Programmable politicians

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In the USA, the campaign that will culminate in next year’s presidential election is already well underway.  As regular readers of this site know, I would like to see the US presidency abolished. I think Benjamin Franklin’s proposal at the convention that wrote the US Constitution, that the chief executive of the federal government should be a council rather than a single individual, was right when he advanced it in 1787 and is now a reform most urgently in need of implementation.  Combine the president’s overmighty position at the center of the US government with the celebrity culture that tends to focus all political attention on him as the ultimate celebrity, and you have a recipe for Caesarism.  An executive council might still be a threat to the freedoms of Americans and the peace of the world in something of the way that they unitary executive currently is, but at least there would be a chance that rivalries within the  group would lead members to restrain each other from the worst excesses we see today.  And no member of any committee could ever be glamorized in the way that a lone warlord can be.

There might be an alternative to the plural executive.  In reply to a post on Secular Right in which “David Hume” (a.k.a. Razib Khan) remarked that he for one wouldn’t object at all to a candidate who had a robotic demeanor, if that candidate were driven by data and logic rather than by rigid ideology and emotionalism,  I posted the following comment:

Why not replace the US president with an actual robot? The robot-president’s major campaign donors could program it so that for any policy challenge, it produces a list of possible responses that they might accept. Among these possible responses, the program should eliminate those that will move the robot’s political base to desert it and back a robot controlled by a rival syndicate of investors in a primary. From the remaining options, choose the one that has the highest favorable rating in the opinion polls. That seems to be how the biological presidents have been making policy in recent decades, so the change wouldn’t be particularly radical. Granted, the robot-president might not look as good on television as do biological entities such as Mr O and his predecessors, but in view of the shrinking audience for news coverage of all kinds that aspect of it might not be so widely noticed as to cause trouble.

I still prefer the idea of an executive council, but the more I think about it the clearer it seems to me that a robot president of the sort I’ve described would represent a real, albeit modest, improvement over the status quo.  What, in the final analysis, have our biological presidents done that such a robot would not be able to do?  They’ve been more effective at peddling fear and instilling a sense of dependency in the American people than a black box would be, that’s certain.  And they’ve added elements of venality and personal corruption from which a mechanical head of government would be free.  So, if we can’t have a plural executive, I’d gladly support replacing the president with a robot.

Where left and right meet

In the October issue of The American Conservative, Ron Unz asks what high levels of immigration from Latin America to the USA mean for the future of the Republican Party.  Mr Unz, the magazine’s publisher,  disagrees with sometime American Conservative columnist Steve Sailer.  Mr Sailer has argued that as whites become a numerical minority in the USA, they will vote more like other minority groups.  That is to say, all but a small percentage of them will vote for a single party.  The Republican Party already enjoys the support of most white voters; indeed, no Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of the white vote since 1964.  So if Mr Sailer’s prediction comes true, the Republicans will by midcentury routinely receive 80% or more of the white vote.  To support his prediction, Mr Sailer typically refers to the states of the southeast, where throughout most of American history whites have represented the lowest percentage of the overall population and where today vast majorities of whites vote Republican.  Since in the USA whites are likelier to turn out and vote than are most nonwhite groups, and the regions where whites represent the highest percentage of the population are overrepresented in the electoral system, bloc voting by whites could keep Republicans in power for decades after whites become a minority, even that party makes no inroads with any other ethnic group.  Mr Sailer isn’t particularly happy about this scenario; in a piece about the 2010 elections, he wrote “You’d prefer not to live in a country where whites vote like a minority bloc? Me too! But maybe we should have thought about that before putting whites on the long path to minority status through mass immigration.”

In his response to Mr Sailer, Mr Unz points out that the longstanding racial makeup of the southeastern USA is quite different from the situation emerging in the country today.  The southeast has long been populated by a great many whites, many many African Americans, and a tiny smattering of people of other ethnic groups.  By contrast, neither the people coming to the USA from countries to its south nor their descendants born in the States tend to identify strongly as either white or African American.  So if we want to see what the future might hold for the Republicans, Mr Unz suggests we turn to New Mexico and Hawaii, two states whose demographics are similar to those which are likely to prevail nationally if present trends continue.  The good news is that there isn’t much racial tension in New Mexico or Hawaii.  Whites there do not feel embattled, and do not vote as a minority bloc.  What Mr Unz considers bad news is that the Republicans are definitely the second party in each state.   Mr Unz concludes that the Republicans are likely to fade into irrelevance unless steps are taken to reduce immigration. (Steve Sailer replies to Mr Unz here and here.)

