because the early 1960s were the most perilous phase of the Cold War, it would have been dereliction of duty for the leaders in the Kremlin to have regarded them as anything else.

The USA had gone through many peaceful transfers of power by 1963. Foreign observers, operating under the assumption that a violent coup was in place, would therefore have to make the further assumption that the coup-makers were acting from desperation. If the USA were a country where groups routinely succeeded each other in the seats of power by means of assassination, the motive might have been relatively humdrum. Since the USA was in fact at the opposite pole, where a bloody power struggle was a radical departure from the norm, the motive must itself have been radical.

What could that motive have been? Starting in the early 1950s, a powerful faction within the US military, led by Air Force General Curtis LeMay, had been advocating a massive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, a preemptive strike known to its advocates as the “Sunday Punch.”  General LeMay’s idea was widely enough known to the Washington press corps that when he emerged as a candidate for vice president a few years later, they were ready with questions about it, questions which he answered in a rather terrifying way. Surely Soviet intelligence must have been aware in 1963 that there was a faction in the Pentagon that had long been making this proposal, and that its leaders included Curtis Lemay, who at that time was the Air Force Chief of Staff. If a group were so hardened to violence as to be ready to launch a nuclear first strike against the USSR, killing hundreds of millions of people, perhaps that same group would reconcile itself to adding two more murders to their scheme. Seeing John McCormack emerging from the bloodstained chaos, the Soviets might well have concluded that he was a stooge of the victorious Lemay faction, and that their only chance of survival lay in hitting the US and its nuclear arsenal with all the forces they could muster.

Now, rerun the scenario without the 1947 act. Before that law was passed, the 1886 Presidential Succession Act had placed the Secretary of State second in line of succession behind the Vice President. Under no circumstances would it have been easy to believe that the shooting deaths of two presidents within 24 hours had resulted from the actions of a lone gunman and a panicked security man, but at least with the advent of President Dean Rusk the prospect of world war would not have been greatly heightened. Though he was not a particular favorite of President Kennedy’s, Secretary of State Rusk was an appointee of his, had represented his administration faithfully, and had been a familiar figure in world capitals since the early months of the Second World War. Though the Kremlin would still have assumed that the deaths of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were part of a violent power struggle, Rusk’s ascension would have been evidence that the faction loyal to President Kennedy had won that struggle and prevented an immediate nuclear attack on the USSR. Certainly it would have been rational for the Soviets to approach a Rusk administration cautiously and to refrain from any irrevocable actions.

In the other situation when the provisions of the 1947 act might have come into effect, the stakes were less desperate, but still considerable.  That was in 1973, when Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign after he was caught taking bribes. In an unrelated scandal coming to light at the same time, the so-called “Watergate” affair, President Richard Nixon was facing the ever-increasing likelihood of removal from office for his own criminal exploits. Congress was reluctant to act against President Nixon for many reasons, not least that removing him while the Vice Presidency was vacant would have meant that after an election in which over 60% of the people had voted for a Republican president, the 1947 act would then have elevated a Democratic Speaker of the House to the presidency. Indeed, the selection of Congressman Gerald R. Ford to replace Agnew paid a sort of homage to the 1947 act, since Ford was the man the Republicans would have installed as Speaker had they held the majority in the House of Representatives.

As for Randall Munroe’s suggestions in the comic above, slots 1-6 look pretty good to me.  I would suggest that the Secretary of the Treasury should be on the list, no lower than right behind the Secretary of State. The Secretary of the Treasury is the only official who is a first-rank player in both domestic policy and foreign policy, and is certainly as familiar to policymakers around the world as is any appointed official other than the Secretary of State.

Number 7, “Five people who do not live in Washington, DC, nominated at the start of the President’s term and confirmed by the Senate” sounds logical, though I’d need some specifics before I endorsed the idea. Would these be people who already hold office under the federal government? If not, how would they be paid, how would they be kept informed of the things a president ought to know, and how would they be kept from involving themselves in matters with which a president ought to have nothing to do?

Number 8, Tom Hanks. Well, I remember Bosom Buddies as fondly as the next person (assuming that the next person didn’t like the show either,) but I don’t think he’s quite the person I’d like to see taking charge in a crisis so extreme that all those senior officials had died or otherwise become unavailable. I used to mistake Tom Hanks for Tim Robbins, and Tim Robbins used to be partnered with Susan Sarandon. So I’d suggest putting Susan Sarandon in that spot.

Number 9, “State governors in descending order of population at the last census,” is no good. One of the problems of the 1947 Act is that many legal experts believe that the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches may well preclude members of Congress, such as the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate, from being listed in the line of succession. No less important to the constitutional order than the separation of powers between the branches of the federal government is the division of powers between the federal government and the states. Including governors would violate this principle as surely as including members of Congress violates the other.  Moreover, sorting them by the population of their states would revive a contention between large states and small ones, a contention which the Constitution did so much to resolve.

Number 10, “Anyone who won an Oscar for playing a governor,” might encourage Hollywood to make prestige movies about state government.  That’s a cause I can get behind, so I’ll endorse that.

Number 11, “Anyone who won a Governor’s Award for playing someone named Oscar,” will only encourage remakes of The Odd Couple, an intolerable prospect.

Number 12, “Kate McKinnon, if available.” I assume that means that Mr Munroe hopes that, in the dark day when the country finds itself going so far down the line of succession, Ms McKinnon would stop trying to be funny. I can think of any number of comedians whose efforts are far more tedious than hers, so I would put them ahead of her.

