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.

Popin’ ain’t easy

youngpope-2-6-17

(Not the actual pope)

I’ve always been interested in what happens when there’s a disconnect between an elite and the group it is supposed to lead. So the one thing I understood correctly about the 2016 US presidential campaign while it was going on was that the vast majority of Republican primary voters (93% in one survey) wanted to see immigration policy made more restrictive, while most of that party’s senior leaders were committed to initiatives that would make immigration policy less restrictive.  That kind of disconnect is simply not sustainable, not on such an important issue.  So while I did not expect that Donald J. Trump, a.k.a. Don John of Astoria, would win the Republican nomination, I expected him to lose to someone like Wisconsin governor Scott Walker or Texas senator Ted Cruz, who would adopt a hard-line restrictionist immigration policy and pass Don John on the right on that issue.

 

Recently I’ve read some articles about Pope Francis that make me wonder if he is not

pope-poster

(Not actually Jude Law) 

finding himself in a position in the Roman Catholic hierarchy analogous to that which Republican politicians like John Ellis Bush occupied in their party in 2015-2016. Here’s one explaining that many people in the Vatican, and probably most of the younger priests everywhere, are so frustrated with Francis’ way of raising the hopes of progressives that the next conclave might choose a pontiff as ferociously reactionary as the fictional hero of HBO’s absurdist miniseries The Young Pope.  Some say that the pope is excessively loyal to his friends and their friends, including those who are child molesters; some say that he has surrounded himself with a tiny group of intimates, and listens to no one else.

Now let me hasten to say that this question is none of my business, in that I am not and never have been a Roman Catholic.  What brought it to mind was an exchange I had last night and this morning on Twitter with scholar and beagle lover John Zmirak.  Mr Zmirak, a very conservative Roman Catholic, is quite pessimistic about the likely consequences of Francis’ pontificate.  In response to a tweet of his about how some pro-choice advocates had expressed pleasure with the “direction Francis is taking the Catholic Church,” I responded:

He answered:

(I should mention that I habitually refer to the two most recent Roman popes by their original surnames, in part because I’d been aware of Cardinals Ratzinger and Bergoglio for years before they ascended to the papacy, and in part because I am a dyed-in-the-wool republican who dislikes all monarchical pretension. As an Anglican, I rather wish the Roman Catholics would adopt our traditional styles so that I could introduce Francis as “the Most Rev’d Mr Bergoglio” and call him simply “Mr Bergoglio” thereafter, but I doubt they will.)

Mr Zmirak’s reply, and mine:

And his final word:

Mr Zmirak seems to be quite firmly convinced that anything could happen in the immediate aftermath of the next conclave. He knows more about it than I do, and has a personal investment in the topic. All I can offer is uninformed speculation.

Which is precisely what I will now offer.  If Francis is indeed as bad as the articles I’ve linked above suggest, and if the tendencies he represents are as much on the decline on the Roman Catholic Church as the authors of those pieces seem to believe, then I can imagine a scenario in which the conclave that picks his successor will end in a split. If those conditions obtain now, and if they continue to intensify for another 10 or 12 years, then a situation might arise in which a Bergoglian faction might be very strong in the upper reaches of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and very weak everywhere else.

Isolated elites sometimes grow reckless, realizing that they have everything to lose if new leaders should rise within the institutions atop which they so uneasily sit.  Rather than than trying to find common ground with its critics, such an insecure elite might be quick to silence them, making examples of prominent individuals and well-established groups that have not associated themselves with the current leadership.  Rather than allow the circulation of talent that might create rivals whom they could not contain, an insecure elite might try to stifle the normal processes of institutional life.

If that were to happen in the Vatican, then this hypothetical Bergoglian faction might resort to some kind of desperate measures to elect one of their own at the next conclave. If such an effort were successful, and if the desperate measures were irregular enough, anti-Bergoglian conservatives might regard the result as illegitimate, perhaps openly declaring its winner an antipope. If it were to be unsuccessful, the defeated Bergoglians might conclude that they had nowhere to go within the existing structure of the Roman Church, and so they might walk out and declare one of their own to be the true pope.

As I said to Mr Zmirak, it is difficult for me to believe that the situation in Rome has in fact come to so desperate a pass. Surely the bulk of the leadership is going to be committed to trying to make the thing work, whoever the pope is. I don’t even know whether the descriptions of Francis’ troubles that I’ve read are a fair representation of the situation, since they’ve all been brought to my attention by Roman Catholics like Mr Zmirak who are convinced that Francis has gone round the bend and is doing a terrible job. Most of the moderate and liberal Roman Catholics of my acquaintance don’t seem to be spending a lot of time thinking about the papacy right now, except for those who are fans of The Young Pope, and their only opinion about Francis seems to be that he isn’t as handsome as Jude Law.