What steps does Mr Unz advise to achieve this result?  He does not suggest fortifying the border, or covering the country with armies of immigration officers, or deporting everyone who speaks Spanish, or requiring everyone in the USA to show that their papers are in order every time a policeman needs a way to pass the time.  He proposes instead a substantial increase in the minimum wage, from the current rate of $7.25 per hour to $10 or $12 per hour.  After all, immigrants come here to work, and those who come from countries where the prevailing wage is significantly lower than the prevailing wage in the USA can improve their standards of living and send substantial cash remittances back to their families by accepting jobs at less than the currently prevailing wage.  So it’s no surprise that in recent decades, as immigration to the USA has increased, median wages in the USA have declined.  Set a floor to wages, and you limit the ability of employers to arbitrage wage differences between the USA and the countries to its south.  Mr Unz writes that “The automatic rejoinder to proposals for hiking the minimum wage is that “jobs will be lost.” But in today’s America a huge fraction of jobs at or near the minimum wage are held by immigrants, often illegal ones. Eliminating those jobs is a central goal of the plan, a feature not a bug.”

Mr Unz’ proposal is quite intriguing.  Defenders of high levels of immigration often point to the harsh measures by which anti-immigration laws are enforced and posit a choice between open borders and a police state.  Raising the minimum wage doesn’t play into that trap.  Indeed, by raising the minimum wage and limiting public benefit to legal residents, it might be possible to scrap all other restrictions on immigration.  That would do away, not only with compromises to civil liberties and inter-ethnic harmony, but also with a great many perverse incentives.  Nowadays, immigration laws increase employers’ power over their undocumented workers, so that they dare not complain to legal authorities when employers violate their rights, lest they face deportation.  So policies that would enforce the immigration laws with more deportations actually weaken employees vis a vis employers, thereby further depressing wages.  Do away with the immigration police, raise the minimum wage, and enforce the minimum wage with jail time for employers who underpay, and you reverse that power relation.  Employers who tried to pay less than minimum wage would be subject to blackmail from their employees.  Nor would there be any need for a Canadian-style points system to ensure that only people with needed skills migrate to the country.  If employers are paying high wages to immigrants, that is a surer sign that those immigrants have skills the employers need than are the results of any government evaluation.

That the publisher of a magazine called The American Conservative would argue for a substantial increase in the minimum wage as a way of reducing the number of nonwhites immigrating to the USA suggests that the far right has circled around the political spectrum and found itself occupying the same spot as the center left.  Indeed, elsewhere in the issue this idea is developed explicitly.  An article by Michael Tracey (subscribers only, sorry) carries the title “Ralph Nader’s Grand Alliance: Progressives Find Hope– in Ron Paul.”  The dash in the subhed acknowledges the unlikelihood that the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman would inspire anything but dismay in lefties, but no less distinguished a campaigner for a more egalitarian America than Ralph Nader has spoken out forcefully for a left-right alliance as the logical outcome of the movement in which Dr Paul is a leader.  Mr Tracey writes: “‘Look at the latitude,’ Nader says, referring to the potential for collaboration between libertarians and the left.  ‘Military budget, foreign wars, empire, Patriot Act, corporate welfare- for starters.  When you add it all up, that’s a foundational convergence.  Progressives should do so good.'”

I admire Mr Nader.  I’m glad to say I voted for him for president in 2000, and I wish I’d had the guts to vote for him again in 2004.  But I don’t quite agree with him on this point.  Our difference can be summed up in his use of the word “foundational.”  To me, saying that there is a “foundational convergence” between two groups would suggest that they are pursuing the same goals and using the same standards of judgment.  That clearly is not the case here.  Left-wingers and libertarians may oppose many of the same things, but they are not for any of the sane things.  A traditionalist conservative like Mr Unz may be for an increased minimum wage and a less intrusive immigration police, but his goal is to keep America’s racial demography from changing.  That’s hardly a goal any leftist could endorse.  For my own part, I would be quite happy to see an America with a much larger Latino and Asian population, especially if that meant that the confrontational racial politics that have long characterized the states of the southeast and many cities in the northeast would lose their tension and follow the relatively easygoing path of Hawaii and New Mexico, even at the price of continued growth in income inequality.  Of course, I would much prefer to reduce both racial hostility and income inequality, and there is a limit to the amount of one that I would accept as a price for reducing the other.  I would be very reluctant to endorse any politics that forced a choice between those evils, and I think most left-of-center Americans would be equally reluctant to do so.  That isn’t to say that the left and the “Old Right” of libertarians and antiwar traditionalists are so far apart that cooperation between them is impossible, but their goals and ideological premises are so utterly different that a coalition between them would be doomed unless it were very modest in its ambitions.