Number 13, the Billboard Hot 100 artists. Sure, why not? Considering the current president’s show-biz background, it’s probably just a matter of time before that population starts to dominate the presidential sweepstakes on its own.

Number 14, US astronauts, no. I’ve always loved astronauts, but they are strongly biased against sending robot probes into space to do actual science. We don’t need more studies about the damage gravity deprivation does to the human body, but we do need multiple rovers on the Moon and other instruments that can answer serious questions in astronomy and planetary science.

Number 15, Serena Williams, and Number 16, champions of the biggest ticket team sports. That’s a juicy idea…

Number 17, Bill Pullman and his descendants. That would require a legal method for distinguishing between Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton. Since descendants are involved, Bill Paxton’s death does nothing to surmount this impossible challenge.

Number 18, the entire line of succession to the British throne. Judging by the percentage of the US population that swoons when British royals are in the news, this might be a popular idea. And it does make since that there should be a sense of kinship there, since many Americans are proud to trace their lineage back to hardworking families of German immigrants who made good.

Number 19, the current champion of the Nathan’s hot-dog eating contest. This one should rank much higher, behind the Secretary of the Treasury and ahead of the Secretary of Defense.

Number 20, “All other US citizens, chosen by a 29 round single elimination jousting tournament,” would leave the winner free of most of the usual problems of political leadership, since virtually all of the surviving population would be severely incapacitated by its wounds. After issuing urgent appeals to the other countries of the world to send medical assistance, s/he would have plenty of time to work on his or her hot-dog eating skills.

Restrictionist/ Relaxationist

In a widely discussed column in Monday’s New York Times, David Brooks said that he’d like to be a moderate on immigration policy, but that he can’t find any good arguments for the restrictionist position. I find myself in something of the opposite position. I’m basically a relaxationist, but the arguments for relaxing immigration policy never stand up very well to any sort of rational scrutiny.

Take the main argument Mr Brooks sets forth in his column, that native born Americans show an increasing disdain for the sorts of activities necessary to keep capitalism growing:

Over all, America is suffering from a loss of dynamism. New business formation is down. Interstate mobility is down. Americans switch jobs less frequently and more Americans go through the day without ever leaving the house.

But these trends are largely within the native population. Immigrants provide the antidote. They start new businesses at twice the rate of nonimmigrants. Roughly 70 percent of immigrants express confidence in the American dream, compared with only 50 percent of the native-born.

Immigrants have much more traditional views on family structure than the native-born and much lower rates of out-of-wedlock births. They commit much less crime than the native-born. Roughly 1.6 percent of immigrant males between 18 and 39 wind up incarcerated compared with 3.3 percent of the native-born.

Rod Dreher amplified this point in a blog post about Mr Brooks’ column. Mr Dreher focuses specifically on anecdotes suggesting that native born American youth show an increasing disdain for physical labor:

Around 2007, I think it was, my late father, who lived in rural Louisiana, had some brush he needed clearing in a field he owned. He usually did this himself — or, when I was a kid, with me — but by then he was long retired, and was physically unable to do it. I was living far away.

When I was a teenager, back in the 1980s, it wasn’t hard to find high school kids to do this kind of work. Our parish was 50 percent black, and 50 percent white. We had almost no Asians or Latinos. White kids, black kids, you could hire kids to do this work. As I said, I did this kind of work for my dad. I hated it. It was hot, and it was demanding. But this is what you did.

Not by 2007. No white teenage boys wanted to do that kind of hard physical labor. My father drove into a black neighborhood and found groups of young men — men in their 20s — sitting around with nothing to do. He offered them several times the minimum wage to come clear brush for him for a day. They all declined. They were all out of work and doing nothing that day, but it wasn’t worth it to them. He was a retiree on a fixed income, and couldn’t pay anything more than that. But when I was a teenager, any number of young men would have jumped at the opportunity. Not anymore. Neither whites nor blacks would do physical labor.

(That’s not strictly true — I know a handful of both white men and black men there today who do exactly this kind of work, but at the time my dad needed it, they either weren’t in business, or were too booked up.)

Anyway, my dad didn’t know what to do. One of his friends said that a few Guatemalans had moved into the parish recently. If I recall correctly, they had come with a large contingent of Central Americans who had moved to New Orleans to work on post-Katrina reconstruction. My dad’s friend put him in touch with one of them. They were eager to work. My dad hired the three Guatemalan men who were in town. They cleared the brush in a day, and did a great job of it.

My father was grateful, and he ended up hiring them on more occasions when he needed that kind of work done. My dad was an old white Southern man, and though we never talked about immigration, I imagine he held the usual prejudices about outsiders from Latin America. But I know for a fact he was impressed by those Guatemalan men, and came away with a very positive impression of them. As I’ve mentioned here on other posts, my dad grew up poor, and had a very, very strong work ethic. He judged men based on their willingness to work. As far as he was concerned, those Guatemalan men proved to him their worth that day.

Here’s the thing. In that time, and in that place, there was physical labor to be done. My father, who was very conservative, tried to hire native-born Americans, both black and white, to do the work. He struck out. Over the past 40 years, the cultural attitude towards hard physical labor has changed, for both blacks and whites in our parish. The only men he could find who were willing to do the work were Latino immigrants. Ours is a relatively poor part of America, so the wages he offered them for a day’s labor were standard.