Never attribute to strategic thought what can be adequately explained by mindless impulse

In the USA, physical attacks on such right-wing figures as Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Gavin McInnes and their supporters have brought those men so much publicity, and have done so much to embarrass and divide their left-wing opponents, that many suspect that the ostensible targets of these attacks in fact arranged them. Former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has expounded this theory on his blog and on television:

Many degrees to Mr Reich’s left, Mike Whitney of Counterpunch considers the theory that the Berkeley incident was a set-up and is more cautious. Mr Whitney’s concern is that these events, whatever their origin, may provide just the cover our new philosopher-king needs to install an authoritarian state:

Trump’s governing style… is geared to deepen divisions, increase social unrest, and create enemies, real or imagined.  In this view, Berkeley was just a dry run, an experiment in perception management orchestrated to sharpen Trump’s image as the hair-trigger Biblical father who will intercede whenever necessary and who is always ready to impose justice with an iron fist.

So the masked rioters actually did Trump a favor, didn’t they? They created a justification for presidential intervention backed by the prospect of direct involvement. One can only wonder how many similar experiments will transpire before Trump puts his foot down and bans demonstrations altogether?

Of course, that may very well be the objective.

It is true that Mr Yiannopoulos, as an editor of the website for which Don John of Astoria’s Chief Strategist was for several years the Executive Chairman, is associated with people whose favorite tactic is tricking left of center types into saying horrible things, and plenty of left of center types have responded to these events by going on social media to gloat about a woman being pepper-sprayed in the face, a Starbucks being demolished, etc. So there is at least a measure of plausibility to the idea that the masked men who did those things when Mr Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak may have been his agents, and even to the idea that they may have been dirty tricksters with links to the White House. Plausibility isn’t evidence, so we oughtn’t to get excited, but it’s an idea to take note of.

As for Richard Spencer, someone who will do and say the kinds of things he has been doing and saying for the last nine years might do pretty nearly anything to get attention. Arranging to have himself punched in the face on television might be a pathetic cry for help, but a considerably less extreme version of the pathetic cry for help than was, for example, his decision to publish articles dwelling on the potential upsides of killing all black people. And Mr Spencer was also rewarded with vast publicity and confusion among his opponents for his minor discomfort. So again, while there may not be evidence or even presumption of evidence that Mr Spencer and his assailant may have been acting in collusion, neither is there a strong prima facie case against the idea.

I would put Gavin McInnes is a different category than Mr Yiannopoulos or Mr Spencer. Despite his efforts to market the phrase “Proud Boys” as a label for his followers, I do not believe that Mr McInnes actually has any followers. Readers, yes, he has many of those; I regularly read him myself, since he’s as funny as he is nasty (that makes him very funny.) But 11 people were arrested last week at the scene of the disturbance at New York University where Mr McInnes was pepper-sprayed in the face and several other people were assaulted; none of those people seems to have been likely to take direction from him, or for that matter from Mr Yiannopoulos or any other right-wing trickster, and I do not believe for one second that there are 11 people in the world who would agree to be arrested for Mr McInnes’ sake, let alone that he could assemble that number in one place.

If the goal of those who perpetrated these acts of violence was to trick left-leaning people into cheering them on, thereby making them look ridiculous and disgusting, they succeeded. Video of Kiara Robles being pepper-sprayed in the face while she tried to assemble her thoughts in defense of Mr Yiannopoulos’ appearance was shared many thousands of times on social media, often with gloating remarks. I’ve been surprised at people I know, who last year were lecturing everyone in sight about the terrible dangers that would face the social order if we rejected the preferred presidential candidate of Goldman Sachs and the CIA and embraced such wild-eyed revolutionaries as Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein, who today are extolling the virtues of the Black Bloc and jeering at those who doubt the necessity of political violence.

Nor is it only those on the left who are willing to believe that these actions will damage the causes that men like Mr Yiannopoulos, Mr Spencer, and Mr McInnes promote. As those who openly gloat over this violence and call for more of it are showing us the power of the hormonal rush that comes to fans when they watch their team attack the opposing team in their favorite sport, so there are those on the far right who believe that their failure to make the world work the way they think it ought to work is a symptom of the left’s use of such tactics. Steve Sailer has catered to this sort of thinking in several blog posts (for example, here and here,) though he himself has been careful to limit the number of factual claims to which he commits himself.

Paul Gottfried, a distinguished scholar who had the misfortune to be associated with Richard Spencer before Mr Spencer decided to go Nazi, suspects that violent efforts to suppress far-right speech may succeed, not in ending the careers of its ostensible targets, but in creating a general sense that the country is going out of control and thereby undermining confidence in its elected leaders, most of whom are right of center. While Mr Gottfried, unlike his least-favorite former student, is someone to be taken seriously, I would argue that he too has fallen prey to the thrills of partisanship. There was far more unrest on college campuses in the USA during Richard Nixon’s first term as president than there was during the Johnson-Humphrey administration; that unrest not only failed to stop Mr Nixon gaining a second term in one of the most lopsided election results in history, but it may well have contributed to that win. Indeed, incumbent governors and mayors whose jurisdictions saw heavy unrest did well throughout those years, provided they were seen as taking the toughest possible law and order stand. California governor Ronald Reagan, Maryland governor Spiro Agnew, Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty, Chicago mayor Richard Daley, and Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo all benefited enormously from this kind of thing. Mr Gottfried knows this history well, and I can only suspect that his wish to cheerlead for dynamic action by his side has blinded him to its lessons.