Speaking of race relations in the southeastern USA, I should mention that at the moment, The American Conservative‘s website carries a rather beautiful blog posting on that topic from Rod Dreher.  Mr Dreher is responding to a short piece that Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote for The Atlantic‘s website about white people who refer to African American neighbors of theirs as “our blacks.”

In the same issue, Samuel Goldman’s review of Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right praises Professor Eagleton’s exposition and defense of Karl Marx’ philosophical theories.  Mr Goldman is obviously not a Marxist, but commends Professor Eagleton for putting to rest many canards that his lazier critics have flung at Marx over the years.  On the other hand, Mr Goldman takes very sharp exception to Professor Eagleton’s attempts to defend the economic record of Marxist regimes.  Towards the end of his review, Mr Goldman discusses Professor Eagleton’s analysis of Marx’ place as an inheritor of classical political theory, stretching back to Aristotle.  He points out that this discussion is not original, but that it treads a path through territory very well explored by Alasdair MacIntyre.  Professor MacIntyre is one of my favorites; I’m always glad to see his name.  The magazine published Mr Goldman’s review under the title “Baby Boomers Make Their Marx,” and Mr Goldman does make a few remarks here and there disparaging “the post-1968 left.”  The idea of Professor Eagleton’s book as a generational statement is the main theme of another review of Professor Eagleton’s book, one that was linked on Arts and Letters Daily earlier this week.  That review appeared in Quadrant, an Australian journal that shares a number of contributors with The American Conservative.

Jail to the chief?

In the current issue of The Nation, Alexander Cockburn reminisces about the day he became a citizen of the United States of America.  On that day he and his fellows swore to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, a document which they had all been required to study, and which speaks of limits to state power and protection for the rights of the individual:

But it turns out it was all a fraud. The Uzbek down the row from me who had fled Karimov’s regime probably had no need to anticipate being boiled alive—a spécialité de la maison in Tashkent. But being roasted alive by Hellfire missile, doomed by executive order of President Obama, without due process in any court of law, for reasons of state forever secret, could theoretically lie in his future. If presidential death warrants beyond the reach of scrutiny and review by courts or juries are the mark of a banana republic, then we were all waving the flag of just such an entity.

What moves Mr Cockburn to this bitter declaration is of course the killing of Anwar al Awlaki, a killing for which the president of the United States proudly claimed responsibility.  al Awlaki may have been acquainted with some men who committed or attempted to commit acts of terrorism, and he certainly made unpleasant comments in public forums.  But the Obama administration has yet to do so much as accuse him of complicity in any violent act, much less provide evidence that he was the commander of an enemy force engaged in war on the United States, and as such a legitimate military target.  As it stands, the al Awlaki killing can be classified only as an act of murder.  Mr O’s boast that he ordered the strike is of a piece with his predecessor’s casual public admission that he ordered the torture of terrorism suspects.  Each man is serene in his belief that there is no crime he can commit that will stir the legal authorities to prosecute him.

Ought Americans who stand to Mr O’s left support a candidate to challenge him for the Democratic presidential nomination next year?  If being on the left means that one prefers the rule of law to a regime in which the president may kill and torture with impunity, one might  think the answer would be obvious.  For John Nichols, it’s more complicated.  Some might say that the best thing the president could do is resign, stand trial, and go to prison, accompanied if possible by his predecessors.  For Mr Nichols, not only is it clear that Mr O should continue in office, but it is apparently desirable that he should be reelected.  He wonders whether a primary challenger could help Mr O improve his chances of winning a second term, and seems to wish that one were on the horizon.  He doesn’t claim to know that it would work out that way:

The dramatically sped-up and concentrated primary calendar leaves little time for slow-to-develop challenges. It is already very late in the 2012 process, and no well-known Democratic official or progressive activist seems to be entertaining a run.