Now, you could say that the immigrants were undercutting the locals by being willing to work for less. You might be right about that. But in my recollection, the locally born young men, white or black, would not even name a price. They simply didn’t want to do the work, even though they had no work otherwise. My pensioner father, being a rural man of the Depression generation, read that as moral decline.

I offered this comment in response to Mr Dreher’s post:

If native-born youth are coming to regard physical labor with disdain, delegating physical labor to a foreign-born underclass will surely do nothing but accelerate that process.

Which, the more I think about it, seems to be entirely sufficient to explode Mr Brooks’ case. If the native born population were going to compete directly with new arrivals, then the new arrivals might remake them in their image. We could then decide that we prefer that image to what native have been showing us, and consider that a point in favor of a relaxationist policy. But everything Mr Brooks and Mr Dreher have said indicates that this will not happen, that the natives will respond to immigrant industriousness by priding themselves ever more intensely on sloth.  Friends of mine who have spent time in the countries surrounding the Persian Gulf have told me that a dynamic like this can produce a singularly unattractive sort of young man. So Mr Brooks’ column and Mr Dreher’s post, while they may not make a case for any particular form of restrictionism, certainly do make it more difficult for those of us who would like to make a case for a relaxationist position.

I should mention that Mr Brooks’ case has been systematically dismantled by the hated Steve Sailer. Say what you will about Mr Sailer, there isn’t much he hasn’t heard when it comes to immigration, and he is very well-prepared to defend his position.

Going to press before Mr Brooks’ column appeared were a piece by Damon Linker complaining that the American center-left is having some kind of collective nervous breakdown over immigration at precisely the moment when the public most needs them to think about the issue calmly.

Also appearing before Mr Brooks’ column was a piece by Ishmael Reed, “Using Immigrants to Shame American Blacks.” Mr Reed comments on the high rate of educational attainment among Nigerian and other African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants to the USA. This comes with a downside for African Americans, not only because whites use the success that some immigrants from those countries enjoy in the USA to justify their denial that African Americans face unfair burdens, but also because many people from those countries are themselves prejudiced against African Americans. Mr Reed writes that “for some Black Americans, immigration means the arrival of more racists to add to the ones already here.”

A point Mr Reed does not make is that Nigeria, Haiti, and other countries he mentions as sources for highly educated, highly capable immigrants to the USA are themselves in need of the services of such people, and the brain drain to the already-developed world is one of the major obstacles to starting the process of rapid economic development.

For this reason, it is an act of war for a rich country to maintain an open border with a poor one, and such economic warfare can be justified only in extraordinary circumstances. For example, when Daesh was in control of much of Syria many people in the West proposed lifting all restrictions on immigration from Syria to Europe and North America. If Daesh were going to win its war and become the permanent regime in that country, such a policy might have been justified. It would have stripped Syria of its educated professional class and of its most industrious entrepreneurs, thereby reducing the country to extreme poverty and limiting the ability of that extremist sect to pose a long-term threat to the peace of the world. As long as there was a chance that Daesh would be defeated, as it now seems to have been, such a policy would have been unconscionable. Since neither Nigeria, nor Haiti, nor indeed any country anywhere in the world is in the position that Syria would have occupied under the firmly established control of Daesh, it would be equally unconscionable for the USA to adopt a policy of open borders towards any of them.

Anyway, that isn’t something Mr Reed talks about.  However, the fact that so many on the center-left are so utterly oblivious to the impact on sending countries of the brain drain that high levels of immigration of highly-skilled workers implies can be explained only if Mr Reed is right and the boosters of ultra-relaxationism have derived their ideas from racism.

Who can punish a country? Who would try?

Relations among countries are different from relations among individuals in several ways. A country is a great deal more complex, more dynamic, more resilient, and less predictable than any individual. That has implications for those who see foreign policy as an appropriate venue for moralistic cruelty.  Methods that might reliably break the will of an individual and reduce that individual to an object lesson to deter others from following their example might not be at all predictable in their effect when applied in the international sphere.

This may seem obvious, but has apparently escaped the notice of the political leaders of the continent of Europe. Two recent pieces, from Matthew Lynn in The Spectator and from Clive Crook on Bloomberg, make this point quite effectively.

Mr Lynn argues that, as time goes by without any progress towards a deal between Britain and the remainder of the European Union to reduce the economic costs of Britain’s exit from the Union, an ever-increasing number of economic actors assume that there will be no such deal and prepare for the worst-case. If in 2019 that worst-case comes to pass, virtually all of the costs will have been baked into the markets. While the costs will be considerable and may trigger a steep recession, most of them will be one-time costs. Therefore, that steep recession may well be followed by a steep recovery.

It is a near-certainty that at least some of the remaining members of the EU will be in recession while Britain is undergoing its post-Brexit recovery. If there is a strong anti-EU movement in any such country, Britain will indeed be a potent example to encourage that movement. That encouragement will be potent even if Britain’s post-Brexit recovery peters out before returning the country to its pre-Brexit levels of prosperity. The more flagrantly unco-operative the rest of the EU has been with Britain during this period, the deadlier any sign of life in the British economy after 2019 will be to advocates of ever-closer Union.

Mr Crook, an opponent of Leave in last year’s referendum, says that the very difficulty of the exit process is causing him to rethink his position. Mr Crook writes:

The difficulty of disentangling EU law from U.K. law, and putting the U.K.’s international commitments back on a sovereign-country basis, is becoming all too clear. The threat of enormous disruption is real. Yet the scale and complexity of this task also show how deeply and broadly the EU has penetrated British governance. Few would argue that Europe’s system of democratic accountability has developed to a commensurate degree. So the harder it is to exit, the more glaring the union’s “democratic deficit” seems.

