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.