“We don’t even have a Pat Buchanan,” jokes Jeff Cohen, the veteran media critic and adviser to progressive candidates who is convinced that a credible primary challenger could win 30 to 40 percent of the vote in some states. Cohen argues that a primary challenger would not have to win to make a meaningful impact; a strong competitor could force Obama to sharpen his message and give progressives a significant role in defining the party. But for every progressive who argues that Obama’s re-election prospects would be improved by primary prodding from the left, there are cautionary voices like that of James Fallows, who asserts: “As for the primary challenges, what similarity do we notice between Jimmy Carter (challenged by Edward Kennedy in 1980) and George H.W. Bush (challenged by Pat Buchanan in 1992)? What we notice is: they held onto the nomination and went on to lose the general election.”

Obama is not likely to be defeated by a primary challenger. Despite the dip in his national approval ratings, polling suggests he retains relatively solid numbers with Democrats in key states—and among critical voting blocs. African-American voters, 86 percent of whom give the president favorable ratings (58 percent strongly favorable), are definitional players in Southern and a number of Great Lakes states. A ham-handed primary challenge could energize African-American voters—who, as Nation columnist Melissa Harris-Perry notes, may be inclined to ask why the equally disappointing Bill Clinton did not face a primary challenge in 1996. Such a challenge could also antagonize young people and many white liberals inclined to defend the nation’s first African-American president against what they perceive to be an unfair assault.

The prospect that the Democratic Party could divide against itself in an ugly debate gleefully amplified by right-wing media has little appeal even to Democrats who disdain Obama’s policy drift. But there is almost as much concern that a nuanced challenge from a candidate who appeals to African-American voters, such as Cornel West, would weaken the incumbent the way Ted Kennedy’s 1980 challenge to Carter and Buchanan’s 1992 run against George H.W. Bush are perceived to have undermined those presidents’ re-election.

In fact, the theory that primary challenges invariably lead to November defeats is wrong. In the past fifty years, two of the biggest presidential wins were secured by incumbents who faced meaningful primary competition. In 1964 President Johnson and his “favorite son” stand-ins had to fend off a determined challenge from Alabama Governor George Wallace, who won roughly 30 percent of the vote in two Midwestern primaries and 44 percent in Maryland. In 1972 President Nixon was challenged from the right and the left by Republican Congressmen (Ohio conservative John Ashbrook and California liberal Pete McCloskey) who attracted a combined 30 percent of the vote in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Both Johnson and Nixon would go on to win more than 60 percent of the fall vote.

On The Nation‘s website, Dave Zirin denounces singer Hank Williams, Junior, who recently lost a gig after comparing Mr O to the late Adolf Hitler.  It is not entirely clear what it is about Mr O that reminds Mr Williams of Germany’s late tyrant.  Perhaps the fact that each head of state boasted publicly of the murders he had orchestrated, that each dispatched his air force to bomb into submission countries that posed no threat to his own, that each used his office to accelerate the dismantling of the democratic constitution under which he had come to power, and that each claimed the right to detain any number of people for any length of time without judicial process may have prompted Mr Williams to think that they bore some resemblance to one another.  Of course, since Mr Zirin is a faithful supporter of the Democratic Party, one might expect him to find ways in which Mr O is less advanced in his murderous ways than was Adolf Hitler, as faithful Republicans spent the years 2001-2009 counting the degrees that separated Mr O’s predecessor from the same benchmark of wickedness.  Strangely, Mr Zirin says nothing about Mr O other than to describe him as the “first African-American president.”  This description precedes Mr Zirin’s pronouncement of his anathema upon Mr Williams, that anathema taking the form of the label “racist.”  Such a pronouncement is a sort of ritual; to complete it, the officiant needs nothing from Mr O but his skin color.  Once this ritual element is provided, no further information about Mr O could have any possible relevance to the proceeding.