If there are thousands, even millions, of people who are so caught up in the Go Blue! Go Red! cheering match to think that these actions somehow hurt the far right, then it is hard to doubt that there are a couple of dozen who are ready to put their fists and their Bear Mace where their Retweet buttons are. I am reminded of “Hanlon’s Razor,” the rule of analysis dictating that we should “Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity.” Of course the acts of violence against Ms Robles, Mr McInnes, etc, are malicious deeds, but we are not justified in assuming that the people who perpetrated those deeds were thinking strategically. Therefore we are not justified in believing that those perpetrators realized that their actions would help the far right and harm those whom the far right targets, however obvious that fact may be to everyone who isn’t carried away with left/ right team spirit. That’s why, in the title of this post, I rephrase Hanlon’s Razor as “Never attribute to strategic thought what can be adequately explained by mindless impulse.”

What is a “political opinion”?

On the radio yesterday, I heard a man interviewed who had recently lost his job at the US Department of State. The man said that “It is not the job of the State Department to give political opinions.”This struck me as an odd thing to say; after all, the State Department’s primary function is to provide channels of communication between US policymakers and their counterparts in other countries and to augment its reports to US policymakers with expert knowledge preparing them to respond to decisions their counterparts are likely to make. That sounds like activity that falls entirely within the realm of “giving political opinions.”

Now in fairness, it is the case that the phrase “political opinion” has several senses. I’ve divided these into a few subcategories and listed several under each subcategory:

A. Affiliation signals:

  1. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to intimidate members of other groups into silence.
  2. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to persuade members of other groups to join that group.
  3. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to invite members of other groups to negotiate a new relationship between the groups.
  4. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to reassure members of other groups that the speaker is content with the existing relationship between the groups.
  5. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to confront members of other groups with the speaker’s willingness to support increased hostility towards their groups.
  6. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to offer that group’s surrender to another group.
  7. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s break from a particular group with which s/he was previously affiliated and to request membership in another group.
  8. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s break from a particular group with which s/he was previously affiliated and to offer him/herself as a mediator between that group and another group.
  9. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s break from a particular group with which s/he was previously affiliated and to indicate that s/he would like to be recruited for membership by multiple other groups.

B. Ideological confessions

  1. A statement meant to explain the speaker’s ideological commitments to an audience who may not be aware of them.
  2. A statement meant to persuade the speaker’s audience to adopt the speaker’s ideological commitments.
  3. A statement made by a person who is unaware that his or her ideological commitments are specific to people of his or her historical description, and who believes that the statement is just plain common sense.

C. Game analysis

  1. A statement forecasting the likely outcomes of a given conflict.
  2. A statement listing the considerations that votes or policymakers are likely to take into account as they reach their decisions, and predicting the relative importance they are likely to attach to each of these considerations.

D. Historical discussion

  1. A statement identifying one past situation as a better analogy than another for illuminating a given situation in the present.
  2. A statement affirming the familiar interpretation of a past situation that has been admitted as an analogy for illuminating a given situation in the present.
  3. A statement challenging the familiar interpretation of a past situation that has been admitted as an analogy for illuminating a given situation in the present.

What I first thought of when I was listening to the recently unemployed career diplomat were political opinions in categories C and D. If the State Department isn’t giving policymakers opinions of those kinds, it’s time to wind the whole thing down and save the taxpayers a lot of money.

I suspect what the man had in mind were categories A and B. Indeed, category A statements should never be necessary; any policymaker worth his or her salt should be able, in  a few minutes, to discern without being told what group affiliations and ideological commitments are likely to inform a given speaker’s thinking, especially if that speaker belongs to a type that is as familiar as the career foreign service officer.

Category B statements should be necessary only in those cases where the world situation is changing so rapidly and comprehensively that the established doctrines have become irrelevant and new doctrines are needed in short order; the classic example would be the “Long Telegrams” that George Kennan and Frank Roberts sent at the inception of the Cold War.

What I couldn’t help but suspect, however, is that the man on the radio had been on the job too long. I’m sure the leaders of the new administration in Washington thought so. While those leaders are people in whose judgment I would normally place absolutely no confidence whatever, the longer I listened to him the more strongly I found myself wondering whether they might be right in this case, whether he might be offering statements of type B3 (“A statement made by a person who is unaware that his or her ideological commitments are specific to people of his or her historical description, and who believes that the statement is just plain common sense.”) If, as it seemed, he had spent his entire youth preparing to work in the foreign service, then had spent his entire adult life actually in the foreign service, it would hardly be surprising if he were to believe that he was expressing the common sense of humanity when he was in fact presenting views peculiar to that profession.

 

 

 

At war with the Gray Goo

Several days ago, a man named Richard Spencer was on camera, finding artful ways to respond to questions as to whether he is an advocate of genocidal violence against black people (by the way, he is very much an advocate of genocidal violence against black people.)  While he did his shtick, a masked person ran up, punched him in the face, and ran off.

punch.gif

You might think that a minor physical assault on a minor public nuisance would figure in the news as, at most, a single line on the police blotter. Yet people are still talking about it. Today, Freddie deBoer, Rod Dreher, and The Nation magazine all weighed in on this incident.