For many British commentators, in fact, the coming disruption means this was never a matter of weighing long-term pros and cons of EU membership: There was no real choice, in their view, except to remain. But that draws attention to another problem. The irrevocability of EU membership was not previously advertised. Until recently, Article 50 in the European treaties was supposed to affirm that participation in the project was voluntary, contingent and subject to popular consent. Now it’s portrayed by Remainers as a kind of suicide clause.

Remember that the European Union is a work in progress. “Ever closer union” remains a guiding principle, and, with the creation of the euro, deeper integration has become a practical necessity as well. It’s happening — haltingly, messily, and leading in the end who knows where. But if quitting the EU now is hard, how much harder will it be in ten years, or 20? And by then, what kind of union will the EU be?

Thus, on the one hand, the costs of Brexit in 2019 will be high; on the other, it might be now or never.

The current stalemate, in addition, has arisen partly by EU design — which undercuts Remainers in another way. Europe’s chief negotiator has a mandate to achieve “sufficient progress” on the exit payment, the status of EU citizens in the U.K., and the Northern Irish border before moving to discuss the future relationship. This makes a deal much harder to strike. Complex talks succeed through bargains made in parallel across the full range of issues in contention — not in rigid sequence, with the hardest questions up front.

Presumably this staging was deliberate: It’s taken for granted that the EU wants to punish the U.K. for deciding to quit, partly to teach other restless members to behave, and partly because Britain just has it coming. I see the reason in such thinking — but it doesn’t advance the EU’s larger purpose of a closer union based on popular consent. You can strengthen obedience by making examples and threatening reprisals, but you don’t build loyalty that way, and loyalty is what the EU most sorely lacks.

In closing, Mr Crook asks if the rest of the EU truly thinks that it would be better off with a “beaten and resentful enemy” than with a “prosperous friend, trading partner, and military ally just off its coast.”

Considering the EU’s behavior in, to take only two examples, Italy in November 2011 and in Greece in the summer of 2015, I’d say it is rather clear that the EU is led by people for whom popular legitimacy is not a first-order practical concern. So a country in which the majority of the general public sees itself as a “beaten and resentful enemy” of the EU might not be a problem for the people who set EU policy, so long as that majority is incapable of translating its resentment into action that might impose costs on the interests the EU serves.

Yesterday’s gone

Last night, talk show host Jimmy Kimmel denounced Donald Trump, whom I call Don John of Astoria, for his failure to distance himself from pro-Nazi groups which were at the center of Saturday’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

One particular section of Mr Kimmel’s statement struck me as typical of a particular kind of less-than-ideal response to the consistently horrid and ever-more surreal events that have characterized Trumptime. As reported on Slate:

But you’ve been trying to ignore it, because you don’t want to admit to these smug, annoying liberals that they were right. That’s the last thing you want to do. But the truth is, deep down inside, you know you made a mistake. You know you picked the wrong guy. And it isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse. So you can do one of two things. You can dig in like Chris Christie at a Hometown Buffet, or you can treat the situation like you’d put Star Wars wallpaper up in the kitchen. “All right, I got caught up, I was excited, I made a mistake. And now it needs to go.”  Well, now he does need to go. So it’s time for you, especially you who voted for him, to tell him to go.

Now it may well be the case that most of the people who voted for Don John in 2016 believe that he was a bad choice and that he is a bad president now. Indeed, the majority of his voters may, deep down inside, have disapproved of him even before they cast their ballots. The one segment of the electorate with which he did best in November of 2016 was voters who thought that neither he nor Hillary Clinton was fit to be president.

That behavior is sufficient to show that believing that Don John is a bad president is a very different matter from believing that it was a mistake to vote for him in 2016, as opposed to voting for one of the other candidates who were on the ballot in that year. Third-party supporters like me may want to put our fists through our straw hats when we think of lesser-evil voting, but that is the norm in US general elections, and most voters seem to think that they are wise to engage in it.

Framing the question as “Who was the better candidate in 2016?” also impedes any attempt to focus on Don John’s particular shortcomings, however egregious those shortcomings may be. So, if we say that when a white supremacist rally dissolves in violence and homicide, a US president’s first public statement about it ought to include an unequivocal condemnation of white supremacist activism, we are likely to meet with widespread agreement across the political spectrum. If we say that Don John’s failure to respond to Charlottesville in that way is a sign that he is a worse president than Hillary Clinton would have been, we invite Trump supporters (even a Trump supporter so ambivalent as to refer to an adversary as a “Trump-like blowhard self-promoter using a current event to promote her for-profit business“) to argue that making appropriate statements in the immediate aftermath of atrocious public events is a political skill which Ms Clinton conspicuously lacks.  Sticking to the question, “Is Don John an acceptable president?,” discussion of the weaknesses of Ms Clinton or any other political figure who is not currently serving as US president can be dismissed as irrelevant.

To make the same general point in a less-inflammatory historical context, by August of 1974 President Richard Nixon had lost the support of so many Republican voters that Congress could no longer avoid impeaching him and removing him from office. If the Constitution had worked out as it was intended when it was first written, the vice president would have been the person who came second in the 1972 general election. Mr Nixon’s removal, under those circumstances, would have put Senator George McGovern in his place. In that case, the question before the people would indeed have been whether they were right to vote for Mr Nixon in 1972, or whether they ought to have voted for Mr McGovern in that year. Presented with that choice, I suspect that very few Republicans would have decided that Mr Nixon’s misdeeds warranted his removal from office.