Of course, there are sound reasons why one ought not to compare active politicians to Adolf Hitler.  For one thing, using him as the all-purpose symbol of an unjust ruler gives him a satanic glamour of just the sort that the Nazis used so effectively in their seduction of the more desperate members of Germany’s middle classes in the late Weimar period.  If Hitler must be remembered, it is far better to view him with contempt, perhaps tinged with the sort of pity one feels towards people who have psychological problems that one finds uninteresting.  Besides, the history of humankind is bursting with tyrants and killers; it is dismaying indeed that we share so little knowledge of history that Hitler is virtually the only one of the evil rulers of the past whose name we can be confident will be recognized almost anywhere.  For my part, I think an apt analogy could be made between Mr O and Critias, a fifth-century Athenian who is remembered today as the uncle of the philosopher Plato and the namesake of one of his nephew’s uncompleted dialogues, but in his own day he was rather more widely known as the leader of the “Thirty Tyrants,” a group who seized power in Athens after the Peloponnesian Wars and claimed the right to govern by means of assassination.

“We do not believe in appointing Deputies to do what we think it wrong for ourselves to do”

Grover Cleveland, before he entered politics

This summer Mrs Acilius and I read Ryan P. Jordan‘s  Slavery and the Meetinghouse, a study of the great difficulty American Quakers had in the years 1821-1861 trying to decide on an approach to take to the issue of slavery.  Last night I was reminded of this passage, from pages 114 through 115 of Jordan’s book:

The editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, Sydney Howard Gay, wrote that the Anti-Slavery Society disagreed “with the philosophy of the Quaker[s]” who when appointed to political positions would not hang a man themselves but “would appoint a Deputy that would.”  “We do not believe,” continued Gay, “in appointing Deputies to do what we think to be wrong for ourselves to do.” 

Gay wrote these words in October of 1848, when many American Quakers were rallying to support the presidential campaign of slaveholder Zachary Taylor.  In the willingness of the ostensibly antislavery Quakers of the day to support a slaveholding president, Gay saw cowardice.  He equated the cowardice he believed he saw in this matter with the cowardice he saw in the same Quakers in regard to the death penalty.  In the seventeenth century, the founders of Quakerism opposed the death penalty, and in many parts of the world that opposition continues even today in an unbroken line of tradition.  The Quakers Gay saw in the antebellum USA paid lip service to that tradition, but many of them merely hid behind others while they became complicit in executions.

What brought this to my mind last night was this tweet from author Michael Brendan Dougherty:

I don’t like Rick Perry. And I think he failed in his answer on this. But it is wrong to say that “Rick Perry has executed” people.

To which I responded:

@michaelbd “it is wrong to say that “Rick Perry has executed” people.” Better Grover Cleveland, who did the job personally, than to delegate

Only someone with a lively interest in nineteenth century US history would be likely to know what I was talking about there, so permit me to explain.  In 1872, Stephen Grover Cleveland was sheriff of Erie County, New York.  The law of the state of New York in those days declared it to be the responsibility of the sheriff of each county to hang the prisoners condemned to death for crimes committed in that county.  As this 1912 New York Times article (pdf) put it, “In the office of Sheriff of Erie County there had for many years been a Deputy Sheriff named Jacob Emerick.  Mr Cleveland’s predecessors had from time immemorial followed the custom of turning over to Emerick all the details of public executions.  So often had this veteran Deputy Sheriff officiated at hangings that he came to be publicly known as ‘Hangman Emerick.'”  Evidently Emerick didn’t enjoy this sobriquet, and Cleveland noticed that the law explicitly named the High Sheriff as the officer responsible for hangings.  So when Patrick Morrisey was scheduled to be hanged on 6 September 1872, Cleveland resolved to execute Morrisey himself.  To return to the Times article, “Cleveland surprised the community and his friends by announcing that he personally would perform the act of Executioner.  To the remonstrances of his friends he refused to listen, pointing to the letter of the law requiring the Sheriff to ‘hang by the neck,’ &c.  He furthermore insisted that he had no moral right to impose upon a subordinate the obnoxious and degrading tasks that attached to his office.  He considered it an important duty on his part to relieve Emerick as far as possible from the growing onus of his title of ‘Hangman.'”   The following year, Cleveland again acted as hangman, putting one John Gaffney to death.  Cleveland was subsequently elected mayor of Buffalo, then governor of New York.  He was the Democratic Party’s candidate for president of the United States in 1884, 1888, and 1892, winning the popular vote on all three occasions and winning the electoral vote in 1884 and 1892.  He remains the only US president to serve two non-consecutive terms in office and one of only four candidates to win the popular vote three times.  He is also the only former sheriff to go on to become US president.