I tweeted about it the other day:

And pretty healthy odds at that; Spencer’s only job is to get publicity, and with this incident he has gained a tremendous amount of that, as he recently gloated when reached for comment by The Independent.

Since people are still talking about this, I’ll add a bit to that tweet. Street-fighting is one area where Nazis have consistently enjoyed success. To meet them on that ground is to play to their strengths.

That isn’t to say that Spencer commands a street-fighting force; he doesn’t. His followers are guys on the internet, the proverbial fat guy living in his mother’s basement.  “Failsons,” as Chapo Trap House calls them.   Those guys aren’t likely to be much use in a street fight. Nor can they attract support from people who have not already given up on life.

The threat they pose is like the danger people used to talk about regarding nanotechnology.  One tiny machine might impose only a very small ecological cost, but as the number of these in use multiplies, it becomes conceivable that they might collectively cause a very large amount of environmental damage.  In a worst case scenario, a vast number of nanobots might coalesce into a “Gray Goo” that would render the surface of the earth uninhabitable. The Failsons at their keyboards have, figuratively speaking, coalesced into blobs of destructive goo.

Failson blobs floating around a bloodthirsty racist like Spencer stink up the comments sections of blogs and other social media platforms. That isn’t such a problem in itself; it’s easy enough to ban commenters, as I have had occasion to demonstrate to some of you.  Where Spencer’s following has the most potential to do harm is illustrated by something like Gamergate. A few years ago a Failson blob of gamers set out to harass three or four women who had been making a marginal living writing online about video-games. They succeeded in making their lives miserable, and probably did a great deal to discourage other women from getting into gaming journalism. Spencer’s crowd would certainly be capable of targeting particular members of groups they don’t like (blacks, Jews, women, Muslims, etc, etc, etc, ad infinitum, ad nauseam) and doing the same damage to their lives that the gamers did to Zoë Quinn, Brianna Wu, and Anita Sarkeesian, while intimidating other members of the same groups into silence.

To stick with the Gamergate analogy a moment longer, “Gray Goo” isn’t just a pejorative in discussing them. Supporters of the harassment of Quinn, Wu. and Sarkeesian called themselves a variety of names, including “the Grey Rebellion” and, most commonly, “Shitlords.” So if I were talking only about them, I might use the phrase “Gray Shit” rather than “Gray Goo.”

Punching people in the street isn’t going to drive the Failsons into hiding; as the trope about them living in their mothers’ basements indicates, they have been in hiding their entire lives. However, it will give Spencer and people like him an opportunity to recruit guys who like to express their hostilities, not by persecuting people from behind a computer screen, but in physical combat. Once they get a group of street-fighters going, that’s a whole new population from which they can draw support. And while street-fighters are as much a low-status population as are the couch-bound Failsons, physically violent people attract a following in ways that people whose aggressions are electronic do not. That’s why skinheads were a thing thirty years ago, to the point where there were anti-Nazi skinheads who would spend Friday nights fighting pro-Nazi skinheads.

The original Nazis, remember, kept going throughout all their electoral ups and downs in the 1920s as a street-fighting group. When the global economy collapsed at the end of that decade, Germany’s elite found that the only way they could restore public order and keep their positions was to put Hitler in charge. Hitler’s ascent had many pre-conditions; Germany’s defeat in World War War One, the mindlessly vengeful policies the victorious powers inflicted on Germany from November 1918 to January 1933, and the Great Depression were all bigger contributors to his rise than was the fact that he had an effective street-fighting force at his disposal. But that street-fighting force was certainly one of the contributors, and when I see leftists expressing pleasure at an event which, if it to have any consequence at all, can only have the consequence of building a street-fighting force loyal to Richard Spencer, I hope that the Trump years will not bring the kind of misery to the USA that the years of the Weimar Republic brought to Germany.

Tyrannos

A tweet from this morning:

Here’s the video I’m talking about:

The biggest howler comes right at the beginning, when he says that Plato’s Republic is “the first book about politics ever written.” In fact, The Republic wasn’t even Plato’s first book about politics, never mind the first one ever written. That’s an ironic mistake, since the passage of the Republic summarized in this video includes a significant reworking of material from a political tract that predates the Republic by at least 40 and more probably 60 years, the so-called “Constitution of the Athenians” by an unknown author who may or may not have been named Xenophon (though he certainly was not the famous Xenophon, as once was thought.)  The text and its author are customarily referred to as “the Old Oligarch.” The Old Oligarch is very probably oldest surviving specimen of Greek prose, though even it is very unlikely to be “the first book about politics ever written”- the vast majority of written works produced in the mid-fifth century BCE must have been lost sometime before the fourth century BCE. The likelihood that any given work written in those days would survive until 2017 CE is trivial.