I would emphasize that point with reference to the remark below:

If that primary season were a rerun of the primary season Republicans actually faced in 2016, with Mr Trump facing Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, etc, then of course he would still win, probably by a much wider margin. Had the Republican primaries of 1972 been replayed in the summer of 1974, I suspect that Richard Nixon would still have beaten John Ashbrook and Pete McCloskey. Mr McCloskey’s denunciation of US bombing in Vietnam as morally unacceptable made him impossible for most Republicans to support in that year, while the entire premise of Mr Ashbrook’s campaign was that the president ought to be renominated, but only after the right wing of the party had had its say. So long as those were his only opponents, it was only notionally possible for President Nixon to lose the primary contest.

Of course, those two backbench Congressmen would not have been the only challengers to the president had the Republicans actually staged a primary contest in 1974. Ronald Reagan, Nelson Rockefeller, and several other candidates would likely have stepped forward. And the fact that the original scheme of presidential succession had been replaced, first by the formation of national parties that chose separate candidates for president and vice president, then by the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution that formalized this process, and finally by the Twenty-Fifth Amendment that allowed Congress and the President to appoint a replacement when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned his office amid corruption charges in 1973, meant that the choice in 1974 was not between Richard Nixon or George McGovern, nor between Richard Nixon and some other candidate in a Republican primary, but between Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

Likewise, the choice now is not between Don John of Astoria or Hillary Clinton, nor between Don John and the Republican primary field of 2016. If the question is about impeachment, the choice is between him and Vice President Michael Pence. If the question is about something short of that, the question is about the balance of power between the president and the Congress. There’s a reason why the powers of the Congress are described in Article One of the Constitution, and the amendments making up the Bill of Rights tell us that “Congress” shall not do particular things- the Congress is supposed to be, and for most of the nineteenth century clearly was, the dominant partner in the federal triad. Even now, old Washington hands are fond of the adage “The president proposes, the Congress disposes.” The Congress does in fact have the power to rein a bad president in. Wishes that last year’s election, or some other event of the past, had turned out differently do not have much power at all.

The debate about “the Google Memo”

The Google Memo and the responses to it I’ve seen, from Left and Right, all seem to tacitly acknowledge the same four points:

  1. There are a lot of macho jerks in tech.
  2. Women, in general, would rather not be surrounded by macho jerks.
  3. Macho jerks, in general, like to pose as the enforcers of the prevailing orthodoxy, regardless of the content of that orthodoxy.
  4. Therefore, the fact that the prevailing orthodoxy within Google is nominally feminist does not in fact reduce the amount of Asshole that the women working there have to put up with.

The controversy all takes the form of commentary on these four points. The author of the memo argues that point #1 is a result of biological necessity. Whole regions of the Internet exist only to dwell on apparent exceptions to point #2, and some of the author’s defenders show the influence of this. In response to point #3, libertarians and other pro-capitalist types defend enforcement of orthodoxy by saying that a business isn’t a debating society, and an employee who takes it upon himself to publish a piece arguing that his company’s shares are overvalued can only expect to be fired. And as to point #4, there is controversy about whether a different kind of feminism or a different way of inculcating it would address the problem.

Something else that’s struck me about the whole affair is that it’s a failure of the center-right media. For years, rightists of all stripes have regarded Google as an adversary. Surely some right-wing publication could have sent a reporter to look into Google’s corporate ethos, and have found James Damore.  Mr (or is it Dr?) Damore could then have unburdened himself to that reporter without fear of being fired.

There are those who suspect that Mr Damore’s memo was an attempt to provoke precisely the reaction he has in fact received, complete with his public firing by Google’s CEO, so that he can make a new career as a right-wing political spokesman.  That seems unlikely to me; the longer he spent at Google, the more opportunities Mr Damore would likely have had to launch new ventures of whatever kind he might like, including right-wing political projects. After all, Steve Bannon didn’t attain his current position by getting himself fired after his first year at Goldman Sachs. And Year One of the Trump Era would hardly seem like a propitious moment to begin a career as a right-wing pundit. But who knows, maybe Mr Damore wasn’t working out at Google and saw a fiery exit at this time as his best option.

We’re looking for a few intolerably bad men

Two recent tweets of mine:

All I would add is that the heads of these agencies should be not only unpopular outside the president’s inner circle, but also wily enough that they are not merely figureheads, with senior career officials actually wielding power behind the scenes. So it wouldn’t do for a president to appoint his idiot son-in-law to be head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, since the top person among the Special Agents is surely the sort of person who would easily take effective control of the Bureau from him and would lull Congress and the public out of the vigilance necessary to keep a police force or a spy agency within decent boundaries.

That someone who is unpopular and incompetent can be supplanted by nominal subordinates who are competent is one reason why Don John of Astoria’s presence in the Oval Office is not a sign that the Imperial Presidency is about to be rolled back and the powers of Congress restored. As writers like Noah Millman have pointed out, it would be all too easy for permanent bureaucracies such as the military and the spy agencies to shut the president out of decision-making, as the last dozen presidents have shut Congress out of decision-making in regard to war powers, and to establish a praetorian state in the USA.