It is because of Cleveland’s willingness to look Morrisey and Gaffney in their faces and pull the lever that dropped the platform from beneath their feet that I have more respect for him than I do for Rick Perry.  In his years as governor of Texas, Mr Perry has signed death warrants that have consigned the 234 people to death.  So far from performing these executions himself, Mr Perry seems never even to have attended an execution.  And while Cleveland could acknowledge that performing an execution was one of the “obnoxious and degrading tasks attached to his office,” Mr Perry claims to regard signing death warrants as a carefree exercise.  This difference alone shows that Grover Cleveland lived in a different moral universe than does Rick Perry.  People whose imaginations are shaped by television and video games may think of indifference to human life as a form of strength, and of personal encounters with the object of one’s violent behavior as unimportant.  Such views would likely have struck a man of Cleveland’s sort as a sign of profound moral and spiritual immaturity.  Granted, executions were far more routine in America in the nineteenth century than they are today, even in a death-penalty happy state like Texas.  But does the fact that we execute fewer people today mean that we take the matter of life and death more seriously than the Americans of Cleveland’s day took it?  Or does it simply mean that other features of our society have interfered with the smooth functioning of the “machinery of death“?

Deja vu all over again?

In recent weeks, the presidential campaign of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman has received a tremendous amount of publicity in the USA, out of all proportion to the tiny levels of support that the governor has shown in opinion polls.  This has puzzled many people; a Google search for “Why does Jon Huntsman get so much press?” brings up, as of the moment I write this, 441,ooo results.  I have an idea as to the solution of this puzzle.

Perhaps the current Republican presidential contest reminds reporters of the last contest to choose a challenger for an incumbent president, which is to say the Democratic Party’s race eight years ago.  At this point in that race, three Democratic candidates seemed to be leading the pack: Governor Howard Dean, Senator Joseph Lieberman, and General Wesley Clark.  Governor Dean topped most polls, but was unacceptable to key Democratic constituencies and did not play well on television.  Most of Senator Lieberman’s support came from a small group that is disproportionately influential in the political process, namely pro-war Democrats.  Unable to broaden his appeal beyond that group, he was fading fast by September 2003.  General Clark had stirred considerable excitement when he entered the race late, but he lacked staying power and by the time the voting started he had fallen far behind several other candidates.  The eventual nominee was Senator John Kerry, who in September of 2003 was polling in the neighborhood of 1% of likely Democratic voters, but who had one of the most impressive resumés of any candidate and who, due to the fact that he had married an extremely rich widow, could finance his own campaign.

Compare that with the Republicans this time out.  The three candidates who appear to be the strongest at the moment are Governor Willard “Mitt” Romney, Representative Michele Bachmann, and Governor Rick Perry.  Of these, Governor Romney has long topped most polls, but is unacceptable to key Republican constituencies and does not play well on television.  Most of Representative Bachmann’s support comes from a small group that is disproportionately influential in the political process, namely ultra-right Evangelicals.  So far unable to broaden her appeal beyond that group, she is fading fast at this point.   Governor Perry stirred considerable excitement  when he entered the race late, but it is unclear whether he will have staying power enough to remain in the top tier by the time the voting starts.  Governor Huntsman is, as of September 2011, polling in the neighborhood of 1% of likely Republican voters, but he has one of the most impressive resumés  of any candidate and, due to the fact that he is the son of the man who invented the packaging for McDonald’s Big Mac, he can finance his own campaign.

One might be forgiven for thinking that the history of this month’s Republican presidential race is a repeat of the history of the September 2003 Democratic presidential race.  Of course, that does not imply that the events of October 2011 through November 2012 will in any particular way resemble the events of October 2003 through November 2004.  But the similarity of the two contests up to this point, and the resemblance between Governor Huntsman’s position now and Senator Kerry’s then, might explain why he receives so much more media attention than do other candidates with equal or lesser levels of popular support.

What are political parties for?

Click on the image below to see Keith Knight’s latest K Chronicles in readable form.

This suggests a different view of US politics than did one of his recent (th)ink comics:

The whole premise of the first comic that the Republicans and Democrats in official Washington might be expected to “solve America’s problems.”  I see no evidence that either party is interested in doing anything that could meet this description.  On a whole range of issues, the two parties are much closer to each other than either is to the mainstream of US public opinion.  In regard to trade policy, tax policy, health care, foreign policy, labor law, immigration, etc, the two parties represent a coordinated program to subsidize capital ownership and penalize wage labor.