At any rate, the Old Oligarch is a quick read; it takes about 10-15 minutes to read the whole thing. When I was in school, my Greek professors were at something of a loss to think of a contemporary critic of democracy with whom they could compare him, someone who combined his extreme opposition to popular government with his concise and witty writing. They usually ended up going back several decades and comparing him to H. L. Mencken.  Nowadays the internet has brought us the anti-democratic bloggers who call themselves “Neoreactionaries” or “the Dark Enlightenment”; those writers may sometimes be witty, but they are rarely concise.  And frankly, few of them have much to say that the Old Oligarch didn’t say in those 15 minutes sometime around 445 BCE.

 

Power keeps faith with power

The recent death of longtime Cuban despot Fidel Castro has led many to remark on the admiration Castro received from many who might have been expected to find in him an enemy. For example, Roman Catholic blogger Mark Shea wrote a post remarking on Castro’s brutal repression of the Roman Catholic church in Cuba; his commenters responded by pointing out that leading members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, including the past three popes, have made many signs of friendship towards Castro. Rod Dreher documents the complicity of Roman Catholic bishops in Castro’s regime in some detail; Mr Dreher is not Roman Catholic, but Russian Orthodox. However, in the same post he reports on a statement made by his own chief pastor, the Patriarch of Moscow, in praise of Castro, showing that his church is in no better a position.

That the leaders of the largest theistic organization in the world would make themselves so useful to the leader of a regime that has oppressed the adherents of that organization so fiercely ceases to seem strange if we take this as the first rule of analysis: Power keeps faith with power. If a common ideology or common social identity ensured loyalty, the hierarchs of Rome and Havana would stand with the laity, the religious, and the parish priests who have been imprisoned for their faith; yet they rarely mention these persecuted, happily consorting with their persecutors. The only ideological consideration that moves those in power to act is the belief that the institutions which maintain their position should continue to operate, which means that those who are in a position to help or hinder those institutions in matters affecting their survival must be brought on board. The only identity that influences the actions of the mighty is their identity with each other; the powerless, even the powerless among their own supporters and putative fellows, are abstractions whom they rarely encounter in person, but see primarily as figures on revenue statements, opinion surveys, and other ledgers.

Flagrantly corrupt organizations like the Roman Catholic Church and the Cuban Communist Party are easy targets for this sort of analysis. But the same principle applies everywhere. So the policies by which USA has opposed the Castro regime are unintelligible except as a case of power keeping faith with power, betraying every other trust. The two chief prongs of the economic warfare that the USA waged on Cuba throughout virtually the whole of Castro’s time at the head of the regime there were, on the one hand, a highly restrictive policy on trade between the USA and Cuba, and on the other a highly lax policy on immigration from Cuba. The trade embargo has been greatly eased in recent years, but only after it had consistently failed to weaken Castro’s grip on power for a half-century. And the “Dry Foot” immigration policy remains in effect. Though the Dry Foot policy has certainly helped to immiserate the people of Cuba by accelerating the Brain Drain of skilled professionals and other highly productive individuals from the island, it has probably strengthened the regime’s grip on power, by luring to Miami and points north the people likeliest to lead a revolt .  Both halves of the economic warfare policy were worse than useless to those who were ostensibly supposed to be its principal beneficiaries; that the embargo persisted for so long, and the Dry Foot policy persists still, is explicable only in terms of the powerful interests in the USA who benefit from their continuation, and from power’s tendency to keep faith with power.

Remembering that power keeps faith with power, we see what people may be getting at when they deride “identity politics.” Writing in Slate, Jamelle Bouie argues that Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” of the 1980s, inviting disenfranchised white working people to identify with people of color and other minority groups, is a better model for a revival of the American Left than is Senator Bernard “Bernie” Sanders’ vision of a politics that puts class first. Mr Bouie sums up his case thus:

But the history of the Democratic Party contains a model for moving forward, with an approach, honed by Jesse Jackson, that bridges the divide. And thinkers in the political and policy world have crafted solutions that reflect this approach. It respects the reality of the modern Democratic Party: a formation that represents—and depends on—the votes of women, young people, and people of color.

Mainstream Democrats have set their sights on white voters. But the path forward—the way to win them and energize those voters of color who didn’t come to the polls in 2016—might lie in the insights of black voters and black communities and a larger appreciation of how and why identity matters, in a politics of we kin, blackness in many shades. Against a political movement that defines America in exclusionary and racial terms—as a white country for white people—a renewed Rainbow Coalition is the only defense worth making.

As far as it goes, this is unexceptionable. When we get to “the reality of the modern Democratic Party,” though, we see a big trap door about to open under our feet. The Democrats can get the votes of 60,000,000 or more people in national elections, roughly half the electorate, yet hold fewer than 30% of all elected offices in the USA. Part of this can be blamed on institutional quirks such as the boundaries of the states, gerrymandering of electoral districts within states, the advantage that Republicans derive from their greater financial resources, etc.

Other parts of the problem derive from a vulnerability inherent in the structure of “the modern Democratic Party.” The great majority of African Americans may vote for Democrats, but the voices heard in the councils of the party are not those of that majority, but of the professional politicians who presume to speak for black people. Likewise for each of the other groups that make up the Democratic coalition. Often the spokespeople will come reasonably close to the views of their constituents, but even then there is an Achilles’ Heel- voters know from long experience that power, including the relatively modest power to draft portions of the Democratic Party platform and to have a say in who will be appointed as Deputy Assistant Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development under Democratic presidents, keeps faith with power.