However bad Don John may be, that event would be catastrophically worse. With elections reduced to irrelevance, any opportunity those who are neither officials of the security services nor among the 400 richest people in the USA now have to influence the making of national policy would be gone forever; whatever hope there might be that a new political movement might counteract the rise of oligarchy would die with it. With generals, top spies, and defense contractors relieved of any need to treat elected officials as their superiors, there would even less institutional brake than there is now on the USA’s endless and ever-more-obviously pointless military rampages around the globe. And when that government loses its ability to hold onto its position, there will be no mechanism in place for a peaceful transfer of power.  A coup against Don John today would condemn a future generation to a civil war.

So I hope it doesn’t come to that. Meanwhile, I’m hoping that Don John will appoint Ann Coulter as head of the FBI; she has the brains and the strength of character to keep whoever plays the role of Sir Humphrey among the G-Men off guard, and she is widely hated. Former Connecticut senator Joseph I. Lieberman has been mentioned for the job, and he certainly is disliked by a sufficiently large swath of the public and of Congress that his presence would prevent any more legislation expanding the FBI’s powers passing Congress. Mr Lieberman’s star seems to have faded quite a bit since it came to light that he has been one of Don John’s personal lawyers, however. If Ms Coulter is unavailable, maybe Don John will turn to Pat Buchanan, he’s a Trump loyalist and is highly skilled at alienating people. Then there’s always Milo Yiannopoulos, who really knows how to turn people off. Any of those four people would suffice to make it clear to the electorate that the agency s/he heads must not be trusted with any more power than absolutely necessary.

The best case would be for one of them to head the FBI, one the Central Intelligence Agency, one the National Security Agency, while the fourth would be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Our philosopher-king regurgitates what he learned in high school

jackson schlesingerWhen Don John of Astoria, a.k.a. Donald John Trump, was in high school in the early 1960s, one of the dominant schools of thought among American historians was that embodied by Arthur M. Schlesinger, junior, author of The Age of Jackson (1945.) Schlesinger de-emphasized Andrew Jackson’s career-long focus on promoting the expansion of slavery to turn his focus on Jackson as a nationalist.

Central to this project was the story of President Jackson’s confrontation with South Carolina when that state attempted to block federal agents from collecting tariffs on goods brought to the Port of Charleston.  The elevation of this incident to a central place in the history of the Jackson presidency, and of the political movement that created that presidency, implied that it had a greater importance not only than did such an event as the genocidal evacuation of the Cherokee nation from their ancestral lands, which historians in Schlesinger’s day tended to overlook, but also the disestablishment of the Bank of the United States, which they most definitely did not overlook.

That implication can be defended only if Jackson’s forceful response had prevented an outbreak of civil war. Indeed, it was commonplace well into the 1980s for high school history teachers in the USA to claim, not only that Jackson prevented war in 1832, but also that the approach he took to the Nullification Crisis might have prevented the war that actually did break out three decades later had his successors been faithful to it. This consensus is reflected, not only in the presence of Jackson’s face on the $20 bill, but in such improbable places as Martin Luther King’s nod to the Nullification Crisis in the “I Have a Dream” speech, when he refers to Alabama governor George Wallace “having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification.”

Since Don John does not seem to have read very much on American history or any other topic since leaving school decades ago, it should not have surprised anyone when he claimed that Andrew Jackson had a formula that could have prevented the Civil War:

ZITO: Oh, that’s right, you were in Tennessee.

TRUMP: And it was amazing. The people of Tennessee are amazing people. Well, they love Andrew Jackson. They love Andrew Jackson in Tennessee.

ZITO: Yeah, he’s a fascinating —

TRUMP: I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart, and he was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, you think about it, why?

ZITO: Yeah —

TRUMP: People don’t ask that question. But why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?

What does still surprise me is that Schlesinger was able to carry his argument as far as he did even in the 1940s. Jackson’s approach to the sectional conflicts stemming from slavery was in fact tried again by at least one of his successors in the antebellum period. President Zachary Taylor, who, though he was elected president as the candidate of the Whig Party that grew up as the opposition to the Jackson administration, said that Jackson was his political lodestar, and responded to the crisis of 1850 in a style entirely modeled on Jackson’s approach to the Nullification Crisis.

And Taylor’s policy was a disaster. As he refused to make any concessions to the Slave Power regarding the Western territories or anything else until the Southern states forswore secession, it became steadily clearer that the South was ready to secede, and the North was not ready to fight to prevent secession. Indeed, even in 1861, after a decade of constant compromise and concession, the North was barely able to muster sufficient forces to stop the South breaking away. Had the war begun in 1850, with no attempt at a compromise peace, it is hard to imagine how the federal government could have mounted even a token opposition, much less saved the Union and written slavery out of the law books.

Taylor’s intransigence, coupled with the fact that he was himself a slave-owner from the Deep South, may lead the suspicious-minded to wonder whether secession and the eternal enshrinement of slavery in a new confederacy was not his true objective all along. At the time he was generally regarded as a fool whose inexperience with politics led him to adopt an insane policy. Perhaps if he had lived to bring the crisis to a head we would have the information needed to make a determination as to his motives. As it happens, Taylor died less than halfway into his term, and his successor, Millard Fillmore, quickly signed the Compromise of 1850. While that bargain is reviled for its inclusion of the Fugitive Slave Act, which was of course a horror, it not only gave the anti-slavery side its way on every other point, but also made it possible for the North eventually to defeat the South and put slavery on the path to extinction. That is one of the reasons why my avatar on many social media platforms is a cartoon image of Millard Fillmore.