The premise of the second comic is that the Republicans’ main goal is to attack the Democrats and that there is no point in the Democrats’ attempts to work with them.   If this is true, and if it is also true that the Democrats represent something good, then a Democratic leader who said that his or her party’s chief goal was to rid Washington of Republicans  would not be neglecting “America’s problems,” but tackling one of America’s biggest problems.   I don’t doubt that Knight sincerely believes that that Republicans are hopelessly bad, and that the Democrats are far better.  I am surprised that he doesn’t accept that Senator McConnell and his supporters are equally sincere in the contrary belief.

We see the people we look at, we look at the people we’ve seen

In the latest issue of The Nation, Alexander Cockburn argues that the reason Wisconsin’s Democratic US Senator Russ Feingold lost his seat in this month’s election was that too many voters associated him with the Obama administration and its habit of appeasing the Republican Party.  How can the senator regain his reputation?  Cockburn recommends that he challenge Mr O for reelection, presenting himself as an independent candidate in 2012.  Cockburn does not claim that US voters in general are looking for a populist candidate who will call Wall Street to account; rather he says that exit polls show that the public at large has no definite idea as to what it would like to see next.  But more respondents in those polls blamed Wall Street for the country’s economic woes than any other force, and Feingold’s record makes him a plausible champion of real reform.  Perhaps if someone like him made a case for curbing the power of the financial elite, public opinion would start to move in that direction.  Perhaps the existence of a populist candidate might give rise to a populist movement, which might in turn reshape the public’s perceptions of what is possible in US politics.

Barry Schwabsky’s  essay about painter Nancy Spero (1926-2009) is occasioned by a new book about her visual work, the reissue of her book on The Torture of Women, and an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou.  Schwabsky focuses at length on Spero’s decision to exclude male figures from her work.  Schwabsky points out that many critics who ceaselessly attacked Spero for her supposedly narrow range saw nothing narrow about the decision many of her contemporaries made to renounce representational art altogether. For Schwabsky, these critics missed the fact that Spero was, “after Matisse, the great painter of the dance.”  He enlarges on the comparison: “Matisse, speaking of his chapel in Vence, explained, “This lightness arouses feelings of release, of obstacles cleared, so that my chapel is not ‘Brothers, we must die.’ It is rather ‘Brothers, we must live!'” Spero’s late work embodies this same sense of release. “Sisters, we must live!” could be its motto.”   Even Spero’s protest, as in The Torture of Women, is never merely angry, never a counsel of despair; rather, she always affirms that life is still to be lived, “that judgment has yet to be rendered.”

Benjamin Barber looks at the US political scene and worries that Americans are losing their grip on reality.  More precisely, he fears that in our public life we no longer make much distinction between facts and opinions.  This development, Barber argues, is lethal to democracy:

The trouble is that when we merely feel and opine, persuaded that there is no possible way our opinion can be controverted or challenged, having an opinion is the same as being “right.” Being right quickly comes to trump being creditable and provable, and we lose the core democratic faculty of admitting that we might be wrong, and that our views must be judged by some criterion other than how deeply we hold them. Our polarized antidemocratic politics of personal prejudice is all about the certainty that we are right paired with the conviction that nothing can change our mind. Yet democracy is wholly contrary to such subjective certainty. To secure our liberty in a world of collectivity, we must remain endlessly sensitive to the possibility that we might be wrong. And hence to our reciprocal willingness to subject our opinions to corroboration—and to falsification. We teach evolution not because it is “true” in some absolute sense but because it is susceptible to falsification. Creationism is not, which is why evolution is science while creationism is subjective opinion—a fit candidate for belief but inappropriate to schooling.

Barber has spent a great deal of time replying to the so-called “Public Ignorance Objection” to direct democracy, arguing that if the public does not have the knowledge needed to govern itself, that is likely because it has had no occasion to gain that knowledge.  Let the people govern, and they will have an incentive to acquire not only the information that statecraft requires, but a set of habits that can translate that information into workable policy.  It’s a bit of a disappointment he didn’t have space to develop that theme here, but could only describe the problem.

Separated at birth?

Newsweek thinks Mississippi’s Governor Haley Barbour looks like a future president:

I think he looks more like a figure from the past:

It’s official!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/02/27/gop.poll/  The 2012 presidential campaign is under-way.  I, for one, just don’t want to hear about it.  I’d much rather hear about Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, and that’s saying a lot.