Nonblack voters thus hear invitations to identify with blackness, when they come from the Democratic Party, not as invitations to identify with their African American neighbors, but as invitations to go along with the policy positions of the Congressional Black Caucus and similar groups. Those groups may do a fairly good job of speaking for the people they claim to represent, but are made up of human beings, and are therefore ships tossed on the rough seas of politics. As such, they are as likely, given time, as the US foreign policy establishment or the Cuban Communist Party or the Roman Catholic church to find themselves making common cause with the deadliest enemies of anyone who is so incautious as to trust them without reservation. That leaves whites open to the appeal of the ethnic bloc voting that they have long practiced in the South and that they increasingly display in other parts of the country where their numerical majority is as weak as it is in the South, perhaps less because they prefer the leaders of the Republican Party to those of the Democratic Party than because they can see a clearer path to influencing the leaders of a party that depends on them for its core support than they can see to influencing the leaders of a party that depends on everyone but them for its core support. When an ethnic group votes as a bloc, it is a power within the party it backs, and the other powers within that party dare not betray it too obviously.  When the members of a group scatter their votes, that group is no power, and its role is to be betrayed at every turn. So, in the absence of a labor movement or other force uniting people on a basis other than race, white voters are no more likely to identify with blackness than African American voters are to identify with whiteness.

Those who saw it coming, those who fear its leaving

Some observers of the US political scene did predict the outcome of Tuesday’s presidential election with some success. That shouldn’t be surprising; the polls consistently predicted that the national popular vote would be close, which it was, that Hillary Clinton would win it by a narrow margin, which she did, that the vote would be even closer in states including Florida, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which it was, and that the vote in those states would determine the winner of the Electoral College and therefore of the presidency, which it did. So, making a right prediction required only that one take the polls at face value, disregarding historical analogies and political science models which suggested that someone like Donald J. Trump (alias Don John of Astoria) could not possibly be elected US president.

Among those who can fairly claim to have shown real prescience in connection with this election, pride of place should go to Steve Sailer, who has spent the last 16 years describing how a Republican candidate running on a pledge to restrict immigration could precipitate ethnic bloc voting among whites and thereby win a national election. He’s been reposting some of his old stuff lately, for example this 2000 piece in which he first laid out “the Sailer Strategy.” Mr Sailer has been remarkably restrained with his I-Told-You-So’s; in hundreds of pieces over the years, he has outlined scenarios that have played out in 2016. As a longtime reader of Mr Sailer’s blog, I do find it a bit jarring that he, so long a voice far removed from the ins and outs of Washington politics, is now mentioning people whom he apparently knows personally as potential appointees to senior positions on the White House staff.

Scott Adams, the guy behind the “Dilbert” comic strip, has attracted a great deal of attention for predicting a Trump win; in several posts lately he’s been focused on responses to the election as illustrations of the concept of cognitive dissonance.

Mr Sailer is a Trump supporter, and Mr Adams is not a Trump adversary. Liberals, leftists, and others who strongly oppose Don John have been searching for explanations as to what went wrong Tuesday. Some of these reflections focus on the shortcomings of the sort of people who voted for Mr Trump; these could be summed up in this cinematic moment:

Some reactions have been more interesting. Quartz classifies political parties around the world as “populist” or “liberal,” and finds the populists riding a wave. The more I look at their lists, the more the “populist” and “liberal” labels look like big grab-bags of organizations that have very little in common, but there are some neat maps, and I do think they are onto something.

Atrios is angry with Hillary Clinton and her supporters for managing somehow to lose to Donald Trump, and with the elites in the USA more generally for the way they have of failing upward.

Malak Chabkoun sees in Don John’s election a case of chickens coming home to roost from the violence the USA has inflicted on the rest of the world, and in the panicked reactions of many who opposed him a political immaturity based in ignorance of what America’s empire truly is.

On Twitter, Freddie deBoer allows himself an I-Told-You-So:

While Zach Weinersmith talked about the weather election night:

Meanwhile, political scientist Allan Lichtman takes advantage of the moment in the spotlight that his successful prediction of Don John of Astoria’s election has earned him to publicize a further prediction, that he will be impeached. It’s much easier for me to imagine that Don John will warrant impeachment than it was for me to imagine, or indeed than it is for me to believe, that he will be president. So I’m inclined to believe Professor Lichtman. Professor George Hawley of the University of Alabama also predicted the elections results successfully, in his case calling 48 of 50 states correctly; he may yet see that record improve, since Michigan and New Hampshire, the two states where his forecast did not agree with the current reports, are so closely divided that their results are not yet final.

Michael Kazin, writing in The Wall Street Journal, of all publications, traces the rise of Trump to the decline of organized labor.