Don John seems to identify very strongly with Jackson, and in his ineptitude bids fair to be another Taylor. The people I respect who tried to talk themselves into supporting Don John for president in last year’s election had hoped that he would follow in the footsteps of Fillmore, who, in response to the Crisis of 1850, replaced a policy of confrontation with one of compromise, who, as the author of tariff acts on the model of the one South Carolina tried to nullify in 1832, was a champion of a trade policy that would underpin the industrialization of the USA, and who, as the presidential candidate of the American Party in 1856, was a moderating influence within a movement devoted to a restrictionist policy on immigration.  They hoped that as president, Don John would de-escalate US militarism in favor of a conciliatory policy towards Russia and other powers, that he would revise our long-standing Finance First trade policy, and that he would tighten immigration policy without ravaging the rule of law. In fact, Don John has not shown any of Fillmore’s statesmanship, and those people have not expressed much satisfaction with any of his actions since he took office.

 

Which countries have the most influence on the US political system?

Recent controversy about alleged ties between US President Donald Trump and Russia, and the publicly attested reality of Mr Trump’s deep entanglement with and indebtedness to state enterprises in the People’s Republic of China, have me wondering which countries have the most influence on the US political system. What I would really like to see is a table ranking the countries of the world by a composite score calculated based on considerations like these:

  • How many serving and retired political figures, senior military officers, top Washington staffers, etc, have received payments in the form of lobbying fees, consulting fees, speaking fees, and so on from sources that are connected to the political leadership of that country?
  • How high do those receiving such payments rank in the US political hierarchy? Clearly payments to an ex-president should give a country more points than payments to an ex-assistant secretary.
  • How many US lobbying firms are registered as agents of that country?
  • How deeply are leading US business interests involved with the interests in that country? What major interests desire a more accommodating attitude towards its leaders? What interests desire a more hostile attitude towards them? How powerful are these interests relative to each other, and how urgent are their desires?
  • How extensive are that country’s espionage activities, both verified and likely, in the USA?
  • How many ways does that country have to get its message into American mass media?
  • How effective are that country’s efforts in hasbara and other nontraditional means of propaganda?
  • How sympathetic is the US public to that country’s cause? Are politicians afraid of a backlash in public opinion if they are perceived as unfriendly to that country?  Are they afraid of backlash of they are perceived as friendly to it?
  • How often does that country in fact get its way in the formulation and implementation of US national policy?

I would guess that if such a table were calculated intelligently, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states would cluster near the top, along with Germany, Britain, Canada, Mexico, China, Japan, South Korea, and Israel. Russia, even if the most alarmist versions of the stories about the Trump administration from the neo-John Birch wing of the Democratic Party are proven true, would surely be very far down this list, perhaps last of all the big countries.

It is impossible to form an intelligent opinion as to whether the allegations of Russia’s efforts to influence the election are true. No evidence has yet been produced in support of them; stories in the press have cited unnamed sources in the spy agencies, and General James Clapper has effectively asked us to take his word for it that there is something worth investigating. General Clapper’s word, however, is valueless. In 2013 General Clapper testified under oath to the US Congress that, contrary to media reports that had been circulating in various forms since the disclosure of the ECHELON program in 1988, the National Security Agency was not engaged in mass surveillance of US citizens. That was the lie that Edward Snowden sacrificed everything to expose. Indeed, the so-called “intelligence community” (a phrase that has been a punchline for over 40 years, already an object of mockery in the 1975 movie Three Days of the Condor) is among the world’s least credible sources, as General Clapper’s continuance as Director of National Intelligence for three and a half years after his perjury was exposed demonstrates.

On the other hand, Russia had a very strong incentive to try to influence the 2016 US presidential election. The USA openly interfered in Russia’s 2011 legislative elections, culminating in then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton publicly deriding the elections as rigged and endorsing street protests against them. This has poisoned US-Russian relations ever since. HRC’s longstanding support for NATO expansion into areas traditionally coveted by Germany, including a number of former Soviet Republics, coupled with her advocacy of trade sanctions against Russia and her threats to shoot down Russian warplanes in Syria would suggest to any Russian leader that, were she elected president, the US would soon push Russia into a position where it would be forced either to submit to treatment of a sort no sovereign state could be expected to find tolerable, or to issue an ultimatum threatening nuclear war against the USA.

In view of those facts, the Putin government would have been derelict in its duty, not only to Russia, but to world peace, if it failed to do everything it possibly could to promote the candidacy of Don John of Astoria. While Don John may be an ignorant fool with no relevant qualifications for the presidency, who is surrounded by hawkish advisers of the worst sort, and whose temperament is unlikely to lead him into anything but a series of calamitously bad decisions, at least there was a chance that he would, in his incompetence, stumble into some kind of detente.  Compared to a political figure whose decades of experience in high office have led her to calmly and consistently advocate policies that would likely lead to thermonuclear conflict, Don John must have seemed like the better bet.

As for the question of whether Don John or people close to him crossed the line into an improper relationship with Russian intelligence, this is again prima facie possible. He is very unwise and inexperienced, and is surrounded by people who are similarly unimpressive. So it would seem likely that he might be relatively easy prey for a savvy intelligence service. However, no evidence at all has been released indicating that this in fact happened. In theory an investigation of the question might be a good thing provided that it took place in the context of broader investigations into the efforts of other countries to influence the election and into the political activities of the spy agencies during this whole period. Otherwise we would run the risk of further empowering both the spy agencies and countries such as Saudi Arabia and Germany. Not only are these agencies and these countries far more influential in US politics than is Russia, but they stand to gain a great deal if the USA maintains a policy of confrontation towards Russia, while the USA overall stands only to lose by such a policy.