Jonathan Haidt is always worth reading, and his latest piece is no exception. Asking “In what kind of world can globalists and nationalists live together in peace?,” he has to make statements that sound rather obvious to anyone who reads old books or otherwise cultivates the memory of times before the 2010’s, such as the following:

Nationalists see patriotism as a virtue; they think their country and its culture are unique and worth preserving. This is a real moral commitment, not a pose to cover up racist bigotry. Some nationalists do believe that their country is better than all others, and some nationalisms are plainly illiberal and overtly racist. But as many defenders of patriotism have pointed out, you love your spouse because she or he is yours, not because you think your spouse is superior to all others. Nationalists feel a bond with their country, and they believe that this bond imposes moral obligations both ways: Citizens have a duty to love and serve their country, and governments are duty bound to protect their own people. Governments should place their citizens interests above the interests of people in other countries.

It may be difficult for some to imagine that there are people in the world who actually need to be reminded of this, but as an American academic who lives in a liberal college town I can attest that there are many, enough of them that they may well have influenced the Democrats to adopt losing campaign strategies this year.

Former New York Times reporter Michael Cieply may not have seen the election result coming, but he isn’t surprised that his old paper was so far off in its expectations. He describes how, unlike typical newsrooms in which editors ask reporters what information they’ve picked up and try to figure out what’s going on based on that, Times editors openly devise a framework and craft the news to buttress that framework.

Glenn Greenwald blames liberals for refusing to learn the lessons of Brexit, lessons which he finds stated clearly both in his own writings and in a note by Vincent Bevins of the Los Angeles Times. Writing from a perspective very different from Mr Greenwald’s, Peter Hitchens made similar points. Mr Hitchens opposes British membership in the European Union, but thought the referendum was a disastrously bad way of trying to achieve exit; he also opposes mass immigration from the Islamic world to the West, but clearly does not see in Don John of Astoria a successor to Don John of Austria or other historical defenders of Christendom whom he might be prepared to admire.

Professor Charles Camosy writes that left-of-center academics, and to some extent even college graduates working outside the academy, have so effectively insulated themselves from those to their right that they have become all but incapable of hearing what they have to say. What Professor Camosy sees in general, Professor Stephen Bainbridge sees in a particular event at the University of California at Los Angeles.

And of course there has been some post-election scrambling for personal vindication within what was once the Hillary Clinton campaign. Some of the stories that have made their way into print show surprising people seeming to try to distance themselves from her loss. Notably, Bill Clinton is named as one who advocated a strategy that would have reached out to non-college educated whites in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the voters who put Barack Obama over the top in 2012 and who swung to Donald Trump this year. Perhaps Mr Clinton did not personally authorize this leak- perhaps others within Clintonworld are trying to refurbish his image as a political wizard in order to boost the chances that Chelsea Clinton will be able to start a political career of her own soon.

Post-election wrap-up

Welp, not all of my predictions about the 2016 US presidential election turned out to be 100% correct. The Republicans did not nominate Wisconsin governor Scott Walker for president, Bernie Sanders did not lose every caucus and primary he entered, Donald John Trump did not run out of money and disappear from the race before voting took place, and Hillary Clinton was not elected president. Worst of all, the nickname which I gave Mr Trump,”Don John of Astoria,” which should be truly hilarious to anyone who knows the historical significance of Don John of Austria and the ambivalence in Mr Trump’s relationship to the Astoria district of Queens, has yet to catch on.

So I have not proven to be much of a seer regarding this year’s events. Even so, perhaps some might be interested in my recommendation of two books as illuminating about the events of this electoral year. Both were originally published in 1958, so neither includes any attempts at specific predictions of the sort I kept making.

The first was The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2033, by Michael Young. Young coined the word “meritocracy” in this book, written in the voice of a complacent functionary of a regime which, in the year 2033, has turned Britain into a society where all the good things of life have been turned into prizes to be awarded by competitive examination. The narrator is mystified that the regime is now encountering stiff resistance; after all, it has been so successful that the schools for the more talented children no longer need to send their pupils home at holidays, heralding the final dissolution of that old nuisance, family life.  In later life, Young was horrified that the label he devised for his dystopian nightmare had been adopted without irony as a rallying cry for elites and their defenders.

I do think that one of the secondary contributors to Don John’s rise to the presidency is a revolt against meritocracy. Hillary Clinton went to the right schools, held high-ranking positions that made her a central figure in two of the last three presidential administrations and a leader of the congressional opposition to the other, assembled an impressive campaign organization and staffed it with the most highly-qualified professionals in the business, and consistently presented herself to the public as a competent and well-informed policy expert with a reassuring leaderly presence.  Don John had no experience in government, showed no knowledge of or interest in any aspect of public policy, did not bother to put together a professional campaign organization in the modern style, and said whatever popped into his head at any given moment, often including obscenities. By the standards of meritocracy, it would be inconceivable that any voter anywhere would support him over her.

Therefore, Trump voters’ behavior cannot be explained as an attempt to apply meritocratic standards. Rather, they supported him as a revolt against such standards. This revolt may be rational even in a narrowly bureaucratic definition of rationality, since the schooling, certifications, licensing, and standards of personal presentation that make up the qualifications to rise through the ranks of meritocratic institutions in the USA may not in fact be very closely correlated with the characteristics that make a person likely to succeed in the work that the leaders of those institutions are supposed to do. There is a good deal of “failing upward,” in which people who have held important jobs are promoted to still-more important jobs even though they haven’t done especially well in their previous positions.

Not to kick a person when she’s down, but HRC is a prime example of failing upward. After graduation from Yale Law School, she was unable to pass the District of Columbia Bar Exam, but was assigned as a staff aide to the Senate Watergate Committee anyway. As First Lady of Arkansas she was a key part of efforts to keep the Democratic Party of Arkansas as the major force in the state’s politics; the outcome of those efforts could be seen on Tuesday, when Don John beat her in Arkansas by a vote of 60% to 34%. She then became First Lady of the United States, and in that capacity led the Clinton administration’s attempt to reform the US health care system, an attempt which not only failed to produce any legislation whatever but which also demoralized Democratic voters so thoroughly that the party lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Then she became US Senator from New York, voting for the invasion of Iraq, the USA-PATRIOT Act, and any number of other initiatives that have spread death throughout the world and empowered the US security services to do as they please to citizens who attract their attentions for any reason or no reason. That tenure led to her 2008 presidential campaign, in which she began with the overwhelming support of the party’s major donors and other elites, and wound up losing to Barack Hussein Obama, who is of course an exceptionally talented political operator, but is also a black man named Hussein and was, as such, someone laboring under a heavy disadvantage in a US presidential contest.  Mr O made her Secretary of State, in which capacity her most notable achievement was pushing for the overthrow of the Gadhafi regime, an act of unprovoked aggression which has turned Libya into a hell on earth and brought chaos to the whole of North Africa, but which HRC defends to this day as “smart power at its best.” If our meritocratic institutions can foster a career that has proceeded from failure to failure, with steadily more dire consequences for an ever-widening circle of victims, then there may be some wisdom in deciding that all the academic degrees, resume entries, and interview skills that their members can claim are of little value.

The other 1958 book that shed light for me on the 2016 election was C. Wright Mills’ The Causes of World War Three. (I actually read the second edition, which was published in 1960, but it’s still a 1958 book.)  I was aware of that book’s discussion of “crackpot realism,” the confident assurance of those in charge that policies which can lead only to collective suicide are the only policies worth taking seriously. I hadn’t read the whole thing until this Tuesday, election day, and there were sections which seemed directly relevant to what was going on around me.

Most notably, on pages 36-47 of the 1960 paperback edition, in the chapters titled “The High and the Mighty,” “The Semiorganized Stalemate,” and “The Great American Public,” Mills argued that the USA’s political culture had undergone a profound change in the years following the Second World War. No longer did the middle class form a link between the upper and lower classes; instead, at the top could be found a Power Elite of corporate executives, senior military officers, and politicians, at the bottom a lumpenproletariat with ever less engagement in civic life or sense of investment in the country’s future, and in between a variety of classes disconnected from either the top or the bottom. No longer were the chief questions of politics, matters of war and peace, of fiscal policy and industrial policy on a grand scale, of civil liberties and the power of the security services, decided in open forums characterized by formal checks and balances and the informal competition of interest groups; instead, the Power Elite decides those matters in ways that bear no resemblance at all to the processes described in the civics textbooks, while the middle classes still have their civic organizations, labor unions, local elections, and so on, where they can decide smaller questions in more or less the traditional ways. The people at the bottom are left to go along for the ride.

That image does sum up something important about contemporary American politics.  The USA is currently fighting wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia. There was no substantive discussion of any of these conflicts in the presidential campaign. Virtually the only references to Libya to make any impression on the US public were to “Benghazi,” an incident in which four Americans were killed. That always made me think of the old joke about The Boston Globe, that it was such an insular newspaper that if New York City were destroyed by a nuclear bomb and only one Bostonian happened to be in town that day, the headline would be “Hub Man Killed in Atom Blast.” We have murdered a nation, inflicted chaos on half a continent, and the whole matter is reduced to the fate of the four Americans among the dead. But why should it be different? If the only people with a say in where the bombs fall are the handful whom Mills would identify as the Power Elite, why should the rest of us pay attention to anything other than little stories of human interest about gallant public servants who gave their lives in frightening circumstances in an exotic land?

And if the major questions are to be decided outside the sphere of voting and public discussion, why not spend a presidential campaign season arguing about whether a former Miss Universe is more than her tabloid image, or whether an octogenarian senator followed the POW Code of Conduct while in enemy hands decades ago, or what kind of email accounts high officials should use, or other minutiae?

It goes beyond minutiae and particular campaigns. If the only questions decided within the sphere of voting and public discussion are secondary, why not organize parties based solely on those issues? If the US trade deficit is driven largely by our use of a nonrefundable corporate income tax rather than a border-adjusted value added tax and only marginally affected by trade agreements, but the tax regime is a matter for the Power Elite while trade agreements are subject to the will of the electorate, then candidates may rage against trade agreements all they like, but never mention the corporate income tax or propose a border-adjusted value added tax.