What if people actually are good judges of their own best interests?

Conservative intellectuals often argue that liberalism and social democracy depend on norms and institutions that liberal and social democratic policies could not create. They usually go on from that claim to assert that particular policies favored by liberals or by social democrats in fact undermine norms and institutions without which those policies could not function.

We hear this kind of argument when conservatives oppose reforms aimed at helping individual people succeed outside the structure of the patriarchal family. Programs that provide financial assistance and particular services to households headed by single women, laws that prohibit discrimination against women and members of sexual minority groups, educational facilities independent of traditionalist religious groups, and other such efforts are often attacked on the grounds that they can succeed only in a society in which patriarchal families are the norm and in which the common identity and habit of discipline that people supposedly gain as members of patriarchal families makes it possible for them to operate as intended. Without this common identity and habit of discipline, conservatives claim, no society could make a success of such ambitious programs. Inasmuch as reforms that help individual people succeed outside the structure of the patriarchal family weaken that structure on a societal level, such reforms are ultimately self-defeating.

This is also one of the reasons why conservative arguments that may have begun as a defense of monarchy, the established church, and the landowning aristocracy against the claims of the rising bourgeoisie need not change very much to be repurposed as a defense of the bourgeoisie against proposed reforms not altogether dissimilar from those the original conservatives may have supported. The market is another of the institutions that conservatives claim could not have been created by liberalism, even by the right-wing versions of liberalism that have come to dominate most right of center parties in the West. Reforms that left-wing liberals support on the grounds that they will put limits on the power of private interests, and that right-wing liberals oppose on the grounds that they will remove limits from the power of government, conservatives oppose on the grounds that they are dependent on the success of an institution which they undermine. Higher taxes, stronger regulation, a more generous welfare state, etc, all attract this criticism. Socialists often echo this criticism, arguing that it is a mistake to be content with raking off a percentage of the capitalists’ winnings when the proper business of politics is to replace the rule of the capitalists with a workers’ republic and capitalism with a different system altogether.

I bring all this up because of an article I read a few weeks ago. It was originally published last July; I can’t claim to be up to date on everything everyone writes! It is a blog post on which Professor George Lakoff of Berkeley offers a partial explanation for last year’s US presidential election. Professor Lakoff addresses the question that perennially vexes left-leaning observers of the US electoral scene: why do working class people vote against their own economic interests? Survey data shows that clear majorities of Americans do agree that such policies favored by the left as single payer health care, improved protections for the rights of labor, etc, are good things and that they personally would stand to benefit from their implementation, while politicians who oppose every one of these policies routinely win elections. Indeed, 70% of all elected offices in the USA, including the presidency, majorities of both houses of Congress, most state governorships, and majorities in most state legislative chambers, are now held by the Republican Party. If people actually do want the precise opposite of everything the Republicans stand for, why do the Republicans keep winning?

Professor Lakoff argues that it is because the relatively rational thought people exhibit when considering particular issues is overpowered by something they have adopted far less rationally, a metaphorical framework that leads us to understand the nation on the model of our families of origin. Professor Lakoff writes:

[W]e tend to understand the nation metaphorically in family terms: We have founding fathers. We send our sons and daughters to war. We have homeland security. The conservative and progressive worldviews dividing our country can most readily be understood in terms of moral worldviews that are encapsulated in two very different common forms of family life: The Nurturant Parent family (progressive) and the Strict Father family (conservative).

What do social issues and the politics have to do with the family? We are first governed in our families, and so we grow up understanding governing institutions in terms of the governing systems of families.

In the strict father family, father knows best. He knows right from wrong and has the ultimate authority to make sure his children and his spouse do what he says, which is taken to be what is right. Many conservative spouses accept this worldview, uphold the father’s authority, and are strict in those realms of family life that they are in charge of. When his children disobey, it is his moral duty to punish them painfully enough so that, to avoid punishment, they will obey him (do what is right) and not just do what feels good. Through physical discipline they are supposed to become disciplined, internally strong, and able to prosper in the external world. What if they don’t prosper? That means they are not disciplined, and therefore cannot be moral, and so deserve their poverty. This reasoning shows up in conservative politics in which the poor are seen as lazy and undeserving, and the rich as deserving their wealth. Responsibility is thus taken to be personal responsibility not social responsibility. What you become is only up to you; society has nothing to do with it. You are responsible for yourself, not for others — who are responsible for themselves.

For my part, I grew up in what Professor Lakoff would call a Nurturant Family; my parents divided responsibilities and shared authority equally, and explained their basic approach to parenting as one driven by curiosity as to how my siblings and I would turn out, rather than by any intention to fit us into any preconceived mold. I do incline to support left-liberal and social democratic policies, as Professor Lakoff’s theory would predict, and I would be gratified if it turned out that the conservatives were wrong in all of their criticisms of those policies.

On the other hand, I am willing to consider that they may not be entirely wrong. Maybe the reason so many Americans support each particular proposal of the liberal and social democratic left, yet vote for the far right, is that they have observed that while any one of those proposals would likely be helpful to them if enacted, people like them tend to have better outcomes in places where the Strict-Father Family reigns supreme, even if stingy or nonexistent welfare states, ferocious law enforcement, and unfettered corporate power mean that the price of failure is extremely high. Maybe it isn’t true that areas where the Strict-Father Family is in all ways dominant are places where working people are likelier than average to do well. I hope it isn’t! But maybe it is, in which case we would be faced with the unpleasant prospect that people in general actually know what is good for them.